The past year was solid one for television, with a concluding series leading the pack in terms of quality. Plus the introduction of original series from Netflix only improved the landscape. Below, my favorites:
Unlike most other programs that enter my list after being on the air for more than 3 seasons, Parenthood is one I’ve actually been watching since its debut. The show has always featured creator Jason Katims’ (Friday Night Lights) unique ability to depict heartfelt emotion with vivid characterization, but its need to service a sprawling cast has often resulted in storylines that are too quickly forgotten or too abruptly addressed. In its latest season, however, the show achieved its pinnacle with last year’s cancer storyline, where it gave the necessary attention to Kristina’s battle with the disease and the effect it had on everyone in the Braverman clan. It was heart-wrenching and inspiring TV.
I greatly enjoyed the first season of Veep, but found it lacking when compared to creator Armando Ianucci’s previous accomplishments, most notably his biting political satire In the Loop. So it was nice to see him and his crackerjack comedic ensemble return for season 2 with even more bile aimed at Washington’s political class while paving the way for a possible presidential run for Selina Meyer (an always game Julia Louis Dreyfus). Veep may be the only show on television that gets better by being meaner.
It is hard for me overstate how much I enjoyed the initial broadcast run of Arrested Development and how excited I was for the return of the series. So I’ll admit to being a little disappointed with the new episodes that premiered on Netflix this year, if only because the jokes didn’t quite crackle and the ensemble didn’t mesh as well as they had before. But I think most of the season’s flaws can be attributed to logistical challenges – given how successful the actors had become, it was difficult to get all of them to shoot on the same schedule, thus resulting in the puzzle-like, individual perspective approach the show returned with. But once you got on the new wavelength, it became easier to appreciate the numerous Easter eggs and callbacks that creator Mitch Hurwitz and his team of writers managed to stuff into each episode, and to realize that for each joke or storyline that didn’t work, there were at least 3 parallel ones that worked surprisingly well. Did the new Arrested Development reach the heights of the old one? No, not even close. Was it still one of the best comedies of the year? Definitely.
Showtime’s new series about sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson took a little while to get going, but by the time the season ended the show had told the fascinating first chapter of two scientists’ determined mission to help Americans escape their superstitions and fears about human sexuality with the kind of hard science that eventually helped spur the sexual revolution. The challenge with telling a dramatic tale about real people is that the history is already known and at times Masters of Sex felt somewhat unoriginal. But even in its more predictable moments the stellar performances of Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplan elevated the material and made me eager to see where these two characters are headed.
There’s an argument that Mad Men is becoming repetitive – after all, how many times can we watch Don sleep with other women, Peggy struggle with trying to “have it all”, Pete clumsily demand for more respect from his family and his colleagues, and so on. And while Matt Weiner has clearly adopted his mentor David Chase’s belief that people don’t fundamentally change, plenty of stuff happened around the characters – a merger, a new LA office, Don’s firing– to bring out even more shades in their complex personalities. The season finale, with Don leaving Sterling Cooper and admitting to his former life as Dick Whitman, suggests Weiner has a vision for the series’ concluding seasons that goes beyond what we’ve seen before.
After a meandering second season, Game of Thrones returned with a much stronger third, where the show’s ever expanding universe felt like a cohesive whole rather than a sum of parts. Of particular note were the storylines with Jamie and Brienne, Daenerys’ freed slave army, and of course the gruesome, heartbreaking Red Wedding. With its sprawling narrative and dozens of characters, Game of Thrones can feel overstuffed, but at its best it manages to turn its interlacing plotlines into a compelling allegory of politics, loyalty, and duty.
3) The Good Wife [CBS]
Most TV dramas start to suffer from quality fatigue in their later seasons, especially network shows that are supposed to reach a broad audience. So it’s a real achievement that CBS’ The Good Wife is not only in the midst of a stellar 5th season, but may very well be having its best one yet. I’ve been a steady champion of this underrated network drama since its debut, and I continue to think the show’s quantity to quality ratio is unparalleled; while hotter cable shows produce only 13 episodes a season, The Good Wife regularly airs 22+. This season, the show did the unthinkable and let Alicia leave Lockhart Gardner to start her own firm, a move that turned friends into enemies and vice versa, essentially resetting the show’s relationships and introducing a brand new set of obstacles, problematic allegiances and romantic entanglements. In other words, The Good Wife isn’t looking the slightest bit tired.
You would think that with the surfeit of cable channels these days, there’s not much need for yet another outlet with original programming. But the value of having Netflix in the game was made abundantly clear with the first season of Orange is The New Black, the best new show to premiere in 2013 and one of the more original series in recent memory. Set in a women’s prison in upstate New York, Orange uses the plight of privileged white yuppie Piper (Taylor Schilling, in a breakout performance) as an entryway to tell the stories of a sprawling array of fascinating and diverse characters. In an industry that often demonstrates diversity by having one character of color in an otherwise lilywhite cast, OITNB deserves credit for genuinely exploring differences -- whether they are economic, racial, or sexual – and helping us understand them.
Finally, a great TV series that knows how to stick the landing. After the disappointing last seasons of some TV greats like Lost and The Wire, it was refreshing to see an acclaimed series find a way to finish its run at the top of its game. I’m actually of the opinion that the final episode was a bit of a disappointment – in the unmitigated mess of Walter White’s life, it felt against the ethos of the show to let some of these stories end so tidily – but taken as a whole, the last season of Breaking Bad was the most narratively suspenseful and visually stunning program on TV last year. The apotheoses of all Breaking Bad does well could be seen in the year’s best episode “Ozymandias”, when the entire moral and psychological edifice that Walter had created to justify his actions came crumbling down in a devastating hour. A sad ending for Walter White resulted in a triumphant conclusion for one of the medium’s greatest shows.