Last week, I published my 2012 Top 10 list — which became one vote of many in HitFix's First Annual Television Critics' Poll — and noted in the introduction that there was a very clear top six for me, and that, after that, there was a cluster of a dozen-odd shows that I could have put in any order on any given day and felt that those four in particular deserved to be there.
And yet in the days that followed, I’ve been nagged by thoughts of having omitted “New Girl,” or “Boardwalk Empire,” or “Justified” or some others that narrowly missed the cut. In years past, I’ve tried to spread the wealth by doing multiple Top 10 lists — usually one for new shows, and one for returning — but this was a much stronger year for veterans than rookies (even with two first-year shows making the Top 10). So instead, I decided to take a page from Fienberg, who annually does a Second 10 list, and write for a while about the shows that didn’t quite make it into the Top 10, but were awesome nonetheless.
And because I know some of you don’t like to watch video lists, I’m going to present the Top 10 in written form, using a slightly modified version of the script I read for my video narration (though what I have to say about the #10 show is all new). Because the original list is out there, I’m going to start at 1 and count up to 20. Keep in mind that I’m just one man, and don’t have time to watch everything. I’m way behind, for instance, on the latest seasons of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The League.” And some other shows I simply don't watch at all, or liked but perhaps not enough to consider for such a list. (When you ask "Why wasn't (Show X) on your list?" the answer is "Because I liked these other ones more.")
1. AMC’s “Mad Men” was off the air for 17 months before its most recent season, and the show wasted little time in reminding us of its genius. It was a dark year for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that included betrayal, infighting, humiliation, boxing, drug use, prostitution and even suicide taking place in and around the office. But even as Don Draper wasn’t acting anything like himself, week after week, “Mad Men” reminded us of its artistry, its intelligence and its depth. I questioned a character choice here and there, but overall, “Mad Men” was the best TV show I watched in 2012.
2. AMC split the final season of “Breaking Bad” into two eight-episode chunks, and the drama suffered through a few pacing issues this summer as a result. Yet this half-season still astounded as it chronicled Walter White’s ascent to the throne of a drug empire, even as he systematically pushed away everyone who cared about him. We got the usual great work from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Jonathan Banks and all the rest, the usual gorgeous cinematography and smart storytelling, and one image after another that’s going to haunt my dreams until the next new episode airs sometime next summer.
3. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” was my favorite show on television a year ago. It was pretty darned terrific in 2012, as well, wrapping up a lengthy arc about Leslie’s campaign for city council in warm and funny fashion, then transitioning into a new season that saw every character struggling to adapt to new roles. Leslie shifted into politics, Tom attempted to become a legitimate businessman, and Ron Effing Swanson even dated a sane single mom. With Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt and company on hand, “Parks and Recreation” rarely does anything fancy — other than perhaps this season’s cameo by Vice-President Biden — but simply executes better than any other comedy in the business.
4. NBC’s “30 Rock” is going out with a bang, and a whole lot of laughs. Thus far, this has been one of the best final sitcom seasons ever, and the previous season, which aired entirely in the winter and spring of this year, was jam-packed with highlights, including Liz turning into the Joker, Jon Hamm in blackface in the live episode, and Jack producing the world’s most uncomfortable couches. This latest season has been so good, including the silly and sweet wedding of Liz and Criss, that I don’t want the series to end, even though I respect Tina Fey’s desire to follow the rules of comedy and leave on a high note.
5. Most TV shows take several seasons to go through the usual wave of hype and then backlash. HBO’s “Girls” practically finished the cycle before it premiered, and was divisive throughout its 10 episode run. But I loved the distinctive voice of creator, director and star Lena Dunham, and the way that she and her collaborators were unafraid to make their four young heroines come across as selfish, naïve, foolish, and/or simply unlikable. For all the talk about what the show had to say about all women in their 20s, it was ultimately about these four specific women, and it was sharp, and hilarious, and moving, and incredibly watchable. A superb debut season.
6. The third season of FX’s “Louie” was less consistently great than its all-time classic second season. Yet it was a season that gave us Parker Posey on the most unsettling, memorable date of Louie’s life. It gave us terrific guest turns from Oscar winners Melissa Leo, F. Murray Abraham and Robin Williams. And it gave us the surprisingly moving three-episode arc where Louie auditioned to succeed David Letterman. Louis C.K. has decided to take an entire year off from the show to avoid feeling burned out, and it’ll be a long wait for more installments of this deeply personal, funny, touching series.
7. In seventh place, another HBO series, the horseracing drama “Luck,” makes its first and only appearance on a top 10 list of mine. The series began in turmoil, as creator David Milch’s working style clashed with director Michael Mann’s. And it ended in tragedy, as three horses died during production. What was on screen, though, was magic, particularly any time we were hanging around the quartet of degenerate gamblers riding the longest winning streak of their lives, or when all the show’s human characters just stopped to watch one of those majestic horses do something amazing on the track. “Luck” was really developing confidence right as the season ended; unfortunately, we won’t get to see what it was capable of becoming.
8. In its third season, HBO’s “Treme” didn’t transform into a different, more plot-driven show than in its first two. But it felt more cohesive than before, bringing more of the characters together, and finding ways to link stories together even when people weren’t meeting up. A season of stories about the struggle between artistic integrity and commercial success isn’t for everyone, but with these characters, this music, and the writing of David Simon, Eric Overmyer and company, it was a treat to spend another year in New Orleans.
9. NBC’s “Parenthood” is a drama I’ve always enjoyed, but this season’s cancer storyline has brought a lot of what the show does well into even sharper focus, raising the stakes of almost every storyline in the process, and delivering fantastic, honestly tear-jerking performances from Monica Potter, Peter Krause, Mae Whitman and the rest of this great cast in the bargain.
10. Okay, this one I’m rewriting from scratch. I said in the video narration that “Homeland” was at number 10 with an asterisk, figuring that if the finale really stuck the landing, I might later move it up a few slots (which I did a year ago), and that if it wasn’t, the good parts of the show — specifically, Patinkin, Danes and Lewis — were enough to consider it one of the best 10 shows on television this year. When the finale aired, I felt that it retroactively improved some of the more implausible moments of previous weeks, but it also let nearly all of the story be geared towards supporting an emotional relationship I’d lost interest in by then. If I had made the top 10 list this week rather than last, I’d probably swap “Homeland” with the next show (if not bump it down one or two past that), but I committed to 10th place, come what may, and the acting and some individual moments and episodes (the bulk of “Q And A,” for instance) were still fantastic.
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep up with Alan Sepinwall by signing up for the newsletter