In 55 wide-ranging lists, TIME surveys the highs and lows, the good and the bad of the past 12 months.
5. Mad Men
If the truest definition of art is to generate a strong reaction, the fifth season of Mad Men was the most successful show on TV in 2012. Stylistically, the series was working at its highest level, laying out one visually stunning set piece after another (“Zou Bisou Bisou,” Roger Sterling’s acid trip, Lane Pryce’s, er, hanging out at the office). Overall — to this critic anyway — Season 5 was greater in its parts than its whole, producing some impressive, structurally daring episodes that didn’t add up to the same gut punch as did, say, the show’s dissection of Don Draper in Season 4. But a little perspective: lesser Mad Men is still pretty great TV, and Season 5 was enough to make one glad that the ’60s (at least on AMC) are not over yet. (AMC)
4. Breaking Bad
In Season 4, teacher turned cancer patient turned meth dealer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) became “the one who knocks.” In the first half of Season 5, White vanquished his enemies and cemented his business success — and yet, if you listened closely, you could hear the knuckles of fate knocking on his own door. Would he be done in by his DEA agent brother-in-law (Dean Norris)? By the many enemies he collected in the meth business? By his ill use of his partner Jess (Aaron Paul) or his unforgivable treatment of his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn)? Or simply by the cancer that was gone but never quite forgotten? The first half of an extended farewell season raised rather than answered these questions, but it also proved that a series could make a character wholly despicable yet utterly fascinating. (AMC)
At the end of last year (after TIME’s 2011 best-of list closed), America narrowly escaped a terrorist attack from ex-POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), but at great personal cost to his CIA pursuer/lover Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). In Season 2, the show upended its story, having Carrie expose Brody and turn him as a double agent, but if anything their relationship became more dangerous, on many levels. A grownup thriller for the second decade after 9/11, Homeland combined an intense cloak-and-dagger story with a multilayered portrayal of the psychic toll this work takes on the people who do it. (Showtime)
Louis CK’s half-hour weekly movie is one of the few wholly surprising things on television. Week to week, it can be just about anything: rawly funny or poignantly dramatic; scatological or psychological; a collection of vignettes or a single, three-episode-long story. The third season took the title character, a comedian and divorced dad, on journeys of self-discovery — be it a lost weekend in Miami, a bizarre and emotionally draining date, a quest to take over David Letterman’s job or, in the finale, a surreal but moving solo journey to China. At once darkly funny and unembarrassedly sentimental, this truly one-of-a-kind show was a 13-episode argument for engaging with the world, as tough as the world sometimes makes it. (FX)
1. PARKS AND REC
In an election year, there is ample reason to feel depressed about politics and the people involved in it. So it was doubly welcome to have this full-hearted, brilliant civil-servant sitcom expand its purview from the Pawnee, Ind., parks department to the city council and Washington itself. In the first half of 2012, it took Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) through a bumpy but successful campaign against a local candy-company scion (Paul Rudd); in the last half, it sent her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) to the capital but found time to get the pair engaged. On two levels — political and personal — it was the year’s best love story. (NBC)
The Top 10 TV Shows:
10. The 2012 Election (various channels)
9. American Horror Story (FX)
8. Parenthood (NBC)
7. Game of Thrones (HBO)
6. Girls (HBO)
5. Mad Men (AMC)
4. Breaking Bad (AMC)
3. Homeland (Showtime)
2. Louie (FX)
1. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
You can check out the full list with write-ups here.
The author also included his honorable mentions here, as well as his "caveats, rationalizations and excuses" as to why he chose these shows.