As usual, earlier this month we ran a video with my picks for the 10 best shows of the year. (And I was part of our Second Annual HitFix Television Critics Poll.) And now, as usual, it”s time for my written list of those 10, plus the 10 shows that finished just behind it…
… only this year, I”m going with a top 25 rather than a top 20, just as a testament to what an absurdly deep year in television this was. As I shuffled shows up and down my list, I kept getting annoyed with myself at the possibility that one show might not make the cut, and I inevitably looked at half of these new shows and wondered what sin they committed – other than me liking them slightly less than the shows above them – to keep them out of the top 10. So it”s time to play the game that James Poniewozik (read his critics poll ballot here!) likes to call Everybody Gets a Trophy! We”ll have 15 additional shows here, and next week I”m going to publish another post about my favorite new shows of the year (at least, beyond the ones already on this list), because so much of this year”s goodness was concentrated among the rookies.
The top 10 list was in ascending order to maintain some suspense about what would be my top pick, but I suspect most of you could have figured that out in advance. Because you now know what my top 10 is, we”re doing the top 25 in descending order, starting with my blurbs for the top 10 shows and then moving into the best of the rest:
1. What could my number one choice for 2013 possibly be but AMC”s “Breaking Bad”? Though I had mixed feelings about the series finale, the seven episodes leading up to it made for one of the most gripping, devastating stretches of dramatic television in the medium”s history, as Walter White”s life, family and sense of self all crumbled under the weight of the unspeakable things he had done. The episode “Ozymandias” alone was probably enough to merit the top spot, and most of the hours surrounding it were simultaneously wonderful and terrible in their own right. We have said goodbye to an all-time great here. Heisenberg is dead. Long live “Breaking Bad.”
2. Netflix”s entrance into the original programming game was perhaps the biggest TV story of the year. Their first drama, “House of Cards,” arrived with a ton of hype and a big star in Kevin Spacey, and later in the year, Netflix brought “Arrested Development” back from the dead. But the best Netflix original by far – and my number two show of the year overall – was the women”s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black.” Creator Jenji Kohan started out telling the story of a privileged, terrified white woman adjusting to life behind bars, but the series quickly expanded its perspective and empathy to show how all these people from diverse backgrounds wound up in this place, how the prison economy works, and what hopes each of them have for their time inside these walls and beyond. “Orange” featured a huge cast of characters, many of them played by relative unknowns doing great work with the opportunity, and each character was presented with such detail and emotion that the series could have easily reoriented itself around any of them. Fortunately, we don”t have to choose, because “Orange” gives us a chance to watch, laugh with, and be moved by all of them.
3. I very strongly disliked HBO”s “Enlightened” when it debuted a few years ago. Some of that was the show”s unflinching commitment to portraying Laura Dern”s New Age-y Amy Jellicoe as an intensely difficult, irritating person. But “Enlightened” creator Mike White was also trying something unlike any other show on television, and it took a while to adjust to the show”s combination of absolute sincerity and unbearable awkwardness. The second and final season took us away from Amy”s point of view a bit more than the first, and also had more of a plot, as Amy and her outcast co-workers plotted to bring down the horrible company they work for. Those two tweaks were enough to elevate “Enlightened” from an interesting curiosity to an absorbing, powerful work of art, with an absolute command of tone and mood and emotion. I would not want to be in a room with Amy Jellicoe for five minutes, but I”m glad I got to watch these last four hours of her story.
4. What a debut year Sundance Channel had as a provider of scripted drama series, starting off with the fantastic New Zealand-set crime miniseries “Top of the Lake,” then seguing into the dreamy “Rectify” (more on that in a bit) and the haunting supernatural French series “The Returned.” I loved them all, but especially “Lake,” about the disappearance of a pregnant teen in a remote New Zealand community. Elisabeth Moss (who was stellar as usual on “Mad Men”) was wonderful as the cop called in to investigate a case in her hometown, Jane Campion and Garth Davis” direction made the mountain town simultaneously gorgeous and creepy, Holly Hunter had a lot of fun in a role that would have been superfluous in almost any other hands, and Campion and Gerard Lee”s script smartly explored the case from every legal, sociological and emotional angle. Between this and “Broadchurch,” it was also a hell of a year for long-form mysteries set in small towns located next to bodies of water.
5. The never-ending age of the criminal anti-hero gave us a few more bastard sons of Tony Soprano this year, including AMC”s “Low Winter Sun” and Showtime”s “Ray Donovan,” both of which demonstrated how badly the TV drama business needs to find a new template to mass produce. My fifth-place show, Showtime”s “Masters of Sex,” also has a difficult character at its center in Michael Sheen as sex researcher William Masters, but it”s a much more complicated, original and entertaining work. As Masters and his partner Virginia Johnson, Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are expertly matched: he”s cool and rigid, she”s warm and flexible. And the series manages to take on the sexual mores of the ’50s without snickering or seeming like a bad “Mad Men” imitator. “Masters” is fun when it wants to be, serious when it needs to be, and consistently generates major emotional stakes without requiring its characters to shoot people and then melt their bodies in acid. It”s its own thing, and that thing is excellent.
6. AMC”s “Mad Men” is in its twilight years, and there are times when it feels like we”re just going through the same Don Draper character beats season after season. But by season”s end, Don was in a strange, fascinating new place that allowed Jon Hamm to do some of his best work of the series, and almost every character”s life had been upended. The series remains so dense with meaning, sadness and even humor, and features so many fantastic performances, that it remains one of the most satisfying, immersive viewing experiences there is. How would I feel about leaving “Mad Men” off my list? To quote a very wise man, “NOT GREAT, Bob!”
7. HBO”s “Boardwalk Empire” had perhaps its best season yet. As always, the period gangster drama offered beautiful compositions, meticulous plotting, gripping action and superb performances, with Jeffrey Wright adding enormously to the cast as the hypnotic, wildly hypocritical Dr. Valentin Narcisse. And by making the feud between Narcisse and Chalky White the season”s centerpiece, “Boardwalk” finally gave Michael Kenneth Williams a proper showcase, essentially elevating him to co-lead alongside Steve Buscemi as Nucky. Much as I love Buscemi elsewhere, the series was better served by focusing so much on a more charismatic figure like Chalky. Couple that with a lovely, tragic arc for Jack Huston”s Richard Harrow and a thrilling mob war in Chicago, and you have a “Boardwalk” season that fit together perfectly.
8. TNT”s “Southland” was the rare series to be improved by cancellation – not once but twice. When the series moved from NBC to TNT, the budget was lowered, a large swath of the cast was let go, and the focus narrowed to just a handful of cops, chief among them Michael Cudlitz as damaged veteran patrolman John Cooper. In this final season, Cudlitz gave the year”s single best TV performance, first acting opposite Gerald McRaney as Cooper”s suicidal ex-partner, then in a nightmarish episode where Cooper and his current partner were held hostage by a pair of violent, irrational tweakers. Cudlitz”s performance throughout was so intense, so vulnerable, that “Southland” took on the feel of a documentary in his scenes. In the final episode, a depressed Cooper goes for a suicide-by-cop; had the show been renewed, he almost certainly would have survived, but the low ratings means that “Southland” ended on the perfect, if tragic, note.
9. TV is so filled with both serial killer stories and remakes that I was actively dreading the arrival of NBC”s “Hannibal.” Did we really need another murderous mastermind, especially given how the movie sequels had exhausted any interest in Hannibal Lecter? But Bryan Fuller, the imaginative creator behind “Pushing Daisies” and “Dead Like Me,” found a riveting new take on the tired material. He gave us an understated yet chilling version of Dr. Lecter in the form of Mads Mikkelsen, a fascinatingly tragic Will Graham in Hugh Dancy, and a collection of murder scenes so insanely baroque that they moved past fetishizing the work of killers and played more as twisted fantasy. The only downside to the series? Dr. Lecter”s cooking looks delicious.
10. For years, critics have referred to CBS” “The Good Wife,” by the somewhat-patronizing title “the best drama on broadcast television.” I wouldn”t agree with that this year, in that I ranked “Hannibal” higher, but “Good Wife” took a major leap forward in quality in 2013, relying less on its gift for guest casting and more on generating conflict between the show”s regular characters. As Alicia and Cary stealthily plotted to start their own firm and steal clients from Will and Diane, “The Good Wife” felt quicker, funnier, more exciting and simply better than it had before. And “Hitting the Fan,” the episode where one firm finds out about the other, was one of the year”s most satisfying hours of television, whether you”re counting broadcast, cable or Netflix.
And now on to the shows you didn”t already know about from the video…
11. “Game of Thrones” had probably its best season so far, and its placement here is an illustration of the depth of the year more than an objection to anything the show did, other than perhaps The Passion of the Greyjoy. Season 3 did a much better job of making the show”s far-flung characters and settings feel like part of a cohesive whole, it did a fantastic job giving new depth to characters like Jaime and Stannis while introducing wonderful new figures like Lady Olenna, and it presented one of the year”s most memorable, and technically brilliant, hours in “The Rains of Castamere” (even if I didn”t get much emotion from it because I don”t care about Robb or Catelyn). Also? It had the one-handed Kingslayer leap into a pit to face off against a grizzly bear. Which was nice.
12. On the surface, “Rectify” looks like a parody of what you might expect from Sundance Channel”s first wholly original drama (“Top of the Lake” premiered earlier in the year, but was an international co-production): very little in the way of plot, and an awful lot of shots of the main character staring off into space as he contemplates grass blowing in the breeze or the abundant selection of flip-flops at the local big box store. But Ray McKinnon”s story of a former Death Row inmate readjusting to a world he never expected to live in again found enormous emotional power in its quiet, still moments, greatly aided by Aden Young”s superb lead performance and great supporting work by Adelaide Clemens and Abigail Spencer, among others. Very little seemed to happen to Daniel Holden over the show”s first six episodes, but none of the time spent watching him (usually as he watched others) felt wasted.
13. A year ago, “New Girl” missed the cut of my top 10 entirely because my deadline came before I had seen the “Homeland” season finale, and I was (wrongly) betting on it being good enough to justify a 10th place spot. As “New Girl” entered 2013, it hit a new level of comic brilliance as the show confronted the attraction between Jess and Nick, and I assumed it was not only a lock for this year”s top 10, but possibly a contender for a very high spot. But as funny and romantic and cohesive as those winter and spring episodes were, the fall episodes have been such a mess – where the transformation of Winston into a bonafide crazy person has somehow been the smartest and most dependable element – that, on average, it wound up around here. Even at its peak, there”s something fundamentally erratic about the show that keeps it from attaining the consistency of, say, “Parks and Rec,” so it may be hard to find an entire calendar year”s worth of great episodes. Right now, though, I”m just hoping the show figures itself out already.
14. If I was doing a list of the best episodes of TV drama of 2013, the “Decoy” episode of “Justified” would be waaaay up near the top, definitely behind “Ozymandias” but probably going neck and neck with “Hitting the Fan” and a couple of installments of “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire.” “Decoy” was overflowing with fun in a way that the Important Dramas of Our Time aren”t always in a position to do, and it gave every member of the ensemble (plus guest stars like Patton Oswalt and Mike O”Malley) plenty of opportunity to shine. The season around “Decoy” was pretty strong as well, particularly Raylan skirting ever closer to being the outlaw his father was, and then Raylan dealing with the death of said father. The one big flaw was that the Drew Thompson mystery wasn”t as gripping as it needed to be, given how much it dominated the season.
15. A couple of years ago, “Parks and Recreation” was my number one show in all of television. Last year, it was my number three overall. It certainly didn”t have a bad year in 2014 – a year that gave us “Two Parties,” “Leslie and Ben,” “Article Two,” “London” and “The Cones of Dunshire,” many of which I”d comfortably slot among the best episodes this classic comedy has given us – but there were some signs of middle age in characters, storylines or running gags that didn”t click as well as they might have in earlier years. (Much too much of Councilman Jamm, for instance.) But if it”s not as frequently great as it once was, “Parks” is still capable of greatness when such is called for – and boy, did I need an episode like “London” as I was wading through so many of this fall”s lame comedy pilots – and still offers us the pleasure of watching Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Adam Scott and company do their thing week to week.
16. “Girls” season 1 was one of my favorites of last year, and in some ways, the second season was better. The complicated, almost certainly self-destructive relationship between Hannah and Adam felt richer (and led to a thrilling climax to what had been a dark last few episodes of the season), supporting characters like Ray got more to do, the show had fun at its own expense with Donald Glover”s brief guest stint, and it gave us one of the year”s most fascinating – and incredibly polarizing, even by the already-polarizing standards of “Girls” (the only show I cover where the existence of the coverage itself has become controversial) – episodes in “One Man”s Trash.” Ultimately, the season probably worked better as a collection of individual episodes than as a whole, since several of the big character arcs at the end of the season felt underfed in the middle, but the parts were really, really good.
17. “Shameless” is another pay cable series that had its best season this year. The show became more overtly a drama than ever before, particularly during the arc where the kids were thrown back into the foster care system and Fiona had to step up to take custody of them all, and Emmy Rossum shone even more brightly as a result. The writers also finally found a good balance with William H. Macy as Frank, who was absolutely despicable when required, but actually funny when asked. “Shameless” tends to get overlooked because it airs early in the calendar year and because it doesn”t have the prestige (or awards luck) of many of its cable compatriots (including ones on its own network), but it”s a pleasure to watch each year, and I look forward to its return next month.
18. You know what a tough year it”s been for both scripted TV overall and for new series when I can”t find a higher position than 18th for a show that had as strong a debut season as “The Americans.” The FX drama about a pair of deep-cover KGB spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both perfect) living as a married couple in early ’80s Washington functioned simultaneously as an espionage thriller and a very pointed take on the compromises that have to be made in actual marriages. Throw in tremendous supporting turns from Noah Emmerich and Margo Martindale and a spectacular array of wigs, and you”ve got one of the best freshman years an FX show has ever had.
19. I got the entire eight-episode first season of “Broadchurch” during a particularly busy stretch of the year, watched the first two and felt that it was a competent, and at times intriguing, long-form police procedural but not special enough to devote more time to right then. Friends who had watched the whole thing urged me to trust them and watch til the end, and I would understand why. They were right. “Broadchurch,” like the structurally-similar “Top of the Lake,” is the sort of drama that becomes more powerful the longer it goes, as you begin to learn about the people of the town and the many secrets they hide, all of it leading to the devastating revelation of the killer”s identity. David Tennant and Olivia Colman were amazing throughout as the cops reluctantly working together on the case, and the ending worked me over like I was a speedbag.
20. You may recall that I was in the hospital for a while earlier in the fall, and there was a period of a few days where all the news I was getting from the doctors kept getting worse. I needed desperately to laugh or smile at anything, and nothing seemed to be working. Then I got the screeners for the new season of “Key & Peele,” and for those brief minutes when I was watching the sequel to the East/West bowl game sketch, everything was better. It”s been another strong year for the duo – and for Comedy Central in general, which has a nice batch of sketch comedy series at the moment, each with a distinctive point of view – as they”ve managed to develop a stable of recurring characters without burning (most of) them out, while also doing wonderfully weird original material like the continental breakfast sketch. But if I”m being honest, they”d probably be on the list just for introducing me to the wonders of Fudge.
And, as a bonus, here come five more!
21. It”s the damndest thing with me and “Bob”s Burgers.” Because I”m busy on Sunday nights with so many cable dramas, I basically never watch it live. Then it sits on the DVR for a while as I deal with more pressing concerns during the week. Sometimes a few weeks go by and the episodes pile up. And then I watch them and wonder why I would have wanted to watch anything ahead of this strange, hilarious show, which in 2013 gave us Jon Hamm as a talking robot toilet, Louise developing her first crush at a boy band concert, Tina meeting her soulmate (or, at least, his finger) in the supermarket dairy section, and Bob turning out to be a brilliant home ec teacher, among other great outings. And then after I”m done beating myself up for not getting to enjoy the madness sooner, the cycle begins anew. On the plus side, it means I usually get to watch two or three in any one sitting.
22. There are times when “Scandal” feels like a show Shonda Rhimes is making on a dare: Oh, you think I won”t show the President of the United States murdering a Supreme Court justice? You think I won”t have one of my main characters torture another one while taking great, possibly sexual, pleasure in it? You think I won”t let Khandi Alexander chew through her own arm? Watch me! But what makes the insanity of the series so much fun is how little of it feels like shock value for its own sake. It”s cuckoo-bananas, but in a way that provides momentum to the story and constant conflict and scenery-chewing opportunities for the fine cast. Netflix”s “House of Cards” is just as ludicrous in its own depiction of amoral Washington power brokers, but takes itself a few touches too seriously. “Scandal” understands that it”s a grand potboiler, and is a lot more fun (and memorable) as a result.
23. By running the entire final season of “Tremé” in December, HBO did the show no favors when it came to best-of recognition, where early deadlines and 11 prior months of great TV all got in the way. Then again, because the season is only five episodes – a charitable act on HBO”s part to let David Simon, Eric Overmyer and company give the show something resembling the ending they wanted to do – it”s forced the already plot-agnostic series to skimp even more on certain narrative elements. It”s still a treat to enjoy the sounds, sights and tastes of New Orleans, but it”s definitely the “half a loaf” Simon said they would have to bake under the circumstances.
24. Oh, “Bunheads.” So charming. So unexpected. So canceled. Amy Sherman-Palladino”s ballet dramedy went from an inconsistent but often amusing diversion in the summer of 2012 to a frequent delight in 2013: deeper, funnier, more random, and doing better by the four eponymous bunheads themselves (especially unexpected series MVP Baily Buntain the Blonde Bunhead). It was a show that, by the end of its low-rated run on a mismatched network, had developed such a bond with its audience that the only way to acknowledge the cancellation was to give the fans one more dance:
25. Finally, we have the year in TV”s most important question: “Who on earth is Tatiana Maslany, and how many of her are there?” The relatively unknown Canadian actress burst onto the scene in BBC America”s sci-fi clone drama “Orphan Black,” in which she played so many roles it was hard to keep count, especially as she frequently had to play one clone impersonating another clone. But it”s not just a parlor trick: what makes the performance(s) so good, and the writing so sharp, is that you can imagine Maslany playing any individual character on another show without the clone angle and still being compelling. And the show around Maslany”s pretty fun, too, with a good sense of when to jump to the next phase of the story before we get tired of the current one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org