The Best TV of 2013

Year-end lists are the most self-imposed sources of stress this side of entering your medical symptoms onto Web MD. Everyone does these lists. No one likes writing them. Few enjoying reading them. But there’s this odd game of chicken where no one wants to be left out of doing them, so the cycle continues each and every year in all forms of pop culture media and criticism.

The fact that I’m doing a list at all proves I’m not above this bullshit. But when it came time to rank my favorite shows of the year, I just couldn’t do. Moreover, I realized I didn’t HAVE to do it. No one’s putting a gun to my head. No one’s paying me to list X number of shows out. And on top of that, this year featured so much great TV that reducing it down to a list seems pointless. I love that almost no two lists will look alike this year, which feels like a feature more than a bug. Having an encyclopedic knowledge of TV is impossible, even for those lucky enough to so this type of thing full time. For the rest of us who write about TV on top of regular jobs, it’s downright ludicrous.

So here’s the way this will work: in looking at my list of favorite shows, there were two clearly at the top, and then a bunch more than were so close together than I could sort them in a dozen different ways on a dozen different days. So rather than be held to one order, I’m just listing that second tier alphabetically. That second tier doesn’t even include the really long list of “liked but didn’t love” shows like “Parks And Recreation,” “Game Of Thrones,” “Elementary,” “Top Of The Lake,” and others. It also doesn’t include shows I bet would be there, like “The Good Wife,” had I been fully caught up on them. (I’m more than halfway through season four, am completely smitten, but simply haven’t seen enough this year to justify inclusion.) I look at this the way my wife and I looked at our wedding invitation list: we could have invited 45, or 450. There was almost no in-between. Once you open the door to certain criteria, it becomes instantly overwhelming.

All of this is a way of saying don’t bother asking my least favorite question about any listicle: “How could you forget about [insert thing that’s not on the list]?” Omission does not imply absent-mindedness. If it’s not here, there’s a reason for it. This is what stood out from the pack in 2013 for a variety of reasons, and is just one small vantage point into the incredibly vast, incredibly awesome television landscape of the past year.

fx-theamericans-2_keri-hallway_0972-610×457.jpgThe Americans (FX)

Ostensibly a spy show set in the 1980’s, “The Americans” turned into one of the more interesting and audacious looks at what makes a marriage work on television all year. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were both amazing, and Noah Emmerich’s slow descent into emotional treason was one of the great arcs on any show this season. “The Americans” doesn’t feel sustainable as a seven-season show, but as a two- or three-year endeavor, this could be one of the best shows FX has produced.

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive (Netflix)

Many will point to Louis C.K.’s “Oh My God!” as the comedy standout of 2013, and I wouldn’t think that was an odd choice. But the specificity, inquisitiveness, and incision with which Ansari questions the status of relationships for his age group at this particular point feels like a transitional point for Ansari’s career. It also has one of the best audience interactions of any special in recent memory.

Mike Birbiglia, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” (Netflix)

Another tapes version of a long-gestating comedic piece, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” sandbagged me in ways that few other viewing experiences did this year. I’m a late-comer to Birbiglia’s stand-up, so I was excited to see what new material he had come up with when I saw this pop up in my queue. What I got instead wasn’t so much a stand-up routine as a one-man show, in the vein of Spaulding Gray or John Leguizamo. But when filtered through Birbiglia’s sensibilities, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” is the melancholy but ultimately uplifting journey of a man’s transition from individual to part of something much larger.

Bob’s Burgers (FOX)

Some shows I can analyze until my fingers bleed. Others just make me laugh until snot is running down my face. “Bob’s Burgers” is the latter of these two types of shows, and provided me more laughs-per-minute than any other show this season. In particular, Eugene Mirman’s Gene Belcher is my personal favorite comic character on TV. Every single thing Gene does or says makes me laugh, usually in ways that forces me to pause the TV to hear the next line. “O.T.: The Outside Toilet” is simultaneously hysterical yet oddly heartbreaking, and is one of the best episodes of any show this year.

Breaking Bad (AMC)

The longer the distance between the finale of this show and the present moment, the further this show gets away from me. It was still a titanic achievement as a series, but the singular focus of the program also means that there’s less to hold onto as the months and years pass. Almost everything great about the show largely remains, but they are also surface-level things that stand outside the story: the acting, writing, and cinematography are all top-notch and represent high water marks other shows should strive to achieve. But those are all things that exists outside the story itself, which stumbled slightly in its final season. Had the show ended on “Ozymandias”, as stunning an hour as anything that aired in 2013, maybe I’d feel differently. But it didn’t, so I don’t.

justfied4.jpgJustified (FX)

Because it airs so early in the calendar year, it’s easy to overlook this show. And because the first half meandered somewhat in its attempts to construct a season-long mystery, it’s easy to omit it from consideration for lists such as this. But once the identity of Drew Thompson was revealed, “Justified” found its mojo, put its narrative foot to the floor, and just ran rampant over almost all other competitors. Fewer shows on the air are as relentlessly entertaining as this one is. If you want an example of that, look no further than “Decoy,” my second-favorite episode of TV all year. Funny, harrowing, tense, and character-rich, it’s everything great about “Justified” in forty minutes.

Mad Men (AMC)

It’s been a harrowing journey through the 1960s, but with this show’s sixth season finale, a light appeared at the end of a long, dark tunnel. For most of the season, I watched under the assumption this was a program now about Peggy Olson, with Don Draper an increasingly (and intentionally) ossified object. Bert turned into Roger turned into Don turned into Pete, with the cycle always the same even if the outward appearances and circumstances were always different. But this season offered a glimpse of hope, a potential to break the cycle. It’s probably too late for Don. But it’s not too late for Peggy and Sally, the two characters that can still reap something positive and new in this irradiated landscape. Todd Vanderwerff nailed it here: “Mad Men” has more flaws than “Breaking Bad,” but also has a higher capacity for compassion and inclusion. For that reason alone, I’ll always prefer this show to its AMC brethren.

cosima.pngOrphan Black (BBC America)

I don’t bingewatch TV as a general rule. I have neither the time nor the inclination to do so. But when BBC American ran a marathon in the run up to this show’s season one finale, I taped them all in order to see what others had been raving about. As it turns out, I started the premiere the following Saturday morning…and finished the season that night. I could not stop watching. What “Orphan Black” does that marks it as part of the new world of quality television is its lack of preciousness with story. If something should happen, it normally does. There’s no arbitrary delay in order to pad the length of the show over the course of multiple seasons. At the same time, it’s not burning the candles at both ends: Rather, it burned off its epidermis to reveal many, many layers beneath its surface. Throw in Tatiana Maslany’s almost miraculous performance and you had one of the year’s best surprises.

Spartacus (STARZ)

And here we have the first of two back-to-back shows that feature (very different types of) gladiators. Did “War Of The Damned” bite off a bit more than it could really chew? Sure. The inclusion of Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar into the mix as the show skipped to the historical end of Spartacus’ war with Rome burdened the show with a lot of introduction/exposition into an already rich world. And many, including myself, missed those we had lost in the ludus. But in terms of ambition, emotional melodrama, and sheer spectacle, it’s hard to top this show. My prediction: much like Spartacus’ story itself, this show will grow in legend as the year pass, until watching “Spartacus” turns into a mark of televisual taste for a non-small section of TV enthusiasts. I’m glad Steven DeKnight and company went out on their own terms. But man, I miss this show.

Scandal (ABC)

I’ve written more about this show than almost any other this year. So I won’t pile on here. This show feels so damn close to driving itself off a cliff that it’s almost thrilling in and of itself. But as a dark drama about the dark soul staining the human condition posing as a primetime soap opera, it’s not hard to admire “Scandal” for its subtle ambition. Calling anything about “Scandal” subtle seems inappropriate, but the fact that the show can support so many conflicting interpretations means there’s a richness here that it not easily identified but is eminently debatable. And if everyone agreed, wouldn’t that be terribly dull?

The Sound Of Music Live! (NBC)

Just seeing if you’re paying attention. Moving on now.

Sleepy Hollow (FOX)

Because YOLO, that’s why. Look, it’s super easy to say that this show is batshit crazy and that’s why it’s awesome. And sure, there are some crazy things to overcome if you want to get onto this show’s wavelength. But this isn’t “American Horror Story,” which is about crazy for crazy’s sake. Once you spend time with the characters of “Sleepy Hollow,” the crazy melts away. What you’re left with is a rich relationship between Ichabod and Abbie that I’d put up against relationships on more “prestige” dramas. “Sleepy Hollow” doesn’t attempt to mask its genre underpinnings, nor does it try and distance itself through ironic in-show commentary. It’s a show that features a machine gun-wielding Headless Horseman. But it’s ABOUT people who engage with the world rather than turn a blind eye to its evils. And that’s what makes this show ultimately work.

And now for the top two, again in alphabetical order…

enlightened-season-2_510×293.jpgEnlightened (HBO)
Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)

I spent way, way, way too long trying to figure out which one to make my number one. Then I realize that was a stupid imposition and put them both in their own, rarified category. That might rub those that absolutely need numerical rankings in order to judge worth, but I just can’t do it. They both fill very different needs for me, but both filled them more completely than anything else on television this season. There are some similarities, of course: both have tones that mix both “comedy” and “drama,” but that just proves how arbitrary such designations are at this point. Both featured complex female characters that didn’t act or sound like others on television. But more importantly, both confronted how hard life can be and how important it is to overcome, persevere, and look for hope in seemingly hopeless times. “Connection” is the theme of both shows, and how artificial walls (sometimes physical, sometimes mental) have dulled the human spirit. Yet those walls haven’t completely dampened that spirit, with just enough oxygen still present inside those hermetically sealed boxes fanning the flames enough to maintain the embers of a once-vibrantly beating hard. When those embers suddenly spark, you get something like “The Ghost Is Seen,” the best episode of any show in 2013. What “Ghost” gets so right is that its easier to live in the shadows than in the spotlight. But the risk in stepping into the latter means the difference between actually living versus merely existing. In exploring this difference, “Enlighted” and “Orange Is The New Black” offered up a better way for those watching to actually engage with the world around them, and thus were the most important pieces of art to emerge in the medium this year.