Here we are at year’s end! In the pop culture world, that mostly means endless “Best Of” lists reflecting on all the good stuff we watched or listened to. When it comes to TV, however, is a “Best Of” list really possible in 2013? More importantly, is it useful? For one thing, despite a slew of essays proclaiming that our most recent “Golden Age of Television” died this year with the end of Breaking Bad, 2013 may go on record as the best year for television in the history of the medium; you could reasonably compile a year-end “Best Of” list from new series alone! The overwhelming number of great shows creates another problem for compiling any kind of list: with such a variety of programming, it’s impossible to compare many of the year’s best series. Can you really evaluate what Bob’s Burgers is doing against what, say, Hannibal is doing (okay, aside from the fact that both shows’ titular characters enjoy cooking animal flesh)? Ranking seems—to me, at least—to do a real disservice to all of the wonderful stuff on offer.
Rather than rank, I thought it might be a good idea to take this moment to sing the praises of some of the best shows of 2013 that many viewers may have overlooked. Everyone knows Breaking Bad went out with a bang, or that Orange is the New Black made Netflix a true competitor in the quality original scripted programming game, but as the year winds to a close, here are a handful of other fantastic series worth checking out over your holiday break:
If I were going to make an actual “Best TV of 2013” list, the Sundance Channel’s Rectify would be vying for the top slot against the final season of Breaking Bad and another show on this list, Black Mirror. Beautiful, poetic, and deeply felt, Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden, convicted of raping and murdering his high school sweetheart, as he returns to his small Georgia hometown when, after nineteen years, his original death row sentence is vacated by new DNA evidence. The show willfully ignores the plot and pacing conventions of traditional TV drama; instead, it offers a slowly unfolding character study of a man graced with new life but not sure how to live it, in a town torn apart by a young girl’s death and thirsty for vengeance. It’s heavy stuff, to be sure, but if you’re up for the challenge, the reward is pretty excellent: moments of storytelling as powerful and affecting as anything you’re likely to ever see.
BEST EPISODES: “Drip, Drip,” “Jacob’s Ladder”
In many regards, BBC2’s The Fall is a standard police procedural about a clever detective tracking a serial killer, complete with a couple of too-convenient plot contrivances along the way. However, excellent lead performances from Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan make this series a must-see. As the smart, supremely competent, and unapologetically feminist Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, Anderson is captivating; perhaps what I appreciate most about The Fall is its exploration of the many double standards imposed on a woman occupying a powerful position in a male-dominated line of work. Equally fascinating is just how normal Dornan’s Paul Spector appears—a stupidly handsome, young, married father of two who also happens to be a killer of women; in the wrong hands, that duality could be as goofy and ham-fisted as it often was on Dexter, but Dornan brings a certain blankness to the role that renders Spector far more inscrutable and unsettling.
BEST EPISODES: “Darkness Visible,” “The Vast Abyss”
Here’s another beauty from the Sundance Channel (who I’m pretty certain, after their commitment to incredible scripted series in 2013, can do no wrong). Although The Returned technically aired abroad in 2012, this French series came to the States this fall and quietly became the Best Show About Zombies on American TV (sorry, Walking Dead). I say that, although The Returned (Les Revenants in its native France) is only a “zombie show” insofar as people come back from the dead; here, however, they’re just as physically whole and mentally aware as they were before they died. There’s also some of Twin Peaks’ DNA running through the series: rural mythology, quiet horror, and enough mystery and suspense to satisfy anyone who might dismiss European fare as “too artsy” or whatever. Like Rectify, The Returned is interested in what it means to reclaim a place in a world you left behind long ago (in this case, Alpine France rather than rural Georgia), a world you no longer recognize, populated by both strangers who fear you and loved ones who have learned to live without you.
BEST EPISODES: “Camille,” “The Horde”
What more could I say about Black Mirror that I didn’t cover earlier this week in my longer piece on the show? Charlie Brooker’s brilliant sci-fi/speculative anthology series should absolutely be required viewing—not just for avid fans of television, but for all human beings in the digital age. It’s a bit cynical and pessimistic about the role technology plays and will continue to play in our culture, but it’s never wrong in its observations and, at the very least, is certain make you reconsider your own relationship with the virtual worlds you inhabit.
BEST EPISODES: “The National Anthem,” “Be Right Back”
Okay, Rev. didn’t air in 2013—the latest season wrapped in 2011, in fact—but I will never, ever, ever stop evangelizing on this series’ behalf. The show centers on Reverend Adam Smallbone, the middle-aged married vicar of an inner-city East London parish. American viewers may recognize series star and co-creator Tom Hollander as the villainous Cutler Beckett from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Rev. is ostensibly a comedy, one that manages to both generate warm laughs and mercilessly skewer all manner of religious hypocrisy, but the show is really at its best in its sadder, quieter moments; no show takes man’s relationship with the Divine and the thorny questions that relationship invites more seriously than this one. You can check out both seasons of Rev. on Hulu.
BEST EPISODES: “Jesus is Awesome,” “Episode 5” (Season 2)
NOTE: This post contains minor spoilers for Black Mirror. Read at your own peril, I guess.
In early Fall, I set out to write weekly reviews of five currently-airing television series and intermittent pieces on a few others. I made good on this project for a few weeks and then, as you may or may not have noticed, disappeared. Long story short: I had a panic attack that sent me to the emergency room and ushered in a two-week period of daily (sometimes multiple times a day) panic attacks. Counseling, yoga, a patient husband, and the occasional cookie have helped me get my brain under a bit more control since that time, but in the intervening period, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the sources of my anxiety. Like many people who suffer from panic and anxiety disorders, there’s a family history at play, but I can’t help but also notice the degree to which my relationship with technology fuels so much of my unease. On a near-daily basis, the internet provokes the worst tendencies in me, and as someone already prone to isolation and introversion, I find that social media serves to enable that behavior while simultaneously providing the illusion that I’m “communicating.” The logical solution should be to shut down all social media accounts and to stop visiting sites that elicit these reactions, but there are a number of reasons why, at a point in history where the internet plays a vital role in our relationships, careers, and personal pursuits, that’s easier said than done.
It is precisely to those realities that the best and arguably most vital television series in years, Black Mirror, speaks. The series was created by British writer and satirist Charlie Brooker and consists of two seasons of three episodes each, which originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK and now air on DirectTV’s Audience Channel. Episodes are anthology-style, each telling a separate story about the relationships between human beings and our digital tools and toys. Given the format and content, the series garners frequent comparisons to another famous speculative anthology series, The Twilight Zone, although an equally apt comparison might be the short stories of George Saunders (I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Mirror‘s second episode “Fifteen Million Merits” and Saunders’ story “Jon” are meant to take place in the same fictional future).
Despite their apparent differences, we can also draw comparisons between Black Mirror and The Wire, the only other show I know of to provide such keen, unflinching insight into the problems of the world we live in; both series are interested in how larger systems and institutions impact the individuals who participate in them—willingly or not—and usually for the worse. But where I think Black Mirror has an edge over The Wire, a show that Vulture proclaimed “the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years,” is here: As deeply affecting as The Wire may be, its implications are more abstract. The Wire will profoundly shape how viewers think about an assortment of political, economic, and social issues and the ways in which those issues intersect, but unless you happen to be a direct player in the systems The Wire examines, only a minority of the series’ audience will encounter those concerns in any meaningful or concrete way on a day-to-day basis.
Technology, on the other hand…that’s something in which everyone watching Black Mirror has a vested interest, because if you’ve watched or plan to watch the series, you inevitably own either a television or a computer with internet access. You cannot not be a direct player. Like The Wire, Black Mirror’s six episodes tackle broader systemic issues: the enthusiasm with which media appeals to the lowest common denominator, the ease with which it can placate our outrage, our mistrust, and our fears even as it stokes those emotions. But what’s most notable about the series’ concerns—and what makes Black Mirror so damn important—is how immediately personal it all is, how it invites viewers to reconsider our own relationships with the digital, media-saturated worlds in which most of us participate every single day of our lives.
Though each episode is fantastic in its own right, it’s telling that Black Mirror‘s two most powerful episodes, “The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back,” center on familiar personal relationships rather than dystopian landscapes or international news stories. “The Entire History of You” envisions a future in which all of our life’s memories are recorded on data storage devices in our brains called “Grains” so that we’re able to relive them over and over again, and the episode examines the devastating impact of this technology on a young, married couple’s squabble over the wife’s ex-boyfriend. In many regards, the Grain is just a more futuristic version of our Facebook Timelines, a technology that already archives text, images, and videos so that you can revisit everything from your wedding to the latte you photographed on a random Tuesday in July 2010. As a group, humans are a rather nostalgic bunch, but we’re equally prone to unhealthy curiosity, self-absorption, and jealousy. In our minds, we’re constantly revisiting moments of triumph and defeat, reexamining fights and lost loves and forgotten friends, looking for what possibly could have gone wrong. We ask ourselves what our partners’ exes were like, what their relationships with those people consisted of, what those closest to us are thinking or doing or saying when we’re not around. Technologies like Facebook—or Grains—however, make it all too easy to satisfy those curiosities, to sift through the backlog of our experiences and the lives of others and locate, or at least imagine we can locate, the answers we’re looking for.
“Be Right Back” takes questions of personal data storage a step further by asking what it means that our digital selves will outlive our physical bodies and, perhaps more importantly, whether those two selves bear as much connection to one another as we think they do. The episode’s protagonist, a young illustrator named Martha, is able to collect the digital data left behind by her recently-deceased boyfriend to create a synthetic facsimile of him, a kind of android that looks, walks, and talks just like the man she loved; what she ultimately realizes is that the sum of these digital parts is so much less than the person she lost. I’m not dead yet, but this installment got me thinking in some very troubling ways about my own digital self. I’m a pretty active Facebook user and occasional blogger with a wide network of online acquaintances, but offline there are probably no more than two or three people that know me extremely well. The online version of myself is diminished, diluted, and very self-consciously adapted to the public forums in which I participate. My negative emotions—anger, resentment, fear, jealously, guilt, sadness—are almost always couched in sarcasm or apathy, my deepest and most sincere moments of happiness are either restrained for the sake of decorum or are never expressed at all, and I rarely talk about personal interests unless I think they’ll have some relevance to at least a handful of other people (This last point may be the most terrifying of all: we’ve essentially become human advertisements for the things we enjoy). I’m not alone in this behavior, by any means. Why else are we so irritated when new mothers gush over their babies on Facebook, when lovers exchange ooey-gooey posts on each others’ walls, or when a friend rants about his most recent life drama? Why else do we prefer the convenience of clicking “Share” or “Like” over articulating an actual position or opinion? We know the unwritten rules of online behavior, and the actions that most annoy us are ones that directly violate the most important rule: Share only the surface; the internet does not want your real feelings.
Having gulped Black Mirror down in its entirety very quickly, I’ve been sitting around with the series’ themes in my head over the past several days, feeling suddenly hyper-aware of my virtual life. Last Tuesday morning while browsing my Facebook News Feed, I came across the tragic story of a boy from hometown who had gone missing for several days and whose body had just been discovered on the side of a bridge. Only seconds passed between the moment I finished reading that story and the moment I found myself scanning a snarky blog post about Abigail Breslin’s red carpet appearance at a recent film premiere. “Little Miss Slutshine,” one early commenter had remarked in reference to Breslin’s heavy makeup and high hemline. Someone else suggested that maybe the original commenter should refrain from calling a seventeen-year-old child “slutty.” “You sound like a lot of fun,” the first commenter replied. I had another panic attack the next day.