Adapting ‘Game of Thrones’ had always been an impossible task, giving rise to increasingly incremental episodes that move plots forward inches at a time, bursting at the seams with characters and stories to tell over a dozen landscapes. And while that task will only grow more difficult in the seasons to come, their dovetail this year in the oft discussed Red Wedding of "The Rains of Castamere" justified over ten minutes an HBO adaptation that could well take ten years to finish.
Whether you’d read the books or not, little on TV apart from ‘Breaking Bad’ had audiences so horribly mesmerized, watching an abject look of horror washing over Catelyn Stark’s face, mere minutes before more would wash over her neck. Showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have long stated the Red Wedding to be the reason they sought to adapt the books in the first place, and however hit and miss that narrative can be, no TV sequence, or season’s end will prove as powerful for years to come.
Ending its first season and beginning anew in 2013, ‘Elementary’ continued to surprise us from its inception, which had all-too-frequently been dismissed as a clone of BBC’s superior ‘Sherlock.’ While the similarities had proven impossible to ignore at first, the latter half of ‘Elementary’s first season continued to make expert use of CBS time-worn procedural format, while crafting its own firmly unique and exciting take on the classic Sherlock Holmes mythology.
The decision to make (spoiler alert!) Natalie Dormer’s Irene Adler and the villainous Moriarity one and the same might easily have fallen into the same trap as a female Dr. Watson, but the focus on Sherlock Holmes’ drug habit quickly vined through the emotional threads to justify such a radical choice. Adler and Moriarty became both an initial cause of and relapse catalyst for the character, a choice made all the more gripping to watch by Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of the struggling detective. The second season in particular has dwelled a bit less on Sherlock’s past than its predecessor, also lending even more spotlight to Lucy Liu’s Watson in a manner that only strengthens one of TV’s consistently best pairings.
The CW’s ‘Arrow’ may seem like a strange inclusion on an overall “best of” list for the year, but the fact remains that the DC superhero drama has gone above and beyond in its second season, elevating the very genre around it. In the same year that showed Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ to be an assembly of concepts and characters with very little hook to speak of, ‘Arrow’ managed to entirely reinvent our image of TV superhero dramas, working from the ground up to put character before concept.
There’s good reason why TV critics have gone out their way to single ‘Arrow’ out for its must-watch status, and not just for good standing with its producers. Stripping away the convoluted chaos of earlier effort ‘Smallville,’ and smartly adding a dash of ‘Batman Begins’ (okay, more than a dash), ‘Arrow’ shook up our image of the CW’s hunky teen soaps to deliver a reliably engaging anti-heroic thriller that matched its every impressive stunt feature with a unique and relatable character performing them. Its second season in particular had endured an embarrassment of riches with regard to DC character integration, successfully expanding its premise to a more comic-friendly tone without sacrificing the deeply personal relationships that drive the story behind them. If anything, ‘Arrow’ repeatedly proves itself better than we could have ever expected from such humble beginnings.
It’s been an unusual year for Kurt Sutter’s high-octane motorcycle drama, what with a shocking amount of violence coming to dominate the critical discussion amide a series that had increasingly floundered in recent years, and the public spectacle of Charlie Hunnam both suiting up, and suiting down for the lead role of ’50 Shades of Grey.’ Adding to that was a major shift in the season 6 structure, wherein Donal Logue’s early exit for ‘Vikings’ prompted an on-the-fly revamp of CCH Pounder’s role, and the big bad at large.
And yet amazingly, the uber-violent season premiere and a few excessive threads that followed still managed to spin into some of the most poignant episodes to date, even returning a sense of fun and satirical male bravado that the early seasons had thrived upon. Suddenly, ‘Sons of Anarchy’ was forced to reexamine itself as a cycle of violence and stock villainy, instead bringing the weight of Mr. Mayhem’s scythe down on Charming. No longer were the Sons a group of likable outlaws, but instead the purveyors of death that took a toll on the innocent and redeemed alike. Its Clay problem at long last over, and with Tara’s brutal death a major shock that will power its final season ‘Sons of Anarchy’s sixth season began a race to the finish that however noisy, commanded our attention at every turn.
If fandom for ‘Parks and Recreation’ had been a roller coaster that took us from single camera-comedy’s heartfelt peak to near-cancellation every year, the fifth season finish proved its most dizzying heights yet. It certainly speaks to the series’ go-for-broke attitude, plotting almost every arc’s conclusion as a potential series finale, though the wedding between Ben and Leslie beautifully managed to encapsulate everything we’d come to like and love over the course of the series, without ever overdosing on the Sweetums.
The sixth season has proven a bit less organized, with Chris Pratt cycled off for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ and Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones soon to shove off for more permanent exits, but decent ‘Parks and Recreation’ more than upends most comedies of its ilk. The two-part season premiere took us to London in a manner that would prove gimmicky in less callous hands, while the most recent installments have remained unafraid to take major leaps in character evolution, now deconstructing Leslie’s accomplishments with the same bittersweet optimism that began them. Easily one of the strongest casts on television, and every bit as poignant as it is hilarious.
There’s good reason Julia Louis-Dreyfus continually garners Emmy nominations (and wins!) for her role as Vice President Selina Meyer, but more than that, the terrify ensemble brings us back to ‘Veep’ week after week, making it all the more bittersweet to wait until the second quarter of each year for fresh episodes. This year, the Armando Ianucci political comedy had the added fortune of depicting a government shutdown months before an actual shutdown took place, while another episode took the gang to Finland for a comedy of errors that mined as much humor from the simplistic accents and cultural misunderstandings as the show tends to wring from more inside Washington gags.
It may not always garner the same attention as HBO’s more raunchy and epic works, but the continually understated brilliance (and killer insults) week to week keep us voting for ‘Veep’ each and every year.
Apart from its individually memorable characters and some truly stunning set pieces, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ hasn’t made the same kind of impact one might have expected from its creative pedigree, acting as something of a spiritual successor to ‘The Sopranos.’ The HBO gangster drama certainly shook things up with the elimination of one of its main leads Michael Pitt in season 2 (not entirely for creative reasons, as we’ve learned), crafting an effectively memorable one-season arc for Bobby Cannavale in his wake. So what made 2013 a breakout year for ‘Boardwalk Empire?
Location, location, location and a little bit of shuffling. However much Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson remains in the foreground, the fourth season wisely moved to center stage the oft-neglected Michael K. Williams, who himself thrived amid a season-long rivalry with expert character actor Jeffrey Wright. The inclusion of race relations among a more balance ensemble approach for the cast managed to evenly cover a number of holes in prohibition gangster drama’s increasingly spread narrative. It remains a possibility that ‘Boardwalk Empire’ will crumble for good after its fifth season, but even with its cost of Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow, season 4 finally elevated ‘Boardwalk Empire’ into the elegant and exciting drama it always should have been.
We hesitated to include any freshman dramas on the list, but in a year that has seen NBC both at its laughingstock heights, and with some surprisingly smart maneuvers, ‘Hannibal’ proved a most welcome surprise in a landscape already dominated by TV serial killers. Far more than any origin story leaning too heavily on a gimmicky character, well-worn mythology was given entirely new life as Bryan Fuller crafted a dark and dreamlike symphony of madness that proved every bit as gruesome as TV’s pulpy best, and equal parts more elegant than all the rest.
Not only did Hugh Dancy burst into the American television scene with a uniquely mad and hauntingly tragic interpretation of Thomas Harris’ Will Graham, but Mads Mikkelsen’s demure but enthralling Dr. Lecter masterfully tugged on Dancy’s threads over the course of a single season, before unraveling in a nail-biter conclusion. Never before has procedural TV drama unfolded with such frightening pace and precision, balancing dark fantasy with a lush visual pallet not seen since the days of ‘Twin Peaks.’
We’ve been to the future, and guess what! ‘Mad Men’ will not be on our best of 2014 list. The walls of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Whatever could come tumbling down around everyone, crushing Pete Campbell in a manner that simultaneously deprives Christina Hendricks of her top for the entire season, but AMC’s shallow decision to split the final season into batches of 7 will undoubtedly shape our appreciation for a series that so consistently managed to avoid any network interference.
We’ve never quite shared the collective critical adoration of AMC’s ‘Mad Men,’ if only for its reputation alone overshadowing and obscuring any real truth to its imagery. The fourth and fifth seasons often traded in shocking sights and plot twists that made it difficult to assess any kind of narrative arc for Don Draper, but the sixth season shakeup opened up entirely new avenues with which to explore its characters. Deconstructing Don Draper’s world with an ultimately meaningless affair, and an exile from the business helped create sent the season finale to a much smaller truth; Don Draper would finally begin to turn things around, sharing his past with his children, and the beginnings of his new future.
You were expecting someone else? We are the ones who list. Though arguments could be made that ‘Breaking Bad’’s final season carried a bit more even momentum in its first half through 2012, Nothing we’ve seen on television in the last decade has come close to the transformative power, and mouth-agape horror of ‘Breaking Bad’s final three installments. It began as prophesied by series creator Vince Gilligan himself, who warned us that “Ozymandias” would rank among the most gripping episodes of the series, in which Walter White’s world finally comes crumbling down around him, taking the life of Hank, Gomie, and firmly estranging Walter from both his family, and the life we’d come to know over the last six years.
“Granite State” left things in more of a contemplative tone, as an isolated Walter begged his sole remaining human contact to spend time with him in the confines of his New Hampshire cabin, wasted away both by chemotherapy and defeat. Jesse fared no better, bound and chained to cook meth for the Neo-Nazis, tormented by a brutal reminder they still had Brock and Andrea for leverage. “Granite State” offered some much-needed breathing room, if only to set us up for Walt’s final ascent in series finale “Felina.” Debate the dreamlike nature of Walter White’s ultimate end all you want, ‘Breaking Bad’ lorded over all of 2013’s best and brightest TV, with only eight episodes to bring its meaningful dissection of midlife crisis, mortality and methmaking to a crashing, spectacular halt.