"Community," "New Girl" and "Boardwalk Empire" all made my top 20 for 2012.
11. Like I said, If I had recorded that video this week instead of last week, “New Girl” would have been in my top 10. It’s a comedy that really found its stride with the 2012 episodes, particularly starting around season 1’s “Fancyman.” What could have been a one-joke show — basically, the scripted version of the “SNL” “Bein’ Quirky” sketch with Abby Elliott as Zooey Deschanel — instead became a fully-realized ensemble comedy about the transition from your carefree 20s into the responsibilities of adult life. Max Greenfield as douche with a heart of gold Schmidt and Jake Johnson as old before his time Nick seemed to take turns stealing the show from each other (and from Deschanel, though she’s terrific so long as the writers remember that Jess is a human and not a fairy creature), and the chemistry across the entire cast is splendid. It’s a much smarter, funnier show than it was in its brief phase as an adorkable hit last fall. Hell, the fact that it briefly made me like Dermot Mulroney is almost worthy of this ranking on its own.
12. When “Boardwalk Empire” season 2 ended with the death of what, to me, was the show’s most compelling character, I worried that the third season might not be able to recover from his loss. And as we moved through the early parts of season 3 — with Nucky distracted by his relationship with Billie Kent, Margaret focused on a pre-natal health class, and the supporting characters taking turns appearing in episodes — it seemed my post-Jimmy fears were coming true. But the season’s final weeks not only picked up the intensity, but retroactively imbued some of the shaky earlier parts with more weight and meaning, in a fine example of the kind of novelistic storytelling possible in cable drama.
13. The best installment of “Community” season 3, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” aired in 2011, but the 2012 episodes were frequently splendid in their own right, whether they featured Troy and Abed being normal, Jeff turning into the Incredible Hulk, Abed and Annie digging deep in the Dreamatorium, or the entire cast turning into 8-bit video game avatars of themselves. There were some missteps along the way (Chang turning into the dictator of Greendale), and the show wasn’t quite as consistent at blending dark psychological material with laugh-out-loud comedy as it was in previous seasons, but the Dan Harmon era of “Community” still concluded in a way that reminded me of how special this show has been.
14. Season 2 of “Justified” was epic. Season 3 was just fun, as the show decided the only way to follow the quality of Mags Bennett was with a quantity of villains, including Neal McDonough’s sharp-dressed carpetbagger and Mykelti Williamson as wily Mr. Limehouse, plus previous members of the Ryalan Givens rogues gallery like Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett, Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy and Damon Herriman as Dewey Crowe. Add them to the usual charms of Tim Olyphant as Raylan and Walton Goggins as Boyd, and you have a season that was never dull, even if it ultimately wasn’t as deep as last year.
15. “Cougar Town” ended its run on ABC (new episodes begin on TBS on January 8) with perhaps its most consistent season, and definitely its most romantic, as Jules and Grayson marched towards a goofy and beautiful wedding, the Cul De Sac Crew helped Bobby land what seemed to be his dream girl, and Travis continued to wrestle with his feelings for Laurie. This is an incredibly sweet, ridiculous, warm show whose continued existence, even in a new home, makes me very much look forward to the start of the next year.
16. Something wasn’t entirely clicking for me with “Game of Thrones” season 2, but it actually wasn’t until I saw the show’s finest 2012 episode, “Blackwater,” before I entirely realized it. By spending an entire hour in a single location, dealing with a much smaller subset of characters than usual, “Blackwater” inadvertently shone a light on the frustrating structure the show usually uses, in which we bounce from location to location, story to story, in a way that very rarely lets any of them build up any kind of steam. The performances and many individual moments remain superb, but there were many times where the second season felt like producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were simply checking off a list of incidents they had to feature from George R.R. Martin’s second book, without necessarily thinking how to best present it as a season of television.
17. There are deeper comedies on television than "Happy Endings." There are more ambitious and warm and human and consistent ones. But no comedy out there (with the possible exception of the resurgent "30 Rock") packs as many jokes — clever, filthy, hilarious jokes — into a half hour as "Happy Endings."
18. The only disappointing thing about Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’ 21st Century “Sherlock” is that there isn’t more of it. Then again, part of the reason the stories — and the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson — are so great and lively is that we only get three 90-minute episodes per season, so everyone pours all their heart and creativity into each installment. This year gave us a lively version of Holmes’ romantic rivalry with Irene Adler, a showdown with the reimagined Moriarty, and a Conan Doyle-inspired cliffhanger that fans will be arguing about until all involved can reassemble from their other projects to produce the next season.
19. “Nurse Jackie,” like fellow Showtime hit “Dexter” (which narrowly missed the cut for this list; see below), became very complacent in middle age, telling variations on the same stories over and over and always allowing Jackie to escape the consequences. In its latest season, though, “Jackie” (like “Dexter”) finally stopped to face the music, and the series became so much more entertaining as a result. Forcing Jackie to open up to her co-workers, her husband, and everyone else in her life opened up interesting new territory both dramatically and comically (Jackie’s less one-sided relationship with Zoey was a particular treat), and Bobby Cannavale was a great addition as the hospital’s new corporate boss, a character who turned out to be much more complicated than you would expect at first.
20. "The Walking Dead" started 2012 still stuck on Hershel's farm, though there were some good moments along the way in the back half of season 2, like Rick's showdown with two thugs in a quiet bar, or Shane finally showing his true colors. But it wasn't until the AMC drama returned from hiatus for the start of season 3 that it really came into its own. Its characters had finally started to master how to stay alive in the zombie apocalypse, and the show in turn had learned how to play to its biggest strengths of action, suspense and using humans as the main villains rather than mindless walkers. The new season hasn't been perfect — katana-wielding Michonne has turned out to have a scowl and little more in terms of characterization — but it's by far the most consistent, exciting stretch the show has put together to date.
Others considered (in alphabetical order): “30 for 30,” “Archer,” “Awake,” “Bent,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Chuck,” “Dexter,” “Doctor Who,” “The Good Wife,” “The Hour,” “Key & Peele,” "Phineas & Ferb," “Scandal,” “Shameless,” “The Simpsons,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Southland,” “Strike Back,” “Suburgatory,” "Wilfred."
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 email@example.com