Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best Television of 2013, pt. 3 - The Best

This article is coming in about a week late owing to my responsibilities as best man in a wedding last week and the fact that the DSL where I was staying ran about 300 kb/sec.  Still, I hope you enjoy.

“The Best” is surely a misnomer here.  Not only is it absurd to claim that I have any special insight into what “the best” television, but thanks to the ever-growing number of very good television shows, I simply can’t watch everything.  Take a look at Hitfix’s 2013 Critics’ Poll.  I don’t watch three of their Top Ten shows regularly, though I’ve seen at least some of each, and the list names 84 individual shows of which I’ve seen less than half.  So consider this less as “the best” television of 2013 and more as “Tyler’s Favorite Television Shows of 2013.”

Bryan Cranston owned the final season of "Breaking Bad"
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) -
Disclaimers aside, Breaking Bad was the best show on television this past year.  Finishing a series is a complicated business and Breaking Bad gave its viewers not just one, but three amazing endings.  Even more remarkably, the show managed to put the pedal to the floor in the season’s first episode and keep it there for eight hours.  There was no stalling and no hesitation.  Viewers might expect Hank to sit on his epiphany from Walt’s bathroom, but he confronts Walt in the first episode and tells his partner Gomez in the second.  We might expect the big confrontation to come in the final episode but it plays out at the end of episode five and the beginning of episode six, with an amazing three episode denouement following.

Few television shows are able to end their runs at an absolute peak.  Fewer of those shows still were pantheon-level shows, worthy of being discussed among the all-time greats.  Breaking Bad is the rare show that sits among the best ever aired and managed to go out on top, both critically and commercially.

The first five seasons (or four-and-a-half depending on how you count) of Breaking Bad are available on Netflix.  The final season will likely be available there in the fall.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was one of many bright spots in the third season of "Game of Thrones"
2.  Game of Thrones (HBO) –
Game of Thrones slots into the second position on this list only by a quirk of scheduling.  As I mentioned in my Emmy piece in June, I felt that the third season of Game of Thrones was the best show on television in the 2012-13 season.  Of course, it was going up against the first half of Breaking Bad season five then.  Now, it’s going up against Breaking Bad’s final half-season, and Bad just narrowly finishes ahead. 

Even as “only” the second-best show on television in 2013, Game of Thrones had easily the best moment on television, as the Red Wedding left millions of viewers speechless.  Setting aside the big plot moments, what really elevated the third season was the development of several relationships between seemingly mismatched characters: Brienne and Jamie, Jon Snow and Ygritte, and especially Arya and The Hound.  These relationships, and the decision to limit each episode to two or three central stories as opposed to trying to run six or seven threads simultaneously, brought a sense of clarity to the series that had been lacking in its first two seasons.  It wasn’t a perfect season (as Theon Greyjoy will attest) and I do worry a little about how spread out all of the sympathetic characters are at the moment.  But I am more excited about the next season of Game of Thrones than of any other show on television.

The first three seasons of Game of Thrones are available on HBOGo.  Season four will likely debut in late-March or early-April.

Everything comes around again for Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"
3.  Mad Men (AMC) –
I never really cared for Mad Men for its first several seasons.  I watched it mostly because other people were saying that it was a great show.  Sure, I appreciated the performances and the writing and the directing, but it was never a show that commanded my attention, at least not in the way that more action-oriented series like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones did.  But then, somewhere in the fifth season, everything kind of clicked into place for me with Mad Men and it finally became appointment viewing. 

That appointment viewing continued into its sixth season as Don Draper dug into his past only to start walking down the same paths he’s trod before.  Some might suggest that this is the show being repetitive, but I think it demonstrates the futility of expecting people to become more than they are.  Don Draper is who he has always been and expecting him to become something different is a fool’s errand.  What made the sixth season of Mad Men so fascinating was its willingness to delve into Don’s background, revealing the many layers in a notoriously secretive character.  The final season will be split over two years, which could be a dangerous proposition.  But I have faith that Matthew Weiner will navigate it brilliantly.

The first five seasons of Mad Men are available on Netflix with season six debuting there likely in April.  The show’s seventh and final season will air its first seven episodes likely beginning in April as well, with the final seven episodes airing in 2015.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan steal the show in "Masters of Sex"
4.  Masters of Sex (Showtime) –
On its face, Masters of Sex shares a number of similarities with Mad Men.  But when you get beyond the superficial, Masters of Sex distinguishes itself as a series fundamentally about women and how they navigate a male-centered world whereas Mad Men, as its title implies, is a show about men.  That difference may seem trivial, but it makes all the difference in the world, for the better.  Michael Sheen’s Bill Masters may be the character around whom the show rotates (and his is a great performance), but all of the drama and the most riveting character moments come from the women in Masters’ lives, whether it’s his assistant Virginia, his wife Libby, or his boss’s wife Margaret.

The “Golden Age of Television,” as it is most commonly defined, was a man’s world, whether that was Tony Soprano, Don Draper, or Walter White.  But the new age of television is built on the ascendancy of women and Masters of Sex is leading that charge.  Most amazingly, the show is able to discuss and depict sex without becoming prudish, prurient, or childish.  It’s a frank portrayal and better for it.

The first season of Masters of Sex is available on Showtime On Demand and the second season will air on Showtime likely in the fall of 2014.

Elisabeth Moss's best performance this year was for "Top of the Lake"
5.  Top of the Lake (Sundance) –
Top of the Lake is the perfect representation of two of the year’s most exciting trends in television: the aforementioned rise of women and the proliferation of short-run series and international co-productions.  Running for only six episodes (seven on Sundance), Top of the Lake was produced by Sundance, BBC 2, and UKTV, an Australian broadcaster who stepped in when the Australian Broadcasting Company backed out due to the decision to cast American Elisabeth Moss in the roll of Robin, a New Zealand police detective.

I’m betting the other ABC is regretting that decision, given how amazing the final product was, and the bevy of Emmy nominations that came with it.  Top of the Lake is not an easy piece to digest.  It focuses on the disappearance of a pregnant teenager as well as the disturbing and violent history of her family and the town she lives in.  Moss is dynamite in the lead role as the detective brought back to her hometown to lead the case, but the real stars are the town of Glenorchy and Moke Lake in New Zealand, where the series is shot.  So many shows fail to create any sense of place, filming in Los Angeles, New York, or Vancouver and trying to pass it off as someplace else.  It’s nice to see a show shot in an unusual location and that really uses it to shape the story.  The unique setting also helps to mold the many unusual characters who always seem to populate these small towns.  Top of the Lake is a fine little package not to be missed.

Top of the Lake is available for streaming on Netflix.

Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key play more than the President and Luther in "Key & Peele"
6.  Key & Peele (Comedy Central) –
Comedy is inherently subjective and sketch comedy even more so.  So I can understand if people don’t appreciate Key & Peele as much as I do.  But this show makes me laugh more than any other on television, and that makes it my favorite comedy.  What takes Key & Peele beyond merely its laughs is its take on race, whether it’s the Song of the South-esque film audition reel of a recently passed Civil Rights advocate or the low-hanging fruit of the naming conventions for black college football players.  But perhaps the greatest flattery you can show Key & Peele is by having life imitate art.

Key & Peele just finished airing its third season on Comedy Central.  It has been renewed for a fourth season set to air next fall.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are dynamite in "The Americans"
7.  The Americans (FX) –
The Americans was not a show I took to immediately.  I watched the pilot, enjoyed it, and then let the episodes pile up on my DVR for about six weeks.  It’s not that I didn’t want to watch, it was just airing during a particularly busy period for me.  But then, one Friday night, I sat down to watch the second episode, then the third, then the fourth, and by the end of the weekend I had binge-watched every available episode.

What I enjoyed most about The Americans was not its period nature or that it’s a Cold War spy story (and I love Cold War spy stories).  What drew me most to this show was the relationship between Keri Russell’s Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys’s Philip as they tried to decipher their feelings and distinguish what was real from what was just a cover.  That the two were able to so effectively vacillate between love and hate is an incredible testament to how good these two actors are.  Throw in outstanding supporting performances from Noah Emmerich and Margo Martindale and The Americans made a spectacular freshman debut.

Season one of the The Americans is available on FX Now and season two will debut on February 26th.

Mads Mikkelsen is the perfect "Hannibal"
8.  Hannibal (NBC) –
Depicting horror on network television can be a difficult proposition.  Without much gore allowed in the mix, shows usually default to terror as their principle horror trope.  This usually results in the easiest and laziest of the horror staples: violence towards women.  The worst horror shows on television (Criminal Minds, The Following, etc.) all trade heavily in this trite, familiar trope and they’re made even worse by it

What made Hannibal stand out from the lesser series is how it mostly limited its horror to imagery and treated that imagery as art.  There are no women fleeing from knife-wielding serial killers in Hannibal.  In fact, most of the time it is only the after-effects of the crime that are seen.  But this is what makes the show better and more frightening than its lesser competitors: the viewers are allowed to recreate the crime in their own minds.  Hannibal isn’t content with just scaring its viewers.  It wants them to scare themselves.

The last three episodes of Hannibal’s first season are currently available on Hulu.  Season two debuts on February 28th.

Tatiana Maslany should win all of the awards for "Orphan Black"
9.  Orphan Black (BBC America) –
This ranking may owe as much to Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performance as at least seven different characters as it does to the actual quality of Orphan Black.  Normally, I would try not to overrate the quality of a show based on one performance but, in this case, I don’t particularly mind because, for all intents and purposes, Maslany is Orphan Black.  She is in virtually every scene, often times playing multiple different characters in the same scene.  And what is most remarkable is that each of Maslany’s characters is distinguishable as her own individual, even going beyond the aesthetic character traits.

That’s not to say the show is only good because of Maslany.  The writing is tight and the directing effectively integrates the multiple takes and cuts needed to create a show about clones.  The one thing I wish the show had is a stronger sense of place.  The production makes no secret that the show is shot in Toronto (Canadian money and license plates are seen), but Elizabeth and Alison, the two clones in whose city the majority of the series takes place, seem to generally be American.  It’s perhaps a bit of personal pet peeve, but I prefer shows to have a specific setting as opposed to just being set in “Generic Urban Setting A.”  That small nitpick aside, Orphan Black is a great show anchored by a phenomenal performance from its lead actress

Season one of Orphan Black is available through BBC America On Demand.  Season two premieres on April 19th.

Nick Offerman is the funniest character on television in "Parks and Recreation"
10.  Parks and Recreation (NBC) –
In previous years this show likely would have rated higher than tenth on my season list, but while it may no longer be seeing the highs it did in its second and third seasons, Parks and Recreation is still one of the funniest comedies on television, making it easily worthy of a spot on this list.  Just think of all the great episodes we got in 2013.  Chris threw an amazing bachelor party for all of the office guys.  Leslie and Ben got married, spontaneously, and Ron Swanson fashioned their rings from a wall sconce.  The gang went to London.  Leslie Knope was impeached.  And Patton Oswalt went on and on and on and on about Star Wars, The Avengers, and everything in between.

Parks and Recreation is consistently one of the sweetest, funniest, most uplifting comedies on television.  I am consistently thankful that, while not many people watch, NBC’s eternal comedy struggles have allowed it to reach its sixth season. 

The first five seasons of Parks and Recreation are available on Netflix, the current season is available on Hulu+, and new episodes air beginning January 9th.

So there's my Top Ten shows for 2013.  Got something to argue about?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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