10 Best TV Shows of '13: Doc Jensen's Picks
10. Arrested Development (Netflix)
How did 2013's most overhyped show become its most underrated? By being what made Arrested Development a cult classic in the first place: uncompromisingly unique. Instead of the expected collection of madcap hit singles, we got a dense concept album about the theme of its title, boldly tailored for an emerging binge-stream medium. This fourth season was an intricately interconnected set of overlapping stories filled with bold time jumps, impish misdirection, and clever Easter eggs. And ostriches. Repeated viewings have made me appreciate its crazy ambition, and laugh, laugh, laugh. The ironic fate of the Arrested Development revival: It's a season ahead of its time.
9. The Fall
Shocker! The great serial-killer overkill of 2013 actually managed to produce a lot of drama worth following, including Hannibal and The Bridge. The best was this impressively restrained yet no less disturbing U.K. import (which originally aired on BBC Two and is now available on Netflix). The Fall pits Scotland Yard detective superintendent Stella Gibson, coolly played by Gillian Anderson, against a Belfast psycho (Jamie Dornan) with a wife, kids, and a complex obsession with professional women. Cleverly juxtaposing the activity of a take-charge, sexual female with the activity of a pseudo-strong, perverted male, The Fall is a layered rumination on authority and control. On one level, it's about misogyny; on another, more subtle level, British-Irish tensions. A clinical attention to procedural detail and the deliberate development of themes built to a climax in which Stella delivered a defiant message by simply painting her fingernails power-tie red. Just bloody brilliant.
8. House of Cards (Netflix)
David Fincher's riveting Americanized reformulation of the British miniseries is a cynical depiction of Washington politics, yet it provides cathartic wish fulfillment for anyone bummed by the government shutdown. Meet the anti-Leslie Knope: Rep. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, so soulfully soulless), a sleazy and even psychopathic Machiavellian operator. But hey, dude gets stuff done. There is depth to his hollow heart. A standout episode that reunited Frank with college cronies — and the man he loved — showed how much of himself he has sold out to pursue a life of power. His open marriage to Robin Wright's Claire is fascinating to parse: transparent yet self-deceiving, intimate yet miserably unfulfilling. You hate to think fiends like Frank rule the world, but we're lucky to have them on TV...or whatever we're calling this Netflix thing.
7. Mad Men (AMC)
Another downward-spiral year for Don Draper proved to be the defining, jolting collapse of his epic arc. The slowly unraveling avatar of self-made manhood met his matches: a sexy, self-loathing mistress he couldn't control (Linda Cardellini, breaking out all over again) and Hershey, a brand he couldn't bear to spoil with his clever bulls---. Don's degrading flings (including a memorable one-nighter with nemesis-ex Betty) and his inability to remain professionally relevant (the season's thrilling gear-shift: Don forging a shotgun merger to chase a car account) yielded juicy and painful consequences. Sally literally caught her dad with his pants down, while Don was forced to confront — and share — his shameful, buried Dick Whitman with everyone, costing him his pride, identity, and possibly his job. Now: redemption? The looming final season will tell the tale.
6. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
The best Netflix binge-watch of the year was the hard-time dramedy of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a lost soul who finds herself in the least likely of places: a women's prison, serving 15 months for muling money for her drug-smuggling former lover (Laura Prepon). Natch, said ex-lover is also in the joint, challenging her possibly wrongheaded bid to go straight, which is to say, following through with a marriage to Jason Biggs' Larry. Piper's richly realized prison world is a big house crowded with surprising, gritty-poignant stories about gender, class, exploitation, and human connection, thanks to a large supporting cast representing myriad ages and races. I do wish the series aired weekly so recap culture could help me process it. But for drama this original and rewarding, I'll gladly take a stint in solitary.
5. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Walter White got an ending any wannabe great man would kill or die for. (He did both.) The meth-making mogul vanquished his enemies, bequeathed security to his children, and faded away feeling...significant. He made no apologies for his evil-empire building: ''I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.'' The price of his noxious legacy project: Hank's life, Jesse's soul, Skyler's dignity. How hideous. How...relatable? Breaking Bad was resonant enough to inspire such reflection. The road to Walt's damnable denouement was paved with diamond-bright (and diamond-hard) moments, none more perfect than the many-layered Walt-Skyler phone call in the aptly titled gem ''Ozymandias.'' Breaking Bad's profundity is debatable. That it was masterful neo-noir, anchored by Bryan Cranston's all-time-great -performance, is unassailable, an achievement even Ozymandias would boast about.
4. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
All hail Leslie Knope! The tireless, idealistic leader we all deserve! (Especially in Toronto.) A vintage year for the plucky sitcom saw Amy Poehler's (former) councilwoman from Pawnee gain a true foil in the dastardly Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser) and gave us sublime, politically aware outings like the ''Bailout'' episode and the recall-vote story line. The most colorful assortment of comic characters outside of The Simpsons kept growing, and kept the show flush with buzzy funny, including Jenny Slate's Mona-Lisa -Saperstein and Patton Oswalt's filibustering Star Wars geek. Whether it was Leslie and Ben's impromptu wedding or Leslie gifting Ron with a sheepherding whiskey quest across Scotland, the heartiest laughs came from watching a community of friends go to absurd lengths to rally for one another. Anyone know a Realtor in Pawnee? Because I really want to go to there.
3. Orphan Black (BBC America)
Sarah, a desperate thief. Alison, a prim housewife. Cosima, a brainy lesbian with black dreads. Helena, an insane Ukrainian assassin with wild blond hair. In a year abounding with complex female characters, Orphan Black possessed a surplus. It was stingy in one way: All were played by the same astounding actress. The highlight of this existential sci-fi serial about clones collectively searching for the truth behind their origins was watching Tatiana Maslany nail the high-wire act of playing against her multiples. In one terrifically trippy episode, Sarah, masquerading as yet another clone named Beth, pretended to be Alison during a party from hell. All of this in a tightly plotted conspiracy mystery dotted with inspired touches, few as gripping as when Helena cut off a bad guy's?well, you should just watch it. Emphasis on should.
2. Time of Death (Showtime)
People die. We will die. Me. You. Everyone we know. We know this, intellectually. The docuseries Time of Death makes us feel it by drawing close and attending to a variety of terminally ill people during their last months, right up to their last breath. There's Cheyenne, a former MMA fighter with ALS, coming to grips with a wasted life. Nicolle, a teenager with skin cancer, letting go of a life barely begun. And Maria, the too-strong single mom with breast cancer, hustling to secure a future for her kids. The drama is unbearable, yet always profoundly enriching: By sharing their efforts to create a meaningful final passage for themselves, they bless us with insight into the inevitable that we often find unspeakable, and provide inspiration for how to face it.
1. American Horror Story (FX)
The year wasn't even a week old when American Horror Story gave us one of 2013's best scenes: a delirious dance sequence in a madhouse gone awry, performed by marginalized misfits, set to an infectious novelty song that turns names into nonsense rhymes. It was an exuberant expression of the show's knack for visceral, metaphorical drama about the toxic forces that can threaten personal identity — pop culture included. With a pair of radically different yet thematically complementary sagas, AHS itself transcends novelty and proves its ambitious anthology format can make outrageously fun art-pop. Asylum is a creation myth for Helter Skelter USA, while Coven is a Southern gothic about feminism, race, and subculture tribalism. The through-line: scary-good performances. Sarah Paulson. Zachary Quinto. Kathy Bates. Angela Bassett. And Jessica Lange, whose character gallery represents a dialogue about our demeaning fixation on youth and legacy. Grand Guignol with grand dames and grand themes, American Horror Story is the most dynamic enterprise on television.