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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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2. "Breaking Bad"
The fall of Walter White, cancer-diagnosed-high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-New Mexico-meth-kingpin, continued ever deeper in the fourth season of "Breaking Bad," returning to the heights of season two after a season three with serious highs that also dragged a little in spots. Thanks to the graduation of Gustavo Fring from uneasy ally to full-on antagonist, as he slit the throat of his henchman with a box-cutter in the opening episode, there was a new, contained drive for the season perhaps absent in the previous one: Walt and Jesse needed to find a way to off Fring or their time left on Earth would be a short one. What "Breaking Bad" does better than anything else on television is sheer suspense, both in individual sequences (of which there were many across season four) and in its overall arc, and there were plenty of instances where you couldn't do anything but watch, jaw agape, wondering how the characters could possibly get out of their latest fix. Of course, as ever, it was laced with a wonderful black humor, fascinating characters and some imagery as haunting as anything we saw in the movies in the last year (the show consistently has the most impressive cinematography of anything on cable). Nothing else has balls the size of "Breaking Bad." And nothing else has anything to compare to the titanic performance of Bryan Cranston, who took Walt to a new low in this season (poisoning a child, with every possibility that he might have died), changing dramtically from the person we met in season one. And somehow, you still root for his survival, despite the monstrous acts he's committed. Season 5 could be nothing else but Cranston giving monologues to camera in character and we'd still tune in religiously every week, but we'll be eager to see how the show moves on without Giancarlo Esposito, and with the game entirely changed.
Must-See Episode: The finale, "Face Off," featuring the unforgettable, gory execution of Walt's plan, a rare moment of triumph, and the revelation of the depths to which Walt has sunk.

1. "Mad Men"
Consistently one of, if not the strongest, things on television across the last five years, "Mad Men" got an extended hiatus after season four, as negotiations between creator Matthew Weiner, Lionsgate and AMC dragged on and on. But all we can say after the conclusion of the fifth season is that maybe every TV show should get an eighteen-month break before picking up again. The most coherent and best run of episodes that the series has yet produced, season five saw "Mad Men" cement its place not so much as the Great American Novel for television as a collection of Great American Short Stories, each episode telling a contained, compelling narrative while still building towards a bigger picture -- exactly what a serialized television drama should be doing. Weiner and his writing staff took their characters to new and bold places, including Don's new marriage, Pete's extra-marital infatuation, Roger's experiments with LSD, Peggy leaving the nest, Sally's rocky path into womanhood, the prostitution of Joan and the sad, sad tale of Lane Pryce. Even smaller characters were taken into entirely unexpected places -- most notably Paul having become a Hare Krishna with ambitions to write for "Star Trek." Entire essays could be, and have been written (including our own) on the thematic richness of this season, from the bartering of women in society, the coming of the swinging sixties leaving the older generation like Roger and Don behind, unsatisfaction with your lot, the price of success, the steady plunge into depression and death... we could go on. For all the brilliance of all the shows we've been talking about (and the Golden Age of television is clearly continuing), nothing else is even attempting what "Mad Men" is going for, let alone pulling it off. Bum notes have been struck -- Betty's fat suit-aided plotline makes you wonder why they don't just write Don's ex-wife out of the show entirely. But moments of ambition that don't quite hit can be forgiven by the extraordinary level of achievement of 95% of the show. And it truly has the most gifted cast of television as well with Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser all reaching new heights in their portrayals. Plus Pete Campbell got punched in the face multiple times, which is enormously, enormously satisfying.
Must-See Episode: As powerful as the death of Lane Pryce in "Commissions And Fees" was, the low-key brilliance of "Signal 30," revolving around a dinner party at the Campbells' was the perfect example of the short-story structure that's seen the show become even better.

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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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