TV Top 25 of 2013: 'Game of Thrones,' 'Rectify' & 'Justified' head the best of the rest
A year so deep that even a top 20 (or 25) leaves some great things out
As usual, earlier this month we ran a video with my picks for the 10 best shows of the year. (And I was part of our Second Annual HitFix Television Critics Poll.) And now, as usual, it’s time for my written list of those 10, plus the 10 shows that finished just behind it…
… only this year, I’m going with a top 25 rather than a top 20, just as a testament to what an absurdly deep year in television this was. As I shuffled shows up and down my list, I kept getting annoyed with myself at the possibility that one show might not make the cut, and I inevitably looked at half of these new shows and wondered what sin they committed — other than me liking them slightly less than the shows above them — to keep them out of the top 10. So it’s time to play the game that James Poniewozik (read his critics poll ballot here!) likes to call Everybody Gets a Trophy! We’ll have 15 additional shows here, and next week I’m going to publish another post about my favorite new shows of the year (at least, beyond the ones already on this list), because so much of this year’s goodness was concentrated among the rookies.
The top 10 list was in ascending order to maintain some suspense about what would be my top pick, but I suspect most of you could have figured that out in advance. Because you now know what my top 10 is, we’re doing the top 25 in descending order, starting with my blurbs for the top 10 shows and then moving into the best of the rest:
1. What could my number one choice for 2013 possibly be but AMC’s “Breaking Bad”? Though I had mixed feelings about the series finale, the seven episodes leading up to it made for one of the most gripping, devastating stretches of dramatic television in the medium’s history, as Walter White’s life, family and sense of self all crumbled under the weight of the unspeakable things he had done. The episode “Ozymandias” alone was probably enough to merit the top spot, and most of the hours surrounding it were simultaneously wonderful and terrible in their own right. We have said goodbye to an all-time great here. Heisenberg is dead. Long live “Breaking Bad.”
2. Netflix’s entrance into the original programming game was perhaps the biggest TV story of the year. Their first drama, “House of Cards,” arrived with a ton of hype and a big star in Kevin Spacey, and later in the year, Netflix brought “Arrested Development” back from the dead. But the best Netflix original by far — and my number two show of the year overall — was the women’s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black.” Creator Jenji Kohan started out telling the story of a privileged, terrified white woman adjusting to life behind bars, but the series quickly expanded its perspective and empathy to show how all these people from diverse backgrounds wound up in this place, how the prison economy works, and what hopes each of them have for their time inside these walls and beyond. “Orange” featured a huge cast of characters, many of them played by relative unknowns doing great work with the opportunity, and each character was presented with such detail and emotion that the series could have easily reoriented itself around any of them. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose, because “Orange” gives us a chance to watch, laugh with, and be moved by all of them.
3. I very strongly disliked HBO’s “Enlightened” when it debuted a few years ago. Some of that was the show’s unflinching commitment to portraying Laura Dern’s New Age-y Amy Jellicoe as an intensely difficult, irritating person. But “Enlightened” creator Mike White was also trying something unlike any other show on television, and it took a while to adjust to the show’s combination of absolute sincerity and unbearable awkwardness. The second and final season took us away from Amy’s point of view a bit more than the first, and also had more of a plot, as Amy and her outcast co-workers plotted to bring down the horrible company they work for. Those two tweaks were enough to elevate “Enlightened” from an interesting curiosity to an absorbing, powerful work of art, with an absolute command of tone and mood and emotion. I would not want to be in a room with Amy Jellicoe for five minutes, but I’m glad I got to watch these last four hours of her story.
4. What a debut year Sundance Channel had as a provider of scripted drama series, starting off with the fantastic New Zealand-set crime miniseries “Top of the Lake,” then seguing into the dreamy “Rectify” (more on that in a bit) and the haunting supernatural French series “The Returned.” I loved them all, but especially “Lake,” about the disappearance of a pregnant teen in a remote New Zealand community. Elisabeth Moss (who was stellar as usual on “Mad Men”) was wonderful as the cop called in to investigate a case in her hometown, Jane Campion and Garth Davis’ direction made the mountain town simultaneously gorgeous and creepy, Holly Hunter had a lot of fun in a role that would have been superfluous in almost any other hands, and Campion and Gerard Lee’s script smartly explored the case from every legal, sociological and emotional angle. Between this and “Broadchurch,” it was also a hell of a year for long-form mysteries set in small towns located next to bodies of water.
5. The never-ending age of the criminal anti-hero gave us a few more bastard sons of Tony Soprano this year, including AMC’s “Low Winter Sun” and Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” both of which demonstrated how badly the TV drama business needs to find a new template to mass produce. My fifth-place show, Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” also has a difficult character at its center in Michael Sheen as sex researcher William Masters, but it’s a much more complicated, original and entertaining work. As Masters and his partner Virginia Johnson, Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are expertly matched: he’s cool and rigid, she’s warm and flexible. And the series manages to take on the sexual mores of the ‘50s without snickering or seeming like a bad “Mad Men” imitator. “Masters” is fun when it wants to be, serious when it needs to be, and consistently generates major emotional stakes without requiring its characters to shoot people and then melt their bodies in acid. It’s its own thing, and that thing is excellent.
6. AMC’s “Mad Men” is in its twilight years, and there are times when it feels like we’re just going through the same Don Draper character beats season after season. But by season’s end, Don was in a strange, fascinating new place that allowed Jon Hamm to do some of his best work of the series, and almost every character’s life had been upended. The series remains so dense with meaning, sadness and even humor, and features so many fantastic performances, that it remains one of the most satisfying, immersive viewing experiences there is. How would I feel about leaving “Mad Men” off my list? To quote a very wise man, “NOT GREAT, Bob!”
7. HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” had perhaps its best season yet. As always, the period gangster drama offered beautiful compositions, meticulous plotting, gripping action and superb performances, with Jeffrey Wright adding enormously to the cast as the hypnotic, wildly hypocritical Dr. Valentin Narcisse. And by making the feud between Narcisse and Chalky White the season’s centerpiece, “Boardwalk” finally gave Michael Kenneth Williams a proper showcase, essentially elevating him to co-lead alongside Steve Buscemi as Nucky. Much as I love Buscemi elsewhere, the series was better served by focusing so much on a more charismatic figure like Chalky. Couple that with a lovely, tragic arc for Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow and a thrilling mob war in Chicago, and you have a “Boardwalk” season that fit together perfectly.
8. TNT’s “Southland” was the rare series to be improved by cancellation — not once but twice. When the series moved from NBC to TNT, the budget was lowered, a large swath of the cast was let go, and the focus narrowed to just a handful of cops, chief among them Michael Cudlitz as damaged veteran patrolman John Cooper. In this final season, Cudlitz gave the year’s single best TV performance, first acting opposite Gerald McRaney as Cooper’s suicidal ex-partner, then in a nightmarish episode where Cooper and his current partner were held hostage by a pair of violent, irrational tweakers. Cudlitz’s performance throughout was so intense, so vulnerable, that “Southland” took on the feel of a documentary in his scenes. In the final episode, a depressed Cooper goes for a suicide-by-cop; had the show been renewed, he almost certainly would have survived, but the low ratings means that “Southland” ended on the perfect, if tragic, note.
9. TV is so filled with both serial killer stories and remakes that I was actively dreading the arrival of NBC’s “Hannibal.” Did we really need another murderous mastermind, especially given how the movie sequels had exhausted any interest in Hannibal Lecter? But Bryan Fuller, the imaginative creator behind “Pushing Daisies” and “Dead Like Me,” found a riveting new take on the tired material. He gave us an understated yet chilling version of Dr. Lecter in the form of Mads Mikkelsen, a fascinatingly tragic Will Graham in Hugh Dancy, and a collection of murder scenes so insanely baroque that they moved past fetishizing the work of killers and played more as twisted fantasy. The only downside to the series? Dr. Lecter’s cooking looks delicious.
10. For years, critics have referred to CBS’ “The Good Wife,” by the somewhat-patronizing title “the best drama on broadcast television.” I wouldn’t agree with that this year, in that I ranked “Hannibal” higher, but “Good Wife” took a major leap forward in quality in 2013, relying less on its gift for guest casting and more on generating conflict between the show’s regular characters. As Alicia and Cary stealthily plotted to start their own firm and steal clients from Will and Diane, “The Good Wife” felt quicker, funnier, more exciting and simply better than it had before. And “Hitting the Fan,” the episode where one firm finds out about the other, was one of the year’s most satisfying hours of television, whether you’re counting broadcast, cable or Netflix.
And now on to the shows you didn’t already know about from the video…