The dozens of year-end top-ten lists compiled last month by television critics largely paid homage to the usual (and deserving) suspects, among them Showtime's Homeland, PBS' Downton Abbey, CBS' The Good Wife, HBO's Girls and AMC's awesome trifecta, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. My own top ten list features all of those. But there are numerous other series that deserve hindsight recognition as we say goodbye to 2012 and move into the New Year. They likely didn't turn up on many (if any) best-of lists, but they still count as some of television's most noteworthy shows. Here are ten such programs, followed by a few that almost made the list.
Tosh.0: (Comedy Central) Once again, Comedy Central's uncompromisingly crude Tosh.0 stood out as TV's Funniest Show. Even after 100 episodes, host and executive producer Daniel Tosh and his crew didn't lose any of their manic enthusiasm for cobbling together the most shocking and unreservedly vulgar videos available on the Web and packaging them with more skill and entertainment savvy than is evident in any of the many similar shows on other basic cable networks. As I noted last year, the most fascinating thing about the success of this fearlessly edgy show is its popularity with children. I'm not saying that's a good thing, but from what I've seen parents really enjoy watching it with their kids. That said I have trouble referring to Tosh as a family friendly program. I just can't bring myself to locate it in the same arena as Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show and other legendary examples of fine family fare.
General Hospital: (ABC) Barely escaping ABC's ruthless demolition of its widely cherished daytime drama schedule, General Hospital -- a series that had long ago become painful to watch -- was excitingly reborn under the oversight of the talented executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati, the men who made One Life to Live so vital in its final years. GH was once again big fun for anyone who appreciated the stories it told during the last three decades of the previous millennium, fueled primarily by the returns of popular characters from the '80s and a shift away from the low-grade mob drama that had so grievously compromised the show. As an added bonus, a handful of relocated characters from One Life to Live were brought on board to keep storylines from that much-missed show going, as well. (Would the arrival in Port Charles of a character or two from All My Children be too much to ask?) GH will mark its 50th anniversary in April. How wonderful that it will do so in such fine form.
The Pitch: (AMC) Boldly following in the footsteps of surgically altered housewives, desperate singles and singers of questionable talent, the executives and employees at advertising agencies put their professional strengths and weaknesses on sometimes unforgiving display for all to see. The result was the smartest, and most surprisingly, emotional, new reality series of 2012. If nothing else, The Pitch went a long way toward explaining why the number of under-performing advertising campaigns in this world far exceeds that of the truly effective. It will return later this year as one element of AMC's upcoming Thursday night reality programming block.
Face Off: (Syfy) Syfy's grandly entertaining special-effects make-up show continued to earn its place among television's best reality competition series. Just as one need not be a fashionista to enjoy Lifetime's still vital Project Runway, one need not be a fervid fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror movies to appreciate the extreme creativity on display from talented artists seeking to raise their profiles in an exceedingly competitive business.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: (Me-TV) Seventies sensation The Mary Tyler Moore Show makes my list because the wise programmers at Me-TV early in 2012 scheduled it at 8 p.m. Monday-Friday, prompting me to watch the entire series from beginning to end for the first time in decades and fall for it all over again (with a little help from my DVR, rather than my DVDs). Mary may feel a little dated around the edges, but it holds up spectacularly well as smart, sophisticated situation comedy, and its' amazing ensemble -- Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Georgia Engel and Betty White -- remains one of the very best in television history. (Ms. Moore was so right when she long ago introduced them at the end of the series' finale as "the best cast ever.") After a fresh look at the show, all I can say is the first five seasons, when Mary lived in her charming studio apartment, are far superior to the final two, when the poor woman was made to live in a bland one-bedroom in an ugly high-rise. It was also better when Rhoda, Phyllis, Bess and Lars were around. And while I'm at it, let me assert that "The Lars Affair" -- the episode at the start of the series' fourth season that introduced Betty White as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens -- is funnier than the episode often designated as this show's best, "Chuckles Bites the Dust."
Watch What Happens Live (Bravo) and Talking Dead: (AMC) Two very distinctive live half-hour television shows in 2012 became giant hits with their intended audiences: Bravo's Watch What Happens Live, telecast Sunday-Thursday at 11 p.m. most weeks of the year, and AMC's Talking Dead, a Sunday-night nerdgasm that follows each new installment of The Walking Dead. WWHL, which began life in 2009 as a once or twice a week program, evolved into a five night a week treat. Credit the network's programming guru, Andy Cohen, who proved himself perhaps the smartest executive working in television by casting himself as the host of a talk show that largely promotes his own work!
WWHL rocks when its guests are Bravolebrities, but it really cooks when famous folk from outside the network like Jane Fonda, Cloris Leachman and Meryl Streep join in the fun. It's further enhanced by questions from viewers submitted via phone, e-mail or other digital means during each telecast. Meanwhile, Talking Dead, hosted by the always affable Chris Hardwick, proved to be a scary-smart idea, in large part due to its simplicity: Guests talk about the episode that has just premiered and take questions from viewers via multiple media platforms. (I wonder ... would it make sense for ABC Family to run a show like this after new episodes of its endlessly twisty phenomenon Pretty Little Liars?) Talking Dead is so popular it will expand to one hour when it returns in February.
The Glee Project: (Oxygen) Oxygen's low-budget but high-spirited talent show continued to prove more heartfelt and generate greater emotional connectivity than the big-budget Fox series to which it is tied. (Winners from The Glee Project are awarded significant guest stints on Glee that sometimes develop into recurring roles.) Blake Jenner was a fine choice, but I would have liked to see Ryan Murphy and mentors Robert Ulrich, Zach Woodlee and Nikki Anders offer the grand prize to one of the three talented female finalists -- Ali Stroker, Aylin Bayramoglu or Lily Mae Harrington -- any one of whom could have brought something fresh to the increasingly stale mother-ship.
The Fourth Hour of Today (NBC) and Access Hollywood Live: (syndicated) I think it fair to say that daytime on the Big Three was in turmoil these last few years, with sweeping changes at every network that cumulatively siphoned much of the excitement from what had long been broadcast's most vibrant day-part. Now the dust is settling, for better (ABC's Good Morning America and General Hospital, CBS' The Talk) or worse (the first three hours of NBC's Today, ABC's The Chew). But two shows have consistently stood out amid the chaos: The sparkling fourth hour of Today, featuring daytime's most dynamic duo, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, and the syndicated Access Hollywood Live, hosted by daytime's most under-appreciated pairing, Billy Bush and Kit Hoover.
Dallas: (TNT) TNT this year revived one of the most popular television series in the history of the medium more than two decades after the end of its legendary thirteen season run. Restarting old franchises is nothing new, but taking the care to ensure that they live up to and honor their pasts is something that almost never happens. (Think of The CW's abysmal and mercifully short-lived Melrose Place or its abysmal and inexcusably long-lived 90210.) The new Dallas is a fine continuation of the original that offers something for veteran fans and new viewers alike. It is especially touching that Larry Hagman was able to return to the role of dastardly businessman J.R. Ewing before his death in November. The inevitable passing of J.R. next season and the character's funeral will resonate not only with Ewing family members and friends but with the tens of millions of television viewers who made Dallas a Friday night phenomenon in the late '70s and throughout the '80s.
Fashion Police: (E!) Speaking of Friday night, who could have imagined that a night once dominated by such scripted sensations as The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, Falcon Crest, Miami Vice and The X-Files would now belong to Joan Rivers? The seemingly indefatigable comedienne and her Fashion Police co-stars Giuliana Rancic, George Kotsiopoulos and Kelly Osbourne manage every week to deliver the evening's most reliably entertaining hour of television. Rivers is developing a whole new generation of fans and rightly so. She has never been funnier.
Also worth mentioning: ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars and Bunheads, FX's Archer, Lifetime's Project Runway, MTV's Teen Wolf, BBC America's The Graham Norton Show and TV Land's Hot in Cleveland.