Dec 13, 2013

Listmania: My Favorite TV Shows (General) of 2013

Laura Dern in Enlightened
Continuing in the vein of yesterday, we are looking at the TV shows that made up 2013. While we previously looked exclusively at new shows, today we look at the general body as a whole. From January through December, these are the shows that managed to make an impact on my viewing habits and brought forth things in the conversation. Ranging in overall quality and concepts, this list is maybe a little against the norm, but reflects what made TV great for me in 2013 and hopefully will pave the way for great stuff in the years to come.

Bryan Cranston
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

If last year's episodes were about Walter White (Bryan Cranston) trying to deal with being the king of the meth empire, then the last stretch gloriously tore it down. Even if there weren't any episodes as thrilling as "Dead Freight," conflict had substituted for action and now it was time to take sides. While at times a little slow, the pay-offs came fast and hard throughout the stretch that tore apart our hearts and made one of TV's most beloved antiheroes have a happy ending... in a sense. Finishing with "Felina," Breaking Bad has become an impossible behemoth that got more popular as it went on: an amalgamation that few shows would ever dream of. Most of all, the show redefined how to communicate with its audience and also how to write a series. This will probably be up in the pantheon of great shows that will never leave the conversation,and for that, Breaking Bad deserves every piece of praise it has received before or after the last episode.

(Front) Adam Driver and (Back) Lena Dunham
2. Girls (HBO)

Early on in January, Lena Dunham managed to do something that few sophomore comedies would ever thing of doing: subvert the genre. It may have been sloppier than its near perfect first season, but the experimentation in narration and character moments resulted in one of the most perverse, joyful looks at 20-somethings going through a downward spiral. Is it still a comedy? Theoretically it is, but the show has gone way beyond that to explore divorce, OCD's, and dating a psychopathic artist. Girls has no right ever being compared to Sex and the City again after "On All Fours." The series remains one of the strongest, most authentic series of the decade and even more-so, it has made Dunham more than "A voice of a generation," but an actual genius of observation.

Left to right: Emma Dumont, Julia Goldani Telles,
Bailey Buntain, and Kaitlyn Jenkins
3. Bunheads (ABC Family)

There's unfair, then there's cancelling Bunheads unfair. In regards to the series, it was lightning in a bottle of perfection on a weekly basis. Mixing gorgeously shot dance routines in between some of the best written dialogue from a series that season, this show was a magical moment when everything clicked. It ran on pure joy and the cast was top notch at mixing comedy with sincerity and often interpreted emotion through dance. This show was one of a kind and to see it go is a huge shame, especially when the final episode bid us farewell with probably the most elaborate routine in the show's history. We'll never know if they'll top it, and that is a world that I wish I didn't live in.

Left to right: Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling
4. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

It almost seems like this week, and Listmania specifically, is all about how great Orange is the New Black is. I have made my case almost verbatim about three times this week, and for a great cause. Not only was the show the unlikely hero to the new Netflix series overhaul, but it also became part of the cultural zeitgeist through word of mouth and some ingenious marketing. In fact, it feels like it restarted the creative spark in Jenji Kohan and made her post-Weeds series probably even better than her suburban herb tale. This jail is a community and there are rules that are needed to function. Sure enough, that is how the show felt quickly and helped to make things feel realized with flashbacks that humanized the various minorities, creeds, and sexual beings that inhabited those walls. It was hilarious. It was dark. It was a masterpiece of character development without sacrificing the heart. It is a show that demands to be watched.

Left to right: Mike White and Dern
5. Enlightened (HBO)

There is a meditative quality to the Mike White-created series that managed to make it seem transcendental and lofty without actually being overbearing. It pitted enlightenment into the work place and our everyday lives and found the humor in our very being. Even if most episodes ended with Laura Dern doing voice-over over images of cities, it was a beautiful, ominous experience that played with the technique of narration more than Girls. Even if Dern was the protagonist, an entire episode based around White's character wasn't a terrible gamble, but a chance to personify him beyond his limited screen time. Most of all, it was a gorgeous show and probably the best cinematography I have seen on TV this year. If only Dern the rebel could be back next year to change the world some more, maybe things wouldn't sting a little.

Left to right: Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen
6. Masters of Sex (Showtime)

The real life studies of Dr. Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson somehow became this Fall's most engrossing new drama by not only taking us into the world of sex, but into our very existence. While the show is centrally about sex studies, it is also about how people interact with each other. What makes up the fibers in our body and what motivates us to have the pleasures that we do. It is a complicated, layered affair that is debatable on accuracy to real life, but is nonetheless continually entertaining and pushes the boundaries as it goes along. From miscarriages to interracial flings, this is a series not only about sex, but sexuality and at the core, humanity. Even if sex is still a taboo on the show, it is only because of our comfort level with talking about it.

7. Futurama (Comedy Central)

I have had a complicated relationship with Futurama after it had been resurrected. In many ways, I do find the merit in its existence, as it did produce a lot of memorable episodes. However, it did produce some of the show's worst as well ("Saturday Morning Fun Pit" being the pinnacle). Yet, one of the troubles with the last season was that you had to say goodbye. With the series being near and dear to my heart, I felt like the show realized that and did everything in their power to make one of their best Comedy Central seasons and made their final episode a somewhat poetic cap to what the series stood for. Hardcore fans will appreciate a lot of the in-jokes placed throughout the season, if just because it will be the last time we'll ever see them in a new context.

8. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel)

The Sundance Channel hit the scene hard this year with a trilogy of critically praised hits such as Rectify and the Returned. However, their biggest hit is the Jane Campion directed opus Top of the Lake. With Elisabeth Moss at the helm, the story of trouble down under became one of the most engrossing kidnapping mysteries in recent years over the course of seven hours. We understood the community and the scenery was beautiful, yet eerie. It is no wonder that it initially debuted as a film, as the storytelling is really tight and with each small installment, makes it easy to indulge in the plot one tidbit at a time. Even if this may be it for Top of the Lake, it looks to be the start of a fascinating period for the Sundance Channel. Their view of world TV is something American  culture needs, and for that I am grateful that this exists.

9. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

The Animation Domination's saving grace this past year has been the first full length season of Bob's Burgers. While the Simpsons has proved to be a noble yet flawed stalwart for years, this series managed to make a third season that brought new life to E.T. parodies (with Jon Hamm voicing a talking toilet) and made some of the most heartfelt family connectivity that a cartoon of its ilk has done. The series cares about its characters as much as the humor and that is what gives it leverage. Even the lesser episodes work because they manage to work as a dynamic. It isn't just about the satire. It is about learning to respect your relatives, and that may be the show's greatest strength.

Chris O'Dowd
10. Family Tree (HBO)

If there is one show that deserves more credit than it received, it is the nuanced brilliance of Family Tree. For the first time, Christopher Guest created a TV series around finding your family tree and all of the pains that come with it. Lead by Chris O'Dowd, it is a humorous look into the mockumentary king's take on showing everyone else how the genre is done. With a lot of Guest regulars popping up throughout, this transcontinental comedy not only explored family, but the differences in American and British culture with some of the most bizarre people you'll ever meet. Hopefully this show will continue to go on forever, as it is infectiously fun to watch.

Left to right: Dreama Walker and Krysten Ritter
11. Don't Trust the B in Apt. 23 (ABC)

Maybe it is karma that ABC has been in a tailspin ever since their scheduling mishaps of this past January. With the second season of Don't Trust the B in Apt. 23, the channel eventually created more problems by airing episodes out of order and leading to its inevitable demise. However, what was left when all episodes eventually surfaced was a raw look at a series that was on the way to becoming one of the great American satires of the modern era. Yes, it is debatable on how successful it would have been, but through episodes that explored genres, celebrity, and work place environments, there were all elements there that suggested that given another season, it would have perfected the formula and been the best show on TV (or one of the best comedies anyways). With one of the best casts, it was a weekly (often bi-weekly) blasts of fun and mayhem that no show has been able to top. The fact that Krysten Ritter is still called "The B in Apt. 23" proves the show's legacy and the fact that Eric Andre got a third season of the Eric Andre Show only makes me feel longing for this show to come back in some capacity again.

Left to right: Terry Crews and Melissa Fumero
12. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

One of the best ensembles in a comedy working today. While the show initially started off as a vehicle for Andy Samberg to parody police procedural stories, it became about so much more. We began to know the characters and soon people like Terry Crews and Stephanie Beatriz became their own unstoppable machines. The series may not have the best stories, but they are competent enough to show how the dynamic of these characters work and essentially gives room for about every type of comedy imaginable. It feels homely watching the show and to know that each performer will bring their own type of humor to the moment allows the to show to continually feel fresh. Brooklyn Nine-Nine knows how to use its cast, which is something that I wish other network shows knew how to do.

Left to right: Amy Poehler and Aubrey Plaza
13. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

While the latter half of last season was quite a mess, there was enough great moments before that (and in the recent season) to make up for their problems. The cast is still as strong as ever and with episodes dealing with doppelgangers and cliffhangers involving Jean Ralphio (Ben Schwartz), the show still manages to find new territory to satirize and places for Ron (Nick Offerman) to stand on his soapbox and preach the American Dream. The truth is that the show hasn't lost steam, but with knowing now that it is a veteran show, there are some familiar moments that probably still don't click, but when the show is on, it doesn't matter. The political satire is a beast all unto its own.

Nathan Fielder
14. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)

If you started a new business and hired Nathan Fielder to help you get business, you probably got stuck in an episode of Nathan For You. This brilliant show managed to turn Andy Kaufman into a marketer and screw over businesses with faulty plans that often made no sense and at very least seemed to be to Fielder's amusement. The premises grew ridiculous and some of them felt more like lessons in how not to do things, but the show succeeded in making Fielder a new deadpan comedy hero and breaking the fourth wall with real situations only made things all the more enjoyable. I hope he never becomes recognizable, if just for the sake of more brilliant episodes of this unexpected hit.

W. Kamau Bell
15. Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (FX/FXX)

I would hate to make a list and not have an honorable slot to the one late night comedy show that gave me plenty of entertaining nights. His racial views gave perspectives that The Daily Show wasn't provided and even if it did feel more low rent than its competitors, it felt like a community gathering, and one that felt like it embraced the audience. While I do believe that there were network problems, what with it moving from FX to the doomed FXX channel as a daily series, it felt like a show that wasn't going to last. For a moment in time, there was a great show on par with Infomania that brought the news with a side of humor. Hopefully whatever everyone else on this show does, it will be more successful and enjoyable. I miss it already.

Shows that I watched partially, but need to see more of to confidently rank them: The League (FXX), Key & Peele (Comedy Central), Eastbound & Down (HBO), Mom (CBS), Rick and Morty (Cartoon Network)

Shows that I missed: Adventure Time (Cartoon Network), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX), Eagleheart (Cartoon Network), Wilfred (FXX), The Big Bang Theory (CBS), The Returned (Sundance Channel)

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