Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2013

Are you sick of hearing about whether or not we're in the golden age of television?  There has been alot of hand-wringing about that lately, spurred on by the fact that 2013 was an unequivocally great year for TV, the best that I've seen since I started following the medium closely.  Not only was the year remarkable for its depth of quality, but also for its breadth.  Good television has been popping up from every corner, with networks like Sundance making their debut in original programming and online sources like Hulu and Netflix expanding their market.  One of the shows in end of the year discussion, Borgen, released episodes on LinkTV -- whatever that is!  It's interesting to think that a little over a decade ago, most of the talked about TV shows came from the big four networks (CBS, Fox, NBC, and ABC) and HBO.  Now I literally get anxiety thinking about all of the great television coming from so many different places that I'll never get around to watching.  (For how much TV I already watch, see the full list linked to at the bottom of this post.)

Television lists are harder than music and film lists to do, because the main television season is spread out over two calendar years, with many shows starting their seasons in September and not ending until April or May.  This is becoming less of an issue, as summer is seen as a television ghetto less and less every year, and cable shows tend to air their entire seasons in a single calendar year.  Nevertheless, for each television show, the only episodes eligible for ranking purposes are the ones that aired in 2013.  That seems like an obvious thing, but it always throws some people.  This can sometimes work to a show's advantage.  For example, Parenthood was very high on my list last year because it aired all of its best material (the end of season 3 at the beginning of year, the beginning of season 4 in the fall) in 2012.  On the other hand, New Girl was never going to land in my top 20 this year, but it ended up being way further down on my full list because its third season has been so terrible, it's tarnished the quality of the back half of season 2 that aired at the beginning of the year.  Is all of that clear?  Okay, good.

For all of my talk about the breadth of the television landscape, my top 20 consists of a small cluster of networks, but there are still some unexpected ones.  The list heavily favors cable to network, with 16 belonging to the former and 2 belonging to the latter (and 2 coming from internet-only sources).  My top 20 is also low on straight comedies, consisting of mostly dramas and shows that are listed as "comedy" but are mostly dramatic.  This is mainly because of how good this year was for drama, but it also was a very weak year for comedy, particular network comedies.  So enough analysis of the list, let's move on to the actual thing...

Honorable Mentions (25-21)
Armando Ianucci's Veep (HBO) had a brutally funny second season that improved upon the first in every way, and allowed the show to be seen outside of the shadow of its spiritual UK predecessor, The Thick of It.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox) has come out more fully-formed than any new comedy I've seen in a long time; I suspect it'll place highly on next year's list.  The fourth season of Archer (FX) may have been a step down from its brilliant second and third seasons, but it gave us Krieger with robot legs and for that, I thank them.  It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX) continued to defy the expectations of a long-running show by still delivering some all-time classics in season 9.  I'm the most bummed out about the goofy and formula-breaking Comedy Bang! Bang! (IFC) narrowly missing this top 20, because its second season not only doubled the first season's episode count, but also its quality.

20. The Americans (FX)

More good dramas made their debut in 2013 than any other year in recent memory, and while The Americans doesn't have the highest placement out of all of them, it's the one I'm most sure will make the leap into the territory of undeniable excellence in its second season.  It hooked me right from the start, with the confident, Fleetwood Mac-blasting scene that opens up the pilot.  But for all of the promised spy action in the first 10 minutes, The Americans, at its core, is about a marriage.  The weekly espionage story merely serves as a backdrop for an examination of Philip and Elizabeth, as they navigate their relationship that was born out of necessity, but over the years has become something where the lines of fact and fiction aren't so clearly defined.  Constant hand-wringing over the state of Philip and Elizabeth's marriage doesn't seem like it'd make for a compelling narrative, but Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell really sell the push and pull of their dynamic.  All of this talk of marriage isn't to say that the spy stories aren't interesting either.  In fact, what makes the show so good is that it can also do some crackerjack plotting and action sequences as well.  However, it's at its best when it marries (awful pun fully intended!) the two central throughlines, as seen in "The Oath."  Season 1 was all about the buildup, laying the foundation for complications and conflicts to come, and it was good, but I can't wait until it all sets off next year.

Highlight Episodes:
1. The Oath (Season 1 Episode 12)
2. Duty and Honor (Season 1 Episode 7)
3. Only You (Season 1 Episode 10)

Additional Reading:
-The Americans and First Seasons of Television

19. Top of the Lake (Sundance)

Sundance has had a huge year, going 3 for 3 with its foray into the television programming game.  The first of which was Top of the Lake, the miniseries from the great filmmaker Jane Campion, making it her first television work since 1990.  She showed no signs of rust, constructing a powerful, emotionally devastating mystery over the course of 7 hours.  The premise -- a young girl goes missing and a detective makes it her mission to find this girl -- isn't the most original, but Campion is more concerned with delving into the fine details of the town in which this mystery takes place.  In her hands, Laketop is a fully fleshed-out entity, filled with elements both strange (the women's retreat on the outskirts of town) and sinister (the Meacham family at the center).  Like most of Campion's work, Top of the Lake can be described as feminist, and much of the miniseries examines the deeply ingrained patriarchy that exists in Laketop.  Bearing the weight of years and years of female pain is Robin (Elisabeth Moss), the outsider detective in charge of finding the missing girl.  Moss's work on Mad Men has consistently been incredible for 6 seasons, but she takes it to another level here.  Her willful determination and raw, unmasked rage throughout the series is something to behold.  The plot may not have come together in a way that was completely satisfying, but the emotional fallout is something I'll keep returning to when I think about this miniseries.

(No Highlight Episodes because it's basically a 7 hour film broken up into chunks)

18. Orphan Black (BBC America)

It's hard to talk about Orphan Black without first mentioning the woman at the center of it all, Tatiana Maslany.  The show is about a woman who discovers that she has a bunch of clones that she never knew about, and Maslany plays all of them, requiring her to be multiple people in the same scene.  Over the course of the first season, each of the many clones get their own distinct personalities, physicality, and accents; to the point where you forget they're all being played by one person.  Luckily, the writing is on par with Maslany's performance(s) too.  In a piece that I wrote about season 1 earlier this year, I compared Orphan Black to Breaking Bad, and while it may initially seem outlandish to compare a cheaply made BBC America show to one of the greatest dramas of the last 10 years, they approach their plotting in the same devil-may-care manner.  This season of Orphan Black was filled with moments where the show seemingly wrote itself into a corner, only to breathlessly write itself out by revealing trapdoors that the audience could've never imagined.  If it were just a gear-turning plot machine, it'd be fine enough, but in its late stages the season revealed some emotional hooks as well.  At the end of the day, it's about women losing their autonomy, and the real-world parallels that can be drawn make the stakes even higher.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Variations Under Domestication (Season 1 Episode 6)
2. Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Season 1 Episode 10)
3. Effects of External Conditions (Season 1 Episode 4)

Additional Reading:
-Orphan Black and the Nature of Plot

17. Treme (HBO)

The fourth, final, and fantastic season of Treme begins on the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and the people of New Orleans rejoicing, eagerly awaiting the change promised to them during his campaign.  In the very next scene, we cut to the following morning, where Davis's car is ruined by a pothole in the middle of the road.  It's a nice summation of the show, which spent the last four years depicting post-Katrina New Orleans as a mixture of successes and setbacks. Treme was never going to be The Wire, David Simon's previous show -- it was too loose, too shaggy, too quotidian. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's remembered as the more important show down the line, as it's the closest television may ever come to the free-flowing nature of a Robert Altman film. Despite starting out as a scattered show -- both in terms of its city in ruins and the wide range of characters it focused on -- Treme's arc was about a community slowly rebuilding via music, food, and shared hardships. Granted a 5-episode season instead of the usual 10, Simon chose to make the show's final year serve as an epilogue instead of a new chapter. Somehow it ended up being the perfect way to close things out for a show and city that learned to strive on uncertainty. If The Wire's ending was a neat circle, then Treme's was a line; a line that just keeps on going...

Highlight Episodes:
1. ...To Miss New Orleans (Season 4 Episode 5)
2. Yes We Can Can (Season 4 Episode 1)
3. Dippermouth Blues (Season 4 Episode 3)

16. Parenthood (NBC)

2012 was a banner year for Parenthood, consisting of the back half of season 3 up to the first two-thirds of season 4, the best run that the show has had.  After landing at number 2 on my list last year, the show basically had nowhere to go but down from there.  It's true, then, that Parenthood had a lesser 2013, as season 4 closed slightly weaker than it started and season 5 stumbled out of the gate a bit too.  Without the unifying power of Kristina's cancer storyline (and without any appearances by Haddie Braverman, our lord and savior), season 5 struggled to find the heft and cohesion that the previous year had.  Nevertheless, the writers managed to get it together and close out the year with even the worst storylines either concluding or making a turnaround.  When Jason Katims and the rest of the writers are at their best -- and they often were in those last 5 episodes -- they can construct moments that feel unlike anything else on television, filled with perfect insight into the joys and heartbreak of everyday family life.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Nipple Confusion (Season 5 Episode 3)
2. Election Day (Season 5 Episode 9)
3. Keep On Rowing (Season 4 Episode 12)

Additional Reading:
-No really, Parenthood is one of the best dramas on television
-Midseason Report: Parenthood closes out 2013 with a killer run

15. Masters of Sex (Showtime)

Were it only just a take on a fascinating subject in our nation's past, as the pilot suggested it would be, Showtime's Masters of Sex would still be a good show.  But somewhere near the middle of the first season, it focused more and more on the characters, and evolved into being a great show.  There are the common story tropes that you see in shows set in the 1950s and 60s -- the closeted homosexual character, a subplot about racial inequality, an examination of gender politics -- but it works because these people are more than just dashes on a timeline; they're rich, complex, fully-realized individuals.  In an era full of repression, Masters of Sex is obsessed with all forms of openness.  Masters and Johnson's study reduces sexual intimacy down to a series of checkpoints and stats, but emotional intimacy is much harder to pin down, and the first season was at its best when it was dealing with the complications of being open with one's emotions.  When the characters made even the tiniest steps toward that goal, it was treated as true catharsis.  The structure of the show itself seems to have followed suit when it comes to intimacy too.  At first glance, it might have seemed sterile and impenetrable, but after a while it blossomed into one of the most warm and humane shows on television.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Phallic Victories (Season 1 Episode 11)
2. Catherine (Season 1 Episode 5)
3. Manhigh (Season 1 Episode 12)

14. Hannibal (NBC)

The phrase "this feels like it should be on cable" gets overused, when people usually just mean it as a way to say "this is on network TV, but it's good."  But Bryan Fuller's latest creation, Hannibal, really does feel like it shouldn't be on a network channel, let alone one that's as clueless and disastrous as NBC.  Nevertheless, it exists and the world is better for it.  Fuller has always been obsessed with the macabre, and particularly death, but he usually filters it through a very precious, quirky lens.  There's nothing precious or quirky about Hannibal, which boldly puts its gore right in front of you.  But in an ever-increasing landscape of lurid violence, it seems to be the only show that truly has any idea what its violence means.  Although the imagery will make you queasy, it's not taken lightly, and the whole point of the first season was the psychological toll that's taken out of these people who are beleaguered by death.  As an audience, we feel just as helpless to Hannibal's manipulation as Will is, but what makes it more frightening is that we're aware of what's going on.  Between this and The Returned, 2013 has been a solid year for eerie, unsettling television.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Trou Normand (Season 1 Episode 9)
2. Savoreaux (Season 1 Episode 13)
3. Coquilles (Season 1 Episode 5)

Additional Reading:
-Hannibal, Bates Motel, The Following, and violence on television

13. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Despite it being the year that the show really blew up in terms of mainstream buzz, I was less enamored with season 2 of Game of Thrones, which felt way too fractured and inert for my tastes.  Season 3 turned things around in a big way, keeping the previous season's impressive scope but streamlining it to make a more cohesive, satisfying narrative.  Game of Thrones is so hard to talk about, because much of its joys come from its visceral thrills, which left me slack-jawed on an almost weekly basis.  Most people point to The Red Wedding when reminiscing about this year, and it's true that that's a high watermark for the show, but the season was littered with moments where the show upped the ante.  Every week was like a game of the writers saying "Oh, you think that's it?" and up-ending what we thought would be the newly established norms.  That's where the heart of the show lies -- in showing these characters jockeying for positions that have no true footholds.  With the help of strong, beloved source material, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have crafted the perfect popcorn television show.  The twists and watercooler moments are great, sure, but they understand that it's the layered characters and clearly defined stakes that truly make the big moments sting so much.

Highlight Episodes:
1. The Rains of Castamere (Season 3 Episode 9)
2. And Now His Watch is Ended (Season 3 Episode 4)
3. Walk of Punishment (Season 3 Episode 3)

12. Girls (HBO)

Of all the shows on this list, none of them are more divisive than HBO's Girls.  There are some people on the internet who hate this show, for reasons both valid (its race issues) and invalid ("Lena Dunham is fat and ugly and nobody cares about privileged people!").  Season 2 wasn't likely to win people over, then, since it dove deeper into exploring the lives of these very difficult characters, as they struggle to center themselves.  It's understandable why people wouldn't want to invest time in watching myopic, often repugnant people, but Lena Dunham has a keen sense of what makes the characters tick, and the show taps into a very specific confusion and aimlessness that many people face in their early 20s.  When the writing is off, it can be grating, but when it works, it's unlike any other show on television.  Thankfully, for much of this season, the show was at the top of its game, surpassing some of the heights it reached in season 1.  I'd put the middle stretch from "It's a Shame About Ray" to "Video Games" next to any other string of episodes that aired in 2013.  During that chunk, it seemed like true auteur television, and Lena Dunham was just telling whatever kind of stories she felt like telling, as the show artistically veered from tone to tone each week.  Girls is a constant highwire act, and who knows how long they can sustain it before it becomes insufferable navel-gazing, but this year found the show in its exact sweet spot.

Highlight Episodes:
1. It's a Shame About Ray (Season 2 Episode 4)
2. One Man's Trash (Season 2 Episode 5)
3. On All Fours (Season 2 Episode 9)

Additional Reading:
-Girls concludes a messy, complicated season with a messy and complicated finale

11. Arrested Development (Netflix)

Nobody ever thought it would happen after 7 years of promises and false-starts, but this summer we got the much-anticipated 4th season of the legendary Arrested Development.  The first 3 seasons of this show are my favorite seasons of comedy ever, so I had pretty high hopes for season 4, and unlike many fans and critics, I was mostly satisfied with what we got.  There's probably not anybody who would deny that it's weirdly paced and overly long, and even I wouldn't want to sit through one or two episodes again (*shudders* the George Sr. ones), but I love it as a whole.  Mitch Hurwitz made the best of what he could with the actors' availability and wound up coming up with something as structurally daring and intricately plotted as the first 3 seasons were, but in a completely different way.  It may not have worked for everyone, but there's a joy in seeing some seemingly random detail in episode 5 and finally learning how it all fits together in the larger narrative by episode 11.  And when it hits its highs, it's some of the funniest stuff I've seen all year.  There are talks of possibly doing another season or a movie, but even if that never happens, the final shot of the season finale will linger with me forever.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Senoritis (Season 4 Episode 11)
2. A New Attitude (Season 4 Episode 10)
3. A New Start (Season 4 Episode 5)

Additional Reading:
-Season 4 of Arrested Development takes big risks and mostly succeeds

10. The Returned (Sundance)

On paper, The Returned, Sundance's imported "french zombie show," is the most insane show on television.  Aside from that pesky problem of the dead coming back to life, the show contains a woman who can see ghosts only when she's in the middle of having sex, a mysteriously depleting reservoir, sisters who are possibly psychically linked, and much more.  In execution, though, everything is played so placidly.  Not only do the newly-returned dead not resemble zombies in the normal sense, all of those other crazy elements just come with little uptick in the show's pulse.  But it isn't just weirdness for the sake of weirdness, the calm way the show approaches its mysteries serves to make the moments when characters do experience extreme emotions all the more cathartic (the pilot, which is one of the best pilots I've seen, features a devastating example of this near the end).  Above all else, The Returned is a mood piece, relying on atmosphere to string the audience along.  The relentless slow burn results in some arresting imagery, and the moments of horror are some of the most genuinely haunting things I've ever seen.  If you're somebody who really latches on to plot, the show's elliptical nature may frustrate you, but if you let the atmosphere overtake you, then it's a moving portrayal of how grief is a heavy albatross on the path to letting go.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Camille (Season 1 Episode 1)
2. Adele (Season 1 Episode 7)
3. The Horde (Season 1 Episode 8)

9. Black Mirror (UK/Audience Network)

I always get kind of annoyed at the Anglophiles who insist that our friends across the pond do TV better than us.  There are quite a few British shows that I like, but people tend to throw out wildly overrated shows like Sherlock and Downton Abbey when citing examples of how British shows are so much better, and even the best of the best rarely ever reach the heights of what's going in America.  So because of this, I try not to endlessly praise many British shows, even the ones I like quite a bit (Fresh Meat, Misfits, The Thick of It; to name a few).  Black Mirror is the one show I make an exception for.  The fact of the matter is regardless of who you are, you need to watch Black Mirror.  In a one-line, catchy pitch: it's basically Twilight Zone for the technological age.  It has almost single-handedly revitalized the concept of anthology television by telling a self-contained story in 45-60 minutes each episode, all based around the idea of technology in some way.  Creator Charlie Brooker could easily use this format to lecture us on how our entire culture is stupid and technology is ruining society, but he's got a more subtle hand.  Instead, he uses these inventive ideas to show how the digital age has affected the way we take in and interact with the world.  The six episodes that we've gotten have all varied in tone, but have been consistently mind-blowing.  Black Mirror can do far-reaching social satire ("15 Million Merits," "The Waldo Moment"), more intimate character-based stories ("The Entire History of You," "Be Right Back"), and even just all-out insanity ("The National Anthem," "White Bear").  I'm not going to give any specifics on what these episodes are about, because they're best experienced when you have no idea what you're getting into and are just taken on a ride.  It used to be that you had to watch this show through "extralegal" means, but it just got finished airing in America on the DirecTV Audience Network.  So do yourself a favor and check out Black Mirror.  You probably won't regret it.

Highlight Episodes:
1. White Bear (Series 2 Episode 2)
2. Be Right Back (Series 2 Episode 1)
3. The Entire History of You (Series 1 Episode 3)

8. Mad Men (AMC)

Restlessness was the pervasive feeling consuming the characters this season on Mad Men.  On a micro level, this played out in the arcs of individual characters: Don returning to philandering, Peggy breaking up with Abe, Roger fretting over his own mortality.  But the shake-ups were even bigger on a macro-level, as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce merged with Cutler Gleeson and Chaough to become Sterling Cooper & Partners.  The show itself seemed to suffer from a bit of that same restlessness, because while season 6 contained some incredible isolated moments, it was hard to find the rope that tied everything together.  Part of the year's wheel-spinning is built into the themes of cyclicality that the show has always been interested in exploring, but even still, it was hard to get invested in yet another Don adultery plot.  It should have been painfully clear that one shouldn't second guess Matt Weiner, who always seems to willfully go against what is expected of him, because the season came together beautifully at the end.  Not only did "In Care Of" snap the previous 12 episodes into place, it also gave the show the shot of life it needed to close things out spectacularly in season 7 (the show's bifurcated, but final season).  Season 6 wasn't the best season, but Mad Men is still my favorite active television show, and even when it's not operating in peak form, it delivers elegant and powerful stories.

Highlight Episodes:
1. For Immediate Release (Season 6 Episode 6)
2. In Care Of (Season 6 Episode 13)
3. The Crash (Season 6 Episode 8)

Additional Reading:
-Assessing Mad Men's strange, ominous, and revealing 6th season

7. Rectify (Sundance)

Everything about Rectify feels otherworldly.  After spending years and years on death row for allegedly raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, Daniel Holden gets released from prison on a technicality, and he's flooded with how foreign everything on the outside feels.  Throughout the first season's 6 episodes, he spends his life in a state that's constantly vacillating between wonder and revulsion.  Backed by some beautiful direction, the show is so full of striking images -- a sun-dappled field, an object floating in the wind -- that it's almost like a sensory overload, emphasizing the alien nature of the world around us.  Yet it's really about being stuck between two worlds.  Though he returns to a family that loves him and is fiercely protective of him, Daniel faces a small Southern town that's sure of his guilt.  Furthering this feeling of being pulled by two forces, episodes alternate between Daniel's freedom in the present and flashbacks to his past on death row, bleeding together in his tortured mind.  Creator Ray McKinnon is less interested in the question of Daniel's guilt than he is in exploring how his experiences have scarred him, and whether he'll ever recover.  Rectify is about connection to one's spirituality and reconnection to the things you once knew.  It's a work of great power and beauty, but it understands that sometimes beauty is what hurts the most.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Jacob's Ladder (Season 1 Episode 6)
2. Drip, Drip (Season 1 Episode 5)
3. Plato's Cave (Season 1 Episode 4)

6. Justified (FX)

Is Justified quietly making its case for being one of the greatest dramas of this television generation?  After its incredible 4th season, I'd say so.  So many of the best dramas of the last 10 to 15 years (Breaking BadThe WireThe Sopranos, etc.) have been so brutal and grim that it's easy to be fooled into the false belief that "fun" is the same as "lesser."  And let me tell you: Justified is a blast to watch.  If you have a hard time discerning the difference between good and bad dialogue, just watch an episode of Justified and everything else will seem like bad dialogue.  It's the type of show where you could make an entire series centered around literally any character, even the ones who make a single-episode appearance.  Yet behind all of the quip-tossing, rollicking fun lies some real drama.  Season 4 was a change of pace, deviating from the Big Bad format to tell a mystery story about the search for Drew Thompson, the legendary man who stole drugs and money from the Dixie Mafia many years ago and then disappeared off the face of the earth.  It used this throughline to tap into one of the show's biggest strengths -- its deep sense of history.  The ghosts of the past haunt the entire season, but it all culminates in the year's final three hours, where the separate forces that have been circling each other all year finally converge.  I try to avoid putting the last few episodes in the Highlight Episodes section, but the final three episodes of season 4 are absolutely incredible, and they each show off a different side of Justified.  Harlan County is a living, breathing character, and the spats and squabbles of the citizens who inhabit it are just as engrossing.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Decoy (Season 4 Episode 11)
2. Ghosts (Season 4 Episode 13)
3. Peace of Mind (Season 4 Episode 12)

Additional Reading:
-Justified's rich history is its greatest weapon

5. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Orange is the New Black, one of Netflix's first forays into original programming, is probably the biggest surprise of 2013.  Given the show's pedigree and Netflix's spotty track record, I didn't have high expectations, but it ended up blowing me away by the time I was finished with its 13-episode first season.  Piper Chapman may be our main character, but creator Jenji Kohan is equally interested in exploring the show's endless array of absolutely fascinating supporting characters.  You'll seriously lose count how many complex, fully-formed female characters there are, and how you slowly come to know all of their anxieties and insecurities.  By the end of the season, there are about 8-12 arcs that get complete and satisfying conclusions.  Alot of Orange is the New Black is about how the system is designed for many of these women to fail, but its best moments are about the hope that these people find in unlikely places.  In such a short amount of time, the Litchfield prison became a detailed world that served as a backdrop for this wonderful, humanist work of art.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Bora Bora Bora (Season 1 Episode 10)
2. Tall Men With Feelings (Season 1 Episode 11)
3. Lesbian Request Denied (Season 1 Episode 3)

Additional Reading:
-Orange is the New Black is Netflix's most impressive work yet

4. Enlightened (HBO)

I liked the first season of Enlightened a great deal, but I preferred the character-based storylines to the corporate workplace stuff.  So I was a little dismayed that it ended in a way that hinted at the corporate whistleblower plotline being the dominating force in the second season.  It was a big part of the show's 8-episode second season, sure, but creator Mike White stepped his game up, improving upon the first season in almost every way, mostly by making the takedown of Abaddon a reflection of Amy Jellicoe herself.  Amy is probably one of the most unique characters I've ever seen on television, and her tics and quirks are what made Enlightened unbearable for many people.  But Mike White had the conviction to make a character who was frustrating, self-centered, and naive while still finding a way to make me care deeply about her.  The second season was all about the warring forces of light and dark.  They exist within Amy, a woman whose possible mental illness manifests in her selfish actions, but who also truly wants to better the world.  The battle between her altruism and personal revenge extends to her actions, as we see the equal amounts of help and hurt she causes along the way.  Enlightened is one of those shows whose best qualities are somewhat ineffable -- it's something that just washes over you.  We won't be getting any more of it since HBO decided not to pick it up for a third season, but I'll always remember this funny, thoughtful, heart-wrenching, masterfully plotted, beautiful (both visually and emotionally) show.

Highlight Episodes:
1. All I Ever Wanted (Season 2 Episode 6)
2. The Ghost is Seen (Season 2 Episode 5)
3. Higher Power (Season 2 Episode 3)

3. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Breaking Bad has always been good at balancing its serialized and episodic elements, giving each episode a small goal that gets achieved by the end of the hour.  These final 8 episodes eschewed from that format, making them feel like one gigantic narrative, feverishly blending into one another.  Final seasons are difficult to do, but Vince Gilligan proved just how elegantly he had constructed this show by showing how thrillingly it all fell apart.  At times, these last 8 felt a bit too mechanical, but overall it delivered its most exhilarating storytelling since the show's wild, improvisational third season.  The walls were closing in -- not just on Walt, but everybody in this universe, and the only thing left to do was turn into the skid when the reckoning came.  Most importantly, it never forgot what it was really about, fully exploring the rot that had been spreading outward from Walt over the course of 5 seasons.  Some complained about him not receiving enough punishment for his actions in "Felina," but that "I did it for me" moment with Skylar is a crucial one.  Its place in the pantheon has never been questioned, but this year Breaking Bad solidified its status as one of the greatest dramas of all time.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Ozymandias (Season 5 Episode 14)
2. Confessions (Season 5 Episode 11)
3. Granite State (Season 5 Episode 15)

Additional Reading:
-How Breaking Bad subverts the masculine power fantasy
-And then we came to the end: The final season of Breaking Bad

2. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)

I thought long and hard about whether I should have Breaking Bad or Nathan For You as my number 2 show of 2013.  Then I thought about which show allowed me to experience things that I've never experienced from a television show before, and the answer became very clear.  As hard as they are to do, final seasons have been done, even ones as propulsive and gripping as Breaking Bad's (The Shield, for one, comes to mind).  Nathan For You, Comedy Central's bizarre but delightful new show, is a completely different beast.  Many of its bones are common to the television landscape (pranks shows, shows where experts help out normal citizens, television centered around eccentric individuals), but the way that they're assembled is wholly unique, its own organized form of chaos.  I'm not sure I've ever laughed at anything as much as I have at this show.  Nathan Fielder has an amazing ability to take a bit that's already genius and somehow elevate it by turning the screw in unexpected ways.  Regardless of whether people are in on the joke that Nathan's playing on them, all of the segments have a great sense of perceived stakes -- whether it's wondering the lengths people will go to get a rebate in "Gas Station/Caricature Artist" or seeing if Nathan will forever be listed as a sex offender in "The Claw of Shame."  In a year full of Comedy Central shows that finally let the creators show their distinct voice, Nathan For You was easily the best and most distinct of them.  More people should know about this work of pure genius and creativity.

Highlight Episodes:
1. The Claw of Shame (Season 1 Episode 7)
2. Gas Station/Caricature Artist (Season 1 Episode 4)
3. Haunted House/The Hunk (Season 1 Episode 5)

Additional Reading:
-Nathan For You: The best show you aren't watching

1. Bunheads (ABC Family)

Bunheads, ABC Family's show centered around fast-talking ballerinas, was ultimately about disappointment.  The disappointment came from realizing that your hopes and dreams may never come to fruition, discovering that those whom you look up to are flawed, and having to go about life like it's a maze instead of a straight line.  But Bunheads was also about the difficult negotiation between adolescence and adulthood.  Taking a page from her previous show, Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino explored the generational divide between its younger and older characters.  This time around, the divide wasn't so pronounced, as the four titular bunheads navigated the mess of their oncoming adulthood under the guidance of a woman in her 30s who hadn't quite gotten a handle on the concept either.  But Bunheads was also about how life is a constant series of readjustments.  It knew that sometimes you have to make due with the disparate parts that you are given, constructing your own sense of home and community along the way.  Basically, Bunheads was about everything all at once, and it was beautiful.  It was just so beautiful.

Highlight Episodes:
1. Next! (Season 1 Episode 18)
2. The Astronaut and the Ballerina (Season 1 Episode 14)
3. Take the Vicuna (Season 1 Episode 15)

Additional Reading:
-Bunheads season 1 finale review
-Why the world needs more Bunheads
-RIP Bunheads (2012-2013)

Well, that wraps things up for my best of 2013 list.  I love reading other lists, so feel free to share yours in the comments.  Or if you want to just tell me how much my list sucks and that I'm a stupid, awful person, then you can do that too!  To see my complete list of ranked television shows that aired this year, CLICK HERE.


  1. Black Mirror is the best gift you ever gave me. That is all.

    1. See, and I didn't even pay her to say this!

      I desperately want another season, but they're not sure if they're going to make one yet.

  2. Alright, here's the beginning of my version of this post: http://dexterous-theshapeofthingstocome.blogspot.com/2013/12/my-20-favorite-shows-of-2013-ongoing.html

    As of now, it includes the "Just No" section and "Honorable Mention"

    In regards to this section of your list, I am surprised that Always Sunny and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are just barely making the cut, but then again I watch far less television than you do. I have never seen Veep, Archer or Comedy Bang Bang, at least not yet.

    1. For all of the shows you haven't watched, I'm going to tell you which ones you'd like, so you can prioritize them (although they're all great because they're on my list and EVERYTHING I like is great!). Out of the three honorable mentions that you haven't seen, you'd probably like Archer the most, followed by Veep. I don't think you'd like Comedy Bang! Bang! at all, even though it's genius. But I don't know if I would count any of them as a must watch for you, especially because there are some serious must watches in my top 20.

      I'll try to comment on your posts but I don't really have much to add about any of your picks because you know I quit Dexter and never looked back, don't like American Horror Story (although I'd agree that Asylum was much better than Coven is so far). I also don't have much else to say about Fringe, Revolution, or Last Resort (which you liked more than I did)

    2. Lol alright. I know I need to watch Archer, it seems like I always hear people talking about it. And I'll probably check out Veep at some point since it's on HBO Go.

      I wrote up my next five (20-16), so take a look and let me know what you think.

      In regards to yours, I know I need to check out The Americans at some point, Eric Goldman wouldn't stop talking about it all year. I've never even heard of Sundance, I thought that was a film festival? I'm guessing it's a channel. Regardless, Top of the Lake sounds interesting and it's not particularly long so maybe one weekend I'll marathon it.

      We both know I loved Orphan Black, especially as it went on and you'll see my thoughts on that when I reach it on my list (surprised it's so low on yours!). I really don't know anything about Treme, except that it looked like a show I really should've been watching instead of True Blood, and I would always see ads for it when I was watching that.

      Now Parenthood...yeah you're just gonna have to wait for that one XD

    3. Oh, you have so much to learn. Yes, Sundance is a film festival but also a channel that plays movies. This year they decided to do some original TV programming. Top of the Lake is on Netflix so its even easier to catch up on.

      But the one that should be your number one priority is The Americans. As I described in my blurb (which I hope you're reading and not just skipping over -- they're 100% spoiler free!), it may be 20 on my list but I think it's going to take a gigantic leap in quality in season 2. You could probably catch up before it starts back up in the middle of February.

      Treme might be less of your thing, or it's at least something that should be watched after one has already seen The Wire, so you already know what the general rhythm of a David Simon show is like. So the final priority queue for the 20-16 you haven't seen is: The Americans, Top out the Lake, Treme.

    4. Well consider me informed. I'll definitely add Top of the Lake to the queue and check it out at some point, and as I already told you, I've acquired The Americans so I'll be checking that out relatively soon. In regards to Treme, it'll be after The Wire (which I WILL get around to eventually) so who knows if I ever get to it, but there's no rush.

      I only have the time to write my next three (15-13), as you'll see I got a little out of hand with my #14 piece.

      Regarding yours, I've been midly intrigued in checking out Masters of Sex all season, and just never got the opportunity to tune in; so that'll be one I watch at some point down the line.

      I'm going to write a piece on Hannibal, we both know it, and I'll save my thoughts for it until then; regardless, I know you weren't as enthralled by it as I was, though I would have thought it would be higher on the list.

      ^^See Hannibal for Game of Thrones, though I thought Season two was stronger than you seemed to regard it (the scenes between Maisie Williams and Charles Dance were fantastic); and you'll hear my thoughts on that too.

    5. Yeah Masters of Sex is very good, and it's one of the many shows this year that I think is ushering in the end of the "dark male antihero show" era (which you know I'm sick of) by being bright, warm, and funny while also being dramatically compelling.

      Regarding all of the "I thought this would be higher!!!": This has been an insane year of television. Every show on here is VERY good. And I think alot of the stuff coming up, you don't watch (Girls, The Returned, Black Mirror, Rectify, Justified, Enlightened, Nathan For You, Bunheads) if I'm not mistaken. So you may see Game of Thrones and Hannibal at 13 and 14 and think "how is that even possible?," but all of those shows ahead of it are pretty amazing too. Plus, I think Game of Thrones suffers from being a show that's very good and exciting, but it doesn't stick with me for a long time in the way that some of these others do.

    6. Masters of Sex is one I'll definitely be getting to eventually; and I agree this year has been standout.

      I wrote my next two (12-11), and I should have more time on a daily basis now that I'm settled back in Orlando.

      In regards to yours, I've honestly never given Girls a second look; so to see it on your list, and placed so highly is a huge surprise. I know absolutely nothing about this, but is it mostly about college girls or something?

      Moving forward, Arrested Development (despite David Benioff's claims) seems to be The Wire of comedy for me, because it's the one show I constantly hear about on the internet that people claim was the peak of it's time (though in this case The Wire is long finished while Arrested Development has been risen from the grave). So I know I need to get to that eventually, it's on the never-ending queue of shows everyone cares about.

    7. Consider me also surprised that you don't know much about Girls. It's so popular and critically acclaimed that I thought it had permeated the cultural membrane, but apparently not. It's not about college girls, more like post-collegiate. But rule number one of being a TV fan is to never ever ever ever dismiss a show based on its premise. There might not seem like there's much to Girls, but I think the writing is very sharp. Some of the most interesting and moving television moments of 2013 happened in the middle stretch of this past season. I don't know if it'd be your thing, so I'm not going to be like "you have to watch Girls!," but don't be surprised about its placement on this list.

      And not to always be the sexism police, but I think alot of the Girls skepticism comes from the internet's problem of thinking that stories about women are inherently less interesting. I'm not saying that's the case with you, but it's definitely why this show and shows like it get dismissed or ignored by sites with a heavily male-skewing demographic like IGN, etc. But hopefully that line of thinking will become outdated very quickly, because Girls proves that feminine shows/shows about women are just as important (see also: Orange is the New Black, Enlightened, Bunheads, etc).

    8. I definitely had only heard about it in passing, and never as it being a huge deal. I'll keep it in mind down the line. Given I watched Sailor Moon as a kid, and that I was also a huge fan of Orange is the New Black, I don't think I fall into that particular demographic, so it might be my thing after all.

      I wrote my next two (10-9), though as you can see these are getting longer and longer so it's going to take a bit longer to get to the end of all this.

      Regarding yours, The Returned sounds ridiculously interesting, and I may even have to watch it before The Americans if I can figure out where to watch it (beyond other means).

      Black Mirror has clearly already enthralled your other reader, is every episode entirely disconnected or is there some kind of overarching plot/theme? (And my parents have DirectTV, so does that mean I can stream it somehow? Or is it just possible to watch it on their TV?)

    9. The Returned and Black Mirror are the two on my list that I knew were going to be the biggest draw for you. I've seen people compare The Returned to Lost, but those comparisons seem very superficial, because other than them both having mysteries and flashbacks, they're not really alike at all. If anything, the show that The Returned most resembles is probably Twin Peaks. But yeah, it's only 8 episodes and we probably won't get season 2 until early 2015, so it's definitely worth checking out.

      Black Mirror is an anthology series in the truest sense (like I said, think The Twilight Zone), meaning no episode features the same characters or plot. The only thing that really unites them is that they're all about technology in some way, but each installment plays with a completely different idea. Every episode is just "we're going to throw you into this world with a sort of sci-fi concept and tell a self-contained story in 45-60 minutes." There are only 6 episodes and one of them sucks pretty hard, but the other 5 are all varying degrees of brilliant.

    10. Well both of them sound memorable and unique, so I'll definitely be checking them out.

      OK I FINALLY WROTE ANOTHER ENTRY! I will finish at least most of these before the end of the month, you can count on it.

      Funny how this worked out, the mirror imaging on this even transcends the show itself!

    11. By the way, I should mentioned that The Returned is coming to Netflix on the 24th of this month, in case you didn't know. Black Mirror, on the other hand, I don't know how the thing works with DirectTV since I watched it way back when it originally aired in the UK.

      And my guess for how your order for your top 8 would be is already wrong.

    12. Glad to hear that, I'll probably check it out as soon as I finish True Detective. Given my parents have DirectTV, I should look into Black Mirror this week.

      #7 is up, and in regards to yours: I've never heard of this one, though the episode titles you listed near the end sound intriguing.

    13. I imagine Rectify is going to become a show you hear alot of people talking about this year in terms of the best shows on TV and you're going to be like "wow, I should've listened to Antonio."

      (see also: The Americans)

    14. Alright I'll keep my ear to the floor. I'm going to start Americans, I just keep getting distracted (first came House of Cards, then True Detective, and now I'm starting The Returned as you know).

      #6 is down, for yours: I have been completely aware of Justified's existence, and I know a lot of people say it's good though for some reason I've just never been driven to check it out. Maybe it's the Western genre, but I'm sure I'll look into it eventually.

    15. If being a Western is what's stopping you from watching Justified, then you don't have to worry because it's not a Western. The main character just wears a cowboy hat. I'm almost 100% sure you'd love it if you ever got around to it. It's literally the most fun show on television and has the best villains, best dialogue, etc. Boyd Crowder will be your new favorite television character.

    16. Alright, fair enough. I'm sure I'll get to it at some point this year.

      #5 is available for your reading pleasure, and I'll leave most of my thoughts about Orange as a mystery for the time being, though I will note that I really do hate that opening.

    17. Aw, I really like the Orange is the New Black intro. But then again, I LOVE the Homeland intro, which most people hate. And I also love the Americans opening, which people don't like much either. I'm bad intro guy!

      Just a heads up: apparently Rectify popped up on Netflix yesterday if you ever wanted to try that one out. Also, have you gotten far into The Returned? I was EXTREMELY UPSET to see that Netflix spoils the ultimate twist of the pilot/greatest twist I've ever seen, in the freaking description. Come on, Netflix!

    18. I'm sorry it's just completely unappealing imagery to a grating song.

      However, I love the Homeland intro, at least now. I started out not liking it at all, but at some point I began to love it, so who knows. I still need to actually start The Americans at some point.

      I'll add Rectify to the queue.

      #4 has been written, as for Enlightened, this is another one that I've never heard of before, though this one has an end to it so that may inspire me to pick it up before some others in the never-ending Antonio recommendation list.

    19. Enlightened is a really divisive show, amusingly enough. I remember The AV Club named it their number 1 show of 2013 and people got so pissed off that it beat out Breaking Bad. For some, it's a really off-putting story about an annoying woman with no redeemable qualities, but for others the way it depicted broken people stumbling to make the world better in their own warped way was deeply resonant. Obviously, I fell in the latter category.

    20. Hmm, well don't the most interesting things tend to be the ones with the most controversy? Sounds like I'll have to give it a shot at some point.

      #3 is finished...and I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I've been waiting to see your reaction to this one for a while now. Of course, I can't speak yet in regards to yours.

  3. #2 is complete, and I've decided to turn the tables again for this one.

    Regarding your own, once again I've had absolutely no inkling of this show before, but you certainly chose an intriguing photo with the turtle and all. As much as I enjoyed The Office, it was moreso for the characters than the humor, and the awkwardness, it was rare that the show ever actually made me laugh (at least in the later seasons). And Sunny is hit or miss, but it's definitely funnier than The Office.

    So I'm curious about this one.

    1. Wait, why are we talking about The Office and It's Always Sunny? lol did I miss something? I agree that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is funnier than The Office, but I think seasons 2-4 of The Office are pretty untouchable. I don't think most laughs automatically equals best comedy though. 30 Rock had a ridiculously high joke ratio (and they were incredibly written jokes too) but it was never my favorite comedy when it was on. As far as modern comedy goes, Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation (well...less so this season) are my two gold standards.

      I'd say give the Nathan For You episode "Claw of Shame" a shot. If you don't find that funny, then the show's just not for you.

    2. I mentioned Sunny and The Office because those were the two comedies that I've been the closest to, and I agree that The Office was better for its characters than its jokes. I have yet to see Parks and Rec. or Arrested Development.

      What about Community? That's the one I'm always hearing about (usually alongside the lovely Alison Brie).

      I'll check out Nathan For You pretty soon, though my next show is either going to be The Americans or Fargo.

      And finally...I have written the (obvious) #1 for my list...

      In regards to yours: I have to say I never expected this. I've never heard of Bunheads, though given its on ABC Family, I'm guessing this isn't one most critics are talking about? (And given your constant use of "was," was this cancelled?)

    3. I love Community but it didn't end up anywhere close to this list because the showrunner left in season 4 and it was an absolute trainwreck. He came back for season 5 and it's shocking how much better it was this year.

      Do The Americans before Fargo. This is how I feel about The Americans every single week this year: *melts into a puddle*

      While I'm not shocked that you've never heard of Bunheads, it's not like it wasn't talked about at all. Before it was cancelled, a ton of critics wrote "Please Save Bunheads" kind of articles. People were pretty upset when ABC Family decided not to renew it, including myself obviously. There's actually been a critical turnaround in the past few years when it comes to ABC Family, and I think it's one of the most interesting networks out there. They've got some real trash (Pretty Little Liars, Twisted, etc.), but also some terrific stuff (Switched at Birth, The Fosters). Bunheads was unlike anything else on TV. I don't know if it'd be your thing, but if you want a better idea of what the show is, read one of my posts in the recommended reading section. Or if you want the opinion of an "professional" critic, Todd VanDerWerff wrote an incredible piece on why it should be renewed: http://www.avclub.com/article/hey-abc-family-just-renew-ibunheadsi-already-100223

    4. Actually, don't even read any of my Bunheads posts. Just read that Todd VanDerWerff one. I just reread it and it's truly a glorious piece of writing.

    5. Lol alright, I'll look at it tomorrow.

  4. Having now caught up on Rectify, I can agree with your choice to place it on this list wholeheartedly. Abigail Spencer reminds me a lot of Evangeline Lilly, only Abigail's better at drama. Clayne Crawford has to be developing into one of the best characters at the moment, continually surprising me with the choices his character makes. J. Smith Cameron's facial expressions do more than most of the other actors combined and Aden Young has gone from being a peculiar oddity to containing some of the most arresting screen presence I've ever seen.

    And I know I'm cheating by talking about Season 2, but Sean Bridgers KILLED it this week.

    1. One thing I've noticed, especially during this season, is how great the dialogue is. I think that's part of the reason why the glacial pacing is easy to deal with, because you're hanging onto every word. And despite the bleak premise, the show's got a deceptively wry sense of humor.