Sam Woolf’s 10 Best TV Shows Of 2013

TV 521x360 Sam Woolfs 10 Best TV Shows Of 2013

“2012 was another great year for television, but it also might be one of the last ones for a while.” -Sam Woolf, December 2012

I like to think the title of “Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Written” is a moving target, but that little nugget from the Top 10 TV Shows list I wrote last year will stand tall in my personal pantheon of bad predictions for a long time to come. But the silver lining is that, like a bum fighter betting against himself, being so, so wrong meant that I had more great TV to watch in 2013 than I thought I would a year ago. Not only has the televisual greatness of 2012 extended into 2013, it’s been all but been dwarfed by the embarrassment of riches we’ve received in the last 12 months.

And, guys, the amount of good TV this year was really kinda ridiculous. Like, truly unfair. I don’t know whether it’s an accomplishment or grounds for psychiatric evaluation that I managed to fit in over 30 shows this year while working a full-time job, but the real crazies out there are the ones responsible for making my viewing habits look casual compared to the hours and days you’d need to commit to really be on top of your TV game in 2013. To wit: there was a ton of no doubt great programming out there that never had a chance at making my Top 10 list, simply because I didn’t have time to watch it. I walked out on Boardwalk Empire (mistakenly, it would seem) after Season 1, and haven’t been in the mood for Masters of Sex just yet, to name just a few of the shows popping up on “Best of” lists right now, but not my own.

The more painful part of making a list with just 10 entries is figuring out which shows you have seen were merely amazing, instead of Amazing+. Hannibal, The Returned, and Orphan Black were just a few members of 2013′s (stateside) freshmen class that knocked it out of the park, but still didn’t make the cut. And then there are the previous winners from last year’s 10, like Archer, Parks & Recreation, and Game of Thrones that got beat out by other notable newbies. All told, it’s hard not to finish compiling one of these things feeling more sorry for the larger crowd of also-rans than you do happy for the “winners.”

And that’s the thing: the numbers don’t really mean anything. The better the year is for TV, the easier it is for the ordering to change depending on when you ask, what mood I’m in, or even what I had for lunch. And just in case I haven’t made it crystal clear yet: this was a particularly outstanding year for TV. So enough preambling and caveat-ing. Hit the jump below to check out my 10 favourite shows from 2013.

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10) Bob’s Burgers

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Last year this spot was occupied by Archer, so it’s nice to know H. Jon Benjamin is passing the torch to himself on this one. And while Bob Belcher and Sterling Archer share little in common besides their voice actor, Bob’s Burgers has the same love for its characters that got Archer on this list last year. Each episode is a struggle to choose which member of the Belcher clan is your favorite, as one week Louise’s chaotic-neutral sociopathy outshines Linda’s boozey show-womanship, or a new wrinkle in Tina’s butt-obsessed odyssey through puberty is just a little funnier than Gene discovering a talent for competitive table-setting.

With such a terrific central cast of characters at its disposal, Bob’s Burgers made it pretty much impossible for any other show to keep up with it in terms of firing speed and hit-ratio of jokes. It’s got the immaturity and weirdness of classic South Park, and the warmth of early seasons of The Simpsons, but the freeform interplay of the voice actors is what makes Bob’s Burgers unlike any other animated comedy out there. Add on top of that a talent for clever puns and crafting catchy original songs every week, and it becomes hard not to turn into a huge dork for Bob’s Burgers.

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9) Rectify

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Tom Hanks could turn any name in the phone book into a character worth watching, and Morgan Freeman reading from the same book would be completely enthralling. But Rectify’s Aden Young could just stare at a stack of Yellowpages, and I’d be happy to just watch him do so. Saying little, his big, sad doe eyes were the reflecting pools from which show creator Ray McKinnon drew deeply when exploring themes of redemption, family, and spirituality, all without having to make big statements, or condescending to people of faith.

The Sundance Channel carved out a strange little niche for itself in 2013, taking potboiler premises (in this case: wrongfully imprisoned death row inmate released after 19 years in a hole), and delivering some of the most visually arresting and thought-provoking stuff on TV. I won’t blame anybody for being turned off by the show’s glacial pacing, especially when the pilot gives the impression of a more traditional type of series. But Rectify was part of an encouraging movement in TV, where plot wasn’t the only thing that mattered anymore: you don’t need to have the dizzying scope of Game of Thrones, or try to set a landspeed record for storytelling like Scandal. Your show can just be, and if it’s asking the right questions, that can be more than enough.

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8) The Americans

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A cable drama about star-crossed spies with feelings for their country complicated by their feelings for each other? No, it’s not Homeland, but The Americans shares DNA with Showtime’s new flagship that no amount of awful pastel wallpaper, or terribad wigs will ever distract from. But what The Americans chose not to keep a secret is what made it work so damn well: the premise of two KGB agents living in D.C. during the Reagan-era Cold War is what hooks you early, but The Americans was always upfront about the show really being about its central marriage, even though it’s a fake one.

Even if the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and Phillip didn’t appeal to you, the show had style and thrills to spare, usually coming together each week in the form of a spectacular setpiece filled with old school spycraft. Phrases starting with “once bitten,” and “fool me once” were invented for this exact sort of scenario, wherein a new show sweeps you off your feet in the first season, only to stab you in the heart the next, and it’s entirely possible The Americans will have lost its mojo come this time next year. Then again, I’ve watched the opening scene from the pilot enough times to count as another season, so for the time being, The Americans has earned my Tusk –er trust.

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7) Spartacus: War of the Damned

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Yes, it’s the show where most of the promos are just ridiculously hot people looking ridiculously hot and sweaty, and yes, it’s getting Return of the King-style bonus points for having just ended its run. Doesn’t matter: fact is, aspiring TV writers are going to be studying Spartacus years from now to learn how it is you tell a fully-realized dramatic story, regardless the subject matter. In this case, that subject matter was gladiators fighting and fucking their way to freedom in ancient Rome, but with each season, Spartacus went deeper, revealing layers to its world and characters that put most prestige TV dramas to shame.

This is a show that’s been defying the odds since day one, whether delivering big screen action on a shoestring budget, overcoming the untimely death and replacement of its star, or making a series with surface appeal to dudebros that simultaneously presents a more progressive view of sex and gender than the vast majority of TV. It even managed to make an unplanned prequel season awesome for crying out loud! War of the Damned was a brilliant, emotional final farewell to a series that no one gave the time of day to when it first started, but that Steven S. DeKnight and company quickly turned into something really special.

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6) Justified

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The death of Elmore Leonard earlier this year was a big loss to the literary world, but there’s some comfort in knowing one of his most popular creations will be in safe hands for at least a little while longer. Season four of Justified had the highest number of bum episodes since the show’s foot-finding first year, but considering that number was 2, I’m not overly worried about its prospects going forward. The hunt for legendary criminal Drew Thompson created many standout moments and episodes for the season, with “Decoy” perhaps setting a new high-water mark for the entire series.

Even when surrounded by some of the year’s best new characters (including Patton Oswalt as the plucky Constable Bob), this was Timothy Olyphant’s year from start to finish, as Raylan’s family history exposed him in ways that his awful mullet had no chance of hiding. Justified isn’t a show that’s in danger of running out of material so much as being overrun with it, adding more actors, more characters, more backstory with each season, but showing no signs of slowing down.

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5) Orange is the New Black

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Netflix made a flashy entrance into the world of original content this year, despite two of its founding pillars being warmed over Arrested Development, and a Kevin Spacey vehicle that was all sizzling ham, no steak. Orange is the New Black was the first real whiff of something new we got from the aspiring media giant, and it singlehandedly justified the entire enterprise. The show batting straight down the middle between comedy and drama is causing headaches for academy voters, but typified some emerging TV trends Orange is the New Black capitalized on: a fluid tone, wandering plotting, and ladies getting shit done.

And Orange is the New Black had more ladies getting more shit done than most of the major networks combined. Taylor Schilling’s great lead performance as a yuppie drug mule doing time in a women’s prison didn’t so much anchor the show as give it a launch pad for its more all-encompassing exploration of race, gender, sexuality, and class. It had a character bench as deep as Lost’s, and a breadth of worldview that brings to mind memories of The Wire. And it was really fucking funny to boot, having the decency to both expose, and then fill the hole in your TV viewing life that was Kate Mulgrew playing a mobbed-up Russian chef.

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4) Top of the Lake

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In a year that was more crowded than most by the bodies of murdered innocents and the bulging underbellies of sleepy small towns, Top of the Lake proved to be the peak of the corpse heap. It didn’t have the body count of The Killing, the politics of The Bridge, or the tidiness of Broadchurch, but what Top of the Lake did better than any other murder mystery this year was make an impression. And it was a haunting one at that: surrounded by the imposing mountains of the New Zealand countryside, the town of Laketop was the most beguiling villain of the season, looking more gorgeous and creepily unnerving with every sweeping landscape shot.

Focusing in from a God’s eye didn’t take away from the mystery though. The more Elizabeth Moss’s steely Robin Griffin pulled at the string leading her to a missing young girl, the more Laketop’s twisted roots came bursting out from underfoot. Thanks to Jane Campion’s stunning direction, a pair of bravura supporting performances from Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, and a piercing soundtrack, Top of the Lake made for an intoxicating blend of straight suspense, and dreamy WTF visuals.

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3) Mad Men

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It never ceased to amaze me how joyously nervous I would feel in the hours leading up to each new Mad Men this year. For 12 weeks I was on a cocktail mixed with the kind of white-knuckle excitement and pants-shitting fear you get when clicking up the rails of a tall rollercoaster; I wound up having literal nightmares about reviewing the show weekly, worried I’d have nothing to say. Thankfully, that never proved to be the case, because the passion and conversation Mad Men inspires, week after week, season after season, is the exact opposite of what you’d expect from the “homework television” appearance it has at first glance. Period dramas are a lot of things, but fun is rarely one of them.

Yet Mad Men still knows how to put on an entertaining show, despite its morbid obsession with watching one man and and a culture have their first class existence dive straight headfirst into a tailspin. It’s understandable that some felt Don circling the drain all season made the show feel like it was running in circles, but Mad Men has always been just as interested in obstinacy as it has legitimate change. And if you’re going to spend 13 hours caught in a holding pattern, you can’t pick a better bunch of characters to share the waiting with.

Continue reading on the next page…

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2) Enlightened

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At barely four hours in length, you could watch the entire second (and, sadly, final) season of HBO’s Enlightened in the time it would take to watch an extended cut of Return of the King. I bring it up because the express appeal of television is that it can take its time. With potentially dozens of hours of content rolling out over a single season or multiple ones, there’s time to explore every facet of a show’s characters the way my previous pick does, or to set up an elaborate series of dominoes that will eventually fall down in perfect sequence (like my next pick). Enlightened wasn’t really either type of show, despite hinging its second season on focused, succinct arc that still made time to detour into the lives of Tyler, Levi, and everyone else caught up in the Category Five hurricane of optimism that was Amy Jellicoe.

As the waters separating TV comedies and dramas continue to muddy, Enlightened sidestepped the issue entirely by simply being bracingly, uncompromisingly earnest. This, understandably, means it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. With such a naïve do-gooder of a protagonist, and a soundtrack that’d probably fit in at any day spa, the show will strike many as featherweight. Yet Enlightened’s sunny surface exists as a necessary counterbalance to the deeply personal and existential darkness it was born out of.

Unlike many more popular dramas and cynical comedies that exploit misery, Enlightened chose to tackle it head on, sometimes foolishly, when it wanted to make you laugh, sometimes nobly, when it wanted to make you stand up and cheer. The TV landscape is a lot less special without Mike White’s brilliant little pearl of a creation in it, and hopefully it will serve to inspire a new wave of shows that don’t care about being good, so much as they care about being honest.

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1) Breaking Bad

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A funny thing happened after Breaking Bad finished its final episode at about 10:15 EST, September 29th. I felt nothing. Nothing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing mind you, as this was perhaps the only feeling Breaking Bad was destined to leave one with. The final half of Season 5 solidified the show as perhaps the finest example of 99.1% pure plot-driven storytelling ever developed for the medium. Every piece found its place, every character their fate. There was no ambiguity, just closure. The reaction was complete: reactants and products cancelled each other out. Nothing beside remains.

But I come to praise Walter White, not bury him. Like Walt, Breaking Bad’s legacy was set in stone long before the final farewell -of course it went out as one of the greatest television series of all time. Perhaps because of that inevitability, I haven’t really thought much about Breaking Bad since it left us. The truth is, I wanted something else from the finale: I wanted it to leave me shouting out “oh shit,” the way I did when Walt gave Hank a little advice on treading lightly back in the premiere; I wanted it to break my heart the way Aaron Paul did nearly every episode of the season, up until that last wild smile; I wanted it to leave me harrowed and gasping for air the way “Ozymandias” did for 60 straight minutes.

But I didn’t get that, and that’s okay. Breaking Bad is still my pick for the best show of the year, just as it was last year, because like the other selections on this list, it made me feel. Not only that, it made me feel deeply about one of the most fascinating, and profoundly flawed characters ever created for television. I felt fear every time Walt backed himself into a corner, glee each time he managed to wriggle his way out, and intensifying guilt the more his survival destroyed everything and everyone around him.

Well before the series took its bow with “Felina,” I had grown to hate Walt, and wanted him dead. But once all was said and done, the joy, tension, laughter, excitement, panic and devastation Breaking Bad had filled me with for so long just faded to black. All I was left with was a Badfinger tune echoing in my ears, like a ball bearing rattling around in an empty spray can. In the end, both Walt and I got what we deserved: him, for being perhaps TV’s greatest monster, and me, for wanting to follow him. It might not have been my preferred ending, but it was the right one. And on the topic of saying goodbye to Breaking Bad, if you haven’t done so already, check out JoBlo’s excellent tribute video to the show below.


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  • Jefro

    No Game of Thrones?

    • justin

      Ditto. Otherwise a very good list though.

  • merwanor

    Game of Thrones was the best show this year. the Red Wedding is one of the most memorable moments in television. Spartacus is my second favorite show this year, it had an amazing ending.

    Breaking Bad is some truly overrated stuff, a good show but not even close to GoT.

  • pablouk

    Game of Thrones, Spartacus, Walking Dead