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)