Friday, 20 December 2013

My Favourite Television Shows of 2013

Friday, 20 December 2013
These days I can't write Best Of lists because it's become impossible to rank shows that have such opposing ambitions and purposes, across different genre. I also think that straightforward Top 10's can be tedious to read at this time of year, as most critics pick largely the same dozen things and only disagree over the exact ordering.

So, this isn't a Best Of list... it's a personal Favourites list. Below are the 10 television shows I most enjoyed watching this past year, even if some have big flaws and may not be widely considered better than the critical darlings that don't appear. These are the 10 shows that most occupied my thoughts this past twelve months, and kept me watching their seasons/series all the way through. There may be some glaring omissions in your opinion (Justified, House of Cards, Broadchurch, The Returned?), but if I had to recommend 10 shows to a friend, these are the shows I'd put box-sets of in their Christmas stocking...

10. The CW's 'ARROW'
The best small-screen superhero drama ever made? Adam West may disagree, but I think so. Arrow has taken huge inspiration from Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, to bolster a character that began as a Batman knock-off anyway, but it's spun a great many layers to become its own thing. I love the big ensemble mix of characters, the brilliant idea to flashback to Oliver Queen's origin as 'The Vigilante' on the island he was lost on for five years, the fights are well-staged, the calibre of guest stars is great, the villains are pretty cool (even when they're riffing on Batman's rogue's gallery), the twists come thick and fast, it has an emotional content, Amell mixes well with other actors (despite his woodenness), and you never quite know what you're going to get each week.

One of the most overlooked comedies of the past five years is Eastbound & Down, which admittedly had a tumultuous start. I wasn't a massive fan of season 1 (as it only showed fleeting promise), and the Mexico-set second season didn't appeal much until Don Johnson showed up, but season 3 was excellent and this final year likewise. There were so many gloriously un-PC moments, including a fantastic role for Sacha Baron Cohen in the series finale as a misogynistic studio exec with unreasonable demands, but it was the double-act of Danny McBride (as obnoxious loud-mouth Kenny Powers) and Steve Little (as his spineless sidekick Stevie) that really lit up the screen. Oh, and Katy Mixon does the best 'quiet look of disdain' you'll ever see.

8. Showtime's 'MASTERS OF SEX'
One of the nicest surprises this year's been this medical drama set in the 1950s, inspired by the real-life tale of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. It's nicely written and wonderfully acted by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, so many of my concerns about its long-term future have fallen by the wayside. Maybe it will struggle once the novelty wears off, but for now this is a really nice little show that's doing a good job of taking a seemingly limiting concept and finding all the fun wrinkles to play with. It's dying a death on Channel 4 in terms of ratings in the UK, naturally.

7. Channel 4's 'BLACK MIRROR'
The second batch of dark sci-fi tales weren't as memorable as the first year's trio, but I can't ignore the brilliance of this show as the closest thing to a modern-day Twilight Zone (with a raw, chilly British sensibility). The "White Bear" instalment was enough to get Black Mirror on my list. I also liked the first offering with Hayley Atwell resurrecting her dead boyfriend using social media and a home-assembly robot kit. The final instalment about a satirical animated character running for political office was the worst of the six Black Mirror episodes produced so far, but it was still an entertaining watch.

I know this seventh series was Matt Smith's worst and half aired in 2012, but I find it hard to resist putting Doctor Who anywhere on my list. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the show just last month, we also had the stupendous "The Day of The Doctor" special that reunited Smith with his predecessor David Tennant—which was a magical delight, and almost single-handedly earned series 7 a spot on my list. At time of writing I haven't seen Smith's festive swansong on Christmas Day, but I suspect that will be similarly strong and further dilute the general weakness of series 7.

5. AMC's 'MAD MEN'
It's still the classiest drama on the box, and one of the richest programmes ever in terms of characterisation, even if this year's sixth season felt like Matt Weiner's team were repeating themes and reusing ideas. Although in some ways that was the point, as the characters are shuffling into each other's roles to an extent. Most episodes operate way above any period drama rival you care to mention (Downton Abbey? Pah!) and Mad Men rarely delivers a resoundingly bad hour. It's just degrees of excellence, and the stand-out episodes are glistening gems of writing and performance.

It's incredible this swords-n'-sandals action drama endured after the tragic death of its original lead actor, but even more astonishing is that every season added new characters/relationships and made you care about every one. I think there's an argument about Spartacus losing some of its dramatic clout, when it had to go beyond the gladiatorial ludus in the Vengeance season, but I have to applaud its escalating ambition. What earns Spartacus its place was how it managed to end so perfectly with one of the best action spectacles I've ever seen on TV. And it did this without forgetting that emotional blows land the hardest. I hope the makers do something else in this show's distinct operatic style, as there are plenty of other historical tales that would benefit from its unique approach.

A show that's been steadily improving each season reached a highpoint now they're tackling the book most fans consider the best in George R.R Martin's ongoing saga. Is it all downhill from here then? There were still some sub-plots that became slightly tedious or protracted (Theon Greyjoy's torture), and a few storylines I lost the thread with, but for the most part GoT found its groove and delivered its fair share of this year's best dramatic surprises. 'The Red Wedding' alone demanded it appear in my list, as one of the most talked about moments of television this year.

This is easily the best new drama of 2013, which is amazing considering how long the Hannibal Lecter franchise has felt beyond salvage (after the misguided Hannibal Rising prequel seemed to hammer the final nail into Lecter's coffin). And how could the small-screen's grisliest drama come from the mind of Bryan Fuller, a writer whose macabre sensibilities are usually fed through a sweet filter that most appeals to teenage girls? I'm still astonished Hannibal was this fantastic; with perfect casting, memorable imagery (both horrific and mouthwatering), and a terrific arc about a good man driven insane by a devilish manipulator. It's high-quality film-making that's rejuvenated interest in Hannibal 'The Cannibal' and now stands eye-to-eye with Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs in my mind.

The final episodes of what's now become the greatest television drama I've ever seen. Hyperbole? Perhaps a touch, but I simply can't think of another show that's been as deftly written, superbly acted and magnificently directed than Breaking Bad. What puts it proudly at the top of my list is simple: it didn't put a foot wrong in its final days. I'm so used to great shows ending with a whimper, or at least dividing opinion down the middle, so it was wonderful to watch Vince Gilligan's team end their show after five seasons with a largely satisfying climax. I envy anyone who still hasn't watched this, because you have five seasons of incomparable greatness to enjoy.

Honourable mentions:
  • The Walking Dead - a game-changing third season finally saw this drama evolve into something I could enjoy beyond an appreciation of gore, violence and rustic tone.
  • Luther - a strong third year, but too much fizzled out in that last episode.
  • Top of the Lake - much too long but soaked with atmosphere and excellent natural performances.
  • The Americans - fitfully brilliant and a clever marital study, yet sometimes dawdling and repetitive.
  • The Fall - slow-going but impressive, until an unnecessary cliffhanger soured the meal.
  • Fresh Meat - more hilarious student japes from the most underrated comedy on the box.
  • The Wrong Mans - perhaps could have been funnier, but it was addictive and perfectly paced.

Notable absences:
  • House of Cards - it looks tremendous, Kevin Spacey's magnetic, but I was bored rigid five hours in.
  • The Good Wife - always brilliant and the perfect balance between serialised and standalone storytelling, but season 5 hasn't started in the UK yet.
  • Homeland - still entertaining but no longer essential in season 3.
  • Orange is the New Black - it didn't seem all that impressive to me after 3 episodes, and I still hate how Netflix dumps 13 hours on you overnight.
  • Boardwalk Empire - sorry, I gave up on this halfway through season 3 and don't regret it, despite everyone telling me I stopped just when it found a second wind (as that's always the case with these things, isn't it...)
  • Justified - I'm a big fan, but the most recent season's story arc didn't chime with me that much.
  • Broadchurch - look, it was good, but was it that good?