TV Club

Best TV 2013: Why we’re drawn to series that surprise us.

Entry 3: Say what you will about American Horror Story, but it always surprised me.

Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, Jamie Brewer as Nan, and Emma Roberts as Madison in AHS

Photo courtesy Michele K. Short/FX

Willa, Jim, and Mo,

We’re in the sad fallow period of the TV calendar known in my house as the “clear the DVR backlog” interlude, so this chance to talk television with some of my favorite critics is especially welcome. I’m looking forward to narrativizing, subjectifying, and bloviating with you this week.

I suspect we’d all be willing to stipulate that top 10s are silly, subjective, and reductive. Nevertheless, I do love to make and ponder them, so here’s my carefully calibrated, precisely tuned 2013 list:

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. Orange Is the New Black
  3. The Americans
  4. Borgen
  5. Enlightened
  6. Mad Men
  7. The Fosters
  8. The Good Wife
  9. The Returned
  10. Last Tango in Halifax

There’s a lot of overlap on our lists, but something else jumps out at me: We’ve all named a lot of new programs among the year’s best. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I’m able to look back at our selections for the best shows of 2012. I have determined that we all (including Mo) have more brand-new shows on our 2013 lists than carry-overs from last year. (And significantly, most of those carry-overs—Breaking Bad, Enlightened, Bunheads—have now completed their runs.)

The most obvious conclusion is that this was a banner year for freshman projects—as well as the five in my top 10, I could also add fun network shows like Trophy Wife and Sleepy Hollow; laughers with a side of family realness like Moone Boy (on Hulu) and Mom; heartbreakers like Broadchurch and Top of the Lake, and brave-new-world sci-fi/thrillers like Continuum, Defiance, and Orphan Black. (I apparently like the last less than most critics, however. I was knocked out by Tatiana Maslany’s performance, but I found the plot to be thin, bordering on we-haven’t-really-worked-one-out-yet.) Great new shows launched throughout the year and on a wide range of channels. Each of our lists has shows from at least seven networks.

I think there’s another factor at play, though, and it’s one of the big differences between television and movies. Jim, you’ve declared your appetite for surf and turf. I like both mediums, too, but I don’t see them as the same kind of meal. For the most part, movies are meant to satisfy us in one sitting; the ideal state when walking out of the cinema is feeling that you couldn’t eat another bite. On the other hand, at its best, television is like the old stereotype about Chinese food: You feel satisfied when the credits begin, but you’re hungry for more a week later. (Or, in the new era of binge-watching, when the “Watch Next Episode” button appears.) But the TV meal often feels like it’s being served in one of those revolving restaurants: There’s a little bit of variety, but after a while, the scenery starts to seem really, really familiar. I’ve seen more than enough antiheroes, cops, and funny groups of friends, and so I am ready—so, so ready—for something new. This year, the women locked up in the Litch, that pair of deep-cover Soviet agents, those Danish politicians and journalists struggling with work-life balance, that big gay family with the hopelessly on-the-nose name, and the creepy French dead people were breaths of fresh air for me.

That’s the only way I can explain why Girls fell off my top 10 list this year. It’s not like the show’s quality took a dive in its sophomore season—in fact, “One Man’s Trash” and “Boys” were among my favorite TV episodes of the year—but the second time around, it had somehow lost that dizzying What is this? sensation that I experienced when it first appeared. Willa, you talked about this when we discussed female-centered sitcoms with our pals at the New Republic. As you said then, “Originality is important, but I think the fixation on it obscures the way that even the very best, most original things riff on what came before.” Am I ignoring television’s prime directive, which is to build shows that last and last and last? The best series build from season to season, posing a new question or finding a different focus as they reset at the beginning of each year. The Good Wife does this beautifully—the characters have been around since Season 1, but they’ve all grown and changed so much in the last five years that it never feels—as it does on less skillful shows—as though the writers are repeating themselves. Should I feel bad about being swept off my feet by all these shiny new shows?

My craving for novelty has had another effect on my TV tastes: This year, more than ever, I’m drawn to shows that Mo so wonderfully dubbed “bonkersawesome”—loop-throwing programs that can surprise even the most jaded, overexposed TV addict. That’s one of the many reasons why I find Scandal so delightful—it consistently takes turns I didn’t predict. The same could be said for the wacky but wonderful Sleepy Hollow, the silly but deceptively smart sitcoms The Neighbors and Raising Hope, and American Horror Story: Coven. They’re more than a little bit camp, totally absurd, and not at all boring.

Since Jim sang the praises of Bob’s Burgers, let me end by making the case for a show that isn’t on any of your lists: Last Tango in Halifax, a British import that aired on PBS this fall. Some of its appeal is a little June-centric—I’m not sure anyone else will take quite as much pleasure in watching former Coronation Street cast members act rings around Sir Derek Jacobi—but I loved that it was unapologetically a romance. As I wrote in September, American TV tends to bury its romantic stories in murder investigations, medical emergencies, or juicy political scandals. In England, they feel no shame in making a stonking great love story.

Ay, I still haven’t gotten to comedies—and I watch a lot of them—or what I think of as my “second-rank” shows, many of which I feel more passionately attached to than the truly great series on my top 10 list. Don’t worry, though, I promise to stage a rousing defense of 2 Broke Girls before the week is over.