Last week, we brought you our favorite movies of last year (finally saw Inside Llewyn Davis, by the way, and yes, it would have made the cut). This week, we change channels to focus on TV. We’re doing things a little differently this time out, with separate top 10 lists for new shows and returning favorites. Though there were a lot of new shows I enjoyed over the past year, I’ll admit I couldn’t stretch them to 10; instead, I’ve got 8, while Paul’s just crazy enough to have a full 10.
As always, there are shows we couldn’t get around to: I haven’t seen Rectify, Top of the Lake, Broadchurch, or The Wrong Mans, all of which I’d hoped to see in time for this list. Oh, and to absolve him of all guilt, I should mention that Paul has never seen Breaking Bad. Wait, I don’t think that absolves him.
PAUL: 10. HANNIBAL (NBC)
I wasn’t particularly interested in a television adaptation of the Thomas Harris characters. But names like Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, and Bryan Fuller pulled me in. It’s one of the most visually stunning and hauntingly…haunting shows ever to make it to network television. It’s also one of the most shockingly violent and grotesque. All positives in my book. But I can’t put it any higher on my list because it’s crushingly depressing.
PAUL: 9. TROPHY WIFE (ABC)
Ridiculous premise (young party girl marries older professional man and has to integrate into the extended family of kids and ex-wives) is made entertaining by the chemistry and comic timing of leads Malin Åkerman and Bradley Whitford. Natalie “Middle Man” Morales, as Åkerman’s still-wild-and-crazy party girl best friend who can’t understand her former cohort settling down, is the icing on the cake.
PAUL: 8. THE GOLDBERGS (ABC)
I’d say this is a guilty pleasure, but it’s actually damned good. Based on creator Adam Goldberg’s real childhood growing up in the ’80s, the single-camera sitcom recreates actual sitcom-y events that he actually videotaped. The post-credits tag features real footage of things that inspired each particular episode. And best of all? ’80s music soundtrack!
AJ: 8. TROPHY WIFE (ABC)
Like Modern Family before it was terrible, Trophy Wife gets a lot of mileage out of the antics of an extended well-to-do family. In this case, there’s 30-something party girl Kate and 50-something lawyer Pete. They’re recently married, much to the chagrin of Pete’s ex-wives, the stern Diane and the New Age-y Jackie. There are also kids, which means they all see quite a lot (sometimes way too much) of each other. There are personality clashes and tender heart-melting, but what makes Trophy Wife special is just how gosh-darned sweet it is. The chemistry between Bradley Whitford and Malin Åkerman is off the charts, while Michaela Watkins and Marcia Gay Harden bring just enough depth to what could have been stiff ex-wife stereotypes. The crises they face aren’t huge, but that’s part of the charm; there’s something refreshing about a sitcom where an important story is about putting one of the kids to bed. Given the low ratings and the misleading title, I don’t know if the show is long for this world, but it’s the sort of comfy-cozy comedy it’d be nice to have a little more of.
PAUL: 7. SLEEPY HOLLOW (FOX)
Seemed like the goofiest, campiest idea when I first heard about it. Turns out…it’s pretty goddamn goofy and campy. But it’s also damned fun, and occasionally genuinely morbid and creepifying. I ran out of patience with Supernatural several seasons ago. This is a very nice replacement for that series.
AJ: 7. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (FOX)
Good lord, I’ve had enough of cop shows. Haven’t you had enough of cop shows? They’re grim and boring and rape-y and murder-y. So let’s let two of the guys behind Parks and Recreation make one, see what happens. Co-creators Dan Goor and Michael Shur don’t disappoint; Brooklyn Nine-Nine wasn’t only the fall’s best new comedy, it was also a bright spot during a tired year for network sitcoms. In his first big post-SNL gambit, Andy Samberg shines as Det. Jake Peralta, who’s childish and obnoxious and also somehow really great at solving crimes. As with Parks and Rec and The Office before it, the ensemble is what brings it together: Melissa Fumero as Jake’s by-the-book partner, Terry Crews as the surprisingly sensitive sergeant, Andre Braugher as the strict CO. That’s just naming a few. It’s not quite a classic yet, but it’s got time.
PAUL: 6. ALMOST HUMAN (FOX)
I, Robot meets Starsky & Hutch, with maybe just a bit of Minority Report mixed in. Karl Urban is fun, if not particularly original, as the tough-as-nails human cop given an emotional android partner, played by the charming and complex Michael Ealy. The procedural cop show elements aren’t always especially compelling. But the characters are fun, and the future tech surprisingly plausible.
AJ: 6. HOUSE OF CARDS (Netflix)
Netflix’s first major original series has been a touch divisive, and not because of the company’s delivery model (which is “it’s the 21st century, we’re not gonna coddle you, here’s every single episode all at once”). Awards voters seem to love it, while critics remain more reserved. Congressman Frank Underwood’s wheelings and dealings, all part of his vengeance-fueled D.C. power play, do occasionally tilt toward the self-serious. At times, the show isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. Turns out watching it in one big chunk is both a blessing and a curse: bingeing on it for a day or two, I didn’t pay much attention to its flaws; nearly a year later, they’re most of what I recall. Which is unfair, as House of Cards is a seductive political drama with an air of tragedy, both in what Underwood has lost to seek power and in what happens to those caught in his web. Kevin Spacey is fantastic as Underwood, though the breakout performance might just be Corey Stoll as a drug-addicted Representative. The show also has sleek visuals, especially in the two episodes directed by executive producer David Fincher. There was a great deal of promise in House of Cards‘ first season, and enough was delivered on that I’m excited for the second.
PAUL: 5. AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
The show everyone wants to fix that doesn’t need fixing. It gets no end of grief for not being The Avengers, but I’m happy with what it’s doing. I enjoy all of the characters (not just Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson), and I’ve recognized from the very beginning that we’re supposed to know S.H.I.E.L.D. aren’t necessarily the good guys. I find that interesting, to watch good characters try to do good things under the umbrella of a perhaps-not-so-good agency (see: Angel).
AJ: 5. BLACK MIRROR (Audience)
This is how I’ve been selling Black Mirror to the uninitiated: “Like a fucked-up Twilight Zone for the 21st century.” Which isn’t wrong. From the mind of British media critic/personality Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is a classical anthology series, each episode functioning as a short film with a wicked ending. The difference is that Brooker directly examines our obsession with technology and how it impacts us as people and a society. DirectTV’s Audience Network aired both three-episode seasons in the U.S. last year (the first season made its U.K. debut in 2011), and while the first is stronger than the second, both sets are haunting. The most memorable scenarios involve the Prime Minister being forced to fuck a pig on national television, a woman recreating her dead husband’s consciousness via his texts and tweets, and a vulgar cartoon character becoming a major political player. The highlight is the second episode, an exceedingly dark twist on the Pop Idol age. It’s one of the best pieces of satire I’ve seen in years; taken as a whole, so is the series.
PAUL: 4. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (FOX)
I’ve laughed a few times at Andy Samberg in the past, but not as much, I think, as most people. But this ensemble comedy series is straight up gold. Samberg somehow manages to be just as flamboyant and blustery as he’s ever been without seeming like this is just another SNL skit gone long. Andre Braugher brings the cartoonish stoicism only he can provide, and is damned funny in his own right.
AJ: 4. ORPHAN BLACK (BBC America)
Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana fucking Maslany. Why hasn’t she been on my TV screen before? Why isn’t she on my TV screen all the time? That’s how amazing her performance on Orphan Black is: after this one breakthrough role, she’s already one of the best actors in all of television. Wait, scratch that, did I say one breakthrough role? Try, oh, I dunno, seven. As the woman at the center of a clone conspiracy, Maslany plays seven characters with wildly different personalities, accents, and mannerisms who just so happen to have the same face. There’s Sarah, the thief who serves as the protagonist; Beth, the police detective who kicks the series off by stepping in front of a train; Alison, the uptight soccer mom; Cosima, the hyper-intelligent biology student; Helena, the demented Russian assassin; Katja, whom Helena assassinates; and Rachel, who works for the bad guys. Even if the show itself was awful, Maslany’s work would be stunning. Fortunately, Orphan Black is a smart, exciting genre show, and while I can’t say I always understood the twists and turns of the plot, I had a damn good time watching them play out.
PAUL: 3. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Netflix)
Didn’t quite fall for House of Cards like I wanted to. Fortunately, Netflix’s follow-up original series, the based-on-a-true-story, women-in-prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, hit it out of the park. It’s both outrageously broad and painfully intimate. Artistic license no doubt abounds, but the performances are achingly real, particularly from transgender actress Laverne Cox, who stands as the brightest revelation in a show full of revelatory darkness.
AJ: 3. THE RETURNED (Sundance)
A dead butterfly flutters to life behind glass. Animals commit suicide by jumping into a lake. Electricity stutters off and on. These are among the apocalyptic portents featured in the French drama The Returned, wherein the dead return to life. This isn’t a zombie show, though; they return to their lives just as they were, unable to remember their deaths, unaware of any time that has passed. Why? What does it mean? How is it happening? I don’t know. The Returned is not about answers, or at least not easy ones. I can imagine those who grew impatient with Lost going apoplectic over this show. Actually, Lost is a pretty good comparison point: there are a number of characters whose lives and deaths overlap, the show frequently going into flashback mode to reveal a little of what they used to be like and how they came to be six feet under. What sets The Returned apart is the very Frenchness of the thing; this is a slow, slow burn, more interested in atmosphere, mood, and nuance of character than in horror theatrics. Nothing remotely approaching typical zombie imagery is found until the finale, and even then, it’s very unique. Though the plot builds to something pretty impressive in scope, the real reason to watch is to see how it affects these people and upends their whole notion of existence.
PAUL: 2. ORPHAN BLACK (BBC America)
Speaking of revelations: Tatiana Maslany. You’ve heard it before, but it can’t possibly be overstated. Maslany stands as the most remarkable single performance this year, primarily because hers isn’t just a single performance. In this series about a woman who discovers she’s one of many clones, Maslany is often called upon to play upwards of a half-dozen distinctly different women, frequently in the same scene, acting against herself en masse. The fact that each one of these performances are brilliant enough that viewers can pick their favorite(s) without even considering that they aren’t actually different actors is reason enough for her to get all the awards.
AJ: 2. THE AMERICANS (FX)
Spies. Knife fights. Shoot-outs. Torture. Wigs. So many wigs. Yet the most fascinating thing about The Americans is the complex relationship between Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, played beautifully by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Or, I should say, Nadezhda and Mischa. They’re the perfect American couple circa 1981, with two adoring children and financial stability. Except they’re also KGB agents who infiltrated American society back in the ’60s, just waiting for the perfect time to bring the U.S. to its knees. Over the years, Phillip has taken to family life, arguing with Elizabeth that America isn’t so bad after all. She refuses to hear it, thinks he’s grown soft. Every act they take, every person they kidnap, every affair one of their aliases falls into, affects their relationship in new ways. Even at its worst (which is still damn good), The Americans is an absorbing spy drama, with the pair carrying out various plots and trying to elude their CIA agent neighbor, played by a terrific Noah Emmerich. At its best, it’s the perfect out-sized metaphor for marriage, family, and the compromises we make to hold on to both.
PAUL: 1. THE AMERICANS (FX)
Taut scripting. Amazing set and location design. Thrilling spycraft. Phenomenal acting. And the best wigs this side of American Hustle. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys manage to juggle the tension and suspense of being secret Soviet spies living undercover in 1980s America with the banality and quiet desperation of a supposedly fake marriage that both have begun to believe could possibly lead to something more real. The action is great, particularly when Russell gets unleashed (“I’m sorry I didn’t kill you. That’s my apology.”) And the fear of whether they’ll be caught, or even wondering if you think they should be caught. But it’s the relationship between the two leads that is the real meat of this series.
AJ: 1. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Netflix)
Once, ten years ago, Piper Chapman smuggled drugs for the woman she was in love with. Now engaged to a man, Piper (Taylor Schilling) is sentenced to 15 months behind bars; both the crime and her former lover come as a surprise to her fiancé (Jason Biggs), though he pledges to be as supportive as possible. Piper finds that a women’s prison isn’t the best place for a preppy, upper-middle-class white girl; hilarity ensues. Not just hilarity, though. Orange Is the New Black is so moving precisely because it views every inmate, even the craziest and most dangerous, as a three-dimensional human being. It’s yet another show to use the Lost-ian flashback structure, but it’s more effective than most because it uses those flashbacks to illustrate how fully realized these people are, to challenge our preconceptions of them. Schilling and Biggs are both great, but it’s the supporting cast that draws you in again and again. From Laura Prepon as Piper’s ex-girlfriend who likely sicced the feds on her; to Kate Mulgrew’s Russian queen of the kitchen; to Natasha Lyonne’s friendly former drug addict; to Laverne Cox’s transgender hairdresser; to Taryn Manning’s white trash evangelical, they are all so full of life and love and dreams that extend beyond prison walls. They’re what makes Orange Is the New Black the funniest, saddest, and most powerful new show of the year.
PAUL: 10. PSYCH (USA)
After seven seasons, this show continues to make me laugh, with one of my favorite comedy ensembles on TV at the moment. Shawn and Gus are the post-modern J.D. and Turk. Bonus: “Psych: The Musical” got in just under the wire at the end of the year, and was just shy of absolute brilliance. I’ve been singing “Santa Barbara Skies” for weeks now.
AJ: 10. CHILDRENS HOSPITAL (Adult Swim)
Not gonna lie, there were times in the fifth season of Childrens Hospital when it began to show its age. The show, a 15-minute odyssey into bizarre parodies and non sequiturs, remained as deeply weird as ever, though not always as funny. I admired the hell out of concepts like resident clown Blake being killed over and over again or a ward full of terminally ill imaginary friends, but I wasn’t dying from laughter the way I had been in years past. Still, the show hit more often than it missed, especially as the season came to its deranged close. The season’s final episodes, “Just Falcon,” one of the meta mockumentaries about the show’s “real” cast, and the double-sized “Coming and Going,” a majestic ode to overblown finales, rank among the series’ very best.
PAUL: 9. ARROW (The CW)
Despite a cast of characters I mostly couldn’t be paid to care about (everyone except the main triangle of Oliver/Felicity/Diggle could die in a fire), this series manages to be compulsive viewing for me. It’s very CW-y, but still far more fun than its spiritual predecessor Smallville. And the action choreography is phenomenal.
AJ: 9. BOB’S BURGERS (FOX)
Archer has been the best animated show on TV for the last few years, but I’m sure it won’t mind being replaced at the top of the heap by another ridiculous H. Jon Benjamin vehicle. This was the year that Bob’s Burgers became a national institution, or at least would have if we lived in a just and fair nation. Every single episode is filled with enough jokes, background gags, and genuinely great music to satisfy a whole season of any other show. Bob’s Burgers is like the modern-day Simpsons (and yes, I know The Simpsons is still on the air): an irreverent comedy about a loving family, shot through with a streak of today’s flat-out weird humor. For an example of everything the show does so well, check out the anti-Thomas-Edison episode “Topsy,” featuring the brilliant song “Electric Love.”
PAUL: 8. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)
From a show that started off feeling much too much like an Office spin-off, P&R has matured over six-plus seasons into a truly intelligent, surprisingly sophisticated show that just so happens to be incredibly funny. It’s also one of the best portrayals of geeks on television.
AJ: 8. BUNHEADS (ABC Family)
Oh, Bunheads. You tapped and twirled your way into our hearts, then pirouetted off stage far too soon. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s triumphant return to television was just that, with the warmth, wit, and poignance one would expect from the creator of Gilmore Girls. The first half-season, which debuted in summer 2012, was fine, with the sort of untapped potential you expect from a rookie show. But the 2013 half seized upon the show’s unusual rhythm, which replicated the stops and starts of real life more than most. Young love was given the same importance as a grown woman figuring out what to do with her life; snappy dance numbers existed side-by-side with a very real portrait of grief. That’s how you wind up with a final scene in which Michelle the ballet instructor holds one of the girls in her arms as she sobs. It doesn’t resolve anything, nor does it really leave anything unresolved. It’s just another moment pulled from everyday life, one of many that will make me miss Bunheads so much.
PAUL: 7. THE WALKING DEAD (AMC)
This show kicked off with one of the most flawless series premieres I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it’s been all over the place since then. There have been some very serious lows, creatively speaking, perhaps exaggerated by the revolving door of showrunners. But season 4 (the first half of it, at least) has really recaptured the magic. In a show that is all about killing off cast members on a fairly regular basis, it really says something, about the actors and the writing, that I can still have my breath taken away by some of the deaths.
AJ: 7. MAD MEN (AMC)
The longer an acclaimed drama stays on the air, the sharper the backlash it inspires. No show was a better example this year than Mad Men, which went from untouchable critical darling to “Jesus Christ, enough with this already” punching bag. To be fair, some of that was deserved. The show’s first five seasons were a near-perfect examination of the many miseries and personal tragedies of Don Draper and the Madison Avenue advertising world he occupied. Much like its characters, who struggle to keep up with the turbulent 1960s, the sixth season seemed at times like it didn’t know which direction to take. There was the distinct air of wheel-spinning, or at least the appearance of wheel-spinning; as the season drew to a close, its many disparate threads came together with the kind of satisfaction only Matthew Weiner can deliver, and the final scene suggested there was a lot more change going on within Don than we’d guessed. I haven’t tried this yet, so I could be wrong, but I get the impression this was a season much more suited to binge-watching.
PAUL: 6. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
Speaking of deaths that took my breath away. Much of the time, there are far too many characters and plot lines to keep track of for me to feel truly invested in any of them. But there are a handful of characters that I consider some of my favorites in pop culture from the last decade. One in particular, who captured me from the character’s first moment of screen time a few seasons back, I will be unable to forget, even after their beautiful, haunting final scene.
AJ: 6. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
Can I be honest and admit something? There’s so much going on in any given episode of Game of Thrones, and such an extensive cast of characters, that in the off-season, I frequently struggle to remember what happened. It’s my fault, as someone who’s never read George R.R. Martin’s novels and with a billion other TV shows and movies crammed in his head. In broad strokes, though, this is what I recall: the Red Wedding, Daenerys freeing the Unsullied, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plumbing new depths as Kingslayer Jaime Lannister, and–if you’ll allow me a moment of shallowness–Rose Leslie being the hottest thing on this planet. And that’s enough for me to proclaim it another strong year for TV’s premiere fantasy. When the new season starts, I’m sure I’ll get caught up in it all over again.
PAUL: 5. JUSTIFIED (FX)
Justified is one of those shows that absolutely owns me as it’s airing, but whose details escape me completely after a few weeks away. My strongest memories of season 4 are the sad (?) loss of a character that’s been a player since the series debuted, Boyd’s attempt to “settle down” and buy a house, Joseph “That Jurassic Park Kid” Mazzello as a snake-handling preacher, and the always wonderful Jim Beaver.
AJ: 5. BURNING LOVE (Yahoo! Screen)
Created by Ken Marino, and starring a good chunk of the decade’s comedy all-stars, Burning Love is a thing of absurd beauty. Much like Childrens Hospital began life as a Grey’s Anatomy spoof, this web series–which Yahoo! hosted two more seasons of, in addition to the first being broadcast on E!–skewers The Bachelor and its dating-game ilk in strange, awkward fashion. Season 2 featured new contestants vying for the hand of Julie Gristlewhite (June Diane Raphael), who split from Marino’s dim-witted Mark Orlando after “winning” the previous season; while season 3 saw contestants from both seasons competing for a grand prize of $900. Yes, that’s right. Two zeroes. There’s Michael Ian Black’s deadpan host, who shows up in a series of increasingly ridiculous outfits and gets self-conscious when anyone mentions it; Rob Heubel as a man-child prince; Joe Lo Truglio as a single dad who can’t bear to be away from his son; and Natasha Leggero as a wasted nymphomaniac. That’s only a small sampling, and doesn’t even take into account the brilliance of Marino and Raphael’s vain, conceited lead performances. If Yahoo! knew what to do with this, it could be on a par with anything Netflix is doing right now.
PAUL: 4. ELEMENTARY (CBS)
It was supposed to just be an American “rip-off” of the BBC series Sherlock. It was supposed to be something I could sneer at, turn my nose up at, or better yet just ignore. But then there was Jonny Lee Miller, and everything became perfect. As much as I love Cumberbatch, Miller’s acerbic, recovering drug addict Holmes may possibly be my favorite modern version of the character. Add some of the smartest “procedural” writers on television, and Natalie goddamn Dormer as…a very important canonical character, and this show nears the top of my list.
AJ: 4. VEEP (HBO)
Let’s take a moment to wonder at the strength and longevity of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ career. There were her popular runs on Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever warm to either show, it’s hard to deny how good she was. There was her recurring role as “blind” attorney Maggie Lizer on Arrested Development. And though she hasn’t been in very many films, she’s been in two of Woody Allen’s best (Hannah and Her Sisters and Deconstructing Harry) and just this year was nominated for a Golden Globe for her terrific turn in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said. The reason I bring all this up is so that when I say Vice President Selina Meyer is Louis-Dreyfus’ best role yet, you’ll understand exactly how impressive that is. As a modern political power player, Selina is vain and self-absorbed and neurotic and occasionally monstrous, and Louis-Dreyfus plays the hell out of every mood swing. Her performance is a comic marvel, one of the best things on TV right now. Luckily, the show around her is just as good. I like The West Wing as much as the next guy, but I can’t help but feel that Veep–with all its petty back-biting and awkward faux pas–is what American politics are really like.
PAUL: 3. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
Wow. That is all.
AJ: 3. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
The problem I have with Game of Thrones, the inability to remember the ins and outs of the plot and the characters’ complex relationships with one another, is one you’d think I might have with Boardwalk Empire. It too has a sprawling cast of dozens and is set in a time and place so far removed from our own, it might as well be another world. But this show…this show just casts a spell. It’s mesmerizing to watch these gangsters and corrupt politicians lose their souls to gain the world in the Prohibition-era 1920s, especially when they’re looking for redemption, as so many were this season. Nucky (Steve Buscemi, never better) thought Florida might make for a nice new home. Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) went legitimate with a nightclub. Richard Harrow (a haunting Jack Huston), scarred both physically and mentally, vowed to stop killing. As you might expect from an HBO drama, none of these things went quite as planned. They weren’t helped by the arrival of smooth-talking Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), who preaches black unity and sows discord. This was another fine, fine season for Boardwalk Empire; the penultimate season, as it turns out. Given where everyone landed at the end, I can’t wait to see how their stories wrap up.
PAUL: 2. ARCHER (FX)
To fuck with AJ, I’ll say that Archer is the best show on television, despite not being in my number one favorite spot. But seriously, no other show has ever made me laugh as hard, as long, as consistently as this one. Not a single episode passes without making me laugh myself literally sick at least once. This season kicked off with a Bob’s Burgers episode that was inspired, and wrapped with a Sealab 2021 two-part riff that was hilariously over-the-top. In between we had robot legs, snakebit taints, and Cheryl can hear the soundtrack?!?
AJ: 2. BREAKING BAD (AMC)
Any other year, the final half-season of AMC’s Breaking Bad would have taken the #1 prize. Its second-place position was simply unavoidable this year and doesn’t speak to any drop in quality; because let me tell you, it had a fantastic send-off. Bryan Cranston graced us with the final movement of TV’s all-time greatest performance, as chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White finally realized how much he’d sacrificed for whatever measure of power he could get his hands on. As Walt’s former partner Jesse, Aaron Paul gave us a heartbreaking portrayal of what was essentially an abuse victim. “Heartbreaking” is a pretty good word for these final eight episodes in general, as the world around these characters falls apart in dramatic fashion. There were so many stellar moments as the series wound to a close, it would be impossible to list all them all here. If I had to list just one, I’d choose the fight between Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) in the series-best episode “Ozymandias,” which quickly escalates from verbal to physical, one of them brandishing a knife. As their son Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte) steps in, shielding his mom, his younger sister wailing in the background, Walt shouts, “We’re a family!” For the first time, he realizes they aren’t. Not anymore.
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you/Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you/The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/Is standing in the clothes that you once wore/Strike another match, go start anew/It’s all over now, baby blue.
PAUL: 1. SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE (FOX)
And now for my favorite show, hands down, no contest. I catch hell for this show, and I just don’t care. As emotionally invested as I can be (and often am) by scripted series, the reality of this “reality TV” moves my goddamn soul. The true alchemical magic of music and motion entwined, the passion and awe-inspiring strength and athleticism of the dancers, and most-importantly, the thrill of watching these young people busting their asses harder than I have ever even imagined working in my life in pursuit of their dreams…I can’t even. The honesty and inspiration of this show is what every other contest-style series will only ever wish they could attain.
AJ: 1. ENLIGHTENED (HBO)
The only show that could have hoped to dethrone Breaking Bad this year was Mike White’s Enlightened. Few shows–and certainly none in 2013–were as moving, poetic, and life-affirming. The first season, which aired in 2011, was good, even very good. It followed Amy Jellicoe, a former cosmetics executive at Abbadonn Industries who flamed out after a spectacular meltdown in the office. Then she went to a New Age-y rehab center which changed her life, forced her way back into Abbadonn as a lowly data entry clerk, and decided to change everyone else’s life whether they wanted her to or not. Amy is a difficult and frequently unlikeable character, one the show takes a warts-and-all approach to. In the first season, she could simply be too much to handle.
The second season, though? That second season was transformative. Amy was just as headstrong and obnoxiously idealistic, but White (who wrote every episode and directed several) fleshed out the world around her and brought narrative momentum to her plight to take down Abbadonn from the inside. The result is one of the most beautiful TV seasons I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Laura Dern, who has been so brilliant for so long, gives one of the best performances of her career as Amy, who may be annoying but is just as deserving of love and recognition as every other human being in this sorry world. As her ex-husband Levi, Luke Wilson does the kind of work the man who played Ritchie Tennenbaum should always be doing; my favorite episode, “Higher Power,” chronicles the cynical Levi’s time at that same New Age place and is utterly extraordinary. White himself plays Tyler, Amy’s meek co-worker who is at first smitten with her, then made uncomfortable by what she’s asking him, nay, forcing him to do.
Enlightened could be painful to watch, moving from Malick-ian reveries about nature and technology to unflinchingly awkward moments of narcissism or vulnerability. It moved me in ways few stories ever have. As Amy says in the series’ final voice-over, “You don’t have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live. And you can change. And you can be an agent of change.”