Orphan Is The New Bad: The Best Fucking TV Of 2013

best-tv-of-2013And now it’s time to talk TV.

I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, compared to the average American. The number of reality shows I watch regularly — or ever, unless I’m a captive audience — is zero. (Yes, this includes all housewives from any given location, dynasties related to any fowl, and anything that could make me hungry.) I don’t currently watch any network dramas — I gave Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a brief whirl, but only because Joss Whedon’s name was on it.

So am I the foremost person to put forth a definitive list of the best television of 2013? No, but I’m doing it anyway. And before you complain about their absences — I don’t watch The Good Wife. I’ve seen only the first two episodes of Scandal. I have yet to check out Masters Of Sex. And I have no interest in The Walking Dead. Have we covered your faves?

Still, I like to think that the cream of the crop pretty much rises up to wherever I am. If it’s really good, I’ll find it. I do subscribe to HBO, by the way, so you’ll find a disproportionate amount of their programming in my year-end list. (Then again, that’s true of most TV kudos. HBO is just good!)

So. From red weddings to blue meth, from black orphans to white girls in orange jumpsuits, here’s the best of 2013 on TV, according to me.

hello-ladies-christine-woods-stephen-merchant10. HELLO LADIES

Ladies first! (Since we’re going backward.) In the grand tradition of The Office, Community, Veep, The Comeback, and plenty of other recent comedies in which the protagonist is not wholly embraceable, here is Stephen Merchant’s comedy about an average guy (let’s call him a 5) who dreams of finding himself on the arm (and between the legs) of a perfect 10. To accomplish this lofty goal, gawky Englishman Stuart Pritchard will throw any and all of his pals under the bus — which nearly always ends up biting him in the ass.

Hello Ladies is a savvy satire about superficiality in Los Angeles, with Stuart and his actress roommate Jessica (Christine Woods) simultaneously struggling in their own ways for attention and affection from all the wrong sources. Neither is a wholly admirable character, as both are driven primarily by shallow goals to be the envy of their peers. But there’s something relatable and even slightly sympathetic about their egocentric behavior, since it really stems from insecurity. (It’s especially resonant for those of us familiar with the entertainment industry and drenched in LA culture.) The best of these moments might be the episode in which Stuart and Jessica hit up a prissy party in the hills, only to find themselves ousted once Jessica humiliates herself with an old tap-dancing routine and Stuart tells increasingly homophobic jokes that don’t land well with the gays in attendance.

The end of Season One gets particularly strong as Stuart and Jessica have a bonding moment just before each gets closer to achieving their dream (at least temporarily). Let’s hope HBO doesn’t pull a Comeback and decide to cancel another smart and awkwardly funny industry-centric comedy focusing on a self-centered, try-hard buffoon. Hello Ladies has all the ingredients to become one of the most sophisticated comedies on TV.

mad-men-the-crash-jump9. MAD MEN

From Ladies to Men. Was this Mad Men‘s very finest season? Perhaps not. But when is Mad Men ever less than great? Season Six saw Don Draper return to his philandering (with a neighbor lady played by Linda Cardellini), Peggy working under Ted instead of Don (in more ways than one), and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy as we move later into the 60s (and further away from the societal trappings and gender dynamics we began the show with). At this point, Don and Peggy and Joan and Roger and even Betty and Pete feel like old chums. It’s nice just to spend time with them, no matter what they say or do. These characters are so compellingly drawn, the actors so settled into these roles, that a little narrative meandering can be easily forgiven — and sometimes, totally welcome.

Mad Men mirrors real life better than almost any other show out there. People come and go the way they do in the world, not according to the sensational methods of prime time television. We seldom catch Mad Men being “written,” and in a way, that’s more true of Season Six than any other. There was no specific narrative momentum, with Peggy’s somewhat soapy flirtation with Ted providing the clearest season arc, while Don was in a hazy no man’s land story-wise, displaying some of his least sympathetic moments to date. (He really was pretty nasty to Sylvia.)

Season Six’s most distinctive episode was the offbeat “The Crash,” which found these men going literally mad for once, as the whole firm tripped out on a “stimulant” that left Ken tap-dancing and Don flashing back to his childhood in a whorehouse — just as his own kids were engaging in an equally trippy interaction with an elderly thief in their apartment. It was a clever way to shake things up in a season that, previously, had been treading some familiar waters. (But again, they’re such good waters… who cares?) american-horror-story-coven-jessica-lange-emma-roberts-black8. AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN

Witches and zombies and minotaurs, oh my. A better title for this (or any) season of Ryan Murphy’s macabre miniseries would be American Horror Story: Everything But The Kitchen Sink. (But then he wouldn’t be able to include a demonic kitchen sink, too.) This season is only sporadically about a coven of witches (actually, two covens); it has also taken detours to explore a ghostly axe murderer, an order of witch hunters, and several forms of zombies.

Yes, it’s problematic the way the show keeps killing off characters as if it’s still shocking, only to predictably resurrect them the following week. Murphy has proven that anyone can an will be brought back from the dead (it’s not even that difficult!). Both in terms of story and character, the show is all over the map; as with many Murphy series, it seems the writers of different episodes have no contact with one another, making up the rules as they go along on an episode-by-episode basis. Don’t look for continuity anywhere in this witch’s brew.

Complaints aside, though, Coven is compulsively watchable, filled to the brim with campy performances, punchy one-liners, and gruesome water-cooler (or should that be cauldron?) moments. The acting and writing can be hit or miss, but a few performers always deliver — Emma Roberts as a bitchy young witch, Jessica Lange as a bitchy old witch, and Angela Basset as a bitchy black witch. (I specify that she’s black because Coven never lets us forget it. The show hits racial themes so hard, they must be borrowing Thor’s hammer.)

With Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad currently off-air, Coven is the closest thing to Event TV on the air at the moment — the rare show that must be watched live, lest you be spoiled. For better or worse, that means cliff-hangers and gotchas galore. In recent weeks, Coven has paled in comparison to its more cohesive early episodes, its plot sprawling, introducing new characters we didn’t need, since we started off with so many in the first place. Here’s hoping the series comes back strong in January to finish these bitches off with a bang.Behind-the-Candelabra-liberace

7. BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

It doesn’t get any gayer than this. Steven Soderbergh has vented his frustration with studio movies — and understandably so. Behind The Candelabra was pitched as a theatrical release and roundly passed on before HBO picked up the slack. The film has two major stars and delves into the popular musician biopic genre — no-brainer, right? Though to be fair, it’s also one of the gayest movies I’ve ever seen, and it’s easy to see why no studios thought this would play well across the board.

But it’s fabulous and fantastic. Michael Douglas is Liberace, and oh, what a Liberace he is. The man won an Emmy for a performance that captures many of Lee’s eccentricities without devolving into caricature. His Liberace has a soul, even if it’s a rather dark soul for most of the story. And Matt Damon gives it his all as Liberace’s man-candy, Scott Thorson, who also hits some unsavory places over the course of this movie. Rob Lowe pops in for a hilariously over-the-top supporting role as Liberace’s plastic surgeon of choice — and he really does seem to be made of plastic. It’s fun to see these normally serious actors camping it up, yet it’s never condescending. That’s a hard balance to strike.

Behind The Candelabra is startlingly honest about the dark side of gay relationships (well, some gay relationships) in a time where pro-gay “they’re just like us!” / “we’re just like you!” messages are trendier. No, not every gay coupling will follow Lee and Scott’s tragic trajectory, but many of them did (minus many of the sequins and sparkles). Behind The Candelabra doesn’t make these famous figure more sympathetic than they need to be — they’re not martyrs. They’re vain, materialistic, flawed men whose lives are far from enviable, once you peek behind the curtain (or candelabra). It’s gay romance at its worst.

But the movie is Soderbergh at his best. The opulent visuals are to die for, while the end manages to be truly endearing despite the judgments we may have of Liberace’s shallow, self-idolizing lifestyle. If you somehow missed the TV movie event of the year, do yourself a favor and seek it out. It’s a lot of surface and a little bit of substance by design, but overall, it’s a good time.SEAN GIAMBRONE, JEFF GARLIN, WENDI MCLENDON-COVEY, HAYLEY ORRANTIA

6. THE GOLDBERGS

Believe it or not, the networks did the unthinkable this fall and released a whole bunch of completely watchable sitcoms. There’s the offbeat police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the oft-winning Trophy Wife, the odd-couple pairing of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Robin Williams in The Crazy Ones, and the amiable (but uncreatively titled) Michael J. Fox Show. (There’s also Mom, Dads, and Sean Saves The World, but the less said about them, the better.)

Are any of these must-watches? Probably not. But one diamond shines in the rough, and that’s The Goldbergs — which is kind of like a Jewish version of The Wonder Years.

In this case, the adult man flashing back to his past is Adam F. Goldberg (played by Sam Giambrone as a child, adult version voiced by Patton Oswalt). The show hews closely to Goldberg’s actual childhood in suburban Pennsylvania (obviously, not even their last name was changed). Goldberg’s actual home movies from the era (of which there are hundreds, apparently) are thrown in at the end to prove that, yes, his family really was this crazy.

The series follows the usual domestic hijinks of any sitcom, but in a funnier and more heartfelt way. Jeff Carlin and George Segal co-star as Adam’s father and grandfather, respectively, with Hayley Orrantia and Troy Gentile as his night-and-day siblings — she a popular girl, he a freak. The series’ MVP, though, is Bridesmaids’ Wendi McLendon-Covey, who provides most of the heart and laughs as the well-meaning but meddlesome matriarch. The eighties nostalgia works in the series’ favor, allowing it to be so much less cynical and canned than other sitcoms, which tend to wink at the audience. There’s nothing particularly ironic about this one — it wears its heart on its puffy, too-colorful track suit sleeve.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about The Goldbergs, except that it’s a fresh and likable network family comedy you can feel good about watching. Which, these days, actually is pretty remarkable. game-of-thrones-brienne-bear 5. GAME OF THRONES

Two words: red wedding. For anyone who hasn’t read George R.R. Martin’s books, it was the most shocking TV event of the year. Or the decade. Or maybe ever? Game Of Thrones has never been shy about killing off likable, popular characters — decapitating the ostensible hero near the end of the first season — but this reached a new level of brutality on episodic TV. The Starks were the closest thing to “heroes” we had, by far the most relatable characters in this sinister, pseudo-magical world. Plus, they’d already suffered the loss of patriarch Ned, so killing off so many more of them in one fell swoop? It’s merciless storytelling. (Seriously — haven’t these people been through enough?!?)

Game Of Thrones is a difficult series to critique. Raise a concern about a plot point that’s dragging, and someone is bound to tell you, “But it’s from the books!” The production values are so high, the language so flowery, that it’s easy to get lost and think that it’s your fault certain characters or scenes don’t connect. Still, there were storylines in Season Three we spent a lot of time on with little payoff. John Snow’s romance with Ygritte took up more screen time than it needed to, and I don’t care how many people tell me Bran Stark’s storyline is gearing up for something major — almost every one of his Season Three scenes was a snore. (And there were so many!) Westeros is populated by so many rich characters with such potential that it’s a shame to waste so much of an episode on filler. And, after the shocking events of “The Rains Of Castemere,” the season finale was (predictably) a bit of letdown.

Yet Season Three still had a number of highlights — the awkward engagements of Cersei and Tyrion (and their priceless reactions), the strange friendship (courtship?) between Jaime and Brienne (it’s always fun when a bad guy goes kinda good), and almost anything involving Daenerys or Margaery. (Plus any scene featuring Diana Rigg as bitchy old Olenna is an automatic winner.)

It takes a bold show to not only go through with the Red Wedding, but take it to an even further extreme (poor Talisa!). It was, quite frankly, a landmark TV moment that tested what extremes a TV series can even go to in terms of cruelty toward beloved characters (and the audience). Game Of Thrones isn’t the same show it was before that moment, yet we hear from those pesky book-readers that it’s only the beginning…

orange-is-the-new-black-piper4. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

The long-awaited return of Arrested Development was supposed to be Netflix’s big triumph of 2013, but instead, the buzzy Bluths were trumped by original series House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. I gave House Of Cards a try, but it couldn’t hold my interest; Orange Is The New Black, however, hooked me the way it hooked just about everyone else I know. Within a week, I’d devoured the whole first season and was left wanting more.

Orange Is The New Black could have gone wrong in so many ways; the very same ways Weeds started going wrong a few seasons in. (They share a creator, Jenji Kohan.) As in Weeds, we follow an upper-class white woman into a world we don’t typically see upper-class white women in, and watch as her polite personality conflicts with a harsher, meaner populace. This provides plenty of fun, particularly in the first few episodes, and Taylor Schilling’s performance as Piper is not to be overlooked. Yet it’s this show’s colorful supporting characters that truly make it must-stream TV — most are not “types” as we typically see in comedies (though Orange Is The New Black is a dramedy); they’re fully fleshed-out, even if they only have a few minutes of screen time.

Smartly, each episodes tends to focus on a supporting character whose history somewhat mirrors what’s going on in the present. There’s a rather sprawling collection of women in this penitentiary, the best of whom are Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Sophia (Laverne Cox), Lorna (Yael Stone), Daya (Dascha Polanko), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba). Whoops, I just named half the cast, didn’t I? The supporting players of Orange Is The New Black truly do come from all walks of life, with a wild variety of races and sexual orientations that is probably unprecedented in any series. And yes, there are a couple potent male characters to provide an even balance.

If the show has a flaw, it’s in making the villains a little too big and broad — I’m thinking of Pennsatucky and Porn Stache, mainly. The tone of the series is nothing if not uneven, but somehow it all works. We laugh and yet we feel for these people. We’re invested in what happens to them.

To date, this is the internet’s best offering in terms of original content, proof that the future of TV is online — to hell with those pesky cable companies and their outrageously high prices. Orange Is The New Black isn’t like network TV at all, and isn’t trying to be; it’s not even exactly like cable. It is refreshingly, zestily original, which is exactly why it became such a sensation, and hopefully we’ll get more daring, out-of-the-box creations like it in the future. Out with the old, in with the New? Yes, please.

ORPHAN-BLACK-tatiana-MASLANY-allison-sarah 3. ORPHAN BLACK

It’s been a spell since American TV really nailed the thrill-a-minute suspense genre, but our neighbors to the north got it right with this one. Orphan Black is one part Alias, one part Dollhouse, and all parts amazing. Our heroine is Sarah Manning, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks orphan who encounters a woman named Beth who looks exactly like her — seconds before she jumps in front of a train. Sarah decides to assume this stranger’s identity — but that Ringer-like set-up is only the jumping off point for a much more ambitious story. Sarah soon encounters a number of other doubles, some of whom are more malevolent than others.

Orphan Black is compulsively watchable, a lot of it thanks to lead Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performance(s). She inhabits a number of different roles flawlessly. Each is so different, there’s never a question about who is who (unless there’s supposed to be). Some of her characters are comedic, others disturbing, others warm, others badass. Maslany’s versatility between genres is pretty astonishing — and puts Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow to shame. Sarah is a terrific protagonist, but she’s made better with the help of Maslany’s other characters — namely, the chipper but lethal suburban housewife Alison and the geeky science nerd lesbian Cosima, not to mention Season One’s mentally unstable villainess, Helena.

And let’s not forget the characters not played by Tatiana Maslany — such as Beth’s hunky boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) and her BFF foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), a drug-dealing prostitute. Fun!

Orphan Black‘s second season will debut in 2014, so it’s easy to jump on board now with the first ten episodes. Season One is virtually flawless, particularly in the earliest episodes and the riveting season finale. If you’re not hooked by the pilot, you may not be human.

laura-dern-tvs-enlightened2. ENLIGHTENED

There were actually two horrific killings on HBO series this year — one being the epically gruesome slaughter of the Starks on Game Of Thrones, as well as the axing of Enlightened. For as much love as I’ve given HBO on this list, they also made one of 2013’s most epic mistakes — pulling a Comeback and cancelling a brilliant but offbeat half-hour series before its time. (At least they gave it two seasons, as opposed to Valerie Cherish’s precious one.)

While most of Season One was spent setting up Laura Dern’s fascinatingly flawed Amy Jellicoe, on a plot level, the show meandered. (It was very good meandering, but it was still definitely meandering.) Season Two, however, finally took Amy to her logical conclusion, as she made big steps in taking down the corporation that screwed her over (which she happens to still work for).

Enlightened is about the pursuit of happiness, following a heroine who truly believes that thinking positively and doing the right thing can get her there — even when it’s clear from the reactions of the people around her that she may be doing more harm than good. Amy can be a difficult person to like, because we have to wonder if all of her caring and sharing isn’t really just a brittle facade or in service of her revenge. But in the end, we have to admire her, especially as she truly does become the David to Abaddon’s Goliath.

Season Two brought such memorable developments as the surprisingly tender romance between Tyler (Mike White) and Eileen (Molly Shannon), crazy Dougie’s unexpected involvement in the quest to take Abaddon down, and Amy’s would-be relationship with an LA Times reporter (Dermot Mulroney) who is quite possibly just using her to get a sensational story. (But she’s kinda using him also.) Kudos to Mike White, who wrote every episode, and Laura Dern, whose thoughtful performance anchors the show. Enlightened ended on a high note, and a dramatically satisfying and complete one — but I’d still like to know what happens to them all after this.

R.I.P., Amy Jellicoe.

breaking-bad-felina-walter-white-police1. BREAKING BAD

And R.I.P. Walter White.

If you thought there was even a chance I wouldn’t list the final season of one of the greatest TV shows of all time in the #1 slot, you clearly have stumbled upon this blog by mistake.

What’s left to say that I haven’t said already? The stakes were high as Breaking Bad wrapped up its final season; it was watched my more people than ever before, thanks to great word of mouth (you’re welcome) and Netflix streaming. It could have been a disappointing disaster, as some final seasons are, but instead it was possibly the strongest season of AMC’s Emmy-winning drama yet. (Yes, this series finally got its Emmy due — as did a very deserving Anna Gunn.)

“Ozymandias” alone is one of the greatest episodes of television of all time — we waited years for the confrontation between Walt and Skyler to erupt in violence, and still it unfolded in a way none of us could have predicted. We also had to say farewell to one major character a few episodes before the end — it’s useless to avoid spoilers at this point, but I’ll do it anyway. The long-gestating cat-and-mouse games built into the series from the beginning finally paid off, with the mice now aware of who Walter White really was at his deep, dark core — and each character, from Hank to Marie to Walter Jr. and even Jesse, had a distinct reaction.

Ultimately, Walter White wasn’t exactly redeemed, but he didn’t go down the darkest path available to him; he remained human, as did they all. Breaking Bad could have gone for pure sensationalism — outrageous shocks and explosive violence. Instead, it delivered all that while remaining true to these characters, true to the original vision of this series. Somehow, it truly did feel like Gilligan had planned out every step of this story from the very beginning. (But that wasn’t the case.)

The final season of Breaking Bad was by far the bleakest, even in a show that ended Season Two with not just one but two planes raining bodies down over ABQ. By the time we got to those final four episodes, this series had a cold vice grip on our hearts, yet somehow Vince Gilligan and his team of crafty mad geniuses delivered absolutely every kind of payoff we could have wanted. “Ozymandias” was merciless and jaw-dropping and intense; “Granite State” somber and reflective and punishing; “Felina” clever and cathartic and yes, even fun, wrapping the show up as neatly as possible on a narrative level without being morally tidy. This is how you do TV, people.

Breaking Bad, we already miss you. There’s still no one to replace you on our TV screens. And yet we cherish the times we had together, the ups and the downs, the laughter and tears. (And meth!)

You are gone, but not forgotten. Thank you for doing your part in making 2013 a very good year on TV.

Dylan-Bruce-shirtless-naked-Paul-Dierden-Orphan-Black

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