2012 TV Top Ten: Part One
Time for our second annual list of the ten best series on television. For the second consecutive year, Doctor Who (one of my very favorite shows) just missed my list of the 10 best shows. In the end, I’m relatively fine with most other shows that didn’t make the cut this year as they either significantly dipped in quality (hey, Boardwalk Empire) or were pushed aside by more worthy contenders.
[The following contains spoilers for recent seasons and episodes of the included series that have aired in the U.S.]
2011 Ranking: 4 – While the show didn’t have a very noticeable drop in quality, a combination of other series’ improvements and new contenders caused the drop in rankings. It also didn’t help that Margo Martindale wasn’t around to keep the show fresh in my mind with her deserved Emmy winning performance. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins were terrific again, and I had to credit the writers with creating numerous interesting threats for Marshall Givens instead of trying to create a huge presence to dominate the year like Mags Bennett did in 2011.
The show continued to focus around ongoing arcs, instead of the weaker solo adventures that dragged down the first season. After three years, FX’s modern day western has found itself on solid footing.
9. Downton Abbey
2011 Ranking: Honorable Mention – The British drama’s third season (airing in the US beginning January 6) is a marked improvement from the weaker second year. Without spoiling things for the American audience, I’ll say they dropped many of the more sensational soapy elements from last year. From some joyful highs to a few devastating lows, all the action this year has been more grounded and realistic.
By taking things more seriously, Downton can again focus on its biggest strength, the exceptional performances of its actors. Maggie Smith remains the physical embodiment of snark and awesomeness as the Dowager Countess. And, Tom Branson, Lady Sybil’s commoner Irish husband, Allen Leech does some of his best work since HBO’s Rome in 2007.
8. Game of Thrones
2011 Ranking: 6 – I expected some drop off after a great debut season, mostly because the book this year was based on, A Clash of Kings, was the weakest in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I credit several great performances with helping things along, especially the wonderful work by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, the incredibly sly and surprisingly brave black sheep son of House Lannister. His highlight episode, “Blackwater” was one of the best hours of television in 2012. With an epic battle to rival a Hollywood blockbuster, Tyrion is the grounding force that reminds us how human this fantastical series should be.
With my other favorite characters (Jon and Daenerys) stuck in weaker transitory stories, the War of Five Kings dominated most episodes. Writer/producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wisely started moving away from the source material to make the story work for a new medium. The best examples were several entirely new scenes between the powerful and intelligent general, Lord Tywin Lannister, and his serving girl, the disguised Arya Stark. Charles Dance and Maisie Williams were a bit of magic together.
2011 Ranking: Not Ranked – As the only show that actually aired last year and didn’t make the list, this year’s appearance was due to the sheer quality making up for only airing three episodes. The fantastic interplay between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and the manipulative and genius dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) made “A Scandal of Belgravia” an instant classic debut episode. Martin Freeman continued to blow me away with my favorite take on John Watson. And the mix of science-fiction, horror, and fantasy in the update of “The Hounds of Baskerville” was an interesting update to the classic Holmes story.
The finale “The Reichenbach Fall” was the ultimate head trip, trying to subvert the world’s opinion on the genius detective, raising doubt among the audience themselves. There’s never been a depiction of the Holmes-Moriarty rivalry that so clearly illustrated the genius of these two men. They’re operating on a different plane than the rest of us and just trying to keep up with them is a thrill. And, Freeman’s final scene takes us all to a very deep and emotional place. Well done, Mr. Baggins!
2011 Ranking: N/A – The best new series of the year, HBO’s Girls was powered by the unique voice of creator/writer/director/star/possibly key grip Lena Dunham. Hannah Horvath burst onto the scene (much like a certain bit of everybody’s bosom buddy, Peter Scolari!) as a misguided, deluded, and tragic mess. That things didn’t magically get better and she simply struggled forward made the show click as frighteningly realistic for me.
Girls wasn’t afraid to make their characters flawed, weak, and at times utterly unlikable. Somehow Girls was awash in controversy before it debuted, because the story of four over-indulged and selfish white girls in New York City didn’t feature an ethnically diverse cast (someday someone needs to explain that complaint to me). But backed up by Allison Williams, Jemima Kirk, Zosia Mamet, and a handful of terrific supporting characters, Dunham led a terrifically talented cast in the freshest series on television.