2013 in Review: Kingpins, Inmates and Serial Killers in a Rich Year for Television

Orphan Black

In 2013, couch potatoes reframed the phrase “too much TV” to signify the veritable bounties of powerful dramas, gut-busting comedies and intriguing hybrids splashed across an unprecedented array of channels and platforms. No longer can concerned parents or frustrated roommates complain that you need to get out more – they’re too busy binging on House of Cards and catching up on Scandal.

Regardless of what this visual buffet means for the state of physical fitness, there’s no denying that 2013 brought riches aplenty for people who find value in the artistic medium of “television.” Whether you were letting Netflix give you the royal treatment, carrying you from one episode to the next without so much as a click of the mouse, or you were continuing to exert power over your remote control, greatness was bursting from every frame. A brilliant thriller about an alliterative meth king ended its run in a blaze of frightfully intense glory. Serial killers and murder mysteries reigned supreme in a wide range of settings, tones and character shadings. We dove headfirst into the emotional lives of inmates in a women’s prison, found surprising emotional depth in the tale of two Russian spies whose marriage oscillates between façade and fulfillment, and marveled at the dexterity of a young woman tasked with simultaneously portraying nearly a dozen versions of herself.

The year’s best television shows explored ideas of power, class, identity and connection. Daniel Holden (Aiden Young) spent the first season of Rectify struggling to readjust to our fast-moving world after 19 years in federal prison, while Piper Chapman occupied the other side of that divide on Orange is the New Black, integrating herself into the wildly complex dynamics of prison life. Orphan Black used the constantly expanding repertoire of clones played by Tatiana Maslany to explore characters in socioeconomic positions from near-poverty to near-opulence. On Hannibal and Top of the Lake, prickly detectives played by Hugh Dancy and Elisabeth Moss searched for serial killers and sought to understand them through empathy. Even on the bubbly New Girl, the loftmates were exploring these issues: Nick Miller’s (Jake Johnson) financial instability and his burgeoning romance with Jess Day (Zooey Deschanel) proved to be a thoroughly timely story of romance in a state of economic stagnation.

New Girl

There are holes in the current TV landscape, to be sure. Louis C.K.’s 2013 sabbatical and the unexpected creative struggles on the third season of New Girl left room for original comedy voices, but those holes went largely unfilled. (Which is not to say that there wasn’t great comedy in 2013. Drama just had a stronger year overall.) Olivia Pope’s reign over the Thursday night Twitter-cooler only grew stronger as Scandal edged into its third season, and Orange is the New Black introduced a range of characters with backgrounds rarely represented on television, but diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, class and other distinctions could still use some work. And for every Sleepy Hollow and Trophy Wife, smartly constructed shows that justify the continuing relevance of the network model, countless more – The Michael J. Fox Show and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., to name two – coasted on the charms of their network-mandated agendas without finding anything new to say.

The future looks bright, though. Next year will bring a raft of miniseries, from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo adaptation on FX to whatever Steven Soderbergh is cooking up with Clive Owen on Cinemax. Critics are already raving about HBO’s anthology series True Detective, which might push Matthew McConaughey halfway to an EGOT if his Dallas Buyers Club performance holds up in the Oscar conversation. We can only hope that Sleepy Hollow will confidently end its brief first season on a high note, setting the stage for further nuttiness in season two. Mad Men will begin the end of its seven-season run, aping the Breaking Bad episode model for what ought to be an intriguing conclusion to the fascinating Don Draper narrative.

Best yet, there’s more coming down the horizon than we could ever predict or anticipate. No one predicted the emergence of the Sundance channel as the AMC that AMC turned out not to be. No one predicted that Netflix’s most satisfying hit would not be the prestige drama starring Kevin Spacey as an antiheroic politician, but the tonally ambiguous dramedy set in a women’s prison. No one predicted that we’d be talking about Netflix, Amazon and Hulu right alongside the broadcast and cable networks, in terms of commercial and creative success. The best part of being a television fan is stumbling upon a hidden gem or monitoring an emerging phenomenon. Here’s to an equally bounteous 2014.

Tomorrow: My ten favorite shows of 2013.

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