Television, far from a vast wasteland these days, is often a digital cornucopia to be triaged. Our flat-panel age was so jam-packed with quality shows in 2012 that for every great drama listed below, there were others, like FX's Justified and HBO's Boardwalk Empire, right behind. The year produced plenty of non-fiction winners too, like PBS's American Masters (with such treasures as The Day Carl Sandburg Died) and Travel Channel's No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. But the real test was whether a TV series could, or could not, be missed each week. And these 10 could not.
Call the Midwife (PBS) :: This postwar period drama edged out the more-popular Downton Abbey for its pure heart and charm. Following young midwives working in London's scruffy East End, Call the Midwife unflinchingly, and with emotional depth, delivered the joys, and bodily fluids, of childbirth.
Mad Men (AMC) :: Just when you thought this series might have run out of steam, it came back with its strongest season ever. The Mad Men writers and directors are just too good, exquisitely crafting each episode like its own short film. It's television production at its highest, most artistic level.
Louie (FX) :: Writer, director, and actor Louis C.K. has taken the half-hour sitcom and reshaped it into something all his own: a mundane, Kafkaesque world that lurches with hilarious surprise collisions — much like the improv-jazz soundtrack underneath it. The late-season trilogy, guest-starring director David Lynch, was creepy, and utterly genius: it's "The Crying Cleaning Lady Show"!
Breaking Bad (AMC) :: The TV tale of high-school chemistry teacher Walter White's descent into hardcore crime, when it finishes next summer, will stand as one of the best-scripted series ever. This season did not match some of its earlier triumphs, but we're quibbling over shades of brilliance here.
Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO) :: For pure wit and instinct on live television throughout the election season, Maher was the best chaperone for liberals. He's the heir to Dick Cavett's suave, intellectual late-night legacy, but with the mouth of a 21st-century trucker.
Girls (HBO) :: The media hype and hate in advance of this show was unprecedented, almost poisoning the well before anyone took a drink. Breakout auteur Lena Dunham did not disappoint. Her series about youths at the mercy of their own irony and self-reference took several inventive turns, and Girls was squirmy-funny-smart all the way through.
Awake (NBC) :: This high-concept drama about a detective caught between two apparent realities — he can't tell which is real and which is a dream — was riveting. Of course, NBC rewarded me, and a rabid, enthusiastic (read: small) audience, by canceling it.
Hell On Wheels (AMC) :: This period drama about the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s achieved something unusual, and difficult: a second season that far exceeded its first. It made American history current, and Christopher Heyerdahl, über-icky as "The Swede," made a villain of biblical proportions.
Inside Comedy (Showtime) :: Director and longtime stand-up veteran David Steinberg hosted this interview series with new and old-school comics, including Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Sarah Silverman. Steinberg's sly, understated style gave us a brilliant glimpse into comedy minds put on the spot, and artists at the top of the heap.
Family Guy (Fox) :: While adult cartoons like The Ricky Gervais Show and FX's Archer often came close to being as vital and irreverent as Seth MacFarlane's mainstay, Family Guy continued to be reliably one step ahead. And it has a talking dog.