There are times when it seems like fans and critics don’t truly appreciate the current era of dramatic television. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen complaints that the new Golden Age of TV dramas is over and we’ll never see another show like “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Shield,” “Deadwood,” etc...
10. Bates Motel
On the face of it, A&E’s “Bates Motel” seems like a horrible idea. Who really wanted a modern day prequel series to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho?
And yet the “Bates Motel” creative team surprised everyone by delivering a very entertaining show that may be the most bats*** insane drama on television. Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore bring a lot of humanity to their performances as Norma and Norman Bates, which only makes their mental problems more disturbing when they emerge.
It helps that the town of White Pine Bay is even crazier than the Bates family. Another great touch is the addition of Norman’s half brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), who is basically the normal member of that family.
I don’t know how long the “Bates Motel” creative team can keep this series going, but it was undeniably fun to watch in 2013.
9. The Americans
One of FX’s newest dramas is the Cold War era spy thriller, “The Americans;” which stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a pair of Soviet spies deeply embedded in Washington D.C. during the early ‘80s. “The Americans” invites us to root for the enemy while never losing sight of the horrible things they do for the good of their true homeland.
While “The Americans” weaves into and out of established history, Elizabeth and Philip develop feelings for each other that complicate their lives as spies and partners. Outside of the Jennings family, even the supporting cast resonated. Among the standouts were Annet Mahendru as Nina, a vengeful Soviet mole and Derek Luke as Gregory Thomas, an American KGB recruit who may actually love Elizabeth more than Philip does.
And of course Noah Emmerich is excellent as Stan Beeman, the FBI agent living next door to the Jennings who may be the greatest threat to their mission. There’s enough tension in this show to last for several seasons. The second season of “The Americans” starts in February, so there’s still time to catch up before the new episodes begin. It’s well worth it.
8. The Returned (Les Revenants)
Technically, “Les Revenants” debuted on French television back in 2012, but IFC brought the series to America in 2013 as “The Returned.” This was one of the great surprises of the year, as series creator Fabrice Gobert unleashed a spellbinding story of the dead mysteriously reappearing in the lives of the loved ones they left behind years after they died. But this isn’t a zombie story or the same monster tale that we’ve seen 1000 times before. This is different and riveting.
“The Returned” was made with remarkable skill and strong performances by the cast. It’s like nothing else on television. Don’t be shocked if an Americanized remake of “The Returned’ gets off the ground in 2014.
But if you can handle subtitles, check out the original version. It’s hard to imagine a remake that could match the power of the original version of this story.
One of FX’s signature drama series turned in another solid season in 2013. “Justified” doesn’t get the ratings or the attention of “American Horror Story” or “Sons of Anarchy,” but it belongs among the elite dramas on television thanks to its engrossing stories, sharp dialogue and a stellar cast led by Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.
Season four of “Justified” gave veteran actor Jim Beaver a surprisingly large role in the unfolding narrative and Patton Oswalt had a great turn as Constable Bob Sweeney, whom Raylan grudgingly comes to respect. Raylan’s relationship with his father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) also came to a head in one of the most shocking sequences of the year.
There’s a song that the producers of “Justified” often use in the season finales called “You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” That may one day be true for Raylan and Boyd, but it’s going to be an entertaining ride until we get to the end of their story.
Score another victory for foreign TV!
ITV’s “Broadchurch” made its U.S. debut on BBC America and it quickly became one of the most engrossing murder mysteries on television. Former “Doctor Who” star David Tennant headlines the cast as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, with Olivia Colman as his resentful partner, Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller.
Shortly after Hardy’s arrival, the small town of Broadchurch is rocked by the murder of a young boy. And as the investigation unfolds, it seems like the entire town is hiding something. The final episode had a fantastically intense scene that followed Hardy as he tracked down the killer. But the resolution proves devastating for both Hardy and Miller as the town struggles with the truth.
“Broadchurch” is getting a U.S. remake on Fox in 2014, with Tennant reprising his role in the newly renamed “Gracepoint.” But there’s no excuse to pass up watching the original version.
5. The Walking Dead
“The Walking Dead” faces a certain level of resistance from critics because of its massive success and its subject matter. Yes, “The Walking Dead” is a zombie series. But that’s not all that it is. It’s also a great drama with engrossing characters.
To be sure, “The Walking Dead’ has a few occasional missteps. Very few people were satisfied by Andrea’s (Laurie Holden) arc in season 3 and the Governor’s (David Morrissey) return in season 4 was somewhat mishandled.
But that doesn’t negate the moments that transcended the genre. A late season 3 episode actually made Merle (Michael Rooker) into a sympathetic character despite some of the monsterous things that he did over the course of the series. And the resolution of the prison storyline in season 4 was a huge gut punch even for those of us who knew it was coming.
“The Walking Dead” may face some oversaturation in the years ahead, as AMC is already lining up a spinoff/companion series. But for now, this is one of the great television thrillers. And easily one of the best dramas of the year.
I have to admit that I was one of the critics who thought that “Hannibal” could never work on TV, especially not on NBC.
And yet Bryan Fuller and his team proved me wrong. Their reinterpretation of Thomas Harris’ classic serial killer is amazing, with a cast more than equal to the task of bringing this story to life. Laurence Fishburne was terrific as Jack Crawford, but he’s not even the best performer on this show.
Instead that honor is shared between Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. Dancy’s Will Graham is more tortured and vulnerable than the earlier portrayals of that character, while Mikkelsen is chilling and compelling as Dr. Hannibal Lecter without disappearing into the shadow of Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance.
It’s fascinating to see how far NBC has allowed Fuller and company to push the limit of what network television can depict. “Hannibal” is deliciously dark and the first season cliffhanger was particularly twisted. I can’t wait to see what’s next for this series.
3. Boardwalk Empire
Against lesser competition, “Boardwalk Empire” would dominate the TV landscape. But even against the best of the best, “Boardwalk Empire” belongs among the top television dramas.
What separates “Boardwalk Empire” from the pack is the absolutely fearless storytelling from Terence Winter and company. If the story calls for it, no one is safe. That’s something that became clear in the closing seconds of the season when one of the show’s primary characters met their end in a sad and tragic way.
While Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) remains at the center of this period drama, Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White had a much larger role this season and he arguably became the co-protagonist with Nucky. Earning their hatred this season was Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a manipulative man who may have been their most formidable adversary to date.
One of the great touches to Narcisse’s character came late in the season when the audience learned that Narcisse isn’t the great writer or orator that he believes himself to be. And by the end of the season, even Narcisse finds himself trapped in his circumstances.
There’s talk that the fifth season of “Boardwalk Empire” may be the end of the series. Hopefully that isn’t true, as the series is creatively peaking. And there are still several years in the Prohibition era left to explore.
2. Game of Thrones
For the first time since its premiere, “Game of Thrones” is not CraveOnline’s top drama of the year. But that’s through no fault of the show itself. The third season of “Game of Thrones” was the best yet.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done an astonishing job of bringing George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic to life. The third season had particularly rich character arcs for Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Yet Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) remains the most compelling character and Charles Dance once again proved to be Dinklage’s perfect sparring partner as Tywin Lannister.
The third season of “Game of Thrones” may forever be defined by the penultimate episode, "The Rains of Castamere" and its Red Wedding; a sequence that shocked fans of the series who hadn’t read Martin’s original novels.
And the shocks aren’t over yet. By this time next year, “Game of Thrones” will probably have reclaimed the top spot on this list.
1. Breaking Bad
“Breaking Bad’ is probably on top of almost everyone’s list of 2013 TV dramas. It wasn’t an automatic pick for me. “Game of Thrones” came very close to retaining its title. But ultimately, “Breaking Bad” deserves every honor that it gets and it earned the right to be called the greatest drama on television.
Many TV shows can’t seem to deliver a strong ending that satisfies everyone. Vince Gilligan and the “Breaking Bad” creative team found a perfect balance between the conclusion that the series needed and the crowd pleasing moments that the fans wanted to see. The second half of “Breaking Bad” Season 5 also had a run of episodes that were among the greatest in the series. Especially “Ozymandias,” the epic episode in which Walter White (Bryan Cranston) finally loses everything that matters to him.
Between Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk and the rest of the cast, there were no weak links on this show. Even the newcomers, Jesse Plemons and Laura Fraser earned their place among the cast with strong turns as Todd and Lydia.
“Breaking Bad” was a truly remarkable achievement that may not be equaled any time soon. But the beautiful thing about television is that the next great show is always just over the horizon.