CHICAGO – If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a director and a producer, let “47 Ronin” explain how the hierarchy of creativity hinders the evolution of even the most straightforward-sounding pitches. “47 Ronin” is the type of samurai movie set in Japan that features native actors speaking only English, while Keanu Reeves stars as an outsider clearly plunked into the picture for stateside star power.
TV Feature: The 10 Best TV Shows of 2013
I’ve avoided saying it outright for a few years as it seems like an overwritten headline but one thing is too clear to ignore when looking back at this past year in television — we are currently in the most creatively vital time in the history of the form.
Coming up with the ten best films or ten best video games for 2013 was infinitely easier than when I had to craft my “Best of TV” list for the year due to the ridiculous abundance of quality choices. With new players like Sundance Channel and Netflix shaking things up alongside the continued creative vitality of HBO, AMC, and FX, I’ve never seen a year like the one below and I’ve been doing this over a decade. How good was 2013? “Homeland,” “Bates Motel,” “Orphan Black,” “The Newsroom,” and “Sons of Anarchy” — five shows that I would highly recommend and be top ten candidates in most other years — aren’t in my TOP TWENTY. That’s how good.
Looking over the top twenty shows, a few things are clear:
1. While the form is exploding in cable and streaming forms, the creative erosion of network TV is nearly complete. Only three broadcast network shows made my top twenty (although, to be clear, “The Good Wife” is my blind spot in this feature - the show that I haven’t kept up with enough to judge…every critic has a few, I just admit mine.) Looking further out than the top twenty, only eight network shows are mentioned at all below. If you don’t have cable, you’re not fully appreciating television.
2. Genre lines are blurring. I have written for years about how I longed for more shows that didn’t fit into neat categories of drama, comedy, and reality, and that’s clearly happening. So many of the best shows from 2013 had elements of multiple genres, crafting great fiction without adhering to the rules that so often hampered showrunners creatively since the dawn of TV. I found myself drawn to the shows this year that really played across expectations and I hope that trend continues.
3. There are more players than ever. Much has been made of the emergence of Netflix as a major name in the world of TV and the big three original programs from the service are all on the list below but Sundance Channel made just as much of an impact, arguably more, with “The Returned” & “Rectify,” two of my top ten shows of the year.
4. We’re starting a new wave. As “Southland,” “Enlightened,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Dexter,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and possibly “Boardwalk Empire” head out one door, “Rectify,” “The Returned,” “Ray Donovan,” “The Bridge,” “The Americans,” “House of Cards,” “Masters of Sex,” “Hello Ladies,” “Hannibal,” and many more enter stage left.
5. We’re finally getting some diversity in our American television. While a remake is in production, the original “Broadchurch” wasn’t held back from U.S. audiences. The Sundance Channel chose to air the French series “The Returned” subtitled instead of just pushing through an English-language remake. And “Orange is the New Black” featured as diverse a cast of regular characters as we’ve seen on a critical hit in some time.
Note: I chose not to include them because I went series over movie/mini-series but “Top of the Lake” and “Behind the Candelabra” were two of the best original TV events of the last decade. Watch them both.
Runner-ups (alphabetical): Archer, Arrested Development, Bates Motel, The Blacklist, The Bridge, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Homeland, Legit, The Newsroom, Nurse Jackie, Orphan Black, Sleepy Hollow, Sons of Anarchy, Southland, Veep, The Walking Dead and the two best reality shows on TV - Survivor & Top Chef.
20. Mad Men (AMC)
19. The Middle (ABC)
18. Girls (HBO)
17. House of Cards (Netflix)
16. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
15. The Americans (FX)
14. Hello Ladies (HBO)
13. The Killing (AMC)
12. Ray Donovan (Showtime)
11. Justified (FX)
10. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
“You know my wish is never to involve you. To keep you separate, above the muck that I have walked through here in Babylon where we each of us have been exiled… The things I do just simply to stand up and look my equals in the eye.”
—Episode 4.9, “Marriage and Hunting,” 11.3.13
Photo credit: HBO
The fourth installment of HBO’s once-beloved drama felt a little more episodic than the focused-and-best third season but there’s still so much to like here in terms of overall production quality that it’s clear that too many people have started to take this program for granted. Take Jeffrey Wright’s riveting supporting performance, Michael K. Williams’ always consistent work, Steve Buscemi’s never-faltering quality, or the breathtaking art direction and put it on another show that doesn’t have the same expectations as an HBO program from Martin Scorsese and a few of the talents behind “The Sopranos” and watch the headlines explode with praise. “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t a flashy show like some other modern hits — “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”. It’s not easy to recap the next day. It’s something that’s often not easy to appreciate until the season is over, like closing the last page on a great book. I look forward to the next edition.
9. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
“There’s only one thing I hate more than lying: skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”
—Episode 5.17, “Partridge,” 4.4.13
Parks and Recreation
Photo credit: NBC
The funniest show on network TV, without much competition (although ABC’s “The Middle” edges closer every year and deserves way more praise for its blend of “Roseanne”-esque blue-collar sentimentality than it achieves) continued to thrive in 2013, even as rumors of its impending cancellation continued to gain steam. I’ve always said that comedy is only as funny as its weakest supporting player. Think about your favorite sitcoms. They’re almost all ensemble pieces and this group of performers is one of the best of the modern age. There’s not a single weak link. Will it survive when Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones leave? Anything is possible in Pawnee.
8. Game of Thrones (HBO)
“I eat from plates stamped with roses, I sleep in sheets embroidered with roses, I have a golden rose painted on my chamber pot — as if that makes it smell any better. Roses are boring, dear.”
—Episode 3.4, “And Now His Watch is Ended,” 4.21.13
Game of Thrones
Photo credit: HBO
Closer to Shakespeare than Tolkien, HBO’s beloved program continues to dazzle and stun in equal measures as the third season felt more politically attuned to our times than shows actually set within the Capital Beltway. “Game of Thrones” has always been about power but the third season showed the lonely tragedy of struggles for control; how we betray one another and ourselves to attain some semblance of management over our own fate, only to then watch that dissipate in horror. “Game of Thrones” is remarkable, breakthrough television, completely blurring genre from fantasy to drama to political commentary and into something altogether new. It’s HBO’s best drama.