We’re solidly in the middle of an age of micro-analysis, especially when it comes to TV. The cable news jabberers obsess over every political squeak and squawk, which made election 2012’s TV commentary particularly noisy. From President Obama’s listless turn at his first debate and Clint Eastwood’s heart-to-heart with an empty chair at the RNC to Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded “47 percent” pitch, the bigmouths had plenty of material to chew on. It was a little addictive, the endless cant, like a giant box of stale popcorn.
In the midst of the noise, I was particularly grateful for the wry eye of Jon Stewart. The funniest analyses of the campaign — emphasis on pain — came from Stewart and his sharp “Daily Show” writers. Stewart was all over the election cycle, teasing interviewee Obama about his debate performance, and later, after the election, cheering about the “Avalanche on [expletive] Mountain” at Fox News when Karl Rove went into a denial spiral as the results poured in. All year long, Stewart rolled his eyes, cursed, and squealed in a really high voice in the name of media absurdity. When the false certainties and the preaching to the converted got old on cable, Stewart was the antidote. Stephen Colbert, too, mocked the squawking on “The Colbert Report,” with nightly scripts about the election that were little Swiftian masterpieces.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the screen, TV lovers continued to scrutinize every shot in every scene of every worthy TV series. Bloggers recapped at length and fans commented at length, too, forming a vocal punditry for each and every show. No detail was too small, as incidentals such as the orange sherbet on “Mad Men” got full-court attention. The high focus, though, turned out to be very bad indeed for “Homeland,” whose second season, which arrived a week after it swept the Emmy Awards, did not bear up well under the scrutiny.
Some said the “Homeland” story line had become implausible, others said it wasn’t believable on its own terms; I felt it moved at too fast a pace to be either. The writers got in the habit of delivering twists in every episode, in the manner of “24,” and in the process they let too many strings go loose. The CIA let Brody go free, knowing he’d been a terrorist and that he’d been alone with the vice president when he died? There were countless questions the writers never bothered to address. Also, the relationship between Carrie and Brody, suddenly star-crossed lovers, was awkward when there were no barriers in the way. I considered keeping the show off my year-end Top 10 list and making it one of the many elevens; but the truth is, despite my continual eye rolling and kvetching, I could not stop watching.
“Breaking Bad,” on the other hand, continued to flourish under close scrutiny. I sometimes wish the show would wane in quality, just so I could feel right putting something else at the top of my list. Each of the eight episodes this year was a gem, with the hour called “Fifty-One” shining particularly brightly as Skyler essentially told Walt that she was waiting for him to die. For a show that moves relatively slowly, “Breaking Bad” is consistently riveting. Every shot, every line, every look counts. I have faith that Vince Gilligan will end the series next summer with just the right touch.
Most of the other dramas on my list only got better the closer you looked. You could discuss characters as if they were independent entities with motivations of their own — i.e., as if they were people. That was the problem with Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”: The issues were timely and complex, and beautifully handled, but the characters were one-dimensional. There wasn’t much to say about any of them, except that they were noble, smart people who talked way too fast.
“Mad Men” certainly invited viewers to dissect Don Draper and his new wife, Megan, as they navigated the changing times of the mid-1960s. He dug in his heels, she floated forward, as did, surprisingly, Roger Sterling. The season wasn’t the best string of “Mad Men” episodes so far; those were seasons one and four. But it offered lots of important character development, especially regarding Peggy and her career love, as well as a sadly poignant climax to the show’s own British invasion, Lane Pryce. The writing on “Mad Men” is unequaled on TV right now, and that’s saying a lot when it’s up against the likes of “Breaking Bad” and the networks’ best drama, “The Good Wife.”
“Boardwalk Empire” is the most uneven series on my list; morning-after opinions went up and down from week to week, justifiably. But the Prohibition drama ultimately built across the third season to some of the series’ strongest material so far. It still lacked momentum when it came to the gangster plots, but the addition of Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti, the development of Margaret’s love affair with Owen, and the further exploration of the war-scarred Richard Harrow brought raw power to the costume-heavy setting.
You had to look hard at two of my favorite comedies, “Happy Endings” and “30 Rock,” to get all the allusions and jokes that the writers tucked into the fast dialogue. Second viewings were often rewarding. “30 Rock,” which will have its series finale next month, had a particularly strong year, as it goofed joyously on the presidential election, bringing it down to narcissist Jenna Maroney and her Florida fan base. Along with “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Saturday Night Live,” and the election story line on “Parks and Recreation,” “30 Rock” offered timely, top-notch American satire.
And maybe TV viewers needed to not look quite so hard at “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s comedy about friends in their 20s in New York, weathering identity crises and sharing far too much information. Critics attacked the show for its narcissism and lack of diversity, instead of laughing at the people it so accurately lampooned.
A few of my favorite comedies weren’t strictly comedies. Like half-hour dramas, shows such as “Louie” and “Nurse Jackie” balanced jokes with character depth. “Louie” was amusing, but it was also a journey into middle-age existential angst. The guests, from Melissa Leo to David Lynch, were extraordinary, none more so than Parker Posey. The season could have used a unifying principle, and less non sequitur, but each episode nonetheless played out something like a short film.
After three seasons of schooling viewers on the relentless downward spiral of addiction, and the way that an addict will ruin a perfectly wonderful life, “Nurse Jackie” finally gave us a sober Jackie. It was a bittersweet season; true to the show’s honest approach, Jackie’s life did not instantly right itself the moment she stopped taking pills. But still, there was earned triumph in the air when, in the last moments of the season, she says, “I made it.” Sadly, this show gets forgotten in the cable glut of excellent shows. So does “Shameless,” despite its wit and human spirit. The way the six Gallagher kids scrap and survive, despite the alcoholism of their pathetic father (a perfect William H. Macy), is one of TV’s warmest pleasures. Making the season: A killer guest performance by Louise Fletcher.
Number 11 on my list? Every year, as I torture over the best shows, there are strong contenders that, on other days, might have landed in the top 10. In no particular order, they are NBC’s sweet “Parks and Recreation”; HBO’s crammed epic, “Game of Thrones”; the absurdist “Wilfred” on FX; the promising “Nashville” on ABC; PBS’s clever “Sherlock”; the chess game that is CBS’s “The Good Wife”; FX’s amiable “Justified”; and the atmospheric Starz soap opera “Magic City.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter