Let the great flood of lists begin! Now is the time all critics eat up the weeks leading to their holiday breaks with the easiest columns imaginable: Lists of all the great stuff they saw, heard or experienced over the past year. But there's a sad truth here. Many of us will pick the same TV shows, because it's pretty obvious what the best stuff is. To break that streak, I'm going to offer a different tally today: The Best TV Shows of 2012 That Won't Be on Anyone Else's Best of Lists. These are the shows I like to watch but aren't cool enough or ambitious enough or well-known enough to get other critics' attention. In other words, it's the stuff I'd probably watch if I wasn't getting paid to watch television. Check them out and see if they would make your list, too.
10Unsung (BET) Sort of a Behind the Music for R&B and soul fans, this series digs into the often-messy history of artists who may not have been famous enough to get attention elsewhere. Seeing how Arrested Development's lead singer Speech let his ego destroy the group and that Ghostbusters writer Ray Parker Jr. also wrote the signature guitar lines in early hits by Rufus, Chaka Khan's first group, I felt exposed to a music history lesson few others might know.
9Chopped (Food Network) There are lots of food competitions, from the overwrought theatrics of Iron Chef to the low-budget inanity of Cupcake Wars. But my favorite is this contest, which takes four chefs from a wide variety of backgrounds, hands them a mystery basket of ingredients for appetizer, dinner and dessert courses, and challenges each to devise creative dishes on a tight deadline. The results, judged by a snooty yet expert panel of food stars, are surprisingly exciting, emotional and mouth-watering.
8The Steve Harvey Show (WTTA-Ch. 38) Ask for a list of the last people who should be hosting a daytime TV talk show, and I would have put comic Harvey at the top of it (he always looks like he's one glass of cognac away from cussing out anybody who crosses him). But that was before I saw his program, where Harvey is smart, charming and adept at translating a no-nonsense attitude into compelling segments aimed right at daytime TV's female demographic.
7Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (FX) This late-night show, with Chris Rock as executive producer, tackles race, politics, gender issues and more featuring standup comic Bell. At times, the series is still finding its voice — like a group of your most talented New York pals putting on a show — but Bell's riff about the difference between sheiks and Sikhs, including a shout-out to the disco band Chic, was priceless.
6Longmire (A&E) Based on characters from Craig Johnson's mystery novels, this series is an amazing showcase for Australian actor Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff struggling to find meaning in life after his wife's death. Sure, it occasionally veers into Murder, She Wrote land (too many killings in a town the size of a postage stamp), but viewers get a modern western expertly mashed with a modern mystery series.
5Dirty Jobs (Discovery) I know it was canceled not long ago by Discovery, but this cheeky, low-budget show in which host Mike Rowe traveled to the ickiest jobs imaginable may have been the most subversive reality series on television. Tackling everything from lamb gelding to inseminating turkeys, Rowe showed respect and admiration for folks who found nobility in working hard at awful jobs. That's a long way from the insulting tone of new-school unscripted series such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
4David Letterman's audience-less Sandy shows (CBS) This was the ultimate test for TV's best late-night host; how to present a rollicking show when weather from the approach of Superstorm Sandy got so bad, CBS canceled audiences for two days. Yeah, it was awkward and weird. But that's often where Letterman shines, looking at sidekick Paul Shaffer while cracking that he "feels like Clint Eastwood; an old guy talking to empty chairs."
3Boss (Starz) I wasn't initially in love with this series, starring Kelsey Grammer as a powerful Chicago mayor secretly stricken with a debilitating nerve disorder. But after Grammer's Tom Kane got his daughter busted on a drug charge to serve himself politically, I was in. Too bad Starz canceled the show this year.
2Vegas (CBS) This show blends a modernized western with a Mob story and Mad Men-style nostalgia, showcasing a rancher turned sheriff policing 1960s-era Las Vegas as mobsters take over casinos. Yeah, it's still too-often a CBS murder of the week procedural, but with Dennis Quaid as the irascible sheriff and Michael Chiklis as a wily gangster, it draws me in, week after week.
1Sons of Anarchy (FX) It's a brutal drama about a biker gang that somehow humanizes gun-running, drug-muling outlaws. With sizable, showy guest roles for NYPD Blue's Jimmy Smits and Lost alum Harold Perrineau, this season barreled through shocking scenes — An informant bites off his own tongue! A woman burned alive! — leaving us fans shell shocked and begging for more.