16) "Homeland" - The "24" comparisons which seemed to almost all be positive in its Emmy-winning first season became increasingly negative as "Homeland" became a knotty pretzel of narrative contortions in its second installment. Willing suspension of disbelief is a two-way street and, as the second season progressed, it became harder and harder to ignore the myriad convolutions -- Situation room texting, hit-and-run evading, surveillance-humping, tailor-dispatching, milk-spilling etc etc etc -- and it became harder and harder to ignore that the devotion to Carrie-and-Brody as a doomed-yet-destined romance was engulfing the rest of the show. And some viewers felt betrayed by this shift from Good "24" to Bad "24." It'd be a mistake, though, to let frustrations entirely supersede the frequently breathless suspense, nor the performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and, even more-so than in the first season, Mandy Patinkin. This is still a proficient and efficient show, but maybe it fooled us with that first season into expecting too much.
17) "Luck" - Even when he goes down an esoteric wormhole, TV is always better when David Milch's words are being recited by actors on a weekly basis. While easier to philosophically process than "John From Cincinnati," the jargon-heavy world of horse-racing and handicapping took a while to feel natural, but even when I barely understood a word of it, I still relished Milch's peculiar cadences and his colorful profanity and respected the work of a tremendous cast led by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. It took five or six episodes for "Luck" to feel fully locked in, which proved to be just in time for a top-notch finale and the drama's sad and untimely cancellation.  
18) "Downton Abbey" - I'm watching "Downton Abbey" on its PBS schedule, so this placement is for the show's second season, which many viewers saw as a rather large come-down from its first. I agree! That's why "Downton Abbey" was in my Top 5 last year and barely snuck into my Top 20 for this year. But don't be so distracted by the slightly accelerated soapiness or the one or two conspicuously dead-end narratives that you ignore what a beautiful hour of TV the Christmas Special was, or that you ignore what is still one of TV's finest ensemble casts, working with some of the finest production values imaginable. Oh and guess what? "Downton Abbey" was all soapy and stuff in the first season. One character literally screwed another character to death! It's not what they do so much as how they do it and the upstairs and downstairs crews both still do it with wisdom and wit.
19) "The Vampire Diaries" - Still one of the most purely entertaining and exciting and unpredictable shows on television, "The Vampire Diaries" wrapped up a strong spring with a finale that was literally heart-stopping for one character. Following up on Elena's transformation into vampire-dom hasn't been quite as successful, even after a very good start to the fall that at least temporarily dodged the possibility of an Elena cop-out. I already didn't love the sire-based narrative shortcuts as related to Klaus' hybrids, but taking romantic agency out of Elena's hands could be one of the show's bigger mistakes. I assume that Julie Plec and the "TVD" writing team is smarter than that, since they've always been smarter than that in the past. Still, I can only judge the show's 2012 output on the basis of where I'm standing as 2012 ends, which is "slightly concerned." That concern takes nothing away from the jaw-dropping twists that drop at a rate of three or four per episode, nor from the performances by Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder, Joseph Morgan and the rest of the underrated ensemble. And y'all know I give bonus points for casting Phoebe Tonkin.
20) "The Walking Dead" - The second season of "The Walking Dead" closed strong, as the deceptive calm and quiet at The Farm eventually led to a series of shocking deaths and a hasty exit. The tension has only been amped up in Season 3, with The Prison and Woodbury. While Danai Gurira's Michonne has been undone by some poor writing decisions, I've liked the show's more pragmatic treatment of David  Morrissey's Governor, who has proved to be a more interesting and nuanced villain than he ever was in Robert Kirkman's comics. And I definitely show tip my hat to Andrew Lincoln, who wasn't my favorite part of the show in the early going, but has stepped up his game with a couple powerhouse episodes. It took a while, but the potential of the pilot and the Season 2 premiere is finally being realized on a weekly basis.
A Solid 20 Honorable Mentions: "Bob's Burgers," "Sherlock," "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," "Community," "Veep," "Witness," "Cougar Town," "New Girl," "Ben and Kate," "Awake," "Raising Hope," "The Good Wife," "The L.A. Complex," "Suburgatory," "Bunheads," "Fringe," "Survivor," "Happy Endings" [These were in no particular order, but if you're curious... "Sherlock" was No.21 and HBO's "Witness" was No. 22. You'll get more details like that next year when I rank EVERY SHOW ON TV. (I'm not going to rank every show on TV next year.)]
Most-Improved Bonus: "Dexter"
Most-Improved Honorable Mentions: "Sons of Anarchy," "Hart of Dixie," "The Office," "Person of Interest," "Teen Wolf"
[A couple shows I'm behind on, so don't ask: "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Archer" and "The League." FX has stopped sending out post-premiere screeners and the network makes OnDemand a pain.]
Thoughts? Comments? Concerns?


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A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.