I thought the past year was a pretty good one for television, though I was a little disappointed that some of my favorite new series of 2011 were less successful in their sophomore seasons (Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones being the prime examples of the sophomore slump). Fortunately, there were a couple new series that made impressive debuts in 2012, as well as some strong returns by past favorites. Below are my top ten favorite TV series of the year (please note this post contains spoilers):
10) Nashville (ABC)
10) Nashville (ABC)
ABC's new primetime soap about musicians in the capitol of country music is an addictive pleasure thanks largely to its sprawling ensemble cast and its surprisingly catchy soundtrack (produced by T-Bone Burnett). Connie Britton as the aging star competing with a rising upstart (Hayden Panettiere) and a controlling father grounds the show even during its more predictable soap opera turns.
9) New Girl (FOX)
In its debut season, New Girl struggled with how to highlight Zooey Deschanel's "adorkable" Jess while finding meaningful contributions for its talented male ensemble. The second season has seen the show find the right balance, recognizing that much of the show's humor comes from how the characters engage with one another, whether its Max Greenfield's hilariously douchey Schmidt or Jake Johnson's perpetually cranky Nick. The show is still trying to figure out how to use Lamorne Morris' Winston, but 3 out of 4 ain't bad.
8) Community (NBC)
Behind the scenes, this season of Community was a disaster -- Sony fired the show's creator, Dan Harmon, and Chevy Chase recently quit in the middle of shooting the upcoming season. But in front of the camera, Community's 2012 was even more inventive and wild than any of its previous seasons, featuring a multi-episode arc about a coup within the school and spoofing pop culture touchstones as varied as Law & Order to Ken Burns documentaries. The upcoming season -- NBC claims it will start in February -- is destined to be the show's last, though whether it will live up to the high points it achieved under Harmon remains to be seen. Fortunately, even if season 4 disappoints, it won't detract from the marvelous seasons that came before it.
7) 30 Rock (NBC)
The basic premise of a 30 Rock show hasn't changed since it debuted -- the show is too dependent on satirical plots and one-liners to evolve too much -- but the level of its hilarity reached new heights in 2012 with stories about Liz Lemon's nuptials, Colleen Donaghy's death, and Jack's failed attempt at making couches. Now in its last season, Tina Fey and company appear ready to give Liz a happy ending as she's newly married an on the path to adoption, which will be a worthy exit for a great character and a great series.
6) Homeland (Showtime)
There is probably no more suspenseful, compellingly paced, and consistently surprising series on television than Homeland. But the second season of Homeland essentially confirmed for me what I feared at the end of the first -- Brody should have blown himself up. That would have at least made for a more logically consistent and believable narrative than what season 2 offered, as viewers were forced to take numerous narrative leaps of faith, from Brody's Gettysburg sojourn to move the tailor to Abu Nazir's eventual plot to blow up the CIA. That said, Homeland is on this list because I sat in front of my TV gripped by the machinations of Brody and his CIA counterparts from week to week, and because Claire Danes, Damien Lewis and Mandy Patinkin continued to give astounding performances that carefully balanced their characters' emotional extremes. Their work may not have always been in the service to the best storylines, but it was still damn entertaining.
5) Girls (HBO)
The best new show on television, Lena Dunham's brilliant series on HBO debuted with a crazy amount of hype which was soon followed by a harsh backlash. The show didn't really deserve either -- it hardly started out the gate as groundbreaking television given its focus on characters that were too entitled to be relatable, nor did it fall flat once it premiered. But over the series' first season, Dunham demonstrated that she's one of the most assured voices on television, someone fully aware that her characters were never meant to be easy to love, and that young adulthood has its share of frustration, disappointment, and experimentation no matter the setting or the economic background. Dunham made one of the best shows of the year by showcasing a personal voice that is fresh, honest, and unlike anything else on television.
4) Louie (FX)
This season of Louie didn't wow me quite as much as last season's, as the show's short-film format lends itself to inconsistency. But this season once again demonstrated Louis CK's ability to test the limits of what it means to make a television program. The season's high points were some of the best episodes he's done yet, whether they involved a magnificent turn by Parker Posey as a manic, bewildering love interest, or the three episode arc about Louie's audition to replace David Letterman. Louie won't be returning in next year -- CK has said he doesn't have enough material to put together a strong set of episodes until 2014 -- which is bittersweet news to fans like me who have worried that CK's prodigious output would lend itself to a decline in quality over time. Fortunately there's been no evidence of that yet.
3) Breaking Bad (AMC)
By the end of season 4, Walter White (the always amazing Bryan Cranston) had seemingly vanquished the only men standing in his way to the top of the meth supply business. Season 5 demonstrated how truly alone Walter really was at the top, having lost not just his enemies but also most of his allies and his wife as he struggled to maintain his hold on his burgeoning empire. I think this season suffered a bit from its shortened size -- the last two seasons are only 8 episodes -- but as always, Vince Gilligan and his crew put on a dazzling showcase of narrative suspense and kept viewers questioning when Walter would finally reach the end of his rope. It's sad to realize we only have one more season to find out.
2) Mad Men (AMC)
The latest season of Mad Men was its most ambitious yet, broaching subjects as far reaching from the civil rights movement to Peggy's departure from Sterling Cooper to Lane's suicide. Such ambition was not without its costs -- for the sake of symbolism, it sometimes felt like Matt Wiener and company were forcing their characters to make out of character decisions -- but it also produced some absolutely startling set-pieces, from "Zou Bisou Bisou" to Roger Sterling's acid trip to the final episode image of the partners perched atop their new second floor. After a year and half away from the airwaves, it was nice to see Mad Men return yet again as one of the best dramas on television.
1) Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Rec has steadily been climbing its way up my top ten list over the years, and it's appropriate it reaches the top in the one year it featured Leslie's elevation from city bureaucrat to elected official. The city council election produced one of the best storylines the show has done yet, as it opened up the universe of Pawnee to include players from the city's varied interest groups and allowed for fantastic guest turns from Jessica Hahn and Paul Rudd. In its current season, the show has even gone to Washington and found ways to meld its patented earnestness and warmth with a setting known for cynicism. In an election year, it's fitting that the best program on television was the one that treated politics with emotion and genuine heart.