Since we’ve been talking so much about television this week, why not go all the way and do our annual recap? Truth be told, it was a slightly off year on the small screen, the first plateau in quality that I can remember in about ten years. A number of the top-drawer shows experienced something of a “downturn”, e.g. Justified and Louie, and new contenders were not quite as numerous. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been plenty worth watching and commenting on. God no:

Top Twelve Television Series of 2012

5808393_700b12. Game of Thrones. I’ll admit I was pretty skeptical after all the “sound and fury” of the first season, which felt less like a fantasy epic and more like a (very talky) epic fantasy–and I’m not talking about the swords and sorcery kind… It was almost an object lesson in the dangers of the blurring the lines between good and bad too overtly, i.e. it can keep the audience at bay. But the second season more than compensated for what came before, and when the “sweep” finally kicked in, boy did it kick.

11. Modern Family. Many of us wrote the show off after it fell into such a rut last year, way overplaying the Manny thing, and the Gloria thing, and the Cam thing, etc. But then the powers-that-be gave the personality gags a rest and kept quality punchlines coming, and voila! Jay Pritchett remains one of the best written (and under-recognized) characters on network TV. Grace abounds.

10. Justified. The showrunners had quite a task on their hands having to follow-up a villain as memorable as Mags Bennett, and they almost pulled it off. Almost. The Boyd-Raylan relationship remains the most interesting man-to-man dynamic on cable. Here’s to hoping they return to the hills for season 4.

9. Mad Men. The season of Pete Campbell! The fistfight, electroshock therapy would have been enough to redeem the slightly uneven season but then everyone’s favorite/least favorite weasel went and orchestrated “The Other Woman,” which may have been the single finest hour of television in 2012.

8. The Walking Dead. Finally starting to fulfill its potential after two rocky seasons, the country’s favorite zombie show picked up the pace and, to use a very tired pun, rose from the dead. But perhaps the more important change was that they nixed a few of the more irritating characters and replaced them with some of the coolest. Whoever did the casting this past season deserves an award.

7. Veep. I could watch Julia Louis-Dreyfus read the phone book. The fact that she’s reading it with Tony Hale and Matt Walsh and the amazing Timothy Simons only sweetens the deal. The direction of the invincible Armando Iannucci certainly doesn’t hurt either. I strongly suspect the second season will be outtasite.

6. Happy Endings. It may have started out as yet another Friends/Family Guy clone, but the ensemble has gelled so well that the derivative descriptions no longer apply. And they’re so clearly having a blast making it. Twice as funny as any show on NBC right now.

5. Sherlock. When each season is only three 90-minute episodes, there’s a lot of pressure. One subpar episode (like there was in the first season), and it taints the whole beast. The second season of Sherlock didn’t strike a single false note. Even the occasional digs at religion weren’t too distracting. Mark my words: Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn will go down as the all-time greatest version of Holmes.

lena-donald-walking-77987PCNGirls18--30050160651723954554. Girls. Yes, the in-your-face carnality is way overdone–and it’s totally understandable if you just can’t watch. But someone needed to call foul on contemporary (youth) sexual mores, and a man would have eroticized everything too much. Yet as insightful and dare-I-say important as its commentary on gender and youth and sex (and law!) is, no one would care if Girls weren’t so incredibly funny, or the characters so fully drawn. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Dunham is the most interesting (and non-politically correct) student of human nature working in the medium currently. Plus, the show boasts a soundtrack that is second to none.

3. Parenthood. Do we really need to say anything more about the beauty of this show?! While not as consistent as its forerunner Friday Night Lights, showrunner Jason Katims still has the biggest heart on TV by a long shot, and the way they’ve turned the least sympathetic characters on the show into the most sympathetic is a feat of, well, grace. Certainly if there were an award for the series with the most sermon illustrations per episode, Parenthood would win by a landslide.

2. Breaking Bad. Whoever said the pacing has slowed to a crawl clearly hasn’t been watching. Breaking Bad may have passed its critical darling sell-by date, but the unparalleled acting, scripting and direction keeps it as the best drama on air right now. And even though humor has dissipated somewhat, Vince Gilligan’s moral vision has only gotten clearer and more severe. We are witnessing the final act of the first great opera of the 21st century. Or second great one, if you count The Sopranos (which I don’t).

1. Community. Plenty of shows made me laugh, but no other show gave me chills of wonder while doing so. Seriously. The third season of Community was so unhinged and daring and creative and funny that the only legitimate response after a good two-thirds of the episodes was amazement. We won’t be seeing the likes of it on a major network for years to come. If I absolutely had to choose a single favorite episode, I’d probably go with “Pillows and Blankets.” “Digital Estate Planning” and “Introduction to Finality” would be very close behind. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Honorable Mentions: Nurse Jackie, Portlandia, The Colbert Report, Top Chef, Louie

Guiltiest Pleasures: Revolution, Arrow, The Voice, The League

Biggest Disappointments: Downton Abbey (next season: aliens!), Parks and Rec (when did it become so unbearably saccharine?), Newsroom (even the great Jeff Daniels can’t save Sorkin’s 150 proof moralism).

Most Overrated (Will’s excellent post notwithstanding): Homeland. I wouldn’t be the first to call Homeland a blue-state retread of 24, nor would I be the first to say that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At their best both these shows are super entertaining thrill rides and who doesn’t need a little escapism to help them unwind on a Sunday evening? Like its older brother, the show’swhite-knuckle plotting distracts you from how silly and histrionic it actually is, but unlike 24, Homeland reeks of self-seriousness. A lot has been made of Claire Danes’ high-pitched portrayal of Carrie Mathison, and it’s impressive, sure, but when it comes to sociologically important, emotionally fractured female protagonists, I’ll take Hannah Horvath or Jackie Peyton any day of the week.

Shows I Don’t Watch But Will One Day: Adventure Time, Fringe, Sons of Anarchy