Radio Times Top 40 TV Shows of 2012: 10 to 1

Finally we reveal the programmes that topped our critics' annual vote...

10. Girls Sky Atlantic
It was hyped to the skies, and rightly: Lena Dunham’s loose saga of posh losers in Brooklyn was funny, brutally honest and unbelievably fresh. Girls looked at other current comedies and said: oh yes, we did used to do things like that, didn’t we? There were tales of bad sex, horrid bosses and crippling self-absorption, each episode unfurling to its own rhythm like a half-hour cult film. Writing, directing and acting, Dunham instantly became one of television’s biggest talents. JS


9. The Bridge BBC4
Some of us who are sturdy individualists think The Bridge, a Danish/Swedish co-production, was even better than The Killing. This was due almost entirely to a wonderful central partnership between emotionally tone-deaf detective Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) and her garrulous partner Martin Rhode (Kim Bodnia). There was an inventive serial killer who wanted to deliver a message, but The Bridge was so much more than a standard murder drama: it was big, ambitious and, ultimately, heartbreaking. AG

8. Downton Abbey ITV1
Down at the Abbey, the times they were a’changing… As the world moved on into the roaring 20s, our aristocratic chums were left reeling. Britain may have been at peace, but life at Downton was far from plain sailing. With weddings, births and deaths, cancer scares, money woes and gay kisses, Downton’s eight drama-filled episodes packed a surprisingly emotional punch. None more so than Lady Sybil’s shock death, which left plenty of fans (and us) in need of a tissue. Perhaps the storylines are getting soapier, but Julian Fellowes’s drama is still the show we know and love. EWA

7. The Great British Bake Off BBC2
Mix together two finicky judges, two presenters with a penchant for puns and 12 butter-fingered homebakers, add a generous slosh of summer rain and leave to prove in a marquee until you can cut the atmosphere with a knife – what do you get? The most addictive series of The Great British Bake Off to date. A plentiful five million viewers giggled at Sue and Mel’s cheesy gags, gasped at Paul Hollywood’s tart putdowns and wished his fellow judge Mary Berry was our granny. It made an unlikely heartthrob of James, a Scottish medical student with a fondness for Fairisle jumpers, while 63-year-old Brendan’s dépassé delicacies divided the nation. The icing on the cake was a finale that left jaws on the floor when the outsider – highly strung law student John Whaite – scooped the trophy. CW

6. Borgen BBC4
Getting the sort of audience who loved The Killing to buy into a dense political drama was a big ask. Or it would have been if Borgen had had any failings. It didn’t. Another Danish sizzler, this sinuous thriller charted the rise of Birgitte Nyborg from idealistic party leader to compromised prime minister. Sidse Babett Knudsen was mesmerisingly good as the unshowy but commanding Birgitte, whose humanitarian zeal made her one of the most attractive characters on television. The writers got the mix of parliamentary intrigue and domestic interaction spot-on, and peopled Borgen with an utterly credible second string. MB

5. Fresh Meat C4
The British Comedy Awards dared to ignore our favourite student sitcom: the jury deserve to have their cheeks drilled through by a hungover dentistry undergrad forthwith. Series two was rich with spiky one-liners and involving story arcs. Into the former category falls JP (Jack Whitehall) in his sick bed with mumps, deploying a rape alarm to summon soup and justifying himself with: “I am sort of being raped by my lack of soup.” The storyline award goes to Oregon falling for the son of the lecturer she slept with – and working for his wife. DB

4. The Thick of It BBC2
The last full series of Armando Iannucci’s blistering satire brought us a coalition government, carrying an innefectual junior partner and fighting a weak, disorganised opposition. But aside from the contemporary echoes, the show stuck to what’s been its central point all along: that so much modern politics is a series of PR stunts and botches, conceived not to make the world better but to get or keep power. The hour-long inquiry episode was riveting, Roger Allam shone as the newly empowered (in theory) Peter Mannion, and Peter Capaldi’s fearsome spin doctor Malcolm Tucker bowed out in a final episode to rank with any sitcom finale. JS

3. Twenty Twelve BBC2
At times this faux fly-on-the-wall documentary seemed like an actual fly-on-the-wall documentary as the hapless personnel on the Olympic Deliverance Committee lurched from one crisis to the next in ways that mirrored their real-life counterparts. Hugh Bonneville has never been better than as the charming, well-meaning boss Ian Fletcher and Jessica Hynes was brilliantly awful as dead-eyed, pin-headed PR officer Siobhan with her memorably daft ideas – like combining the Olympics with the Diamond Jubilee. Jubilympics, anyone? AG

2. Homeland C4
Many grumbled that Homeland’s second series strayed too close to the scattershot plotting of 24, whose writers it shares. At times there were devices that seemed more comic book than espionage thriller (notably the vice-president’s pacemaker storyline or the text to a terrorist from the Pentagon’s situation room) but Homeland was shot and acted with such class and confidence it could exert a grip on our emotions almost regardless of the plausibility or otherwise of its latest twist. Almost. DB

1. Sherlock BBC1
An opening episode in which Sherlock Holmes visited Buckingham Palace dressed only in a bed sheet, and (almost) met his match in the form of whip-smart dominatrix Irene Adler, helped prove that “brainy is the new sexy” as Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s superlative detective drama triumphantly returned in January. Next came a hi-tech spin on Conan Doyle classic The Hound of the Baskervilles; and then the best 90 minutes of TV this year, packed with twists and subtle clues. Benedict Cumberbatch smouldered throughout but later admitted that he, like us, had been reduced to tears by Martin Freeman’s performance as the grief-stricken John Watson, who thought he saw his best friend die. A searing turn from Andrew Scott as criminal genius Moriarty – by turns camp and deadly – completed a mesmerising climax, ending in a cliffhanger that will go down in television history. Just how did Holmes survive that plunge from the roof of St Bart’s Hospital? We’ll find out in 2013 but, for now, Sherlock is top of our critics’ poll by a mile. PJ

Voted for and written by Radio Times magazine and’s critics: Alison Graham (AG), David Butcher (DBu), Tim Glanfield (TG), Paul Jones (PJ), Jack Seale (JS), Patrick Mulkern (PM), Mark Braxton (MB), Gill Crawford (GC), James Gill (JG), Claire Webb (CW), David Crawford (DC), Tom Cole (TC), Susanna Lazarus (SL), Ellie Walker-Arnott (EWA), David Brown and Emma Sturgess. Compiled by Jack Seale.

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