The 25 Best TV Shows of 2013

TV Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

With basic cable, pay channels and now streaming services like Netflix cutting into their once-dominant domain, only four network TV shows made our 25 Best TV shows this year. And that’s with perennial contenders like Sherlock and Louie on hiatus in 2013. But it was still a great year for television as our favorite show went out with a hell of a bang and seven brand new shows landed on our list. We even got the long awaited return of The Greatest Sitcom of All Time. Our panel of voters cast ballots for 60 different TV series, but here are our 25 favorites:

25. Rectify
Creator: Ray McKinnon
Stars: Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith-Cameron, Adelaide Clemens, Clayne Crawford, Luke Kirby
Network: Sundance Channel
Rectify has a simple enough premise: A man sent to rot on Death Row is released from prison after 19 years. Sure, the big and small screens have seen their fair share of crime dramas, but Rectify’s plot isn’t what sets it apart: It’s the rest of it. Daniel Holden, arrested for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, finds himself back in his hometown, greeted by constant life-threatening hostility. The show explores the bonds between Daniel (played to perfection by Aden Young), his family and his enemies as they struggle to deal with Daniel’s homecoming. Superbly acted, the program successfully meshes the best bits of a TV show together, managing to be at times heartbreaking and suspenseful, while also beautifully incorporating moments of effortless humor. Rectify is thought-provoking and will make you care about the future of its characters—like all the best shows do.—Rachel Haas

24. Nathan For You
Creators:   Nathan Fielder, Michael Koman
Stars: Nathan Fielder 
Network: Comedy Central
Nathan For You is a show that has a simple premise, star Nathan Fielder goes to various businesses and helps them improve in any way he can, but it’s the level of intricacy and shock that makes Nathan For You the funniest new show this year. Nathan’s ideas are both brilliant and stupid at the same time, and Nathan is incredible at utilizing real-world reactions to fit into whatever story and scheme he is going for and evolving it to a much funnier premise than he even began with. An idea for discount gas can lead to Nathan on top of a mountain learning the health benefits of drinking your own pee, or a “8 Minutes or Less” pizza guarantee leaves Nathan bonding with a pizza delivery guy over their poor success with women. Nathan For You is ridiculously hilarious, always surprising and one of the most enjoyable and original shows in years.—Ross Bonaime

23. Sons of Anarchy
Creator: Kurt Sutter
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Mark Boone Junior, Dayton Callie, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan
Network: FX
As I write this, season six of Sons of Anarchy has one episode remaining, so perhaps any judgment is premature. But through 12 episodes, Kurt Sutter’s motorcycle gang drama has gone through one of its most interesting, uneven, and ultimately fascinating years yet. Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam, who went up in everybody’s esteem by wrenching himself free of the 50 Shades of Grey film) has taken over the gavel as president of his club, but it’s been anything but a joyride. The position has corrupted him, nearly to the point that it compromised Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), his predecessor. He’s given up his own men, betrayed his family, lost his wife and generally buried himself deeper in the mire of gangland California than ever before. The problem with this season is tied to his ongoing escape act; Sutter and his writers require ever greater suspensions of disbelief, to the point that the show’s credibility is spread very thin. If comeuppance isn’t in the offing in the finale, something’s a bit skewed. Nevertheless, the human drama of the show is as strong as ever, with Katey Sagal somehow outdoing herself as the wonderful motorcycle mama Gemma Teller, and Maggie Siff delivering hammer-loads of tension as she tries to get her young boys away from Charming and the life that’s bound to kill them. Rumor has it that next season will be the last for Sons, and that’s probably a wise choice; the returns are already diminishing, and there’s not a lot of new ground to cover. Jax, the golden boy, can only save himself and his club with Rube Goldberg-esque wunder-plans so many times before the whole thing becomes a bit boring.—Shane Ryan

22. Doctor Who
Creators: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman
Network: BBC/BBC America
This year, the 50th of Doctor Who’s existence, brought nine new episodes with Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, including a feature-length anniversary film. His companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is the impossible girl, an enthusiastic foil to the Doctor’s recent brooding. She’s at the heart of this season’s main arc, a puzzle that the Doctor can’t figure out until another grand finale. Along the way are the kinds of villains and horrors (one penned by Neil Gaiman) that have made the series’ 21st-century revival so much silly fun. And that celebratory film included a pairing of Smith with Doctor #10 David Tennant—a gift to the fans if there ever was one.—Josh Jackson

21. Top of the Lake
Creator: Jane Campion
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright, Holly Hunter
Network: Sundance Channel
It’s hard to think of Elisabeth Moss outside the context of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, which is why her complete transformation into New Zealand detective Robin Griffin for the Sundance Channel’s seven-part miniseries Top of the Lake was so impressive. She sank fully into the role of a smart, troubled wanderer returning to her hometown to solve the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl, and despite the fact that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation pulled funding when she was cast (a financial gap later filled by BBC-owned UKTV), director Jane Campion absolutely made the right call. As Griffin, Moss is vulnerable and tough all at once, and the show’s brooding pace suits the slow emergence of her own submerged demons. And that’s what sets Top of the Lake apart; this is a rare modern show that dares you to experience the story on their time, complete with meaningful digressions and patient character studies. The lake itself is a symbolic character, with an alpine surface beauty that belies the secrets beneath. As Griffin approaches the truth of the pregnant girl’s fate, she’s forced to uncover the trauma of her past and the darkness of everything she escaped. Holly Hunter is delightful as CJ, a plain-speaking guru at the head of a caravan of bruised older women, and Peter Mullan often steals the show as the gruff white trash patriarch—and lifelong criminal—Matt Mitcham. But it’s Moss, resilient and damaged, who gives the show its simmering energy.—Shane Ryan

20. Justified
Creator: Graham Yost
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins
Network: FX
I sometimes think Justified has the world’s worst promotional team. Every ad I see for the show features Timothy Olyphant (Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens) shooting something or someone, turning around with a smug expression, and dispatching a good-ole-boy witticism like a character in a bad action movie. I can personally attest that this marketing campaign kept me away from the show for at least two seasons, and if it has that same effect on others, it’s a shame. Because Justified is a show of such intelligence and nuance that it deserves a huge audience; this is a morality play, a family feud and a whipsmart police drama folded into one. Sure, Olyphant is stuffed to the gills with Southern machismo and bolstered by a stiff moral backbone as Givens, a character whose universal—if not job-specific—ethics are sturdy despite his wry outlook and his propensity for shooting criminals when it might not be totally necessary. But Justified’s purview goes beyond Givens; specifically to Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a grinning rogue who has walked the path of a white supremacist bomber, a preacher, and drug dealer, and who I consider one of the best characters on television today. He’s the clever, hilarious, and probably doomed figurehead for the Kentucky hills of Harlan County that are profiled with such respect and depth. Justified is the rare show that paints an entire world from top layer to bottom, and in case you were misinformed like me, know that it extends far beyond the tilted brim of Timothy Olyphant’s stetson.—Shane Ryan

19. The Walking Dead
Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Steven Yeun, Chandler Riggs, Norman Reedus, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, David Morrissey, Melissa McBride, Scott Wilson, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chad L. Coleman
Network: AMC
If Season 1 was about staying alive and Season 2 was about adjusting to this new world, Season 3 of The Walking Dead, which ended in the spring was about keeping sane in the zombie apocalypse without losing your humanity. Rick and The Governor were the primary subjects dealing with post-traumatic stress, but mental and emotional stability was an issue for Michonne, Glenn, Maggie and others, and just about everyone’s goodness was tested. Instead of resting on its record-audience laurels, the first half of Season 4 this fall took its share of risks. Disease might not have been the sexiest enemy, but it provided plenty of tension before we witnessed the epic return of the Governor in the show’s best episode yet. Alas, his shot at redemption didn’t quite take, and his fall from grace involved a partial decapitation of one of the show’s beloved characters and a storming of the prison with a military tank. Usually content to merely flirt with moral and philosophical questions, it always delivers a gripping story along with the obligatory zombie kills.—Josh Jackson

18. Enlightened
Creators: Mike White and Laura Dern
Stars: Laura Dern, Mike White, Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd, Sarah Burns, Timm Sharp
Network: HBO 
Much like its volatile lead heroine, the first season of HBO’s Enlightened demonstrated a disorientating oscillation between intensely emotional naval-gazing and abrasive, cringe-worthy comedy. Having found the proper balance approximately halfway through the first year, showrunner/co-star Mike White found a groove with the show’s final few episodes. After spending much of the first season attempting to reconstruct both her professional and personal lives following a psychotic breakdown, former company woman Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) decides to chuck any notions of diplomacy and bring down the corrupt Abaddon company from within. This new job as a wannabe whistleblower, however, proves to be a far more complex task than Amy initially realized. Perhaps more so than any show on TV, Enlightened’s episodes were driven less by plot and more by character’s interior lives. With its sunny, colorful visual palate masking an undeniable undercurrent of melancholy, the show was certainly never afraid to wear its heart (painfully) on its sleeve. Led by a career-defining performance from Laura Dern as the troubled protagonist, the show also milked great work from other series regulars, including White, Luke Wilson and Dern’s real-life mother Diane Ladd as Amy’s own long-suffering mother. And while one can mourn the episodes and story arcs that will never be, the show’s finale gives the entire series the poignant and conclusive crescendo it deserves. Look forward to the show joining the ranks of Firefly and Freaks and Geeks in future lists of great TV programs cut down in their prime.—Mark Rozeman

17. Bob’s Burgers
Creator: Loren Bouchard
Stars: H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, John Roberts, Kristen Schaal, Larry Murphy
Network: FOX
The foul-mouthed, sexually confused and socially disastrous members of the Belcher family from Bob’s Burgers are so compelling not because of their flaws but because they actually care for each other. That real affection is also what makes it the best family comedy on television, and developing the show around this has led Bob’s Burgers to a unique sense of humor that, unlike every other animated comedy, isn’t just derivative of The Simpsons. The show’s third, and first full, season was great because its characters, for all their eccentricities, never stopped feeling real, their constant worries about money and status making them more than just a set of gag-generating machines. That its stories could be as weird as “O.T.: The Outside Toilet” or “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal” while pulling off such a feat is even more admirable.—Sean Gandert

16. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Creator: Rob McElhenney
Stars: Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
Network: FX/FXX
Looking back on It’s Always Sunny’s ninth season, the episode that will stand out in my mind was the third, “The Gang Desperately Tries to Win an Award.” It’s a brilliant 23 minutes of self-reflection, as the cast looks at why the show has never won (or been nominated for) an Emmy through the lens of Paddy’s Pub, which has been snubbed once again for a Philadelphia restaurant award. At one point, the gang visits a flashy new bar with trite dialogue between the good-looking, multi-racial bartenders (ie, every boring network sitcom). Later, they wonder if their neighborhood (ie, FX) is responsible, dismissing that because other local bars (ie, Louie) have earned recognition. They hold a party at the bar to try to woo the voters, but it ends in disaster, with Charlie, high on glue, singing a tortured, hysterical song about spiders in his soul. As the guests look on in horror, the gang begins spitting at them to drive them away, finally concluding that they can only be themselves. That’s been the MO of It’s Always Sunny for years; bizarre, disturbing, and hilarious in a way that’s bound to appeal to a similarly off-kilter audience. Season 9 may have been the show’s weakest year yet, with lots of re-hashes and an unfortunate reliance on old gags, but it still retains the dark, corrupt heart that makes it so unique and appealing in a TV landscape of risk-free comedy.—Shane Ryan

15. Key & Peele
Creator:   Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
Stars: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
Network: Comedy Central
The show starring MADtv alumni Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele will soon wrap up its third wonderful season of sketch comedy driven by a unique comedic perspective, a keen understanding of social media and, of course, the hilarious chemistry of its two stars. There’s an unrivaled sense of camaraderie between Key and Peele. Because of their off-camera friendship and extensive improv training, it’s clear that they listen to each other, bounce ideas off each other and, as a result, always seem in sync. It makes their between-sketch banter pop with endearing goofiness. The creation of Luther, President Obama’s anger translator, captured the zeitgeist so fiercely that the President himself spoke about his experience watching it. It’s a brilliant take on our nation’s soft spoken, thoughtful leader, and it wrings out cathartic laughs in seeing the genuine anger bubbling just under the surface. Every character on Key & Peele feels real. They’re not caricatures that spew jokes and catchphrases; they’re fully formed humans with hearts, souls and, in the case of Mr. T, hurt feelings.—Greg Smith

14. Veep
Creator: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale
Network: HBO 
Armando Iannucci first took on British politics in The Thick of It, then UK/USA relations with In the Loop. Now Iannucci has tackled the second most important seat in D.C., the Vice President in Veep. His hilarious and witty scripts, along with an entire cabinet of not entirely reliable aides has, along with Girls, made HBO a strong comedy network once again. But it’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ return to TV as the VP herself, Selina Meyer, that elevates Veep, as she deals with varying problems with grace and humor every week.— Ross Bonaime

13. The Good Wife
Creator: Robert King, Michelle King
Stars: Julianna Margulies, Matt Czuchry, Archie Panjabi, Graham Phillips, Makenzie Vega, Josh Charles 
Network: CBS
Are network dramas supposed to be this good? Julianna Margulies stars as the title character Alicia Florrick. In a storyline ripped from many, many headlines, the series began with Alicia’s public humiliation. Her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), the District Attorney of Chicago, had been caught cheating—with a prostitute. The scandal thrust Alicia back into the workforce and she goes to work for her old law school friend Will Gardner (Josh Charles). But the real reason to stick with the series is to partake in the show’s fifth season. Many shows start to fade as they age, but The Good Wife is in the midst of a creative renaissance. The kind that will mark the series as one of the great dramas of our time.—Amy Amatangelo

Also in TV