And so another year comes to a close, and of course that means it’s time to make arbitrary lists subjectively comparing things. For my favorite shows of the year, I looked at the entire calendar year, with the only real rule being that a returning show must’ve aired at least half of a single season during 2013. Again, this is all subjective, and I can already rattle off about ten things that aren’t on my list for myriad reason (#1 being that I just haven’t watched them yet). Also, as you can see, this is part one. Part two will drop sometime between Christmas day and New Year’s Eve and will be a more in-depth look at my top two shows of the year. So without further ado, let’s begin!
25. Adventure Time
Adventure Time‘s mega-sized, 52-episode fifth season began airing in November of 2012, but the 37 episodes aired in 2013 have shown the kind of expansion and experimentation that a fifth-season show, even an all-ages program, shouldn’t be able to get away with. But Adventure Time continues to deliver fresh and exciting stories on a fairly consistent basis. 2013 saw the birth and raising of Jake’s pups, the development—and ultimately, dissolution—of Finn’s relationship with Flame Princess, more history of The Mushroom War and the bond between Ice King and Marceline, and greater ambiguity in Princess Bubblegum’s morality. Adventure Time also indulged in experiments in both animation (the infamous “A Glitch is a Glitch”) and storytelling (“The Vault,” “The Party’s Over, Isla de Señorita”), while maintaining its appeal to kids. At this point, Adventure Time is essentially unstoppable, but why would you want to?
Maybe the most divisive and controversial season of TV in 2013, Girls took its second season as an opportunity to get dark. Really, really dark. Each of the four main characters experienced some kind of trauma this year, from Hannah rupturing her eardrum with a Q-Tip to Marnie’s soul-crushingly awkward Kanye West cover. The show also took time to go down paths that didn’t immediately make a whole lot of sense. “One Man’s Trash,” aka “The Patrick Wilson Episode,” is essentially a one-act play with two characters, “Video Games” follows Hannah and Jessa out to the country to visit Jessa’s family, and “Boys” gives insight into the show’s male characters. But it all went to hell in the season’s final three episodes, and as the lives of the characters fall apart, the narrative comes into stark focus. The final scene of the season is a doozy, and rightfully polarizing, but whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it blows open the doors for season three.
23. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
On paper, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a disaster. A police department workplace comedy, helmed by Mike Schur and Dan Goor (of Parks and Recreation), and starring Andy Samberg shouldn’t work. And for the first few episodes, it didn’t, entirely. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a secret weapon (or six) hidden up its sleeve: its supporting cast. They carry the show in early episodes, and by the midseason finale, they’re just as, if not more, integral to the show’s existence as Samberg. There’s Andre Braugher as Captain Holt, the strict new captain of the pecinct whose vulnerabilities are slowly but surely brought to light; Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz, the tough, street-level detective whose iciness isn’t hiding some fragile little girl—she just happens to be a badass; Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, the over-achiever who longs to be taken on as a mentee by Captain Holt; Joe Lo Truglio as Charles Boyle, a bumbling divorcee who’s fiercely loyal to his fellow detectives and the precinct; Chelsea Peretti as Gina, the precinct’s administrator who seems to both hate and love everyone in equal measure; and last, but certainly not least, is Terry Crews as Sergeant Terry Jeffords, the leader of the sqaud, who’s recovering from a breakdown but slowly working his way back into the field, and has immense love for his baby girls, Cagney and Lacey. The supporting cast (especially Crews, who steals every scene he gets, and Peretti, who can make a ten second scene the best of the episode) make Brooklyn Nine-Nine, smoothing out any wrinkles and rough edges from Samberg. I mean, if Terry Crews destroying a pink princess castles with his bare hands isn’t enough to get you to watch, I don’t know what else to say.
22. Arrested Development
Let’s get some things out of the way: no, the new season of Arrested Development was not on the level of the original three, and yes, there were some problems, most specifically the episode lengths and certain characters being given too much or too little to do. But, and trust me on this, a second watch really reveals the gem underneath. The story structure is interesting, and while the decision to have each episode focus on a certain character proved problematic, it makes sense with the parallel narratives. On second watch, the season is also much funnier, as jokes and punchlines come together better, and references that aren’t revealed until later in the season make more sense. But in the end, it’s impossible for me to hate spending time with the Bluths. And as the story continues diving into the darkness of Michael Bluth (a story that, like it or not, began all the way back in season one), more and more about the true nature of the Bluths is revealed, as the importance of George Michael and Maeby becomes clearer. While still just a funny sitcom about a family of horrible people, Arrested Development also became a story about breaking free, about trying to find yourself, even when the very DNA inside you is pulling you down into the depths of awfulness. Oh, and did I mention the bees? (Beads? Bees.)
21. Sleepy Hollow
Talk about a pleasant surprise. When Sleepy Hollow was first announced, I couldn’t have been any less interested in a story about Ichabod Crane, Time Traveler, but as the pilot began making the rounds, the buzz grew, and it seemed this little show might not be a train wreck after all. Co-led by Tom Mison as Crane and Nicole Beharie as Lieutenant Abbie Mills, the show turned out to be a more progressive answer to Supernatural, with a healthy dose of Fringe and The X-Files mixed in. The central narrative, which is bonkers beyond belief and involves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is woven throughout monster-of-the-week stories in a way that’s smarter than a serialized Fox drama should be allowed to be. Joining Mison and Beharies are Orlando Jones as Captain Irving, Sleepy Hollow’s police captain, Katia Winter as Katrina Crane, Ichabod’s trapped-in-limbo wife who is a witch, and Lyndie Greenwood as Jenny Mills, Abbie’s allegedly unstable sister who has more knowledge of the supernatural threats than Abbie realized. Sleepy Hollow is insane, but it’s never self-serious, balancing out the heavy and ridiculous with subtle humor and sweetness, and honestly, no image on television this year was better than the Headless Horseman dual-wielding machine guns.
20. Orphan Black
When it comes to breakout performances, none shine quite as bright as Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black. A sci-fi show about a group of clones who discover they’re clones and try to find out where they came from, Maslany takes on not only the five main clones, but five more clones, and sometimes she’s even playing one clone impersonating another clone impersonating another clone. Entire scenes are just Maslany acting against herself, and what makes it even better is how easy it is to forget. (True story, at one point during the first season, I actually went to IMDB to see who played Cosima, the geeky scientist clone, before remembering that it’s still Maslany.) The show itself is good enough—it’s soft sci-fi, more about the connections these women both have made in their lives and are making with the new knowledge of their origins, and the supporting cast performs admirably—but Maslany’s performance is masterful, and rightfully takes front and center in any conversation about the show. The end of season one barreled into absolute madness, and with season two just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to catch up on this sleeper hit.
Perhaps it was a nice bit of synchronicity that Veep‘s sharper, funnier, and all around better second season came at the beginning of a year where public opinion of the United States government fell into its deepest malaise yet. Season two brought Gary Cole into the cast, giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyers a consistent sparring partner, as the Vice President dealt with a hostage situation hiding a government secret, a government shutdown, rekindling her relationship with her husband, and considering her political future. Louis-Dreyfus continued to deliver on all cylinders, as the supporting cast (especially Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, and Matt Walsh) only got better. Deeper characters and more interesting, serialized stories help elevate Veep into the pantheon of American political satire currently inhabited by Stewart and Colbert, and with a well-defined voice and razor-sharp wit, it could become the sharpest political satire of our age.
18. Parks and Recreation
If Parks and Rec‘s fifth season started off slow, its back half, which aired at the beginning of the year, picked up the slack considerably. Much of it was planting seeds for season six, but the sheer spectacle of the Knope-Wyatt wedding in “Leslie and Ben” glossed over the relatively meandering parts of the season. Fortunately, season six has been solid thus far, beginning with the hour-long premiere “London,” which featured perhaps Ron Swanson’s greatest story yet. We also got the introduction of the Eagleton doppelgangers, as well as the long-awaited recall vote, leading to Parks and Rec‘s gutsiest narrative decision in years. And of course, it continues to be one of the most pleasant shows on television, even when the wear and tear of six season starts to show, making it no surprise that the little comedy that could continues to chug along.
Justified, despite having a second season that could stand alongside the greatest prestige dramas, has always been relegated to the second tier, the shows that are good, just not that good, but season four sought to break free of that designation. Opting out of a big bad, Justified‘s fourth season instead focuses on the mystery of Drew Thompson, a man deeply ingrained into Harlan, yet also completely invisible. But as much as Justified is a show about the law, it’s also a show about a community and the behind-the-scenes power that drives it, and season four dove even deeper into Harlan than ever, giving Boyd his own narrative that, while sometimes intersecting, mostly just runs parallel to Raylan’s. Season four also saw excellent performances from the entire cast, including a delightfully badass constable courtesy of Patton Oswalt, that concluded in some of the strongest performances of Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and Jim Beaver’s careers. Few shows on television understand exactly what they are quite like Justified, and if the trend of excellence continues, it could find a home amongst its more revered brethren with time.
16. Trophy Wife
To be frank, a poorly-titled ABC sitcom simply has no business being as good as Trophy Wife is. The story of a woman marrying a man with two previous wives, with three children between them, all existing as a single family unit, Trophy Wife found its feet quickly and took off from there. As the titular wife, Malin Akerman is a delight, never pushing her character too far into any stereotypes, and her scenes with husband Bradley Whitford are some of the series best. Micheala Watkins and Macia Gaye Harden shine as the two previous wives, both creating complex, fully-formed characters without falling into caricature. And most surprising are the children, the teen-aged Warren (Ryan Lee) and Hillary (Bailee Madison) and the adopted youngest, Bert (Albert Tsai), who are never grating, and are oftentimes (well, in the case of Bert, always) standouts from any given episode. While Trophy Wife aims more for pleasant than gut-bustingly hilarious (and truthfully, there are less jokes than you’d expect), it still has moments of comedic brilliance, especially when Malin Akerman shows off her incredible chops for physical comedy. Sadly, Trophy Wife is wilting on ABC, stuck at the end of a poorly-performing night and never getting the attention it deserves. But I’m not giving up, and neither should you.
15. Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23
Like fellow “Best Show of 2013” Happy Endings (and perhaps, sadly, Trophy Wife), Apartment 23 suffered from the incurable scourge of being a sitcom on ABC that isn’t Modern Family. After being mishandled for the entirety of its first season and a half, ABC finally pulled the plug on Apartment 23 before the back half of season two could even air. Thankfully, Hulu picked up the bruised and battered show, bringing the final nine episodes, which just happened to be the series’ best, to audiences in the spring. Wicked, fun, and extremely blunt, Apartment 23 is surprisingly fresh in a saturated sitcom market. Krysten Ritter gives a revelatory performance as the titular bitch, but Dreama Walker is the real breakout, a relatively unknown actress whose manic energy redeemed a questionable character early in the first season, and who stood and delivered throughout the second. The second season also saw the supporting men—James Van Der Beek, Eric Andre, and Ray Ford—consistently matching Ritter and Walker beat for beat, creating a zany tone unlike anything else on TV. Unfortunately, as we now know, being unique can prove to be fatal, but we’ll always have these two seasons.
14. Comedy Bang! Bang!
Comedy Bang! Bang! the show struggled in its first season with transporting the tone of the podcast to the screen, but Scott Aukerman and company must’ve figured it all out between seasons, because the second, double-sized season of Comedy Bang! Bang! comes out of the gates with a, well, bang and never looks back. The couch guests run of the gamut of film and television actors (many of whom, surprisingly, have little comedy experience), while the character guests continue to be a who’s who of the alt-comedy world. And with more episodes comes greater room for experimentation, including a Lost-riffing mystery told out of chronological order, a Sliding Doors homage, two holiday extravaganzas, and a musical episode (written, of course, by “Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber”). Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts have an even better back-and-forth than season one, and the inclusion of characters from the podcast (including the classics Dalton Wilcox and Fourvel) brought even more fun to the show. For fans of comedy, Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a damn requirement.
Part political drama, part soap opera, Scandal (one of ABC’s few legitimate smash hits) succeeds because of its ability to do something few other shows, today or ever, have been able to pull off: make every single episode a game-changer. Every week brings new answers, questions, lies, conspiracies, and alliances, a political and personal landscape in constant flux. The amount of plot in a single episode is enough to make it must-see television, but the fact that it’s so damn watchable is what keeps audiences invested. And it’s not just the “Oh my god!” moments; the performances, from Kerry Washington’s inimitable Olivia Pope to Jeff Perry and Dan Bucatinsky as Cyrus Beene and James Novak, the married Chief of Staff and White House reporter, respectively, fit the tone of the show spectacularly. The first half of season 3 (or 3A, according to production codes) also introduces Lisa Kudrow’s Congresswoman Josie Marcus, a Democratic candidate for President who is so far from the least complicated part of the season that it’s mind-blowing. No one’s sure how long Scandal can keep flying by on pure adrenaline alone, but it’s become the kind of television event worth being around for while it lasts.
12. Mad Men
It’s telling that even an off season of Mad Men is better than much of what’s on television. Though the term is bandied about with more reckless abandon than ever, season six truly was a transitional year for Mad Men, as the show began to shed it’s “male anti-hero drama” skin and emerge as a tale about those affecting change, instead of those affected by change. Nowhere is this more evident than the arc of Peggy Olson, giving Elizabeth Moss one of her best seasons to date. Peggy has been put through the wringer by various men throughout the run of the show, but in season six, she finally fights back—sometimes literally, with a home-made bayonet to the gut—and she comes out… well, not on top, but some facsimile of on top, one that historically fits the attitudes towards and opportunities available to white women of the time. Season six also gave us the glory and mystery of Bob Benson and his ever-present coffee, hiding dark secrets and top-notch corporate politics, and “The Crash,” the season’s drug trip episode which gave the world a tap-dancing Ken Cosgrove and some of the most oblique symbolism in a show stuffed to the gills with oblique symbolism. With the final season on the horizon, what’ll be most interesting about season six in hindsight is exactly how these threads lead into the series’ endgame, though as a season, it still stands perfectly fine on its own.
11. New Girl
2013 saw New Girl swing for the fences in splendid fashion, finally bringing together Zooey Deschandel’s Jess Day and Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller in the episode “Cooler,” then slowly but surely deconstructing every aspect of the typical sitcom relationship, while never allowing it to eat away at the rest of the season, which dealt with Schmidt’s romances of two different women, the relationship between Nick and Schmidt, and Cece’s impending wedding. While season three stumbled out of the gates a bit, the reintroduction of Damon Wayans, Jr.’s Coach brought a jolt of energy back to the show, and once moving past the dissolution of both of Schmidt’s relationships (and his childish desire to destroy Jess and Nick’s), the show has regained some of its footing. Unfortunately, none of this fixes the show’s biggest problem: having no idea what to do with Lamorne Morris’ Winston. Morris is an incredibly gifted and incredibly game actor who gives his all to whatever table scraps the writers give him, but a character can only exist on non-plots alone for so long, and the bizarre stories given to Winston more and more make him seem like an insane person. But those are problems for 2014, and for this year, New Girl took bold risks that payed off in dividends, elevating it from “that Zooey Deschandel show” to one of TV’s best comedies.
10. Rectify/Top of the Lake
In 2013, Sundance made a name for itself with this pair of beautiful, somber miniseries, both of which contain a central mystery, but which they often eschew in favor of moving character beats and long, dialogue-heavy scenes. Both set in small towns on opposite ends of the globe, Rectify and Top of the Lake are also both heavily defined by their lead performances. Aiden Young in Rectify takes “understated” to a new level entirely, doing more with a longing stare than many actors could do in an entire season. Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake takes notes from her West Wing and Mad Men performances, but transforms into a different beast entirely, never beating her chest, but also never backing down from the men who are constantly pushing against her. Both series also feature a stellar supporting cast (Abigail Spencer and Adelaide Clemens in Rectify and Thomas M. Wright and Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake), and traffic in the kind of atmosphere that, while more common this year than in recent memory, is still remarkably rare on television. As Sundance continues to define its brand, Rectify and Top of the Lake both stand as fantastic beginnings.
9. Happy Endings
Of all the sitcoms that suffered at the hands of ABC in the last year, none were treated with such condescending disdain as Happy Endings. But the final episodes of the series never soured, and they were some of the series best, making its cancellation an even tougher blow. The last 15 episodes featured a racist parrot, a black market cough medicine that causes you to sleep for days, and a food fight between two food trucks, and the ensemble cast continued to be the strongest on television, especially Casey Wilson, Adam Pally, Damon Wayans, Jr., and Eliza Coupe. While the zany, fast-paced sitcom will be missed dearly, it ended perfectly, with the main cast at the wedding of Alex’s sister, where the madness escalates into all-out insanity before ending on a note of sweetness that almost brings a tear to the eye. Oh, Happy Endings, you were just too good for this world.
8. Game of Thrones
There’s nothing else on television quite like Game of Thrones. Oh sure, you can find other fantasy and sword-and-sandals series, other dark dramas of political and personal intrigue, but Game of Thrones has combined these elements into a behemoth yearly television event. Season three was GoT‘s strongest season yet, despite a bizarre torture storyline that ended with a character losing his penis and some problematic racial imagery. Of course, much credit should be given to “The Rains of Castamere,” as the Red Wedding climaxes the season in even more devastating fashion than even the Battle of the Blackwater in season two. Season three also pushed new characters into the spotlight, especially Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), thrust into an unlikely partnership that became the season’s emotional center. And in one of the best developments of the series, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) finally takes center stage in King’s Landing, and his scenes with both Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Olenna Tyrell (Dianna Rigg) were season highlights. The future of the book series (and by extension, the television series) may be in constant flux, but Benioff and Weiss have created a creature uniquely their own, and damn if it isn’t spectacular.
2013 really saw the death of the traditional murder-mystery drama (for now, at least), and only those series willing to experiment or bring in other elements were able to survive. Broadchurch takes the ingredients of an American murder-mystery and dresses them up in a moody British drama, creating a sorrowful, engaging series just as much about the lives of people in the tiny community of Broadchurch as about finding Danny Latimer’s killer. Led by David Tennant, in one of his best post-Doctor Who roles, and Olivia Coleman, who steals the show throughout, as the two detectives responsible for finding the killer, other notable cast members include Arthur Darvill as the local reverend, David Bradley as the town’s newspaperman, and Jodie Wittaker as Beth Latimer, the grieving mother of Danny. Heartbreaking and beautiful, Broadchurch comes together in a way that’s almost inimitable, and if it ends up being the last great murder-mystery for a while, that’d be just fine.
6. Masters of Sex
While all the elements of Masters of Sex work remarkably well, what truly sells the series are the performances. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Masters and Johnson, respectively, are both giving career-defining performances that are dizzying in their pure level of talent. Sheen plays the cold, unlikable Masters with subtlety, while Caplan gives a complex, layered performance that should immediately earn her a place in the top of the talent pool. Also of note are Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, as Provost Barton Scully and his wife, Margaret, who bring both levity and gravitas to the series, and give a perspective on exactly what the far-reaching implications of Masters and Johnson’s work are. Admittedly, the first season begins slowly, but it ends in fireworks, and the sheer importance of a series that really examines sexuality in American culture—despite it’s 1950s setting—simply can’t be downplayed. The first season may have just ended, but the second can’t come soon enough.
5. Bob’s Burgers
I’m not entirely sure when Bob’s Burgers became the best sitcom on television, but I’d put money on the episode where Jon Hamm guests as a talking toilet. But it’s not just its penchant for silliness and great jokes that make Bob’s Burgers so fantastic, it’s having a show about a blue-collar family, with blue-collar struggles, who all genuinely care about each other. The love the Belchers feel for each other holds Bob’s Burgers together in even its weakest episodes (as few and far between as they are), and its full embrace of the weirdness of every single Belcher makes the characters some of the most lovable on TV. From the year’s first episode (“Mother Daughter Laser Razor”) to the last (“Christmas in the Car”) Bob’s Burgers was consistently hilarious and enjoyable. Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz) emerged as the series’ standout character, but the show was never afraid to constantly shift the focus of any given episode. The incredible list of guest stars also grew, bringing in new guests like Molly Shannon, Jordan Peele, and the aforementioned Jon Hamm, while the series also brought back many former guest stars, making Bob’s Burgers‘ small sea-side town feel richer and fuller than most any other town on TV. It may be a dire time for animated sitcoms, but Bob’s Burgers continues to carry the torch, and it does so with aplomb.
Despite coming from the mind that birthed Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Wonderfalls, the idea of a series about Hannibal Lector, especially in a year full of awful “dark and gritty” serial killer dramas, was about as unappealing as they come. But Bryan Fuller and his crew crafted a series of stark, horrible beauty, using the Hannibal Lector story as a springboard to examine the nature of brutal violence, dependency, guilt, and sorrow. Mads Mikkelsen gives an inspired performance as Lector, but his performance wouldn’t be half as great without Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. Dancy plays Graham as a man barely holding it together, if at all, and constantly questioning everything in his life. Mikkelsen’s Lector is quiet, but deadly, and the scenes the two share are always thrilling. A fantastic supporting and guest cast (which includes Carolina Dhavornas, Laurence Fishburne, Eddie Izzard, and Gillian Anderson) help support the procedural elements of the show. But what’s most arresting about Hannibal is its beauty, the masterful crafting of every set, every shot. Bold colors, beautiful music selections, and harrowing imagery combine with the performances to create a tone unlike anything else on broadcast television, and while it’s unlikely Hannibal will ever make it above under the radar, it will go down as a new and exciting take on the Hannibal mythos.
3. Orange Is the New Black
Netflix’s spotty history of original dramas and the bad vibes of late-era Weeds seemingly marred Orange Is the New Black long before anyone actually saw an episode. But when the series’ first season was dropped all at once in July, it revealed a true treasure. A complicated series that balances its comedic and dramatic elements, Orange Is the New Black is never content with one tone for very long. All the technical components are excellent, from the writing and directing to the set design and music selections. But what really commands about the series are the characters. Orange Is the New Black may use a suburban, middle-class white woman as its entry point, but the other inhabitants of the prison make up a colorful tapestry of distinct, complex, and engaging personalities, almost all of whom receive at least a few minutes of screen time. The fact that these aren’t characters we’re used to seeing on our screens—especially being treated like real, fully-formed people instead of plot devices—makes them and their stories all the more engrossing. And while the season does have a central narrative, the show takes time to dive into the backgrounds of these characters and what they’re up to when not directly involved in that main narrative, giving Orange Is the New Black depth that its other Netflix companions lack. The cast is led by Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon, who perform admirably enough, but the true stars are in the supporting cast: Kate Mulgrew as Red, the head of the prison’s kitchen and adoptive mother to many of the inmates; Uzo Aduba as Suzanne, mockingly referred to as “Crazy Eyes,” who takes an immediate liking to Piper and has an immense love of the theater; Laverne Cox as Shirley, a transgender woman who is the prison’s hairdresser and struggles with the relationship she has with her wife and son; Danielle Brooks as Taystee and Samira Wiley as Pouseey, best friends who provide much of the show’s humor and heart; and Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky, a born-again drug addict who becomes Piper’s rival. There are so many more, but simply describing them here does them a disservice. Orange Is the New Black fills massive voids in the television landscape, but the fact that it does so while also being incredible cements it as the best new show of the year, and one of the best dramas in recent memory.