So, yeah, let’s try and make this quick. I love television. I watch a lot of it. I also like making lists and all those “year in review” articles that come out at this time of the year. Here’s a list of my favorite shows of 2013.
Before we get into the list, though… No, Breaking Bad is not in it. Listen, I liked the show. I loved the show. But this final season, and the last episode in particular, painted it as a show that just wasn’t going to be one of my favorites. Which is not to say it is not a great show, because it was (at least for a very large part of its run). It was probably the most masterful show at building up and maintaining suspense that I’ve ever seen (and I must admit I am not as familiar with television history as I am with film history, so take that claim with a grain of salt). But because the show was so dependent on plot, the way it all resolved at the end just left me with a bitter aftertaste. I prefer other types of shows. Those that have a bigger focus on character than they do on plot, which again, is not to say that Breaking Bad didn’t have great characters (because it did), it’s just that there are ten other shows I liked better this year. Also, don’t pay that much attention to the rankings. I rank the shows because it’s fun to do so, but beyond the first three or so places, I could have changed the order and wouldn’t have mind. Anyway, on with the list…
1. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Probably the biggest story of the year concerning the television industry was Netflix’s entry into original programming. The online streaming service had already produced an original series called Lilyhammer, but it really pushed for it this year with the heavily publicized premiere of House of Cards and the even more publicized return of Arrested Development. I was hugely disappointed by both of those shows, and by the time summer came around, I was ready to conclude Netflix, as an original programmer, was going to be at least a creative failure. Then came this show. I head some good things about it and started watching it somewhat reluctantly. It slowly won my over and by the time it was time to make this list, there was no question in my mind Orange is the New Black was going to be number one.
Created by Jenji Kohen (Weeds) and based on the memoir of the same name, Orange takes us inside the world of a female prison. I feared this was going to be a show about a waspy girl caught in the wacky world of prison, but it ended up being so much more. Like so many of my favorite shows, it has an incredible cast of supporting characters that are not only fascinating, but also representative of so many types that we just don’t get to see on television very often. It is also a show about finding humanity in the darkest places and using it to build and maintain a community. It shows a level of sympathy and humanity I really appreciate in my shows, while also being very dark. A great companion piece to Deadwood, one of my favorite shows of all time, when you think about it.
Favorite Episode: One of the things about Netflix releasing all the episodes at once is that is hard to try and destinguish between them. And although I have a few favorites, I think I have to go with the finale, “Can’t Fix Crazy”, just because the whole season built so beautifully to that fantastic, snowy, payoff.
Season MVP: With such an amazing cast of supporting characters, how can you even pick a favorite? I can make great cases for Taystee, Red, Crazy Eyes, Poussey, and so many more, but I think the heart and soul of the show, for me, lied in Natsha’s Lyonne’s charming and vulnerable performance as Nicky.
Bonus Points: That awesome opening credits song by Regina Spektor.
2. Mad Men (AMC)
Mad Men earned a spot in my top ten favorite shows of all-time a long time ago, but it just keeps getting better and better. One thing about this show (and I assume something creator Matthew Weiner learned during his time in the Sopranos writing room), is that the longer it is on the air, the richer it becomes. Every little line, detail, hand gesture can have miles of subtext thanks to the work of Weiner, his cast, and his crew. This season got off to a somewhat rocky start, presenting us with a particularly ugly side of Don Draper and a bunch of story-lines that didn’t necessarily seem like they were building up to something greater, but the show managed to pull it all together in a triumphant second half and an even more brilliant season finale. It is was such a perfect ending for the season that I honestly don’t know what they’re going to come up with for the final sixteen episodes. Still, it doesn’t matter, after this season, in Weiner I trust.
Favorite Episode: There were many gems this season. I’m a big fan of the drug-induced “The Crash”, but my favorite has to be “In Care Of”, which brought the season to a fantastic close and showcased some of the best acting Jon Hamm has ever done…
Season MVP: …Speaking of which, Jon Hamm gets this honor without a question. That Hershey’s monologue was outstanding.
Bonus Points: This and This
3. Bunheads (ABC Family)
The biggest and most tragic loss of the year in television was the cancelation of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s follow-up to Gilmore Girls. The first half of Bunheads‘ first season aired last year, but I didn’t watch it until early in 2013. Those episodes were pretty terrific, but the show was still trying to find itself while Sherman-Palladino tried a way to retain her voice and do something that didn’t feel like Gilmore Girls redux. The second half of the season, the one that actually aired this year, was simply fantastic. The show recognized it was as much about the girls as it was about its lead character and showed all it was capable of with a couple of gut-punch powerful moments. The performances were all around fantastic, Sutton Foster brilliant in the lead role, and the show was always funny and sweet and smart and great. It managed to be as effective as Gilmore Girls was in its prime, while being its own thing.
Favorite Episode: I actually wrote about this in the old blog. Here’s my piece on “There’s Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit“.
Season MVP: It’s almost ridiculous to not say Sutton Foster, who may very well be one of the most talented people on the planet, but towards the end of the season, the biggest surprise was how Bailey Buntain (who played Ginny) emerged as one of the show’s strongest players.
Bonus Points: The musical performances, of course. From Sasha’s meaningful “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” to Michelle and Scotty’s bittersweet “Tonight You Belong to Me“, they were all fantastic.
4. Enlightened (HBO)
I watch the first few episodes of Enlightened when they aired a couple years ago, and I didn’t think much of the show. This year, I started watching it just because it aired after Girls, and I didn’t really have anything else to do. It was the third episode of the season, “Higher Power”, which centered on Luke Wilson’s character’s Hawaiian rehab experience that intrigued me. This show was doing something different, something really good. I went back and got caught up on the show, and as the second season progressed, it became one of the show’s I most looked forward to every week. Creator Mike White (School of Rock, Year of the Dog) and star Laura Dern created a really fascinating character in Amy Jellicoe, and then explored the ridiculous and sad ways in which her actions affect the people around her. There was simply nothing like it on television, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see something as weirdly idiosyncratic as this show ever again.
Favorite Episode: “Higher Power” hooked me up, but it was “The Ghost is Seen”, the one dealing with Mike White’s character Tyler, that really took the show to its bittersweetly heroic heights.
Season MVP: I feel this show was definitely a conversation between creator Mike White and Laura Dern, since it is as driven by his auteurist vision as it is by her character. If you ask me for the show’s secret weapon, though, then I’ll give a nod to Timm Sharp’s hilarious performance as Dougie.
Bonus Points: Did I already mention Timm Sharp?
5. Top of the Lake (Sundance)
Television has been attracting a lot of “movie” talent for a while now. This is one of the most notable. Oscar-winning director Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee came together to create this fantastic series about the disappearance of a pregnant teenager in rural New Zealand. This is how you make a show about a mystery. From the beautiful cinematography and ethereal landscape and the themes about feminism and family to the incredible cast led by Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, if you want to start looking at television as an auteur medium, then this is where you start. Not only one of the best shows of the year, but also one of the best work Jane Campion has ever done.
Favorite Episode: Now this is a case where the show is not episodic at all. It is basically a long movie cut into parts, so all the installments mesh together in my memory.
Season MVP: Peter Mullan, who did the best job of walking the line between haunting and vulnerable I’ve seen since John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, and if you’ve seen Hawkes in that movie, then you know I’m giving out some high praise here.
Bonus Points: The haunting, and beautiful, opening credits.
6. New Girl (FOX)
Like many of the great sitcoms of late, New Girl got off to a rough start. Its first episodes coasted way too much on Zooey Deschanel’s screen persona and felt very irritating. However, the show quickly realized the potential of its ensemble. First, with Max Greenfield’s hilarious Schmidt, then, and most importantly, with Jake Johnson’s performance as Nick Miller. Nick is such a lost case in almost every aspects of traditional success that he quickly became the most relatable character in the show. The show understands Nick, and that made it understand Jess better than they ever had. Suddenly, Deschanel and Johnson were doing some of the best rom-com acting tv had seen since Sam and Diane, and the will-they-won’t-they that seemed like a tired idea when the show started became the strongest part of the show. The strong relationship (which makes as much sense romantically as it does friendship-wise) allowed the show to build upon it to the point were they’re finally starting to know what to do with Winston, and the fact that Damon Wayans Jr. seems to be sticking around now that Happy Endings has been canceled only helps.
Favorite Episode: How do you not go with “Cooler”, which features an epic game of “true American” and the fantastic kiss that blew up the internet.
Season MVP: Jake Johnson as Nick Miller, funniest performance on television.
Bonus Points: Well, when you consider it, the really great thing about this show is… who am I kidding, of course it’s the kiss.
7. Game of Thrones (HBO)
I loved the first season of Game of Thrones, but because it focused so heavily on Ned Stark’s story, it wasn’t really a good indicator of what the show was going to become structurally. The second season saw most main characters geographically separated into their own plot lines, so it tried to show as many characters as possible in each episode; an approach that made the show rather tedious and uninteresting to watch. The third season not found the absolute perfect balance in how many characters to feature in each episode, but also managed to find thematic through-lines for almost every episode. The fact that show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had so strong source material to work with helped, but they deserve credit for finding such an effective way of bringing George R. R. Martin’s expansive novels to the small screen. The result was the best season of the show so far.
Favorite Episode: Most of the talk was, understandably, about “The Rains of Castamere”, but I actually prefer an another episode. “And Now His Watch is Ended” featured so many amazing monologues and satisfying payoffs to almost every storyline, including Daenerys Targaryen’s finest moment.
Season MVP: I have not read the books, so I never thought I could care so much to a character that had so far been as unsympathetic as Jamie Lannister. Actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau deserves all the praise he can get.
Bonus Points: The crazy online honeypot theory surrounding Talisa’s real identity, as popularly expressed in this Youtube video.
8. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
I wrote a review of my initial thoughts on this show after watching the first two episodes. Every positive opinion I had about the show back then has only grown. It’s one of those cases where an already good show keeps getting better with every episode to the point where it’s getting kind of ridiculous. I’d have to think hard to say this in all seriousness, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a show, especially in its first season, where every episode is better than the last. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are amazing in the lead roles, and the show has made a surprisingly great job of world building by populating the recurring roles with amazing character actors. Ann Dowd, Mather Zickel, and Julianne Nicholson have all given fantatic performances.
Favorite Episode: “Phallus Victory” built up on Sheen and Caplan’s relationship throughout the season and proved the perfect blend of the show’s comedic and tragic elements. It also featured a fantastic Julianne Nicholson in one of the saddest scenes of the season.
Season MVP: Obviously, the stars here are Sheen and Caplan, and they’re both equally amazing, so I’ll point out to one of the recurring players instead. I mean, Allison Janney has pretty much destroyed it, and it would be a crime if she doesn’t win the Guest Actress Emmy next year.
Bonus Points: Ok, so I love the Regina Spektor song from Orange is the New Black and the Top of the Lake opening is beautiful, but this show… This show has the best opening of the season.
9. Girls (HBO)
Say what you will about Girls and its creator Lena Dunham, but it always will give you something to talk about. I ultimately wasn’t as enthusiastic with the show’s second season as I was with its first. Mainly, because of the last few episodes, when an important part of Hannah’s past seemed to be revealed out of nowhere and let the season to end in a somewhat dubious ending. But even if I’m not completely pleased with the show’s plotting, there is no denying its power. There are dark and uncomfortable places no other show would dare to go to, and for that, I applaud it.
Favorite Episode: I think the show might have found its creative peak somewhere in the middle of this season. I really liked the divisive “One Man’s Trash” in which Hannah hooked up with Patrick Wilson, but if you want to see the show operate on all its cillinders, well, then you can’t do better than “It’s a Shame About Ray”, in which Hannah and Jessa’s dinners don’t go quite as expected.
Season MVP: Is Adam Driver one of the best acting revelations of the past few years,or what? He not only has a very distinctive, hilarious, style, but he is also willing to go all the way for the show. If you’ve seen the season, then you know what disturbing scene I’m talking about.
Bonus Points: I will be forever grateful for the creation of a character like Shoshanna.
10. The Americans (FX)
Two KGB agents hiding in suburban America? That’s the premise of The Americans, which right from the opening shot announced itself as one of the most interesting shows of the season. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell give outstanding performances as they walk the line of two people obligated to be married as part of their job. How much of their marriage is real, how much is fake and how far are they willing to go for their country? These are all questions the show did a tremendous job of exploring in its first season. Highly recommended not only for those who enjoy great spy thrillers, but everyone with an appreciation for good drama.
Favorite Episode: One of the season’s best arc was the relationship between Russell’s Elizabeth and Derek Luke’s Gregory, which had an amazing payoff in “Only You”.
Season MVP: Keri Russell did an amazing job of letting her “Felicity” image behind, but there was something especially tragic in Matthew Rhys’s eyes from the beginning of the season.
Bonus Points: The show’s amazing use of music, more specifically, the incredible series opening set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk“.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX) had the promise of a talented cast (Andy Samber, Andre Braugher) and a creative crew led by The Office and Parks and Recreation alums Michael Schur and Dan J. Goor, and while it certainly was one of the better pilots of the fall season, it was still far from being a great sitcom. But just like the other shows Schur was involved in (quicker, even) the show started to find its footing as it went along. With the recent “Thanksgiving” and “Christmas” episodes especially, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is proving to have one of the best comedic ensembles of television, and even better, that its writers know how to use the talent at hand. Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti, Joe Lo Truglio and the rest of the cast are all so great it would be almost impossible to pick a stand-out. A post-Superbowl spot (after New Girl) and a couple of Golden Globe nominations will hopefully raise the show’s profile and get more people to watch.