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:
The Daily Show
The Good Wife
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Masterchef (I can’t justify this. I just really enjoyed it this year.)
Sons of Anarchy