On September 29th, 2013, at approximately 10 p.m. EST, Walter White died, and for a little while, it seemed silly to talk about anything else. The world didn’t nearly stop spinning on its axis the way it did when The Sopranos cut to black, but Mr. White’s world most definitely didn’t end with a whimper. Most news programs covered the finale. That was the show’s power, and its legacy: the television series as societal talking point above all else, including The Hunger Games, Yeezus, and that guy’s live-tweeting of his neighbors’ breakup.
But then, of course, the whole foundation of television started shaking some seven months before Breaking Bad hit the dirt, as Netflix showed formidable viewership numbers coming off of its first four major forays into original programming, three of which appear on this list. Netflix now stands toe-to-toe with AMC, FX, and HBO, and the renewals of House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Hemlock Grove lends credence to the future of streaming. True, the new crop of original programming from Hulu and Amazon Prime doesn’t look particularly promising, but Netflix, which features no commercials, has one of those rare honest chances to reshape the landscape in terms of quality. That their upcoming projects are dominated by a partnership with Marvel on four hotly anticipated adaptations speaks to the boldness of the company’s vision.
Indeed, the one thing shared by the best television of 2013 was the audacity, in style and storytelling, that a new class of producers and writers has creatively harnessed in the medium. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra was summarily dismissed by all major film distributors, but at HBO, it was marketed enthusiastically and received almost unanimous praise. In 2007, would anybody pay to see a neo-western about the zombie apocalypse in IMAX 3D? Well, okay, yeah, but would anyone really give a shit about the old amputee with the ponytail? Try to imagine the sheer force of disinterest any filmmaker would face if, pre-2006, he or she pitched a period drama about a guy who pitches commercials for a living.
Television is where the interesting stories are going, but even some of the best shows are still lacking in visual acumen, an arena where film inarguably still has it over on television. The dependency of the box office on sequels is a pack-a-day habit compared to the heedlessly protracted storylines that power most television shows, which is more comparable to the Mantle brothers toward the end of Dead Ringers. Still, progress is being made even in this realm, and the year’s best TV offerings were either enlivened by these possibilities or lovingly defied them to indulge a kind of refined classicism. Walter White is dead; long live Walter White! Chris Cabin
David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s abbreviated fade-out on post-Katrina New Orleans is tattered yet hopeful, perfect in its soulful imperfections. Decisions in the Big Easy are slowed down by good booze and better boogie, and by the time the Big Chief (Clark Peters) bows out, very little about this intoxicating menagerie of musicians and other truth-seekers has been convincingly settled on. Life’s not tidy in the Treme and the show’s creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmond’s (Rob Brown) first child and Janette’s (Kim Dickens) third restaurant opening. Of course, all the trouble made the music sound all the sweeter, as careers begin to congeal and legacies found (temporary) footing amid the city’s riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and she’s belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin
Downton Abbey jumped the shark in season two by tipping its bowler hat too often to the broad strokes of Charles Dickens’s pen. Maybe because its scope was limited to the period of a single year, or because the shrilly over-determined Bates prison subplot was finally resolved, but season three felt like a corrective of sorts, regarding the period-specific dramas that gripped the lives of the Crawleys and their servants with an attention to nuance that felt written with the heart’s blood. The tragedies weren’t so easily forgotten, and while the incessant scheming remained as delicious as ever, even the most furtive of glances was in service of illuminating a privileged society’s reckoning with class difference and identity. Ed Gonzalez
The long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development offered a rarity in television: genuine beguilement. After seven years of picking over the dense interplay of jokes in the first three seasons, viewers scrambled to understand what the fuck just happened in a deliriously abstracted storyline involving the University of Phoenix, an ostrich farm, and Fakeblock. The sui generis comedic invention of the cast felt revitalized, and by focusing on a single character per episode, the creators manifest feelings of alienation, hysteria, desperation, and profound confusion. In effect, this undervalued return mirrored Hurwitz and company’s own deep-seated feelings following one of the most seemingly empty-headed cancellations in the history of the medium. Cabin
Orange Is the New Black
Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman started out as a perceivable necessity: a Caucasian prism through which Jenji Kohan could portray the far more fascinating lives of black, Hispanic, and LGBT inmates at an upstate New York prison. Three episodes in, however, Piper became one with her fellow inmates and Kohan’s series matured into a scathing comedy, one that depicts the alarming reality of being a liberated woman in a world run by men. And unlike Weeds, Kohan’s latest never feels as if it’s straining to attain a sense of diverse community. The ensemble performances rank alongside Mad Men and Treme in their unforced fullness, able to find a touching unity among the disparate histories of the incarcerated. Cabin
Coming face to face with two vigilante killers, Detective John Luther (Idris Elba) also became the focus of a secret investigation into his professional behavior and pliable view of justice in the third season of Luther. In other words, it’s soul-searching time for Luther, but the series continues to smartly avoid the dull trappings of police procedurals through its effectively lugubrious atmosphere. Elba’s troubled variation on Columbo wanders through a rotting working class, rupturing with societal resentment and repressed madness, and what the series consistently expresses is full knowledge that Luther could be one with his enemies, if not for the necessary remove of his mordant humor and a sickly sense of good. Cabin