Firstly, I hope everyone reading this had a wonderful Christmas and has an even better start into 2014!
Also, this is the second part of my list discussing my favorite television shows of the last twelve months. If you haven’t read the first half and would like to, you can do so via this link.
5 – Top of the Lake
I’ll get this out of the way first and foremost: Top of the Lake, a Sundance Channel production, was not a show that everybody would like. It was almost dream-like in its surreality, with certain elements appearing to make little sense from the outset. It’s what I would define as a strange show. Yet in spite of this, and of the things that really didn’t work as well as they were intended, there were things that did–and they worked on an incredible level, making Top of the Lake one of my favorite experiences of the year.
Top of the Lake had several things that worked in its favor. For instance, the central story of pregnant 12-year-old Tui’s disappearance never failed to be mysterious and engaging like all stories of such a nature should be. It formed a nice spine for everything else in the show to connect to, and as fundamentally dark as the subject matter was, it was wonderfully dealt with from beginning to end. Granted, there may have been lapses here and there, and it’s debatable as to whether the final twist was masterful or regretful, but as is often the case with stories in television and otherwise, it was the journey that mattered the most.
But if there was one thing that propelled Top of the Lake above and beyond what it could’ve ended up being, it was the performance of main star Elisabeth Moss as the show’s lead character. Robin was a deeply complex and multi-faceted character whose many layers were fascinating to peel away. From the exterior, she appeared to play the role of hardened detective tasked with unmasking the horrific truth that led a small girl to pregnancy, a subsequent suicide attempt, and then disappearance. As the series continued, however, it became clear that Robin was broken inside, the ghost of her past haunting her present, and as strong as Top of the Lake’s story was, it was the process of exploring Robin’s character that provided the series with its deepest narrative.
As said before, Elisabeth Moss’ performance in Top of the Lake was, for want of a better word, extraordinary. Moss is no stranger to deploying fantastic performances in the shows she’s been involved with, as fans of Mad Men can attest to, but in six episodes she managed to usurp almost every expectation I–and I imagine others–had of her. That’s simply not an easy thing to do, yet the way in which she navigated the labyrinth of Robin’s character was almost effortless. In fact, I would gladly label her performance my favorite of any actor in any show in the entirety of 2013. Which makes the fact she’s had very little awards success since then even more difficult to comprehend.
It should also be noted that Top of the Lake was one of the most beautiful cinematographic experiences of the entire year–arguably at the same level as Hannibal. There were so many shots and scenes in the series that made me pause to take in how astonishingly gorgeous it was. Filming in New Zealand granted them with a stunning landscape to work with, and even if you discount their success in other areas, you cannot argue with the fact Top of the Lake was captivating in its artistry.
Six episodes was all Top of the Lake had to tell its story and show us who its characters were. It will not have any more now that it’s finished. Turns out, however, that six hours was all it needed to become one of the most exciting and deeply engaging shows of the last twelve months, with one of the finest actresses on television exceeding even her own stratospheric heights. It’s a shame Top of the Lake will not be returning in the future, but it’s left behind a legacy of enormous strength.
4 – Breaking Bad
For years Breaking Bad dealt with its narrative explosions with bombast and fury, dealing pain and misery at every step of Walter White’s transformation into a hideous monster. But Walt’s transfiguration had been completed and 2013 saw the time come for the series to bid farewell to its beloved story and characters. Lives were lost, horror and carnage ensued at every corner, and finally it all came to an end. A glorious, devastating end.
It would be easy to discuss Breaking Bad’s series finale before anything else that happened in its final run of eight episodes, but that wasn’t its strongest hour. No, such a title should go to the incredible “Ozymandias,” the season’s fourteenth and most cataclysmic hour. Heart-pounding tension was entwined with horrifying loss to create one of most captivating and emotionally manipulative episodes of the entire year, with show-stopping performances from all of the show’s cast members, including an exceptional Dean Norris, who is surely a lock-in for next year’s Emmy nominations. “Ozymandias” was truly an outstanding hour for the show’s final season, and of the series as a whole. The final two episodes didn’t manage to match its angry momentum, but they didn’t need to; the damage had already been done. The aftermath was the only thing that remained.
By the time Breaking Bad had said its final farewell, its characters had all been reduced to unrecognisable husks, turned upside down and emptied of their contents by the actions of Walter White. It was the culmination of years of character development, portrayed masterfully by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Anna Gunn. But they’d reached their end. They’d endured so much at the hands of Walt’s monster that all that remained was recuperation or, in Hank’s unfortunate case, death. It was sad to see some of the finest characters on television leave, but the decision to end Breaking Bad at the height of its narrative game, as opposed to unnaturally extending it for profitable purposes, was very welcome.
Few shows have left behind a legacy as everlasting as Breaking Bad’s. Few shows ever will. People will be discussing it for months and years down the line. Not just the series finale, either, but the entire five-season run. They’ll be discussing the incredible journey of Walter White from mild-mannered cancer sufferer to drug kingpin. They’ll be talking about the aforementioned “Ozymandias” and how it managed to blast everything into oblivion in time for the series’ final two episodes. Certain sections will probably still be lambasting Gunn’s Skylar White for daring to stand up to her repugnant husband. But regardless of where you look, Breaking Bad has long been regarded as a contributor to the so-called ‘Golden Age of Television’, and that’s an honor that’s not going to go away in the near future. Not if the final season has anything to do with it.
3 – Orphan Black
If there’s a term you’ve no doubt heard a million times this year, it’s “binge-watching.” And rightly so, as the success of Netflix’s model of releasing entire seasons at once, available to watch at your own leisure and pace, indicates it’s a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly more popular. Certain shows benefit from such an activity, while others are better off being consumed on a weekly basis. BBC America’s sci-fi drama Orphan Black, however, lends itself to the former rather than the latter.
I initially only discovered Orphan Black as it was approaching its season finale, but it took all of two days–and two sittings–for me to plow through nine episodes. The show had so many things working in its favor, such as the rapid pace that rarely let you come up for air, or the impossibly talented Tatiana Maslany displaying in excess of five characters, often at the same time. But binge-watching almost the entire season in such a short space of time magnified the show’s strongest elements to such a degree that it became a better show. It became an unstoppable tour-de-force, ripping through its story like it was slashing a knife through dense jungle. Consequently, it was so darned brilliant.
I could talk all day and night about how strong Orphan Black’s first season was and how you should stop reading and immediately watch it before you die without it having ever improved your life, but I’ll summarise the strongest element in two single words: Tatiana Maslany. A relatively unknown actress before the show hit the waves, Maslany entered the game with the ostensibly insurmountable task of playing over five different characters, sometimes as one pretending to be another, with frequent technical wizardry ensuring she had to play off of herself in scenes. Not one to let such impossibility get in the way, Maslany demonstrated how phenomenal an actress she is by making each of her characters totally unique and distinguishable. I’ve never seen such a nuanced and attentive performance, and I still cannot quite believe Maslany made it possible. But she did, and in the space of ten episodes, she rose to become the actress everybody involved in TV should be falling over themselves to hire.
2013 was an incredible year for Orphan Black. If there is any justice, 2014 should be even more successful. Maslany’s recent Golden Globes nomination almost makes up for her monumentally disappointing snub at this year’s Emmy Awards. People are taking notice of the show, of the almost universal adoration from television critics, and now is as good a time as any to finally let Orphan Black into your life. You’ll be thanking me later.
2 – The Good Wife
I wrote on my blog a while ago–and have frequently mentioned since–that The Good Wife was trapped in a narrative tornado. What’s aired of its fifth season thus far has managed to do what most other shows rarely have the balls to even consider: throw everything into the air to see where they land. Everything the show built itself around for five years, from Alicia’s position within Lockhart Gardner to the character dynamics that made the show such a thrill to watch, was ripped from its roots and tossed aside for something new and powerful to grow in its place. The end result was The Good Wife solidifying its position as the strongest, smartest, and most fearless network drama on the air.
For a CBS procedural set within the confines of a Chicago law firm, The Good Wife has no right to be in the position it’s in. It has no right to be telling the stories it’s telling in a way that totally disregards the ostensible limits of a procedurally driven show. It has no right to have the power to upend everything it’s built to see what else can grow in the same lot. Yet that is exactly what’s happening, and it’s a testament to the show’s writers and visionaries that they have managed to subvert every expectation had of them.
I’m not about to say The Good Wife has no right to be as good as it is because it’s a network show, as I find that to be a backhanded compliment that unfairly implies all network shows are forever fated to fall behind their cable brethren. But it is undeniably a surprise to see a show with a premise such as TGW‘s storm ahead in such a manner–in its fifth season no less. Creative wells naturally begin to dry up the older a show gets, irrespective of its broadcast heritage, but The Good Wife has managed to build new, almost bottomless, ones for itself. For that reason alone, it has to be admired.
There will always be an argument to be had regarding whether creative freedom means that cable shows will always have the advantage, but that’s for another day and for people with the time and expertise to argue it. For now, The Good Wife is proudly sitting at the centre of the storm it’s created for itself, watching everybody run not away from the carnage but towards it. It’s turned itself into an entirely new show in such a short space of time, and in the process, has become one of the most exciting and tempestuous dramas on television. The fact that it’s a network show ultimately means nothing to its creative structure.
1 – Orange is the New Black
And here we are at my favorite TV show of the year, and while I cannot tell you how long I deliberated over what show to put in this position, in the end it seemed inevitable that Orange is the New Black, the fourth major Netflix original to be released in the year, would find itself here. Because whether it was in the characters and how they broke the stereotypes generally attached to them, or the incredibly human heart sat beating at the centre, or even in the performances of everybody in the show, Orange is the New Black astounded me with its unwillingness to walk with the crowd.
Honestly, I could gush about Orange all night, describing how it managed to drag me into its world at a speed that surprised even me, and how it told the stories of those living in the Litchfield Women’s Correctional Facility with such passion and heart. But it was inarguably the show’s characters that left such an impression on me. I fell in love with main character Piper Chapman’s entry into an unfamiliar world almost instantly. I shipped her relationship with fellow inmate and former lover Alex harder than I’ve shipped anything in a very long time. I watched as the show gave me an insight into each of the prisoners’ lives, and as I learned more about them, they became the show. Orange is the New Black was blessed with the strongest ensemble cast I’ve seen in years, and it knew just how to take that opportunity and spin it into gold.
I said before about how Orange is the New Black broke boundaries and stereotypes with its characters, and it was one of the things I loved most about the show. It featured several lesbian characters but never once treated their sexual preferences as a plot device; they were real, natural, normal people, and that’s simply not something you see on television that often. The same goes for Sophia. a black transgender character played by a black transgender actress who wasn’t just cannon fodder for the killer of the week on a Law and Order episode. These people, these characters, would probably never have gotten the same kind of treatment and care on any other show, and I cannot tell you how much I adore it for operating outside of the boundaries.
Without a doubt, Orange is the New Black was my favorite show of the last twelve months. It was heartfelt and human, it treated its characters–no matter how separate from society they unfortunately were–with a rare and infrequently seen delicacy, and in all, it filled a gap in my life that I never even knew was there. It’s the rare kind of show I could watch over and over again without ever getting tired of. It’s simply that good.
When Arrow first premiered back in the Fall of last year, few could’ve legitimately prophesied the show becoming what it seemed born to do. What initially started out as a show standing on uneven ground, unsure about what it was or wanted to be, grew and grew in strength until it finally hit its stride at the end of its first season. That same tight control over its enormous character base and story arcs has carried over into its second season, and it’s now sitting proudly as one of the most thrilling and exciting shows on the air.
People love mysteries. They especially love discussing them with others, taking every seemingly innocuous moment and running through them with a fine toothcomb in the hopes of obtaining another piece of the truth. Broadchurch, an eight-part murder mystery set in the heart of a British community, had all the makings of a classic whodunnit, with the added spark of excellent and intriguing characters portrayed by actors throwing everything they had into their roles. The result was, well, genius.
CBS’ modern day retelling of Sherlock Holmes started off its debut season on uneven ground, leaning a little too heavily towards the generic procedural the show needed to avoid becoming. But as the show entered 2013, taking advantage of the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, it started to juggle some seriously impressive story arcs, resulting in a magnificent three-part finale to close off its first year. That same momentum hasn’t quite continued throughout season two thus far, but the show is still firing on all cylinders.
Let’s be honest for a moment: nobody really expected Sleepy Hollow to be a success. With a premise that promised Ichabod Crane being brought forward through time in order to fight demons and creatures with a cop every week, it initially seemed to be nothing more than an attempt at throwing a kooky concept at the wall in the hopes it would stick. But the most surprising thing of all? It did stick. It became a ridiculous yet brilliantly thrilling show with strong performances and genuinely interesting character work. Is it the strongest drama on the air? Hardly. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give it the praise it deserves for beating the expectations.
While the previously mentioned Broadchurch explored its mystery with the killer’s identity kept hidden until the very end, The Fall showed us who was doing the dastardly deed right from the beginning. The result was a character piece of sorts, with the two partners in the dance of wits being played by Jamie Dornan and the always magnificent Gillian Anderson. Dornan’s portrayal of a brutal monster who disguised himself as a family man during the day was ruthless and compelling, while Anderson’s performance as the ice-cold pursuer to Dornan’s threat was deliciously exciting.
Person of Interest
In a year that seems to belong to the CBS procedural, Person of interest has steadily grown from being a monotonous cop show to a terrifically executed amalgamation of strong character work and bombastic story arcs, all wrapped around a core of adrenaline that surges every so often. The procedural is still there, but it no longer defines the show. The last batch of episodes has demonstrated exactly what the show is capable of, and it’s in the exploration of its serialised elements where Person of Interest‘s strength shines.
In its second season, Scandal, the show whose veins carry nothing but adrenaline through its body, blew itself up. It went all-in on its story arcs and having them twist in all kinds of directions, and yes, you could argue it was at the expense of its characters. (You could definitely say this of season three thus far, and I would agree with you.) But irrespective of that, Scandal was pure dramatic dynamite in its second year. That has unfortunately not been something the show has carried over to its third season, but I still hold hope that it will at some point in the future.
Of all the shows to be canceled this year, it was Southland‘s premature demise that hurt the most. Because even though it had five seasons in which to tell its story, I never got the sense that it had reached the end of its creative life. In fact, season five (the unintended final season) demonstrated clearer than ever that the show had more to give, with “Chaos”, its penultimate episode, being a devastating and cataclysmic hour of television that should sit on everybody’s ‘Best of…’ list. It’s a shame the show will never again get the chance to show us what it’s capable of, but it at least went out soaring.
And with that brings this list of mine to an end. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the strongest TV shows of the year in the comment box below!