When looking at network programming schedules that are filled with cops & lawyer series, medical dramas and far too many reality shows, it’s easy to think that TV has become a wasteland.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
While most of the major networks play it safe, cable has emerged as the prime location for great television dramas. Fans and critics may differ on which shows are the best, but almost all of the TV series generating actual excitement among viewers are on cable.
As 2012 winds down, we’ve assembled a list of the ten best TV dramas of the year. It wasn’t easy and only two broadcast network series managed to break into the list. The shows picked vary greatly by genre and content, but they all managed to deliver unique stories that kept us on the edge of our seats from week to week.
By it’s very nature, this is list is a subjective opinion. So if your favorite TV series didn’t make the cut, feel free to let us know in the comment section below!
Also, there may be some minor spoilers ahead.
Another year, another Shawn Ryan series cut down long before its time.
In 2012, Ryan and co-creator, Karl Gajdusek brought “Last Resort” to ABC. The premise follows the crew of a U.S.nuclear submarine that refuses to nuke Pakistan under suspicious circumstances only to be branded traitors and attacked by their own country. To save themselves, the crew seizes a NATO controlled island and becomes a defacto world power.
The pilot episode was amazing, but the more impressive feat was that “Last Resort” maintained that excitement during the subsequent episodes. Although the writing occasionally stumbled when the focus shifted away from the island, “Last Resort” was carried by the strong performances of Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman, Robert Patrick and action star in the making, Daniel Lissing.
Like its predecessors, “Last Resort” will wrap up its run after only 13 episodes. But at the very least, viewers will get an end to its story.
Ordinarily, “Fringe” places much higher on this list. But it’s been a strong year for television and a weaker year for this series. “Fringe” maintains a place on this list largely due to the strong second half of the fourth season; which wrapped up the alternate universe storyline in a meaningful way and it even brought back Leonard Nimoy for one last run as William Bell.
Currently in its fifth and final season, “Fringe” jumped to the year 2036… and it just hasn’t been the same show. A few of the episodes definitely felt like filler stories that were simply marking time until the end.
But occasionally, “Fringe” still shows some of the brilliant edge that made it so amazing in the first place. The fate of Olivia and Peter’s daughter reinvigorated the middle of the fifth season while John Noble is once again demonstrating his remarkable range through Walter’s regression into a cold and ruthless man.
Fox is usually quick to pull the trigger on genre shows, but the network actually ensured that “Fringe” fans will get a proper finale. And for that, we’re grateful.
While the fifth season of “Sons of Anarchy” didn’t quite match the intensity of its fourth season, it did manage to bring its Hamlet inspired story to a more satisfying place.
This was the year that Charlie Hunnam’s Jax Teller finally ascended to the presidency of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club. Although Jax proved to be a shrewd operator, he failed to be a better man than his stepfather, Clay. And it may have cost Jax his wife in addition to sowing dissent within SAMCRO.
While Jax’s slow fall has been compelling, Ron Perlman deserves special praise for making Clay sympathetic despite all of his monstrous actions. The look of betrayal on Clay’s face as he was led away said it all. “Sons of Anarchy” also benefited from strong guest turns by Harold Perrineau and Jimmy Smits, as well as Donal Logue, who appears to be one of the show’s newest adversaries.
Creator Kurt Sutter has repeatedly hinted that “Sons of Anarchy” will only run seven seasons on FX. If that’s the case, then the endgame may begin next year. And it should still be a hell of a ride.
FX’s other signature drama is the criminally underrated “Justified.” Few series can adeptly mix humor and gunplay in the way that “Justified” can. As U.S. Deputy Raylan Givens, Timothy Olyphant may be playing the role of a lifetime.
Although the third season didn’t have the great Margo Martindale, the “Justified” creative team brought in two new adversaries: the fallen mobster Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) and the enigmatic Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) who helped make Raylan’s life even more difficult this season.
Then of course, there’s Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder. Boyd is the rare TV adversary who can be humane or funny without undercutting his sense of menace. Boyd can also get away with things like shooting one of his best friends because Goggins makes him so damn likable.
At some point, the long conflict between Raylan and Boyd is going to have to come to a conclusion. But it doesn’t have to happen anytime soon.
Only three episodes of BBC’s “Sherlock” were released in 2012… and they were still among the very best episodes of the year. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss continued to bring new life to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective in a modern setting that makes the old stories seem new again.
“Sherlock” is so good that you almost wish that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman weren’t on the verge of international superstardom if only to get more “Sherlock” episodes out of them. Season two introduced the duo to Irene Adler, brought them to the truth about the Hounds of Baskerville and even led to a final confrontation with James Moriarty that left the world believing Sherlock Holmes was a fraud… and dead.
And we’re still not sure how Sherlock managed to survive!
It’s going to be a long wait until “Sherlock” season 3… possibly as long as 2014. And while “Elementary” hasn’t been the embarrassment that it could have been, there’s no comparison between that series and “Sherlock.” This is the real deal.
If “Boardwalk Empire” was only up against broadcast network dramas then this probably would have been the show that dominated the conversation among critics.
After murdering Jimmy Darmody in the second season finale, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) went into even darker territory in season three as he was forced into a bloody war with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) just to maintain control of his criminal enterprises.
“Boardwalk Empire” also boasts a very strong supporting cast of compelling characters like Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) who sometimes outshine Nucky himself. However, Buscemi was at the top of his game late in the season as Nucky’s losses started to pile up.
The production values of the show are also impressive, but “Boardwalk Empire’s” greatest strength is its willingness to shock the audience. Characters that would be safe on almost any other series are definitely not safe on this show.
Frank Darabont deserves every bit of praise for bringing Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, “The Walking Dead” to television. This series wouldn’t have worked without Darabont’s involvement and his ugly dismissal from the show is still a stain on AMC’s reputation.
That said, Darabont’s successor, Glen Mazzara perfected “The Walking Dead” in its third season, making it into the show that we wanted all along. It also helped that “The Walking Dead” is currently adapting one of the comic book’s most popular storylines in addition to bringing in fan favorite characters like Michonne (Danai Gurira) and The Governor (David Morrissey).
Kirkman and Mazzara have adopted a different approach to adapting “The Walking Dead” that seems designed to throw off even the comic book fans with unexpected deaths and surprises. In its current incarnation, “The Walking Dead” holds nothing back and it seems like almost anything could happen at any given moment. And the living have proven to be much more dangerous than the legions of flesh eating zombies still looking for fresh victims.
Of course, AMC and Mazzara have recently parted ways over “a difference of opinion.” Hopefully the next showrunner of this series will follow the approach that’s already working well.
Early last fall, “Homeland” took home the Emmy Award for Best Drama series as well as acting nods for Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Then “Homeland” season 2 made a strong argument for the series to win all of the awards again next year.
During the first few episodes of the year, the speed at which “Homeland” cycled through plotlines was astonishing. Carrie Mathison finally had vindication and Nicholas Brody was exposed as a terrorist… by episode four! The fifth episode featured exceptional performances by Danes and Lewis as Carrie wore Brody down and turned him into a CIA asset.
At times, “Homeland” still managed to tread into territory that would have seemed ludicrous even on “24.” And there was a particularly insipid mid-season hit-and-run storyline featuring Brody’s daughter and the Vice President’s son that felt like it was stolen from the CW’s playbook.
Even with some glaring weaknesses, “Homeland” was still ridiculously fun to watch thanks to Danes, Lewis and especially Mandy Patinkin, who sometimes gets overlooked for his great turn as Carrie’s mentor, Saul Berenson.
The second season finale did a masterful job of lulling the audience and the characters into a false sense of security before springing one last shock. “Homeland” season 3 may have a hard time being as unpredictable as the second season, but the series has more than earned its place among the best shows on television.
“Breaking Bad” is a masterpiece that seems destined to be among the all time great TV shows.
Coming back to AMC for the first half of its fifth and final season, “Breaking Bad” solidified the descent of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from a good family man into one of the most ruthless characters on television. Walt is simultaneously the hero and the villain of his own story. And no matter how self-destructive Walt gets, we can’t turn away from the making of a monster.
“Breaking Bad” season five part one had an amazing string of episodes including iconic moments like Jesse’s magnet scheme, the train heist and Walt’s final confrontation with Mike. Aaron Paul had another great year as Jesse tried to pull back from Walt’s orbit. The rest of the cast was also terrific. There are no weak links here.
“Breaking Bad” narrowly missed coming in at number 1 on this list. It deserves all of the accolades that it receives. But there is one show that’s better.
HBO set the bar high with the first season of “Game of Thrones.” But the second season was better in every way.
Prior to “Game of Thrones,” there was never a fantasy TV series that was this good. It’s a testament to George R. R. Martin's skill at creating a believable fantasy world filled with very recognizably human characters. Executive producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss also deserve credit for adapting Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” in a way that stays true to the spirit of the original novels.
It was no fluke that Peter Dinklage won an Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister after the first season. In “Game of Thrones,” Dinklage deservedly received top billing in the series as Tyrion became the new Hand of the King and he ultimately saved the throne for his family before suffering a severe injury and a fall from power
“Game of Thrones” also brought in several new major characters as war broke out for control of Westros and the Iron Throne. And each of the new additions like Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) made the world seem like a richer place. The casting has been impeccable and it says a lot that the younger actors are among the best on the show. I predict that Maisie Williams will have a long and successful career after her time as Arya Stark on this series.
Benioff and Weiss managed to get HBO to increase the budget this season for the epic battle that took place in episode 9, “Blackwater.” That episode was unlike anything else on TV this year and it earned one of the few perfect scores we’ve ever given on this website. Tyrion’s stirring speech to the disheartened troops at King’s Landing should have been more than enough to give Dinklage a second Emmy Award.
Even when stacked against the great TV shows on this list, “Game of Thrones” remains far ahead of the pack… and narrowly ahead of “Breaking Bad.”
But feel free to disagree in the comment section below!