According to the kind of people who are prone to make such pronouncements, the Golden Age of Television ended this year with the series finale of Breaking Bad. But with more quality television on the air today than is humanly possible to watch, I don’t see how that could possibly be true.
The one big observation about the TV landscape this year that I’d like to make is that there finally seems to be a preponderance of shows about women, a much-needed correction to the masculinity-obsessed, anti-hero shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. I love and admire all of those shows, but I’m glad to see that the new opportunities for original programming that the proliferation of cable and now Netflix and Amazon offers has resulted in more stories about women.
Without further ado, my picks for the 13 best shows of 2013:
13. 30 Rock
Few things delighted me this year as much as the last season of Tina Fey’s wonderfully loopy but cuttingly observant showbiz sitcom. After a couple of mediocre years in the middle of the series’ run, 30 Rock came back in full creative force for its last thirteen episodes. Fey and her writers didn’t let their cleverness get the better of them, but committed to providing satisfying ends to its characters. The best example is Liz’s happy ending, which refreshingly wasn’t her (Star Wars-themed) wedding to lovable beta-male Criss Chros (James Marsden), but the adoption of two children and the greenlighting of a new TV show after TGS‘ cancellation. Liz finally got to have it all — but with the help of a stay-at-home dad. (Much props to Fey for being truthful about motherhood on a TV production schedule.)
Liz also reached a whole new level of awareness with her friendship with Jack (Alec Baldwin): “This whole time, you’ve been telling me how to run my life, you didn’t know what you were talking about. You’re just an alcoholic with a great voice.” And she was right; 30 Rock finally disputed critics’ accusations that Jack knows everything. For his part, the Kabletown exec fled a sinking ship, handing over the reins to Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), and got back to his roots of inventing new things to sell to people. Most touchingly perhaps, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) finally grew up and realized she could find love, just as long as he dressed up in a drag version of her every day. How sweet.
12. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are perennially festooned with adulation and awards — and they deserve all of it. As purveyors of intelligent, socially conscious wit, they’re national treasures, providing incisive but cathartically funny commentary on politics, culture and the media. And they do it four times a week, generally racking up more laughs in a 7-minute segment than most 22-minute sitcoms do with a week’s preparation.
This year lacked the monumental weirdness of the 2012 Republican primaries (Herman Cain OMG LOL WTF), but we still had Marco Rubio’s lizard-like thirst and Rob Ford’s speech about having “more than enough to eat at home” to laugh about with Stewart and Colbert. Then there are all the depressing events we need to guffaw about so as not to be completely disillusioned by our government: the gridlock in Congress, the federal furloughs, the hysterical battles over Obamacare. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more than delivered the goods.
11. The Returned
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” wrote William Faulkner. Even in our era of intense serialization, surprisingly few shows have been able to exploit the sense of storied history that Faulkner wrote about. Game of Thrones is a rare exception, as is the French miniseries The Returned, which currently airs on the Sundance channel. In the horror drama, a supernatural force raises the dead in a small, picturesque town. The “returned” have no clue how they died or why they’ve been revived; they only know that their homecoming to the world of the living opens up the emotional wounds of their family members and former lovers.
In just eight episodes, The Returned creates a richly detailed community that’s still reeling from the mass deaths of its children from a school bus accident some years ago. The stories it tells are of specific families, the most compelling of them being that of Camille (Yara Pilartz) and Lena (Jenna Thiam), twin sisters who end up four years apart as a result of Camille’s temporary death and subsequent resurrection. But there’s a greater injustice in the town’s history — the occasion for some wonderfully surreal images — and its victims refuse to be so quickly forgotten.
I’ll happily admit I was a Lena Dunham-hater when Girls first premiered. Tiny Furniture left me cold, and the narcissistic pettiness of Hannah (Dunham) and her friends was initially too annoying to bear. But I trudged through the rest of the debut season, and now I’m glad to have done it, because it was a great set-up for the show’s astronomically improved sophomore year. Much of that uptick in quality came from the introduction of actual stakes to the characters’ lives: Hannah’s desperation to produce an e-book in four weeks leading to a recurrence of her OCD; Marnie’s (Alison Williams) firing from her gallery job and her ensuing quarter-life crisis, the fatally flaky Jessa’s (Jemima Kirke) impulsive marriage to a Wall Street dork (Chris O’Dowd), and Shoshanna’s (Zosia Mamet) suddenly serious relationship with the endlessly needy Ray (Alex Karpovsky).
There was something exceedingly pleasurable in watching the lives of these four very privileged girls spiral out of control — and it wasn’t all schadenfreude. All the talk of parental support in the first season had made the characters utterly unrelatable and their actions an object of sociological fascination but not much more. (A belated kudos to Dunham for at least being honest about how a lot of underemployed twentysomethings get by in Williamsburg.) The crises the Girls girls experience in this second season (which Kate and Rob debated), on the other hand, test their mettle — something their parents can’t buy for them — and it’s fascinating to watch them struggle to grow up. Plus, Dunham’s familiarity with Brooklyn bohemia makes her a terrific satirist when she wants to be. There was no more memorable sex scene this year than Marnie and Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone) pathetically earnest tryst in a flattened X.