Friday, December 20, 2013

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2013: #50 - 31

You bet your ass it's that time of year again. As of this week (as of watching last Monday's Almost Human, to be exact), I've finally seen every episode of every show I wanted to be caught up on before ranking this year's top fifty. To help keep things fresh and spicy I've specified under each show's title and rank both what it's best 2013 episode was and, if it's one of the returning shows from 2012's list, how many ranks it rose or fell from last year. (Last year's lists: #50-31, #30-11, Top Ten.) Let's get to the main event:

50. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 15 - "Stand By Me" | Down 35 from 2012

What a remarkable difference 357 days can make, huh? In last year's list I was basically raving about The Vampire Diaries' relentless pacing and high stakes. Now it's slowed to a crawl, bends over backwards to avoid anything that challenges the status quo and is reviving dead characters left and right. The show's story spent essentially all of 2013 walking in a wide, slow circle back to square one. As such, it's gone from a show I couldn't wait for new episodes of to one I leave on in the background while playing iPhone games or doing minor household errands. You'd think The Vampire Diaries of all shows would know to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

49. Teen Wolf (MTV)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 6 - "Motel California" | Down 12 from 2012

Fun fact: One of the dozen or so half-written but never finished posts in this blog's backlog is a rave for season 1 of Teen Wolf, calling it better than you'd assume. And it still might be, but no longer that much better. Essentially a poor, poor, poor man's Buffy, the show is a sometimes amusing, never exceptional genre serial about beautiful teen werewolves fighting supernatural villains in their small town while juggling school and romance. Probably the best thing it has going for it is Dylan O'Brien as the protagonist's dorky non-werewolf best friend (i.e. the Xander Harris). His comic timing is remarkably sharp and should hopefully propel him onto a great sitcom when Teen Wolf ends.

48. Gravity Falls (Disney)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 16 - "Carpet Diem" | Down 19 from 2012

I noted a year ago that Gravity Falls was getting better as it went along and that "if this quality incline continues, I could see Gravity Falls shooting way up on my 2013 list." And, well, looks like I forgot to knock on wood. My four favorite episodes from 2012 – "Double Dipper," "The Time Traveler's Pig," "Fight Fighters" and "Summerween" – are still my four favorite episodes of this paranormal animated sitcom, with nothing this year hitting their level. But that doesn't mean the show isn't still reasonably funny and clever and pleasant to look at. The body-swapping episode "Carpet Diem" is a lot of fun.

47. Defiance (Syfy)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 12 - "Past Is Prologue" | Debuted 2013

I adore the idea of Defiance: An unapologetic '90s-style sci-fi throwback that would have fit seamlessly alongside Stargate and Babylon 5 and Star Trek: TNG. Unfortunately its sci-fi/Western mashup gunslinging vibe and sarcastic rogue Han Solo-ish hero make it impossible not to compare it to Firefly, and, uh, it obviously comes up wanting. But for a nerd such as myself there's still a lot to love in its elaborate mythology and various alien races. The storytelling and action only occasionally rise above "serviceable," though.

46. Revenge (ABC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 14 - "Sacrifice" | Down 24 from 2012

Like The Vampire Diaries, I'm digging Revenge's vibe way less than I was a year ago. Truth be told, I'm ready for Emily Thorne's true identity and motives to come to light for all the world to see and for her to finally and fully take her revenge and the show to wrap up, and if that doesn't happen by the end of season 4 I honestly don't know if I'll want to keep going. That said, Revenge can still bust out a fun cliffhanger and Gabriel Mann's snarky bisexual hacker/computer genius Nolan Ross remains a great, unendingly entertaining character.

45. Longmire (A&E)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 11 - "Natural Order" | Up 1 from 2012

This Wyoming sheriff procedural is by no stretch of the imagination a great TV show. But when they put its first season up on Netflix I discovered that it is great kicking-back-in-your-pajamas-on-a-lazy-Saturday-afternoon background filler, which is something I say with love. That type of show has value and it's not easy to make. What makes Longmire rise above your CSIs or your Law and Orders or Bones or Criminal Minds is its charming rustic settings and use of landscape in its visuals and Robert Taylor's weary but calm, controlled and casually badass performance as the titular Walt Longmire. He's a legitimately great star for this type of comfort food procedural – again, something I say with love.

44. Happy Endings (ABC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 18 - "She Got Game Night" | Down 13 from 2012

Fuck it, I'm just gonna quote what I wrote last year: "Happy Endings is a very shallow, very funny Friends knockoff that has virtually no interest in anything except raining a constant stream of jokes down on you at a rate of about one punchline every five to ten seconds. It has no depth whatsoever – there's shows lower on this list and not on this list at all with more interest in character development – but is it funny? Yep." All that was true this year too, plus it got canceled. Crap!

43. American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
Best 2013 Episode: Episode 5 - "Burn, Witch. Burn!" | New to List

I did not like American Horror Story: Asylum. By the time we had aliens, Satanic possession and Nazis all occupying the same space at once I had to throw my arms up and go "This is fucking preposterous." Coven, however, has shrunk the mythology down to witches and voodoo and as such I'm enjoying it somewhat more. Bringing back season 1's Taissa Farmiga, a terrific grounding presence, was a smart call, and Kathy Bates has made for a scene-stealing addition to the ensemble. However, like The Vampire Diaries, this show is way too in love with reviving dead characters. This season damn near has a negative body count at this point.

42. Luther (BBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 4 - "Episode 4" | New to List

Luther is only rarely what I'd describe as "entertainment." Despite falling in the otherwise easily-digestible cop procedural genre, Luther can be a grim, brutal, punishing experience, one I often find myself enduring more than watching. But I do admire that tonal ambition, and Idris Elba and his smooth, buttery voice are endlessly watchable in the titular role. His screen presence is simply towering and propelled him from TV to movies for an immediately obvious reason. The show even gets a little injection of genuine fun in its closing hour when Ruth Wilson's femme fatale antihero Alice Morgan returns.

41. Almost Human (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 3 - "Are You Receiving?" | Debuted 2013

Just a few episodes into its run and Fringe scribe J.H. Wyman's futuristic cop drama Almost Human has a lot going for it: Confident storytelling, clever sci-fi concepts and cases-of-the-week, visuals that look less cheap than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Blacklist and the snappy, immediate and borderline homoerotic chemistry between leads Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. All that's missing? Any sort of serialized elements or greater narrative arc whatsoever. As of this point this thing is positively Law and Order-ian in its rigidly episodic structure. Which is okay for now, but can't last, just as it couldn't on Fringe.

40. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 6 Episode 1/2  - "London" | Down 22 from 2012

Parks and Recreation season 3, which aired in the spring of 2011, is one of the great sitcom seasons of this century so far, as reflected in my top ten list that year. Its fifth and sixth seasons from this year on the other hand are soft, repetitive and unambitious comfort food, born from a combination of the show buying into its own hype and growing old. Thankfully, said unambitious comfort food is still performed by an absolutely stellar cast: Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt and Adam Scott remain as funny and talented as ever. (And by the way, Parks needn't feel too bad about falling from #5 to #40 over two years, as another still-airing show in that 2011 top ten has fallen out of this year's top fifty entirely.)

39. Revolution (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 9 - "Everyone Says I Love You" | Up 5 from 2012

One of this year's shocking little success stories, NBC's once-crappy post-apocalyptic adventure serial Revolution has actually become kind of damn entertaining in its second season. They killed off most of the first season's lesser characters, beefed up those remaining, eliminated or answered virtually all Lost-esque "mystery mythology" elements and came up with way more cool imagery and action and plot twists. If Revolution had only aired its season 2 episodes this year and wasn't burdened by ten mediocre-to-crappy first season episodes from the spring it would be ranked higher still.

38. Vikings (History)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 6 - "Burial of the Dead" | Debuted 2013

Vikings is just about the most annoying show of 2013 in terms of the story going right to the point it seems poised to really kick into high gear and then deciding that's the perfect spot to end the season. It's like the serialized TV watching equivalent of "edging." But, that aside, I'd say the show basically lives up to its title. Vikings! Vikings raiding! Vikings pillaging! Vikings fighting! And Travis Fimmel is a real find as protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok; his charisma burns through the screen. The developing relationship between Lothbrok and a Christian monk named Athelstan he captures and brings home to his village is also intriguing, nuanced and at one particular moment more than ambiguously homoerotic.

37. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 11 - "Christmas" | Debuted 2013

Far and away the best new sitcom of 2013 (not a single other one was even remotely in contention for this list at any point), Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur's new cop show is already well on its way with strong joke writing and character dynamics. Andre Braugher's immensely serious-minded and openly gay Captain Holt is the show's not-so-secret weapon, though Terry Crews and relative newcomer Melissa Fumero are great as well. Chelsea Peretti and Stephanie Beatriz's characters continue to far too strongly resemble April Ludgate from Parks and Rec with her personality split across two separate people and I kind of wish the show would try adding a single long-term story element that spans more than 22 minutes. But for now it's off to a solid start.

36. The Walking Dead (AMC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 8 - "Too Far Gone" | Down 17 from 2012

What a difference a single episode can make. After fifteen 2013 episodes, a few of which were mildly interesting, most mediocre, and a few total crap, on my early drafts of this list I had The Walking Dead down in the 40s. One draft I put it in The Vampire Diaries' current slot at #50! But then, its sixteenth episode, "Too Far Gone," in which events finally explode into the shocking, climactic, jaw-dropping zombie spectacle I wish to god this show could aspire to give us more than once a year. So kudos, The Walking Dead: On the whole you were not a great show, but you did give us one really great hour. (Also, this isn't the only show whose ranking shot way up on the strength of a single episode – there's another such show on today's list and four more in the top thirty.)

35. Hart of Dixie (The CW)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 6 - "Family Tradition" | Down 8 from 2012

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sometimes you just gotta chill the fuck out. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for violent and harrowing TV dramas. But they aren't all I want to watch either. That would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown. And that's why the light, charming Gilmore Girls-esque quirky small town dramedy Hart of Dixie is often one of the first shows I devour when I find a new episode on Hulu. Especially if it's right after I've watched something dark and despairing. It's silly and cheesy and frankly kind of dumb a lot of the time, but it goes down sweet and easy. It's cotton candy. (Having two Friday Night Lights alumni in its main cast doesn't hurt its chances with me either.)

34. The Newsroom (HBO)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 5 - "News Night With Will McAvoy" | Up 16 from 2012

Along with Revolution, Aaron Sorkin's behind-the-scenes-of-cable-news drama The Newsroom is one of two shows that took the leap from a largely crappy 2012 to a 2013 run I found surprisingly watchable. Oh, it has its bad episodes – the season finale and the episode where Maggie goes to Africa are both fairly terrible – and can still be real smug. But it feels less smug, and Sorkin now actually allows the characters to make mistakes, which ironically makes them much more likable. And "News Night With Will McAvoy," which tracks one chaotic hour of live news broadcasting in real time, is a great TV episode, snappy and breathless and emotional and in contention as one of Sorkin's all-time finest teleplays. It singlehandedly sent The Newsroom shooting several ranks up this list.

33. Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 7 - "The Midnight Ride" | Debuted 2013

A big lovable doofus of a show, Fox's semi-lighthearted paranormal thriller Sleepy Hollow has a couple big things going for it: First, and probably the most hyped aspect in online coverage, is its enthusiastic embrace of crazy. It takes its apocalyptic mythology and time-traveling Ichabod Crane and Headless Horseman just seriously enough but never to the point of sapping fun. And second and just as important is the extremely strong onscreen chemistry between Tom Mison as Ichabod and Nicole Beharie as his present-day partner in paranormal wackiness Lt. Abbie Mills. The show is yet to really put out an episode that makes me go "Oh wow that was amazing television!", but I continue to look forward to it every week.

32. Nashville (ABC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 21 - "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" | Up 3 from 2012

When I made my list last year, Nashville was still kinda sorta masquerading as a serious TV drama attempting to say something about the intersection of music and power and politics in Nashville. And I kinda liked that version of the show if only for Connie Britton. But this year it shrugged its shoulders and admitted it's a pulpy soap opera, complete with car crashes and affairs and comas and fake pregnancies and ratings-grabbing lesbian kissing and even a hilariously random shooting. And to my surprise, I actually like this unpretentious reboot better still! Also, as a Friday Night Lights fanatic who basically worships Connie Britton's performance in that show, it's somewhat to my shock that it isn't Britton but Hayden Panettiere's delightfully bitchy country diva Juliette Barnes who is now the reason to watch Nashville. Frequent and still-solid country music doesn't hurt either.

31. The Fosters (ABC Family)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 9 - "Vigil" | Debuted 2013

Outside of the execrable Secret Life of the American Teenager, I've pretty consistently been a fan of ABC Family's non-thriller dramas (Greek, Bunheads, Switched at Birth, etc.), a streak I'm pleased to say continues with The Fosters. The chronicle of the lives of two lesbian parents and the somewhat alarming number of biological, adopted and foster children they live with, the show can be a little syrupy sweet and a little too into "issue" episodes (around the time it started exploring the concept of illegal immigrants I was like "It's okay if you don't comment on every issue in American society, The Fosters."), but it's also genuine and heartfelt and pushes many of the same thematic and emotional buttons as my beloved Parenthood. I'm looking forward to its return in January.

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