The State of the Art: Television 2013

It's been an exciting year in television. Netflix smashed the model of what people watch, and how. The new fall season has been kind of disappointing overall, but the few shows that do work are hard to beat. Shows that I've loved took a tumble into disappointment, and shows I suspected I'd dislike have rocketed to must-watch status. My list may seem to have some surprising omissions, but there's always a method to my madness. Breaking Bad was on everyone's lips, but I've only gotten through the first season. Mad Men and Arrested Development had high-profile seasons, and while I liked both of them, it's the freshmen who have really delighted my eyeballs this year. In fact, only two shows on my favorites list are incumbents.

Also, I don't think I've ever before been in the position where so many of my favorites are still in progress. I suppose it's possible that one of them could take a sudden turn into being terrible, but hey, I think I owe them a little leap of faith after the fun they've delivered so far. I still have a huge backlog to catch up on, but as far as shows that I watched "live" (thanks for making air quotes necessary, Netflix), these are the ones that made couch surfing more enjoyable than actual surfing could ever be.

#1: Bob's Burgers - Season 4

The first episode this season ("A River Runs Through Bob") didn't do a whole lot for me. Then came seven episodes of pure brilliance. Now that the Belchers are so well-established as a family, Bob's Burgers decided to jump into world-building, and it has done an incredible job. No longer are we chained to the restaurant. Bob picks up temp work at a frat house! Linda is marooned on an island with a lecherous pilot! The kids get trapped in a cardboard fort on Halloween! Aside from the broader plotlines, there is simply no better show on the air for background characters. How a butcher who does nothing but sell Bob a series of turkeys or a cop that refuses to take down an accident report can be so hilarious is a testament to the note-perfect writing and voiceover work we get week after week. And no other comedy had a better year in terms of pure zingers. It can be tough to tell when you're in the middle of a show's Golden Age, but Bob's Burgers makes it obvious.

#2: House of Cards - Season 1

Political thrillers are popular, but for me, it can be tricky to nail the tone. There hasn't been one that's completely bowled me over since I, Claudius, and that was produced in the freaking '70s. Between the challenges of writing an appealing political thriller and the challenges of presenting the current divisive political climate in an interesting way, I approached House of Cards with a truckload of trepidation. Trepidation that the show set about blowing into a million pieces. Kevin Spacey is chillingly good at portraying Frank Underwood, the calculating Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, out for revenge against those who passed him over. He and his Lady Macbethian wife Claire (Robin Wright) go about amassing power in any way they can, and their backstabbing schemes are jaw-dropping without ever straying too far from plausibility. The wrinkle of Frank's fragile alliance with a reporter (Kate Mara) adds an additional layer of tension. But these are no two-dimensional villains. I often found myself not only understanding Frank's motivations, but sympathizing with them. House of Cards is a great name for this show. You can see just how easily everything could fall apart at any moment, and I'm constantly on the edge of my seat to see if it will.

#3: Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 1

It's a sad fact that some shows get more attention than others, and merit doesn't always have much to do with it. I've seen a ton of internet chatter about all the shows on my top five - except this one. It's a shame, because I haven't seen a comedy come out of the gate so strongly in a long time. It's actually something of a miracle, because I didn't particularly care about the premise, and until this show came along, was actively put off by Andy Samberg. So when I found myself progressing from "I-guess-I'll-give-it-a-shot" to "hey-this-isn't-bad" to "you-HAVE-to-watch-this-show" by Episode 6, I knew I had discovered something special. Any comedy has to be judged by how funny it is, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine provides the highest belly laugh ratio of the year. There isn't a single cast member not hitting it out of the park. Honorable mention has to go to Trophy Wife, which almost shared the #3 honor with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but which has had a slower build. Still, both of these shows are genuine pleasures, and if you haven't caught up with them, there's no time like the present.

#4: Orange is the New Black - Season 1

I'm only midway through the first season, and I feel like I know more about what drives these characters than I do about the ones in Once Upon a Time after three. This show could have easily been grating and lazy; let's all laugh about the spoiled white lady forced to put up with the inconveniences of prison! Or let's all clutch our pearls about the horrors of the criminal justice system! Instead, Orange is the New Black manages to straddle the line perfectly, being funny and sad and wry by turns. It has a lot to say about the types of women who wind up in jail and what their motivations are, but is never condescending or glib. Taylor Schilling does an admirable job as the naive audience surrogate, but the real meat of the story is in the women around her and the choices that landed them in trouble in the first place. This is one of the most diverse shows on television, not just in casting, but in attitude. Far from embracing the trite stories we usually get in a prison setting, Orange is the New Black can take something as silly as an escape chicken and present it as both a joke and an ironic symbol of freedom.

#5: Parks and Recreation - Seasons 5/6

Knope we can! If forced to guess, I'd say that Parks and Recreation saw its best days in Season 4, and won't ever reach those heights again. And it's still better than 95% of the other shows I watched this year. Comedies often thrive on how acidic the characters can be, but this one manages to wring laughs out of warmth, which is almost impossibly difficult. Leslie wants to do right by her friends and her community, and is beset by challenges from every side, from the movement to prevent her from authorizing fluoride in Pawnee's water supply to taking on the financial problems of the Eagleton snobs. Her persistence and stubbornness in giving the idiots in Pawnee what they need, whether or not it's what they want, is consistently and devilishly funny. The recall election threatening to remove her from office hasn't been as much fun as the original election that put her there, but there have been compensations. Devoting more attention to Donna is always welcome, and awesome side-characters like Billy Eichner's Craig have injected some fresh blood into the show. Perhaps its glory days are behind it, but Parks & Rec is still appointment television.


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