For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. But even after that discussion, there were plenty of other shows we wanted to highlight, new series and returning favorites that were good but just short of great. What follows are 25 “honorable mention” selections that helped make 2013 one of the best years for TV in recent memory.
Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)
There are shows that ran longer, or had a stronger grasp on the cultural zeitgeist, but none are more reliably inventive and surprising than the fifth season of Adventure Time. Through 10-minute installments that know exactly where to end before wearing our their welcome, Pendleton Ward’s series told stories of friendship, betrayal, science, mystery, puberty, gender identity, romance, treasure, suspense, and the apocalypse. Structurally bold, consistently imaginative, and richly felt, the lives of Jake, Finn, BMO, Princess Bubblegum, Ice King, and Marceline are never anything less than unexpected; though ostensibly a children’s show, the writers (and a cast rich with some of the biggest names in voice-acting and indie comedy) never speak down to their audience. The result is thematically complex, timeless, and singular, an adventure that comes highly recommended for all ages. It’s as algebraic as it gets.
Best episode: “Simon & Marcy” [ZH]
Arrow (The CW)
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. got the big publicity rollout, but the best comics-based
series of the year is the steadily improving Arrow. Its debut season moved along in fits and starts until 2013, when Arrow figured out how to manage the revolving door of characters from the comics with well-grounded romantic entanglements for its leads. Much of the credit for that balanced tone goes to Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity Smoak, who was originally set for a one-episode guest appearance, but had such wonderful chemistry with Stephen Amell and David Ramsey that she stuck around as a recurring player and got bumped up to series regular for the second season. The back half of the first season hit a creative peak, and the second season has maintained that elevated quality even with an expanding cast of characters. ABC is so worried about S.H.I.E.L.D. that it has ESPN’s College Gameday tweeting about it to drum up publicity, but The CW has lightning (and muscles, oh the muscles) in a bottle.
Best episode: “Sacrifice” [KM]
Behind The Candelabra (HBO)
The asterisk on all those Steven Soderbergh retirement articles, Behind The Candelabra is the genre stylist’s take on Scott Thorson’s memoir about his relationship with sparkly Vegas gargoyle Liberace. No need to play coy: Matt Damon’s Scott and Michael Douglas’ Liberace are married for all intents and purposes, and part of the climactic drama has to do with the lack of legal recognition for that marriage—and therefore a lack of standing for alimony. In Soderbergh’s hands, this portrait of a union so rocky it would make George and Martha bow in submission becomes a living, breathing tribute to Susan Sontag’s “Notes On Camp” shot by someone who isn’t falling for it. The degree of artifice is breathtaking: the candelabra lights flaring like they’re lined with feathers, the mirrors and wardrobes bulging in Rococo’s image, the sequined suits and bedazzled Speedos decorating every human in sight. Liberace, or Lee as he’s known more intimately, even tries to fashion Scott into a clone through cosmetic procedures, introducing the movie’s breakout character, Rob Lowe’s stretched-out plastic surgeon. The final scene is one, last magical stage show, a joint farewell from Liberace and Soderbergh that lives up to the legacies of both. [BN]
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Boardwalk Empire hasn’t received the accolades some of its HBO peers enjoy. But in terms of performance and storytelling, the Prohibition-era drama deserves to stand alongside them. Season four was the series’ most assured yet, once again showing that while its varied narratives burn slowly, they always come together in assured, explosive fashion. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson largely stepped aside, letting other characters have deeply involved storylines: Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White dealt with personal and professional obstacles courtesy of the serpentine Dr. Valentin Narcisse (a sublime performance by Jeffrey Wright), and Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden called upon his inner Walter White to move up the ladder of the Capone family. The show also gave heartbreaking ends to a couple of beloved supporting players—SPOILERS COMING—as faithful valet Eddie Kessler paid the price for his loyalty and disfigured marksman Richard Harrow failed to leave his history of violence behind. It’s a testament to how good Boardwalk Empire was this year that despite closing on a devastating image—Harrow’s mask-free corpse forgotten under the boardwalk—the most prevailing emotion is an eagerness to see where the story goes next.
Best episode: “The Old Ship Of Zion” [LC]
Broadchurch (BBC America)
Decades of police procedurals have taught audiences that even the most baffling cases can be solved in an hour, so why would any half-decent detective need an entire season to find an 11-year-old boy’s murderer? The British import Broadchurch offers an innovative solution: Its detectives might not even qualify as half-decent. Olivia Colman’s Ellie Miller is out of her depth investigating the death that rocks her quiet coastal community; she’s reluctant to treat lifelong friends as potential killers. David Tennant’s Alec Hardy came to Broadchurch to escape the memories of a botched murder inquiry and to nurse his faltering heart, making him either the perfect man to solve the case or the worst candidate imaginable. Tennant highlights a stellar cast as he takes a standard “tortured police officer” character and makes Hardy just the right mix of irascible, awkward, and dryly funny. The whodunit mystery follows some familiar beats, but plot is secondary in an eight-episode mood piece about grief, anger, and loss, with the rugged beauty of England’s southwestern Dorset coast helping to build the haunting atmosphere.
Best episode: “Season One, Episode Five” [AW]
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
After five seasons at Parks And Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creators Dan Goor and Michael Schur know a thing or two about cast chemistry. That know-how helped make the duo’s cop comedy immediately assured, its fictional NYPD precinct boasting a lived-in, goof-off vibe that expertly contrasts with no-nonsense new captain Ray Holt. As Holt, Andre Braugher’s deadpan serves as the glue for an ensemble that shines thanks to, not in spite of, star Andy Samberg. State alum Joe Lo Truglio is a physical-comedy revelation as the bullpen’s klutzy foodie, hopelessly devoted to stone-faced badass Stephanie Beatriz. And by making Terry Crews a sergeant with a fatherhood-induced hair trigger, Goor and Schur gave the actor a character that can finally out-scream Idiocracy’s President Camacho. The detectives of the Nine-Nine sit at the top of a remarkably strong sitcom recruiting class, though their cases are never as compelling as simple interoffice assignments like assisting Crews’ Sergeant Jeffords in the construction of a pink plastic playset (“What kind of castle has wheels?”).
Best episode: “The Vulture” [EA]
Bunheads (ABC Family)
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s weird, wonderful Bunheads was always too beautiful for this world; ABC Family’s decision to cancel the show after only one season, though devastating, was not a surprise. Bunheads didn’t come out of the gate fully formed, but in the 10 episodes that aired this year, the show hinted at how rewarding it could be. Sherman-Palladino proved she had a deft hand with mother-daughter relationships in Gilmore Girls, but she took that to an impressive extreme in Bunheads, building Paradise, California, as if it were a sanctuary where female relationships—the surrogate mother-daughter bond of Kelly Bishop and Sutton Foster; Foster’s wonderful connection with one of the titular bunheads, Julia Goldani Telles—could grow and be nurtured. Throw in Sherman-Palladino’s signature fast-paced banter, thoroughly random pop-culture references (only in her world could multiple teenagers easily reference Hope Springs), surprisingly affecting dance sequences, and a cast full of distinct, well-rounded female characters, and you have the strange mix that created one of 2013’s distinctive TV pleasures. Bunheads wasn’t with us long, but it certainly burned brightly while it was here.
Best episode: “Take The Vicuna” [CR]
Comedy Bang! Bang! (IFC)
Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast works so brilliantly because it gives its all-star guests, alongside host Scott Aukerman, the necessary time to follow whatever improvisational sparks strike brightest. Transforming the podcast into a 22-minute faux talk show seemed a fool’s errand, cutting off its very comic source. But Comedy Bang! Bang! the TV show quickly established itself as its own, cockeyed comedy animal, with Aukerman using the talk-show format to engage in the sort of inventive conceptual weirdness he learned from/brought to Mr. Show. Alongside inimitable bandleader and sidekick Reggie Watts, Aukerman plays unassuming ringmaster to a fiendishly smart parade of TV satire and surreal sketches, often guided by an underlying premise that leaps out for a final comic snap. The celebrity guest segments, necessarily pared down from their online counterparts, provide each episode with a variable center from which the show spins out its signature style of intellectual absurdity.
Best episode: “Gillian Jacobs Wears A Red Dress With Sail Boats” [DP]
CBS’ Sherlock Holmes update premiered amid a chorus of accusations: It aped the BBC’s modernization, it would ignore canon, Lucy Liu’s Watson was stunt casting. Season one quietly proved otherwise, with thoughtful interrogation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters that forced Sherlock to confront modern times as an addict, gave ex-surgeon Watson the spine to challenge him, and let them duke it out. (Left-of-center canon tweaks appeared throughout: transgender Ms. Hudson, NA sponsor/Baker Street Irregular Alfredo, authoritative Detective Gregson, and a whole new Moriarty.) With Watson now integral to the detecting, season two is bucking CBS’ expectations with increasingly serialized arcs, and has smartly shifted tension from Sherlock’s past to their shared and increasingly tenuous present. Watson has chafed under his arrogance, and a recent episode called Sherlock to task for his methods as few other Holmes stories ever have. Not everything’s perfect—procedural beats are often cookie-cutter, and this season’s struggled so much to illuminate Watson that she risks becoming a supporting character—but it’s one of the smartest takes going on the Holmes canon, and a show coming into its own.
Best episode: “A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs” [GV]
Gravity Falls (Disney Channel)
The biggest mystery of Gravity Falls may be when the show airs new episodes, given Disney’s erratic scheduling that spread eight installments over seven months, but the series nonetheless managed a strong run in 2013. Although marginally stronger the previous year, Gravity Falls remains adept at merging cartoon chaos with characterization, concluding its first season with both standalone and mythology-heavy episodes that never strayed from exploring the dynamic of twin siblings Dipper and Mabel and their Grunkle Stan all entering new stages in their lives. While rarely “serialized” in the traditional sense, Gravity Falls has created a world filled with well-rounded, nuanced characters that ground its zany universe—dinosaurs stealing pigs, body-switching carpets—and who evolve with each new obstacle presented to them. That said, while the show deserves credit for its clever writing and mythology-building, one of its strongest qualities is how it resists burying its kid-friendly morals. Instead, the series uses the rhythms of sitcom storytelling to tell universal stories about growing up; it’s a wacky “family” show well worth weathering Disney’s scheduling practices.
Best episode: The two-part season finale, “Dreamscaperers” and “Gideon Rises” [MM]
The Hollow Crown (PBS)
Produced by the BBC, this ambitious television event staged the entire Henriad as a miniseries with a wide cast of characters. It’s a wonder it succeeds, bringing the prose of Shakespeare’s histories on the Wars of the Roses to the screen with subtlety and grace. Each play has its own director, but the miniseries was produced by the same team—so the plays are able to have their own voice while developing the overarching themes of the stories of the Kings Henry and Richard. Ben Whishaw won a BAFTA for his turn as Richard II, an interpretation of the role likely to stand the test of time. All the performances are superb, the direction affecting, and the writing, naturally, is a masterpiece. It’s hardly fair to compare it to anything else on television, because it’s so unconventional. But it’s also brilliant.
Best episode: Richard II [SS]
Masters Of Sex (Showtime)
Masters Of Sex launched in September seeming like an eager, more sexually explicit pretender to Mad Men’s throne, examining the country’s shifting cultural mores by looking at the crucial Masters and Johnson study of sexuality. While it was a bit of a slow starter, the show has succeeded wildly, mostly by focusing on the characters of Masters and Johnson themselves (perfectly portrayed by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan). Their rocky, awkward, intense connection evolves gradually as their professional partnership deepens and gets more and more personal; the crazy (and amazingly true) story of their relationship would seem ludicrous if the performers didn’t have Sheen and Caplan’s chemistry. Sheen, given the tougher, more internal character, is doing some of the best work of his stellar career, and Caplan is so luminescent that her spellbinding effect on both Masters and their study’s participants seems eminently plausible. A second season is on the way, as the show seems to grow in strength with every episode.
Best episode: “Brave New World” [DS]
The Middle (ABC)
The great live-action American family sitcom of the past few years is growing up along with its characters. Eldest son Axl is off to college, middle child Sue deals with her first real relationship, even youngest son Brick is starting to get into girls. And The Middle is starting to take time to memorialize these moments, like when Sue and her boyfriend, Darrin, kiss over a trashcan at the Valentine’s Day dance or when parents Frankie and Mike reminisce about their small town on the eve of its centennial parade. The effect is enriching as the hectic working-class sitcom reaches for a sense of Americana. Meanwhile it’s as funny and focused as ever: stressful holiday episodes with just the right amount of sugar, serious consequences for dumb mistakes, and a can-do spirit that keeps the characters trying. Eden Sher’s Sue Heck remains the show’s optimistic engine, this year testing the communicability of smiles and leading the misfit wrestlerettes in a cheer-off, but with Charlie McDermott’s Axl growing up and moving out and Neil Flynn’s Mike showing the distance, the whole cast is at the top of its game.
Best episode: “The Drop Off” [BN]
Orphan Black (BBC America)
Even those who don’t like Orphan Black agree: Series lead Tatiana Maslany is amazing. The formerly unknown actress stepped into the central role of Sarah—a woman who learns she’s one clone among many after stepping into the life of another clone—and made that character interesting to the audience, before turning around and playing roughly two-thirds of the show’s supporting cast, from buttoned-up soccer mom Alison to crunchy scientist Cosima. And while Maslany was a revelation, the show around her was great stuff, too. In particular, as the series built to its final handful of episodes, it turned into another stealth feminist triumph for the science-fiction genre, as Sarah and all her fellow clones learned that someone truly believed them to be simple intellectual property, an experiment gone awry. Orphan Black had its moments of sci-fi cheese, but at its best (and when Maslany held the center of the screen), it was the terrific tale of an aimless young woman who finally found herself by embracing the central truth of her existence.
Best episode: “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” [TV]
Person Of Interest (CBS)
Although Person Of Interest steadily built itself into a program of note throughout 2012, 2013 was the year when the show finally realized its heady blend of procedural case-solving, stunning action sequences, and paranoid science fiction that’s only a couple degrees removed from the real-world NSA. (That the show seemed to be taking a victory lap about its prescience after Edward Snowden’s revelations this summer was just part of its charm.) The year also saw the show’s producers broadening the scope of the series, turning two terrific characters played by Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi into regulars and further working to delineate the characters of Finch (Michael Emerson) and Reese (Jim Caviezel), delving deeper into their increasing sorrow at the weight of what the series’ omniscient Machine insists they do. This is a show with its finger firmly on the pulse of a world where Pandora’s box was opened in the wake of September 11, and now, no one quite knows how to close that box up again. It’s not just thrilling; it’s unexpectedly moving and timely.
Best episode: “Relevance” [TV]
RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo)
In a season full of fishy realness, Jinkx Monsoon was not the immediate favorite. The comedy queen didn’t have high-class pageantry (like Coco Montrese or Alyssa Edwards), nor did she have the requisite ’tude (Roxxxy Andrews) or insane lip-syncing skills (what did Detox just do with her mouth?!), but in what other show could a frontrunner be named after a spot-on, chills-inducing impression of Little Edie from Grey Gardens? After the Snatch Game, Monsoon stopped being the narcoleptic underdog and became the odds-on favorite. Although the inevitability of her victory could have stripped subsequent episodes of their vigor (as is common on other shows), that wasn’t the case on Drag Race. The show highlights real talent from a niche class whose accomplishments are rarely celebrated beyond that niche—and that hasn’t gotten old, even five seasons in.
Best episode: “Snatch Game” [ME]
Shameless continues to be one of the more perplexing shows on television: a Showtime drama drawing off of a British hit by the same name that revels in the awful. In 2013, that included a pretty-but-predatory teacher having an affair with a high-schooler and a sympathetic-but-violent teenager running over a romantic rival with her car. The show isn’t one of TV’s absolute bests because it verges on sloppiness—certain arcs fall flat, others last far too long, and it’s never clear whether the audience should laugh or cry. But Shameless’ strength is in its large and talented cast and a reckless focus on the darker sides of its characters. It’s a cynical view of humanity, played for laughs, unafraid of creating heroes that lie, cheat, steal, and maim in their struggle to survive. And somehow, it makes them lovable. The Gallaghers star in stories that aren’t seen anywhere else.
Best episode: “Survival Of The Fittest” [SS]
Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
Initially lumped in with “fairy tales are real—and they’re all dark and gritty!” shows like Once Upon A Time and Grimm, Sleepy Hollow quickly surprised viewers with how delightfully loopy the whole enterprise could be. The resurrected (and crisply hunky) Ichabod Crane teams up with an intrepid local cop to battle—well, here’s a list: the Freemasons, the Sandman, a golem, something like an evil Ent, the four horsemen of the apocalypse (including one famously beheaded rider), and maybe Satan himself. What makes it work is the no-nonsense bond between Tom Mison’s Crane and Nicole Beharie’s Abbie as they plow ahead in steadfast solidarity to solve a National Treasure-esque doomsday plot with tendrils snaking through American Revolutionary War history. Their relationship, with its mix of fish-out-of-water comedy and playful flirtation, is uniquely grounded in mutual professionalism and respect. Improbably, this lends each new ludicrous (and often effectively scary) twist a propulsive gravitas; Crane addressing Abbie as “Left-tenant” is more deliciously loaded every time he says it.
Best episode: “The Sin Eater” [DP]
The best cop show on TV raised the stakes considerably in its fifth and final season, throwing new challenges at its characters and giving the core members of its ensemble cast—Michael Cudlitz, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, Benjamin McKenzie—the chance to plumb new depths, some of which were downright terrifying. (Meanwhile, Dorian Missick, as King’s sagely laid-back detective partner, continued to function as the funniest, most on-point one-man Greek chorus on TV.) It’s a shame that, after the season concluded, TNT canceled the series, leaving some of them suspended forever in cliffhanger limbo. But like the show itself, they all went out at the top of their game.
Best episode: “Chaos” [PDN]
Shark Tank (ABC)
This consistently entertaining show educates its viewers on the inner-workings of small businesses—the bread and butter of the banter between “sharks” and those pitching ideas—without getting into the boring nitty-gritty of financials. It’s a moving target, finding the spot where casual Friday-night watchers can become invested in the longevity of a business they’ll never see, but Shark Tank hits just about every time. The personality of each shark comes out in the way they wheel and deal, and over time the show has smartly remained focused on the help these sharp business minds can provide, rather than parading out a bunch of lunatics. The negotiations are real, surprising, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Best episode: “Season Five, Week Six” [SH]
Did the final season of this show, subtitled “War Of The Damned,” bite off a bit more than it could chew? Sure. Rather than milk the ratings and stall off the historically inevitable, the show skipped right to the end of Spartacus’ historical war against Rome. This in turn translated into the introduction of Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar, burdening the show with a lot of exposition involving characters only seen during its final narrative act. But in terms of ambition, emotional melodrama, and sheer spectacle, few shows have done it better than Spartacus in recent years. A series that could have easily ended after the death of original lead Andy Whitfield instead turned into a testament to fortitude and making the most out of every waking moment. Executive producers Steven DeKnight and Rob Tapert crafted a program that people will be discovering (and savoring) for years to come.
Best episode: “Victory” [RM]
It’s usually mortifying when reality-competition contestants reappear hoping to prove their failed first appearance was a trick of editing. But John Cochran’s return to Survivor was an unmitigated triumph, as Cochran The Nebbish, who last played Survivor in 2011, miraculously returned as Cochran The Mastermind. A longtime fan, Cochran was so moon-eyed he forgot to actually play the game the first time around—he even blubbered an apology after one of his Tribal Council votes betrayed players who made no effort to disguise their contempt for him. Cochran The Mastermind was a different animal. Despite—or perhaps because of—his milquetoast reputation, Cochran played a cunning social game, and proved surprisingly formidable in immunity challenges. At the final Tribal Council, he outlined his strategy and thought process, making an airtight case for his deservedness without disturbing his “lil’ ol’ me” façade. He won unanimously, and became the second player in 26 Survivor seasons to win without a single Tribal vote cast against him. It was a giddy, glorious metamorphosis, especially contrasted with the meltdown of returning player Brandon Hantz, who was driven to frothing rage and voted out spontaneously, providing an instructive counterpoint to Cochran’s cool-headed manipulation.
Best episode: “Persona Non Grata” [JA]
Treme has always reflected the attitude of one of its (many) essential characters, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters): stubborn, defiant, sometimes self-righteous, and above all dedicated to its own muse with no regard for commercial considerations. That holds true in its abbreviated fourth season, which finds both Lambreaux and the series coming face to face with mortality. At its best (and when it tones down the preachiness), David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire is the closest television has come to evoking an Altman-esque portrait of community, rich in character and sense of place and far less concerned with plot than many would have liked. That being the case, this final season hasn’t been so much about tying up loose ends (although it does offer closure on several fronts) as spending a little more quality time with one of the finest ensembles on television and hanging out for just one more late-night number at The Spotted Cat. Although it consists of only five episodes, Treme’s final run is a fitting jazz funeral for the series: tinged with sadness, but never giving in to despair.
Best episode: “…To Miss New Orleans” (series finale airing December 29) [SVD]
Two seasons and several Emmy wins later, Veep still has a reputation as “that show where Julia Louis-Dreyfus curses and/or compares people to dildos.” That’s not to say Armando Iannucci’s signature insults are undeserving of recognition, as they flew even faster and more delightfully fucking furiously this year. But even in between R-rated smackdowns, Veep crackles with ferocious energy. The second season catapulted Selina’s circle into situations of increased pressure, which was a risk. After all, the show’s premise was Selina being too tangled up in red tape to make a substantial impact. But the gamble paid off. Veep gleefully skewers the dysfunction and hypocrisy that makes Washington tick without teetering too far into spoof territory. Louis-Dreyfus and crew played out the absurdity of a government shutdown months before it actually happened, and the finale portrayed just how fast the political winds can change in a screwball sequence that brought out the best in a stellar cast. It’s not always smooth sailing for Selina Meyer or Veep, but when they’re at their best, you’d better just stand the hell back and let them fly.
Best episode: “D.C.” [CF]
The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)
Blowing up The Venture Bros.’ mythology was the boldest move creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick could’ve pulled after three years without a new episode (give or take a Halloween special). The legends of Team Venture, the shadowy Council of 13, Brock Samson’s secret-agent past, and the test-tube origins of Hank and Dean—all essential elements of the Venture Bros.’ foundation—were dug up, transplanted, or otherwise messed with in season five. These were the qualities that kept the show’s early seasons from devolving into the animated contents of an ’80s geek’s toy box, and the writers gleefully pulled their action figures apart this year, finding new depths in their exposed, failure-prone innards. As the mythology unwound—Councilmembers dropping like flies, the destruction and/or desecration of the show’s most familiar imagery—The Venture Bros. found tremendous propulsion and thrilling new avenues for exploration, like the saga of the henchman formerly known as 21. In the end, the Monarch’s Cocoon HQ lay in ruins and both Venture brothers discovered that they’re clones—and yet things couldn’t look more promising for season six.
Best episode: “Momma’s Boys” [EA]