You may be busy wrapping presents and sipping Egg Nog, but December is about so much more than that. Sure, the spirit of Christmas is important, and giving back to others matters most. But there’s one more thing that December is great for, and that’s the inevitable ranking of the year in pop cultural offerings.
A year with a seemingly insurmountable number of options to keep you entertained, 2012 definitely brought a chance to derail television’s long reputation as the lowbrow little brother of the cinema. There were period dramas, offbeat comedies, fantasy epics, and many more. Yes, a veritable bevy of offerings had me glued to the TV this year, save for a few hugely popular shows (adverse to the opinion of the entire Internet, I never got into Breaking Bad, and I gave up on The Walking Dead long, long ago.)
It’s as a self-diagnosed telephile that I offer up my picks for the best of the shows that I couldn’t miss this year, in no particular order.
This PBS period piece captivated culture-fiends everywhere, and it’s hard to imagine anything more anticipated than its second season. Kicking off at the start of the Great War, the sophomore outing of this tale of the upper crust and those that serve them ran the television gamut — illness, love triangles, murder, and even inter-cousin marriages. Pepper in some beautiful people, some less so (sorry Edith), some incredible costumes, and more cutting old lady banter than you knew you wanted, and you’ve got a treat whose 2013 return is more than welcome.
Parks and Recreation
Leslie Knope wasn’t the only one who had a big year in 2012. The rest of the Pawnee Parks and Rec department contributed to one of the best seasons that this once-misfit NBC comedy has had to date. Knope and Co. shined through their competitive spirit, working hard to bring their effervescent blonde heroine to victory. Cult TV favorite Adam Scott’s addition to the cast not only gave Knope a worthy (and adorable) male counterpart, but hipster girls a nerd crush for the ages.
Oh boy. Where to start? This island of misfit political toys flew in under the radar this year, and I loved every minute of it. Take a female VP whose own political aspirations didn’t get her to the top, add in a feisty and potty-mouthed chief of staff, a bumbling press secretary with a fake dog, a blowhard go-getter and an awkward assistant with a Rain Man-esque memory, and you’ve got an ensemble comedy that’s sneakily hilarious. And don’t even get me started on the much welcomed TV return of Tony Hale. We’ve missed you, Buster Bluth.
New Girl/Happy Endings
Yes, I know these are two different shows. But their quick-witted humor and twenty-to-thirtysomething pith are a part of a new wave of television, in a year in which there was much to be seen. The former brings the oft-polarizing Zooey Deschanel to television with a cast of bros that together provide the perfect counterpart to her sometimes over-the-top quirkiness. On the latter, a group of apathetic Chicagoans goes through the motions of adulthood, while constantly insulting one another and slinging more pop culture references than you can count.
Game of Thrones
Sex. Incest. Dragons. Swords. War. Little People. Game of Thrones has it all. This George R. R. Martin-adapted series shockingly outdid itself in its second season, taking the jaw-dropping moments up to 11. From poor Sansa’s unfortunate relationship status, to Tyrion Lannister’s overall winningness, to Arya Stark, ragamuffin and general badass, to Robb Stark’s rule-breaking nuptials, there was a lot to take in this season. Would you want it any other way?
Say what you want about Lena Dunham, but she gets people talking. And her foray into television was one of the most talked about half hours of 2012. Hannah Horvath may hope to be the voice of her generation, but with Girls, Dunham speaks to a generation of women who like to see versions of themselves on television. Casual (and awkward) sex, body issues, drugs and cheating. All the normal offenders of early adulthood are here, and they most certainly get people talking.
Show runner Steven Moffat is no stranger to making things great. His resurrection of Dr. Who popularized the show overseas in a way never previously expected. With his modern retelling of the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Moffat has struck gold, adding a stylish spin brimming with awe-inspiring intelligence. It doesn’t hurt that he seemed to snag two of the UK’s biggest names for starring roles, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, both of whom have no trouble filling their respective dance cards. The two play together as well as any detective pair in all of fiction, which makes it even harder to cope with the news that due to their busy schedules, production on season 3 hasn’t even begun.
If anything, we can thank Mad Men for bringing “Zou Bisou” back into our cultural lexicon in 2012. Season 5 of the AMC critical darling saw Don Draper snagging a French Canadian child bride, Roger Sterling a bitter soon-to-be-divorce, and the financial success of Sterling Cooper hanging by a thread. And lest we forget about the depressing downward spiral of Lane Price, the ex-Pat stuck in a sad sack life in NYC. He forged his own demise after a financial deal went wrong, and it was one of the most heartbreaking things to grace our screens this year. While things seemed to be perfect in newlywed paradise for Don and Megan Draper, season 6 promises a shakeup of marital bliss.
Claire Danes deserves her recent Best Actress Emmy for eye movements alone; the Mandy Mandy Patinkin-loving former teen star speaks volumes with those baby blues. This chronicle of a bi-polar CIA agent and the men who love and hate her (I’m dramatizing, clearly) had a lot to live up to in season 2. After a season of "is he/isn’t he" speculation about forlorn ginger POW Nicholas Brody, Danes’ Carrie Matheson was finally free of her feelings, and pumped full of electric shock therapy. So where was a show with such a narrow plot line to go? The writers found a map, and while season 2 wasn’t without its detours, (can we just lose Dana altogether?) things lived up to the hype.
There’s so much to say about this FX vehicle for a beloved comic who has catapulted his way from cult favorite to big star status in just a few short years. First of all, it’s simultaneously one of the funniest and most depressing shows on television. Louis CK’s ability to humanize loneliness and create a hilarious awareness of the human condition is unparalleled. And hilarious. He navigates the dating world, deals with inane human interactions, and accurately and awkwardly voices common yet unspoken behaviors about sexuality and race, all while causing us to laugh so hard we snort. When he’s not doing that, he’s headed to Afghanistan with a baby duck, presenting the comedy-loving public with one of the most touching hours that television has seen.
There you have it. My picks for the best that TV had to offer this year. Think I’m missing something from my list? Feel free to pass along your favorites. I just might have to clear some space off my DVR, first.