Best TV Shows Of 2012: 'American Horror Story,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'Parks and Recreation' And More

Looking at my Top 10 list, I realized it's as bipolar as "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison: On one side are five dramas that explore compromised morality and existential despair, and on the other, say hello to!
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America, we are a nation divided. Not just politically, but televisionally (yes, that's a word. I decided it is).

Looking at my Top 10 list, I realized it's as bipolar as "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison: On one side are five dramas that explore compromised morality and existential despair, and on the other, say hello to comedy! Looking at this list is like picturing Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Hill having dinner. (Sidebar: Don't bother trying to pitch that premise to CBS, it's mine).

Still, the more I thought about the list, the more sense it made. Comedy has been on a hot streak in recent years for good reason: Times are hard and don't promise to get much easier soon. There's a reason the Depression was a golden age for feather-light fare, horror movies and musicals: When things are hard, we often want our entertainment to obliquely refer to our troubles, dress them up in fantastical metaphors or ignore them entirely.

In this challenging era, we've proven ourselves willing to watch a series of richly drawn characters navigate their greed, obsessive tendencies, selfishness and loneliness, but we also need goofy, sly and subversive fare to balance out all that tough stuff. We need cake after all those big chunks of meat.

But it would be far too glib to say that comedy is fluff, a mere escape, and drama is the real deal. The list you see here isn't so much a binary as a series of approaches to the same set of problems, which can be summarized as: "How can I be a good person and not give into my worst instincts? What does it mean to feel alive and is it truly possible to share that with someone else?" We're lucky that there are so many sharp creative types trying to answer that question in punishing, moving and comical ways.

What I've come to appreciate is that comedy's answers to those questions aren't any less valuable, and they're sometimes more concise. The most heartening thing about the current crop of half-hour shows -- which are so varied that one could spend all day parsing comedy's many subcategories -- is that the characters in them are flawed, striving, interesting people. They're not joke-spewing cardboard cutouts, and it's glaringly obvious that the best half-hour programs these days are doing just as much as dramas to explore the strange condition known as being human.

Another thing struck me as I compiled my list of Top 10 shows OF 2012 -- boy, there are a lot of programs in the next tier. There is a substantial number of programs that didn't quite have the heft, scope or consistency to make it into my Top 10 this year, but that's no slam: I enjoyed all of those next-tier shows, which run the gamut from "Archer" to "Luck." (My list of 15 runners-up can be found here.)

What makes me optimistic about the current state of TV is that there are so many solid performers that do a lot of very different weird and entertaining things. I've got a Top 10 I feel good about, a Fancy 15 I like a lot, and a list of Honorable Mentions almost as long as my arm. And it's swell to contemplate the fact that Netflix, Hulu and an ever-burgeoning crop of online offerings are only going to keep on adding to the mix. (The one downside: Say goodbye to sleep in 2013).

Sometimes a house divided cannot stand, but our bipolar TV environment -- the pursuit of belly laughs and the evocation of deep pain, the desire to flee reality and the need to explore every weird crevice of it, the impulse to avoid Important Topics and the need to take them on with ferocity -- served us pretty damn well in the last year. You can't say we were starved for choices. (And yes, I recognize that my lists are reality-TV free. I have nothing against unscripted fare per se, but there are only so many hours of the day and TV's scripted offerings are so varied and satisfying that I choose to focus on them.)

For other caveats, explanations and the answers to frequently asked questions regarding lists, read what James Poniewozik wrote about his. I don't try to explain why certain shows are and are not on my end-of-year rosters; my explanation boils down to "What James said," because I agree with him when it comes to those particulars.

Also, my Top 10 list is in alphabetical order. I don't try to impose order within the Top 10 *, because it's hard enough to narrow down the roster. I can't then bring myself to rank each special snowflake. In the immortal words of Jean-Luc Picard, "This far! No farther!"

*A note on that caveat: This month, on other sites, you may see my name pop up attached to an ordered Top 10 list. I gladly participate in those end-of-year roundups and my ordering is sincere when I file my entries with those editors, but, in my head, I have usually reordered my Top 10 list a dozen times within an hour of hitting "send." The jockeying and rearranging inside my noggin never ends, which is why I don't attempt it here.

All right, without further ado, here's my Top 10 TV Shows of 2012. Come back tomorrow for my Fancy 15.

  • "American Horror Story: Asylum," FX: What's most striking about this horror fest is not its desire to shock, its unsettling aesthetics, its arch tendencies or its everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach to storytelling. The thing that resonates most is the earnestness that animates the whole endeavor. What elevates this year's "AHS" over last year's edition is the drama's more unified approach to its exploration of isolation and the characters' fear of being unloved, unknown and unworthy. Sometimes the only mark these unhappy people can make is on another human being's body, and sometimes guilt is all they have after everything else is taken away. The fever dream known as "AHS: Asylum" is like nothing else on TV, and it's chock full of note-perfect performances from Lily Rabe, James Cromwell, Zachary Quinto, Sarah Paulson and especially co-creator Ryan Murphy's incomparable muse, Jessica Lange.

  • "Breaking Bad," AMC: Dark, restrained and impeccably made, this meticulous and morally compelling show sets the gold standard in the drama realm. If "Breaking Bad" had some pacing issues as it attempted to adapt to the weird structure of its final season (which consists of eight episodes each this year and next), that minor issue can't take away from the uncompromising thoroughness and quiet ferocity of its vision.
  • "Game of Thrones," HBO: For sheer spectacle and scope, nothing can touch this HBO fantasy epic, which greatly improved on its first season and offered some wonderful battles, sharp dialogue and terrific performances along the way. "Blackwater" was a series-best episode for the show, but there were many other quieter, incisive moments that made this fantasy world seem more real, detailed and lived in than ever. It's hard not to love a show that is essentially about outsiders and rejects doing their best to not just survive but change the way their entire world works.
  • "Girls," HBO: A wickedly funny, honest and groundbreaking look at the lives, loves and narcissism of a group of instantly compelling twentysomething women. Is "Girls" perfect? Hell no. But that's the whole point: Creator Lena Dunham is unafraid to look hard at her characters' most annoying traits, but along the way, she and the cast turned the central foursome into endearingly human screwups -- and they made it look easy.
  • "Louie," FX: Louis C.K. keeps pushing himself to be a better filmmaker, storyteller and observer of humanity in all its weakness and glory, and this addictive anthology of comic, tragic and wistful vignettes is proof of that. It's impossible to summarize all the things Louis C.K. is doing with this show, but it is unmistakably the product of a singular, disciplined, unpredictable mind. Not every one of Season 3's "short stories" worked, but many were chock-a-block with insight, wit and concise wisdom.
  • "Happy Endings," ABC: This is the show I most greedily grab when it turns up on my DVR, and I generally have a goofy smile plastered on my face for the duration of every episode. The characters on this show exist in their own fast-talking, slightly skewed hyperreality, but the gifted, razor-sharp ensemble somehow keeps each person relatable and human. "Happy Endings" is escapist candy and I always want more.
  • "Homeland," Showtime: No show is more willing to blow up its audience's preconceptions, but "Homeland" rips up the usual TV script as part of its ongoing attempt to explore emotionally resonant truths and the clash between public and private identities. When its willingness to ignore the rules of TV drama helps it mine that fertile territory, it's exhilarating. The end of its second season has gone for baroque perhaps more than it should have, but the breakout drama is still a fine showcase for its astonishingly gifted cast, and it's given us a lot to think about and talk about, which is not a bad thing at all.
  • "Mad Men," AMC: In its fifth season, this show hit more speed bumps than it ever had before and it constantly hammered home points that already seemed obvious, but you know I could never quit Don Draper. The debate about this season will go on forever among "Mad Men" fans (some think it was the best season yet, I thought it was the weakest one so far). Still, there were quite a few Season 5 moments that had undeniable power and impact (poor Sally Draper! Alas, Lane Pryce!), and the show's cast remains one of the best in the business. The "Mad" men and women are moving into a darker, more unsettling world, and though it was only in a dream, it was still hard to watch Don strangle a woman. I can't get that image out of my head -- and maybe that was the point.
  • "New Girl," Fox: This show has gelled into one of the most pleasing ensemble comedies on TV. Its finely honed mixture of bawdy, surreal and smart humor allows it to tell unexpectedly gentle stories about the confusing and interesting process of embracing adulthood. And if you don't get why Nick's "Got you cookie!" speech or Schmidt's explanation of his lovemaking style ("And then I collect my Oscar") are ridiculously funny, then I just can't help you.
  • "Parks and Recreation," NBC: It's rare for a mainstream comedy to derive its humor from subjects like civic engagement and love of community, but somehow the writers and cast of this show pull it off most weeks. The arc that followed Leslie's run for public office landed just about perfectly: Let's face it, this show could have done everything else wrong and it still would have ended up on this list thanks to the scene where Leslie teared up in the voting booth. Season 5 has been a little more wobbly, but the characters remain wonderfully specific and goofily sincere, and Pawnee, Indiana remains one of television's most richly rewarding destinations.
  • Check back tomorrow for my Best of the Rest lists. In this week's Talking TV podcast, Ryan McGee and I talked "Homeland" and Top 10s with Grantland critic Andy Greenwald, and Ryan and I also talked about several shows that nearly made our top 10 lists. The podcast is here, on iTunes and below.

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