By Craig Hubert | 2012 was a great year for television. Not only was there an abundance of great shows floating across the small screen, but the series that we already believed in produced better seasons than ever before. Nothing exemplifies this better than “Mad Men,” which, in its beautifully written, directed, and acted fifth season, cemented its place as the heir apparent to “The Sopranos.” The much-ballyhooed “Homeland” either jokingly imploded or brilliantly hit the self-destruct button, depending on whom you ask, while “Breaking Bad” pushed the limits of implausibility to tense and giddy new heights. On the flip-side of the television landscape, the major networks, for all their hemming and hawing over ratings and demographics, continued to be fertile land for comedy, as evident by NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and ABC’s “Happy Endings.” Whether those shows will exist a year from now is another story, but what we can be sure of is that we were unusually lucky this year with a long, far reaching and genre expanding, list of great television.
Mad Men, “Lady Lazarus”
The fifth season of “Mad Men” crystallized its position in the pantheon of great shows and was far and away the best thing on television this year. This was a show, dare we say, that often conveyed more in a single moment than most shows managed in an entire season. And the moment in “Lady Lazarus” when Don Draper, transfixed, stared down the empty abyss of the elevator shaft was one that would haunt every episode. After Don glimpsed deep into his dark soul of man he would never be the same again.
Girls, “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident”
For a show that never quite lived up to the hype, “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a The Crackcident” was a promising departure. The madcap setting; scenes that border on slapstick; and a genuinely sweet ending that was underplayed instead of rammed down viewers throats. The whole episode was ridiculous, but proved that the show excels at ridiculousness and should try it more often.
Breaking Bad, “Dead Freight”
Roaring toward its conclusion, “Breaking Bad” went full gonzo this year and no episode better epitomized this spirit than “Dead Freight.” Walt, Jesse, and new recruit Todd rob a train traveling through New Mexico that contains “an ocean” of methylamine, and after a tense, perfectly-crafted heist, the episode ends on what may be the biggest shock on television this year.
A loose and joyful episode of Louis C.K.’s surreal comedy sees the funnyman traveling down to Miami for a standup date and extending his stay after meeting a friendly gentleman on the beach who takes him on a tour of the hidden neighborhoods of the Magic City. The episode avoids easy bromance jokes in favor of a melancholic tone.
The third season of FX’s Elmore Leonard-based crime-dramady was always going be judged unfairly against the highs of its award-winning second season, but the third go-around really pulled everything together in the finale, crafting an exciting, and tense episode that used the action to compliment what has always been a character study, and a great one at that.
American Horror Story, “Unholy Night”
Let us admit something: “American Horror Story” isn’t a good show. It is the craziest show, though, which is why it’s here on this list. Any episode could have been here (they’re all crazy!) but the one we chose was “Unholy Night,” which features Ian McShane as a demented Santa who murders innocent families and has unfortunate sexual issues. Perfect family viewing for the holidays, if you’re family is into offensive material.
Park and Recreation, “Halloween Surprise”
What is rarely mentioned about “Parks and Recreation” how much of a throwback it really is. Beyond the great jokes rests a heartfelt, sweet-natured show about people who want, more than anything, to be accepted. The ending of “Halloween Surpirse,” which we won’t spoil, snuck up on the viewer even though we all knew it was coming, and it gave Amy Poehler a chance to prove, in case you hadn’t figured out already, that she is the finest comedic actor on television.
Homeland, “New Car Smell”
Say what you want about “Homeland,” but “New Car Smell” was the most daring episode on television, dismantling the major narrative thrust of the show. Most shows would have saved a plot twist like this for the season finale, but “Homeland” decided to drop it on our heads five episodes into the second season. If they are able to fully recover remains to be seen, but you have to give it up for television writers who are willing to turn TV conventions upside down.
“Witness,” a four-part HBO documentary series produced by Michael Mann, was unjustly ignored when it premiered earlier this year. Chronicling the lives of conflict photographers, the first episode focused on Eros Hoagland as he traveled around Juarez, Mexico, the center of an ongoing drug war. Scary and intense, this should be seen by more people.
Happy Endings, “Four Weddings and a Funeral (Minus Three Weddings and One Funeral)”
It’s pretty remarkable that this show has remained on television for this long. It works on its own wavelength, buzzing an irreverent, slightly bizarre, comedic tone that has little regard for audience sympathy. This episode, the season finale, boasted an out-of-retirement Madonna cover band called “Mandonna,” a website called ThingsThatAreGay.biz, a character falling in love with a laptop computer at a wedding, and jokes atop jokes atop jokes (seriously, this show crams more jokes into each episode than “30 Rock”). This is a show more people should watch because it’s too good to last.
Tags: American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, Craig Hubert, Girls, Graham Yost, Happy Endings, Homeland, Justified, Lena Dunham, Louie, Louis C.K., Mad Men, News, Parks and Recreation, The Ratings Game, Top 10, Witness