It is my opinion that the highest goal an artist can achieve is to compel viewers to adjust their perceptions of the world. Television provides a particularly fascinating opportunity to critically examine art because the format is so rigid. Telling a long, complicated story in the form of a dozen shorter, contained stories requires far more rigid rules than those of today’s popular books, films, or video games. In television you have only a half hour (or an hour) minus commercial breaks and credit sequences to tell your story. The cast is recurring. Plots are predictable. The object is to entertain, with as little innovation as possible.
But occasionally - even after you’ve seen so many shows that you know all the rules, all the tricks - the idiot box does something else entirely: It surprises you (Of course, just being surprising isn’t enough. Beauty and the Beast surprised me by how awful it was.) For a show to be great it has to throw a curveball while simultaneously showing a complete mastery of the rules of television. In short, execution counts as much as imagination. With that in mind, I have made some ground rules for my list of 2012's best TV shows, weighing two qualifiers equally: Imagination and execution. Creativity and skill. Out of the box, in the box.
Total score: 15
Total score: 15
Fringe hit a pretty even stride midway through Season Three. It delivered the freak-of-the-week stories with confidence, and it had no difficulty exploring new, fascinating and disturbing corners of science fiction. It had a decent ensemble and managed to, at the very least, get good ideas out - only occasionally in a ham-fisted manner. But it was clear that the writers wanted more. So they gave their show something new for an episodic science fiction show: A long memory. Instead of throwing every case of the week into a box sandwiched between The Ark of the Covenant and that creepy alien fetus from The X-Files, they used each new episode as a building block towards a larger story.
It was midway through Season Three that I noticed that everything that had ever happened to these people was relevant to the plot of each episode, which was a tall order. But it seemed this bored the writers, because they decided it would be fun to retroactively remove one of the main characters from their universe and examine what effect that would have on the other characters. It was a bold move and while it made for some very lofty and interesting ideas, it also cheapened some of the show's key relationships.
It didn’t help that every episode contained a rushed, exasperating final scene, always cramming in as many overused emotional platitudes as possible to somehow wrap up their bizarre ideas. It was messy, but the writers certainly kept me on my toes. And once everything got tidied up at the end of Season Four, I was left wondering, how are these guys going to surprise me now?
Lo and behold, Season Five picked up 25 years in the future. Suddenly, we’re plunged into a dystopian world where our Fringe team has to liberate humans from their cybernetic time-traveling oppressors. On top of the insane left turn the show has made, they’re also toning down the show's more heavy-handed notes. Yes, there’s occasionally the painfully expository monologue or by-the-book final speech but the constant, unrelenting world-building keeps the show busy enough to avoid lingering on its weaker moments. In short Fringe has somehow managed to constantly throw the rules out the window while simultaneously never forgetting where it came from. It’s a tricky balancing act. And they pull it off.
Total score: 16
Homeland’s first season blew me away. Its first few episodes gave us an engrossing enigma: a man who might or might not be a terrorist but who certainly did have PTSD. It showed his everyday routine and asked us to watch closely to see if we could discover his true identity.
As we watched all these sad, confusing, engrossing and always very personal moments transpire, Claire Danes watched them with us. Homeland became a subtle and profoundly affecting look at voyeurism and the very nature of television. Then, after three episodes, the show threw that theme out the window. Suddenly, the show was about the tumultuous yet completely magnetic relationship between these two deeply broken people. Then, in an equally rapid shift, it wasn’t. It was about a madwoman and a suicide bomber. By the end of the season it was about sheer desperation.
On top of these rapid shifts the acting was brilliant. Every episode seemed like a new and exhilarating challenge for Claire Danes. The writers would continuously throw her into the depths of shame and desperation just to see if she could claw her way out. It was a thing of beauty. And I was totally unprepared for it.
When Season Two premiered, I was ready. I knew what I was getting into. This was a show that religiously threw its own concept out the window. And now that I knew that, how could it possibly surprise me? For a while the answer was far simpler than I thought it would be. They simply moved the plot along very quickly. They wasted no time sloughing off all the leftover premises of the first season while continuing, in a natural way, each character’s personal story. The concept changed a few more times; constantly shifting and pivoting under the immense weight of the show's stakes. And for a while I was impressed with how well everything seemed to be building, like a titanic weight on everyone’s shoulders, ready to crash.
Then, they simply changed the theme one too many times and, all at once, I felt like I was watching 24. The writers started throwing entirely random events at the side characters for no other reason than to give them something to do and the bad guy trapped our hero with a brilliant plan that was literally the same master plan from Season one of 24. I’m not kidding.
While I am sorely disappointed by some of these turns, looking back it seems like it was only a matter of time. There was no way they could keep it up. And while Claire Danes’ performance has become somewhat rote over the course of Season two, Damian Lewis got his turn this season, producing a performance so beautifully fragile and raw I was actually winded on multiple occasions.
Total score: 16
I have a theory. And bear with me here. Archer is like a far more vulgar, animated version of Arrested Development. A lot of what made Arrested Development such an immaculate sitcom is present in Archer. The constant, tight, insular jokes, the circular plot lines, the tightly threaded stories, the razor-sharp wordplay, the humorous sociopaths, not to mention the presence of Jessica Walter and Jeffrey Tambor.
But I feel that Archer succeeds in exactly the ways that Arrested Development did not – namely, its limitless ability for expansion. Animated TV shows have become the new venue for the world’s most adventurous artists. (I’m going to talk more about this later.) The budgets of animated shows allow room for the type of adventures that live action shows simply can’t afford. So, while Arrested Development had to work around its budget limitations to make an episode about going to Mexico (a personal favorite of mine) Archer can go into outer space without changing production costs in a substantial way.
Now, I’m not saying that a show’s creative lifeblood is wholly dependent on the amount of scenery changes it can make. But, by allowing the writers that type of freedom, Archer has produced a season of ridiculous madcap adventures that never get mired in familiar waters. From the aforementioned season finale in space to a car chase with Burt Reynolds to a Justified parody to an episode aboard a train and then to one that takes place entirely in Archer’s mother’s apartment - the show takes full advantage of its incredibly funny cast of characters by never being limited in where they go next. Put simply Archer has found a way to shrug off every obstacle that might stand between the writers and unmitigated hilarity.
Total score: 16
Total score: 16
In many ways, Breaking Bad hasn’t changed much since its inception. The things I like about it – the use of symbolism and subtext – are consistent. The things I don’t like (namely every single thing Skyler says or does) are consistent as well. But, if there was ever a good opportunity for Breaking Bad to tweak its tone, it was Season Five, episode one. And they did it. There is an electric quality to Season Five. A jittering, swelling, fist-clenching kind of energy that goes well beyond nerve wracking.
So far, the show has expertly balanced its sense of humor with its sense of danger. There have always been absurd underpinnings and riveting stakes. But, after the explosive Season Four finale, the dust has very much settled. The half nail-biting, half-laughing viewing experience that has taken us this far has subsided. And now that there was no longer a big bad guy for Walter to kill with science, I was ready for the inevitable bad guy of Season Five: Walter himself. It was, of course, the only possible conclusion.
I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which Gilligan and his gang are leading Walter down that path. It’s not through greed or paranoia or betrayal or any other tired mobster cliché. Walter’s tragic flaw has been there all along, peeking at us from beneath those iconic glasses. Walter has been forced to look at his life and, like most Americans, he is not happy with what he’s made for himself. His life is not a failure, just an uneven collection of missed opportunities.
The American Dream is nowhere more a burning question than in television. Walter wants it all because that’s what he’s supposed to want. His descent into villainy is so profoundly affecting because it is so mundane. It takes so little to push him from mild-mannered schoolteacher to scheming mobster. Season Five ends on this note: How much is enough? And of course, Walter’s ultimate undoing, the great American tragedy, is his almost too predictable answer: Nothing. Nothing will ever be enough.
Total score: 16
Game of Thrones’ first season was almost too good. It was a startling achievement in both the practical and conceptual challenges of creating a fantasy epic for television. The solution it seems is to focus on the political dealings, to give the characters a lot of space to breathe and to rely on a rich tradition of storytelling. This allows for a great many scenes in which two people can sit in a lush, beautifully decorated room and talk. For a long time. Of course, a healthy amount of gruesome murder in each episode gets the audience hooked, but it’s the touching moments, the fearsome threats, the melancholy admissions, all made behind closed doors, in stillness, that really suck you in. And after a shocking, totally engrossing thrill ride of a first season I was looking forward to season two. But once again (you’ll start to notice a trend here), I was a little bit disappointed.
While the show continued to give its characters new life, new stories, and new possibilities, the veneer started to slip, revealing the cogs beneath the surface. The format became too transparent. As we watched the show, I started whispering to my friends, “Here comes a monologue” with increasing accuracy. Of course, I won’t lie, some of those monologues I saw coming were truly beautiful. They were poetry in a way that is totally absent in most television. But the show, on a whole, felt very much like it was treading water. The characters we loved continued to be lovable, the boring ones, boring.
That is, until the second to last episode, which, in traditional Game of Thrones fashion, rocked me, hard. Not only did I finally find out what they’d been saving their budget for – a killer epic sword-and-shield beach battle with exploding boats – I also got to witness the Game of Thrones' take on battle. Once again, it was not the scores of murders that got my attention. It was the quiet moments: as the women huddled in their bunker, waiting for possible death, the queen slowly got drunk.
Total score: 16
Total score: 16
I do not envy the writers of Justified. They wrote a second season so beautiful, so artful, so epic, so much a modern King Lear, that there was literally no possible way they could follow it up with anything nearly as good. And I think they knew that.
So, what do you do when you’ve already painted your masterpiece? You have fun. That’s what Justified did this season: They had a good time. The symmetry of Season Two, the poetic notions, the grander statements, all went up in smoke. And it was probably the best thing the writers could have done.
They grabbed a handful of bad guys as terrifying as they were hilarious – some of them stragglers from Season Two – put them in a bag and shook it. Then they put Raylan in the mix and had him do what he does best, try not to get involved. The episodic nature returned but with a little bit more confidence. The one-offs had more of a punch, certainly more laughs, resulting in whole season that felt increasingly like the hillbilly noir the writers intended it to be.
The finale was a little haphazard, jumping from the show's most gruesome, hilarious moments to its most heartfelt with barely a moment to breathe. But there was conclusive sense of sadness that had a very profound effect on at least this viewer when it was all over. In a lot of ways Justified’s third season was like a rebound relationship, a palate cleanser, a way for the show to get its confidence back between more serious commitments. I can’t wait for Season Four.
Total score: 17
Total score: 17
If Homeland is the jazz of the TV world, Community is the prog rock. The writers of Community love television. They love the all its tricks and tropes, so they've made a show solely for the purpose of playing with them.
When the show started, Abed’s occasional TV reference was as self-aware as they got, but as the show grew and gained confidence, the writers began experimenting with the degree to which Abed actually knew he was in a TV show. Now, 3 seasons later, Community has finally hit its boldest stride, moving beyond the occasional self-referential moment to becoming a sitcom for sitcom junkies.
If you are familiar with a “bottle episode” or a “flashback episode” or any of the myriad sitcom formats, this is your show. In fact, at this point, the writers of Community are no longer limiting themselves to taking apart the sitcom genre. They will take apart a procedural mystery or a convoluted conspiracy with the same kind of loving self-awareness as they do a sitcom. The show that was once a love letter to the sitcom has graduated to becoming a love letter to all genres, to the idea of genre. And what I find most impressive is that in all their meta-tomfoolery they’ve yet to sacrifice their characters. Somewhere amidst all their bizarre exploration of genre, the writers of Community managed to tell some of the most honest and touching stories I've seen all year.
Total score: 17
Total score: 17
When talking about 2012’s most adventurous TV, how could I not mention Adventure Time? The show is a constant unmitigated expression of childish wonder. It's like that feeling you had when you were nine and you’d rush into the backyard. It was the same yard as yesterday, but your imagination would turn it into a jungle or a snowy moon in a distant solar system. There were no limits to your imagination.
This is what it’s like to watch Adventure Time. I remember the first seven-minute short they released back in 2010. It was absurdly funny, but in a viral video way. I couldn’t imagine it spawning a compelling TV show. But it did. It became a fun, childish excursion that slowly turned into a massive world-building endeavor. And by Season Two it was most assuredly the strangest and most gloriously unpredictable show in the world.
But after three seasons of explosive randomness, I was beginning to grow weary. It was still unpredictable, but its volatility had become, in itself, predictable. I could see clearer than ever how random is not the same as adventurous. But then the show did something truly innovative. The writers decided to slow down the show’s tidal wave of world building, and instead focus on steady and compelling character growth. They realized they could tell stories without constant injections of the bizarre, focusing instead on telling honest personal stories. I was actually surprised by how moved I was by the fourth and fifth season of Adventure Time. These silly characters, who had been introduced seemingly at random, began serving a deeper purpose. The show realized that in a world with no humans and mostly animated candy, they could still tell a profoundly affecting coming of age story.
2. Mad Men
Total score: 18
Total score: 18
I don’t know if it’s because I’m young and I haven’t seen enough history unfold, but I feel like America is entering its most self reflective time period. The 90s, even the aughts, seemed to barrel forward, clinging to the framework that had gotten them this far. But, perhaps due to the recession, it seems as if we Americans no longer trust our own traditions. Or, at the very least, we’ve begun to examine them more thoroughly than before. In this time of economic shriveling we’ve begun to call into question everything that makes us who we are, including the American Dream. What’s always impressed me about Mad Men is that it’s always stuck to its thesis. Back in episode one of season one, it was clear that this was a show setting out to dissect the American Dream. And what better way to do that than make a show about advertizing, an industry that subsists entirely on the ideas of the American Dream (Life, liberty, and the pursuit of more stuff), set in the 1960s, an age of opportunity where America was forming its most distinguished identity?
Now that we’ve finished Season Five, Mad Men hasn’t strayed from its original goal. It is still more than ever a show about selling an American Dream that doesn’t exist. But this season impressed me more than any previous season. In a lot of ways it’s due to the show's willingness to try new things and change its core character relationships. This goes hand in hand with its willingness to let the times change. The show started in 1960 and has moved to 1967. The décor has changed, the music, the fashion. The whole mood has shifted. But the thesis remains intact. This season we’ve seen what people are willing to do for the principles of our country. For money, or freedom, or in pursuit of their dreams.
The show has really bared its teeth this year and it was a great move for them. So many times, we watched as characters experienced the effects of wanting it all, and getting nothing. There came a great quote at one point that sums up my feelings towards the show. "Not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can't support that many ballerinas." It perfectly encapsulates the feeling that the world they inhabit is crumbling under the weight of so many American Dreams.
Total score: 19
Total score: 19
Louie may just be the greatest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen on television. Season One was a wonderful scattershot biography. A look inside the life of one of comedy’s bottomless goldmines. Season Two was less about Louie’s life, and more about his point of view, but both seasons were done in a series of vignettes that had little care for consistency. In fact, Louie would regularly recast the two girls playing his daughters, or recast the woman playing his ex-wife. He would even change who these characters were between episodes. For example, Louie’s mother changes, not just in the woman playing her, but her entire personality. In this way, Louie is trying to tell us that each story is meant to be totally stand-alone.
Louie was giving you snapshots; he had really no interest in world building.
So, imagine my surprise when Louie decided that this season he would tell a long story. He kept the characters consistent (at least within the season) and more importantly he kept the theme consistent. He narrowed his focus down to one constant thematic force: communication: the ways we chose to communicate and the things that get in our way. Every episode, from having to speak with his father, or being unable to break up with his girlfriend, presents the same problem. Louie can’t seem to communicate; why? The answers range from being too self-conscious to being afraid of death and everything in between.
But it goes deeper than that. There’s a terrific moment in the third season where Louie gets out of his car and gets in a shouting match with a Bostonian. His Boston accent comes out and the two of them holler at each other until the other man notices Louie’s nose is bleeding. The other man gives him a rag for the bloody nose but never ceases calling Louie a “queer.” Then they hug it out and go their separate ways.
To me, this is such a touching, loving scene about the brief, fleeting moments of human connection that make life worth living. Those moments when you realize that we are, in fact, all in it together. And that’s the thing I found most surprising about season three – its optimism. In a show so with a main character so constantly marred with bad luck, so unable to overcome his flaws, it’s odd how reassuring and uplifting it was.
Here’s another example of not only the show's message, but also how brilliantly structured the season is on a whole. The first scene of the third season consists of Louie and another man looking at a very convoluted New York City parking sign, trying to figure out if they can park there. The sign post is littered with confusing signs that read, “6am to 5am Mon-Fri,” and “Parking of Vehicles Only Authorized.” This is a simple breakdown in communication that I, for one, deal with daily (especially in L.A.). The final scene of Louie, without revealing too much, ends with him in the household of a family that speaks no English, having a really good time. These two moments perfectly demonstrate the long arc of the season but also the cyclical nature of TV. We always, in a way, wind up where we start. It’s a question of how we feel about it. And sure, Louie still can’t really figure out the world around him but we see the ways in which just letting go of the constant need to understand everything is a surprisingly liberating experience. I’d say it’s an adventure. One we could all learn to go on more often.