Ten years ago, even when acclaimed shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, 24, Sex and the City and The West Wing were on the air, it was the supposed pinnacle of cool for people to say that they didn’t watch television. A decade later, the opposite is true for many. Now, television is in many ways considered the gold standard of fictional storytelling, and years that are “good for movies” (like 2012) are practically aberrations. The 2013 shows I found most compelling all contained some of the most emotionally resonant fictional moments I have ever seen, in any medium.
Within the context of TV in 2013, it seemed like every other second you’d hear about a new shit-hot amazing or conversation-provoking show. Continuing and concluding series broke new ground while maintaining their core strengths. Netflix emerged with shows that were always ambitious, if not 100 percent successful (*ice-grills Hemlock Grove*). Even the networks stepped up to the plate in notable instances with shows that were up to par with cable.
Breaking Bad – While Mad Men might be the last remaining “Great Show” on TV, the conclusion of Breaking Bad put a lid on arguably the greatest series in the medium’s recent history not named The Wire, and one of its indubitable all-time masterpieces. Its plot was basically pulp and its ending was a little too neat, but the mind and heart of its story were fueled by stuff of the finest dramas – specifically, the inherent toxicity of unchecked ego.
In Walter White, we saw the demon at the heart of every man – every person – made manifest. The point was never the high-concept mechanism that facilitated his immorality. Rather, it was that Walt, and by extension all of us, had always been capable of true evil, and that, to paraphrase Nick Lowe, the beast in us is caged by frail and fragile bars. Alongside him, Jesse Pinkman naturally morphed from comic relief to beloved audience surrogate, and Hank Schrader completed his evolution from a macho schmuck to a great detective and a better man – but not soon enough to take down Walt. Last but not least, we had Skyler – not always likeable but never anything less than the most realistic possible portrayal of a strong, flawed woman in an extreme situation. As Walt’s fate played out in its Grand Guignol-by-way-of-MacGuyver (and borderline MacGruber) climax, it was as just as could be expected – he rectified some of his mistakes, but it was too little too late, and he paid the iron price.
The Americans – Speaking of indelibly strong, flawed women, was there a single actress who could convey with pages of dialogue what Keri Russell made viewers feel with a single expression on TV this year? She had a nigh-impossible task: Play a Russian sleeper agent posing as an all-American travel agent! Who cheats on her fellow sleeper agent husband for her job, with his begrudging consent! Who’s capable of ruthlessness that would put Lady Macbeth to shame!
To say Russell was perfect in the role is an understatement. Around her, ex-CIA officer and show creator Joe Weisberg constructed a rich world of moral ambiguity and period detail, and gave her an excellent foil in Matthew Rhys as her husband, who loves her madly and problematically.
Game of Thrones – As it comfortably diverged from its source material more than ever before, the David Benioff/D.B. Weiss adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy politics series transformed from a good, overstuffed show into a truly great one, which became more realistic and relatable even as its supernatural and fantastic aspects become more pronounced.
Season three had so many pleasures, from the predictably excellent Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister to the surprisingly poignant performances of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendolyn Christie as Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, two characters whom we thought we understood but in truth knew not at all. On that note, all the women, from Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to Cat Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), brought the most thunder this season. And in the blood-soaked apogee of the Red Wedding, we saw beloved characters pay the cruelest price for their attempts at idealism – fates with chilling parallels to the slayings of sociopolitical heroes in our own world.
Eastbound & Down – With all the (justified) criticism of the “male antihero” trope that emerged this year, there was surprisingly little attention paid to a character and show that perfectly lampooned the bullshit of American masculinity. Eastbound & Down has long been a sentimental favorite of mine, but in its fourth and final season it reached a stupid-good peak of satirical commentary and heartbreaking dramatic insight.
It was also FUCKING HILARIOUS. Being as piss-your-pants funny as Eastbound is while cutting deeper emotionally than many dramas is remarkable. Everything from Guy Young’s epic privileged hubris (jetpacks, anyone?) to the agony and hilarity of Stevie Janowski’s portrayal of unhinged emasculation killed in these last eight episodes. (Freakish contact lenses, “Taters N Tits,” plastic surgery nightmares, the wolf, the Christmas fiasco – I could go on forever.) Above all the madness, there was Danny McBride in what may be a career-defining role as former star pitcher Kenny Powers, who went through all the pain of being a fame-seeking beast to earn the right of being a true, simple man. The pervasively profane humor kept it from ever seeming like a morality play, even though it kinda always was, as my Thought Pollution peer Colin Neagle hinted at in his review.
Hannibal – As adapted by Bryan Fuller of Pushing Daises fame, Hannibal got so many things right it’s almost unbelievable, becoming one of the best recent arguments for the value of remakes. It revitalized the network procedural by giving us neither a cliched heroic investigator nor a drenched-in-flaws fuckup, as Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is both genuinely good and fantastically damaged.
The story alternated between weekly cases that stood alone and a season-long arc about the undoing of Graham and the encroaching evil of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen in the deepest, most truly scary portrayal of this character so far). Despite being the goriest show on TV outside of pay cable – The Walking Dead be damned, I’m not kidding – it managed never to be gratuitous. Hannibal’s real horrors came in the psychological interplay between Will, Hannibal and supporting characters like Jack Crawford (a better-than-he’s-been-in-years Laurence Fishburne) and Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas, a warm presence on an occasionally cold show).
Orange is the New Black – OITNB served as the best argument for the viability of Netflix as a serial drama medium. In taking drastic liberties with the true story of yuppie drug-money launderer Piper Kiernan (Chapman in the show) and her medium-security imprisonment, this series gave us the stories of women from all racial, ethnic, sexual and social walks of life and made them all believable and relatable.
Even the characters you didn’t like much, such as Chapman early on, or Crazy Eyes and Red, became like friends after four or five episodes. And the ones you hated, like Pensatucky (Taryn Manning of the hideously mutilated teeth) were at least understandable as victims of societal circumstances, even in the throes of near-madness.
Orphan Black – Tatiana Maslany. *takes several deep breaths* TATIANA FUCKING MASLANY. Few people had heard of her before this BBC America sci-fi drama. That’s changed after her Olympic-level feat of playing seven different parts – clones with the same basic body and entirely different physical attributes/personalities/social situations – as easily as most adults tie their shoes.
Beginning with the story of punk scam artist Sarah Manning, Maslany brings us into a world of violent and fast-paced conspiracy, where the clones have varying degrees of awareness about each other and face enormous odds to unravel their collective origin. This genre skeleton allowed for intriguing, subtle commentary on the ways that society perceives many women solely based on appearance and surface attributes. Maybe an obvious concept, but one nonetheless worth exploring.
Boardwalk Empire – Like Eastbound, Boardwalk Empire has always been a go-to show for me, but as its critics have pointed out, it’s generally been a bit problematic. The Prohibition-era background is sometimes too much of a crutch, and its relative lack of strong female characters is a bummer. (I disagree with criticisms of the violence and of Steve Buscemi’s performance as Nucky Thompson, but now’s not the time.)
The show’s fourth season corrected some of these issues. Many of the fictional characters grew in complex, oft-unexpected ways, and showrunner Terence Winter shaped the historical framework around them instead of doing it the other way around. There was the wonderful Patricia Arquette as a hard-drinking Tampa bar owner who’s more afraid of Florida mosquitoes than the gangsters she runs into, and although she only had a few episodes, Kelly Macdonald portrayed Margaret Schroeder as doing just fine without Nucky. Most interestingly, gangster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) was arguably this season’s main character. His season-long war with Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, a fascinating study in hypocrisy) illuminated more about black American society than most TV dramas dare to focus on, and its period setting didn’t diminish the contemporary applicability of the subject.
NO, I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT RICHARD HARROW, EXCEPT THAT HE’S THE GREATEST.
Sleepy Hollow – Like Hannibal, Sleepy Hollow is a remake suffused with an uncommon level of creativity, one that nods to its source while creating an entirely new world. Unlike Hannibal, Sleepy Hollow does not have one iota of realism in its plotting. Not a bit. It’s crazy. Crazy on a level that redefines over-the-top. This show should’ve been a disaster.
It’s not, though – it’s some kind of minor masterpiece. The story of a resurrected Ichabod Crane fighting the Headless Horseman – who’s actually a Horseman of the Apocalypse – and other supernatural creatures in 2013 America, Hollow establishes a baseline of crazy in its pilot, but uses realism and pathos to define its characters. As Ichabod and his dry-humored police escort Lt. Abigail Mills, Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie have instant chemistry that’s too interesting to provoke ‘shipping rumors, and they play the roles straight, with cleverness and earnest emotion. Also, as a small but great thing, Beharie is that rare instance of a black actress who can simply be on a show without the character’s blackness constantly being brought up as a topic for the wrong reasons, or used as joke fodder.
Top of the Lake – Definitely the weirdest show on this list, and that’s saying a lot. Top of the Lake, a miniseries by acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, is a different, deeply unsettling kind of weird. It begins with a crime-drama situation – a missing young girl. Around that, it makes room for all kinds of human scum and bizarre shit, as well as plenty of humanity.
The girl, Tui, is the daughter of a local crime boss, Matthew Mitcham, played with disturbingly believable derangement by Peter Mullan. Into this gray-sky netherworld walks Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, doing things you’d never see on Mad Men), a former resident of the town where Tui and Matt live who’s asked to investigate. Swirling around this nexus is a community of battered women living in a pseudo-commune under the “leadership” of an American, GJ (Holly Hunter, it’s been a while!), who’s kind-of-bordering-on-completely a bullshit artist but nonetheless offers worthwhile relief to these traumatized ladies. Top of the Lake is slow-paced and its conclusion is far from neat, but it’s brazenly original and haunting in a way many shows never are or will be.
Mad Men – An uneven, unremittingly bleak season, but one that set us up well for the show’s endgame and gave us some great episodes (“The Crash,” “In Care Of”). It is also responsible for the Vine below, which is everything.
House of Cards – A lacerating, well-written look at the modern American political process, with great (if sometimes hammy) lead performances by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and a deeply heartbreaking one by Corey Stoll.
American Horror Story: Coven – The series’ best run yet, with a juicy Southern Gothic flavor that beats True Blood at its own game and features uniformly excellent acting by everyone in the cast, especially Taissa Farmiga and Angela Bassett.
Broadchurch – Another miniseries about a single crime’s affect on a community, this time a British coastal town, featuring genuinely shocking twists and a tragic central performance by David Tennant as a brilliant, disgraced cop.
The Bridge – Despite a sizable midway stumble into cliché that almost fucked up the debut season until its brilliant conclusion, FX’s newest drama chillingly examined crime and punishment of all kinds on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border.
The Walking Dead – Featuring some of the worst and best episodes of TV I’ve seen all year, the zombie drama almost sank into total bullshit this past spring in season 3’s second half. Fortunately, season 4’s opening corrected that, deepening its characters, properly resolving the issue of The Governor and setting up intriguing possibilities for its back half in February 2014. Not to mention giving us this guy.
Girls – Lena Dunham’s show is almost always interesting, if often excruciatingly solipsistic and/or tone-deaf regarding issues of race and class. Episodes like “One Man’s Trash,” “Boys” and “On All Fours” proved her strengths as a writer and director, while installments like “Video Games” and “Together” made even some diehard Girls fans want to puke.
THE FUCKING WORST:
Arrested Development – Let me cut you off, fanboys/girls: Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. The resurrection of Mitchell Hurwitz’s justifiably lauded comedy was so bad it almost made me wonder, briefly, if the whole thing had always sucked. (It didn’t.) But for the most part, these 15 new episodes were smarmy, smirking, half-smart attempts at cleverness laden with indefensible racist/xenophobic humor that put any problematic Eastbound & Down jokes to shame. It jettisoned the show’s basic humanity and retained only its bite, resulting in the sort of insult-comedy bullshit that’s better left to overrated snarky fucks like Ricky Gervais. BYE FOREVER, BLUTHS AND HURWITZ. YOU SEE HOW ASHAMED GEORGE-MICHAEL IS? YOU NEED TO BE THAT ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES. BUT YOU WON’T BE, BECAUSE THE INTERNET. AND MILLENNIALS. AND IRONY. AND THE INTERNET/MILLENNIALS AGAIN, X 1,000. K, I’m finished.
The Following – Despite a respectable lead performance by Kevin Bacon, this serial-killer show is a perfect example of style trumping substance. Pointlessly sadistic violence, egregiously bad writing and a complete lack of understanding of its villain’s primary inspiration (Edgar Allan Poe). FUCK OFF, KEVIN WILLIAMSON.
The Mindy Project – Mindy Kaling’s one-note schtick works okay when played off solid actors or guest stars like James Franco, but otherwise it’s insufferable. Also, how the fuck do you have Ders from Workaholics and Ike Barinholtz from Eastbound in your show and make them unfunny? HOW DO YOU FUCK THAT UP? LOG OFF FOR LIFE, MINDY KALING.
Homeland – To be honest, I didn’t watch more than two episodes of this, and one of them, “Tower of David,” was actually half-amazing, focusing on fugitive Nicholas Brody lost in a heroin haze in a Caracas, Venezuela squatters’ community. Every other hyper-melodramatic, half-baked second that I saw, though? Just NO – and I’m a dude who defended season 2’s murder-by-pacemaker plot point (which, FYI, is possible) and loved the show beyond all possible reason until now. Never thought I’d say this, but Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is who needed to hear this in 2013, not poor Skyler.
But even those spots of crap (and plenty more I didn’t even bother watching) couldn’t dim the brightness of what was such an interesting year for TV. Take a bow, TV in 2013, ’cause you were just fantastic. Yes you were. Feel free to comment (or tweet – @liamchgreen) your thoughts or irritations to me about any and all of this madness.