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by Alison Willmore
December 14, 2012 1:39 PM
28 Comments
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The 10 Best Television Episodes of 2012

'Mad Men' AMC
A person can only watch so much television in a year, though thanks to DVRs, Hulu, Netlix and a crazy proliferation of quality series to keep up with, that amount can be considerable and a little terrifying. Still, any list of the best of the year in TV is, like a film best-of list, going to be limited and delineated by what its creator's been able to see. For me, 2012 hasn't just been the year I started covering the small screen for Indiewire, it's been one of giving consideration to how TV as a medium is changing, both in how we view it and in its growing ambitions. My favorite shows of the year were ones in which traditional episodic structure continued to be played with in "Louie," in which ideas about likability and the generational divide were boldly challenged in "Girls," and in which sheer storytelling and world-building stunned in "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead." "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," in their fifth seasons, have been the best overall shows on TV, shaped around protagonists who are startling in their complexity, while in its sophomore year "Homeland" has managed a high-wire act of plot twists, revelations and betrayals.

In doing a best-of list for TV, I decided to go with episodes rather than shows because those are still the increments in which series come, as much as binge-viewing is becoming common, and I limited myself to one episode per series for variety's sake. This did mean that a few shows whose seasons I enjoyed didn't make the cut -- most notably "Treme," which had another terrific, empathetic season but which didn't offer up a stand-out single episode, and the wonderful, promising "Luck," which felt like it was just getting started when it was canceled. And some runners up didn't quite make the cut but are worth a mention, like the Neil Marshall-directed "Game of Thrones" battle episode "Blackwater," "Leap Day" from "30 Rock," the "Bob's Burgers" episode "Bad Tina," "American Horror Story: Asylum" installment "I Am Anne Frank (Part 1)" and the bloody "Boardwalk Empire" season wrap-up "Margate Sands."

10. "Community": "Digital Estate Planning"

"Community" didn't reach the giddy heights of the multiple timelines of "Remedial Chaos Theory" or the paintball episodes in its third season, the last run by creator Dan Harmon. But there was still a lot to like about it, as seen in "Digital Estate Planning," which provided 8-bit video game humor that was just about as good, and somehow even geekier. Pierce (Chevy Chase, who departs the show in the upcoming season) battled for his moist towelette empire inheritance with the help of the study group inside a customized game ("Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne") that managed not just plentiful vintage console gags but ones about the Hawthorne family's terrible track record with race and with how each character would behave inside the digitized environment -- with Abed (Danny Pudi) naturally finding a way to save the day. A very funny episode, this one also had some heart in the gang's rallying around the oft-antagonistic Pierce.

9. "The Walking Dead": "When the Dead Come Knocking"

Getting my most improved series vote, AMC's zombie drama stepped things up considerably this season by bringing the characters to the potential sancturay of the prison and given them outside enemies to face in the cheery, sinister Governor (David Morrissey) and his town. "When the Dead Come Knocking" made the upcoming clash between the settlements unavoidable, as Merle (Michael Rooker) brutally interrogated Glenn (Steven Yeun) while Maggie (Lauren Cohan) getting threatened with rape. The sequence in which Merle turned a walker loose on the tied-up Glenn was one of the series' best and most tense action sequences, while Michonne's (Danai Gurira) meeting with Rick (Danai Gurira) and company was a long-awaited coming together of characters that didn't go entirely smoothly -- that's life in the post-apocalypse for you. The dead are scary, but they've got nothing on the living.

8. "Bunheads": "Movie Truck"

Amy Sherman-Palladino's charming, idiosyncratic dramedy about how former showgirl Michelle (Sutton Foster) ends up inheriting a house, a ballet school and a mother-in-law in small town California was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Directed by "But I'm a Cheerleader" filmmaker Jamie Babbit, "Movie Truck" showed off those qualities winningly, bringing together the cast's younger clique at a movie night also crashed by birthday girl Michelle, her visiting bestie Talia (Angelina McCoy) and the in need of age appropriate friends Truly (Stacey Oristano). Directed by Jamie Babbit, "Movie Truck" detailed Michelle's continued quest to find a place in her new home and her new and very different life, portrayed the teen dramas of its younger characters without condescension and wrapped things up with a fabulous non sequitur of a dance number to They Might Be Giants’ cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

7. "Parks and Recreation": "The Debate"

Star Amy Poehler's directorial debut, which she also wrote, proved a highlight for season four's election storyline and a fantastic look at her character Leslie Knope's strengths. Leslie debated wealthy idiot Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), and initially came off as a bully to the crowd whenever she attacked him, justified as her jabs may have been. Bobby symbolizes a problematic and very familiar type of candidate -- coming from a place of privilege but little knowledge or experience, he depends on his looks and his family's business to power him to victory, and managed to drag the level of discourse down before threatening in, again, a not unheard of fashion, to move the business that's the town's biggest employer should he lose. Leslie's insistence on a final attack, despite Ben's wanting otherwise, proved not just a great moment for the show but a deeply satisfying (if sadly fictional) one for frustrated Democrats everywhere.

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28 Comments

  • Lore | February 7, 2013 9:16 AMReply

    I know I'm a little late on the uptake here but this list is ludicrous without Game of Thrones' "Blackwater", possible one of the greatest hours of tv ever made.

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  • EAMON | December 19, 2012 11:03 AMReply

    Leaving out Game of Thrones and putting in "Bunheads" and Girls weakest episode is a shame.

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  • Andrew S | December 16, 2012 3:07 PMReply

    Go Bunheads! I second that the "Girls" pilot wasn't that great. The opium tea thing was incredibly stupid - and I wasn't convinced that her parents would have told her that they're cutting her off in that way. It didn't ring true. I think Nashville merits mention - not sure which episode. Also, when Dexter comes clean to Deb is a great episode.

  • UGH | December 16, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    The pilot of Girls is far from the best episode the series produced this year (that would be "Welcome to Bushwick" directed by Jody Lee Lipes.)

  • Keith | January 4, 2013 3:09 AM

    Dunham's directing took a backseat to both the directing and camera work of Lipes. She and Apatow really screwed up when they didn't ask him to direct for season two. Likely the reason they lost him as a DP as well.

  • tara | December 16, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    Why the critics group don't nominee Marion Cotillard? She gave one of the best female performances of this year, the stupid critics of san diego, detroit, houston, boston don't know about talent and cinema

  • Clint | December 15, 2012 4:49 PMReply

    Except " Remedial Chaos Theory" is in the third season.

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  • REAL TIME ZEITGEIST | December 14, 2012 9:34 PMReply

    Leaving out an American Horror Story: ASYLUM episode altogether makes this list hard to swallow. Matt Zoller Seitz's list is so much better.

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  • Lars | December 15, 2012 12:50 PM

    Agreed! Matt's list is closer to what I would choose. I don't watch "Mad Men". Tried to get into the series TWICE, but just can't get past the pilot lol.

  • Dead Freight | December 14, 2012 6:33 PMReply

    Breaking Bad episode "Dead Freight" wasnt only the best episode of the season but by far the best episode of the series in my opinion

  • Bauggs | December 14, 2012 6:05 PMReply

    Remedial Chaos Theory was in Community's third season.

  • Bauggs | December 14, 2012 6:14 PM

    Sorry, I didn't see the earlier comment.

  • Utterly disappointed | December 14, 2012 5:53 PMReply

    Leaving out that Game of Thrones episode altogether makes this list hard to swallow.

  • Utterly disappointed | December 14, 2012 5:42 PMReply

    Leaving out that Game of Thrones episode altogether makes this list hard to swallow.

  • Utterly disappointed | December 14, 2012 5:42 PMReply

    Leaving out that Game of Thrones episode altogether makes this list hard to swallow.

  • CoolHand | December 14, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    A true shame to leave off GoT 'Blackwater' ... It was truly the most innovative hour of TV since Twin Peaks first showed us just how cinematic TV can be. All of the shows on this list were good, but aside from having above average writing or acting, they still safely inhabited the same TV sandbox that has existed for the past 20 years.

    Blackwater on the other hand brought TV to the level of feature film quality. It's a beautifully done hour of Television that can be watched and appreciated on the merits of just that 60 min.

    A true shame that when 2012 is looked back upon in retrospect, not enough people will understand what this episode helped to do for the medium.

  • Marc | December 14, 2012 4:15 PMReply

    What about Boardwalk Empire? Really none of the last two episodes?

  • tomincmh | December 14, 2012 2:59 PMReply

    Pretty decent list, but I would suggest one correction. 'Remedial Chaos Theory' was, in fact, a season 3 episode. It really should have gotten a spot on this list.

  • tomincmh | December 14, 2012 3:01 PM

    Just noticed that even though it was a season 3 episode, it aired in late 2011, so it couldn't be on this list of things aired in 2012.