This is a bad list. Its badness isn’t necessarily the list’s own fault, but it is still pretty bad. For example, sitcoms and half hour shows in general are poorly represented. There is only one of them, and even if its episodes were 30 minutes, it is practically a half hour drama program. I wanted to illustrate how great television was in 2013, but really all this list does is show how great hour-long programs were. Also, none of the shows that appear on this list aired on broadcast television. There are many, many great shows that air on CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC, but there just wasn’t enough room, and because of this, the list implies that cable television is the best kind of television. But all of this is simply because this list is just a list.
Lists have always been designed to make people angry and cause uproar. Their very foundation is so contrived and so stupid, and in the end they hold no meaning whatsoever. But for some reason they are just so fun to make, so here it goes.
The ten shows that make up this list truly represent the greatness of television in 2013, but there are at least 10 more shows that could do the same. Any one of the 10 shows (and some of the next 10) could make the bid for “the best show of 2013.” This really speaks to how great of a time it is for television. It seems that in 2013 in particular each and every week a new, great show popped up and became the best show on TV. So don’t say that the golden age is ending because Mad Men and Breaking Bad are over, because right now television is ready to prove that will always be golden.
10. Orphan Black
With Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany rocketed from actress with a cool sounding name to actress giving the best performance on television. In Orphan Black‘s first season, Maslany proved herself a star, giving the performance of a lifetime. Playing not just six, but seven different characters who eventually become acquainted with each other as clones, Maslany bested the Cranstons, Hamms, and Danes of the televerse in 2013’s best performance. But it’s not just Maslany’s sublime starring role that makes Orphan Black so great. The series’ whip-smart writing and twisty and speedy pace helped Orphan Black position itself as one of the best new shows of 2013. At its best Orphan Black was fast, funny, thrilling, and all around fantastic, and it helped that it remained remarkably consistent throughout all 10 episodes.
9. Les Revenants (The Returned)
When any type of art tries to cover the subject of death it’s bound to be tricky, and when it’s bad it’s really bad. Les Revenants, however, showed how good death can be portrayed when it’s executed right. Even if most of Les Revenant‘s main characters are the living dead who have returned to life, they aren’t the flesh-eating kind who have no brains. And even if the living characters freak out about their family/friends/acquaintances who have returned to life, they don’t respond with guns or katanas. Yes, it’s the thinking that connects these characters and what makes their journeys so compelling. (And being impeccably scored by Mogwai doesn’t hurt either.) Les Revenants doesn’t dwell in death, but rather flourishes in it. There is thought, reaction, connection, and experience through death, contrary to what its genre might suggest. The best thing about Les Revenants is that it never manages to get caught up in its concept, or the abundance of questions it doesn’t answer. Les Revenants was supernatural, moody, and even beautiful at times, and managed to reprioritize not only how we think about death, but how we watch television.
8. Orange is the New Black
At first, Orange is the New Black seemed like a mistake. In 2013 Netflix had been 0-3 for original programming (in terms of qualitative success) leading up to Orange‘s release date, and it’s not like the world needed what looked like an inessential perspective of prison told from an upperclass white woman’s point of view. But it eventually turned out that Orange is the New Black was one of the most surprisingly great series of 2013. As the series expanded its point of view and told stories that had nothing to do with Piper Kerman (the show’s main character) Orange is the New Black proved that it was one of the most powerful shows on television. Whether it was the story of Tricia, the tragically fated addict, or Sophia, who seems to be television’s first real and complex transsexual character, Orange is the New Black made it clear that it had stories worth telling. Even if by episode 7 you had no idea what the track star’s name was, you knew that her story was affecting and important television, and that Orange is the New Black had multitudes more to tell.
By all counts Rectify was the best new series of 2013. It’s impossible to watch Rectify and not be taken aback by the show and everything it embodied. Rectify is practically 100% different from everything else on television. It’s an intimate look into one man’s new life after spending 19 years on death row, and it manages to find beauty in everything. It’s the little things that count in Rectify. In “Plato’s Cave” Daniel Holden, the show’s main character, spends a substantial part of the episode in a Walmart, mesmerized by everything around him. In “Drip, Drip”, Daniel finds a random man and ends up wrestling him in front of a statue of a crossbred goat-woman. Even if it is the slowest moving and most bizarre show on television, everything about Rectify is meditative, entrancing, and rewarding. Aden Young is magnetic as the series’ leading man, and supporting performances from Abigail Spencer and Adelaide Clemens round out one of the best acted shows of 2013. There is beauty and resonance everywhere in life, and Rectify makes that simple fact known.
6. Mad Men
It pains me very much to have Mad Men stand so low on this list. The sixth season of this veteran AMC Drama was dismissed by fans and Emmy voters alike, which may be the worst crime any television viewer committed in 2013. Mad Men wasn’t boring, repetitive, or unnecessary in 2013, because it turns it was absolutely essential to what the show is becoming now. The entire arc of season 6 didn’t really click until the last episodes of the season, but once it finished its run, Mad Men clocked in with one of the most fully realized seasons of television since when The Wire was on TV. Somehow Matt Weiner managed to bring more depth, profundity, and grandeur to one of the best shows of the 2000’s, and really showed what we’ll be missing come 2016.
In 2013, Justified flew by at what seemed like the pace of a speeding bullet, and the most entertaining show on television became even more entertaining. After a slight misstep in 2012 (due to following the impeccable season 2), Justified managed to successfully reboot its format by introducing an intriguing season long mystery. And it worked spectacularly! The mystery managed to stay interesting throughout the entire season, even more supporting characters were added and fleshed out, and the show continued on as slick as ever. And even in its own reinvention, Justified still remained to be what it once was. None of the charm, thrill, emotional affection, or simple fun was lost in the process, as Justified somehow managed to accomplish what seemed impossible: make itself even better than what it already was.
4. Breaking Bad
If Justified flew by at what seemed like the pace of a speeding bullet, then the final episodes of Breaking Bad flew by at the speed of a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. (Sorry.) But seriously, to say that those last eight episodes were fast paced would be the year’s biggest understatement. In its final days, Breaking Bad delivered some of its strongest individual episodes anyone had ever seen, which make up one of the strongest final seasons of all time. The episodes weren’t just mechanically fast, but they were thrilling, affecting, and often times emotionally defeating. The writing was smart, the direction awe-inspiring, and the performances better than ever. There were intense standoffs and interrogations, hypnotic dream-like sequences, heartfelt character moments, breathtaking action sequences, and above all, desolate beauty. Even if I wasn’t too happy about its ending, Breaking Bad left us with one of the most incredible runs of episodes ever, and a great final arc to one of the best dramas of all time.
3. Game of Thrones
Throughout the entire run of Game of Thrones‘ third season, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss demonstrated how great their trademark sustained storytelling could be. By ditching the 1 book per season rule that was established in the first two seasons, Game of Thrones got to relish in the details, and elevated from the best fantasy show on television to the best drama on television period. Each episode wasn’t as sporadic as previous ones were, even though the season covered about as much ground as every other series on TV did combined. There were also significant improvements from book to screen (which is quite remarkable considering A Storm of Swords is the best book of the series to date), the most notable being the development of Margarey Tyrell as an actual character. Game of Thrones has always been (and will always be) a thrill to watch, and with season 3 it showed that it could be truly astounding television.
2. Top of The Lake
Top of the Lake didn’t really feel like a television show, but rather a 6 hour movie. Nothing that aired in 2013 was more atmospheric or more engrossing than Top of the Lake. (And that’s not just because it was visually stunning.) Top of the Lake was structured around one upsetting case of a pregnant and missing 12-year-old in a small New Zealand town. Heading the investigation was Robin, a former native of the town (played rivetingly by Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss), and as she reacquainted herself with the town, Robin and viewers realized why she left the godforsaken place. In the end, Top of the Lake was bold, disturbing, saddening, yet completely absorbing, and left us with some of the best television we’ll never see again.
The best kind of television is the kind that makes you feel something. And in 2013, no show was more emotionally affecting than Enlightened. The experience of watching Enlightened had always been different from most television throughout its 2 year run, and in 2013 it might have been the most powerful viewing experience of the year. Enlightened told the story of Amy Jellicoe (played magnificently by Laura Dern), a woman who saw herself as an “agent of change.” Amy had far-reaching aspirations (season 2 centered around the takedown of an entire corporation), but it didn’t matter if she achieved them or not, because it was the trying that really mattered in the end. In 2013, everyone who watched Enlightened had the pleasure of seeing of seeing Amy and others try to make a difference in their lives, and understand the essence of change. Enlightened could be funny, tragic, poignant, and inspirational in any given episode, and demonstrated how brilliantly constructed a half hour of television could be.
In just 4 hours, Enlightened told the best story of 2013. Each of the 8 episodes deemed themselves as necessary viewing, ranging from universe expanding perspectives (“Higher Power”, “The Ghost is Seen”) to brutal and honest conversations (“All I Ever Wanted”, “Agent of Change”). But in the end, HBO cancelled Enlightened. Even if it is gone now, Enlightened will always stay with those who watched it. There was no story more moving than Amy Jellicoe’s, no examination of humanity more beautiful than Enlightened‘s, and no more profound viewing experience than this 8 episode 2nd season. I won’t ever forget Enlightened, and chances are if you watched you won’t forget it either. Enlightened was the best show of 2013.