Monday, December 16, 2013

Year End 2013: Cream of the crop in a big harvest

Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

That's my reaction to the year in television. There were so many good new and returning shows that cutting down my list of favourites into hard lists of 10 and 20 was so much more difficult than I could have imagined. I mean, it's one thing for there to be just so much great stuff on. It's completely another to consider that I have a show in my top 10 that isn't in English. If you had told me that would be the case on January 1, I never would have believed you in a million years. But I guess that's a good sign that I'm expanding my horizons to at least try and keep track of it all.

I closed my top 10 of 2012 post by asking "Whattaya got, 2013?" Well here's what they got. And it's incredible. My top ten shows of the year after the break.

10. Bob’s Burgers 

I considered just writing “Tina Belcher” and moving on to number nine, but I’ll try to pad this out a bit more: I’m gonna level with you – when I sat down to make this list, I never would have imagined “Bob’s Burgers” would have been my highest ranked “comedy” for the year. But there is something about this show that really makes me laugh even when I’m not actually watching it. Almost everything happening on “Bob’s Burgers,” and to the Belcher family, is funny, and for the most part they know it. But the show’s completely deadpan style is unlike almost any other animated comedy, reminding you of that friend who’s always the funniest person in the room and thus impossible to make laugh. I really like H. Jon Benjamin’s extremely deep voice as Bob, and the way he uses it to express incredulity and only ever raises it in exasperation is very well considered. It’s probably why the same voice coming out of Sterling Archer never did much for me – too angry and douchey for me to really appreciate it. In 2013, “Bob’s Burgers” did a lot of good work expanding its universe and while it will never reach the same level of cultural impact, it feels more than ever like a very worthy successor to “The Simpsons” as a heartwarming, ridiculous, and side-splittingly funny First Family of cartoon comedy.

9. The Americans 

What’s impressive about “The Americans” is how amazingly Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and the great Noah Emmerich keep the show together in spite of occasional head scratching moments in terms of logistics. Why does it seem to flip back and forth every week between Elizabeth and Phillip as to who was more doubting of their mission and the Motherland? Isn’t the “the spies could be living right next door” thing a little too literal here? It often didn’t matter when that trio was on screen, with Rhys and Russell trying to sort through the complications that would naturally arise when two people in such close proximity develop a relationship of any kind within what is really a sham marriage. Which is to say nothing of their very real children who they have real feelings for, and how much they’re really ruining the life of Emmerich’s Stan by needing to eliminate or otherwise gaining hold of his most trusted allies (Phillip posing as “Clark” and marrying Martha to further infiltrate the FBI is among the most despicable things done on TV this year). For me, the most exciting thing about “The Americans” is how well set up they are for a future full of devastation and heartbreak on the level of something like “Breaking Bad” – these people are all so close and none of them really understand how badly they’re hurting each other. And when it all comes out, I can’t wait to be there.

8. Masters of Sex 

I had a different Showtime series in my top 10 list last year – “Homeland,” which so quickly became a show I didn’t really care about in the slightest that it makes me sad. And it has me worried for what may eventually come of a third or fourth season of “Masters of Sex,” one of my favourite new dramas of the year and a show that feels so incredibly off brand for its network. Someone on Twitter recently mentioned that every Showtime series is basically either amazing or terrible, and “Masters of Sex” certainly falls into the former category. But it’s so good in such a quiet, introverted way that a story like this wouldn’t normally be told. There’s enough sex that it’s not sexy in any way, a marked difference from the Showtime I’d expect to try and add unrealistic and historically inauthentic scandal and twists to the story. Michael Sheen is fantastic when subdued and heartbreaking when allowed to open up (Bill’s breakdown at the end of “Catherine” and his refusal to let Virginia look at him is one of my favourite moments of the year in television). And plain and simple, this is just the best work of a career that’s already pretty impressive for the great Lizzy Caplan.

7. Hannibal 

There are often times when I see someone put into words exactly what it is about a television show that propels it to the next level of greatness for me, but for whatever reason I just can’t find them myself. Such an instance was back in June when I was listening to the co-hosts of the “TV On The Internet” podcast make predictions in the drama categories for the upcoming Primetime Emmy awards. They arrived at “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series” and conversation turned toward Mads Mikkelsen as NBC’s titular “Hannibal” when AV Club television editor Todd VanDerWerff voted for him on his fake ballot. Fellow AV Club TV critic David Sims agreed and finally verbalized the one remaining thing about this show that really had me in awe that I hadn’t really thought about before: “Can you believe it’s 2013 and someone has a fresh take on the HANNIBAL LECTER CHARACTER?!” Just as co-host Libby Hill said “I know!” I found myself saying the same words. Mads Mikkelsen’s take on the classic character is so creepy and intense, and he straddles such a fine line between “cultural differences” and “legitimate psychopathy” that makes for a stellar performance I never would have imagined seeing on network TV, even on a Bryan Fuller show. While “The Following” made my “worst of” list for how little it cared about how violent it was, “Hannibal” never made you forget for a second what the cost of doing business was for Will Graham and co. Dark, disturbing, but ultimately meaningful – and as a result, infinitely powerful.

6. Orange is the New Black 

Here’s a show that really only needed to be half as good as it was to make it on this list. Bottom line, you will see people talk to each other on “Orange is the New Black” that you will not, and frankly cannot, see talk to each other on almost any other show. Think about it – when was the last time four black women had a conversation on a television show? And those conversations and the stories of who these women were and how they ended up in this prison together were fascinating examinations of the things that can bring people together as much as it can tear them apart. It was also a pretty severe critique and condemnation of the American prison system, with almost no sympathetic characters on that side of the aisle and very quickly shutting up my assumptions that “Orange is the New Black” would be “Oz, but with women instead”. Even with its fantastic moments of devastation and heartbreak, I love the points of triumph even more – and the moment where they merged, with the inmates listening to Larry’s radio interview and finding out what Piper Chapman really thinks about them, is without a doubt one my favourite moments in the medium for 2013.

5. Rectify 
(Sundance Channel)

When it comes to slow TV, “Rectify” is about as sssslllllooooowwwww as it gets. Telling the story of a seemingly wrongfully convicted man finally released from prison after more than a decade, creator Ray McKinnon and Aden Young, the actor who brought Daniel Holden to life (or something to that effect), really put you in that mindset of time can pass. But of course, slow isn’t a bad thing when it’s done intentionally. And slow also means incredibly well considered with a lot of time for self-discovery of the adult life Daniel has basically never had, and the frankest of conversations about religious, spiritual, and philosophical themes that have probably ever been put on television. Rounded out with fantastic performances by Abigail Spencer and Adelaide Clemens, “Rectify” was without a doubt my favourite new show produced this side of the Atlantic this year.

4. Mad Men 

“Mad Men” is coming off a great season. There, I said it. But it’s coming off a very different kind of season than its ever done. There has almost always been, at least for me anyway, a sense of instant gratification with “Mad Men,” wonderful, hilarious moments in every episode that make the majority of the hours in season five immediate classics. Season six was a much slower build with a dud episode or two, and it wasn’t until its final two hours – the brilliant Vincent Kartheiser showcase “The Quality of Mercy” and season finale “In Care Of,” the lens that you really have to view the entire season through – that everything really locked into place. It was the kind of storytelling I hadn’t prepared myself for with “Mad Men” up to this point, and it’s been difficult grappling with the idea that while 2013 was probably the year I least enjoyed the show, it might be the best it’s ever been. A marathon run of classics in season five earned “Mad Men” my #1 spot in 2012, and while the sixth season needed a bit more sorting through, you can never take away from it episodes like “For Immediate Release” or “The Better Half”.

3. The Returned 
(Sundance Channel)

I briefly touched on this when I listed “Julie” as one of my favourite TV episodes of the year, but there is something about “horror done right” that is very close to my heart. I wouldn’t consider myself a horror expert or an aficionado of the genre by any means (or for any film genre, really) but I’ve just seen enough horror movies that are complete garbage to become really excited when I see one that I like. Leave it to Sundance, with some of the year’s best shows, to acquire this outstanding French drama series about the people of a small town whose loved ones suddenly come back to life. Dead for days, months, years...and then back with no explanation. I feel like I’ve been complaining for a while now that the idea of the “zombie drama” needed to be killed and buried before it can reanimate and eat our brains. But “The Returned” did one even better – with the dead back just as they were in life, the show examined purely emotional and psychological horror better than anything I can remember seeing in a long time, really killing the established perception of “undead” once and for all. Gone are the relentless blood and guts of “The Walking Dead,” replaced with terrified, disbelieving expressions of a mother who is simultaneous relieved, elated, shocked, and frightened beyond belief to see the teenage daughter who died months earlier back in her kitchen making a sandwich. “The Returned” has such a strong command of its mundane but unsettling atmosphere, and it’s the most legitimately scared I’ve been by any visual medium in quite a while. I wasn’t necessarily resistant to foreign-language shows previously, but this definitely tore down any wall I might have had up against them. In 2014 – “Borgen,” baby!

2. Breaking Bad 

Lord. How many times in the eight weeks that “Breaking Bad” was on the air in 2013 did an episode end with a heart-pounding climax, cut to Vince Gilligan’s executive producer credit, followed by me saying, “Oh fuck you!” at my television or laptop? Of all the shows on this list, the conclusion of Walter White’s metamorphosis was easily the most tense – “Breaking Bad” was never really a show that felt like it was holding too much back on the audience, so when there was no reason that certain characters couldn’t know Walt’s secret or couldn’t just be shot in the head and buried in a hole along with barrels of drug money, Vince Gilligan and his writers were able to let loose even beyond what was done in previous seasons. In the big “25 Favourite Episodes” project I’ve been writing on my blog this year, I listed season three’s “One Minute” as an obvious standout. That was roughly two months before “Ozymandias” was released to the masses, immediately cementing itself as one of dramatic television’s greatest hours ever and the absolute peak of a phenomenal farewell run for one of the so-called “golden age’s” biggest and loudest representatives.

1. Enlightened 

I have already written about why and how much I loved “Enlightened”. And I’ve already written about what a terrible decision it was, financially and artistically, for HBO to cancel the show. So instead, I’m just going to remember how much fun I had watching these 18 episodes in the span of about 52 hours back in early March. I’m going to remember how in a strange way, wherever I find myself, hearing this music will somehow take me “home”. I’m going to remember watching the entire second season in a single sitting, staying up past six in the morning because for the first time maybe ever, there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it – I absolutely had to know how Amy Jellicoe’s story came to a close. I wasn’t going to sleep until I saw it. I couldn’t. I was too engaged in a weird, mesmerized way that I never could have imagined happening with this show or any show. To rip off Ryan McGee once again, as someone who self-identifies as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” “Enlightened” made me feel something bigger than myself. And there was just so much relentless optimism in it, most of it about the beauty and power of the ordinary that for it to get through so powerfully to me, cynic of all cynics at times, was a real kick in the ass. It stands tall as an incredible triumph for the small screen, and art in general, and the best show on television for 2013.

Other shows considered for a spot in the top 20: “30 Rock,” “Arrested Development,” “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” “Cougar Town,” “Downton Abbey,” “Girls,” “Go On,” “Happy Endings,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Parenthood,” “Scandal,” “Shameless,” “South Park,” “Suburgatory,” “Treme,” “Trophy Wife,” “Wilfred”.

Top that, 2014. I dare you.