Friday, December 20, 2013

Top 10 of 2013

1. Enlightened, HBO-Simply put, it was the year's most engaging show. It not only moved me emotionally but physiologically. My stomach was literally churning watching Amy Jellicoe navigate her way through what she saw as a cruel corporate nightmare with limited information and an even more limited grasp of reality. Using the unreliable narrator trope at center to maximum effect, "Enlightened" is a show that continuously challenges the viewer to reevaluate their morals with regards to a world of corporate deathtraps that is perhaps more familiar than many of us would like to admit. Laura Dern is deserving of all the praise she's gotten and more, but it's the supporting cast of Sarah Burns, Timm Sharp, Jason Mantzoukas, Michaela Watkins (SNL failures represent!), Bayne Gibby, Chip Esten, and Mike White (who was also the show's creator and showrunner) that give richness to the world of Abaddon.

2. Orange is the New Black, Netflix-Adapted from an account of a WASP who served 18 months in prison for a drug-running crime she committed ten years prior, "Orange is the New Black" alternated between being brutal and strangely uplifting and rarely had a wasted moment of screen time in its 15-episode run. It should be noted that a trip back to the source material reveals a woman who had a good eye for observation but a relatively drama-free stay (in other words, most of the bad things happening on screen were either exaggerated or happened to someone other than Piper Kerman). Thus, credit goes to Jenji Kohan and her crew for turning a relatively tame memoir into a highly engaging drama through augmenting the rock-hard obstacles (prison guards, unforgiving inmates, corrupt administrators, etc.) that Piper must negotiate through. The series is suspenseful, engaging, amusing at moments, and is even capable of rousing the viewer to social action. Bonus points also go to the expansive supporting cast that disproves any notion that there are no good female roles on TV.

3. Arrested Development, Netflix-The Bluths came back with a lot of hype that Mitch Hurwitz and company largely delivered on with a format that was true to the hijinks of sitcomdom's most dysfunctional family while still being fresh and innovative. The episodic focus on separate characters deprived us of opportunities for Bluth interaction (sadly, no chicken dances), but it created an even greater infrastructure upon which to layer running gags and multi-layered jokes. In addition to the usual gang of side characters-- the queen of dizziness Lucille Austero, an aged Steve Holt (notably, the only character who wants to be part of the Bluth clan), a spurned-at-the-altar Ann Veal, a newly out of the closet (with the catch phrase "I'm here, I'm queer and now I'm over here") magician Tony Wonder, and the hilariously incompetent Barry Zuckercorn-- the show managed to find space for a new crop of characters: a pay-for-play politician not so subtly inspired by Herman Cain (Terry Crews), endearing drug addict DeBrie Bardeaux (Maria Bamford), face-blind political activist Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos), a young starlet who gets romantically entangled with multiple Bluth family members (Isla Fisher) and Ron Howard as himself.

4. Homeland, Showtime-The third season has been seen as somewhat of a disappointment considering the lack of Brody-Carrie action but even when the show is making wrong turns with the storyline, it's a highly engaging show that could never be accused of being predictable. The show has so far avoided any signs of jumping the shark which is a difficult task considering the 2nd season ended with many key players blown to smithereens (spell check let me keep that one!) and Brody returning to fugitive status. The suspense escalated well in the opening arc in which agent Carrie Mathison found herself locked up for being on the right side of reason and while the characters are being put through the blender, the show has still managed to stay true to them. 

5. The Bridge, FX-Although the last two episodes of the first season were more denouement than action, this was a prime example of how serialized TV is now the richest form of storytelling today. This serialized crime drama, set along the Mexico-Texas border, centers around a partnership between a female detective (Diane Kruger) plagued with aesperger's who was taken in under the wing of the local police chief (Ted Levine) after her sister was murdered and a Mexican homicide detective who grew up alongside the local mob boss (a strong character in his own right) who somehow managed to turn out honestly, as they work together to track down a serial killer. The show also makes good use of serialized B-plots including one with Matthew Lillard as a self-serving alcoholic reporter and another with Annabeth Gish as a young widow who has inherited a smuggling pipeline. Thematically relevant, beautifully shot, insightful, expansive in scope, well-scripted and spearheaded by strong characters, "The Bridge" is off to a great start.

6. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX-Consistently at the top of my television queue year in and year out, there's not much to say about Sunny that hasn't already been said in previous top ten lists. Episodes focusing on Dee ("The Gang Breaks Dee") and Mac ("Mac Day") this season demonstrates that any of the show's five characters could easily top a list of the the most hilarious people on TV. Meanwhile, "Flowers for Charlie" contained a twist that showed there's room in these characters for surprises while "Mac Day" and "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" (my favorite episode this year) showed a playful self-referentialness (damn you, spell check!). And then we had a season finale, "The Gang Squashes their Beefs," that bought back all our favorite characters and gave us hope that the gang was finally going to move beyond their pettiness and join the community at large.    

7. Bates Motel, A and E-In its efforts to slowly disentangle the why and the who of Norman Bates, the series is rife with nuggets for a budding psych major to have a field day with. More often that not, however, its a wonderful and breezy small-town drama with fascinating characters, most of whom are concealing a dark side. At the end of the first season, Hitchcock would be proud of "Bates Motel" as it contains the kind of nuanced depth that could give a psych professor hours of discussion material. Vera Farminga, one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses, is one of the stars the TV would should be thankful for this year.

8. Go On, NBC-Due to NBC's misguided idea to sweep its comedy slate clean to make way for the Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox shows (cue the snooze button), "Go On" is now an archival footnote of the 2012-2013 TV season that might only be remembered a couple years from now for the comic mileage Seth MacFarlane got out of it when he mispronounced it on SNL's Weekend Update. That's too bad, because for my money "Go On" had a first season better than the last three seasons "Community" and we all know how that show turned out. Like its doppelganger, "Go On" was also based on a disparate group of characters toughing out a big life challenge together (whether being relegated to community college or coping with loss) but it had a stronger emotional baseline. The ensemble was filled with a few characters that started out a bit over-the-top but the show made great strides at developing everyone to the point where the quirky ensemble interplay really drove the humor while the bittersweet plots packed great emotional punch.

9. Breaking Bad, AMC-My involvement with "Breaking Bad" hasn't been as strong as other TV critics (I can proudly take credit for catching the first episode, this blog is not a bandwagoner) as my viewing of the last couple seasons has been sporadic. Although I think realistically Walt should have been dead by around season 4, I didn't have a strong sense of disappointment with the show. I was simply content to be a spectator to the arms race over which critic can best express their uber-admiration for the best show ever, while there was so much great TV I can contribute my voice to. I managed to latch onto the final batch of episodes and while I didn't want to get sucked into that arms race, I'll just say it's been a thrilling ride. A main concern of mine was whether the writing room was self-conscious enough over how little of a hero Walter White was at this point and I'm especially impressed with how the endpoint for these characters managed to navigate the twin poles of glamorization and empathy.

10 (tie). Quick Draw, Hulu and Archer, FX-Like "It's Always Sunny," "Archer" is one of the most inventive and consistently hilarious comedies on the air today. The chemistry between H. Jon Benjamin, Chris Parnell, Aisha Taylor, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, Amber Nash and Lucky Yates is all the more astounding when you consider that they all record their lines separately. In quite possibly the ballsiest (first time I've ever used that word in 7 years of blogging) sitcom premise this year, the season opener poked fun at H. Jon Benjamin's other voice-over role in a crossover with Bob's Burgers that tried to tie both shows into the same universe. From there, the hijinks only got crazier as Archer goes head-to-head with his man crush, defends the Pope (Francis or Benedict, I'm not sure), shuttles coyotes across the Mexican border, and comes face to face with his arch-nemesis in cyber-Barry.

Meanwhile, the improv-based comedy of John Lehr brought forth one of the more absurdist sitcoms I've seen in recent memory. John Lehr's last go-around in TV as pushover supermarket owner in "10 Items of Less" was lackluster which is why it's been such a joy discovering this hidden gem and seeing how the right tweaks to his (and co-creator Nancy Hower's) comedy style can create great TV. The show is set in the Old West but has a manic disregard for any sort of historical tone as one episode references universal health care, the sandwich generation, and reimagines CSI-level ballistics techniques with a sheriff in the 1800's using bows and arrows. The ironic thing is that John Lehr's protagonist -- a physically unimposing sheriff who drops his Harvard education into nearly every conversation and would be considered subpar for his job if not for a knack for marksmanship -- isn't too far removed from his character in "10 Items or Less" but the discordance of that same personality type in the 19th Century works wonders for the show's comedy.

Honorable Mentions:

Behind the Mask, Hulu-Endearing reality show featuring four diverse characters who are all passionate about their dual lives as team mascots

Office and Parks & Recreation, NBC-Both shows have been dependable stalwarts of the TV viewing experience for several years now and it was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to one of them

Americans, FX-Wonderful sense of place, wonderfully suspense-laden plots, great insight into a period in history, but believability (even if you compare it to the actual historical story it's based on) started to wear thin

Legit, FX-An unapologetic celebration of the mundane. Jim's mission isn't to better his life, become healthier, succeed at his career, or find true love. More often than not, Jim just wants to just have an agreeable day when he wakes up in the morning and he drags his two roommates with him for the ride to his blase attitude on life.

Wilfred, FX-Consistently funny and thoughtful year in and year out.

Key and Peele, Comedy Central-Smart sketch comedy from two comics who have paid their dues for a while and are finally getting their big break

Masters of Sex, Showtime-Pretty much the only Fall show that showed potential. Ensemble storylines layer themselves in typical Golden Age fashion but the show's very polished and has intriguing characters.

Necessary Roughness, USA-Another fish-out-of-water show on the USA network, that boasted a charming lead and John Stamos on top of it.

Royal Pains, USA-Checked into this show recently and saw some wonderful character development and arcing developments. It's a show that warms the heart.

Elementary, CBS-Only watched one episode but seems like it breaks procedural mold pretty well and Lucy Liu is quite charming

The Full List of What Else I Watched this Year (a number of which were still very good programs) So You Know What the Above is Being Judged Against:
30 Rock, NBC; 1600 Penn, NBC; Alpha House, Amazon; American Dad, Fox; American Horror Story, FX; America's Got Talent, NBC; The Awesomes, Hulu; Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox; Big Bang Theory, CBS; Best Week Ever, VH1; Burn Notice, USA; Camp, NBC; Community*, NBC; Crazy Ones, CBS; Dads, Fox; Family Guy, Fox; Futurama, Comedy Central; Fugget About It, Hulu; Glee*, Fox; Hollywood Game Night, Fox; House of Cards*, Netflix; Lilyhammer, Netflix; Michael J Fox Show, NBC; Mindy Project, Fox; Modern Family, ABC; New Girl, Fox; New Normal, NBC; Scandal, ABC; Sean Saves the World*, NBC; Simpsons, Fox; Sing-Off, NBC; SNL, NBC; Suburgatory, ABC; Super Fun Night, ABC; Studio C, BYU TV; Two Broke Girls, CBS; Under the Dome, TNT; Walking Dead, AMC; Wipeout, ABC; What Would Ryan Lochte Do, E!; Whose Line is it Anyway, CW; Writer's Room, Sundance Channel

* Indicates that I viewed it in very limited capacity

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