Even as The Lone Ranger and Man of Steel shook our faith in popcorn movies to the very core, there was sanctuary on our living room couches in what’s turning into the golden age of television. As Walter White’s life imploded, or as Don Draper broke his daughter’s heart, or as the Stark lineage shrank before our very eyes, our favorite characters’ misery gave us unprecedented joy in 2013. But it wasn’t all darkness and heartache: there was the triumphant return of Arrested Development and Eastbound and Down and plenty of laughs with goofy new kid on the block, Brooklyn Nine Nine.
And there was the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, which proved just how timeless a time traveling adventurer could be, even in an age where telephone boxes look like a quaint artifact of the past.
Don’t adjust your dial, here are Unwinnable’s picks for the best in television for the year:
– Ethan Sacks
I used to think that I loved Burn Notice, USA Network’s Miami-based spy drama, for the formula. The show was a modern day incarnation of the hour long 80s fix-it dramas I loved as a kid, like The A-Team and The Equalizer. Burn Notice, however, wasn’t content to play it by the numbers and it was fun to watch the writers tinker with the recipe. Each season, the formula changed by degrees. The stakes got higher the obstacles more dire. Somewhere along the line, I found myself investing in the characters. Granted, I initially came to the show because of Bruce Campbell, but by the seventh and final season, I was invested in all of them. I love those guys (and gals). I wanted the ending to be happy even as I was convinced it would end badly for everyone. But end it did (I won’t say for better or worse – you’ll have to watch it to find out), and now TV is poorer for it.
– Stu Horvath
When you juxtapose AMC’s top two shows in their penultimate seasons, you find an interesting parallel. In Breaking Bad, Season 4 ended with Walter White getting everything he wanted, only to see it all unravel in Season 5. In Mad Men, Season 6 ends with Don Draper losing a lot. His company. His way with women. His perfectly cool veneer. It’s the sort of humbling the show usually saves for the infinitely less likable Pete Campbell. Mad Men has settled into a distant third to critical darling Breaking Bad and uber-popular The Walking Dead on AMC’s hit list, and fans spent much of the season dissecting some pretty silly theories (Megan is Sharon Tate! Bob Benson is Bobby Draper sent back from 1985!). But at the heart, it is still the slick, suave show that put AMC on the map. It’s still sharply written, beautifully shot, and has its strong eye for detail. There may only be 14 more episodes, but it’s going to be one hell of a ride. I just hope it includes an episode where Sally sneaks off to Woodstock…
– Don Becker
When I started freelancing for the Daily Mail, I was surprised to learn that the Brits in the office entirely dismissed BBC dramas. One fellow, who had the reputation of being able to drink a pint faster than any other man on the planet said, “It’s all moody shit.” Then, after a moment of thought, added, “Except Sherlock.” There was also a kind of respect for Doctor Who, but less out of actually enjoyment than as a point of national pride.
I wonder if they still feel the same in a post-Broadchurch world. Yes, it was certainly moody, but also brilliant – a perfectly constructed murder mystery that examined not just the crime itself but the impact it had on the titular idyllic seaside village. In the age of binge watching, this was an artfully shot, magnificently acted feast to gorge on. And it starred David Tennant, of Doctor Who fame, so maybe it gets the national pride bonus points.
– Stu Horvath
Eastbound and Down
Next to Breaking Bad, the most satisfying series finale of 2013 was the Eastbound & Down finale. It was not only an excellent way to end the epic tale of Kenny Powers but the fourth season managed to be the strongest season since the first one, and funny as fuck. We saw Kenny the family man smash his rivals, rise up in the world, drink, do lots of drugs and buy a wolf and a robot. There’s also a duel involving jet packs and a never creepier Stevie. I don’t want to give too much away but an almost unrecognizable Marilyn Manson even pops up in a scene (I guess they couldn’t get the motherfucking Spoonman). I can’t wait to sit down and marathon this series one day, as it was truly cool as shit. I would also wager that’s it’s up there in the top five of all time great HBO comedy series!
– Mike Edwards
Brooklyn Nine Nine
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is something of a surprise. An ensemble sitcom about a police precinct in Brooklyn airing on Fox is not something I’d think most of us here on Unwinnable would pick in their favorite TV show of the year, but here we are. The series has a strong premise from the start. The Nine Nine is Captain Ray Holt’s (Andre Braugher) first command, despite years of decorated service in the NYPD. He believes he was passed over because he is gay. He’s a by the book kind of cop, so when he encounters freewheeling Detective Peralta (Andy Samberg), Holt decides to reign him and the whole precinct in.
That premise can be a trap for a lot of sitcoms, but the writers and actors haven’t fallen into it. While Holt and Peralta do jab at each other, it is clear that the two characters like and respect each other by the end of the pilot. What sets Brooklyn Nine-Nine apart from other sitcoms is that the mutual respect and admiration sticks around in the following episodes and manifests itself as friendly competition amongst the cast. Samberg, Braugher, Stephanie Beatriz, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Joe Lo Truglio and Chelsea Peretti have oodles of chemistry as an ensemble and they pass the proverbial ball around, setting each other up with some great punch lines. The actors, writers, producers and directors are putting together an exceptional first season. And it also doesn’t hurt that they put Andre Braugher in an interrogation room for the first time since he played Detective Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street.
– Ian Gonzales
2013 marked Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. When the series returned to the airwaves in 2005, showrunner Russell T Davies placed an in-story barrier between the original series and the new one – The Last Great Time War. It was a plot device that allowed the series to move forward and not be bogged down by the show’s rich history, but it also acknowledged what came before. It’s been a mystery since the new series began – always alluded to but never dwelled upon.
The 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” finally shed light on just what happened on the day the Doctor ended the war. The episode starred current Doctor, Matt Smith, as well as fan favorite David Tennant, reprising his role as the Tenth Doctor, and John Hurt as the previously unrevealed War Doctor. Both Smith and Tennant initially look upon John Hurt’s Doctor with disdain at first, but the three Doctors have to put aside their difference and stop an alien invasion that takes place over centuries. The real magic though, is seeing the three of actors work together as they approach their inevitable decision to end the Time War.
The special served as a bridge between the whole history of the TV series while managing to tell a poignant tale about regret and the horrors of war. It’s been quite a year for Doctor Who, but November 23, 2013 was the Day of the Doctor.
– Ian Gonzales
Any criticism that the AMC zombie drama was dying a slow death, on a third showrunner in just four seasons, fell away faster than (NAME REDACTED)’s head after being lopped off by a katana-wielding Governor. All of a sudden, the walkers had some bite again and Rick Grimes and his band of dwindling survivors’ new found misery was our gain.
– Ethan Sacks
Orange is the New Black
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sold on Orange is the New Black after the pilot episode. I found the main character, Piper Chapman, a bit whiny and boring and yes, sad that this privileged white girl feels such apprehension about leaving her fiance to begin serving a 15-month prison sentence for a 10 year-old smuggling crime, but for some reason I had trouble relating. I didn’t care about her story. In fact, I continued to not care about her story through the first few episodes. And while I watched, not caring about Piper, I found I began to care a great deal about the characters who populate her story – Red, the Russian mafiosa-cum-kitchen pitboss; Nicky, the street-wise junky lesbian; Miss Claudette, the well-mannered and well-feared elder; Pennsatucky, the redneck meth-head evangelist; Crazy Eyes, both the sweetest and most terrifying inmate in the whole joint – and these are just a few fellow convicts. I could go on and on about shady admins Healy and Caputo and detestable guard “Pornstache” Mendes and a host of others (Donna from That 70s Show!) but there’s just too much good stuff to hash out.
The point is, much like creator Jenji Kohan’s previous hit Weeds, this is a show about wildly unique characters struggling to find meaning in their mundane lives by exploiting the system that oppresses them through guile, guts and humanity. As each character’s personal story unfolds, the audience also learns a little more about the group as whole, a little more about the “way things work around here,” and a little more about what kind of person Piper really is. As a result, I found myself interested in Piper’s story after all. Because in one way or another, hers is the story of all these women. I don’t know what’s more satisfying; watching Piper slowly come to this realization, or everyone else. Actually, the most satisfying aspect of this journey is the comedy. This show manages to ride the line between drama and comedy so well (some of the funniest parts are deathly serious) I would be remiss not to applaud those efforts. And you would be remiss not to check out one of our favorite shows of 2013.
– Jay Pullman
If there’s a prize for working within the toughest constraints and still creating something fascinating, Mitch Hurwitz deserves it for the fourth season of Arrested Development. The genius actors of his decade-old cult show had become stars or at least continuously in-demand television figures, making it essentially impossible for the Arrested Development that was built on its ensemble to actually use that ensemble. So in place of densely packed character relationships and running jokes, the fourth season stripped its characters to their ghastly essences and turned its jokes into puzzles that slowly revealed their layers and solutions. It was occasionally horrifying, occasionally brilliant and, to be fair, occasionally boring, but it was always a mesmerizing example of creativity in the face of near-impossible demands.
– Rowan Kaiser
Game of Thrones
For those who had the emotional (and intestinal) fortitude to make it through the Red Wedding and continue with the show, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s unadaptable A Song of Ice and Fire novels is at the top of its game. Those of us who have bent our knees in fealty to the House of Stark are left reeling, but also left admiring how well the Lannisters have maneuvered and how regal the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys, is becoming. Winter is coming… but before long it will be spring and the start of the fourth season.
– Ethan Sacks
No less an authority than Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins called Bryan Cranston’s turn as the science teacher turned meth-cooking criminal kingpin as the greatest acting performance he’s ever seen. And who are we to argue? But the legend of Heisenberg will surely only grow over the years after a finale that joined the likes of The Shield, Newhart, The Wire and Friday Night Lights as shows that stuck the landing on the series finale. Arguably the greatest television drama ever…and who are you to argue?
– Ethan Sacks