While the new fall line-up wasn’t too impressive (there are only two freshman series on this list, neither of which premiered in the fall) and former powerhouses have stumbled (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire), this is still an amazing time for TV. The most outstanding programs don’t just have excellent writing and actors, they’re reinventing genres and challenging viewers with daring storytelling. TV is gutsier now (sometimes literally gutsier with blood and innards all over the place) and its fantastic.
When compiling this list, I chose the shows that sparked visceral reactions. These are the comedies, dramas, and (often overlooked) animated gems that made me laugh out loud, cringe, cry like an idiot, or yell “oh snap” at every wild turn.
12. Gravity Falls
This funny Disney Channel cartoon is like a light, kid version of The X-Files. 12-year-old twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) live with their eccentric “Grunkel” Stan–the proprietor of a very bizarre museum–and in every episode face some supernatural phenomenon or creature (gnomes masquerading as a human boy, sentient wax statues, and other oddball monsters abound). Like Adventure Time and Regular Show, Gravity Falls–which premiered in 2012–is one of those surprisingly clever children’s shows that never panders to its audience and can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age.
But it’s also warm, filled with the sorts of positive messages that are important for the youngin’s–in the episode “Dipper vs. Manliness,” Dipper ends up rejecting problematic male stereotypes, arrives at his own self-determined notion of masculinity, and then grows a single, adorable chest hair. What’s more, there are hilarious background detail gags, the playfully eerie title music is one of the best instrumental themes on TV today, and there’s a cool interactive element–there are cryptograms in the end credits. Seriously, this show is just too much fun.
Phenom writer Lena Dunham’s candid comedy about New York City “Millennials” is critical of all the entitlement and pretension of the 20-somethings that it revolves around but that critique is presented in a subtle and loving way. The things that make Dunham’s aspiring writer Hannah off-putting (egocentrism, globalizing tiny dilemmas) are also the things that make her much easier to identify with and more complex than, say, Carrie Bradshaw, as well as one of the most interesting characters (irrespective of gender or age) on TV.
In its debut season, the titular girls tackled problems as diverse as HPV, mooching off of parents, career woes, and errant “dick pic” text messages–all of it presented with great wit and bold realism.
10. Parks and Recreation
Disillusioned by cynical sitcoms? Tired of the curmudgeons? Then “treat yo self” and give this goofy but emotionally sincere comedy a chance. The plucky idealism of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was a relief this year–a much needed counterweight to a lot of the mean humor that we see so often these days. The most captivating part of this reliably hilarious show continues to be the development of the relationships between Leslie and Ben (Adam Scott) and, on the opposite end of the maturity spectrum, April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt)–the young, reckless married couple who have a loving and strange bond that becomes more amusing with each season. Really, the cutest, most endearing couples on TV are on this show and that became abundantly clear this year.
The BBC’s mystery series puts a sleek 21st century spin on the classic Holmes tales while maintaining the integrity and intrigue of the source material. The show also undoubtedly had a hand in turning its two leads into bankable film stars (both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are in The Hobbit and Cumberbatch will be in next year’s Star Trek into Darkness).
Series two was as droll and sharp as the show’s debut, presenting us with a disarmed Holmes engaging in a game of cat and mouse with “the woman,” Irene Adler. We’ve seen a couple of different Sherlock’s in recent years, both on the big and small screens, but Cumberbatch’s sly, charming, kind of dickish incarnation is dependably riveting and surely the definitive Sherlock of this generation.
The first of four FX shows that appear on this list, Justified is part modern-day western, part noir and a total triumph. While we have our fair share of indistinguishable cop and detective shows these days, this one has flavor that comes across in all of the colorful characters that populate its backwoods setting and the snappy, sort of literary dialogue delivered by lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who is a badass, for sure, with a mythic charm about him.
New villains come and go (during season three, probably the darkest and most graphic in the show’s history, we were introduced to Neal McDonough’s Quarles) but the antagonistic relationship between Raylan and criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is always present and always fun to watch.
7. Sons of Anarchy
Writer, director, actor–Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter outdid himself on every front. Among the many gruesome and bleak turns that the series took in season five, Sutter’s character Otto–an imprisoned member of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club–(SPOILER) bit off his own tongue. The show, which Sutter has said is modeled after Hamlet, really became a beautiful tragedy this year. Jax (Charlie Hunnam), who not too long ago appeared to be the savior of the outlaw motorcycle club, has taken on all of the worst attributes of his villainous stepfather Clay (Ron Perlman) and by the final episode seemed beyond redemption.
This season, a beloved character died, Justified’s Walton Goggins guest starred in one of the best cameo’s in history (“didn’t your daddy ever tell you never judge a book by its penis?”), and one final betrayal in the last moments of the finale suggests that these characters are incapable of escaping the mess that they’ve created. In 2012, SOA was pure grit and shocking. Though it was sometimes excruciatingly hard to watch (so much tongue blood!), the ride was always thrilling.
From the creator of anarchic Adult Swim toons Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, comes this smart, bawdy spy spoof. Set to begin its fourth season in 2013, FX’s criminally underrated Archer is the best animated show going right now. Each member of the voice cast, which includes Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, Jessica Walter, and cartoon sitcom stalwart H. Jon Benjamin as bad boy spy Sterling Archer, have devastating comedic sensibilities, delivering their lines in the most surprising ways (the word “nope” has never been as funny as it is here). The humor is wicked; the animation is visually stunning, evoking ‘60s elegance; and every episode is littered with satisfying pop culture references that will have you wanting to hug everyone who had a hand in creating this stellar show.
5. Game of Thrones
This HBO drama, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic book series about the struggle for control of a land called Westeros, added even more threads to its expansive story and characters to its already huge ensemble yet didn’t crumble under the weight of its ambition. In fact, the second season was as exhilarating as the first. There was humor (Ironborn brat Theon Greyjoy getting whacked over the head by one of his own men after a rousing speech) and beauty tinged with horror (the green Wildfire explosion in “Blackwater” was the most breathtaking moment on TV this year, possibly on TV any year). And yes, there were also dragons and smoke babies but this is fantasy that you don’t necessarily have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy–the writing is that good.
The Braverman clan fight, they hug, they support each other, they playfully dance around in kitchens–never have I wanted to be a part of a TV family more than I want to be a part of this one. This honest and emotionally gratifying drama should have a much larger audience because of the way that it avoids schmaltziness but is still very sweet and sentimental (in an era where it isn’t cool to be sweet and sentimental). Showrunner Jason Katims deftly juggles multiple plots and this show–perhaps the best on broadcast TV–gets better every season.
Louie is this confounding but somehow perfect bouillabaisse of genres, shifting elegantly between drama, comedy, and Woody Allen style surrealism. It’s also the most earnest mediation on modern life that you’ll find on TV today. Season three was distressing (Louie’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, played by Parker Posey, took him on a confusing and ultimately tragic emotional journey), disgusting (who can forget little Never’s bathtub indiscretion?), and, as always, chock full of unexpected delights (guest star Melissa Leo delivers a wonderfully raunchy performance as a potential love interest). There’s no telling where Louis CK’s strange, beautiful mind will take us next, but I’m more than willing to follow him.
So, maybe too much attention was paid to Dana (Morgan Saylor), TV’s angstiest, brow furrowing-est teenager, but season two of Showtime’s slow-burn terrorist thriller was stirring and ended explosively (literally). After being dismissed from the CIA at the end of season one, Carrie (Claire Danes) begins a calm but unfulfilling life with her sister’s family. When she’s pulled back in to the CIA at the beginning of this season, she’s as erratic and impulsive as ever. But that’s how she operates best and not knowing what Carrie is going to do next is what makes this series exciting.
This year, revelations were made quickly, something that usually doesn’t happen on these sorts of shows. Last season Carrie sussed out former POW Brody’s (Damian Lewis) secret allegiance to terrorist Abu Nazir but no one believed her. This season everyone is on board with her theory by episode three and by episode four, Brody, now a congressman, has a black bag over his head while government agents swarm. You have to respect showrunners who, in an era of mythology rich dramas, have enough confidence in their story to cut to the chase.
1. Breaking Bad
The best drama on TV. Period. And what really makes it amazing is that it’s consistently the best drama on TV–you’d be hard pressed to find anything as engrossing, addictive, well-acted, or focused as Breaking Bad has been. Over the past four and a half seasons, we’ve witnessed the transformation of dorky chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) into this cocky, irredeemable, meth-cooking monster.
The writing along the way was so taut, the twists so crazy that, at least for me, watching this show has been a mentally arduous experience–it wreaks havoc on my nerves and I love it.