Best of 2013: Top TV shows

I like year-end lists. I like reading them to discover movies, music, books and TV shows I missed. I like reading them to validate my own taste. I like reading them to disagree with them. And I like making them to reflect on the year that was. But they’re particularly challenging to do for TV, I think.

Do you evaluate a show against all other shows on television? What about a show that had a particularly great, improved or poor season compared to other seasons in its series? And what about new shows that have only been on the air for a handful of episodes? Shows with seasons that span two calendar years? Shows with part of two seasons in one calendar year?

Here’s a list of TV shows, in no particular order, that had at least one episode air between Jan. 1, 2013 and today, that made me neglect my health and social life.

Orphan Black

Orphan Black

Orphan Black is one of the most exciting new sci-fi show in years. Compelling and highly addictive, it tells the story of Sarah Manning, a down-on-her-luck woman with a loser boyfriend and a daughter she wants to protect. Her life gets irreversibly more complicated after she witnesses another woman’s suicide – a woman who looks exactly like her. She runs off with the dead woman’s purse and learns they are just two of a set of women cloned. How many of them are there? Who did this? The show’s greatest asset is Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany who plays all of the clones, from the stay-at-home mom to the Ukrainian religious fanatic. Orphan Black is produced, set and filmed in Toronto. It airs on BBC America in the U.S. and Space in Canada.

Hannibal

Hannibal

One of the best photographed shows on television, that NBC’s Hannibal is on this list surprises me, too. Developed for television by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me), Hannibal pushes the boundaries of network television while also exercising surprising restraint.  You don’t see Hannibal … do what he’s known to do until four or five episodes into the series, which makes the first time all the more special. The show stars Laurence Fishburne, Montreal actress Caroline Dhavernas, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen as the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter. I thought the poor cinematic follow-ups to Silence of the Lambs – Red DragonHannibalHannibal Rising – had left too bad a taste in my mouth, but NBC’s Hannibal is more than satiating. It’s chilling yet titillating; sinister yet cheeky. The episode names are food-themed, like the pilot’s “Apéritif” and later episodes’ “Amuse-Bouche” and “Buffet Froid.”

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

The show that continually topped itself week after week, season after season. After five seasons and 62 episodes, we bid adieu to Walter White, the meth-cooking former chemistry teacher who made an icon out of actor Bryan CranstonBreaking Bad is one show that’s tough to say goodbye to because it did so many things right – cinematography, score, script, supporting cast – and elevated the playing field for the medium. It was a satisfying finale that tied up everything for the characters and gave them and the audience what they deserved.

Scandal

Scandal

Appointment viewing. No show has as many twists-per-episode as Scandal does; no show is ever as close to the edge of the cliff as Scandal is; no show has ever been this serious in its craziness, and this crazy in its seriousness. At the end of the last episode alone (“YOLO”, Dec. 5), the vice-president (of the United States!) kills her husband after the president’s chief of staff sends her photos of her husband in a compromising position with another man – the chief of staff’s own husband, a journalist who the chief of staff arranged to interview the VP’s husband in hopes of outing him. Meanwhile, fixer Olivia Pope (the great Kerry Washington) is trying to get her mother – who she thought has been dead for 20 years after her plane was shot down by the now-president (yes, of the United States!) – out of the country before her father, who runs a super-secret off-the-books black-ops program, finds her. She calls in a favour to the man with whom she’s having an affair – the President of the United States of America. It’s a wonder it doesn’t self-destruct in its own ridiculousness, but it’s no wonder Scandal keeps me coming back week after week.

30 Rock

30 Rock

The tail end of 30 Rock‘s seventh and final season aired in January, making Winter 2013 a particularly cold one. The writing was stellar as usual and the acting was top-notch. Most importantly, it was smart and funny until the very end. As a side note, I think the supporting cast never got its due awards-wise; Jane Krakowski was nominated for four Emmys for her turn as fame-obsessed Jenna Maroney, but never won; Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer were nominated just once each (both in 2009, when they lost to Jon Cryer for Two and a Half Men). But the Jan. 31, 2013 finale of 30 Rock will rank among the best sitcom finales ever. It was sweet and heartfelt with a blend of cynicism and sarcasm that made the series so special for 139 episodes.

Orange is the New Black and House of Cards

Orange is the New Black

House of Cards

My List on Netflix hasn’t had fewer than 50 titles since … well, probably since it had no titles. I took two items off My List this morning after I remembered I had them on DVD. Two items that never had the chance to get on My List – because I went through them at an alarming rate – are Netflix original series Orange is the New Black and House of CardsThe two shows could not be more different in settings: OITNB is set in a women’s prison, House of Cards in Washington, D.C. But they are both very well written and boast some impressive casts. While House of Cards attracted respected and established names behind and in front of the camera (David Fincher directed the pilot and the second episode, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star), OITNB introduced viewers to some new talent: Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Laverne Cox and Uzo Aduba are going to be four to watch in years to come. OITNB was created by Jenji Kohan, the woman behind Weeds, and it also stars Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon and Kate Mulgrew, and Jodie Foster directed Episode 3, “Lesbian Request Denied.”

Happy Endings

Happy Endings

Of all the goodbyes 2013 brought, none hurt more than Happy EndingsBreaking Bad and 30 Rock bowed out gracefully, with a finale planned months in advance. Happy Endings was cancelled after its third and best season after being plagued by disappointing ratings throughout its run. But it got moved around a lot: it started the season on Sundays, then was on Tuesdays for three weeks. For 2013, it was moved back to Sunday, but a new episode was also shown on Tuesday. After a mid-winter hiatus, it returned to ABC for a full hour on Fridays until May 3. “In the Heat of the Noche” was one of the best television episodes this year. Cast member Damon Wayans, Jr. (back on New Girl this season after appearing in that show’s pilot) once described the show as a Friends you’re not ashamed to admit watching, but it was much more than that. It was biting, smart and consistently funny with one of the best hang-out casts and characters put together. Elisha Cuthbert, Eliza Coupe, SNL alumna Casey Wilson, Zachary Knighton and Adam Pally (now on The Mindy Project) also starred.

Bob’s Burgers

Bob's Burgers

The animated show you’re probably not watching, Bob’s Burgers is part of FOX’s animated block on Sunday and is, no contest, the funniest and most relevant of the bunch. It also features great voice work all around, but H. Jon Benjamin, who also voices Archer on Archer,  John Roberts and Dan Mintz deserve special mentions. I got into Bob’s Burgers earlier this year; it’s a show that has remained funny throughout its four seasons, and it has become more comfortable with itself and isn’t afraid to give its characters, especially the Belchers’ teenage daughter Tina, really cooky story lines.

The Mindy Project

The Mindy Project

I’ve been an unabashed defender of The Mindy Project since it premiered last year. Now in its second season, it continues to improve and land some impressive guest stars: James Franco, Chloe Sevigny, Mark Duplass, Maria Menounos, Timothy Olyphant, Bill Hader and Anna Gunn, in an upcoming episode slated for 2014. Seths Rogen and Meyers have also guest-starred. Mindy Kaling as a leading lady is refreshing for a number of reasons. Mostly, though, Kaling is OK with Mindy (the character) being clumsy, selfish, insecure and the butt of jokes among her coworkers. She’s not perfect and she doesn’t pretend or aim to be. The show went through a reinvention of sorts in 2013, dropping some cast members and refocusing as a workplace comedy at an ob/gyn practice. It’s a show that’s always funny and well written, even when it’s not quite sure what to do with its supporting characters (more Tamra, please!).

Trophy Wife

Malin Akerman in Trophy Wife

It was a weak field, but Trophy Wife is the best new sitcom this season. I fear the show is suffering from the same kind of name-discrimination Cougar Town experienced when it premiered, which is a shame: it’s really, really funny, well-written and well-acted. It stars Malin Akerman as the title character, a woman who marries a twice-divorced lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who hasn’t quite cut ties with his ex-wives (the amazing Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins, a SNL alumna). It also has one of the best kid actors on TV in scene stealer Albert Tsai as the youngest member of the Harrison clan, Bert.

Misc.

Misc_Parks and Rec Enlightened Americans AHS Archer

Of course I’ve obsessed over more than just the 11 shows above. Here’s another list of shows I loved in 2013 that I have less to say about.

Enlightened, the cancelled HBO series starring Laura Dern and created by Dern and Mike White. Dern is Amy Jellicoe, a woman who wants to live a better, cleaner and more fulfilling life – but those things just don’t mesh well with corporate America.

The Americans, a new FX series about Soviet spies living in the United States. Set in the 1980s, it stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.

American Horror Story: Asylum and AHS: CovenAsylum ended at the beginning of 2013 and Coven started this fall. This is a series that was always its best when Jessica Lange is doing her thing. Not to knock the other actresses; Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe have delivered incredible performances. Lange’s characters have always been the most interesting, although Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett have given Lange a run for her money Emmy this season.

Parks and Recreation: What can I say about Parks and Rec that you shouldn’t already know because you should already be watching it? The most fun to be had in front of a television set. Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Retta, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott and Aubrey Plaza will do just fine once Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe leave the show later this season. Watch “Women in Garbage,” “Correspondents’ Lunch” and “Leslie and Ben” for proof that the show can keep it fresh after five seasons.

Tout le monde en parle: Sérieusement incontournable. A weekly Quebec talk show hosted by Guy A. Lepage and his sidekick Dany Turcotte on Sunday nights. Guests include politicians, celebrities, authors, artists, and regular people who do great things. The set up (guests come on for varying lengths but stick around until the end of the show) is one that is sorely lacking in English Canadian and American programming.

Archer: The antics of the employees of an international spy agency. Features great voice work by H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Jessica Walter and Aisha Tyler. This year’s “Fugue and Riffs” was a Bob’s Burgers/Archer crossover, but check out “The Honeymooners” to get an idea of the kind of manipulative and cunning relationships the characters have with each other.

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