1. “Breaking Bad”
After the explosive season four finale, it was hard to see how “Breaking Bad” could be better. But the fifth season moved full speed ahead in eight perfectly written, directed and acted episodes. We race through Walt and Skyler’s marital problems and Heisenberg’s rise to sole meth distributor in Albuquerque and, without even realizing it, set into motion the beginning of the end.
With Gus out of the picture, Walt assumes the role of head honcho, but struggles to maintain a firm grip around the reins of the operation. In true Heisenberg fashion, he scares and coerces everyone into submission — his methods aren’t always rational, but they sure as hell get the job done.
The front end of the season ominously lays out the various fates that Walt can face: retirement, discovery or death. And though the decision to step away is made, did anyone really think it would be that easy?
2. “Game of Thrones”
It’s not always obvious what a show will do after taking as big a risk as “Game of Thrones” did in its season one finale. It’s now safe to say that the HBO fantasy-drama has successfully maintained a high level of excitement and suspense after killing off the one hope that Westeros had.
Season two continued the battle of the Seven Kingdoms, introducing new players Theon Greyjoy and Stannis Baratheon to fight for control against fan favorites like Robb Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. In addition to the new faces, depth was added to existing characters Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister — both impossibly more badass than before.
Though the landscape seems sprawling, “Game of Thrones” kept us afloat among the details with vivid storytelling and visuals. And though it seemed impossible, season two has made us all hate Joffrey Baratheon more than ever before.
3. “Parks and Recreation”
It’s the little things that make NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” quietly superb: Jean Ralphio, Bert Macklin’s (FBI) guest appearances, Ron’s Tammy terror.
It certainly takes a tremendous amount of skill, dedication and heart for a series to so fully shake off humble beginnings and create one of the most expertly defined, lovable ensemble casts to grace our TV sets in years.
And the ensemble is what “Parks” is all about. Where would Ron be without Leslie’s birthday scavenger hunts and not-so-subtle matchmaking? Poor Tom would still be mourning Entertainment 720 without Ben’s restrained guidance, Andy and April would be lost (literally, in Andy’s case) without each other and Garry wouldn’t be Jerry without his exasperating co-workers.
Seamlessly blending new characters, challenges and campaigns, “Parks” is more than a sitcom. It’s a love letter to the idea that people can make a difference. And also, bacon.
The BBC’s edgy series, “Sherlock,” crafts a deftly clever name for itself amid endless Holmes re-imaginations by thrusting the famed detective into contemporary London while still faithfully assimilating Conan Doyle’s original vision.
Marvelously witty, the series plays on classic Holmes — with mysteries such as “A Scandal in Belgravia,” featuring the infamous Irene Adler, now a dominatrix — without losing any modernity in the process. The writing is unflinchingly smart, one could expect nothing less from “Doctor Who” veterans Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
But the invigorating mystery series reaches new heights because of its superb cast and buckets of chemistry. Benedict Cumberbatch spins Sherlock as dismissively superior in both intellect and charisma. Martin Freeman’s Watson is a flawlessly on-point blend of cynicism, affection and protectiveness. Add Andrew Scott’s blissfully demented Moriarty and the series practically drips talent.
The insanely addictive background score and skillfully crafted twists and turns make “Sherlock” the Holmes for a new millennium.
It’s been hailed as intuitive and honest; it’s been criticized as “too young-and-female-centric.” It’s been loved and hated, but HBO’s “Girls,” starring writer and creator Lena Dunham, was one of the most groundbreaking shows of 2012. The show follows a group of twenty-somethings navigating the awkwardness of post-grad life with the formula of “Sex and the City” and the unapologetic persona of Generation Y.
The show doesn’t shy away from HBO’s now-renowned sexual explicitness and painfully uncomfortable social situations. Dunham’s characters portray a new wave of youth; a generation prepared to struggle for identity after graduation, knowing that the prolonged journey will teach us more about ourselves. The show doesn’t speak for everyone, but it certainly speaks to everyone. As Dunham spells out, she isn’t trying to be the voice of our generation; she is simply the “a voice of a generation.” Whatever the story, her voice is worth a listen.
“Homeland” entered its second season coming off of six Emmy awards, three Golden Globes and a whole lot of hype. It returned with a season much different from the first, one riddled with a few more holes, but one that also commanded Claire Danes and Damian Lewis’ most visceral performances in one of the finest hours of television in 2012: “Q&A.”
Many viewers called foul when Brody didn’t die at the end of the first season. “Homeland” showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon countered this by spending much of season two in Brody’s head, functioning more than ever as a character study than an action thriller packed with today’s geopolitical sentiments.
In “Homeland,” the characters come first, the action second, making it OK that we still don’t know how the hell Abu Nazir got into America. What matters more is Nazir’s explanation for why he hates the United States, how he’s the only person who ever calls Brody “Nicholas” and Brody’s feverish loyalty to the man who has tortured him physically and emotionally. These are the little moments that defend all the hype of “Homeland.”
7. “Mad Men”
When the fifth season of “Mad Men” premiered, it had been off the air for more than a year and a half. But this season proved to be even more than the show we remembered; it was the show’s most visually adventurous, and these risky choices paid off in spades. The final image of the season, echoing the show’s opening credits, is a moment surpassing perfection in a season of memorable shots and set pieces.
The revitalized season also featured some of the best episodes to date. “Signal 30” and “Faraway Places” showed off the structural virtuosity that makes “Mad Men” more than just a TV show, while “The Other Woman” balanced some of the most emotionally impactful moments in the show’s run, managing not to veer over the edge of fully realized narrative into morality play.
One might think that the Jason Katims-run “Parenthood,” now in its fourth season, would have run out of ways to make viewers reach for Kleenex after Kleenex, but the ensemble drama about the infectious Braverman family remains television’s most cathartic hour.
And man, does it earn those tears.
Continuing with Katim’s tradition of bringing back “Friday Night Lights” alumni, Matt Lauria joins the Braverman circle as a young soldier returning from Afghanistan who becomes involved with Amber, giving the eldest Holt sibling her best story arc since season one.
Though the Braverman clan is anything but peaceful, season four’s best moments happen quietly, sometimes without any dialogue at all, like when Kristina — the true beacon of season four — tells her family at a restaurant that she has been diagnosed with cancer. Her battle with breast cancer is so sincere and uninhibited that the world would be cruel to not take notice of Monica Potter come Emmy season.
9. “Downton Abbey”
Second seasons are always distressingly problematic. A series either has to somehow overcome a mediocre first attempt or, in the case of “Downton Abbey,” surpass an exceptional one.
Though stumbles were evident, the British gem managed to pick itself up and deliver a second season that cuts right to the heart of things. Story arcs that start off staid become more and more juicy as episodes wear on: a Canadian Patrick Crawley wannabe sneaks in, Sybil wants to elope with the chauffeur (shocking!) and Bates is arrested for murdering his shrewish wife.
“Downton” knows how to do drama. With Emmy-toting Maggie Smith at the helm as the wickedly witty Dowager Countess, what is lacking in plot expediency is more than made up for in acerbic tongue-lashings and haughty sighs. Add on the adorable Christmas Special, and the series does an exceptional job of setting the stage for season three.
If, for any reason, the idea of watching a show centered around an insane asylum housing a handful of serial killers, a nun possessed by the devil, a Nazi surgeon and an inmate whose sperm is under constant surveillance by aliens bores you, then there’s something wrong with your attention span. Top-notch acting and stellar writing makes the second season of “American Horror Story” an engrossing and profoundly disturbing watch, guaranteed to crawl deep beneath your skin.