Dear Willa, June, and Mo,
I am told by certain Gawker essays and the viral dominance of Upworthy that we live in the Age of Positivity, an era that rewards the enthusiast, the anti-hater, the person who likes things, dammit, and wants to share! So before I answer Willa’s questions, and pose a couple of my own, here’s my own top 10 list (apologia for my choices and methods here):
- Breaking Bad
- Orange Is the New Black
- Game of Thrones
- The Good Wife
- Bob’s Burgers
- The Americans
- Mad Men
- Orphan Black
I have second thoughts already. The Returned, which I’ve been rewatching with my wife, is the show I found myself recommending to people most often at the last holiday party I went to. (Sidebar: Why do TV critics’ discussions so often use the I-was-talking-to-someone-at-a-party trope? To prove that we actually leave the house and talk to live humans occasionally?) My bad, Les Revenants. I’ll make it up to you in the next life!
The point being that this year I could take my list and swap it out for another 10—or the five shows on Willa’s list that weren’t on my own—and have a list I believed in just as strongly. Whatever metal this age is made out of, I’ll take it.
With more and more excellent TV comes more and more separate audiences. Riches of niches. Is there, as Willa asks, TV’s own art-house crowd? I guess. We have IFC and Sundance channels finding a TV objective correlative for their movie aesthetics, as did AMC and HBO before them. We even have intense cinephiles (telephiles?) hitching up their backpack straps and talking up the latest amazing French masterwork or little Scandinavian import.
But you can’t too neatly overlay the dichotomies of movies on TV, a different business, with different economics affecting the art, and a lot of cross-pollination between high and low. Game of Thrones is an international hit spectacle with beheadings and boobies; it was also, this season, TV’s most insightful show about politics and leadership. I’m skeptical of the idea that there are pure unpretentious entertainments that real folks watch with genuine, authentic, unalloyed pleasure, and hoity-toity homework assignments that poseurs watch out of self-conscious, affected duty. Mad Men, for instance, gets described as “a show that critics love,” but it is not exactly the friggin’ Seventh Seal. I watch it because I just honest to God enjoy it; even in a season that was not its best, it makes me laugh harder than almost any TV comedy. (Was there a funnier line on TV this year than “NOT GREAT, BOB!“?) Hell, the artsiest show on TV—though it didn’t air a season in 2013—is Louie, made by a comedian and full of fart jokes.
In fact, if there’s a dichotomy between Critical Darling TV and Regular Decent People TV, it’s the opposite: Much of the popular stuff that critics disdain is much, much darker than most of the stuff on our top 10 lists. The Following, panned by critics like me, was one of the few mass-hit network dramas of 2013—and it is absolutely freaking dour. Sons of Anarchy? Only getting bigger, in everything but the reviews. The Walking Dead, a bleak-to-nihilistic story of how crappily everyone around you will behave when the Apocalypse hits, is the most popular thing on cable, and sometimes on TV, period.
As I wrote in a Time essay back in February, “Violence is your grandma’s entertainment and your nephew’s.” Meanwhile, what brilliant-but-canceled shows were we critics mourning this year? Bunheads, died not because it was too brutal for the masses but too sweet. Enlightened, my No. 1 show of the year, which will appear in my great-grancdhild’s holo-video thesaurus as the antonym to “cynicism.” I see a similar split in comedy too. Those CBS comedies that everyone watches and critics mainly ignore at best? Filthy! Meanwhile, we’re off picking daisies with the good-hearted, homespun folks in the Pawnee Department of Parks and Rec.
You note, Willa, that many of those shows are female-centric, neatly setting up me, the only male critic in the TV Club rotation, to come up with a reason that so many of 2013’s best TV characters were women. My mansplanation: Because they’re women! That is, they allow creators to take new approaches to genres and setup that have become cliché through macho repetition. (Low Winter Sun and Mob City both opened with characters monologuing about morality not being “black and white,” as if their writers mistakenly turned in their pitch-meeting notes instead of a script.) As June wrote, we have woken up in bed with the same dead body too many times.
The antihero got stale, but the anti-hero—the protagonist we have complicated sympathies toward—doesn’t need to go away. But this year has been a useful reminder that he doesn’t need to be a crooked cop, or a drug lord, or a he. TV’s female protagonists can be nerve-prodding in different, refreshing ways. When Hannah Horvath stole the housekeeper’s tip in the pilot of Girls, it was Vic Mackey shooting a fellow cop in the pilot of The Shield. Amy Jellicoe unnerved people not by being too aggressive but by leaning in too close. Alicia Florrick kept us on her side while giving us just enough hints that she might be a ruthless realpolitik genius. Piper Chapman was in prison for months before she whupped anyone’s ass, but: total antiheroine! She just cooks artisanal bath products instead of meth. (Orange Is the New Black was ingenious for many things, among them finding ways to redefine antihero television in specifically gynocentric ways. The tampon-McMuffin scene was the Ralph-Cifaretto’s-head-in-a-bowling-bag of antiheroine TV.)
So yes, I look back on 2013 as a year when—owing to its quality, social media, and people’s homebound habits—TV dominated the cultural conversation. (I don’t care if TV is “better” than movies, though, any more than I care if steak is better than lobster. I’ll have the surf and turf!) But we should probably disclose a professional conflict of interest in elevating TV’s stature, right? [Raises brandy snifter] To television, world’s most important medium, and to us, its explicators!
And we haven’t even yet talked daytime, or late-night, or reality shows, or news, or streaming, or Sharknado. And sitcoms! Mo, as you wrote earlier this year, those were until recently the one thing networks could still do better than cable, and now they’re having a hard time keeping a good one alive.
So because Willa asked—and because I’m an enthusiast! not a h8r!—let me end by recommending one, which despite my yearlong stealth tweeting campaign I have not gotten onto many other critics’ year-end best lists: Bob’s Burgers. It’s in the tradition of Fox animated family sitcoms from The Simpsons to King of the Hill, but with its own mix of sweet-hearted realism and surrealism—plus the best musical numbers on TV in every episode. And it’s had a hell-on-fire year! If you want to watch just two episodes to convince you, make them “Topsy,” in which Louise (Kristen Schaal) uses a school assignment to expose Thomas Edison as the sumbitch who electrocuted an elephant, and “O.T.: The Outside Toilet,” in which Gene (Eugene Mirman) bonds with a sentient electronic commode voiced by Jon Hamm.
Yes, this was the year when Jon Hamm, talking toilet, beat Jon Hamm, ad executive. Cheer up, Don Draper. There’s always 1969.
Waiting to binge-read your replies,