Friday, December 27, 2013

THE BEST OF 2013 - The Best TV Of The Year

THE BEST OF 2013 - The Best TV Shows of The Year

- What a year for television. There is, as usual over the last few years, a lot to talk about in terms of how the way series are being scheduled, programmed, and watched is changing. This was the year that Netflix became a legitimate TV content programmer, and that Amazon jumped into the fray as well. This was the year that binge-watching went mainstream, and did so in a way that actually helped raise the on-air ratings for current shows, as people caught up on past seasons via streaming and download services. This was the year that cable TV continued to dominate, as The Walking Dead became the most-watched scripted show on all of television, and shows like HBO's Game of Thrones dominated the pop-cultural conversation.

But all that being said, this was, I think, the year of Breaking Bad. Changes in consumption habits are one thing, but ultimately, what's even more interesting is when a medium reaches a new creative peak. And that happened this year: BREAKING BAD ended in stunning fashion, and in doing so, set a new bar for TV drama. It feels weird to call a show the greatest-anything of all-time when it only just ended -- don't we need the passage of time to declare such things? -- but with Breaking Bad, it seems like a fair call to make. Months after the astounding final season concluded, I'm still going through withdrawal, still wondering what became of characters like Jesse Pinkman and Walter Jr. after the final credits rolled.

2013 was also the end for some other all-time great shows. One regret I had earlier this year was not finding time to write a lengthy piece about the end of 30 ROCK. 30 Rock somehow became underrated as time went on - perhaps the disconnect between the devotion of critics and hardcore fans, vs. the low on-air ratings, drove some people to dismiss the show as high-brow elitist comedy. Whatever. 30 Rock was TV's best sitcom since they heyday of The Simpsons. It was endlessly quotable, brilliantly written and acted, and mixed random humor with pointed social commentary better than any other comedy in the last decade. I already miss this show greatly. This was the comedy that would have me jotting down quotes to share on social media, that would have me chatting with friends at work about an episode's funniest moments, that would have me pausing and rewinding my DVR to catch jokes I'd missed because I was laughing too hard from something that had happened earlier. 30 Rock had occasional ups and downs over the years, but it was far more consistently great than people give it credit for, and its final season was flat-out brilliant. What's more, each of the final batch of episodes that aired back in January were among the series' best. The series finale was a classic - everything you could have hoped for from this show.

2013 also marked the end of THE OFFICE. The show was in sort of a weird place ever since Steve Carrel left the cast a few years back, but I do think that the show rebounded a bit for its last couple of episodes, showing signs of what made it, in its early years, one of the best comedies on television. In particular, the series finale was a really well-done send-off. Even though the show had long since lost its spot as one of the elite comedies on the air, that finale was a nice reminder of how great the show had been and could be.

For a number of reasons - personal, professional, and otherwise - the end of The Office and 30 Rock really did feel like the end of an era for TV comedy and for NBC.

Another all-time great comedy that ended in 2013 was FUTURAMA. This is a weird one, because we all thought the show was finished years ago when FOX cancelled it. But it got picked up by Comedy Central, and we've been treated to new episodes of the show for the last few years. The quality didn't always match the level of greatness that the show displayed during its original run. But every so often, there'd be an episode like "The Late Philip J. Fry" that was an all-time classic, and a reminder to be thankful that this show was still churning out new episodes. The final season was more hit-or-miss than usual, but the show gave us one last all-timer with its jaw-droppingly amazing finale. The series-ender was an encapsulation of all that made Futurama great - hilarity, imagination, cleverness, fantastic characters, and the uncanny ability to produce episodes that were so full of heart that they made you misty-eyed. How could an animated comedy about robots and lobster-aliens make me more than a little verklempt? It shouldn't, but it did. The finale was a perfect ending for one of my favorite-ever TV shows. And by the way, one of the truly awesome experiences I had at this year's Comic-Con was the Futurama panel, in which I got to see the show's uber-talented voice cast table-read scenes from the series finale, and artists (including Matt Groening himself) live-draw characters from the show. It was a privilege to experience the ongoing adventures of Fry, Leela, Bender, Zoidberg, and the rest of the crew over the years, and I can only express thanks to the creative people behind the show for giving us so many memorable moments and episodes.

Another finale that I've got to talk about: FRINGE. The show aired its final batch of episodes in January, and this was another one that went out with a bang. The show's final season - set in an apocalyptic future - was a strange and bold leap for the show to take, and at times it did seem like too much of a departure from what made the series work so well originally. That said, the two-part finale was a rip-roaring adventure - a time and universe-spanning epic that, while containing a few head-scratching moments, felt like a fantastic farewell to Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop, and Walter Bishop. Fringe will forever go down as an underrated cult classic. It never got the attention or awards it deserved, and the fact that the great John Noble never even got a single Emmy nomination is a travesty, given that week in and week out, he was doing the best acting on TV of anyone not named Bryan Cranston. Fringe will be talked about and discussed and rediscovered for many years to come, and it will go down, I think, as one of the great sci-fi shows alongside stalwarts like The X-Files and Lost (and Fringe's ending was better than both). But what I already miss about Fringe is that it was one of the rare sci-fi shows on TV that actually made me think about science. It felt mind-expanding. While I enjoy a good light and fluffy fantasy show on occasion (Sleepy Hollow, anyone?), I've had a serious post-Fringe void of harder sci-fi storytelling on TV. Still waiting to see what new show will rise to the occasion and take the ball from Fringe.

One final finale I've got to talk about, and that's EASTBOUND & DOWN. Here's another show that had a cult following, but that never really got the proper respect it deserved from most critics. I sort of get it, because Eastbound & Down is pitch-black comedy - it's funny as hell, but also deeply disturbing and boundary-pushing at times. Kenny Powers is not a good person, and the show never pretended that he was. For that reason, the final season of Eastbound made for an interesting companion piece to the final season of Breaking Bad. In its own way, Eastbound was just as epic and dark - with Kenny falling into an ever-expanding black hole of depravity as he once again attempts to reclaim his treasured modicum of fame and fortune. Despite its dark undertones, however, the fact is that no show, maybe ever, has made me laugh harder than Eastbound & Down. Through Kenny, his grotesque sidekick Stevie, and the rest of its oddball cast, the show constantly pushed boundaries, thumbed its nose at good taste, and was one of the last shows on the air that truly shocked me and left my jaw on the floor on a consistent basis. There was always a temptation to just make Kenny awesome - a hero for us to root for. But what made this show great was that yeah, sure, Kenny was sort of awesome in his own ridiculous way - but ultimately, the joke was always on him. Take note, all other shows that have no self-awareness about their own main characters' likability factor: Eastbound & Down never tried to sell us on the idea that Kenny Powers was a great man (far from it). But because the show was so funny, so layered, and so completely unafraid to go where no other comedy dared go, it is, indeed, one of the all-time greats.

Those were some of the shows that ended in 2013, but not to worry, amigos: the future looks bright. In a matter of week we've got the return of  the reliably awesome JUSTIFIED, and the best new show of 2013, THE AMERICANS. There's so much out there now, it's harder than ever to keep up - but the good thing is that there is a lot of quality stuff being made. The Netflix's of the world see the effect that buzzworthy shows like Breaking Bad have on their platform's usage, and so it's now very much in their interest to create similarly buzzworthy shows of their own, that are drivers to their platform. See: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. I'll admit that I've yet to check out that show, but there's no denying that it made a huge impact on the pop-cultural landscape this year. It's a brave new world, people.

So here we go, my top TV shows of 2013. As always, remember: I can't and don't watch everything, so forgive me if I leave out one of your favorites (unless one of your favorites is lame/bad/boring/unworthy, in which case ... not sorry!).



- Hail to the king of kings. Breaking Bad went out in grand fashion in 2013, and anyone who doesn't just acknowledge that it was not just the best TV of the year, but of any year, needs to get their head checked. Breaking Bad was a triumph of storytelling on TV. So often, TV plotlines are derailed by network interference, budget, time, and the lingering uncertainty of how long, exactly, a show will last. But here, for one of the first times ever on American TV, a story was told exactly as it was meant to be told. And so, finally, here was a TV show that felt as seamless, as confident, as expertly plotted as any great film or novel. Vince Gilligan and the creative team deserve all the credit in the world, as do Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and the rest of the best-in-the-biz cast. Cranston's work as Walter White was the best-ever acting I've seen on TV - maybe anywhere. Breaking Bad, like I said, set a new bar in 2013.


- After an uneven third season that was meant to be the show's last, Eastbound unexpectedly returned for one more swing. And thank god it did. The show course-corrected itself, delivering its best season since the first, once again taking wannabe bad-boy Kenny Powers and his delusions of grandeur on an epic journey into the heart of darkness. This season of Eastbound was absolutely, drop-dead hilarious - the funniest thing on TV in 2013. If you've yet to dive into Eastbound & Down, do so immediately. As long as you're not too shocked and easily offended. Because be warned: this show boldly went to places that no other comedy had gone before. While it may be gone, it won't be forgotten: long live Kenny Powers.

3. 30 ROCK

- 30 Rock only aired a handful of episodes in 2013, but here's the thing, nerdz: each of them was a stone-cold classic. 30 Rock deserves to be this high on the list because it was just that good - and Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan, and the rest of the fantastic ensemble cast did some of their best work in those final episodes. 30 Rock did something that few of the great comedies have ever managed to do - it went out at the top of its game.


- This year saw the passing of the great writer Elmore Leonard, whose stories serve as the basis for Justified. It's to Leonard's credit that so much of this show - plotlines, dialogue - are lifted straight from the author's novels. Nobody wrote hard-boiled pulp fiction like Leonard, and no show does hard-boiled pulp fiction like Justified. The show's fourth season created yet another sprawling new-Western yarn, that once again pitted Raylan Givens against his sometimes-friend, most-of-the-time nemesis Boyd Crowder. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins really are the perfect yin and yang. As long as these two are involved, you know that Justified will continue to be the most badass show on TV.


- This show really wowed me in 2013. It took a few episodes to really get going, but soon enough, business picked up bigtime. This cold war-set series mixes the moral gray areas of a Breaking Bad with spy thriller action, and one of the most volatile husband-and-wife relationships ever seen on TV. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are phenomenal on the show as a pair of Soviet spies posing as ordinary US citizens, and Noah Emmerich is similarly fantastic as the dogged agent pursuing them (though unaware, so far, that the normal-seeming couple next door are, in fact, who he's after). Gripping and full of surprising twists, The Americans became an absolute must-watch for me in 2013, and I can't wait for Season 2.


- In a year full of great TV, no single scripted event was more shocking or talked-about than Game of Thrones' already-infamous "red wedding." Sure, fans of the books may have known it was coming, but for the rest of us - holy $#%&. But weddings-gone-wrong aside, this was just a great season for Game of Thrones - a show with so many great actors and characters that it's hard to pinpoint just a few standouts. But I'll try. This was the season that Emilia Clarke's Daenerys became really, really badass - a true mother of dragons. This was the season that Margaery Tyrell and her scheming family came into the picture, and added a new level of intrigue to the ongoing saga. This was the season that "you know nothing, John Snow" entered the popular lexicon, as Snow made a home for himself beyond the Wall. Great, epic stuff. 


- Children's Hospital continued to be awesome in 2013, with some of the show's craziest and most ambitious episodes to date. I saw the season premiere over the summer at Comic-Con, and it absolutely killed, leaving the crowd in stitches. This show has still got one of the flat-out funniest casts of anything on TV - Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Rob Cordry, Lake Bell, Malin Ackermann, Erin Hayes, David Wain, Henry Winkler, Meagan Mullaly, guest appearances from Nick Offermann, and the list goes on ... I hope this show just keeps going and going.


-  Boardwalk is one of those shows that sometimes takes a while to build up steam. Sometimes the pace feels a little slow, and the many divergent plotlines a bit all over the place. But when everything comes together, when Boardwalk really nails it, there are few shows better. I was reminded of this while watching the incredible Season 4 finale. I'd been feeling a bit down on S4 as compared to the superb S3 ... but that finale, man, that was Boardwalk at the top of its game. A key character died in a tragic, unsettling, and memorable fashion. The rift between the Thompson brothers grew bigger yet again. And poor Gillian seems to be in the worse shape she's been in since the show began. So many amazing actors on the show - S4 benefited from a spotlight on Michael K. William's ultra-intense Chalky White, and the introduction of Jeffrey Wright, playing Chalky's enigmatic new rival. 


- What's this show doing on here? In past years, I dismissed American Horror Story as all-style, no-substance shock TV. But Season 3, Coven, has me absolutely hooked. This season's yearly reboot is just clicking on all levels. The show is still wildly over-the-top and crazy, but this year, it feels like there's an actual narrative driving all of the insanity. It feels like a show I can sink my teeth into, rather than just watch to see what crazy $#%# will happen this week. But man, Coven has become an absolute playground for Oscar-caliber actresses to go at it: Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Gabourey Sidibe, Sarah Paulson, and more are making this season ridiculously fun and entertaining. 'Tis the season of the witch, and I couldn't be happier. If you bailed on the show previously, it's time for a second look.


-  All hail one of the last great network comedies left standing. With 30 Rock and The Office finito, and Community suffering through a Dan Harmon-less season, Parks and Rec assumed the mantle of king-of-comedy at NBC. And Leslie Knope and the rest of the citizenry of Pawnee delivered yet again, with numerous fantastic episodes and more great moments for some of comedy's best characters. With the hsow bouncing around the schedule, and Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe set to leave the cast shortly into 2014, it felt like we had to savor each new episode this year. And savor we did, Ron Swanson-eating-a-raw-steak style.

The Next Best:


- One of the year's best new shows, this Showtime drama features incredible performances from leads Michael Shannon and Lizzy Caplan. Come for the sizzle, but stay for the steak - namely, an insightful and thought-provoking look at the sexual and social revolutions of mid-century America. 


- New Girl was on top of the comedy heap earlier this year, but I'm docking it a few points for an only so-so season since September. Still, New Girl was one of the funniest, most laugh-out-loud comedies on TV this year, and the ensemble cast is second to none. 


-  I spoke about Fringe at length up top - only a few episodes aired in 2013, but the episodes that we got provided an epic finish to one of the best sci-fi series of the last ten years. Emmys for everybody, said I. If only people listened. 


-  This new comedy has been a great surprise so far. I'm loving the mix of wacky humor and heartwarming storylines, many of which feel lifted from tales of the Baram household circa twenty-odd years ago.


- Go, now, and binge-watch Season 1 of Bates Motel. It gets good, really good, and the high quality of the last few episodes in the season gives me high expectations for Season 2. Vera Farmiga owned it on this show as Norma Bates - a woman both comforting and creepy, heroic and deranged.


- Futurama deserves to be on here for its series finale alone - a masterful close-out to one of the best-ever animated comedies. Futurama will be quoted, re-watched, and made into memes for years and years - possibly up to and beyond the year 3,000 when it will be directly ingested via neural implant. So I'm glad that the show got to give us a couple more classics before all was said and done.


- This year, Key & Peele became one of my most anticipated weekly shows. The ambition of the sketches is high - you could get anything from a viral video-ready music video parody to a pointed political satire. But what's consistent are how high-quality each sketch is, impeccably shot and directed, impeccably acted by Key and Peele. These guys have just been killing it of late.


- I'm a huge fan of what I'll call the Ricky Gervais school of comedy. The original UK version of The Office is one of my all-time favorites, and now, Gervais' partner-in-crime, Stephen Merchant, has an ultra-awkward, ultra-funny comedy to call his own. Hello Ladies grew on me as it went on, and ultimately I'd say it had a great first season. This is cringe-worthy comedy on par with The Office and Extras, but Merchant does this stuff so well - he finds the humor and heart in all the awkwardness to make this show something special.


- Speaking of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, I've been a huge, huge fan of their brainchild An Idiot Abroad. I'd probably rank this higher, except there were only three episodes of the show's third season, and man, I wanted more! In S3, reluctant adventurer Karl Pilkington explores various remote destinations, accompanied by Gervais' pal Warwick Davis (of Willow and Harry Potter fame). Davis and Pilkington make an amazing odd-couple, and the two share some amazing, hilarious moments. Please lord, let there be more Idiot Abroad. This show is too great to end now.


- I marathoned through this one on DVD at the recommendation of friends, and I dug it. What makes the show special is the phenomenal work of actress Tatiana Maslaney, who plays several highly distinct characters - all clones. I'm hoping that S2 ups the ante in terms of ongoing plot and overarching mythology, but S1 was a fine start. And Maslaney has crafted not just one, but several, of the most kickass female characters on TV today. For that, she's got to be commended.


- Workaholics is a random, goofy comedy series that has a DIY feel. It's clear that its three leads love hanging out and doing this show and putting their unique brand of stoner-bro humor out there into the world. In other hands, it might be grating. But these guys are funny - really funny - and the sharp writing and imaginative plotlines make this series about hapless slackers a must-watch.


- I saw the Sleepy Hollow pilot at Comic-Con this past summer. I went in skeptical, but came away very impressed. This was clearly a show that fully embraced its over-the-topness, and it had an earnest, geeky sensibility that was incredibly endearing. Credit star Tom Mison for making it work. As Ichabod Crane, he gives gravitas and humor to a show that you can't help but root for. I'm still waiting for the show to have its first truly great episode, but there's enough good raw material here that I'm optimistic we'll get it soon.


- As a huge fan of Marc Maron's WTF podcast, I was curious to see how the comedian's world-weary humor would translate to a Louie-esque TV comedy. Things started out a little rough, but by the end of S1, the show had produced some truly winning, highly funny episodes (my favorite: a hilarious teaming of Maron with Danny Trejo as an ex-con). Can't wait to see more.


- Season 3 of Portlandia started off on a high note, with a fantasticaly funny sketch about an aging hipster trying to take back MTV, storming the network's NYC offices and recruiting guys like Kurt Loder to help in the cause. It was proof that when it's on its game, Portlandia is capable of doing great sketch comedy. I look forward to new episodes this year.


- I know, this show has its share of haters. And occasionally, I'm one of them. But the fact is that The Walking Dead, for all its flaws, remains a must-watch because it's a show capable of producing big, crazy, jaw-dropping moments like few other series can. The latter half of Season 3 early in the year was a high point, as the war between Rick and company and The Governor escalated. Season 4 floundered for a while, but picked up steam when the Governor returned. The mid-season finale in December was a great episode of television, delivering a climactic final showdown with the Governor, and opening up some exciting possibilities for 2014.


- Another funny new comedy with boatloads of potential, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I feel, is right on the verge of greatness. The ensemble they've assembled is top-notch, episodes so far have shown flashes of brilliance, and the show seems like the spiritual heir to the aging Parks and Recreation: a workplace comedy with both wackiness and heart. 


The Best TV Heroes of 2013:

1.) Daenerys Targaryen - Game of Thrones
2.) Raylan Givens - Justified
3.) Ichabod Crane - Sleepy Hollow
4.) Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop, and Olivia - Fringe
5.) Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix, and Cosima Niehaus - Orphan Black

The Best TV Villains of 2013:

1.) Todd - Breaking Bad
2.) Tywin Lanister - Game of Thrones
3.) King Joffrey - Game of Thrones
4.) Dr. Valentin Narcisse - Boardwalk Empire
5.) The Headless Horseman - Sleepy Hollow

The Best TV Anti-Heroes of 2013:

1.) Walter White and Jesse Pinkman - Breaking Bad
2.) Margaery Tyrell - Game of Thrones
3.) Boyd Crowder - Justified
4.) Saul Goodman - Breaking Bad
5.) Chalky White - Boardwalk Empire

Best Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Christine Woods - Hello, Ladies

Runners Up: Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation, Zooey Daschanel - New Girl

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Katy Mixon - Eastbound & Down

Runners Up: Lake Bell, Erin Hayes and Malin Ackermann - Children's Hospital

Best Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Danny McBride - Eastbound & Down

Runners Up: Max Greenfield - New Girl, Jake Johnson - New Girl, Stephen Merchant - Hello, Ladies 

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Ken Marino - Eastbound & Down

Runners Up: Nick Offermann - Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari - Parks and Recreation, Rob Cordry - Childrens Hospital

Best Actress in a Drama:

1.) Keri Russel - The Americans
Runners Up: Lizzy Caplan - Masters of Sex, Vera Famiga - Bates Motel, Tatiana Maslaney - Orphan Black

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:

1.)  Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad

Runners Up: Natalie Dormer - Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke - Game of Thrones, Jessica Lange - American Horror Story: Coven, Kathy Bates - American Horror Story: Coven

Best Actor in a Drama:

1.) Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad

Runners Up: Matthew Rhys - The Americans, Timothy Olyphant - Justified, Michael Sheen - Masters of Sex

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama:

1.) Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad

Runners Up:  Dean Norris - Breaking Bad, Walton Goggins - Justified, Jack Huston - Boardwalk Empire, Michael Kenneth Williams - Boardwalk Empire, Noah Emmerich - The Americans

And that's all, folks - my picks for the best TV of 2013. 

No comments: