The best new series of the year is Showtime's twisty nail-biter of a psychological thriller, an emotionally intense cat-and-mouse game between two damaged souls: Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody, a Marine POW who may have been turned by terrorists during eight years in Iraqi captivity, and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, the unstable CIA analyst who breaks all the rules to get under his skin — and at times under the sheets. (Bringing new meaning to undercover agent). The actors are as electrifying as the storytelling in this taut tale of homeland insecurity, which also features a marvelously restrained Mandy Patinkin as Carrie's melancholy mentor and a revelatory Morena Baccarin as Brody's understandably conflicted wife. Homeland comes from the veteran producers of 24, who have lost none of their knack for sustained suspense, but within this more realistic framework have been able to concoct a thoughtful and gripping meditation on the human toll of the war on terror.
2. DOWNTON ABBEY
A complete delight. PBS' sprawling, Emmy-winning Masterpiece miniseries, with echoes of Jane Austen and Upstairs Downstairs in its wittily sudsy panache, is set on a grand but embattled English estate in the years before WWI, with romantic and financial intrigues distracting the well-born and servant class alike. First among equals in the brilliant ensemble: Maggie Smith as the perpetually indignant Countess Dowager, given to hilariously withering pronouncements like, "No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house." The very idea!
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3. BREAKING BAD
Not missing a beat in its excruciatingly suspenseful fourth season, AMC's dark fable of violent corruption pits the desperate Walt White (Bryan Cranston, deepening the darkness of this outrageous anti-hero) against the icy kingpin Gus Kring (Giancarlo Esposito in a masterful performance of understated menace) in an unpredictable season-long battle of wills. After the cunningly plotted and literally explosive season climax, Walt says "I won" to his morally compromised wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). Yes, he did, but at what cost?
Airing opposite each other all year on Thursdays were two fabulous extremes on the spectrum of comedy magic. NBC's low-rated gem, the epitome of cult comedy, the experimental and existential — and hugely entertaining — "fan favorite" Community defies genre categorization (a Glee holiday parody is also a takeoff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers) while bringing to life an ensemble of indelible misfits. And dominating the time period, The Big Bang Theory, CBS' gut buster of a monster sitcom hit, has only intensified its geeky genius since beefing up the roles of the ladies in these dysfunctional brainiacs' lives, with Mayim Bialik's dour Amy and Melissa Rauch's perky Bernadette keeping Kaley Cuoco's Penny from being the oddest girl out.
HBO successfully brings the epic fantasy to TV with dynamic impact in this adult, red-blooded and relentlessly brutal saga derived from George R.R. Martin's iconic page-turners. Grim tidings befall good people (including Sean Bean's noble Ned Stark) in a medieval mash-up of dynastic mayhem with just the right amount of supernatural menace.
In the sensational second season of FX's tangy, twangy crime drama, the lethally charming U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) meets his match — in Emmy winner Margo Martindale's monstrously ruthless Kentucky mountain matriarch Mags Bennett. With her deadly Apple Pie moonshine always at arm's reach, she presides over a tangled multi-family feud for control of Harlan County. If only her bumbling offspring had inherited her steel. Justified goes down with the kick of blended whiskey.
The have-not Hecks of Indiana and the well-off West Coast Pritchett/Dunphy clan have little in common, except being uncommonly funny. ABC's underappreciated The Middle nails the raucous comic anxiety of overwhelmed parents (the award-worthy Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn) and their underachieving square-peg kids: lazy Axl, Poor Sue and oddball Brick. In terms of cultural relevance, The Middle may actually be TV's most significant current comedy. Meanwhile, the acclaimed Modern Family continues to spearhead TV's comedy renaissance with sophisticated farce that anyone with relatives can relate to.
Living on the fringe of the TV schedule and ratings, Fox's sci-fi/fantasy mind-blower just keeps expanding in its mystical complexity. As Peter Bishop plays peek-a-boo between warring universes, we're treated to cautionary Frankenstein parables of the dangers of playing God. A more than worthy successor to The X-Files.
Once Alicia (Emmy winner Julianna Margulies) embraced her bad side, in a tumultuous secret liaison with her boss Will (Josh Charles), network TV's most compelling drama is also its steamiest, cunningly blending the personal with a sharply written legal procedural that is never less than stimulating.
10. NEW GIRL
Four's company, and great company at that. In Fox's endearingly zany new comedy, a free-spirited pixie (Zooey Deschanel in a career-defining test of the how-much-is-too-cute threshold) moves into a man cave with three guys, including Max Greenfield as the hilariously smarmy Schmidt. Their bro-code of conduct will never be the same with this sweet, silly and needy interloper in their midst. She's a hoot, and so's the show.
Under the heading of honorable mention, I would have liked to include DirectTV/NBC's Friday Night Lights and FX's Rescue Me on the list for their final seasons, but we were already cheering their finales within the same issue's "Cheers & Jeers" package, so honor was done. In retrospect, I'm sorry I didn't find room for FX's small but mighty, and darkly funny, Louie. Under most improved, and getting better all the time, Parks and Recreation succeeds Community (going on undeserved hiatus) as NBC's best comedy. Damages enjoyed another taut, suspenseful season on DirecTV. What's TV's best American horror story? Not that overrated FX monstrosity, but AMC's imperfect but perfectly harrowing The Walking Dead. And my biggest surprise since fall, because the pilot didn't blow me away, is the guilty pleasure of ABC's Revenge, especially since the evil Tyler showed up to spread his malice in the Hamptons. He makes Emily look like an amateur.
In terms of the year's biggest disappointments, that list would include the aforementioned American Horror Story (which, with the exception of the fabulous Jessica Lange, is as inept and indulgent as it is sickeningly ugly), HBO's turgid Mildred Pierce miniseries, the woeful Oscar-night hosting of James Franco and Anne Hathaway, Starz' misguidedly Americanized Torchwood: Miracle Day, ABC's shoulda-been-more-fun Pan Am, AMC's shoulda-been-more-original Hell on Wheels, and ABC's shoulda-never-aired Charlie's Angels reboot. There are more (many thankfully forgotten), but why dwell on the bad?
Here's to an even better 2012 in TV. Happy new year!