10. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)
Though funny since the start (the rockiness of even the initial half-season is overblown in light of how good it eventually got), Parks and Recreation took a good three season’s worth of cast shuffling and fine-tuning before arriving at the point where it began 2012, standing near the top of TV’s very best comedies. With all the right pieces in place, season four offered up some of the show’s funniest half hours (“Sweet Sixteen”, “The Debate”) even as it launched the show’s most moving storyline yet – Leslie Knope’s unstoppable quest for a city council seat, which had viewers smiling through tears when it concluded in winning fashion this past spring.
Which would have been good enough on its own, but the currently-airing fifth season has started as strong as the last. Season 5 is a tough time for sitcoms, when even very good ones (it happened to 30 Rock and it happened to The Office, and that’s without even leaving NBC’s Thursday night block) are generally showing some degree of creative exhaustion. But Parks seems immune to such typical sitcom stumbling blocks; its two big will-they-won’t-they pairs spent the entire year happily committed to each other, largely free of trumped up drama and still, somehow, as hilarious together as when they were courting.
Other notable and hilarious developments: Ben’s shocking and sweet proposal to Leslie; Rob Lowe having a grand ol’ time conveying Chris Traeger’s rapidly deteriorating mental health; the return of Duke Silver; Paul Rudd guesting as Leslie’s rich and entitled (yet sweetly clueless) council opponent; Leslie’s crush on Joe Biden reaching critical mass; the return of the feud with snooty neighborburg Eagleton, Judy Hitler and the “retirement” of Burt Macklin, FBI (he never even met his family!); and more “Ya Heard? With Perd” than any of us Perdverts rightfully deserve.
Defining Moment: Leslie in the voting booth. If Emmy reels were confined to thirty seconds of less, they wouldn’t even have nominated anyone else this year.
— Robert B Taylor
9. COMMUNITY (NBC)
Community only aired half of a season in 2012, but even at half strength, it’s a formidable contender. There is quite simply nothing like it on television, combining the genuine geek sensibility and uncanny mimicry skills of Spaced with the comic density and metafictional ingenuity of Arrested Development or 30 Rock.
But it’s actually more ambitious than even those brilliant shows. You can watch Community because it has as many impeccably crafted jokes per minute as any show out there, or for nuanced character work spread across the most well-balanced comedic ensemble on TV, or because you like your snark as but a thin coating on top of a big sappy heart, or just to ogle Alison Brie (everyone knows you’re doing it, no one really blames you). These are all good reasons, but while you’re at it you’ll also be getting some very astute cultural commentary and a survey course in fiction writing in a variety styles – even in a scant ten episodes, the show managed to morph itself into a heist movie, a Ken Burns documentary, an episode of Law and Order, and a freaking 8 bit video game, not to mention the holodeck episode. But each was more than a simple parody, but rather a full, detailed, loving deconstruction of the tropes of its particularized genre that somehow maintained continuity with everything that came before and advanced the ongoing story and character arcs.
Also the gang instigated a riot at the wake of a meth dealer with starred sideburns and John Goodman made space paninis with Black Hitler, because this is just that type of show. And amazingly, that type of show actually existed in 2012. Oh, in case you needed reminder that the Emmys are but a vast, mirthless joke inflicted upon mankind by the Lovecraftian fiends that control civilization, Gillian Jacobs was not even nominated for Best Comedy Actress. With due respect to the Poehlers, Feys and Louis-Dreyfussi of the world (plus Mr. Taylor above), it wasn’t even a question who gave the best comedic performance this year.
Defining Moment: The group puts a war hero on trial for yam murder, with Michael Ironside for the defense and judge Omar Little presiding.
– Al Schwartz
8. SHERLOCK (BBC)
editor’s note: for the love of God, dear readers, if even one of you should mistake this for an endorsement of the CBS show with Sick Boy and O-Ren, it is too many. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE.
The first season of the BBC’s reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective was ground zero for the Martin Freeman/Benedict Cumberbatch (honestly, could a team of experts even concoct a more gloriously British name in a lab?) bomb that now threatens to engulf all of pop culture. But you have to marvel over the fact that creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss managed to follow it up with another trio of hour and a half episodes that were just as dazzling, just as clever and just as much fun to watch as the first three. There have been ten gazillion versions of Holmes and Watson, but Cumberbatch and Freeman continue to be so note-perfect in the roles that they essentially own them now (with apologies to Johnny Lee Miller).
Season two of Sherlock continued the trend of making 90 minute installments feel too short while putting fresh spins on the familiar , finding modern-day London’s most famous “consulting detective” matching wits with Irene Adler (the delectable Lara Palver) and investigating bizarre sightings at a military base in a unique take on the most famous Holmes tale, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” before finally squaring off in a battle to the death with Andrew Scott’s bug-eyed and batshit version of Moriarty. We know Holmes survived the encounter. What we don’t know is how, making the long wait until season three all the more excruciating.
Defining Moment: Sherlock confronts Moriarty on a rooftop.
– Robert B. Taylor
7. 30 ROCK (NBC)
30 Rock is easy to take for granted. Beloved by critics, continually bombarded with awards and nominations, it has lasted long enough to become a TV institution. It no longer feels hip, and people’s rabid enthusiasm for the show has waned — Internet passions moved onto Troy and Abed and Ron Swanson’s mustache and we started to talk about how the show wasn’t as funny as it had been. Even the awards (if not nominations) began to peter out. But the show never stopped being anything short of phenomenal.
The first half of 2012 featured some of the series’ best episodes, with Liz and boyfriend Criss (James Marsden) taking a dark visit to IKEA, Mary Steenburgen’s outstanding turn as Jack’s sexy and similarly-aged mother-in-law, William Baldwin doing his best impression of his brother, and the awesomely un-PC Irish-bashing St. Patrick’s Day episode featuring the always hilarious Dennis Duffy and his new girlfriend who apparently can’t answer her phone “because her boobs are too big.” Then its return in recent weeks gifted us Jack and Liz’s attempts to tank NBC with bad programming, the oddly topical (for a sitcom) run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, and the touching yet twisted conclusion to Jack’s lifelong battle with his force-of-nature mother (Elaine Stritch). Not to mention the return of Bitch Hunter!
Now, with the show closing out its run, it’s hard to believe it actually premiered the same season, on the same network, as that other behind-the-scenes of a sketch comedy show, Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Sorkin’s eventual appearance on 30 Rock remains one of its best celeb cameos). And it wasn’t that long ago that the world did not seem to understand how motherfucking hilarious Alec Baldwin was, despite all his SNL appearances. But Tina Fey knew, just as she knew how to appropriately use the very specific talents of Tracy Morgan. And just think of how close Jane Krakowski came to slipping by us with Ally McBeal as her career high! It will be a sad day when Jack and Liz have their final toast in Jack’s office, but the show is going out on top. Unlike fellow NBC old-timer The Office, whose heinous recent seasons provide a stark and dispiriting contrast to just how solid this show has remained, Fey and her team are savvy enough to know there can’t be a 30 Rock without Alec Baldwin. Or at least there shouldn’t be.
Defining Moment: The amazing “Leap Day”, in which Liz discovers a nonsensical holiday and its terrifying mascot, Leap Day William, and Eastbound & Down‘s Steve Little shows up as “Sad Thad The Skin Tag Lad,” a college friend who wants to pay Liz $20 million to take his virginity. “Leap Day” highlights 30 Rock’s sublime use of celebrity guests, with Jim Carrey brutally skewering his own movie career, playing himself as the star of an all-too-plausible and banal Leap Day William movie (right down to the pitch-perfect detail of Andie McDowell as his long-suffering wife).
– Joshua Miller
6. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
At the start of the year our “hero” Enoch Thompson was at the top of the world. He’s a celebrity. He’s rich. He consorts as a peer with the mighty on both sides of the law. And even with people like billionaire Andrew Mellon, who deem themselves above him, he’s able to negotiate a deal. Even last year’s loss of a fortune got him a Knighthood from the Catholic church. But there are also only two people close to him. One, his girl on the side, he obsesses about. The other, his loyal Man Friday, he ignores and takes for granted until the payoff in one of the best episodes of TV this year.
But first, the Big Bad, Gyp Rosetti. Psychopath extraordinaire. Snappy dresser. Unconventional lover. The unfiltered rage to contest Nucky’s aloof coldness. And as is Boardwalk Empire’s wont, we have a thousand other characters to check in on as well. Margaret, now estranged from Nucky, gets tangentially and then personally involved with testing the limits of what a woman can do in her society. Eli, after serving his time, comes home to disappointment, lowered to moving crates of booze on trucks for the supremely irritating (and miraculously still alive) Mickey Doyle. Fan favorite Richard Harrow tries to find a family. Chalky White probes how far prominence on his side of the tracks can get him on the Boardwalk proper. Van Alden completes his journey from one side of the law to the other via a spectacular, even by his standards freak-out. The historical figures wheel, deal, rise and fall more or less on schedule.
“Who are all these people?” those not familiar with the show will ask. “How could anything like a good story result from a show spread so thin?” But such is Boardwalk Empire’s calling card. This is a show that doesn’t make things easy for itself. The plot strands are spread far and wide, literally and figuratively. Every episode you wonder where prominent characters have gone to, or why you’re spending time with the boyfriend of the daughter of a secondary character. Right up to the end of the season, when all these dominoes start collapsing on each other, and all of a sudden a Chicago mob boss’s gradual mental withdrawal has enormous implications for the black community of Atlantic City.
Do you prefer to watch a diver stride amidst music and the cheers of the crowd and perfectly perform a simple yet impressive maneuver? Or would you rather watch him slowly prepare himself, slowly enough that the crowd starts to feel restless and then almost perfectly perform the most difficult dive possible? Boardwalk Empire takes its time and shoots for the stars. Even if it misses it gets admirably close.
Defining Moment: Richard returns to the Artemis Club.
Tomorrow we forget about NBC and show AMC some love as we list our five favorite shows of 2012. In the meantime, we invite you to tell us how stupid our picks are in the comments!