Andrew Osborne’s Best of 2013: Television

Stronger writing, deeper characterization, more control by creators, better roles for a wider swathe of actors, less compulsion to appeal to the tastes of 13-year-old fanboys…these are just some of the reasons TV eclipsed film as the medium of the moment, and the following are my picks for the prime examples of 2013:

1. ENLIGHTENED (HBO)

Like Freaks & Geeks before it, Enlightened was cancelled way too soon, yet achieved the TV series equivalent of a no-hitter (or even, arguably, a perfect game): a complete and satisfying story arc without a single dud episode as Laura Dern’s neurotic, egotistical do-gooder waged war on the soulless corporation she’d blithely enabled as an executive before the onset of a career-ending breakdown.  Unlike many other beloved shows with much longer shelf lives, there were no murders or supernatural elements in this relatably offbeat dramedy.  Yet the quiet desperation and crushing loneliness experienced by the show’s central quartet (Dern, her real and fictional life mother Diane Ladd,  Luke Wilson and Mike White’s exceptional sad sack, Tyler) were as haunting, harrowing, darkly humorous and ultimately fulfilling as any American horror story.

2. THE RETURNED (LES REVENANTS) (Sundance)

Twin Peaks would have been a perfect show if it had ended with the death of Laura Palmer’s killer after two half seasons instead of devolving into pointless “quirky” self parody.  Fortunately, Les Revenants (a.k.a., Sexy French Zombies) seems to have drawn all the right ingredients from David Lynch’s atmospheric series:  a well-chosen ensemble of flawed characters in a small wooded town surrounded by mysteries and, of course, a spooky, ethereal soundtrack.  The thematic subtext of human mortality is thought-provoking, but what keeps you watching is the slow-boil suspense as secrets (and a tragic drowned ghost town) inexorably loom to the surface.

3. BREAKING BAD (AMC)

“You’re the smartest guy I ever met,” D.E.A. agent Hank Schrader said to his meth kingpin brother-in-law Walter White, “And you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago.”  The moments before and after that chilling line of dialogue provided some of the most breathlessly tense storytelling in Breaking Bad’s exceptional run…and the only reason the show’s not higher on my list is that Vince Gilligan’s epic crime series maybe went an episode (or maybe even a half season) too long and didn’t quite stick the landing in the series finale.  But those are truly petty quibbles after five seasons of some of the best characters, twists and dialogue in the history of television.  Or, as Jesse Pinkman would say, “Yeah, bitch!  Magnets!

4. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)

The events of Breaking Bad’s final season were highly dramatic, though relatively inevitable…whereas the infamous Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones was a gasp-inducing sucker punch that completely flipped our expectations about what could happen in the show and where most of us thought the story was going.  But it certainly wasn’t the only jaw-dropper in a season that included indelible moments with bears, giants and dragons (and, unfortunately, a few scenes we’d like to forget, most of them involving Theon Greyjoy and his late-lamented penis).

5. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)

Consistently sharp satire of small town life and national politics combines with an all-star ensemble (Poehler!  Plaza!  Offerman!  Ansari!) in this chronically under-loved “mockumentary” sitcom about the lives of Pawnee, Indiana’s finest citizens and their various loves (mainly steak, swag and the Cones of Dunshire).  For me, the only downside to the show at this point is that I’m kinda sick of Adam Scott’s face.  Stop doing smarmy side projects and making me hate you, Adam Scott!

6. TOTALLY BIASED WITH W. KAMAU BELL (FX, then FXX, now R.I.P.)

 

As much as I love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I enjoyed the fresh takes on breaking news by comedian W. Kamau Bell and his cranky stable of supporting players even more.  Given TBWWKB’s obviously tiny budget, it was inexplicably annoying when FX moved the program to the Siberia of FXX, then canceled it before viewers were able to catch up.  Here’s hoping Bell and his team can find another on-air (or even online) venue to let them stay totally biased.

7.  GIRLS (HBO)

You’ve gotta love a show that people hate for so many different reasons.  Is this sitcom about a group of young, chatty New Yorkers sexist or empowering?  Is Lena Dunham and/or her struggling writer character Hannah Horvath loathsome, shallow and entitled or brave, vulnerable and believably flawed?  Is Adam Driver’s fuck buddy character a misogynist nightmare, a romantic fantasy or something else entirely?  And why does Lena Dunham have to keep showing off her imperfect naked female body when it makes America so uncomfortable?  But, of course, discomfort has always been the key to comic explorations of humanity, and Girls is one of the best.

8. EPISODES (Showtime)

Celebrities playing exaggerated versions of their own tabloid doppelgangers is a long-standing comic staple, but Matt LeBlanc brings a swaggering sweetness to his role as a self-destructive, bed-hopping ex-Friend in this light show biz satire about a wry British couple attempting to adapt their BBC hit for the U.S. while Hollywood alternately seduces and corrupts them.

9. MAD MEN (AMC)

WE GET IT, DON DRAPER…YOU’RE SAD!  You like booze and strange pussy.  And if you were the only character we spent time with, I’d have stopped watching this show about life in and around a 1960s ad agency long before now.  But the supporting players continued to shine this season (especially John Slattery in a heartbreaking episode about the death of Roger Sterling’s mother), while finally hitting rock bottom may even make ol’ Don worth watching again as Mad Men heads into its final run of episodes.

10. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (NBC)

 

It often takes time for the chemistry of a workplace sitcom to gel, yet Brooklyn Nine-Nine hit the ground running by mashing up successful elements from other shows (with Stephanie Beatriz channeling Aubrey Plaza from Parks & Rec, Andy Samberg as Joel McHale from Community, Chelsea Peretti doing Kathy Griffin’s Suddenly Susan schtick and Andre Braugher playing his old Homicide role for laughs).  Yes, it’s derivative, but it also works just fine in the best new sitcom of the year.

Honorable Mention:

2013 Tony Awards, 30 Rock, The Amazing Race, America’s Got Talent, Boardwalk Empire, Clear History, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Drunk History, Inside Amy Schumer, Kathy, Key & PeeleMaron (except any scene with the annoying girlfriend character) Nurse Jackie, Project Runway, Real Time With Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, The Soup, Survivor, The Taste, The Walking Dead, Top of the Lake, Veep

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