Why just five? Because there's only five we can't miss
"Louie" is still TV's best comedy. The final season of "30 Rock" is filled with everything we love about "30 Rock." "Homeland" has some magnificent acting, and who am I to argue with all those Emmy wins?
But none of them made my list of the five best shows of 2012. Neither did very good shows like "Girls," "Modern Family," "Veep" or "Justified."
"Nashville" is my favorite new drama — and maybe the best network drama overall — but it didn't make the list either, despite an engaging mix of soapy stories, engaging stories and gorgeous songs.
Maybe next year.
The word "best" is subjective. But these are the five shows I never, ever miss. I didn't choose them for the list. They chose me. I can't miss them. I can't go to sleep without thinking about them. I can't believe the time is near that one of them will end.
Here they are.
5. "The Walking Dead"
We hear a lot about mindless hordes making hits of terrible shows. But maybe the masses aren't so mindless after all. "The Walking Dead" began its best season this year even as millions of new viewers discovered the show, making it television's top-rated drama. (The AMC series also has a legitimate shot at becoming the top-rated scripted show.) The show has finally lived up to the compulsively readable comics that inspired it — and it hasn't hurt that their writer, Robert Kirkman, is one of its executive producers. Everything about "The Walking Dead" came together in season 3: The acting is top-notch. The pacing is ferocious. And the zombies have never looked so revolting. Of course, nothing good ever lasts forever. Showrunner Glen Mazzara, who has worked hard to achieve the show's fast pace, is leaving at the end of the season. Whoever takes over will have a very hard act to follow.
4. "Mad Men"
I'm grateful that the show's fifth season even happened. Creator Matthew Weiner threatened to walk in a contract dispute with AMC, leading to a 17-month break between seasons. But Weiner and his team seem to have used every spare second coming up with mesmerizing moments, from Jessica Pare's performance of "Zou Bisou Bisou" to the British-to-the-end tragedy of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris.) "Mad Men" was exquisite this season. Even the rare missteps (we still don't believe Joan would sleep with a client like that) were welcome, because they helped us recognize the perfection of nearly every other scene. Why is an almost-perfect show only at No. 4? Because I'm spoiled by four past brilliant seasons of "Mad Men." The wow factor has worn off, and now "Mad Men" is only coasting on its excellence.
3. "Game of Thrones"
No show does better spectacles. Actually, no anything does better spectacles. This was the year "Game of Thrones" sank an armada with green fire. But the show has also created a new world that feels vivid, fantastical and authentic enough to be terrifying. It's a great series if you like dragons and swordplay, but an even better one if you like cutting dialogue and politics. Every second Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) appears on screen feels like a gift. And despicable teen king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) is single-handedly making me reconsider my position on the death penalty for minors. Novelist George R.R. Martin's thousands of pages gave showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff plenty to work with, but also handed the show scads of information to convey. The writers have made a wonderful game of it, giving us backstory through sex scenes, swordfights — anything but voiceovers.
2. "Breaking Bad"
Creator Vince Gilligan seems to be every bit as diabolical as his antihero, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). But Gilligan seems to be having a lot more fun. "Breaking Bad" is probably the best show ever made (sorry, "The Wire,") but this season felt like the ramp up to the real chaos: The final eight episodes air next year. One of the most thrilling things about "Breaking Bad" is how quickly its clear, methodical storytelling takes sudden, violent turns — but the simple moments can be just as devastating, like the one in a bathroom that ended the first half of season five. Every turn, no matter how shocking, is earned, through TV's most naturalistic acting and storytelling as carefully plotted as any I've seen. (Yes, this is the third AMC show on this list, which is especially impressive given the network's difficult relationships with its showrunners. Let's hope it will learn to keep them happy.)
1. "Boardwalk Empire"
"Boardwalk Empire" is even good at being boring. Despite its cavalcade of jumpy gangsters, the Prohibition gangster epic could easily have been one of those shows where dandy people speak pretty lines. In past seasons, it sometimes has been. But this year, "Boardwalk" found the perfect mix of romanticism, crime, politics and tragedy. Especially tragedy. It seemed impossible that the show could stay as good as it was in its first two seasons after dispatching one of its most beloved characters. But somehow, in season 3, it got better. Sometimes it lulled us into thinking nothing was happening — what's this bit about the Treasury Department? — until someone was doused in gasoline. It was beautiful and grotesque. Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson found himself, Al Capone (Stephen Graham) made friends with Chalkie White (Michael K. Williams), a beautiful girl perished in an horrible, gorgeous explosion. And am I the only one who just realized the kid who did the botched heroin delivery grows up to be Bugsy Siegel? "Boardwalk" has an endless array of captivating characters, but doles them out carefully. When Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) finally gets a moment to do what he does best, you wonder why the show needs anyone else. Then it reminds you. Again and again. It rewards everyone who watches, but gives the most to those who watch the most closely.