It’s my third time doing an annual review of television, and because I like to keep things fresh, this is my third approach to the subject. This year, I broke down the best of television into two lists – the best of the returning shows, and the best of the new shows. In order to facilitate your knowledge of the new shows (which you are more likely to have missed), I have included episodes suggestions for catching up/getting familiar with each series. Comment, complain, argue, and enjoy.
Best Returning Shows
10. Archer (FX) – TV’s funniest animated show, period, continued its ascension into the Hall of TV Greatness this year, becoming unafraid to go anywhere (both geographically and comically) for a laugh. This move towards greatness probably needn’t include more ambitious storytelling and a greater sense of character depth, as the show is so incredibly funny anyways, but it helps, and it hold the promise of the show being able to run with creative competency for a long time.
9. Homeland (Showtime) – Last year, Homeland was the surprise smash critical hit, the out-of-nowhere show that managed to prove that Showtime could be a legitimate player in the high-quality drama circuit. When the show won the Emmy for Best Drama this fall, that added even more pressure for the show to continue its high quality streak. And for a while, season two was able to comply with this unspoken request, before becoming something of a frustrating mess in its back half. But it should not be forgotten that that messiness comes at the cost of the show aiming high, to keep the story moving and not languish as so many other dramas have done. The end result was the most frustrating yet addictive series of the year.
8. The Thick Of It (Hulu) – The British political satire returned for one final lap, and it made the most of it. A focus on incorporating more recent, real-life events into its universe could have ended in a slog for the show, but by introducing a new storytelling structure for the first half the season, the show managed to be fleet as it introduced a bevy of exciting new changes for the characters. Building on this new status quo, the show became funnier and more pointed than even, culminating in the driest, funniest piece of comedy ever produced. The penultimate episode may dominate the show’s memory years from now, but that doesn’t lessen the efforts all those other episodes made to bring it to that point.
7. Mad Men (AMC) – As the show’s timeline progressed further and further in to the 1960s, the show itself seemed to feel compelled to reflect that in its storytelling, giving into the emotional openness and experimentation that is so often remembered in conjunction with the decade. This isn’t to say that the show went off the rails or forgot its core tents, but it did become a different beast, one that turned off as many fans as it entertained. But regardless of how one feels about the lessened obfuscation or the more streamlined storytelling, it can not be denied that this was Mad Men as its most beautiful, its most engaging, and its most emotionally affecting.
6. Justified (FX) – There was no way that Justified could replicate the effect that season 2 villain Mags had on the show, so instead the show moved in a different direction. While most might be quick to point out that the show introduced two villains this season as an apparent attempt to recreate with quantity what they couldn’t in quality, those detractors miss the point of the move. With Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles representing the external threats to Harlan County’s criminal hierarchy and Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse representing that hierarchy, Justified was able to expand the show’s world and effortlessly introduce even more backstory than had previously been established. Anchoring this complex world of characters new and old was Timothy Olyphant’s dynamic performance as Raylan Givens, whose conflicted personality comes off entirely clean in relation to a world gone completely mad at even the slightest hint of power.
5. Parenthood (NBC) – By the rules of today’s TV, shows shouldn’t be as emotionally open and honest as Parenthood, or at least they shouldn’t be successful in attempting to be as such. However, Jason Katims’ highly affecting show – which this season introduced stories about both cancer and a returning war veteran while avoiding schmaltz on both accounts, and making sure that the rest of the show didn’t get sucked up in their wakes – manages to do both these things. That he and the writers manage to do all of this without breaking the show’s commitment to realism is even more impressive. But more than all of this, Parenthood is a show that managed to bring legitimate tears from its audience week after week, and for that, something that no other show can do, it deserves your attention.
4. Parks & Recreation (NBC) – If Parenthood is TV’s warmest drama, then consider Parks & Recreation TVs warmest comedy, one which produces tears of joy where Parenthood produces tears of sadness. Season four managed to infuse drama in it’s proceedings with Leslie’s run for City Council, a storylines that paid emotional dividends at several points in that season’s back half. And as season five as moved away (or some might say struggled) with Leslie’s continuing political ascension, it has relied on its ensemble cast to pick up the emotional weight and carry the show in new directions. That these new stories are just as affecting as anything that has happened to the show’s supposed main character speaks to the quality level of storytelling the show is able to produce, and the love it has for all its characters.
3. Community (NBC)– With the ouster of Dan Harmon at the end of last season, Community is likely to never be the same again. But to say that would pretend that the show hadn’t already been changing all the time anyway. The back half of season three was the show at its most bold and daring, throwing out spoofs, homages, and high concepts with abandon, traditional storytelling be damned. And even if all this craziness sometimes made it seem as if the show was losing its core identity, that may have been an intentional move on Harmon’s part. He and his writers weren’t afraid to show us new, more unsettling side of characters we already thought we knew fairly well, and to make them darker and even more unlikeable – and human – than they already were. It could sometimes feel as if the backstage drama of the show was bleeding into the onscreen product, but given the show’s fascination with breaking the fourth wall, would the fans have it any other way?
2. Louie (FX) – There was a important moment in the episode “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Pt. 2”, where the camera moves away from the titular character and focuses solely on his date for the evening, revealing a telling bit of her personal life, one which Louie never discovers. Those 20 seconds were Louie’s third season in a nutshell; while the first two seasons told stories that were filtered solely through the protagonist’s worldview. In the third season, Louie was continuously confronted by outside sources and their own viewpoint of life, challenging his convictions and allowing the show to travel in new directions. The show still maintained its creator’s general treatise on life, but as it’s two multi-episode tales made clear, it was interested in exploring that treatise in new ways, the better to appease CK’s listlessness. That listlessness also means we won’t be getting anymore Louie until 2014, but the third season gave us plenty of great moments to hold onto until then.
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) – At this point, it just seems rote to keep saying that Breaking Bad is the best show on TV, an honor that’s been granted to it for the past 3 years. But this isn’t a nomination that comes out of some blind quest to maintain the status quo, or a lack of consideration for what other shows have done. Instead, Breaking Bad managed once again to top itself, to deliver a set of 8 episodes that were able to be tenser, scarier, more moving, more shocking, and even funnier than what had already been produced. And even if the show went to Caper Town a little too often in its storytelling, it never lost sight of the story it needed to tell, swiftly building an arc for Walter and those around him, that ended with a game-changing discovery. If the show can pull off its endgame well with only 8 episodes left is still up in the air, but if they can continue to focus on character like they did in the first half of the season – like they did with Anna Gunn’s Skyler, who finally moved into a position where she could shed all her detractors – then it should all work out just fine.
Best New Shows
10. Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon) – Considering that by its endpoint, Avatar: The Last Airbender was watched by hardly anybody (or at least nobody in the network’s key demo), it’s surprising that Nickelodeon would commission a sequel series to appease the legion of mostly adult fans. Hesitation must have existed, since the first season consisted of only twelve episodes, forcing the show’s creators to cram in more story than could really fit. But that shouldn’t undersell the ambitions, and the creators sought to one up their first series in terms of storytelling, characters, and moral complexity, while also spoon-feeding its audience a healthy dose of feminism. In these regards, Korra succeeds, and should be celebrated for it.
Watch: “Welcome to Republic City”, “The Spirit of Competition”, “Out of the Past”
9. Awake (NBC) – Exploring similar themes of dual identity that he first touched on in Lone Star, Kyle Killen returned to television with a show even more ambitious than his debut series. Centering on a man who, after a car crash, bounces between two realties divided by the awake/asleep divide, not willing to determine which is real and which is fake. It was an ambitious presence, and as the season bore out, not really one built to last, but more TV should be like this – bold, different, and centered by an amazing performance from Jason Isaacs.
Watch: “Pilot”, “That’s Not My Penguin”, “Say Hello To My Little Friend”
8. Bunheads (ABC Family) – The television return for Amy Sherman-Palladino for which Gilmore Girls fans have been clamoring ever since she was kicked off the latter show (let’s just forget that The Return of Jezebel James ever happened), Bunheads was the most ridiculously-named enjoyable show of the summer. Mixing Palladino’s rapid-fire dialogue with some of the slowest narrative pacing ever seen, Bunheads asked it audience to sit back and enjoy the small-town quirks and neurotic characters that inhabit it. This is to say nothing of the show’s tendency to throw in the out of left-field moment, a mark of ambition that could turn into something greater.
Watch: “Pilot”, “For Franny”, “What’s Your Damage, Heather?” (But really, all of the first ten episodes are up on Hulu, so why not watch them before the series returns tomorrow?)
7. Bent (NBC) – The most charming show to premiere this year, Bent never really had a chance. Short-ordered by NBC to just 6 episodes, which were then aired across three weeks with little promotion, it’s no wonder the show didn’t get the ratings to continue on. Yet despite NBC’s burying of the show, and its somewhat tired rom-com premise, Bent succeeds on the chemistry and charm of its actors, who help evict a warm and funny world that sucks you in. That the premise – about the sexual tension between a contractor and the woman whose kitchen he’s fixing – seems to have a short shelf life doesn’t really matter, because this in one job you never want to be finished.
Watch: It only aired 6 episodes, and they’re all up on Hulu. Don’t pretend like you don’t have 3 hours to kill.
6.The LA Complex (The CW) – “Actors (and other creative types) trying to make in Hollywood” is a premise that shouldn’t really work anymore, so many times has in been worked over and used a fodder for schlocky entertainment. And given that the show posted the lowest audience numbers ever, it appears many people thought this show would be among the same. Yet LA Complex took its characters seriously, giving them arcs that were more archetypal than clichéd, and filtered through the show’s own bleak view of the entertainment industry. Their struggles were affecting, their mistakes understandable, and their victories, however short-lived, triumphant.
Watch: “Down in LA”, “Burn It Down”, “Be a Man”
5. Ben & Kate (FOX) – Another charmer in the vein of Bent (and one likely to meet a similar fate), Ben & Kate is another in a series of new family comedies (including The Middle and Raising Hope) that manage to be funny and tender without straining for either type of moments. About as small scale as comedies come these days, B&K manages to wrangle laughs not only out of the headlining sibling relationship, but also equal humor from the best friends on the side, as well as Kate’s daughter, who avoids “adorable moppet” typecasting to become something stronger.
Watch: “Pilot”, “Scaredy Kate”, “Career Day”
4. Rev. (Hulu) – While many shows have at one point or another tackled religion, choosing to argue over its social impact or relative truthfulness, so few try to take the personal angle and focus on the people who actually practice religion. As a treatise on the effects of faith – and to a lesser extent, the social role of religion - Rev. is a beautifully imagined slice of life comedy that just happens to focus on the life of a vicar. And in the main character of Adam Smallbone – a character that the show isn’t afraid to make look small, pitiful, and weak – creators Todd Hollander and James Wood have found a perfect audience surrogate for the struggles of faith, even as the character’s status means his failing hurts just a little bit worse.
Watch: “On Your Knees Forget the Fees”, “Ever Been To Nando’s?”, “Series Two, Episode Five”
3. Gravity Falls (Disney) – Who would have thought that one of the best new shows to come out this year would be an animated children’s show that aired on Disney Channel? Sure, shows like Adventure Time had already proven that there was a market for such a show, but those were often more heavy-handed in their use of the surreal. Gravity Falls, which just happens to take place in a town where the paranormal is an every day occurrence, never forgets its focus on siblings Dipper and Mabel, and their trials of growing up. So even as it recalls older series such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files, it’s also able to incorporate The Simpsons’ dry sense of wit and Futurama’s panache for pathos. Gravity Falls isn’t just funny and exciting; it’s also emotionally honest.
Watch: “The Inconveniencing”, “Double Dipper”, “The Time Traveler’s Pig”
2. Girls (HBO) – At this point, it’s hard to separate Girls from the criticism that surround it, just as its equally hard to defend the show without devolving into an anti-sexism rant. Really, it’s surprising how much controversy the show has drummed up, given how familiar it can be in regards to the “twenty-somethings discovering themselves” template. But in using this template, Girls is able to tell personal, affecting stories about its characters that nonetheless evoke in audience their own memories as twenty-somethings. And so, amid all the arguments over whether its funny, or too hispterish, or borne out of nepotism, Girls found its sense as self as the anti-Sex in the City, a show from the female perspective that doesn’t preclude male involvement, and gives TV it’s first real anti-heroine.
Watch: “Vagina Panic”, “The Return”, “She Did”
1. Luck (HBO) – David Milch’s return to television was destined to draw some sort of attention, so big is his cache as creator of Deadwood, and such is the star power of Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. That the show would soon become overshadowed by the death of horses during filming, but that shouldn’t take away from the beauty that was filmed in those nine episodes. Taking on something as esoteric and complex as the world of horse racing and the jockeys, trainers, owners, veterinarians, ex-cons and gamblers that inhabit it was a bold move, made even bolder by the show’s refusal to hold the audience’s hand. But it was this complexity, centered by some gorgeously filmed horse races, that would continually draw you in, and sometimes even make you willingly return for a second watch, as you tried to puzzle out just how all of these multi-faceted characters could all be obsessed with the same thing.
Watch: “Episode One”, “Episode Four”, “Episode Nine”