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The Top 10 TV Shows of 2012: The Best and the Rest

Here's my complete list, along with a partial list of honorable mentions. But first, it’s time for my annual list of caveats, rationalizations and excuses!

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TIME’s annual collection of top-10 lists is up, including my Top 10 TV Shows of 2012. (Also up is my list of Top 10 TV Episodes, which I’ll talk about in a separate post.)

Below, I’ll post my complete list, along with a partial list of honorable mentions. But first, it’s time for my annual list of caveats, rationalizations and excuses!

* Number one: this is not the Top 10 and Everything Else Sucks list. I had 10 slots to fill. I love more than 10 TV shows. There are different ways of dealing with that problem. You could do a top 20, or 30, or 50 list. You could do lists of comedies, reality shows, best performances, etc., etc. Some critics do, and that’s great. I didn’t, because I’m lazy and it starts to get into everyone-gets a-trophy territory.

* You will notice that 2012 is not yet over. In fact, because of our production schedules, I had to finalize this list in mid-November. This inevitably sucks for shows that are still airing episodes, especially cable shows with fall-only runs. I try to take this into account: I rated Homeland and American Horror Story, for instance, based in part on the final month or so of their first seasons, which aired in late 2011 after that year’s list was done. (I considered Boardwalk Empire on the same basis, though I thought season 2 was stronger than season 3, but it didn’t quite make it.) Still, there’s no perfect or consistent way of handling this—deadlines are deadlines. I might not rank Homeland #3 after last week’s episode, but for all I know two weeks from now I’d rank it #1. All that really does is point up what a silly exercise it is to track a show’s fluctuating ranking like a stock ticker.

* Related to which: I don’t blame anyone for asking “How could you not include _____?” But I probably won’t answer. (1) That way lies madness; and (2) it inevitably leads to my response focusing on the relative flaws of some show that I actually like a lot and thus seeming to bash it. Again, the blanket answer is: a show is not on this list because I didn’t want to remove any of these 10 shows to make room for it, period.

* Because this is the Internet, somebody is going to post, “You forgot _____.” I didn’t. I keep a running list throughout the year and revise it constantly. There may be a show or two I overlooked, but pretty much anything with a serious shot I thought long and hard about why to include it or not. (My top-10 episodes list, about which I’ll post separately, is a different story–I can’t watch everything, and I almost certainly I did forget things.)

* However, that doesn’t mean I never regret my choices. There are probably one or two I’m regretting already. Any honest top 10 list is really a top 9 list, and a 15-way tie for 10th. But overall, I think this list gives a pretty fair sense of what I think was best on TV this year.

* Someone will also ask how I could claim X show is two places better than Y. Here’s the dirty secret of list-making, at least mine: the numbering is mostly arbitrary. It has to be, with so many genres competing: Parks and Recreation and Mad Men, say, are great in very different ways. I believe that numbered lists make possible a kind of Mobius illogic, where I might believe 8 to be better than 9, and 9 better than 10, yet, if pressed, believe 10 is superior to 8. I cannot rationally explain it, which is why I hate doing numbered lists; the idea that you can quantify relative “goodness” numerically is the opposite of criticism, which attempts to explain the non-literal. But readers and my editors like rankings, so here you go.

* Speaking of rankings: most years I have a clear sense of what #1 was. This year I didn’t; there were a lot of shows I love (e.g., Louie and Breaking Bad) that I thought were a little better in 2011 than in 2012. I ended up picking Parks and Rec. Maybe it doesn’t deserve it in any absolute Platonic sense—I still think season 3 was its best ever—but it’s the show that right now I look forward to seeing it each week more than anything else. To me, that’s as good a reason as any.

* Don’t worry! There will be a Worst Shows list too, around the holidays. There’s still time to nominate your least favorites!

* Please feel free to complain in the comments about the shows I left off. But a challenge: for every show you want to put on my list, nominate one show to take off. (Preferably one you’ve actually seen!)

* Finally, time.com did a spectacular job putting a labor-intensive package together, but they had 55 of these lists to produce, so they may have made mistakes–and I almost certainly did. If you find any, note them and I’ll get them fixed. (Note: failing to pick your favorite show not a “mistake” except in the moral sense.)

Without further ado, here’s my list (and please read through my writeups for my full explanations).

10. The 2012 Election (various channels)
9. American Horror Story (FX)
8. Parenthood (NBC)
7. Game of Thrones (HBO)
6. Girls (HBO)
5. Mad Men (AMC)
4. Breaking Bad (AMC)
3. Homeland (Showtime)
2. Louie (FX)
1. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

And finally, in (I think) alphabetical order, here is an entirely incomplete list of runners-up, which on another day might have made the list, or simply had an especially good year and deserve some love:
Boardwalk Empire
Bob’s Burgers
The Daily Show
The Good Wife
Gravity Falls
Happy Endings
LA Complex
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Masterchef (I can’t justify this. I just really enjoyed it this year.)
New Girl
Nurse Jackie
Sons of Anarchy
30 Rock


Breaking Bad is the best show among above all




wow, no Revenge ? we all love the sweet Emily Thorne payback it's revenge.


Breaking Bad is the only show that matters. The rest of this list is full of trash that any juco grad trying to break into Hollywood can write.

Parks and Rec: this show only exists b.c of the Office (U.S.) and steals all its humor from it

Game of Thrones: Um, not now, not ever. Crappy source material.

Girls: only if you are a lonely 30 year old skank living in NYC, which seems to be 95% of women in NYC.

Mad Men has not been good for 4 seasons.

Homeland was brilliant Year One, but has become a whorish rom-com to appeal to the diddling dopes known as Americans.


I'm wondering why Last Resort didn't even make it to either the Top 10 or even the runners-up list..


I know Sherlock isn't on this list, but I'll just assume you probably haven't seen it. The way I see it is there's Sherlock (BBC version), then ten miles of animal manure and then everything else on Television. 


I am amazed that you included "Homeland" and "Parenthood" in the same list.   Although I seem to be addicted to "Parenthood", I loathe almost everything about it - i.e., the plotting, the scripting, the acting - and for me, "Homeland" is the antidote to it.


I love that you included Parenthood.  I think it just keeps getting better and better - definitely a worthy successor of FNL.  


Here's my list:

1. Game of Thrones

2. Breaking Bad

3. The Walking Dead - what an improvement this season has been. Keeping the action up, the introduction of the Governor and Woodbury, and the emotional moments has done wonders for this show.

4. Justified - so far, this has been my favorite season of the series because it was so much fun. The humor was there, the villains were incredibly fun, and Raylan was at his most likable.

5. Nikita (referring to the conclusion of season 2 since I'm still working my way through the season 3 episodes) - This is one of the best action/drama series that apparently no one is watching, which is sad.

6. Space Brothers (2012 anime series; you can watch every episode free on Crunchy Roll) - Seriously one of the funniest, most heart-warming drama series---animated or live action---I've ever seen.  *

7. Boardwalk Empire - It had its problems, but those last few episodes were particularly strong.

8. Supernatural - Season 7 wasn't the strongest, but it sure had some great moments. The standalone episodes were the strongest, IMO, and it's good that the show can still crack me up like no other show on TV. Season 8 has been great so far.

9. Spartacus: Vengeance - despite everything stacked against it (having to recast the lead character) this was a really fun season of TV. It was brutal , blood, and sexy, but with a compelling story at the center. Can't wait for the final season.

10. **

*Too bad anime series are only watched by a niche audience, because there are some really great drama/slice of life shows that are just, if not more, entertaining than a lot of the regular live action TV dramas.

**I still need to finish watching several shows (Treme, Strike Back season 2, Hunted, Homeland, Arrow, Fringe, Nashville, etc.)

Your inclusion of Parenthood makes me think I need to check it out, maybe after the whole series is finished.  


Wilfred rocks. Louie is absolutely unwatchable.


Given how much stuff I watch I figured I'd have a bigger list, and yet....not so much. It's probably because outside of "Big Bang Theory", I really don't bother with sitcoms at all. That said, here's my 2cents with my #1 fave listed first, all others in no particular order:

#1: Breaking Bad- No other show is even in the same ballpark, as far as I'm concerned.

The Newsroom- Luckily for them, the highs (the actual work stuff) made up for the lows (love triangle overkill, ditzy female characters). I'll say it again: "West Wing" didn't nail it right off the bat either. I'm confident things will improve.

Boardwalk Empire- Not the best season overall- too much time spent on Nucky's mistress, too many favorite characters left unused, Gyp Rosetti *as written* (which was the very definition of too much) -but DEFINITELY their most intense finish ever. I don't miss Jimmy at all, but I was definitely missing Capone, as the cheer I let rip when he showed up at the end of the next-to-last episode attested.

Justified- This show is going to go down in history as the most perfect translation of a writer's work in either TV *or* film. I don't know how they do it, honestly- I'll just keep savoring the dialogue (the best on TV, bar none, including Sorkin's) and the performances (Neal McDonough deserved an Emmy).

Mad Men- NO idea how these people will end up and can't stop watching to find out.

Treme- I told a buddy of mine (who's just as devoted to this show as I am) that watching the season premiere was like catching up with old friends. Unforced, loosely focused and filled to the brim with monster character acting talent. All that PLUS tons of good music. I'm with this one to the end.

Game of Thrones- for many good reasons, but mostly because Peter Dinklage freakin' RULES.

Elementary- A wonderful surprise, this one. Shows how something utterly banal at this point- the procedural -can still be elevated by ace casting and (for the most part) non-"idiot plot" writing. Side note: it's about time Jonny Lee Miller landed a winner.

American Horror Story: Asylum- another surprise, for me anyways. Couldn't get into the first season, but this one's swallowed me whole, even though it's just as all-over-the-map as the first one.

Homeland- A disappointing second season, for sure, but I've said my bit there. As long as Damian Lewis, Clare Danes and Mandy Patinkin keep delivering like they do, it's worth it.

Apologies for the resulting mega-post.  :)


You know, it's embarassing. I read this blog religiously, love tv... and don't watch most of the 'great' shows out there. I tend to want to laugh.  I would never presume to make a top ten list of quality shows, because I know I'm not watching them (even if I'm reading about them). But my top ten list of shows I'm looking forward to... I can do that

10) 30 Rock


8) Psych

7) The Good Wife

6) The Daily Show

5)The Colbert Report

4) New Girl

3) Louie

2) Community

1)Parks & Recreation

And if I made my list of honorable mentions, it would be even more embarassing (hello, even more USA dramadies).  Even the 'quality' shows I watch, like Girls, rarely make the grade on what I'm truly dying to see.  But Parks & Rec is just a step above, I guess.


Homeland over Breaking Bad? With all due respect, ridiculous. Breaking Bad was much better, in fact, I'd put over Louie too. Over Parks, I can't say, haven't seen it.


@poniewozik Come on, Masterchef in the Honorable Mentions but not Awake??


I was underwhelmed with 2012, as virtually all shows put in worse efforts than 2011 and little to nothing new wowed me.

Still, it wasn't all bleak. I divide my entries between 5 comedies and 5 dramas, because, hey, it's my list.


1. Louie - You never know where any episode is going to go thematically or even geographically. I'm actually looking forward to the break, as I hope the absence will allow him to really come out of left field in 2014.

2. Community - One of the few shows this year to buck the overall downward trend despite obvious budget cuts. And how is it that a network show, in detailing Dan Harmon (as Abed)'s neuroses in his swan song, managed to produce the most personal experience of the season?

3. Parks and Recreation - Each season seems to fall a little more from its Season 3 peak. But the final election arc episodes were among the best half hours this show has produced.

4. 30 Rock - I literally cringed when I found out that Fey thought the best use of her wrap-up season was to revive the nadir of the show in Palin-esque political opinions. (Also, Elizabeth Banks' sendoff was one of the most awkward things I've seen on TV in the last decade.) Still, with 30 episodes airing in 2012, there was enough funny to warrant this spot on the list.

5. Archer - Look, this last spot is an impossible contest between Archer, Happy Endings, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and even Girls. As a mid-30s white dude drenched in pop culture, Archer simply speaks to me the most of these options.


1. Breaking Bad - What show, leading into its final season, still has us wondering just what it will be? (Personally, I suspect episodes 2-6 are Walter working as an informant trying to take down Madrigal while simultaneously "removing" the people that could reveal his actual level of past involvement to the feds.)

2. Homeland - How is it that one year later we are still wondering when, not if, the show collapses? Every plot twist has me wondering if this is the turn out of the skid that flips the car over.

3. Mad Men - Another season where Don Draper is the least interesting character on the show.

4. Justified - A better introduction but weaker climax led to a more consistent, if not necessarily better, season than before.

5. Game of Thrones - I think the show is well shot, extremely well cast, and well adapted from the book. There are just few moments where all that effort produces a better experience than the book.


No Walking Dead? Everything after they found Sophia has been amazing....and episode 4 of this season is some of the best TV I have seen in a long time. I watch the majority of this list but the fact that Walking Dead doesn't even have a place in the runners up shows some kind of bias against the show.....for some odd reason.


@Wallace92620 Parenthood is a drama, but I suppose. But not uch different from the same statement in last few years' lists.


I only caught 4 of the top 10, and I was very disappointed with Mad Men this year, so that wouldn't make my list.

Grimm, Last Resort and Fringe would definitely be on my Top 10 list, with Common Law and Burn Notice close. 


See, it's not the Top 10 that gets me... it's the runners-up list.  There's no structure, so when something's missing, it's just MISSING.  No love for Colbert?  If same rules apply, can take Bunheads off. Of the ones I watch on the list, it's the weakest. Uneven at best.


Key & Peele is high up on my personal top-ten list this year, just for the belly laughs and pure delight it consistently brought me. 

And this scene in particular? GENIUS: 


The rolling paper is the Constitution! Of course!

And there's this, which has had the added value of helping me come up with very secure passwords:


And their "Vincent Clortho School of Wizardry," which just pleased me so much, not least because of its shoutout to Ghostbusters. (And which I can't find a good clip of online, alas.)


@markau40 You're addicted to Parenthood, yet you hate the plots, the scripts,and the acting?  Sorry, but you sound like an idiot.


@IPFletcher Completely agree with your number 1; it's by far the best show on tv.


@AdamWill Good points, why so many people leaving out Suits? Do you know how many LA LAW copies have been made that suck, but this one may be better than LA Law!


@sassone I loved AWAKE's pilot, which you'll see is on my 10 Best Episodes list, but the remainder of the series didn't hold up as well for me. I certainly didn't hate it.


@TomShaw Agree, although Homeland has been has had a lot of impossible developments lately, so I'd put it 3rd, behind Mad Men. Other than that, great list.


@AdamWill I did name-check Colbert in item 10 about the election, though overall I did think Daily Show had the stronger year this year. Honestly though? Honorable mentions are not meant to be complete (though you can infer what you want from the fact that some shows came to mind and some didn't). There are going to be some shows that are good from year to year that I either don't think of in the moment, or that I simply didn't watch enough that particular year to include.


I suppose a list will have to be long/incomplete for someone who loves TV so much they're paid to watch it and write about it. But how do you say Daily and not think Colbert??

Actually, it's more that I feel that while The Daily Show is brilliant - smart, funny, and deep - in the past few years I've felt The Colbert Report does a better job of just enjoying being funny.  It can be silly, weird, and hysterical in a way The Daily Show isn't as much anymore.

Perfect example: The Banana Bunker 


Now I'm out on a fire escape, without a banana, like some a$$h*le!