I recently detailed the games I did and didn’t like this year in my Game of the Year post. Now it’s time to take a look at another entertainment medium and talk about what impressed me the most within it. And that medium, in case you somehow hadn’t figured it out yet, is television.
2013 has been an exciting twelve months for the TV industry. We’ve seen shows such as Breaking Bad, which is generally heralded as being part of the golden age of television, come to a definitive end, whilst Netflix’s success as a provider of content and not just a redistributor has caused exciting waves in a normally static ocean. On top of that, 2013 saw the return of beloved comedy Arrested Development after many years of absence, a certain Red Wedding that everybody has still yet to recover from, and The Walking Dead killing off cast members every other week. Oh, and the final season of Dexter, aka the one everybody interested in television should watch simply to get an idea of how low standards can go.
But through hell or high waters (“I AM the Hell and the high waters.” Scandal reference. Carry on), television is a constantly evolving and exciting sea to navigate that sometimes provides gargantuan waves of excitement. 2013 provided its fair share of disasters, but those waves it generated are what we all wait for with baited breath, and there were many of them. So many, in fact, that picking out ten shows out of dozens and then ranking them in order of preference was something that took far longer than I’d care to admit. But I finally have a list, so without further ado, let’s get down to it.
10 – New Girl
Fox’s comedy about a dorky woman sharing an apartment with a bunch of weird guys was never anything spectacular in its first season. It took an age to get to the kind of show it wanted to be, and waiting for that to happen was like running a race without knowing whether there was a finish line or not. Understandably, many stopped running, which is a shame because season two was where the show finally demonstrated what it was capable of achieving.
Not only was New Girl’s second season considerably more amusing than the first, which is the most basic concept of any comedy show, but it knew what to do with its characters. (Except CeCe and Winston, because I’m not quite sure the show will ever know what to do with them.) It knew what worked and what didn’t work and made adjustments in accordance with that. Out went Jess’ overwhelmingly quirky mannerisms and in came a familiar yet tamer replacement, all wrapped and prepared for the season’s biggest story: the relationship with Nick.
The romantic connection and subsequent development of Nick and Jess was easily the season’s strongest story, but it didn’t end there. The show itself felt more developed. It broke free from the restraints of establishing its own foundations in season one and was set free to start building on them. It told those running its race that there was a finish line at the end of the road and if they just kept running, even though the weaker moments, they would be rewarded further down the line. Season two had plenty of rewards to throw, and if there’s anything its third season is currently demonstrating, it’s that there are plenty of treats left in the prize bag.
9 – Hannibal
When news came in of a gruesome, gritty retelling of the infamous story of serial killer Hannibal Lecter, there was some trepidation to be felt, which only increased once we learned the show was to find its home on NBC, a network not exactly famed for breakout hits. As it turned out, Hannibal was not immune to the curse of NBC, as its weekly ratings really shouldn’t have been enough to see it through to next year. But the combination of relatively low production costs and the fact it was a critical darling gave it an extra burst of life, and thank god for that.
Hannibal is an exemplary piece of drama for two reasons. The first is that it’s written and acted to an especially high standard, with special mention going to Mads Mikkelson for his exquisite portrayal of suppressed monstrocity as the villain the show takes its name from, and to Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, Lecter’s unwitting partner in their devilish dance. Mikkelson’s version of Hannibal is subtly unnerving in ways that expand the character in so many new and different directions, but in general, the show’s lead stars were consistently stunning and more than worthy of the awards they’ll never get.
The second reason for Hannibal’s success was its extraordinary cinematography. It allowed us to gain an insight into Lecter’s mind and how he appreciated the twisted tapestry he would create with his victims. Almost every episode of season gave us such glimpses into his mind. I would gladly list each and every moment I found to be incomprehensibly beautiful in all their gory and repugnant glory, but I feel doing so wouldn’t be giving them the service they deserve. These are moments you really need to experience for yourself to fully appreciate the level of artistic craftsmanship of which we’re talking about.
Hannibal may have been one of the year’s most underwhelming ratings performers, but that same performance did not extend to its overall quality. The show was astoundingly good in ways I never expected, and I would wholeheartedly recommend you add it to your list of things to watch.
8 – The Americans
From the outside, The Americans, FX’s ‘80s drama about a married couple who just happen to be Russian KGB spies sent to infiltrate Washington D.C., appeared to be a story all about these two characters and the mission they were been tasked with completing. But it was so much more than that. The Americans’ central story was an allegory of marriage itself and the various forms it takes. Marriage to each other, to one’s country, to one’s loyalty, and how that marriage can be strained to the point of destruction. It’s a fascinating story to be telling; fortunately The Americans told it remarkably well.
The Americans, like its two main characters, was a show that looked to be about one thing but was really about something else, and the distance between those two things was used as a means to explore both ends of the connection. How did the vows Elizabeth and Phillip swore they’d uphold in Russia affect their married life in America? How did said married life in America affect the task in front of them? Was there any way they could still be loyal to their country without it ripping them apart? These were all pertinent questions The Americans tried hard to answer in its first season, and it’s why it was such a strong and interesting show to watch.
Despite the show’s storytelling strength, credit also has to be given to main stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who managed to portray the many facets of their characters’ marriage with incredible depth and precision. Elizabeth and Phillip were extremely fascinating characters whose motivations, and the struggles with them, provided countless moments of pure dramatic brilliance. Again, as with the aforementioned Mads Mikkelson, they don’t seem destined for award recognition for the foreseeable future, but there is an empty space in their cabinets that, in an ideal world, would have been occupied by now.
Fellow stars Noah Emmerich, who played the FBI antithesis to Philip and Elizabeth, and Margo Martindale, the fearsome authoritative figure to the Jenningses, also provided terrific performances. I loved Martindale’s brand of fear wrapped around power in particular, and I sincerely hope she’s a regular presence in the show’s upcoming second season, despite having her skills be squandered in the terrible The Millers.
Marriage can sometimes be a tedious storytelling area to explore, but The Americans’ exploration of it and the different ways in which it can both test and be tested proved to be one of 2013’s strongest narratives. Season two is right around the corner, and I cannot wait.
7 – Game of Thrones
We all think we know what to expect from Game of Thrones. Namely violence, sex, penis, boobs, incest, dragons, more sex and violence, possibly at the same time. Yet despite thinking we know exactly what the show is going to throw at us, it still knows exactly the right strings to pull to turn our stomachs inside out, to inflict a response within us that lingers long after the episode itself has finished. And it does it time and time again, just as it did in its most recent season.
I think you can probably guess what the first thing I’m going to discuss is, because one cannot talk about Game of Thrones’ third season without mentioning the infamous Red Wedding. A ceremony of unparalleled violence and bloodshed that resulted in the brutal murder of three main characters plus an uncountable number of extras slaughtered off-screen, the Red Wedding was a perfect demonstration of how ugly and twisted Westeros really is. The good are punished while the bad prosper. The show pulled out everything it had to produce arguably the most explosive and devastating sequence of its life. Even if, like me, you were expecting it to happen because of prior familiarity with the books, it was still mesmerising in its sheer ferocity, and its effect has still yet to dissipate six months later.
But it wasn’t just the Red Wedding that made 2013 Game of Thrones’ year. Season three also saw major progression in Jaime Lannister’s redemptive story arc, which was carried by the sublime and award-worthy Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who displayed one of the strongest television performances of the year. Also, there was the slow yet intriguing story of what happened to Jon Snow and co. beyond the Wall, as well as Dany rising to become the feared leader (and HBIC) she was destined to be. And when you throw in several intriguing new characters (and the wonderful Diana Rigg) and exciting narrative beginnings to carry over to season four, you had a recipe for a delicious feast of chaos and horror entwined with moments of sheer excellence.
It should be no secret that many people consider ‘A Storm of Swords’, the third book in the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series on which Game of Thrones is based, to be a stronger and more eventful affair than ‘A Clash of Kings’. I would agree with those people. Consequently, season three had a stronger and more varied color palette from which to paint its picture, with occasional variances in success. But even on slower weeks, Game of Thrones manages to be one of the most vicious yet strangely human shows on the air, with characters that grow in complexity and a universe that becomes even more vast and thrilling the more it expands. Season three wasn’t perfect, but it was still damn fine drama, Red Weddings or otherwise.
6 – Masters of Sex
A relative newcomer to the television world having only premiered a matter of months ago, Masters of Sex, Showtime’s ’70s drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers of human sexual research, has already proven itself to be an exceptional insight into not just the act of sex but the connections between people. Sex, of course, is the ultimate act of human connection, but how can one influence the other? The way Masters of Sex explores this topic and more makes it one of this year’s most stellar television outings.
The story of Masters and Johnson is an incredibly fascinating one from a storytelling perspective. These two people, whose personalities are almost worlds apart, are drawn together in an effort to understand more about intimacy. But it is their proximity to the unknown that brings them together, that connects them in a beautiful and deeply involving way. It provides a compelling and character-driven experience that feels so very…human.
It’s also worth mentioning that this being a show about the evolution of our understanding about sex ultimately means there are sex scenes frequently interspersed. But instead of making them seedy and superfluous like other shows tend to do, Masters of Sex chooses to make them engaging and almost beautiful in a way rarely seen on TV.
And, of course, we should give credit to the phenomenal performances of both Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan for their portrayals of Masters and Johnson respectively. Both actors give such incredible depth to their characters that it’s difficult not to get emotionally invested in their relationship. Masters of Sex excels at showing us how connections define us, and it does so by actually connecting us to the experience. The end result is a show that works on so many levels.
And that wraps up the first half of this list. Check back in a few days for the concluding half where I’ll discuss the five shows I considered to be the best of the bunch.