It’ll still be another month or so before I’ve seen everything necessary to complete my list of the best films of 2013, but given that television is a medium immediately available to everyone, this is one that I can have all neat and put together already. The structuring of television seasons sometimes makes it difficult to rank shows in terms of one specific year, as most broadcast programs go from fall-spring and have an entire season taking place in two separate years, but the cable boom makes it easier since they usually have a complete season within one year and you won’t be seeing a lot of broadcast shows on here. As far as eligibility goes, the only requirement is that the episodes considered were the ones aired between January 1st and December 31st of 2013.
After 2012 was a pretty significantly disappointing year for television, 2013 came back with a bang; starting off with a slew of new programs at the beginning of the year that practically dominated everything that came out afterwards and take up half this list. The rest of the year couldn’t compare to the first quarter and there weren’t any other new shows that I was able to embrace as fully as those early rookies but a couple of returning programs came up with some stuff to keep them going strong in their ongoing years. So without further ado, here is what I believe to have been the Top 10 TV Shows of 2013, counting down:
10. ORPHAN BLACK: Season 1
Genre television has gotten rather stale in recent years, so leave it to BBC America on Saturday nights of all places to go ahead and deliver one of the most addictive, insane and elaborate slices of pulp goodness we’ve seen in quite some time. Led by Tatiana Maslany’s revelatory performance(s), Orphan Black tells the story of no less than seven clones, all played by the leading lady herself with no shortage of depth, personality and diversity. It’s a mesmerizing pull and even if it slips into cliche and perhaps a bit too much oddity at times it always has her dynamite portrayal to keep it afloat, not to mention the scene-stealing work of Jordan Gavaris.
09. BOARDWALK EMPIRE: Season 4
Since its genesis Boardwalk Empire has been one of the best shows on television each year and yet strangely it continues to be underrated. Despite the prestige of HBO and the best ensemble cast in the game, this one never quite gets the recognition it deserves and I’m sure that will be the case with its unrelentingly bleak fourth season. It would have been impossible to live up to the high that was Bobby Cannavale’s towering performance in Season 3, but the fourth season tosses in Jeffrey Wright, who while perhaps not as strong a player as the returning supporting ensemble, was still able to provide a better showcase for the magnificent work of Michael K. Williams in their war of an arc. This wasn’t my favorite season of Boardwalk and there were quite a few plot threads that I found disappointing, but a lesser season of this show still finds it as one of the best of the year and it continued to bring the relentless Shakespearean drama any fan has come to expect, not to mention perhaps the series’ finest hour (“Erlkonig”) before the season was even halfway finished.
08. RECTIFY: Season 1
Most sites have called Rectify the “best show you’re not watching” and while that kind of title has always made me roll my eyes a bit, this one may be warranted. At least for me it held true all year, as I only watched it recently in order to see if it lived up to the hype and deserved a spot in this list. Clearly it does. Rectify is often described as a slow-burn of a show, but I don’t think that’s the case here. A burn implies an eventual explosion, but Rectify doesn’t give the audience the satisfaction of that kind of dramatic release and it’s all the better for it. For Daniel Holden (played by the sensational Aden Young), there is no release and perhaps there never will be. A man who was on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend as a teenager, he spent twenty years preparing himself for death before new evidence was discovered that released him back into the wild. Rectify could have easily gone the more obvious route of making this an adrenalized thriller about Daniel trying to find the real murderer but instead it focuses its gaze inward, studying the fascinating case of a man who has spent more life on death row than he has in the outside world and what this rebirth is like for him, his family and those around him. Creator Ray McKinnon and his ace staff have delivered in just six episodes one of the most fascinating, upsetting and absolutely unpredictable seasons of television this year.
07. THE KILLING: Season 3
The show that refuses to die. For all of its maddening red herrings, plot strands that go nowhere and insanely disappointing/ridiculous finales (this season’s disaster of one being the only thing that robbed it of a Top 5 placement on this list), The Killing continues to thrive on the examination of its characters and the performances of those capturing them. This season raised these elements to a whole new level, with the returning excellence of Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman as the central detective duo Linden and Holder being joined by Peter Sarsgaard’s death row inmate and Bex Taylor-Klaus’ street kid. Incorporating these new environments afforded the show a much wider scope and a way to observe the more lasting and unique perspectives of crime and the theme of imprisonment in all its various forms. The detectives and the kids on the street were just as much a prisoner as Sarsgaard’s man awaiting death, and every devastating, grueling emotion was finally released out into the open in the heartstopping “Six Minutes”, far and away the best episode television gave us this year.
06. PERSON OF INTEREST: Season 2/3
Definitely the odd man out on this list (the only show here to air on one of the big four networks), Person of Interest's episodic, generic CBS shell does a disservice in hiding its true quality from the kind of viewers who should be able to embrace it for what it is. This is a prescient, remarkably topical drama that actually depicted many of our current national dilemmas before they were even something we were discussing and it does it all with some of the most entertaining genre thrills on television. Blockbuster television at its finest, Person of Interest is quick and energetic enough for the casual viewer while having a brain for those wanting to give it a more dissecting glance. The first half of 2013 saw the show wrap up its second season with multiple gamechanging episodes that introduced magnificent new characters into its already superb repertoire and then the first half of the third season took things a step further by taking the two best of those players, the great Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi, and upgrading them to cast regulars. For all of the rightful acclaim as Rectify being “the best show you’re not watching”, Person of Interest deserves to be standing right there alongside it.
05. FAMILY TREE: Season 1
The only comedy program on this list and for good reason, Family Tree is one of the few shows this year that actually felt like it was building to something. What that something was could have been anything and if we ever get a second season I’m very curious to find out where the lovable Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd, the perfect lead) is currently at after the events of this first season but for better or worse at least you could tell that creators Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock had an idea that something was eventually going to be happening, which separates it from the endless glut of meandering, hopeless waste that fills the annals of television — comedy series in particular. Those shows will go on for years with nothing but diminishing returns so maybe it’s best when a comedy series is expired early, but hopefully that doesn’t mean this is the last we’ll see of Family Tree. I was worried that Guest’s mockumentary, largely improvised style wouldn’t translate well to the television format but boy was I wrong. With a bevy of great cast members from O’Dowd to the adorable Amy Seimetz and the scene-stealing revelation that is Nina Conti (in a just world, her and Veep's Anna Chlumsky would just share every Supporting Actress award), Family Tree was an endlessly entertaining, sincere and eventually quite emotional journey into the history of the Chadwick clan.
04. GAME OF THRONES: Season 3
The Red Wedding. Dracarys. Jaime Lannister’s hand. The third season of Game of Thrones kept the internet in a weekly state of aggressive reaction every Sunday night for ten weeks yet again, but for all of its massive water cooler moments there was no shortage of smaller scenes that spoke to the true heart of what this series is all about. To capture it perfectly one needs look no further than Petyr Baelish’s speech at the end of “The Climb”, this season’s sixth episode: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Game of Thrones continues to be the kind of rare television beast that crosses so many demographics; it can appeal to the Comic-Con crowd as readily as it does soccer moms and frat boys. Just about everyone gets something out of this show and 2013 may have offered its best season yet. Sure there was too much time spent with Theon’s torture and I still feel that the writers aren’t as capable of properly distributing screentime between its vast ensemble of characters as Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men are but when the show is this good it’s really silly to focus on the smaller things. Unless that smaller thing is Arya Stark, the hope of us all.
03. JUSTIFIED: Season 3
You could take that opening sentence from the Boardwalk Empire entry and apply it doubly here. Justified's first season didn't get off with the best start but by the end it was sailing smoothly and well on its way to turning in a second season that is one of the best in television history. Since then it's been firing on all cylinders and it's the rare show that isn't afraid to change itself structurally from one season to the next while maintaining its same tone, depth and fascinating character dynamics. After a largely episodic first season and two Big Bad arcs after that, the fourth changed gears considerably by opening a decades-old mystery with roots deep in the heart of Harlan County that got every player involved and opening a stake in the final outcome. The show is always at its peak when examining the many layers of the parallels and contrasts between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, and this season only further exemplified that with it all culminating in a devastating finale that left both men reeling. Timothy Olyphant's devilish charm continues to be the perfect match for Raylan's wit and barely repressed violent temper, while Walton Goggins' portrayal of Boyd never stops being one of the most entertaining, complex and endlessly watchable things television has to offer. Season 5 can't come soon enough.
02. THE AMERICANS: Season 1
If you ask me, the best networks on television for the past decade have been FX, HBO and AMC and with AMC slipping big time this year and HBO producing a pretty mixed bag it was no surprise that FX really rose the game by not only continuing with strong seasons of its currently running shows (a sad day that Louie took an extended vacation and couldn’t be included again this year) but also introducing some of the best new ones that 2013 had to offer. While the summer’s The Bridge had a mixed quality during its middle episodes, it opened and ended with some magnificent thrills and intelligent topical debates but it was The Americans that really took my breath away. One of the first new series of the year, this Cold War spy drama about two Russian agents embedded as a married American couple with two kids has stayed firm in my mind for months and barely anything has been able to eclipse it. That shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s seen it, as its more conventional trappings quickly gave way to a probing examination of these characters in grave circumstances, dangerous situations and an assortment of absolutely delightful ’80s wigs and costumes. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys took firm standings as two of the best leading performances on television, but it was the powerfully detailed supporting work from Annet Mahendru and Alison Wright that really took me by surprise by adding so much depth and humanity to the figures in the periphery. Adding those alongside the tremendous performances of the always reliable Noah Emmerich and Margo Martindale, The Americans became a show about so much more than spies and their duty and instead turned into a fascinating study of an unusual marriage that added universal themes to a specific context.
01. HOUSE OF CARDS: Season 1
So here we are, my favorite show of 2013 and it’s one that changed the game in many ways. The television show that wasn’t really television, at least not in the way that we had all come to understand it, House of Cards premiered on Netflix’s streaming service on February 1st (literally two days after The Americans premiered, what a time that was for me) with all 13 of its first season episodes readily available to watch for our binge-viewing culture. And boy what a binge it was. Enraptured by the Shakespearean scheming of not only Francis Underwood but also his Lady Macbeth wife Claire, House of Cards was the Game of Thrones of the D.C. world except the throat cutting was done under the table and through endless power plays and mind games. A slow-burn if there ever was one, Beau Willimon and David Fincher crafted an elaborate stage for which these characters would go for one another soft and slow before finally revealing the venom beneath their smiling teeth. Kevin Spacey’s fourth-wall-breaking performance charmed in a way that made you feel sick and guilty for kind of liking the guy, while Kate Mara’s naive and opportunistic reporter took center stage for being the woman who carved her own path through the mud that she found herself trapped in. Everyone from Spacey and Robin Wright to Michael Kelly and Kristen Connolly delivered outstanding work, but the first season was completely stolen by the incomparable Corey Stoll as an alcoholic, drug addicted U.S. Representative who became the key figure in Underwood’s power play and suffered the consequences of the man’s twisted mind. House of Cards rooted itself in my mind in that breathtaking marathon viewing upon release and I’m chomping at the bits (and almost terrified) to see where it takes me in its upcoming second season. 2013 was one hell of a year for television but as far as I’m concerned this is the series that stands on top.