Under the Radar’s Top 50 TV Shows of 2012

Dec 31, 2012
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The modern golden age of television continued in 2012. The best of television in 2012 once again showed off the possibilities of the format, in which plots and characters can be developed over the course of the many hours of a whole season (rather than the two to three hours that most theatrical movies offer). 2012's television landscape took in myriad subjects—from zombie apocalypses to 1920s prohibition, from local political campaigns to international terrorist plots and CIA double agents, from the surreal shenanigans at a community college to the behind the scenes drama of a cable newscast. And then there was once again Doctor Who, whose main character can travel anywhere in time and space! 

Louis C.K. had a most memorable date with Parker Posey and a most confounding talk show mentor in David Lynch. Parenthood movingly tackled both cancer and veterans, perhaps slowly changing its status as one of network TV's more underappreciated dramas. The final seasons of 30 Rock and Fringe began, each show seemingly bowing out gracefully and on their own terms (the latter taking place 24 years after its previous season). And we were introduced to Lena Dunham and her very current (and also incredibly funny) worldview with Girls.

Each of Under the Radar's writers submitted a list of their Top 20 favorite television shows of 2012 and those lists were combined and calculated to form our master Top 50 TV Shows of 2012 list. Any show that broadcast new episodes in America sometime in 2012 was illegible. This list also appears in our Best of 2012 print issue.

The #1 show on our 2011 list was Community. If the start of its fourth season hadn't been pushed back to 2013, then perhaps it would've taken the top spot again. Those third season episodes that did air in 2012, however, were good enough to land it at #2. 

For a show to make this list it had to be picked by at least three different Under the Radar writers. Some shows that almost made the list, but didn't have quite enough votes, include Nashville, Falling Skies, Revenge, Person of Interest, Revolution, The New Normal, Elementary, Sons of Anarchy, Merlin, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, True Blood, Episodes, Shameless, and others.

Curb Your Enthusiasm was on 2011's list, but didn't air new episodes in 2012 and so wasn't eligible. Shows on our 2011 list that were eligible this year, but didn't make the 2012 cut, include Treme, Blue Bloods, Being Human (U.K. version), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sons of Anarchy, 2 Broke Girls, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and Raising Hope. Taking their places are such new 2012 shows as Girls, The Newsroom, Arrow, Hunted, Ben and Kate, Go On, The Mindy Project, and Smash.

NBC is the most represented broadcast network on this list, followed by a tie between ABC and FOX. HBO leads in terms of cable networks, followed by a tie between AMC and FX.

Did we get it right? Which shows should be on this list and which ones shouldn't?

1

The Walking Dead

AMC

New show runner Glen Mazzara turned The Walking Dead’s oftentimes plodding and dialogue-heavy second season into a dynamo of post-apocalyptic horror in season three. The Governor and prison storylines are deftly interwoven throughout, with just enough divergence from the plot found in Robert Kirkman’s original comics. The zombies feel dangerous again. By Kyle Lemmon

2

Community

NBC

In many respects, 2012 was a rough year for Community. The show was put through the proverbial wringer with scheduling changes, several near-cancellations, the departure of series creator Dan Harmon, and a high-profile war of words with co-star Chevy Chase. As if surviving all of the above weren’t bad enough, NBC then went so far as to delay the comedy’s fourth season until 2013. What little Community we did get earlier in 2012, however, was outstanding: “Digital Estate Planning,” which featured the cast animated as an 8-bit video game, and the two-part, Ken Burns’ The Civil War-parodying “Digital Exploration of Interior Design”/“Pillows and Blankets” were instant classics that would hold up among the series’ best. By Austin Trunick

3

Homeland

Showtime

The somewhat improbable but entirely watchable Homeland has turned all expectations inside out with its second season. After a jaw-dropping first season, season two confounds at every turn with smoke and mirrors as Carrie Mathison (now ex-CIA agent, played by Claire Danes) struggles to regain her confidence professionally and personally. Every element of the show carefully adds to the series’ complexity; even the irregular story pacing throughout the season, which is hard to predict, sometimes moves leads quickly to their conclusions. Surely, you think, the show will lose steam once Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is taken in, thanks to an impulsive Carrie in cooperation with the CIA. How can the plot possibly continue after Carrie comes face-to-face with her target, Abu Nazir? Homeland deftly drives the story on, finding room for development and questions when the narrative couldn’t possibly get any tighter. Double agents, renewed romances, political posturing, and a terrorist plot that still hasn’t been cracked prove a potent mixture that makes everyone a suspect, down to the last incendiary episode (which sets things up for a potentially intriguing third season). By Michele Yamamoto

4

Game of Thrones

HBO

HBO’s ongoing adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s multifaceted fantasy series continued to satisfy both fans of the books and viewers new to the story, managing to tell a tale that spans an entire world and involves dozens of characters without ever becoming convoluted. “Blackwater,” the season’s penultimate episode, could be 2012’s most gripping hour of television, period. The episode-long battle featured three armies—on land and at sea—clashing over the fate of King’s Landing, and with it, the Iron Throne. Few would attempt to shoot a battle scene of that scale and ambition in a feature film; that Game of Thrones was able to do it so well in a TV series is even more commendable. By Austin Trunick

5

Boardwalk Empire

HBO

It was really anyone’s guess how Boardwalk Empire would proceed following the game-changing second season finale—between the death of a major character and the fate of Nucky Thompson’s fortune being left up in the air—but the third season took off right out the gate with the introduction of the series’ scariest villain in violent, incendiary Sicilian mobster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale). His very first scene—the season’s first, actually—involved a brutal, totally unnecessary murder of a good Samaritan. That’s how you establish evil. Plus, season three finally gave the badly-disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) and bootlegger Chalky White—played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams—the screen time that such great secondary characters deserve; what more could we ask for? By Austin Trunick

6

Louie

FX

We’re still not entirely sure what this show is. It’s too onanism-focused for a drama, but it’s not a sitcom in the sense of anything that’s been on a major network before either. This season Louie was at times content to use an entire episode as the emotional hook line for a single resonating punch; not since Woody Allen’s heyday has brutally honest self-loathing looked and felt so perfect. By Dan Lucas

7

Modern Family

ABC

We’re all familiar with the spectrum of the family unit—the gay parents, the second marriages, and the good old-fashioned nuclear version. But Modern Family tackles the messy business of caring about someone with an unprecedented level of honesty and humor. Now in its fourth season, the series continues to age gracefully. The Dunphys have sent their oldest daughter to college—and rescued her from the aftermath of a drunken night out. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) have weathered the disappointment of a failed adoption and Cameron’s increasingly elaborate attempts to distract himself. And patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neil) and his trophy wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) discovered that they have a bun in the oven. (Oh please, please, please let it be a girl.) Maybe love is all you need after all. By Laura Studarus

8

Girls

HBO

On paper, a show about spoiled, self-absorbed 20-somethings trying to find their way in New York City really doesn’t seem like it should work, but Girls is extremely witty, and sometimes—sometimes—even relatable. From any other voice than Lena Dunham’s, the series probably would have crashed and burned; instead, its first season was one of the funnier shows this year. Love or hate Girls, you have to give Dunham credit for striking a chord with audiences despite such an off-putting premise. (She probably also deserves credit for launching an HBO series in her mid-20s; for her four Emmy nominations; a multi-million dollar book deal—it’s safe to say she’s had a pretty good 2012.) By Austin Trunick

9

Doctor Who

BBC America

In a time of fiscal cliffs, senseless violence, and the eleventh season of American Idol, Doctor Who was a shining light—an entertainment savior in a big blue police box. (It’s bigger on the inside!) Even the departure of beloved companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), at the hands of a few Weeping Angels (“The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely”), couldn’t quell the series’ inherent sense of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey fun. In 2012 everyone’s favorite time- and space-traveling, bowtie-wearing, double-hearted alien, The Doctor (Matt Smith), tangled with an interstellar war criminal in the Old West, unearthed some dinosaurs on a spaceship, melted some murderous snowmen, and braved a bevy of insane Daleks. And with the addition of mysterious new companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman), the 50th anniversary season of the show in 2013 promises to be just as engaging. Now more than ever, Doctor Who is a universe where darkness lays side-by-side with light, but if you’re very, very clever, good perseveres. By Laura Studarus

10

New Girl

FOX

Zooey Deschanel is the star of New Girl, of course, but it’s the great supporting cast who really helps lift this comedy above so many of its sitcom brethren. The ensemble is all-around excellent; it’s often the arrogant Schmidt’s (Max Greenfield) on-and-off relationship with Cece (Hannah Simone) and the prickly Nick’s (Jake Johnson) problems with women that steal the laughs in episode after episode. Now, extend that to the show’s frequent use of guests stars—this current season has already included Parker Posey, Carla Gugino, Rob Riggle, Rob Reiner, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Olivia Munn—that goes beyond stunt casting by giving the actors suitable, funny roles. Sure, the unlikely roommates sitcom trope may be a tired one, but New Girl works so well because of its consistently entertaining cast and writing. By Austin Trunick

11

Parks and Recreation

NBC

12

Parenthood

NBC

13

Fringe

FOX

14

The Newsroom

HBO

15

Portlandia

IFC

16

Justified

FX

17

The Big Bang Theory

CBS

18

30 Rock

NBC

19

The Middle

ABC

20

Breaking Bad

AMC

21

Arrow

CW

22

Hunted

Cinemax

23

The Good Wife

CBS

24

How I Met Your Mother

CBS

25

Burn Notice

USA

26

Real Time with Bill Maher

HBO

27

Happy Endings

ABC

28

Archer

FX

29

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Comedy Central

30

The Colbert Report

Comedy Central

31

Ben and Kate

FOX

32

Mad Men

AMC

33

Sherlock

PBS

34

Go On

NBC

35

Project Runway

Lifetime

36

Psych

USA

37

Conan

TBS

38

Suburgatory

ABC

39

The Mindy Project

FOX

40

Grey’s Anatomy

ABC

41

Eastbound & Down

HBO

42

American Horror Story

FX

43

Downton Abbey

PBS

44

Smash

NBC

45

Hell on Wheels

AMC

46

The Office

NBC

47

Children’s Hospital

Adult Swim/Cartoon Network

48

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

NBC

49

House

FOX

50

White Collar

USA

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NostalgicNuance
December 31st 2012
9:40pm

Great list and I agree with most of it, but how the heck is Breaking Bad #20?? Not even in the top 10? Have to strongly disagree with that one.

Marga
December 31st 2012
11:28pm

I like the list, but sadly my favorite show of 2012 didn’t even make the list.

Love me some Bob’s Burgers… but otherwise pretty solid!

Steven
January 1st 2013
1:47am

BOB’S BURGERS!

Mayra Gonzalez
January 1st 2013
6:24am

ummmmmm wtf?! DEXTER?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

De Niro
January 2nd 2013
6:41pm

Breaking Bad number 20? Sorry, but that is plain ridiculous, as Breaking Bad is the BEST show on tv.

Intern
January 7th 2013
7:55pm

I’ve just noticed that we voted Hunted in. Democracy is failing.

Caitlin
February 1st 2013
1:42am

How is Sherlock at #33? And Downton Abbey at #43? Boo.

jocuri
February 16th 2013
6:03am

The Big Bang Theory is the best not 17

billybones
April 6th 2013
6:36pm

WHERE THE HELL IS SPARTACUS?????

Woman
April 27th 2013
4:51am

Some of these shows are utter rubbish in my opinion… But BOYAH!!! Community is a brilliant flick!!!

I personally think The Newsroom should have been higher voted and Scandal should have been up there.

But impressive list!!!!

Tom
June 29th 2013
12:39pm

Where is dexter?