There are so many of quality shows on TV that it’s actually quite amazing. Picking a ‘Top Ten’ would be a huge challenge, so I’ll be sharing the fifteen shows I most enjoyed watching this year.
There are only two comedies in the fifteen, but the shows I’ve most enjoyed this year have leaned more to the dramatic and melodramatic. That’s just me. Your mileage may vary.
15. Leverage – A heist movie every week – stealing everything from The Grey Goose to Christmas. The series finale was awesome and ended the series the way co-creator Dean Devlin wanted – some stories ended and others went on (though the aspects of the original ‘Hitter. Hacker. Grifter. Thief. Mastermind.’ went through an intriguing metamorphosis). TNT may have made a mistake canceling this one – it was readymade for the really nifty recontextualization suggested in the finale.
14. Elementary – Holmes as a recovering addict and a female Watson who is his sober companion, in present day New York City. Solid writing, the kind of outré cases that one expects in a Holmes tale and a Watson who, though female, is both respected and appreciated by Holmes in much the same manner as in the Conan Doyle canon make the decision to follow CBS’ best rookie show, well, elementary.
13. Haven – From a quirky, supernatural series with potential, Haven has evolved into a first-rate mythology with unique characters and challenges. The town with The Troubles is a charming, scary place to visit every week.
12. Archer – The best animated series on TV? Oh, yeah. Archer satirizes spy and action movies tropes overtly and soap opera and other relationship subgenres slightly less so. Plus, it’s screamingly funny at its worst and has terrific theme music.
11. Fringe – TV’s best current SF series is finishing up its fifth and final season and going out the way showrunner J.H. Wyman wanted: with what is a thirteen-episode alien invasion tale with a twist – the aliens are the evolutionary final version humans, The Observers! Why this show hasn’t been nominated for some top Emmys I’ll never understand – John Noble’s variations on the mad scientist Walter Bishop being the most egregious omission.
10. NCIS – The mix of forensics and character development has influenced every forensics-based procedural – including the show that inspired it, CSI – and it still feels fresh in its tenth season.
9. Person of Interest – Bizarre SF-tinged procedural that has really dug into its characters in Season Two. Best use of a pet in series TV in years (gotta love Bear).
8. Dexter – Closing the noose on Dexter may be the best thing that’s ever happened to this show. Great, dark fun.
7. Arrow – Arrow may be the best TV superhero series ever. It combines dramatic action and adventure with just enough wit and humor to avoid slipping into camp. It also uses its comic book origins in cool ways.
6. Homeland – Even when it misfires, it’s always going for the fences. Gotta love that. I can’t really say more than that – it’s far too twisty to describe in a few sentences (which is a large part of its charm).
5. Doctor Who – Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is possibly the silliest of them all (topping even Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor), but also as least as alien as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor and as jaunty as Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. This season has seen companions Amy and Rory die (of old age, of all things) and introduced a soufflé-making Dalek (well, if she could only have found some milk) who tied in with the annual Christmas special and new companion Clara (though we won’t know how, for sure, until later in 2013). Doctor Who is a show where you can go from silly to dramatic, melodramatic to slapstick at a moment’s notice (frequently in the same conversation) – and it does so with panache.
4. House of Lies – An inside look at the public relations biz with a crackerjack cast portraying a group of highly trained and brilliant spin docs whose lives aren’t nearly as brilliant as the fabrications they come up with for their clientele. Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell lead a terrific cast and they get to work with sharp, sharp writing.
3. Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy tale A Song of Ice and Fire given life on HBO. Even if Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) was the only beautifully realised character on the series it would be worth talking about, but there are dozens of characters spread over several story arcs – all worthy of mention. The supreme instance of TV being able to achieve what even the best movies cannot – an entire, fully developed world.
2. Sherlock – The first of the two contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes series to air, Sherlock is a meticulous reconstruction of Conan Doyle’s tales in the present. It is, at heart, a highly canonical series that is brilliantly written, acted and produced. It has given its stars – Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) – a platform to showcase their talent that has resulted in burgeoning film careers (Cumberbatch is the villain in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness, while Freeman headlines The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), something that wouldn’t have happened if Sherlock weren’t just that good.
1. Justified – Shakespeare writ small; Elmore Leonard writ large. The series about headstrong, angry deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) takes conventions of noir, westerns and action shows and sets them on their ears in Kentucky’s Harlan County. It captures Leonard’s flair for dialogue and feasible if unlikely series of events and the development of character and relationships without ostentatious frills. It is also the most pure fun of any series I’ve watched this year.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): American Horror Story: Asylum, Bones, Fringe, The Good Wife, Grimm, The Last Resort, Longmire, Mad Men, Magic City, The Middle, Modern Family, Spartacus, Tron Uprising, The Walking Dead, White Collar, Wilfred
The year’s biggest creative bottom feeders: Guys with Kids (an SNL sketch that never ends), The Mob Doctor (everyone involved should donate their income to the Widows and Orphans Fund), The Neighbors (proof that you can make a show aimed well below the lowest common denominator and someone will air it and worse – someone will watch it!), virtually all non-competitive, slice-of-family-life reality shows – but especially Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which makes even something with the Kardashians seem like quality programming), Two and a Half Men (see: The Neighbors) and Partners (turns out that the lives of the guys who created Will & Grace just weren’t all that funny).
Mid-season shows worth looking for: Fox’s The Following (what if an escaped serial killer developed a following that matched him in intensity and purpose and a broken down ex-FBI agent is the best chance of catching him), NBC’s Do No Harm (Jekyll & Hyde re-imagined as an extreme case of Dissociative Identity Disorder) and TNT’s Monday Mornings (David E. Kelley, back on track with a medical/workplace drama based on the non-fiction book by neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta).