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Critic's Picks: The Top 10 Television Shows of 2013

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire December 6, 2013 at 4:41PM

Picks for the 10 best television series of a very strong year on the small screen from Indiewire's TV Editor Alison Willmore.
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'The Americans'
Craig Blankenhorn/FX 'The Americans'

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.

The French television show "The Returned."
The French television show "The Returned."

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 fiancée 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?

Hannibal

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.

Game of Thrones

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features





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