As I said in my music post, I am again making no claims to "best" here. These are the shows I loved the most this year, the ones that made me happiest and saddest and most thoughtful. They're the ones I most looked forward to week to week or marathoned in feverish gulps. Above all, these are the shows that made me love watching TV in 2012. (Warning: any plot details that aired in 2012 or earlier may be mentioned here.)
1. Borgen - This drama about the first female prime minister of Denmark and her staff and family, her rivals, and the press is the show I watched this year that came closest to being perfect. The political issues are intriguing, the interpersonal and workplace conflicts are compelling, and the personal and family dramas are heartbreaking, and these threads are all woven together virtually flawlessly. Borgen also has the most nuanced look at issues of women, work, family, and power of any show I can think of. The show is so incredible that after a while I practically stopped noticing that I was watching with subtitles, though now I want to learn Danish.
2. Homeland - I came late to this show and actually watched both seasons in 2012, but I'm trying to separate them out in my mind. I understand why some critics did not like the second season, and there were definitely some flaws and ridiculous plot elements that drove me a little crazy. But to be honest, I don't watch TV for plot; I usually watch for characters and themes and ideas and moods and writing, and for me, all those elements were strong enough in season two of Homeland to far outweigh the negatives. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin are all such fine actors with such superlative chemistry that watching them together is constant joy and heartbreak.
3. Fringe - This is another show with which I understand and agree with a lot of the criticisms I've read, but still think it's better than practically any other show out there. The timeline reset in season four didn't bother me as much as it did many fans, I assume in part because I marathoned most of the show over the summer and so didn't have the years of attachment to the original timeline and the months of waiting for Peter to return. And while I'm still not entirely certain how I feel about the time jump in season five, and especially some of the things we missed because of it, I love many of its results, especially Etta and her story, Peter's struggle with his humanity, and Nina's heroic end. And above all, I love these characters and the way they've come to love each other. (This show also has one of the most underrated casts on television; why doesn't John Noble, especially, have all the awards??)
4. The Newsroom - When Aaron Sorkin speaks as himself, he says all sorts of things I disagree with. But when he writes TV shows, his writing feels like it has a direct connection to my heart and my brain in a way that no one else's does. As I said above about both Homeland and Fringe, I know the flaws. I've read the reviews. I don't even disagree with a lot of the individual points. But for me, none of them are fatal flaws, and none outweigh my love of these characters and this writing. The show's framing in the very recent past has been controversial, but it's one of the elements I really enjoy, and I don't think the show would be anywhere near as powerful if it used invented news events. The cast is great, and John Gallagher, Jr. was one of the breakout stars of the year for me.
5. The Good Wife - This show has an astoundingly good cast, both in its regulars and its recurring guest stars, and the writers are very good at playing to each actor's strengths. Julianna Margulies! Chris Noth! Josh Charles! Archie Panjabi! Christine Baranski! Matt Czuchry! ALAN CUMMING. They really have more than their share of great actors. It is in some ways a straightforward legal drama, but there are a million things going on in every episode, and it almost always feels effortless (which certainly means that people worked very hard to make it happen). Even when the plot doesn't go the way I want (I really liked Alicia and Will together, for example), the show does a good job of persuading me to go along with whatever it's doing. The one exception to this was Kalinda's ridiculous storyline this season; if that hadn't happened, the show would have probably been even higher on my list.
6. The Killing - I did not at all mind the slow pace of this crime drama; it was like the television equivalent of reading a complex novel rather than a series of interrelated short stories. Having one case last for two seasons allowed for figures who would be one-episode guest spots on most crime shows become fully fledged main characters, which I found fascinating. Sure, it was convoluted and got a bit hard to follow, but I'm willing to put up with that for the chance of getting a different kind of mystery show, and I thought the ending of the season did a remarkably good job of tying everything together. I loved the tone of it, so dark and lyrical and bleak all at once, and the reluctant friendship between Linden and Holder was one of my favorite relationships on TV this year. (Also: Sweaters!)
7. Ben and Kate - Simply put, this was the most delightful show of the year; each and every episode made me happy while watching it, even if I was sad or stressed in general. I love the combination of blood relatives and created family, and the way the show focuses on people who are flawed and problematic and yet love each other and would do anything for each other. Plus, it makes me laugh more than most comedies do, and Maggie Elizabeth Jones does a remarkable job of walking the "adorable but not obnoxiously twee" line that so often trips up child actors.
8. Scandal - When I heard Shonda Rhimes was doing a show about a DC fixer, I figured it would be Grey's Anatomy but about politics, and honestly, that would have been enough for me to enjoy it. But Scandal turned out to be so much more than that. Conspiracy! Murder! Fraud! And it has my all-time favorite set-up: damaged people teaming up to work toward a common goal and saving each other along the way. (See also, from this list, Fringe, Elementary, The Newsroom, The Killing, and to some extent Borgen, The Good Wife, and Homeland.) One more thing: It's not really a positive, but the show's ability to get me to root for an adulterous couple certainly speaks to its power.
9. The Hour - The second season of this historical drama about a BBC news TV program in the 1950s still has one more episode to air (on January 2), so it's possible that my opinion will change drastically then. As it stands, though, I still love this show but have had a harder time getting into this season. I know the spy stuff was widely ridiculed last year, but what they've replaced it with is harder to follow and takes time and energy away from the characters I love doing their jobs and interacting with each other, which is why I love the show in the first place. But Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, and Anna Chancellor all remain incredible, and I am happy to follow Bel and company wherever the ride takes us.
10. Elementary - I am an enthusiastic Sherlock Holmes fan but by no means a purist, which makes me probably the ideal audience for this modern take on the great detective. I love Jonny Lee Miller's portrayal of Holmes as a modern addict. I love Lucy Liu's take on Watson. (I love that Watson is female!) I love the way they play off each other and the way the show isn't making it a romantic thing, at least not immediately. The show has a firm grounding in the original stories, and references them frequently, but it's a loose enough adaptation that it's felt very much like its own thing from the start, which makes it a show I want to come back to week after week for its own sake, rather than a clever parlor trick that I admire but don't love, which is how I often feel about the other modern take, Sherlock.
11. Arrow - Arrow was probably the biggest (positive) surprise of the fall season for me; I don't particularly seek out superhero stuff as a rule, and I knew virtually nothing about the source material going in. I was hoping for no more than fun CW fluff with pretty people but found it to be surprisingly compelling and actually good. I've been a Colin Donnell fan since I saw him on Broadway, so he's a particular treat each week, and this show has clearly made some sort of deal with the devil that allows them to cast every geek favorite ever in guest starring roles.
12. Cougar Town - This is another show that I caught up on from the beginning in 2012, and I'm very glad that I was convinced to give it a try. Yes, the name is dumb, and the premise - some friends in a neighborhood in Florida talk to each other, basically - is simple, but the show is both hysterically funny and surprisingly moving. My favorite comedies are those that make me cry regularly as well as laugh regularly (yes, I have issues), and this is a perfect example. Season three dealt with a lot of changes in the characters' lives, which were necessary but always a bit hard for a show to navigate, and the show did remarkably well at dealing with these changes without losing what makes it good to start with.
Honorable mention: Bomb Girls, Don't Trust the B---- in Apt 23, Game of Thrones, Girls, Magic City, Suburgatory