The best TV of 2013 (so far)

The best TV of 2013 (so far)

The first half of 2013 hasn’t lacked for new television: With more and more outlets offering an unprecedented amount of programming across multiple platforms, TV fans don’t want for viewing options. What’s surprising, however, is the number of worthwhile options being offered by those outlets. Cable is expanding its influence and streaming services are creating quality content, and even the ailing broadcast networks provide myriad reasons to tune in. Recognizing that the greatest television achievement of the year might still be lying in wait on, say, RFD-TV, The A.V. Club hands out superlatives for the best of what we’ve managed to watch in 2013.

Best TV show that doesn’t fit into normal conceptions of “good TV”: Scandal

There are certain signifiers for so-called “quality television” that critics and viewers used in order to separate the wheat from the chaff during the medium’s recent golden age. At one time, those signifiers (such as “male anti-hero”) might have captured all of the groundbreaking work on the small screen. But now? They are woefully inadequate, omitting dozens of shows doing amazing work in 2013. The best network example of this is ABC’s Scandal, which in its second year saw its ratings rise as countless other hour-longs saw decreases. The show doesn’t look or feel like other supposedly prestige dramas, but that’s deceptive: This is a show that never takes its foot off the narrative gas while simultaneously keeping its eye on its destination. This isn’t “guilty pleasure television.” This is great television, period. [RM]

Best use of shifting perspective: Enlightened, The Ghost Is Seen” and “Higher Power” 

Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) is a hurricane, and those attempting to resist her implacable zeal find themselves swept along (or away) by her monomaniacal righteousness. Two remarkable season-two episodes of Enlightened explore what it’s like to be caught in her wake by focusing on supporting characters: Luke Wilson’s Levi goes through a tumultuous rehab stint in “Higher Power,” and content nonentity Tyler (Mike White) is wrenched from his safe, mole-like existence in the achingly beautiful “The Ghost Is Seen.” Co-creator White deepens our understanding of his central character by ripping the show’s perspective from Amy and forcing the viewer to see her from the outside—just as we, too, are in danger of getting subsumed by Hurricane Amy. [DP]

Best full-circle final season: 30 Rock

In addition to finally finding happy endings for Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, Kenneth The Page, and everyone else, the final season of 30 Rock is a payoff for the viewers who stayed with the series through all seven seasons. References to Liz’s wedding dress, Kenneth’s mother’s friend Ron, Bitch Hunter, and even Sabor De Soledad would be meaningless to 30 Rock newcomers, but loyal watchers found in-jokes galore rewarding them for sticking with the show. In the end, the snake eats its own tail as Liz (Tina Fey) discovers she’s adopted kid versions of best friends/spoiled performers Tracy and Jenna, so she’ll always have them in her life even after she bids adieu to their adult counterparts. [CZ]

Most gloriously self-aware reality-show challenge: RuPaul’s Drag Race, “Lip Synch Extravaganza Eleganza

Sometimes, reality shows work because the stars are insanely unaware of how they come off on-camera. But RuPaul’s Drag Race—which could alternately win the award for “best reality show that only the Internet is watching”—blows that impression out of the water with a sashay and a wink. Drag is all about being over the top, singular, and creative, so Drag Race’s contestants follow suit, and the show knows exactly how to showcase them. Ru summons her girls with “SheMail” messages, commands the queens to lip-synch for the right to stay, and coaches them toward embodying “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent” (focus on the initials). This season, though, Our Lady Of Drag outdid herself when she commissioned the queens to lip-synch one of her own songs (“Tranny Chaser,” “Lady Boy,” and “Peanut Butter”) through glory holes shaped like her face. What more do you want, America?! [CF]

Best Best Actress parody: The Neighbors, “Larry Bird Presents An Oscar-Winning Film By Larry Bird”

The week ABC hosted the Academy Awards, some of its shows concocted Oscar-centric plots, but none as deliciously as The Neighbors. The episode takes all kinds of shots at Hollywood, but the funniest is when Toks Olagundaye, playing the alien mother Jackie Joyner-Kersee, does a rendition of The Blind Side. She’s trying to fill the hole left by her ungrateful son, so she goes looking for some lucky soul to blindside. (“Verb: To find a person less fortunate than you are and dramatically change his life so that you feel like the most important and most needed person in the entire world.”) She suddenly goes Southern, takes in the neighbors’ daughter for a tea party, and role-plays white savior like a pro, constantly fist-pumping to herself and whispering, “Blindsided!” It’s a timeless Oscar story: Jackie Joyner-Kersee may not save a child, but at least she gets attention. [BN]

Award for excellence in the use of talking bathroom fixtures: Bob’s Burgers, “O.T.: The Outside Toilet

Here’s an example of how widely 2013 best TV offerings vary: One of the year’s singular achievements centers on the touching bond between a young boy and the automated toilet he finds in the woods. “O.T.: The Outside Toilet” is more than just the easy jokes implied by that premise, though it has plenty of those, too—like the shady character who lays dubious claim to the toilet calling himself “Max Flush.” Still, it would be but a shell of Spielbergian homage without the honest, authentic relationship that forms between Gene Belcher (Eugene Mirman) and his seat-warming, Eddie Money-playing friend (voiced by a nearly unrecognizable Jon Hamm). As a method of teaching the kid a lesson about responsibility, it’s effective—as a cartoon where Don Draper tells knock-knock jokes in a robot voice, it’s hysterical. [EA]

Best performance by a son of Stellan Skarsgård: Gustaf Skarsgård, Vikings

Sure, siblings Alexander (True Blood) and Bill (Hemlock Grove) might have the movie-star looks and plum roles on sexy supernatural series, but it’s Gustaf, with his “young John Malkovich” character-actor affect who deserves the big chair at this year’s Skarsgård family reunion. With his ochroid eyes and slinky, snakelike movements, unpredictable shipbuilder, healer, mystic, and possible madman Floki is the unknowable avatar of Vikings’ essential otherness. He’s also hilarious. Whether burning with mysterious antipathy toward the trappings of Christianity, playing court jester to Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar, or initiating a Viking threesome, Skarsgård’s Floki is riveting. [DP]

Darkest episode of Felicity: The Americans, “Trust Me”

Keri Russell’s casting as one of two Soviet spies at the heart of The Americans is crucial to the show’s success. Russell’s natural sweetness and likability help make a violent, fanatical woman dedicated to destroying America the tiniest bit sympathetic. Given Russell’s history, The Americans’ first season occasionally felt like an exercise in what terrible acts the writers could get the erstwhile Felicity Porter to commit. That trend culminated with the sixth episode, “Trust Me,” when Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings viciously beats her KGB handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) and yells repeatedly that Claudia should show her bosses the remnants of her bloody, shattered face. Elizabeth has good reason to be angry—the KGB ordered her torture to determine if she would turn against the Soviet Union under duress—but the savagery of the assault is both one of the most striking moments of the show so far and one of the strongest pieces of evidence that The Americans means business. [ET]

Best argument for immediately ceasing all Q-tip usage: Girls, “On All Fours

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While the penultimate episode of Girls’ second season is made cringeworthy enough just by Marnie’s horribly awkward, stripped-down cover of Kanye West’s “Stronger,” Lena Dunham pushed things that much further when her character jabbed a cotton swab into her ear in a fit of compulsive craziness. Hannah ends up with an abraded eardrum, and—again, because she’s well on her way to crazy—then actually takes one of the ill-advised cotton swabs to her other ear at the end of the episode. Apparently the scene was all part of Dunham’s real-life anti-Q-tip agenda, which she says inspires more Twitter replies now than her breasts do. It’s the little victories. [ME]

Best hardware-themed sexual innuendo: New Girl, “Quick Hardening Caulk

New Girl had an eventful second season—and masterfully played its two romantic leads off of each other, letting the tension mount in ways that felt simultaneously natural and hilarious. In the season’s 19th episode, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) struggles with her inconvenient attraction to roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) on a trip to the hardware store. As the testosterone courses through him, Nick spends 30 whole seconds pulling chains and man-grunting while Jess and a random old lady stare. Then Nick reels off the list of things he needs to buy: long-shafted drill, a new nut wrench, lube for a drill shaft, and, of course, quick-hardening caulk. Johnson plays up the absurd amount of innuendo with total sincerity. Oh yeah, Miller. Yank that chain. [SS]

Best fictional product placement: Happy Endings, “In The Heat Of The Noche

There are more than a few sitcoms that have tackled the “to text or not to text?” question, but Happy Endings was the only one bold enough to prescribe NocheTussin, the only off-off-brand Mexican/Nicaraguan/Libyan cough syrup guaranteed to knock users out. After all, as Penny (Casey Wilson) says, “You can’t text while you’re sleeping!” Her ensuing bender alongside Adam Pally’s Max is as tightly edited and deeply weird as the late, lamented Happy Endings gets, not to mention that it’s always fun to watch Wilson and Pally having fun. Let’s all raise a glow-in-the-dark shot of NocheTussin to the absurd legacy of Happy Endings, and the noble pursuit of 14 hours of text-free sleep. [CF]

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Achievement in making everyone else look lazy: Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black

At this point, the praises of Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performance in Orphan Black have been well sung, thanks to a deluge of critical adoration and BBC America realizing at the 11th hour that it might (and should) have an Emmy contender on its hands. But the fact remains that during any given episode of the cloning saga, Maslany gives several seemingly effortless, award-worthy performances. Her Sarah is hardened but brittle; her Alison is a master class in how to slowly unravel, then break down all at once; her Cosima has a creeping insecurity underneath her mischievous smile; her Helena is feral, predatory, and vulnerable in the most fleeting of moments. Together, they form a staggering display of talent that’s proven impossible to ignore. [CF]

Best catchphrase in a show that can probably cool it with the catchphrases: “You know nothing, Jon Snow”—Ygritte, Game Of Thrones 

It only took one episode for Ygritte’s “You know nothing, Jon Snow” to become as iconic a Game Of Thrones catchphrase as “Winter is coming,” “a Lannister always pays his debts,” “the night is dark and full of terrors,” or “KHALEESI!!!” That’s partly due how satisfying it is to watch someone call Jon Snow (Kit Harington) on his self-righteous moping, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to season-three standout Rose Leslie. Although introduced in the second season’s “A Man Without Honor,” “You know nothing, Jon Snow” became Leslie’s signature line in 2013. As Ygritte, she imbues every syllable of the catchphrase with just the right startling fierceness, snarling disdain, or teasing familiarity as the moment calls for—and in season three, the show called for such moments a lot. [CF]

Best worst haircut: Raylan Givens, Justified

Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is an attractive man. But for many Justified fans, the most recent fourth season was more difficult to watch on those grounds—because Givens’ hair was longer, greasier, and straight-up worse-looking than usual. But that haircut, in all its hideous glory, actually pointed at two of the reasons why this season was the show’s best yet. First, it illustrated Givens’ increasing not-giving-a-fuck attitude, which proved crucial in the finale, “Ghosts.” And second, when he’s to told get a haircut by his boss—responding that he doesn’t have time—it points to the season’s clever, unspoken conceit: Each episode chronicles 24 hours in a 13-day case that can make or break Givens’ career. An uglier Raylan Givens is a small price to pay for such great television. [RK]

Most uncomfortable art direction: Hannibal’s food styling 

A show about a cannibal smooth enough to fool the FBI was going to require some markedly appetizing plating. Otherwise, someone had to break out the cuffs mid-season and arrest Mads Mikkelsen’s character for suspicious punning. The human viscera on display in the first season of Hannibal doesn’t disappoint, as dishes are presented with Boschian abandon: Every lung licked with light; every octopus writhing tentacles-up on its serving platter; every salad comes with a side of chicken skull, accompanied by a bell jar of moss that was probably grown on people. It’s the sort of overblown, surreal baroque that needs to accompany Lucifer’s dinner parties, and it made viewers wonder how awesome human veal actually tastes for about 30 seconds longer than ought to be legal. [GV]

Best non-rewriting of source material: Spartacus

It would have been easy for Spartacus to give its audience what it wanted. Instead, showrunner Steven DeKnight, a graduate of the Joss Whedon School Of Pain, gave the audience what it needed. The inclusion of a young Julius Caesar in the show’s final season (a narrative move not contradicted by history, but not supported by it either) gave fans hope that the final season might produce an Inglourious Basterds-esque rewrite of the Thracian’s ultimate fate. The finale gave tantalizing moments in which maybe, just maybe, things might turn out more favorable for Spartacus and his followers than history depicts. In the end, DeKnight and company hewed to history—but in the inimitable, emotional way the series constantly pulled off during its short, memorable run. The end of Spartacus may not have been happy, but it was glorious all the same. [RM]

Most acceptable use of the term “Bro”: Malcolm, Survivor

“Bro” is an awful term, one that anyone who wants to be taken seriously while playing a game like Survivor should avoid. But when Malcolm told Reynold to “Hold up, bro”—as the latter tried to play a hidden immunity idol—during Survivor’s second “Fans Vs. Favorites” season, he took the word to another level. Additionally impressive: Malcolm managed this with a straight face, successfully persuading Reynold to hand over his immunity idol while sitting on one of his own. It was a gambit emblematic of Malcolm’s compelling—though not game-winning—play across back-to-back seasons, a reminder of how Survivor can still be 24 seasons into its existence, and the inspiration for a Lego love ballad for the ages. [MM]

Best use of a 20-year-old single by a Camper Van Beethoven offshoot: Rectify, “Modern Times

The first season of Rectify prefers to take the path less traveled. It’s a crime story that has little interest in questions of guilt or innocence—as they’re defined in a court of law, at least. Its episodes move purposefully and slowly, fitting for the first original scripted series broadcast by a spin-off of the Sundance Film Festival. And when it chooses to illustrate how much things have changed since protagonist Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was incarcerated for a crime he might not have committed, indications of that change feel researched, specific, and personal. As Holden goes digging through high-school memorabilia and his late father’s old hunting gear in “Modern Times,” it’s not a ubiquitous pop hit from 1993 that queues up on the protagonist’s Walkman. Instead, it’s “Low,” a minor hit from Cracker’s Kerosene Hat whose humid, country-and-blues-inflected sound nevertheless conjures a distinct place in time—for Holden and for any viewer who perks up whenever David Lowery drawls out to them from the local modern-rock station. [EA]

Most emotionally satisfying guest casting: The Office, “Finale

Sure, this applies to Steve Carell’s return to the show, one of the TV biz’s worst-kept secrets in the days leading up The Office’s final hour. (That doesn’t rob any of the power from his final utterances of “That’s what she said,” though.) More specifically, it applies to Ed Begley Jr. and Joan Cusack’s appearances as the birth parents of Ellie Kemper’s Erin. Prior to “Finale,” Erin’s parentless childhood was a bit of extraneous character biography, something The Office found more fascinating than it actually was. But in matching Begley and Cusack’s natural, dorky energy to Kemper’s, the show gave the detail an emotional resonance, and provided suitable closure for the most consistently enjoyable character of The Office’s fallow, post-Carell period. [EA] 

Most effective use of backstage space: So You Think You Can Dance, “Top 20 Perform

In its 10th season, So You Think You Can Dance has settled into a comfortable rhythm, with a regular rotation of choreographers and talented young dancers putting together a yearly display of quality reality-competition programming. This could grow monotonous, but SYTYCD stays fresh, thanks to moments like the one that kicked off this summer’s season: a sprawling one-shot routine choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon that involved 20 dancers, two judges, five choreographers, multiple extras, and an effervescent Cat Deeley. The host couldn’t contain her glee as the dancers—and an intrepid Steadicam operator—navigated their way through the studio’s backstage to the tune of “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” Even if season 10 proves a disappointment, it’s a success for giving us such a perfect distillation of SYTYCD’s appeal. [MM]

Best punch to the face: Arrested Development, “Blockheads”

Season four of Arrested Development is a weird artifact, a time-shifted, erratic cavalcade of missed connections. But it all builds to the final moment, on Cinco De Mayo, with a very important connection—George-Michael Bluth’s fist to his father’s face. It’s a richly deserved, satisfying, game-changing punch—a huge moment for George-Michael (Michael Cera) as a character and for the maturation of the father-son relationship between him and Michael (Jason Bateman). But also it’s really fun to rewind and watch over and over again. [SS]

Best sudden violence not adapted from a George R.R. Martin novel: Mad Men,The Better Half 

Mad Men’s sixth season begins with the headline, “World Bids Adieu To A Violent Year,” before plunging into 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The show has always had a knack for oblique topicality, but Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) stalking through her jungle apartment one night and accidentally stabbing her boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) is inspired. The scene evokes the Vietnam War even without the homemade bayonet: the soundtrack of incomprehensible screams and bangs, the slats of the shutters, the plant poking up through the frame as Moss tiptoes by. A few episodes later, Chevy execs accidentally shoot Ken (Aaron Staton) in the face on a hunting trip, and it takes 10 minutes to find out if he died. Both incidents are so weird they provoke an array of reactions: laughter, horror, and admiration of the show’s audacity, itself a distancing mechanism. In short, Mad Men makes violence matter. [BN]

Most original internalization of a serial killer: Jamie Dornan, The Fall

As cable-drama serial killers become more ubiquitous than sitcom average Joes, such characters are in danger of losing their provocative mystique. No such worries from British crime drama The Fall, where Jamie Dornan plays a young father and husband who’s also a methodical, misogynistic nut job. Over five quietly riveting episodes, Dornan’s Paul Spector cyclically gains in strength and unravels—he’s like a snake that briefly flinches only to coil tight and strike with twice the determination. Dornan is great in a role that’s both physically demanding and constantly simmering. Spector’s closest real-world analog might be Ted Bundy, if Bundy kept crude, hand-drawn renderings of his own crime scenes in a notepad above his daughter’s bed. Sicko. [KH]

Best Bowie backtracking: The Venture Bros., “O.S.I. Love You”

The Venture Bros.’ obsession with David Bowie culminated in the season-two revelation that the singer is secretly The Sovereign, head of the show’s supervillain union, the Guild Of Calamitous Intent. That fact was one of the more consistent things about the Venture world until this year’s “O.S.I. Love You,” when evil lawyer Monstroso admits under interrogation that The Sovereign and Bowie aren’t the same person, though they’re closely linked (The Sovereign’s true form reportedly appears on the cover of Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs). It’s unclear why the distinction was made—the show’s creators seem to invite being sued by Bowie—but the retcon is indicative of The Venture Bros.’ approach to its own intentionally complicated continuity. The show’s fifth season has delighted in even more shakeups to the status quo than usual, whether that be the defection of recurring villain Molotov Cocktease to the O.S.I. or Hank Venture’s best/only friend Dermott discovering that Doc Venture is actually his father. How long these changes last is up in the air, but if the backtracking on Bowie is any indication, everyone should just sit back and enjoy the ride while they can. [ET] 

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