The Best Television Episodes Of 2012

Atlantic contributors and staffers pick their favourite moments on Mad Men, Louie, New Girl, and more from the past year in TV.

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To endure its half-baked plot twists and crimes against plausibility, some viewers have come to watch Homeland as a soap opera: self-consciously overblown, and all about impossible romance.

That works well enough. By midway through the second season, the audience has come to consider the greatest sin committed by Nicholas Brody, a soldier of questionable loyalties and certainly no regard for the law, to be his gas-lighting of CIA agent Carrie Mathison. His deception landed her in electroshock therapy. But she still loves him. Previously, on As the World Turns

But you can also think of the show as a high-minded, reality-be-damned test of abstract principles taken to their extreme. Trauma transforms people; terrorism is personal; lies require more lies; war is really about innocence--these are the big arguments Homeland wants to make. Even when a character is dispatched on an improbable mission (involving, say, the remote control for a national leader's pacemaker), the shows' guiding ideas stay in the frame long after sanity leaves it.

'Q&A' is a tour de force as seen through both these prisms. Its centrepiece is Mathison's interrogation of Brody, during which Claire Danes and Damien Lewis get a chance to prove their worthiness for best-acting Emmys. We'd seen Danes's mercurial, electrifying vulnerability before, but we'd never seen Lewis melt convincingly from defiant deceiver to abject confessor like this.

More impressive, though, is that the argument Mathison makes in the interrogation room works--not just on Brody, but on us. She says things no one has said to him before: That his personal vendetta won't be solved by violence. That he knows the difference between war and terrorism. That Abu Nazir has screwed up his mind. And that, most of all, it would be nice to just stop lying.

Go ahead and roll your eyes at the other big moments of the episode: Peter Quinn's impulsive black-room move and the two teenagers' hapless nighttime drive. But think about what those events have to do with Mathison's questions to Brody about guilt and innocence, and they become, at least, a little more interesting.

Where to watch it: On Demand or on Showtime Anytime

--Spencer Kornhaber, associate editor

Children's Hospital is the funniest show on TV, and yes that includes Louie and Portlandia. If you're sceptical of that claim, 'A Kid Walks Into A Hospital' is a good place to start.

It's basically Police Squad! but with twice as many jokes per minute (jpm), and in this episode they all land perfectly. There's also plenty of the show's trademark incongruous kissing (when the writers don't know how to end a scene, they just have the characters kiss), 180-degree mood changes apropos of nothing, and absurd, intertwined story arcs.

For one, Henry Winkler's character Sy has to kill his daughter because she was programmed by his rogue assassin wife to kill him on his birthday--and he does, very athletically. It's tragic, but the show doesn't dwell on it. It dwells on nothing, and, as always, ultimately explains nothing, which sounds dumb, but never is.

Plus this episode features the impeccable Abigail Spencer, the never-not-funny physical comedy stylings of Erinn Hayes and Rob Corddry, and the line 'I've realised it now; I'm in love with you. But the only way I can express myself is by doing really weird things to your mind.'

Where to watch it: Adult Swim

--James Hamblin, associate editor

Despite everything working against it--it's aimed at preteens, it's a summer series, it's on MTV--Awkward works. Or at least, it makes me laugh a lot. And it's probably not really that appropriate for its target audience, anyway.

The sixth episode of its second season is a perfect example of its rapid-fire pacing, constant coining of catchphrases, and, of course, really, really awkward moments. Go for the boundary-challenged guidance counselor's best instant (of many) of physical comedy of the season. Stay for the real talk about sex and relationships -- better real talk than you'll find even on shows that aren't obligated to bleep out their vulgarities.

As Sadie says twice, with perfect delivery, in this episode: You're welcome.

Where to watch it: MTV

--Lindsay Abrams, editorial fellow

Two things separate Once Upon a Time, debuted this past winter, from others of its fairy-tale-in-the-modern-world ilk.

The first is the greater dexterity with which the tales and their modern iterations are woven together (the story of Beauty and the Beast, for example, gives a nod to Disney with the inclusion of a chipped cup; the Beast himself is actually Rumpelstiltskin, made ugly by power).

The second is earnestness. The show eschews mockery and risks corniness or cliché to reach for the original purpose of myth: to explore human truth through familiar yet fantastical fiction. This is a show that is very serious about true love and its obstacles: People make mistakes, people die, and in the real world into which the Evil Queen has cast the characters, Prince Charming has a wife. When the prince and Snow White still find themselves unable to stay apart, Snow gets shamed as a homewrecker and slut.

Episode 16 of the first season is one of the more spectacular examples of writerly ingenuity. As with all the episodes, half of the time is spent exploring the fairy-tale past the characters cannot remember, and half is spent in the present-day real world.

The episode opens in the real world, where Prince Charming's wife has disappeared after learning of his and Snow White's affair, and the prince is suspected of foul play. In the fairy-tale world, Snow White, having been forced to tell Prince Charming she never loved him in order to save him, is facing the prospect of a life without the one thing that matters. She runs into Red Riding Hood, a teenager whose grandmother is stifling her. Grannie forbids Red to see her love, Peter, and forces her to stay inside and wear her cape, which will supposedly protect her from a wolf that kills at night.

Will the writers take the postmodern path, where the wolf is a symbol of predatory male desire? The first half of the episode hints that they will, making sly use of creepy pick-up lines and Grannie's prudery. But no. When Snow White, eager to save her new friend from a life without love, encourages Red to elope with Peter--suspected of being the wolf (har har)--Grannie comes clean. The red cape does protect: It is the only barrier between Red and Red's werewolf self she isn't aware of (a trait Grannie passed onto her daughters after being bitten by her own true love). Red has now doomed Peter to certain death at her own hands.

Where to watch it: ABC Online

--Heather Horn, associate editor

The premiere of Dexter's seventh season stands alone as a great episode. Annoyingly so, actually.

While trying to catch up on last year's season in a one-weekend binge, I ended up quitting the show cold-turkey. It had become too repetitive, too predictable. Dexter talks to his dead dad, finds bad people to kill, almost gets caught but not really. I was over it.

But just as I couldn't avoid hearing about the huge risk the show's writers took in the Season 6 finale, I couldn't help checking out the new season to see if they were actually going to go through with it (no, I'm not going to spoil what 'it' is). They did, and in so doing seemingly resurrected the show. This episode made me remember why I love Dexter and Deb, even if the rest of the cast just wastes screen time (except for you, Masuka). For that one hour, it seemed like the two of them were going somewhere. I was totally on board.

By Season 7, Episode 2, the magic, for me, was already gone. But I'm back to watching every week, just in case it comes back again.

Where to watch it: Showtime Anytime

--Lindsay Abrams, editorial fellow

Now see the best of the silver screen this year.

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