The Best Television of 2013

[13 January 2014]

By PopMatters Staff

Perhaps the most stunning element of this years list is the lack of domination by the broadcast networks. In fact, there are more streaming and pay cable shows taking top honors than any Big Three offering. The future of the medium is here and now.

 


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Hello Ladies

(HBO)

35

Hello Ladies
HBO

Extras writer/director/producer Stephen Merchant stars in Hello Ladies as Stuart, a web designer in Los Angeles. Stuart wants nothing more than to succeed with women. His tenant Jessica (Christine Woods) wants nothing more than to succeed as an actress. Like Andy and Maggie from Extras, these two are strivers, and at some point in each episode they reflect on their respective failures. In keeping with the brand of comedy Merchant developed with Ricky Gervais, much of the humor of Hello Ladies comes from Stuart’s intensely awkward interactions with others. But what sets the show apart from Extras (and the Gervais brand in general) is the show’s ample attention to the longing and loneliness of its characters’ lives. Whereas Extras had to reach its series finale before expressing the regret of letting foolish ambition interfere with human relationships, Hello Ladies regularly invites viewers to consider how blind its characters are to the goodness that is already available to them. We know how much Stuart and Jessica need one another, and by the end of the first season, here’s hoping they realize it, too. Thomas Britt

 


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Derek

(Netflix)

34

Derek
Netflix

It’s safe to say that—to borrow a British phrase—the current version of Ricky Gervais is quite the mixer. From his caustic tweets to his occasional interview insights, he doesn’t want the status quo resting on their big fat backsides. For his newest TV series, the comic actor is a care giver at a home for the elderly. Slightly deficient in the mental department (though not truly handicapped) the title character loves to use his sweet and gentle naiveté to take apart the horrid people who would persecute him, as well as the infirmed and aging populace where he works. While the show is still experiencing some significant growing pains, you can’t beat the regular bits where Gervais tackles and wrestles his bald-headed buffoon co-star, Karl Pilkington. Bill Gibron

 


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Sleepy Hollow

(Fox)

33

Sleepy Hollow
Fox


Sleepy Hollow throws everything at its audience. A time-traveling protagonist transported two centuries in the future? Yes. A menagerie of monsters? Why not. A secret, alternate history of the United States and Revolutionary War? Sure. Why not add in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (the famed Headless Horseman is one) and other Biblical catastrophes, too? It all works together, mostly because Sleepy Hollow moves along at such a pace that don’t have time to pick apart how any of it is stitched together. The mix of supernatural elements also gives the show a balance between monster-of-the-week episodes (which usually come with cool creature designs) and episodes that lay out the mythology for the oncoming war between good and evil. But what really sells it is the charm of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who sounds equally authoritative talking about 18th-century Freemasons as he does decrying the 21st-century “ten percent levy on baked goods”—aka the sales tax at Dunkin Donuts. Washington Irving would be tickled. Marisa LaScala

 


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The Jeselnik Offensive

(Comedy Central)

32

The Jeselnik Offensive
Comedy Central

Talk about not understanding what you were getting into. Though they cited “low ratings” as the reason for its cancellation, it was crystal clear that Comedy Central had no idea what kind of show comedian Anthony Jelsenik was pitching. A combination of talk show and stand-up commentary, the brutal and often taboo-busting topics should have been a dead giveaway. So should have the various panel interactions which usually boiled down to dead baby jokes, scandalous scatology, and the routine ripping apart of various sacred cows. Consistently hilarious and often shocking, here’s guessing the powers up were looking for a reason to rid it from their line-up. The number of people watching was just a lucky way out. Bill Gibron

 


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Hannibal

(NBC)

31

Hannibal
NBC

The mysteriously macabre Hannibal serves a deliciously vivid bloodfeast for the imagination. Every frame is as elegantly prepared, beautifully lit and lavishly opulent as one of Lecter’s frequent dinner dates. It’s the most hypnotic, grotesquely ravishing show on TV. Be warned though between the entrée and sorbet it delivers and lustily lingers on things that’ll echo through your nightmares. A lamb’s tongue. Angel wings. A totem of limbs. A Cello cadaver. Microwave cremations. Bodies under the bed. Human mushroom gardens. Anna Chlumsky’s severed arm. Like Lecter’s dishes it overwhelms the senses and leaves you stumbling, intoxicated. We follow criminal profiler Will Graham, a haunted man falling through a fever dream of distortions, delusions, stray dogs and stags. But it’s Mads Mikkelsen as the titular devil in disguise that brings home the bacon. A charmer who’s after your heart. Literally. Developer Bryan Fuller hopes he’ll slice ‘n’ dice for seven seasons cutting “Between Lynch and Kubrick” but should Hannibal die young it’ll certainly leave one exquisite corpse. Matt James

 


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Saturday Night Live

(NBC)

30

Saturday Night Live
NBC


The most consistently inconsistent show on television may seem like an odd choice for a best-of list, but as network TV crumbles around it, Saturday Night Live remains surprisingly fresh and enjoyable. After losing Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen in the spring, the show, yes, overhired in the white-dude department; even halfway through the season, five hardly seems necessary. Yet the show has also had a strong run in the fall, with several standout episodes (Tina Fey, Edward Norton, Josh Hutcherson), no flat-out terrible outings, and plenty to do for its crazy-talented women (Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Nasim Pedrad, and Vanessa Bayer) and, yeah, a couple of goofy new white dudes (Kyle Mooney and Mike O’Brien). Jesse Hassenger

 


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Sons of Anarchy

(FX)

29

Sons of Anarchy
FX


A challenging season sewn together with expert precision and cloth loaned by national headlines and the atmosphere of the music of Joshua James and Leonard Cohen (both of whom wound up on the soundtrack this year), SAMCRO’s sixth year marked the deaths of many key characters and the face-heel turns of others. Jax, Clay, Gemma, Tara, Chibs, Tig, Unser, Nero, Juice, Otto, Patterson and Torric all helped contribute to the shifting, frightening landscape of Charming, and of television, this season. Episodes like “Straw”, the season opener, proved the show could be as surprising and brilliant as it ever had been, and “Wolfsangel” showed why the Teller-Morrow clan have a vital place in TV history, even in a televised landscape full of philandering advertising executives and cancer-stricken drug kingpins. The most devastating moments of season six, however, came in the final few acts of the finale, “A Mother’s Work”, proving once again that no one, not even the audience, is safe from the Sons as they race toward the finish line. Kevin Brettauer

28 - 22


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Rectify

(Sundance Channel)

28

Rectify
Sundance Channel

Who knew that one of the best television shows in years would premiere on the Sundance Channel? Rectify is a powerful drama about guilt, memory, faith, and redemption. It revolves around Daniel Holden (Adam Young), a man who struggles to rebuild his life after living on Georgia’s Death Row for 19 years. What’s brilliant about the show’s first season is that we are never explicitly shown whether or not Daniel is innocent. As a result, the show becomes more of a character study about what it means to confront old demons and begin anew and less of a whodunit murder mystery. In a market saturated with Law and Order and CSI spin-offs, Rectify is a program for which we can all be thankful. Jon Lisi

 


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Southland

(TNT)

27

Southland
TNT


What turned out to be the final season of one of the best cop shows ever spent a lot of profound time focusing on the nature and meaning of various partnerships, the enormity of loss and how the road to hell can be dressed up to look like it’s made of yellow bricks and leading to a shining emerald city. Michael Cudlitz continued his exceptional portrayal of John Cooper, the anguished, distraught LAPD officer with everything to prove and nothing to lose. Cudlitz, of course, was once again surrounded by an incredible ensemble including Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, C. Thomas Howell and the terrifyingly brilliant Anthony Ruivivar as Officer Hank Lucero, whose eventual fate was one of the great jaw-droppers in television history, and a banner moment of what made Southland not only so unique and so brave, but such a phenomenal series. Kevin Brettauer

 


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The Good Wife

(CBS)

26

The Good Wife
CBS

By this time it’s safe to say that The Good Wife has developed a formula. During each of its four seasons we have seen Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) at the center of a big scandal or dramatic news story that stretches for the duration of the season and sets up what will come next. First, it was her husband Peter’s (Chris Noth) infidelity which sent her looking for a job and ending up practicing law again, then it was her affair with her boss Will Gardner (Josh Charles) which threatened her newfound respect at the workplace and during the fourth season she played the role of loving, supporting wife to Peter as he ran for governor of Illinois. In between these prominent arcs, we see Alicia tend to her cases which usually involve strange motives and stranger clients. By remaining so safe to follow and watch, the CBS show has become perhaps the best drama on network television, the only one without sensationalist twists that week after week relies on fine acting and impeccable writing. Jose Solis

 


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Fringe

(FOX)

25

Fringe
Fox


Although only the final three hours of FOX’s little sci-fi drama that could aired in 2013, denying it a place on this list would be a crime tantamount to those of Captain Windmark, the final season’s chief antagonist. The Wagnerian family drama from Bad Robot concluded with vigor, affection and passion the likes of which are usually lost by even the second season of most genre shows. John Noble’s engaging, charismatic and heartbreaking performance as Doctor Walter Bishop carried the show to the very end, and the lessons of love, compassion, understanding and freedom that the series brought to its viewers will be forever remembered, just as Peter will always remember the day he received a white tulip that shouldn’t exist in the mail from a man who blinked out of existence. Heartbreaking and altogether life-affirming, the final season of Fringe was, inarguably, a master-class in television. Kevin Brettauer

 


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Bates Motel

(A&E)

24

Bates Motel
A&E


Bates Motel shouldn’t work. In theory it’s a bloody awful idea. Hitchcock’s revered slasher rebooted into the time of Twitter and twerking? Norman Bates’ fumbling and blushing his way awkwardly through his teenage angst, “Oops Ma, I did it again”? Sure there are Scooby Doo moments with bungling cops, delinquents ‘n’ hoodlums, pervy teachers and disgruntled grinches all but waving their fist and hollering “I’ll get you Bates!”. Yet the chemistry between the central players just works. Freddie Highmore—once the doe-eyed weeper from Finding Neverland—plays Bates with all the out-of-time, melancholic dorkiness of Harold & Maude whilst Vera Farmiga as ‘Smother me, Mother me’ Norma swings brilliantly on a wrecking ball from sweethearted single-parent to local loon about town. You’ll care about these cracked crazies. It’s a growing pains tale of girls, bullies, drugs, curfews, fashion and taxidermy. Norman’s juvenile follies are universal… well y’know except for the murders. Check-in and check it out. Matt James

 


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@midnight

(Comedy Central)

23

@midnight
Comedy Central

When it returns this January, Comedy Central’s Nerdist experiment will once again show that modern pop culture and social media can be the subject of brilliant media satire. Chris Hardwick, who’s been looking for a way to work his way back into basic cable ever since his Talk Soup offshoot, Web Soup, went the way of the entire G4 Network, is a fantastic host—self deprecating, witty, and always ready with a clever comeback. He is matched by panels of such proficient comedy voices as Doug Benson, Patton Oswalt, and Judd Apatow. After its brief run, fans were clamoring for more. Thanks to the terrific comedy being measured out across various Internet platforms, our prayers have been answered. Let the hashtag wars commence! Bill Gibron

 


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Boardwalk Empire

(HBO)

22

Boardwalk Empire
HBO

Each season of Boardwalk Empire has a distinct, overarching theme that unites its characters. For season four, that theme is one articulated in Oscar Wilde’s The Duchess of Padua: “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” The acute irony of the season is that the characters find themselves in self-made hells just as freedom and/or upward mobility seem most within reach. Viewers who find the season too restrained are likely reacting to this very intention, which is to bind each character in stalled or dreadful circumstances. Protagonist Enoch Thompson wants out of the empire he helped to build, but the ripple effects of his lifestyle threaten to destroy the lives of those closest to him. Nearly every good development, from Eddie Kessler’s promotion, to Chalky White’s club ownership, to Richard Harrow’s resolution of non-violence, turns tragic by season’s end. Boardwalk Empire belongs to a tradition of gangster stories that is often glamorous and romantic to a fault. Season four minimizes those qualities by making the characters accountable for their transgressions. Thomas Britt

21 - 15


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Veep

(HBO)

21

Veep
HBO

In 2013, everyone’s favorite train wreck returned for a second season on HBO. I’m not talking about Hannah Horvath, I’m talking about Selina Meyer. Julia-Louis Dreyfus reprised her role as the always annoyed Vice President in Veep, Armando Iannuci’s extremely funny satire of the American government. Watching this show, you don’t know whether to laugh or cringe, and fortunately for fans, season two only got weirder. There are many standout episodes to praise, but the comedic gem of the season is “Helsinki”, a wonderfully bizarre episode in which Selina meets the prime minister of Finland. In the episode, Selina is groped by the prime minister’s husband, played by actor Dave Foley in a performance so perfect it deserves its own series, and awkwardness and chaos ensue with equal measure. With hilarious episodes like “Helsinki”, Veep proves once again that we are in a golden age of television comedy. Jon Lisi

 


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Parks and Recreation

(NBC)

20

Parks and Recreation
NBC

The episode entitled “Bailout” returns Parks and Recreation to its brilliant standard. It’s filled with the witty humor and touching moments we have come to expect, while posing questions about our political, social, and personal systems. As friends find common cause and seek similar goals, even if by different means, they also find ways to support one another and move forward. Validating and mocking both sides of the issue, Parks and Recreation also establishes this episode’s focus on friendship. Even as Leslie and Ron make mistakes (her desire to “give the people what they want” soon has Dennis turning his business into an adult video store), they see that their argument is not personal. Unlike their real world counterparts, these longtime friends and colleagues don’t their political differences drive a wedge between them. Liz Medendorp

 


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(ABC)

19

Nashville
ABC

Good soap operas are all about the dirt and the drama beneath the glamour and the polish. The stress of ever-present danger needn’t be literal threat to life and limb, a lá Dallas (the ‘70s-‘90s original and the 2012 remake) or Revenge (2011) a show’s entire premise which springs from murder. Nay, the terrifying disintegration of family and/or career or worse, both, drive the compelling soap opera that is Nashville, and those are fears we can all relate to. If only we could handle such stresses with the style and grace of the warm and magnetic Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), born into a life of means, or the gorgeously bittersweet Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), who will always have the dust and rust of trailer park smudged somewhere on her skin. If only we could sing so well, too. (Well, that’s really aimed at Panettiere, who has a natural talent. Britton’s appeal stems from a different kind of essence, which makes us music fans more forgiving.)
It’s kind of funny, as I’ll bet all those fans of Nashville wouldn’t necessarily think of themselves as fans of mainstream country music. In some circles, that’s akin to calling oneself a feminist. We’ve benefited mightily from these things, yet we tend to take them for granted. Funny enough, Nashville reveals itself to be a decidedly feminist show, and a show about mainstream country music, and a show set in America’s South. We’ve lost the brilliant treasure that is Treme, and only Nashville now stands against Southern stereotypes like Swamp People. Thankfully, Nashville is a helluva lot more popular. Guess a lot more of us really like mainstream country music than we realized, eh? Karen Zarker

 


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Game of Thrones

(HBO)

18

Game of Thrones
HBO


In the third season of Game of Thrones, one of the most shocking events in television history occurred during the “Red Wedding”. Game of Thrones author George Martin is like a chess master, moving his pieces across the board, sacrificing characters to advance his game while driving the plot forward. Martin’s also quick to switch sides, as season one’s villain, Jaime Lannister, becomes the unlikely hero of season three. Game of Thrones repeatedly stuns its viewers with its dark vision of the sword and sorcery genre, where the Nietzschean will to power is the only reliable constant in a precarious world. John Grassi

 


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American Horror Story: Coven

(FX)

17

American Horror Story: Coven
FX


In the third season of American Horror Story, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk mix a volatile cocktail of humor and terror, blending both elements with assured confidence. Jessica Lange is the formidable Fiona, head of the coven. Opposing her is the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, played with scorching intensity by Angela Bassett. AHS-Coven may have the greatest female cast in television history—in addition to Lange and Bassett is the terrific Kathy Bates. Emma Roberts is electric as the willful Madison, who challenges Fiona’s leadership of the coven. Set in New Orleans, the brutal past of slavery and oppression is never far away, as the plot moves ever closer to a bloody reckoning John Grassi

 


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Eastbound and Down

(HBO)

16

Eastbound and Down
HBO


Gandhi. Mother Teresa. Martin Luther King. Heroes who sacrificed themselves for others. Kenny Powers is not one of these people. He is vain, sly, selfish and would sell his firstborn if it meant getting back in the major leagues. But luckily for us his atrocities make for grotesquely entertaining viewing. Though this—apparently final—fourth chapter sometimes ran like an epilogue to “The Original Trilogy” it still delivered deliciously despicable scenes of debauchery, deviousness and devilry. On the rise again, Powers—the self-styled “Handsome White Jesus”—regained access to the “Elite” and a smorgasbord of high-class pharmaceuticals, “Vixens”, assault rifles, muscle cars and “A luxury swimming pool”. Eastbound was an epic morality tale—Part Scarface, Part Rocky—but with chin implants, karaoke, Viagra, “Exotic robotics”, pet wolves and one Taters N’ Tits restaurant chain. Powers lived the dream so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. Kenny fuckin’ Powers, you’re officially out. Matt James

 


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Orphan Black

(BBC America)

15

Orphan Black
BBC America


The BBC’s Orphan Black is part sci-fi thriller, part mystery, and part family drama, but what brings the whole thing together is the jaw-dropping performance by Tatiana Maslany. She plays no less than seven distinct characters and with the help of excellent production, they interact with one another so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget the same actress plays them all. The series’ twisty plot and the strong supporting cast make for a compelling and original first season that leaves the audience wanting more and eager to see what Maslany does next. Jessica Suarez

14 - 8


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Downton Abbey

(PBS)

14

Downton Abbey
PBS


Some may describe Downton Abbey as a British period soap opera, and in some ways it takes the dramatic tropes and twists of the genre to heart, but the series is so successful because of the characters, not because of the outrageous things that happen to them. At this point characters like Lady Mary, Mrs. Hughes, and Carson are so engaging by themselves that the series often has its best moments when they’re just standing around talking to each other about that night’s dinner menu. Downton Abbey remains a wonderful showcase for sharp writing and a terrific cast, as Maggie Smith, among others, continue to attest. Jessica Suarez

 


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Arrested Development

(Netflix)

13

Arrested Development
Netflix


The best way to understand the brilliance of Arrested Development‘s much-hyped and sometimes-maligned return is to adjust to its new form. Neither movie nor traditional TV season, these 15 episodes essentially comprise a single encyclopedic, cross-referenced episode of the show, reconfigured to tell an epic (and epically detailed) story across the years since it went off the year. Some character-centric episodes are better than others (GOB! George Michael!), but even more than the original run of the show, the effect here is cumulative, with the show’s penchant for running gags and callbacks highlighted and spread across a massive canvas. Arrested on Netflix was supposed to challenge traditional TV delivery methods; instead, it challenged the very form of television. Jesse Hassenger

 


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Masters of Sex

(Showtime)

12

Masters of Sex
Showtime


Sometimes it seems like most cable channels are trying to outdo HBO as they include more violence, sex and cursing to their own shows, and it seemed as if Showtime’s Master of Sex would be just that. With its scintillating premise which chronicles the revolutionary studies of human sexuality conducted by Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the show promised viewers the opportunity to tune in week after week and see people have sex. But it seems that this very promise was just a way to lure viewers into what has turned in a masterful—no pun intended—drama about intimacy. With stunning performances by the entire cast (with Caplan being the clear standout as the strong willed Johnson) the show uses sex as a portal to study that one thing scientists still can’t put their finger on: love. Jose Solis

 


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Girls

(HBO)

11

Girls
HBO


“One Man’s Trash”, a second-season episode of Girls, may have been polarizing even to the most strident fans of the show, but it proves why the series deserves a spot on any Top TV list. The episode finds Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) spending a lost couple of days with a Brooklyn doctor (played by Patrick Wilson). The episode exists in a bubble; Hannah barely talks to any series regulars, and she and the doctor never venture outside of his brownstone together. It was so removed from the rest of the series, people speculated it was a dream. “One Man’s Trash” proves Girls’ originality and fearlessness. In a TV-watching culture that prizes serialized storytelling and binge-watchability above all else, Dunham isn’t afraid to take her show on a different tack and do a stand-alone episode. She’s also not afraid to go broad when other shows are trying to be grounded, or to show female characters spiraling out of control or refusing to grow up (normally the domain of male characters). It’s this willingness to take risks—some of which, admittedly, turn out to be more successful than others—that make Girls one of the most exciting shows on television. Marisa LaScala

 


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House of Cards

(Netflix)

10

House of Cards
Netflix


In retrospect, Netflix’s first original television series House of Cards lived up to the hype. Whether you were one of the many binge-watchers who viewed the entire first season in one sitting within hours of the show’s release, or you spread the episodes out to savor them over a long period of time, there is no denying that we were all hooked. Kevin Spacey owns the screen as Francis Underwood, a corrupt Congressman who will do whatever it takes to stay in power. The supporting cast is equally fantastic, including Robin Wright as Francis’ quietly menacing wife Claire, Kate Mara as the ambitious political reporter Zoe Barnes, and Corey Stoll as the tragic Representative Peter Russo. House of Cards is political intrigue at its finest, and one of the best new shows of 2013. Jon Lisi

 


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Treme

(HBO)

9

Treme
HBO


Treme may have failed to make as strong an impression as David Simon’s earlier series,The Wire, but it’s not for lack of quality. The series remains an acquired taste for many, despite the excellent ensemble of actors and strong writing. In focusing on post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Treme has consistently offered an unflinching portrait of a city devastated by tragedy, yet still so culturally rich as to rise above it all. Music has always been the anchor of the series and in its last season it continues to bring together a diverse cast of characters in unique and intriguing ways. Jessica Suarez

 


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Brooklyn Nine-Nine

(Fox)

8

Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Fox


Perhaps the only new network TV comedy to make you really want to see another episode next week, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a refreshing entry into the canon of police shows airing on current TV. Andy Samberg stars as goofy detective Jake Peralta whose reign of childhood antics (which still save the day) is put to a stop with the arrival of tough Captain Ray Holt (a brilliant Andre Braugher) who is assigned as the new Commanding Officer of the 99th precinct. The beauty of the show is that the cases aren’t as interesting as watching the dynamics between the ensemble. From Stephanie Beatriz’s hilarious Rosa Diaz to Melissa Fumero’s overachiving Detective Amy Santiago, the show offers a collection of characters that it makes fun of lovingly, without reducing them to silly stereotypes. Week after week the writing proves to be some of the smartest on current television as it subtly explores issues of race, gender and crime proving that comedy too can serve a higher social purpose. Jose Solis

7 - 1


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Mad Men

(AMC)

7

Mad Men
AMC

Season six of Mad Men was all about transitions, its penultimate installment seen through the lens of how it sets up itsBreaking Bad-esque two-year finale. With the show winding down and Don Draper headed for a fate we cannot yet divine, it was easy to take in what was happening on Mad Menas foreshadowing a future to come. Would Don (Jon Hamm) be back with the agency once built around his sheer force of personality? Could he really change his ways and would it be with or without Megan? Would Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)—or even doppelgänger Bob Benson (James Wolk)—be keeping his seat warm at Sterling Cooper & Partners or taking his chair?

Indeed, a season that takes place during 1968 couldn’t be about anything but change and coping with it. Capturing a period rife with social upheaval, three of the season’s 14 hours were set to the MLK and RFK assassinations and the Chicago DNC protests, not to mention Vietnam War subplots. That uncertain sense of transformation provided an apt backdrop for the plot line, as characters we’ve become familiar with were at a crossroads and had to evolve or go extinct. Peggy, for one, didn’t let being drawn back into Don’s orbit or being pulled into Ted Chaough’s(Kevin Rahm) stop her from getting that corner office, while even Pete Campbell(Vincent Kartheiser) showed enough growth to become a complex, almost sympathetic figure. Don, however, never felt so much in suspended animation—even his transgressions and revelations just repeated his past. As a show, though, Mad Men never spun its wheels, keeping up with its times and getting ready to move into its future. Arnold Pan

 


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The Killing

(AMC)

6

The Killing
AMC


A year after the devastating Rosie Larsen murder of the first two seasons has been laid to rest, Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Linden (Mireille Enos) are re-teamed when a crime scene unlike any the detectives have ever seen is uncovered, forcing Linden to re-examine a case from her past she thought closed. The two leads, as always, anchor the show with a strong emotional center, supported this season with uncanny performances by Elias Koteas, Nicolas Lea, Jewel Staite, Amy Seimetz, Rowan Longworth, the revelatory Bex Taylor-Klaus and a career-best Peter Sarsgaard as Ray Seward, a convicted killer facing the death penalty whose guilt Linden has begun to doubt. A brave, challenging and morally murky season finale has paved the way for the show’s upcoming six-episode final season, sure to put the detectives through the ultimate ringer. Rest assured, we’ll be watching the detectives. Kevin Brettauer

 


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Justified

(FX)

5

Justified
FX


When the great writer Elmore Leonard sadly passed away this August he surely knew he was leaving his character Deputy Sheriff Raylan Givens in safe hands. Like Leonard, the Justified team know it takes more than witty wisecracks, a Stetson and a cool-as-fuck walk to craft riveting drama. Nobody here is merely “good” or “bad”. They all walk the line, teetering over the abyss whilst wrestling with history, dreams, desires, bad company or just darn bad luck. This season Givens struggled with impending parenthood and his failure to escape his own father’s ominous shadow. Boyd and Ava’s Dairy Queen dreams were haunted by a ghost from a shallow grave whilst poor Ellen May was caught in the crossfire between loose cannon Colt Rhodes, machete juggler Ellstin Limehouse and mystery man Drew Thompson. As Givens concludes “Priorities change”. Justified, like the best stories, remains elusive, unpredictable, compelling, true to its characters. Oh and Hallelujah! for lovable rogue Wynn Duffy finally becoming a series regular. Matt James

 


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The Bridge

(FX)

4

The Bridge
FX


Few shows this year messed with the expectations of narrative development like The Bridge, which was all the more daring considering it was the Nordic Noir remake‘s debut season on FX. With the plot lines moving at a frenetic pace right from the get-go, peaking when you least expected them to, viewers quickly learned that anything could happen at any time to anyone: Sure, the initial reveal of a conspiracy theory-spouting vigilante as the border killer halfway through the season was just a red herring, but as quickly as that lead ran cold, the real mastermind hiding in plain sight came out of the shadows an episode later. Up to that point, almost anyone could’ve been a suspect and, throughout, everyone was fair game—with main character Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) having his family torn apart and co-lead Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) getting shot at point blank and left for dead in a rollover accident.

So while gripes about everything from the plausibility of the crimes, to how well the Danish-Swedish border of the original translated to the U.S.-Mexico border, to the sensationalization of violence in Ciudad Juárez were fair enough,The Bridge still made for gripping television, its anything-goes approach keeping you engaged in a world based on the one we live in but really something all its own. With nothing sacred, The Bridgewas at its best when breaking down black-and-white absolutes of good-and-bad, its title aptly implying how these opposing terms are on a continuum in its warped moral universe. Arnold Pan

 


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Orange Is the New Black

(Netflix)

3

Orange Is the New Black
FX


What happens when an “ordinary person’s” life takes her from the well-paved suburban streets of her upbringing to a road full of potholes, strewn with rusty nails and broken glass? The weak curl up and wither away into obscurity. The strong adapt, as Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) did in Weeds, and their stories become part of our mythology. Indeed, one can see Emmy award-winning Weeds’ creator Jenji Kohan’s deft hand in the telling of Orange Is the New Black, the only TV show about women in prison I’ve ever watched. I approached it with trepidation, as the subject matter evokes ‘70s sexploitation films or possibly worse, shows that make light of a far from light situation, (e.g., 2003’s Prison-A-Go-Go!). Was I in for a surprise. Based on Piper Kerman’s titular memoir (2010), the ominous sentiment, “There but for the Grace of God”, snakes through Orange Is the New Black. That smooth asphalt we’re all riding on is but a thin paving of civilization, after all, and that paving always cracks.

Like Weeds, Orange Is the New Black is a tale about survivors. Key to a survivor’s strength is her knack for finding that life is quite funny, albeit often in a darkly funny way. But we’re not always laughing. In Season One’s cliffhanger finalé, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) left viewers stranded on that rough road with no exit in sight—and the gas gauge had long ago dropped to “low”. I was willing to get out and push, just to keep that story going. Karen Zarker

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Breaking Bad

(AMC)

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Breaking Bad
AMC


At some point in a man’s life, he realizes that the game is rigged. For Walter White, it’s when his health insurer won’t cover his cancer treatment. It’s a death sentence for our mild-mannered hero and a one-way ticket to poverty for his family. So what’s a chemistry teacher to do?  He cooks meth, the purest blue crystal ever seen. And he builds a fortune. But Walt is diving into the shark tank of the drug trade, so he transforms before our eyes, becoming someone unrecognizable to his family and friends. Walt becomes Heisenberg. In the crackpot lexicon of Fox News, Heisenberg fits the bill as a free market hero, a “maker and job creator”. Welcome to the new American dream. Breaking Bad reveals Walter White as a modern day Faust, bartering his soul to protect his family. And the devil always gets his due. Roll credits. John Grassi

 


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The Americans

(FX)

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The Americans
FX


If nothing else, The Americans proves that the Cold War is history, in every sense: For anyone who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during the later stages of a geopolitical standoff that felt like it had lasted forever and would continue to, the premise of The Americans is a particularly fascinating one, fictionalizing how the other half lived by casting KGB agents embedded in American suburbia as the protagonists. As we follow Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys going through the motions as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, what’s revealed isn’t just how political ideologies—on both sides—are ingrained and hardly natural, but also how the stuff of everyday lives takes training and practice, as their professional relationship grows into a personal one with all the complications and baggage that go with it.

Sure, the cloak-and-dagger dramatics push the narrative forward breathlessly and the re-creation of the Reagan era taps into nostalgia that’s more realist than kitschy, but the international affairs take a back seat to the characters and the relationships that drive The Americans. And often, it’s not even the main story line that’s the most engaging, rather the multilayered, spy-vs.-spy friendship between Philip and CIA operative neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and the show’s truest love connection, the international, interracial solidarity shared between Elizabeth and her former Black Panther informant Gregory (Derek Luke). Through its competing perspectives and unexpected scenarios, The Americans turns out to be even better as an alternate reality than a spy thriller. Arnold Pan

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/177840-the-best-tv-shows-of-2013/