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Which TV show that didn’t make our top 40 were you most upset to see missing?
When we first started the discussions that became our top-40 list, somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 different shows were mentioned. This meant that even when we pared them down to the 40-ish shows you see before you today (we did some cheating in the top 15, so it really ended up being closer to 50 shows), we still had a lot of great TV shows left out. So we thought we’d take this chance to make some recommendations of shows that deserved to make the big list but just didn’t.
I’ll start: The final few episodes of 30 Rock were ineligible for the big list for mostly tedious reasons that have to do with Dollhouse (seriously). But there were few single episodes of TV I enjoyed as much this year as the final three half-hours of the show, particularly the next-to-last episode where Liz finally adopted her kids and the hour-long finale that doubled as a rousing defense of women in the workplace. When I think back on 2013, I will remember those final few episodes fondly. As far as shows that are making me laugh consistently right now, few can match ABC’s The Neighbors, a series that packs a surprising number of belly laughs in every episode from where I’m sitting. I’m not too broken up that it missed the top 40, since its storytelling leaves much to be desired, but the goofy aliens are among my favorite TV characters of the year. Finally, I made a brave goal-line stand for HBO’s Getting On when we were finalizing our runners-up list, and while I was defeated, I hope more people catch up with it in the year to come. It’s a gem that’s being sadly ignored.
I didn’t see anything on TV more exciting in 2013 than HBO’s five-part miniseries Parade’s End, smartly adapted from the Ford Madox Ford novel by Tom Stoppard. The show was filmed with the combination of literate sophistication and kinetic dynamism one might expect from director Susanna White, who worked on both the most recent TV versions of Bleak House and Jane Eyre and the Iraq War series Generation Kill. For some reason, it didn’t seem to excite Benedict Cumberbatch’s fan base as much as almost everything else he does, but he gave his best performance in it, and Rebecca Hall, playing the wife with whom Cumberbatch is mismatched, gave the sexiest performance seen on a TV or movie screen this year. The movie critic David Thomson called it Downton Abbey for grown-ups, which sounds about right. I’ll also give a shout-out to two shows that were maybe too small-scale for a best-of-the-year list but that were smart, fun, and took real chances: Ryan Quincy’s animated IFC series Out There and Ovation’s Mikhail Bulgakov adaptation A Young Doctor’s Notebook, with Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm.
The last few seasons of Futurama will never be considered among the show’s best; too many sloppy story ideas, along with a growing sense that the writers had lost the spark that animated the best years, made the series’ time on Comedy Central inconsistent and occasionally disappointing. Yet there were still high points, and in a final run filled with decent (and sometimes good) episodes, it was especially gratifying that the cast and crew managed to save the best for last. Futurama already had a perfect finale in “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” and while “Meanwhile” doesn’t surpass perfection, it does quite well for itself. A great hook—Professor Farnsworth creates a device that can take the user 10 seconds into the past—combined with the acerbic but generous heart that made the show a beloved cult classic, served to bring things to a close on just the right note. I’m not hugely disappointed that the final season didn’t make our top 40 list, but I do wish there had been some way to honor one of the year’s strongest finales. Oh wait, I just did.
I’m not surprised we missed Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23, since it ended early in the year and ABC mixed in a bunch of first-season episodes to extremely confusing effect, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. Krysten Ritter tore into her bitch character with biting relish. James Van Der Beek’s narcissistic parody of himself could have been its own show. And even Dreama Walker was better than she had any right to be as the B’s wet-blanket foil. The Sexiest Man Alive episode was one of my favorite half-hours all year. Also, not only is Aziz Ansari’s Netflix special Buried Alive exactly the kind of programming Netflix should be doing, but it sums him up perfectly: smart, more than a little manic, and enthusiastically contemporary. Love is the most well-worn topic for comedy, but Ansari stands out because he’s not just poking fun at depressing dating scenes; he’s truly fascinated with their modern evolution. It’s a credit to his talent that his bits seem so natural even as you can tell he’s practiced them to death.
2012 was a bad year for The Vampire Diaries. As its third season ended, the show crawled up its own ass, chasing its mythology while losing its strong characterization. Then the fourth season started with the worst set of episodes the show had done. After several stories in a row that failed to acknowledge the horrible rape-based gender politics Diaries were utilizing, I was juuuuussssttttt about ready to give up on it. And then, starting in January, the show went back to its basics, using a simple premise—a race for a vampirism cure—that brought back all the series’ character strengths, shifting alliances, and crazy back-stabbings. And it was great again. Meanwhile, spinning off several characters from Diaries to The Originals has allowed a deep examination of themes the parent show always ignored. Maybe neither show deserved top-40 status, but I’m happy I didn’t give up on them.
I’ve written plenty on this site about The Chris Gethard Show, but it really did have a tremendous year, from Murf’s on-air proposal to the rise of Messenger Bag to the big announcement that it’s shooting a pilot for Comedy Central. The archives are online, ready and waiting to be checked out. It’s honestly the most addictive show around. I’d also like to say some final words for the dear, departed Happy Endings, which is already dispersing its talented ensemble around the TV landscape. ABC burned off most of its terrific third season in 2013, but the show managed to end on a fun and hopeful note that emphasized its strengths while leaving things open for a fourth season that will never come. One of the most consistent comedies on TV, it’s already sorely missed from the sitcom landscape. And, finally, while there’s no reason to watch TNT’s Inside The NBA if you don’t like basketball, those who don’t watch are missing out on one of the funniest, frankest shows on television. The scintillating chemistry among Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny “The Jet” Smith cannot be overstated, and their willingness to discuss tough topics is pleasantly surprising.
A lot of attention was justly paid to Netflix and Sundance for their new offerings this year, but there were some great shows on less prolific networks. IFC’s Portlandia delivered its most consistent season yet, applying a more serialized approach to its sketches while still sharply mocking the self-obsessed politics and small businesses of the Pacific Northwest. On the pay-cable side, Cinemax continued its commitment to developing scripted drama that’s full of the expected violence and gratuitous sex while also managing to be more fun than it has any right to be. Strike Back had another great year of explosions and mayhem, this time taking Scott and Stonebridge on a hunt for chemical weapons with set pieces ranging from a Beirut rooftop shootout to a Russian prison riot to a fight on top of a freaking train bound for Berlin. And a new series, Banshee, came out swinging, taking a fish-out-of-water/small-town-cop framework and spinning a plot that was just ludicrous enough to be delightful, involving the Russian mob, internal Amish politics, and a nearly invulnerable central character.
Hey, remember how much we loved Homeland last year? Yeah, me either. The spy drama went from being one of the most intriguing and suspenseful shows on television to being one of the most confusing. The second season was running on all cylinders, and it brushed the top of our year-end list for 2012. But that momentum sent the series into a wall, and it’s taken most of its third season to recover. It’s hard to stump for it, because I acknowledge its massive flaws. But Homeland is still one of the best canvases we have about the war on terror, delivering surprisingly subtle, insightful, and even beautiful episodes with characters who are becoming rapidly implausible. “Good Night” was a standout this season, proving the show could still be gripping. Meanwhile, Archer might never be able to live up to the glory of its second season, but its characters showed up and gamely played along, spinning out their stories with characteristic cynicism and invincibility. The visuals this year were better than ever, and Lana’s pregnancy promises an interesting fifth season, at the very least. And hey, I’m not even going to argue that it’s good, but Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of the few shows I catch up with week-to-week, because it’s like a teen soap opera, but with superpowers, and you don’t have to pay attention if you don’t want to!
I’ve always loved MTV, but its original programming recently won me over, particularly Catfish and Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. Catfish, depending on the episode, is either absolutely horrendous (the infamous slow-clap!) or shockingly sweet (you know, that one time it actually worked out). Either way, I couldn’t stop watching. Zach Stone, a clever takedown of reality shows, features an annoying main character and too much cringe-worthy humor, but it managed to inject some real sentimentality into its quieter moments. By the end of the short-lived series, I was rooting for Zach to make it. But the biggest surprise was how I somehow got sucked back into WWE’s Monday Night Raw. Ridiculous storylines, laughable pay-per-view events, the return of weirdos like Goldust, and the perfect duo of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan all made Raw hands-down the most entertaining program I’ve watched all year. It’s still no Attitude Era, but it’s the most I’ve cared about wrestling in about a decade.
It’s not surprising that my pick for show of the year, Arrested Development, didn’t make our list. What’s surprising is that it had so much support in the first place. This beloved comedy came back into our lives with a prickly new look and feel. The fourth season covers a lot of ground, from that final SEC raid through the housing crisis and the recession to a complete tangle of storylines that converge on a holiday created in order to maintain the white upper-class establishment of Newport Beach. With nobody keeping the family together through the years, the structure follows suit in a way that capitalizes on Netflix’s all-at-once season dump. And when Michael Bluth is no longer the center, his actions reveal a man as selfish as his family—all those “Her?” jokes are seen for what they are. By the end of the season, the rebellion of the younger generation hits notes I didn’t think Arrested Development was capable of. So does Tobias’ musical. Two other A-worthy experiments: The Eric Andre Show, the anti-est anti-talk-show, and TCM’s The Story Of Film, a landmark of annotated television.
After years of unremitting, unsentimental comic cruelty, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia uncapped its strongest season in a long time. Sunny’s audacious balancing act of callousness and comedy is breathtaking at its peak, and this year saw the show producing both huge laughs and some improbably affecting moments. There were missteps, but that’s the danger when you’re working the high wire. For History’s Vikings, the real challenge is convincing us that its characters are… other. They’re motivated by passions we can at least partly understand—but then often, shockingly, they’re operating from a cultural well that we cannot. The series is brilliantly anchored by Travis Fimmel’s performance as the ambitious, unpredictable Ragnar, whose enigmatic smile often signals impending Viking awesomeness. Finally, in defending The Mindy Project, I usually start with, “It’s funny, but…” Well, I’ve decided to end the sentence there for a change—The Mindy Project is funny. Oh, it’s a mess, but I laugh. A lot. She might not be “the next big female comedy TV voice,” but Mindy Kaling’s a gifted comedian, and she benefits from chemistry with an ideally suited sparring partner, Chris Messina. With the show’s future in doubt, it’s tempting to complain that it won’t have time to get its act together—but I like it messy.
Though they’re not the flashiest shows, ABC Family has quietly built something special on Monday nights with Switched At Birth and The Fosters, creating a kind of television safe zone for socially conscious, multi-generational family dramas. After an iffy end to season one, Switched At Birth roared back in 2013 with a fantastic subplot about the school district’s threat to close the city’s all-deaf school, culminating in the groundbreaking episode “Uprising,” done almost entirely in American Sign Language. (If you watch any episode of the show, make it that one. It’s remarkable.) And while The Fosters, a drama about a lesbian couple raising a family of foster children—and one biological son, for maximum teen-romance plot awkwardness—is still only figuring out its way after 10 episodes, it’s a testament to this young show that its characters and their relationships feel so fully formed. (Check out “Vigil” if you want to have a good cry, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Neither were quite consistent enough to make my list, but both are tremendously moving—the kind of shows I’m just happy still exist somewhere in the television landscape.
I’m more than a little shocked that the final season—probably?—of Eastbound & Down didn’t make the big list, especially considering the show was voted The A.V. Club’s 28th best of the 2000s. (And that’s a whole decade!) Season four did have a rocky start, though it ultimately proved itself more bizarrely cocksure—and Kenny Powers-like—by mid-season, which found Danny McBride once again ruining his own life in search of one more fame buzz. From his party time at the water park to his meltdown on a Christmas-themed episode of his own TV show within the TV show, McBride/Powers was never better, nor was a supporting cast that includes the incredible Steve Little (oh, that chin!) and Ken Marino as an even bigger asshole than McBride. It also tied things up better than the series’ original ending, calling back to Powers’ autobiography on tape with some more self-mythologizing. It was a hilarious, memorable end to a great, despicable character.
I was surprised that HBO’s Family Tree struggled to find an audience, considering that creator Christopher Guest more or less taught TV how to make a mockumentary with his films Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. But the most common knock on what Guest would prefer we not call his “mockumentaries”—that they’re more amusing than funny—certainly rang true when stretched to four hours. The show kicked into high gear, though, once Chris O’Dowd reached the American leg on his journey of self-discovery—which also happened to coincide with the arrival of Guest regular Fred Willard. At the very least, Family Tree provided Stateside exposure to the weird ventriloquism of Nina Conti. That attraction that’s only out-niched by the second season of Brad Neely’s spectacular Animal House-in-reverse effort for Adult Swim, China, IL. Fifteen minutes could no longer contain the students and faculty of the University Of China, Illinois, and the show expanded to a half-hour without diluting its heady mixture of scrambled U.S. history, misinterpreted spirituality, and academic satire. Also mixed in there: comedic songs that match anything Guest and company have ever sung.
Has Parks And Recreation lost a step or two since Leslie Knope won her City Council position at the end of season four? Even its most ardent fans would probably agree with that assessment. But did it lose enough to not merit mention in the top 40 shows of the year? That seems like a step too far. Due to its persistently perilous status, the show burned through plot in case it might not last another season. But at this point, it’s largely told the “necessary” stories it needed to, with many of its episodes going broad in the way that often happens with comedies at this stage of their runs. Still, even if Ann Perkins’ desire to have a child was often-cringe worthy, there’s plenty to love on this show. In particular, April Ludgate’s in-progress journey from disaffected introvert to committed citizen of Pawnee stands as a shining example of how Parks’ commitment to optimism is necessary in a medium filled with antiheroes. The show may soon be gone, but its importance will far outlast its run.
I’ve got a vicious love/hate relationship with Suits. No other show makes me desperately yearn for a career I would hate with a passion that burns like the fire of a thousand suns. For 15 minutes after each episode ends, I’m amped up to take the LSAT and put myself on the road to becoming Harvey Spector. Then I think about all the inconsistencies, and how horribly unappealing the Mike/Rachel relationship has been (despite starring two gorgeous humans), and I regain my sanity. But I devour episodes more quickly than I do with Scandal, which tends to accrue a backlog. Grimm finally turned a corner in its second season and sorted out much of the awkward distance between its best characters, and the show is now shaping up to be an acceptable successor to David Greenwalt’s previous series, Angel. And PBS’ League Of Denial (still available to watch online) is my pick for best television documentary of the year, flaying the NFL for an utter lack of humanity in the face of overwhelming data that a multibillion-dollar industry like football can cause catastrophic brain damage. I feel massive internal conflict whenever I watch a game now, and League Of Denial presents a compelling summary of why.
While there are shows that didn’t make our list—like Awkward. or Parks And Recreation—that would have made my personal top 40, I wanted to use this space to highlight great elements of shows that would otherwise not garner much recognition. Corey Stoll’s Peter Russo was the one character on House Of Cards who combined a strong performance with a reason to care about him, and the fact that nothing on TV made me angrier this year than what the series did to Russo indicates the strength of Stoll’s work. In what has been the year of Allison Janney, including on Masters Of Sex, her work on Mom has helped keep the uneven freshman sitcom chugging along while it discovers itself (and potentially lands on our list next year). And despite the fact that her storylines are often just as silly as those dragging down Nashville in 2013, the series has finally realized that no matter what horrible things Juliette Barnes is doing, we will root for her, because Hayden Panettiere is just so much damn fun—and occasionally heartbreaking—to watch.
Trophy Wife is not the show that it could be with a little time and nurturing. But in the age of time-shifting, there’s something to be said about a show I want to watch first. It’s a family sitcom sans aw shucks attitude and forced sentimentality. But where a lot of family comedies rely on the long-suffering, no-fun mom, each of the women—even ball-busting, type-A+ Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) and ultra space cadet Jackie (Michaela Watkins)—are imbued with so much humanity that it makes sense that Kate (Malin Akerman) hasn’t filed a restraining order against her previous incarnations. Trophy Wife’s greatest asset, though, is not the layered way it portrays the female relationships or a new perspective on the politics of the blended family, but Bert (Albert Tsai). His mere presence brings a lightness and enthusiasm to every scene. He’s Jackie’s partner-in-crime, but he’s got elements of all of the people who raised him, even if none of those people are blood relatives.
When the cast and creators of The Goldbergs made their appearance at the dog-and-pony show known as the Television Critics Association press tour, the stock line from just about everyone involved with the series was that the ’80s, while certainly part of the show, wasn’t really as much of a driving force as the show’s heart. I don’t know if that was just a line they were feeding the critics or if they just realized that the viewers actually wanted it to be more about the ‘80s, but either way, it ended up being complete bullshit. But I’ve fallen in love with the series, anyway. Yes, Jeff Garlin yells too much, and yes, Wendi McLendon-Covey takes it too far over the top at times, but there is still a lot of heart, and in addition to George Segal being uniformly great, the trio of young actors who play the kids—Sean Giambrone (Adam), Troy Gentile (Barry), and Hayley Orrantia (Erica)—work extremely well together as well as with the elder actors of the cast. Okay, so it’s kind of obnoxious that the show uses the ’80s as a playground for comedy rather than following any semblance of a real timeline. But it’s still funny, dammit.
While 2013 did see The Colbert Report finally edge out The Daily Show for its first overall Emmy win, I’m a little disappointed that it couldn’t receive the far more prestigious honor of placement on our year-end list. The Report didn’t necessarily offer anything new in a year defined by innovation at Comedy Central, but it’s always worth recognizing just how absurdly difficult it is to churn out more than 150 episodes every year that are so consistently incisive and hilarious. Colbert can play his arch-conservative alter ego in his sleep at this point, but some of the year’s most memorable moments came when he dropped character—most notably his poignant eulogy for his mother—or when he blurred the line between reality and fiction with his response to Daft Punk’s cancellation. Elsewhere, Doctor Who fumbled its latest series-spanning mystery, but some strong individual episodes (particularly “Cold War” and “Hide”) and a bunch of rousing anniversary celebrations have allowed the show to close out its first half-century in style. Finally, Regular Show may be forever stuck in Adventure Time’s shadow, but its nimble, long-awaited progression of Mordecai and Margaret’s love story was emblematic of a generally impressive year for the series.
But, guys! What about Raising Hope? Or Parenthood?! Or Suburgatory or Childrens Hospital or The Greatest Event In Television History or Continuum or Call The Midwife or The Bletchley Circle or The Wrong Mans or The Bridge? Or, hell, even The Big Bang Theory, which had a surprisingly strong year. There was so much good TV! It was such a great year! And we haven’t even mentioned the glory and the wonder that was… Sharknado. C’mon, guys. We fucked that one up. See you in 2014.