Welcome to the TV in 2012 roundtable. I’ve assembled nearly 20 of my fellow critics, scholars and friends to reflect and review the year in television. Between now and the end of the year, the group will discuss various topics covering the highs, the lows and everything in between.
We kick things off today with our favorite single moments of 2012. Unsurprisingly, a handful of people cheated and picked multiple moments.
Cory Barker: We’re here to talk about the year in television. 2012 brought us all kinds of great shows, episodes and performances, and while we will get to those, I wanted to start somewhere slightly different. Let’s think about favorite individual, singular moments on television in 2012. This can be anything from a single scene or particular performance in one episode of a scripted show to an enthralling instance from something unscripted like reality TV, sports, news, etc. In two years, when you think of TV in 2012, what will immediately come to mind for you and why?
Cameron White: The last two hours I spent with Chuck were some of the best hours I’ll ever spend with any TV show, and there were two moments contained within those two hours that will stay with me forever. The first is in the penultimate episode, “Chuck versus Sarah” when Chuck takes Sarah back to their dream house (which they had shopped for previously in the season, and into one of the doorways Sarah had carved “Chuck + Sarah”) and tries one last time to get her to remember her old life. The “that anyone could love a nerdy guy like me” speech will go down as one of Zachary Levi’s best moments in acting; for a while, Chuck had become a real spy, and the heart of the show (that a nerd had been thrown unceremoniously into a world he’d only seen in movies and TV shows before) had gone missing. But in one tearful monologue, Levi brings it all back. It’s a damned tragedy that it isn’t on YouTube somewhere.
The second moment is, of course, the final scene of the series. Sarah has been slowly remembering her past life over the course of the episode; she and Chuck meet on the very beach from the pilot, where Sarah made a promise that Chuck could trust her, no matter what. Chuck makes a similar plea, and the show, one of those most well-known for its excellent deployment of music, makes its final move in using The Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads” — a song that, incidentally, played not but a week later on How I Met Your Mother, in “The Drunk Train.” This reminiscing of the show, framed as Chuck telling the story of how he and Sarah fell in love, doesn’t hold back its emotions, just as the show had never held back on delivering emotional gut punches over the course of its run.
These two moments are especially important because they represent just how much I’d become attached to Chuck since I first started watching it ahead of Heroes back in the WGA strike days. Over the course of 2012, I began to understand exactly what it meant to forge that kind of emotional bond with fictional characters; I saw it in the reactions to Game of Thrones, and to Girls, and to Gossip Girl (weird, that one). And so the year is defined, for me, by the ending of a show that I swear to God was never going to make it past the year 2007. I’m tearing up just thinking about it now. 2012, for me, is “Chuck? Tell me our story.”
Andrew Rabin: I was trying to choose between Leslie Knope voting and PIZZA HOUSE! when I thought about the culturally defining event of 2012. The Olympics are one of the few events we all seem to universally share (well except for those of us who have our closing ceremony’s broken up by Animal Practice). And while Phelps and Franklin and Bolt and Douglas may have been the biggest stars, another individual is the one who brought me my favorite moment.
I haven’t been shy in my feelings for the America’s favorite Silver Medalist, McKayla Maroney. And while her unimpressed reaction to her individual event finals fall is what brought the meme to life, I was more taken by her wild success in the team finals. While Gabby, Aly, Jordyn, and Kyla (alright, I had to look up Kyla’s name) each succeeded in various events, McKayla did one thing, and she did it perfectly.
McKayla Maroney’s entire Olympics consisted of five vaults. But it was the third one, the one in the team finals, that was the highlight. It was as close to perfect as any gymnastics I had ever seen. It was the reason why, once every four years, we all watch gymnastics or swimming or ice skating or curling, sports we would never watch otherwise. There is always the chance that we will see something that we have never seen before, and could never see any other time. And that is what happened with McKayla’s team finals vault. The perfectly straight run. The pre-vault flip. The incredible rise off the vault- later superimposed over the men’s champion to show just how high she went. The perfect landing. The gasping judges in the background. It only got a 16.233 out of 16.5, but it was truly flawless.
Chris Castro: I’ll take this opportunity to throw my hat into the ring and say that my favorite performance was that of Peter Dinklage in the episode “Blackwater.” He got to be his usual wisecracking self, while also having moments of worry and courage. He even had the chance to stand taller than anyone else as he led the men of King’s Landing to fight for their homes and their families. What seals the deal though was that momentary look of horror when he saw the wondrously terrifying sight of his plan for the wildfire coming to fruition.
Noel Kirkpatrick: I feel like this is the clichéd choice this year since it was so frigging spectacular and insane, but Sasha from Bunheads dancing to They Might Be Giants’ cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in the episode “Movie Truck.” It was just such a random outro/episode tag/whatever but once the sheer shock of it washed away, you realized how much the choreography and the song choice reflected Sasha’s in-between status: girl to young woman, daughter of married parents to daughter of parents on the verge of separation, and an isolated person to a person who desperately needs to embrace the support system around her to survive.
Greg Boyd: As I noted in one of my Dick Van Dyke write-ups, the sustained comic set piece is sort of vanishing from television. And while I love the comedies of today, that’s really a shame, since so many of the defining moments in TV comedy history are a result of lengthy scenes that just get funnier as they go on: such as the “yellow light” scene in “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” and Laura’s conversation with Alan Brady in “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth”. You just don’t see scenes like that all that often any more. So while the obvious choice for a great moment from season three of Louie would probably be C.K. and Parker Posey on that roof or the conclusion to the “Late Show” arc, I’m going to go with the scene from the finale where Louie attempts to fix a doll.
Quite simply, it made me laugh longer and harder than anything I’ve seen on TV since Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory”. It starts off simply enough, but as it goes on Louie is required to use more and more elaborate methods of doll surgery, with the result being a scene that delivers laugh after laugh without any loss of comic momentum whatsoever. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, for sure, which is probably why most shows nowadays prefer to cut between two or three different storylines. But when it works, it’s glorious. This isn’t the only time Louie did this in 2012, of course (one of its luxuries is that it doesn’t have a ton of different characters and storylines to juggle, which leaves it free to occasionally put together longer and more elaborate scenes like this), but to me it’s the funniest thing the show has ever done, and a scene that should go down as one of the best comic scenes ever made.
Les Chappell: Mad Men was my favorite show in 2012, and perhaps not coincidentally it had its most experimental season to date. There were plenty of highlights—the conference room brawl of Pryce vs. Campbell, “Zou Bisou Bisou,” Don strangling an ex in a fever dream—but the crown jewel of the season had to be Roger Sterling’s electric Kool-Aid acid test in “Far Away Places.” Dropping LSD with his wife Jane (delivered courtesy of Bess Armstrong, Patty Chase of My So-Called Life), he relived the 1919 World Series, heard an orchestra in a bottle of Stolichanya, and delved to the depths of Pet Sounds. And in one of his most honest moments, he and Jane stared at the ceiling and admitted to each other it had been over for a long time. It was the most direct intersection of psychedelia into the Mad Men universe, and was handled perfectly—experimentally done but devoid of stereotypical hallucinations, ending with one of those inimitable Sterling moments (“I have an announcement to make. It’s going to be a beautiful day!”) and setting in motion Roger’s season-long attempts to chase that elusive high. Just a delight.
And on the comedy side, I can’t not mention one of 2012’s most emotional moments, the Parks and Recreation proposal scene between Ben Wyatt and Leslie Knope in “Halloween Surprise.” This episode lived up to its name, as while there was little doubt Ben was going to come back to Leslie, the degree to which he committed was completely unexpected. While I’ve been a bit back and forth on the quality of Parks this year, the core relationship between Ben and Leslie has never felt hollow in the slightest, and this was a perfectly in-character moment for both. Amy Poehler nailed both Leslie’s raw emotion and desire to preserve the moment in her internal autobiography, and Adam Scott had his wonderful awkwardness as he let her have that moment.
Eric Thurm: I’m going to steal the interrogation scene from Homeland‘s “Q&A” before anyone else gets to it, because it’s probably one of my favorite scenes of television ever. The whole sequence is impressive, but I’m really talking about the three or so minutes when the camera is focused almost entirely on Damian Lewis’ face while Carrie is just talking to Brody, trying to break him as he remains silent. Reacting effectively is one of the hardest things about acting, but Lewis makes it looks so, so easy. Lewis’ face perfectly captures the way Brody is a man torn between an ever-increasing number of forces, literally primed to explode. The scene manages to send you past the edge of your seat not once, but twice: first, when Carrie finishes her initial pitch and Brody takes what seems like an eternity to respond by (spoilers) sticking to his story, and second when she lets her guard down and, in an extraordinary display of the blend of thriller and character work that makes Homeland great, finally breaks him by confessing her true feelings for him. The “Brody + Carrie 4ever” approach to those characters was part of what sent season two off the rails a bit, and I get why a lot of people feel tremendously let down by the last act or so. But “Q&A,” and really almost the entire season, could have just been that scene surrounded by static and I’d still have given it an “A” – once I remembered to start breathing again.
Danny Grinberg: For moments that we’ll be looking back on for years , I think Mitt Romney’s “Binders Full of Women” gaffe has to be near the top of the list. In an election constantly reshaped by pivotal TV moments (Rick Perry’s “Oops,” Barack Obama’s awful Denver performance, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, Bill Clinton’s convention speech, etc.), Romney’s awkward, garbled attempt at appealing to female voters was an easy way to encapsulate his candidacy. In one soundbite, he reawakened memories of the 47 percent video, stoked new accusations of being a pandering empty suit, and helped turn himself into a (bigger) punchline. With women’s issues so prominent in the national debate, thanks to so many Republicans making problematic statements about rape and abortion, Romney cast himself as yet another out-of-touch politician.
There are a few other things that separate Binders Full of Women. For one, it seems sadly indicative of the media and online users’ tendency to overlook substantive issues in favor of fun gaffes and soundbites. It also represents a time when the Internet is threatening to steal television’s thunder, as diverse users can mine hours of footage for those few gotcha moments and instantly turn them into viral videos and GIF and meme blogs. Still, it remains true for now that most of the memes are remediating television moments (rather than creating more independent content) and are potentially even leading viewers back to TV. As Henry Jenkins would argue, these GIFs and memes could also qualify as subversive works of political engagement and are “no less an act of citizenship than writing a letter to the editor” (Convergence Culture, p. 233), thus representing an evolution in how ordinary citizens can use the convergence of TV and new media to make a bigger impact. (For another highlight, see Paul Ryan Gosling.) Finally, I chose Binders Full of Women because, simply put, it was hilarious and painful and unforgettable and led us to having images like the one to the right here.
Julie Hammerle: I was going to go with the time Tyra Banks had all of the British and American girls make a music video on America’s Next Top Model, which is certainly the most often quoted TV moment of 2012 in my household; but thinking better of it, I decided to go with the reveal on The Walking Dead of the Governor’s wall of zombie head aquariums. That shot—him sitting in his chair drinking, basking in the glow of some blue light, and then the camera panning over to the wall of floating walker noggins—put me firmly on board season three of the show. That single moment provided the deepest bit of characterization we’d ever seen on The Walking Dead and it put me fully on board for the rest of the season. I felt like I was watching Lost again, and I liked that feeling. Of course, as the season went on, the Governor became less Ben Linus and more Paulo, but I never forgot that wall of heads.
Mark Waller: Since Cory introduced sports moments, I was going to discuss watching point guard / magical Spanish unicorn Ricky Rubio tear his ACL against Kobe Bryant, but I’m getting depressed just thinking about writing about that major televised bummerfest. (I really, really love Ricky Rubio. Really love him. A lot.)
Instead, I’ll focus on the magical with regard to scripted television. In the Game of Thrones finale, an episode that, IMHO, maybe spent a bit too much time with Daenerys and her search for her dragons that weren’t ever really in any real danger, my fave character on the show (and the books) Arya meets up with the mysterious (and third-person-speaking) Jaqen H’Ghar. Mr. H’Ghar (I assume that’s how he prefers to be addressed) finds Arya to both say goodbye and to deliver to her “a coin of great value,” one that, if delivered to the right person in the magical city of Braavos along with the words “Valar Morghulis”, would help her with some sort of future predicament. In my mind, the moment Jaqen asks her to repeat the words “Valar Morghulis” a few times, then turns his head and turns back with a different face!!! was the most spine-tingling moment of television in 2012. And personally, having just finished reading the third book in the series, the scene carried even more nerdgasm power. As I learned from shows like Lost, reveling in the mysteries of a narrative is often more satisfying than learning the cold, hard truth. It’s kind of the difference between watching Ricky Rubio play basketball and watching him tear his ACL.
Kerensa Cadenas: One of the first television moments I’ll think about from 2012 is the scene from my beloved The L.A. Complex when Kaldrick King (Andra Fuller) finally comes out (Clip is from 16:13-18:53). Though it was a show that unfortunately got lumped in as standard CW crap, Complex unfolded an intelligent and nuanced coming out story of rapper. It didn’t shy away from portraying him as equal parts confused, terrible and sympathetic. When he is finally able to come out, in a letter to his recently deceased father (but actually his fanbase), shows the great emotional development of a character that could have merely been unsympathetic or even one-note. In the moment King utters “I am gay,” it is hands down one of the most powerful, moving and subversive things I saw in television this year.
My second has to be the “Dancing On My Own” scene from the third episode of Girls. After learning that she has HPV and that her ex-boyfriend is gay, Hannah’s simple tweet “all adventurous women do” coupled with a dance party with best friend Marnie to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” is a moment that felt so joyous to me. While it’s steeped in the icky, messy sadness of past relationships and unfortunate sexual encounters, Hannah takes a moment that could be full of self-loathing and turns into an acceptance of the things in our lives that we cannot change but can use to shape us. Plus, you can never go wrong with a Robyn song.
Adam Wright: “Are you… a serial killer?”
It was the phrase we’ve been waiting to hear for 6 seasons. But when Dexter aired its seventh season premiere on Showtime, it delivered to viewers a true game-changer.
Dexter was coming off its worst season ever and fans were already ready to jump ship. The thought of two more seasons to end this series which seemed to have lost its way seemed unbearable. After the seventh season premiere aired, all those worries and fears were pretty much wiped away. That single phrase uttered by Debra Morgan kicked off Dexter’s season of rejuvenation.
Season seven will always be known as the season that won us back for several reasons. With the game-changer from the premiere, we were in new territory with Deb knowing about Dexter’s secret. The highlight of the season was Jennifer Carpenter’s brilliant performance. It was an Emmy worthy performance that will no doubt be overlooked, sadly.
As the season ended, the evolution continued. Now Deb is a killer just like her brother. And now that we head towards the final season, I am thankful 2012 gave us that one season that rejuvenated this once—and now again—great show.
Sabienna Bowman: The penultimate episode of Shameless was full of indelible moments from Fiona and Jimmy scrubbing her mother’s blood from the kitchen floor to Karen’s joyous and heartbreaking birth scene, but the image of Lip recording a video for the child he knew he could not raise is something that’s going to stick with me for a long while. Jeremy Allen White’s performance in season two was searing throughout as Lip self-destructed in every way possible, but the filming of that video marked his best work to date. The way he delivered the line I wish it could have been us, absolutely gutted me.
The scene marked the culmination of Lip’s season two arc that began when he discovered that Karen was pregnant. He latched onto the idea that he was the father of her child as a way to prove once and for all that he was not Frank, but his every action brought him closer and closer to proving just the opposite until he filmed that video. In that scene, all of Lip’s anger and fear faded away and was replaced with nothing but sorrow as he looked into the camera and said goodbye to the unborn child he so wanted to believe was his. Accepting that he had to allow Karen to give the baby up was an utterly selfless act, one that Frank could never be capable of, and one that illustrated the kind of man Lip has become. Small though it was, it was the most powerful television moment I witnessed in 2012.
Emma Fraser: The Olympics were a big deal over here in the UK and as a nation we can be a tad cynical, but all of that was forgotten for those three weeks in the summer. It’s hard to pick one moment considering the BBC had up to 26 channels showing different events and because there were so many wonderful ones. It also turns out that I get quite misty eyed when athletes or their families shed a tear, so this was quite a weepy time for me. The one moment that sums it up is when Mo Farah won his first gold medal in the 10,000 meter. I was watching it at work in the staff room with several of my colleagues and the last lap was a lot of cheering (very much like this behind the scenes video of the BBC pundits). It summed up everything that is amazing about sporting events like these and the shared experience that television helps create.
Over the summer I also binge watched Parks and Recreation for the first time and I’d say it’s probably my favorite of the current comedy shows (sorry Community), so both Leslie winning her election and Ben’s proposal in “Halloween Surprise” are scenes that I have come back to for multiple viewings. There’s no other show that makes me laugh as much as this show, or tear up at these happy moments. I’m so glad that there is a character like Leslie Knope on TV and both her personal and professional achievements have made me feel like we can all win at something – perhaps I’m still not that cynical even though the Olympics is long over. Oh and Amy Poehler is wonderful at nailing humor and emotion in a scene and both showcase this. Can they give Poehler an Emmy already?
Cory Barker: There were a number of great sports moments in 2012–the Olympics, a thrilling March Madness and the United States choking away the Ryder Cup immediately come to mind–but nothing tops LeBron James’ performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. With the Miami Heat on the road and on edge of elimination (and embarrassment for the second playoffs in a row), LeBron took the series and his legacy into his own hands and turned in one of the most dominating individual performances in NBA playoff history: 45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 recontextualized career. Unfortunately, sports analysis has divulged into hyperboles and absolutes, rendering LeBron’s career incomplete and disappointing until he won a title. With this one performance, LeBron changed the longstanding narrative, going from choker and villain to champion and hero. LeBron has been the best basketball on the planet for half a decade or more and he’s had a few performances similar to this Game 6 effort, but he needed this one.
Wesley Ambrecht: Given the plethora of TV I watched in 2012, you’d think there would be a moment that just came to me, upon reading this prompt. Alas, no. It also didn’t help that y’all had selected some of the most iconic moments already. I seriously considered THIS scene, because I’m me. I also contemplated selecting Michael Phelps’ record-breaking victory but, ultimately, I felt like I should pick something from a narrative TV show.
For that reason, I’m going to go ahead and select Chad Michael Murray’s return to One Tree Hill. Tree Hill did a ton of things wrong in its final season, most things actually. But, that scene when Murray disembarks the plane and returns to the sound of Feist’s “Graveyard” struck a chord with me. I realize how silly must read to someone who didn’t watch the show, but I’m an absolute sucker for properly used music and the synchronicity of lyrics like “bring ‘em all back to life,” Murray’s laughable hairdo and years’ worth of commitment add up to something very special.
Adam Lukach: Not many shows can pull off a tightly-resolute plot with enough confidence to still manage a veil, but this season of Boardwalk Empire did. For much of the first part of the season it seemed to struggle to rid the ghost of Jimmy Darmody, both with meandering stories and odd characters, but by the time it began shaking out, Terence Winter’s brilliant story writing yielded Owen-Slater-in-a-box, almost definitely the most genuinely shocking thing I saw on TV all year. No schlocky shock either; Winter tacked it on the back end of a disarming lead-up, with some always-tedious Nucky-Margaret talking and one of Gyp’s nastiest/best kills, where he buries the dude and beats his head with a shovel. You forget Owen even went to kill Joe until you see the look on Steve Buscemi’s face after the box is opened. Kelly Macdonald played the moment perfectly too, but immediate shot of dead Slater there with blood on his face was wild. It was well-executed and the epitome of a show that stayed true to itself while keeping you guessing.
Real quick mentions, though!: Roger Sterling’s acid trip, “Pizza House!”
Next up: Best individual performance.