As we pass a decade into the Internet’s use as a medium, we know two very contradictory yet absolutely correct facts: 1) distilling art forms into easily digestible top ten lists is reductive and useless, and 2) we absolutely cannot stop reading top ten lists.
Television, while not originally created with the noblest intents, has become a legitimate artistic medium that most of us have the utmost respect for. And as art, TV shows are all obviously very subjective. It would be easy to create an argument that Breaking Bad or Top of the Lake is objectively better crafted than say, Arrow, but at the end of the day: if your favorite show is Arrow, then that’s an entirely appropriate opinion to hold. No top ten list is going to represent the absolute truth of the matter.
Still, with that in mind, I absolutely cannot stop ranking the TV shows, episodes, and performances I enjoy like the BCS Rankings. And I know you love reading the lists or BuzzFeed wouldn’t own the remaining fragments of all our shows. So here is our list of the best TV had to offer in 2013. Is it subjective? Objective? Pointless? Yes, yes and fucking YES. Now read it until your eyes bleed:
The Sundance Channel had an absolutely early days of AMC-style year with hallmark programs like the critically adored (but not by me) Top of the Lake and The Returned. But it’s the understated Rectify that we like best. Rectify is a welcome step towards the indie-ization of television. It’s quiet and simple, but packs all the emotional punch of a well-crafted small-town indie movie that you’d find in that one theater in your town that no one knows about.
9. Key & Peele
Sketch comedy programs are charmingly outdated. Even Saturday Night Live, which supposedly lives off of its skewering of current events is just a lumbering dinosaur in a Daily Show world. But Key & Peele in its third season brought us our most refreshingly funny sketch show since Dave Chappelle. The trick is not particularly caring about which news peg is going to bring the most YouTube hits. One of their funniest skits was a fake ‘70s Mr. T PSA for God’s sake.
Somehow Justified continues to elude mainstream critical praise or any rewards talk and that’s a damn shame. No other show has a stronger sense of place than the backwoods, Pappy Van Winkle-soaked Justified, despite what my Appalachian father has to say about the production’s California mountains filming locations. This show is remarkably consistent, but season 4 saw a slight uptick in quality from the still very good season 3. This year took the slightly atypical tact of building around a season-long mystery rather than a singular Mags Bennet-style “big bad”, and it paid off like crazy.
7. Orange is the New Black
God, what a novel, unusual, and fun show this was. Say what you will about Netflix’s “dump every episode at once” style, but the experience of watching your friends slowly fall for Orange is the New Black in mid-2013 like dominoes was a delight. Season 1 of OITNB’s closest spiritual cousin was perhaps Lost’s first season, in which we were introduced to a vast cast of interesting characters in a cramped setting and got to watch them interact. The fact that Orange is the New Black made the Bechdel Test its prison bitch also didn’t hurt.
In a slightly down year for TV comedy, Veep swooped right in to take the crown. No other show gets as much out of insults than Armando Ianucci’s profane creation. Julia Louis Dreyfuss could actually run on a ticket as Vice President right now and I’d vote for her…as long as she has Gary, Mike, and Amy and Dan on her stuff. But not Jonah. F*ck Jonah.
5. Mad Men
As a collective TV-watching, TV-critiquing audience this year we all began to feel the first signs of Mad Men fatigue. AMC made the decision to begin the season with the bloated and overly ponderous two-hour season premiere, which undoubtedly killed a lot of momentum for the show’s 6th season. The truth is however, that Matthew Weiner’s brilliant creation is still as good as its ever been. This season, more than any other, brought to the forefront the weight of simply being “Don Draper.” The cracks in Dick Whitman’s facade continue to widen, ending in a beautiful season finale.
4. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones featured an episode so explosive this year that it created two different viewing experiences. Watching season 3 pre-Red Wedding was like watching a series of exciting and fascinating, yet completely unrelated events – a weirdly pastoral look at a fantasy world dusting itself off after a brutal war. But remembering season 3 with knowledge of the events of the Red Wedding, every scene is now infinitely more foreboding. It can be dangerous to build ten hours of television off of one event but Game of Thrones brought more than enough to the table in season 3 to make it pay dividends.
3. Orphan Black
One day we grow sick of Orphan Black’s charming sci-fi weirdness (especially if creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett get their wish of a 7-8 season series). But Black’s debut season was truly breathlessly fun. Manson and Fawcett and the show’s cast is so evidently excited by the act of creation and the boundless perameters that science fiction allows that it’s impossible not to smile at each new ridiculous wrinkle they throw in. And Tatiana Maslany in the lead role(s) gives easily the best acting performance on TV. It’s the rare performance that satisfies our need to see a performer succeed in both the gaudy and subtle aspects of the art form.
2. Black Mirror
This is cheating a bit as Black Mirror is actually two seasons of television that originally aired in the U.K. in 2011 and 2012 but since it re-aired on DirecTV this fall, I’m including it…mostly because Black Mirror is the kind of show you become absolutely desperate to tell people about. Step 1 is to watch. Step 2 is to become a frenzied acolyte of it and burn DVDs to pass to strangers like the Book of Mormon. Best described as a modern Twilight Zone, Black Mirror’s six episodes, only related in general themes, not plots or casts are little masterpieces onto themselves.
1. Breaking Bad
The end of Breaking Bad this year is really the end of an era of a TV golden age. Undoubtedly, there will still be remarkable television to come but the beginning of the Sopranos and Tony Sopranos to the end of Breaking Bad and Walter White creates a natural bookend to an era of unprecedented excellence for the medium, all in one nice anti-hero-y package. Some day in the mid 2020s, The Sopranos/Breaking Bad era will be included in college textbooks. We owe Vince Gilligan a great deal of gratitude for not only turning in a near-perfect season but also a near perfect ending to the era that made frothing at the mouth TV fiends of us all.
The rest of the top 20:
20. Eastbound and Down
19. House of Cards
16. New Girl
15. Arrested Development
14. The Walking Dead
13. Masters of Sex
12. The Americans
11. Parks and Recreation
Shows we didn’t watch, but we hear good things about: The Returned, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, Enlightened, Bob’s Burgers.
10. “Pilot” – The Americans
9. “A New Attitude” – Arrested Development
8. “The Crash” – Mad Men
7. “Emergency Response” – Parks and Recreation
6. “Decoy” – Justified
5 “Clear” – The Walking Dead
4. “One Man’s Trash” – Girls
3. “The Rains of Castamere” – Game of Thrones
2. “White Bear” – Black Mirror
1. “Ozymandias” – Breaking Bad
Best Acting Performances (Male):
10. Jake Johnson – New Girl
9. Demian Bichir – The Bridge
8. Adam Driver – Girls
7. Kevin Spacey – House of Cards
6. Charles Dance – Game of Thrones
5. Jon Hamm – Mad Men
4. Aden Young – Rectify
3. Walton Goggins – Justified
2. Danny McBride – Eastbound and Down
1. Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Best Acting Performances (Female):
10. Natalie Dormer – Game of Thrones
9. Robin Wright – House of Cards
8. Claire Danes – Homeland
7. Lizzy Caplan – Masters of Sex
6. Keri Russell – The Americans
5. Uzo Aduba – Orange is the New Black
4. Elizabeth Moss – Top of the Lake
3. Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation
2. Julia Louise-Dreyfuss – Veep
1. Tatiana Maslany – Orphan Black