Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best Shows of 2013

The list of shows I watch has slowly dwindled in size as many series have been ending while I've been slower to add new ones. Combine that with a few previously excellent series taking dips in quality, and 2013 wasn't the best year for TV in a while. Still, everything on this list kept me thoroughly entertained and engrossed.

Best of 2013

8. Treme (HBO)

There were multiple shows that ended in 2013 in ways that drove home their themes and big ideas gracefully, like 30 Rock and Spartacus, and Treme was one of the better ones. The show has never gotten a fair chance from a lot of people because it wasn't and never could be as propulsive as The Wire, but it's still a completely effective drama that shows how a city stuck in a horrible situation worked to pull itself together, and that there's still a lot of work to be done. There's only five episodes to this fourth and final season, but they're among the best five in the show's whole run.

7. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)

Even including last Halloween's special episode, the fifth season of The Venture Bros. was only around for five hours. Still, Doc and Jackson once again proved they're making the best animated series on television. I just know there will be enough of it. Every new direction they go in reveals even more history and interesting new characters, and there just isn't enough time in the world for two guys to get every last drop of fun they could out of it. All this while it's amazing how much they usually manage to cram into about 22 minutes of air time. The hour-long premiere essentially feels wasteful for not getting its story across in half that time. I like The Venture Bros., is what I'm saying.

6. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

It might be because I don't watch enough new shows, but I think Parks is still the best comedy on TV right now. The entire cast is full to the brim with talent and clearly enjoys working with each other, as they constantly find new spins on old relationships and hidden details that delight when discovered. "Leslie works in the council" might not be quite as compelling a throughline as "Leslie runs for council", but they still find a lot of ways to poke fun at modern politics and get some solid bits of comedy and real meaning out of the concept. I'm still not sure when the show's ending, and I have the feeling it might be soon. If that's true, I'm glad to keep watching it while it lasts.

5. Mad Men (AMC)

It's only through association with the dazzling fifth season that the sixth seems a little disappointing in comparison. But while I'm glad the show is finding out where it wants to go and extremely perturbed by the decision to chop its final season into two halves, I'm still really enjoying it while it's on. Great writing, great acting, great humor, and plenty of surprises still left with unexpected plot shifts and an unending supply of new layers to discover in the characters.

4. Justified (FX)

I like how each season of Justified is able to develop its own unique little personality while still fitting into the grander ideas at work in developing one of the most fascinating depictions of crime and law in modern television. Justified was more subdued in 2013 than it was in 2012, slowly building a D. B. Cooper-esque mystery while a web of danger and suspicion wraps tighter and tighter around those in the center. It's the kind of season you can only get after a few years of buildup, as all the pain in these characters pasts comes back even stronger for some of the show's very finest moments. It might be the show's best, when all is said and done.

3. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

While Nucky is still Boardwalk's closest thing to a central figure, season 4 was definitely all about the supporting cast. Chalky White, Richard Harrow, and the entire Chicago subplot got a lot of focus this time around, and it was generally to tremendous effect. The Al Capone scenes have always had a certain weight behind them because he's probably the show's best known real-life figure, and there was a lot of strong moments as his life as one of America's most infamous criminals began to really get going. It looks like we won't be seeing a lot of that though, because HBO's announced that the fifth season later this year will be the show's last. It's surprising, because the show is still so good and there's a lot from the period they haven't gotten bored with. And a lot of what happened this year was among the most gripping and tragic stuff I've seen in crime television. They've still got it, and they want to end things when they're still riding high.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

I mentioned before that this season would be adapting (a large part of) my favorite book in the series, and I was excited to see them depicted on screen. And good lord did they ever pull it off. One scene in particular made history with the impact it had on unfamiliar viewers, especially on social media, and besides it being one of my favorite moments in the pop meta-culture of the year, it was just a damn good scene, getting everything right it needed to to match the feeling of reading it for the first time. And while it's great that they're nailing the big plot points that every fan of the books knows, it's also great that the show totally works on its own too, looking at the continuing warm reception from almost everyone who sees it. Not everything was great - the Theon scenes kind of went nowhere a lot, and the very end of the season finale was dull after the exciting cliffhangers in the first two seasons. But it was still one of my favorite things to watch last year.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Well of course this was going to be at the top of my list. How could it not be? It's the final fucking season of Breaking fucking Bad. Possibly the best final season of a great show ever made. The writers wrote! The directors directed! The actors acted! The cinematographers cinematographied! I actually wouldn't have minded an ending that was a bit more daring and unexpected, but once in a great while, what a story needs and what the audience wants to see actually kind of line up, and it works out for everyone. I'll always remember Breaking Bad for its dark humor, its electric cast, its razor-sharp tension, and the utterly human drama at the heart of it all. One of the all-time greats.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2013 but I didn't watch until then.

The Thick of It (BBC)

The Thick of It is probably the most realistic depiction of modern politics ever seen on television while being devastatingly funny the entire time. The casts rotates a bit but is generally pretty solid, and they play a group of people who hate each other, hate the government opposition, hate the citizens of Britain, and basically hate everything else while they're at it. Almost every episode is about some stupid crisis about nothing that shouldn't be happening snowballing into even worse scandal as their sorry attempts to cover it up or apologize get ruined by even stupider mistakes. It's like a symphony of human garbage. I watched it because one of the regulars, Peter Capaldi, is the new star of Doctor Who. I think it's brilliant casting - just replace the caustic Scottish foulmouthed wit with caustic Scottish sci-fi gibbering and you're pretty much there.

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