‘Borgen,’ ‘Girls,’ ‘Parenthood,’ ‘Mad Men’ & More: Ten Best TV Shows of 2012

Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez pick their 10 best TV shows of 2012, from ‘Borgen’ to ‘Awkward.’

Clockwise from top left: Mark Seliger/HBO; Frank Ockenfels/AMC; Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for Masterpiece; Mike Kollöffel/Courtesy of DR TV

Now is the winter of our (TV) discontent. After a fall season that largely failed to deliver on the promise of new shows—and, in some cases, returning programs as well—it’s time to take a look back at the year in television as a whole, as we try to remove such canceled shows as Partners, The Mob Doctor, and Made in Jersey from our collective memory.

But rather than dwell on the very worst of the year (ABC’s Work It!), let’s celebrate the best of what the medium had to offer us over the last 12 months. Below, our picks for the 10 best shows of 2012, which include a Danish political drama, a sumptuous period drama, a resurrected primetime soap, and a navel-gazing comedy.

A few caveats before proceeding: these are individual lists representing personal opinions; omitting a particular show does not invalidate the rest of the list, nor does including a specific show; and the lists are limited to what aired on U.S. television during the calendar year. Finally, a WARNING: For those of you who aren’t entirely caught up on the shows selected, read on at your own risk—the descriptions contain many spoilers.

He Said: Jace Lacob’s 10 Best

‘Borgen’ (LinkTV)No other show comes this close to epitomizing the best of television this year as the exquisite Danish political drama Borgen, which depicts the rise to power of Denmark’s first fictional female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) amid the infighting and back-biting that categorizes partisan politics around the world. As Birgitte sacrifices everything for her position—her marriage, her children, and even her sense of self—her journey from naïve crusader to hardened politician is juxtaposed against that of ambitious journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). The two women deliver two of the best performances on television of the past decade, reveling in, rather than avoiding, the realistic flaws of their respective characters while overcoming the institutionalized misogyny of their respective spheres. Brash spin doctors (including the great Johan Philip “Pilou” Asbæk as Kasper Juul), venal civil servants, and arrogant tabloid magnates spin in orbit around Birgitte, as Borgen delves into the interlocking worlds of politics and the media. The result is nothing less than riveting, insightful, and heartbreaking, not to mention powerfully original.

‘Girls’ (HBO)Despite its deeply polarizing nature, the first season of Girls—Lena Dunham’s navel-gazing HBO drama—proved itself every bit as witty, sharp, and biting as the promise exhibited in those early episodes, perfectly capturing the insular world of privileged and underemployed 20-somethings in Brooklyn with astute honesty and self-effacing charm. In Hannah Horvath, Dunham has created a character who is so oblivious to her failings, her egotism, and her flaws that it’s impossible to look away from her—whether she’s eating a cupcake in the bath, getting an STD test, or breaking up with her quirky boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver)—or to not fall in love with her don’t-give-a-damn attitude as she bares her body and her soul, even as the show skewers the elitist sensibilities of Hannah and her friends: flighty Jessa (Jemima Kirke), prim Marnie (Allison Williams), and sheltered Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). Alternately awkward, tender, funny, and depressing, Girls is more than just Hannah and her sisters; it’s a brilliant portrait of disaffected youth on the delayed brink of adulthood.

‘The Good Wife’ (CBS)Whether you loved or hated the storyline involving kick-ass legal snoop Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) and her psychotic estranged husband, Nick (Marc Warren), this year on The Good Wife had more than enough to offer: its typically intelligent and insightful analysis of politics, the media, technology, and cultural mores, as viewed through the prism of the legal system and the tumultuous marriage between the title character, Julianna Margulies’s Alicia Florrick, and gubernatorial candidate Peter (Chris Noth). Nathan Lane—appearing as the court-appointed trustee after Lockhart/Gardner finds itself moored in bankruptcy proceedings—has been a welcome addition to the show, sowing seeds of distrust among the partners at the firm during an already shaky time. As always, the show excels at dramatizing the internal struggles within Alicia; as her career has advanced, her sense of morality has grown ever more flexible, and her sense of compromise and sacrifice have been tested at work and at home. The slowly thawing dynamic between Alicia and Kalinda provided a measured exploration of trust issues in the wake of betrayal from a friend, while Will (Josh Charles) had his own fortitude tested by a grand-jury investigation and suspension, and Diane (Christine Baranski) fought to keep the firm afloat. Few shows remain as nuanced and smart as this one, regardless of whether they’re on cable or broadcast television, nor do many offer as much grist for thought as each episode does, along with insight, subtlety, and humor. If last season’s sly and hilarious elevator scene didn’t make you chuckle aloud, you have no soul. The Good Wife, as always, isn’t just good; it’s great.

‘Mad Men’ (AMC)There will be no Golden Globes for Mad Men this year, and that’s okay. Snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association this year, the show delivered a stellar, if polarizing, fifth season that was often a weekly kick to the gut: beautiful, elegiac, and tragic on so many levels. The struggles of its characters was often linked in overt symbolism, depicting issues of choice, imprisonment, anticipation, independence, and identity, even as relationships—such as that between mainstays Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss)— fractured before our eyes. In a season overflowing with strong and emotionally turbulent plots, Peggy’s departure from SCDP and her subsequent opportunity to make her own way in the world, the implosion of the flawed marriage between Don and Megan (Jessica Paré), the fraught decision made by Joan (Christina Hendricks, in a searing performance) to sell her body for a seat at the table, and the suicide of financially ensnared Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) stand out magnificently, as does the sense of mortality and aging that permeates the fifth season, most notably in the storyline enacted by the perpetually thwarted Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). This is powerful, entrancing television at its finest.

‘Shameless’ (Showtime)In its second season, Showtime’s Shameless—based on Paul Abbot’s British drama of the same name—truly came into its own, pushing the Gallagher family to their breaking point, just as Fiona (the superb Emmy Rossum) got a taste of freedom and possibility in her selfless life. Fiona’s chances of escape—and the sad truth that she will never be able to live her own life—are juxtaposed against the tightrope performance of Chloe Webb as bipolar matriarch Monica, who returned to her family amid a series of yo-yo-like mood swings. Rather than wallow in sentimentality, Shameless used the family’s struggle to come to terms with Monica’s condition as a prism through which to view the well of frustration, sadness, and anger within each of the Gallaghers; their struggles came to a head on Thanksgiving Day, when Monica slit her wrists in the kitchen, feet away from her six kids. Her attempts to get herself help—and subsequent escape from a mental facility—proved that some people can’t help themselves, and some lives will never change. Shameless may shift between absurdity and gritty realism, but it remains heartbreaking, hilarious, and unforgettable.

‘Parenthood’ (NBC) I’ve often said that Parenthood is responsible for my weekly catharsis, and that’s likely true in many households across the country every Tuesday night as viewers reach for the Kleenex while watching the Bravermans. This season has been no exception, delivering a series of painful and riveting plots, from the breathtaking performance of Monica Potter as Kristina—whose breast-cancer storyline this year remains one of the most poignant and grippingly realistic elements of a show that takes the mundane elements of family life and soars with them—to the surprising love triangle between Lauren Graham’s Sarah, Jason Ritter’s Mark, and Ray Romano’s Hank. Every character gets his or her due, and every moment—a mother teaching her teenage son to dance, the heartbreak of young love, a husband’s realization that his ailing wife could die—shines magnificently. Other shows may be flashier, but the consistently solid Parenthood is the rare show that gets the cadence and messiness of life absolutely right.

‘Nurse Jackie’ (Showtime)After three seasons of drug-addicted nurse Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) coasting through life without much in the way of repercussions, Nurse Jackie’s producers forced Jackie to come to terms with her addictions, her demons, and her self-destructive behavior. What followed was a mesmerizing fourth season that found Jackie in rehab, struggling to remain clean while dealing with her divorce and her daughter’s psychological issues, and tussling with newly installed no-nonsense hospital administrator Mike Cruz (Bobby Cannavale). But it was the shocking finale—which linked Jackie, Cruz, and teenage addict Charlie (Cannavale’s real-life son, Jake) in a haunting story of relapse, loss, and failure—that cemented the fourth season as Nurse Jackie’s finest: pulsing with crackling wit, dark humor, and genuine pathos, it hit every beat from despair to hope.

‘Parks and Recreation’ (NBC)If you didn’t tear up when Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) made her acceptance speech upon winning a seat on the Pawnee City Council, you are made of sterner stuff than most. The pitch-perfect moment, in which Leslie took to the stage, not only winningly paid off the dreams of Poehler’s eternally optimistic do-gooder, but also was one of television’s best sequences this year. In fact, this quirky, winning comedy continues to deliver a portrait of a better America, where those with can-do spirit emerge victorious and where hard work and big dreams are rewarded. But it’s also the assorted denizens of Pawnee—from emotionless April (Aubrey Plaza) and child-like Andy (Chris Pratt) to swaggering Tom (Aziz Ansari) and libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman)—who make Parks and Recreation such a joy to return to each week. The show remains funny, touching, bittersweet, and madcap at times, overflowing with callbacks, inside jokes, and Springfieldian motifs. One can only hope that Queen Leslie’s reign lasts forever.

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‘Louie’ (FX)FX’s absurdist comedy Louie might just be the most gleefully bizarre comedy on television. There is no sense of continuity: characters are played by multiple actors, events occur and are never mentioned again, and the tone shifts wildly between and even within installments. A three-episode Season 3 arc in which Louie (Louis C.K.) is approached about possibly becoming the replacement for David Letterman remains one of the show’s finest moments, as was the monumental date between Louie and Parker Posey’s Liz, which zigzags as they make their way through a nighttime Manhattan, Louie’s dream girl becoming a manic disaster, quite possibly suicidal. When they are reunited, episodes later, she collapses in his arms on a city bus before dying, propelling him to escape to China on New Year’s Eve. In other words: this is no ordinary sitcom, but a powerful mediation on love, death, parenthood, identity, aging, sex, and ambition. It’s also hysterical, but often brutally, painfully so.

‘Sherlock’ (PBS)I chose not to include Showtime’s Homeland—which went so off the rails in the back half of its second season that it was soaring, precipitously, over a chasm altogether—or Downton Abbey (whose tragically flawed second season paled significantly in comparison to its stellar first and third outings) on my list. With only three episodes this year, however, PBS’s Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as modern-day incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, easily cracks the top 10 list, thanks to its sleek intelligence, bravura visual style, and dexterous plotting. In its second season, Sherlock introduced fan favorite Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) as a scandal-magnet dominatrix, and centered around the battle of wills (and intellects) between Holmes and his nemesis, the deadly criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), leading to a climactic and taut showdown on the roof of a London hospital, where Holmes seemingly plummeted to his death. There is so much vitality in Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Sherlock that it’s impossible not to crave more, yet there’s a rounded sweetness to each of these parceled-out installments that makes them so gratifyingly rich.

She Said: Maria Elena Fernandez’s 10 Best

‘Breaking Bad’ (AMC)We only got a little taste this year, but it was delicious. AMC split the final season of its Emmy-winning drama into two parts and only gave us eight chapters, but in the end, Mike (Jonathan Banks) was dead (terrible!), Walter’s (Bryan Cranston) been made (amazing!), and Jesse (Aaron Paul) is a free-agent millionaire. (Or is he?) Vince Gilligan and his stealth writing team have given us a tiny taste of the future, but it’s anybody’s guess how the series will end next year. Gilligan has hinted that it won’t be a happy ending. The one thing I know for sure is that I will sorely miss the saga of the chemistry teacher/cancer patient/drug mogul/murderer/lying bastard when it’s all said and done.

‘Parenthood’ (NBC)If you’re looking for a show to break your heart even as it warms it, you’ve come to the right place. Jason Katims has proven he is hands-down the best writer of a family drama that exists today. Like Friday Night Lights, which Katims also produced, Parenthood delivers weekly on the tiny subtleties that make up the highs and lows of being part of a close-knit family. The series has grown and matured season to season, and boasts of one of the best overall casts on television. Why the awards issuers don’t notice them more is beyond me. The Bravermans are simply awesome.

‘Dallas’ (TNT)By far the best TV reboot ever! As a big fan of the original, I was excited to see Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray together again. But, like most people, I wondered if that was enough to carry a series. It delivered and then some. Cynthia Cidre has created the perfect marriage between old and new. With a deft touch, she brought us up to speed on the Ewings while stirring up plenty of modern Ewing-style drama. Hagman (may he rest in peace), Duffy, and Gray were at their best in the roles they’re all best known for. But the new Ewings, especially Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe, fit right into their cowboy hats. I’m not worried about the show in the wake of Hagman’s death last month. J.R. Ewing’s presence will always be felt on Southfork, and the rest of the Ewings are just as fascinating.

‘Downton Abbey’ (PBS)The second season of Downton Abbey has been charged with being too soapy. There was a war and Matthew (Dan Stevens) was bedridden until he got up and walked. There was a bad flu epidemic that conveniently took Lavinia (Zoe Boyle) out of Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) path. Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Branson (Allen Leech) got married and were happy. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) got married and he went to jail. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) had an affair and then his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) almost died. And the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) gave us gifts such as: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle-class.” Soapy maybe. But still fabulous.

‘Switched at Birth’ (ABC Family)ABC Family deserves major kudos this year for pulling off one of the season’s biggest and brightest surprises. Switched at Birth defies genre and classification. It’s a teen soap, a touching family drama, and a ground-breaking series that incorporates deafness into the main storyline and affects all the characters. The central conflict may be the discovery by two families that their daughters were mistakenly swapped at the hospital, but what makes the show compelling is the admirable job it’s done at depicting the importance of language and self-expression for those who can hear and those who cannot. The use of sign language and well-placed moments of silence add to the richness of the material. Although it faltered in the last three episodes that aired before it went on hiatus this fall, it’s still among TV’s gems.

‘Nashville’ (ABC)It doesn’t matter that I’m not a country-music fan. This show has Connie Britton, and for that reason alone, I’d check it out. But I have loved it from the pilot, and my affection just grows. ABC has something here—a family soap set in the country-music industry that pits the young flavor-of-the-month against a legend. Britton as Rayna James is my favorite of the entire lot, but Hayden Panettiere is holding her own playing the complicated Juliette Barnes, and Charles Esten is wonderful as the sexy musician with ghosts in his closet who might just love them both. This is the winning soap ABC has been dying to get.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ (Logo)The year 2012 gave us two seasons of uniqueness, charisma, nerve, and talent. It was sickening! In the fourth season, we had Willam barfing and quitting, Phi Phi annoying the hell out of everybody, RuPaul psyching everybody out twice before finally declaring the winner, and spooky Sharon Needles taking home the crown. Then RuPaul turned around and gave us an All-Stars edition. Drag Hall of Famer? Werk! We laughed, we cried, we became better humans. Does Santa Claus even need to come anymore?

‘Girls’ (HBO)I hated the pilot; sort of liked the second episode. By the third one, I was addicted. What happened? Creator Lena Dunham’s unique voice happened. I realized I didn’t actually have to like the group of 20-something women at the center of the show to appreciate it. It made me cringe. It made me laugh. And it told a story not being depicted anywhere else on television or in the movies. For its brutal honesty alone, it’s worth a look. Or two. Or three.

‘Parks and Recreation’ (NBC)My favorite thing on a comedy all year was Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) winning the City Council election. If you didn’t cry with her in the voting booth, you must have teared up when she won. And now Ben’s (Adam Scott) back from Washington, D.C., and they’re getting married. Add to their magic: Rob Lowe, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Rashida Jones, Aubrey Plaza, and Aziz Ansari, and civic duty has never been more fun.

‘Awkward’ (MTV)Team Matty or Team Jake? That was the question of the second season, and it was a doozy. But Jenna’s (Ashley Rickards) awkward romantic dilemma wasn’t the only thing pulling at her heart. Her discovery that her mom wrote that mean letter almost split her parents up for good, and caused a rift in the mother-daughter bond that took all season to repair. This show, like no other teen-centered series, captures adolescence in all its ugly glory and makes you laugh and think along the way.