On this New Year's Eve, the last day of the year, I've compiled my top ten shows for 2013. It was another great year for television overall, and for dramas especially, as we are pretty much abound with riches in this department every year now. But here were my favorites, the shows I couldn't wait to finish watching, whether they were on once a week, every night or all at once, Netflix-style.
1. BREAKING BAD
There's really no question at all about what would place at number one. As soon as the season began I pretty much knew there wouldn't be anything else I watched this year that could top the astounding final season of one of TV's all time greatest dramas. Every episode was heartpoundng, tense, suspenseful, anxiety-inducing and amazingly acted by every member of the cast, especially Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn. The episode "Ozymandias" was one of the single best hours of television ever produced. If you haven't seen Breaking Bad and are planning to catch up with it on Netflix, I do envy you. You're in for a wild ride.
2. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
Netflix's first completely original series (House of Cards was adapted from a British show and Arrested Development of course was a reprisal) was also its best, as we followed wealthy and privileged Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) into the wild and wacky world of an upstate women's prison in New York. There we were introduced to the best new ensemble cast on TV, an intriguing and often funny mix of racially and sexually diverse women, ranging from a teenage drug addict to a transexual hairdresser, a murderous senior citizen immigrant, and a raving hillbilly psychopath. Every character is funny, interesting, complex and could carry a show in their own right. Showrunner Jenji Kohan is known for reinventing her shows in the past (Weeds) and I only hope she doesn't go too far with the setup of this one, because it's perfect as is, and I only want to see it continue. The inmates clearly have more stories to tell.
A fantastic murder mystery that seemed pretty one and done to me, as these eight perfect episodes introduced, developed and wrapped up all angles of the story that was set up, leaving the viewer perfectly satisfied in every respect. But they are producing a second season soon, so I suppose they'll be coming up with something entirely new. A small coastal town in England deals with the mysterious death of an 11 year old boy, and involves all aspects of the case, including his devastated family members, the dueling detectives assigned to the murder and the various townspeople, almost all of whom are hiding secrets of their own. I compared it to an Agatha Christie novel in my original review, and that still stands, as every element is carefully plotted and all the questions once asked are eventually answered, the exact opposite of series that linger on without bothering to know where they're going. The deliberate nature of this was highly refreshing and immensely satisfying, and I can only hope the upcoming American remake can generate the emotional power that this one did. But I'm not counting on it.
4. ORPHAN BLACK
The year's best discovery came from BBC America, which launched this original sci-fi show and with it Canadian newcomer Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning and company. She's a girl who discovers she has duplicates all over the world, and finds herself digging deep into this strange governmental conspiracy to find out which one is the real her. The clones are all played by Maslany in an absolutely astonishing show of acting, as each one is so distinct and different in their voice, mannerisms, and personalities that you truly forget this is the same actress playing all these people. She's a joy to watch and the show is exciting, funny, odd, and suspenseful, often all at once. I cannot wait for this to come back next year.
5. GAME OF THRONES
(Warning: this blurb is kind of spoilery). The third season of GoT was undoubtedly its best, as they figured out a way for every character's often individual journey to at last feel like it's going somewhere and leading up to something. Always TV's most expensive and beautifully produced show (you can probably just watch it for the costumes and locations alone), it can be maddening at times to keep up with everything that's going on with the enormous sprawling cast in all corners of the seven kingdoms. But this time, certain storylines actually started and ended, several people finally made it to the place they were traveling (hurray!) and nearly every episode had one major, story changing moment (Jamie gets his hand cut off! Brienne faces the bear! Danaerys wipes out the slaveowners!), infusing a sense of momentum and raising of the stakes as the story continues. It was exciting, fun to watch, and how can I bring this show up without mentioning The Red Wedding, TV's most talked about event next to Breaking Bad's finale this season? It was shocking, horrifying, and although I hate this expression, game-changing, as the show will transform without the Starks going forward. Even though these episodes are based on books, any show that has the guts to go through with such dramatically altering changes to its cast at any moment, must be given credit for the integrity behind the scenes. Now if only George R.R. Martin can finish those books on time.
6. THE RETURNED
The French import on the Sundance Channel (which had quite a year of its own, with three shows in my top ten) was a beguiling, mysterious mystery, which introduced an array of fascinating characters, some alive and some dead, who are dealing with the consequences of long dead friends and relatives coming back to life and reappearing in their small, rural mountain town. The disruption and questions they bring with them are haunting and eery, and the atmosphere of dread invoked in every frame of every episode is real and effective. Quite the opposite of a show like Broadchurch, and yet just as powerful in its provocative, intriguing, and wondrous moments that occur between characters. You have way more questions than you do answers here, at least so far, but the mystery is so powerful that it dares you not to tune in, and the characters so interesting that they infuse all it with a sense of humanity, whether they're alive or dead.
7. THE COLBERT REPORT
Continually one of the best shows on TV, and by far the most creative, sharp, satirical and pointed take on today's society and politics, The Colbert Report continues to surprise every year, and has for me been outshining its predecessor, The Daily Show, for several years now (which was finally recognized when it at last won the Variety Series Emmy this fall). Stephen Colbert has weathered the transition from the Bush years to the Obama years far more gracefully than Jon Stewart has, as his character has evolved the same way his right-wing counterparts have in the last four years. Meaning of course, that they've gotten even more insane, deluded and deliberately fact free in their thinking, which in turn means Colbert has only gotten more hilarious in his mockery of their nuttiness. The real Colbert's views are pointedly clear for anyone who can understand satire (sadly, that seems to be less and less people these days) and his appreciation for artists of every stripe is indulged in constantly creative ways with his interviews, which are the some of the best on TV. His silliness and sincerity blend to outlandish results, and some of his best moments of the year included his spontaneous marriage of two actual people who were denied their official ceremony during the government shutdown, and his celebrity-filled music video dance to "Get Lucky" in response to Daft Punk's failure to show up on his program. The show only gets better all the time.
Sundance's first original series this year was from creator Ray McKinnon, who invented a mystifying and incredibly powerful character in the person of Daniel Holden, released from death row after 19 years in prison, and suddenly thrust back into his Georgia hometown. Aiden Young plays Daniel, and his performance is reason enough to tune in, as he inhabits this out of place, alienated and desperately confused man so powerfully that you have to see it to believe it. The show is more interested in ordinary things and the outside world as they relate to a man who was put away at 17 and never got a chance to grow up, than it is in solving the original case that put him there, and the question of whether he was really guilty (although that original case as they've stated it is interesting enough for me to want to know what happened). Young is surrounded by a cast of good actors, especially Adelaide Clemons as his shy and deeply religious sister-in-law. The show only aired 6 episodes this season, but will be back for ten in the spring. Here's hoping they can continue the pace as it will likely have to branch out a bit from what was essentially a character study in the first go-round.
9. TOP OF THE LAKE
Jane Campion's dark, fiercely feminist, and deliberately mysterious miniseries was a frustrating experience for many, but I found it to be exquisitely bold in its mystical approach to storytelling. Yet another show set in a small mountain town (this time in New Zealand, where it was filmed on location, resulting in some breathtaking scenery) and involving the disappearance of a child, in this case, a pregnant 12-year-old. Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss gave a terrific turn as Detective Robin Griffin, who returns to her hometown to deal with the situation, and faces her own demons involving the horrific history and secrets that are hiding in and around the lake. I'll admit that if you really want clear answers to your mysteries, this show probably isn't for you, but with such strong acting and creeping atmosphere from a place hidden in an area we rarely see, I was riveted throughout the whole thing.
10. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
Another polarizing choice here, as many found this fourth season of a resurrected show to be disappointing, but I really enjoyed the elaborate puzzle of construction and appreciated the risks Mitch Hurwitz and his writers took in bringing this beloved show back to life. A series of episodes that was built to incorporate the Netflix model of binge-watching, you really do get more out of it if you took it on that way, as I did. And in fact if you watched it twice, as I also did, the layers and the jokes and replays reveal themselves in so many ways that it approaches nothing else that has ever even been attempted on television before. It's only fitting that Arrested Development would be the show to break new ground again, and with all the actors back and just as great as they ever were, I loved getting lost in the crazy world that is this universe and can't wait for it to come back again, in whatever form it takes. Sure it may have been overstuffed and under-edited, but when it was funny, it was funnier than anything else on TV, and I couldn't get enough of it.
There were so many good shows this year that I do have to give some honorable mentions, and that's to Justified, Boardwalk Empire, Parks and Recreation, The Middle, and Mad Men, which are all shows that continue to be great well into their later seasons and ones that I never miss. Other new shows I really liked were Hannibal, The Americans, Masters of Sex and The Bridge, which all have more potential than they've yet realized, but for which I'm fully on board with when they return for their sophomore seasons.