My 65 Favorite Things From The Year In Popular Culture

I have my reservations about year-end lists—though I contributed to several, including HitFix’s TV Critics poll and Salon’s year in review, which will be out on Friday, this fall—because I have trouble distilling my pleasure in popular culture down to numerical rankings, much less picking ten of the things I liked in any category of entertainment out of the many things I loved this year. But I’ve had an awful lot of fun at the movies, in front of my television, and with my nose buried in books this year. So here are 65 of my favorite—not necessarily the best, but the things that gave me the most joy and food for thought—television shows, movies, books, documentaries, and people, places and things from 2012, with the caveat that I haven’t seen a number of things I expect to like very much, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. If you’re looking for a fun way to while away the hours over the next week—I’m off until January 2—all of these things come highly recommended.


Alphas: The most charming superhero show anywhere on television, with one of the smartest, insightful portrayals of a character on the autism spectrum anywhere on television.

Appropriate Adult: Dominic West is terrifying as British serial killer Fred West in this British mini about West and the woman assigned to be his Appropriate Adult, a figure present at police interviews with people who may not be ruled competent.

Avatar: The Legend of Korra: This time out, the Avatar gets to be a teenage girl named Korra, and Republic City became the setting for terrific explorations of political extremism, self-sacrifice, and the greater good.

Bent: Cancelled far too soon and a victim of NBC’s scheduling department, this charming look at a stressed-out lawyer, her contractor, his poser of a father, and her daughter was one of the nicest shows I’ve seen on television in a long time—and that’s a compliment.

Breaking Bad: If only for Jesse Pinkman desperately trying to complement Skyler White’s cooking, I would have put the best show on television on this list. But as Breaking Bad winds down, the show has only gotten more visually potent, and more emotionally and morally terrifying.

Community: It could have ended this season and been marvelous—the video game! The Law and Order parody!—but I’m glad the Greendale study group will be back in February.

Game of Thrones: Do I need to justify this one? HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels is beginning to edit them in smart ways, and has just gotten more emotionally rich and visually ambitious as it’s gone on.

Girls: The most emotionally precise show on television, with Robyn and accurate women’s health information in the mix.

Happy Endings: Eliza Coupe is a demented genius, and so is the show she stars on, the best live-action cartoon anywhere on television.

Homeland: It danced a Saul-inspired Hora all over my soul in the back half of the season. But damn if I don’t love seeing this group of actors at work, even if I wish they were being given material more fitting their talents.

The Hour: The show The Newsroom desperately wanted to be, and the one we all need so badly about what it takes to do truly hard, ambitious reporting, and to get it on the air.

Justified: The best exploration, anywhere in pop culture, of what it means to be a Southern man. Also, the funniest drama on television. Also, Walton Goggins.

Key & Peele: The best Obama impression anywhere, and a great, nuanced exploration of race, faith, and gender.

The L.A. Complex: Andra Fuller should get an Emmy nomination for his performance of coming-out-rapper Kaldrick King. And everyone who wants to know how Hollywood works should be watching.

Lost Girl: The heir to Charmed in the best, cheesiest, bisexual-succubus-y way possible.

Nashville: Team Juliette all the way, in this fascinating exploration of how the process of making music actually works.

Parks and Recreation: Leslie’s road to City Council was smartly observed and beautifully acted, and writer Aisha Muharrar is crushing it in the episodes she’s written this fall.

Political Animals: A soapy female power fantasy, and prep for Hillary 2016.

Sons of Anarchy: There’s still too much plot in this FX drama, but it’s never felt more like the brutal update to Hamlet it was always meant to be, and the strong cast is hitting its stride.

Treme: This was the year I gave in to the profound sensual pleasures of David Simon’s meditation on integrity and kindness in post-Katrina New Orleans.


Alif The Unseen, By G. Willow Wilson: A remarkable fantasy about a hacker in an unnamed Emirate, the djinns who help him escape state security, and the observant young woman he falls in love with.

Bring Up The Bodies, By Hilary Mantel: Mantel’s fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell is one of the most powerfully transporting series I’ve ever read, and this account of Anne Boelyn’s journey to execution is shattering.

Gone Girl, By Gillian Flynn: This flawed novel about a female psychopath has its second-act problems. But for its first half, it was the most gripping book I’d read since We Need To Talk About Kevin.

The Mirage, By Matt Ruff: Part of a strong year in Muslim-themed fantasy, this alternate reality explores a world where a liberalized United Arab States are the dominant world power, and America is a run by fractious warlords and overrun with Christian terrorists.

Open City, By Teju Cole: My pick for the best novel in this year’s Tournament of Books, this story about a Nigerian doctor in New York is a mesmerizing, efficient story about rape, accountability, and loneliness.

The Orphan Master’s Son, By Adam Johnson: Who needs fictional dystopias when Johnson imagines his way into the real one on the map, where the son of a low-status North Korean becomes a national hero, before suffering a stunning downfall in a grasp for liberty and humanity in a mad state.

Swamplandia, By Karen Russell: A voyage long and strange through the Everglades, and into adulthood. Utterly gorgeous.

The Song of Achilles, By Madeline Miller: Miller’s retelling of the Achilles legend through the perspective of Patroclus is a remarkably tender love story.

Three Parts Dead, By Max Gladstone: My favorite new fantastical universe of the year, where magicians write contracts between gods and their cities, gargoyles keep deities alive, and belief is a commodity.


21 Jump Street: A surprisingly deft, funny look at high school. Also, Channing Tatum diving through a gong while insanely stoned.

The Avengers: Joss Whedon elevates the superhero movie, giving depth to Black Widow, putting the first viable Hulk on screen, and bringing the phrase “mewling quim” into circulation.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: If there is any justice, in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.

The Cabin In The Woods: A smart, and melancholic amidst the bloodiness, meditation on torture pornography, and in classic Joss Whedon fashion, the evil of bureaucracy.

Chicken With Plums: More uneven than Persepolis, but Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her graphic novel about an Iranian violinist is the saddest love story I saw on screen all year.

Compliance: A fictionalization of a horrible hoax that lead to the sexual assault of service workers by their colleagues, Craig Zobel’s deeply uncomfortable movie is the strongest moral meditation of the year.

Coriolanus: It made me like Gerard Butler again. And Vanessa Redgrave should have won every single acting award for her performance.

Django Unchained: I’m under a review embargo, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest, a meditation on the virtues of radicalism and moderation, and the emotional satisfaction of revenge, is surprisingly moving.

End of Watch: The best police procedural of the year, about two street-level Los Angeles cops who find themselves pulled into a violent confrontation with cartels through a string of unlucky coincidences. But really, it’s an affectionate contrast between the families we build for ourselves and the ones we’re born into, with career-best performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.

Hysteria: Yes, it’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator, and yes it is very charming.

Keep The Lights On: An incredible intimate tragedy about a filmmaker whose long-standing relationship with his lover is undermined by the other man’s romance with methamphetamine.

Lincoln: A timely, flawed look at the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that reaches greatness when it focuses on the birth of lobbying, the compromises it takes to get through epochal legislation, and the radicalism of Thaddeus Stevens.

Magic Mike: Steven Soderbergh’s on an incredible hot streak at the moment, and he continues it here with a warm, funny meditation on the male body as commodity, a great female lead in Cody Horn, and a gonzo turn by McConaughey

Mission Impossible 4: A beautifully shot meditation on the twilight of the bipolar world.

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, in part because it’s a story about a girl very much like a young Margo. A fully-realized world that I took more pure joy from spending time in than almost any other I visited this year.

Save The Date: The year’s best romantic comedy, chronicling an impending wedding between Alison Brie and Martin Starr, and Lizzy Caplan’s self-discovery after she rejects a proposal from her boyfriend.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World: A gentle rom-com in which the end of the world cannot possibly be averted, but along the way, there are records, hilarious orgies in TGIF-like restaurants, reconciliations, and friendships.

Smashed: Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives one of the best performances of the year as a young alcoholic who decides to sober up, at the cost of her marriage.

Skyfall: The most British Bond film in years, and terrific because its main character is really M, a brilliant administrator facing the limits of her usefulness and the power of the British Empire in a changing world.

Sound Of My Voice: Brit Marling’s fantastically strange movie about a cult leader claiming to be from the future, who might actually be the real thing is a fascinating meditation on whether, when the future shows up early, we’ll be open enough to it to recognize that it’s arrived.


Brooklyn Castle: The story of a dominant chess team in Brooklyn that’s also a smart look at New York’s public school exam system.

The Dust Bowl: Ken Burns spends four hours looking at the greatest man-made natural disaster in American history, through the eyes of the children who are are its last living witnesses, and through never-before-seen home movie footage and photographs.

Escape Fire: Health care reform survived a Supreme Court challenge, but this documentary makes clear how high the obstacles are to truly changing the way we think about and deliver health services.

The Invisible War: A shattering look at the epidemic of sexual assault in the chain of command in the American military.

Love Free Or Die: A warm—but secretly sly procedural—about the rise of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church.

The Queen of Versailles: A documentary photographer, Lauren Greenfield met the family, owners of a time share empire, who were building the largest house in America on an assignment, and chronicled the twin impacts of the real estate collapse on their business and their grandiose project.

Everything Else

Alex Doonesbury: As a comics reader who grew up on—and in parallel to—Alex Doonesbury, watching the strip joke about the inevitable generational transition in its huge cast has been both funny and surprisingly tender.

Anita Sarkeesian: A feminist hero who stood up to a wave of shockingly noxious harassment for daring to analyze the way women are portrayed in video games, Sarkeesian’s sanity and sense of humor are a reminder to the rest of us to keep the fight going.

The Best Man on Broadway: Watching the birth of political slime culture in an election where the final two candidates for a presidential nomination are hiding secrets about their sexuality and mental health would be exhilarating enough. Watching it performed by James Earl Jones and Cybill Shepard was downright jaw-dropping.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Video For “Call Me Maybe“: One of the most charming pop songs of the year went viral when other people made their own clips of it. But Jepsen’s original was a smart joke about equality and the perils of the modern dating scene.

Chris Kluwe: The Vikings’ punter is an outspoken activist, particularly on the subject of marriage equality, a giant nerd, and a hugely appealing dude who’s single-handedly pushing back on meathead athlete stereotypes.

Husbands: Jane Espenson and Brad Bell’s charming marriage equality web series leveled up this year with longer episodes, better cameras, and larger locations, and it showed. They’re an important illustration of what established artists can do with true creative freedom, and when they can give themselves a chance to learn new skills.

Lana Wachowski at the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Awards: Speaking publicly for the first time about her gender transition, Lana Wachowski was unbelievably funny and charming. I may not have loved Cloud Atlas, but I always welcome a chance to spend time in Wachowski’s head.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC: An absolutely glorious staging of this classic, with very smart double-casting.

Walton Goggins: What a year Goggins, who was outstanding on Justified and in a guest stint on Sons of Anarchy, and who is one of the connective threads between Lincoln and Django Unchained is having. I’d watch him anything right now.

The Wire, The Musical: The best, most brutal, of Funny or Die’s viral videos this year.