Willa Paskin (c) 2013, Slate
NEW YORK — Assembling a top 10 list is always a bit of a negotiation. How much weight should I give to love, and how much weight should I give to respect? In putting together my 2013 list, I threw in with love. These are the shows this year that I went wild for, and the order in which I went wild for them.
I’m not certain this is the best way to do things: My love objects in seasons past have included Homeland and Downton Abbey, about both of which I now feel as one does about her most embarrassing, unsuitable ex-boyfriend. I can only hope that nothing on the list below goes on to mortify me so.
The first two seasons of Borgen, the fantastic Danish series starring Sidse Babett Knudsen (or, as I think of her, the most charming actress in the whole wide world) as the country’s first female prime minister, aired in 2010 and 2011. The slightly inferior third season is the only one to have premiered in 2013 proper, but since Borgen has been Samizdat-level difficult to find in America, I started the series only this year, when it aired on KCET, a PBS affiliate in California. I promptly fell madly, swooningly in love with the series and have been aggressively pushing it on every single person that I know since. The show follows Birgitte Nyborg (Knudsen), a lefty politician in an Eric and Tami Taylor-level good marriage as she is altered for better and worse by power. It’s a beguiling character study you will never want to end, even though it comes with subtitles.
2. Top of the Lake
Jane Campion’s gorgeous, perfect miniseries stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as a New Zealand detective with a ton of baggage trying to find a missing and pregnant 14-year-old. The series is ostensibly a crime drama, but Campion unfolds it at her own idiosyncratic pace, one that allows for comedy (Holly Hunter’s no-nonsense guru), scenery-chewing (Peter Mullan, incandescent as the town’s leading tough), a very sexy romance, and, ultimately, a devastating, macroscopic portrayal of sexual abuse’s very long afterlife. Unlike most crime shows, Top of the Lake knows there are some wrongs no one — not fathers, mothers, partners, gurus or police officers — can really heal, and closure is just a cheesy word for the sloppy, brutal, piecemeal and indefatigable ways the traumatized go on surviving.
3. Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black premiered on Netflix significantly less heralded than both House of Cards and Arrested Development, which shows you how much pre-buzz should count for. Jenji Kohan slyly used an affluent white woman as a Trojan horse for entrée into the stories of a hugely varied group of women. Piper Chapman is the show’s protagonist, but over 13 episodes the series broadened to encompass the stories of the women around her, transforming bit characters into beloved ones, converting seeming stereotypes into Taystee, Red, Poussey, Daya, Crazy Eyes, Morello, and on and on. No show on television has ever had this much female diversity — in race, age, body type, sexual orientation — and Orange did it without ever being anything less than profanely entertaining.
4. Breaking Bad
The ending of one of TV’s best-ever shows was a little more forgiving of Walter White than I might have been (I hold a grudge), but in the scheme of the show’s accomplishments, and Bryan Cranston’s performance, that’s just a quibble. At times this season — especially in the outstanding, should-have-been-the-finale episode “Ozymandias” — Breaking Bad could be physically excruciating. More than any show I can think of, watching was always a pulse-racing, stomach-churning, odds-calculating full body experience.
5. The Good Wife
Five seasons in, CBS’s The Good Wife has never been more propulsive, taut, slinky, cynical, clever. It is single-handedly making the case that networks need not be a wasteland for great dramas, while also showing up every other procedural in the game. (Compared to The Good Wife’s cases of the week, it sometimes seems other procedurals aren’t really trying.) The season has been fueled by Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) decision to start her own law firm, a juicy storyline that builds on the show’s (and its audience’s) deep, deep understanding of the characters — the sort of knowledge that only comes from, well, having been on the air for five years. In a year when I often felt like shows were circling the runway, putting off the timely ending (Homeland, Downton Abbey, The Fall, Broadchurch, even Mad Men), The Good Wife restored my faith that there are creative benefits to doing what only TV can do — go on and on and on.
6. The Americans
FX’s The Americans operates just like a great Russian spy: appealing, sexy, exciting and fun, it lures you in with all its flash and then fills your head with some light anti-American sentiment. As Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, deep-cover spies operating in Reagan-era America, ply their tradecraft and navigate the emotional complexities of their marriage, it’s impossible not to root for them — the Communists! The Americans is a deeply satisfying mixture of fast-moving genre pleasures and topsy-turvy psychological gymnastics: a show with a body and a brain.
7. The Returned
Dead people, seemingly of sound body and sound mind, begin to return to a small French city years after their death in this eerie, gorgeous, melancholy series. For them, no time has passed, but they return to loved ones who have been irrevocably altered by grief and are often far more familiar with death and its consequences than the dead themselves. The show is deliciously, decidedly French: dripping with ennui, concerned with the existential rather than the practical, and featuring no hysterical Americans calling in the army, the press, or the CDC.
ABC Family’s quirky, almost all-female Bunheads finished the second half of its first season back in February, and then hung around in limbo for months, waiting to be canceled. It was. Too voluble, meandering, odd, lovely, strange and full of dances about recycling and silent montages about sex ed for this world, it never found the larger audience it deserved. Instead, all we got were 18 perfectly imperfect episodes, which — on the bright side — are stuffed with enough screwball dialogue for a show at least three times as long.
9. American Horror Story: Asylum
Asylum, the second installment of Ryan Murphy’s insane anthology series, finished back in January. Set in a very bleak insane asylum in the 1960s, it was anchored by a great performance from Sarah Paulson and featured a serial killer, rape, horrific human experiments, Nazis, Anne Frank, aliens, abortion, exorcism, multiple incidents of wrongful incarceration; no cow, that is to say, is too sacred for AHS to leave untipped. Like ABC’s Scandal, American Horror Story is the leading example of another kind of great TV, one that uses its campy sensibility as license to explore controversial, difficult subjects and themes that far more “serious” shows can’t even touch. This season’s Coven has been just as outré, but so far a little less substantial — more fun with witches than a deep dive into America’s nightmares, despite the installment dealing with slavery. Also, it hasn’t had Jessica Lange reprise “The Name Game.”
10. Mad Men
Much of this season of Mad Men was a retread of Don’s well-established emotional issues with women and his past. The season finale made clear that all this repetition was intentional: All season Don had redoubled his commitment to the worst parts of Don Draper so, maybe, finally, he could be someone new. It’s an intellectually understandable arc that was still repetitive to watch, a structure that turned Don Draper into the most boring part of his own show. This being Mad Men, there were scores of other amazing moments — acute emotional details and very tight pants as well as, of course, Bob Benson. But Mad Men has been so good it has set the bar for itself exceedingly high; this season it fell just short, winding up at the bottom of this top 10 list, instead of the top.
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Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.