TV  |  Lists

The 25 Best TV Shows of 2013

December 6, 2013  |  8:59am
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2013
12. Orphan Black
Creators: Graeme Manson, John Fawcett
Stars: Tatiana Maslany, Dylan Bruce, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard, Michael Mando, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Network: Space/BBC America
Having one actor play several characters in a single show is nothing new. But that doesn’t take away from what Tatiana Maslany accomplished in the first season of BBC America’s Orphan Black. Maslany plays a host of clones on a sci-fi show that’s not just for sci-fi fans. Her main character, Sarah Manning, is a young British mother living in Canada. A small-time con artist, she’s trying and failing to get her life together when she sees her doppelgänger commit suicide by stepping in front of a train. After stealing the woman’s purse—and identity—Sarah the con artist becomes Beth the cop, scrambling to fool her partner and discovering more women who look just like her. Each one she comes across—the uptight suburban mom, the gay hipster scientist, the Ukrainian religious fanatic—feels like such a different character that it’s easy to forget that the same actress is behind them all. And though there are elements of sci-fi—human cloning and the Neolutionists who believe in scientifically improving themselves (one character has a tail)—most of the characters aren’t the type who would even watch sci-fi. The show is as much about identity and motherhood as it is the consequences of technology. But none of it would work without the humanity Maslany brings to each of the clones she portrays in the show.—Josh Jackson

11. Girls
Creator: Lena Dunham
Stars: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky
Network: HBO
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Girls, and this season continued to give us plenty to talk about. Girls’ characters are distinctly unlikeable and self-absorbed, but it’s their familiar flaws that make them relatable. We saw the complexities in characters’ personalities mostly through the way that they handled relationships, as friendships suffered and romantic relationships became blurry in that on-again, off-again, are-they-even-something kind of way. Dunham repeatedly juxtaposed characters’ actions, however pitiful, with the way that they spun events into an image they projected to others. Whether Hannah’s exagerating a book deal or Marnie is fudging the details on her break-up with Booth, the emphasis on our image-conscious generation made Hannah’s deterioration in the finale all the more powerful. —Dacey Orr

10. Eastbound & Down
Creators: Jody Hill, Ben Best, Danny McBride
Stars: Danny McBride, Steve Little, Katy Mixon
Network: HBO
Always hilarious, but as painful and emotional as any drama,Eastbound & Down deserves a depressing ending. This isn’t a feel-good show. It’s a dark look at fame and fortune and suburban America, with a particular focus on the nouveau riche soullessness that has overtaken the sprawling cities of the South. There’s no major catastrophe at the end of the show’s final season, but it’s hard to see how Kenny will be happy with his newly resettled domestic life. It makes sense to end the show with Kenny and his family leaving North Carolina—Eastbound is unmistakably Southern, and couldn’t exist outside of it. Part of its greatness is that, outside of Kenny and certain secondary characters, it has generally presented the South in an understated and naturalistic way, cutting through much of the annoying exoticness with which Hollywood presents the South.—Garrett Martin

9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Creators: Daniel J. Goor, Michael Schur
Stars: Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti
Network: NBC
Created by Parks & Rec showrunner Michael Schur and his fellow Parks writer Dan Goor, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is populated with the same kind of hilarious and lovable characters as the Pawnee Parks Department. It all starts with the unexpected chemistry between Andy Samberg as the wise-cracking detective and his all-business chief played by Homicide’s Andre Braugher. There’s misantrhopic Gina (Chelsea Peretti), food-blogging Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), street-tough Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz), brown-nosing Santiago and gun-shy hulk Terry (Terry Crews), but after just a handful of episodes, they’re already characters you want to pull for. Schur never wants to sacrifice heart for humor, and his shows have plenty of both.—Josh Jackson

8. New Girl
Creator: Elizabeth Meriwether
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Simone
Network: Fox
New Girl has quickly grown into one of TV’s sharpest ensemble comedies. Creator/showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and her writing staff keep stepping up their game. While even the best network programs are susceptible to lulls in quality due to the demanding 20-plus-episode order, almost every one of 2013’s episodes plays like a spirited, comedic gem, with Meriwether and Co. expertly navigating the line between absurd silliness and heartfelt sentimentality. Never was this more apparent than in the second season’s latter half, which saw the long-awaited coupling of Deschanel’s Jess and Nick, her lovable, hard-drinking grump of a roommate (played with great gusto by the fantastic Jake Johnson). Not since Jim and Pam in the early seasons of The Office has there been a sitcom relationship as endearing and emotionally engaging as this odd-couple pairing. Add in memorable turns from supporting players Lamorne Morris and Hannah Simone as well as the hilarious antics of Max Greenfield as breakout character Schmidt and the return of Damon Wayans as Coach, and New Girl has officially become a new standard for excellence in the sitcom community.—Mark Rozeman

7. House of Cards
Creators: Beau Willimon
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey, Kristen Connolly, Constance Zimmer
Network: Netflix
Instead of examining ideology or party definitions, House of Cards is a political drama about the thirst for power. David Fincher (executive producer and director of the first two episodes) loves to explore the darker sides of his movie subjects, and he’s got more time to let those unravel on TV. Kevin Spacey could carry the whole show on his shoulders as Francis Underwood, but he’s surrounded by talent. Robin Wright, who plays his wife, is a force of nature. Claire Underwood is almost as ruthless as her husband, but Wright manages to bring a sense of vulnerability to the dynamic character. And I’ve never found myself rooting for a drunk, cocaine-snorting politician more than Corey Stoll’s Peter Russo.—Krystle Drew

6. Game of Thrones
Creators: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Rose Leslie, Richard Madden, Michelle Fairley, Alfie Allen
Network: HBO
Something as sprawling and epic as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series should be nearly impossible to adapt to television. But David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have seemingly been given the patience, understanding and budget to pull it off with an exceptional cast and production locations ranging from Morocco to Northern Ireland to Iceland. But none of that would matter without the characters and stories at its heart. Martin can seem cruel and callous towards his characters, and there were plenty of horrific examples of that this season from Jaime’s hand to The Red Wedding. But rather than shocking viewers just to shock (okay there was some of that—looking at you, Theon Greyjoy), these elements raise the stakes for the many protagonists left to us. And in a world dominated by cruel patriarchs, the heroes aren’t conquering kings, but a little girl on the run, a bastard and his fat friend, an honest smuggler, a disfigured dwarf and an orphan who’s already become a widow in her teens. Our hope is that the meek will inherent the land of Westeros.—Josh Jackson

5. Arrested Development
Creators: Mitchell Hurwitz
Stars: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter
Network: Netflix
The rumored return of the Bluths always felt too good to be true, and when it became apparent that the best sitcom of all time was actually back in production, we all feared it wouldn’t be the same. And it wasn’t. What the mind of Mitch Hurwitz wrought this time around wasn’t the tight, breezy, whip-lash-inducing humor of Seasons 1 through 3. It was both darker and slower, but it was just as densely packed with even more complex in-jokes, an intricate web of quadruply connected storylines that felt like a gift to the die-hardest of fans. All I really want to say is thank you.—Josh Jackson

4. Orange is the New Black
Creator: Jenji Kohan
Stars: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michael J. Harney, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs
Network: Netflix
The Netflix mode of releasing entire seasons at once is all the rage, and as a unrepentant binge-viewer, count me among the grateful. But it’s worth remembering that before July, when Orange is the New Black debuted, the company’s dramatic output was spotty at best. There was the forgettable Lilyhammer, the poorly received Hemlock Grove, and the compelling-but-ultimately-just-a-guilty-pleasure political thriller House of Cards. That all changed with OITNB, a stunning women’s prison drama that earned the top spot on my personal list and that goes down as one of my favorite viewing experiences in years. This was a show perfectly suited for the Netflix delivery system, if only because it would have been agonizing to wait a week for a new episode. But there’s more; the construct felt cinematic and compared to your average show, and I couldn’t help but feel that the all-at-once release plane freed the creators to make something less episodic and more free-flowing. Taylor Schilling stars as Piper Chapman, a woman living a content modern life when her past rears up suddenly to tackle her from behind; a decade earlier, she was briefly a drug mule for her lover Alex Vause (the excellent Laura Prepon), and when Vause needed to plea her sentence down, she gave up Piper. The story is based on the real-life events of Piper Kerman, whose book of the same title was the inspiration, but the truth is that the screen version is miles better. Schilling is the engine that drives the plot, and her odd combination of natural serenity mixed with the increasing anger and desperation at the late turn her life has taken strikes the perfect tone for life inside the women’s prison. Over the first few episodes, prison is treated like an almost-quirky novelty she’ll have to experience for 15 months, and the wisest choice director Jenji Kohan made (and there are many) was to heighten the stakes so that what begins as an off-kilter adventure soon takes on the serious proportions prison life demands. And as great as Schilling and Prepon are together, the supporting cast is so universally excellent that it almost beggars belief. (A highlight for me—any time an auxiliary character gets the “how they got to prison” backstory treatment.) There are too many characters who make gold with their limited screen time to mention individually, but suffice it to say that there’s enough comedy, pathos and tragedy here for a dozen shows. The fact that they fit so successfully into one makes OITNB a defining triumph for Netflix.—Shane Ryan

3. Mad Men
Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Jessica Paré, John Slattery, James Wolk, Kiernan Shipka
Network: AMC
Season Six of Mad Men turned out to be its weirdest yet, prompting fans to go berserk on the Internet and spout out Lost-esque conspiracy theories about Megan dying, new accounts man Bob Benson secretly being a spy, a cop or—my personal favorite—Peggy and Pete’s time-traveling illegitimate son. None of that turned out to be true, of course, but the touching way this penultimate season wrapped up was just as shocking after the characters at the newly named Sterling Cooper & Partners experienced a year filled with darkness and violence. What’ll happen if Don’s completely removed from his work life? Is the baby step he took towards reconnecting with his kids a sign of what’s to come? What’ll happen to Pete and Ted in California? Is Sally Draper in for an insane, rocky adolescence (it’s probably safe to assume she is)? We’ll have to wait till this excellent series returns to take its final bow in 1969 to find out.—Bonnie Stiernberg

2. Parks & Recreation
Creators: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Schneider, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Jim O’Heir, Retta
Network: NBC
While its big sibling The Office always suffered from repetition, Parks and Recreation always strives ahead to try out new ideas even when they’re difficult for the show’s format to sustain. 2013 featured Parks’ biggest moment ever, Leslie and Ben’s wedding, not to mention numerous new stories focused around Leslie’s job on the Pawnee city council that would’ve been impossible if the show weren’t willing to let her out of the parks department. While the slowdown following their wedding was a bit divisive, the season finale “Are You Better Off?” showed that there was a careful construction to these seemingly smaller episodes, and made the second half of the season just as significant as the first. Throughout this, Parks has maintained its standard repertoire of heart and humor, taking us in new places but with the same joy and humanity that’s made it the best comedy on television.—Sean Gandert

1. Breaking Bad
Creators: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, Bob Odenkirk
Network: AMC
The American television audience in 2013 resembles so many other facets of our national life in the sense that there’s a critical, seemingly unbreachable dichotomy. Call it Network vs. Cable, Dumb vs. Smart, CSI vs. Mad Men...whatever the case, there’s a sense that you can be defined by the type of show you watch. What made Breaking Bad so special, then, was that it became an American Television Event that briefly transcended this divide. Each Sunday night, especially as the final season drew to a close, the jarring opening theme was a clarion call for viewers across the country, on the coasts and in the places between. The floating green blocks with their atomic symbols sent us scurrying excitedly to Twitter and Facebook in search of like minds. We called our friends and relatives during commercials, and we scoured the Internet for reviews when it was over. The conclusion of Walter White’s story fostered that rarest of phenomenons—an actual nation-wide connection. More than 10 million households tuned in to watch the finale, the kind of numbers no cable drama without zombies has ever approached, and for one night, our experience was communal; Breaking Bad transcended the polarized American audience. You could enjoy it with your hipster friend, your spouse, and that one aunt who won’t stop posting on Facebook. Think of the shows on television now, and the viewing blocs they represent, and tell me—when will that ever happen again?—Shane Ryan

comments powered by Disqus
Load More