Thursday, January 9, 2014

The 10 Best Shows of 2013

I miss 2013 already. Creative output in all mediums was at an astounding high point, almost like the creative forces in the world reconciled the troubles of the internet and put their skepticism aside to utilize the amazing tools at our finger tips. No medium uses the tools of the modern world better than television, the ability to watch entire series in one get and the enhanced visual quality of HD viewing have both made television the premiere popular artistic medium. TV is not just escapism anymore, it is storytelling, it is important. And here are 10 of the best shows of this year.

1. Breaking Bad

I hate to be clichhere, but let's face it, a show this incredible hasn't ended on this high of a note since the Sopranos. And Vince Gilligan had the heart to give us the closure we needed in seeing Walt die for his sins, and righting some of the more plausible of his wrongs (see that, I incorporated my opinion on the Sopranos's final season). With a right hook from Hank's burly hand to Walt's sneering face, Season 5 part 2 pushed ahead full throttle from its first episode. Breaking Bad has traditionally excelled as a show masterful in the slow burn, letting events unfold slowly but incredibly rewardingly. Vince Gilligan abandoned that format for his final eight episodes. With the first half of season five we witnessed Walter's final descent into pure evil, and Hank's inevitable discovery of Walt's criminal life. But here is where the excellence of the show became crystal clear; a lesser show would have shown Hank reveal his knowledge to Walter over the course of a few episodes but Breaking Bad jumped into its primary hook right from the beginning, no filler in between. And the tension, action, despair and brutality never dissipated. The final season wasn't about Walt versus Hank, or Walt versus Uncle Jack, but instead the final season was Walt versus Walt, forcing the character to face his ugly decisions in a manner that was no longer sympathetic but still emotional. This was the best season of arguably the best show of all time. As a Sopranos fanatic it is hard for me to say whether or not I like Bad more, but get back to me in another five years when the show has aged a bit, and then we can decide for sure.

2. Orange is the New Black

After what I perceived as a curious misfire in House of Cards (That fucking accent Kevin Spacey seriously, True Blood characters do better fucking southern dialects), an interesting catastrophe in Hemlock Grove and a bewildering disappointing in Arrested Development Season 4, Netflix finally got its ready-to-binge-watch model wonderfully correct with the first season of Orange is the New Black. Based on the memoir of a waspy Brooklynite, Piper Chapman, and her experience of spending year in prison, OITNB is the most original and immediately entertaining premiere season in television history. Mark Harris recently argued on Grantland that the male anti-hero television show is a dying breed, and that the female anti-hero is going to be the dominant character on television. He used Scandal and The Good Wife as his examples, but in OITNB we get a slew of beloved anti-heroine characters, and show runner Jenji Kohan showed us all their stories in a series of heartbreaking flashbacks. The show's style of showing us life in the prison along with the characters lives before prison develops within us an empathy that I never personally have felt for any television characters. I binge watched this show twice over this year, and I can't wait for what's next.

3. New Girl

This ranking is more for the masterful season 2 of the show, season 3 has been a dip but nothing that this genuinely sweet and riproaringly hilarious show can't recover from. New Girl is a light-hearted affair, but the jokes have such amazing bite and it is so self-aware that its inbred corniness is alleviated. Most people focus on Schmidt as the breakout character, but Jake Johnson's performance as the oafish, loutish and hopelessly romantic Nick Miller is pitch perfect tv humor. I have never rooted for a tv couple in my life like I have for Zooey's Jess and him.Just kiss her Dammnit! Most men brought up in the Sopranos era of television would declare this a guilty pleasure. To that I ask, why do feel we have to maintain a fa ade of toughness and male-ness, even when it comes to our television preferences? New Girl season 2 was a triumph, a derivative comedy that felt original, Friends for

4. Game of Thrones

Honestly, the first two seasons of this series felt close but no cigar. I thought Game of Thrones was just a show that people thought they had to like, a nerdy wet dream. Season three felt all around more cohesive, I finally started understanding character motivations, political affiliations and the geographical locations of Westeros. And then, the Red Wedding. While watching last spring my girlfriend was taking a nap next to me, she awoke after lady Stark was murdered along with her heroic son Robb, his beautiful pregnant bride and effectively the entirety of the "good guys" on this show. She found me devastated. She didn't understand. She couldn't understand. I didn't understand. And I am glad I hadn't read any of the books.

5. Boardwalk Empire

Wow, seriously. For three seasons this show was an over-expensive near-miss. It had some moments. There was solid performances, Scorsese-approved stylized violence and cool costumes. It just never felt all that important. Not something I'd stress about falling behind if I missed a few episodes. And then season 4 happened. Due to immense skepticism that I had built up towards this show I didn't even realize how masterful this television was until late into the season. That moment? Gillian Darmody, recently clean and madly in love with a kind divorced chap, gets arrested by that same kind chap who had been undercover investigating the death of Gillian's departed rapist and father of her child, the Commodore. A moment so tragic Shakespeare would give a thumbs up to. This season realized the potential that the writing team, cast and HBO suggested it would have been four years ago. By tightening up the plot and focusing on the stars and leaving the Rothsteins and Lucianos floating in the periphery Terrence Winter scoped in on the characters that we feel stake in. This season was gripping, poignant and brutal. The Narcisse v. Chalky plotline proved riveting, as two lifted up black men in the Jim Crow era with very different world views, as viewers we are never sure if they are fighting for business or fighting for ideals. Jeffrey Rush's acting as Narcisse was occasionally camp but it was working towards the end of the season, and Winter gave Mr. Michael K. Williams an opportunity to really shine. His performance was phenomenal. Boardwalk still isn't perfect, but this season lifted it out of the second tier antihero dramas and landed in a new category all together; Greek Tragedy.

6. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Truly the greatest show on tv that never gets the respect it deserves. While so many lesser comedies out there constantly try and come up with fresh plot techniques (or a change of style all together, ahem Arrested Development), Sunny excels in its adherence to its tried and true formula. Five alcoholic and borderline sociopathic friends get an idea that in one way or another brings up social issues. They tangle themselves in said issue and they destroy others' lives, It's crude, disgusting at times, but no one denies the fact that it is the most consistently hysterical show on TV. Highlights: Sweet Dee becomes a successful comedian then realizes it was a sick joke plotted by Mac and Charlie to get her to "start fighting back," and Charlie gets experimental medications that make him smarter, or do they?

7. Eastbound and Down

The best season of this sad, strange and hilarious comedy birthed by co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride was its last. McBride as Kenny, like the other great television anti-heroes, you know, Tony, Don, McBride has created a dark hero capable of extreme narcissism, drug addiction, cruelty, racism and a slew of other nasty adjectives. But, hes lovable ain't he? I had my doubts about this season thinking season three would have been a fitting ending for this show. Holy hell am I glad that wasn't the case! We got to see an-almost suburbanized Kenny working as a dog at a rental car facility only to become a more ridiculous version of himself than he ever was as a television star only to do the right thing at the end. When Kenny's family took him back I felt contrived. Did he deserve this happy ending? Of course, family is there, always there above all else, and that's the point. If Kenny can do the right thing, then so can all of us. This show will be sorely missed, but it was the right time to let it go. McBride and Hill let Kenny snort his last lines and pop his last pills while reminding us why we loved him so much in the first place. Also, something people aren't asking? Was Jody Hill mimicking the entire run of Breaking Bad with this final season? In this season we see a Family Man embark on a sociopathic mission to success only to destroy everything but eventually make everything right. Ken Marino's egomaniacal Guy Young was Gus Fring? Stevie was Jesse Pinkman? Reaching?

8. Rectify

Sundance became a major player in serious television drama series this year with a couple high-concept and arty shows. The Elizabeth Moss vehicle mini-series Top of the Lake has been getting the majority of the love, and while I found the show to be interesting, it also took a long time to become engaged in. Rectify got me. Unsung by most serious critics, this series about a man released from prison after being wrongfully convicted (or not) of raping and murdering his high school girlfriend made me a believer in Sundance as a network. Aden Young as Daniel Holden excels on screen as a man that is completely rediscovering himself, questioning all of his desire and emotions. When he watches television I smiled, when he masturbates for the first time I cheered! Watching him slowly piece together his life will leave you empathetic in a most deliciously morally gray manner. This is a show that could be something very special, and by my count, next to OITNB as the best debut of the year.

9. The Office

I would never think that I'd see the day that this show would be an underdog, but the Office in its final season was just that. The fact that it remained so consistently funny sans Steve Carell is a marvel in and of itself, but what made this final season really special was the decision to bring the documentary being filmed over the duration of the show to the forefront. For the first time in years this show had actual narrative tension driving the plot forward, relying less on over-used gags and more on human drama. The finale was over-the-top in its sentimentality, but the bleak black humor that the show always embraced crept in, Ryan and Kelly abandoning a baby anyone? The last season might be along with seasons 2, 5 and 7, as one of the show's best.

10. Mad Men

I almost didn't even include this one, thinking that perhaps a new drama like Orphan Black and the Americans should take it. Both intriguing dramas that are surely set up to get better and better. This was indeed the least compelling of all of the seasons of Mad Men. But, the worst season of Mad Men is still on of the best shows out there is it not? Season 6 was a set up season. The mystery of Bob Benson exuded style and intrigue, his identity debate becoming a mini-cultural phenomenon on the Internet. And finally our hero, Don Draper, admits to himself and his colleagues, who he is. Driving up to the whore house where he was raised, and abused, while saying to his kids, "This is where I grew up," will go down as one of the most iconic moments in the show's run. Matthew Wiener is after all a disciple of David Chase, and the Sopranos' season 6 part 2 was a similarly paced season, a bit slow and out of place with its moments but ultimately a set up to the perfect season 6 part 2. With season 6, Weiner is setting us up for an incendiary finale.

Honorable mentions:

Scandal (for being so delightfully self-aware at its soapy ludicrousness), Arrested Development (for becoming a new show that made me laugh while letting me down), the Americans (for giving me hope for FX), American Horror Story (for truly not giving a fuck), Orphan Black (for taking a heady concept and turning it into a compelling narrative), True Blood (the sex is still mightily entertaining and the gore is good enough for me to not always care how fucking stupid the plot is), Masters of Sex (for giving Showtime an interesting show that didn't blow its wad after one season, ahem, Homeland)

-Adam Lehrer
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