This was the year when I finally started catching up on a lot of shows I’ve missed in prior years. For the most part, this was a rewarding experience. There are still a few new series I need to dip into, namely Black Mirror, Orphan Black, and Orange is the New Black (hat trick!). The most important part of my playing catch-up was easily…
Breaking Bad: Holy shit, this show. I can’t believe it took me until now to finally watch it. This is one of those instances where peer pressure definitely helped; many of my friends and coworkers at KU were fond of the show, and they gently coaxed me into starting. I blazed through it in a matter of weeks once it began. The overall run of this show constitutes one of the best stories I’ve ever read or seen. The character work is impeccable; the White/Schrader family and Jesse Pinkman rightly stand as some of the best television characters ever created. The acting is masterful on pretty much all counts, and the writing more often than not was spectacular. The entire back half of the final season was tense and horrifying, especially the episode “Ozymandias,” which features my favorite moment in the series as a whole, the pivotal moment when the White family finally fractures. It was terrible and sad to watch, and yet I was rapt for every second of it.
Mad Men: Another impeccably acted and written show that I finally started watching this year. Jon Hamm really does deserve an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper, but rightly so could much of the cast for their respective performances (Elizabeth Moss is a particular favorite of mine as Peggy, as well as John Slattery playing Roger Sterling). This whole show runs on the dramatic irony of me knowing that these men in power of advertising, and as a result cultural thought, are so woefully equipped for the changes that will rock their status quo throughout the 60s. I never expected to find myself enjoying these sexist, racist, misguided, naïve characters and their stories so much, and actually finding glimmers of empathy within them. Much credit to the cast and crew on this one.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra: I’ve made no secret of my fondness for animated shows and movies in the past, so it might be surprising that up until this year, I’d never watched more than five episodes of Airbender and nothing from Korra. Luckily, I rectified that situation this year (thanks to my girlfriend Alyse). These shows aren’t just fantastic cartoons. They’re excellent stories, period. I love the care that the writers and animators take in so fully realizing these worlds – the worldbuilding is splendid overall – and I also love that they don’t get so wrapped up in the worldbuilding that they forget to tell fun, engaging, challenging stories.
Gravity Falls: My favorite discovery last year was Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which still merits inclusion among my best of 2013 (the episode “Simon and Marcy” deserves its own entry). Gravity Falls snuck up on me this year and quickly became a personal favorite. It’s also an example of how I actually discovered a show I knew otherwise nothing about through social media, in this case GIF files on tumblr such as this one:
Or this one:
It’s an audaciously imaginative show with bizarre and mind-blowing scenarios unlike much of what I find on cartoons primarily made for all audiences. It also features character work and storytelling that wouldn’t be out of place on something like Adventure Time. I don’t want to harp on that comparison too much, though, because Gravity Falls is a great work in its own right.
Community: I’m still making my way through this show on Hulu Plus – currently early on in Season 2 – and it’s already one of my favorite network comedies of the past ten years. I’ve never watched something on television that is so conversant with the conventions and expectations of both itself (for its audience) and of other shows and genres. It has a sense of awareness of itself and its tone and purpose that stays the same from episode to episode. Many of the parodies are spot-on as well, with my personal highlight being “Modern Warfare” so far (the first paintball episode). The zombie episode, “Epidemiology,” is spot-on and fantastic as well. Above all, though, this show has some of the best character development and interaction I’ve ever seen in a sitcom. Color me impressed.
Kaiba: Slowly but surely, I started getting back into anime this year. Kaiba is easily the best anime I watched (though I also really enjoyed Elfen Lied). The animation and art style is simple, yet beautiful. It reminds me of a more psychedelic take on Osamu Tezuka’s art, kind of a mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Astro Boy. That’s actually a rather good description of the story too. The whole series revolves around a future where people can transfer their consciousness between different bodies, provided they can afford the procedure. It’s amazing how the writers take a basic (and admittedly cool) science fictional premise and make it into something so existential and emotional at its core. The ending of the series goes off the rails a bit, but that’s something you just have to roll with when it comes to most anime.
Bates Motel: One of my favorite new shows from 2013. Psycho is one of my all time favorite movies, and I wasn’t sure how I would take a series that essentially rebooted that story for new purposes. This show quickly acquitted itself for me, though, thanks to smart and suspenseful writing and some fantastic lead performances from Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga as Norman and Norma Bates. Farmiga especially impressed the hell out of me.
Hannibal: My other favorite new show from 2013. I am in awe of what they did with this show, on all counts. I never expected to like a new take on Thomas Harris’s Hannibal universe this much, but Bryan Fuller has turned out to be the right man for the job. They do stuff on this show that I never expected to see on network television; the violence and menace is so disturbing, and yet it’s so surreal at points and artfully done, and it always turns back on the characters and its impact on them, so it never feels sensationalistic. Special mention should go to this show’s Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen, for providing a brilliant take on the character without stepping on the toes of Anthony Hopkins’s iconic version, and also to Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, one of the best, most complex “tortured” protagonists I’ve ever seen. The show rightfully revolves around these two.
The League of Gentlemen: One of the best, and most twisted, shows I watched this year. I could never imagine something like this working on American television. The show – revolving around the citizens of a backwater English town named Royston Vasey – is so macabre and horrific that it would be a great horror story if it wasn’t so funny. Special mention goes to Dr. Chinnery, a kindly veterinarian who somehow winds up killing off his charges in increasingly horrific ways. What’s so great about the show is that they play the horror of everything completely straight, and yet it still winds up being hilarious.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: Speaking of horror-comedy! This one makes a great one-two punch with The League of Gentlemen. It’s ostensibly the brainchild of a hack horror writer, Mr. Marenghi, who created a show in the 80s revolving around a Marty Stu of himself saving people and fighting monsters in a cheesy soap opera-esque hospital. The intentional terribleness of the show is hilarious, best exemplified by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade playing Marenghi’s friend and partner Dean Lerner, who may also be the most horrible actor in existence.
Black Books: If nothing else, I’m thankful to this show for introducing me to one of my new favorite television characters: Bernard Black, one of the crankiest, foulest, wittiest characters ever. He actually wound up serving as a spirit animal for me at various parts of the year, when I could feel my usual nice guy self beginning to crack. We’ve all been in situations like that, when we want to drop normal niceties and just let people have it. Which is why it’s so gratifying to watch Bernard do it instead sometimes.