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Best Shows Of 2012: 15 Shows That Almost Made The Cut From 'Spartacus' To 'Strike Back'

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Yesterday I shared my Top 10 Shows of 2012, and in that column, I mentioned that I was pretty optimistic about the state of television, given the strength and variety of shows that were in my Fancy 15, i.e., the next tier down.

I look over my Top 10, the list below and the roster of Honorable Mentions at the end and I think, how will I find time to add new shows to my DVR next year? But I will, because new and compelling shows will come along, as they do every year, and I certainly won't begrudge the time they take up. That's what makes the job fun -- the knowledge that even though there's a lot of bad TV out there, there are dozens and dozens of worthy programs, and every year brings fresh offerings that come out of left field and find new ways to get inside our heads.

Without further ado, here's my Fancy 15:

  • "Archer," FX: Will this show ever get credit for being one of the smartest comedies on TV? I don't know, but I do know that I want Sterling Archer's narcissistic adventures to continue until the sun burns out. This spy comedy continues to improve each season and get terrific performances from its razor-sharp cast, and the whole enterprise often ends up being a sly, surprisingly large-hearted sendup of cable TV's favorite trope: The selfish dude who rarely learns his lesson. (Spoiler alert: Sometimes Archer learns his lesson. Sort of.)
  • "Call the Midwife," PBS: When you watch television imported from other countries, you see just how fixated American TV can be on certain forms, tones and structures. "Call the Midwife" could be a bit too sentimental, but it was also a lovely evocation of a particular time and place, an earnest endeavor that gave complex female characters pride of place, and a wonderful showcase for a strong cast, especially Miranda Hart. (If her career doesn't get a big boost on both sides of the pond after this, I give up.) Hart played a well-intentioned nurse named Chummy, who was my favorite new character of the year -- and there's your reason to catch up with "Midwife" before the show's Dec. 30 holiday special and March 31 return. (My "Call the Midwife" review is here.)
  • "Community," NBC: What more can be said about the Greendale gang that has not already been said by the show's armies of exhaustive and entertaining online reviewers? Not a lot. The show's new creative team will have a lot of history to live up to when the NBC comedy returns in 2013, given the "Community's" inventive and influential history and the evocative run of 2012 episodes crafted by the show's ace writers, cast and creator Dan Harmon.
  • "Cougar Town," ABC (and soon, TBS): No comedy on TV has a bigger or squishier heart -- a heart that is usually afloat in a sea of red wine, of course. The best dramas are often funny, and the best comedies can make you cry, as "Cougar Town's" ABC finale did. Cheers to the Cul De Sac crew for surviving to imbibe again on another network in 2013. (Merch alert: Check out my annual charity auction if you want to buy your own Penny Can.)
  • "The Good Wife," CBS: The Kalinda situation: Let us not speak of it. Like Season 2 of "Friday Night Lights," can we pretend that just didn't happen? Because in every other respect, this show remains a stylish, intelligent and entertaining hour of television.
  • "The Hour," BBC America: America's hourlong drama about the staff of a news program was the shrieky, preachy "Newsroom" -- and the UK got this slinky, delish show. No fair! Despite its commercially-minded tendencies, "The Hour" still manages to make some cogent points about the intersection of power, influence and publicity, and its first-rate cast to elevates Abi Morgan's strong writing. It all makes for a bracing, tasty cocktail. (My review of Season 2 and interview with the cast and Morgan is here.)
  • "Hunted," Cinemax: This London-made drama is not just a well-executed spy story but a thought-provoking look inside the workings of private espionage agencies, which are arguably scarier than the CIA or MI-6. (Who watches these watchers? No one.) The first season featured a strong performance from Melissa George, a terrific supporting cast and some well-shot, bone-crunching action. There were some unanswered questions too, but the good news is, Cinemax is continuing the franchise after parting with its BBC co-producers. (My initial review of "Hunted" is here and my post-finale interview with creator Frank Spotnitz is here.)
  • "Justified," FX: Watching a season of "Justified" is like eating a wonderfully prepared meal; each course is just right, not too fancy, not too predictable, and seasoned by the hands of people who know exactly what they're doing. It's both escapist and emotionally intelligent, and that's a hard combination to pull off at this level.
  • "Luck," HBO: The races that punctuated this David Milch drama were among the most glorious sights of 2012, and the chronicle of a grizzled trainer's resurgence and the tortured friendships of a gang of track rats were all perfectly observed. The Dustin Hoffman storyline was far less compelling and mostly disconnected from the rest of the show, but "Luck" still had it -- that Milchian mosaic of self-destruction, exhilaration and yearning to know the unknowable secrets of life. (My thoughts on the understandable cancellation are here, and appreciation of the show is here.)
  • "Parenthood," NBC: I wrote just about everything I have to say about "Parenthood" in this recent piece. The short version: I'll always have a soft spot for the Braverman clan, who reflect our flaws and ambitions and who always try to be better than they are.
  • "Sherlock," PBS: Benedict Cumberbatch's career has taken off like a rocket, and this brainy adaptation of Sherlock Holmes' tales is the reason. Cumberbatch and "Hobbit" star Martin Freeman are perfectly matched as a waspish Holmes and a dry, flinty Watson, and if the adaptation wobbles now and then, one thing is always true: "Sherlock's" three-episode "seasons" always end far too soon.
  • "Spartacus: Vengeance," Starz: Nothing about this show is gratuitous, despite its energetic embrace of its more over-the-top aspects; this is a very intelligently constructed drama that always aims for the audience's emotional jugular. Though "Vengeance" took a while to catch fire, the endgame was suitably intense; as always, "Spartacus" packs more well-earned twists into one season than most shows can come up with in their entire runs. (An interview with "Spartacus" creator Steven DeKnight about the show's upcoming final season is here.)
  • "Strike Back," Cinemax: This meat-and-potatoes action hour was far more intelligent than it needed to be, given how much attractive flesh was on display and how many explosions blowed stuff up real good. "Strike Back" is a well-shot, well-acted look at the sacrifices made in the name of post-9/11 security; it's an intelligent bit of escapism with a surprisingly solid cast. More, please.
  • "Suburgatory," ABC: "Suburgatory" has evolved into one of the sweetest and silliest diversions on TV. Its terrific cast is more than up to the job of sending up the goofiness of the suburbs while also examining the comforts to be found there. The entire cast is very deft, but the truth is, I could just watch Dalia (the sublime Carly Chaikin) reel off monologues in her hilarious monotone all day long.
  • "The Walking Dead," AMC: Life is stressful: Family commitments, work responsibilities and financial realities can, from time to time, make even the most level-headed person feel like an overstretched rubber band. Hence the desire to tune in to this show, where people can watch slouching, stress-inducing zombies -- a metaphor for everything that we wish would just go away -- get whacked in the head. This year, "The Walking Dead" did a thorough job of fixing most of what it needed to fix and became a consistently watchable genre offering with brisk momentum and good twists. Next year, can the show please de-stupid Andrea? (My take on the show's mid-season finale is here.)

Honorable mentions: "Alphas," "Arrow," "Awake," "Awkward.," "Bent," "Bob's Burgers," "Bunheads," "Burn Notice," "Burning Love," "Chuck" (RIP), "Covert Affairs," "The Daily Show," "Dallas," "Dexter," "Downton Abbey," "Episodes," "Falling Skies," "Fringe," "Go On," "The Guild," "Husbands," "Key and Peele," "Last Resort," "Lost Girl," "Nashville," "Person of Interest," "Portlandia," "Regular Show," "Revenge," "Switched at Birth."

Finally, a few more words about a few more shows...

I want these lists to be celebrations of what I enjoy, but I thought the following shows merit special mention -- each one of them has been on one of my past Top 10 lists, but this year, obviously, they are not. I suppose the five programs below belong in the Honorable Mentions category, but I wanted to expand my thoughts on these programs, given that I've written a lot about each in the past and people might want to know where I stand with them.

"Doctor Who," BBC America: I still watch, but as I wrote in September, in many of the episodes that aired in 2012, this venerable sci-fi veteran paid lip service to what has so often made it work in the past, and it tried to cover up that lack of heart and heft with empty spectacle and whirligig cleverness. The exit of Rory and Amy was particularly wretchedly handled, but yes, I'll be plunked down on my couch on Dec. 25, watching the annual Christmas Special with my family. We'll be wearing fezzes and eating jammy dodgers, and I'll be hoping "Doctor Who" ups its game for its 50th anniversary year.

"Downton Abbey," PBS: I still watch, I will probably always watch, but the lazy tendencies and repetitiveness of Season 2 could be extremely frustrating. The cast just about made some of the dodgy stuff work, but the editing, pacing and clunkiness drove me mad at times. This is me as the Dowager Countess waving a gloved finger at creator Julian Fellowes and saying, "Not up to par, sir!" As the tail end of Season 2 proved, the show can still work magic; let's hope Season 3 is an improvement.

"Revolution," NBC: Yes, I'm watching. My son makes me. As I said in this recent piece, it's not as bad as last year's family-friendly dystopia, "Terra Nova," so ... there's that.

"Sons of Anarchy," FX: I still watch, mainly for the fine cast, but as I wrote recently here, I wish the show would get out of its way more often and not let mechanical plots get in the way of clarity, character depth and emotional trajectories.

"Supernatural," The CW: I still watch, but more or less out of habit. Yes, the current season is better than the one that preceded it, but that bar was set very low. In my opinion, Winchester chronicles are still not as evocative and effective as they were during the show's glory days; I often find this incarnation of the show oddly bloodless. Yet I'm still watching the brothers hunt, so the show must be doing a few things right.

In this week's Talking TV podcast, Ryan McGee and I talked "Homeland" and Top 10s with Grantland critic Andy Greenwald, and Ryan and I also talked about several shows that nearly made our top 10 lists, including "Strike Back" and "Luck," as well as Ryan's shocking reality choice and his non-shocking "30 Rock" pick. The podcast is here, on iTunes and below.

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