Unlike the movies, which do operate on a January-December basis when it comes to awards consideration, the TV season is a slightly different proposition. With ratings dipping in the summer, new shows tend to be unveiled in September or early fall, and are usually wrapping up by May. The rise of cable networks like FX and HBO has staggered this more, but the Emmys taking place in September tends to mean that the season has a more definitive end at this time of year.
Indeed, voting for the biggest and most prestigious TV awards closes on Friday, and as such, and as we’ve done the last few years, we thought we’d take the opportunity to take a look at some of the best TV of the 2012/2013 season. Voters certainly have a wealth of shows to choose from, but away from the domination of “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” and company, there’s all kinds of greatness that’s likely to get overlooked when it comes to the nomination announcements.
Indeed, we found narrowing our (entirely subjective) choices down harder than ever this year; with new outlets like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and even the History Channel emerging, there’s more original programming than ever before — and crucially, more great original programming. We managed to chip it down to fifteen below, but it should be noted than at least the top five are pretty much interchangeable with each other. So what follows “Parks & Recreation“ and “Mad Men,” our victors the last two years, into the number one slot? Find out below, and let us know where you agree and disagree in the comments section below.
15. “House Of Cards”
While it might have been revolutionary in its method of financing and delivery — Netflix paid as much as $100 million for two seasons, and debuted the first in its entirety simultaneously on its streaming service — “House Of Cards” didn’t exactly reinvent the TV wheel when it came to its content, despite big movie names like David Fincher and Steve Zaillian in the credits. But while the show’s likely to be remembered more for its method of distribution than for its drama, that doesn’t mean that the 13-episode series was a disappointment. While perhaps not a very top-tier show, “House Of Cards” was still furiously entertaining, excellently acted and beautifully directed television. Expanding, and in many aspects improving on, the BBC original, the series followed Democratic congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)’s machinations after he’s passed over for the Secretary of State job, with subplots that follow rising journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), young, troubled Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Underwood’s wife Claire (Robin Wright). As we discussed earlier in the year, it has its flaws, undoubtedly, including some eye-rolling plot contrivances, a few sub-plots that go nowhere, that clunky product-placement, and some thin material for the female characters. But it also had one of the most complex portraits of marriages on television, some fine performances across the board (not least a star-making one from Stoll, who’s going on to headline Guillermo Del Toro‘s series “The Strain“), and a confident aesthetic that saw filmmakers like James Foley and Joel Schumacher aping the style that Fincher established in the pilot. Not an unreserved success, creatively, but more than enough to land it on this list for us, and one senses that the show is only just starting to hit its stride (if it can get past the death of a certain key character, anyway…)
Best Episode: It divided fans, with some calling it the draggy low-light of the season, but we loved “Chapter Eight,” which broke with formula to take Frank back to his military-school alma mater, fleshing him out and showing his humanity in a way that, for all its strengths, the original series never really came close to doing.
14. “New Girl”
No one would have blamed you for avoiding “New Girl” based on the first couple of episodes, or even the initial marketing. For many, the show’s never given them to reason to tune in after its “adorkable” tagline, or its uneven, awkward early episodes. But those who stuck around, or were tempted back, discovered the show picking up confidence over that first season. And in its second season, it really started to fly, somehow turning from something mostly skippable, to a consistently strong and thoroughly enjoyable series. The secret has been shifting emphasis away from Zooey Deschanel‘s Jess and making it more of an ensemble hang out — arguably the most creatively successful of its kind since “Friends.” Which is not to say that Deschanel’s the weak link — she’s actually proven over the 50-odd episodes so far, that she’s as talented a comedienne as you could ask for. But the rest of the cast — Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris and Hannah Simone — are easily her equal, and have more than found their feet this season (Morris still gets the weakest plotlines, but excels in each one). So when they’re all on form, as they mostly have been across the second season (the show’s great asset of late has been its sheer consistency), there’s hardly anything else on air that can match it for laughs-per-episode. And yet it’s more than just a gag delivery system; the show’s excellent roster of indie-leaning guest directors including Lynn Shelton, Jesse Peretz, Larry Charles and Max Winkler lend “New Girl” an amiable looseness, and more importantly, a sincerity to its low-key gradual character development that insures that we care about real people, even when the show’s at its broadest. There are TV shows that are doing more with the medium, sure, but few were as purely pleasurable to watch over the last twelve months as “New Girl.”
Best Episode: Again, the last season or so proved to be so consistent that it’s hard to separate from the pack. “Winston’s Birthday” might have been the funniest, but we’d lean toward the more emotionally satisfying “Chicago,” which saw the gang come together for the funeral of Nick’s father (Dennis Farina), including predictably excellent guest spots from Margo Martindale and Nick Kroll.
13. “Parks and Recreation”
“Parks and Recreation” — now heading into its sixth season as the lynchpin of NBC‘s comedy line-up, something that seemed unthinkable a few years ago — might not be the best comedy on TV any longer (indeed, after its pitch-perfect third season, we called it the best show on TV full stop). But it’s all too easy to take it for granted at this point, and looking back over the fifth season, we’re reminded of how much we’ll miss it when it’s gone. Moving away from the only semi-successful election arc in the previous season, things were shaken up just a little by placing Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler, in her finest run yet) inside the city council, where she butts head with the lazy, corrupt Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser of “Delocated,” an appropriately repellent villain). And indeed, almost every character was allowed to grow or change or find new texture in a way that hadn’t necessarily been as successful with the previous season — Ron Swanson falls in love with a single mom played, appropriately, by Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless, Ann and Chris find their way back to each other, even the long-suffering Jerry gets a moment to shine as he retires. The actors — still the deepest bench of a comic ensemble on TV — know these characters like the back of their hands, and they’re able to wring every single laugh out of the already outstanding scripts. And there was more emotion to the show this year than ever before, including several episodes that proved to be legitimately tear-jerking. Again, “Parks and Rec” hit such a high a few years back that it’s easy to overlook it for the thrill for the new, but there’s still a consistent brilliance to it that we hope long continues.
Best Episode: “Halloween Surprise,” which shows the depth of the show’s universe and pairs Nick Offerman with two preteens dressed as princesses, and closes off with the best marriage proposal we’ve seen in a long time.
Every year, we finish a season of “Justified” and fully expect it to figure in the top 5 when we come to compile this list. And every year, we find it pushed lower down by the stiff competition. Which is to say that its relatively low placing should not be taken as reason to avoid the show; “Justified” has been fantastic for the past three seasons, seemingly reaching a peak, and then finding new heights to hit. Seasons two and three focused on major antagonists — Margo Martindale‘s Mags and Neal McDonough‘s Quarles — but season four subtly reinvented itself, with the plot lines revolving around the search for a long-missing bank robber who has both the law and the Detroit Mob on his tail. And in doing so, it confirmed that over the years, Graham Yost and co have established in its Harlan County setting a world that’s as rich, detailed and stacked with memorable characters as Pawnee or Westeros, and a lot of that world building paid off in the hunt for Drew Thompson. Timothy Olyphant got to play Raylan Givens as even more of a (lovable) asshole than before. Walton Goggins‘ Boyd continued to contain countless multitudes, and thrive as his back was against the wall, even as he paid a terrible cost by season’s end. And virtually every character, from MVP recurring guest stars Jim Beaver and Ron Eldard to one-episode walk-ons, feels fully realized. On both a micro and a macro level, the show is plotted, acted and shot in a way that would make Elmore Leonard (creator of Raylan Givens) proud, and we can’t really think of anything more pleasurable than the idea of a new Leonard tale every week; even if he wasn’t directly involved, his spirit sings in every line or twist. Maybe it’ll drop off one day, but for now, “Justified” keeps going from strength to strength.
Best Episode: Unquestionably “Decoy,” an action-packed armrest-gripper that was more exciting than every summer blockbuster we’ve seen so far this year.
It’s fair to say that “Girls” was the most-talked about series of 2012, at least in proportion to its relatively small ratings. It’s probably also fair to say that the second season — written before the first had even aired, and back on HBO barely six months on — wasn’t quite as triumphant a success as the first, probably because of that shortened time frame. In places (particularly a slightly questionable third episode that marks the series’ lowest point so far) it felt more of a traditional sitcom than what we’ve come to expect from Lena Dunham‘s show, and it could benefit from letting the rest of the ensemble have as much time as Hannah, while the final run of episodes didn’t build to as satisfying a conclusion as they did first time around. So sure, a slight case of second album syndrome. But when “Girls” is good, as it was for much of its sophomore season? It’s really, really fucking good. The show came off the blocks with a confidence that belied its status as a relative newcomer (starting to address some of its concerns about a whitewashed NYC, even if only in passing), with the same big laughs, and stings of accuracy, that marked its earlier run. Like most modern sequels, it was darker, putting the characters through the wringer (most notably Marnie, who sung an excruciating karaoke song, and had a fling with the dreadful Booth Jonathan), and giving some of the supporting players, most notably Shoshanna and Ray, more texture. And yet its most exciting moments were when it broke from formula, turning episodes into weird, tonally dextrous little mini-movies (which feel inspired by “Louie” as much as anything to us). Even if the slight downward curve continues for the upcoming third season, “Girls” will still remain one of the best shows on TV.
Best Episode: “One Man’s Trash,” the aforementioned formally experimental, dreamlike half-hour that sees Dunham unexpectedly shack up for a few days with a lonesome divorcee played by Patrick Wilson. The show’s critics saw it as a sort of wish-fulfillment, which was to somewhat miss the point…
10. “The Americans”
For now at least, many of the stalwarts of the cable drama world are still going, so relatively few new ones were premiered, and those that were (“The Newsroom,” “Bates Motel“) felt pretty underwhelming to us. The happy exception was “The Americans,” created by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg, and produced by “Justified” mastermind Graham Yost. The series had an irresistible premise — a married couple in D.C in the 1980s, who are secretly long-embedded KGB agents, whose union is technically a sham, but seems to have become more and more real as time’s gone on. That said, irresistible premises haven’t always led to anything more than a decent pilot, but “The Americans” started strong, and only got better over time. Anchored by a trio of phenomenal performances from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the central duo, plus Noah Emmerich as their FBI Agent neighbor, the series flirts with the edges of credulity thanks to some positively “Alias“-esque spy plots and disguises, but balances it out both with its beautifully detailed period setting (complete with great and surprising musical choices from the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins), and by grounding the whole thing in domestic drama. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings might be stealing missile plans and battling West German assassins, but they’re doing so while trying to keep their marriage and family intact. On paper, that makes it seem like a sort of TV take on “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” or something, but by seeing this world through the eyes of the “enemy,” it lends their actions real weight and consequences. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t fun — it’s one of the most entertaining spy series we can remember — but it’s not lightweight either, and all the better for it. Viewing figures dropped off swiftly for the show, but not before a second season had been commissioned; hopefully people check it out over the summer, because we’d love to see this one run and run.
Best Episode: “Only You,” which sees Derek Luke‘s Gregory, a radical who’s also been Elizabeth’s lover for years, come front and center.
9. “Bob’s Burgers”/”Gravity Falls”
We’re cheating a little bit here with a double bill, but if you can’t lump in two superb animations with great vocal turns from Kristen Schaal here, when can you do it? To be honest, we haven’t been big animation people since “The Simpsons” went off the boil — Seth MacFarlane‘s shows leave us cold, we stopped keeping up with “South Park” a while back, and we’re a bit baffled by “Adventure Time,” meaning that only “Archer” has been holding up the fort (and even that show had a solid fourth season without quite hitting past glories, hence it dropping off the list this year). But two shows showed us the light this year, one a big comedy that’s finding an ever-growing audience, and another that you’ve probably barely heard of. The past season saw us finally get on the “Bob’s Burgers” train (along with many others; it was one of the few shows whose ratings actually grew in 2012/2013), and all of those who’ve been calling it the true successor to “The Simpsons” are entirely correct. The series (about a dysfunctional family who run a burger restaurant, as the title might suggest) falls right between Matt Groening‘s masterpiece and the taboo-pushing MacFarlane stable, but it gets the balance just right; it’s odd, a little surreal, occasionally smutty (not least when it comes to Tina, the eldest of the children, and her stormy hormones) and has a deceptively large heart. The low-key tone can take a few episodes to find the rhythm of, but you’ll be soon hooked. Meanwhile, while Schaal plays youngest daughter/trickster god Louise on “Bob’s Burgers,” she pops up as Mabel in “Gravity Falls.” Created by Alex Hirsch, it airs on the Disney Channel (probably why you haven’t heard of it), and owes as much as “Bob’s Burgers” to peak period “Simpsons,” while cross-breeding it with “The X-Files,” “Twin Peaks,” “Freaks & Geeks” and “The Hardy Boys” along the way. Following two preteens (the other played by Jason Ritter) on an extended vacation with their uncle in the titular town, which is plagued by all manner of paranormal activity, from gnomes to a Miyazaki-esque candy monster, it’s very, very funny, gloriously weird, intricately plotted, and features Alfred Molina as the voice of the Swedish-pop-loving Multi-Bear. Oh, and it looks gorgeous. What more could you want? It’s been frustrating to watch the show, because it airs in fits and starts (three episodes, then an absence of months), and we’re not sure if that’s usual for the Disney Channel or not. But hopefully, as its cult grows, it’ll move to a more regular schedule.
Best Episode: For “Bob’s Burgers,” the highlight was “Mother Daughter Laser Razor,” which exemplifies so much of what the show does well. For “Gravity Falls,” it’s “The Inconveniencing,” which blends awkward coming-of-age with convenience store ghosts.
8. “Breaking Bad”
Ok, ok, don’t yell at us all at once. “Breaking Bad” is undoubtedly one of the best, most important shows of the current era, and will go down in the history books alongside “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” as a classic. And there was the usual mix of greatness in the first half of the final season when it ended last summer. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul remain titanic as Walter and Jesse, it’s directed as well as anything on television and the twists and turns can make you gasp more than anything else on the air. And perhaps most importantly, it has such a handle on individual scenes and set pieces: even with its truncated run, it contained all kinds of memorable moments and set pieces, from the magnet-aided heist in the opening episode to its final shot. But, to our mind, for all the greatness in there, season 5.1 of “Breaking Bad” saw some of the flaws stick out a little bit more. It still doesn’t know what to do with its female characters (something not helped much by the addition of Laura Fraser‘s Lydia, who’s pretty much a straight lift of Tilda Swinton‘s character from “Michael Clayton“). It’s plot-driven to such an extent that it doesn’t necessarily have the weight of some of the other top tier dramas. And most crucially in this season, it accelerated the demonization of Walter. By the end of season four, Mr. White was rapidly heading towards the dark side, but still had some texture to him. By the start of season five (barely days later), he’s become virtually irredeemable, and despite the greatness of Cranston’s performance, it feels like a slightly different character. We don’t want to dwell on the downsides too much; the show’s still one of the most furiously entertaining programs on TV. But if you’re wondering why it’s number eight, rather than number one? Now you know.
Best Episode: “Dead Freight,” which is basically a full-on western, and which features a train heist as thrilling as anything the show’s ever done, and a button at the end that’s as shocking.
7. “Game Of Thrones”
There’s something extraordinary about the way that “Game Of Thrones” has managed to capture the popular imagination. A little over two years ago, it was a serious risk: a hugely expensive, incredibly dense adaptation of the kind of books that most people would never dream of reading (at least judging by the covers), seemingly destined to be known as “Lord Of The Rings” with T&A. Now, its characters, settings and stars have penetrated to the zeitgeist to an impressive degree, as familiar as Frodo and Mos Eisley and Daniel Radcliffe, and major plot developments that can keep water coolers both real and virtual busy for days, if not weeks. Perhaps most impressively of all, it’s stayed remarkably consistent across the three seasons so far; try to think of a truly duff episode of the show, and you’ll likely struggle to find one. It’s fair to say that in places in the third season, the show did drag a little. Sometimes it can feel like you’re checking in perfunctorily on a character for five minutes just to remember where they are. And we’re still not massively engaged with events North Of The Wall, despite the efforts of Ciaran Hinds and Rose Leslie this season. But even when the show isn’t soaring, it’s still an absolute pleasure to hear the best cast on TV (Diana Rigg and Paul Kaye among the highlights of the new additions) deliver deceptively great writing. And when it does soar — Tywin Lannister and Lady Tyrell facing off, the turns in Jamie Lannister’s story, Daenarys getting one up on the slave trader, the already-legendary Red Wedding — there’s nothing that gets the pulse pounding and the synapses firing in the same way. We’re coming up to what we’re told is a crunch point (apparently book four is the weakest of the bunch by some distance), but it’s a testament to the continuing quality of “Game Of Thrones” that it’s hard to envisage it ever dropping off our watch list.
Best Episode: It has to be “The Rains Of Castermere,” which was a fine episode even until its climax, a moment that instantly entered the TV hall of fame.
6. “30 Rock”
It’s so rare for a television series to go out on its own terms. Either no one watches a show and it’s taken from us prematurely, as with this year’s most-missed premature casualty, “Ben & Kate,” or it becomes a huge hit, and networks decide to keep it on the air long past its natural lifespan (“Lost” and “The Office” spring to mind as recent examples). But Tina Fey‘s “30 Rock” fell in between — never commercially successful enough to become a schedule mainstay, but just critically acclaimed enough to make it to seven seasons before Fey, Alec Baldwin and co decided to call it a day. And “30 Rock” is doubly rare, because not only did it pick its own exit date, but it also went on a season that, when all is said and done, may end up being considered its very best. Even during its slight dip in its fourth and fifth seasons, the show was always capable of inducing big laughs, but knowing that the end was near, seemed to have lead to an all-killer-no-filler run of episodes, going from Jack purposefully trying to tank the new NBC schedule to a finale that should be studied by future showrunners as a textbook example of how to wrap it up. The gags came at the same furious speed as before (if not more so), but it also managed to twang the heartstrings in a way that it had never quite done before (try not to sniffle a bit when Liz Lemon meets her soon-to-be-adopted kids). The ideal finale for a show brings things to an end in the most satisfying conclusion you could ask for, while making you reevaluate and reappraise the show that’s gone before. Fey and co did that over not just their last episode, but the whole of their last season, and it was only as it drew to a close that we realized how much we’ll miss a sitcom that deserves to sit among the greats.
Best Episode: Almost any (perhaps bar a slightly shaky election-related two-parter), but we’d have to go with the double-length finale “Hogcock!“/”Last Lunch,” which was satisfying on just about every level.
5. “Mad Men”
There’s been something of a pattern to the reception of “Mad Men” over the last few seasons. First, there’s a few place-setting episodes that people express mild disappointment with. Then, about midway through the season, people complain that nothing’s happened, and that the show might have started going downhill, and that old ground is being covered. And then it all comes together in the final few episodes, and people start saying it might have been the best season ever. Season six followed that pattern like clockwork, and it’s a mark of what a great year it’s been for TV that, despite the show still being in its creative peak, it’s only in our number five slot (though as we said, all of these top five are pretty much interchangeable depending on mood). Even lower-key plot-wise than season four, season five saw fans swapping conspiracy theories for weeks. Megan was going to be killed by Charlie Manson! Megan was already killed by Charlie Manson! Bob Benson was Don Draper’s illegitimate son! But as ever, creator Matthew Weiner refused to play to expectations, and while the finale (and indeed, the few episodes leading up to it) had some major, show-changing events, the show always veered away from meeting expectations, and continues to surprise with where it takes its characters without ever dipping into soapiness (well, perhaps the fate of Pete Campbell’s mother). There was admirable course-correction too; this season saw both Pete and Betty, who’d occasionally got short shrift in previous seasons, become more sympathetic and well-drawn, while newer additions to the cast like James Wolk, Linda Cardenelli and Harry Hamlin swiftly felt like part of the furniture. And of course, the show’s stalwarts, in Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and, increasingly, Kiernan Shipka, continued to smash it out of the park week on week. “Mad Men” is unique among the great TV dramas in that it riffs less on movies and other TV than on classic American literature (Philip Roth, Richard Yates, even Raymond Carver), and as it approaches its end game, it feels more and more like the TV version of the Great American Novel.
Best Episode: This finale “In Care Of,” which tied up every strand of the season into an immensely rewarding, moving and earth-shaking conclusion.
We’d like to shout at you for not watching “Enlightened,” Mike White‘s astonishingly good comedy-drama, which was cancelled soon after finishing its second, little-watched season. But we have to confess that we weren’t watching it either — it passed us by on initial airing, and we only caught up with it while preparing for this piece. We needn’t feel all that badly about it — HBO never quite worked out the angle on how to sell it, and most critics took a little time to warm up to the show, which was never the most immediately lovable of series. But boy, we wish we’d got on the train earlier, because “Enlightened” was one of the most impressive, complex and fascinating extended character studies that we’ve ever seen on television. The show, from “Freaks & Geeks” and “The Good Girl” writer White, focuses on Amy Jellicoe, an executive who returns to work after a nervous breakdown and subsequent rehab determined to create a better world for herself and for others. In the second season, it became a sort of whistleblower thriller, with Jellicoe teaming up with co-workers and L.A. Times journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) to expose corruption within her workplace. But any plot took a backseat to its portrait of its central character, one not quite like any other on television. To put it simply, Amy is a terrible person, self-centered and manipulative. And yet White’s compassionate writing and Dern’s hall-of-fame performance meant that while you might occasionally find her actions excruciating, she was entirely plausible, sympathetic and even lovable (which extended to every other character, from White’s lonely, lovelorn co-worker to a career-reviving performance from Luke Wilson as Amy’s substance-abusing ex-husband). Often deeply, deeply funny while secretly proving to be incredibly moving, and featuring the best roster of directors on TV (Todd Haynes, James Bobin and David Michod joined White and Nicole Holofcener for season two, while Miguel Arteta, Jonathan Demme and Phil Morrison had worked on the first run), it was an absolute gem throughout, and the only reason not to mourn its premature cancellation was that it found pretty much a perfect ending.
Best Episode: “Higher Power,” which broke with the format to follow Luke Wilson’s Levi to the Hawaiian treatment center that caused his ex-wife’s rebirth.
On paper, it was hard to think of something less enticing than the idea of a Hannibal Lecter TV series. The character had long since become a punchline after three sub-standard follow-ups to “Silence Of The Lambs,” and it seemed like the kind of dim, derivative cash-in and another serial killer show on TV schedules that are already overstuffed with them. The casting was strong, and creator Bryan Fuller gave some confidence (though we’ve never really loved any of his previous shows), but the signs were that it could end up being eminently skippable. How wrong we were: “Hannibal” started impressively, and only became more and more fascinating and powerful as it went on, ending its first season as the best network TV drama in years. Fuller found a home for his heightened aesthetic (brought to life by David Slade in the pilot, and kept up by directors including John Dahl and, in his directorial debut, Tarantino/Del Toro DoP Guillermo Navvaro) with the disgustingly beautiful murder tableaus and styilized reconstructions making it among TV’s most distinctive-looking shows. But it’s not murder porn either; it’s the sheer psychological depth that sets “Hannibal” not so much leagues as an entire ocean above the CSIs and NCISs of the world. The killings are horrifying in the truest sense of the world (hammered home by the uneasy, Ben Wheatley-ish sound design that makes the show as absorbing as it is difficult to watch), and the toll of investigating and committing murder hangs heavy over the series, which has painted as effective a picture of mental illness as we’ve ever seen on television, let alone on a network, thanks to the fine work of Hugh Dancy. It’s an incredibly effective antidote to the countless dead bodies we see callously quipped over on other shows. And we haven’t even mentioned Hannibal himself yet: Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast, wiping away memories of Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins within a few episodes, expertly playing with the audience’s sympathies while still making Lecter as terrifying as he’s ever been. It’s not for those with weak stomachs — Fuller & co have found inventive new ways to make us feel nauseous — but if you can take it, it’s a near-miraculous piece of television, and one that we hope sticks around for a long time.
Best Episode: “Coquilles,” which wraps Graham’s increasing instability, and the troubles of the wife (Gina Torres) of Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), into the investigation of a man who’s gruesomely turning his victims into angels.
With almost a year gone since its third season began, and the show’s semi-titular creator taking a break to the extent that the fourth won’t begin airing until next summer, it feels like there’s a major “Louie” void in our lives. And that’s in part because, while the most recent run of the show could be occasionally uneven, and not always committed to actually being funny (quite deliberately), it remains some of the most fascinating, exhilarating and oddly moving television around. Season three was the year that Louis C.K. both moved towards a slightly more serialized approach to the show, with two recurring plotlines that took up about half the season between them (and a wider theme that ran throughout), and continued to push his formally experimental side. If you’ve never seen the show, know that “Louie” sees C.K. as a filmmaker first, and comic second, and every episode of the show is at least one compelling and, increasingly, beautifully made, short film. The great thrill of the show is that you never know what you’re going to get week on week: we went from a hilariously profane blind date with Melissa “Fuckin’ Obama” Leo to an elegiac Miami-set episode where Louie falls in love with a guy, to a kind of deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl rom-com with Parker Posey, to the show’s trilogy about Louie being courted to take over David Letterman‘s show (complete with a perfect guest spot from David Lynch, of all people). No one is moving the half-hour comedy form (it feels odd to call it a sitcom, somehow) further forward than Louie, and as a result, the wait for the next season feels almost endless.
Best Episode: So many to choose from, but Louie’s extraordinary flight by speedboat at the end of “Dad” might just edge it over the “Late Show” trilogy (which, more than anything, made us die to see C.K. return to big-screen filmmaking).
1. “Top Of The Lake”
With the walls between film and TV crumbling down every day, it seems fitting that our favorite TV series of the year premiered at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, before marking the Sundance Channel‘s first entry into original series. “Top Of The Lake,” created by the great New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion (“The Piano,” “Bright Star‘) with co-writer Gerard Lee, and directed by Campion and Garth Davis, looked on the surface to be another entry into the “The Killing“-type murder-in-a-small-town sub-genre. But while there was a murder of a sort, it took backseat into an investigation of a far deeper kind of corruption. Campion’s series begins with Sydney police detective Robin Griffin (“Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss, phenomenal, and with a decent Kiwi accent, no less) returning home to see her dying mother, only to become involved with a young pregnant girl Tui (Jacqueline Joe), the daughter of local criminal Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan). While there’s a mystery — who’s the father of Tui’s baby? — the show rarely delves into procedural elements, instead fleshing out the world of Laketop with low-life locals, shifty cops and a woman’s commune led by the charismatic, offbeat American GJ (Holly Hunter, channeling Campion herself). At its heart, “Top Of The Lake” is about the treatment of women at the hands of men, and that the scars that can leave. Which perhaps makes the series heavier than we intend; it can be bleak, certainly, but it was grippingly watchable throughout its seven-episode run, with flecks of dark humor, romance and, above all, incredibly smart writing and direction. Every performer, from the familiar names to newcomers, was fantastic too (Mullan perhaps taking the honors as a deeply well-rounded and complex monster). The show was a limited-run one-off, as far as we know, so we’re unlikely to see another series or a sequel. But given that it might have been the masterpiece of one of our finest filmmakers, we’ll happily settle for what we got.
Best Episode: To be honest, the series feels like it was intended to be seen as one long seven-hour viewing experience, and that’s what we’d recommend. Take a couple of breaks, or watch it over a few nights, but it’s best to absorb the show in a short space of time.
Honorable Mentions: With all the will in the world, there’s simply too much great TV to catch up with everything, so all of the above should be taken with the caveat that we have a few gaps in our viewing. The most prominent is “Rectify,” a slow-burning Sundance Channel show from Ray McKinnon that, by all accounts, had an excellent first season. Rest assured, we’ll be catching up with it soon, but if you did see it, let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Otherwise, we never quite picked up with the second season of “Scandal,” which we’re told is ludicrous amounts of silly, soapy fun, anchored by a great performance from Kerry Washington. We’re also behind on “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” and never got around to “Bunheads,” though have heard great things about both. We believe that “Vikings” is meant to be a lot of fun, and a cut above other similar historical dramas, and the same was apparently true of the just-completed “Spartacus” too.
As for the shows that we have seen, but didn’t quite make the cut, “Boardwalk Empire” continued to improve season-on-season thanks to a great guest villain turn by Bobby Cannavale, and with an impressive roster of actors joining the fourth series, we wouldn’t be surprised if it cracked the list by next year. “Veep” also came on great guns with its second season and, if it isn’t quite up there with “The Thick Of It” still, is getting awfully close. Speaking of, Armando Iannucci‘s other series closed up its run last fall with a strong series of episodes, while on a sort-of-related note, HBO‘s other Sunday night comedy, “Family Tree,” might only be halfway through its run, but it’s the best thing Christopher Guest has done since at least “Best In Show,” anchored by a great turn by Chris O’Dowd.
Beyond that, “Homeland” took a bit of a dip in its second season, but remains watchable and well-acted, while “The Good Wife” is still one of the most consistently strong dramas around. “Fringe” ended its run with a curious, but ever-imaginative series, and newcomer “Orphan Black” proved to be a compelling new slice of sci-fi. “Arrested Development” returned, and while not up there with its previous seasons, was often as funny as anything else on TV, while cable comedies like “Children’s Hospital,” “Key & Peele,” “Comedy Bang Bang,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Nathan For You” were all terrific. As we mentioned above, “Ben & Kate” grew more and more promising with every episode, but was cut down in its prime.
Finally, internationally speaking, there were a few strong British imports in “Utopia,” “Broadchurch,” “The Hour” and “Ripper Street,” while French series “The Returned” and Danish shows “Borgen” and “The Bridge” all won new fans. Anything else we’ve missed that you think deserves mention? Let us know in the comments section.