In keeping with tradition, before tucking into the treats the new year has in store for us, I’m going to kick off the blog with a look back on my ten personal TV highlights of 2012. These are a mix of my favourite shows of the past 12 months and a smattering of newcomers who made a promising if perhaps uneven first impression. You may agree, you may not – but here goes anyway.
1. Sherlock (BBC1)
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss did more than avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with the second season of their 21st century Holmes – they improved on the widely acclaimed first run with three more double-length episodes of the highest quality. Balancing the need for an updated reinvention with loving nods to canon, Irene Adler, the Hound of the Baskervilles and Holmes’ final battle with Moriarty were all tackled with panache and left viewers hungry for more. The writing is sharp and witty, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman‘s easy chemistry a delight in every scene. This is the BBC at its finest. Season three is likely to air this autumn.
2. Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic)
Covering the events of A Clash of Kings, the second book of George R R Martin’s series, season two of HBO’s medieval fantasy drama was at times leisurely in pace but never lacking in rich characterisation and political intrigue. It culminated in the penultimate episode’s Battle of Blackwater Bay – surely the most ambitious battle sequence ever filmed for TV – with the decimation of Stannis Baratheon’s fleet by chemical wildfire one of the year’s most enduring images.
3. Friday Night Lights (Sky Atlantic)
Although the fifth and final season aired in the US two years ago, the UK is currently viewing season three for the first time on Sky Atlantic. Based on the book and subsequent film of the same name, the series follows the lives of the fictional Dillon Panthers high school football team. But this is not a series about sports – indeed, the game sequences are by far the least convincing and most cliched part of the show – it’s an unflinching portrait of family life in a small backwater town, populated by characters it’s impossible not to care deeply for. It’s a million miles from the raft of cosmopolitan big city shows which dominate US TV, and as such it is magnificent.
4. Only Connect (BBC4)
I will accept no arguments on this one: this is the best quiz show on TV. Think of University Challenge meets The Krypton Factor and you’re not far off. This team-based quiz requires broad general knowledge combined with acute mental agility to determine sequences, decipher the connections between seemingly random objects and discern phrases from their consonants only. It is an immediately and terrifyingly addictive programme, and one which makes Mastermind look like the simplest of pub quizzes. (The captain of the 2011 series champions is also a friend of mine from university, but that’s just a bonus.)
5. Homeland (Channel 4)
UK viewers got to see both seasons in 2012. Yes, the second run dipped slightly by replacing the slow-burning ambiguity surrounding Brody’s allegiance with a rapid-fire series of plot developments (some, such as the hit-and-run sub-plot, utterly baffling) which required disbelief to be not so much suspended as frozen in liquid nitrogen. However it compensated by packing punch after punch after punch as it repeatedly set up what would normally be season-ending crescendos, only to resolve them almost immediately. With Brody alone and on the run as season two concluded, Homeland looks set for something of a retooling next year. Whatever season three has in store, it has a tough act to follow.
6. The Newsroom (Sky Atlantic)
One of the most hotly anticipated debuts of 2012, Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom wasn’t quite the second coming of The West Wing fans were hoping for. But neither was it the hotch-potch that TWW’s successor, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was. The Newsroom has significant flaws, particularly when it comes to its female characters, but in Jeff Daniels‘ Will McAvoy and Thomas Sadoski‘s Don Keefer, the show carries both gravitas and dark comedic genius in the Blackadder mould. At times it’s a liberal’s preachy wet dream of how news journalism should be conducted, with the benefit of hindsight. At others, it is soaring, inspiring, punch-the-air brilliant. I can live with the former as long as the show keeps delivering the latter. The opening scene of the first episode exemplifies all that is good – and could be great – about the series:
7. Smash (Sky Atlantic)
Smash (or ‘Glee for grown-ups’ as I may have disparagingly referred to it in its less successful moments) was another freshman show riddled with flaws – unlikeable one-dimensional characters, illogical plots, a middle third which was as saggy as a sofa supporting a 50-stone man – and yet at times it was also simple, glorious, unashamed fun. It’s the musical production that elevates the show above the ordinary, with a combination of original songs (check out Megan Hilty‘s Second Hand White Baby Grand) and contemporary covers (American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee‘s version of Florence and the Machine’s Shake It Out) showing off both superior production and vocal talents. With fellow Idol alumnus and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson signing on for season two, Smash could yet live up to its name.
Season one is currently being repeated on Sky Atlantic.
8. Modern Family (Sky 1)
It may not hit the peaks of its first two seasons quite as often now, but Modern Family remains consistently funny and routinely packs more laughs into a single episode than many other comedies do in an entire season. Refreshingly free of angst and fronted by a superior ensemble cast, it remains the benchmark to which all other contemporary sitcoms must aspire to.
9. Doctor Who (BBC1)
Now entering its 50th anniversary year, Matt Smith‘s Eleventh Doctor has a new TARDIS interior, a new outfit, new opening titles and a new companion – Jenna-Louise Coleman‘s Clara Oswin Oswald – with an enigmatic history. The character may be over 1,000 years old, but he still has plenty more adventures to share. I’m as captivated by the show now as I was as a child during the John Pertwee/Tom Baker era.
10. Hawaii Five-0 (Sky 1)
Another blast from my past, the revival of Five-0 continues to combine high-octane action, glorious scenery and the best bromance currently on TV between Alex O’Loughlin‘s Steve and Scott Caan‘s Danny. The weekly police procedural – which follows strictly formulaic lines – is merely window-dressing, but when it’s done with as much tongue-in-cheek fun as this is, it really doesn’t matter. Brainless but brilliant.
- The Almighty Johnsons (SyFy). Norse gods in New Zealand. No. seriously. It’s as brilliant as it is barmy and has just been renewed for a third season.
- Boardwalk Empire (Sky Atlantic). Lavishly filmed, intricately plotted, unflinchingly violent. It’s not quite as good as The Sopranos, but it’s still very, very good.
- House of Lies (Sky Atlantic). A cynical look behind the world of management consulting. They’re only interested in two things: money and sex, not necessarily in that order. Who’d have thought it? A great start to the opening season, a not-so-great finish.
- Nurse Jackie (Sky Atlantic). Season four’s partial reboot breathed new life into the show and brought a welcome return to form as Edie Falco’s drug addict nurse went cold turkey and watched her life fall apart.
- Person of Interest (Five). Owing a significant debt to Minority Report, this debuting series about an unlikely duo attempting to prevent computer-predicted crimes before they can happen was just finding its stride after a pedestrian start before Five yanked it from its schedules mid-season. Genius. The UK is now more than 12 months behind the US, but it’s still worth seeking out.