2012 was the year where decent television became better and great television became worse. So instead of a list of best TV shows, it makes more sense to rank the best moments.
Two caveats: 1) Only one moment per show, to prevent this list from being “Top 10 Moments from Breaking Bad.” And 2) No man, no matter how tepid his social life, can watch all of television, so don’t complain I didn’t include that OMG moment from Gossip Girl.
10. Jim Carrey turns into Leap Day William on 30 Rock
Not satisfied with its normal selection of holiday episodes, 30 Rock invents an entire mythology around Leap Day, with a blue-and-yellow color scheme, carolers, and candy for the kid. There’s even a Santa Clause knockoff, starring Jim Carrey, who turns into the aquatic, mustachioed mascot of the holidays, and learns the true meaning of Leap Day.
9. Chevy Chase becomes a pillow-clad human superweapon on Community
Community could have been satisfied to just do an episode about a high-stakes battle between denizens of a rival pillow fort and blanket fort on a community college campus. But Community ups the brilliant weirdness by telling the whole episode like Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. And then it goes one step further by turning Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne into a walking monstrosity of pillows and duct tape that could tip the balance from one side to another.
8. A pawn shop owner plays “Harlan Roulette” on Justified
On Justified, even the throwaway villains-of-the-week get a chance to shine more than the Big Bads of most entire series. A sketchy pawnshop owner gives a failed underling a chance to redeem himself through a game of Russian Roulette. Typical villain behavior. The scene stands out for the series of twists defying the Russian Roulette clichés, puncturing the tension by genuine surprise. But the result is the same as always in Harlan County: a dead junkie.
7. Mr. Bean saves the Olympics opening ceremony
If Olympic opening ceremonies aren’t jingoistic or ponderous, they’re usually disturbingly weird. And that was the mostly the case for Danny Boyle’s often creepy opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Yet, it was saved, in the last moment, by Rowan Atkinson, the rubber-faced oddball behind Mr. Bean, delivering his iconic zany antics while tasked to perform the keyboard part of Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire theme. That, not shepherds or umbrella-toting nannies, is what makes up the British spirit.
6. Megan sings serenades Don with "Zou Bisou Bisou" on Mad Men
In the first Mad Men season, set in 1960, Don Draper was the ideal of cool. But the most recent season opens in 1966, as “cool” starts to become less about maintaining authority, and more about relinquishing it. Megan, Draper’s new wife, unintentionally humiliates him at his birthday party with a sexy, and a little hilarious, rendition of an especially goofy French song. The interplay between them swiftly alludes to a generation gap, a cultural divide, an already troubled marriage, and of Draper’s obsession with appearance and childlike need for control.
5. Tina’s slow-motion car wreck on Bob’s Burgers
In a nearly empty parking lot, Bob lets has 13-year-old daughter, Tina, practice driving. Of course, it’s inevitable that she’d hit the only other car in the sprawling lot. But her long drawn-out two-miles-an-hour scream; the way the car, swerving back and forth, is drawn inexorably to the accident; and Bob’s increasingly panicked reaction shows why Bob’s Burgers, of all things, is fast-becoming comparable to the best seasons of The Simpsons.
4. Captain Marcus Chaplin warns us all on Last Resort
Andre Braugher could give a monologue reading from the phone book, and in the end, you’d be willing to sacrifice your life in service to Aaron A. Aaronson. It’s no wonder, then, that as submarine captain Marcus Chaplin, he’s able to, in defiance of a shady fire order, lead a crew to defy the entire might of the U.S. military. In measured tones, over a video broadcast to the entire United States, he brandishes the submarine's stockpile of nuclear missiles.
“Test us, and we will all burn,” his deep voice threatens. “You have been warned.”
3. Frank gets analyzed on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It was natural that the Always Sunny ensemble, a choir of insanity harmonizing into chaos, would do an episode around the group finally sitting down for some therapy. Frank (Danny DeVito) stares horrified off into the distance describing to the therapist how he as a child he was shipped off to a school for the mentally disabled (“You ever see a frog kid?!” Frank says, his eyes wide) and received his first kiss, from a girl with no lips who died two weeks later. It’s politically incorrect and a little gross of course, but Frank’s anguish and anger, and the mournful violin singing in the background, gives the moment a just-short-of-genuinely-moving sort of hilarity.
2. The first salvo of the battle of BlackWater on Game of Thrones
Viewers have long rooted for the death of the sniveling, sadistic child-king Joffrey. But when his kingdom is invaded by a fleet of ships, Game of Thrones turns to the impact of the invasion on the women and the innocent children. So we cheer for the brilliant opening maneuver, where a season’s worth of special effect budgeting takes out most of the invading fleet in a glorious green explosion.
1. Skyler goes swimming on Breaking Bad.
Former chemistry teacher Walter White’s descent into evil after his cancer diagnosis would be bad enough if he weren’t a husband and a father of two. But even as he chants the mantra I did it all for my family, it’s clear it’s a lie. His wife Skyler knows it will all end poorly.
At first, his wife stepping, fully clothed, into a swimming pool during Walt's birthday dinner seems like the powerless actions of a battered woman in a Lifetime movie. But it isn’t: It’s a brilliant gambit to win her children a reprieve from the poisonous influence of a self-made monster. It can’t work forever, but it buys her time as she waits. For what? “For the cancer to come back,” she says.