Monday, December 30, 2013

Top Ten TV Shows of 2013

And we arrive at last at the best of the best. This top ten has me more melancholy than last year's, as three of these shows are now gone from the airwaves, resting forever in the annals of TV history, and a couple more are officially getting up there in years. But where there's clouds there's a silver lining, because a few of these shows are yet newborn babes just getting their runs started. On to it:

10. American Dad (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 8 Episode 18 - "Lost In Space" | Up 2 from 2012

My highest-ranked comedy this year, American Dad – despite being a downright ancient show that's been on since less than a year after I graduated high school – is still swinging for the fences. Oh, it had plenty of bad episodes this year. As many as anything else in my top twenty. But the four or five times a year that its producers really buckle down and decide they want to make something great, they're capable of churning out half-hours of such ambition, imagination and artistry that I bow before them. "Lost In Space," which follows Hayley Smith's kidnapped stoner husband Jeff to the mothership of the aliens who took him, is my favorite sitcom episode of 2013. It packs a whole great animated sci-fi action-comedy musical with its own mythology and epic settings into just 22 minutes, and, even if it weren't funny, would be something to behold on account of sheer scale alone.

For the record, American Dad and Bob's Burgers were neck and neck in these rankings – the latter even a touch ahead – until Dad's December 1st episode "Independent Movie," a sendup of indie coming-of-age flicks and the Fox Searchlight formula that calls to mind Galaxy Quest and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" in how note-perfect a spoof it is. But the two shows really function as yin and yang; Bob's as the warm and realistic animated sitcom and Dad as the dark and surreal one. I watch both back-to-back every week and they complement each other perfectly. They're milk and cereal, baby.

9. Parenthood (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 13 - "Small Victories" | Down 4 from 2012

I'll admit first thing that Parenthood had its problems this year. This fall, I should really say, as the big albatross around season 5's neck has been Kristina Braverman's mayoral run, something which dragged the show in a very weird West Wing-lite direction that just isn't what I watch this bighearted family drama for at all. I'd almost compare it to the "Landry murders a rapist" subplot in Jason Katims' last show Friday Night Lights in how weirdly perpendicular to the premise of the show it seems (in fact, the parallel is almost spookily exact, with the offending subplots both being introduced in season premieres of each show and wrapped up in episode 9 of the same seasons).

But I'm willing to overlook mayoral shenanigans and top ten Parenthood (yes, "top ten" is a verb now!) the third year running for two reasons: One, that subplot is over. Two – and this is something I can't even say about several shows above Parenthood on this list – I care. You see, I'm a pretty emotionally guarded guy when it comes to fiction and forming true, genuine emotional investments in characters. I'm not generally a crier when watching TV, not a gasper or an applauder or any of that shit. You could count with fingers and toes to spare the number of TV shows ever made where I actually care about the characters on that level. Parenthood is one of those shows. I ache for the characters' pains, I cheer their victories; I'm invested in their lives top-to-bottom with all my heart. And that's why Parenthood, story problems aside, remains one of my favorite shows on television.

8. The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 7/8 - "Beginnings" | Same Rank as 2012

Oh hey second consecutive show in my top ten that was riddled with pretty significant problems this year! Yes, the first half of Korra's second season is animated by the same studio who does Naruto, whose work is clearly inferior to Studio Mir's. Many episodes are just messes of disconnected subplots. And the season's climactic final battle is won via a deus ex machina that makes the end of The Matrix Revolutions look smartly-foreshadowed and narratively logical.

But then... "Beginnings." The two-part Studio Mir-animated prequel episode that takes us back ten millennia in the Avatar universe to show us the genesis of the Avatar. I'mma be straight with y'all: I fucking love this episode. I love it as much as anything I've seen on TV all year. As much as anything I've seen in a movie theater all year. As much as any sex I've had all year. I love it for how visually inventive it is, and how emotional it is, and how epic in its timeframe and geographical span and impact on this fictional universe it is, and just how narratively and thematically and mythologically satisfying it is. One particular moment at the end (when Raava says "We are bonded forever." and the thirty seconds immediately after) literally gave me goosebumps. I watched this two-parter four times before the next episode hit.

It's time to cut the shit and call "Beginnings" what it is: The best animated medieval fantasy film since Princess Mononoke came out in 1997. A short, roughly 45-minute film, sure. But a masterpiece nonetheless. (Though I will say that Disney's great new princess flick Frozen is no slouch either.) And that's why The Legend of Korra is in my top ten.

7. Arrow (The CW)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 23 - "Sacrifice" | Up 17 from 2012

The CW and former Everwood producer Greg Berlanti's vigilante/superhero drama Arrow is my hands-down, far-and-away, nothing-else-even-in-contention pick for 2013's most improved TV show. Starting in the last few episodes of season 1 and continuing all through season 2, this Green Arrow adaptation stepped it up about twenty notches in almost literally everything from what it was last year: Character development and character dynamics, humor, cinematography, action scenes, excitement, pacing, thematic depth; all now firing on all cylinders. A year ago my overall stance on Arrow was "It's not bad." Today? I count the hours until new episodes and devour each one as a ravenous beast.

That Arrow is a better superhero show than Marvel's Agents of N.C.I.S. S.H.I.E.L.D. goes without saying. While that show futzes about with its disposable little cases of the week, Arrow is a layered, propulsive serial. While that show's wooden cast continues to feel like they're reciting lines at each other, Arrow's characters have become rounded and engaging, with real dynamics. And while that show is restricted to barely even using the Z-list Marvel characters no one's heard of, Arrow delivers the DC Comics goods: Barry Allen (aka The Flash), Black Canary, Deathstroke, China White, Count Vertigo, Deadshot and Solomon Grundy just this year. It's even namedropped Ra's al Ghul! (Though he hasn't appeared yet and when he does it's admittedly pretty damn unlikely he'll be Liam Neeson.)

What may go less without saying – but stands no less true – is that Arrow is the best onscreen superhero story of 2013, period. You can keep your Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel and The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World. I'll be over here watching Arrow, which is engaging in storytelling more vital than any of them. With a Flash spinoff coming next fall from the same team I can officially say I'm a million times more interested and invested in Greg Berlanti's televised DC Comics universe than Zack Snyder's cinematic one. Fingers crossed we get to see Berlanti's take on Wonder Woman one day.

6. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 11 - "Tall Men With Feelings" | Debuted 2013

I always found Weeds – even its reportedly best seasons – pretty tough to sit through, and after the Girls and The Americans incidents I've become super wary when it comes to TV critics jerking off to new shows all over the internet before they even air. So you'll understand why I was hesitant and held off a few weeks when it came to hitting play on the first episode of Weeds creator Jenji Kohan's new women-in-prison drama Orange Is the New Black, less despite and more because of all the critical adulation.

But hey, stopped clock, twice a day and all that. I eventually did fire up the pilot episode "I Wasn't Ready," and proceeded to inhale the rest of the first season in the space of about a week. Goddamnit if Orange Is the New Black isn't just as good as everyone said.

A lot of why I adore this show probably has to do with tone. In a year when damn near every new non-broadcast drama from The Americans to House of Cards to The Bridge to Low Winter Sun seemed to be trying to one-up all that came before it in how utterly bleak and despairing and joyless it could be, Orange Is the New Black is glorious sunlight bursting through the clouds. It has fleeting moments of darkness and violence, sure, but they're earned, and it is ultimately a show about community, about finding joy in the mundane, about the bonds between us rather than the antihero bullshit that drives us apart. Granted, said bonds are forced on the characters by the shackles of prison, but aren't so many great TV shows about people forced together by circumstance? High school-set teen dramas, workplace sitcoms, and so on – Orange Is the New Black is a new and wonderful spin on classic formula.

5. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 9 - "The Rains of Castamere" | Same Rank as 2012

Three seasons in, Westeros – in all its grimy, heartbreaking and glorious brutality – remains televised fiction's most enjoyably awful place to spend an hour a week in. I don't know how much else I really need to type about this pretty much universally-watched show. No one needs me to reiterate how great the source material is, how deep and immense the bench of acting talent (and picking up more famed British thespians every year) is, how great the production remains in the quality of its set/costume design, art direction, cinematography, special effects and even music, or that there's goddamn dragons.

Now, as with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and especially with Peter Jackson's occasionally interminable Hobbit movies, there's a part of me that wonders if they sacrificed what could have been one of the greatest TV seasons of all time for a merely very good TV season when they hacked A Storm of Swords in half to spread across seasons 3 and 4 rather than cramming the whole 1,200-page tome and its million plot twists into ten hours. And I'll confess I felt a little drag at certain points this season, specifically in episodes 1-2 and 6-7.

That said, Game of Thrones season 3 does give us (SPOILERS!!!, if you're one of the three people who would read a TV blog yet doesn't keep up with Game of Thrones) the sacking of Astapor, Jaime and Brienne's bath (only 3% as sexy as it sounds), the Queen of Thorns, the Manticore-skewering return of Ser Barristan Selmy, Jaime's de-handing, the coup at Craster's Keep, the Hound's trial by combat, nudity, the execution of Lord Karstark, Tyrion and Sansa's wedding, Sam and Gilly vs. White Walker, Tywin sending Joffrey to bed, Arya and the Hound murdering the fuck out of some Frey men, a pretty cool frost giant dude north of the Wall and, of course, the Red Wedding, one of the most buzzed-about literary events of 2000 that smoothly translated into one of the most buzzed-about television events of 2013. (Which, by the way, the sight of George R.R. Martin on major nighttime talk shows talking about the Red Wedding is probably the most "Holy shit, nerd culture has gone mainstream." moment of my life.) So, still a pretty goddamn eventful TV season all in all.

4. Bunheads (ABC Family)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 18 - "Next!" | Up 16 from 2012

I'm going to quote myself from my Hart of Dixie writeup last week: Sometimes you just gotta chill the fuck out. And I'll be first to acknowledge that making bona fide great dramatic television sans cliffhangers, nihilism or violence can be hard (Parenthood and Switched at Birth are the only other dramas in my top thirty this year I'd describe in such terms, though Switched did sneak in a lone heart attack cliffhanger). But Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino's ballet school drama Bunheads is. Great, I mean.

It's not quite as chilled out as Hart of Dixie – the show's pilot bound the characters together via the sudden and tragic death of a beloved town figure, something the all-mellow-all-the-time Dixie would never touch. But the melancholy aftertaste from this event that pervades the remaining seventeen warm, witty, dance-and-pop-culture-saturated episodes proves the "salt to taste" that lifts the entire series from pure frivolity into something that feels special and humanistic and emotionally rich amidst all its humor and pep.

And sure, Sherman-Palladino is ripping her own previous show off: The rhythms of Bunheads' fast, pop-culture-laden dialogue are identical to Gilmore Girls, Sutton Foster's leading role as ballet teacher Michelle Simms often feels like Lorelai Gilmore 2.0, the Gilmore Girls "la la la"s are ever-present, and like half of Gilmore Girls' supporting cast shows up at some point or another. But it also differentiates itself in key ways, notably with an ensemble of four teen girl co-leads instead of just one and with its electrifying dance sequences, often as visually arresting and creatively-filmed as anything I've seen in television or film this year.

Bunheads was anticlimactically killed for low ratings after eighteen episodes, both leaving the show off on an inconclusive and deeply unsatisfying note and also proving that no loving god watches over us. The show's sudden end will honestly make it – however much I adore it – difficult to recommend in years to come, because I know I would just be setting people up for heartbreak. But my memories of those eighteen fleeting hours will always be fond.

3. Hannibal (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 7 - "Sorbet" | Debuted 2013

When NBC announced that they were resuscitating the fetid corpse of the Hannibal Lecter franchise from the shallow grave Hannibal Rising put it in, I was groaning and laughing. Not just at first either; pretty much from the initial announcement right up until this televised reboot's premiere. I was so sure we were getting another grim, artless case-of-the-week procedural, only with this show's antihero living in a cage and making cannibalism cracks. I expected nothing worthwhile of Hannibal. I anticipated it not a whit. And I've never had a TV show so powerfully upend my expectations.

Hannibal is first and foremost art. It has characters and a narrative, sure, but that all melts away in service of a kind of rich, dark, intoxicating visual poetry. It's twisted televised installation art; a grand, operatic theatre of the macabre whose genre I'd really describe as something more akin to urban fantasy than procedural. And yes, there's cannibalism galore, but these long-pig dishes are designed and filmed with such luxurious food-porn sensuality that it will both make your mouth water and make you a little sick to your stomach when you consider what's in them. The show's cinematography rivals not just all TV this year but all film this year. This is probably the only TV show I've ever seen where I can say that more or less every shot is of feature-film caliber in its care to detail and color and lighting and depth and framing.

My preemptive assumptions were right about one thing: Hannibal does have cases of the week. But far from the samey hackwork you see in whatever CBS procedural or Law & Order you care to name, these cases – as bold and creative as any weekly crimes I've seen on TV in the last ten years – have rattled in my brain and haunted my nightmares for months now (it's safe to say Hannibal viewers may never look at mushrooms, angels, cellos or totems the same way again).

Furthermore, even if some of these cases may wrap up within the hour, their darkness and violence isn't brushed aside on a weekly basis at all. On the contrary, the way they weigh heavier and heavier on protagonist Will Graham as the season goes on is felt deeply, often painfully, coming to conclusions in the season's closing arc that feel sickening in their logical inevitability. For me, a lot of great dramatic television is about consequences, something shared by Hannibal and both of this list's remaining shows. And Hannibal is great. I like Silence of the Lambs as much as the next guy, but this show is now the definitive onscreen Hannibal Lecter story for me.

(Funnily enough, the hacky antihero-in-a-cage procedural I figured we were getting with Hannibal we actually did get five months later, only it was called The Blacklist. Weird how that worked out.)

2. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 5 Episode 14 - "Ozymandias" | Same Rank as 2012

"Consequences" is the word of the day in this gorgeous, brutal, thrilling, heart-pounding and all around awesome final run of what is easily 2013's most popular TV show. Breaking Bad is so popular, in fact, and aired its final eight episodes to so many viewers (in a phenomenal bit of synergy between Netflix and AMC, I might add – Netflix both reaped the benefits of having AMC's show but also made it way more widely known by bringing it to the masses, thus yielding by far its highest ratings ever on AMC which will, in turn, mean yet more people watching on Netflix when the final eight episodes go up) that I don't know that I really need to say a damn thing more here.

Breaking Bad is one of the greatest intimate character studies ever and one of the greatest unrelentingly-paced thrillers ever, and never sacrifices one set of clothes in favor of the other. It marries them perfectly. This year's series-concluding half-season has both the awful, stomach-churning, consequence-laden final sequence of "Ozymandias" and the fist-pumping, making-you-shout-"YEAH BITCH!" final sequence of "Felina." It has the moody, introspective cabin scenes of "Granite State" and the clutching-your-armrest/partner's hand-in-fear shootout concluding "To'hajiilee." It has Bryan Cranston raising his game even further, delivering what will absolutely go down as one of TV's iconic performances. It even carves out a few minutes for some hilarious Star Trek fanfiction. This year's eight episodes are great and this series is great. That's it.

On a personal note, while I may mourn the passing of one of dramatic television's finest achievements, I celebrate no longer feeling any obligation to take part in the perpetually smug, combative and all-around odious online discourse surrounding Breaking Bad. Don't misunderstand this as a comment on the show itself! – Breaking Bad is a searing masterwork that will have a proud and prominent place in television textbooks a hundred years from now. But that doesn't change the fact that I've been trained, Pavlovian-style, to reactively tense up in preparation of a preening lecture about how everyone else is watching the show wrong every single time I see the words "Breaking Bad" written on a forum or blog. I can't decide which I'm more excited for: Rewatching all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad in one giant binge when season 5B gets added to Netflix, or never discussing Breaking Bad on the internet again as long as I live.

1. Spartacus: War of the Damned (Starz)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 10 - "Victory" | Up 2 from 2012

And now we come to my favorite TV show of 2013: Spartacus. Oh, Spartacus – how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

I – Evolution. It's a pretty well-known fact – amongst the Spartacus fanbase as much or more than anywhere else – that the show didn't exactly put its best foot forward. The series premiere, "The Red Serpent," is far and away the worst episode of the series, looking and feeling more like a bad 300 knockoff than anything else. But Spartacus kept its head down and kept moving forward and bettering itself. Its 300-wannabe visuals soon evolved into something straddling the line between painterly and comic-book and totally unlike anything else I've ever seen. Its rough, semi-Shakespearean dialogue became poetic and pleasing to the ear in all its profane glory. And the storytelling and characterization improved at a meteoric rate, and by its first season finale Spartacus had revealed itself as the creatively bold, stirringly emotional, potent and eye-poppingly beautiful epic it would be for the rest of the series.

This evolution continued beyond Batiatus' ludus and arena of Capua, and even beyond the heartbreaking death from cancer of the show's first Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, who gave the producers his blessing to continue with a new star before his passing. In the first season, Spartacus: Blood and Sand (and the prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena), we rarely left the walls of Capua. In Spartacus: Vengeance, the gladiator show became a fugitives-on-the-run show and the scope was expanded to the surrounding countryside, Mount Vesuvius, and nearby towns and villas. Then in Spartacus: War of the Damned we never even set foot in Capua at all: The show has become a full-blown war epic encompassing all of the Roman Empire less than thirty episodes into the series. That's bold storytelling. That's evolution.

II – Pacing. When I evangelize Spartacus, "pacing" is usually the first major buzz word to pass my lips. And if you watch the show you'll see why: From the shocking ending of "Delicate Things," the sixth episode of Blood and Sand, straight through to the end of the series' 39-episode run, Spartacus never again goes more than two or three episodes without completely shattering and burning down its entire status quo. I have literally never seen another TV show in my entire life that throws out fundamental changes of premise and plot-upending twists and major character deaths like this, that concludes story arcs and moves onto new ones this quickly and forcefully and aggressively. Spartacus is a show loaded with midseason (and even early season) episodes that any other show on television would save for their climactic season finales. It's that kind of show. It's that confident. 

III – Style. As I mentioned above, Spartacus, with its wild, colorful graphic novel visuals, eventually became an immensely beautiful show to look at, and a pleasure to listen to in its odd, Shakespeare-inspired rhythms. (Unfortunately, these same elements that make it so exciting and unique probably led to its rejection by TV critics used to "quality television" being the same flavorless shades of gray – see the inexplicable love for House of Cards to learn more.) It's just unlike anything else in this regard.

And, yes, another major element of this stylistic boldness is the show's blood, gore, sex and nudity-drenched atmosphere – the show reflecting the extreme, living-on-the-edge surreality of the lives these gladiators-turned-rebels live with equally extreme onscreen content. And, frankly, if you're an adult with red blood pumping through your veins I don't get how you can't take pleasure in this aspect of the show. Also, unlike pretty much any other show (even supposedly sex-positive ones like Masters of Sex), Spartacus devotes just as much time to lovingly-lensed male frontal nudity and gay sexuality as it does to women's breasts and asses – something which it's so weird to me that almost no one who enjoys complaining about the gender imbalance in televised nudity ever brings up. The show you want exists, people! It's called Spartacus, and it's been on the air since 2010!

IV – Humanism. While the shows otherwise couldn't have anything less in common, I love Spartacus and Orange Is the New Black for one largely similar reason: In a TV landscape where dramatic cable television feels like this giant cock-measuring contest to see which show can be the most nihilistic and cynical in its worldview and devoid of any scrap of hope or joy or interpersonal warmth (collect your prize, House of Cards, I'm talking about you again!), these two stand out as shows that completely reject all of that.

Yes, Spartacus presents a harsh world; a world of slavery and violence and brutality beyond imagination. A world of sadness in how many beloved characters we watch cut down throughout the course of the series. But it also presents a world of passions, a world where the bonds between people are forged as steel; fierce and loyal beyond measure, a world where love – both in the romantic sense and love of dear friends – is the driving force for goodness and change, a world where fighting and dying for the ideal of freedom is, as the title of the series finale episode indicates, "Victory."

So many other shows these days – even, I confess, other shows on this very list – want more than anything for you to feel like shit. Spartacus wants you to cheer for the goodness in humanity and come out the other end of the series not hating the world but wanting to better it.

V – Badass. Spartacus is badass. It's a show that's rich with thematic depth and provides character arcs of supreme power and a rigorous structure and mind-blowing pacing in its storytelling that should be studied by TV writers from now until the end of time, but when it comes down to it, I love Spartacus because it's badass. Watching this small band of escaped gladiators turn into an underground rebel guerilla force turn into an army of thousands that marches on the very walls of Rome is badass. Watching the parade of plot twists and sudden deaths and backstabbings is badass. Watching these incredibly choreographed, emotional, blood-soaked fight sequences and epic battles is badass. I love Spartacus because in a medium that can feel so safe and generic – the "quality" shows as much or more than the crappy network fare – here is television that makes my goddamn blood pump and makes me feel fucking alive.

I'll just go ahead and spoil right now that this is absolutely not the last time I'll be talking about Spartacus on this blog. When and how I write about it again is yet to be determined – I won't confirm full reviews of all 39 episodes, but I wouldn't count that possibility out either – but, even in its afterlife, my love for Spartacus beats hot in my breast as ever. I adore this show and hope word of its greatness can spread and more people find it and, much as Spartacus himself, its legend can grow and grow as the years go on.

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