View Count: 82 |  Publish Date: December 26, 2012
Best and worst of 2012

If television is experiencing a golden age, how do we explain the fall season? By anyones assessment, it was pretty much a dreadful fall, with only a handful of decent new shows: Revolution, Copper, Elementary, Vegas, Nashville and ... well, thats about it, really.
The best shows of 2012 were all from previous years or from this years mid-season: Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, The Hour, The Walking Dead, Justified.
The medium will bounce back, because it always does, but theres work to be done if thats to happen. Breaking Bad will end next summer and many of the other powerhouse dramas could begin to feel old-hat. Television, like any medium, needs regular infusions of new blood to remain viable. Too often, networks take the easy way out and throw in another reality show. Yes, it was the year of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but there were almost as many other new reality shows as bugs crawling happily around mama Junes ingrown toenails.
Dramatic series continued to rule the realm of scripted TV, while the industry scrambles to find a sense of humor. There were some new sitcoms, but nothing to write home about with the possible exception of Ryan Murphys The New Normal and the quirky Ben and Kate. Malibu Country is fairly weak, but has a major ratings asset in its star, Reba; Guys With Kids is just dull; The Neighbors insufferably precious; Animal Practice and Partners were killed off before they completed a first season; and even stalwarts like Modern Family are beginning to show their age. With the end of 30 Rock just around the corner, and a sadly weakened The Office about to close up shop as well, NBC has to build a new comedy franchise beyond its great Parks & Recreation.
Here again, the best comedy shows are the old ones: Big Bang Theory, Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Raising Hope, Wilfred, The Middle, Happy Endings, 2 Broke Girls, and, from time to time, Suburgatory.
It was a big year for news and sports, with a presidential election and the summer Olympics to cover. As the year ended, the news itself just got worse and worse. Just when Americans thought they could finally take a breather from all the partisan bickering in the presidential election, they found out they were headed for a fiscal cliff and the sniping started right back up again. Conversation became the most frequently used word on TV news shows, despite the fact that the country seems far from being in a conversational mood. Politicians became overly fond of saying they want to have a conversation about things like gun control, but what they really mean is they want to pummel into the ground anyone who disagrees with them.
The presidential election was too much for TV news, for the most part: Cable and broadcast scrambled to find a way to cover the long, long campaign in a way that might engage viewers, but devolved into same old, same old.
The horrifying tragedy in Connecticut showed what television news can really do. CNN and NBC did an especially thorough and sensitive job covering the murders in Newtown and their aftermath. Id single out Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Ann Curry and Brian Williams for showing not only true professionalism, but that heart and intelligence can be enormously useful in helping a sorrowful nation understand the scope and nature of a tragedy that remains beyond understanding.
The big news in news at the end of the year was that CNN has tapped Jeff Zucker to oversee and overhaul its programming. Shortly after the announcement, CNN hired away ABCs workaholic bulldog Jake Tapper, which must have been a stunning blow to ABC and Diane Sawyer. Tapper is aggressive, smart and likable and will get an hour show on CNN. But will Zucker get rid of the dimmer bulbs in the CNN-HLN world? Don Lemon is an OK news reader, but was way out of his depth in Newtown. Robin Meade is just silly. Then again, ABC, for one, has proved that when it comes to what Americans expect in their news programs, silly sells. If Zucker wants to do something good for CNN, get rid of Piers Morgan. Pro-gun people are petitioning to have him deported. Im not pro-gun, but Id petition to have him sent back to The X Factor. What a deeply unpleasant and uninteresting interviewer.
Speaking of which, ABC scored big ratings wins with Good Morning America by minimizing substance and increasing fluff. CBS This Morning still has the best morning news show, although viewers with any remaining gray cells are advised to stop watching after the first hour when Gayle King begins to dominate the show. Equally insufferable is ABCs second-hour ray of empty-headed sunshine, Lara Spencer.
The Today show made a mess in its response to the ratings loss to GMA, dawdling forever on sealing the fate of Ann Curry, who took the fall for the shows problems. Finally, Savannah Guthrie was brought in to share the couch with Matt Lauer, adding virtually nothing to the shows appeal. Meanwhile, Curry got her revenge, of sorts, by showing what a superb reporter she is on a difficult story: Newtown.
With that, heres a closer look at the year in TV that was:
Better than all the rest: Best shows of 2012
A handful of decent shows premiered this fall - Revolution on NBC, Elementary on CBS, Copper on BBC America - but oldies remain TVs real goodies. Here are my top 10 with an extra 10 great shows.
1. Homeland, Showtime.
2. Breaking Bad, AMC
3. The Hour, BBC America
4. The Walking Dead, AMC
5. Mad Men, AMC
6. Girls, HBO
7. Justified, FX
8. Sons of Anarchy, FX
9. Downton Abbey, PBS
10. Southland, TNT
Honorable mention:
1. Boardwalk Empire, HBO
2. Enlightened, HBO
3. Revolution, NBC
4. American Horror Story, FX
5. Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, FX
6. Key & Peele, Comedy Central
7. Shameless, Showtime
8. Copper, BBC America
9. Awkward, MTV
10. Covert Affairs, USAWave your little hand and whisper so long, dearie: Shows that need to go
Kids ...
That was it. That was the trigger word a couple of months ago for me to say enough is enough. I had fired up the trusty old TiVo and figured Id watch a recent episode of CBS How I Met Your Mother, a show Id followed since it came on the air eight years ago.
And then, as soon as I heard the voiceover narration begin, as it does every week, with that one word, Kids ..., I knew it was time to let it go. What would I find? Barney cracking inappropriately wise? Robin and Ted on again or off again - does it matter? Marshall and Lily being, well, Marshall and Lily? My finger trembled slightly as it hovered over the Delete button, but there was no turning back now: I deleted the episode, canceled the season pass and felt sad, in a way, but liberated.
Here are some other shows my TiVo and I wouldnt miss if they went away:
Glee, Fox: Yes, it still rallies from its death bed from time to time, but overall, Ryan Murphys high school musical shows every indication of not knowing where to go next. There are some new cast members, but they havent caught our interest as fully as some members of the original cast did. Some critics like the fact that the episodes bounce back and forth between William McKinley High in Ohio, and the streets of Manhattan, where Rachel and Kurt have moved. I dont: The peripatetic format just makes me want to reach for a Dramamine. Its too often just a lot of noise and movement meant to hide an absence of direction. Pack it in while youve still got some cred left.
Up All Night, NBC: Another flailing sitcom. Its had more work done than Joan Rivers and is nowhere near as funny. The show came closest to getting it right when the baby really was keeping Christina Applegate and Will Arnetts characters Up All Night, and when Maya Rudolphs Oprah-like show was still on. The writers have screwed all of that up, introduced other characters, like Reagans (Applegate) pointless brother. Through it all, Emily Spiveys once-charming baby has grown into an obnoxious and unfunny toddler. Time to go beddy-bye. Dont make me come in there.
Two and a Half Men, CBS: Its ratings are too high to hope for its demise, but creatively, its been stagnant for years. The whole Charlie Sheen kerfuffle grabbed headlines, but Ashton Kutcher is a weak replacement, only emphasizing how creatively vacuous the show had become. Angus T. Jones was right in telling you not to watch, but not for the reasons he gave.
Mike & Molly, CBS: Talented cast, yes, but theres just not much meat on its bones. Its always been the weak link in the networks Monday night lineup and would probably crash and burn on its own if it didnt have How I Met and 2 Broke Girls as lead-ins.
Rules of Engagement, CBS: The only reason its still around is so that CBS has something to plug holes with when shows like Partners get canceled.
Guys With Kids, NBC: Co-created by Jimmy Fallon, the sitcom about men and their infants probably hangs on because NBC doesnt want to make Fallon angry. Thats the only logical explanation for a show that exhausted its comedic stock by the second episode. Its also an example of the network seeking a broader audience for its sitcoms. Im not head over heels about ABCs Last Man Standing, but it does prove that broader doesnt have to mean not funny.
Beauty and the Beast, The CW: The network continues to prove it has no game plan and limited ideas. The show mangles the old fairy tale, but its biggest sin is that its just not interesting or believable, even to the CWs target demo of 14-year-old girls with nighttime retainers.
Perception, TNT: This messy mix of Sherlock Holmes and The Sixth Sense may have had some appeal when it premiered in the dead of summer, but once CBS unveiled Elementary, it only pointed up how off the TNT show was. Perception is badly written and directed, and Eric McCormack should look to Jonny Lee Miller to get tips on how to play a wacko an audience can actually like.Home (screen) improvement: Shows that have gotten better
The dirty little secret of the critic-ing business is that we rarely get to see an entire season of a new show before we do reviews, and usually are given only the pilot episode on which to form our opinions. You dont really know a show until at least a couple of episodes in, yet, based on minimal information, we have to determine how these elements could evolve over time. Getting three episodes before a show premieres is a godsend.
A few shows get better after their premieres, but many just get worse or run in place, hoping to survive long enough for a syndication deal. Here are a few that have improved to one degree or another since their premieres:
Chicago Fire, NBC: At first, the show didnt seem to know where it was going. The formula Dick Wolf has relied on for his Law & Order franchise wasnt an easy transfer to firefighters. But over time, the series found a better balance between the personal lives of the fire and rescue personnel, and their work fighting fires and saving lives. Wolf didnt want the show to become just like Rescue Me, and it hasnt, except for all-important character depth and complexity that make us care.
Love You, Mean It, Whitney, E: Its always going to be Whitney Lately, so it made sense for Whitney Cummings to allow her still awkward half-hour to be more like her pal Chelsea Handlers nightly show. Cummings is clearly making an effort not to be the biggest fan of her own jokes, and now has three other people to riff with for a segment of the show, much like Handlers rotating trio of comics. It has more work to do, though.
New Girl, Fox: This was last seasons big hit and is still doing well, although Im not sure Id watch it regularly if it wasnt my job to do so. The show is better, though largely because its much more of an ensemble piece than it was when Zooey Deschanel first hit the airwaves as the adorkable oddball living with three male roommates. In fact, the show is so much more than just a Deschanel vehicle that co-star Max Greenfield has been nominated for a Golden Globe this year. Its especially laudable that the shows creators made the adjustments in New Girl because they probably didnt need to, if all they cared about were ratings.So when youre near me, cant you hear me, S.O.S.: Save Our Show
So many shows seem to fall into slumps of sameness as time goes on, limping along with problems that could and should be fixed. Here are a few that need a little creative love to remain or become viable again:
Modern Family, ABC: Yes, its still a big award- and ratings-winner, but creatively, Modern Family is beginning to wobble, as if the writers arent sure how it should evolve. Look to NBCs Parenthood and youll find the answer. Granted, its a dramatic show, but it endures because of character depth and evolution, elements that could help Modern Family remain modern. This years Emmy sweep was habit on the part of the myopic TV industry, not an acknowledgement that the show was as great as it was in the past.
Revenge, ABC. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Other shows may have minor problems but this one has gone from TVs beloved guilty pleasure to TVs unholy and almost unwatchable mess. Granted, its a nighttime soap opera, but the plot has become absurdly complicated and unbelievable. Its almost hard to remember who the main characters are or were, with so many extraneous figures added to the cast. The evolution of some of the characters - especially Nolan Ross, Ashley Davenport and Daniel Grayson - is illogical and annoying. In years to come, the term jumping the shark may be replaced by the phrase, cutting Nolans hair. Kidding ... I hope.
Newsroom, HBO. Its not just that Aaron Sorkin is so wrong about how a cable news show really works. Its that theres such a disconnect between the updated Network rant and the unconvincing interrelationships among the Newsroom staff that it undermines the shows believability. Fix the people, then you can rant all you want about how conservatives are to blame for everything wrong in the world. One thing you cant blame conservatives for is how tiresome this show is.Hit the road, Jack, and dont you come back no more: Cancellations
Shows started keeling over early in the fall season and the cancellations continued right up until the weekend, when TNT threw the towel in on Leverage, a modest show that probably lasted longer than it should have. The list of cancellations would have been longer, if only the networks had had decent fare to plug into the holes.
Among other shows to get the ax this year:
Partners, CBS: Max Mutchnick and David Kohan tried to replicate the magic of Will & Grace, but they forgot to get a 21st century plot and actors who played off each other as well as Sean Hayes and Eric McCormack did.
Animal Practice, NBC: An unfunny show about animals run amok in a freewheeling veterinary clinic, apparently crafted by TV writers run amok at NBC.
Emily Owens, MD, The CW: The show was never very good, but its sad that it wasted its one great asset: Mamie Gummer in the title role. Shell bounce back because shes good. So will the CW because ... well, there must be some reason. Oh yeah, Vampire Diaries.
The Inbetweeners, MTV: A singularly stupid show about high school oddballs that just mangled the concept and characters of the British original and purified language and sexual situations to a laughably ridiculous degree. MTV wouldnt know a real American teenager if one bit them in the a-. (Memo to MTV: the missing word is ass).
Last Resort and 666 Park Ave., ABC: The first one never made any sense. It seemed to be a mash-up of Lost and some Vance Packer novel from the 60s. Sad waste of talent like Andre Braugher. 666 had real promise, as ABCs Rosemarys Baby-influenced answer to FXs American Horror Story, but the story part got lost from episode to episode. By becoming too episodic, 666 cut its own throat.
Upstairs Downstairs, PBS: Why soldier on when Julian Fellowes has done such an efficient job of ripping you off from upstairs to downstairs with Downton Abbey? Still, the first season of the rebooted classic proved it could co-exist with Downton well enough, but the second season was such a disaster, it felt like an SNL spoof of Upstairs Downstairs. Or Downton Abbey. Take your pick.
Boss, Starz: The single regrettable cancellation of the fall, but you could see it coming after the completely unwarranted snub by the Emmys. For whatever reason, the show found little love inside the industry and never really gained a foothold with audiences, perhaps because they wanted their Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane and got a modern-day Macbeth instead. Sad loss of a smart and insightful show with a superb cast. Its even sadder to realize Starz killed off Boss, but still thinks theres magic in Magic City.
Fairly Legal, USA, and Made in Jersey, CBS: I can only tell them apart when Im watching them, even though Jersey star Janet Montgomery is really a Brit doing a decent job with a Joisey accent. These were two innocuous but uninspired shows about attractive women with big hair who worked in law. Fairlys Sarah Shahi has landed on her feet at Chicago Fire, and Montgomery can be seen in BBC Americas The Spies of Warsaw, with David Tennant next year. Both will live to see another big-hair day.
Anderson Live, Syndicated: At least it had nothing to do with Anderson Coopers coming out. Cooper is a gifted, trust-inspiring newsman, but the afternoon talk show format just wasnt his thing. He gave it a good try, and was at least somewhat unhorsed because of how crowded the afternoon battlefield became with the arrival of Katie Couric and others.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicles executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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