I’m not sure how legitimate these end-of-year lists are. As The New Yorker‘s TV critic said: ‘The best TV shows of the year can’t be boiled down to numbers…Plus, like many TV critics, I haven’t seen every show.’
I like these lists, but when I read them, I’m looking for an informed and discriminating opinion from someone striving to remain free from the influence of hype and pack journalism. So that’s what I’ve tried to provide below, with the best shows of the year, arranged roughly in descending order.
I wrote one of these articles in July, so there are some duplicates; you can skip them if you’ve already read them. The list includes anything aired in the calender year 2013, and is skewed towards British and American shows as that’s what I mainly watch. So, caveats aside, the best shows of the year…
The Walking Dead (Fox UK)
It is a very flawed show, The Walking Dead, guilty of creating 2D characters – especially women, who are all either feisty and aggressive or meek and in need of protecting. Season four though was the best so far, with a marked improvement in the dialogue.
Previous seasons have made errors in the past with their locations – deciding to set an entire season of a post-zombie apocalypse drama on an empty country farm is idiotic – but this season the false security of the prison and the wandering adventures of last season’s major bad guy – The Governor – provided both alive and enjoyable settings. The Walking Dead isn’t outstanding, but it’s enjoyable fun, and just about worthy of a place on this list.
Arrested Development (Netflix)
Cult comedy Arrested Development was cancelled in 2006 after season three but six years of campaigning by fans saw it brought back via the online streaming service Netflix.
Season four opened awkwardly and disappointingly. The show’s central anchor Michael had been reduced to a pitiful version of himself. Early seasons made the point that Michael was ultimately good natured, unable to screw over his brother even when justified and when trying incredibly hard to do so. In season four he seemed like a completely different, selfish and delusional version of himself.
Halfway into the season though things began to pick up and the show returned to form, with its trademark call-backs and layers and layers of plot and jokes. Sure, it was flawed, with dodgy Green Screens at times and a noticeable lack of multiple actors in the same scene at once (thanks to those actors being tied up with other projects), but for a show returning from a six year hiatus it worked surprisingly well.
The final scene of the last episode was outstanding, cinematically and thematically satisfying, beautifully directed and acted, and indicating that there is almost certainly more of the show to come. For Arrested Development fans, it was a perfect ending to over half a decade of hope and campaigns.
Southcliffe (Channel 4)
A drama about a shooting spree could be manipulative and maudlin, but Channel 4’s Southcliffe, for the most part, handled its fragile subject matter carefully, focusing not on the shooting spree itself but on the people affected by it.
Southcliffe had a bad habit of wandering off on tangents, and wasn’t tightly scripted enough, but the well written parts were very well written, and the acting was fantastic, especially from Anatol Yusef, playing a grief stricken father and husband.
The directing is what makes this show linger in the memory though, making full use of its setting in a small town surrounded by marshes, and eschewing a sentimental score, preferring instead a peaceful quiet that did more for the show’s atmosphere than any orchestra piece or pop song could.
Black Mirror (Channel 4)
The second series of Black Mirror didn’t live up to the standards of the first, but it is still one of the most thought provoking shows on British TV, very reminiscent of the message-laden Twilight Zone.
The first episode explored the modern world’s online obsession with chronicling every aspect of their lives, and how such timelines and archives of personal information have the potential to make it much harder for people to grieve and let go of dead loved ones.
The second episode – an attack on a voyeuristic culture and a populist approach to justice – was a little messy, while the third – in which writer Charlie Brooker attacked his own industry, as he often does – veered off into dystopian conspiracy. But the show deserves a place on this list for at least providing interesting ideas and themes, and for managing to be genuinely frightening at times (see horrifying photo above).
The Returned (Channel 4)
Channel 4 took a risk showing the French language supernatural drama in a prime time Sunday night slot, but it’s a risk that paid of in the ratings.
The Returned’s first episode was outstanding; gripping, dark and scary. The show span its wheels a little in the middle, and its final episodes set-up one too many mysteries that were left frustratingly unresolved, but the series as a whole was very enjoyable. As long as they have writers who are aware of the first series’ flaws, there’s no reason The Returned can’t make a welcome, er, return next year.
Complicit (Channel 4)
Airing around the same time that Zero Dark Thirty picked up a fuckload of awards, Complicit showed a more brutally honest and less glamorised version of the intelligence industry. While Kathryn Bigelow’s film was made with cooperation from Barack Obama’s administration and was guilty of serving as propaganda, Complicit admirably took a restrained and objective view on the difficulties and problems of combating terrorism.
David Oyelowo played MI5 agent Edward Ekubo, tasked with flying to Egypt to interview a British citizen suspected of planning a terrorist attack on UK soil. Frustrated by bureaucracy and human rights laws, the agent commissioned an Egyptian colleague to torture the suspect.
The drama subtly raised a number of interesting points. Edward was in large part motivated by his own psychology; a belief that he was being held back for promotion due to his race and less privileged background. His own personal issues drove his actions, which is something overlooked when we examine the horrible things our nations do – that is, the personal issues of the individuals involved.
Also questioned was the effectiveness of torture, and how it can corrupt those who use it, and how incredibly counter-productive it can be. This is the film that should be winning all the awards, not the US president approved Zero Dark Thirty.
The Americans (ITV)
Yes, it can be a little unbelievable at times, but this 1980s spy show, about Soviet agents living with a family in the United States, is consistently exciting and uses the deceit-filled world of espionage to examine personal relationships.
Keri Russell is great as the icy Elizabeth while Welsh actor Matthew Rhys plays her husband Philip, a gentle and likeable counterpoint to his distrustful and permanently suspicious wife.
My main criticism of the show is that – the two main characters aside – the Russians are nearly all bad guy stereotypes, while the Americans are portrayed as flawed but fighting the good fight. In short, it has the lack of objectivity you’d expect from a show about the cold war produced in a country that was one of the two combatants in that war.
Hannibal (Sky Living)
The best indicator of this show’s worth is that it can be described as original despite there already existing five movies and numerous books about the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.
The first episode of Hannibal threw the audience into the deep end, leaving it up to the viewer to catch on to what was happening, and who the characters where, without trying to hold anyone’s hand. The tone of the show is consistently unnerving and creepy, making it quite hard to watch at times; it’s like someone is permanently scraping their nails down a blackboard while you watch, and that person is a serial killer, and he’s right behind you.
The protagonist is Will Graham, an FBI special agent with a gift for empathising with serial killers, a gift which allows him to find those killers. Graham is assigned a psychiatrist to help him with his ‘gift’, and that psychiatrist is Hannibal Lecter. The show made a point of portraying Hannibal as likeable and genuine, and for the first five episodes he does only one thing that suggests his true nature, and that thing is a simple phone call.
Danish actor Mad Mikkelsen is great as the creepy psychopath Hannibal, who genuinely considers Graham a friend, and yet can’t help but toy with him, and endanger his mental health. The show can be unnecessarily grotesque at times, and revels far too much in its scenes of torturous death, but it is often quite intelligent, and incredibly gripping.
Eastbound and Down (Fox UK)
The first season of this show, a dark comedy about an ex-baseball superstar, was one of the most perfect, contained TV comedies in years. The next two seasons had their ups and downs, quite a few downs in fact, but the show returned this year for a finale that returned to the tight form of the early episodes.
The season followed Kenny Powers dealing with the frustrations of a normal life, eventually giving in to his desire for fame and fortune and becoming a TV star, throwing away his wife and family in the process.
Danny McBride’s performance as Kenny Powers, descending as usual into egotistical destruction, was as excellent as it has been throughout the show, but this series benefited greatly from guests stars, most notably Ken Marino as a creepy sports show host who alternated between backslapping friendliness and maniacal narcissism, like Tony Blair but less cartoonishly evil.
Bob’s Burgers (Fox [US])
Family Guy gets all the attention, American Dad is hailed as surprisingly good, The Simpsons is seen as the established genius and South Park is loved as the sarcastic, satirical rebel. The best cartoon on television right now though is none of these; it’s the overlooked Bob’s Burgers, a show packed with rapid-fire jokes, hilarious characters, inventive storytelling and genuine heart.
Highlights from season three and four include ‘Topsy’ in which 9-year-old Louise sought to expose the diabolical truth behind Thomas Edison – that he once electrocuted an elephant. The episode culminated in an outstanding showpiece song, and such songs are the show’s hallmark – original, funny music that is incredibly catchy.
And if humour and music isn’t enough, Bob’s Burgers makes an effort to provide real and engaging characters, and builds episodes around their relationships, issues and fears. This show is early Simpsons good.
Mad Men (Sky Atlantic)
Mad Men is the deepest programme on TV. There is so much to dig into. Every scene is laden with so much history. It has pushed forward television as an art form and done things no other TV show has done; namely, accurately illustrating the complex reality of relationships between people.
At the centre of the show is the relationship between Peggy and Don, a relationship which reached a watershed moment last season when the two characters subtly acknowledged how much they meant to each other. In this season, the relationship started to poison, as Don let his bitterness and personal hang-ups fuck with Peggy’s life, and he himself slid further down a slope of self-destruction. In the season’s final episode, a refreshing candour about his own life screwed up Don’s personal circumstances but indicated that he might be finally starting to come to terms with his own identity, and that he might be about to build an honest and happy life.
It’s really hard to explain the sheer outstanding and groundbreaking nature of Mad Men to people who don’t watch it. The best comparison I can make is to a large novel; one which traces the characters over decades, and at the end of which you have formed a bond that leaves a painful feeling of loss when you close the book.
Boardwalk Empire (Sky Atlantic)
Boardwalk Empire makes a habit of getting explosive drama out of scenes where nothing happens but dialogue. It soaks in its directing, acting, setting and period music, and is often awesome to watch.
Now in its fourth season, the show follows Atlantic City criminal Nucky Thompson and the network of gangsters that spins out from his seaside base, a network that includes such famous figures as Al Capone.
The writing at times is very smart. Tiny little movements are used to illustrate character details. In one scene, New York criminal Arnold Rothstein had his confidence shattered, and his mental state was illustrated through a quiet, tense poker game, as he lost more and more money and more and more control. Now three years old, Boardwalk Empire knows that the audience is so familiar with its characters that a tilt of the head from one or a widening of the eyes from another is enough to convey great detail.
It isn’t perfect though. It can lack subtly in its symbolism at times, and season four was a little unfocused, wandering around without a firm goal, guilty of ignoring characters in its huge ensemble. But its flaws are relatively minor, and Boardwalk Empire might be the best continuing drama left on American TV, after the loss of some of its rivals (see below).
Rectify (Sundance Channel [US])
Rectify is about a man released from death row after being wrongly convicted for the murder of his teenage girlfriend. 19 years after his conviction, and now an adult, he returns to his small Georgia hometown to build a life amongst people who still suspect his guilt and a police force pushing for a retrial.
I imagine that description probably sounds a little boring to some people, but Rectify is an astonishingly inventive and original story, a Southern Gothic that can at times be quite frightening, but which is often strangely peaceful despite a sad and melancholic tone.
It is beautiful to watch in places. The directing is subtle but leaves its mark, and the characters are engaging from the first minutes of the first episode. Aden Young is great as the lead Daniel, struggling to adapt to life in a world he barely remembers, Abigail Spencer is fantastic as his sister who built her entire adult life around efforts to free him, and the supporting players do their bit as well, especially Clayne Crawford as Daniel’s suspicious step-brother and Adelaide Clemens as his God-fearing and naive sister-in-law.
Rectify was the best new American show of 2013. There’s a ten episode second season next year, and though I worry that the show will be spun out too long, it deserves to be one of the most anticipated shows of the year.
Breaking Bad (Netflix)
2013 was the year Breaking Bad blew up in the UK. It’s crazy that it took so long to get that level of recognition, because Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV shows in history. The show followed chemistry teacher and cancer sufferer Walter White as he started cooking meth to raise money to support his family after his death. Walter, of course, was motivated mainly by his own ego, and this final season forced him to realise that he was not the good guy of the story.
If we’re going to be totally honest though, the final season wasn’t completely perfect. Jesse Pinkman – Walter’s accomplice, friend and victim – was sidelined before being given a happy ending that really isn’t very happy if you think about it too much. And the big showdown in the final episode stretched believability a little too far, forcing viewers to shut their brains down a little to fully enjoy Walter’s last victory.
Still, these are minor complaints, and the season was a great ending to a great series. A satisfying conclusion was created by having Walter face and accept his true nature, before his life ended the way it was always destined to when he made the decision to break bad.
Utopia (Channel 4)
As an avid watcher of US drama it’s been disappointing to see the UK unable to produce running dramas that come anywhere close to the quality of the best US shows. With Utopia, Channel 4 went some way to redressing this situation.
A complex conspiracy drama, Utopia came with unique and utterly stunning cinematography and directing, which echoed the comic books the show was indebted to, most notably Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
The soundtrack was incredible and the acting stellar, in particular from the two youngsters playing Grant and Alice. Paul Higgins was great as the empathetic everyman stuck in a terrible situation, and Neil Maskell made his character Arby unique and terrifying, before turning this killer of children into a likeable person.
Utopia was criticised for its hyper violence, but the show was making a point about such violence in TV. Unlike in most film – where characters get shot and shrug it off no problem – the characters in Utopia were all physically and mentally altered by the violence they suffered. Despite being very stylized, Utopia had some of the most realistic portrayals of violence on television, showing as it did how violence has consequences.
From its opening to its closing scenes, Utopia was unique, awesome to look at, intelligent, funny, and populated with enjoyable characters and outstanding acting. Utopia is one of the best British dramas in a long, long time.
Should Probably be on the List but Excluded Because I Didn’t Watch It
Broadchurch, Fresh Meat
Just Off the List
Game of Thrones. It’s a very enjoyable TV show but incredibly over-stuffed. This season just edged over my tolerance level for pointless wheel spinning. And the show is killing-off likable characters at an astonishing rate, and not replacing them quickly enough (I’m not even sure that’s possible). Next season will, I think, decide whether Game of Thrones really picks up a gear or goes totally off the rails into over-the-top camp.
Veep. It’s not quite The Thick of It – creator Armando Iannucci’s previous, very similar show – but it is consistently funny, and gives a cynical perspective on American politics that American shows usually avoid.
Justified. A fantastic American show about a US Marshall in rural Kentucky, but season four was a little unstructured, and messy, and didn’t have an engaging enough narrative or central focus.