TV may be getting too good. I tried to write a Top 10 and found it to be almost impossible. Luckily I’m in control of my own blog so now I have a Top 20. (Spoiler: I still cheat.) It’s not just that my favorite shows keep getting better, it’s that more channels are making quality entertainment. The Sundance Channel proved to have some of the year’s best programs, Netflix made huge waves with launching entire seasons at once and more and more foreign imports are making its way stateside.
People are trying to say that the Golden Age of Television is fading, but it only seems to be growing stronger. Almost half of my shows on this list are first seasons of new shows. Every week of the year seems to have at least a half dozen great shows on the air. So even with watching so many shows, there are some that I have missed usually because I don’t have the time to catch up with them.
Thus, I apologize (not really) for not being caught up on Call the Midwife, Enlightened, The Good Wife, The Legend of Korra, Parenthood, Scandal, Shameless (both versions), Skins and A Young Doctor’s Notebook. Also I haven’t even started Arrow, Bad Education, Borgen, Dancing on the Edge, Last Tango in Halifax, The Venture Brothers or The White Queen. So many shows and now here are the seasons that were the best of 2013…
20. Treme Season Four (HBO)
“So what is it exactly that you want to do, hmm?”
“I want to get Caldonia’s reopen. Take over Raul’s lease, revitalize Rampart Street, fight the good fight for live music and New Orleans.”
In so many ways, Treme became a metaphor for the thing it loved the most. People are loving HBO more and more and yet nobody is watching this charming and emotional show about life in post-Katrina New Orleans. It wasn’t able to have a full season for its finale, but haven seen three of the five episodes, it still seems too soon to go. Unlike other final seasons, this isn’t leading towards a climatic ending. For at the end of these five hours, their lives won’t end. You want them to succeed in their dreams and thus you want New Orleans to prosper and thus you want America to prosper. When certain characters succeed financially, they always want to return to this city because that is where the soul is. And boy did this show have soul. You’ll be missed, Treme.
19. Orphan Black Season One (BBC America)
“Bloody hell. How many of us are there?”
The trailer for this show didn’t impress me. It kept using plenty of vague buzzwords to try and intrigue you about its conspiracy and clones. Then I watched the pilot where Sarah Manning sees a girl who looks identical to her, kill herself in public. Sarah’s reaction? Steal the girl’s ID so she can empty her bank account. The show continued to expand in wonderfully crazy ways that kept playing to its strengths, which included the insanely good performance of Tatiana Maslany who not only could play several characters perfectly but can also play those characters playing other characters. The goofiness and innovation made this show a whole lot of fun.
18. Bob’s Burgers Seasons Three and Four (FOX)
“Let’s not dismiss the quitting idea. It has a quiet dignity to it.”
“Quiet dignity?! Have you met us?!”
The strength of any shows is to have a strong set of characters and then just let them bounce off each other every week. That is especially true for sitcoms and Bob’s three kids may be the funniest characters on TV. Tina is overloading with hormones and has no idea what to do with them. Gene is pure joy and no brains. Louise is pure anarchy with bunny ears. The show keeps improving because the stories are well suited to use their entire ensemble so one character is never being overused. Their plots range from simple to bizarre with little league to talking toilets. I love this hilarious family who is just trying to survive and keep everyone happy.
17. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season Nine (FXX)
“I mean it’s a little bit odd we’ve never been nominated.”
“At some point it becomes a little aggressive.”
After nine seasons, you would have thought that they ran out of things to say about this gang. Their 100th episode proved the opposite as we went further into their deprived psyches than ever before. Every time they approach a topic like gun control or the Emmys, we see a different but realized side of these five hilariously awful people. The creative team is also refusing to be stale in front of the camera as they give some of the best performances of the entire series. It’s a shame they don’t get the respect they deserve when it comes to awards, but that only fuels their underdog situation.
16. The Americans Season One (FX)
“I’m sorry I didn’t kill you. That’s my apology.”
The Sopranos changed the landscape by giving us a main character that we weren’t supposed to morally agree with. The Americans takes that gray area and examines our patriotism. The lead characters are two Russian spies who have infiltrated the US during the Cold War posing as a suburban family where not even their kids know where their parents’ allegiance lies. Quiet and kickass, The Americans is a fantastic callback to when spy dramas didn’t rely on techno gibberish. This is the type a show where a character needs to warn someone across town you gotta drive…fast.
15. Black Mirror Season Two (Channel 4)
“You look like him, on a good day.”
“The photos we keep tend to be flattering.”
The entirety of this series is a compilation of the greatest commentaries about technology and the modern age. Even though I liked the three stories from Season One more, that doesn’t discount how incredible and astute these three were. The best sci-fi is always about using an experimental environment to comment on human nature. Instead of blandly saying “Technology is bad!” the show embraces the complicated world we live in and the sadness that can arise. Man, I really wish this was on Blu-Ray in the US…
14. Veep Season Two (HBO)
“A meme ma’am? Speak English, boy.”
At the end of every episode, there is a grim thought that pops up in my head… “Oh God, is this what it’s really like?” All of the plotlines in its second season became more serialized to the show’s benefit because it’s not just about avoiding to make a decision—it’s about working hard to have no opinion and affect no change while trying to advance your career. The show becomes even more unnerving when it calls a stupid government shutdown months before it happened. Also the show continues to use profanity in the most inspiring of ways.
13. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)
“It turns out there’s only one amendment in our constitution’s pantheon that is exempt from statistical analysis or emotional freak-out-atude and it is the second.”
My easy rule of thumb for comedies is that I will continue to watch them if they consistently make me laugh. I seem to laugh at every episode of The Daily Show and that airs four times a week. The show has always has an underlying feeling of anger but this year was filled to the brim with insane government actions and poor coverage by the media that gave the Daily Show some of their best material. The show even felt fresher when John Oliver stepped in for the summer. What did he get on his first day? Syria. Also enough can’t be said about the great interviews he has with authors; it’s thanks to this show I discovered some of my favorite books of the year like The Reason I Jump and Then They Came For Me.
12. Billy on the Street Season Two (Fuse) / Nathan For You Season One (Comedy Central)
“Yes, Drew Barrymore would like grapes.”
“Yes, correct, Drew Barrymore would love grapes! Grapes are amazing!”
“Tonight I’m going to take a bigger risk than anybody has taken on television before. In just a few moments, I’m going to be handcuffed to this solid steel frame and I’ll have exactly 90 seconds to free myself before the claw on this robotic arm undoes my pants exposing me to an audience of children. If that happens, an LAPD officer is standing by to arrest me for indecent exposure. We’ve all seen escape artists escape death before but tonight I’m going to risk something even worse: becoming a register sex offender for life.”
The problem with so many prank shows is that they end up being cruel to the unexpected people. They’re usually responding appropriately to what’s going on and then the audience laughs because they’re not in the loop. Billy Eichner and Nathan Fielder turn all the absurdity on themselves. Billy’s pop culture questions start with little warning and little logic with prizes that range from a dollar to a birdcage. Nathan’s advice for small businesses are so elaborately designed to play upon business clichés without ever being effective. Like having a viral video that doesn’t mention the business. After every encounter, everyone is allowed to win because the joke is on the comedians who are never phased.
11. Doctor Who Season Seven (BBC)
“What I did, I did without choice…in the name of peace and sanity.”
“But not in the name of the Doctor.”
How do you celebrate 50 years with an audience who primarily knows it from the last eight? Use the past to have fun with the present and make way for the future. The mystery of who Clara ended up just being a minor point to this less serialized season as they jumped around the universe having adventures with subtle callbacks to the show’s long history as they brought back classic villains (Great Intelligence, Ice Warriors, Zygons), explored the TARDIS and forever changed the mythology of the show. The fun adventures were a great counter to the last two episodes that deeply explored the dark actions of The Doctor and learning why exactly he is a hero at heart(s). The season continues next week with the final episode of Matt Smith. The trailer seems to suggest the appropriate tone to this season and his tenure: joyful and epic.
10. The Returned Season One (Sundance)
“No. It’s not possible.”
“I agree, it’s not. But she’s here.”
LOST originally tricked me by hooking me in with its new mythology but then made me care more about the characters. The Returned did the opposite. One day random people who have died, suddenly return without having aged a day. Every reunion is filled with emotional nuance that always felt powerfully accurate. The show was already working as a fantastic drama, but this show went another step further. It’s a beautifully creepy show—just check out its opening credits. I never expected there to be any explanation for their return but the show keeps dropping more hints and twists towards a grander story. By the end of the season, I was just in awe at what it accomplished.
9. Arrested Development Season Four (Netflix)
“I was mistakenly voted out of a four-person housing situation in a pack-first, no-talking-after scenario.”
From the rise popularity after its cancelation, the show could have drank the Kool-Aid when it returned. They could have had Franklin on a road trip in the stair cars to audition for the Blue Man Group with a chicken dance. While that may have been amusing, that has been done. The show was so good because it was something bold and new and crazy. That’s what Season Four did so well. Right away, the show felt like something else—a sequel. These characters have aged in the past few years and all for the worse. The show looked forward instead of back as they advanced these characters stories into really dark and terrible directions all in the name of hilarity. The structure of the season wasn’t just them responding to difficult shooting schedules, but it was a chance for them to do something new. This was not just a vanity project but a chance to continue to do what we loved so much. To me, it worked with great effect and made me even more excited to see what happens next in the story because the way it all ended proved they’re accomplishing something really special.
8. Masters of Sex Season One (Showtime)
“Were they in love?”
“I have no idea. That was outside the area of our inquiry.”
Earlier this year, FX John Landergraf said that he has given up on the anti-hero because what could be done that Walter White hasn’t. The market has become oversaturated with those society-rebelling men that television needed to prove it could tell other types of long-form storytelling. Masters of Sex perfectly symbolizes what’s next in television. There isn’t a villain who snuffles his moustache while trying to shut down their research; instead they have fully realized characters bouncing off each other creating inherent drama. From the first episode, I was blown away by the confidence of the writing especially in the relationship between Masters and Virginia. Every episode grew its world by getting deeper with their characters by making them even more compelling. This is not only the best series on Showtime at the moment, but the best show I’ve ever seen on Showtime. Now I hope they don’t let Showtime mess it up.
7. Spartacus: War of the Damned (Starz)
“There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man.”
The Spartacus series always was filled minute by minute with high levels of awesomeness. Every episode had a gladiator fight that was never repetitive because they always had a different emotional viewpoint or a different element to the fighting—blindfolds and fire nets were some of my favorites. The politics of the series were always very simple with the mindset of hating the cruelty of Rome. What was incredible about Spartacus’ final season is that they complicated both of these issues by making the characters deal with the complexity of being in charge. They had to face their toughest and smartest villains to date but their real issue was getting what they wished for. With only one city in their occupation, our warriors struggled with not repeating the same mistakes of their oppressors. This fascinating examination—which never fear, was still filled to the brim with badassary—ultimately culminated with one of the best series finales of all time.
6. Mad Men Season Six (AMC)
“You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is.”
There was such a joy about watching this season of Mad Men because it was never trying to force the plot into ridiculous directions in its final seasons. (And this is from the show that had the characters inject vitamins into their butt, which caused them to tap dance their feelings.) While other stories are designed to build to chaos, Mad Men is about a loud rise and a quiet fall. We watch as our favorite characters naturally evolve to irrelevancy. While Season Five watched as Don Draper tried to fix his mistakes and lead a happy life, Season Six is the relapse and revelation that he is able to redefine success for himself. The quote before this paragraph signifies there is perhaps a happy ending for Don Draper to come and this was his brilliant path of starting that ending.
5. Hannibal Season One (NBC)
“Then why did you invite me for dinner?”
“Because I was going to kill you. I didn’t poison your dinner. I wouldn’t do that to food.”
None of this should work. Hannibal Lecter used to be scary but now he’s a joke much like Dracula. All of his creepiest lines are overdone in parodies and his last few cinematic adventures were pretty lame. Then all the planets aligned to make—I’LL TYPE IT—the best Hannibal depiction ever. Mads Mikkelsen is subtle in how horrifying he’s able to be. He’s such a smart adversary that is so subtle, it makes sense that the brilliant people at the FBI don’t suspect him. The darkness on this show is unprecedented as they delve into the goriest murders ever seen on television and the destruction of the human spirit as they are surrounded by the worst humanity has to offer. The good are punished in horrible ways without many victories, which adds a level of danger other shows of this type lack. Prepare for more hyperbole because this is the best horror series ever seen on television.
4. Orange is the New Black Season One (Netflix)
“There’s always hope tomorrow’ll be taco night.”
Much like The Dark Knight, I went into watching this with incredibly low expectations and was shocked by how much I was drawn in from its opening scenes. The nicest thing I can say about Jenji Kohan’s last show, Weeds, was that it was okay at times. That now feels like the stepping-stone to tell the story she really wanted to tell. The look at the women’s prison is fascinating because it’s able to tell so many stories about the women they are now. Too many prison stories focus on how they got there and how they’re going to get out. This is the show that boldly fascinates at what it means to live day by day with a group of strangers who are all fully realized. Easily the best ensemble on TV right now.
3. Game of Thrones Season Three (HBO)
“I think mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night.”
If the first season was about turmoil brewing and the second season started the war, this was the season when people started winning. DO NOT TAKE THAT AS A GOOD THING. For all the victories weren’t through peaceful negotiations, but through pain and defeats. Even people who don’t watch the show fear the phrase “The Red Wedding”, but this season also broke down a legend, tortured a guy for so long that even though we hated him we now feel bad, damaged the most romantic relationship on the show and ended on a bombshell suggesting that perhaps all of this war and damage was probably for nothing. Jesus Christ, Lord of Light. This is Game of Thrones at its most focused and it only makes me fear about what’s heading towards the wall.
2. Rectify Season One (Sundance)
“The place where I was had no windows. Just these thick walls surrounded by more thick walls. Since I didn’t sense things in a normal way, I decided they weren’t real to me.”
“What was real to you, Daniel?”
“The time in-between the seconds.”
There is no other show on television that drained me as much as Rectify. It’s a masterpiece in structure where it has the feel of a mystery show but there isn’t a detective character. There is no one searching the truth or even pushing the plot forward…at all. In the first season, we are examining a week in the lives of a southern family whose son returns home from 19 years on death row. We have no idea if he’s innocent or not for the horrible rape and murder. It’s almost impossible to tell if he’s acting so strange because something is wrong about him or this is just what happens when you live for so many years in isolation. Watching his family trying to emotionally connect with him and understand their own feelings is heartbreaking. And yet…there is something beautiful about his new exploration of the world as he’s fascinated by products at a connivance store or finding peace in religion. I have no clue where the next season is going, but already I know I want them all to be happy and I hope that is still possible for this group. Watch this show.
1. Breaking Bad Season Five Part Two (AMC)
“I did it for me.”
Of course it’s Breaking Bad. I don’t care if it’s predictable or a cliché at this point, but this was a show that was masterful for years and then went all out for its finale and nailed it. Eight episodes, all fantastic. So many shows tease something and then it never pays off but once the cat was out of the bag (after the bag was out of the river)…all hell broke loose. Yes, there were crazy killings and badass lines, but most importantly it finished its promise. Mr. Chips became Scarface and the repercussions were astronomical. In the best episode of the series, his family is destroyed on such a gut-wrenching level that after viewing the episode twice in one night, I literally felt physical sick the next morning. This is a show that only got better with every season because it understood the number of possibilities within its world. These characters can evolve to dangerous places, the stakes can get even higher and they even knew they could hire Robert Forster. It was the strength of the character arc of Walter White where we can now look back at his greatest moments and see them in a new light. This wasn’t a man you were supposed to root for, but it was a man you had to watch. Goodbye Breaking Bad, you’ll be forever known as one of the greatest.
Even more honorable mentions: 30 Rock's final three episodes, Archer, Betas, The Bletchey Circle, Broadchurch, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Bunheads, The Fall, Family Tree, Fresh Meat, Girls, Justified, Key and Peele, Misfits, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, Rick and Morty, A Touch of Cloth, Top Gear.
Join us tomorrow as my friends and I look at the greatest episodes of 2013. Get excited.