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As a fitting conclusion to the year (and just the opposite from our “TV Turkeys”) is the TVMI picks for the best on the small screen – network, cable, syndication and online — in 2013. With so many solid options (scripted and non-scripted) to choose from, we have broken out our Top 10 choices in two parts: Marc Berman’s picks last week and Douglas Pucci’s picks today.
And now, the best of 2013, part two:
10. “AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN” (FX)
After an underwhelming “Asylum” season creatively, this witches-themed edition redeemed the “American Horror Story” franchise (resulting in series-high audience numbers for the anthology). Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett well implanted themselves among Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s merry band of perennial “Horror” performers (Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Lily Rabe, Denis O’Hare, Tarissa Farmiga, Evan Peters). And “Coven” was a true standout with an adept, and unusual, combination of scares and escapist humor.
9. “THE CHASE” (GSN)
One of the year’s newest game shows is also one of its smartest, with over 100 questions asked within the span of an hour as this import from the United Kingdom involves a team of three contestants taking on Mark Labbett, the show’s master trivia expert. What clinches it as a huge success is the inclusion of Labbett a.k.a. “The Beast” — the most popular, charismatic, cheeky and brash trivia know-it-all from the British version of this game. Host Brooke Burns (previously notable from “Dog Eat Dog” in 2001-02) shows off her good game show mettle and provides much entertaining show banter with Mr. Labbett. A fun hour of television and a must-see for game show fanatics every Tuesday night.
8. “JUSTIFIED” (FX)
The focus this season was on the hunt for the mysterious Drew Thompson, a man who had escaped the mafia 30 years prior and arrived in the town of Harlan, Kentucky along with plenty of drugs. The search by everyone in the town — the law, the crooks (local and abroad) –and the eventual revelation of Thompson’s identity made the program a compelling watch every week. “Justified” continues to follow in the style of the late author Elmore Leonard, of which his story “Fire in the Hole” the series is based on — a display of gritty realism intermixed with touches of wry wit and humor. Timothy Olyphant, as always, was a standout.
7. “MASTERS OF SEX” (Showtime)
This drama about Masters & Johnson, who famously published their study on human sexuality, was certainly exposed in 2013. Stellar performances were all around, especially by its leads, Michael Sheen as the quiet yet determined and ambitious Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as the intelligent, sexy and driven Virginia Johnson. “Masters of Sex” is a fascinating exploration into how the two continued their study amidst the 1950′s (when the topic of sex was very much taboo) and social politics within the college from which their study was based, all while dealing with personal issues in their own lives. And a word to Fran Drescher: your TV stepdaughter from “The Nanny,” Maggie Sheffield (Nicholle Tom), has certainly grown up!
6. “DEVIOUS MAIDS” (Lifetime)
ABC’s loss was certainly this cable network’s gain, as Marc Cherry brought us his delicious new serial drama that — although returns to familiar territory of his past fare — harkens back the excitement generated by the debut season of his former hit, “Desperate Housewives.” While much higher-profiled offerings such as “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter” and “True Blood” were the focus on cable every Sunday night in the summer, “Devious Maids” found significant footing, courtesy of the show’s intriguing twists and turns. Highly noteworthy is that the series features executive producer Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”) and its five lead stars (Ana Ortiz, Dania Ramirez, Roselyn Sanchez, Judy Reyes and Edy Ganem) — all women of Latin descent. Longtime daytime soap queen Susan Lucci is delightfully over-the-top and veteran actor of stage and screen Stephen Collins deserves much laudation for his unforgettable guest role.
5. “THE WALKING DEAD” (AMC)
Television’s biggest “it” show of the moment kept on rolling in 2013. Andrew Lincoln remained the center as Rick Grimes, the tough-nosed leader of the community of survivors battling enemies — zombies, human and biological. And David Morrissey as the malevolent Governor brilliantly portrayed his menace towards Grimes and his group. Despite the behind-the-scenes shuffling with different show-runners, “The Walking Dead” maintained its supreme quality in storytelling and provided depth for its cast of characters — not just going the simple route of making its primary roles one-dimensional. Add the conclusion to some characters and storylines at just the right respective time and this AMC horror series continued to elevate its B-level schlock (the show is full of zombies, after all) into A-grade dramatics.
4. “ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK” (Netflix)
This was a banner year for the online video service as it pushed out top-quality in-demand original programming led by “Orange is the New Black.” Taylor Schilling shines as a bride and entrepreneur-to-be required to go to prison for her role in a past drug business. Once imprisoned, she discovers her former lesbian lover (Laura Prepon) — the woman who got her involved in the business — is also incarcerated there for the crime. Creator Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”) supplied witty dialogue for every episode and even made a bulk of the show’s inmates (especially a transsexual) and guards appear endearing and/or intriguing. Supported by a stellar cast (including Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne and Jason Biggs), this prison dramedy is one of the most entertaining efforts at present.
3. “BATES MOTEL” (A&E)
Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) combined forces to create one of the most frightening, and addictively odd hours of the year with their modern take on the characters from 1960 Alfred Hitchcock horror classic “Psycho.” In an Emmy-nominated role, Vera Farmiga portrays tough, overprotective mother Norma Bates to perfection, and Freddie Highmore effectively channels the character of Norman Bates (Norma’s son, originally played by the late Anthony Perkins). Even the town’s residents added to the murky danger and eeriness surrounding the motel. “Bates Motel” exhibited suspense and modern noir to a heightened standard for television — an effort that Mr. Hitchcock would have held in high regard.
2. “THE BIG BANG THEORY” (CBS)
Now in season seven, and as fresh and funny as it ever was, it seemed like just yesterday we all fell in love with this series from its inception. And still not a bad episode in the 100+ bunch. “The Big Bang Theory” still manages to keep its humor intact with one of the best ensemble casts in the history of situation comedies. Expect more awards to come Jim Parsons’ way for his iconic role as uber-nerd Sheldon Cooper on this half-hour that has carried the Must-See Thursday night torch into the 21st Century…but for CBS, of course!
And my pick for the No. 1 show of 2013 is…
1. “BREAKING BAD” (AMC)
Since it took over five years for the American viewing public to turn this new classic series into a major mainstream hit, the question to ponder is “what took so long?” Better late than never, the people who caught up with the prior seasons via Netflix or DVD were witnesses to the thrill ride that were the series’ final eight episodes on AMC. From Walter White’s “tread lightly” warning to his DEA brother-in-law Hank to Jesse Pinkman’s growing distrust and dislike of Walter to all that took place on the one of the most riveting, heart-wrenching hours ever on TV — the episode entitled “Ozymandias” (borrowed title from a classic poem about the fall of an empire) — each subsequent episode of “Breaking Bad” kept upping the stakes for every character.
Over two years in the making, creator Vince Gilligan crafted a series of events towards a conclusion that will surely be remembered as a satisfying ending – my personal favorite for any TV series historically. Hats off to everyone involved, including Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito (whose character of Gus Fring introduced in the show’s third season was the catalyst in upgrading the series from good to great). “Breaking Bad” was not only the top drama of our era but has cemented its place among the top television series of all time.
Cable and Online: “The Americans” (FX), which came oh-so-close to landing in the top 10, “Homeland” (Showtime), “Sons of Anarchy (FX), “The Bridge” (FX), “Game of Thrones” (HBO), “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO), “Banshee” (Cinemax), “House of Cards” (Netflix), “Mad Men” (AMC), “Major Crimes” (TNT), “White Collar” (USA), “Veep” (HBO), “Dallas” (TNT), “Falling Skies” (TNT), “Suits” (USA), “Shameless” (Showtime), “Longmire” (A&E), “The Exes” (TV Land), “Eastbound and Down” (HBO)
A fond farewell to “Burn Notice” (USA) and “The Glades” (A&E)
“Survivor”: Caramoan and Blood vs. Water (CBS), “Modern Family” (ABC), “The Blacklist (NBC)”, “The Good Wife” (CBS), “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (CW), “Scandal” (ABC), “NCIS” (CBS), “Mom” (CBS), “The Originals” (CW)
PBS: “Downton Abbey”
And last, but certainly not least, kudos to my favorite channel from 1-8 p.m. ET every autumn Sunday, the NFL RedZone. And a ‘thumbs up” to NFL Network’s Scott Hanson, whose stellar hosting skills guides the football fans through the exciting action at rapid speed.