By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
11:55 AM CST, December 18, 2013
I've never liked doing year-end best-of lists for a number of reasons. I don't feel qualified, for one. As a part-time critic I don't see or even sample every show. I also find that I enjoy shows that definitely aren't "the best" technically, but are so fun and entertaining, like Fox's silly "Sleepy Hollow," that they have me coming back week after week. If a show brings so much joy to one making a list, doesn't it deserve to be on said list?
Anyway, the powers that be at RedEye tell me people love lists, and shut up and make yours. So here goes.
I'll start with the also-rans that on any given day might had made the top 10, but today land right here in my list of shows to thank for a good time this year: "Game of Thrones" on HBO, "Foyle's War" and "Downton Abbey" on PBS, "Strike Back" on Cinemax, "A Young Doctor's Notebook" on Ovation, "The Fall" and "Derek" on Netflix, "The Walking Dead" on AMC, "The Americans" on FX, "Scandal" on ABC, "Broadchurch" and "Doctor Who" on BBC America, "Raising Hope," "Fringe" and "Sleepy Hollow" on Fox, "Veep" on HBO, "Wilfred" and "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" on FXX, "The Wrong Mans" on Hulu, "Vikings" on History and "Top of the Lake" on Sundance.
I'm probably forgetting something, so all apologies. Here's my top 10, in no particular order. Worth noting is how many shows from Netflix and smaller cable channels made the list. You can find quality all over the place these days.
Orange Is the New Black
Wacth now: Netflix
I have to admit that when I first heard about this "women's prison story," I thought of those tacky 1970s movies set in women's prisons—or the infamous "Charlie's Angels" episode. So it took me awhile to get to Jenji Kohan's scathing comedy, but I'm glad I did. With humor, heart and great drama, Kohan captures the fascinating stories of black, Hispanic and LGBT inmates. Oh, and white, upper-middle-class Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who is in the joint with them. Kohan and her actors of various ages and races pulled off a real surprise: They proved viewers want stories that cut across racial, class, gender, sexuality and national lines.
House of Cards
Watch now: Netflix
I didn't expect David Fincher's riveting redo of the British miniseries to be anything other than great, but it still surprised me. Kevin Spacey's silver-tongued, slippery Rep. Frank Underwood broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to viewers, forcing them to be co-conspirators in his psychopathic schemes. It's a cynical depiction of Washington politics that suggests Americans allow such shenanigans to happen by blissfully ignoring them. Spacey was chilling as a man who has sold his soul for power, but Robin Wright's stirring performance as Frank's conniving partner-wife was downright icy. That's a power couple I wouldn't want to cross, but can't wait to see more.
Watch now: Netflix
After seven years of hopes, hype and high anticipation, "Arrested Development" returned with a fourth season to Netflix. And then the bitching began. Where's the funny? Its there, just spread out over several seemingly disconnected episodes that focused on individual characters. Big events are replayed from different viewpoints to reveal parallel, overlapping stories involving the crazy Bluth family members, the University of Phoenix, an ostrich farm, Fakeblock and many clever Easter eggs. Sure, Mitch Hurwitz and company altered the cult classic to fit the binge-watching medium, but viewers should take another look at what remains a deliriously unique show.
Where to watch it: Final season on iTunes, Amazon; earlier seasons on Netflix.
What is there to say that hasn't already been said? Walter White, and "Breaking Bad" fans, got the ending they longed for and deserved. Vince Gilligan finished his deservedly praised series with a set of searing episodes that people still are talking about. Bryan Cranston also delivered, making us care about Walt even more when he admitted the truth about his reasons for building a meth empire to his wife and himself. "I did it for me," he said. "I liked it. I was good at it, and I was, really—I was alive." Everything about this show was as great as your friends say.
Watch now: iTunes, Amazon, DVD; Season 5 begins Jan. 7
In its stellar fourth season, perennial favorite "Justified" tweaked its game by having Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) take on a D. B. Cooper–inspired cold case that involved the father he reviles and eventually his friend turned nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). It was a treat watching Olyphant go head-to-head with William J. Barry, who plays Raylan's dad Arlo, and with Goggins, who one the most underrated actors on TV. The season rewarded long-time viewers by using tying events or revelations to those in past seasons as Raylan's search to learn about the man who fell to earth dug up three decades' worth of Harlan County (criminal) history. This show is so layered I watch episodes multiple times and still discover nuances previously missed.
Watch now: iTunes
Sundance's first original series is an achievement in a couple ways. Rare is the TV drama that takes its time with meticulous storytelling. In this tale of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who is released after 19 years on death row for a murder that DNA techniques have proved he didn't commit, creator Ray McKinnon takes the time to show Daniel's every new discovery, conflicted emotion and the shocks to his prison-dulled senses as he tries to adjust to a hometown and a world he hasn't seen since he was 18. Young's delicate, searing performance is the other achievement.
Watch now: VOD, DVD, iTunes, Amazon; Season 2 premieres April 19.
I'm going to pat myself on the back for a second here: I was an early fan of this drama about a woman who learns she's a clone. I'm happy y'all are onboard now, too. The biggest reason for the show's success is Tatiana Maslany, who played seven clones in the first season and gave each character her own ticks, accent, attitudes and personality. She was rarely off screen, often playing opposite herself in a seamless trick of filmmaking. In one crazy episode, she played one clone pretending to be another who was masquerading as yet another clone. It's one of the year's best performances.
American Horror Story: Coven
Watch now: fxnetworks.com, iTunes, Amazon; Season continues beginning Jan. 8.
After two seasons of stories so disturbing I had to watch through my fingers or delay completely, "American Horror Story" returned this fall with less frightening "Coven." What it lacks in actual horror it makes up for in humor, glamour and a delicious plot twist in each episode. The strong, almost all-female cast lead by the peerless Jessica Lange is refreshing on TV, as are the show's themes about society's fixation on youth and beauty. And with Minotaur sex, talking heads, a Stevie Nicks-loving necromancer and myriad other lunacies, it's about as deliriously bonkers as TV gets. I love that.
Watch now: iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Google Play; DVD out Jan. 21.
All apologies to "The Walking Dead" and TV's vampire horde, but the best show about reanimated dead folks is this unsettling French import about previously dead people who pop up in a small Alpine village without any memory of what has happened to them. There's a mystery here—why and how have these miracles occurred—but the eight-episode series is most interested in the impact the resurrections have on the returned and their loved ones. What happens when everything we thought we knew about life and death is upended? And how can the returned fit back into the lives of people who have moved on? Feelings of grief and loss give way to confusion and pain that can be just as frightening as any brain-eating walker.
Please Like Me
Watch now: iTunes, Amazon, Pivot repeats
This wry, down-to-Earth and often-moving comedy from Australian Josh Thomas follows 20-year-old Josh, who slowly realizes he's gay in the six-episode season. But "Please Like Me" is more coming-of-age story than coming-out tale, giving us a charming account of how relationships with friends and family evolve as we grow into adulthood. It has clumsy hookups, awkward first dates and hilarious conversations between friends as well as crushing moments, like when Josh must deal with his suicidal mother. Through poignant writing, watching Josh make sense of his life as it falls apart was one of the year's most rewarding experiences.
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