Daybreak's highlights of 2012: Television

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham in the second season of 'Downton Abbey.'
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham in the second season of "Downton Abbey."



Confession: I'm a giant Howard Stern fan. "Bababooey!" to y'all.

Confession 2: I didn't watch NBC's talent show "America's Got Talent" until Stern signed on as a judge. I'm not big on typical prime-time - I'm busy hanging out on Netflix and AMC. Sue me.

Still, good entertainment is a guarantee when Stern is around, and soon enough I was campaigning for the Olate Dogs to win AGT's Vegas-show contract. And they did.

Stern has seen it all over his 30-year radio career, and I'm confident he knows talent when he sees it. (For what it's worth, I didn't share Stern's affection for Horse.) This past season he was an analytical, attentive, supportive and sometimes playful judge. I loved it, and so did America it seems, based on the high numbers despite bad programming placement alongside the Summer Olympics and the "American Idol" finale.

Stern has signed on for another season of AGT, and so have I.

- Marisa Nadolny



Season 3 was limping along. Too many new characters. Too many confusing plot lines. And then things came together with a bang, knocking Nucky Thompson silly and killing his mistress.

Nucky was in danger of losing his spot as King of Atlantic City. Then Al Capone and buddies opened fire with machine guns, Richard Harrow broke out his arsenal and shot everything that moved, and sicko Gyp Rosetti took a knife in the back. Nucky was back to playing all the angles. So as the season ended we're reminded that Nucky's in charge because he's the smartest gangster of the bunch.

- Tim Cotter



I recently wrote an ode of sorts to "Breaking Bad" in my blogspace. I drew a parallel between Walter White and Shakespeare's Macbeth as two ambitious power-hungry men who reap what they sow.

You've got to love a modern show with classic high stakes. Frumpy high school chemistry teacher/cancer patient turns master meth cook in the New Mexico desert? At war with a Mexican cartel that was doing business behind a fast-food chicken stand? Hunted by his DEA agent brother-in-law who's almost cracked the case? Come on! Factor in fabulous actors (including recent Emmy winner Aaron Paul) and fine writing, and you've got greatness.

"Breaking Bad" returns to AMC for its series finale this summer, and I'll be sad to see it go. Maybe I'll start an annual series re-watch like I do with my beloved "Sopranos."

- Marisa Nadolny



Excitement for the season 3 premiere on Jan. 6 fuels this entry, along with genuine affection for this well-produced/acted/costumed/written show.

"Downton Abbey" follows the goings-on at, well, Downton Abbey, an English manor house occupied by the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. Starting with the Titanic disaster in season 1, episode 1, in season 2 we watched the early 20th century continue to unfold in Downton's hallowed halls in several guises: its shifting social mores in Matthew and Mary's romance; the ravages of war as the house is transformed into a hospital during World War 1; and challenges to English notions of class and society in various in-house romantic dalliances.

This show makes for gorgeously presented history with classic English wit supplied by the great Maggie Smith as Violet, Countess of Grantham .

Anglophiles and critics have embraced this show for good reason: it is art using the small screen as a steadily emerging medium.

-Marisa Nadolny


Fox News

On Election Night, most politically savvy Americans were crawled up in the fetal position, crying and chanting, "Please, oh merciful God don't let it be him."

But Election Night is also great television. There's lots of cool maps to go along with campy music announcing polls closings, and everybody gets to know the name of every voting precinct in Ohio.

And, like Tim Russert's "Florida, Florida, Florida" whiteboard in 2000, election coverage can etch itself into American lore.

Such will be the case with the confusion that reigned on the Fox News set for about 20 minutes when political analyst and GOP fundraiser Karl Rove was in open revolt against the cable channel's call of Ohio for President Obama.

It was, without bias, the most bizarre and entertaining part of Election Night.

- Stephen Chupaska



For people in their 20s, Lena Dunham's scripts for "Girls" ring clarion cathedral-style bells. The four leads, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna, are each emblematic of the dichotomies adulthood can bring - emotional highs and lows, instances of self-absorption and generosity, and the potent cocktail of fear and thrills as life begins to change.

While Dunham rightly earns accolades for her characters and her writing, "Girls" doesn't get enough credit for its performances. Go back and watch the look on Allison Williams' face as Marnie after she's volcanically turned on by a sexually forward artist. There's also Adam Driver, in a breakout role as Hannah's weird, righteous boyfriend. And Dunham is cut diamond perfect as Hannah during her sleepy subway ride to Coney Island in the season finale.

- Stephen Chupaska


History Channel

A mini-series should leave you wanting more, and that was the case with the three-episode "Hatfields & McCoys." Kevin Costner (William Hatfield) and Tom Berringer (Jim Vance) deservedly won Emmys with some of the best acting you'll see on big-screen TV. "Hatfields & McCoys" has come to mean "family feud," but most of us know little of the families that were neighbors in West Virginia and Kentucky. This mini-series fleshes out that story, with plenty of romance, drama and tragedy.

- Tim Cotter



To all you Honey Boo Boo-haters out there, watch the show and get back to me. I'll wait.

The idea of little girls gallivanting across a stage vying for beauty pageant titles on "Toddlers & Tiaras" was, I admit, appalling. But when 7-year-old contestant Alana Thompson burst onto the scene with her own reality show, something changed. Turns out she is a very real little girl with a very real family dealing with weight problems, money woes and relationships, with true affection for each other.

It's all good. They "shop" on Saturdays at the local landfill. They have a pig for a pet - well not anymore; it got to be too much so they got rid of it. And you've got to love Elana's sister's new baby, Kaitlyn, who was born with two thumbs on one hand.

Through it all, Alana's family is nicer to each other more than any other reality show family on television.

- Kathleen Edgecomb



You don't need to be a TV genius to know that sports are better live than on tape.

Of course, ad dollars, ratings and a five-hour time difference from the UK dictated that NBC show most of the marquee events at the London Olympics on a tape delay in primetime. It also meant they could drop in mawkish "up close and personal" segments on the athletes.

It also worked; ratings for the Games were high.

But NBC, on its 612 cable channels (number might not be accurate), did show a great majority of the events live during the day, which was great for people who had the time, official or otherwise, to watch. And much of it was exciting stuff. People who watched the breathtaking semifinal match in women's soccer between USA and Canada will undoubtedly agree that that game made NFL Sunday drama look like a children's pop-up book.

- Stephen Chupaska



I checked out this show on demand and some nights it struck me as a poorly written soap opera. But I couldn't stop watching and, over three nights, I saw the entire first season. There's the solid ensemble cast of actors we kind of recognize: Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights"), Hayden Panettiere ("Heroes"), Eric Close ("Without a Trace"), Charles Esten ("Whose Line Is It Anyway?"), Robert Wisdom ("The Wire") and Powers Boothe ("24"). And then there's the music, directed by T-Bone Burnett and sung by the cast, that is better than it has any right to be.

- Tim Cotter



While it can get a little heavy on office romance and be too preachy, this Aaron Sorkin creation smartly worked in major news events (Gabby Giffords, bin Laden) and exhibited a sharp wit as it took on the Tea Party, anonymous online commentators and ratings-driven news shows in its debut season. A worthy successor to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" with an Emmy-worthy performance by Jeff Daniels.

- Tim Cotter



The Real Housewives shows of any locale - New Jersey, New York, Atlanta, Miami, Orange County and Beverly Hills - are like train wrecks you can't look away from. But every once in a while a true human emotion surfaces, like when New Jersey wife Theresa flipped a table and her husband had to rein her in, or when Beverly Hills sisters Kyle and Kim confronted Kim's drinking problems - and you think wow, this is not acting. Show me more. Get that train back on the tracks and head for the next station.

- Kathleen Edgecomb

The Voice


One of my children said to me recently: "Dad, you're a smart guy, but you watch a lot of bad TV." So I figured I'd include a "bad" show on my list of favorites. It can't be "X Factor," with its over-produced musical numbers and scripted bickering between the judges. Oh, and it has a Kardashian. And "American Idol" has become boring. That leaves "The Voice," with likeable judges and a dynamite final six.

- Tim Cotter

The Walking Dead


One of my colleagues suggested this zombie apocalypse-themed series went too far this season as it showed us even more guts and gore. I say these stomach-churning exchanges make for the show's best moments. Who could turn away from Lori's prison room C-section, badass Michonne covered in zombie intestines and the glass shard to the Governor's eye?

The show, now in its third season, has managed to bring new characters into the fold nicely while showing us new sides of our old favorites. Did you get chills watching Glenn kill that zombie after being tied to a chair? Or queasy watching Andrea and the Governor consummate their relationship?

February can't come soon enough for the season finale.

- Jeffrey A. Johnson

Steve Buscemi, center, in the HBO series, 'Boardwalk Empire.'
Steve Buscemi, center, in the HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire."
Alana 'Honey Boo Boo' Thompson shows one of her many trophies in her home in McIntyre, Ga.
Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson shows one of her many trophies in her home in McIntyre, Ga.
Connie Britton, left, and Hayden Panettiere in 'Nashville.'
Connie Britton, left, and Hayden Panettiere in "Nashville."


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