Dec 12, 2013

Listmania: My Favorite TV Shows of 2013

Every year, a new batch of shows make their way onto the air and more than ever, there is a quest for viewership. What made 2013 particularly intriguing is that most of the great shows were nowhere near the main networks, but off on premium channels such as the Sundance Channel, or even Netflix. Quality programming no longer is relegated to one section, and it makes things harder than ever to locate. However, in my time of watching shows this year, here are a few that have stood out as favorites, intriguing in different ways and making me glad to own a TV set. While I didn't see everything I wanted, this is a list of a few that made 2013 an exceptionally fun year.

Taryn Manning
1. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Leading the pack is the show that almost nobody had any money on. Even in terms of Netflix series, House of Cards and Arrested Development had more of a draw in the marketing than Orange is the New Black. However, the latest series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan took the setting of a women's prison and gave us one of the most fleshed out, fully realized visions of a universe in all of TV in 2013. We went into the lives of cooks, transgender stylists, and even the political system. It reached comedic heights and dramatic tension often in the course of minutes. It is a series that more than its competition redefined why Netflix should be respected in terms of premium content and original programming. It is an entertaining, quotable universe that is a must see series. It managed to almost make the women's prison into a democratic social environment without losing integrity, and that alone makes the show one of the best currently out there.

Left to right: Lizzy Caplan and Beau Bridges
2. Masters of Sex (Showtime)

For a series that premiered with the joke "Look out for the dildo," it is amazing to see that it has become one of the deepest explorations on relationships. It manages to not only explore the actual events of Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), but we understand who they are as people. Over the show's first season, sex goes from taboo to a function of life and only through daily struggles are things made clear. It was a time when homosexuality wasn't accepted and women's orgasms weren't understood. Everything's treated with a sense of clinical respect, as it should, and Masters remains one of the most flawed and intriguing protagonists in a series at the moment. It may be at times a little too complicated, but then again, so is the subject matter. Even then, it is executed with such precision that you'll be too invested in watching it to care the flaws that make up our sexual proclivities.

Left to right: Chris O'Dowd and Nina Conti
3. Family Tree (HBO)

It is a shame that when compiling this list, I noticed the stark absence of Family Tree on everyone else's list. The great Christopher Guest's turn at the world of TV produced one of the greatest comedic series to debut this year with all of the guest charms. It also helps that at the helm we have Tom (Chris O'Dowd), who is as baffled as you by the increasingly weird family that features such Guest regulars as Michael McKean and Fred Willard. Each episode may be light on mystery and the grand picture may lack cohesion in the long run, but more than any other series, this can easily go on for 100 episodes and still maintain its intrigue. The choice to split the series up into English and American ancestry hunting was itself ingenious, as it allowed Guest to explore the differences in culture as well as how it affected Tom's upbringing. Most of all, Guest manages to make the ultimate mockumentary series and show everyone once and for all how it's done. 

4. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel)

Is it a TV show or a mini-series? While this is most likely just going to be the entirety of Top of the Lake, its quite an impressive accomplishment. With Jane Campion at the helm, this tale of trouble down under involving a pregnant 12-year-old quickly became one of the best nail-biting mysteries of the year. Painting Australia with beautiful scenery and colorful characters, this Elisabeth Moss-lead vehicle is a slow burn done right and an example of how to tell a story with each piece slowly being revealed and our understanding of the characters remaining intact the entire time.

Left to right: Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher
5. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

Next to Orange is the New Black, this is the best new ensemble of 2013. Not only is the cast racially diverse, but in the show's brief existence, it already feels confident on how each performer operates. As a whole, they make have surpassed Parks and Recreation for best use of character moments and their police procedural parodies are done more with intelligence than lazy writing. The show has helped Andy Samberg redefine his post-Saturday Night Live life with a show that subverts stereotypes and finds humor in the awkward places in between moments. Most of all, it continues to make the baffling realization that Terry Crews can be masculine and funny and introduces a new deadpan queen: Stephanie Beatriz, who is tough as nails and deadly with comedy as well. If Brooklyn Nine-Nine can teach every other basic cable show something, it is that working as a team and forming a strong dynamic goes a long way. Even the lesser episodes have been hilarious, and the show's only crime is that it follows Dads on Tuesday nights.

Tatiana Maslany
6. Orphan Black (BBC America)

In a year that brought us Under the Dome and the second season of Revolution, this scrappy little sci-fi show manages to usurp them both with a better premise and more style. Orphan Black and the tale of the many clones that make up the protagonist's life. It is a head trip of a concept executed with skill that drives the mystery and only makes Tatiana Maslany more and more of an intriguing performer. Ringer tried to do a similar concept years ago and failed, though it could just be because that show didn't know how to make their performers charismatic contemporary heroes that demanded to be seen. This show definitely earned ever ounce of praise it got and hopefully will continue to in the next series to come.

7. The Returned (Sundance Channel)

Is it a zombie series? Well, if it is, it is doing far more effectively than the Walking Dead. This French series came to America with help from the Sundance Channel and gave us one of the best premises of the year. After a series of unfortunate events, people presumed dead come back to life. Not to haunt or kill, but just to live their everyday life. Along with a murderer out on the lam, this series' exploration of how loved ones impact our lives and how death changes perspectives of loved ones is rather impressive. With tight stories and a lot of charismatic performers, the Returned feels like something fresh to a genre that has itself rotted away into predictability long ago. Rotten zombies are out. The normal looking dead are here to run the world!

Nathan Fielder
8. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)

Comedy Central had quite a year by the very nature of just giving everyone who wanted a show a series (the Jeselnik Offensive was also rather good), including Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder. His premise was simple: he helped failing businesses attract attention with haphazard ideas that didn't always work out. Instead of ruining any set-up, let's just say that it is surreal, fourth-wall breaking comedy done with amazing peaks. Fielder is not only a great publicist, but he knows how to fail with dignity. Over the course of the show, he managed to be the jerk you loved and while the punchline was always the same (he failed), the set-ups were always too ingenious and reflection of what comedic premises could be when mixed with real world situations. I hope that he never becomes recognizable, if just so we can have more people to mess with.

Left to right: Danny Trejo and Marc Maron
9. Maron (IFC)

The podcasting legend finally gets a TV series and decides to make a show about podcasting. While the first season was a little rough, it did present Marc Maron the comedian to the sitcom world with ingenious concepts, including one in which he teams up with Danny Trejo and gets over his personal problems. Maybe the show was too introspective and self-loathing at times, but it managed to give alternative comedy performers a place to guest star and Maron a place to reenact familiar podcast stories with such impressive guest stars as Judd Hirsch, Sally Kellerman, and Andy Kindler. If anything, it is helping IFC to define its brand and give home to shows that are a little against the grain and worth giving a shot. Maron may at times feel like it is playing familiar notes, but it never feels overwrought with cliches.

10. Out There (IFC)

If the Wonder Years was performed as a cartoon by alternative comedians, Out There would be the result. On the surface, it is very nuanced and nothing special. Go deeper and it is an exploration of high school years in a way that feels safe, but deals with such horrifying themes such as death, vandalism, and friendship. The Freshman series managed to be unlike anything else not only on TV, but also on IFC, where it quickly formed weekly stories that took familiar stories, gave it narration, and it soon was going into weird directions. It may have not been a perfect series and is still up in the air on whether it is coming back, but for 10 episodes, the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Ellen Page, John DiMaggio, Kate Micucci, and Linda Cardellini were gathered in one place to make something special. And that's all that matters.

Other noteworthy shows: The Jeselnik Offensive (Comedy Central), Axe Cop (Fox), The Pete Holmes Show (TBS),  Mom (CBS), and Rick and Morty (Cartoon Network)

Shows I missed: The Carrie Diaries (CW), Nikki & Sara Live (MTV), House of Cards (Netflix), Bates Motel (A&E), Hannibal (NBC), The Birthday Boys (IFC), Rectify (Sundance Channel), Mob City (TNT)

Worst (Tie)
Left to right: Giovanni Ribisi and Martin Mull
Dads (Fox)

It does honestly feel like the only reason that Seth MacFarlane killed off Brian on Family Guy was to get attention after his latest series Dads sunk in the ratings. Full of racism, lazy gags, and poor use of everyone involved, this is easily the worst new sitcom of the year and a reflection of why Fox being in debt to MacFarlane for his small empire isn't quite working out in the long term sense. By all means,this should probably be cancelled by the end of the season and if not, then we have reason to be concerned about this network favoritism over far more pleasing talents such as Bob's Burgers or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, both of which have different forms of lead-in from a MacFarlane-created series.

Left to right: D.L. Hughley and Michael Ian Black
Trust Me, I'm a Game Show Host (TBS)

A serious waste of both of its hosts. The new game show in TBS' noble attempt to form a full fledged comedy network of original programming may be the most boring, hackneyed premise in existence. Where some are more shallow, it at least sounds like it had effort put into it. Hosts D.L. Hughley and Michael Ian Black serve as hosts whose job it is to tell facts to their contestant. The catch is one is lying and one isn't. For a few rounds, it is acceptable, but with the drawn out nature and the mundane 50/50 chances, there isn't anything to make an average episode seem ambitious. It serves no purpose other than to give people easy money and feel smart. Game shows are starting to go extinct and this isn't helping. 

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