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

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 13, 2012 2:52 PM
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5. "Community"
Ah, "Community." One of the more dramatic behind-the-scenes stories of the year that didn't involve Michael Mann killing horses, "Community" ended up its third season with a headline-grabbing feud, with a timeshift change for its fourth season, and with most of the show's key creative personnel leaving or being fired. But none of that should take away from a season that, while highly divisive, was to our mind the show's best yet. Opening off with a musical number in which the cast promised to "have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined," Dan Harmon went on to live up to the first half of the promise, but certainly not the second, as the formal experimentation of the show moved from parodies of gangster and zombie movies to far more obscure and experimental techniques. Across the season, we got one episode that showcased seven alternate takes on the same three minutes, a "Treehouse of Horror"-style anthology, a parody of "Hearts of Darkness," a Manga segment, a full-blown musical episode, a Ken Burns parody, an almost unexplainable dream episode, a pitch-perfect "Law & Order spoof, a fake clip show, a 16-bit animated video game homage, and a heist flick. Nothing else on TV -- even the formally nebulous "Louie" -- has anything like the experimental mindset of "Community," and it's a consistent joy to see what it'll turn to each week, and more often than not they pull it off with aplomb. Not that they can't handle more traditional sitcom-type plots: indeed, some of the season's highlights were the more grounded stories (grounded being a decidedly relative term, it should be said). But no matter what they were up to, you could generally be assured that it would be consistently, gut-bustingly funny, and contain Harmon's rigorous sense of story-above-all-else. It's a show that, however out there it got, is generally rooted in actual human behavior and isn't afraid to go to some dark places. There were a few duff episodes, but fewer than in previous seasons, and experiments with heavier serialization towards season's end fell a little flat, thanks mainly to an odd plot direction for Chang (Ken Jeong). But virtually nothing on this list was as bold, as rib-tickling, as surprising, and generally satisfying as "Community" this year. We suspect it'll be the last great season, but we live in hope that its brilliance will continue into the end of its story.
Must-See Episode: A viciously difficult one to pick -- meticulously plotted heist parody "The First Chang Dynasty," the insanely ambitious and emotional raw "Virtual Systems Analysis," Ken Burns parody "Pillows and Blankets" and "Glee"-skewering Christmas episode "Regional Holiday Music" all could have filled this slot. But nothing quite beat "Remedial Chaos Theory," the episode that shows a party across seven different timelines, removing one member of the cast from the equation each time. It was, quite simply, perfect, and one of the best sitcom episodes in the history of the form.

4. "Game of Thrones"
Last time we compiled one of these lists, "Game of Thrones" hadn't even finished its first season. King Robert and Ned Stark were still alive, the kingdom was still at peace, and there were no such thing as dragons. Things have changed, and changed even more by the end of the second season, with more characters introduced to the world, and just as many have left it, normally in brutal fashion. And while it didn't necessarily have the shock of the new, the sophomore season didn't skip a beat, maintaining an incredibly high level of consistency across the ten episodes, and only getting better and better as it went along. There were issues along the way, to be sure: the arcs of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen felt like they were mostly stalling for the third season -- when you think about what the characters actually went though, it's worryingly little. But there were so many other joys throughout, from seeing Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in power and the interactions of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) to the fall of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), that the show mostly didn't suffer for it. It still remains genuinely spectacular in terms of the production value, telling stories on a scale never seen on TV (it's clear that the budget had been amped-up second time around), and directing and writing across the board has been world-class (there were as many quotable lines as most comedies, but Bronn's "There's no cure for being a cunt" has to take the prize as line of the season). And that cast only gets richer and more expansive even as heads roll, with new additions like Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham, Nonso Anozie and Rose Leslie all doing sterling work. Thanks to a year of repeats and the DVD release, it's winning over more and more fans who'd otherwise been put off by the fantasy elements (even our editor-in-chief, rarely a TV watcher has been addicted), and right now, our biggest issue with the show is that we've got to wait more than nine months for it to come back on screen. With that army of white walkers heading towards the Wall, things are only going to get darker and darker, we imagine.
Must-See Episode: It's got to be "Blackwater," the focused, penultimate installment, which revolved entirely around the battle ensuing when Stannis' forces try to attack King's Landing. Matching thrilling action with terrific character beats, it's the kind of thing that's rarely, if ever, been seen on television.

3. "Girls"
Uh-oh. We imagine that any mention whatsoever of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow's HBO comedy, anywhere on the list, would bring out the show's fervent gang of furious detractors, let alone making it this high up the list. But while we obviously appreciate and accept diversity of opinion on... well, anything, it's becoming increasingly difficult to see why so many spend so much time and energy loathing a show that, as far as we're concerned, has proven itself to be the best comedy airing on TV over the past year. The wall of hype that preceded the show was certainly off-putting -- even we were a little suspicious. But it's proven to be a truthful, complex and deceptively original take on twentysomething life, free of sentiment but not without heart. Your twenties are a horrifically self-absorbed time, and Dunham has portrayed that perfectly, something that's meant that some viewers have struggled to latch onto the characters, finding them "unlikable." But we care less about whether we like characters on TV shows, and more about whether they're interesting, and like Don Draper, Walter White and Theon Greyjoy, the girls of "Girls" do terrible things because they're human beings, and that's what human beings do. You're not meant to find them paragons of virtue, and the show has expertly twisted perspective on its protagonists as time's gone on, demonstrating that they, like the viewer, might not sympathize, but they certainly empathize. It helps, too, that the series isn't just beautifully observed (most people we knew, whether under or over the age of thirty, have at least had one moment of squirming recognition), but also incredibly funny without ever sacrificing tone or character integrity for the sake of a gag. The supporting cast have been consistently surprising and enjoyable (the strong dramatic turn from Kathryn Hahn in the most recent episode was a particular highlight), and the behind-the-scenes talent just as strong, with Dunham's directorial skills improving a hundredfold since "Tiny Furniture," and collaborators Richard Shephard and Jody Lee Lipes doing sterling work too. For all the facile "Sex and the City" comparisons, it can't just be Judd Apatow's presence in the credits (and the presence of Betty Anne Baker as the mother) that makes us thing that the show is closer to a successor to "Freaks & Geeks" and "Undeclared" in its mix of humor and raw, autobiographical emotions. It's been uneven in places, a few episodes became a little too traditionally sit-com-y in spots, but we wouldn't bet against Dunham and co. fixing these and raising the game even further in season two.
Must-See Episode: Installment seven, "Welcome To Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident" is the best evidence yet of the show firing on all cylinders -- hilarity, drama and new perspectives on its characters all within a brisk half-hour.

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  • 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 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


  • rotch | June 13, 2012 4:05 PM


  • 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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