2013 has been a grand year for television. As we’ll soon see from my list – perhaps the definitive on the subject – this year has been a rare treat in terms of televisual treats. It was the year that Mr. Chips went full Scarface, a scarred dwarf captured the hearts of millions around the world, and that TV On Demand went stratospheric. Netflix reached peak levels of saturation this year, buoyed by an increasing focus on original content alongside its impressive roster of shows. This, combined with jaw-dropping levels of global piracy, meant that many of the shows you simply had to see weren’t actually being broadcast on traditional network television. More on that later.
So, this is my list of the top ten TV shows of this year. As I go into in nauseating detail in the New Girl entry (spoiler!), I differentiate between this list and that of my “favourites”. There’s a lot of overlap between the two lists, but the orderings are slightly different, as discussed throughout. Suffice to say, this is an unnecessary distinction but I make it nonetheless. Accept it at your peril.
Every decade is the golden age of television, if you think about it, but 2013 was a truly a vintage year. Social media makes TV a global event, meaning that as media becomes increasingly fractured – with water cooler talk being mostly a thing of the past – it becomes much bigger in its potential reach. I suppose we can thank House for paving the way globally for mainstream, intelligent, worldwide televisual fare, and its a trend that will only continue into 2014.
On with the list! In reverse order…Next
You may balk at the idea of hipster comedy, but it was bound to happen at some point. Just be thankful that it occurred not through a horrific, corporate sponsored YouTube channel and instead fell perfectly formed from the surprising twin cloaca of Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Carrie Brownstein and SNL alum Fred Armisen, like a beautiful vegan egg, hewn from tweed.
If ever two characters were more placed to poke an arched eyebrow at the retro-pomposity of hipsterdom, it was Brownstein and Armisen. While it’s an odd pairing, they proved their chops in the sheer quality of off-kilter comedy they manage to mine from that world. Add a roster of cult superstar cameos (Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Selma Blair, Eddie Vedder, Kumail Nanjani, Tim Robbins, Jeff Goldblum, and Kyle MacLachlan in a recurring role as the mayor of Portland) and a killer soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself the total package.
What separates Portlandia from your usual hipster-baiting comedy is the imagination and affection it brings to the scene. It’s clear that there’s a lot of love for that culture, and a deep understanding of the motivations and aims that inhabitants of that subculture have. That it picks at them in a relatively unforgiving way without appearing cruel or unjustly harsh is impressive. Portlandia never mocks its targets, just subtly roasts them, perhaps with a lovely vegan tart.
Season three came to a close in 2013 and with season four set for a February 2014 debut, Portlandia has provided one of home channel IFC’s biggest hits in their fledgeling original television roster, receiving numerous awards in the process. With such memorable characters as Peter and Nance, bohemian bed and breakfast proprietors; the ever-reliable Sanitation Twins; and breakout success Toni and Candace, owners of feminist bookstore Women and Women First; along with dozens of other characters (mostly played by Brownstein and Armisen themselves), the show is a gift that keeps on giving.
But remember, I liked it before it was cool. You probably wouldn’t like it.Previous Next
The never ending well of self-loathing and introspection that Marc Maron has drawn upon for his wealth of comedy material is truly something to behold. His podcast, WTF With Marc Maron, acts as a small outlet for the exhausting process that he seems to put himself through everyday, never failing to question his motives and purposes audibly, for our benefit. The seeds for Maron seemed to have been sown in an interview with Louis CK, whereupon he remarks upon the “Louie deal” that all comedians want – a contract with a relatively minor network, for a negligible amount of money, to make TV with as much creative freedom as possible.
While Louis CK used this as a way to challenge the very limits of the sitcom medium, and redefine the entire genre as “before Louie” and “after Louie,” Marc Maron uses his show on IFC in much the same way as his podcast – as an outlet for the aggression he holds towards himself, and the relentless investigation and focus on the minutiae of his life.
Infused with lacerating honesty, we’re left with no doubt in our minds that the Marc Maron we see here is indeed the Marc Maron of real life, only amplified slightly for television. It appears to be filmed in his actual house (affectionately known on the podcast as the cat ranch), and we actually get to see the garage in which the podcast is recorded. Celebrity guests occasionally feature in the show, but not in a big way – they drift in and out of his life, like the women he dates, and the cats he keeps. This is intentional, I think, to show us how Marc Maron sees himself: not that close to anyone except whoever he’s in bed with at that moment, or his borderline psychotic father. It’s underplayed, subtle, and beautiful. Like Portlandia, it’s a cult hit, and might have flown under many a radar, but it’s well worth seeking out. Season 2 starts in 2014, so you don’t have that long to wait. Patience, child.Previous Next
This year I reviewed the latest season of Homeland for this very site, and if I’m honest, I found it to be a slog towards the end. In my opinion the shocking finale reinvigorated the show, taking it back to the dizzying heights of the epic first season, but for much of the season before that I just wasn’t that interested.
In terms of my “favourite” shows this would be pretty damn low on the list, but I appreciate the ambition and scope the season strove for. Towards the end, the threads that had been deliberately spun out in disparate directions were gradually shorn away without much explanation until it drew focus back to all that truly mattered – the relationship between Carrie, Saul, and Brody. That’s the heart of this show, and all its ever been about. Every effective storyline, every key moment, involves at least one of those three people. Quite how the next season will function, given the loss of one of these three characters, is hard to say.
The show has been a big success on both sides of the pond, however, drawing in big audiences wherever it shows. It has the benefit of cultural zeitgeist attached to it, dealing as it does with international terrorism, the machinations of secret governments, and CIA spying – all hot potatoes that are covered in the news everyday. Dynamic and captivating performances from Damien Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patankin as Nicholas Brody, Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson respectively make it easy to get hooked on the show, and its refusal to shy away from moments of extreme violence, and extreme tension, mean that most episodes contain at least one sequence that gets your pulse racing to dangerous levels.
Brody barely featured in the first half of this year’s run, being on the run for the Langley bombing at the end of last season. We eventually found him holed up in a squat in the carcass of an abandoned Venezuelan skyscraper (of all places), but throughout Season 3 we followed his journey back to the US, then into Iran, where things went from bad to worse. It was exciting in the end but the show lost its way in places, following rabbit holes that ultimately led to nowhere – Dana, Mira - thankfully jettisoning these as the show reached its stunning denouement. It was the only way the season could finish, but where does the show go from here?Previous Next
I came late to Luther, only having watched it because of the endless hectoring of almost everyone I knew. Series three was the first series I watched live as it was broadcast in the UK, and is another show I covered for this beautiful site. It was broadcast in the US slightly later, but it received positive notices from websites and publications on both sides of the Atlantic ocean due to its grittiness, realism, and charismatic lead star Idris Elba.
It makes sense that Luther would be shown in the US due to the high stateside profile of Elba, given his casting as Stringer Bell in The World’s Greatest TV Show, The Wire. Before Luther, he was probably more famous in the US than the UK – a strange reversal to the norm. It’s also a very American style of cop show, unafraid to confront the creepier and more violent side of criminality. While cop shows in the UK cover similar themes, they’re rarely as dramatic or tense as those in Luther – you couldn’t imagine Morse investigating a cross-dressing revenge killer, or Midsomer Murders delving into the murky world of internet trolling.Recent hit Broadchurch did cover Luther-style themes in a similarly scary way, but that was in this show’s wake.
Elba’s now a star in his home country as well as abroad, and rightly so. His most recent role could be one of his finest – as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. It remains to be seen how successful that will be, but given Mandela’s recent death and Elba’s star profile, it’s bound to draw a big audience. The fourth season of Luther will also hit in 2014, and there’s rumours of a film approaching on the horizon, which are yet to be confirmed or denied. Whatever happens, there’s a whole heap of Luther heading right for us, so open wide.Previous Next
6. New Girl
I love New Girl. Love it, love it, love it. As much as I’d like to wax lyrical for 500 words about how much I love this show, I don’t think the world needs that. What the world does need, however, is New Girl. I love this show. Did I mention that? I’d say that New Girl is my second favourite show on this list. It’s my sixth best show, but my second favourite, because my tastes are more discerning than yours. I differentiate between “favourite” and “best,” as I’ve stated before (I think).
Why do I love it so much? I genuinely don’t know. The first season I could take or leave, if I’m honest. It did nothing for me, and while it’s a worthwhile introduction to the series, it just didn’t feel like anything special to me. That all changed with the second season, in which the show seemed to really find its feet and work out what direction it was going to take with each character, and just what their individual arcs would be. They’d spent the first season establishing who all these people were, and in season two they just wind them up and let them go.
My favourite character is Schmidt, because he’s everything I need in a comedy character – he’s a douchebag, he’s absurd, he’s Jewish, he’s everything I love in comedy. I’m not denigrating any of the other characters, each of whom could star in their own series (indeed, New Girl is Jess’ series), but Schmidt just cracks me up. It’s also refreshing to get a few genuinely funny female characters in a mainstream sitcom, probably the most since Arrested Development (more on that later), all of whom are as ridiculous as any of the main characters. Even Cece, who could so easily fall into standard “hot girl” territory, is flawed, funny, and well-rounded. Let’s just hope that showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and the team can carry it on into 2014, with season 4. I’m sure they will.Previous Next
5. The Walking Dead
Where to begin with The Walking Dead? It looked like the show was in danger of falling into narrative stasis when they holed themselves up in the prison, hidden from all outside threats. The only way they could present any jeopardy was to do what they eventually did – allow the threat to enter the hideout, and it all began with that killer flu. Between the flu that would kill almost all of the non-speaking characters and the brief return of the Governer, the first half of season 4 of The Walking Dead was positively action packed. It’s not really a show you can binge-watch without suffering from fatigue, I find, but in weekly installments it’s a truly thrilling piece of television.
The zombies don’t seem to cause problems for the crew anymore, which detracts from the show a lot. There’s no danger surrounding the walkers, which in a show called The Walking Dead, is a problem. I know the show can just as easily refer to the survivors as the walkers, but this is a show about zombies. It could be a ploy to lull us into a false sense of security to further ram home the catastrophe of the second half of season 4, or it could just be how the show is now. I suppose time will tell.
Many people complain that Rick Grimes, the main character, is the least compelling on the show. And they’re right. Where season 4 has really come into its own is that it’s given many other characters a real chance to shine – Daryl’s burgeoning friendship with the formerly mouse-like Carol, both now trusted and responsible members of the group, for instance – making for a better viewing experience. It’s a really fun watch, and much deeper than a lot of people seem to give it credit for. If only Rick wasn’t so damned boring. Still, great TV!Previous Next
All roads lead to The Thick of It. The hit UK political sitcom, created by Armando Iannucci – a man with a long history of stellar comedy in the UK with such hits as Alan Partridge, The Day Today and now, Veep. The popularity that Veep has achieved in the US combined with the recent casting of Peter Capaldi (human powder keg Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) as the Doctor in the newest iteration of Doctor Who means that The Thick of It is bound to find a bigger audience in the US.
Why am I talking about this here? Well, Veep is a great example of a regional adaptation done correctly. Just like The Office US was a perfect adaptation of The Office UK, Veep was Iannucci’s attempt to adapt the themes of The Thick of It – the general incompetence of politicians and civil servants – to a more American sensibility. The style of the show might be slightly more polished than its origin would suggest, and the comedy slightly broader and less wordy, but it’s still fantastic.
A big part of the pitch for Veep appeared to be that In The Loop, the 2009 Academy Award-nominated movie written and directed by Iannucci and his team (starring James Gandolfini, among others), did so well critically and financially. It logically follows that the team’s considerable talents would be transferred to television, and Veep is the result. Does it succeed? Does it ever. A big part of this is great casting – the ever-brilliant Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer swears and sighs her way through one calamity after another, never hearing from the President, and never quite in control of her enthusiastic staff. Other notable players include Anna Chlumsky (as Amy, Selina’s put upon chief of staff), Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale (Selina’s loyal aide Gary) and Matt Walsh as Mike, her director of communications.
A rarity in US television in that it keeps its episode count pretty low – eighteen episodes across two seasons – it has managed to maintain consistently high levels of awkward humour. Season two saw Selina maneuvering into different areas in the political spectrum, spearheading various international trade deals and even dealing with the consequences of a federal shutdown. It’s set to return in 2014, which is great news for fans of comedy with their head screwed on.Previous Next
3. Arrested Development
So 2013 was the year that Arrested Development finally resolved its own arrested development and debuted a brand new season on Netflix, of all places. Critical consensus was mostly positive, but less muted than the rapturous nostalgia that the three seasons preceding it had gained in the shows absence. For my money, season four of Arrested Development is the best yet, so densely packed with allusions, gags, and frantic wordplay combined with genuinely virtuoso slapstick that it proves without doubt that the first three seasons were no fluke. That the entire cast returned, including guest stars with relatively minor roles (Liza Minelli, Ben Stiller, Carl Weathers, Henry Winkler, and Scott Baio, among others) to the project shows just how much esteem the show is held in by the cast and crew, and to viewers and critics alike.
Season four is presented in an incredibly strange way – each episode gives a different perspective on a single set of events, culminating in a showdown at the Cinco de Cuatro celebrations, through the eyes of each character. Some show up more than others – George-Michael and Buster are woefully underused outside of their own episodes – but all in all the entire season feels like a huge melting pot for a morass of ideas and jokes, watchable in any order. It’s a very experimental way to make a comeback for a show that was cancelled in the first place for baffling an indifferent TV audience, and would not have been possible if not for the support of Netflix. Fox would never have given Arrested Development another series, and even if it had, they wouldn’t have signed off on such an ambitious idea, no matter how great it would eventually go on to be.
There’s nary a weak episode across the entire set of fifteen, which speaks volumes on just how good a job Mitch Hurwitz has done in giving each character a unique but fully-rounded voice. It’s the minor characters who add the detail and flavour of the show – I could watch Bob Loblaw all day, and every gag around his name cracks me up each time I hear it. There’s so many call-backs to previous jokes, and references to other moments within the show, that it makes your head spin to try and focus on them all. As such, it only gets better with every watch. With a movie apparently on the horizon, it would appear that there’s going to be a whole lot more Arrested Development coming right for us, which is a good thing.Previous Next
2. Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series never struggled with ratings or viewing figures, but 2013 was the year the show truly went stratospheric, going from the most talked about cult show on television to the most talked about show full stop. If not for Breaking Bad’s dominance of all cultural conversation, Game of Thrones would have had a clean sweep of every television in the world. Calling it a fantasy series always feels like a misnomer, as the elements of that genre – dragons, magic – that it does feature in abundance, are never the focus of proceedings. How the show achieved the popularity it has is by retaining the depth and intricacy of the novels, while making the actual driving force of the show the double-dealings and brutality that are part of daily life in the seven kingdoms of Westeros.
If nothing else, the legacy of season three is the so-called Red Wedding (seen below). The defining moment of the series so far, the bloodshed of the executions of the entire Stark family had catastrophic consequences that reverberate across all of the seven kingdoms. Revenge by Lord Walder Frey for Robb Stark’s reneging on a marriage pact he made for help during a battle with the Lannisters, the massacre ends the northern rebellion against the House Lannister, given that the now-dead Robb Stark was proclaimed King in the North. It shocked the entire audience, which at that point had still been holding onto the idea that the Starks would be reunited at some point, having separated early into season one. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Season three also focused on the Lannisters’ struggle to consolidate power and hold Kings Landing while Daenareys gained (or took by force) power and support across Essos. We finished the series on a spectacular note, with Daenerys having sacked Astapor and the Unsullied claiming her as “mother”, clearly preparing to move towards Yunkai and eventually across the sea to regain the iron throne. Anyone who’s read the books will know where that eventually leads, but that’s not to say that it’s not still worth watching – there’s enough difference between the two media to justify the adaptation, and it’s interesting to note just how much has been changed in the transition from novel to series.
Certain plot points that seem awfully important in the novels have been jettisoned for the TV series, leading many readers to question how the series will deal with this. Only time will tell. Season four starts in early 2014, so there’s only a few months to go before we find out what happens next. It’s safe to say that anticipation is high, and we’re sure that we won’t be disappointed
1. Breaking Bad
What else? What else could have been the best show this year? It had to be Breaking Bad.
There’s been a lot of negativity about how simple and straightforward the finale was, as if that’s a bad thing, but it’s par for the course when your finale is one of the most anticipated in TV history. Sure, it didn’t have the explosive violence of Gus’s death in the finale of season 4, or the stunning paradigm shift of Jesse shooting Gale at the end of season 3, but it still honoured the show. It provided the only ending that there could possibly be, in the most satisfying way possible. The haters complain about feeling nothing after the final fade out, but that’s only because we’d gotten so used to being completely astounded and devastated at every single episode that a clean ending, with no twists or threat, seemed alien.
The entire season was a masterpiece in long-form storytelling, from start to finish. I used to think that season 4 of The Wire was the most perfect season of TV, until season 5 of Breaking Bad came along. Nobody could have predicted the twists and turns the show would take, and the emotional highs and lows we’d be taken on by Walter, Jesse and the like. The news that Better Call Saul is coming soon, and will feature cameos of characters from the show, should satiate the audience that Breaking Bad accumulated across those five perfect seasons, but then what? Whatever Vince Gilligan does next, it has the legacy of Breaking Bad to contend with.
So, that’s my list! Any problems? Comment below and let me know. Thanks for reading.