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.
9. Mad Men
There’s a point at which a long-running show doesn’t have anything new to say, but the characters are so beautifully realized that the pleasure of spending time with old friends is good enough. Mad Men reached that point in its sixth season, which had a fun mystery in Bob Benson (James Wolk), but mostly just followed its female characters’ continued attempts to hold on to their dignity and their male counterparts’ ongoing territorial disputes with their colleagues. It’s a testament to how richly formed these characters are that the season’s relative lack of narrative progress didn’t really matter.
Since the second season or so, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has been slowly encroaching on Don’s (Jon Hamm) position as the center of the show. In the sixth season, she may have stolen it outright. While Don spins his wheels in yet another affair and predictably sabotages his marriage to Megan (Jessica Pare), Peggy becomes involved in one of the show’s great love affairs (RIP, Teggy) and struggles to become a respected female creative — an archetype that she needs to invent, because the world has never seen her kind before. She’s burdened with a huge setback when she’s expected to become Don’s subordinate again after the merger between SCDP and CGC, but she’s also the show’s one beacon of hope — even if all her striving is ultimately wasted on a hollow industry that devotes its creative energies to selling more candy bars. (Miss ya, Abe.)
8. The Bridge
America often vaunts itself as a nation of immigrants, but its media has never been much interested in exploring what immigrant life is truly like. Enter The Bridge, FX’s new police drama, a portrait of life along the Mexican-American border. Specifically, it’s a tale of two cities — El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua — and how vastly different, yet intimately connected, they are. Several of the characters, like Emily Rios’ journalist Adriana and Demian Bichir’s detective Marcos, reside in Juarez and work in Texas. And because it’s a cop show, many of the series’ elements are devoted to illustrating how Mexican criminals eventually find victims on this side of the border.
But The Bridge is also a powerful and incisive study of American privilege — and it just might be the only TV show in the history of the medium to be that. As the beneficiaries of a more-or-less functional legal system, Americans can enjoy an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude when it comes to violence across the Rio Grande. And if anything, they help fuel the drug and prostitution rings by treating Mexico like a downscale Las Vegas, like junkie newspaperman Daniel (Matthew Lillard in the best performance of his career). All this makes The Bridge sounds like an international relations dissertation, but it’s anything but. Rather, the first season unfolds a tense, smartly paced and surprising serial-killer mystery that ends with a devastating death, and features the journeys of two very disparate women (Diane Kruger and Annabeth Gish) who need to take control of their lives and are slowly figuring out how.
7. Eastbound and Down
Every season of Eastbound and Down has taken place in a new town, following baseball has-been Kenny Powers on his peripatetic road to redemption. But Danny McBride’s comedy circled back to suburbia in the series’ eight final episodes, this time with wife April (Katy Mixon) and their two kids in tow. At the beginning of the fourth season, Kenny tries to tamp down his natural braggadocio in a dead-end, service-sector job. When the opportunity to be a yeller for hire comes in the form of athlete-turned-sports commentator Guy Young (Ken Marino), Kenny chases after the shiny new thing once more. But this time, it turns out he has a knack for it. Kenny’s always been charismatic when he’s wanted to be, and he parlays that talent for another shot in the spotlight.
Thus begins Eastbound and Down‘s darkest and most existential season, though possibly its funniest too. Since Kenny can only exercise self-control for so long, he must choose between hedonism and self-respect. (If you think the choice is obvious, you don’t know Kenny.) He quickly enters a hell of his own making, which leads into probably one of direst Christmas episodes ever made. McBride and his writing team lay down the cards: there can be no completely happy ending for Kenny because the American dream of excess is a fucking nightmare.
6. Masters of Sex
Masters of Sex arrived this fall, looking like another Mad Men copycat. Repressed feelings? Check. Horrifyingly antiquated gender roles? Check. Marvelously adorable mid-century costumes? Check. But the Showtime drama quickly established that it was a completely different beast, a fictional history of the Wild West days of sexology research and an exploration of the many ways that the lack of scientific knowledge about desire, reproduction, and the contents of one’s medical files can utterly destroy a life.
The irrepressibly charming Lizzy Caplan plays the real-life Virginia Johnson, depicted here as a daily heroine who balances single motherhood with anatomy classes and a more-than-full-time job facilitating pioneering research. Though Caplan provides the warmth, I’d argue that it’s Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) who is the show’s heart. While Virginia learns to negotiate her way into positions of greater autonomy and esteem, Bill, a fertility and obstetrics expert, seems to experience love for the first time, though not for his pregnant wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Watching his heart grow — and knowing the hurt it’ll cause — has been one of the year’s most emotionally rewarding experiences.
Mike White’s pitch-perfect dramedy is the only show on this list to be axed this year — a cancellation that infuriated me as a critic. There’s nothing quite like Enlightened on the air, a fiercely thoughtful satire of New Age and self-help narcissism that nonetheless understands that those subcultures’ languages and concepts stem from a heartfelt desire to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. But creating change is extraordinarily difficult, and being seen as angry about injustice, especially as a middle-aged woman, tends to attract unfair dismissals of being “crazy” and “delusional” rather than “passionate.”
Enlightened‘s second season was something of an espionage caper, as Amy (Laura Dern), a former office drone, recruits several of her disillusioned colleagues into collecting evidence of corporate malfeasance to blow the whistle on her corrupt workplace. There’s a splendid ambiguity as to what motivates Amy most: she’s rightly outraged by the political bribes and environmental degradation her CEO knowingly participates in, but she’s also trying to impress handsome journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) and join his progressive, educated crowd. Her plans hit a snag when her shy loner friend Tyler (White) falls in love with the CEO’s secretary (Molly Shannon), a delicate love that White and Shannon make one of this year’s most touching romances.
Oh my goodness. Just seeing the name of Shonda Rhimes’ masterwork marks my heart beat faster, because the political drama is so calculated to wrest an emotional reaction from its viewers (in a good way) that I’ve developed a kind of Pavlovian attachment to this show — I can’t help getting excited when I think about it. Scandal‘s second season was a tour de force, expertly combining elements of tragedy, romance, melodrama, suspense, and political commentary into an incredibly satisfying whole. At its core was a stolen presidential election — a perfect encapsulation of Rhimes’ deeply cynical view of the highest echelons of power. Yet the surprise was who pulled it off and why — a team consisting of three very accomplished women, a gay man, and one token hetero white dude — who channeled their own political ambitions to get an empty suit with the proper Republican credentials (white, male, married) into office because they felt the public would never accept one of them in a seat of power.
This was the year I stopped calling Scandal a guilty pleasure and acknowledged it simply as one of the best-written, best-acted shows on TV today. Sure, it’s a political soap opera, but to diminish it for its theatrics is to denigrate a show for belonging to a genre associated with women. The show focuses on relationships, but it’s just as keen to explore the dynamics of gender, race, class, and power that affect those relationships. And it shouldn’t go unmentioned that Scandal is the first show to give a black actress enough material to earn an Emmy nod for a leading role in nearly two decades. Brava, Kerry Washington, and brava, Shonda Rhimes.
3. Game of Thrones
The Red Wedding. THE RED WEDDING. THE. RED. WEDDING.
If there were ever a doubt that a single episode could retroactively redeem a full season, Game of Thrones‘ third year should dissipate it. The last season ran sluggishly for most of its run until the most jaw-dropping, hope-annihilating event of the series occurred. Then everything else made sense as build-up to the massacre of the Northmen, and it was easy to see that that scene had been planned for two whole years.
Much of the third season seems like laying the foundation for next season — Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa’s (Sophie Turner) marriage, Arya’s (Maisie Williams) ever-lengthening kill list, the Khaleesi’s (Emlia Clarke) burgeoning army of former slaves, Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) increasing depravity. But the season was also full of compelling moments, small and large, from Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) being forced to wrestle a bear to the doomed flirtations between Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) to the verbal chess game between Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). Game of Thrones‘ occasional over-reliance on the shock factor (amputated nipple, anyone?) may grow thin, but there’s no question that the show is based on a surfeit of memorable characters, nearly any of which I’d be happy to watch simply walk across the forest, telling stories of their childhood.
2. Orange is the New Black
I was probably predisposed to liking Orange is the New Black. I’m a sucker for stories about women, showcases for sexually and racially diverse actresses, nuanced depictions of poverty, prisons, crime, and really funny shows. Oh, and I went to Smith, just like Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), though I never enjoyed a post-college fling with an international drug dealer.
But Orange is the New Black would have won me over even without any of my biases, because it is a hilarious and heartbreaking show that looks nothing like anything else on TV. Perhaps that’s because it isn’t on TV. Creator Jenji Kohan was able to convince Netflix to fund a show about an upper-middle-class white woman of privilege who goes to jail and used the opportunity to make a show about all kinds of women, be they black, Latina, or white; straight, gay, or something in between; cis- or transgendered; poor, rich, or just needing a little more. It’s impossible to name a standout character or two because the woman-of-the-episode structure has essentially created at least thirteen incredibly rich characters. By devoting so much time to deepening each one, the show ultimately illustrates the wasted potential of energy, intelligence, and creativity that prison represents.
1. Breaking Bad
TV’s best show ended in a hail of bullets this fall, taking down the monster who started the madness. The second half of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season began with the noose tightening around Walt (Bryan Cranston) after Hank (Dean Norris) discovered the “W.W.” inscription on the secret meth kingpin’s bathroom copy of The Leaves of Grass. While Walt is busy keeping Hank at bay, he also has to deal with the kamikaze behavior of his former surrogate son, Jesse (Aaron Paul), whose hatred of Walt is so great he just might fall on his sword if he can ensure Walt gets a taste of the pointy end, too.
The lead-up to Walt’s final showdown with the Aryan gang — a decidedly non-epic group of violent yokels, since a man like Walt whose depravity is so common doesn’t deserve a great foe — is a perfect summary of the show. Walt tries to control everything while chaos flies around him. Watching Walt work one last time to exact vengeance against his enemies was like understanding a mathematical proof; it’s the logic that’s so satisfying.
But Breaking Bad‘s departure from TV Land means that the medium’s best-plotted, best-acted, and most beautifully shot show is now lost to the ages. Vince Gilligan’s epic mic drop of a series finale might well be from “Ozymandias”: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”