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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
11. “Game of Thrones” had probably its best season so far, and its placement here is an illustration of the depth of the year more than an objection to anything the show did, other than perhaps The Passion of the Greyjoy. Season 3 did a much better job of making the show’s far-flung characters and settings feel like part of a cohesive whole, it did a fantastic job giving new depth to characters like Jaime and Stannis while introducing wonderful new figures like Lady Olenna, and it presented one of the year’s most memorable, and technically brilliant, hours in “The Rains of Castamere” (even if I didn’t get much emotion from it because I don’t care about Robb or Catelyn). Also? It had the one-handed Kingslayer leap into a pit to face off against a grizzly bear. Which was nice.
12. On the surface, “Rectify” looks like a parody of what you might expect from Sundance Channel’s first wholly original drama (“Top of the Lake” premiered earlier in the year, but was an international co-production): very little in the way of plot, and an awful lot of shots of the main character staring off into space as he contemplates grass blowing in the breeze or the abundant selection of flip-flops at the local big box store. But Ray McKinnon’s story of a former Death Row inmate readjusting to a world he never expected to live in again found enormous emotional power in its quiet, still moments, greatly aided by Aden Young’s superb lead performance and great supporting work by Adelaide Clemens and Abigail Spencer, among others. Very little seemed to happen to Daniel Holden over the show’s first six episodes, but none of the time spent watching him (usually as he watched others) felt wasted.
13. A year ago, “New Girl” missed the cut of my top 10 entirely because my deadline came before I had seen the “Homeland” season finale, and I was (wrongly) betting on it being good enough to justify a 10th place spot. As “New Girl” entered 2013, it hit a new level of comic brilliance as the show confronted the attraction between Jess and Nick, and I assumed it was not only a lock for this year’s top 10, but possibly a contender for a very high spot. But as funny and romantic and cohesive as those winter and spring episodes were, the fall episodes have been such a mess — where the transformation of Winston into a bonafide crazy person has somehow been the smartest and most dependable element — that, on average, it wound up around here. Even at its peak, there’s something fundamentally erratic about the show that keeps it from attaining the consistency of, say, “Parks and Rec,” so it may be hard to find an entire calendar year’s worth of great episodes. Right now, though, I’m just hoping the show figures itself out already.
14. If I was doing a list of the best episodes of TV drama of 2013, the “Decoy” episode of “Justified” would be waaaay up near the top, definitely behind “Ozymandias” but probably going neck and neck with “Hitting the Fan” and a couple of installments of “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire.” “Decoy” was overflowing with fun in a way that the Important Dramas of Our Time aren’t always in a position to do, and it gave every member of the ensemble (plus guest stars like Patton Oswalt and Mike O’Malley) plenty of opportunity to shine. The season around “Decoy” was pretty strong as well, particularly Raylan skirting ever closer to being the outlaw his father was, and then Raylan dealing with the death of said father. The one big flaw was that the Drew Thompson mystery wasn’t as gripping as it needed to be, given how much it dominated the season.
15. A couple of years ago, “Parks and Recreation” was my number one show in all of television. Last year, it was my number three overall. It certainly didn’t have a bad year in 2014 — a year that gave us “Two Parties,” “Leslie and Ben,” “Article Two,” “London” and “The Cones of Dunshire,” many of which I’d comfortably slot among the best episodes this classic comedy has given us — but there were some signs of middle age in characters, storylines or running gags that didn’t click as well as they might have in earlier years. (Much too much of Councilman Jamm, for instance.) But if it’s not as frequently great as it once was, “Parks” is still capable of greatness when such is called for — and boy, did I need an episode like “London” as I was wading through so many of this fall’s lame comedy pilots — and still offers us the pleasure of watching Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Adam Scott and company do their thing week to week.
16. “Girls” season 1 was one of my favorites of last year, and in some ways, the second season was better. The complicated, almost certainly self-destructive relationship between Hannah and Adam felt richer (and led to a thrilling climax to what had been a dark last few episodes of the season), supporting characters like Ray got more to do, the show had fun at its own expense with Donald Glover’s brief guest stint, and it gave us one of the year’s most fascinating — and incredibly polarizing, even by the already-polarizing standards of “Girls” (the only show I cover where the existence of the coverage itself has become controversial) — episodes in “One Man’s Trash.” Ultimately, the season probably worked better as a collection of individual episodes than as a whole, since several of the big character arcs at the end of the season felt underfed in the middle, but the parts were really, really good.
17. “Shameless” is another pay cable series that had its best season this year. The show became more overtly a drama than ever before, particularly during the arc where the kids were thrown back into the foster care system and Fiona had to step up to take custody of them all, and Emmy Rossum shone even more brightly as a result. The writers also finally found a good balance with William H. Macy as Frank, who was absolutely despicable when required, but actually funny when asked. “Shameless” tends to get overlooked because it airs early in the calendar year and because it doesn’t have the prestige (or awards luck) of many of its cable compatriots (including ones on its own network), but it’s a pleasure to watch each year, and I look forward to its return next month.
18. You know what a tough year it’s been for both scripted TV overall and for new series when I can’t find a higher position than 18th for a show that had as strong a debut season as “The Americans.” The FX drama about a pair of deep-cover KGB spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both perfect) living as a married couple in early ‘80s Washington functioned simultaneously as an espionage thriller and a very pointed take on the compromises that have to be made in actual marriages. Throw in tremendous supporting turns from Noah Emmerich and Margo Martindale and a spectacular array of wigs, and you’ve got one of the best freshman years an FX show has ever had.
19. I got the entire eight-episode first season of “Broadchurch” during a particularly busy stretch of the year, watched the first two and felt that it was a competent, and at times intriguing, long-form police procedural but not special enough to devote more time to right then. Friends who had watched the whole thing urged me to trust them and watch til the end, and I would understand why. They were right. “Broadchurch,” like the structurally-similar “Top of the Lake,” is the sort of drama that becomes more powerful the longer it goes, as you begin to learn about the people of the town and the many secrets they hide, all of it leading to the devastating revelation of the killer’s identity. David Tennant and Olivia Colman were amazing throughout as the cops reluctantly working together on the case, and the ending worked me over like I was a speedbag.
20. You may recall that I was in the hospital for a while earlier in the fall, and there was a period of a few days where all the news I was getting from the doctors kept getting worse. I needed desperately to laugh or smile at anything, and nothing seemed to be working. Then I got the screeners for the new season of “Key & Peele,” and for those brief minutes when I was watching the sequel to the East/West bowl game sketch, everything was better. It’s been another strong year for the duo — and for Comedy Central in general, which has a nice batch of sketch comedy series at the moment, each with a distinctive point of view — as they’ve managed to develop a stable of recurring characters without burning (most of) them out, while also doing wonderfully weird original material like the continental breakfast sketch. But if I’m being honest, they’d probably be on the list just for introducing me to the wonders of Fudge.
And, as a bonus, here come five more!