My Favourite TV Shows of 2012

by M.J. Hearle

I need to watch more television.

This might sound like an odd confession from someone who constantly moans about not having enough time to read books but the truth is there’s no shame in wanting to watch TV these days. Delving into a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be just as rewarding as cracking open a novel. There’s a reason wags have labelled this a golden age of television.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember the scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men that made me realise this show was something special. Don Draper, stressed and hungover, lies down on the couch in his office and glances up at a fluorescent light. A fly is trapped behind the plastic guard desperately trying to escape. There’s no music – just the low hum of the light and the frantic buzzing of the fly. In retrospect, the imagery might be a little heavy handed – yeah, Don Draper’s the fly trapped in a prison of his own making – but it’s the sort of elegantly wordless scene that rarely pops up in television. Mad Men isn’t that concerned with plot, instead it rambles down narrative avenues and cul-de-sacs, more interested in the journey than the destination.

One episode stands out in a season of brilliant episodes – I’m talking about episode four, MYSTERY DATE. Mad Men has always had an undercurrent of simmering tension, however this episode really ramps it up by including a real-life serial killer, Richard Speck, into the proceedings. Again and again, the seemingly unrelated murder case intrudes on the narrative, appearing in newspaper headlines or overheard conversations. Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic theory that suggests if a gun is introduced in Act 1 then the audience expects it to go off in Act 3. And so we viewers are kept on the edge of our seat during MYSTERY DATE, waiting to see how this serial killer stuff is going to impact story. For a show that prizes character over action it’s a surprisingly suspenseful episode, and one that culminates in a typically obtuse, though satisfying, manner.

Breaking Bad (season 1)

Breaking Bad (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mad Men had a particularly strong season, Breaking Bad has remained consistently strong throughout it’s five seasons. Still, I find myself waiting for the upcoming final season with some reservations. These stem from the fact that I don’t really like Walter White anymore. When  Breaking Bad first began, it was thrilling watching this mild-mannered high school teacher outwit violent drug dealers and gangsters but now Walter has transformed into such a cold and despicable character I find myself caring less about his plight. The show’s called Breaking Bad, so I shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events but I can’t help but think it would be better if Walter showed a glimmer of remorse from time to time. The moments of black comedy which once alleviated the oppressively dark tone also seem to be coming in shorter supply. That stated, I’m committed now and will follow Walter White’s story to the bitter end if only to see how the whole tragic mess plays out.

Perhaps because it’s filtered through the lens of the fantasy genre, I find the similarly grim Game of Thrones to be a much easier watch. GOT, survived the loss of Sean Bean’s noble Ned Stark to deliver a second season just as strong as the first. For my money, Tyrion Lanister (brilliantly performed by Peter Dinklage) stood out as the most compelling character of the season, closely followed by the plucky Arya. And that last shot with the White Walkers marching on The Wall – Wow! Talk about a rousing way to close out a season. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

From hour long dramas to half hour dramedies, I watched Lena Dunham’s GIRLS after having my curiosity piqued by no small amount of online controversy. Because Dunham is only 26, there was much written about her being given a TV show to write, direct and star in, with the general thrust of the arguments being she didn’t deserve it at such a young age. Nonsense. Dunham was given this opportunity because she’s damn talented. GIRLS is clever, hilarious and peppered with scene after scene of emotional honesty. At times cringe-inducing in its rawness, the show nevertheless consistently entertains and I can’t understand why it would provoke such scorn when bland entertainment like How I Met Your Mother is infinitely more risible.

True Blood, was okay this year. I’ll stick around for next season but it’s not appointment TV. Jason Stackhouse still cracks me up, and I do love mimicking Bill’s ‘Sookie’. The ample gore and nudity is, as always, appreciated but the showrunners better whip something special up or I can’t see it surviving much longer.

Dexter (season 2)

Dexter (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was writing my Favourite Movies post, I included a bit of a wildcard (John Carter) and suspect my next choice will be equally controversial but, dammit, I enjoyed the hell out of Dexter. Isaak Sirko was a great antagonist this season, rich in pathos and acted superbly by the always reliable Ray Stevens. I was disappointed he didn’t make it to the end. Deb is still an annoyingly emotional basketcase, but it was a smart move making her aware of Dexter’s true nature (still think the incest stuff is boneheaded) as this complication added some much needed drama. Dexter’s central romance with Hannah was surprisingly sensitive and compelling. I suppose, it didn’t hurt that the Aussie actress (Yvonne Strahovski) playing Hannah was absolutely gorgeous – I’m gonna have to check out Chuck. It will be interesting to see how her character impacts the next season. Hell hath no fury like a sociopathic poisoner scorned.

Community, was patchy but when it worked there were few comedies that could compete with it. Much better than The Big Bang Theory and its canned laughter ilk. In terms of reflexive, post-modern comedy Arrested Development is still the reigning champ

One of the shows I loved most this year actually finished in 2006. I discovered Deadwood on BluRay and hungrily devoured all three seasons over a couple of weeks, luxuriating in the profane/poetic dialogue and marvelling at the exquisitely grimy art direction. In a perfect world we’d get a new season of Deadwood every year. As it stands, I’m grateful to have three.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally, we come to a show which probably shouldn’t be on this list, as it is in no ways ‘good’ but I include it to be honest with myself and with you, dear reader. American Horror Story: Asylum ramped up the lunacy of the first season by introducing all manner of shenanigans. Ghosts, demons, breast-obsessed serial killers, madmen, madwomen, nymphomaniacs, horny nuns, nazi scientists, zombies, exorcists and aliens all popped up, sometimes overlapping each other in a single episode. The result was perhaps not what the creators intended. Instead of terrifying, American Horror Story is often hilarious in its desperate urge to horrify and titillate. While, this may not be the classic genre series I initially hoped, I’ll gladly accept more American Horror Stories if only to see if the creators can maintain this fever-pitch level of crazy.

That’s it for my thoughts on TV in 2012. Let me know if you agree with my selection or if there’s any great shows I missed out on.