BY DAILY ARTS STAFF
Published January 8, 2014
1. “Breaking Bad”
For a series as acclaimed and adored as “Breaking Bad,” ending the story can be a formidable undertaking. A series’ victory lap can be the difference between a wholly satisfying legacy (see “Six Feet Under”) or an infuriating conclusion to a once-great show (“Dexter”). For “Breaking Bad,” Walter White’s journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface ended with the unrivaled excellence and skill with which it began.
“Breaking Bad” ’s final episodes were both surprising and captivating — eight hours of television in its peak form. tThe sixth installment, “Ozymandias,” will be remembered as one of the finest hours of television in history.
The finale garnered 10.3 million viewers, up 442 percent from the previous year’s finale, capping off “Breaking Bad” ’s meteoric rise from critically acclaimed niche programming to full-blown cultural phenomenon. “Breaking Bad” ’s final eight episodes firmly cemented its place among the best television series of all time and with that, the legacy of Walter White.
2. “Orange Is the New Black”
Online streaming is the new broadcast television, Netflix is the new prime time and orange is the new black — orange and cell-block grey, that is. Based on ex-inmate Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, “Orange Is the New Black” has introduced color to a monotonous TV landscape and viewers to the unexplored bunks of an all-female prison: It bares the diverse realities of women, unmatched by even the most righteous TV ringleaders (see: Ryan Murphy and his choir of misfit toys). In an institution where individuality is traded for uniform jumpsuits and shackles, it’s the characters’ and cast’s identities — socioeconomic, racial, religious, gender and sexual — that swiiiiirl to form one of the most enlightened, vulnerable and witty scripts of the year. For once, we’re crossing our fingers for a longer prison sentence.
3. “Game of Thrones”
Westeros is a massive world. What “Game of Thrones” does brilliantly is that it shows us the pieces that fill this world, without spending too much or too little time in one place. The third season of “Game of Thrones” spent quite a bit of time allowing the show’s strong ensemble (led by Peter Dinklage of “Elf”) to speak with their own voices. The best example of this is what they did this season with now-crippled villain Jamie Lannister (Nokolaj Coster-Waldau, “New Amsterdam”) and lady-knight Brianne (Gwendoline Christie, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”). The show's producers rarely spent more than 7 minutes per episode with these characters, but each moment was important in their evolution.
There’s no way to talk about this season without mentioning the best scene on TV — at least this year not from “Breaking Bad.” “The Red Wedding” set the climax for the season and for the series. The writers and actors executed it as close to perfectly as they could with the impact they were looking for: shock, surprise and sadness.
"Game of Thrones" is a fascinating, large world filled with intriguing characters that make spending time in Westeros worth the investment — and the HBO description
After three seasons, this political thriller on ABC still never has a dull moment. Olivia Pope, played by the brilliant Kerry Washington, kicks ass and takes names — all while maintaining flawless (mostly white) outfits. A quick witted, calculating career woman, Washington’s character portrays women in a way that many shows don’t dare to — as the political equivalent of men, able to manipulate and control situations with natural ease. 2013 was a great year for “Scandal,” and the mid-season finale left social media ablaze with astonishment over the unforeseen plot twists. Like the red wine constantly in Pope’s hand, “Scandal” has aged wonderfully, and 2014 promises even more nail-biting, seat-falling-off-of splendor.
5. “Orphan Black”
One of the best performance on TV this year came from the star of “Orphan Black,” Tatiana Maslany (“The Vow”). Maslany doesn't just craft one complicated and layered character; she creates seven. The show follows a group of clones, all of whom are played by Maslany. She provides a center to the show and is its primary source of greatness. But a show can't survive on performance alone; In its first season, “Orphan Black” crafts a brilliantly executed mythology for its characters. It manages to take an incredibly unrealistic premise — the existence of clones — and just for a second, makes it seem plausible. It allows the science fiction elements to develop the story without being overbearing. This adds up to make it one of the best Sci-Fi shows on TV right now.
6. “House of Cards”
It was one thing for Netflix to make original content. It was another for that content to be halfway decent. “House of Cards” is groundbreaking it's the first online regular show that's as good or better than its broadcast competition. This twisted offspring of “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos” uses the U.S Congress as the stage for a Shakespearean tragedy about the struggle for power, with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Francis and Claire Underwood, modern day versions of Macbeth and his equally conniving wife. Most shows, even the greats like “Breaking Bad,” need time to sink their teeth into the viewer with the message that “this is who these characters are and what this show is about.” “House of Cards” reaches unprecedented heights for a TV show in its first scene (which I refuse to spoil) alone. It’s a scene that will disturb some, turn off others, and for the rest of us, be reason enough to hand over our unquestioning loyalty to one of the most fascinating television characters in the last several years. Season two can’t come fast enough.
7. “American Horror Story: Coven”
Surprise, bitch: I bet you thought you’d seen the last of “American Horror Story.” But while voodoo and vampirism are typical fodder for the centuries-old “scary story,” nothing quite gets at the real horrors that haunt America like Ryan Murphy’s “AHS.” Casting a spell equal parts gore, sass, sex and satire, “AHS: Coven” adopts the witch’s hat as a metaphor for the internalized ageism, sexism and racism that have plagued the country since the days of infamous racist and New Orleans socialite Madame LaLaurie (enlivened, even when decapitated, by the murderous Kathy Bates). But Murphy manages to lift the show’s dark magic through a lighter tone compared to past seasons, calling “Coven,” “much more buoyant and comedic and crafty,” and truly putting — and honing — the “craft” in witchcraft.
8. “Bob’s Burgers”
“Bob’s Burgers” is one of the most bizarre shows on TV today, and it’s also one of the absolute best. Chock-full of puns (think: a dating website for morticians called “Cre-mate”) and strange songs (see: Linda’s “Harry Truman Song”), it’s a quirky delight every week. But it’s not just the quirk that makes it a must-watch — the element that sets “Bob’s Burgers” apart from every other show on television is its characters. The Belcher family is one of the most honest and well-written families on TV today. They’re goofy and weird, but at the end of the day, they look out for each other. They even lovingly look out for the show’s breakout character, the horse-loving, butt-touching, fan-fiction-writing oldest child, Tina. “Bob’s Burgers” is the kind of show that will bring Jon Hamm on to guest star and cast him as a talking toilet (watch: “O.T.: The Outside Toilet”). It’s also the kind of show that everyone should be watching.
9. “Masters of Sex”
With “Ray Donavan” and “Masters of Sex,” Showtime successfully launched two new dramas in the wake of losing its most popular series, “Dexter.” However, it was the latter of the two that truly shined. Detailing the work of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who pioneered research on human sexuality despite resistance from a conservative 1950s America, “Masters of Sex” strikes a perfect balance between sexy and scientific.
Though Michael Sheen (“Midnight in Paris”) delivered a strong performance as Dr. Masters, it was the women of “Masters of Sex” who stole the show. Led by Lizzy Caplan (“Party Down”) who gives power and identity to the marginalized female characters of the 1950s, “Masters of Sex” is as charming and engaging as each of its leading ladies — a roster that also includes Caitlin Fitzgerald (“It’s Complicated”) and the fantastic Allison Janney (“Mom”).
There is so much to love about “Masters of Sex,” from its sharp writing to its stellar supporting cast. And the chemistry between Sheen and Caplan alone is enough to earn the series a spot on this list.
10. “Parks and Recreation ”
While most shows, especially comedies, decline in quality over the years, “Parks and Recreation” keeps getting better and better. This season saw Leslie Knope and company at their most vulnerable as a result of losing the recall vote, but the show, like its lovable cast, somehow perseveres, continuously being a half hour of absolute joy week after week. A particular highlight this year has been the increased appearance of Jon Glaser, of Conan O’ Brien fame, (fun fact: he is also a U of M alum!) as the deliberately despicable dentist, Councilman Jamm. Not since Zapp Brannigan first appeared on “Futurama” has a character been so funny at being so awful. With fan-favorites Chris (Rob Lowe) and Ann (Rashida Jones) leaving for Ann Arbor soon (and yes, I watched Chris say “Go Blue” about fifty times) tears will undoubtedly be shed in the episodes to come, but not without the usual hilarity, wit and sharp satire that has come to define one of television’s best comedies.