My favorite televised moment of 2012 came at the end of the third episode of Girls, the de facto best new show of a year in which it didn’t have much competition. Hannah has taken to her room and is attempting to tweet something pithy. Eventually, she gives up on the literal (“My life has been a lie, my ex-boyfriend dates a guy”) for the obliquely personal: “All adventurous women do.” Then she and her roommate dance to Robyn like the twentysomethings they are. It was a wonderfully intimate scene that said volumes about youth and friendship and the goofy things we all do when we’re not afraid that someone else is watching. Even if it didn’t make sense to the world, it made sense to them.
It was an all-too-rare moment of idiosyncratic bliss in the midst of a stuffy, risk-averse year of television, and one I kept returning to as I faced the restrictive prospect of summing it all up. With the Golden Age over, is it just me or are things beginning to feel a little rusty? First-ballot hall of famers like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and 30 Rock all maintained their excellence, but the latter two will end in 2013, the other a year later. What’s more disturbing is that while the greats were graying faster than the suddenly uncool Don Draper, nothing radical or remarkably fresh appeared to take their place. Rather, this was a year of creative retrenchment by networks on all ends of the dial. As cable sought refuge in either fantastical violence or conservative nostalgia, the traditional broadcasters buried their hemorrhaging heads in the warm, cheap sands of multi-camera comedies and tarted-up soaps. Bright spots were felled by a combination of audience indifference (Awake), network mismanagement (Bent, Last Resort) and ill-advised horseplay Luck. What’s worse is that the lack of fresh blood seemed to cause viewers to go clawing for it themselves.
Above all else, I’ll remember 2012 as the dawning of the great Plausibility Wars, the year when the ravenous, insatiable maw of Twitter sank its teeth into an already-cowering industry with a ferocity usually only found on the Discovery Channel. Mythbusting has been a common practice for small-screen fans and skeptics ever since no one on Cheers died of cirrhosis, but a combination of social media, highly serialized storytelling, and even higher standards has taken nitpicking to the next level. Some attacks were reasonable, such as when the aforementioned Girls was shredded for not painting a recognizably diverse portrait of Brooklyn. Others seemed less valid, like when The Mindy Project — the fall’s best new comedy, currently struggling with normal comedic birthing pains — was targeted for the cardinal sin of misrepresenting the demographics of gynecology. But both critiques made the flaw of presuming what a story ought to be before the storyteller had even finished clearing her throat. Both also sought to hold creative endeavors to the harsh standards of reality — a move that tends to do no favors to either the fictional world or our own.
The big boys were also no longer immune to this sort of thing. Breaking Bad is usually hailed for its sturdy commitment to scientific rigor, but not even Heisenberg’s dedication to detail could forgive this season’s bravura train robbery in the eyes of some critics. What struck me as an exhilarating, potentially delusional act of grandeur wholly in keeping with Walter White’s billowing mushroom cloud of ego and smug self-regard appeared to others to be a (railroad) bridge too far; some even went fishing for that most loathsome modern phrase, claiming Breaking Bad — a brilliant show built like a wobbly Jenga tower of imaginative logic and convenient coincidence — had jumped the shark. This is a toxic and meaningless charge to throw around, particularly at the one storytelling medium capable of righting itself in midstream. But still the accusations persist anytime an ambitious show zigs instead of zags, thus asking its audience to share in the risk. It’s as if the still-bubbling frustration over the ending of Lost has turned us into a nation of bitter exes, waiting impatiently for things to go wrong rather than giving ourselves over to the possibility of something new.
The poster child for this shark-hopping snark, of course, is Homeland. In its second season, the reigning winner for Best Drama Series saw its frenzied fan base transformed into an army of savage fact-checkers the moment the story line started twisting away from their preconceived baseline of believability. I found this hugely frustrating on two levels. For one, Homeland had always been a hot mess, ladling great steaming spoonfuls of geopolitical intrigue over a sudsy mush of romance, betrayal, and tears. (Oh so many tears!) Even despite the show’s unquestionable missteps, being newly offended by Homeland‘s bipolar extremes struck me as more of an indictment of audience expectation than as showrunner incompetence — as if the surprise Emmy win in September had also conferred a gold-laquered burden of importance along with the statuette.
But the greater sin — greater even than what happened to poor Chris Brody, forever karate-kicking the space where his father used to be — was what this sort of knee-jerk skepticism did to the experience of watching TV. As I’ve written before, being a stickler for plausibility in fiction is a sucker’s game: Once you start pulling on offending plot threads, everything will unravel eventually. Personally, I don’t watch Homeland for its accuracy; I don’t care that downtown Washington looks suspiciously like Charlotte, that Gettysburg is unlikely to be transformed into Gaza, or that the world’s most wanted terrorist had less hassle at the American border than your average has-been blues-pop band. If such flights of fancy are undertaken in the service of a nervy, emotional story, then I consider it a trip worth taking. (That’s the difference between a flawed success like Homeland and an unequivocal failure like AMC’s unkillable The Killing. If you’ve got inert characters and gimmicks where the story should be, not even Seattle’s famous fog can obscure the rot.)
Homeland‘s weird, fevered take on the personal cost of a global conflict gave me a perspective on reality — actual reality, not one concerned with how long it takes to drive from D.C. to central Pennsylvania and back — I’d never find in a documentary. And yet when its season ended in a satisfying explosion of love, betrayal, death, and dishonor, too many missed it entirely as they were grabbing at phantoms like Carrie Mathison off her meds. What possible value does it add to Homeland to reveal Saul Berenson — Mandy Patinkin’s morally steadfast grizzly bear — as some sort of Machiavellian macher in the way a growing number of fevered conspiracy theorists contend? There’s a difference between excited speculation and mistaking a carefully constructed story for Sudoku. While passive television watching is clearly a thing of the past, active, indiscriminate poking isn’t necessarily the best candidate to replace it — particularly in the case of Homeland, the rare remaining show brave enough to try engaging with our messy present instead of an imaginary past. There are plenty of reasons to like or dislike Homeland on its merits, but I feel sorry for those unable to appreciate its rich forest because the trees were too busy Skyping each other on their BlackBerrys.
So what, if anything, is responsible for this fetishistic fussiness? As an admittedly impatient critic responsible for thousands of words about the questionable behavior of British butlers — among other things — I surely bear a portion of the blame, as do the yappier corners of the Internet, the rapid colonization of which marks the biggest real-estate boom for trolls since the invention of bridges. Lately I’ve been wondering if much of this can be traced to the sanctified afterlife of The Wire. Since leaving the airwaves in a hail of newspaper score-settling nearly five years ago, the consensus Best Show Ever has seen its reputation rise to terrifying heights. As my colleague Chuck Klosterman has noted, it’s possible that many fans unwittingly consider The Wire to be more of a documentary than a drama and that its unstylized, unsentimental take on crime and punishment — free from cliff-hangers, gotcha twists, or happy endings — is the impossible standard by which all television should be judged. (Of course, there’s an equally compelling argument that David Simon’s lack of style was itself a style, one that isn’t well represented in its most recent incarnation, down in the suffocatingly admirable swamps of Treme.)
But one of the reasons why I love writing about television is the synergistic relationship between the two sides of the screen. And in this case I fault the creators and, especially, the executives who are deathly afraid of failing far more than the anonymous public quick to take to their keyboards and accuse them of having done so. Since the beginning of 2012, I’ve written at great length about how the Golden Age was really a stroke of dumb luck and fortunate timing; how fledgling networks were so in need of content they were willing to take flyers on visionary egoists and brilliant second-chancers they wouldn’t be caught dead with today. Since then, as bottom lines have shrunk and expectations have risen, a safe, predictable blueprint for prestige dramas has emerged, one that avoids grappling with the zeitgeist or empowering geniuses. Instead, many new shows seek either to deflect online criticism with blunt trauma or drown it in a soulless wash of period detail. On AMC, The Walking Dead has improved considerably, but it still garners its outrageous ratings via the gory things it does to heads, not for anything particularly notable inside of its own. And you could fill a steamer trunk with the lovely, empty suits populating the fringes of cable these days, be they the pretty gangsters of Starz’s Magic City or the filthy police of BBC America’s Copper. Both shows strove so mightily to re-create plausible, historical worlds that they forgot to create any plausible people with which to populate them.
What was most disheartening in 2012 is that HBO — long the pacesetter for TV excellence — gave itself over almost entirely to the non-controversial charms of fantasy. Girls and Enlightened were tough-minded, personal takes on selfhood and success — and 2013 looks much more promising with the intriguing True Detective — but otherwise the pay channel’s airwaves were full of escapism: the fairy-banging of True Blood, the congratulatory back-patting of The Newsroom. Game of Thrones is a phenomenal undertaking, with some of the most impressive acting and budget line items (“needed: one burning warship consumed by green fire”) in the history of the medium. But its otherworldly setting and impressive fealty to its source material place it just to the side of conventional criticism. As for Boardwalk Empire, its third season performed a remarkable turnaround. But it remains hamstrung by its strange and strained relationship to history: Every jolt of inventiveness provided by Jack Huston’s brilliant Richard Harrow is dampened by the presence of Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein, stiff constructs that damage the drama because we know just when and how they’re destined to die.
(In contrast, Mad Men was my favorite show of the year, perhaps because it treats the historical record not as gospel but more like a lazy jazz LP playing in the background: interesting during the loud bits, otherwise merely background noise. With its fearless, formalist take on aging and adulthood, it’s as relevant to today as it is to its nearly half-century-old setting.)
It makes some strange sense, then, that in a year when this battle between reality and fiction spilled over onto channels more accustomed to breaking news, not making it, the most consistently personal and affecting storytelling emerged in an unlikely place. Network comedies are quietly experiencing their own golden age, and I wonder if it’s partly to do with the fact that, as long as they make us laugh, they are otherwise exempt from the skeptical slings and arrows of outrageous commenters and critics. And so it was that I encountered some of the most indelible and emotional scenes of the year not on Sunday-night cable, but on “normal” channels during old-fashioned prime time: Ben proposing to Leslie on Parks and Recreation, Tessa wrestling with lost parents and newfound communities on Suburgatory, and even that cranky bastard Pierce finding inner peace in a video game on Community. On Fox, New Girl nimbly limns its inspired lunacy with the sort of reality-based concerns you’d expect to find either on the more serious Girls or not at all, like choosing a career over a family or sex over love. It’s hard to nitpick when Schmidt discovers his feelings while covered in glitter and feathers, but it shouldn’t be difficult to see the truth behind it, either.
In the end, the TV series that most resembled reality in 2012 was the one least beholden to it. Louie just missed a spot on my top 10, primarily because I have a hard time considering it to be the same show week to week; the series responsible for the ecstatic, cinematic bliss of Parker Posey in “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2” can often crash as hard as its star’s motorcycle wreck in the season premiere. Louie is utterly sui generis and wholly dependent on the irreplaceable genius of its creator. But its fearlessness ought to be instructive. The last few years have revealed television to be a medium uniquely suited for both engagement and entertainment; at its best, it can serve as a conduit for the sort of daring storytelling that’s been priced out of movies and marginalized in books. But there needs to be room for the fiction and plenty of patience from all sides for the inevitable, well-intentioned mistakes. Despite its professional veneer, TV — not unlike Louis C.K.’s on-screen life — is far from easy. Rather, it’s an endless cycle of hard work, happy accidents, and least-bad decision-making.
And so, if I could have one wish for 2013, it’d be for a television industry that supports greater creative leaps — and a wised-up and chilled-out audience willing to jump into the unknown right alongside it. As Hannah and Marnie learned, sometimes things work out better when you stop trying to please others and get busy pleasing yourself.