It has been a remarkable year for television. More places to find scripted programming meant more quality programming – networks that were just beginning to dabble in scripted shows had to find or produce quality fare just to get noticed. As a result, we got shows like Rectify and The Returned. Networks, faced with dwindling ratings and top-notch cable shows took a few flyers and produced some pretty entertaining new shows (and some awful duds – but at least they were trying!).
Indeed, there were so many really entertaining shows that I just couldn’t limit my 2013 list to fifteen. So, follow the jump for my favorite shows of 2013 – plus some bottom feeders and disappointments.
20. NCIS (CBS) – year after year, NCIS tops the ratings because as wild as some of the cases can be, the show is about the characters – and the NCIS family is just that, a family. Eve when a character leaves they find a way to embrace the new team member and make the new chemistry as effective as the old. Plus, of all the forensics shows, NCIS has always been the most character orientated.
19. Once Upon a Time: Wonderland (ABC) – consistently smarter, funnier and more psychedelic – not to mention more original – than its progenitor has been since season one. The introduction of Jafar and his Agrabah backstory is clever and Alice and The Knave make a great team. Plus, genies!
18. American Horror Story: Coven (FX) – by abandoning the ‘let’s throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks’ philosophy of season two AHS:C has been more dramatic, funnier and even ore twisted – without losing any of its great camp edge. Emma Roberts has never been better – plus, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett!
17. Elementary (CBS) – it’s not Sherlock (which takes six months to produce three ninety-minute episodes) but it is as true to the Conan Doyle canon in terms of Holmes and Watson’s characters and relationship as that series. Plus, its integration of elements of canon into wholly new cases is just plain fun.
16. Sleepy Hollow (Fox) – Hawthorne, Rip Van Winkle and Revelations add up the year’s best network supernatural series. As a show that strives to be ‘a molecule short of absurd’, Sleepy Hollow makes magic, prophecy and revisionist history a deliriously fun experience. The crazier it gets the more fun it is.
15. Arrow (The CW) – this is how you do superheroes on TV: first, get the story and characters right; then go supers. Sometimes the show’s soapier elements flirt with going over the edge (Malcolm is Thea’s father? WTF!) – but always pulls back just in time. Plus, Olicity! Plus, cinematic action!
14. Person of Interest (CBS) – Quite possibly the weirdest procedural on TV (Almost Human and Sleepy Hollow included). The concept preceded NSA revelations, making POI weirdly prescient, but ways it goes beyond them is fascinating. The idea of The Machine acting to save itself added a cool/chilling element and the death of a major character was a gut punch – making it clear that, on POI, no one is safe.
13. The Blacklist (NBC) – Red Reddington is almost the ultimate antihero. He has empathy and sympathy but can ignore them. So not a psychopath/sociopath – something worse: human! James Spader’s pure enjoyment of the role makes the series way more fun than it really should be.
12. Masters of Sex (Showtime) – like the film American Hustle, this should be prefaced with the disclaimer ‘some of this stuff actually happened’ – but like American Hustle, it takes history and pays with it in unique ways. Michael Sheen’s brilliance as the very closed in Dr. William Masters goes without saying, but Lizzy Caplan’s work as Virginia Johnson is both a revelation and the heart of this gem of a series.
11. Doctor Who (BBC America) – the show’s fiftieth anniversary showcased everything that is brilliant about the show. Massive and intimate adventures in time and space; beloved companions leaving; The Doctor’s regeneration – in between the big moments, we got epic adventure, great drama and utter silliness. We got the first companion to have multiple incarnations (the Twice Dead Woman/Impossible Girl, Clara Oswin) – and save every incarnation of The Doctor. Plus, in the last two adventures of The Eleventh (Twelfth? Thirteenth?) Doctor, series showrunner Steven Moffat completely changed everything while scrupulously adhering to the rules of the show as established over the show’s run. Genius!
10. The Good Wife (CBS) – with its fifth season looking to be one of its best, The Good Wife serves further notice that network drama isn’t dead quite yet. Potentially award-winning stuff.
9. Broadchurch (BBC America) – the murder of a ten-year old boy brings all the secrets of a small coastal town in England to the surface. Exquisite performances and an equally exquisitely detailed story, with shattering work by David Tennant and Olivia Colman. ‘How could you not know?’
8. Justified (FX) – the Raylan Givens saga continues to amaze. The best Elmore Leonard adaptation, the series has wit, charm and drama to burn – without sacrificing ay of Leonard’s dark humor. One of the few shows that can be watched for the dialogue alone but gives us so much more – like Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins at the top of their game.
7. The Americans (FX) – the Cold War is hot again! The Jennings family is a typical American family except for one thing – mom and dad are Soviet spies. Even better? The FBI agent in charge of counterespionage is their neighbor! Career best performances by Keri Russell and Noah Emmerich are maybe) eclipsed by the work of Matthew Rhys. Plus, Margo Martindale in a role that will make you ask what the heck she’s doing on a mediocre sitcom on network TV (Answer: Making enough money to let her do brilliant oddities like The Americas).
6. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel) – a pregnant twelve-year’s suicide attempt brings an Aussie detective, visiting her sick mother, into a morass of evil in her New Zealand hometown. Jane Campion’s (The Piano, Bright Star) best work is this delicately, deliberately developed mystery that, like Broadchurch, brings a small town’s secrets to the surface. Elizabeth Moss may have bettered her work on Mad Men here.
5. The Returned (Sundance Channel) – dead people are returning to a small mountain village in France, looking exactly as they did the moment before their deaths. Some have been dead a few years; some, decades. Weirdness (power outages; the water level at the dam receding) ensues – along with an attack on a local bar employee that mirrors one a decade earlier. The Returned (Les revenants) is another series that developed at a more deliberate rate – refusing to sacrifice either character or story for needless (or gratuitous) action. Creepy, melancholy, utterly disturbing and wholly entertaining.
4. Rectify (Sundance Channel) – after nineteen years on death row, a convicted rapist/murderer is released on what some see as a technicality and others see as the righting of a great wrong. Set in a small town in Georgia, Rectify is another series that unfolds at a more deliberate pace and rewards viewers with a richly detailed group of characters – especially Daniel Holden (Aden Young), the convict who finds himself in a world that is familiar and yet, totally alien.
3. Game of Thrones (HBO) – the Red Wedding provided the biggest shocks in this epic fantasy, but the relationship between Kingslayer Ser Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth was a revelation – and Peter Dinklage continued to wow as Tyrion Lannister, whose acid tongue was in top form. Plus, Diana Rigg, Natalie Dormer, Ciarin Hinds and a cast of dozens – all getting meaty roles in this complex, enthralling series.
2. Orphan Black (BBC America) – in any other year, this first-year series could have topped my list. When Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) discovers she is but one of a host of clones (seven or eight – and counting) – and they are being killed off – she becomes embroiled in a battle for survival. Maslany (who was totally jobbed by the Emmy people) plays all the clones – each with distinct mannerisms, styles of dress, even walks and accents. Her tour de force performance is matched by the complexity of the storytelling, making Orphan Black the year’s best new series.
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) – the conclusion of high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s journey ‘from Mr. Chips to Scarface’ concluded with eight brilliant episodes – and a finale that was completely satisfying. Series creator Vince Gilligan is going to find himself one hard act to follow.
Also worthwhile (in no particular order): Almost Human (Fox), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Archer (FX), The Bridge (FX), Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) Bones (Fox), Grimm (NBC), Mad Men (AMC), Legit (FX, FXX in 2014) and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
The best show I’m not watching The Walking Dead I missed an ep last season. Which turned into two, then three, then four eps – and I realized that I didn’t miss it. At all. Still don’t.
Bottom Feeders & Disappointments
5. Ironside (NBC) – re-imagining of classic cop show about a paraplegic cop and his hand-picked special unit, Ironside was woefully inadequate in every respect. Making the title character black might have played well at the network (He’s a paraplegic! He’s black! He’s two visible minorities in one!), but concepts and marketing don’t work if the show s crap. Ironside was.
4. Super Fun Night (ABC) – so Rebel Wilson created a show for network television that doesn’t do anything that that made her funny in the movies – and makes her be unfunny in a bad American accent. How did that even happen?
3. Lucky 7 (ABC) – seven gas station employees win the lottery and get even more boring. Pity.
2. Do No Harm (NBC) – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde as a medical drama? Great concept; hideous execution. Key word: execution. Badly written, poorly performed and just a complete waste of space. In any other year, this might have been the worst show of the year. Its creators should therefore, be grateful for.
1. Dads (Fox) – Somehow Dads does everything Family Guy does – only live action and unfunny. Not to mention ageist, sexist and racist. How this got on Fox’s schedule is beyond me – especially when the same net airs Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Other disappointments: Dexter (Showtime), Ray Donovan (Showtime), Betrayal (ABC) and Low Winter Sun (AMC).