Top Fifteen Television Shows of 2013
Best of 2013: TV
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the idea that 2013 is the best year in television, whether in recent memory or of all time. The latter proposition seems a bit hyperbolic to me, or at least, seems to come a tad early in the history of the year (which, by the way, is not over, even as most television shows have gone into hibernation until January). But the former is definitely hard to deny. If nothing else, 2013 boasted more great television than I can ever recall, to the point where I watched dozens of shows this year and still feel like I am missing a lot of greatness. It was just impossible to catch everything worthwhile the medium had to offer us this year, which is a gift in and of itself. Yet I have seen so much greatness this year, that I couldn’t limit myself to my usual Top Ten shows. I would have loved to do a Top Twenty, but decided to restrict myself instead to the (slightly) more reasonable fifteen. So below are my fifteen favorite shows of 2013, a small sampling of the smorgasbord this year had on offer.
15. Game of Thrones
The series that spans years and continents, with a cast of dozens, Game of Thrones deserves some credit just for keeping all of its balls in the air each season. Yet season three did much more than that, deepening some plotlines, moving others forward, and bringing a few to their tragic conclusions. As war rages across Westeros and Daenarys Targaryen continues her quest across Essos, the series found its true resonance in tracing the growth of several characters. Whether we watched Jamie Lannister learn to cope without the things that made him a legend, Arya Stark continue to survive with nothing on her side, or Tyrion Lannister learn the price of loyalty and the cost of his leadership, Game of Thrones continues to be a compelling, layered look at power, the people who wield it, and what they will do to seize or retain it.
14. Orphan Black
In a year full of powerhouse performances, few are as varied or as fascinating as Tatiana Maslany’s work on Orphan Black. Maslany plays Sarah, a con artist who finds an opportunity to ditch a bad boyfriend and some serious debt by stepping into the life of Beth, a police officer who looks exactly like her and throws herself in front of a train before Sarah’s eyes. Soon, Sarah discovers things are much more complicated than they initially appeared, and she is in fact one of a series of clones, allowing Maslany to also play tightly-wound soccer mom Alison and crunchy science nerd Cosima, in addition to several other clones that pop up as both allies and adversaries of this newly formed band of seekers over the course of the season. Orphan Black works as pulpy sci-fi fun, a propulsive thriller that throws out questions (and, blessedly, often answers) with lightning speed as it pulls its leads deeper into the mystery of their existence. But beyond that, it’s a boldly feminist series about women seeking to find and assert themselves and the men who view them as little more than intellectual property. Smart, funny, expertly paced and willing to embrace both its genre roots and its deeper philosophical questions, Orphan Black is an adventurous thriller that also works as a story about women in the midst of an existential crisis, with the persistence and fortitude to set about resolving it.
13. Arrested Development
When Netflix began its strong push into original programming this year, what most excited me was the idea of what a television show freed from the strictures of a network and a timeslot could be. Visions of shows unmoored from run-time standards, episode counts, and traditional ratings fears danced in my head. I assumed it would be years before a television show would take advantage of these possibilities. It turned out to be mere months. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that Arrested Development, my personal pick for greatest sitcom of all time, would return in a way that would blow the doors off the place, that it would find a way to come back and be as revolutionary again as it was in its initial run. The show’s fourth season was a different animal—made nearly a decade later, under different restrictions, and with, ultimately, different aims—but it was still one of the boldest, most hilarious and intricate works to appear on any screen in 2013. If the initial run of the show was about Michael Bluth trying to keep his family together, season four (which creator Mitch Hurwitz has described as the middle chapter in a theoretical trilogy) was about each member of the Bluth Family trying (and usually failing) to keep themselves together. Over episodes whose runtimes depended on need rather than tradition, the show told a long, meandering, complex and hilarious story about the ways the Bluth Family remained intertwined even as they tried to separate themselves as much as possible. That even a season of television about these characters breaking apart fits together as well as this one does is incredible. But like vintage Arrested Development, it simply gets better with every re-watch, as new connections and callbacks make themselves known. Arrested Development emerged out of the wilderness to become not just the most conceptually important series of 2013, but one of the flat-out best.
12. New Girl
Over the course of 2013, New Girl had its best run of episodes to date as it finally pulled the trigger on the will-they-won’t-they between Nick and Jess, complicated the love life of Schmidt by introducing his first Love Elizabeth, and basically finally figured Winston was at his best when he was at least slightly unhinged. From “Cooler,” where a drinking game becomes the impetus for Nick and Jess’ first kiss, right through “Elaine’s Big Day,” during which the two confront their doubts about a relationship while engaged in a complex plan to sabotage CeCe’s wedding, the show delivered a near perfect string of episodes that mixed hilarity with heart and developed each member of the core cast further than we had ever seen before. Though the third season has been a bit rougher, cleaning up some loose ends left by that finale in unsatisfying ways, New Girl had one of the best runs of episodes of any show this year, and reached new heights in the process.
11. The Americans
Over the course of its first season, The Americans told excellent espionage stories both episodic and serialized, as Phillip and Elizabeth, Soviet spies posing as American travel agents just outside DC worked to undermine the American government and keep their superiors from overreaching and pushing things into all-out war. The show mined the early-‘80s nuclear paranoia for all it was worth as the actions of agents on both sides of the Cold War threatened to push things past the point of no return. Yet where the series truly excelled was in its interpersonal storylines, where it slowly revealed it was really about the Cold War as metaphor for the American marriage. Featuring stellar performances from Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich, The Americans was a thrilling spy show that slowly deepened into something much more—an exploration of the ways people cling together and grow apart over decades, of various conceptions of loyalty and fidelity, and of the endless complexities of any marriage, regardless of how it began.
10. Orange is the New Black
There are plenty of ways Orange is the New Black could have gone wrong (Jenji Kohan, Lost-style flashback structure, broad comedy set in a women’s prison), but probably only one way it could have gone this right: empathy. The show delved into the backstories of its characters even as it moved them forward through some occasionally soapy plotlines behind bars, until it was possible to empathize with, if not fully understand, every single one of them. The show boasts a huge cast, almost all of whom are giving phenomenal performances, but it manages to give everyone a few moments to shine. There was no show on television this year that felt as heartfelt, as understanding, or as human. By looking close at the people we hide from our sight, Orange is the New Black found humanity among those we treat as inhuman.
9. The Good Wife
Coming off some of its worst storylines ever, The Good Wife rebounded in a big way in 2013 by focusing more on the interpersonal politics between Will, Diane, Cary and Alicia. It ended its fourth season on a high note, and prepping for the biggest status quo change on television since Mad Men’s “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” The show has never been better than in its fifth season, which has followed Alicia and Cary as they leave Lockhart Gardner behind to begin a new firm and set off a war between the old and the new that is rooted in conflicts both personal and professional. After years of careful character work and slow world-building, The Good Wife has reached a crescendo, where every glance, every move, every case-of-the-week takes on a greater significance and a deeper meaning. The show is as smart and timely as ever (taking on the ramifications of Maryland v. King just months after it was handed down, for example), but it has also become increasingly emotionally engaging as we watch Will reel from Alicia’s betrayal and Alicia try to navigate the parameters of her tumultuous marriage now that her husband is the Governor of Illinois. No show on television understands the legal system, nor how law and politics function in day-to-day life better than The Good Wife which has become the spiritual successor to The Wire in its examination of how systems fail us because they are made up of people who are inherently flawed. With a sense of humor and strong interpersonal storylines featuring characters who continue to adapt to fit their circumstances, The Good Wife isn’t just one of the best dramas on network television—it is one of the best shows on television period.
8. Top of the Lake
In a television landscape dotted with murder mysteries, it can be hard to stand out. Yet Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s gorgeous tale about the way the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl throws a rural community into upheaval manages with its impressionistic slow burn, stellar performances, and layered examination of the way power calcifies until it becomes difficult to question, no matter how dangerous it remains. Elizabeth Moss has never been better than she is as Robin Griffin, a haunted police officer back in her hometown to care for her dying mother who is drawn into investigating the rape and then disappearance of a young girl. As she hunts for the truth, she is forced to face down her own demons. All of this sounds fairly traditional, but what makes Top of the Lake truly exceptional is its sense of quiet grace and the way it turns the town of Lake Top into an echo chamber for all of the horrors that plague its denizens. Trauma reflects trauma, and characters become mirrors for each other even as they learn how to approach the world again on its own terms. It is a beautiful, often wrenching examination of trauma and recovery, of connection and loss, wrapped up in the sort of central mystery that has driven many lesser series, but more concerned, ultimately, with the fates of its characters than with the resolution of the case that brings them together.
7. Happy Endings
Happy Endings was a screwball comedy on a weekly basis, a madcap adventure following six friends dealing with life and love that was so quick, comedically dense, and completely absurd it felt wholly unique. The show hit its prime in its third (and sadly final) season, with its rhythms becoming more frenetic by the episode, even as its characters became more fully realized. Season three saw the reunion of Dave and Alex as a couple, yet while the two started the show as the leads and weak links in the ensemble, they had since become such a hysterical mixture of stupidity and exuberance, their reunion was a joy (and their later break up, involving a fight where they were trapped in progressively smaller areas of their apartment, was masterful), but the show also gave us Brad and Jane’s work drama, Penny’s engagement, and Max’s career as a Bar Mitzvah Hype-man. By embracing its oddest self, Happy Endings became one of the fastest, funniest and most enjoyable shows on television.
After three years of building the world of Harlan up around the show’s cast, season four of Justified really started to let loose. Though set up around an ongoing mystery, the season was really about Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder’s relationship to the past, about the way Harlan county hooks people in and narrows their opportunities, and about the way these two men continue to dance around each other. Raylan had to confront the death of his father and the legacy that Arlo left behind, but more than that, he was forced to confront the sort of man he is and might become as he prepared for fatherhood himself. Season four became Justified’s best to date, a witty noir potboiler with serious weight hiding just below its dusty surface. Raylan and Boyd looked into themselves, into the past, and eventually, tentatively into a future that began to look bleaker for the both of them, because of the ways they’d limited themselves and because of the ways they looked to escape a past that will never truly be through with them.
5. Masters of Sex
In an era packed with prestige dramas focused on death, Masters of Sex is unapologetically about life and about connection. Following Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson as they embark on a study of human sexuality that will change the way we view sex forever, the series is really about the development of intimacy between couples, and about our individual quests for connection. As it progressed, it dug deeper into its central duo, and into the people that surrounded them, and it found, consistently, people looking for love, looking for understanding, looking to connect and to feel like they truly know another person and are themselves known. Bill Masters is a broken man, hiding behind walls and struggling not to feel, but with the help of Virginia Johnson, he has started to step out in the world again. Its an old story we can all relate to on some level, about two people finding something in each other that makes them feel better about themselves. But beyond that, it’s a show about striving for betterment both personal and global that suggests, perhaps, the way to progress is through connection, and through a continued quest to truly understand those around us
4. Mad Men
As the show moves into its final act, Mad Men turned its focus back to Don Draper. The sixth season of the show was somewhat divisive (as divisive as a show can be while most viewers still consider it excellent) for the way it seemed to retread things we knew before about Don, but the larger purpose behind it all slowly revealed itself, as Don Draper began to lose control of his life and was forced, finally, to take a good long look in the mirror, at the man he is and at the pain and suffering his efforts to escape his past have wrought on those around him. Though the show gave us plenty of excellent subplots, like the mystery around Bob Benson, Peggy’s love affair with Ted Chaough, and Pete’s troubles with his mother, it was at its best when it was focused on the enigma that has powered the series through its six seasons so far: who is Don Draper, what is he hiding away from himself and others, and is there a way out of his constant downward spiral? Season six did not propose to answer those questions so much as it teed them up for consideration going into the show’s final (split) season. Will Don Draper be the man in the opening credits, plummeting off a skyscraper surrounded by the schlock he has shilled for seasons, or will he somehow, improbably, learn to fly? Only Mad Men can make a question like that so layered and resonant, and only Mad Men can propose that the answer is both on the tip of your tongue and perhaps forever out of reach.
3. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad came to an end this year, after five years spinning one of the great neo-noir tales of our time, the story of a man who thinks he has nothing left to lose and finds out, over years of awful decisions and their blood-soaked aftermath that he in fact had everything left to lose. Walter White turned himself into a monster to rid himself of the pain of being a man, but more importantly to force those in his life he felt were not fully appreciating him to, in his own words “Remember My Name.” The final eight episodes of the series were a long, pulse-pounding, tragic conclusion to this dark epic, as the empire Walter built came down around his ears and the futility of his desperate efforts became ever more clear. Things came to a head in “Ozymandias,” not just the greatest hour of television broadcast this year, but one of the best episodes ever aired, when Walter was forced to look upon his works and despair. The two episodes that followed didn’t reach its heights because they couldn’t. Instead they played out like a long, occasionally overly convenient epilogue to a story that ended where it began: in the desert sands, with one man giving up his soul for the chance of a legacy, regardless of its costs.
Amy Jellicoe can be a hard woman to deal with. She’s selfish and self-righteous, deluded and delusional, persistent to the point of desperation yet often flippant and willing to jump to conclusions. She harbors her own pain and resentment and forges them into crusades against the people who have kept her down and thus, must be keeping the entire world around her down as well. She thinks herself enlightened because of an epiphany she had after a nervous breakdown…and along the way, she manages to enlighten many of the people in her life. In the show’s miraculous second season, Amy works to bring down the corporation that employs her, and actually manages to do some good in the world in the process, though as often by accident as by design. Enlightened is a show about the quest for human betterment, populated by people reduced to husks by their own regret, begging to be invisible just so the world can’t hurt them anymore. Into their midst strides Amy, demanding to be seen, to be heard, to be noticed in a world that would rather swat her off as a minor annoyance. The show’s second and final season brought Amy’s quest to the forefront, but also spent more time outside of her perspective, taking pains to examine and understand her coworker Tyler, her ex-husband Levi, and many others around who she pulls into her thrall, usually to their betterment. Enlightened is a beacon of light in a television landscape suffused with darkness, a show full of grace that dares to suggest that we do good in this world and try to leave it better than we found it.
When Hannibal was announced, I greeted it with an eye roll, and prepared for it to be a train wreck I would simply ignore. Thankfully I was wrong. Bryan Fuller’s nightmarish masterpiece is a psychological ballet between three men and three women who dare, in their various ways, to stare evil in the face and hope it blinks first. The series works as an episodic thriller in which behavioral analyst Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, delicately unstable and psychologically rich) assists FBI BAU Director Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne, tragically regal and deceptively manipulative) in tracking various serial killers, whose crime scenes take on the look of grand guignol tableaux, operatic expressions of the madness and mayhem that hides in the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Yet it accumulates real power as the long con at its center unfolds in the season’s final third, and Will’s friend, counselor, and occasional partner in crime-fighting Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, one of the greatest actors in the world making one of pop culture’s most iconic roles entirely his own) steps up the psychological games he is playing with not just Will and Jack, but with Jack’s terminally ill wife Phyllis (the quietly powerful Gina Torres), Will’s psychologist love interest Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and the young, traumatized Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), who develops a complex father-daughter dynamic with both Will and Hannibal. The show uses its operatic flourishes to underline the surreality of psychosis and to somehow make the cold depravity of its antagonists feel all the more real. Hannibal tracks variously broken people as they try to put the pieces of their lives and the lives of those around them back together, and as they try to staunch the flow of madness and darkness into the world at large. The show is scary, sure, but more than that it is one of the most emotionally complex, psychologically rich depictions on television of the crazed and those clinging to sanity as they force themselves, again and again, to enter the minds of the depraved and stop them from sullying what is pure, sane, and good in the world.