The year in television was all about survival, the problems and possibilities of characters keeping up with the times and outlasting the people around them. This was true in the lives of our favorite characters: Leslie Knope emerging victorious over her city council opponent only to sink into the deep end of retail politics; Walter White and Nucky Thompson growing bored, anxious, and vicious with their newly uncontested power; Don Draper, after surviving a dalliance with alcoholism and depression, becoming a grump who doesn’t like the Beatles; and Louie finding true love only to lose it in the most surreal and cruel way imaginable.
If this theme was made real for the characters on the best shows this year, it also applied to the series themselves. With three very notable exceptions, our list is comprised entirely of returning shows, and some of the most fascinating stuff happening on the small screen involved showrunners dealing innovatively with the pitfalls of long-form storytelling. Homeland has spent much of its second season narratively justifying the literal survival of one of its central characters; The Walking Dead has been tasked with convincing its audience why it should continue to exist at all; and the writers behind Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and 30 Rock have all begun the delicate process of engineering a long-awaited finale.
This year’s best new shows were no less concerned with the logistics of survival, and no less immune to the whims of tragedy and triumph. Despite debuting to almost no audience, David Milch’s brilliant horse-racing drama Luck was renewed within days of its premiere only to be brought down by reports that several horses died during production. In April, Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered to a thick fog of buzz and bluster about the show’s insularity, its toxicity, the weight of its star, its lack of racial diversity, and its casual and cringing attitude toward sex. The series, however, is set to provide a text for the twitterati well into 2013. As the Quality Television era grew nearly old enough to drive this year, we witnessed a handful of great series no longer worried about how to make it, but about how to make it last. Phillip Maciak
As Adventure Time’s colorful characters begin to shed their mostly childish personalities and adopt more mature dispositions, so, too, does the show’s world begin to evolve into a darker, edgier beast. The Cartoon Network series has already begun its fifth season, but its fourth, which delivered 26 consistently offbeat episodes of animated eccentricity set in and around the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, firmly cemented it as the best cartoon on TV with no specific demographic in mind. While the ads and merchandise are obviously aimed at youngsters, Adventure Time’s creators clearly craft each episode for all to enjoy, filled with fresh slang and utterly unique, unearthly visuals. Mike LeChevallier
Some shows end with a neat summation of why we loved them in the first place. Others have more explaining to do. When, in Weeds’s weepy series finale, Andy (Justin Kirk) tells Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) that it’s time for her to face herself, he places the show firmly in the latter camp, finally calling attention to the neurosis that has sustained eight seasons of Showtime’s stalwart comedy. Nancy’s self-sabotage had become so egregious over the years that it sometimes felt like a plot device; even so, Parker’s performance was urgent enough to suggest an inner machination at work. It might seem a bit convenient that the series fades to black just as Nancy’s inner journey begins, but for a show that once seemed to be tailspinning toward a cynical bang, Weeds’s final moments of poignancy were surprising and affecting enough to be anything but a whimper. Daniel Goldberg
The Good Wife
Stacked with veteran network talent, featuring sharp case-of-the-week plotting, and boasting possibly the greatest roster of guest stars since The Love Boat, The Good Wife, notably the only network drama on our list, is the embodiment of old-school, small-screen class. But far from toeing a traditional line, the series is also as boldly sexual—and sexy—as any of its premium-cable peers, it repeatedly shows off a fresh and credible grasp of contemporary technology, and, this season, has raised the bar on its own already complex gender dynamics by adding a feminist supervillain (played by Maura Tierney) to the mix. The Good Wife is a teasing reminder of the pleasures of restraint. Maciak
The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia aren’t impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portland’s milieu into a well-observed sub-niche. Armisen plays multiple variations of the emasculated goof while Brownstein portrays a bevy of self-righteous killjoys with great aplomb. Yet Portlandia is so much greater than the sum of its caricatures. That the show’s humor is entirely derived from its two co-creators gives it a winning constancy, while the improvisational aspect adds an almost surreal element to much of the dialogue. In fact, the bizarre obsession with food (a mixologist crafts a cocktail with rotten banana and eggshells, a waiter asks patrons if they would like to “lobsterize” or “breakfastize” their meals, locals mob a restaurant in search of marionberry pancakes) suggests the fever dream of a very hungry hipster. Goldberg
The key to The League’s success is the constantly expanding personal history of cumulative shame shared by the members of the titular fantasy-football league. Through nicknames, odd predilections and reactions, and cultural and sexual hang-ups, embarrassments are crucial to the show’s unique humor, but married creators Jeff and Jackie Marcus Schaffer rarely look for the squirmy moments where an individual’s arguably irregular preferences collide with the thick artifice of social norms. Rather, The League provides a bold and manic take on (mostly) male bonding, wherein each character’s perversions are ridiculed, but also quickly accepted with the knowledge that the others in the league have all done something equally disgusting, disturbing, or dumb, and will likely sink even lower in the future. Chris Cabin