1 | PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)
In an election year, there is ample reason to feel depressed about politics and the people involved in it. So it was doubly welcome to have this full-hearted, brilliant civil-servant sitcom expanding its purview from the Pawnee, Ind., parks department to the city council and Washington itself. In the first half of 2012, it took Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) through a bumpy but successful campaign against a local candy-company scion (Paul Rudd); in the second half, it sent her boyfriend and campaign manager, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), to the capital and found time to get the pair engaged. On two levels--political and personal--it was the year's best love story.
2 | LOUIE (FX)
Louis CK's half-hour weekly movie can be just about anything--rawly funny or poignant, scatological or psychological, a collection of vignettes or a single three-episode story. Season 3 took the comedian and divorced dad on journeys of self-discovery: a lost weekend in Miami, a bizarre date, a quest to take over David Letterman's job, a surreal solo trip to China. This truly one-of-a-kind show was a 13-episode argument for engaging with the world.
3 | HOMELAND (SHOWTIME)
In Season 1, America narrowly escaped a terrorist attack by ex-POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) at great personal cost to his CIA pursuer and lover, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Carrie exposed Brody and turned him into a double agent in a surprise-filled, sometimes far-fetched Season 2, which combined an intense cloak-and-dagger story with a portrayal of the psychic toll the work takes on the people who do it.
4 | BREAKING BAD (AMC)
In the first half of Season 5, teacher turned cancer patient turned meth dealer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) vanquished his enemies and cemented his business success--but the show also flashed forward to a haggard, ill-seeming White armed and on the run. Part I of an extended farewell season raised rather than answered the question of who put him there--his DEA agent brother-in-law (Dean Norris), his criminal enemies, his meth-cooking partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) or his ill-used wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). But it proved that a series could make a protagonist wholly despicable yet utterly fascinating.
5 | MAD MEN (AMC)
If the purpose of art is to generate strong reactions, Season 5 of Mad Men was the most successful show on TV in 2012. Stylistically, it was visually and lyrically stunning, with one knockout set piece after another ("Zou Bisou Bisou," Roger Sterling's acid trip, Lane Pryce, er, hanging out at the office). Overall, the parts were greater than the whole, with daring individual episodes that didn't add up to the same gut punch as did, say, the show's dissection of Don Draper in the previous season. But even a lesser Mad Men is still swinging, stylish, hauntingly great TV.
6 | GIRLS (HBO)
Lena Dunham's comedy arrived on a tide of buzz and met a wave of backlash at the success of the 26-year-old creator-director-star. Clear that all away, though, and you had the year's freshest new comic voice: raunchy, raw and tender at once. Dunham's antiheroine Hannah Horvath wasn't always easy to love, but this Williamsburg bildungsroman found a heart beneath its overeducated characters' defenses.