2013 in television has been one of the greater years in recent memory, making it particularly hard to narrow the best shows of the year to just 10. From exciting new comedies to consistently amazing dramas, 2013 proved that television is no longer the younger sibling of movies. Some of these shows were better than most movies released this year, and many movie stars have noticed and transferred to television.
10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
It’s rare for television comedies to come out of the gate with a confident voice. When Fox premiered Brooklyn Nine-Nine in September, it bolstered recent SNL vet Andy Samberg and longtime television favorite Andre Braugher, both of whom I assumed would be hogging all the screentime. I was surprised to tune in to the premiere and see a strong ensemble, not just from the TV vets but from the relative unknowns as well. Samberg’s Jake Peralta is essentially Samberg playing Samberg, but his particular brand of humor works as a kooky but competent lead. Braugher’s take on the police chief is one of the more complex new roles on television, playing a traditional straight man (who ironically happens to be gay) in a group of wackos.
The strength of Brooklyn Nine-Nine come from the interplay of the ensemble and the strength of the writing. Particularly strong is Joe Lo Truglio as Boyle, the awkward yet honest detective with a crush on the hardcore, enigmatic Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). Though it is inherently a procedural, the show has gradually made the characters and their relationships stronger with each new episode. It’s fortunate to have a comedic ensemble work so well from the first episodes, and I can only see it growing stronger. More than anything else, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is like hanging out with your friends for a little while, and that’s one of the best things a sitcom can be, let alone a new one.
9. Orphan Black
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting to like Orphan Black. Most sci-fi shows do nothing for me as they are often more interested in special effects rather than genuine human emotion. Even as I heard about the strength of Tatiana Maslany’s performance, I still went into Orphan Black expecting to hate the show itself. This is why I was surprised when I found myself powering through all 10 episodes within a short period of time. Orphan Black stars Maslany as Sarah Manning, a woman who gradually discovers that she is a clone. Maslany plays several clones, each with their own specific personalities, including an uptight suburban clone, a spunky biologist and a religious fanatic.
Much of the plot of Orphan Black doesn’t make sense from a realistic standpoint, but the show progresses at such a breakneck pace that it doesn’t let you to take a step back. You are fully on this crazy ride with Sarah and the rest of the clones and its concept allows you to suspend disbelief for a little while. Though Maslany is a relative unknown, her performance(s) in Orphan Black are absolutely incredible, giving each clone her own mannerisms and personalities. Sometimes television doesn’t have to be weighed down in morality and mortality; sometimes it just provides for excellent entertainment, and Orphan Black is a prime example of that.
There is a chilliness to The Americans that is no coincidence, given that it centers around a pair of Russian spies living in America in the middle of the Cold War. One of the best freshman dramas to premiere in 2013, The Americans does espionage just as well as it does domestic drama, and it’s truly compelling how those two things end up intertwined throughout the show’s ever-expanding universe. The couple at the center: Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), a pair of expert Russian spies planted in America in an arranged marriage. And there just so happens to be an FBI agent next door.
The Americans takes its time to tell its story, forgoing the regular rules of television drama that require non-stop action or sappy melodrama. It’s not an easy show to embrace, and there is an awkwardness in rooting for Elizabeth and Philip and, by extension, the downfall of America. The show creates so many layers and shades of grey for both the KGB officers and the FBI, though, that it becomes more about the cost of war, regardless of which side they’re on. Though Elizabeth and Philip’s wigs are very, very fake, their emotions are very real as they fight a losing war for their country and with each other.
7. American Horror Story: Coven
Where to begin. American Horror Story‘s third incarnation has brought Angela Bassett as a voodoo queen, Kathy Bates as a racist, immortal socialite, Lily Rabe as a Stevie Nicks-obsessed swamp witch and Jessica Lange as the chain-smoking, manipulative leader of a coven of bitchy witches. Taking a much more humorous, campy tone than the grisly American Horror Story: Asylum, Coven is self-aware in how ridiculous everything is and openly embraces the crazy. The dialogue is downright laughable at times, but the show’s incredible ensemble cast knows when to be serious and when to ham it up for the cameras.
Though it’s easy to focus on the surface-level craziness (human-minotaur sex, reassembled “boy parts,” the fact that no one stays dead, etc.), Coven has a lot to say about aging and women. The season has often focused on the fear of growing old and out-of-date, especially Lange’s Fiona, whose desperation to stay young is tragically resonant with modern-day women, especially actresses. While Coven is meant to shock and provoke a reaction out of viewers, there are moments of genuine human emotion that make all the craziness worth it.
6. New Girl
There is perhaps no show on the air right now that is more in tune with what it’s like to be in your late 20s and early 30s as New Girl. While the show started off as The Zooey Deschanel Show, it has gradually become a genuine ensemble of characters who constantly make poor choices but still have each other at the end of the day. Led with deliberate apathy by Jake Johnson as Nick Miller, the sitcom has gone to new heights in realistically representing a generation of jaded losers; even Deschanel’s Jess has become a little more cynical with each season.
It is the sharp wit and brilliant one-liners, though, that keep the show from waddling too much in self-pity. New Girl expertly mixes old-school slapstick comedy with sardonic dialogue while throwing in some classic sitcom romance. The evolution of Jess and Nick’s relationship has been one of the sweetest romances in recent TV history, culminating in the kiss heard ’round the world near the end of season 2. As mentioned earlier with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the best sitcoms make you feel like you’re hanging out with your old buddies, and New Girl exemplifies that feeling for the 21st century.
5. Top of the Lake
Shows about the dark underbelly of a seemingly perfect small town have been a staple of television since the groundbreaking Twin Peaks in 1990. Naturally, the trope has become disappointingly reductive in recent years, with the likes of The Killing and Bates Motel having all the surface-level elements (corrupt cops, pretty white people, etc.) but none of the depth or feeling. Top of the Lake, a New Zealand miniseries about the disappearance of a young girl named Tui in a beautiful yet dark New Zealand town. Elisabeth Moss stars as the detective who makes it her first priority to find Tui, facing all odds in a deeply sexist community.
What separates Top of the Lake from other small town dramas is its acknowledgment of unsettling atmosphere. Director Jane Campion uses the lush landscapes of the mountains and the lake in this small town, but those elements feel surprisingly isolated. The many local characters give Top of the Lake a sense of a real, lived-in community and their horrible behavior is almost excused since they don’t know any different. Covering themes of trust, corruption, sexism and battling past demons, Top of the Lake is an intensely gripping miniseries that is equal parts small town mystery and character drama.
Politicians are pretty terrible people, which is why it’s bizarre that there’s been so few successful comedies about them. Veep follows the fictional vice president of the United States Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her dysfunctional staff. The show’s view of politics is savagely dark (to put it lightly), painting most government workers as cynical bastards who hate their jobs as much as they can’t get away from them. While the show’s first season was very much centered on JLD’s skewering depiction of the inept Selena Meyer, the show came back for its second season this year with a much more fleshed-out ensemble, highlighting the show’s many supporting characters in interesting ways.
The characters on Veep skewer each other more than any other comedy ensemble on the air, demonstrating that insult-comedy can still be smart and funny. This season had the special distinction of predicting the real-life government shutdown in the U.S., proving how ridiculous the government can be. Other episodes highlighted the PR nightmare of a misunderstood photo, a family interview gone horribly wrong and the looming possibility of ascending to the presidency. There is perhaps no other show on television more in touch with the political climate of America, and it ranks as my top comedy of 2013.
3. Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black ranks as my top new show of 2013, producing one of the most stellar first seasons of a series in modern TV history. Adapted from the memoir of the same name, Orange is the New Black chronicles the imprisonment of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle class yuppie guilty of a minor crime from 10 years ago. Sentenced to one year in a women’s prison, Piper is introduced to a diverse group of women, none of which she would ever associate with before prison.
While the series largely focuses on Piper for the first few episodes, Orange is the New Black expands into a fascinating ensemble piece in the episodes that follow, featuring some of the most original new characters of the year. Characters like Sophia (Laverne Cox), the transgendered hairdresser, and ‘Red,’ the acerbic cook of the prison are some of the most interesting characters on television, getting more complex with each flashback to their lives before prison. While the first season of the show becomes much more dramatic than its more comedic beginnings, Orange is the New Black is a warm-hearted, complex take on real women in the modern age and it’s Netflix’s best show by a mile.
2. Game of Thrones
With the most sprawling cast on television, Game of Thrones consistently has the impossible task of making its audience care about dozens upon dozens of characters. For its first two seasons, episodes often felt like a series of disjointed scenes that just happened to be under the umbrella of Game of Thrones, with very little else relating them. However, in season 3, the writers pulled everything together and created one of the most epic seasons of television in its history. Episodes became more focused, the character arcs were richer and the stakes have never been higher.
Some of the most significant scenes of the season included Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) unleashing her dragons upon vicious slaveholders, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) getting his hand chopped off and the hellish atrocity that was the Red Wedding. Even with these incredible highs, some of the best aspects of season 3 were in the small character moments. Jaime and Brienne’s (Gwendoline Christie) unlikely friendship, Margaery’s (Natalie Dormer) revealing manipulations and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Ygritte’s (Rose Leslie) relationship were some of the most fascinating storylines on television. It’s insane to think that the events of season 3 comprised of only one half of the third book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, considering the pure grandeur of the season. There is nothing else like Game of Thrones on television and I can only think of one other show that edged it out as the best show on television in 2013.
1. Breaking Bad
There are television shows that people passively watch from week to week, either out of regular enjoyment or out of habit. And then there’s Breaking Bad. In its final eight episodes, Breaking Bad reached a level of cultural significance reserved for very few works of fiction: it was the one show that critics, TV geeks and the general public could agree was the best show on television. In the final season of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) evolution from chemistry teacher to leader of a meth empire, the saga reached new levels of tragedy as Walt’s delusions of grandeur put the lives of his family in grave danger. Fans wondering about the fate of Walter White as the series drew to a close experienced the absolute crumbling of a marriage, the torture of a man already down on his luck and a dramatic shootout in the middle of the desert.
The series finale was just about as perfect an ending as the show could have devised, with Walt “finally getting what he deserved.” Though some saw the ending as a happy one for Walt, he still left his family utterly devastated in his wake, especially sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt). Playing out like a Greek tragedy, the final season of Breaking Bad was so expertly planned out that each episode felt like its own mini-movie. The show reached new heights with the third-to-last episode “Ozymandias,” an episode of television so perfectly written, directed and performed that it’s sure to win multiple Emmys at the 2014 ceremony. It’s rare to find such a well-written character drama that can also pull off huge plot-heavy episodes, such as the desert shootout in “To’hajilee” and the train heist in season 5A’s “Dead Freight.” There’s never been anything quite like Breaking Bad on television and it’s very unlikely that anything will compare in the future.
Thus concludes my top 10 shows of 2013. I hope you enjoyed. Here’s to another awesome year of television.