The Second 15 Best TV Shows of 2013 from The Fien Print

12.24.13 4 years ago 35 Comments


By now you’ve had the chance to see my Top 10 as a video, check it out as part of HitFix’s Critics’ Poll and also hear the darned thing as part of the Best of 2013 podcast with Sepinwall. 
That’s a lot of different Top 10 delivery systems. Of course, to get down to that Top 10, I had to make a lot of tough choices in what was surely a terrific year for TV. So what follows is my Second 10, which is actually a Second 15 and it includes some cheating in that Bonus 5.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the Top 10.
1. “Breaking Bad”
2. “Orange Is The New Black”
3. “Mad Men”
4. “Rectify”
5. “The Returned”
6. “Enlightened”
7. “Game of Thrones”
8. “Bob’s Burgers”
9. “56 Up”
10. “Girls”
Click through for the continuation of my list over two pages. And check out the photo gallery below for 15 more new shows that Sepinwall and I thought were worthy of notice.
11. “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
So close. I really wanted to include the fourth season of “Boardwalk Empire” as a recognition of the sort of top-tier literary storytelling that “Boardwalk Empire” does better than nearly any show on TV. “Boardwalk Empire” never forces its dramatic moments. Every plot point feels character-motivated and carefully charted, rather than thrust upon the characters out of the need for shocking twists or cliffhangers. As a result, the journey Richard Harrow took in Season 4 meant something. The struggles of Nucky’s brother Eli meant something. Although we sometimes perceived him as being adrift last season, Van Alden’s character evolution meant something. Even marginalized or frequently narratively estranged characters like Margaret and Gillian had little moments that meant something and if “Boardwalk” didn’t feel like Margaret was required for much of this season, she was never shoehorned in gratuitously. Each season, the 12-episode sum of “Boardwalk Empire” has exceeded the apparent value of its parts and I get the feeling that when the series is over, the same may be true of the totality Terence Winter’s story.
12. “Shameless” (Showtime)
While there were definitely darkly hilarious comedic arcs in the third season of “Shameless” — I’d put Carl’s “cancer” arc in that category, as well as the Kevin/Veronica baby saga, Frank’s brief stint as a gay rights advocate and a couple other storylines — the Showtime favorite continued its progression into more dramatic terrain. I’d say that the courtroom drama in “A  Long Way From Home” gave Emmy Rossum her best showcase to date, but Rossum has always been spectacular. I’d say that the finale, “Survival of the Fittest” helped bring the sometimes outlandish William H. Macey more fully into the show’s tonal fold, but he was great in the Season 2 arc relating to his mother’s death. I’d say that Season 3 proved that “Shameless” has one of the deepest benches of young actors on TV, with Ethan Cutkosky, Emma Kenney, Jeremy Allen White and Cameron Monaghan doing great work, but fans of the show already knew that. So really, it was just another awesomely screwed up year for that Gallaghers.
13. “The Good Wife” (CBS)
There are still “Good Wife” tics that irritate me — Kalinda’s unstoppable sexuality, whatever was happening with Melissa George this fall, nearly anything involving Grace, nearly any appearance by Stockard Channing, the ongoing inference that Alicia/Will remains a relationship that makes any sense. But whereas there have been times when my reservations about “The Good Wife” have overwhelmed my appreciation, the show has become so consistently good that those stumbling blocks are now only minor irritations. The things “The Good Wife” is doing right are myriad, especially since the “Red Team/Blue Team” episode last February. They’ve rediscovered Alicia’s spine. They’ve made Will into a villain and, in the process, brought back Josh Charles’ hunger. I couldn’t be happier that after wasting her for nearly three straight years, the writers have found a way to recapture the marvel that is Christine Baranski. And I’m not doing a Top 10 Episodes of 2013 list or gallery, but “Hitting the Fan” would make it for sure.
14. “Parks and Recreation” (NBC)
I genuinely can’t tell you if “Parks and Recreation,” a centerpiece of my Top 10s for years, was more a victim of overall outside quality, a decrease in its quality or the perception of a decrease in its quality. By that, I’m saying that if you look at the actual episodes that aired in 2013, starting with the instant-classic marriage episode “Two Parties,” continuing with the frequently hilarious “Women In Garbage” and “Ann’s Decision,” carrying through into the season-opening two-parter “London,” “Parks and Recreation” had more great episodes than most shows on TV and certainly more great episodes than any other pure comedy on TV. And yet when making my list, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Ann/Chris baby stuff hasn’t necessarily been convincingly handled and that the absence of Andy has been felt this fall and that Councilman Jamm was a jarring character that the writers seem to like more than the audience (ditto with members of Jean-Ralphio’s family beyond Jean-Ralphio and I am, I confess, even tired of Jean-Ralphio). But if any new comedy had delivered the 2013 that “Parks and Rec” turned in, I’m pretty sure it would have been in my Top 10. Sorry for taking your excellence for granted, “Parks.” 
15. “Hannibal” (NBC)
Kudos to cinematographers James Hawkinson and (for two episodes) Karim Hussain. “Hannibal” is the best-looking show on TV. “Even better-looking than ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Breaking Bad’?” you ask. “Yes,” I respond without hesitation. The snubbing of the “Hannibal” photography by Emmy voters was just an embarrassing sham. But merely having pretty pictures isn’t enough, so kudos to series directors Tim Hunter, Guillermo Navarro, Michael Rymer and more. Actually, something-above-kudos to David Slade, who directed the pilot, plus two other episodes, and has now cemented his place atop my list of people who should direct basically every available drama pilot whenever possible. But when you rave too much about technical things — Much love to culinary consultant José Andrés — it seems like you’re talking about a show that lacks emotion or soul. Nope! Thanks to Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen and a fine (if often underutilized) ensemble, “Hannibal” is also a showcase for some excellent acting and, thanks to Bryan Fuller, so rich writing. “Hannibal” put itself in a very interesting position at the end of its first finale and I can’t wait to see where they go next.
16. “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
There aren’t many on-screen pairings doing better work every week than Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan on a Showtime drama that worked wonders by consistently avoiding the kind of tonal pratfalls that could doom a show that relies so heavily on its depiction of sex. As good as Sheen and Caplan were, they were almost usurped as the show’s most interesting couple in the second half of the season by Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, who have probably never been better, which is saying a lot when you look at their respective Emmy resumes. But Bridges and Janney were only recurring characters, because they both had CBS sitcoms to do and where “Masters of Sex” struggled a bit, at least for me, was in the regular supporting cast, or rather in its supporting characters. I was legitimately jarred at times by how differently the show seemed to be viewing Nicholas D’Agosto’s Ethan from the way I was viewing him. To me, he varied mostly between creepy and genuinely abusive — both physically and emotionally — and when the show asked us to view him as either a professional victim or a semi-viable romantic possibility, I tuned out. The more I think about that and about Libby Masters and her straight-out-of-“Far From Heaven” dancing lessons, the further I bump “Masters of Sex” down my list.
17. “Veep” (HBO)
HBO initially sent out four “Veep” episodes for the second season and I was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t that I didn’t still enjoy Armando Iannucci’s dialogue or the Emmy-winning performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I just wanted more, especially from Gary Cole, whose presence seemed like a huge wasted opportunity. Sadly, I never felt like “Veep” totally capitalized on Cole’s gifts with profanity, but everything else took a major leap in the season’s last six episode, from “Helsinki” on. Had the season all been on the level of “Shutdown,” “First Response,” “Running” and “D.C.,” “Veep” definitely would have made my Top 10 for the year and might have made my Top 5. This is the second time in my Second 10 that I’m singling out Allison Janney, whose head-to-head showdown with Louis-Dreyfus in “First Response” was comic gold. Throw in the very good work that Janney is doing on CBS’ still-erratic “Mom” and it was a heck of a 2013 for Allison Janney.
No. 18-25 (plus a few Honorable Mentions) are on Page 2.

18. “Justified” (FX)
I guess I’ve made my peace with the fact that I like “Justified” more when its narrative is more unified, when Raylan is facing a single primary adversary along with his normal weekly travails. So no matter how much I may love the crackling dialogue and tremendous performances showcased in Season 4 and Season 3, I’ll always prefer Season 2, because Mags Bennett was a worthy foe in a way that nobody subsequently has been. The fourth season of “Justified” also got initially bogged down in a mystery that I didn’t care about in the slightest, wasting quality character development time. There were still many, many highlights in “Justified” Season 4. The obvious starting point is with “Decoy,” the vintage Western take-off that would probably rank among the year’s better drama episodes, were I listing such things. The season also had a climactic Raylan-Arlo arc that brought out some of Timothy Olyphant’s best work. And guess what? Thanks to this season, I now vaguely remember that “Generic White Marshal” is actually “Tim”  and he’s played by Jacob Pitts. Perhaps Season 5 will teach me that “Generic African-American Marshal” is actually “Rachel” and she’s played by Erica Tazel. 
19. “The Americans” (FX)
For some reason, the impact of “The Americans” has faded for me since the finale in May. I can’t say why something like “Rectify,” which ended only weeks later, or “Enlightened,” which ended two months before, have lingered better in my mind, but there’s a reason why they’re in my Top 10 and “Americans” was briefly out of my Top 25 entirely, before I went back to my notes and started reminding myself of how much I enjoyed the textured ’80s look, murky Cold War morality and slightly offbeat soundtrack of “The Americans.” I hadn’t needed a reminder of the great work by Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Margo Martindale and Annet Mahendru. “The Americans” followed an interesting path in its first season, as rather than expanding its world as the season went along, the world contracted. Superfluous characters were trimmed, but almost nobody new was added. The insularity added appropriately to the paranoia and the period, but maybe some added scope would make Season 2 more memorable?
20. “Broadchurch” (BBC America)
Like “The Americans,” “Broadchurch” has suffered a little from the passage of time. When I marathoned the eight episode BBC America transplant before TCA press tour in July and felt the exhilaration of single-season mystery that kept me guessing and then came through with a satisfying conclusion, I’d have guessed it was a Top 15 or Top 10 show. Most of the best things about “Broadchurch” haven’t faded at all. The weight of Olivia Colman’s performance, particularly in the last episode, lingers in my memory. There was a twitchy awesomeness to David Tennant’s work that I hope he doesn’t cheapen by repeating the same role in the FOX remake. And Jodie Whittaker’s rawness fulfilled the promise she showed a handful of years back in “Venus.” I guess the mystery itself just hasn’t stuck with me in the way I’d want for a higher placement. 
21. “Survivor” (CBS)
After 27 seasons, nobody’s denying that “Survivor” has flaws. Jeff Probst, once willing to be a wry observer, has taken it upon himself to steer the game in ways that sometimes come dangerously close to tampering. The producers have become addicted to certain returning players well past their usefulness. And the desire to bring in oversized personalities has often led to quagmires like the Shamar/Brandon/Phillip dominated “Caramoan.” But when “Survivor” gets it right, the show delivers satisfying season-long arcs like nothing else on reality TV. Some people didn’t love John Cochran’s arc in “Caramoan” as much as I did, but I felt it did more than just redeem the weak start to Season 26. And with the “Blood vs. Water” twist in Season 27, “Survivor” found a way to refresh the show’s core strategy, which livened up a string of Tribal Councils before we began to realize what a great game Tyson was playing in his third attempt at the million. “Survivor” is still surprising and exciting TV after 13 years and 2013 was a good year for the series.
22. Finales Done Right – “The Office” and “30 Rock” (NBC)
The January portion of the “30 Rock” season was too brief for me to put “30 Rock” on my list on its own, while “The Office” wasted a lot of home stretch time on dead-end arcs involving Ed Helms to make the list solo. However, both of NBC’s departing comedy favorites did something that might be even more impressive than strong overall seasons. Both comedies delivered finales that were both hilarious, but also honored the emotional connection between fans and the individual characters. Yes, the “30 Rock” finale spent an unexpected amount of time on Lutz and his love for Blimpies, but nearly every major character got a notable send-off moment either in those last two episodes, or somewhere in the home stretch. “The Office” did even better, as the hour-long finale not only gave everybody moments, but also welcomed back a number of favorites, including Michael Scott, whose return managed not to detract from the moment. Great series finales are rare and with “Breaking Bad,” “The Office” and “30 Rock” (not to mention the not-quite-intentional, but still amazing, series finale of “Enlightened”), 2013 had a good number of shows that said “Good bye” in the right way.
23. “Key & Peele,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The League”
There’s a strange subcategory of comedies that I often love and that make me laugh reliably and that I still just don’t watch every week. Sometimes it’s DVR conflicts. Sometimes it’s just remembering. And eventually, bit by bit, I’ll watch the full seasons for all three shows and if the bits I’m missing prove to be as hilarious as “East/West College Bowl 2” or “Continental Breakfast,” as savvy as “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award” or as magnificently demented as “Rafi and Dirty Randy,” I’ll probably regret not having one of these individual shows much higher on this list.
24. “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Is “Downton Abbey” just a glorified soap opera that we celebrate because of all the British accents? Possibly? Probably? Maybe? Who cares? If a soap opera delivers the sort of well-earned emotional gut-punch that “Downton Abbey” executed so flawlessly in “Episode 4,” I don’t feel any real shame in loving the genre. Personally, I think that “Scandal” and “Parenthood” are also glorified soap operas and while they just missed out on my Top 25, they also validate there are many ways to make an audience feel and that if you do it right, we can still feel rocked by a good surprise or swoon over a first kiss. “Downton Abbey” almost always does right by its big moments, which was why it was surprising how poorly handled the Matthew Crawley stuff was in the Season 3 finale/Christmas Episode. [And yes, keep in mind that this placement is for the third season, which aired here in 2013, rather than the fourth season, which will premiere here in January.]
25. HBO’s Monday Documentaries
This is a total cheat and I don’t care. I love documentaries and HBO has carved out a place in the marketplace as one of the few reliable destinations for smart and often provocative documentary programming. Standouts this year included “Casting By,” “Seduced and Abandoned,” “Valentine Road,” “The crash List,” “Six by Sondheim,” “Manhunt,” “Life According to Sam,” “Which Way Is The Front From Here,” “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley” and more. Some of these docs were produced for HBO Films. Some were festival acquisitions. Some received theatrical runs before playing on TV, while some went to HBO first. Because of those confusing distinctions, I couldn’t bring myself to put this entry any higher on my list in the way that ESPN’s “30 For 30” series has twice made my Top 10, but it’s important to recognize the great work HBO is doing on the documentary front.
13 Totally Honorable Mentions: “Orphan Black,” “Bunheads,” “Top of the Lake,” “Treme,” “Arrow,” “Scandal,” “Parenthood,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Behind the Candelabra,” The Fall Episodes of “The Mindy Project,” The Spring Episodes of “New Girl,” “Raising Hope,” POV’s “American Promise”

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