Well, 2013 must have read that article and accepted it as a challenge, because over the past 12 months, it seems as if the TV industry has only continued to expand and find new avenues to crank out scripted product. It may be a good time for those who like to consume television, but it’s gotten to be impossible to keep up with everything and maintain any sense of a life outside the boob tube, so unfortunately, certain shows get ignored by audiences, others don’t get as much online ink as they should, and we’re all left struggling to slot in enough time to watch that week of Jeopardy! episodes that you DVR-ed and wanted to fold laundry to.
Which makes all the year-end hullabaloo that much more interesting. In a sense, it’s less about what was the best television had to offer during 2013 and more about what specific authors had the time, initiative, and motivation to watch, but with more television comes more writing and with more writing more writers; in a social media world, though, there’s a bit of homogenization that goes on with those who cover television, to where the same general group of shows will be recognized for their efforts and there’s not many outliers to speak of, if any at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that it just removes the variance that could have resulted from the increased amount of offerings and doesn’t provide the spark to year-end lists that there could/should be in the time of explosive creativity that we’re living in.
All of this serves as a preamble to my own top 20 of 2013, which will be presented in two separate lists and a “best of the rest” that focuses on ten shows that were close to making it into the upper echelon. As mentioned above, there’s too much television on for me to watch everything, so if something that gets a lot of award/critical attention or something that you love is missing, there’s a high likelihood that I’m either horribly behind on it or haven’t had the time to watch it. Therefore, these are less “The Definitive 20 Best Shows on Television” and more “20 (At Least) Really Good Shows That Stood Out from the Pack in One Way or Another in 2013”; the latter just isn’t the catchiest title in the world. Included with each show are its position on last year’s list (if applicable), episodes that are either personal favorites or good jumping in points, and various clips and trailers to fill in the cracks of what I couldn’t explain.
20. Archer (Last Year: 7)
Essential Episodes: “Midnight Ron”; “Un Chien Tangerine”‘; “Sea Tunt: Part I”
Archer has always been a tightly written amalgamation of obscure pop culture references, self-aware spy tropes, and frantic energy, which continued in the show’s fourth (and most commercially successful) season. There was still the type of banter that we’re used to from the agents of ISIS, Dr. Krieger being arguably the most effectively used peripheral character on television, and the show did some pretty solid character work using Sterling’s past as a guide, but what started to go during season four was the plotting. The missions ISIS was sent on were all noticeably low stakes and didn’t feature the type of scope that a season of Archer typically has, instead making the agency look kind of pitiful and taking not adding as much excitement as past seasons. Combine that with producing its biggest dud to date in “The Wind Cries Mary” and some distracting guest voice work and this season of Archer finally began showing its age.
Essential Episodes: “Rites of Passage”; “Burial of the Dead”; “Sacrifice”
Combine the look of Game of Thrones with the brutality of Sons of Anarchy and you get Vikings, History’s first original scripted series. Set in the small village of Kattegat in the 13th century, the show follows farmer Ragnar Lothbrok’s rivalry with brother Rollo and revolutionary thinking that led to his rise to power, as well as the fallout that comes when one gains notoriety outside of one’s own circle. Part historical retelling and part cautionary tale against the excesses of power, Vikings was surprising in just how solid it ended up being and how seriously it took the clash between the religion prevalent in Kattegat and the religion of captured priest Athelstan, who became a sort of Guy Friday for Ragnar’s family. With some impressive visual moments and powerful performances from the likes of Katheryn Winnick (whose fierce shieldmaiden Lagertha reminds me of Spartacus‘ Saxa) and Jessalyn Gilsig, the show proved that the success of Hatfields & McCoys was no fluke for History.
Essential Episodes: “A Chill in the Air”; “Left Behind”; “Fated”
Reign could have very easily ended up as a guilty pleasure historical soap more interested in longing stares and tawdry bedroom moments than in anything real or meaningful. However, the reimagining of Mary Stuart’s early days at French court quickly grew, adding the type of emotional depth it needed to sustain itself for a lengthy run and embracing the weirdness (Nostradamus being alive in 15th century France, someone living in the castle passageways) that it first hinted at in the pilot. While the show does prominently feature the complicated romance between Mary and Prince Francis, said complications are less plot contrivances and more touchstones of the time they were living in, with issues of political alliances and the weight of the titles/responsibilities they bear not allowing the two to be together (yet). In addition to highlighting social class issues of the time and the sometimes no-win situation women were put in regarding their futures, Reign does the one thing that guarantees a CW show’s greatness – it’s made the adults compelling, as well, thanks to how multi-layered cunning mistress Diane and emotionally scarred Queen Catherine have proven to be.
17. The Americans
Essential Episodes: “Pilot”; “Duty and Honor”; “The Colonel”
Anchored by hauntingly damaged performances from Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, The Americans is a show that I admire more than I like. A rumination on a broken marriage between two Soviet spies during the Reagan administration, the show has such a unique grasp of its central relationship and its most effective moments have been between Rhys and Russell, whether it be a disquietingly terse argument at home or a tender gesture out in the field that says more than any words could. But there’s a certain coldness (pun not intended) and distance to The Americans that makes it harder to embrace; like the marriage between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the series may seem perfect from the outside, but its aloofness blunts some of the impact of the couple’s better moments or the rise of intriguing characters like double/triple agent Nina and inquisitive FBI agent Stan. Fortunately, those elements (and more, including how intelligently the show factors in pop culture) are strong enough to where The Americans is still one of the best series of the year.
16. Justified (Last Year: 9)
Essential Episodes: “Where’s Waldo?”; “Decoy”; “Ghosts”
The fourth season of Justified gets a lot of points from me for how inventively it was structured. Eschewing the now expected seasonal Big Bad for a series of interlinking smaller arcs, it was all the more impressive just how well the thrilling, emotionally fraught final episodes of the season were pulled off, including what could be the series’ finest hour in “Decoy”. But just because the show tried something different doesn’t mean that it was completely successful, as the mystery of Drew Thompson became something of an albatross around the season’s neck; it made the middle of the season too murky and convoluted and once the real Drew became apparent, it made everything leading up to the reveal feel somewhat perfunctory. This being Justified, though, the strengths (intelligently written dialogue, soulful performances, strong set of supporting characters) more than outweighed that weakness, which didn’t turn out to be as much of a weakness after all as the show flourished once it revealed who Drew Thompson was and allowed all hell to break loose up in Harlan.
15. Bob’s Burgers (Last Year: 10)
Essential Episodes: “Mother Daughter Razor Laser”; “Fort Night”; “Christmas in the Car”
Bob’s Burgers continued its run of greatness during 2013, a run that began as early as season one’s “Art Crawl” and has only grown more consistent and heartfelt with each passing season. The animated comedy features one of the most loving, realistic families on television, a clan bonded through their eccentricity and who never belittle one another due to a personality quirk or moment of strangeness. This most readily translates into strong holiday installments, the show’s boundless energy fitting well alongside the anxious times that every family goes through yearly, including the most recent Halloween (claustrophic “Fort Night”) and Christmas (silly and sentimental “Christmas in the Car”). As musically inclined as it is touching and tender, Bob’s Burgers hit very few bum notes during this year, managing to produce an admirable amount of episodes that gamely paired its cast in different combinations, explored common family issues through its distinctly absurd lens, and celebrated individuality with a smile and a song.
14. The Neighbors
Essential Episodes: “Dream Weavers”; “Sing Like a Larry Bird”; “The One with Interspecies F-R-I-E-N-D-S”
When The Neighbors debuted in the fall of 2011, it (undeservedly) became the whipping boy for television critics, who savagely ripped the show apart for its premise (a family unknowingly moves into a suburban community populated by aliens) and both the tone and content of its humor. However, the harmless comedy, which features fearless performances from Toks Olagundoye and Simon Templeman, steadily improved throughout the fall and once 2013 hit, it began to show promise of being a prime example of critical groupthink and the value of second and third opinions in television journalism. More comfortable dispensing pop culture bon mots and dancing in the corner by itself than with typical sitcom heart/lessons, the show has again morphed during season two and dropped much of the alien-human dynamic in favor of a simple story about two very different families trying to raise their children and make it in a world that they don’t always understand.
13. The Borgias (Last Year: 5)
Essential Episodes: “Siblings”; “The Banquet of Chestnuts”; “The Gunpowder Plot”
What hurt The Borgias the most in the rankings this season was the fact that the sudden cancellation turned what was a tremendous season finale into an unsatisfying series finale that painted the entire season in a slightly more negative light than would have been otherwise. Taken on its own, though, season three of the Showtime historical drama was rather strong, as the conflict between Cesare and Alexander came to the surface in a major way, Catherina Sforza reared her ugly head once again, and a consummation of feelings long in the making made much of the emotional ground the show treaded complex and compelling. Without Juan around, the dynamic of the Italian crime family was decidedly different but not in a bad way, as Lucrezia took charge of her quest for independence and Cesare would no longer sit idly by and allow his father to forbid him from the battlefield, and said lack of familial unity, especially in the closing moments of the series finale, was an unnerving way to say goodbye to the papacy once and for all.
12. Shameless (Last Year: 11)
Essential Episodes: “A Long Way from Home”; “Order Room Service”; “Survival of the Fittest”
The biggest weakness of Shameless will always be Frank Gallagher. Despite William H. Macy’s performance, the character has long felt incongruous with the rest of the show, a buffoon-ish cartoon thrown amid a grounded family drama with the sole purpose of shaking things up, which makes the improvements that the show made to how they deployed him all the more impressive. While Ian, Lip, and Debbie all struggled with who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do, and Fiona bounced around between jobs and guys, Frank was gaining something resembling self-awareness about the impact his actions had on his children and how he cannot go on living life the way he has been and expect to be around to watch them finish growing up. There was still an aura of outrageousness around Frank during season four, but it was more measured that it had been before and the character finally felt like it belonged in the same universe as the rest of the show.
11. Masters of Sex
Essential Episodes: “Pilot”; “Catherine”; “Brave New World”
Known for its more brazen sexual content, Showtime went a different direction this year with Masters of Sex, a bio-drama about the beginnings of the sexual revolution as led by researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The series took a clinical look at the process of sex, the two examining the act with questions of “why?” and “how?,” while proving itself to be a lyrical ode to attachment and intimacy within both platonic and romantic relationships. Not only was sex itself examined, but the impact of sexual experience was also looked at, both in a positive (a deepening of two people’s connection, a long-awaited pregnancy) and negative (affairs, disease, destroyed reputations, guilt) way; the show takes place during a time of immense sexual repression and with subtle, evocative performances from Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, and especially Allison Janney, whose heartbreaking work as a woman who discovers her husband of 30 years is gay is the stuff Emmys are made of, allowed itself to be honest, raw, and telling about a subject that many even today dare not speak of.