A gut-wrenching comic, a savvy executive and a voice of her generation are among those who made their mark.
In a recent episode of "Saturday Night Live," a 37-year-old show that feels fresher than it has in ages, host Louis CK slipped into an Abraham Lincoln costume and combed New York City bars in a heartfelt attempt to make some black friends.
If only the rest of television were willing to follow suit.
It was mostly a terrific year for the small screen thanks to the cheekiness of "Downton Abbey," the audacity of "Girls" and the loneliness of "Mad Men." But all those brilliant works have one thing in common: a disturbing lack of minorities both behind and in front of the camera.
Assembling a list of the top 10 most interesting TV figures in 2012, I was both shocked and crushed that I couldn't justify including any people of color. Sofia Vergara is a hoot on "Modern Family" and Mindy Kaling has had her mischievous moments on "The Mindy Project," but groundbreaking? Not so much.
Let's hope that next year's roundup is as impressive in diversity as it is in quality.
And now, the class of 2012:
Candy Crowley, "State of the Union" (CNN): Viewers unfamiliar with this veteran journalist may have been impressed by how deftly she handled President Obama and Mitt Romney in the third presidential debate. But her steely performance came as no surprise to regular viewers of her Sunday-morning talk show. She takes her job seriously while never acting like the smartest person in the room, even though she probably is.
Lena Dunham, "Girls" (HBO): No, "Girls" didn't crack my top 10 list. In fact, I found spending time with these bratty, self-deluded characters as harrowing as club night with the cast of "Jersey Shore." But mad props to creator and star Dunham for daring to expose her generation as one in need of some grown-up values -- as well as a sound spanking.
Vince Gilligan, "Breaking Bad" (AMC): Tired of hearing the praises for this four-year-old series? Prepare to be bored all over again. Gilligan's diabolical plan to introduce a wholly sympathetic character (Bryan Cranston) and slowly transform him into evil incarnate comes to a close next summer, but not before stunning us with another batch of mind-blowing episodes. It's one of the cruelest and most masterful magic tricks in TV history.
Robert Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chairman: In a perfect world, the former Showtime chief would have brought his gritty cable sensibilities to his new gig at TV's most dysfunctional network and made it classy again. But Greenblatt doesn't live in a perfect world; he lives in Hollywood, where ratings matter. Instead of developing Emmy bait, he extended "The Voice," reined in Matthew Perry and took only the slightest of gambles by betting on "Smash." Great TV? Nah, but NBC won November sweeps for the first time in more than a decade, the comeback story of the year.
Louis CK, "Louie" (FX): Many comedians suffer from depression, but few have mined a funk with such creativity and cleverness. Somehow he manages to play TV's most sympathetic sad sack while juggling directing, writing, producing and editing duties. The show peaked this fall with the character's futile attempt to replace David Letterman, a story arc that managed to tap the comic genius of director David Lynch, convince Jerry Seinfeld to explore his dark side and, most astonishingly, make you feel sorry for Jay Leno. Here's hoping the show's success gives the comic a reason to cheer up -- but not too much.
Jared Harris, "Mad Men" (AMC): Watching "Mad Men" usually makes me feel like I'm near the end of a five-martini lunch. You get a nice buzz, but you also feel a little bit sleepy. Harris' performance as the doomed Lane Pryce certainly stirred things up, offering viewers a man slowly sinking into a spiral of shame. Richard Harris famously never won an Oscar or an Emmy. Let's hope the awards gods don't make the same mistake with his son.
Lenny Pickett, "Saturday Night Live" (NBC): I'm not sure who's most responsible for "SNL's" great musical moments this year, but let's go ahead and give credit to the underappreciated Pickett, who has served as the show's musical director since 2000. From Mick Jagger's touching farewell serenade to Kristen Wiig to Martin Short's star-studded ode to holiday hormones earlier this month, Pickett & Co. have hit all the right notes.
Aaron Sorkin, "The Newsroom" (HBO): The man with the golden touch, not to mention an Oscar for "The Social Network," is primed for a letdown, but this dramedy shouldn't be it. Yes, the series could be cloying and even ridiculous at times, but more often than not, Sorkin's dialogue rang out with romantic overtones and optimistic fervor. Realistic? No way. Rousing? You bet.
Tim Van Patten, "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO): In the late 1970s, Van Patten's TV legacy consisted of playing a guy named Salami on "The White Shadow." Today, he's heralded by film historian David Thomson as possibly the most important director of his generation. Hear that, Spielberg? Van Patten helmed the handsomely shot "Boardwalk Empire" four times in 2012. He's also put his mark on "The Sopranos," "Rome," "Deadwood" and "The Wire." Not bad for a guy with a mediocre jump shot.
The women of "Happy Endings" (ABC): Next time Jerry Lewis flaps his gums about women not being funny, Sandra Bernhardt must reprise her role from "The King of Comedy," tie the misguided comedian to a chair and force him to watch the energetic trio of Casey Wilson, Eliza Coupe and Elisha Cuthbert steal this anything-goes sitcom from their wimpier male counterparts.
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