Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best of Television 2012: Mayan Apocalypse Edition

Stephen Colbert's election coverage is just one of many high points of the year in television

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, December typically marks the time when we all reflect on the year that was. But this year, with the Mayan-prophesied end of days just eight days away, we perhaps have more reason than ever to look back. With everyone from the Vatican to NASA remaining resolutely sceptical, many are still counting down to December 21, 2012. (December 21 is also the day that Resident Evil: Retribution comes out on Blu-ray – so clearly portents of doom lurk everywhere!)

But whether or not there will actually be a 2013, the time seems right for me to share all those moments of 2012 that made me grateful to own a television. While the new fall season has a few bright spots (I would include ABC’s musical/drama Nashville in that short list), TV’s very best moments of 2012 were found in its continuing shows. And so, in honour of what may be the last eight days of human existence, here are eight shows (in no particular order) that you may want to check out before our world (perhaps) comes to an explosive end.

1) Parks and Recreation
Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
NBC’s Parks and Recreation remains the most consistently funny sitcom on network television. Currently in its fifth season, Parks and Rec stepped up its public service storylines in the U.S. election year, but never lost its focus on endearing, intelligent characters and the genuine friendships between them. Though it would be difficult to pick just one moment from the past twelve months, I can offer two that highlight the show at its best: the unrehearsed acceptance speech Leslie (Amy Poehler) gave the night of her City Council win in last season’s final episode, and the heart-warming goofiness of Ben’s marriage proposal to Leslie from this season. Its slapstick elements notwithstanding, Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie continue to be one of the most honest, loving, and real relationships on television today.

2) Girls
Lena Dunham and Adam Driver in Girls
In April, Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered and we saw a new voice emerge on premium cable. Surviving the enthusiastic piling on of naysayers (who complained about everything from its purported Millennial self-importance to the racial make-up of its cast), the show speaks with poise and fearlessness belying its years. A special mention goes to the surprising layers of Hannah’s not-quite-boyfriend, the often-shirtless and perplexing Adam (Adam Driver), whose growth as a character would redeem the series – that is, if the show actually stood in any need of redemption. Girls returns to HBO in January with another 10-episode season.

3) The Comedy Central Election
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) were both at their election year best the past twelve months, making a seemingly never-ending presidential campaign feel a lot less excruciating and even more surreal than it already was. It didn’t hurt that the Republican Party eagerly helped them out, with a series of mind-blowingly ignorant rape comments, an obsession with women’s contraception, and a bevy of unelectable potential candidates seemingly cast by Lorne Michaels. Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Super PAC (aka “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”) not only raised over a million dollars from his fans, it also won him a Peabody Award for its “innovative means of teaching American viewers” about the social and political consequences of the U.S. Supreme Courts’ Citizens United ruling. You might think that there are few things less potentially funny than campaign finance issues: Colbert easily proved that wrong. With Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the air, the future of political satire in America has never been brighter.

4) FX and Justified
Timothy Olyphant and Walter Goggins in Justified
In 2012, FX continued to own the basic cable universe, airing new episodes of some of my favourite current shows: Archer, Louie, and Justified. This summer, Justified returned for a third season that seemed predestined to disappoint (after last summer season introduced us to Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett and then took her away). But Graham Yost’s neo-noir drama more than commended itself with several new characters and a tone of all of its own. The moral grey zone that Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins) inhabit got even greyer and even more intimate in a storyline that began by cracking open the borders of Harlan County (bringing in some big city crime bosses down from north) and ended by bringing it all home in a shockingly personal way.

5) Sherlock: Season Two
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock
Enough said.

6) Breaking Bad
Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is rushing headlong to a conclusion, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. This summer, AMC aired the first eight episodes of Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season, with the final eight episodes scheduled to air next summer. Ending a series (especially one with such ambition) is challenging: just ask David Chase (The Sopranos) or David Simon (The Wire). But if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Vince Gilligan.

7) Awake
Jason Isaacs in Awake
This year, NBC gave us one of the most original new dramatic series on network television, and then unceremoniously took it away. Awake premiered in March and ran for 13 episodes before getting the axe. It was a brief run but an amazing ride all the same. I’ll take one short season of ambitious and bravely told stories over 200 episodes of a cookie-cutter crime procedural every time. Series creator Kyle Killen has had poor luck keeping a series on the air, but I’m hoping he’ll keep trying!

8) Craig Ferguson in Scotland
Geoff Peterson and Craig Ferguson
And finally, my single favourite television event of 2012 (ok, maybe I lied about the “no particular order” thing): Craig Ferguson taking The Late Late Show to Scotland. In mid-May, Craig and Geoff Peterson (Craig’s improvising robot skeleton sidekick, voiced brilliantly by comedian Josh Robert Thompson) hopped across the pond, with Mila Kunis, Rashida Jones, and (the now late) Michael Clarke Duncan in tow, to visit Craig’s birthplace and old stomping grounds. One part sincere sentiment and two parts “Michael Caine in Space,” these five episodes showcase everything that makes Ferguson the single best host on late night television. Whether standing atop the Edinburgh castle or in rainy Scottish cemeteries, visiting the high school in Cumbernauld that Craig dropped out of years earlier or lingering outside his childhood home, practically every moment in Scotland is wistful and funny, morbid and heartfelt. Even after more than seven years, Ferguson continues to be one of the funniest, most spontaneous, and more often courageous voices on television. Unscripted, eminently loveable, and self-consciously creepy, Ferguson brings a totally original and appealing energy to every episode. Scotland’s loss is very much our gain.

Have a wonderful apocalypse everyone, and happy viewing!

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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