It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for lists! First, I reveal my favorite — not the best — series that I watched in 2013. Number one will not surprise you.
2013 was an extraordinarily deep year for television. After all the hand-wringing about the end of the “Golden Age,” a shocking number of new shows came out strong, and many pre-existing series found another gear. This list was a lot harder to make than the one I’ll make for film. For example, I could have included long-running favorite Doctor Who, (BBC America) almost on the strength of its 50th anniversary special alone, but too many other mediocre episodes knocked it out of the running. A handful of rookie programs hooked me immediately: FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine has the makings of a new classic, and Sleepy Hollow is wildly, insanely entertaining. Even History’s Vikings was a more beautiful, coherent series than anything the network had previously produced. But these shows, as much as I enjoyed them, didn’t make the list. Here’s what did.
10. House of Cards (Netflix)
This was nearly genetically-engineered to be a show I’d like. It combines one of my favorite genres (“people tersely talking in rooms,” a la Glengarry Glen Ross or Michael Clayton), with the dark side of politics — Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman wouldn’t be caught dead in this administration. David Fincher’s direction in the pilot set a clinical but stylish tone for the series, which Netflix gave the freedom to unfold like chapters in a novel — the first half of which (there will only be two seasons, they say) depicted the Machiavellian dealings of Congressman Frank Underwood, played with relish by Kevin Spacey. He speaks directly to the camera, making us complicit in his crimes. Hard to root for? Certainly. But impossible to turn away from.
9. The Americans (FX)
[I wrote this in my “What’s the New ‘Best Show on TV?’” feature a couple months ago:]
The first season of FX’s Cold War drama The Americans was tantalizingly close to faultless, and could really come into its own when it returns next year. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are outstanding as a pair of Soviet operatives posing as American spouses, with a house and American-born kids and a new next-door neighbor who happens to work for the FBI (Noah Emmerich, absolutely peerless. He’s SO, SO GOOD in this.) The sequences of 80s-era spycraft are fun and expertly-staged — all those wigs! — but the beating heart of the show is the relationship between “Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings,” who are here to do a job but have to navigate the suddenly-blooming real feelings they have for each other. It’s taut, well-crafted, uses music brilliantly (TUSK!), and will hopefully be around for quite a while. Get in while you still can!
8. New Girl (FOX)
The beginning of the third season hasn’t quite met expectations, but in the Spring New Girl had an unprecedented run of excellence, as the romantic tension between Nick and Jess became an unbearable — and hilarious — slow boil. The final half-dozen episodes (with the triumphant “Quick Hardening Caulk” as the biggest highlight) utilized all of the strengths of its impressive ensemble cast, with Jake Johnson’s schlubby affability coming to the forefront. No longer a sickeningly adorkable quirky show centering on just Zooey Deschanel, New Girl has slowly and quietly built a lineup of stellar running gags (see: True American, “Byron K. Mullens”) and side characters, thanks to the unbeatable rapport between its leads.
7. Veep (HBO)
Veep also took a big leap forward in its second season. Already boasting an award-winning, vanity-free central performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it now features some of the sharpest writing on all of television. It’s an absolutely withering satire of American politics (and an acidic chaser following House of Cards), as embattled Vice President Selina Meyer finds herself in mortifying situations every week, often — but not always — the fault of the White House machine or her intrepid but barely competent staff (Timothy Simons is effortlessly funny, and Tony Hale has also won an Emmy as Selina’s bagman). This year saw her constantly caught off-guard by a hostage situation, a government shutdown, a lascivious First Husband of Finland, a parade of tortuously uncomfortable TV interviews, and more. Riviting, vulgar, and gut-busting.
6. Broadchurch (BBC America)
As I wrote extensively in my “A” review of the first season, Broadchurch is a profound, moving work of storytelling. In short, by the end of its 8-episode run I was a wreck, as the idyllic seaside community that gave the series its name was torn apart — first by the shocking murder of a young boy, then by the ensuing investigation that turned friends and neighbors against each other. The detective leading that investigation, played by David Tennant, is a broken shell of a man, looking for penance of his own in bringing the killer to justice. But it’s the stunning performance from Olivia Coleman that is the show’s raw center. Out of all the similar series to tackle these themes (the acclaimed Top of the Lake, and perennial punching bag The Killing, to name a few), this one will stay with me.
5. Arrested Development (Netflix)
I admit to feeling some disappointment when I ingested the entire new season of AD in a couple of days (probably a bad idea), but the more time passes, the more I appreciate what mad scientist Mitchell Hurwitz accomplished. In a show already known for incredibly layered meta-gags and triple-entendres, the 4th (Netflix-ressurected) season blew that out to three dimensions. Maybe more. This show’s like a tesseract of comedy. Unconventionally structuring the season by focusing on individual characters at a time, it didn’t always work — the pacing as a whole flagged throughout — but when it did, it was sensational. The interlocking story threads, call-backs/call-forwards, and classic new characters introduced (Maria Bamford as a methadone addict is a real standout), work an unexpected magic, especially for a show constantly being re-written on the fly. It’s anustart a new start for a brilliant show.
4. Orphan Black (BBC America)
The fledging Orphan Black has finished just its first season, but it has already cemented its place among the post-LOST sci-fi/action elite. A great deal of that has to do with the tightly wound storytelling and plausible layers of mythology, but the singular, defining aspect of the show for many (okay, for all) is the absolutely titanic central performance from Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. She plays a half-dozen roles as different clones — who, upon discovering each other, team up to uncover their origins: tough-but-sympathetic Sarah, free-spirited scientist Cosima, hysterically uptight housewife Alison, Russian psychopath Helena, and on and on. Maslany is frequently acting opposite herself, which is hard enough without having to create distinct and memorable characters. Ramping the degree of difficulty even further, these characters sometimes have to impersonate each other in different situations. It’s astonishing both on a technical and performance level, and my anticipation for the new season couldn’t be higher.
3. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The most consistent, reliable, and quite frankly best comedy series on TV is still Parks and Rec, which had another banner year even as it sat (again) on the very brink of cancellation. But it survives, and it’s still shining. It’s a warm, fuzzy hug of a show — it’s the Cheers of the 21st century, no joke — and provided major milestones for many of its characters this past season. Amy Poehler is still knocking it out of the park, and the unabashedly nerdy Adam Scott is now essentially my spirit animal. (Check out his new game, “The Cones of Dunshire” — I call Ledgerman!) Leslie and Ben’s wedding episode was sheer perfection, and any concerns that the show might run out of gas were allayed by the stellar sixth season premiere, “London.” It’s not a show that’s afraid of change, as the impending departures of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe loom large over 2014, and the ever-evolving relationships between the characters continues to pay huge dividends. It makes me smile lit-erally every time I watch it.
2. Game of Thrones (HBO)
The series that currently holds me deepest in thrall, that has gotten better every season and has me ready to burst with the possibilities of the next, and had the seminal water-cooler “DID YOU SEE THAT” moment of 2013 (Red Wedding, yo), is HBO’s Game of Thrones. The cinematography is gorgeous; the exotic locales are breathtaking; the special effects simply astounding. The writing is thematically rich, even as episodes ping-pong around Westeros and the lands beyond. The sprawling cast is uniformly spectacular, given the best material ever written in this genre. This year, Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke were as brilliant as ever, but it’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s “Kingslayer” that had a breakout year — his lovable rogue is poised to become the stuff of legend (alongside Han Solo and Sawyer from LOST). Thrones is peaking at the perfect time, and as a lover of the books I can tell you that Season 4 should be EVEN SUPERIOR to Season 3. After that…well, it’s anyone’s guess, but the next year belongs to Game of Thrones. It is known.
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
But in the end there was only one choice, and what more is there to say? In its final season, we witnessed what was quite possibly the finest run of episodes of any television show in history. I recapped the last few hours of the series on this site (here’s the finale), and was blown away every single week by its vision, confidence, chutzpah, and the staggeringly good performances from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Anna Gunn, and all the rest. The end of Vince Gilligan’s monumental achievement marks the end of an era, as more and more shows and networks attempt to follow in its footsteps (and almost all will fail miserably) — but this was a once-in-a-decade series, engraving Walter White alongside Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, and Jed Bartlet on the Mount Rushmore of modern TV storytelling. “Ozymandias,” the pit of despair that was the single-best episode in the show’s run, is just… no, there really aren’t any words. (Though I tried.) It was an indescribable feeling, experiencing Breaking Bad as it unfolded. Perfectly constructed and beautifully photographed, it held up a mirror to our messy economic and moral times. I’m terribly sad that it’s gone.
Oh, yeah… the worst show I watched in 2013? Hands-down, Under the Dome. Yikes.