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The 20 Must-See Shows of the 2012 Winter TV Season

Our picks include ’30 Rock,’ ‘American Idol,’ ‘Smash,’ ‘Mad Men’ and more

2012 TV Preview

MTV/AMC/NBC/Fox

There was a time when all the big TV shows debuted in the fall, and whatever began in the winter and spring was considered merely a "mid-season replacement." But these days, some of the hottest shows on TV kick off between January and April, from reality show juggernauts like American Idol, Celebrity Apprentice and Jersey Shore to award-winning critical favorites like 30 Rock and Mad Men. Our list of the 20 must-see shows of the winter 2012 season includes several new shows alongside some returning favorites. Click through, and tune in.

By Matthew Perpetua

Jersey Shore

Ian Spanier Photography

‘Jersey Shore’ (MTV, 1/5)

The cast of Jersey Shore will return to Seaside Heights, New Jersey in the premiere of the show's fifth season after spending a season abroad in Italy. Don't expect things to be mellow on the homefront, though, as Snooki and Jionni get in a potentially relationship-ending spat within the first two episodes.

Project Runway All Stars

Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

‘Project Runway All Stars’ (Lifetime, 1/5)

An assortment of contestants from previous seasons of Project Runway will get a second chance at winning the competition in the show's 10th season. Though the contestants will be familiar faces, show mainstays Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn will sit this round out as supermodel Angela Lindvall and designer Isaac Mizrahi step into their roles as host/judge and mentor, respectively.

Portlandia

Danielle Mathias/IFC

‘Portlandia’ (IFC, 1/6)

Wild Flag guitarist Carrie Brownstein and Saturday Night Live mainstay Fred Armisen will continue to lovingly parody the quirks of hipster culture in the second season of their cult-favorite sketch comedy series. Many of their best characters from the first season, such as the feminist book store owners, will pop up again, along with a new duo who claim they can pickle anything. Also, keep an eye out for cameos from rock stars such as Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and St. Vincent's Annie Clark.

Downton Abbey

Nick Briggs/PBS

‘Downton Abbey’ (PBS, 1/8)

When the second season of this British period drama debuts on PBS on January 8th, the show's cast will be dealing with life in the wake of World War I. Though everyone and everything will be changed by the Great War, the new episodes will still feature plenty of the scheming and backstabbing that has made the show a surprise hit.

House of Lies

Showtime

‘House of Lies’ (Showtime, 1/8)

Don Cheadle stars in this new dark comedy about a team of consultants out to con the biggest corporations in the world for everything they've got. In addition to corporate intrigue, the show will also go deep into the world of Cheadle's character, a slick charmer with a complicated personal life.

30 Rock

Ali Goldstein/NBC

’30 Rock’ (NBC, 1/12)

The first few episodes of the new season of 30 Rock – which is back from a longer-than-usual hiatus to accommodate Tina Fey's second pregnancy – promise guest appearances by Will Arnett and Kelsey Grammar, and a new love interest for Fey's Liz Lemon played by X-Men star James Marsden.

Alcatraz

David Moir/FOX

‘Alcatraz’ (Fox, 1/16)

Lost star Jorge Garcia returns to television with Alcatraz, a new series that follows a cast of investigators trying to figure out why some of the prison's most notorious prisoners have reappeared after vanishing 50 years ago.

Justified

Prashant Gupta / FX

‘Justified’ (FX, 1/17)

Timothy Olyphant returns as deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the third season of FX's contemporary Western, which promises to be even more dark and complex than the show's critically acclaimed second year.

American Idol

Warwick Saint / FOX

‘American Idol’ (Fox, 1/18)

American Idol reinvented itself last year with the replacement of lead judge Simon Cowell with the superstar combo of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. Since that went over well, there's a lot less pressure on the show as it enters its 10th season, though it will be interesting to see if the new judges can keep up that momentum as the series finishes up its first decade on the air.

Archer

FX

‘Archer’ (FX, 1/19)

FX's animated series Archer may look like a hard-edged spy show, but it's actually television's bawdiest workplace comedy, in which impossibly sexy characters voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, Chris Parnell and Judy Greer engage in often alarmingly creepy sexual antics in between – or sometimes during – high-adventure setpieces.

Luck

Steve Schapiro/HBO

‘Luck’ (HBO, 1/29)

Director Michael Mann, Deadwood creator David Milch and Dustin Hoffman have teamed up for Luck, a new drama on HBO that goes deep inside the world of horse racing. The show promises to be as dark and intense as the best of HBO's dramas, so, as a word of warning, don't get too attached to any of the horses. Or the gamblers and jockeys, for that matter . . .

I Just Want My Pants Back

MTV

‘I Just Want My Pants Back’ (MTV, 2/2)

MTV's new teen comedy will follow the adventures of a dude in Brooklyn on a mission to recover a pair of pants stolen by a one-night stand. It should be interesting to see what the network gets right – and wrong – about hipster kids in Brooklyn. This one should, at the very least, be more accurate than CBS' often baffling 2 Broke Girls.

The Voice

Chris Haston/NBC

‘The Voice’ (NBC, 2/5)

NBC's singing competition The Voice will get a major bump up in viewership when it returns immediately after the Super Bowl in early February. Don't expect too many changes to the show's winning formula – including judges/coaches Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green – though pop singer Christina Milian is coming on board as the new social media correspondent.

Smash

Will Hart/NBC

‘Smash’ (NBC, 2/6)

Industry insiders have Smash, a new drama about a production of a music based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, pegged to be the hit that the long-struggling NBC desperately needs. The show's mix of sex appeal and musical razzle-dazzle has a good chance of winning over viewers who want to see musical theater on television, but may be looking for something a bit more dark and complex than Glee.

The Walking Dead

Scott Garfield/AMC

‘The Walking Dead’ (AMC, 2/12)

The second season of AMC's wildly popular zombie drama will pick up where it left off back in November, with the group of survivors making their way through a Midwest ravaged by the undead.

Celebrity Apprentice

Ali Goldstein/NBC

‘Celebrity Apprentice’ (NBC, 2/12)

The latest version of Donald Trump's reality contest will feature an odd assortment of celebrities including Star Trek's George Takei, former teen pop star Debbie Gibson, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, American Idol singer Clay Aiken, Wayne's World star Tia Carrere and talk show host Arsenio Hall.

The River

ABC/Bob D'Amico

‘The River’ (ABC, 3/4)

ABC's most promising new drama tells the story of a wildlife expert and television personality who goes missing deep in the Amazon, and the crew of family and friends who risk their own lives searching for him. This show has the potential to tap into the essence of Lost's high-adventure storytelling, but without all the time travel and mysticism.

Mad Men

AMC

‘Mad Men’ (AMC, 3/16)

When Mad Men returns in March from a 16-month hiatus, the show's incredibly patient fans will finally witness the fallout to Don Draper's impulsive marriage proposal to his former secretary, Megan. Outside of that, it's hard to know what is next for the critically adored drama.

Game of Thrones

HBO

‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO, April)

HBO's addictive fantasy epic will return for its second season in April (the exact date has not yet been announced). The new episodes will follow the story of A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin's series of books, but it's safe to assume that the show will continue to deviate from the source material here and there.

Girls

Richard Koek Photography/HBO

‘Girls’ (HBO, April)

Tiny Furniture auteur Lena Dunham hits the big time with this new HBO series executive produced by Judd Apatow in which she stars as a 24-year-old graduate of a liberal arts college struggling to make it in New York City. Think Sex and the City, but for over-educated Millennials on a very tight budget.

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