Best TV Moments of 2012
From acid-loving ad men to out-of-control spooks and the triumphant return of Bubba, the greatest couch-surfing moments of 2012.
By Rob Sheffield
Bill Clinton delivers the Full Bubba
No American politician – or maybe just no American – has ever understood TV like the guy who spent his White House years watching American Gladiators. (People who claim Reagan was good on TV haven't watched him lately. It was the dead-ball era – back then, Merv Griffin was also considered pretty darn good on TV. And Joan Collins was a sex symbol.) Unca Bill's Democratic Convention speech was a pure corn-pone-hustle routine, yet that's why it might have been his finest hour. This guy gets what TV is all about, how it works and why it still holds up a mirror to the American soul. It's because – as Tyrion Lannister would say – bad people is what we're good at.
Ben and Leslie get engaged
Parks and Rec, NBC
It was a shameless tearjerker, yet it felt earned and authentic – the kind of moment you never expect TV to get right, least of all a network sitcom. Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) might be warped, but that's why they belong together – Leslie even interrupted Ben for a midproposal make-out. Mazel tov, you crazy kids! (Bonus: In the same episode, Ron Swanson brought his girlfriend's daughters a saw. Oh, l'amour!)
Letterman and Fallon During Sandy
CBS and NBC
The show must go on, so even as the hurricane ravaged New York, these late-night hosts did their regular routine without a studio audience. David Letterman proved why he's a boss, playing to 500 empty seats. Jimmy Fallon got heckled by his only audience member, a wacko in a Mets hat. It was astounding, make-it-up-as-you-go TV. And it demonstrated perfectly what TV can do that the Internet and other media can't do at all.
The Notorious Maggie Smith
Downton Abbey, PBS
She's the Dowager Countess of Grantham. There is none higher. All sucker dowager countesses must call her sire. Maggie Smith's Lady Grantham was the most badass of the old-school Brit aristocrats in this Anglophilia phenomenon from creator Julian Fellowes. Smith owns every scene, staring down the modern world with her killer-queen glare. When she tries to figure out how the telephone works, she somehow made the moment both hilariously condescending and historically poignant.
The bitchiest Holmes ever
Sherlock, BBC America
The perfectly named Benedict Cumberbatch is the coolest Holmes since Peter Cushing wore the cap. Everything about the 'Batch is mysteriously sinister – his bitchy wit, his cheekbones, his scarves. And the icy way he responds when someone threatens to kill him: "That would be tremendously ambitious of you."
Kristen Wiig says goodbye to ‘SNL’
Saturday Night Live, NBC
It was the kind of megasentimental indulgence Lorne Michaels would normally not permit – yet this was a special occasion. Wiig got a lavish graduation party: Mick Jagger and Arcade Fire serenading her with "She's a Rainbow" with her castmates singing along, a dance-off with Seth Meyers, even Jon Hamm shimmying on the sidelines. When she took her last twirl with Michaels, it was a genuinely moving moment that seemed to sum up the whole history of SNL.
The ladies fondle Ken Marino’s hose
Burning Love, Yahoo
A brilliantly trashy parody of The Bachelor, with Ken Marino as the studly fireman in a house full of ladies, asking them, "Will you accept my hose?" This Yahoo Web series makes you suspect the world would be a funnier place if more comedies could pack all their cheap gags into machine-gun eight-minute episodes.
Claire Danes confronts Brody
Homeland holds a mighty strange place in our culture: left-wing America’s favorite right-wing propaganda. Claire Danes’ emotional swan dives are so far out there, Anne Hathaway nailed them perfectly in the great SNL parody: “There goes the chin!” “She’s having one of her jazz freakouts!” But nobody could have predicted the twist where Carrie meets Brody for a drinks date that doubles as an interrogation – then busts him in his hotel room, wailing, “I loooved you!”
Tyrion Lannister looks in the mirror
Game of Thrones, HBO
By the end of Season Two’s finale, despite winning a great military victory, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister ends up broke, beaten, scarred for life and stripped of his power. He realizes this is his chance to leave Westeros and escape the sordid political corruption. But he can’t, because he’s hooked. As he confesses, in a line that sums up Game of Thrones: “Bad people are what I’m good at.”
Dan Harmon’s cosmic goodbye
The ousted Community creator's endgame was a glorious blast of geek kamikaze – he knew he was going down in flames, so he did it in style. He finished up his three-season run on TV's best sitcom with a string of surreal episodes that were just "crazy-town banana-pants": the 8-bit video-game one, the Civil War one, even the group-therapy one. ("You shared this delusion with each other, like that time all these people got into swing-dance music back in the Nineties.") But the peak had to be the "Basic Lupine Urology" episode, a hilarious satire of crime dramas, from Law & Order to The Wire. (We even get Omar saying, "A man's gotta have a code.") It was a rapid-fire rampage of cop-show clichés – "Cleanup on Aisle Busted!" Yet it was also the season's bizarro emotional highlight. Not that Community would ever have any other kind.
Walter White vs. Mike Ehrmantraut
Breaking Bad, AMC
Jonathan Banks walked away with this season's MVP honors, right? As hard-boiled hood Mike Ehrmantraut, he was pure deadpan menace: "You know, I can foresee a lot of possible outcomes to this thing, and not a single one of them involves Miller Time." His drug partnership with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was doomed to end ugly. And no, it did not involve Miller Time. Let's let Mike get the last word: "You know how they say, 'It's been a pleasure'? It hasn't."
Fox News’ election-night freakout
It could have been a reality show called I Refuse to Believe America Has Fallen Out of Love With the Corpse of Strom Thurmond! Karl Rove and his game-of-drones crew frothing with rage after they lost the election was six flavors of schadenfreude caviar. Even Megyn Kelly, usually the most reliable of Fox droids, had to ask, "Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?"
Lena Dunham goes dominatrix
Her HBO comedy had no shortage of sexual cringe-gasms – but this one really took the cookie. Dunham's dysfunctional heroine goes to her asshole boyfriend's house to tell him she's through. We figure we'll never miss him and neither will she. Except. Except then he starts beating off and Hannah yells at him and he gets into that and she gets into it. Suddenly she's humiliating him, degrading him, taking his money. "You heard me, you filthy boy. I want cab money. Twenty! Thirty! Because I also want pizza and gum!" That's the moment when Girls jumped from good to genius. Who says romance is dead?
Louis C.K. meets Parker Posey
Louie had his share of hideously horrific dates, from Melissa Leo to Chloë Sevigny, this year, but he met his match in his rooftop rendezvous with Parker Posey, who comes on as an even bigger mess than he is. (When your date orders a drink and the bartender tells her, "Not after last time," that might be considered a warning sign.) How many movies have you seen where there's a romantic moment on a roof or balcony? But they never show you the couple schlepping up the stairs (huff, puff, wheeze) or details like how anxious Louie gets when Parker wanders too close to the edge (which is what would totally ruin the night for me). Like everything else on Louie, it was funny, scary, poignant and deeply frustrating in the best possible way.
Roger Sterling’s acid trip
For the first half, Season Five wasn't just the best Mad Men season – it was shaping up to be the greatest run any TV show has ever had. It didn't quite get there – the title is still held by Season Four. But this was the White Album of Mad Men seasons, a risky mess where Don Draper and his crew of hustlers finally meet their match in the madness of 1966. Draper couldn't even make it all the way through his first listen to Revolver. The whole season was a full-on portrait of America in the Sixties: drugs, blow jobs, civil rights, Sally's go-go boots. And if this was Mad Men's White Album, Roger Sterling's LSD trip was the "Dear Prudence." You always knew somebody at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was going to get psychedelic, but who the hell thought this guy would be the one to chase the white rabbit? In the summer of 1966, Roger – the last guy you'd ever call cosmic – gets a weird psychedelic glimpse of his future and peeks into the nearest faraway places in his lost soul. He sees everything that's wrong about his life. But then his spiritual bliss wears off and he goes back to being his corrupt, cynical self. That's bad news for him – but good for us, because Mad Men just keeps peaking creatively and is still far ahead of anything else out there on TV.
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