On this, the eve of 2013, Paul and I begin to look back at some of our favorite things of 2012. First up, our ten favorite TV series.
Also, let’s give a slow clap to Paul, who struggled through severe illness just to get these words to you, dear reader. A speedy recovery to you, sir!
PAUL: 10. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)
Season 5 gets out of the office a little bit, with Ben and April in Washington D.C. (with an evil robot congressman). Ron gets a new love interest (the always lovely Lucy Lawless). Tom starts a new business. And Andy finds a new career.
AJ: 10. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
What Game of Thrones did in its first season was nothing short of exceptional, a 10-episode narrative that goes down as one of the finest accomplishments the medium has seen thus far. And while the second season struggled at times to recapture that majesty, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. The scope and breadth of George R.R. Martin’s world remains impressive; the cast, especially Peter Dinklage as the kind of noble imp Tyrion Lannister, continues to knock out high fantasy material that would crush lesser actors; and thrilling hours like “Blackwater” remind us that this is the closest thing we have to a Lord of the Rings on TV. And it’s a whole lot nastier and sexier, too.
PAUL: 9. AWAKE (NBC)
Poor Kyle Killen cannot catch a break. First there was Lone Star, a high-concept series that showed so much potential it was cancelled after one episode. This year, Awake followed the same path, though thankfully it at least got a full 13-episode season to play out its high concept. Jason Isaacs shone as a detective living in two parallel realities; one where his he lost his wife in a car accident but his son survived (the blue world), while in the other his wife lives but the accident takes their son (the red world). It was fascinating watching the crossover between the two worlds, often only apparent by the subtle shading of colors. And in each reality he is in therapy, where each therapist is trying to convince him that the other is an hallucination. I loved it!
AJ: 9. ARCHER (FX)
It’s kind of hard to believe that each season of Archer is more insane than the last. Yeah, last season, he got breast cancer, but this year the Duchess finally met his hero, Burt Reynolds, who also happened to be dating his mom; confronted his resurrected fiancée; fought it out with the Mounties on top of a moving train; and voyaged to fucking space. Archer is one of the most consistently ridiculous comedies on television, and often one of its best. Star H. Jon Benjamin has done a lot of great voice work over the years, but this will be his legacy.
PAUL: 8. JUSTIFIED (FX)
Margo Martindale gave us one of the most memorable television villains with last season’s Mags Bennett. But against all odds, the show found Marshall Raylan Givens a suitable, dare I say even more disturbing foil in Robert Quarles, played with oily, skin-crawling charm by perennial bad guy Neal McDonough. Local crimelord Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) could almost have stepped right out of the comic series Preacher, which is never a bad thing. Raylan continues to be a badass mofo, delivering moments like the one where he throws a bullet at someone and says, “The next one’s comin’ faster.”
AJ: 8. GIRLS (HBO)
It wouldn’t be controversial to say that Girls was the most controversial TV show of 2012, would it? Lena Dunham’s awkward, uncomfortable look at the lives of a bunch of spoiled twentysomethings in New York City led to declarations which seemed to either fall in the “She is the voice of her generation!” or the “She’s everything that’s wrong with American youth!” camps. I get it, I do. When the show first aired, my knee-jerk reaction was to be sickened by just how much Dunham’s Hannah Horvath thought of herself and of how hard she was convinced she had it when she’d be handed almost everything from birth. Here’s the thing about knee-jerk reactions, though: they can be pretty thoroughly wrong. And so, as Girls‘ first season continued, I realized that Dunham’s genius lies in the very fact that she takes a good, hard look at situations which would make most people recoil and finds their humanity. Hannah’s trying to grow up, to become who she’s going to be for the rest of her life, and that can be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. In exploring that messy, painful quest for adulthood, Girls reaches the sublime.
PAUL: 7. LAST RESORT (ABC)
Things that initially piqued my curiosity: Shawn Ryan, Andre Braugher, and Dichen Lachman. Things that initially turned me off: U.S. military/political thriller, inexplicable comparisons to Lost, and Scott Speedman. In the end I’d say that Scott Speedman is possibly one of the best things about this show, and that Dichen Lachman is completely wasted. Oh, and there’s that whole thing where ABC isn’t picking it up for a full season, so these 13 episodes are all we get. But, having not yet seen the finale, I’m pretty pleased with the show we’ve gotten.
AJ: 7. CHILDRENS HOSPITAL (Adult Swim)
Childrens Hospital is the most absurd show on television, and I could not mean that more positively. While nominally a parody of Grey’s Anatomy-type medical dramas (sidenote: Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air, who knew?!), literally anything could happen on any given episode of Childrens Hospital; the more nonsensical, the better. This is the only show I know of which doesn’t pretend that its world is in any way genuine and has developed complicated backstories for the allegedly “real” actors playing its characters. That shit is meta, but it’s only the tip of the show’s deeply surreal iceberg. Highlights this year included “A Year in the Life,” following various subplots over the course of a year, all centered around the reveal that Philip Baker Hall’s lovable old doc is actually Nazi doctor Josef Mengele; “British Hospital,” the across-the-pond version of the show featuring the likes of Dominic Monaghan and Jaime Murray in place of our stars; and “Behind the Scenes,” wherein the aforementioned “real” cast gets up to some wacky shit, the year’s most memorable Star Wars gag takes place, and director David Wain plays himself (not for the first time). All this craziness is crammed into only 15 minutes each week. Any more, and you’d overdose.
PAUL: 6. ELEMENTARY (CBS)
I tried so hard to not like this obvious cash-in on the success of BBC’s Sherlock. An American procedural adaptation of the Holmes oeuvre? With a female Watson…played by Lucy Liu, no less? No thank you. But damn it, they got me with Jonny Lee Miller as a recovering addict Sherlock. Plus, he finally gets to act with his natural accent.
AJ: 6. 30 ROCK (NBC)
Last year, 30 Rock nabbed the #9 spot on my list, but I hadn’t seen a lot of great TV in 2011 and even mentioned that the show had “fallen short of past glories lately.” I saw a lot of great TV this year, so much so that it pained me to only include these ten shows. So it should say a great deal about 30 Rock‘s creative resurgence that it’s so high on my list this time around. As Tina Fey’s wonderfully silly satire nears its end–only three more episodes!–the TGS staff has reclaimed their mojo with antics that rival any during the show’s first two classic seasons. To wit, this year saw the reunion of the Best Friends Forever Gang (that’s Tracy and Jenna plus Kelsey Grammer), another–better–live episode, an alternate-reality running mate for Mitt Romney who just so happens to look exactly like Tracy, and a truly inspired Leap Day episode featuring a fake movie starring Jim Carrey that must be seen to be believed. On the more human side, we saw the last of Colleen Donaghy, Jack giving her the greatest eulogy ever purely out of spite (Kermit the Frog told us about the meaning of life!); and Liz finally did the unthinkable–she tied the knot. Mazel tov, dummy. I am going to miss this show so much. Blergh.
PAUL: 5. SHERLOCK (BBC America)
Series 2 tackles slightly more iconic Holmesiana than the first. This version of Irene Adler was a…delight (?), and the classic Baskerville tale got a very Dean R. Koontz kind of update. But the highlight of this year was hands down Sherlock’s fake suicide cliffhanger, which co-creator Steven Moffat assures us includes all the clues needed to figure out what happened.
AJ: 5. SHERLOCK (BBC America)
What the hell? Paul and I actually agree on something? It’s a New Year’s miracle! But no, seriously, the brilliance of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ 21st century re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes is impossible to deny. This year saw three more feature-length episodes, and while the middle entry was again the weakest of the bunch (which still means it was pretty good!), the first and last installments were utter masterpieces. The series is clever, twisty, and just looks damned cool, but it wouldn’t be anything without the remarkable lead performances from Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson; if it wasn’t for a certain pair of meth-makers, they’d be the best duo on TV. Then there’s Andrew Scott’s deranged take on villain Moriarty, which you’ll either love or hate. And I loved it.
PAUL: 4. ARCHER (FX)
Burt Reynolds. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Bryan Cranston (in space). Burt Reynolds. A new car that “makes the Mach Five look like a vagina.” Oh, and did I mention Burt Reynolds? Also, Babou the Ocelot (like a housecat, but bigger and awesomer!).
AJ: 4. LOUIE (FX)
In its first two seasons, Louie showed an utter disregard for continuity, the only constants being Louie himself and his two beautiful, irritating daughters. Which is why it was fascinating and a little frustrating to watch Louis C.K. tackle continuity this year. Not only was there a two-parter featuring Parker Posey as Louie’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or was she a deconstruction of the MPDG?), there was another episode where Louie went around town with Chloë Sevigny trying to find her. At times, the season seemed to lean a little heavily on the “women sure are crazy” crutch. So while this year of the show wasn’t quite as unimpeachable as the first two, it still showcased moments of dreamlike absurdity and deeply sincere emotion, often at the same time. The absolute stand-out was the three-part “Late Show” epic, wherein Louie is told that he has a shot at taking over from David Letterman and has to decide what he wants out of life. Jay Leno, Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld stopped by; David Lynch played his mentor; the saga eventually revealed itself as a Rocky parallel; and by the end I was bawling. That’s Louie for ya.
PAUL: 3. THE WALKING DEAD (AMC)
Oh, thank god this show has finally found itself. After one of the most perfect series pilots ever, The Walking Dead shambled along, slow and decayed. Season 3 finally brings us Michonne and the prison, and gives this undead show the pulse it has so desperately needed.
AJ: 3. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
I truly loved the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire. It has been criticized for being slow and detached, but its pace and quiet remove are actually two of the things I admire the most about it. This season, though, is where I think it took The Leap and joined the pantheon. The final episodes pulled together a narrative I had barely even realized was unfolding before my eyes all season, and did so in riveting, spine-tingling fashion. Bobby Canavale’s hulking Gyp Rosetti is about as traditionally Gangster Movie as the show has gotten, bringing a welcome dash of color to the show. More importantly, Steve Buscemi continues to do the best work of a very impressive career and Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow is now definitively among the all-time great TV characters.
PAUL: 2. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
What felt like, as it played out, a rather slow burn of a season turns out in hindsight to be one of the most explosive seasons of this series yet. And regardless of how good or bad the first eleven episodes were, Richard Harrow Unchained in the season finale makes this year a winner.
AJ: 2. BREAKING BAD (AMC)
First, a quibble: Breaking Bad‘s fifth and final season has been split in two, eight episodes airing this year and the remaining eight next year. Instead of the deliberate 13-episode pacing we’ve become accustomed to, it at times felt like this half of the season was being either rushed or drawn out to get to the cliffhanger which sets the series’ endgame in motion. So that was a little frustrating. Now, secondly, the only critical reasoning I think I need to justify its #2 placement: it’s still Breaking fucking Bad. And what does that mean? Why, that means the best performances on television (the unbeatable Bryan Cranston, of course, but also Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks, Dean Norris, the list goes on). It means startling moments of violence, of weirdness, of laughter. It means watching Walter White descend further into a hell of his own making and finally realizing how that makes him feel. It means one hell of a ride.
PAUL: 1. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
Season 1 was a tough act to follow, but impressive CG dire wolves getting in a captive Jaime Lannister’s grill and Tyrion playing a scorching cover of “Smoke on the Water” helped bring Game of Thrones‘ sophomore season up to nearly the same level. Also, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no shadow babies.
AJ: 1. MAD MEN (AMC)
As the ’60s soldier on, the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce struggle to reconcile vast cultural changes with the lives that they’ve known and become either comfortable with or dependent upon. For Don Draper himself, that means marrying Megan, younger and more free-spirited than ex-wife Betty, and being surprised when she won’t put up with his same old tricks. Don hires a genius young ad man and is forced to realize that he’s become complacent in his work. This new ad man–bearing, coincidentally or not, the surname Ginsberg–rapidly achieves the kind of success Peggy has been struggling to find, and she has to decide whether or not that means she should leave the company. Meanwhile, Joan comes to terms with the fact that her sexuality is the only thing she can use to bargain for a position of power; homesick Lane digs himself deeper and deeper in debt; Pete has an affair just to feel alive; and Roger, slowly becoming less and less relevant to the company that bears his name, drops LSD.
This all sounds very, very bleak–and Mad Men has never been the happiest of shows–but it is also written with the razor-sharp wit we have come to expect from Matthew Weiner and his writers. The first half of the season, in particular, features a string of episodes, from “A Little Kiss” to potential series high point “Far Away Places,” that any other TV series would have difficulty matching. There’s one moment I keep returning to. At the end of “Lady Lazarus,” Megan hands stodgy old Don a copy of the seminal Beatles album Revolver and recommends he start with the final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Don puts the record on, and as John Lennon’s spiritual acid trip washes over the soundtrack, there’s a stunning montage showing where these characters are at this precarious point in time. Abruptly, Don stops the record. He walks back to his room, away from a tomorrow he knows all too well is coming.