The Playlist's Picks: Best TV Shows Of The 2011/2012 Season

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
June 13, 2012 2:52 PM
33 Comments
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While the summer is an excuse for the movie studios to roll out their biggest offerings, television executives are much more afraid of warm weather, leaving the television dial mostly as a wasteland of repeats and reality shows. As such, the TV season essentially gets underway in September and runs through to May (with cable dramas occasionally moving the goalposts a little either way -- "Breaking Bad" starts in July, "The Newsroom" next week).

As such, TV should probably be judged on a slightly different schedule, and to mark the passing of the season (arguably which just ended with "Mad Men"; read our season finale recap here), we've run down, as we did last year, our ten favorite shows of the season. These kinds of lists always generate disagreements, and there's so much good television that some shows are bound to miss out -- some of us couldn't be bigger fans of "Parks and Recreation" for instance, but its fourth season was a significant enough step down from its pitch-perfect third (which topped this list last year) that it found itself slipping on the list.

But if you have a case to make for any of the other sterling shows that we didn't include -- "Fringe," "Eastbound & Down," "Boardwalk Empire," "Enlightened," "Bob's Burgers," "30 Rock," "Downton Abbey," "The Hour," "The Good Wife," "Treme," "Luck," "Veep" and many, many others, you can sound off in the comments section below.

10. "The Fades"

When it came to the Television BAFTA for Best Drama Series this year, there was pretty stiff competition among the nominees: previous winner "Misfits," the last series of long-running spy series "Spooks," and the hugely popular detective show "Scott and Bailey" (and that's even without the stalwart shows that weren't even nominated like "Doctor Who," "Sherlock" and "Downton Abbey"). But the winner was none of these things: in a rare example of an awards show getting it exactly right, the winner was "The Fades," the BBC3 (or BBC America in the U.S.) supernatural drama which received relatively low-ratings, and embarassingly, had already been cancelled. The series was created by fast-rising writer Jack Thorne ("The Scouting Book For Boys," "This Is England '86," the upcoming "A Long Way Down"), who pitched it to the BBC as " 'Ghostbusters' meets 'Freaks & Geeks.' " And tonally at least, that's not far off, but the finished product was much darker, weirder, sexier and funnier than that sounds. The pilot introduces us to Paul (Ian de Caestecker), a teenager suffering from apocalyptic visions who discovers that he's an Angelic -- one of a special few able to see Fades, spirits of the dead who never made it to the afterlife. As it turns out, the Fades have a plan, and Paul, along with his best friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), twin sister Anna (Lily Loveless), would-be-girlfriend Jay (Sophie Wu) and his sinister mentor Neil (Johnny Harris), have to band together to stop Paul's visions from coming true. It sounds like any other post-'Buffy'/"Supernatural" type series, but Thorne (who penned all six episodes himself) makes it feel fresh, purely by putting together a cast of genuinely compelling characters (Harris, of "Snow White and the Huntsman," being a particular highlight), smart comedy, and raw emotion -- few shows can make you tear up during the "previously on" introduction, but this one, which sees Kaluuya deliver the recap in character, did. The villains were motivated and terrifying, the action well-directed and exciting, the plot twists surprising, and the whole thing was enormously entertaining, even if some aspects didn't quite work (there was a sub-plot featuring Paul's teacher (Tom Ellis) mourning his wife (Natalie Dormer), who'd been turned into a Fade, that never quite went anywhere). Hopefully, the BAFTA win will make the BBC reconsider their decision not to comission a second season, especially given the cliffhanger ending.
Must See Episode: The fourth, which picked up on the jaw-dropping climax of the previous episode, when Paul was rendered comatose, even as the lead Fade (Joe Dempsie) regains corporal form, and starts chewing up the townspeople.

9. "Homeland"

A decade on, the major attempts to tackle the war on terror have been in jumped-up action series like "24" or "Sleeper Cell," and a new show from some of the writer/producers on the former didn't exactly inspire hope of a more nuanced take, despite a starry cast assembled -- Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin. But as it turned out, "Homeland" -- a loose remake of Israeli series "Hatufim" -- was both gripping thriller and well-drawn character study, which against the odds managed to carry its premise across the first season without dragging or dropping off significantly. The show follows bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Danes) who is told by an informant that an American prisoner of war has been turned. Months later, she watches Private Nicholas Brody get off a plane back onto home soil after eight years, and is immediately suspicious of him. Is Brody really a sleeper agent with a terrible aim? Or is Carrie simply losing her mind? The answer was both, and also neither -- creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had created a plot without easy answers, set in a world of grey, that still barreled towards a breathlessly tense conclusion. Not that it was ever rushed, with the show just as interested in its protagonists as in its twists and turns, and while there were some weaker performances in the sidelines, the central trio more than delivered. Claire Danes reminded everyone of the talent she first displayed in "My So Called Life" with a turn that demands Emmy recognition; manipulative and vulnerable and terrified that she might be wrong, and that her mind might be betraying her. Damian Lewis, meanwhile, has always fared better on television than in movies, from "Band of Brothers" to "Life," and gave another storming performance here, expertly keeping Brody's motivations out of reach while still allowing an insight into the man. And Mandy Patinkin was a wonderful avuncular mentor, battling against his own imploding relationship and trying to save Carrie from herself (special mention too to Morena Baccarin as Brody's wife -- she'd always felt a little flat on "Firefly," but is ace here). There were certainly flaws, in retrospect: some patchy dialogue, a few subplots that felt like padding, a couple of moments that felt contrived or far-fetched. And questions still remain about whether the show will be able to stretch that premise to its second season and beyond. But they've already surpassed expectations, so we're certainly hopeful for its return this September.
Must See Episode: Episode 7, "The Weekend," in which Brody and Carrie's relationship comes to a head as they go for a dirty getaway together at her family's cabin. The episode culminates in a conversation so brilliantly written and unexpectedly performed that it'll be ensconsed in the TV hall of fame long after the show comes to an end.
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33 Comments

  • full tv series | November 7, 2012 6:39 AMReply

    This post is the best post and i watch many TV shows but i like tv shows that are Homeland, The Fades and Archer..............etc.

  • No Name | September 27, 2012 4:53 PMReply

    Where's The Vampire Diaries and The Walking Dead?! I think that Game of Thrones should've been number 1 by the way...

  • tdd | September 27, 2012 3:50 AMReply

    Who made this list without the walking dead.

  • moe | August 15, 2012 7:33 AMReply

    Thanks for the list! the spoilers werent cool though

  • Ross | August 14, 2012 6:43 PMReply

    Great list of Best Shows of 2012. I found some other great site to read articles about Breaking Bad.

  • Eylon | June 22, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    You have to put the show luck in too its amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • CKC | June 20, 2012 1:23 PMReply

    Justified is the best show on TV. There could be less about the bad guys and more about the star Timothy Olyphant in my opinion. There was way too many bad guys this season they need to have more about Raylan and less about the bad guys.

  • aurorsand147 | June 18, 2012 5:44 PMReply

    i am glad that The Fades is in the list. its a great show and BBC must be feeling really stupid to cancel it after just one season.

  • Rob | June 15, 2012 9:15 AMReply

    Girls is an embarassingly bad tv show, ahead of Game of Thrones, really? The directors and writers have done wonders with Game of Thrones given the magnitude of the books and particular budget constraints. In terms of quality, Veep is a much better show than Girls and it is easy to compare because they are on back-to-back. I laugh at one and turn the other off. You should throw blue bloods on this list with Tom Celek and his great mustache. Looking forward to News Room

  • Mike | June 14, 2012 7:48 PMReply

    It seems like way too few people are familiar with Homeland which is a total shame.

  • BG | June 14, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    Mad Men had some great episodes but Breaking Bad had a far better progressional arc. Seem as if Matt Weiner was trying to hard with certain themes toward the end of the season. For example was his sons decleration about life sucking in the elevator necessary?

  • Tyrion | June 14, 2012 10:35 AMReply

    Girls above game of thrones yeah right... this top is a joke. It's always sunny in philadelphia is the funniest and most provoking comedy. Breaking bad and Mad men are just boring and predictable but i guess that excepting Girls you had to put the same thing as everyone else up there.

  • sp | June 13, 2012 10:39 PMReply

    " Archer " is the best comedy on television- hands down. The writing is always clever, the dialogue is always incredible, the voice cast has wonderful chemistry, and the comedy is always politically-incorrect. Plus, the this show is always unpredictable. Where are the Emmy nominations for this brilliant program ?

    "Justified " is good , but not as good as season two. " Mad Men " & " Breaking Bad" are two of the most riveting dramas on tv.

  • Rebecca | June 13, 2012 10:21 PMReply

    Shameless is also really good.

  • Mark | June 13, 2012 8:19 PMReply

    Great list. Only switch I'd make is replacing Girls and Homeland with Delocated and The Good Wife.

    Only show better than Mad Men is Venture Bros. (which is off until 2013).

  • WRT | June 13, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    PT. 3 With BB and MM, you get all the thematic, atmospheric, and textural material that you'll ever get in probably half a season (because it's all just variation, reproduction of the same). The rest is just plot. It's just idle people-watching, no different ontologically from watching The Real Housewives – MM and BB just seem different because they look slick, are faux-serious and faux-intelligent. But, at the end of the day, plot is not art, it's a distraction. At least Community and Seinfeld and other sitcoms don't have pretensions to be much more than clever, funny distractions. MM and BB pose like they're great cinema, offering something other than the illusion of "interesting" people doing stuff – when, really, that's all there is. But, if that's what you're into – hundreds of hours of people watching – be my guest.

  • gremlin | June 18, 2012 1:23 PM

    This is a very good point, and one of my major problems with TV as a whole, in that any shows that aren't simple one off bites of entertainment or drama are difficult to appreciate for any sustained period of time simply because writers, actors, directors, networks aren't sure where they stand (will they have one more season, one more episode etc) hence it becomes impossible to tell a constantly compelling story. That being said I think Breaking Bad more than any other show has succeeded in keeping the story moving forward and keeping the characters interesting and I look forward to the final season. As you state the likes of Community are enjoyable because each episode can be seen individually without a great deal of back story whereas I feel Homeland especially (as well as shows like the Killing) can be very difficult to watch over a long period of time because you don't know if after hours of viewing you will get that satisfying ending or if it will just be thrown our or, indeed, if it will drag on until everyone has no interest in what happens to the characters because the story isn't structured it simply exists because "that's how many episodes they got"

  • J. Truant | June 14, 2012 6:57 PM

    This was very smartly ritten

  • Arch | June 14, 2012 6:42 AM

    I won't pretend to agree with everything you wrote (just because people love Mad men for all the wrong reasons won't change the fact that it still is a good show) but you raise a few very interesting points.

  • WRT | June 13, 2012 6:24 PM

    PT. 1 It's impossible for any blog's "Top Ten Shows" list to mean anything. There's only 15 shows on the air that are taken remotely seriously, and any top ten is just going to be some combination of those, with Mad Men and BB, unfailingly, at the top. So, fantastic -- more critical publicity for the same handful of shows that everyone's already into. GIRLS! GOT! COMMUNITY! Shockers, all! And the insights The Playlist provides! Everyone praises contemporary TV to the high heavens, when, by its very definition, it's just plot linked by the veneer of continuity (same characters, same visual style). You may as well watch reality TV for all that Mad Men offers: the same group of supposedly psychologically 'real' people doing variations on the same stuff.

  • WRT | June 13, 2012 6:24 PM

    PT. 2 In the 100 hours it will take you to watch Mad Men and BB, you could watch 50 critically-vetted movies, experience 50 distinct explications of a world, 50 distinct sets of ideation. And if you pick carefully, only 20 hours or fewer of those 100 will have been wasted on bleh material. Not that I'm categorically against anything long-form. I love that Carlos and Mysteries of Lisbon take their time to do what they set out to (irrespective of the films' quality, I just appreciate the boldness of their length). MM, BB, Girls – these are all arbitrarily fit to 45min-1hr per episode lengths, 10 episodes (or whatever) per season. They just go. Producing plot until they have to quit, each episode linked vaguely by some "character arc" (the second most annoying term in cinema/TV criticism, after "tone-poem") or "theme." They just produce plot as best they can within the network confines.

  • Juanita | June 13, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    Community...best cast in tv

  • Johnny Ronny | June 13, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    Treme is numero uno by far. Runner-up: Shameless. Third best: Game of Thrones.

  • Christopher Bell | June 13, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    Fades sounds good. Been hearing a lot about Homeland, but isn't that on Showtime? I try to keep some distance from their shows after "Weeds" (and "Dexter" -- never followed, but the previous season's ending twist was awful)... still have to catch up with "Justified" and "Mad Men." Always pleased with "Louie" and "Community" love.

  • Mike | June 13, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    I think Justified & Homeland are way too low, but at least they're there, & love the mention of The Fades.

  • Luis | June 13, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    Oh my god, "Girls"... Why, dear lord? After the abomination that was "Tiny Furniture", I can't believe the legion of hipster fans this show has garnered. Williamsburg and Bushwick have found their true ambassadors in this show's characters. I can't imagine a more perfect pairing. A mediocre show for a mediocre slice of Brooklyn life. It's... I mean it's just baffling.

  • Kimber Myers | June 13, 2012 3:46 PMReply

    This is spot on. And now I have some shows to catch up on.

  • Arch | June 13, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    It was obvious Girls would make it to the list. I could go on and on about this show. Not that I hate it, I literally find it mediocre ... it is just like Starbucks, pretentious babbling for an overall generic taste, and most of all: it's everywhere (James Franco has a opinion about Girls omygosh). Said it before: Dunham IS the voice of her generation, problem is not the voice, it's the generation. Yet Girls is here to stay mostly because people will continue to focus on bogus 'subversion', decorative cameos, cheap flattery (that is SOOO like me honey) and all. On the other hand you have Louie or Community. Not everything is lost. Also people somehow manage to love a great show like Mad Men...

  • Arch | June 13, 2012 3:54 PM

    On a side note: I mean Treme guys, seriously, one of the most mind blowing shows recently.

  • Sean | June 13, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Good top 8 but those bottom two shows are medicore.
    And I personally felt the third season of Community took a dip in quality where as Parks & Rec was just as strong this season, than last.

  • matthew weiner | June 13, 2012 3:25 PMReply

    louie>girls

  • rotch | June 13, 2012 4:05 PM

    ditto

  • cory everett | June 13, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    Anything other than those Top 3 shows on those top 3 spots and I would have rioted. Fortunately, they are in exactly the correct places.

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