Top Ten TV Shows of 2013

I haven’t done a best-of list for TV before; given that the medium increasingly produces more quality work than the movies (though not when weighed against the quantity), I can’t not consider all the great television I watched this year (reading the excellent TV anti-hero tome Difficult Men also altered my perspective a bit).

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1. BREAKING BAD
Matthew Weiner (and David Chase), take note: this is how you end a major series, not only with a final episode that satisfies as a conclusion but with an entire season that works as a whole, validating all the narrative twists that came before and laying out the inevitable consequences behind Walter White’s actions (without any lazy moralizing, either). In third-to-last episode “Ozymandias”, series creator Vince Gilligan took the White family to a darker, more shocking and cathartic place than I’ve ever seen in any TV series or film.

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2. ORPHAN BLACK
Without a doubt the year’s best new show, partially due to an ingenuous, rife-with-possibilities premise (clones become aware of each other and try to unlock their origin) but mostly because of the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who stars as all seven clones (thus far uncovered) and is so downright convincing in each individual part, whenever she appears in a new role, at first you’re honestly not entirely sure it’s her. Let’s hope she and the show’s writers can maintain such invention in season two.

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3. FAMILY TREE
Although structured like his beloved mockumentary films, Christopher Guest’s underrated first attempt at a series carried a gentler, subtler tone that must’ve confused viewers looking for Eugene Levy (though the redoubtable Fred Willard eventually shows up). For this change of pace, Guest has a reliable anchor in Chris O’Dowd, superb as an affable, somewhat aimless man researching his ancestors. Nina Conti is also a real find, playing two fully formed, richly enigmatic characters: the lead’s ventriloquist sister, Bea and her furry puppet companion, Monkey. Let’s hope for a second season, period.

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4. NEW GIRL
Having already improved dramatically in 2012, this year New Girl surpassed Parks and Recreation in becoming the most consistently funny and surprising network sitcom by taking risks (Jess and Nick getting together, Schmidt’s moral degeneration, Winston’s growing weirdness) that paid off because of the extensive character development in place since the pilot. That the pilot’s Damon Wayans, Jr. should return and slot right in with the ensemble is just icing (preferably on a cookie instead of a cake).

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5. VEEP
After a promising first season, Armando Iannucci’s pitch-black satire of Washington DC and its petty, vain political inhabitants really took off by becoming darker and funnier and shrewder in its portrayal of an arena ripe for ridicule that’s nonetheless populated by flesh-and-blood beings in varying degrees of power who aren’t entirely self-serving monsters (well, perhaps only 99% of the time). In addition to a deserved Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale, maybe Matt Walsh or Timothy Simons or anyone else in this ensemble will receive some Emmy recognition in season 3.

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6. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
The original was my favorite television comedy of the ‘00s, so I feared an inferior sequel; at first, that’s exactly how I felt about Netflix’s 15-episode re-launch. Not until episode 7 did I fully get what Mitchell Hurwitz and co. were trying to do here, constructing a mosaic of a series that becomes funnier and more resonant as each piece of the puzzle snaps into place. As entertainment, some pieces connect more seamlessly than others, but as a whole, multiple viewings of season 4 reap substantial rewards, just like (but different from) the first three seasons.

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7. THE MIDDLE
Used to be I anticipated Modern Family and merely tolerated its less flashy Wednesday night neighbor; now, in their fifth seasons, while MF still elicits a few chuckles every episode, I get much more out of The Middle. What began as a Patricia Heaton vehicle heavily influenced by that other quirky show with the same title (preceded by “Malcolm In”) has grown into the best working class sitcom since Roseanne (although it’s nothing like Ro’s show), with an ensemble that works splendidly together. And could Eden Sher (as magnificently awkward teen Sue Heck) just get an Emmy nomination already?

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8. MAD MEN
Not this show’s best season by any means (I’d rate any of the previous five above it), possibly due to the ugliness of Don Draper’s descent into a figurative hell of his own making (loved Linda Cardellini, but her later scenes were too brutal to watch). Still, set in 1968, that decade’s most turbulent year, it gave us such goodness as the enigmatic Bob Benson!, Ken Cosgrove’s perilous exploits with General Motors, the insane-even-for-this-show drug episode, the beautifully executed return of Peggy into the fold and of course, that sobering, unexpected final scene which I hope bodes well for the show’s forthcoming conclusion.

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9. BUNHEADS
It now seems too good to be true: ABC Family airing a show by Amy Sherman-Palladino that was essentially Gilmore Girls II: Welcome to Paradise (the fictional California town it was set in). I’d never recommend it over the earlier show to anyone (with the exception of aspiring ballet dancers), but what a treat it was to see such a unique, screwball comedy-driven, decidedly feminine sensibility on TV again. Major talent Sutton Foster needs another series, ASAP—maybe pair her up with fellow stage vet Kristin Chenoweth and hire Bryan Fuller to devise something for them.

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10. IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA
Unless you’re a literal cartoon (The Simpsons, South Park), you’re supposed to be past your prime by the time you reach your ninth season. Thankfully, this live-action cartoon justified its presence on the air by simply turning out a number of classic episodes (impressive, after an uneven, tired season 8). If you love this show (which, as my husband notes, is essentially Seinfeld on crack), how could you hate Country Mac, Dee’s whirlwind of a stand-up career, the Flowers For Algernon and gun control satires, and best of all, “The Gang Saves The Day” which gets uncomfortably, hilariously deep into each character’s psyche and peaks with a note-perfect parody of Up?

Also (mostly) worth watching: Archer, Children’s Hospital, Grimm, Happy Endings, Inside Amy Schumer, The Mindy Project, Modern Family, Mom, Parks and Recreation, RuPaul’s Drag Race

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