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by Alison Willmore
December 6, 2013 4:41 PM
30 Comments
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Critic's Picks: The Top 10 Television Shows of 2013

'The Americans' Craig Blankenhorn/FX

A few critical mea culpas for television in 2013, because you can't possibly watch everything: While I loved season one of "The Good Wife," I still haven't watched beyond that (I know! I know! But it's on Sunday nights, and those are brutal, small screen-wise). I had to give up on "The Walking Dead" when I came to terms with the fact it was making me hope for the extinction of humanity, and I'm a season behind on both "Justified" (which I'm sorry about) and "Sons of Anarchy" (which I'm not so much).

That said, even with these blind spots there was a lot of very good TV this year, if perhaps less truly great fare than last year or the year before. There were some memorable goodbyes, two of which are on this list, and some not-so-memorable ones -- sorry "Dexter," but you should have headed out the door ages ago. But the most noteworthy theme of the 2013 has been the continued proliferation of outlets for ambitious original programming. On the web it was really the year of Netflix, but Amazon also joined the fray with two solid comedies of its own in "Alpha House" and "Betas," and Hulu continued to be a source of promising possibilities with imports like "Moone Boy" and originals like the charming if slight "Behind the Mask." And networks who'd either drifted away from scripted series or never done them have gotten in the mix with "Vikings" on History and "Rogue" and "Full Circle" on DirecTV. There's a genuine hunger in the industry not just for more scripted shows, but for attention-getting, grown-up ones, and that's exciting.

10. The Returned (Sundance Channel)

A ghost story, a tale of mourning and a possibly apocalyptic vision, this French import manages to feel both like an allegory and like a very (undead) flesh and blood small town drama. When the dead start coming back to life, just as they were when they passed days or years earlier, the living react with joy, bewilderment, fear and dread. The show delicately explores all sorts of scenarios in which its characters are confronted with loved one they'd mourned and let go, only to have back again, from the fiancĂ©e now married to someone else to the identical twin whose sister has grown into an adult, leaving her behind. Moody and beautifully shot, "The Returned" leaves certain large question so far unanswered, its focus more on the immediate human dramas unfolding as the line between life and death appears to grow thin.

9. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

They are few shows as reliably charming and scruffily distinctive as Loren Bouchard's animated comedy about the Belcher family and their humble burger restaurant. The terrific voice acting -- from the indispensable H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, John Roberts and Kristen Schaal, among others -- helps create a real solidity to the show's central group of oddballs and the seaside town in which they live. The show's grown more and more into its voice and low-key sense of comedy in its third and fourth season, with storylines that start off as the stuff of typical sitcoms -- Linda gets a job at a supermarket, Bob attempts to make the perfect Thanksgiving dinner -- and then go off in directions that are delightfully and unforcedly unexpected. Who would have predicted where all those turkeys ended up in "Turkey in a Can," or the inexplicable but kind of sweet explanation?

8. Hannibal (NBC)

The most gorgeously disturbing show on the air this year, "Hannibal" managed to come up with scenes of horror that were shocking even in a TV landscape oversaturated with serial killer narratives. Bryan Fuller let go of his sense of whimsy for the show, but not his imagination, which is why imagery like people flayed to look like angels or tied onto a totem pole on the beach are so terrible and exquisite at once. Surrounded by scenes like that, no one could blame Special Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) for being a little shaky on the sanity front, and Dancy makes Will an anguished, vulnerable martyr to the FBI, sacrificing his mental well-being to the pursuit of murderers while his doctor Hannibal Lecter, a nicely restrained Mads Mikkelsen, makes gourmet meals out of people. The show's constrained scope suggests a world irreparably damaged and dark.

7. The Americans (FX)

Former CIA officer Joe Weisberg's "The Americans" is a Cold War drama and a spy saga, but it's also a show about marriage and about the immigrant experience, albeit as seen through a very dramatic lens. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are playing at being a couple and playing at being American, but after years, both have started to seem real, and the show has made their relationship one of the most fraught, brutal and vital you'll find on TV, all while navigating the sex they have with other people in the name of espionage. Commendable, also, is the way their dynamic flips the usual gender expectations, with Russell's Elizabeth being the tougher cookie and the more loyal soldier while Phil searches for softness. The strong supporting cast, including Noah Emmerich, Margo Martindale and Annet Mahendru, help make this one of the best new shows of the year.

6. Game of Thrones (HBO)

HBO's fantasy saga has ably demonstrated how television can be as epic in scope and look as a blockbuster, with a sprawl of characters over multiple continents continued to fight for power and survival. "Game of Thrones" is most impressive as sheer storytelling, moving easily from large scale events to intimate ones, and revealing with breathtaking ferocity that no character, no matter how apparently heroic, is safe. The "Red Wedding" scene wasn't shocking just because of the characters it killed off, but because it bloodily underlined a point the show initially made when it lopped off Ned Stark's head in season one. This isn't a tale of good versus evil, just because a character represents order or honor doesn't mean they'll do any better in a world that's savage under a thin veneer of civilization. By upending all of the typical rules of the genre, "Game of Thrones" remains terribly exciting high-end television.

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30 Comments

  • Helena | December 19, 2013 12:06 AMReply

    Game Of Thrones is EPIC! It was very high-rated on IMDB so i thought "...OK, why not?"
    I was a bit skeptic from the beginning, i saw 15 minutes of the frist episode and i thought it was boring. But it was so high rated so i watched another 15 minutes. And just like that, i was obsessed. Believe it or not but i have seen the show 8 times! YOU HAVE TO WATCH IT! I SWEAR YOU WILL LOVE IT! (If you hate blood, death and stuff...don't watch!)
    Gosh i love GOT! Lannisters 4 life! ...i hate Petyr btw.

  • Robin | December 12, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    I think I'd say I agree with a lot of this. However the British show Misfits is still towards the top of my list. Glad you put Breaking Bad at the top where it belongs.

  • Ashley James | December 11, 2013 7:28 AMReply

    Danny is the true star of GoT, can't wait till she takes over the 7 kingdoms

    http://bit.ly/DannyIsTheQueen

  • Lola Bido | December 8, 2013 6:17 AMReply

    Top of the Lake sounds interesting (and I really like Campion's work), but I won't see it until it hits Netflix. The picture quality of Sundance has become worse than watching an old VHS tape thanks to DirecTV's ridiculous compression, and is (to me) unwatchable.

  • nugga | December 8, 2013 11:33 AM

    top of the lake is on netflix

  • joshua | December 7, 2013 11:06 PMReply

    pvr exists,the good wife is the best show on tv.

  • anon | December 8, 2013 1:04 PM

    NOT!

  • jonnybon | December 7, 2013 1:55 PMReply

    Justified, Rectify, Raising Hope, The Good Wife and Broadchurch should all have prominent places.

  • YAZZY | December 7, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    Fantastic list. Agreed, The Americans was surprisingly good. Give Longmire a look--maybe not top 10 but thoughtful view of Native American culture in what might otherwise look like standard cop fare

  • Kafka | December 7, 2013 10:52 AMReply

    No Justified and Rectify only an honorable mention? Please.

  • Sareeta | December 7, 2013 9:36 AMReply

    Nice list. I personally would replace Scandal with Mad Men and Bob's Burgers (???) with Orphan Black. Also, I would switch Top of the Lake and The Returned, though I'm glad to see both make it to your list. The love for Enlightened is surprising; I loved it and was so sad to see it canceled.

  • Mark Doering-Powell | December 7, 2013 12:45 AMReply

    House of Cards deserves mention as well.

  • Tyler | December 6, 2013 11:00 PMReply

    Very solid list, but a little disappointing and confusing that FX's The Bridge isn't even a runner up. Although its season 1 finale was lowkey and even a little slow, the show has all around proved to be an excellent, and intriguing portrait of America's relationship with Mexico. Of course, it falls into some archetypal plot structures being about a serial killer terrorizing people on both sides of the border, but the show found a very good balance between character arcs and intense pacing as the investigation (and the killer's true motive) came to a head -- and my god, what a sad, bizarre endgame and rationalization for why the killer kills.

    But the true heart of this show is the relationship between Diane Kruger's character and Demian Bichir. Kruger's portrayal of a detective with Asperger's Syndrome is honest, endearing, and even human. Unlike comedies like The Big Bang Theory, where characters like Sheldon who are on the spectrum are lambasted, The Bridge works hard to respect it despite its self awareness (and even occasional bullying of her character from one of her coworkers). Then there's Demian Bichir: Exhausted and beaten up by life, but still lovable and charming -- and even inherently good despite the implications of his role in the Juarez Police Department's corruption (another theme excellently explored). The dichotomy between these two detectives on either side of the border is at first fun, but in the final three episodes, it's turned completely on its head with tragedy and the reality of their situation (something not enough crime shows with serial killers truly explore; even in Hannibal).

    This show is almost as expansive as Game of Thrones. Annabeth Gish, Matthew Lillard (as the hilariously disenfranchised alcoholic journalist) and his partner played by Emily Rios (who starred in Breaking Bad as the heartwarming, but ultimately tragic Andrea). This show deserves to be on that top 10 list, if not at least in the runner ups section.

  • cnico | December 11, 2013 10:05 PM

    Tyler.... I agree COMPLETELY!! The Bridge is fantastic. It was a little hard to get into it for the first couple of shows, but after that, everyone settled into their grooves and it is really good. The layered plots, extremely good acting (Ted Levine is a gem... Kruger and Bichir are great, as are Lillard and Rios who were just picked up as regulars... so many good performances.) And they are portraying such an important subject that actually matters to the US... and doing it so well. Can't wait for the new season to start.

  • Mark | December 6, 2013 10:40 PMReply

    Where's "The Good Wife"? Not including this superlative show is an egregious mistake on your part.

  • obscureason | December 14, 2013 3:39 PM

    Yes, Good Wife should definitely be there. Glad to see Enlightened on the list, though!

  • joshua | December 7, 2013 11:09 PM

    the author doesnt watch it, did you guys even read this?

  • SoulHonky | December 7, 2013 1:49 AM

    Yep. Best show on network TV. To not even merit an honorable mention is pretty stunning.

  • - | December 6, 2013 8:13 PMReply

    Mine'd be:
    1) Breaking Bad - is there even any debate on this one? I think the show as a whole is a teensy bit overrated, but this half-season was near-perfect. There were some plot contrivances here and there (in the last episode, some pretty big ones), but when a show's putting out episodes like 'Ozymandias' and 'To'hajiilee', I'm inclined to look the other way a bit.
    2) Mad Men - I feel like people have underrated this a little. Just because it's not good by Mad Men's standards doesn't mean it isn't really good by any other standards. I really think it redeemed the shaky start with its last few episodes. ('In Care Of' is one of the best season finales in a show with like 4 really incredible season finales)
    3) The Americans - Basically does what Homeland used to do in providing a huge thrill without being overly patronising.
    4) Game of Thrones - I found this season a little less than compelling in spots and incredible in others. When it's at its best, there's very little on TV (I'm talking about ever, here) that can beat it.
    5) Hannibal - I thought it took a while to get going, but once it did it was great. That and Mikkelsen is amazing in it.
    House of Cards would get an honourable mention. It's a fun show but I thought they turned Underwood into way too much of a cartoon villain as it went on. I'm not entirely caught up on it, but Homeland seems to have jumped the shark at this point. Couldn't really get motivated enough to sit through all of Top of the Lake. I can kind of see the value in it, and Elisabeth Moss is incredible in it, but it just couldn't hold my attention (and as someone who's favourite show ever is Mad Men and so is more likely to bear with really slow-paced dramas, I think that's saying something, lol)

  • AThomas | December 6, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    In response to the honorable mentions, I loved Broadchurch a lot, and not just because of David Tennant, but The Fall was one of the most compelling serial killer dramas that I have seen in a long time. I'm so excited to see series 2.

  • diegomom50 | December 6, 2013 6:26 PMReply

    I don't watch any of those. Not a one. I watch Sleepy Hollow, The Black list, Dracula, Walking dead, Downton Abby, Boardwalk, Justified, American Horror The Coven and The Following. Not a big Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad fan.

  • cool_dog | December 6, 2013 6:03 PMReply

    hey did you hear about a little show called boardwalk empire

  • Goodbyenoway | December 6, 2013 5:54 PMReply

    Scandal? Breaking Bad? Bob's Burgers? Lol. This can't be taken seriously. Any list that doesn't have The Walking Dead, Justified, Downton Abbey, and Orphan Black in the Top Ten isn't credible.

  • Donna | December 7, 2013 9:55 PM

    Here, here, Goodbye! Scandal over The Walking Dead? Not a good list at all. And whomever above said it lost steam after Season 2 (in my opinion the slowest, non-steamy season out of the four so far) is just nutty. You must not watch the show. I guess I'm just another one of, how many million?, viewers who thinks the show is very watchable, likeable, and worthy of a spot on any top ten TV list. (Don't tell people to lighten up, its not nice, nor fair. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and debate with the author. I hate when people do that. No one has the corner on personal taste.)

  • seriously? | December 6, 2013 6:48 PM

    Walking Dead.... and Downtown Abbey...better than Breaking Bad???

  • kevin | December 6, 2013 6:33 PM

    Breaking Bad was brilliant. "Ozymandias" is one of the best hours of TV ever produced. "The Walking Dead" lost much of its steam after season 2 and seems aimless and tired now.

    Therefore, you can't be taken seriously.

    Lighten up. It's TV they're talking about.

  • serena | December 6, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    I hope that in a year or so people can truly examine the last season of BREAKING BAD without the fanboy anticipation we had this fall, because there are a lot of plot holes and flimsy scenes in the final hours (though I'm not going to put up my dukes for anyone who says "Ozymandias" is a flawless episode).

  • Kevin | December 6, 2013 6:34 PM

    Agreed. For me "Breaking Bad" ended with "Ozymandias." No need to go any farther.

  • Eliantis | December 6, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    I'm sorry, but come on. Scandal, better than Game of Thrones? It's just a bunch of silly fun.

  • Stephen | December 7, 2013 1:49 PM

    No seems to have mentioned Less than Kind a Canadian Winnipeg based sorta sitcom seen on directv. Alternatively hilarious profane and sad.certainly top ten for comedy in my book