It was a very important year for television for a number of reasons, prime among which was the fact that the mettle of streaming services turned production houses like Amazon and Netflix’s would be tested against the cable and network television heavyweights whose outcome would either hasten or delay the inevitable — the streaming services replacing the traditional TV. As it turned out Netflix had a stellar year (Amazon less so), churning out two incredible original series and hosting the much-anticipated return of an old favourite among its highlights. But even outside Netflix, TV was quickly changing with the coming of Sundance Channel & their trio of brave & experimental foreign imports backed by some innovative and fresh concepts courtesy BBC and iTV making 2013 one of the strongest year for non-American shows in recent memory. This coupled with the rising popularity of miniseries and anthologies suggested that the shift in the power structure of television was changing and it was emerging as something even more beautiful.
Best Performances in a TV Series
Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black
Right at the top of the stack of amazing performances, Tatiana Maslany playing as a group of clones allying and facing off against each other in the surprisingly solid BBC America series Orphan Black. A masterclass of acting from a relatively unknown actor who manages to pull off not just acting different personalities of these clones but also how the said clones would behave when impersonating as each other. It’s as impressive as it sounds and Maslany provides a brilliant example of rooting the entire series through her singular powerhouse performance.
Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
A perfect casting from paper onto screen, Mikkelsen’s despicable and charismatic Hannibal Lecter was the core whose cold and steely gaze and a knowingly cunning style of speaking provides the perfect counter-point to Dancy’s Graham. Mikkelsen has been a solid actor all-around and in 2013 besides The Hunt, this was his acting highlight showcasing the best is yet to come from him.
Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake
Moss has been a consistently great performer in Mad Men as the New Age-office woman in Peggy Olsen but it was only on this miniseries directed by the influential director Jane Campion that her acting talent really emerged. Brilliantly composed and displaying an impressive range of emotions with restraint, Moss admirably plays her part with both grace and intensity, suitable for a series exploring a Twin Peaks-esque external calm barely hiding a sea of prejudice within.
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad
It was tough task choosing between Cranston and Aaron Paul both of whom exhibited some incredible performances as AMC’s crime drama drew to its grand conclusion (a disappointing one for me, personally). However, if Paul admirably showcased a hollow husk of a character who was chained by his past transgressions, Cranston’s inevitable “breaking bad” was beautifully contrasted in the two subsequent episodes of Ozymandias and Granite State, showing both the sides of Cranston struggling to come to terms with his own wishes and feeding his ego. His quiet, understated acting in Granite State confirmed to me an edge he had over his co-star, as the saga of Walter White drew to a close, a little belatedly if I would add.
Jodie Whittaker in Broadchurch
I’d not seen much of Whittaker before but a good performance in an episode of Black Mirror followed by this amazing effort playing a mother of a murdered child, showcasing some of the most naturalist emotions, her eyes expressing far more pain and distress as the show focuses more on the repercussions of a crime than the actual police procedural and she forms the very emotional crux of its themes. An actress to watch out for in the future as she’s certain to make waves.
Timothy Olyphant in Justified
Possibly the most underrated actor in the TV awards circuit, Olyphant has been consistently been as great as Cranston and Lewis but has been vastly ignored. It goes in line with Justified, a show that has done everything its rivals have been doing but has again and again been overshadowed by them. It’s a painful loss especially in the light of Season 4 which was a remarkably restrained and brilliantly written season, continuing the saga of Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder and the Co. in old-town Kentucky. With some heavy boiler episodes like “Outlaw” and “Decoy”, Olyphant continued to be the show’s composed and charismatic core throughout.
Bonus: The Ensemble of Orange is the New Black
It’s difficult to pick any standout actor from here as all of them were equally remarkable actors in well-written roles. Be it the aptly named Crazy Eyes who won hearts by the time the season ended, or the strong Sophia, the dictatorial Red, the fanatical Pennsatucky or the ever-reliable Nicky. Even besides Piper and Alex, there were so many stories in this show of people who would generally be never given importance on TV and that’s even before they take up more screentime and importance than Piper’s s0-called “main arc”. Very well-acted characters written as an ensemble in mind end up complementing the overall show.
“The Chickening” from Orange is the New Black
“The White Bear” from Black Mirror
“Decoy” from Justified
“Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad
There’s a certain advantage TV series have over films. They can utilize their own history to play with the emotions of both the characters and viewers, due to the long-time investment. We all knew that as the stakes were built high for the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, it was going to use the “history” card atleast once. Many suspected it would be this episode, directed by Rian Johnson, who had been responsible for other such standout episodes of the series particularly “Fly”. Ozymandias was the summation of all the Shakespearean tragedies that were looming over its characters’ heads for as long as few seasons. A loud crashing down of all the mistakes they ever made, stretched into one brutal hour of television which saw the titular character change colours faster than a chameleon often beyond his own control. Ideally, Breaking Bad should have ended with this episode’s follow-up “Granite State” but perfect endings are a subjective thing.
House of Cards
Game of Thrones
Top of the Lake
The Top 10:
10) Mad Men
Even if it wasn’t as strong as its previous season and the extending arc took a bit of a time to gain momentum, Mad Men continued its stellar run this season bound by its highly cohesive themes while introducing an intriguing character in the form of Bob Benson and throwing up absolute curveball episodes like “The Crash”. But for a show which utilizes its history to reiterate some brilliant points, Mad Men continued to thrive building steadily towards its brilliant finale which leaves open a small door of redemption for Dick Whitman.
9) The Americans
FX’s spy drama felt like a bit of a drab on paper, but BOY was I wrong. Brilliantly drawing parallels between spywork and marriage, it cohesively tied its two central themes, conjuring up brilliant episodes whenever it made great use of the trust factor both as spies and as spouses bringing up the age-old issues of infidelity and blurring it with occupational duties. Tensely built, a few misgivings aside, it was a great start to what is looking very much like the heir apparent to Homeland‘s throne.
An unlikely candidate for a Top 10 particularly over the much-superior Top of the Lake, but somehow its dogged insistence on focusing on the emotional fallout of a small community in wake of a murder rather than the investigation of the police impressed me more than Campion’s series. David Tennant and Olivia Colman’s duo worked well off each other but so did the repercussions on the townsfolk particularly the victim’s mother. Capped off by a rather poetic finale scene, there was a very sorrowful, heavy vibe to the entire series emphasized by the (excessive) number of slo-motion scenes, almost as if the murder had pushed this remote coastal community into a time stasis.
One of the most visually impressive series on TV in 2013, Hannibal showed that it had acting chops (no pun intended) to pull off a remarkable debut across all departments. Right from the menacing acting of the eponymous lead to the haunting cinematography of visuals that stayed for you long after the show ended, Hannibal was off the blocks with a solid footing and almost never lost it. This confidence spells very good for the show’s future.
Critics’ darling but a vastly ignored show, Enlightened was truly a one-of-a-kind show whose dogged optimism and a slow-burning approach repelled viewers for it to get cancelled merely two seasons in, but its brilliant balancing between optimism and cynicism is something which is truly built for our day and age. Laura Dern and Mike White have created a beautiful miniseries of sorts here showing something almost any of us can find relatable — be it in while we’re trying to fight “The Man” or simply trying to make our loved ones’ lives better through our own selfish desires. Enlightened understood the era we lived in, but sadly it ended. The fact it ended on a perfect note, redeems its cancellation a bit, but it seems merely like a consolation to what Amy’s crusade could have turned out as.
The bloody saga of Harlan and Louisville,Kentucky continued in a surprisingly restrained and understated season of Justified bringing out a solid part of the show which often got buried under its one-liner Western influences. Even at its weakest, Justified delivered entertaining moments be it through tense showdowns or great character moments and with the earthy atmosphere of rural Kentucky still kept fresh four seasons in, there is something the writers of this show are doing remarkably well and that needs more emphasizing as we move into a world which is seemingly shifting slowly but steadily away from the anti-hero trope. Two years down the line, Justified may very well end up being the swansong of that particular breed of drama.
4) Les Revenants (The Returned)
I admittedly have a weakness for the frustratingly interpretative shows like Twin Peaks and to a lesser extent Lost — the shows which keep multiplying the number of cards they’re playing while rarely showing any. Les Revenants is another show in vein to them — small town, with its own internal mythology and an eerie persistence on answering questions with more questions. But the core premise is so delicious, providing a wicked twist to the “dead returning” trope into a heartbreaking concept which never gets old throughout its eight episodes. Brilliantly acted particularly Anne Cosigny and the young Yara Pilartz as one of the eponymous teenagers who finds it incredibly difficult to fit back into her old life. Hauntingly scored by Mogwai and eerie visuals are mere surface-level signs of the sorrow bubbling within Les Revenants.
3) Breaking Bad
A great series ending is always an occasion worth celebrating and even if Breaking Bad’s slightly underwhelming ending marred it a little, it was a great journey till this point, the final eight episodes being exactly th high-intensity fare we were promised. Providing satisfying resolutions to almost every character and story arc, some not quite with the same level of attention as others, but still despite its flaws — both inherent and through missteps in these eight episodes, the show emerged as one of the high-points of the “anti-hero” crime dramas that began with The Sopranos almost 15 years ago. And Breaking Bad was great while it lasted, even if it peaked just before its end.
2) Orange is the New Black
Times are a’changin on TV and Orange is the New Black is the first sure-sign of that. Not only it provided its streaming-production house one of its most watched shows even overturning the star-studded House of Cards but it also broke almost every convention along the way. A show with a bisexual lead? Check. An all-female centric cast with women of color, transgender and sexualities? Check. A part-mockery/part-satire of the American Dream, white privilege and the inherent racial prejudice? Check. Adapted from Piper Kerman’s prison memoir, I think Jenji Kohan’s brave vision and Netflix’s no-restrictions approach allowed OitNB to be what it became, as it could have easily watered down into a lightweight “Oz” for female prisoners on some other cable or network channel. Instead, it grew into its own monster — both funny and dramatic — capable of evoking different emotions and eroding the concept of “protagonist” in an impressive manner.
1) Black Mirror
In a standout year for television, I couldn’t think of a more deserving No.1 than Charlie Brooker’s sharp and disturbing Twilight Zone-esque satire of our modern age of technology. Six episodes spanning across two seasons, each working as a standalone, Black Mirror is the collection of some of the most disturbing and grim predictions of our future if our world’s integration with technology isn’t given more thought. Whether it was with the shock horror of The National Anthem portraying the non-existent ethics of media which are merely an extension of the voyeuristic tendencies of our own. Or Fifteen Million Merits which ripped apart the biggest corporate machine of an Internet-like system simultaneously absorbing and enslaving its users. Its’ strongest episodes came with the two personal themed ones — the relationship-centric Entire History of You and the resurrection via online profiling in Be Right Back — that showed that it could hit close to our own fears about how horribly wrong our own personal lives could get in the future if certain ethics about the evolution of technology aren’t thought before. But it was the disturbing public shaming/physical-horror of The White Bear which truly brought its core themes to the surface. The problem isn’t the technology, the problem is us. The tech merely bringing out the monsters that were always within us — endlessly shaming and destroying others — taking a moral high-ground when there was never any. No other show in 2013 evoked as many discussions and emotions as Black Mirror did and for that it truly deserves this top spot.
Next Time: Game of the Year 2013