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.
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.