December is pretty much the most satisfying month of the year for me, but not for the usual holiday cheer or what have you. As a cultural critic, I get incredibly giddy and anxious about composing a best of the year list, and will often spend so much of December’s 31 days going over and over in my head about what titles deserve what place in my self-coveted spot. Some friends of mine will verify that last year I blew off a post-Christmas party so that I could catch a screening of D’Jango Unchained so that I could write my 2012’s best films list ASAP (Please help if you think I might have a problem. D’Jango Unchained did not even make my top 10 for that year.).
So it comes with great pleasure that I was able to formulate a top 10 list for television shows relatively early in the month. I was a bit hesitant about writing is just now, but as my fellow Manhattan Digest contributor Michael Tyminski just elaborated on (here), we’re currently in a stand-still for weekly quality television at the moment, and we should consider that the best of the year has already happened. Therefore, I feel now is the perfect time to unleash my take on what were my favorite shows of the past year, right before unleashing my gargantuan best-films list at the month’s end(I’m currently aiming for it to be a top-25). Keep in mind I haven’t seen everything that aired this past year, with The Americans, The Bridge, Justified, American Horror Story, and Hannibal being a few of the critically acclaimed shows I missed. You could say I’m unqualified to write this list, but believe it or not, I do have a social life.
10. Masters of Sex
Those that read my review for the Masters of Sex pilot know that I basically saw it as Mad Men-lite, so I’m both glad and surprised to say how strongly the quality of the show shifted during the rest of the season. It really is an intelligent break down on sexual relations of all shapes and forms, without being overtly raunchy or obvious. It certainly isn’t without melodrama (like Nip/Tuck, it’s essentially a sexed-up soap opera), but the acting often surpasses the occasionally hokey writing, with all the cast fully understanding how to find quality tv drama here, and who would have thought Michael Sheen and Liz Caplan would have such chemistry? I even take back what I said about how I felt the film making seemed anachronistic, as the production values do allow the show to look both modern, and a part of the time period it’s depicting. Here’s hoping it doesn’t follow the same pattern of other Showtime series like Dexter and Homeland, which followed up their strong debut seasons with subsequent ones that were more a mixed bag.
9. Parks and Recreation
It’s just so re-assuring to see that this show has remained so strong into it’s 6th year. Maybe it’s the consistently witty writing, or the unique subject matter to fit the now tired faux-documentary format, but I think that it’s more or less because of the cast. They really did pick a dream-team of comics for this show, and I’m hoping my holy trinity (Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, and Nick Offerman) will be getting a very special collaborative episode in the near future. My pick for the best show on network television right now…at least until we see Dan Harmon’s return as showrunner for Community next year.
8. House of Cards
2013 will probably go down as the year web-based-television really took off, and what’s a better show to ring it in than House of Cards. An intimidating political thriller featuring an all-star cast of film actors, the show really demonstrates that Netflix is interested in garnering some of the prestige that HBO has hogged up since The Sopranos. Executive producers David Fincher and Eric Roth, and show runner Beau Willimon clearly wanted to do more than just adapt the British mini-series, and they’ve created a very modern take on Shakespearean drama, in a very seedy and all too present backdrop. Stylish and chilly (albeit a little soulless at times), I for one am really hoping the show doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump next season…but I don’t think that will be a problem.
It seems like every year there’s a great show that’s taking off the air way too early, and this year’s was definitely Enlightened. After a rough but entertaining first season, the show really found it’s voice in these final eight episodes, which saw main character Amy try and take down the corporate world that had employed her. Carefully plotted from start to end, the season was thoughtful, angry, cautious, and sweet in a way that’s hardly seen on television, even on HBO. It’s a shame that it didn’t find it’s audience in time to avoid a cancellation, but it can rest peacefully with the likes of Terriers and Party Down with this mantra lain upon it: “We just needed a little bit of time to be brilliant”.
6. Mad Men
I’ll admit the show had a bit of a rough start this season. Seeing Don reading Dante’s Inferno, or hearing Betty make bizarre comments about rape made me think that Matthew Weiner and his writers had finally lost a grip on subtlety. Fortunately though, the show got back to it’s usually excellent standards quickly enough, with episodes that ranged from thematically rich like A Tale of Two Cities, to the deliciously surreal The Crash. A really unexpected ending too, and also one that makes one think that the real face of Don Draper has yet too be uncovered.
5. Orange is the New Black
Jenji Kohan’s fictionalized take on Piper Kerman’s memoir is the best new show of the year by a long shot. While Kohan’s past experience as the creator of Weeds is visible in the show’s sense of humor and strong female characters, it will surprise many how this one season of Orange is the New Black is already so much more complex and subversive than Weeds was throughout its entire eight season run. It’s an examination on ethnicity and gender, as well as a suspenseful serial with no aversion to using cliffhangers, as well as a cheer inducing drama about the power of the human spirit. There’s been much talk over the past few months about how a lot of signature television series are ending soon, but we should rest assured that if Orange is the New Black is the designated torch holder for the likes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, then there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. This is the reason you got a Netflix account!
4. Game of Thrones
I have to admit that I haven’t been as in love with Game of Thrones as some of you other people. Sure, it’s a show that possibly has the most impressive production values in TV history, and the nerd in me is just so elated to see a beloved series of fantasy novels turned into an exceedingly popular and adult television serial for a premium station. Still though, I have to say that I had found the previous two seasons too removed from reality for me to care too much about the characters. This season, however, changed everything and I did find myself completely immersed in George R.R. Martin’s characters, and the horrible ordeals he puts them through. There were just so many great scenes this season, from Jaime and Brehn’s tear-soaked bath, to Jon Snow’s coupling with Ygritte, and of course there was that little scene in the penultimate episode that made us go straight to our twitter feeds and express how incredible this fucking show is! No need to exaggerate here, Game of Thrones is the best high fantasy epic ever put to screen.
Did Lena Dunham silence the haters for the sophomore season of her rather divisive HBO dramedy…hell no! What we can be thankful for, however, is that Ms. Dunham did indeed step up her game as a writer and director this season, making it even more raw and dirty than the first year, but with far greater pay-off. We witnessed the characters explore issues of sexuality and over-privilege, while also dropping great hints about how unhappy they are underneath their seeming self-regard. People will continue to think Girls is a shallow and niche take on contemporary 20-something life from a jaded and shallow 20-something, but these people seriously needs to see the episode One’s Man Trash, as I feel it’s the most indepth and intrinsic work that Dunham has done to date. Feel free to continue calling the show a pretentious piece of shit, but just don’t call it the new Sex and the City, as it’s a lot closer to being the new Sopranos.
2. Eastbound and Down
I was wary at first about Eastbound and Down returning for another season, as the creators had previous stated that season 3 would be their last. Fortunately though, it didn’t take long into this season to realize there was still more story to be told about Kenny Powers, and in the end this season proved to be an even better ending for this series. Seeing the character regress from a family man back into a debaucherous dick-head just seemed so genuine for the show, but it was also surprising to see the merits this character would achieve as the season went on. It all led up to a finale that was even more grandiose and satisfying than the conclusion for that other brilliant show that ended this year (see below), and really makes me hopeful that Eastbound and Down will be looked at as an influential American comedy in future years, and find a larger audience. It’s a sit-com that re-invented itself each year, told a fluid and progressive story, and managed to be consistently funny, yet a sad and weighty tale as well. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to watch all 29 episodes of the best comedy that HBO has ever aired (with all respect to Curb Your Enthusiasm).
1. Breaking Bad
No surprise, right? Those of you that read my Breaking Bad: The Legend Ends column already know my thought concerning this show’s final batch of episodes, but I would like to make one final comment: The episode Ozymandias, is what I feel really made this series shine. It was just such a devastating and no holds barred episode that used the serialized and organic nature of the show’s entire run to bring it to an all time dramatic high. It really was the episode we had been waiting for since we witnessed Walt make that unfortunate decision to become a meth cook back in the pilot, and the result was the show’s true transgression from brilliant pulp into great tragedy. It was one of the very best episodes a TV show has ever had…and the next two weren’t too shabby either. There, that’s all that remained to be said.