In selecting a top-10 list for this year in TV, I found myself focusing on shows that made noise. Not every show on this list is a niche critic's darling, although a few certainly are. Some have a more populist appeal, not that there's anything wrong with that. This may also help explain why there's no new representation from the dismal fall season we just endured. (I like Elementary, Nashville and The New Normal, and will miss Last Resort, but none jumped out as being particularly significant.)
If I had a second 10, I might have included a few reality favorites: The Glee Project, Face Off, the durable Survivor. I'm sorry I didn't find room this year for Parenthood, Person of Interest, Justified, Community and a handful of other underdogs. And what would TV be without guilty pleasures like The Vampire Diaries, Grey's Anatomy and the berserk Scandal (which when it's on fire is the show Revenge would like to still be)? That said, the following 10-plus shows are the ones that personally and professionally brought me the most pleasure — or at least made me sit up and take notice — in 2012.
There's no way to top the Emmy-winning first year of Showtime's electrifying terrorism thriller. But by going over the top repeatedly, the second season reminds us that suspending disbelief is an underrated pastime. Burning through story fearlessly, risking ridicule (and an inspired Saturday Night Live spoof) by piling on outrageously intense twists, Homeland triumphed as a sexually charged game of espionage in which it wasn't always clear who was manipulating whom. It's also TV's most bizarre yet compelling love story, involving two damaged pawns: Carrie (Claire Danes), the unstable CIA whiz, and Brody (Damian Lewis), the tormented double agent. Where will this unpredictable story go next? Can't wait to find out.
2. British Imports
World War I transformed Downton Abbey into a blissful sanctuary for star-crossed romance, pathos and shamelessly enjoyable melodrama. "There's never a dull moment in this house," the Dowager Countess clucked as the charming British phenom once again took America by storm. PBS delivered another period-drama winner with Call the Midwife, a moving '50s saga of naive young midwives living in an East End convent. Pure escapism.
3. The Walking Dead
AMC's apocalyptic survival epic is TV's true American horror story, graphically demonstrating that, even in a bleak world overrun with ravenous zombies, humans (chiefly the duplicitous Governor) are often the true monsters. Lori's tragic death during childbirth, as son Carl kept her from turning, was the year's most devastating and unforgettable scene. The Walking Dead transcends genre conventions to confront the most unimaginable of terrors.
4. Mad Men
After a 17-month absence, AMC's signature drama returned in top form to haunt us with its intoxicating (and, in Roger Sterling's case, acid-tripping) chronicle of glossy disillusion amid great societal change, especially for women in the mid-'60s. Don Draper is no longer quite the master of his universe, as his new trophy wife — who does a mean lap dance ("Zou Bisou Bisou!") — pursues a career while Peggy leaves the agency to chase her own dream. There's no turning back this clock.
One man's misery — a failed attempt to replace Letterman, a doomed romance with a vivacious bookseller played by Parker Posey — becomes an excruciatingly funny meditation on disappointment and loneliness. Writer-director-star Louis C.K.'s dark but deeply human FX comedy veers from the surreal (being coached by David Lynch) to the hyper-real (frantically repairing a doll on Christmas Eve) without ever feeling forced.
Being, or breaking, bad has rarely been so rewarding. Many of the year's more riveting moments came from TV's grim ranks of morally compromised characters. In the first half of the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad, Walter White's descent into monstrous criminality reached its chilling nadir, including on the home front. Tragedy and treachery fatefully divided the biker thugs of FX's Sons of Anarchy in its most grueling and memorable season. More surprising was the comeback for Showtime's Dexter, as the vigilante serial killer's secret identity was revealed to his shaken homicide-cop sister, lifting the show to new heights of psychological suspense.
7. The Middle
In a year when politicians couldn't stop talking about the middle class, ABC's underappreciated gem of a hard-luck family comedy was the most relevant and resonant of its kind since the glory days of Roseanne. With forlorn wit and a knack for chaotic slapstick, The Middle hits wonderfully, if sometimes painfully, close to home.
8. The Good Wife
Better than good, with a recurring guest-star roster that plays like TV's finest repertory company (Nathan Lane, Maura Tierney, Amanda Peet, Brian Dennehy, Michael J. Fox, the list goes on), CBS' provocative legal drama mixes the personal, political and procedural brilliantly. Despite this year's best-drama Emmy nomination snub, The Good Wife has more than enough edge to measure up to the top tier of cable.
There is sex (messy and awkward) and a city (gritty and punishing), but life is rarely romanticized for the four funky heroines in young auteur Lena Dunham's raw, raunchy comedy of bad manners, HBO's boldest half hour in ages. An unblemished look into the snarky psyche of bohemian Brooklyn twentysomethings, Girls introduces a bracingly original, controversial voice from which we yearn to hear more.
10. The Big Bang Theory
Success hasn't spoiled this geek-chic sitcom, a smash in syndication and cable while still dominating its weekly Thursday time slot on CBS. More important, Big Bang is funnier than ever, with a riotous ensemble finding infinite new variables in that most desirable formula: the essence of classic comedy.
For more on this year's best and worst TV, pick up this week's Year in Cheers & Jeers issue, on newsstands Thursday, December 20!