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The Best TV of 2012

Louie: There’s never been a comedy quite like “Louie.” This is a weird, grim, discomfiting show, a stream-of-consciousness blend of Louis CK’s stand-up routines and scenes from his personal life. Parker Posey’s cameo as a love interest for Louie made for two particularly luminous episodes this season. His devotion to his daughters is the hidden beating heart of the show, and yet he wrings the most laughs from his darkly candid treatment of fatherhood, with all its inconveniences and emasculations and quiet rewards.

Episodes: Showtime has been cranking out some excellent shows in recent years. Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy,” which began as an online series, is an underwatched gem that features a narcissistic therapist who consistently botches her counseling sessions. “Episodes” stars a British husband-wife comedy writing team transplanted to Hollywood to produce an American version of their successful U.K. comedy. Matt LeBlanc plays an amplified version of himself, a sitcom actor struggling to revamp his faded image. His sweetly goofy, sensitive performance—with the same hangdog charm he brought to “Friends”—anchors the show. 

Saturday Night Live: There were a few shining moments on SNL this year. Best overall episode goes to Bruno Mars as host, which struck me as an example of maximal use of a host’s particular talents. Highlights included his smooth, winsome opening song and the sketch in which he played a Pandora intern forced to supply a string of musical impressions when the online radio service momentarily shut down. SNL also added a few promising women this season, especially Kate McKinnon, who does an uncanny Ellen DeGeneres, and Cecily Strong, whose “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” is zany and great. Frank Ocean’s simple, haunting performance, during the episode hosted by Seth MacFarlane, was another high point of the season. And Jay Pharaoh’s vocally uncanny Obama has improved steadily, gaining more swagger with every appearance.

Girls: The attention heaped on this show may be overwhelming, but I was hopelessly captivated by the brutal candor of “Girls”—and after watching the first four episodes of season two, which premieres in January, I’m convinced that the show will only improve. Lena Dunham’s character is complicating: where she was whiny and helpless in season one, she has toughened up in season two. And it is hard to overstate the power of those uniquely repellent sex scenes. 

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon: Fallon’s show strikes me as particularly suited to the viral age: whether it’s Obama slow-jamming the news or The Roots jamming out backstage or some nutty audience participation stunt, bits of “Late Night” keep cropping up in the pop cultural conversation. Fallon stands out in a landscape in which the late night talk show seems increasingly fusty and out-of-touch. 

Game of Thrones: This is the show that has surprised me most. I’ve never been a fan of fantasy, but this adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books is irresistible. The grisliness, the epic stakes, all that blood and power: “Game of Thrones” is operatic. The show’s budget increased 15 percent since season one, and it showed. Daenerys’s plot line as a captive bride learning to embrace her role as queen kept me watching in season one, but this season the escalating feud between the Lannisters and the Starks was equally captivating.

Widerøe Airlines’s “Grandpa's Magic Trick” commercial: I haven't been able to get this ad spot from a Norwegian airline out of my head since I saw it. In the commercial, a little boy begs his grandfather to “do it again”; the older man smiles, pauses, rubs his palms together, and pretends to catch something as small as a firefly—then he opens his hands just as a distant jet clears the horizon, so that it looks like the plane has flown free from his fingers. It is simple and beautifully shot and completely affecting. 

Homeland: This season of “Homeland” was frustrating in a few key ways: its mounting credibility problems, its tedious commitment to the Brody-Carrie relationship, the way its plot began to recall the soap-opera narrative manipulations of “24.” But overall “Homeland” continues to be the best drama on television. Claire Danes’s Carrie was a tour de force in season one, but season two belongs to Saul. Whether he is reacting to the suicide of the convicted terrorist he personally drove across the Mexican border or accepting his estranged wife’s offer to finally come home, the total plausibility and restraint of his performance gives the show a particular weight. And the final scene of season two, after the attack on the CIA headquarters, was a tragically lovely one: all those bodies arranged in neat rows as Saul spoke a verse of Hebrew prayer. 

Parks and Recreation: I was disappointed by the Washington arc on this season of “Parks and Recreation,” which felt like—as my colleague Noam Scheiber has put it—a celebrity cameo writ large. “Parks and Recreation” didn’t need Washington; the small, hermetic charms of Pawnee are enough. But despite D.C.’s appearance, “Parks and Rec” is as big-hearted as ever. And its characters are still some of the most likeable and fully developed in any TV comedy. 

Fox News’s election night coverage: Neither John King’s fingers dancing over that giant digital map on CNN nor NBC’s skating rink of spray-painted states could compare to the showdown between Karl Rove and the rest of the Fox News hosts on election night. But what made this scene so riveting was not just the obstinacy of Rove or the surrealness of Megyn Kelly’s long trek from the newsroom to the decision desk. It was the way the whole spectacle dramatized the central narrative tension of this year’s election coverage: the pundits vs. the nerds, Karl Rove’s total commitment to his delusions juxtaposed against a room full of quiet data analysts thrust suddenly into the spotlight. And Kelly, of course, playing interlocutor between the two camps, emerged as a cable news star.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.