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

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

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 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?

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.

5. Scandal (ABC)

After a scattered, short first season, Shonda Rhimes’ D.C. drama hit its stride in its second season. And this season it’s been on fire, going from a show about a fixer/Washington insider to a bonkers (and yet not irrelevant) one in which Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) broken family is impossibly tied to the inner working of the U.S. government, including a secret organization called B613. Its hard to top the twist that your main character is in love with and has been having an affair with the President of the United States, but this year “Scandal” has managed to do just that by looping Olivia’s mom and dad into the equation and having them both be terrifying and loaded up with secrets. As “Homeland” gets loopier while maintaining a stiff facade of quality, “Scandal” has managed to be infinitely more riveting while occupying some of the same territory by owning its own wild-eyed plot twists, presenting an alternate universe in which the personal and the political of its power brokers are hopelessly intertwined and the rest of the world are there on the outside, just pawns to be manipulated.

4. Enlightened (HBO)

It’s sad, certainly, that Mike White’s melancholic and lovely show was canceled this year. But its second season, lasting just eight episodes, was all but perfect, capturing a character in her most maddening, yearning, inconsistent and hopeful. Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) is a character for the ages, well-meaning but self-serving, full of grand self-help talk that masked much more mundane intentions, a sharply believable portrait of a woman in search of higher meaning in corporate Southern California setting that was far from transcendent. An argument could be made that Amy ran a little too abrasive in the show’s first season, but this year on “Enlightened” was precisely calibrated and delicate in its timing and its portrayal of its challenging main character. And while Dern’s performance is the heart and soul of the show, the two instances in which it stepped away from her — to visit Levi (Luke Wilson) in rehab in Hawaii and to peek into the life of Tyler, played by White himself — were equally good, worthy of standing alone as shorts about loneliness and the yearning for connection.

3. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel)

A procedural only in the most technical sense, Jane Campion’s miniseries played out the gender battles that she’s explored so masterfully in her film work and laid them out over a remote New Zealand town to which Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns, bearing resentments and emotional wounds. On one side, you have the men, led by the rough but charismatic Matt Mitcham (an excellent Peter Mullan), in dark compound filled with illicit business dealings, while on the other you have the women’s camp, overseen by the equally harsh GJ (Holly Hunter), a minimalistic gathering of shipping containers out in the wilderness. And in between you have a missing, pregnant 12-year-old, an old lover, a boys club of a police force and themes about the fall of man. Campion’s work here look little like anything you normally see on TV, in the best way — it’s cinematic, mysterious and moving, with a thrillingly complicated sense of personal relationships and how communities fit or fail together.

2. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

The most unexpected, piquant pleasure of the year, “Orange is the New Black” was the Netflix original with the least obvious hook — no major stars, no pre-established brand from which to get a push, and a premise seemed fantastically uncommercial by all cynical standards. And goddamn, has it been good — smart, surprising, engaged, raunchy and almost shockingly new. Jenji Kohan’s show is about women talking, befriending, fighting and sometimes falling in love with other women, and it also has a cast filled with such wonderful actresses of types so rarely given good platforms because of their ethnicity, age, body type or other non-studio standard quality that its very existence feels like a rebuke against the lousy female representations that still dominate the big and small screen. “Orange is the New Black” can be funny and it can be wrenchingly sad, but it also deserves a salute for being important in largely nondidactic ways, for taking Piper (Taylor Schilling), a woman who is, in her own words, a nice white lady, and using her story to examine privilege, race and class and the ways in which they affect the characters’ kaleidoscoping lives.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Endings are hard. But “Breaking Bad” managed to run at full, breathtaking speed towards it own, and then stick the landing, against all odds, wrapping up the sad, strange story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) by giving him a little bit of peace while also refusing to let him off the hook for all his awfulness. This breakneck final half season shook Walt’s world apart right after it seemed like he’d managed to get away with everything, with his dogged brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) on his tail, Jesse (Aaron Paul) aware of what he did to Brock and the cancer back and eating away at his health. Those three final episode were killer — “Ozymandias,” which overturned everything, “Granite State,” with its spooky depiction of a kind of purgatory and “Felina,” in which Walt managed a tiny bit of redemption, all incredibly taut, waste-free installments. And it’s the fact that it wasn’t the thought of what he’d done to his family but his resentment against his old partners, Elliott and Gretchen, that pushed him toward that end game that made the closure he ultimately managed forgivable. Walt’s not a good guy — something he at long last came to terms with admitted to Skyler (Anna Gunn), that what he did was for himself, not for his family. Between Mr. Chips and Scarface, he finally found some kind of emotional honesty — he didn’t deserve to be a hero, but he earned being able to try to set things right.

Runners up: The first season of Cinemax’s fearlessly over-the-top “Banshee” was guilty fun. “Veep” continues to grow on me, improving in its second round of episodes. “Archer” is always profanely funny, while “Orphan Black” had a throwback feel to it that was very enjoyable and a multitasking lead in Tatiana Maslany who deserves the attention she’s been getting. “Key & Peele” remains the best-looking sketch comedy series around, while even on an off season, “Mad Men” is very worth watching. Sour and sweet, “The Mindy Project” remains interesting in part because it still feels like it’s being tinkered with, the kinks slowly getting worked out. “Broadchurch” and “The Fall” were both dreamy, emotionally intense Brit murder mysteries. Josh Thomas’s Aussie twentysomething comedy “Please Like Me” was quirky in all the best ways in its first season, while “Rectify” captured an indie film quality of the type rarely seen on television. It was great to see the tremendous, clever UK sci-fi anthology series “Black Mirror” finally come to the US, and both “Parks and Recreation” and “New Girl” remain solid and genial.

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