2013 was a little tricky in terms of television–I can’t remember the medium ever being so dominated by a single show like it was by Breaking Bad. In this instance, that was a very good thing; even the year-end backlash that we’re currently seeing can’t obscure the conclusion of what was for all intents and purposes a Great American Novel. But there were plenty of signs of life elsewhere, including a number I’m sure we didn’t catch. But here are a few.
Top Twelve Television Series of 2013
12. Parenthood. Because even if it’s faltering, we can’t not include the most consistently gracious show on TV. If they could only give poor Kristina, one of the most endearing characters in a cast full of them, a plotline that wasn’t excruciating (and maybe take an extended break from rockin’ at the Luncheonette), we would be back in business. I’m hopeful.
11. Enlightened. If only for the “Higher Power” episode, which was as honest and moving a depiction of addiction and recovery as we’re ever likely to get on the small screen. And it thankfully stands pretty much alone, a pitch-perfect short story amidst a show that tried to find the humanity in a fundamentally annoying character (without allowing them to be become less annoying). Laura Dern is a true artist.
10. Happy Endings. Television lost its giddiest ensemble when this one bit the dust. What started out as a Friends knock-off blossomed into what could only be called a circus of silliness, when the writers decided to disregard sitcom convention (and ratings?) and allow all of the characters to become clowns. But what clowns! You know it’s a good show when you genuinely can’t decide who’s the funniest (Dave, Max or Penny).
9. Girls. Sure, it got pretty unwatchable there toward the end, but for a show that made headlines for its bolder moves, some of which were genuinely unnecessary (Adam), the quieter ones are what kept me watching (well, that and the wit), e.g. the Ray-Shoshanna storyline, which may have been the unsung highlight of the season. Plus, it’s hard not to admire the conviction it took to do that Patrick Wilson episode.
8. Broadchurch. The Brits do Twin Peaks! Sort of. Nothing to add to what Lynn already said about this excellent, multi-faceted mystery, except to underline how nice it was to see a sympathetic clergyman on screen, one who didn’t obfuscate or equivocate when the storm hit. Bravo.
7. New Girl. It took me a while to come around, but the whole Nick-and-Jess screwball thing was too wonderful for words. And this season is pulling off the impossible thus far, keeping things interesting and hilarious without the will-they-won’t-they tension. Favorite character may be Tran.
6. Game of Thrones. Having now consumed the written version of George R.R. Martin’s epic masterpiece, I admire the show more than ever. And I cannot recall another single scene catching me as off-guard and leaving me as speechless as the Red Wedding one did. Alos, Peter Dinklage sure deserves all the accolades he’s gotten–I’m probably not the only one who prefers him to the Tyrion on the page.
5. Eastbound and Down. So obviously I’m a little conflicted about including this one. Don’t want to lose my job. I mean, surely Kenny Powers and co set some kind of record for depravity? Or at least for most creative use of curse words? But that’s not what made the fourth and final season of Eastbound and Down such a triumph. First, with the possible exception of Breaking Bad, no other show captured the sad reality of modern male-ness with more precision and insight. More importantly though, like Judd Apatow’s best work, the obscenity masked something deceptively moral and dare-I-say redemptive. Seriously. What became clear in this final season of Eastbound and Down was that the lewdness was genuinely subversive; scenes of impossibly scatalogical foulness led into ones of palpable loneliness and insecurity. The empathy one feels for Kenny is real and yet never excuses or exonerates his (ridiculously childish mis-)behavior. But most of all, the closing episode contains an undeniably powerful–almost inappropriately so–moment of repentance and absolution. And the inconvenient truth is that it wouldn’t have been half as moving had we not plumbed the absolute depths of Kenny’s character for four full seasons. That they undercut the tears with a simul iustus et peccator coda of Lohan-assisted nonsense was the cherry on top of the DQ Blizzard. All that said, do not watch it. Or if you do, don’t tell anyone that you heard about it here.
4. Adventure Time. I’ve caught wind of this show for years, and no two person’s attempts to describe it were have ever been (remotely) the same. Outlandishly funny, curiously heart-warming and supremely childlike (but never childish), you basically just have to jump into a few of the 15 minute episodes and let its peculiar rhythm and offbeat sensibility carry you away. No other show inspired as much awe in me this year. It’s a fully realized vision, and a very fresh one at that. Playful in the extreme!
3. Luther. Blake did a masterful job of unpacking what was so terrific about this season, which essentially boils down to the fact that the scariest show on television also gave us the year’s single most memorable instance of televised grace. When John defends (and suffers for) the pedophile in Episode 3, I just about lost it. Has there ever been a studlier embodiment of Matthew 5:10? I think not.
2. Veep. As enjoyable as the first season was, it did not prepare me for such a gut-busting sophomore voyage. Veep was the funniest show on television this past year, with just the right amount of satirical bite for it to take root below the skin. (Cheers, Armando!). You can tell how much fun the cast are having as they bounce off of one another. Yet as talented as the supporting players are, none of them outshines Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, who cemented her position as America’s most brilliant comedienne. I never thought, in a million years, that she (or anyone else) would approach the genius of Elaine Benes, but here we are.
1. Breaking Bad. Not just the best television show of the year, but the best piece of culture, period. Don’t believe the oh-so-predictable backlash. This “Dostoevsky in the desert” drama lived up to the billing, and we will not see its like again. If you need more, read any one of our gazillion articles about it. Vince Gilligan, we salute thee!
Shows That Would Probably Have Made the Cut (If I’d Seen More of Them): Rectify, The Returned, and The Americans
Guiltiest Pleasure That Has Become A Non-Guilty Pleasure: Arrow. I don’t know how they did it, but this show has somehow grown into its “Christopher Nolan on TV” hype.
Most Overrated: House of Cards. Like last year’s winner of this title, Homeland, the show is proof that addictive does not equal quality.
Best Surprise: Sleepy Hollow. I would bet serious money that the person behind this creepy procedural has church in their past (and probably present).
Biggest Disappointment: Arrested Development (despite Win’s wonderful article). While Justified’s fourth season wasn’t exactly bad, it wasn’t great either. And some of us haven’t given up hope that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can turn around.
The Why-Do-I-Keep-Watching Award: The Walking Dead. Emily Nussbaum said everything that needs to be said in The New Yorker this week.
Reality TV as Ministry Award: The Voice
Non-English Language Series of the Year/Most Unexpected Mbird Phenomenon Ever: Preamar. I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten cooler comments on a post.
Top Five “Mockingbird” Scenes of the Year
1. John Luther taking punches for the pedophile in the third episode of season three. Duh!
2. Jane Campion’s six episode mini-series Top of the Lake may not have ultimately quite come together, but I had to pick my jaw off the floor after the scene in the final episode where Holly Hunter’s GJ counsels the detective played by Elisabeth Moss. Moss comes to her completely defeated, saying, “I don’t know how to keep living.” GJ: “So you’re on your knees?” “Yes” GJ: “Now die to yourself, your idea of yourself. Everything you think you are. Stop your helping, stop your planning. Give up! [pause] You tired? You can lie down right here. ” Moss then takes a nap – directly after which she solves the mystery.
3. Cheating since it aired in late 2012, but the scene from Parenthood where Julia waited in the car for Victor while he’s in school (resulting in her losing her job). In a year when Parenthood didn’t deliver the waterworks in quite the same way as it once did, I revisited this scene of bewildering and foolishly sacrificial love numerous times (at church even).
4. The closing scene of Girls‘ second season, where Adam rushes to Hannah’s side. Some commentators criticized what they saw as a sentimental betrayal of the show’s gender politics, but all I saw was an instance of one-way love in a show that contains precious little of it.
5. Don Draper comes clean (about Hershey bars) in Mad Men. The truth will set you free? We shall see…