The Christ and Pop Culture writers got together and hashed out our list of the best television we watched this year. Here’s what we came up with. (But watch out for spoilers.)
#1 Mad Men
One temptation with television is to depict the rise and resolution of conflict within the comfortable confines of a single episode. Mad Men, however, demonstrates tremendous patience by resisting the impulse to resolve conflict too quickly. Issues that have long been simmering beneath the surface are finally dealt with head-on, be it constructively or destructively. Peggy Olson’s growing dissatisfaction with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finally drives her to make an important decision. Joan Harris’s frustration with her lackluster husband Greg finally surfaces. Pete’s panicky dissatisfaction with married life drives him away from home and, once away, into deep remorse.
This fifth season of Mad Men is thus deeply fulfilling because it provides answers to things we’ve long been wondering about as an audience. Previous seasons could be defined by one of Don’s mantras: “It never happened.” The most recent season is a pivotal shift toward acknowledging things have happened and the need to start acting accordingly.
The most recent season is also a try at a fresh start for Don, particularly in his second marriage to Megan. As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner said in an interview earlier this year, “They have this incredible carnal relationship that’s based on the twisting of power. It’s very animal …” Unlike Betty (whose malaise intensifies this season), Megan does not allow Don’s domineering tendency to go unchallenged in their marriage, which keeps us interested in whether Don is able to stay on track or if he is bound to derail once again.
For a while, viewers were uncertain whether another season of Mad Men would run or not due to budgetary constraints. Reports indicate that a sixth season will definitely run, and a seventh (and final, for Weiner has said seven is all he needs) is very likely. I’m glad the show will run another two seasons, but this season’s end actually would have been a gratifying and satisfying conclusion to the show. - C. Ryan Knight
Last year, I shared why Parenthood was more meaningful now that my wife and I have a daughter and the show does a good job of humanizing parenting. This year, Parenthood is meaningful for less joyful reasons. A few months ago, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It has been complicated, but all things considered, my father is doing well and we are hopeful. What makes this season of Parenthood special to me is how they have graciously handled one of the main character’s battle with cancer. They have not sensationalized the situation, and given that I am in the midst of walking through this with my father, I actually find comfort in watching these fictional characters do something similar.
I would never wish cancer on my father, but I am thankful for a God who promises to work all things together for good. And one good thing that has come out of this ordeal is how much closer it has brought my family together. In an age of dramas like Pretty Little Liars and Desperate Housewives, it is encouraging to watch a show about a rather normal family of people who are deeply flawed but also deeply committed to one another. – Drew Dixon
#3 Breaking Bad
In the final few episodes of the first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad, Walt’s imaginative brilliance—though spectacular—begins to show its fatal deficiency. Struggling to come up with the materials to maintain a steady flow of production, Walt is forced to come up with an elaborate plan to rob a train transporting a shipment of methylamine. It may be the pinnacle of Walt’s megalomaniacal escapades. But in the aftermath of a successful steal (spoiler alert!), the whole plan goes awry when a young boy sees the crew, and Todd, Walt’s young associate, instinctively pulls out a gun and, fearing the mission could be compromised, shoots the boy in the head.
While Jesse is inconsolable over the boy’s death, Walt’s conclusion—that Todd was merely doing what was necessary—comes a little too easily. Walt says that he is agonizing over the incident, but his demeanor suggests a brazen callousness. Walt’s hardened response is depicted well when, after he tries to assuage Jesse’s conscience on the matter, he can be heard whistling a little too gleefully as Jesse—increasingly mortified by his formerly mild-mannered science teacher’s behavior—is leaving the cook site.
Walt’s imaginative failure is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in how his response to the child’s death contrasts with his response when faced with the decision of whether or not to kill the drug dealer. Back in the third episode of Season 1 (“And the Bag’s in the River”), there’s a scene in which Walt sits on a toilet making a comparative list of the pros and cons between letting the man live and taking his life. His first consideration is under the “Let Him Live” column, and it reads, “It’s the moral thing to do.” But the kind of imaginative reasoning displayed in that scene no longer enters Walt’s moral calculus. Previously, Walt was burdened to imagine non-violent choices; now, as he breaks bad, the burden is progressively lighter, the moral options are more unimaginable, and, thus, the perceivable options are fewer. And as Walt grows all the more frightening in his spectacular imaginative failure, Breaking Bad becomes all the more gripping—all the more human in its unparalleled (at least on television) way of depicting one man’s descent into the inhumane. – Nick Olson
#4 Downton Abbey
After watching the first season of Downton Abbey in a matter of days, let’s just say I was hooked. With each episode, I’ve been so eager to see what would happen to the beloved Lord Grantham, the Crawleys, and the affairs of the household.
In this season, as much happens upstairs in Downton with the Crawleys as it does downstairs with the servants. As the stories developed this season, we witness the characters display heroism in decisions they must make and the situations they encounter. The favorite characters showcase again why they are loved and rooted for. The difficult characters remind us of the struggle to root for them when they are not acting in the most heroic way; they can be pitied, because, we too, are flawed and often make poor decisions. Regardless, there is something in us all that desires to see the heroic character do what is right. As ordinary people who often struggle to do what is right and act in heroic ways, we need someone to root for us too.
The season ended with several questions unanswered and others answered in such a way that viewers are left clapping their hands saying, “Yes!” Well, at least that’s how I felt at the end the season. What do you love about Downton Abbey? For me, it’s the charm of it all. I know Season 3 is already for sale on Amazon, but I’m holding out to watch it on air. - Jewel Evans
#5 New Girl
The second season of New Girl has done the impossible: They’ve managed to take Zooey Deschanel’s character out of the spotlight. And why would you want to do this, you ask? In Season 1, it was as if everyone felt a bit uncomfortable with the fact that Deschanel was always standing in the room—the characters, the other actors, the writers, and worst of all, the audience. It was beyond awkward or “adorkable”—it felt totally unnatural at times.
But with Season 2, it was as if the writers suddenly realized there were some other interesting characters in the show after all. In fact, some of the funniest and most heartfelt moments in Season 2 happened without Zooey Deschanel even in the room. That’s why this year it was nominated for a Primetime Emmy not only in the Outstanding Lead Actress category, but also for Outstanding Supporting Actor and Outstanding Casting. The new sense of balance has turned the New Girl into an ensemble comedy that is full of heart, character, and plenty of laughs—a show that proves that there’s plenty of life left in the sitcom genre. - Luke Larsen
#6 Parks and Recreation
What was once thought of as rip-off of The Office, Parks and Recreation has undeniably grown into itself as a kind of antithesis to the work doldrums that dominate the workplace in its predecessor. Parks and Rec’s characters find fulfillment in their work as well as one another, being focused and determined with the help of their fearless leader, Leslie Knope. (It’s a far cry from too-cool-for-school Jim Halpert and the goofing off he leads The Office to indulge in, at the expense of their vocation.)
Indeed, Parks and Rec sets itself apart from a whole host of television sitcoms with its bright-eyed optimism about work and one another. While the first season offered up a host of characters that seemed too silly for redemption, it has managed to pull off a redemptive storyline, reinforcing both our astonishment at the characters’ absurdity and our deep affection for them at the same time.
The show may have faltered ever so slightly in the recent season, moving Adam and April to Washington, where they’re forced to confront the existence of truly unlikable characters, but their growing companionship made it all worthwhile. One of the least complicated relationships between a similarly aged guy and girl I’ve seen on television, April and Adam demonstrate how healthy a relationship can be when we forget ourselves and one another for the sake of a greater goal. Parks and Rec, in its latest season, has reinforced the foundation of friendship, best articulated by C. S. Lewis: “We picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” - Richard Clark
#7 Queen In-Hyun’s Man
Solid romance is hard to find on television. Especially with the nature of a broadcast paradigm in which series’ writers can never be sure whether they’ll have to wrap storylines by season’s end or stretch them for seven more years, it can be difficult for television relationships not to feel artificial. Queen In-Hyun’s Man is only sixteen episodes long; at 800 minutes (nearly two hours longer than the LOTR trilogy), the show is essentially a stretched out mini-series. And because of its finite, quantified structure the program was able to draw forth one of the most satisfying love stories I’ve ever encountered, whether on film or television.
Queen In-Hyun’s Man is a show that made me fall in love with love.
I highly recommend watching this with your wife or husband or boyfriend or girlfriend or that special someone who doesn’t yet know they’re a special someone and may die at terrible awkwardness of sitting in a room with you while witnessing the birth of a romance singularity. At the very least, the sheer adorableness of all the love and romance and sword fighting and time travel will give you a good reason to say “I love you” to someone important.
The third season of Community was a bittersweet one. On the one hand, the feud between Chevy Chase and Community creator Dan Harmon often overwhelmed the show itself, especially when Chase walked off the set and Harmon tried to publicly humiliate the actor. Harmon was later removed from the show, leaving its future in increasing limbo.
On the other hand, the season featured some of Community’s finest moments: “Remedial Chaos Theory” (which explored the characters’ relationships in a brilliantly non-linear fashion); “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” (in which Jeff and Britta rant about marriage and Troy and Abed do their best to de-wierd themselves); and the epic, Ken Burns-esque “Pillows and Blankets.” Oh yeah, and the Air Conditioning Repair School tried to lure Troy over to the dark side. Indeed, one could make an entire year-end feature listing nothing but the season’s moments of brilliance.
There was considerable concern whether the show would be renewed for a fourth season (it has been, and will return February 7, 2013). Time will tell what the third season’s upheavals mean for Community going forward. But if nothing else, it gave us three seasons of some of the finest, quirkiest, and funniest sitcom entertainment in recent history. - Jason Morehead
#9 White Collar
White Collar gave us plenty to think about in 2012, wrapping Season 3 in February and Season 4 in September. The government sanctioned partnership between FBI agent Peter Burke and conman Neal Caffrey continues, but this isn’t the same old catch-the-white-collar-bad-guys plot. Instead, the writers have brought us deeper into the characters’ personal struggles between legal and illegal, right and wrong.
I found Burke’s struggles especially profound—and personally challenging. It used to be that Burke’s commitment to work within the law and Caffrey’s willingness to scoot around it was the formula for their success. This season, however, Burke was challenged and even reprimanded professionally, which pushing him much closer to Caffrey’s territory in order to achieve the results he wants. He struggles between the ends (catching criminals) and the means (bending the law), leading us into the gray area of moral conflict. Here we see that Burke and Caffrey are more alike than we thought at the beginning of this series—and we see ourselves in them both. - Erin Straza
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Sherlock’s second season is that I’m still puzzling over its final moments. The second season saw our titular consulting detective (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his loyal partner, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman), drawing ever closer to uncovering the nefarious plans and schemes of consulting criminal James Moriarty. Over the course of three episodes, Holmes and Watson faced off against a seductive information broker who proves to be more than Holmes’s equal, a bizarre case of ghostly dogs and military conspiracies, and finally, a rooftop confrontation with the evil genius Moriarty that ended in an absolutely smashing cliffhanger.
As Holmes, Cumberbatch continued his brilliant performance of the high-functioning sociopath, a man whose staggering brilliance isolates him from human contact even as it makes it possible for him to solve the hardest cases. He’s one of those protagonists that you love to hate, and the series’ sharp writing and brilliant sense of style were the icing on the cake. Unfortunately, due to Cumberbatch’s and Freeman’s schedules (they’re in the new Star Trek and Hobbit movies, respectively), we might have to wait until 2014 before Sherlock returns to the small screen. No doubt, the show’s fans will continue to puzzle over, debate, and discuss the season’s final moments until then. - Jason Morehead