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Best of 2012: TV

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After five seasons, we still can’t get enough of Don Draper and company.

I think of 2012 as the year I searched in vain for a new show to love; as you can see, only one new series (Ben and Kate) made it to my list, and only a couple of others (ABC Family’s Bunheads, ABC’s Last Resort) came close. Does that mean that TV is stagnant? Not at all. With veteran shows continuing to innovate and surprise after numerous seasons on the air, and creative voices like Matthew Weiner, Louis C.K., Tina Fey and Adam Reed getting the freedom to pursue their unique visions for millions of viewers, TV is more vibrant than ever.

1. Mad Men (AMC) After an 18-month hiatus, Mad Men returned with a masterful fifth season, taking elements that could have proved disastrous (including lead character Don Draper’s new marriage) and integrating them perfectly into the ongoing drama of personal and professional upheaval in the 1960s.

2. Homeland (Showtime) Following a twist-filled first season, Showtime’s intense espionage drama could have easily crashed and burned in its second, but the creators proved they still had plenty of ideas, taking the story in exciting new directions, led by the fantastic performances from Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.

3. Community (NBC) The second half of Community’s third season (and, as it turned out, the final episodes overseen by creator Dan Harmon) escalated the show’s comedic absurdity as well as its intricate structure, delivering both layered references and hilarious jokes.

4. Ben and Kate (Fox) The best new show of fall 2012 is this charming family comedy about polar-opposite siblings who team to raise a precocious (but never irritating) young girl. Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson are ideally matched as the title characters, combining their considerable physical-comedy skills with the clever and heartfelt writing.

FX's Justified is smart, funny, and stars Timothy Olyphant. Hat trick.

5. Justified (FX) The third season of this rural crime drama featured delightfully villainous turns from Neal McDonough and Mykelti Williamson, fitting effortlessly into the morally compromised world of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), which only gets thornier and more dangerous as the show progresses.

6. 30 Rock (NBC) In its home stretch, Tina Fey’s long-running sitcom about the backstage goings-on at a sketch-comedy show has reinvigorated itself, with sharper jokes, surprisingly touching character moments and a go-for-broke attitude that should be sending the show out on a high note in early 2013.

7. Louie (FX) Basically reinventing the half-hour comedy every week has pushed Louis C.K. (the show’s creator, writer, producer, director, star and sometime editor) to impressive creative heights, and if he sometimes overreaches a bit, he’s always able to bring things back to his roots of telling jokes to an audience.

8. Archer (FX) Packed with obscure references, ornate callbacks and a knowing self-awareness, this is the most entertaining animated show on TV, delivering a pitch-perfect spy parody while also building dense continuity and deceptively nuanced characters.

Carice van Houten and Stephen Dillane as two of the literally dozens of characters to keep track of on HBO's dense, sprawling Games of Thrones.

9. Fringe (Fox) The final season of this underappreciated sci-fi series is set entirely in the future, just one of many bold moves the creators have made over the course of five seasons. The out-there weirdness is always inventive, but it’s the warm character dynamics that have really carried the show to its finale.

10. Game of Thrones (HBO) The second season of this epic adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels was nearly unprecedented in its world-building, immersing viewers in the land of Westeros as a living, breathing society of backstabbing, conniving, warmongering rivals vying for power. In other words, just like the real world, except with dragons.

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