Top 10 TV Shows of 2013

I have to be upfront about something: I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I do film. I still haven’t seen Hannibal or The Americans or Orphan Black and I haven’t caught the latest seasons of favourites like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Adventure Time. That being said, I still watch a lot more TV than I used to. I used to think TV was film’s sad cousin, with weaker casts, sloppier storytelling and more commercial influence. And then I watched Lost and it led me to take TV seriously and watch a whole host of other great shows.

Now that we’re at year’s end, I thought it worth celebrating the best shows TV had to offer this past year. Obviously my picks aren’t definitive because I haven’t seen every great show on TV, but here are the 10 best programs I watched on TV (and streaming) in 2013.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

It had to be Breaking Bad. Not many shows stick the landing and Breaking Bad did so in spectacular fashion. Walt and Hank in the garage; Jesse dousing the White home in gasoline; Jesse’s trick phone call to Walt; the showdown at To’hajiilee; the entirety of “Ozymandias”; the pathetic resignation of Walt in New Hampshire; the finale — so many classic moments packed into only eight episodes. The show even managed to restore some of Walt’s humanity just as the light was dying in his eyes. Its ending wrapped up every loose end and the show was the most consistent showcase of a TV show’s storytelling and filmmaking being on par with the best of cinema.

2. Gravity Falls (Disney)

Probably the best cartoon to arise in the years I’ve technically been called an adult. The bastard child of The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files, but aimed at kids, Gravity Falls is rambunctious, hilarious, inspired storytelling for all ages. Set in a fictional small-town in Oregon, the show plays with supernatural tropes on an episodic basis. But beyond the absurd humour, gorgeous animation, and inventive storylines (there’s an episode where the characters time-travel to previous episodes, and if you watch those episodes, you’ll notice the characters showing up in the background when time-traveling) it also has one of the best portrayals of a sibling relationship to appear on TV in forever.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

The Red Wedding is enough to warrant Game of Thrones being in this spot. Season Two can boast the bigger set-piece in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, but Season Three was a more cohesive whole. There wasn’t a weak storyline amid all the plotting on Westeros, and aside from the brutally savage wedding showpiece, Jaime’s humbling transformation into the white knight he so resembles and Dany’s assuming the mantle of liberator in Essos were the season’s most rewarding moments.

4. Justified (FX)

The most consistently undervalued show on TV because it wears its genre so unpretentiously and proudly. Based on characters created by the great, late Elmore Leonard, Justified’s Season Four found Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, the coolest man on TV) investigating a decades-old mystery in Harlan County. The show dug deeper into the family history of Raylan and his nemesis-doppelganger Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), giving us added depth to already fantastically written characters. As well, its 11th hour episode “Decoy” was a better thriller than any Hollywood produced this year.

5. House of Cards (Netflix)

Formally and narratively coiled, Beau Willimon’s House of Cards is aggressively misanthropic storytelling. Featuring TV’s only overt villain as protagonist in Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, the show is a Shakespearean tragedy from the point of view of the villain. Frank Underwood is essentially Iago from Othello, inviting the viewer into his plots of spiteful, pointless destruction. Formally, the show has some of the best filmmaking out there (David Fincher directed the first two episodes), and the no-nonsense writing adds to the single-minded message of the show: people destroy each other.

6. Mad Men (AMC)

The show seemed stuck for a bit much like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was stuck in his alcoholic cycles of self-destruction, but it made for a rousing finish. I don’t think anyone expected the revelation of Don’s pitch in the season finale, or the last minute chance of redemption for Don. Season Six of Mad Men destroyed much of what came before, paving the way for a future of exciting possibility.

7. Arrested Development (Netflix)

Arrested Development’s third season is so daring in its format and construction, I still think most people haven’t caught on to just how smart it is. On initial viewing, the fifteen episodes seemed to be entertaining but overly complicated attempts to capture the spirit of the first three seasons, while also juggling the limited availability of the actors. But necessity is the spirit of invention and by separating the key players and focusing on character-focused episodes, the show actually created one of the most layered and densely funny portraits of a dysfunctional family ever.

8. New Girl (Fox)

I didn’t get onto the New Girl train until this past year, but I’m glad I did because it’s the best sitcom network TV has to offer (I have high hopes for the fifth season of Community but Season Four was an obvious lag). Starring the ever-lovable Zooey Deschanel, New Girl’s first season was funny and amiable, but it didn’t elevate until the second season, where the show daringly made it more dramatic and took risks with its character relationships. It wasn’t afraid for episodes to be more about the drama than the punchlines. There’s also a fundamentally rare thing about the show: the central characters are all likeable people who are actually comfortable with each other. Its portraits of friendship may be idealized, but it gets at the heart of how there is still plenty of conflict to be made from people who are not threatening life-altering change at every turn.

9. The Walking Dead (AMC)

Season Two got stuck on the farm, but Season Three jumpstarted the show again with the prison and an episodic dose of inventive zombie kills. It’s as if the people behind the show finally realized that The Walking Dead was supposed to be about the set-pieces and the constant threat of death looming. The character drama was mixed. Standout episodes like “Clear” and “This Sorrowful Life” showcased minor characters’ emotional complexity, but the Governor’s crazy motivations are still a mystery. The Walking Dead’s art lies in its frank, unflinching look at gore and the dire world of its characters. It never lets you forget that death is waiting around every corner.

10. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

I’ll forever hate the Regina Spektor credits song and it took me a while to understand what the show was doing with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and get onboard, but Orange is the New Black is remarkable in a lot of ways. First of all, its matter-of-fact focus on female relationships is groundbreaking. That you have to set a show in a women’s prison to make it about women is a sad fact about the state of stories in America. Still, beyond the social commentary and the satirizing of Piper’s white guilt complex, at its heart Orange is the New Black is a farcical comedy about these absurd characters stuck together in an environment they can’t escape. The side characters shine, from Kate Mulgrew’s Russian cook, Red, to the hilarious duo of Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey (Samira Washington).

This article was originally published on The Rooster, Spareparts' now-defunct community culture blog.