American TV networks are dinosaurs. That probably won’t come as news to anyone. The fact that they seem to be stumbling their way closer and closer to the tar pits of irrelevance might. House is gone, and just in time. The Good Wife is still good, but not as good as she used to be, and not good enough to make this list. Revenge shouldn’t be on it either, but—if I may borrow from Brokeback Mountain—I wish I knew how to quit you, Emily!
Premium cable fares a little better, but Dexter has become shopworn and Boardwalk Empire has pretty much fallen off my radar, in spite of the remarkable Steve Buscemi. Homeland is certainly exciting, but to my mind, it has never come close to the emotional resonance of the Israeli original, Prisoners of War. On American TV, basic-cable shows are increasingly the gold standard, featuring adult themes and language. On NBC’s Revolution, a character has to say he doesn’t care ”jack squat”; on Sons of Anarchy, Gemma Teller Morrow can say a certain brand of perfume ”smells like patchouli and semen”…only ”semen” is not the word she uses. It’s a crucial difference in storytelling latitude, one that began with Mad Men and continues to test new boundaries.
Why all the explanation? Because in the list that follows—which is the best TV I watched in 2012—you’ll find only two network shows, and one ceased broadcasting fresh episodes 10 years ago. Three more can be seen on basic cable. One, Game of Thrones, is on a premium channel, HBO. The other four, almost half the list, are from abroad (look for them on Hulu, iTunes, and Link TV). Because, in your Uncle Stevie’s humble opinion, that’s where the real action is.
And so, without any further ado:
10. The X-Files
I’m halfway through this remarkable show’s nine seasons, and guess what? Mulder and Scully are as fresh as ever. The 1990s cell phones are hilarious, but the stories remain sinister and engrossing.
Increasingly ridiculous, but ah, those clothes! And Queen Victoria, back on her French Script throne! Yow! If I was bad, I wonder if she’d…never mind.
8. Prisoners of War
Two Israeli soldiers come home after almost two decades in captivity and try to reintegrate into family life while holding on to their secrets…and their shame.
The second season of this series (on which AMC’s The Killing was based) isn’t as good as the first, but Sofie Grabol shines as obsessed detective Sarah Lund.
6. The Walking Dead
The zombies have lost some of their scare appeal, but this continuing tale of human survival in Apocalypse America is still fascinating. David Morrissey is a terrific add as the Governor.
5. Game of Thrones
Mystery, magic, and dragons, all rendered with eye-popping special effects. Add to this a wheels-within-wheels story line and the best ensemble cast on television. I’ve been particularly charmed by Maisie Williams as Arya Stark.
4. The Bridge
It starts with the discovery of a dead woman on a bridge between Denmark and Sweden…only it’s actually two women, the bodies cut in half and then put back together. A quirky detective pairing (she seems to be a high-functioning autistic; he’s a family man with a wandering eye) and a bad guy whose villainy equals that of the Joker round out the ensemble. FX is planning an American version.
3. Sons of Anarchy
The story is simpler this year, the stakes higher, the blood deeper. I come away from each episode more convinced that these are real people, living on the seedy underside of the American dream.
2. Breaking Bad
Walter White’s transformation into an amoral monster is almost complete. I finished the first half of the final season with one thought: Imagine all of the broken lives that would have been saved if Mr. White had been eligible for Obamacare!
It doesn’t take long to realize that Danish politics are no different from the American brand. Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, who becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister, due to what amounts to a political hiccup. On American TV, when family and ambition come into conflict, family all too often (and unrealistically) triumphs. You won’t find any such sugarcoating here…although you may if the series comes to NBC. For now, though, just know this: Borgen is top-flight drama in any language.