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TV critic Verne Gay picks the top 12 shows of 2012

11. Homeland (Showtime). Great start to the Emmy

11. Homeland (Showtime). Great start to the Emmy winner's sophomore season, but it started to wheeze by the end.
Credit: Showtime

Think of 2012 as a seedling year for television, where little things could possibly lead to very big things. This wasn't the year of vast sweeping change, of huge transitions, of the long ball ... this was, instead ...

The year of "Girls," HBO's small slice of the zeitgeist, Brooklyn-style, that could portend a very significant career for 26-year-old creator and star Lena Dunham.

This was also the year of Jimmy Kimmel, who was told he's moving to 11:35 p.m. in 2013 (Jan. 8, to be exact), where he could re-order a time of day that hasn't been seriously re-ordered in a generation.

This was even the year of NBC, which went from comatose to competitive, thanks to "The Voice" and an end-of-days new drama, "Revolution."

This was especially the year of "Good Morning America," which toppled "Today," ending that show's 800-plus-week run, while "CBS This Morning" was reborn as brighter, more substantive counterpart to both.

But under the heading Been There Done That, television -- or at least the Big Four commercial TV networks -- weren't of a mind to shake their prime-time world, as they had done the previous couple of seasons. The fall schedules were the most conservative in years, with relatively few new shows, few surprises and no breakout hits. Cultural force "American Idol" discovered that it was no longer the cultural force it had once been, and along with its mojo, lost most of its judging panel in the bargain. Even "Dancing With the Stars" stumbled badly with the All-Star edition -- either an indication of creeping age (15 seasons old) or creeping boredom, because fans (after all) had already seen these stars. (And "The X Factor"? Yes, what about "The X Factor"? Almost forgot about that, didn't you? -- along with the rest of the couch potato nation.)

But the most significant tube change in 2012 was one that you didn't even see. Call this one "parity," in which cable franchises had not only begun to match network TV shows in audience, but in some cases exceeded them. One of the hottest genres on television -- "redneck reality," for want of a better term -- produced more successes similar to A&E's "Duck Dynasty," which even beat (or tied) all broadcast shows the night of its second season finale in early December. If shows like Discovery's "Gold Rush" or History's "Pawn Stars" are now officially major hits -- how long before oddball newcomers like "Moonshiners" or "Amish Mafia" (both Discovery) become the same?

The seeds have been planted. What will spring from them next season?

Here's my Top 12:

1. Breaking Bad (AMC). TV's best drama remains a masterpiece of direction, writing, pacing and (of course) storytelling. Too bad this story ends this year (maybe).

2. Game of Thrones (HBO). A great series with lofty intellectual ambitions that manages to be entertaining and relevant, as a long meditation on opposites -- light and darkness, north and south, night and day, fire and ice, realism and magic, true gods (and kings) and false idols -- and how these rule human affairs, notably the quest for power. A terrific second season.

3. Mad Men (AMC). After a long absence (17 months), "Mad Men" returned intact -- most notably with its flawless attention to the characters' cluttered interior worlds -- though a certain chilly remoteness did creep in by the end of this fifth season.

4. Louie (FX). One of those rare shows that can't make up its mind whether life's a comedy or tragedy, and so usually just settles for a tie -- life is both -- while Louie's (Louis CK) efforts in the third season to replace David Letterman with the aid of a lunatic TV executive (played by David Lynch) were especially flawless tragicomedy.

5. Frozen Planet (Discovery). Spectacular, stunning, inspirational -- help me, please, I'm running out of effusive praise words -- the BBC and Discovery's glorious portrait of the planet's frozen extremes was also a masterpiece of nature filmmaking.

6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO). The show's third bested its second season by finally turning Atlantic City prohibition-era kingpin Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) into a fully-functioning, unapologetic, bloodcurdling gangster (with plenty of help from the perfect nemesis, Bobby Cannavale's psycho wiseguy, Gyp Rosetti).

7. Community (NBC). Richly deserving of a spot on any top-12 list for several episodes, though perhaps one above all -- last May's "Digital Estate Planning" (in which the study group turns into a video game) comprising 22 of the most creative minutes anywhere on U.S. TV in '12.

8. Portlandia (IFC). Even funnier second season of Carrie Brownstein/ Fred Armisen satire of Portland's animal and biker rights activists, feminists, '90s-era hipsters, folkies, transgenders, anarchists, bisexuals, radical vegans, greens and all others who harbor a seething bias against Seattle for being a bigger and somewhat cooler city.

9. 30 Rock (NBC). As fresh, funny, inventive and smart as ever, "30" refuses to go quietly. This, the seventh, is the last season and when "Community" and "The Office" also go next year, a cherished part of NBC's great comedy history goes with 'em.

10. The Walking Dead (AMC). The third season has been superior in every single respect to the second, plus this special bonus -- a pair of newcomers, The Governor (David Morrissey) and Michonne (Danai Gurira), who are even freakier than the zombies.

11. Homeland (Showtime). Great start to the Emmy winner's sophomore season, but it started to wheeze by the end.

12. Smash (NBC). Setting the flaws aside, "Smash" attempted something never really done before on network TV -- the fictional creation of a Broadway musical -- and succeeded memorably and (occasionally) even beautifully.

Biggest disappointment

Homeland -- And yet it still makes the top 12! But the cold fact remains -- "Homeland," though still a superior series, lost its way this season with silly, implausible, full-of-holes plot twists and an overemphasis on a romance (Carrie/ Brody . . . who else?) that's long past its expiration date.

Guilty pleasure

The morning shows, which I love and watch obsessively -- though admittedly there are twinges of guilt when "Today's" Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb start to muse about how often they change their bed sheets or when "GMA's" "The Hotness" -- Lara Spencer's gossipy frothy daily report on celebrities and the hot things they do -- rolls around. Katie Couric's new talk show has also entered my guilty pleasure dome, on occasion.

The absolute worst

A tie between two freshman sitcoms NBC's "Animal Practice" and CBS' "Partners" -- dumber and dumberer (and both quickly canceled).

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