Best of 2012: ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ ‘Mad Men’ lead Show of the Year

We’ve made it to the final day of our Best of 2012 series, and the subject matter we are taking on here is in many ways the granddaddy of them all: Show of the Year. These nominees are literally the best that the medium had to offer this year, whether it was by moving us with the story, impressing us with the visuals, or just giving us a good laugh or giving us something to talk about with friends.

Do you have a favorite among the group? If so, we want to hear from you in our poll! Like with all of our other nominees, we will announce the winners on Friday, December 21 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time, twelve hours after voting officially closes. This was easily the hardest category to decide on shows for, mostly because we could have easily doubled the list and not felt bad about it at all. We already are breaking one of our rules in extending the list to eight rather than seven.

“Breaking Bad” (AMC) – Walter White is getting out of the game, but boy is her ever doing so with a bang. It’s amazing that you can have a show like this on a Best of 2012 list even when it was not its best season (and we still don’t understand Mike’s death), but it is still far and away better than most everything else on TV. Bryan Cranson and Aaron Paul get better with every episode, and there were a few moments from this season (in particular the epic train robbery) that have to go down as the best work the show has ever created over its five-season run.

“Downton Abbey” (PBS) – The sole import on the list, but what a fine one this is. We’re basing this on the second season that aired earlier this year, and there is perhaps no finer example of a show that is able to do so much when it comes to rich storytelling without any of the bells and whistles of many of the shows below. Strangely enough, the one it probably compares to the best is “Mad Men,” but substitute smoking for tea and advertising to the simple notion of change.

“Game of Thrones” (HBO) – We got some grief recently for saying that season 2 of the fantasy epic was better than season 1, but we stand by it. The action was richer, the effects more intense, and Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, and Alfie Allen all firmly joined Peter Dinklage at the part of great performances. Some of the awards shows this year are already getting in the mood of snubbing works of fantasy, but we’re not quite sure there is another show on this list that quite accomplishes what showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss set out to do without any glaring flaws at all.

“Homeland” (Showtime) – Even though the season 2 finale has yet to air as of this writing, everything that “Homeland” has done correctly thus far really makes the show worthy of a spot on this list. There are admittedly moments that make us furious, but we would not have such visceral reactions to every element of the plot were we not so terribly invested in Brody and Carrie. Plus, how can we forget the most underrated character on TV in Saul? “Homeland” may be a consensus pick of many TV critics right now, but there’s a good reason for it.

“Mad Men” (AMC) – “Mad Men” was largely snubbed when it came to Golden Globes nominations this year, and it’s really hard to see why. Are voters really being that critical at Don Draper for moving on with his life? Megan is primarily the reason why viewers either love or hate this season, but we just so happen to fall in the love category courtesy of some stellar storylines (Peggy’s departure, Joan’s big move to take a stake in SCDP, Lane’s suicide), incredible work by the crew, and of course the performances that are so good at this point awards shows have become blind to their excellence.

“New Girl” (Fox) – We are almost always a believer that drama should not encompass all of good TV, and we had a genuine debate here between “New Girl,” “Community,” and “Parks and Recreation.” But what “New Girl” did specifically in 2012 was something special: it elevated characters that were solid in 2011 (or even in some cases annoying, like Zooey Deschanel’s Jess) and made them incredibly entertaining to watch. With the way in which it makes us laugh, along with the few moments where it genuinely makes us care about these people, it is almost starting to remind us of a show that is in our mind a classic in “Scrubs.” It also has a similar sort of sitcom feeling, but does so without a laugh track telling you what to do. (Oh, and Jake Johnson is also up for Breakout Star.)

“Sons of Anarchy” (FX) – There must be something in our DNA this year to like shows that have such tragic overtones, but it’s hard not to include “Sons of Anarchy” on this list (even if most awards shows would not). Opie’s (spoiler alert!) death was the tear-jerker of the show’s five-year run, and Jimmy Smits stole almost every scene he was a part of. It’s not easy for a show to showcase humanity in a group of people who are often stereotyped as gruff and soulless, but Kurt Sutter has done it here with something that appeals to more viewers than just what you would think to be its predisposed target audience.

“The Walking Dead” (AMC) – Speaking of shows that seriously upped their game in 2012, how about some love for “The Walking Dead”? Throughout the fall, it felt as though this was the show that producers intended to make back when the Robert Kirkman series was brought to television in the first place: there was breakneck action, constant surprises, a reinvention of an entire genre on TV, and the introduction of a great villain in David Morrissey’s The Governor. Who knew there could be so much substance with a show about zombies? There were at least a few moments this season where we are actually willing to admit we teared up.

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