My favorite TV shows this year were dour, cruel and often violent affairs — even my favorite reality-based show was about death. My go-to dramas were about drugs, medieval massacres, remorseless Viking marauders, deceitfully unhappy Soviet spies and a pair of down-in-mouth detectives trying to solve the case of a murdered child. The most cheerful shows I liked this year were about incarcerated women treating one another like dirt; sex research in the repressed 1950s; and a U.S. vice president who says the most vicious things imaginable.
What's wrong with me? (Don't answer that.)
While we wait for the clouds to part, here are my picks for the TV's best offerings in 2013.Best TV shows (and moments)of 2013
1. Walter White's exit strategy
Once in a while, I find myself still mulling over and savoring little moments from the final episode of Vince Gilligan's “Breaking Bad” (AMC), arguably the best TV show in a generation. Why, just the other day I was thinking about the poisoned Stevia packet on Lydia's cafe table . . .
2. “Orange Is the New Black”
Netflix has pulled ahead in the race to reinvent TV, but don't look to “House of Cards” for proof. Instead look at creator Jenji Kohan's perfectly written, hilariously profane, character-rich adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir about life in a women's prison. Enjoy it with a nice kiev.
3. “Masters of Sex”
First I was hooked by Lizzie Caplan's sharp work as the adventurous half (Virginia Johnson) of the famed sex-researching duo that started hooking up willing subjects to the orgasmatron. But as Showtime's drama got going, it's been Michael Sheen's portrayal of the complicated, moody Dr. William Masters that's been the real revelation. Also? Fantastic ensemble performances, especially Allison Janney as the pent-up wife of a med-school provost. The best new series this fall.
4. The Red Wedding
The bloody and horrifying high/low point of what turned out to be the best season of HBO's “Game of Thrones” so far.
5. “Time of Death”
Showtime's brave and meaningful docu-series about what it's like to die of illness. This was a respectful, uplifting and sobering example of what reality TV would look like if it had a soul.
Quite possibly the most morose-yet-mesmerizing summertime treat ever, BBC America aired the hit British miniseries starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives investigating the murder of a boy in a small, seaside town. (Tennant is now slated to star with “Breaking Bad's” Anna Gunn in Fox's Americanized remake, called “Gracepoint.” Only network execs can explain how this could possibly be a good idea.)
7. “The Americans”
FX's steely, suspenseful drama about a pair of stressed-out Soviet spies living and working in the Washington suburbs of 1981 hinges on Matthew Rhys' top-notch performance. The show was robbed at Emmy-nomination time, but heartily endorsed by wigmakers everywhere.
Brutal and permanently dour, just like the Vikings themselves! I enjoyed History's detailed foray into series drama, starring Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok. (Of the hill people.)
9. “The Returned”
Sundance Channel's airing of this hit French miniseries left a lot to be desired, but I was satisfyingly skeeved out by Fabrice Gobert's story of small-town residents who come back from the dead — not seeking to devour brains but to find closure with their loved ones.
Not to Gary-grovel at its feet any more than I already do, but Armando Iannucci's HBO comedy is still the one to beat when it comes to spot-on spoofs of a Washington's politico culture.Television letdowns of 2013
1. Murder as installation art
This has become a real personal peeve, as shows like NBC's “Hannibal,” Fox's “The Following,” AMC's “The Killing” keep treating a crime scene like it's an MFA thesis exhibit. Murder is horrible enough all on its own (“Broadchuch” made it as simple as a boy's body at the foot of a cliff); it doesn't need art direction, wires, costumes, paint, glitter, branches, antlers, feathers, etc. The idea of the killer-as-curator is a desperate (and now cliched) byproduct of writers who think they need to outdo other crime shows in the gore department.
2. “Mad Men” Season 6
A finger-drumming, do-nothing wait for something — anything — to happen. It did, when Don melted the Hershey's account, and possibly his career. Also, I was stunned to see “Mad Men,” with its reputation for details, appear so clumsy with costuming hippies and psychedelic fashion trends.
3. “Behind the Candelabra”
A sordid, unfeeling and certainly overpraised HBO movie about the sad end of Liberace. I guess viewers were distracted by the stunt casting, makeup and bedazzled hissy fits.
The second season of Lena Dunham's endlessly discussed HBO dramedy left me feeling underserved. But I could be lured back with a season focused mainly (only?) on Adam Driver's portrayal of Hannah's moody ex-boyfriend. In which case the show could be called “Guy.”
Showtime's anti-terror drama still has its occasional moments (I loved the episode where much-missed fugitive Nicholas Brody [Damian Lewis] arrives at the Caracas slum-scraper), but just about everyone agrees this season has been a real mess. And, honestly, with some recent real-life diplomacy breakthroughs with Iran, is this such a good time for a TV show to be sending a fictional Marine to Tehran to take out the leadership?
6. “The Walking Dead”
Walking in circles, mostly, despite its huge popularity (and, I admit, a satisfyingly disruptive mid-season finale last week). Still, though, raise your hand if you wanted to get in that station wagon with Carol (Melissa McBride) and see what else could be found.
7. The fall season
Networks continued their skid toward oblivion with tepid offerings, especially in the comedy department. Among the worst: “Dads” (Fox), “Welcome to the Family” (NBC), “The Goldbergs” (ABC), “We Are Men” (CBS), “The Michael J. Fox Show” (NBC) . . . need I go on?