2013 in Review: My Ten Favorite TV Shows


Yesterday I offered an overview of the year in television. Today, check out my list of my ten favorite TV shows of 2013. A few caveats:

1. I haven’t seen everything. Here’s a partial list of shows I can’t include on this list because I haven’t watched them: The Good Wife. Game of Thrones. Enlightened. Bob’s Burgers. Girls.Veep. Eastbound and Down. Treme. Broadchurch. The Fall. Masters of Sex. Justified. Sons of Anarchy. Boardwalk Empire. I’m not paid to watch television. I’m doing the best I can.

2. I didn’t rank these ten shows because I didn’t have the energy. Why bother? They’re all great. I’d recommend any of them to people who love watching TV.

3. Making lists is fun but inevitably arbitrary. Tomorrow, I’ll post another list of shows that missed this list but still deserved recognition. Boiling things down to a list of ten is important for the purposes of making difficult judgment but meaningless for the pursuit of quality viewing.

And now, the list.



The Americans (FX)

The Americans

Thrilling action sequences and powerful performances illuminate a powerful story about a marriage in disarray, set against the backdrop of the Cold War. Matthews Rhys and Keri Russell routinely amazed in an increasingly bizarre and mortifyingly hilarious collection of wigs and costumes, retaining the characters’ tortured humanity throughout. The tragic story of Gregory (Derek Luke) made for two of the most emotionally rich episodes of TV all year. And the first season ended on a promising note, marking an important milestone in the Jennings marriage and opening up story possibilities for its rich ensemble in seasons to come.

Returns February 26th
Rent on Amazon or iTunes



Breaking Bad (AMC)

Breaking Bad

With each passing episode in the AMC drama’s extraordinary final season, the tension seemed to have reached the ultimate crescendo. How could the show top Hank’s confrontation with Walt in the garage? How about Jesse discovering the truth about the ricin cigarette? How about that devastating standoff in the desert? How about that terrifying knife fight in the White bedroom? How about that phone call, and poor Holly? How about Jesse streaking to safety and an uncertain future in the finale’s final moments? And how about that final shot, with the camera swirling like a vulture in reverse over Walter’s finally deadened corpse. Though the final season could almost certainly have benefited from more episodes to cover more emotional territory with Jesse and deepen the stakes with the neo-Nazis, Vince Gilligan and his writers delivered one of the most physically nerve-racking experiences I’ve witnessed in a piece of art.

Series finale aired September 29th
Stream the first five seasons on Netflix; rent this year’s final stretch of episode on Amazon or iTunes



Bunheads (ABC Family)


Cruelly cancelled after its scattered and brilliant first season, Amy Sherman-Palladino proved with this show that Gilmore Girls was not the television equivalent of a one-hit wonder. Sutton Foster’s remarkable lead performance injected Michelle with a depth and range of behaviors rarely seen in a female lead on television. The eponymous ballerinas, flat and unremarkable in the early going, found their voices as the show allowed them to be as emotionally confused and wickedly funny as the adults. Bunheads was one of the least predictable shows on television, rarely sustaining consistent long-term arcs and occasionally sidestepping into moments of transcendent dance poetry. The dancers weren’t the only ones on their toes.

Series finale aired February 25th
Stream the entire series on Amazon



Hannibal (NBC)


On paper, this show looked like the product of a flailing network reaching into its crop of dormant licenses, stumbling upon the well-trod tale of Hannibal Lecter and attempting an ill-advised reboot as a stall tactic while it waited for Michael J. Fox to save the day. (He didn’t.) Despite its questionable origins, executive producer Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) helmed the most beautiful show of the year, aided in large part by an impressive set of cinematographers and directors including David Slade and Guillermo Navarro. The show’s downbeat tone and unfiltered gore left some viewers cold, but masterful performances from Hugh Dancy as Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen as the legendary killer kept me invested. In a year when violent stories about murder and crime threatened to overwhelm the landscape, Hannibal indulged those tendencies without avoiding their complexities and consequences.

Returns February 28th at 10pm
Rent on Amazon or iTunes



Key and Peele (Comedy Central)

Key and Peele

Sketch comedy is inherently inconsistent – even with a show in peak form, there will be hits and there will be misses. Three seasons running, this Comedy Central sketch series has precious few misses, and when it does, it overrides them with another classic like the East/West College Bowl or the Liam Neesons superfans. Stars Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele inject social commentary into their sketches without moralizing, and their backgrounds (both were raised by a white mother and a black father) lend a fresh perspective to their skits that’s missing from the noticeably white tableau of Saturday Night Live. Most importantly, Key and Peele’s sketches are outrageously funny and intelligently constructed, often building to a suspenseful punchline or eschewing conventional comedic rhythms.

Returns in 2014
Stream the first two seasons on Amazon, rent this season on Amazon or iTunes



Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men

Major awards shows seem to have fallen out of love with this “prestige drama” in its sixth season, but don’t assume their negligence is a reflection of the show’s quality. This season certainly had more weak spots than some of the previous ones, including the monotonous deterioration and re-deterioration of Don Draper and the show’s glib handling of race issues. But this season had riches aplenty, from the resurgence of Betty Draper, glowingly rendered by January Jones in her finest showcases to date, to the emergence of Peggy as the show’s new Don. New cast members like Harry Hamlin and Kevin Rahm kept the ensemble fresh, and the season ended with its best episode, in which Don confronted his past in front of his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) for the first time. With just fourteen episodes to go, Matthew Weiner’s intellectually stimulating series has been primed for a powerful finish.

Returns in Spring 2014
Rent on Amazon or iTunes



Orange is the New Black (Netflix)


The premise isn’t especially promising: an entitled young woman goes to jail for a petty crime she committed years earlier. But the execution was consistently stunning. The elastic episodic structure makes room for flashbacks exploring the characters’ lives pre-incarceration, deepening and complicating the relationships in the prison and fleshing out a world that instantly feels like a real, vibrant community. Taylor Schilling anchors an extraordinary and diverse cast of women of many different personalities and backgrounds. The show radiates empathy for even its most despicable, depraved characters, suggesting a world in which people and their mistakes are treated as distinct entities.

Returns in Spring 2014
Stream on Netflix



Orphan Black (BBC America)

Orphan Black

You’ve likely heard about the enthusiasm surrounding this show’s star Tatiana Maslany. Believe the hype. Maslany manages to distinguish the eight different characters she plays (not including the times when one character imitates another) in accent, delivery, inflection and posture, and the show’s ferociously quick pace still left time to explore each clone as a person, not merely a one-dimensional extension of the brand. Jordan Gavaris lent able support as Sarah’s flamboyant friend Felix, one of the most consistently enjoyable characters on television. Over ten massively entertaining episodes, the show chugged through its story at a rapid pace, remaining coherent and consistently eye-popping. The blistering season finale set up a thrilling season to come. With Maslany front and center, we’re in good hands.

Returns April 19th
Rent on Amazon or iTunes



Parks and Recreation (NBC)


Another show in its sixth season that hasn’t lost a step in its “old age.” Some would argue that Parks has been stuck in neutral after several of its prospective endings proved premature. Others would argue that Leslie Knope has become unsustainable as the show’s lead character. I would counter that few shows on TV give me more unironic pleasure on a weekly basis than this one. Ron Swanson continues to be comedy gold, with Tom Haverford and April Ludgate running just behind him. Adam Scott’s performance continues to be an underappreciated gem, and Amy Poehler is as energetic and buoyant as ever. Better yet, the show hasn’t run out of story juice or forgotten that it’s always been adept at carving out long-term arcs for its characters, including the soon-to-depart Ann Perkins and Chris Traeger. Any show that can toss out episodes like “Two Parties” and “London” should not be overlooked.

Season 6 continues January 9th at 8:30pm
Watch the five most recent episods on Hulu



Rectify (Sundance Channel)


Sundance broke out in a big way this year, first with the Jane Campion miniseries Top of the Lake (which just missed this list) and later with the French import The Returned (ditto). Sandwiched between those two shows, Rectify asserted itself in its brief first season as an observant, contemplative drama about the effects of isolation on the human psyche. The terrific cast includes masterful performances from Aiden Young as Daniel, released from prison after nineteen years for a crime he may or may not have committed; Abigail Spencer as Amantha, Daniel’s beleaguered and compassionate sister; and Adelaide Clemens as Tawney, Daniel’s sister-in-law and a born-again Christian with designs on Daniel’s spirituality. The episode “Drip, Drip” which opens with a baffling sequence in which Daniel meets an eccentric man who may or may not be a figment of his imagination, is among the most challenging, thought-provoking hours of TV all year. Daniel’s redemption is far from complete, and his record far from clean, leaving creator Ray McKinnon with rich material to mine in seasons to come.

Returns in 2014
Rent on Amazon or iTunes

Tomorrow: The best of the rest.

2 thoughts on “2013 in Review: My Ten Favorite TV Shows

  1. Looking forward to the return of The Americans. I would argue that the end of last season of Parks & Rec and some of the more recent episodes have started to reveal it’s getting long in the tooth, but it’s not enough to scare me away. I’m interested in Rectify; hadn’t heard of it before this. Enjoyed your post.

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