Welcome to the TV in 2013 roundtable. Like last year, I’ve assembled a group of critics, friends, and television lovers to reflect on the year that was. Throughout December, we’ll discuss a variety of TV-related topics, covering the highs, lows, and everything in between. You can find all the entries here.
Cory Barker: We’ve reconvened the year-in-review roundtable and what a year it was. At the end of 2012, many of us spoke about how difficult it was to keep up with all the great TV (and also how tough it was to let go of some of the lesser stuff we had a soft spot for) and good lord did 2013 only push that difficulty further. In the preparations for this first topic, most of us voiced a certain sense of inadequacy because there’s just so much TV. Consequently, our upcoming discussions here will stray away from clear-cut BEST and WORST proclamations; we all have our blind spots and the things we simply can’t get to.
Let’s start pretty broadly. In five years, when you’re asked to think back about television in 2013, what do you remember first? What are those defining moments, episodes, and people that you’ll recall above all else? This can be in scripted TV, reality, news, sports, etc.
Julie Hammerle: 2013 means Breaking Bad. The end of that show was the closest we’d come to a water cooler program in a while. Everyone I know watched that show. My friend who only watches crappy reality television watched that show. As great as the finale was, I think “Ozymandias” was the episode that really got everybody talking. The writers left the end of that hour so open to possibility that it really let the viewers’ minds go crazy with speculation as to what was going to happen in the final two episodes.
Andrew Daar: I think it’s pretty clear that Breaking Bad is going to be remembered as the show of 2013. It went from a show that could barely muster up ratings to a show that broke all of its ratings records and became a cultural juggernaut. But Julie hit the necessary points, so I will address another series that will be remembered, by me anyway, as a great 2013 show, even though it aired only five half hour episodes in 2013: 30 Rock. I don’t think it’s right to say that 30 Rock ever got bad, but to me, its first two seasons were leagues ahead of three through six. The series was always funny and witty, but it lost a certain something during the middle of its run. When I learned that the seventh season was to be its last, I wasn’t too broken up because I felt that it was time for the series to go. So imagine my surprise when, by the end of the series, I was very sad to see it go. 30 Rock was as funny as it had ever been in its final season, recapturing that lost element and creating some of the best political and social satire on TV. Even though the series had come a long way since its first two seasons–it pretty much cut all ties to reality, becoming a live-action cartoon–it was just as screamingly funny and biting as it was in its heyday. And it cemented itself as one of my favorite comedies of all time.
Greg Boyd: To me, 2013 was very much a passing the torch kind of year: one marked by great endings to a number of modern classics and several equally great beginnings. As Julie and Andrew have already discussed, Breaking Bad and 30 Rock are both absolute television giants. To them I would add Starz’s Spartacus and HBO’s Enlightened. Although neither had the same impact or longevity as Tina Fey’s and Vince Gilligan’s creations did, both rank among the finest programs of the last few years. And both provided final seasons—and final episodes—for the ages, landing spots on my year-end top 12 as a result. Has there ever before been a year with this many great shows going out at the top of their game?
And yet I can’t be too mournful. Because you know what else made that top 12? A whole lot of new shows. And most of them even seem designed to fill specific voids left by these departing masterpieces, though they’re of course doing their own thing at the same time. The taut plotting and tension of Breaking Bad seems to have found its successor in The Americans, and the writers of FX’s Cold War drama even seem to have the same gift for picking the perfect music for certain key scenes. Brooklyn Nine-Nine may have been created by the same people as Parks and Recreation, but as it’s gone on its comic sensibility seems to me to be very similar to 30 Rock. And while they’re vastly different from Enlightened in overall tone, in their opening seasons Orange is the New Black and Rectify both demonstrated the ability to hit the same kinds of unexpected but perfect grace notes. Several landmark series may be gone, but TV remains in as fine a shape as I’ve ever seen it.
Andrew Rabin: With all due respect to our previous respondents, their answers could have been for any year. 30 Rock, Breaking Bad, new shows, these have all been around for a while, and won’t define 2013 specifically for me. You know who was not around before 2013? Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany came out of basically nowhere, but as Orphan Black‘s season went on, the buzz around it and around her became deafening. Deafening to the point where I marathoned the entire series the day after taking the bar exam.
And somehow, even with all that buzz, Maslany’s performance is still underrated. She is astounding in any one of her several roles, but the way she plays all of them, and makes Cosima feel so different from Sarah or Alison feel so different from Helena, it is truly remarkable. But lest you think Maslany is a common six-trick pony, she showed off her comedic chops on two episodes of Parks and Recreation where she made Tom Haverford the most likable he’s been since Natalie Morales skipped town.
So while the Emmy’s couldn’t quite catch on, awards from the TCA and Critics Choice Awards, and pending nominations from the Satellite and People’s Choice Awards help show that 2013 was the year of Tatiana Maslany.
Cameron White: While I think for me a big part of 2013 was a renewed focus on comedies after a decade of dramas, I have to echo Andrew on Tatiana Maslany for this question. It’s not just the buzz about her, though, but the reasons for the buzz. When we talk about acting performances in TV, the focus is weighted towards the stuff of pathos. Whether it’s Amy Poehler’s affectionate closing statement in Parks and Rec’s debate episode or the way Guillermo Diaz can break down in seconds flat on Scandal, we tend to remember our favorite actors for the big moments. But acting is as much a technical process as anything else in TV or film production, and no one knows that better than Maslany. Every day with at least two clones in a scene is a day of techie camera moves and flipping between two entirely different characters, all in the span of a single shoot. And each individual clone has to seem different, or Orphan Black just falls apart from the start. Maslany came out swinging, proving herself a master at her craft before anyone even knew who she was. Technically outstanding performances are rarely called out because they’re hidden behind the big moments; Maslany’s characters all have big moments, but at every step I have to keep reminding myself that Cosima and Helena and Sarah and Beth and Alison are all played by the same girl and that Orphan Black is not actually loaded with unknown actresses. That’s an achievement beyond compare. A lot happened in 2013 for TV (we haven’t even really touched on Netflix and Amazon yet, which is another milestone of this year) but above all, I believe this will be remembered as the Year of Tatiana Maslany.
Emma Fraser: All of these choices would feature on my end of year round up list and I’d like to talk about Netflix and Breaking Bad. In the UK, Breaking Bad didn’t really have much success when it appeared on regular TV (it aired on two different channels) and didn’t find an audience. With the last eight episodes Netflix made them available the morning after AMC aired them and pretty much everyone I know on both sides of the Atlantic was talking about the show for the first time. Netflix has said that they look at what shows are being torrented to help with their acquisition decisions and it’s clear why Breaking Bad became such a big selling point for Netflix in the UK. This doesn’t even take into account all the original programming that Netflix has produced this year (all of which feature on my “I haven’t had time to watch yet” list) and it’s exciting to see them making things accessible on an international level.
The other show that has dominated this year is Scandal, this time last year I hadn’t seen an episode so when it was being discussed by everyone on here during the 2012 discussion it was added to my list. The summer gave me time to catch up (along with several others if my Twitter feed was anything to go by) and I’m fully on board this crazy fast paced train. Scandal has utilized Twitter in a way no other show has and it’s definitely helped build the hype machine and create a shared experience. While it’s been the year of Tatiana Maslany, it’s also been a huge one for Kerry Washington. Washington has become a style icon as both Olivia Pope in all her impeccably white loungewear (seriously how does she not spill any red whine on it?!), Burberry trench coats, Prada purses and white hats, as well as in her own right covering almost every major magazine (come on Vogue, it’s only you left).
Whitney McIntosh: I agree that this year had a wealth of good television to watch from start to finish, and there’s still a lot I haven’t been able to catch up on as we head into the new year. But this could have been a trend for a few seasons now, even though Netflix, Amazon, and the like just began to add to the pile this year. What is more of a thing to remember from 2013 for me was the way that we not only got more content to watch, it was coming from formerly low-profile channels that up until now were more well known for rerunning movies. Yes, Amazon and Netflix succeeded (at different levels) in bringing original content to viewers and positioning this content as awards-worthy, but we also got new and adapted shows from Sundance Channel, BBC America, and others.
BBC America specifically has spent the last few years transitioning from a network that simply brings programming to the US from the UK after it has aired first-run in the latter to creating their own programming with such underrated standouts as The Hour and Copper in recent years. However, this was BBCA’s breakout year due entirely to the success of Orphan Black. Even though it wasn’t an original directly from BBC America’s creative ranks, making the choice to pull programming from the Canadian Space Network instead of another UK success was a calculated risk that paid off in spades. Sundance Channel, conceived years ago as a way for movies from the festival of the same name to air after they were released, brought us both an original show and an import that have received loads of critical acclaim while at the same time not being pigeonholed into a single genre. Rectify came out of nowhere, with only a few critics taking notice before it aired, and giving us some of the greatest performances of the year throughout its six episode run. The Returned received slightly more fanfare when it aired as many people had already seen the full season of the French import before it even began stateside. Quality abounded, and that’s not even taking into account the availability of other international properties such as Borgen on LinkTV and Black Mirror (one of my favorite shows in recent memory) finally airing on a DirectTV subscriber only network.
What all of this new content and availability really has in common is risk. With so much new content being churned out by the major networks and established channels it takes a lot more to break through to audiences than simply airing where people can find the show flipping channels, it takes a level of chance taking that some networks are truly not prepared for or comfortable trying at this point. We saw this strategy almost half a decade ago when AMC bought Mad Men and Breaking Bad when no one else would, but at that point that strategy was the exception to the rules of green lighting shows. I’ll remember the amount of risk taking by networks in 2013 because of the availability it offered and the genuine quality of entertainment it gave us. I only hope that unlike 6 years ago this strategy doesn’t fizzle out but instead spreads to the bigger networks. From where I’m sitting, TV can’t grow at this point without taking chances and more established regimes should take note of what the underdogs are giving us.
Cory: Some tremendous answers thus far, covering just about everything I thought of when posing the question, so I’ll throw something else out here. Whitney hit on the explosion of programming from previously less notable sources, be they BBC America or the Sundance Channel, and that’s absolutely true. But at the same time, this has been a really great year for the broadcast networks as well, particularly on the drama side. On ABC, Scandal kept the momentum established in fall 2012 going, turning in a great second half to season two and an unsurprisingly nutty start to season three. It’s perhaps not quite the pop culture phenomenon it seemed like it was going to be, but it’s the best version of a Shonda Rhimes show we’ve gotten to this point: thrilling, emotionally wrenching, and really smartly paced. At CBS, The Good Wife turned in one of the best group of episodes we saw on television all year, broadcast, cable, or internet streaming platform. Rarely are shows this good in seasons four and five and the way the showrunners Michelle and Robert King are going, there’s no real reason to believe Wife is going to slow down. Fox managed to pull itself out of mini ratings slump with The Following, but it’s Sleepy Hollow the network should be most proud of. It’s a show that almost certainly shouldn’t work, yet continues to improve because the creative team knows exactly the right tonal buttons to push (and when) and because its two leads, Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison, are tremendous–as individual performers and as a duo. Even NBC, racked by constant turmoil and really puzzling decisions (hey there, Sean Saves the World), found two good-to-great offerings this year in Hannibal and The Blacklist. The latter, the fall’s biggest hit and a true hit in an era without them, will keep Robert Greenblatt from losing his job come Comcast’s next quarterly report and the former pulled visually and emotionally arresting moments out of material and characters that have already been beaten into the ground.
These are just the most notable examples. I’m sure we could talk about how merciless Person of Interest continues to be, how Nashville found steadier ground with a full-on soap approach, how Chicago Fire made a leading man of Jesse Spencer, and how Grey’s Anatomy keeps chugging along like it’s not over a decade old. And if we’re counting The CW, Arrow consistently shows Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. how to do superhero television the right way, while The Vampire Diaries somehow continues to find new character combinations and silly plot twists to keep things interesting. Therefore, amid a sea of new programming from every corner of our digital set-top boxes and internet browsers, broadcast television is still finding ways to make great television in its own right. Some of these shows are not better than the best on cable or Netflix, but some of them are. As the definition of ‘television’ and where we receive it continues to expand, the broadcast networks will face more competition and more discussion about their probable death. If they keep making shows like these, I think they’ll be OK.
Heather McLendon: In addition to all the responses thus far, I’d have to say that 2013 was the year of Netflix. A couple people have already highlighted the network with regards to Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black. This was truly the year for the heretofore DVD-and-streaming-only-service to step out and present original content. Not all of it was great. The return of Arrested Development was a massive disappointment, and can we just forget that Hemlock Grove ever happened? Yet House of Cards, with all its flaws, did manage to win three Emmys, showing that a nontraditional network can play with the major broadcast and cable networks.
And then: Orange is the New Black. For me, this was the standout, most memorable show of the year, alongside Orphan Black. It didn’t hold the same ratings punch as Breaking Bad, but for a string of weeks this summer, it seemed that OINTB was everywhere. This show boasts an impressively talented cast of women and embraces racial and sexual diversity, turning the latter into its predominant strength. Piper may have been our Trojan Horse with which we entered this world of Linchfield Prison, but we viewers fell in love with Taystee, Poussey, Crazy Eyes, Sophia, Nicky, Claudette and Red. Their stories (and the women off-screen that they represent) aren’t often seen on screen, so it’s awesome that OITNB was so beloved by audiences. Already it’s rumored that Piper’s role will likely diminish over the next season and move on to spend greater time with the other inmates. Not only that, but the cast has taken to Twitter in creative ways, keeping OITNB alive until season two arrives in 2014. Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba gave us their little Scandal parody on Instagram, and followed up more recently with this fabulous Christmas medley. Can’t season two be here already?
Wesley Ambrecht: I guess I’ll be the guy who takes this topic and veers wide left. Essentially, the question at hand is how we’ll remember 2013 in multimedia. And, for me, the answer can be summed up in one word… “twerking.” For better or worse, this year was dominated by twerking related news and performances. So, in the regard, I guess Miley Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Award performance is my picture of 2013. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed all of the shows you guys are mentioning but I don’t know that they are indelibly tied to 2013 in my mind.
Up next: Biggest surprises