I fear that my list of the best television shows of 2012 will -- like the Emmys -- duplicate last year’s list, which included the incomparable Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Killing, Justified, The Hour, Downton Abbey, Treme, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Louie, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Unlike movies or books, TV series go on and on and on. Which is a good thing when the series are this damn good.
In 2012 I still watched and loved every single one of these superb series. Some series were better than ever this season (Breaking Bad, Louie), others less great (Downton & Treme) or downright bad (The Killing). But overall, the shows on this list illustrate why so many of us believe that we are, indeed, living through the real Golden Age of television, which continues to generate an amazing number of superior viewing experiences that are mapping out an incredible new artform, somewhere between the movie and the novel.
I have little to add to the tonnage of online buzz about the aforementioned greatest shows, most of which made everyone's Ten Best lists, except to second the nomination by a number of film critics who chose to include Breaking Bad on their list of best films of the year. This show is dark, powerful, emotionally gripping, and utterly terrifying, and not just because its subject matter is the violent world of the meth business. No, it’s because of Walter White, whose soul has been bared in a relentless transformation from victim to villain. What can possibly happen next?
I would add one note about the good shows that do not appear on my list. I've sampled shows like Parks and Recreation, Community, The Good Wife, American Horror Story, et. al., and didn't find them appealing. Better than the vast wasteland of dreck that comes and goes like driftwood at the beach, but not my cup of tea. Part of this has to do with the sheer tonnage of stuff on TV which threatens to overwhelm. At some point, one must say: enough. I have my shows. now leave me alone!
That said, here are some thoughts on additional moments of television greatness from 2012.
Homeland – I had sliced Showtime from my cable menu a few years back, not only to save a few bucks, but because I had maxed out on Weeds, Nurse Jackie and Dexter. So I missed the initial hubbub over Homeland, that is until the TV Academy sent me the Emmy screener with the first four episodes, which I devoured in awe and anxiety in a single binge night, leaving me Jonesing for more. I finished off Season One from the DVD via Netflix. I think it will stand as a perfect series, embodied by superb actors and propelled by a superior narrative engine. Of course, I resubscribed to SHO in time to start Season Two, which, while not nearly as perfect, certainly had its moments, especially the episode in which Carrie interrogates Brodie in the CIA safe house.
By odd happenstance, I was chatting with a guy at a conference in mid-season two who had himself worked for the NSA. He hated Homeland, citing all sorts of ridiculous anomalies and factual flaws. I suspected all along that theirs was fake verisimilitude, but then, nobody ever claimed that this is based upon facts, unlike the creators of the Zero Dark Thirty movie, which covers some of the same material. The point for the audience is that Homeland delivers uncomfortable truth in fictional form. And drives you back each week to find out what happens next.
Girls – A few weeks after the last episode of this remarkable TV debut by Lena Dunham, I was chatting with a friend with unassailable indie filmmaker cred. “That right there, that’s the end of independent film,” and yes, a light bulb illuminated. We have now reached the point where television offers to the truly independent artist unparalleled opportunity to create edgy, personal, highly intense multi-episode narrative works that rival the best of independent film. Dunham did not serve time on the writers desk, waiting for a chance to take creative control like the brilliant showrunners whose work has defined our Golden Age of TV (David Chase, Matt Weiner, Kurt Sutter, David Simon, David Milch, Graham Yost). Her vineyards were the low-budget, digital video, mumblecore world of downtown Manhattan and the frozen lines of the Sundance Film Festival. And so with Girls (as well as Louie), we have a new, audacious, often painful personal narrative format that leaves an audience gasping and laughing at the same time, unable to take its eyes off the screen.
Game of Thrones – Let me confess, I’m not in the demographic for this series: I rarely read fantasy novels; I hated Lord of the Rings; I’m not a fanboy (or a boy, for that matter). And yet, I returned to Game week after week to follow this very compelling family drama ambitious in scope and Shakespearian in its template (and costumes). Kind of an espionage novel in mufti, I reveled in the palace intrigue, and any scene featuring the truly entertaining Peter Dinklage. But even more, Games delivered visually powerful images that, over time, made me buy the central conceits of its story world. (That final dreamlike image of Daenery’s rescue of the dragon hatchlings from the fire stays with me to this day.) It’s an odd measure of success: that a work in a genre I don’t care for manages to flip me into a true believer. It happened with Games (and not with Walking Dead, by the way).
South Park and The Simpsons – It’s easy to overlook these two long-running animated treasures, simply because they have been part of my life for so long. The DVR sorts out the new episodes for me, and at 22 minutes (skipping through ads), they are completely consumable. Both are satires of the sitcom form, bulked up with news and memes of the day, often delivered with the help of well-known actors voicing themselves. What amazes is the consistently high level of scripts and performances delivered by these creative teams. And laugh-out-loud comedy. And outrageous transgressiveness. And, with few exceptions, warmth and sweetness. Which is why, I think, we invite these dysfunctional nutcases into our homes over and over again.
Up with Chris Hayes – My friends will tell you: I’m fed up with news on TV... the networks seem to have given up and have driven me almost entirely to the web and my iPad for actual information. PBS is still boring. And cable news seems to have become the political broadcasting system, somewhat akin to the Dutch system that allows parties to have their own channels. As I wrote last year, I’m especially annoyed at MSNBC, because, while I generally agree with their politics, I find most of these shows unwatchable: shrill, repetitive, and too narrowly focused on partisan game-playing.
Lo and behold, the network has launched a new twice-weekly show called UP, hosted by admitted partisan Chris Hayes, of The Nation magazine, who engages a rotating group of actual experts from truly different points of view in actual conversations. Hayes doesn’t alter his own opinions, but he's not tendentious or bombastic, but rather thoughtful and informative. There does seem to be, in this format, a chance for audiences to actually learn something and for persons of good will from across the spectrum to converse like grownups used to do.
Touch – It would not be difficult to savage Tim Kring’s new series – what one critic called a “global group hug” – filled as it is with New Age clichés, narrative implausibilities, and messianic characters. The thing is, the individual scenes are so beautifully crafted, and the story lines so resonant and heart-tugging, that, well, I bought in, in part because Kring manages to generate complexity, drama, and emotion inside the tightly restricted world of network TV drama that must deliver predictable plot points and a tidy conclusion by the third commercial block, an imperative should the series be sold overseas or in syndication. Every season I sample the new network dramas, often created by and featuring amazing talent. And I'm driven away by the unyielding template of today's network model, which is convinced that audiences cannot be trusted. Even laudable efforts like The Good Wife fail, at least for me. Unlike cable dramas, network TV has trouble with season-long story arcs, deep character development, or ambiguity in either content or form. Which is ironic, given that it was network shows like Hill Street Blues that launched the great march towards our new Golden Age.
Dramaville is BBC America’s anthology vehicle for the Mother Ship’s crown jewels: The Hour, Luther, Copper, and Whitechapel, among others. Not every show is as good as The Hour, but consistently, month to month, Dramaville delivers to us the best of British drama (except, of course, those sold to Masterpiece Theatre, which got ITV’s Downton, BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs, and Sherlock). I guess I’m just saying, the weakest British drama series has more to offer than most American television. Call me an Anglophile. Go ahead.
Now all we have to do is figure out how to get the rest of European television onto American screens, which seem pathologically allergic to foreign language programming, which is not the case in Britain, whose English-speaking audiences somehow manage to read subtitles. Over the past year I watched Seasons One and Two of Forbrydelsen, the original Danish series upon which AMC's The Killing was based. (It was in Danish with English subtitles, purloined somehow by a friend with access to bootlegs from the ITV broadcast). I also watched a DVD series of the Swedish TV original series featuring Henning Mankell's Wallender detective: original stories for TV not to be confused with the novels or their adaptations into movies or TV in both Swedish and English. Choice.
It may be niche, but you'd think this would be a market opportunity for somebody!