Our 10 Favorite TV Shows of 2013

This week, with a month of perspective and a lack of deadlines to our benefit, we take a nostalgic look back at the wild, transcendent, moving, ultimately unforgettable year that was 2013.

10 (tie). Brooklyn Nine-Nine / New Girl

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With NBC uncharacteristically stuck in a comedic wasteland at the moment, Dan Harmon its lone Batman figure returning after a hiatus to save an entity that doesn’t deserve him, FOX’s one-two punch of New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine is TV’s go-to comedy block. New Girl returned from an outstanding second season that found a way to make us care about the will-they/won’t-they trope again, and its third season has picked up right where that season left off. Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller continues to steal the show (and serve as my television kindred spirit, for better or worse) but he’s closely followed by Lamore Morris’s insanely funny comic creation, Winston Bishop, who is effectively now written as a borderline-insane person – and all the better for it.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, meanwhile, continues to improve with every installment, continuing Michael Schur’s successful transition from each show he departs. If Harmon is Batman, Schur is The Hulk: he left The Office for Parks and Recreation after The Office’s third season and left Parks and Rec – and thankfully, the tired mockumentary/talking head structure – for Brooklyn Nine-Nine this year, leaving notable declines  and outstanding property damage in each show as he tramples through them. What seemed like an initially sketchy premise – Andy Samberg is a wacky detective who has to answer to Andre Braugher’s straight-arrow lieutenant! –  works in part thanks to, not in spite of, Samberg. The rest of the ensemble has quickly stepped into their own in a shorter amount of time than it took the residents of Pawnee, with Braugher’s no-nonsense line readings frequently getting the biggest laughs. But Melissa Fumero, Joe Lo Truglio, Terry Crews, and the rest of the cast each present a clear human element to contrast the broader comedic aspects of their characters, creating a unit that – bolstered by an unlikely Golden Globe win – should continue to endear and develop as consistently as the shows that influenced it. -Drew

9. Top of the Lake

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Generally, images depicting the vastness of nature are meant to inspire awe, invoking the feeling of the sublime. In Top of the Lake, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee use these visuals to a much different effect. Set in Laketop, New Zealand, the series is filled with shots of the country’s beautiful landscapes. But there’s something terribly unsettling about these massive, eerily empty frames, concealing the dark history that plagues Laketop. Over 7 stunning episodes, Campion and Gerard tease out a consistently engaging and disturbing mystery that plays like Twin Peaks without the slapstick humor. The duo’s immaculate direction is also apparent in the performances, securing Elisabeth Moss’ soon-to-be post-Mad Men career, and giving Peter Mullan a chance to prove that he’s a force to be reckoned with. Top of the Lake is a harrowing masterpiece that stacks up with the best feature films of the year, let alone television series. — Giovanni 

8. Girls

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The following script is my recollection of Girls season 2. I know this is the season where they weren’t really friends and whatever, but go with it, the rest is totally accurate.

(Hannah, Adam, Shoshanna and Charlie eat dinner in Hannah’s apartment.)

Adam: Honestly, Hannah, you cannot be fucking serious right now. Do you have any idea how completely fucked up that is?

Hannah: All I’m saying is I might – might – take the money I make from my E-book sales and buy a Lexus, or travel to Europe and learn nothing.

Adam: Do you have no fucking regard for human life? You could save a million starving kids and their asshole parents with that money. When are you going to get it through your head that the entire solar system and the nexus surrounding it doesn’t revolve around your vagina? Are you so narrow-minded that you seriously don’t get the fucking depth of my empathy?

Shoshanna: I had a friend who went to Europe this one time and she said it was like, way overblown, like it rains all the time and the people there are way too okay with that, or maybe I’m thinking of Long Island actually but I know she’s definitely been to South America and she said it is AMAZE-BALLS, Hannah, you’ve got to go and take me with you.

(Marnie enters with an iPod Shuffle.)

Marnie: Hey guys. Did you know that it’s possible to auto-tune Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” more than the original? Cause I did it and, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I think it’s 8,000 times better. Here, listen. Guys, listen! Some… someone… Hannah… someone listen to MY CREATION.

Charlie: (Sees Marnie is at the lowest point in her life. Bangs her. Listens to The Lumineers. Is never heard from again.)

(Ray enters with a waffle iron.)

Ray: Here, Hannah, take your fucking waffle iron back. You didn’t tell me it sticks to the pan or else I would’ve fucking sprayed it first. I spent three minutes peeling that shit off. You know that kind of shit bugs the shit out of me. You know what, forget it. You probably weren’t even alive when Pearl Jam was cool.

Shoshanna: O-M-G totes on-topic, I had this friend named Pearl, and she would always put like way too much jam on her toast, and after that we were totally not friends anymore, but it had nothing to do with toast, I like sat on her cat in a complete catcident and she was the one who de-friended me, cross my heart, S to G.

Ray: (Plays it cool.) Oh, hey Shosh.

Shoshanna: Hey Ray. (Looks for a way out of this way too serious conversation.)

(Jessa floats helplessly in a whirling vortex of Britishness, laughing and pointing at fat people falling even though deep down she doesn’t find it funny.)

Marnie: (Sobbing as she butters an ear of corn.) I used to be someone, in theory.

(Hannah starts to take her shirt off.)

Adam: (Has been shirtless the whole time.) Jesus Christ Hannah, do you have no sense of fucking decency?

Hannah: I thought we were playing ping-pong after dinner. I thought we were playing ping-pong after dinner. I thought we were playing ping-pong after dinner. (Raises a Q-tip slowly to her head, starts trembling.) I th-thought we were playing ping-pong after d-dinner…

Booth Jonathan’s Omnipotent Voice: You all thought you were EATING DINNER. But you were eating MEEEEEEEE.

(Fade out to ‘Cause I am barely breathing, I can’t find the air…’)

In short, I find this show to be generally one of my favorites. There are probably other places on the internet where you can find other people’s opinions on it though. -Drew

7. Rectify

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The year’s best new series arrived with little fanfare, on a channel most people didn’t even realize they could watch. But despite its brevity – only six season one episodes – Rectify is the kind of show that sticks in your lungs, like the muggy Georgian air that enhances its ruminative tone. Poetic in its depiction of a death-row inmate sprung suddenly back into his old world after twelve years in prison, the show moves deliberately, covering only its protagonist’s first week back. Each of those days are revelatory for Daniel, as we watch him recalibrate his entire state of being, to attempt to fill the gaping hole for those who lost him years prior. The crushing sense of change occurring when we aren’t even present to witness it adds a lingering sense of melancholy to what would ostensibly be a joyous reclamation of a man’s freedom. This first season is almost purely experiential, perfectly pleased to forego any forced plot machinations in favor of observing Daniel lie down in a baseball field, stare at racks of sandals at a Wal-Mart, or play some Sonic the Hedgehog. For actions so seemingly mundane, it’s amazing how breathtaking, for both Daniel and the viewer, they can become.  — Bryan 

6. Arrested Development

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Coming into a season with off-the-chart expectations, Mitch Hurwitz proved himself a risk-taker – boldly assuring that if he were going to flop, at least he’d get points for degree of difficulty. One cohesive story (granted, one with a healthy number of detours and digressions), delivered across fifteen standalone, yet sneakily interlocking episodes. It may be a case of necessity breeding creativity, as it was largely the limited availability of cast members that pushed Hurwitz to design his first Netflix season like a 500-piece joke jigsaw. Unexpected punchlines and payoffs can pop up several episodes later, a structural experiment that admittedly yields mixed results. Some characters (George, Lindsay) simply aren’t as funny when isolated from the group, and the longer episode length can drag before you know where their stories fit. But when the pieces fall into place, it’s thrilling in a way unlike any other serialized TV narrative. For a show chock-full of entendre, callbacks, background gags, and Easter eggs, it’s no surprise that Arrested would be the show to push the comedic narrative envelope. Now if Hurwitz could only wrangle the cast for the now perfectly set up “murder mystery” feature film follow-up! — Bryan 

5. Boardwalk Empire

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For several seasons now, Boardwalk has churned along with the same cool confidence that many critics dismiss the show itself with. Terrence Winter and his writers found further reward in season four in simply following what felt right – whether that was expanding the roles of seemingly minor characters like Nucky’s manservant Eddie Kessler and Eli’s son, Willie, or trusting the action in Chicago to stand on its own without a tangible connection to Atlantic City. The arrival of Jeffrey Wright as the rage-repressed smooth-talker Valentin Narcisse allowed for an intriguing racial battle with Michael K. Williams’ Chalky, and provided the season with its dramatic spine. As the show races to its conclusion (with next season announced as its last), the cost of doing business continues to take its toll on each and every character, as their murky fates come slowly into agonizing focus. Boardwalk has always been about the slow build — now all that’s left is the swift and brutal end. — Bryan. 

4. Game of Thrones

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While the first two seasons of Game of Thrones were excellent in their own right, each encountered its own distinct set of problems. Season one had to, understandably, deal with setting up the vast world, and resorted to making frequent, redundant references to key character traits (“I’m a Lannister, we are very rich,” “I’m not a Stark, but I’ve always been like a brother to you!”) that seem all the more clunky in hindsight.  Season two was marred by a looser narrative than the preceding season and a slightly jarring sense of pace as a result, countering some of the more interesting threads (Tyrion, Arya, Theon) with stories that clearly needed padding out (Daenarys, Jon). Season three, then, felt like the first time where the writers and crew finally had a clear, experienced sense of how to make everything come together as a whole, and the results were fantastic. Daenarys and Jon both had higher stakes (with Rose Leslie’s wildling love interest Ygritte so endearing that she nearly put a second expression on Kit Harrington’s face.) Jaime, who appeared in only three episodes of the show’s second season, somehow became arguably more compelling than his little brother, an unthinkable possibility at the dawn of the show. New characters seamlessly entered the fold, including Diana Rigg as the silver-tongued Tyrell matriarch and Iwan Rheon as a villain who somehow made King Joffrey look almost civil. Podrick Payne became the biggest pimp in Westeros (with no offense to Littlefinger.) Oh, and there was a wedding that made the internet very sad. Season four will be based on the second half of George R.R. Martin’s third novel, A Storm of Swords, which is widely considered to be the apex of the series thus far (spoilers: it is.) The show wouldn’t find itself in a better spot to kick off the bloody mayhem if it was sitting in the middle of a Khalasar wedding. -Drew

3. Mad Men

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For a show entering its twilight years, Mad Men proved no less ambitious in its exploration of an iconic era. From the fevered drug frenzy of standout episode “The Crash” to the measured, beguiling arrival of Bob Benson, season six provided many magical moments amid some unfortunately familiar material. In particular, Don’s bout with yet another mistress and a series of unnecessary flashbacks burdened an otherwise unpredictable year with a sense of spinning wheels. But even as Don’s story failed to engross, Matt Weiner found ways to deliver engaging new information to many of the others in the show’s rich ensemble. Characters like Stan, Ginsberg, and Ted came more into focus even when not at the story’s center. The trajectory of this year’s finale – with several characters departing for the West Coast and Don arriving at some sort of epiphany – suggests a final season of both change and resolution, what should be a fitting end to perhaps the greatest show of its own era. — Bryan

2. Enlightened

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The biggest compliment I can give my favorite show of the year, Enlightened, is that I probably wouldn’t be able to suffer its main protagonist, Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, if sequestered with her in real life. But creator and co-star Mike White isn’t interested in whether you particularly like his characters – only that you damn well understand where they’re coming from. It’s a show steeped in an unparalleled amount of compassion regarding basic, everyday human interaction, and yet the outstanding depth of its emotion never once seeps into melodrama. It’s a show where the central premise – a self-righteous narcissist tries to take down a corrupt company from the inside – doesn’t even register when you first reminisce on it. Instead your mind goes to the people who view themselves as ghosts in a larger world, who discover they are disposal cogs in a larger machine, and of course, life-affirming Joanna Newsom outros. The highlight of the series, “Higher Power,” is a nearly-standalone episode featuring Amy’s ex-husband Levy (a never-better Luke Wilson) as he encounters a host of one-off characters at a rehab facility. Each character strikingly, realistically embodies the different levels of addiction, withdrawal, and recovery, amounting to something as quietly devastating and ultimately hopeful as any half-hour of television can aspire to be. Any other time, I’d be dismayed to see my favorite show cancelled after only two seasons – but with a run of eight episodes this perfect and beautiful to close it out, you need to take the show’s own advice and accept what you can’t change. -Drew

1. Breaking Bad

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Like Walter White’s now-infamous leap from Mr. Chips to Scarface, Breaking Bad itself completed its transformation from cult TV hit to cultural phenomenon in 2013 (You know a show has hit it big when “I’ve never seen an episode” becomes a point of pride for some). And there was no better time for Breaking Bad to reach the height of its acclaim than with the second half of season 5, arguably the pinnacle of the series. While the season’s first half struggled a seemingly rushed set-up, everything fell perfectly into place by season opener “Blood Money,” kicking off an exhilarating final chapter that, despite Heisenberg’s advice, treaded anything but lightly. Not a second was wasted as Gilligan and company closed out their A-game story in A+ fashion. Naturally, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul capped off their respective performances-of-a-lifetime in spectacularly gut-wrenching fashion, pumping up Breaking Bad’s tragedy to Greek proportions. But the rest of the cast rose to the occasion, seemingly all gunning for (deserved) Emmy nominations at once. Jesse Plemons made Todd’s late series addition into something unforgettable. Bob Odenkirk fleshed Saul Goodman out from witty comic relief into his own tragic anti-hero. And Dean Norris (who more or less capped off the first half of the season with a poop joke) gave Hank an extraordinary send off, commanding every second of his screen time and giving his much anticipated, inevitable confrontation with Heisenberg better than anyone could have ever imagined. By now, saying that Breaking Bad is the best TV show of all time is so clichéd that it may cause many to roll their eyes. But anyone who followed the journey to its brilliantly uncomfortable conclusion knows that it isn’t an exaggeration; 100% purity achieved. — Giovanni 

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