Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2013: #30 - 11

Alright, so things got a little hairy in the lower echelons of the #50-31 rankings last week. At points I actually felt more like I was writing a "worst of" list than a "best of." But you've reached the light at the end of the tunnel: While I may not consider the twenty shows below to have been among the ten best this year and I have my gripes about each, I can say with confidence that I like every single one of them. Let's get it started in here:

30. The Borgias (Showtime)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 10 - "The Prince" | New to List

Mix one part watered-down Game of Thrones with two-to-three parts The Tudors and you'll end up with Showtime's antihero Pope drama The Borgias, a show never exceptional but almost always pretty good. If you're looking for sex and violence and religion and scheming and sumptuous cinematography and set design and even a couple big battle sequences, it comes recommended, though with the caveat that it got canceled at the end of season 3 with no real, conclusive ending. The show has some problems, including the fact that it never convinced me our ruling-class heroes were the underdogs in any conflict it put them in, but I still wish I could see the fourth season that's never going to happen.

29. Awkward (MTV)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 20 - "Who I Want to Be" | Down 3 from 2012

Lauren Iungerich's droll, witty, energetic high school sitcom Awkward is unfortunately going to be entering its fourth season in 2014 absent one key ingredient: Lauren Iungerich. I'm unclear whether she quit or was pushed out, but one way or another Awkward is going to be missing its voice next year, which makes me fear we're in for a Community season 4 / Gilmore Girls season 7 scenario. But Lauren at least went out strong. Awkward season 3 remains far too obsessed with love triangles (my biggest problem with the show last year too), but takes its protagonist Jenna Hamilton through a dynamic emotional journey and wrapped up its season/year with one of the strongest, most moving episodes of the series.

28. The Office (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 9 Episode 23 - "Finale" | Up 8 from 2012

Like The Walking Dead and The Newsroom, The Office is this high on my list (and up from last year!) on the strength of exactly one episode: Its series finale. I don't think I'm being out-there or controversial when I say this show suffered massively from the loss of Steve Carell, but it remains an eternal fact of my own TV history that The Office was, for about a year or so, more or less my favorite show on television. Those emotional bonds can be fractured but are hard to shake entirely, and as such the emotion of "Finale" was felt deeply. Even Carell's return, while nice, ends up being largely incidental to the impact of the show's quiet and heartfelt final moments. There were literally dozens of Office episodes I found pretty damn bad by the end of its run, but it'll always be a show I remember fondly.

27. New Girl (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 8 - "Menus" | Down 4 from 2012

Weird fact: I consider New Girl's 2013 run to be superior to its 2012, yet somehow it's lower on my list this year. What's that about? Ranking pedantry aside, what I wrote last year still applies; New Girl was then and remains now "currently the best 'roommates in an apartment in the city' Friends-styled sitcom on the air." Hell, by an even bigger margin now that Happy Endings is dead. This year the show leaned heavily on the Ross/Rachel will-they-won't-they dynamic of Jess and Nick (and, as the above image indicates, answered it: they will), which isn't generally something I watch TV shows for or care about but in this case was mostly charming. Damon Wayans Jr. rejoining season 3 in a semi-regular capacity as Coach – last seen in the pilot! – has also been a boon to the show.

26. Homeland (Showtime)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 12 - "The Star" | Down 13 from 2012

A couple years ago, I reviewed the pilot of Homeland, calling it "the thinking man's 24." Roughly a year after that, I said that the show had lost what made it smart and different and essentially become "24 2." Now I'll offer a second amendment: Homeland is the pretentious man's 24; a twisty terrorism thriller that's mostly about cliffhangers and finding out who's gonna die next, only wearing a "moral examination of the war on terror" suit that, if you look closely, is cheap and ratty and barely holds together. Also, this season's Dana/Leo subplot is one of the shittiest things I saw on TV all year. All that said, the season finale "The Star" is a very good episode of television, one which thankfully has the balls to follow the show's story through to its only logical conclusion. If not for that episode Homeland would probably be ten ranks lower on this list.

25. Community (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 8 - "Herstory of Dance" | Down 24 from 2012

So, yeah, turns out that when you remove the ice cream from an ice cream sundae, however sweet what's left in the bowl may be, it's pretty goddamn obvious the key ingredient is missing. Sans Dan Harmon, Community season 4 feels off. Really, really off, from the rhythms of its dialogue to the sorts of jokes it tells to the "concepts" it leans into for episodes to the broad strokes of the storytelling and character dynamics. And the "darkest timeline" season finale is aggressively horrible; far and away the worst episode of the series. So why's Community at #25 instead of lower? Well, because I still love these actors and the characters they play and a few episodes – namely "Herstory of Dance," "Basic Human Anatomy" and "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" – are largely enjoyable. But to say I'm anticipating Harmon's return on January 2nd is an understatement.

24. Mad Men (AMC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 6 Episode 13 - "In Care Of" | Down 7 from 2012

Yeah yeah, I know, Mad Men is the greatest achievement in TV history and I'm a culturally illiterate, possibly mentally disabled philistine for not respecting it enough, yada yada. But I actually do like it! Though certain characters feel underserved (namely Joan and Roger), the drug trip episode had me going "the fuck?" and the Don Draper/Linda Cardellini affair subplot far outstays its welcome, Mad Men's sixth season has a lot going for it. Peggy Olson's arc remains as dynamic and involving as it has since season 1, James Wolk is a terrific addition as Bob Benson (and yielded one of the show's funniest and most universally-applicable quotes) and the season finale, "In Care Of," is a flat-out terrific episode that leaves the show off on an evocative and emotionally resonant note that has me hungry for season 7.

23. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FXX)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 9 Episode 3 - "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" | New to List

At nine seasons and counting, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is now officially among the senior citizens of still-active scripted television. But if it's going gray and flabby it's not really showing in the writing – the show remains about as quick and creative and misanthropic as ever. And while "misanthropic" is not a setting that automatically wins a sitcom huge points from me, Sunny owns it and makes it work by being way less smug and self-satisfied in its cruelty than Veep or South Park. Season highlight "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" functions both as a takedown of generic network sitcoms but also as Sunny poking fun at itself for being so stubbornly anti-mainstream.

22. Orphan Black (BBC America)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 6 - "Variations Under Domestication" | Debuted 2013

This low-budget but clever, energetic and spunky clone/sci-fi drama has two big things going for it: First, of course, is Tatiana Maslany's staggering performance(s) as con artist-turned-cop Sarah Manning, uptight soccer mom Alison Hendrix, lovable science geek Cosima Niehaus and psycho religious killer Helena. It's the greatest TV performance from anyone not named Bryan Cranston in 2013, period. (If she's not starring in major franchise movies by 2017 or '18 I'll be shocked.) And second is its aggressive pacing, which blowtorches through story over this ten-episode debut season.

But it's the rapid growth of Orphan Black's place in the pop culture dialogue that I find arguably the most inspiring TV success story of 2013. It didn't become a massively buzzed-about show with a rabid online fandom through having creators or stars anyone had heard of or by being an adaptation or spinoff of anything. It didn't hit airwaves alongside a firestorm of hype and critics didn't bully people into acknowledging it ala Girls. It just put in the goddamn work and made an entertaining genre show, and lo, genre fans liked it. It's the anti-Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

21. Futurama (Comedy Central)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 7 Episode 26 - "Meanwhile" | New to List

Embarrassing TV fan personal confession: Until three months ago, I'd seen maybe half a dozen episodes of Futurama, ever. But I booted up Netflix one day, came across Futurama, hit play on "Space Pilot 3000" totally on a whim, and in a little over a month had blown through the entire series. And though the movies and more recent seasons had their problems, I can say unreservedly and with wild enthusiasm that the show's initial 72-episode run was one of the great TV binges of my life. If I was ranking what I'd seen for the first time this year regardless of air date, Futurama would be as high as #3 or even #2 on this list.

And now, as an extremely recent convert, I find myself in the position of being disappointed not to see a single professional TV critic anywhere on the internet so much as glancingly mention the concluding run of this all-time great comedy in their year-end wrap-ups. Sure, I won't defend "Assie Come Home" or "Saturday Morning Fun Pit," but the time-traveling series finale "Meanwhile" is a beautiful episode of television, a worthy tribute to fourteen years of Fry and Leela's relationship. And is anyone really gonna tell me that "Game of Tones," "Calculon 2.0" and "Forty Percent Leadbelly" aren't quality sci-fi sitcom episodes? Get the fuck outta here.

20. Banshee (Cinemax)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 3 - "Meet the New Boss" | Debuted 2013

There are shows that I love for their endless thematic depth – worthy of being chewed on and discussed and puzzled over for years – or for their rich, nuanced, multifaceted characterization, or for testing and expanding the limits of narrative television; for engaging in storytelling as vital and emotional as any in any medium in the last hundred years. Then there's Banshee, which I love because it has some of the best fights and best boobs on TV. Let it never be said that I'm unwilling to turn off my brain.

19. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 8 - "The Old Ship of Zion" | Down 10 from 2012

Except for maybe Arrested Development, Boardwalk Empire is probably the show I struggled with my once-rabid fandom of the most this year (keeping in mind that neither Homeland or Community were particularly struggles – I was perfectly happy to go "Yeah, this isn't as good as it used to be" with both). I honestly don't know that the show did anything different or anything worse than the last two seasons, but I do know for a fact that I didn't like it as much and found myself frequently texting or getting up to grab a snack during the show, one that was a lights-off-no-phone-no-talking experience for me just one year ago.

But, all that said, it's still one of the most gorgeous shows on television, with some of the best art direction and set design the medium has ever seen, populated by an insanely deep bench of great characters brought to life by ferocious performances. Ron Livingston's new character never clicked for me but Jeffrey Wright makes a delicious meal out of the scenery as new villain in town Dr. Valentin Narcisse. Season 4 is also arguably Michael K. Williams' best yet as Chalky White, with him getting huge amounts to do in almost every hour. And while the season's weakest episodes are among the weakest of the entire series, its best – namely "The Old Ship of Zion" and "Erlkönig" – are as great as the show has ever been.

18. Supernatural (The CW)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 8 Episode 11 - "LARP and the Real Girl" | Up 3 from 2012

Supernatural doesn't seem like a show with a lot of friends. I sure as hell don't see any professional critics mention it when talking about the contemporary TV landscape. Even its fanbase seems ambivalent these days. But you know what? I still enjoy the hell out of it. I won't argue with the contention that it probably had more actively bad episodes this year than anything else in my top twenty, but unlike most serious-minded cable dramas, Supernatural never, ever feels like homework. It's a tasty little bowl of televised ice cream every week and I'm always excited to see what mix of horror and fantasy and action and comedy it has up its sleeve. A lot of TV these days – even (or perhaps especially?) the "quality" TV – seems pretty interchangeable. Supernatural continues to be its own distinct, unique flavor.

17. 30 Rock (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 7 Episode 9 - "Game Over" | Down 3 from 2012

I'm not really sure what the proper way to rank 30 Rock's series-concluding January run is. If we're going by the averaged-out quality level of every episode aired, it should be ranked very high; higher than it is now. But it seems weird to rank that highly a TV show that aired slightly less content in total minutes of runtime this year than a single feature film. So let's just cut the ranking bullshit and say this: 30 Rock is a great show, probably one of the best sitcoms of all time. And while its series finale is enormously satisfying, its high point for me this year was "Game Over," wherein Jack Donaghy's two greatest nemeses – Will Arnett's Devon Banks and Chloë Moretz's Kaylie Hooper – join forces to take him down, prompting perhaps Jack's greatest retaliatory chess moves ever.

16. Scandal (ABC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 13 - "Nobody Likes Babies" | New to List

Scandal hardly needs me to vouch for it – it's currently enjoying a crackling, red-hot buzz unmatched by any other network TV drama (a buzz which, like Orphan Black, it earned the hard way, with few critics in its corner when it first debuted). But I'm happy to vouch anyway, because Scandal is a lightning-paced blast. It's The West Wing on crack. So many people sitting in the highest echelons of the U.S. government have committed murder with their own two hands on this show, and far from being upsetting or depressing, it has me clapping my hands and roaring with laughter. I don't think Scandal can continue to operate at this insane, borderline-dangerous pacing indefinitely. At a certain point, it's either going to hit a wall or get too stupid, and it wouldn't surprise me if Scandal season 7 or 8 is pretty terrible. But for now? It's a roller coaster worth going on, and probably the only current network TV ratings phenomenon that actually deserves to be a phenomenon.

15. Switched at Birth (ABC Family)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 9 - "Uprising" | Up 17 from 2012

ABC Family's teen drama Switched at Birth – which, despite its title, I consider to be far more an examination of deaf society and culture than an exposé of what it is to be switched at birth – aired in two distinct chunks this year. The second, summer-set run is alright but nothing overwhelmingly special. However, the spring run is something very special indeed. The first ten episodes of Switched at Birth's second season chronicle the growing crisis at Carlton School for the Deaf, which faces budgetary catastrophe and political problems and internal strife about whether to allow pilot program hearing kids in. This culminates in the silent, all-American Sign Language episode "Uprising," where the Carlton kids stage a sit-in protest at the cusp of the demise of their school, an episode of true power and emotion and ambition that I'd stack against anything I watched on TV in 2013.

14. Justified (FX)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 11 - "Decoy" | Down 4 from 2012

It's not with scorn but with love that I admit I probably have less to say about Justified than any other show on TV that's this good. FX's Kentucky-set U.S. Marshal drama is just a pure, kick-ass, guns-blazing pleasure. To be bluntly honest, it's not a show I put a lot of thought into – I don't even read episode reviews of it – but it's pretty much never not entertaining; a show that straddles the microscopic-thin line between serious cable "quality television" drama and gunslinging pulp that would just be a blast to binge watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon with some snacks.

Timothy Olyphant kicks ass. Walton Goggins' performance as lovable villain/sometimes antihero Boyd Crowder continues four years in to be so good, and so big, and so attention-grabbing that despite being in more or less every episode of Justified he still feels like a special guest star every time he steps onscreen. I also bet Mike O'Malley's villainous guest arc this year as the skin-crawlingly loathsome Nicky Augustine shocked the hell out of a few people who know him exclusively as Kurt's well-meaning schlubby dad on Glee.

13. Arrested Development (Netflix)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 7 - "Colony Collapse" | Debuted 2013 (kind of)

Let's rip the bandaid off first thing: Arrested Development season 4 is not the essentially perfect, structurally airtight, infinitely quotable, "I can't breathe" hilarious, groundbreaking and scorchingly brilliant show it was in seasons 1-3. I wish it was, and many, many bloggers and forum posters were pretending it was back in May. But it's just not. As such, it's a disappointment. But if you're looking to spend time in Arrested Development's quick-witted, delightfully cynical and, yes, mostly still pretty damn funny (just not as funny as its initial run) sitcom universe, still populated by this same amazing cast playing these same great characters in a layered, ambitious and bitingly satirical sitcom story? Then it remains a success. Just not a staggering one. Nothing can dampen the fact that the "Sound of Silence" zoom-ins on Gob have had me laughing for seven months now.

(Arrested Development season 4 reviews: Eps. 1-3, Eps. 4-6, Eps. 7-9, Eps. 10-12, Eps. 13-15)

12. Fringe (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 5 Episode 13 - "An Enemy of Fate" | Down 5 from 2012

Like 30 Rock, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of content to base Fringe's 2013 ranking on. The show aired three episodes this year: "The Boy Must Live" on January 11th and its two-part series finale, "Liberty" and "An Enemy of Fate," on January 18th. But those three episodes – particularly the last – offer a level of thrills and emotion and laughs and visual and imaginative splendor and sheer genre spectacle I wish more network TV drama could aspire to instead of being fucking Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So let's pour one out for Fringe and its alternate dimensions and time-travelling psychics and general sci-fi weirdness and its awesome central trio of Olivia Dunham and Peter and Walter Bishop. I'm already looking forward to watching the entire series again start-to-finish in a year or two. Why? Because it's cool.

11. Bob's Burgers (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 16 - "Topsy" | Down 5 from 2012

Bob's Burgers, like a well-made fast food burger (In-N-Out, Lotaburger, etc.), just goes down so damn easy. It's funny, it's warm, it's pleasant and almost never meanspirited to any meaningful or lasting degree. Equally horny and awkward teenaged Tina Belcher is just about the best sitcom character on TV right now. Even the deformed but clean and colorful animation (which, I admit, made me go "The hell?" when I first saw the show) has become akin to slipping on a warm and comfy hoodie. It captures so much of the charm of classic-era Simpsons in its family dynamics but also more than a little of King of the Hill in both its well-meaning, non-mentally disabled titular patriarch who nevertheless makes plenty of mistakes and in its lack of any paranormal or non-real world elements (the latter trait being something I believe is completely unique to Bob's Burgers in the landscape of current animated sitcoms). I love it, I look forward to it every week, I hope it runs ten seasons.

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