Any discussion of TV’s best in 2012 begins with a single show: “Mad Men.” The standout episode of the year’s finest series was also its most divisive. “The Other Woman” split “Mad Men” fans into two camps. Those who watched in horror and railed, “How could Joan do that?” And those who watched in horror and reasoned, “How could Joan not do that?”
The brilliance of “The Other Woman” doesn’t simply involve the skin-crawling central storyline — the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offer Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) partnership in the agency if she sleeps with a sleazy Jaguar exec to help win an account — or the fist-pumping subplot — Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) receives a job offer too good to pass up and decides to leave SCDP, and mentor Don Draper (Jon Hamm), behind. It’s the way the episode, written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, digs so deeply into the series’ dual interests in office and gender politics.
If the Jaguar creep had never made his indecent proposal, how long would Joan have had to wait to get the partnership stake she deserves? If Peggy had never left, how high up in the company could she possibly have gone? Was Don’s attempt to stop Joan a genuine act of chivalry, or a reflection of his inflated sense of self-importance?
“The Other Woman” was a prime example of exceptional ensemble acting (shout out to Vincent Kartheiser’s odious Pete Campbell and Jared Harris’ desperately shifty Lane Pryce) and TV’s unique ability to take what we think we know about characters and put that knowledge to the test in completely unforeseen circumstances.
On the comedy front, nothing beats “Parks and Recreation,” which delivered the year’s best finale with “Win, Lose or Draw.” The culmination of a season-long arc involving Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) campaign for Pawnee city council, the episode contains everything we love about “Parks” while also raising the dramatic stakes by making us wait for the election results right along with the characters.
As usual for a show that uses its ensemble better than anything else on TV, everyone had a role to play: Tom (Aziz Ansari) planned a dope party, Ann (Rashida Jones) provided moral support, Ron (Nick Offerman) shared his wisdom (“clear alcohols are for rich women on diets”), Jerry (Jim O’Heir) forgot to vote. And in subplots only slightly related to the election, Andy (Chris Pratt) and April (Aubrey Plaza) pondered their future after an office crisis — ultimately solved in seconds by Donna (Retta), of course — and Chris (Rob Lowe) enjoyed a sexual marathon with domineering campaign manager Jen Barkley (Kathryn Hahn).
“Parks” packs more goodness into a single half-hour than most comedies do in a full season, but the episode really boiled down to the relationship between Leslie and Ben (Adam Scott). Their professional and personal partnership has become the core of “Parks,” and it’s Ben who asks for a recount when the first tally shows Leslie losing by a few votes. Ben’s unwavering belief in Leslie mirrors the show’s, and our own. The final results of the election represented exactly what kind of show “Parks” is: a Knope victory would mean the realization of a lifelong dream after years of hard work and dedication; a Knope defeat by idiot rich boy rival Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) would mean a triumph for cynicism. Spoiler alert: Leslie won.
Week after week “The Walking Dead” made a case for itself as fall TV’s top drama, and just about any Season 3 episode could easily rank with the year’s best. I certainly considered both the brutal, shocking “Killer Within” and the action-packed midseason finale “Made to Suffer” (with its incredible centerpiece showdown between Michonne and The Governor). But I kept coming back to the season’s third episode, “Walk with Me,” as the perfect example of the bold choices that made this the strongest block of “Dead” episodes yet.
The first “Dead” episode ever in which Andrew Lincoln’s central hero Rick Grimes is completely absent, “Walk with Me” unfolds almost entirely within the confines of zombie-free oasis Woodbury. Yet it never feels like an extraneous distraction thanks to all of the vital world-building business to attend to: introducing The Governor, re-introducing Merle, developing the bond between Andrea and Michonne, and establishing Woodbury as a place that’s equally seductive and dangerous. Just like that, everything about “The Walking Dead” felt so much bigger and more complex.
At the time, we didn’t even know what a necessary break “Walk with Me” was between Rick’s actions against the prisoners in “Sick” and the tragic reaction in “Killer Within.” Or that Laurie Holden was emerging as the show’s new leading lady because there would soon be a void to be filled.
Other outstanding episodes in 2012:
“Game of Thrones” – “Blackwater”: The sheer number of narrative threads were both
a strength and a weakness of the HBO fantasy saga’s second season, but “Blackwater” cut through the clutter to focus on a movie-quality epic battle. Neil Marshall’s direction was astonishing in its balance of massive, bloody fight sequences and quieter character moments that put a spotlight directly on great performances, especially from Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Jack Gleeson and Rory McCann.
“Late Show with David Letterman” – Oct. 29, 2012: When David Letterman’s on fire, there’s no one better in late night. He’s been the all-around champion of comedy, conversation and creativity for so long, it usually takes a special event for everyone to remember why he’s a living legend. With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on New York, Letterman took a risk: He hosted a show without an audience — delivering and dissecting his monologue, chatting with Denzel Washington, reconnecting talk shows with their roots in spontaneity, wit and… talk. Jimmy Fallon hosted an audience-less show too. He was playful and amusing. Letterman was riveting and hilarious.
Plus, a slew of runner-up contenders: “Louie” showcased an Emmy-worthy guest turn from Parker Posey in “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2”; “Doctor Who” memorably closed the book on the Pond era in “The Angels Take Manhattan”; “Breaking Bad” deftly combined Walt’s birthday with Skyler’s total meltdown in “Fifty-One”; “The Newsroom” delivered a thrilling start to an uneven first season in “We Just Decided To”; “Bunheads” crystallized its blend of character study, wit and dance in “Movie Truck”; and “Downton Abbey” capped a shaky second season in high style with the 2011 Christmas Special (broadcast in 2012 in the U.S.).