Never have we had more and better television -- numerous platforms, countless series. And 2013 may ultimately prove to be one of the strongest TV seasons in many years, with a head-shaking number of quality options to consider for any "Best of 2013" year-end list.
So it's a good thing I don't believe in top 10 lists. Particularly in these bountiful and qualitatively impressive times do such lists seem archaic and pointlessly pinched-off. As I've said before, my goal is to celebrate and reward the very best of television, not to punish or overlook greatness because it doesn't fit some preordained total.
Now, here's the odd thing: I ended up with 20 dramas without trying to get a round number. Like lots of critics, I wrangled with my choices, dropping series that had been on this list in years past, thought long and hard about strong newcomers, etc., but ultimately did what I always do: I chose based on greatness, originality and potential (for greatness -- not every show is perfect right out of the oven). And then I ranked them in order, which I think is essential if you're even going to bother to do a list. And the number was 20.
However, I made a separate list (of 11) for network dramas. That's because I believe those shows are on an uneven playing field with cable and, in some ways, part of a different business. As such, they deserve acclaim for succeeding within their constraints -- but couldn't crack this list. As for comedy, I think that's a broadcast network strong suit and a genre that plays more evenly across network and cable, so I combined that list (totaling 17).
All year-end lists should have caveats (my pal James Poniewozik from Time magazine is a master at that and I defer to him). As a critic who loves television and takes this kind of list-making pretty damned seriously, the most important note I can give you before proceeding is this: No, I didn't "forget" any shows. If they're not on my list, then I didn't want them on it.
Here we go:
1. Breaking Bad (AMC). What more could possibly be said about this show that I (and many others) haven't said already? I'll tell you this -- it's inconceivable to me how this could be anything other than No. 1.
2. Broadchurch (BBC America). Impressively concise and a perfect melding of place, plot and people. This murder mystery just gutted you at every turn, but the next episode couldn't come fast enough.
3. The Returned (Sundance Channel). Absolutely mesmerizing and one of the creepiest, most compelling and original series I've seen in ages.
4. Game of Thrones (HBO). This is epic storytelling at its finest.
5. Orphan Black (BBC America). A brilliant dark-horse entry into the drama race that was ignored until the phenomenal performance of its star, Tatiana Maslany, couldn't be ignored. What a wonderful story and a surprise.
6. The Walking Dead (AMC). It's not about the zombies. This enormous hit was (like stablemate Breaking Bad), one of the few series most viewers had to watch immediately in real time. Gripping television.
7. The Americans (FX). My pick for the best new American drama, this Cold War spy story has great writing, superb actors and never dips into the absurd. Excellent period details and intrigue.
8. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix). Although House of Cards got most of the early attention, this is the show that plunged the Netflix flag deepest into the drama terrain. Wildly entertaining, funny, heartfelt and original.
9. Rectify (Sundance Channel). Slow TV at its finest -- a series that was contemplative, disturbing and surprisingly life affirming down to its troubled soul.
10. Mad Men (AMC). It may be the new sport to tear down Mad Men -- and certain episodes and a varnish of familiarity made that easier than in years past -- but this is still one of the brightest lights in television and has spent six seasons (more than any other series on this list) in the realm of greatness. That can't be diminished.
11. Southland (TNT). The last great cop show.
12. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel). This disturbing series had its own rhythm and pace, shot through with exceptional acting and distinctly untamed writing. A strange, sad delight.
13. Boardwalk Empire (HBO). Even though it often lacks the compelling watch-it-immediately narrative track of others shows, Boardwalk Empire has never lacked for ambition and finesse (writing, acting) -- and this season the series grandly realized its potential.
14. The Fall (Netflix). Gillian Anderson is completely riveting as the enigmatic British detective called in to help a flagging case of unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. This five-episode series slipped under almost everyone's radar, thus making it one of the bigger surprises of the year, creatively.
15. Justified (FX). In the same year that Elmore Leonard died, the best embodiment of his work lived on in this series, which gets increasingly better each season.
16. Masters of Sex (Showtime). This is a series that's smart about sex, provocative in all the right places and another bright light in the freshman class of American shows.
17. The Wrong Mans (Hulu). What a refreshing find this was -- a tone-shifting thriller cut up with comic moments and a clever sense of small-town absurdity in the face of real-world danger that never felt forced.
18. The Bridge (FX). Another strong freshman series (again from FX), but with less polish and confidence than The Americans. Nevertheless, there was a lot to like here heading into next season and a lot of potential built into it.
19. Luther (BBC America). In this third season, Luther was prone to more crazy twists than really necessary but otherwise had enough grit in the dialogue and more than enough material for Idris Elba to elevate with his magnificent acting and commanding presence.
20. House of Cards (Netflix). It could be the hype, the big-name castmembers (and director) combining with Netflix spending lavishly on it that somehow created this unfortunate narrative that House of Cards wasn't all that good. Not true -- it was actually very good (and entertaining) in all the right places. It got overshadowed by Orange Is the New Black, but that doesn't diminish the fine work weaved throughout this series.
Tomorrow: Best Comedies of 2013.