Rickey.org’s Best and Worst TV Shows of 2013
Television saw a bit of a renaissance in 2013. Or rather, it continued to steadily outpace film as a form of artistic expression and auteur, visionary craft. Television allows stories to be told that most major film studios wouldn’t touch (Behind the Candelabra, for instance), while also providing a platform for a more nuanced, long-form storytelling approach. These shows are hardly reflective of a critical consensus. Rather, this is merely MY list for the top 10 shows of the year. And believe me, I wracked my brain trying to narrow it down to 10 from the 25 I initially wrote down on my list. Some of my favorite shows on TV right now had to be left off, in service of culling this down to a manageable number (because if I include everything, nothing is special). So here is my personal list of the top 10 shows of 2013 (these are in no particular order):
Breaking Bad brought its illustrious run to an end in 2013, and it’s that rare show that went out at the highest possible level. Not since The Sopranos has a show had such a thorough command of all elements of its creative forces: the scripts, the performances, the nuance of the overarching storytelling of the season, and how it tied together all the big themes of the series — and the Faustian implications of its protagonist’s journey — was remarkable. What Vince Gilligan accomplished with Breaking Bad is a tale of irreducible complexity, of a man twisted by desperation, corrupted by power and ego, and rendered unrecognizable to the very people he loved most.
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul created two characters, in Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, who draw sympathy from darkness and masochism. They are two characters as real and as vivid as any characters that have ever graced TV, and their plight, while not universal, speaks to a fundamental desire to be more than the sum of one’s parts. It’s a dynamic that was brought full circle with this final season, and an artistic vision that was brought to life not only by the efforts of Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul or the show’s crew, but by the show’s exceptional ensemble, from Anna Gunn to Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt to Bob Odenkirk, RJ Mitte to Jesse Plemons. Breaking Bad came about as close to perfect this year as any show ever has in just eight episodes.
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones remains one of those rare TV viewing experiences: a genre show in which “shades of grey” isn’t just a buzzword to describe troubled, unlikable characters. The denizens of Westeros and Essos don’t really fall into traditional categories of characterization. Really, the only purely bad characters on this show are King Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton. Oh, and I supposed Roose Bolton and Walder Frey are irredeemable jack-wagons. But everyone else has a moral ambiguity to them that makes the show a far more interesting watch than if everyone simply fell into set roles: Jamie Lannister pushed a kid out a window in season one, is pretty much in love with his own sister, and is generally a jerk blanketed by pretenses of nobility. But we come to learn that his nobility isn’t just pretense. There’s the kernel of a good man beneath it all, as his interactions with Brienne show. He’s a better person than we’ve been led to believe, and that’s just one instance of the kind of moral complexity to result from the third season of the fantasy drama.
And what a season, as it was packed with high-stakes drama and heart-shattering tragedy. There were few, if any shows, on TV that had a moment as iconic as The Red Wedding, and I would argue it’ll be hard for any show in 2014 to top that event simply for the reaction it provoked from audiences around the world. Three seasons in, and Game of Thrones continues to be one of the most well-crafted shows on TV, and this is to say nothing of its generally uniform cast, as the ensemble is populated with actors of unmistakable talent. It’ll be hard to know if Season 4 will be able to top the heights of Season 3, but it should be rewarding to see the show try.
Call the Midwife
Although most Americans have never heard of it, being a massively-successful BBC import aired on PBS in the states, Call the Midwife is, for my money, the best show on television right now. The series, about a group of midwives working in a nursing convent in London’s East End in the late 1950s. The show is part medical procedural, part character study, as Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) struggles to find her place in a society that is slowly beginning to flower for working women, while also facing the challenges of caring for pregnant patients with startling home troubles of their own. I really don’t know how best to describe the show: it’s absorbing, it’s heartwarming, it’s gripping, and occasionally even thrilling. It’s also funny, sumptuously made, and superbly acted. The series is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, and the stories of the episode draw from her real experiences in midwifery, adding a more visceral sense of immediacy to what’s happening: this isn’t merely the dramatized, cosmetically-enhanced fiction of poverty, it’s a more realistic period piece that touches on the joyous, tragic, unchangeable cycle of life and death, and the promise of the future that is represented in every new birth. There are few shows on television that make me feel as good or as hopeful about the world in which I live.
This year marked the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, and the series celebrated this milestone by turning in one of its strongest years since its resurrection in 2005. Perhaps galvanized by the realization that his time as The Doctor would soon come to an end, Matt Smith brought an entirely new level of commitment to the role, above and beyond the already-remarkable amount of dedication he’d shown towards the part of The Doctor, and towards the committed Whovian fanbase. Even without getting into the 50th Anniversary Special (“The Day of the Doctor”) or the 2013 Christmas Special (“The Time of the Doctor”), Smith was on fire with watershed performances in “The Rings of Akhaten” and “The Name of the Doctor”. And Stephen Moffat brought the goods with some of the most mind-bending stories of the series, plopping fans right into situations alongside The Doctor, and challenging them to figure things out before The Doctor (or along with him). And with all of this adventure and whimsy is the emotional core of a man who seemingly exists outside of time, a man who loves and is loved himself, yet is perpetually alone. Doctor Who continued to stake its claim as the best sci-fi show currently on television with its 2013 season, and the arrival of Peter Capaldi has me even more excited for what’s in store come 2014.
I promise this list isn’t all British television, but really, I’m convinced the Brits are doing this whole TV thing a lot better than we are. Broadchurch is essentially everything that season-long crime procedurals/character studies like The Following and The Killing wanted to be: it’s a completely enthralling mystery centering on a town full of genuinely compelling individual character stories. Each one of the people of Broadchurch feels like a real person, with his or her own troubles, as well as possible reasons for why they might inevitably be revealed to be the killer of 11-year-old Danny Latimer.
It’s a tale about lost innocence, the corrosion of love and trust, and the renewal of hope and healing. David Tennant is as good here, if not better, than he’s ever been as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, and Jodie Whitaker turns in a star-making performance as Beth Latimer, the mother of the deceased boy. But it’s Olivia Colman who steals the show as Ellie Miller, Hardy’s partner and a lifelong Broadchurch resident whose son was best friends with the murdered boy. She’s a woman who has trouble believing that such a horrific crime could happen in her community, but is slowly forced to face the ugliness and evil residing beneath the surface of this place that is the only home she’s ever known. It’s a devastating portrayal by Colman, and it anchors a plot that benefits from some of the strongest mystery writing on TV in ages. This isn’t just a mystery with twists and turns for their own sake. It all builds towards a genuinely surprising, yet still satisfying, conclusion. Broadchurch works as a mystery, but works even better as a character drama, turning the magnifying glass on small town prejudice, gossip and fear.
The only canceled show on this year’s list, and probably the best show to get the ax in 2013. But I suppose I can’t really fault ABC Family, given the ratings Bunheads was pulling, so I’d rather just fault America for not latching onto such a wonderfully engrossing portrayal of teen life in a quaint California town, as a former Vegas showgirl moves to town and inevitably ends up in charge of the local ballet studio. Granted, that synopsis is a bit reductive, as it’s about much more than teen life, or the troubles of an ex-showgirl. But it’s that angle that brings the most life and sincerity to the series: these are teenagers played by real teens. Their characters have doubts and uncertainty about the world in which they live, and the adults are every bit as troubled.
The show seems to suggest that while some may have a better handle on it than others, no one ever has life completely figured out. And it’s best that people find others with whom they can figure out life together. Whether with family or friends, life is meant to be shared, and that’s what these youths and adults discover as the show rolls on. It’s one of the best pure family shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and while it had many thematic parallels with creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s well-loved Gilmore Girls, Bunheads aspired to loftier heights, buouyed as it was by performances from Tony winner Sutton Foster, Gilmore alum Kelly Bishop, and a teen cast that included real ballet dancers such as Bailey Buntain and Julia Goldani Telles. I don’t think any cancellation in recent years has hit me as hard as losing Bunheads, but the series stands on its own as one of the strongest single season series in recent memory.
Masters of Sex
The best new show of the year, hands-down. Well, in my opinion, anyway. Masters of Sex is that rare show that doesn’t just pay lip service to building its story with each episode. This was a season-long narrative that gradually built from a whisper to a shout: William Masters (Michael Sheen) begins the season acting on his intention to study human sexuality, enlisting the aid of former nightclub singer Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), and ignoring the warnings of the university provost (Beau Bridges). By season’s end, everything that could conceivably have changed has changed. In short, I’ve never been this excited about a show whose history I could easily look up myself. Seriously, if I wanted to know what happens, I could just look up the biography from which the show takes its story and title, but even if I did do that, there’s a lot more to this show than simply what happens.
There isn’t a performance on TV this year I loved more than Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, as she embodies a women of keen intelligence, whip-smart savvy, and iron resolve. Her determination is often what drives so much of the plot, as she picks up the slack for Masters, who is a far less sympathetic — or likable — figure. That isn’t to say that Michael Sheen doesn’t turn in one of the year’s best lead performances himself though, as he makes Masters flawed, but unmistakably human. It’s a tremendous cast that also has two Emmy shoo-ins in the form of Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, a married couple fighting to keep it together despite irreconcilable differences in their lives. There’s pretty much nothing about this show that I don’t love, and given the considerable wealth of fascinating history behind it, Masters of Sex seems unlikely to fall prey to Showtime’s executive meddling, as the story is clearly has a direction. Season one just ended, yet season two just can’t come soon enough.
God, I love hanging out with Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show that thrives more on the world it creates than on the stories it tells, but what a world it is. After four seasons, I would have figured I’d had enough of the muted color palettes of 1920s Atlantic City, Harlem, Chicago, and other destinations of burgeoning organized crime. But this is a show that populates these locales with characters who, even when not a whole lot is going on in their lives, are just so fascinating to be around. Even a weasel like Mickey Doyle is a joy to spend time with, as are guys like Chalky White, Richard Harrow, even Nucky himself. It’s a rich world of even richer characters, and although the beginning of the season left much to be desired, that’s not really any different from the previous three seasons of Boardwalk Empire.
This is a show that needs nearly its entire season to air before its direction crystallizes, and all the seemingly innocuous details of the first half of the season take on their grim, foreboding purpose. It’s one of the most beautiful shows on TV from a sheer aesthetic perspective, and it continues to be one of the best-written, as the dialogue doesn’t patronize the period, and the actors are so exceptional at what they do that they can even sell the clunkers. Seriously, I’m not sure I cared all that much about Willie Thompson, but his interactions with Nucky, with his father Eli, and with men like Mickey Doyle made the story far more compelling than it might otherwise have been. I’d argue this was the strongest season of Boardwalk Empire since the show debuted, and it looks well on its way to becoming even stronger.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
The most twisted show on TV might also be its funniest. The gang of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is depraved, miserable, delusional, bitter, occasionally hateful people. These are just terrible people. But that’s kind of why it’s so great. It indulges in the twisted excesses of its characters, and highlights how their mutual delusions and inflated sense of self-importance alienates them from those who might tolerate them otherwise. The show finds the comedy in pointing out how deliriously messed up these people are, asking us to laugh at these people, but to please never become like them. It’s a sensationally funny show, and its primary cast (Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson and Danny DeVito) are as fine-tuned to their characters now as they’ve ever been. For me, this was the strongest season of Sunny yet, as it delved into how the gang sees each other, themselves, and those around them. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder this year than I did throughout the gang’s attempted foiling of a convenience store robbery during “The Gang Saves the Day”. This show isn’t for everybody, but if twisted humor is your bag, I don’t think there’s a better show on TV for you than It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
The only reality show on my list, and with damn good reason. Survivor is a reality show that turns a mirror back on the self-preservationist impulses of society — particularly when money is involved. It’s a classic game of deceit, betrayal, loyalty, savvy, brains, and brawn. To win requires just about every skill a castaway has at his or her disposal. It’s not just about social or strategic skills. You have to actually be able to survive, and as surprising as that sounds when you consider that the show has been on for 27 seasons now, it’s not something that actually goes without saying. You need to know that you’ll be expected to hold your own physically, every bit as much as you’re expected to bring your strategic A-game if you want to secure the win, the million dollars, and the title of Sole Survivor. And it’s this grueling component of physical survival, merged with the mercenary goal of self-interest, makes Survivor one of the best reality shows on TV, and one of the best series of its ilk in history.
This year featured more great TV than I could find room for, but some of them deserve a mention. Elementary went from being an amusing distraction from the usual, tired CBS police procedural, and grew into something unmistakably gripping, a worthy bearer of the Sherlock Holmes cannon. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are really one of TV’s best pairs as Holmes and Watson, and the show’s Moriarty arc made for some incredibly gripping, explosive TV.
Also worth mentioning is Downton Abbey, the controversial third season of which premiered in the US in January of this year. It was a season that broke a lot of hearts and ticked off a lot of fans, and while you could probably argue the wisdom of some of the plot directions the show took, I actually found season three to be the show’s best overall.
Worst of the Year
The Following is not just the worst TV show of the year, but it may be the worst show I’ve seen in the 28 years I’ve been on this planet. It was just an absolute abomination that started out well enough, but quickly devolved into an irreconcilable mess of needless gore, pointless attempts at shockers, and absolutely loathsome, terrible characters from top to bottom. The show not only asked us to identify and sympathize with unrepentant serial murderers and child abductors, but it also asked us to find the head honcho to be as beguiling as his followers seemed to find him. That’s bad enough even without the gore in which the show seemed to love luxuriating.
It was as if the show felt that by imitating the violence of cable shows, it could become the one broadcast network show that would be seen as an equal to the crime dramas that had won such critical acclaim, not realizing that violence has nothing to do with why shows like Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Breaking Bad, or Boardwalk Empire have won acclaim. It’s the mature stories underneath all the violence, as well as the fact that the truly shocking violence is only deployed minimally, and at times when it will have the greatest effect. But The Following doesn’t seem to understand any of that. And from the looks of the season 2 trailers, it seems the show hasn’t made any attempt at evolving in any meaningful respect.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine got the Under the Dome DVD and wanted to watch it with someone who knew the story. So I went on over and checked it out for the second time…and found that I was being WAY too soft on this show in my reviews. In fact, it’s to the point where I’m not entirely sure what I initially saw in the show. Granted, I never proclaimed to love it. I had merely grown to tolerate it as an acceptable hour of entertainment, an easy bit of pop culture pablum to tide me over during the slow summer seasons. But upon rewatch, it just completely shrinks and dies under the weight of its own absurdity. These characters are, by and large, beyond awful. Deputy Linda, Junior Rennie, Dale Barbara, Julia Shumway…I mean, these are people who are almost too dumb to live, people who find new ways to get into easily avoidable situations. It’s interesting enough when you don’t know where the show is headed, but once you know where it’s all going, it just becomes an interminable slog in ways that even the driest shows never do upon rewatch. Dean Norris is the sole bright spot as Big Jim Rennie, and even then, he loses all complexity by season’s end. I can see why this was a success, given its high-concept premise and its easily digestible character arcs, but I just can’t imagine giving this show another chance. In inviting me to rewatch the series, my friend did me a huge favor.
Lastly, if ever a show deserved to be canceled after just two episodes, it was ABC’s Lucky 7, which suffered from the same problems as the two shows above: the characters are just so profoundly awful. Or rather, these particular characters were simply obnoxious. While I can feel sympathetic to the plight of a young father with hardly enough money to provide for his wife and child, much less move them out of his parents’ house, it becomes a bit more difficult when that same father is frequently put in increasingly troubling moral dilemmas, and routinely opts to make the bad choice. And I just struggle to have any sympathy whatsoever for the ex-con brother who swears he’s changed, but really is just as bad, if not worse, than he’s ever been. As far as highlights go, it begins and ends with Luis Antonio Ramos as Antonio, the one gas station employee who didn’t put in for the lottery ticket that makes his coworkers obscenely wealthy. He has all the heart and depth of a character from a much deeper show, and if there’s anything to miss about this show, it’s his deeply-felt performance. But really, that’s it. It was only ever downhill from about the fifteenth minute.
Nashville and Beauty and the Beast are two very different shows, but they both do soap opera excess exceedingly well. Nashville brings a soapy, yet occasionally insightful look into the world of country music, and it’s kept afloat by great music, and genuinely captivating performances from actors such as Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere and Charles Esten. Meanwhile, Beauty and the Beast overcame a rocky start in 2012 to flower into a surprisingly fun genre series that actually has a fair amount of depth if you’re willing to look for it. I know it’s hardly anyone’s bag, but I always find myself looking forward to a new episode, and it shows just how far the show has come in only a year.
ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and Twisted are also two guilty pleasures that are cut from the same cloth. They’re mystery dramas that are equal parts heavy and light: while Pretty Little Liars has been weighted down in recent years by the sheer volume of mysteries and clues one needs to keep track of, it remains one of the most effective shows on TV when it comes to the big OMG reveal. And Twisted isn’t too far behind, as its first season isn’t even over yet, and it’s already staked its claim as a fitting successor to the Tuesday night mystery crown, offering a darker tale than Pretty Little Liars, but one that is no less fun to enjoy.
Most Surprising of the Year:
NBC’s short-lived Camp was one of the most pleasant surprises of any show I’ve ever had the pleasure of stumbling onto in the summer time. It was a dramedy with a big heart and a talented cast that managed to be as adept at well-timed joke deliveries as they were at big emotional moments. Some might say it was a bit heavy on sentiment, but rarely does a summer show have this much character to it. It was a shame to lose it, but the season told an interesting, isolated, single-season story that would more than likely be just as effective in 2023 as it was in 2013, owing to a certain timelessness about the camp life, and the values depicted in the show.
The Fosters was also a bit of a surprise, as the series took a complex family dynamic and showed the ways in which that family fractures when individuals choose to face life challenges alone. Granted, that isn’t the only thing the show seems to be trying to say, but it was the theme that jumped out at me, and I found it to be a pretty powerful one. Kids ultimately make mistakes, and adults are every bit as prone to the same errors in judgment, but it’s the ways in which a family comes together to right the wrongs, finding strength and comfort and hope in each other, that makes life negotiable. It’s a stunningly good show.
True Blood benefited greatly from a reduced episode order, as a ten-episode season gave the narrative a greater sense of focus. We lost some characters and gained some new ones, but overall, it felt like the show was less crowded, and had more of a direction than in season’s past. The same could be said for The Killing, which was resurrected from the TV scrap heap and given a second chance to prove itself. While the show went on to feature one of the most gripping season-long procedural cases of the year, but it was really the finely-drawn characters that resonated most of all. The Killing left behind the inconsistent tone and plot of the Rosie Larsen case, and found something deeper and more poignant in the case of Seattle street kids being murdered by a predatory force. I couldn’t be happier that the show managed to survive once again and earn a fourth season thanks to Netflix.
So what are your favorite shows of the year? What are your guilty pleasures, your biggest surprises, and your choices for best and worst? Sound off in the comments and add your opinions!
And Happy New Year! Let’s hope for a 2014 full of fantastic TV.