December 31, 2012 12:00 PM

1 Girls


Jane Austen is tattooed, lives in a Brooklyn walk-up and should wash her hair. Lena Dunham’s up-to-the-minute comedy of manners thrust us into the messy lives of four young women who, despite having grown up with privilege, can’t seem to make a go of anything. Love is bruising. Jobs can’t even be described as entry-level. But the girls have humor and friendship. They have life, so they have everything. If the show is ugly, it’s also a joy.

2 Mad Men


The saga of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), ’60s ad man and all-American malcontent, hit a stretch of greatness in season 5. While colleagues tripped on acid, Don gambled on a gorgeous, young new wife (Jessica Paré). She ultimately just made him seem sadder, even more aware of time and decline. Turn on, tune in, drop dead.

3 Nashville


You and me, let’s never break up/You fill me, Nashville, like wine in a cup/Two purdy gals give each other the freeze/If this was New York, they’d be frenemies/Everyone fights, but then they sing sweet/With their own voices-now ain’t that a treat?/Stay strong, darlin’ Nashville, don’t go adrift/Or I’ll sing ’bout you like I was Taylor Swift.

4 Hatfields & McCoys


There isn’t enough tobacco to plug all the bullet holes in this low, mean story of the infamous feud. With an imposing performance by Kevin Costner as Papa H.

5 The Walking Dead


An electric season 3, which featured severed zombie heads kept in an aquarium (either as trophies or grotesque pets), hit us with a truth: People are monsters too. Ew.

6 Dexter


While Homeland slipped, Dexter ripped. Killer Dex finally shared his secret with his sibling, a cop, and a series that had run out of ideas was again ingeniously sharp.

7 Scandal


Here it is, so watch: the one genuine star turn on network TV. As a political fixer, Kerry Washington is beautiful, passionate-you’ve never seen a liberal with such a bleeding heart-and in full command of the camera. If she’s also humorless, that keeps the breathless plot from boiling into camp. And I don’t mean David.

8 Election 2012

In a dull fall, nothing matched The Presidential Debates, the exciting three-part miniseries starring Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was talkier than The Newsroom, but the verbal jabs left the Twittersphere breathless. And in August Clint Eastwood brought down the house at The Republican National Variety Show when he talked to a chair. Let’s have more elections.

9 Elementary


Jonny Lee Miller’s modern Sherlock Holmes is a reforming addict-his deductions seem to emit like sparks from his fried synapses. Which means there’s always danger of fire. A clever, realistic spin.

10 Steve Harvey


Like nature, television abhors a vacuum, especially one created when a supernova like Oprah ends its run. Of all the celebrities racing in with their own talk shows-from Katie Couric to Jeff Probst-comic and game-show host Steve Harvey had the surest grasp on how to while away an hour: Be funny, be light on your feet-be, you know, Steve Harvey.

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