As I did at the end of 2011, I’m once again breaking with the traditional format most critics use for their annual Best Of lists by identifying the 12 television programs that most impressed me during the past year.
“The Walking Dead” (AMC) – AMC’s hit horror powerhouse enjoyed its hottest year yet, creatively and in the ratings. In fact, “Dead” at one point topped every other scripted series on television in the feverishly coveted 18-49 demographic. That accomplishment wasn’t a fluke: It was handsomely produced, expertly directed and a showcase for some of the most impressive special effects work on television, “Dead” is also chockfull of outstanding performances that ought to be included in any discussion about the medium’s best. Andrew Lincoln, as the increasingly battle-worn leader of a rag-tag group of survivors struggling to remain alive in a world infested by man-eating zombies and equally deadly human monsters, deserves a spot among the nominees for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series at next year’s Emmy Awards. “Killer Within,” the episode in which Rick’s wife Lori chose her baby’s life over her own, was one of the most moving hours of television all year. It was also the scariest and most harrowing.
“Downton Abbey” (PBS) – True, season two of this lavish period soap opera was a bit overloaded with short-term stories that seemed to get in the way of the larger tales being told, and some of the latter ended a little too conveniently, but it was still enormously entertaining and more sophisticated fun than just about anything else on television, and it continued to bring millions of new viewers to PBS’ “Masterpiece” franchise. Maggie Smith remained the standout, not simply for her priceless delivery of the Dowager Countess’ withering barbs, but for the abundant heart and humanity she unexpectedly brought to the role.
“Homeland” (Showtime) – I hope someone at Showtime sits down with someone at “Homeland” and insists that the writers and producers of this otherwise extraordinary show get their game back on and try to prevent its narrative from repeatedly veering into absurdity, as it too often did in its second season. There is no room for the suspension of disbelief in a dramatic series ostensibly grounded in a supposedly thoughtful variation of the real world. “Homeland” is still one of the most riveting programs on television, but that compliment has much more to do with the endlessly enthralling performances of Claire Danes and Damian Lewis and a magnificent supporting cast than anything else. In other words, “Homeland” is something less than the sum of its parts, but the best things about it are simply sensational.
“The Good Wife” (CBS) – Even after four years, this jewel in CBS’ crown remains the best scripted drama on broadcast television – one so unreservedly perfect and satisfying that nothing else comes close. Among its many other attributes, “Wife” more than any other series on television seems to exist in the same technology0drenched world the rest of us inhabit, and it isn’t afraid to incorporate the drawbacks of the digital age into its storytelling. And how about its ever-growing roster of splendid recurring characters (played by Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Rita Wilson, Mamie Gummer and many other wonderful actors), each of whom is exciting to see whenever he or she shows up?
“The Middle” (ABC) – As I did last year, I’ve elected to cede the slot on this list that would seemingly belong to the perpetually honored “Modern Family” to ABC’s other terrific family comedy, “The Middle,” because “Family” doesn’t need any more recognition while, maddeningly, “The Middle” still sits somewhat under the radar. I don’t wish to throw stones at “Modern Family,” but I always feel somewhat removed from the antics of the Pritchett and Dunphy families, perhaps because I can’t relate to people who seem to exist in a fantasy world in which money is of no concern to anyone. That isn’t easy to ignore as our economy continues to decline and the quality of life for tens of millions of Americans continues to erode. “The Middle,” on the other hand, finds great good humor in the everyday hardships and challenges that most of us are made to endure.
“The Voice” (NBC) – I have mixed feelings about NBC’s razzle-dazzle singing competition. As much as I love the early weeks of each season, when the judges choose their team members based on their voices only, and as exciting as I find the final weeks of the contest, when the home audience determines who stays and who goes, after three seasons I still find the “battle-rounds” that come in between to be oddly uncomfortable and strangely depressing. Maybe I just don’t like watching team members compete against each other, rather than members of other teams. But the rest of it is so great it deserves recognition as broadcast’s best talent show. Now let’s see if Cassadee Pope enjoys more post-“Voice” success than the winners of the two previous seasons.
Next up: The rest of the top 12 -- plus eight others that deserve honorable mention.