What was TV like in 2012?
As with every year, it was a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, the sacred and the profane.
A TV-centric political season provided many memorable moments (President Barack Obama’s missing-in-action debate performance; Clint Eastwood’s empty-chair duet). Excellence persevered with series such as HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and “Treme” and AMC’s “Mad Men,” Also History’s surprisingly splendid “Hatfields & McCoys,” ABC’s promising new “Nashville,” CBS’ “The Good Wife” and, of course, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” with its icky charm.
Then there were stinkers, like the best-forgotten ABC sitcom “Work It,” which, focusing on two guys who dress as women to get jobs, was mercifully axed after just two airings. ABC’s “Good Morning America” finally managed to out-fluff NBC’s “Today” and stole the ratings crown. “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” wore on.
Bottom line: It’s not easy to narrow down a Top 10 anything for TV. Still, once this year’s thousands of hours are assessed, 10 notable achievements emerge, for better or worse.
“Breaking Bad” (AMC). It’s notable not only for how twisted, funny and shocking it is, but also for how it keeps on upping the ante. This summer’s satisfying miniseason ended in a most unlikely fashion, hinting that Walter White (series star Bryan Cranston) might actually break free from his life of spiraling disaster and resurrect his happy home. But then, in the last scene, Walter’s drug-enforcement-agent brother-in-law made the connection that had always eluded him: the drug lord he’s been chasing all this time is Walter! Once again, the series’ never-broken promise was upheld. Next summer’s final eight episodes aren’t going to be pretty!
“Fox & Friends” (Fox News Channel). We could easily salute shows that keep us laughing like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” But maybe we could more appropriately single out one obvious wellspring for those shows’ humor. I’m referring, of course, to “Fox & Friends.” With their three-part harmony, co-hosts Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade offer up a unique brand of jovially partisan delivery. Theirs is a seamless, finish-one-another’s-sentence knack for issuing the network-designated messages as news. Contrary viewpoints are admissible only to be mocked. But mostly cheerful unity prevails, a tidy single-minded package of riffs as predictable as the tides – but as amusing as any deliberate caricature. Let’s give credit where it’s due: These Friends cry out to be spoofed.
“Girls” (HBO). Lena Dunham this, Lena Dunham that. Blah, blah, blah. She, in her mid-20s, created, wrote, directed, produced and starred in a half-hour comedy series about 20-something adulthood, femininity and sexuality. She sparked adulation, conversation, arguments and green-eyed envy of her talent. “Girls” was a series that couldn’t be ignored – at least, by pop-culture cognoscenti. It will surely be welcomed back in January with even more attention, if possible (with always the threat of a backlash), as viewers resume arguing: Does the series measure up to all the hype? ’Nuff said. Up to now, indisputably, “Girls” has been monumental. And a gas.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (TLC) and “Killer Karaoke” (truTV). Two new reality shows blazed new trails of idiocy. One capitalized on redneck stereotypes and a 6-year-old beauty pageant veteran. The other invited contestants to sing their hearts out while being zapped with electricity or dunked in a vat of snakes. In a TV universe swamped with reality shows, these two stood apart as groundbreaking, inspired and dismaying – if for no other reason than they served as a reminder that each is merely a way station en route to the next extreme in outrageous crassness.
“Homeland” (Showtime). In its second season, this series remained suspenseful, disturbing and riddled with surprises. It mined drama from possibly the most damaged pair of protagonists, opponents and star-crossed lovers in TV history. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan who had returned home a national hero and soon-to-be-elected U.S. Congressman – and, covertly, a terrorist turncoat. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) was a former CIA agent suffering from a bipolar disorder as well as emotional ties to the man she was obsessed with bringing down. They could have titled this series “Homeland Insecurity.”
“Key & Peele” (Comedy Central). The biracial status of comedy partners Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (black fathers, white mothers) is notable only because it gives them unique insight sizing up the human condition. And they made the most of that insight on their sketch-and-standup half-hour series. In particular, they scored with Peele in an unsurpassed impersonation of Obama where the unflappable president is joined by Key as “anger translator” Luther, who demonstrates, comically unfiltered, what Obama really thinks. But whatever they did, the humor of Key and Peele proved fresh and smart. And without ever preaching, they illustrated how the issue of race (in their words) “always boomerangs back to culture” and ultimately “is an absurd thing.” Doggone funny, too.
“Luck” (HBO). This drama set at a California racetrack boasted the rich density of David Milch’s writing and a king’s ransom of a cast: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy and Richard Kind for starters. It explored a strange and fascinating world while capturing the horse races with breathtaking footage. But three horses died during production of the series. That sad fact, and another – the show wasn’t exactly a ratings blockbuster – led to HBO canceling “Luck” after its first season, in a bow to bad publicity led by animal-rights activists. Amid the hubbub about the horses’ welfare, there was a question no one seemed inclined to ask: Assuming every reasonable precaution had been taken, was risking the lives of a few horses an excessive price to pay to keep an excellent drama series on the air?
“Smash” (NBC). This NBC musical drama put a bright, sexy sheen on one of filmdom’s most timeless tropes: Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! Which “Smash” did, embedding songs and dance into the story of how a Broadway musical comes to life. Sure, “Smash” took knocks for unbelievable plotlines, cardboard characters and trite show tunes. It gave new life to the term “hate-watch” (that act of watching something solely to delight in its awfulness). So what? With a show-must-go-on defiance emblematic of Broadway, “Smash” never flagged in its unique charm and meticulous artistry. And if anything about it seemed over the top, its naysayers should consider the recent cockamamie real-life fraud that sank the Broadway musical “Rebecca.” As “Smash” knows and demonstrated proudly, nothing is too wacky for Broadway.
“Sons of Anarchy” (FX). Tough guys on motorcycles selling guns and drugs. Tough women keeping them in line, or trying. Rival gangs, corrupt cops and a club membership in turmoil. Jax (Charlie Hunnam), his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal) and her husband, Clay (Ron Perlman), were the core of a series that, in its fifth season, raged wilder than ever. A family drama set in a hard-hitting workplace, “Sons” was bloodthirsty and brilliant like nothing else on TV. Its audience knew what its characters found out: There was no escaping its excitement.
Donald Trump (all over the place). Never before has this list bestowed a personal commendation. But then, The Donald is an exceptional TV presence. Whether a game-show host (NBC’s “The Apprentice”), a commentator-at-large (Fox News Channel and elsewhere), a beauty contest impresario (his Miss USA pageant, which is broadcast on NBC), a former almost-candidate for president, or a free-floating billionaire attention junkie, Trump leverages the media with enviable shrewdness. Exactly the nature of Trump’s TV appeal has yet to be identified. Equally unexplained is why he always gets a pass from his media gatekeepers, no matter what he says or does. But why sweat the vagaries of stardom? Trump rules. Or if he doesn’t, he will surely be the last to know it.
Prashant Gupta/FX/Associated Press
JoJo Whilden/HBO/Associated Press
Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO/Associated Press