Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best of 2013

All the critics are creating their best-of-2013 lists, and while I'm no critic, I feel compelled to write up what my favorite shows of the year were.

But it's a funny list. Because I'm limiting it to shows that were first aired in 2013. One of my favorite shows I watched this year is Battlestar Galactica, which did not first air in 2013. So it doesn't belong on this list.

Another funny thing about this list. The critics' lists this year are teeming with shows from all types of distribution channels: pay channels, cable channels, networks, and now streaming channels. Sundance got into the episodic television series this year, with fantastic results. But I've not seen nearly as many of these shows as I would like. So while the critics (who, unlike me, are paid to watch television) had difficulty limiting their lists to ten or so, I could only come up with five.

Please understand that there are a lot of shows that might be on this list had I seen them (or in some cases seen the entire season). 

No ranking, because they are all great in their own way. I therefore submit in alphabetical order my best of 2013.


If you haven't seen this yet, do so, now. Airing on BBC America, Broadchurch takes place in a small seaside village of the same name in England, and centers around two cops, an outcast detective played by Doctor Who's David Tennant and the woman who wanted the job he got. Tennant plays Alec Hardy, who's first day on the job puts him in charge of the investigation of a boy's death. Does this sound like any other procedural you ever saw? Well, the comparisons end there, because it is really a moody exploration of the effects of that death on the boy's family, the detectives, and the town. Small town secrets are revealed to devastating effects, and the town turns on one of its own in a witch hunt. The revelation of the killer is almost irrelevant when it comes, as families have been destroyed and friendships ruined. But there is also hope, and at the end, it is clear that the town will move on, stronger and better.

Broadchurch showcases some of the best acting this year, especially Tennant (who is now on "my list"), Olivia Colman as his reluctant colleague, and Jodie Whitaker, who's grief at her son's death is palpable. I'm a little concerned, though, because Broadchurch is a series, with a second season guaranteed. I'm not sure what next season will be. What also concerns me is that Fox is also remaking Broadchurch, with a different name and a different place (California), but with Tennant in the same role. The same producers are involved in both projects, so I will try to put aside my skepticism.

Game of Thrones

Word of warning about this show: do not, I repeat, do NOT get attached to any character in this show. You would think the viewing audience learned this in Season 1 when the head of Ned Stark was removed from his neck, but the Red Wedding proved that we may never be ready for George R.R. Martin's nihilistic fantasy epic. Game of Thrones is beautifully filmed, with numerous sets in numerous countries for the various different story lines. The plotting is usually tight and the costumes are delightful.

But none of that would matter if it weren't for the characters, who are  beautifully drawn and excellently acted. Why do you think it is so devastating when one of them dies? Tyrion Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, and Tywin Lannister are among my favorites, with the Queen of Thornes, played by a transcendent Diana Rigg, being the newest to the pantheon.

It is easy to nitpick on Game of Thrones. However, it's one of the few shows that B and I both have to watch as soon as possible.

Orange is the New Black

If I had to pick one of these five shows as number one, this would be it. OITNB is not for the fainthearted; its depiction of violence and sexuality is brutally frank. It follows Piper Chapman, an upper-middle class, sheltered woman who finds herself behind bars. She enters prison and finds it has its own rules and culture, which she has difficulty understanding. She immediately offends the head cook, somehow acquires a girlfriend, and gets another prisoner sent to solitary.

But Chapman is actually the weakest link among a wealth of character riches. The breakout character is Crazy Eyes (you may have heard of a Caucasian celebrity dressing up as Crazy Eyes for Halloween, in full black face), who doesn't understand why everyone calls her Crazy Eyes. There's Taystee, who refuses to let prison bring her down, until she's released and realizes how little she has going for her in her on the outside. There's Miss Claudette, who's rumored to have killed someone but keeps her life neat and clutter-free. There's Yoga Jones, the soul of the prison, teaching yoga classes. I could go on - I love them all.

There are a few weak spots in OITNB, such as meth-head, anti-abortionist avenging angel Pennsatucky. But otherwise, this show is just about the best I've seen in a while.

Person of Interest

I know, surprising, right? Person of Interest? A network show? A procedural?

Well. Yes. I enjoyed POI's first two seasons, but it didn't really hit me until this year how much I really love it. Granted, I thought it's primary conceit of a machine that could essentially spy on us to detect terrorism was a bit paranoid. Everyone trying to get control of this machine for their own nefarious purposes seemed far fetched. I laughed and thought little of it.

Until Edward Snowden. Oh.

This season still has its weekly POI that must be protected by our heroes, but the story arcs have been tremendous. There's now a group of privacy terrorists (I laugh as I write that) who will do anything to destroy the machine and anyone who exploits it. But the corrupt cops and politicians that made up "HR" made the last three or four episodes into nail biters, culminating in the death of one of our heroes. Carter's death has unmoored Jim Cavaziel's John Reese, but has given Fusco moral clarity. (Ironically, the promos made it seem Fusco was the intended victim. Carter's death was truly shocking primarily because it was so unexpected).

I'm furious at the show right now, since it has left us on a cliff (I used words I probably shouldn't). But when it returns next year, I'll be there, on the edge of my seat to see how my heroes save themselves from this predicament.

Top of the Lake

Sundance entered the drama field with this and two other dramas, all three of which ended up on many critics best-of lists. I've only seen this one.

Directed by Jane Campion, Top of the Lake takes place in a part of New Zealand never seen by hobbits. It's isolated and peopled by rugged and solitary individuals. Like Broadchurch, the central storyline involves an unspeakable crime against a child, this time a pregnant twelve-year old. Elisabeth Moss stars as a Sydney detective in town to care for her ailing mother. She's called into service by David Wenham's Al to investigate the child's presumed rape.

Among the people she must investigate is the father of the girl, played to discomforting perfection by Peter Mullan. Also appearing is Holly Hunter as the cryptic leader of a commune of women, who are apparently trying to find themselves.

This mini-series is marked by stunning cinematography, moody scenes, and excellent acting. One of the central mysteries is pretty obvious well before it is revealed, but it hardly matters. Instead, we were on an exploration of the town as it's past is revealed and justice is explored. There are no easy answers, and a lot is left unclear, but the show is satisfying.

I want to give a shout-out to my favorite new network show:

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow hit the ground running and hasn't stopped the crazy since. The show is marked by one of the best pairings ever in Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie.  I'm on the record as hoping they never set these up as romantic partners. 

Doctor Who Fan Alert - I've already mentioned David Tennant plays Alec Hardy in Broadchurch, and is expected to reprise his role in the Fox version.

Game of Thrones Fan Alert - David Bradley, the evil Walder Frey in Game of Thrones, plays Broadchurch's Jack Marshall, a storekeeper with ties to the murdered boy and a past.

LOTR Fan Alert - yes, that is Faramir you see in Top of the Lake.  David Wenham's Al has a way of making your skin crawl.

Lost Fan Alert - in case you've forgotten, Michael Emerson plays Harold Finch in Person of Interest. He became famous as Ben Linus. 

Mad Men Fan Alert - Elisabeth Moss, Peggy Olson, plays the Robin on Top of the Lake, demonstrating her acting skills, though her New Zealand accent was iffy, at best.

Star Trek: Voyager Fan Alert - Kate Mulgrew, Captain Janeway on Voyager, is nearly unrecognizable as Red, the domineering head chef in OITNB.

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