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.
6. “Homeland”: “Q&A”
The explosive attraction and mistrust that fuels encounters between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis) in Showtime’s thriller took its place at the forefront of “Q&A,” one of several game-changing episodes as the show challenged our expectatons of how much plot could be fit into a single season. Brody, trapped by his martyrdom video, was broken by Carrie and took on a role as a double agent, but only after she offers up her own vulnerability to and feelings for him in exchange, a wrenching gambit that made it obvious she wasn’t faking those emotions despite her protestations to the contrary. It was manipulation and a sincere confession of love wrapped up at once, with no way to pull the two apart.
5. “Archer”: “The Limited”
The pleasures of “Archer” are so consistent that sometimes it takes an episode like this, one that encapsulates the FX animated series’ profane, hilarious spirit, to newly appreciate it. Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and the ISIS team are transporting a Nova Scotian separatist back to Canada to be tried as a terrorist — but as usual, the dickish self-involvement of the characters threatens the mission. Cyril’s (Chris Parnell) incompetent and Archer’s drunk and more worried about retrieving Cheryl’s (Judy Greer) pet ocelot Babou than the escaped target, while his mother Malory’s (Jessica Walter) only fixated on getting an upgrade to her berth and a Cobb salad. Archer does finally get to pursue his dream of fighting on top of a train, but both he and his opponent agree it’s not as great as it looks — add some Mounties, some bickering and some Cheryl/Pam (Amber Nash)/Ray (Adam Reed) weirdness and it’s a near-perfect installment of a series that’s becoming even funnier as it expands its strange universe.
4. “Breaking Bad”: “Fifty-One”
Directed by Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), “Fifty-One” brilliantly showcased how little time had passed on the show from when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) went from downtrodden high school teacher to meth manufacturer, and how much had changed for him and his family. Walt became a flat-out villian in this first half of the show’s final season, and this episode took that home and showed how broken his marriage to Skyler (Anna Gunn) had become. Walt loves power, but also wants to keep up the pretense of being a happy family, and so “Fifty-One” portrayed a toxic domestic environment in which he bought himself and Walt Jr. new cars against Skyler’s wishes, asked for a party and monologued about how blessed he’s been until Skyler walked into the pool as a calculated act and also because she couldn’t stand listening to him talk anymore. The conversation between the two of them afterward had a blistering air to it, as Skyler learned what it felt like to face down Heisenberg and we learned to genuinely hate Walt.
3. “Girls”: “Pilot”
Lena Dunham’s show about twentysomethings looking for love, careers and a direction in life landed like a bomb, its divisive, inflammatory qualities at odds with the standard nature of its subject matter. What’s so impressive about the series, and so nicely laid out in its first episode, is its dedication to showing its characters’ unburnished flaws — something so rare that people attacked the show for endorsing the blithe entitlement it gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked. Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) made mistakes, got humiliated and said awful things — like actual girls not long out of college and stumbling their way toward adulthood. And as Hannah, Dunham’s taken the worst blows, including blurting out the new classic line about being “a voice of a generation,” an insistence she has something to say that’s only slowly getting backed up by experience.
2. “Louie”: “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2”
“Louie” had an uneven third season, but its highs were like nothing else, particularly the second half of this two-parter in which Louie (Louis C.K.) went out on a date with Liz (Parker Posey), a girl he met at a bookshop. This season showed Louie tentatively and not always whole-heartedly starting to seek out happiness, both in love and in his career, and the evening wth Liz was part of that. But Liz turned out to be a kind of undermining of the manic pixie dream girl type, genuinely unpredictable, a little scary and vividly alive, and her night with Louie was filled with as much magic as it was with red flags. She pushed him into trying on a dress, she took him to a great meal at Russ & Daughters and the pair ended up on the roof for a sequence in which she called him out on all of his fears about standing close to the edge because part of him wants to jump. Funny, moving and strange, it was an example of the show at its emotionally open best.
1. “Mad Men”: “The Other Woman”
There’s been plenty of casual office cruelty in “Mad Men” before, but this is the episode in which Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce sold its soul, and did so by pimping out Joan (Christina Hendricks) to a member of Jaguar’s selection committee in order to secure the account. It was a development set up by Don’s (Jon Hamm) arrogant absenting himself from the discussion, by Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) slithery ambition and Lane’s (Jared Harris) own sense of meager self-worth and financial despair. But the decision was ultimately Joan’s, and it was one heartbreakingly fueled by her sense of betrayal that the partners would even ask this of her, by her feeling that she needed to seize a piece of the business for her own because no one there would look out for her. The momentous, terrible development had as its parallel Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally walking away from SCDP and from her sometimes-mentor Don, a turn that was made more powerful by the way he responded with grace rather than outraged betrayal — that kiss on the hand was a perfect gesture to mark the end of their years together and how far she’d come.