Top Ten Favorite TV Shows of 2013

Top Ten Favorite TV Shows of 2013
Welcome back! BP on TV has been dormant for a while, but the wave of year-end Best Of lists inspired me to dust off the blog and share my own collection of favorites from the year. (Note: I haven’t watched everything, so series like Orphan BlackRectify, and Top of the Lake were necessarily left off here, but they are on my To Watch list!) So click through to read my picks, and share your thoughts below.

1. The Good Wife (CBS)

For its first few seasons, The Good Wife was basically the last network drama standing in the major Emmy categories — it was nominated twice for Outstanding Drama Series, and Julianna Margulies won for Outstanding Lead Actress in 2011 — but it seems to have fallen out of favor with the Academy, for whom “Quality Drama” is now apparently found only on cable. All of which is to say, it’s a shame, because not only was this the show’s best year, but it was also the year’s best show. After creators Robert and Michelle King rightfully dumped the dead-weight storyline that was Kalinda’s husband in late 2012, the legal procedural was as thrilling as anything else on TV (and certainly more so than a purported thriller like Homeland). The dynamic initially set up in season four’s “Red Team/Blue Team,” pitting Alicia and Cary against Will and Diane in a mock trial exercise, became permanent, bringing with it inter-firm politics, personal and professional feelings of betrayal, and the cast’s best performances across the board. The show balances episodic and serial plots like no other, and while not everything this season entirely worked (Marilyn didn’t inject much energy into Peter’s governorship; the “Grace is hot” plot was a fairly lazy way of giving the kids something to do), those are ultimately small quibbles. 2013 saw an explosion of new programming and distribution methods, but it’s the most “traditional” looking show — on CBS no less! — that was my #1 favorite of the year.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Game of Thrones would probably have made the list based purely on visuals — its enormous budget is all on the screen, making it a great series just to look at — but thankfully it had the other elements to back it all up. Season three continued to expand the world, while also delving deeper into its existing characters (it made us care about Jaime Lannister!), and culminating in the horrifying Red Wedding that highlighted the futility of the political struggle for the Iron Throne. With multiple threats emerging from Beyond the Wall and opportunistic backstabbers waiting at every turn, Game of Thrones continued to show that power only begets the desire for more power, leaving just two options: perpetual dissatisfaction or death. My only complaint (other than the seemingly endless torture of Theon Greyjoy, but hey, gotta keep Alfie Allen under contract) is that with only 10 episodes, the season felt like it was over before it even began.

3. Breaking Bad (AMC)

If Breaking Bad had ended with “Ozymandias,” it probably would have been my #1 pick. As is, with a finale I liked but didn’t LOVE, it dropped a couple spots, but was still unquestionably one of the great shows of the year. The pacing was relentless, the acting as Emmy-worthy as ever, and it ended with the conversation we’d been waiting to hear for years: Walt admitting to Skyler (and himself) that his criminal enterprise was never actually about his family. Although Heisenberg was perhaps undeserving of catharsis (or his string of other accomplishments in the just-a-little-too-neat finale), it allowed the audience to say goodbye to Vince Gilligan’s magnum opus as it cemented its place in the pantheon of all-time great dramas.

4. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

It would have been hard to predict that Netflix’s best show this year wouldn’t be the one starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher, or the highly anticipated revival of a beloved comedy, but rather the one set in a women’s prison whose most recognizable cast members were “The girl from That ’70s Show” and “The guy from American Pie.” Yet here we are, with Orange Is the New Black easily out-ranking House of Cards and Arrested Development on my list, as well as most other shows, period. What began as a fish-out-of-water story — yuppie white girl gets sent to prison, has to deal with the eccentrics she’s now locked up with — quickly morphed into something else that proved much more satisfying. Yes, Piper stayed at the center of the story, but though the guards made a point of dehumanizing the inmates, the series excelled at exploring the humanity in them all, with richly-written characters brought to life by a talented ensemble that proved the storytelling benefits of racial, sexual, and gender diversity.

5. Hannibal (NBC)

Like Game of Thrones, this was another gorgeous series, yet unlike the HBO epic (where killing is necessary to gain or maintain power, and even major characters are expendable), Hannibal was a slow, meticulous, psychological rumination — and it was fascinating. Mads Mikkelsen was chilling as the eponymous Dr. Lecter, erasing any associations with Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance, and he had a more-than-capable partner in Hugh Dancy, who injected Will Graham with just the right balance of brilliance and instability. Though frequently gory and disturbing — one episode involved a serial killer who made “wings” out of his victims’ skin — everything was done with such purpose and beauty that it was impossible to look away.

6. Scandal (ABC)

I caught up on the entire series this fall, in time for the third season premiere, so what would have been fast-paced even when spread out over a full season felt that much faster condensed into a week or two. Even considering only those episodes that premiered in 2013, we’re still talking about (SPOILERS) the President miraculously recovering from an assassination attempt, that same President murdering a Supreme Court justice, David Rosen learning the truth about the rigged election, Olivia being outed as the President’s mistress (then successfully covering it up), the explosion and quick implosion of Josie Marcus’s presidential campaign, Sally Langston murdering her husband after he sleeps with James, and the big reveals that Eli Pope is the man behind B613, Mellie was raped by Fitz’s father, and Olivia’s mother is alive and a mercenary spy to boot. It’s a crazy amount of plot to churn through, and though I don’t think the B613/Remington stuff worked as well as an over-arching plot as the Defiance arc did last year, by and large they pulled it off, which is a huge credit to Shonda Rhimes and her writers, as well as the whole cast. At the rate it’s going, it feels like Scandal could veer off the rails at any moment, but that feeling also made it one of the most entertaining and addictive shows to watch this year.

7. Masters of Sex (Showtime)

If nothing else, Masters of Sex has given us some of the best performances of the year: Played by any other actor, the prickly, emotionally distant, work-obsessed Dr. William Masters would be unbearable, yet Michael Sheen imbues him with just the right level of vulnerability so as to elicit at least some measure of sympathy; Lizzy Caplan brings to Virginia Johnson both the confidence and the eagerness that make it so clear why Bill desires her; and Beau Bridges and, particularly, Allison Janney, have made the Scullys the show’s secret weapons, displaying years of emotions with the smallest gestures. Plot was less important than character and theme, and the series moved self-assuredly to communicate its ideas on feminism and sexuality. Though it could veer into heavy-handedness at times, the acting and subject matter made this one’s debut season a real (ahem) pleasure.

8. Bob’s Burgers (Fox)

I could be forgetting a dud storyline, but I can’t remember a bad episode of Bob’s Burgers; I can say with 100% certainty that there has never been an episode that hasn’t made me laugh out loud at least a few times. This year, Bob’s just kept building on what it had established over the past couple seasons, which meant not only more terrific jokes, but also a willingness to mix up settings and character pairings, now that the Belchers have become some of the most well-defined characters on TV. This understanding of their characters has also allowed the writers to play with stock sitcom storylines to expert effect — the basic premise of most episodes is generally familiar, but the humor derives from how these particular characters act, leading to a specificity that couldn’t be mistaken for any other show.

9. The Mindy Project (Fox)

This is where I note that I purposely titled this list “Favorite Shows” and not “Best,” because The Mindy Project was nowhere near one of the 10 best TV shows of the year. They still didn’t know what to do with half the cast, the episodic plots were more miss than hit… And yet, it was still the comedy I looked most forward to watching each week, because it’s hilarious. It’s sort of taken over the 30 Rock slot in my mind: Mindy and Danny are the Liz and Jack, whose relationship (admittedly heading somewhere more romantic) provides an emotional grounding for the show, allowing them to then pack in joke after joke after joke. Like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling finds the humor in self-deprecation and also doesn’t worry much about fleshing out her supporting cast (save Adam Pally, who’s proven a good addition), because that’s easy to forgive when even the throwaway one-liners are so funny.

10. Shameless (Showtime)

Truthfully, I almost forgot Shameless even aired this year, as it was so long ago that I watched a new episode. But promos for the new season jogged my memory, and the more I thought about it, the more I remembered how much I enjoy watching the whole Gallagher clan. I could have done without the return of Karen, and the stuff with Kev and Veronica and her mom was more cringe-worthy than funny, but that’s just what Shameless is. Moments like Carl shaving Frank’s head in the hospital, or Fiona’s speech in court (seriously, Emmy Rossum is so great, yet so overlooked), prove how difficult it is to balance the tone of this show, but also how good the writers are at doing so.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Americans (FX): A great Cold War drama that doubled as a great exploration of marriage, anchored by terrific performances from Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, and Margo Martindale.

Justified (FX): The Drew Thompson mystery probably dragged on for an episode or two longer than it needed to, and the show continued to waste Rachel and Tim, but it’s still hard to have anything less than a very good season with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins at the center.

Trophy Wife (ABC): Despite the tongue-in-cheek title and unfortunate scheduling (ABC isn’t doing this one any favors), Trophy Wife has been the comedy highlight of the fall season, coming straight out of the gate with a grasp on every character (minus Natalie Morales’s Meg) and an all-around great cast.

Mad Men (AMC): Don Draper sank to new lows, impulsively spearheading a merger then almost immediately losing all interest, and his forced suspension leaves an intriguing question mark hanging over the final season.

Arrested Development (Netflix): After all those years and endless rumors of a new movie/show/ANYTHING, it would have been impossible for the Netflix revival to live up to expectations. And it didn’t. But it was still very good (a few bad episodes, but also a handful of great ones), taking full advantage of the possibilities offered by the streaming platform and resisting the urge to simply fall back on old jokes.

New Girl (Fox): If I weren’t considering season three, New Girl would have easily made the top ten list; the 2013 portion of season two was as strong as anything on TV. This fall’s run, though, has struggled with the Jess/Nick romance, Schmidt’s ruse of a love triangle, and Winston in general. Worse than plot issues, though: it hasn’t even been funny.

American Horror Story (FX): Again, if I were only judging the first half of the year, AHS would make my list for Asylum, which was completely crazy, but also maintained a level of gravitas amidst the murderous Santas, the Name Game sing-alongs, and the Nazi doctors. But, alas, this year has also included Coven, which seems to be trying to say something profound about oppression, race, and feminism (I think?), but is really not pulling it off.

A Chef’s Life (PBS): I probably wouldn’t even know about A Chef’s Life if it weren’t for the fact that I work at PBS and watched it as part of my job, but this documentary/reality/cooking show hybrid is a real gem, capturing the drama of a new restaurant, the richness of small-town North Carolina life, and the deliciousness of Southern cooking.

Biggest Surprise: Sleepy Hollow (Fox)

When Fox announced this crime procedural starring a Revolutionary War-era Ichabod Crane who has been awoken in modern day to fight the Headless Horseman (who happens to be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), it sounded like a joke, and honestly still kind of does. But Tom Mison as Ichabod and Nicole Beharie as local cop “Leftenant” Abbie Mills have great chemistry, and, most importantly, the show is aware of its own craziness, meaning it’s actually fun to watch.

Biggest Disappointment: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)

The flip side to Sleepy Hollow was this attempt at corporate synergy on ABC. Joss Whedon’s initial involvement had us all excited, and why shouldn’t a Marvel series work on TV? But talk about lack of self-awareness — there are zero compelling characters, played by mostly dull actors, in completely boring case-of-the-week plots. It’s a bad show, made worse by its wasted potential.

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