So you thought it was all over, did you? The bombardment of Top Ten lists divvied up into every possible iteration you can imagine still has one last gasp. To keep from feeling left out and to do my part for the cause, here's a list of television programs that aired in 2013 that warmed my cold, black, little heart.
Gimmees: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards. These are the shows everyone loved, and with good reason. Because they're the best of the best, we don't need to discuss them. You can find that opinions on them anywhere. This opens up the list to a wider range of great shows that aired in 2013.
Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas: Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland. These are the shows that I'm just too far behind on to catch up in a reasonable amount of time. We're talking at least two seasons each, so they get Honorable Mentions as I'm sure they would have made the list if I'd been able to watch them.
The List: These are the shows that proved what could be done above and beyond in the medium this year. You won't find things like Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, or Almost Human here because, frankly, those shows are all terrible. You also won't get any Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow, or Doctor Who (I mean, seriously. What was that Christmas Special supposed to be?), or whatever else it is you're all watching because they were all okay but nothing special this year.
So here we go with the Real Top Ten.
The Real Top Ten
After the End
The Walking Dead (Seasons 3.2 & 4.1 – AMC)
2013 saw the second half of Season Three and the start of Season Four before all was said and done, but both saw marked improvements thanks to the magical handiwork of Season Three writer / Season Four Showrunner Scott M. Gimple. He was responsible for writing two episodes in the back half of Season Three, "Clear" and "This Sorrowful Life," and they were two of the best episodes in the history of the show.
Then, as Showrunner for Season Four, Gimple's hand on the storytelling tiller has produced the most consistent season since the first. There has been an emphasis on quieter moments and previous seasons' tendency to over-monologue dramatic moments has been curbed, allowing the actors to do much more without stumbling over ham-handed dialogue. This approach not only allows the physical acting to demonstrate more intimate emotional bonds between the characters, but it even came close to redeeming the Governor (before he went batshit crazy again).
The real bright spots character-wise so far have been Chandler Riggs as Carl, Melissa McBride as Carol, and Scott Wilson as Hershel. Carl has turned into a bad-ass who's decisions are more trustworthy and safer for the group as a whole than his sentimental dad; Carol has been shunned and cast out for taking extreme steps to secure the safety of the group (to no avail, unfortunately); and Hershel became the moral center of the group, representing the fundamental conflict between maintaining one's faith and being a good person while dealing with the horrific day-to-day pounding that their psyches are taking.
The mid-season finale was catastrophic, scattering the survivors to the winds, so when the show returns we'll be focusing on individual characters more as they try to survive long enough to find their ways back together. And that's the real strength of Gimple's own writing style and the approach he's brought to the writers' room.
Returns February 9, 2014.
Attack on Titan (Season 1 – Japanese – Streaming on Netflix and at www.crunchyroll.com/attack-on-titan)
Normally anime series aren't on my radar. Not for a lack of interest, but mainly because there's just so much out there, but not a lot of it is readily available for American viewers. And what is available usually seems to be in the middle of multi-season arcs or has been around for years already, making it hard to just jump in without doing a lot of homework.
Then there's the anime stuff that just doesn't appeal to me with the fetishizing of school-girls' panties and bouncing boobies (Highschool of the Dead, I'm looking at you).
But this year a new series started that had very impressive word of mouth and I was actually able to get access to it. As you can guess, since it's listed here, the show lived up to the hype.
Attack on Titan is set on a future earth where humanity has been knocked back into a eighteenth or nineteenth century level of technology (for the most part), thanks to the mysterious arrival of Titans – giants who's only apparent purpose is to hunt and eat humans, despite not having the internal organs needed to process them as food – which leads to the occasional discovery of massive vomited up piles of corpses.
But that's not the good stuff.
Okay, that IS sort of some of the good stuff.
But what makes Attack on Titan something that made my Best Of list this year, is the way it treats the psychological impact of living in this post-apocalyptic society. Humanity has lived behind a series of huge walls that have kept them safe from the Titans for over a century, and most of the citizenry have grown fairly complacent. But when an even more gigantic Titan suddenly materializes in a flash of lightning and tears down the wall, chaos ensues, and most of the series focuses on characters suffering through varying degrees of PSTD while trying to survive.
There are mysteries galore, especially surrounding young Eren Yeager and a strange conspiracy of sorts regarding who is really behind the appearance of the Titans.
Returns ??? Depends on the speed of release of source manga!
Blasts from the Past
Vikings (Season 1 – History Channel)
Following the success of their 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, the History Channel launched its first scripted ongoing series, Vikings, on March 3, 2013, and the rest is history!
Sorry. That was awful. I couldn't resist.
Inspired by historical sources, Vikings follows the exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), his friends, and his family, as he discovers bountiful lands to the West (England) and challenges his current chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) for leadership of the region.
Bolstered by strong performances from everyone involved, dynamic directing and writing, bloody violence and beautiful scenery, Vikings is solid work on every level that provides some of the most textured and believable period storytelling on television. And that's despite a number of historical inaccuracies (nothing too egregious, but some vocal critics had problem
s with certain elements, but not me).
The opening episodes are probably the strongest of the initial ten-episode run, if only for the violent immediacy and the energy brought to the performances. As the season goes on, there is more political intrigue and the always welcome Donal Logue (I say this every year, but curse you all for not watching and supporting Terriers!!!) as King Horik.
There's an awkward shift in the status quo that happens extremely quickly in the season finale that wasn't handled very gracefully, but it lays seeds for a number of dramatic changes once Season Two begins. It's a little soap opera, but given the strength of everything that came before, I have faith that this creative team can pull it together and give us an even larger scale story this year.
Returns February 27, 2014.
Da Vinci's Demons (Season 1 – STARZ)
The man behind the Blade and the current Batman films (as well as some awful stuff we won't mention), David S. Goyer, struck gold (again) this year with a sexyily romanticized sexy action-oriented look at the life of young, sexy Leonardo Da Vinci in sexy 1477 Milan.
Did I mention that this show brings the sexy?
In a lot of ways this first season is a weird combination of approaches that we've seen in shows like Arrow and another STARZ show, Camelot. But this time, the combination of sex appeal, action, personality, and ambitious narrative approaches, has gelled in a way that works right out of the gate.
Part of the reason for this is the focus on tight, consistent storytelling that weaves in historical truths with flights of imagination, and a short, eight-episode run with Goyer's hand firmly on the wheel. The season gets off to a strong start thanks to the writing team of Goyer and The Walking Dead's Scott M. Gimple, laying out a strong characterization for Leonardo (Tom Riley) and establishing the political conflicts between Milan and Rome, or more accurately, the Duke of Milan, Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) and Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner).
Intertwined with the political maneuvering, there's also a mystery cult of brilliant minds, the Sons of Mithras, who are indoctrinating Leonardo into their world and set him searching for the mythical Book of Leaves, which may or may not have supernatural properties. This puts Leonardo on the Pope's radar, too. And this is not a Pope of love and light.
This Pope will beat you to death with his bare hands if you piss him off.
The second season promises an ocean voyage to strange lands to the West and will feature a couple of scripts by comic book writers Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman, which is more than enough enticement for me to check in.
Short but Sweet
Black Mirror (Season 2 – UK – Channel 4)
Channel 4 is the place to go if you want the best in cutting edge comedy and sci-fi in the UK. In 2011, celebrated writer and satirist, Charlie Brooker, brought to screen a modern approach to science fiction storytelling that recalled the halcyon days of The Twilight Zone, while being fully integrated into the modern television landscape. In three hour-long episodes, two written by Brooker (one of which was co-written by his wife Konnie Huq) and a third by The Thick of It's Jesse Armstrong, Black Mirror unleashed upon the world some of the best serious science fiction filmmaking of the 21st Century. Hell, maybe the 20th, as well.
Then, in 2013, he did it again. This time, Brooker wrote all three scripts, including a reworking of an idea he had originally developed, but never used, with the genius Chris Morris for the twisted sitcom Nathan Barley. Needless to say, as it's included here, Black Mirror Series 2 packed just as much emotional and creative wallop as the first series. "The Waldo Moment" and the disturbing "White Bear" (with a lovely dose of Michael Smiley included) are both very effective science fiction morality tales with amoral twists, but the series opener, "Be Right Back," was one of the most powerful and effective episodes of anything ever put on the telly.
Hayley Atwell stars as a woman devastated by the loss of her husband, who gets an opportunity to experience the next best thing to having him back. It's some of the most sympathetic and empathic work I've seen from Brooker and Atwell immerses herself in the part. If you want to have yourself a good cry and experience the best science fiction on television, run, don't walk, to wherever you need to go to grab a copy of this.
Returns 2014 with at least two more episodes!
In the Flesh (Season 1 – UK – BBC Three)
In the Flesh is a three-part BBC miniseries with a decidedly unique take on the current trend of zombies shambling through our media. Series creator Dominic Mitchell walks us through the aftermath of "The Rising" when the zombie apocalypse has been sorted. Mostly.
Here's the skinny. After everyone who died in 2009 returned to life in The Rising, the army and bands of armed militia groups launched "The Pale Wars," hunting and killing the zombies all across England. However, once things were under control, it turns out that the living dead responded to medications that allowed them to regain control of their senses and, after a period of rehabilitation, return to their homes. They use cosmetics and special contact lenses to pass as human, but must maintain their medication regimen to avoid going "rabid" again.
The story follows Kieren "Ren" Walker (Luke Newberry), formerly deceased, as he tries to adjust to life in his home village of Roarton. It's quiet and powerful stuff all around, that touches on elements of racism, homophobia, PTSD, and guilt in ways that you don't usually see in zombie drama. There's great character work in every episode, especially once Ren meets Amy (Emily Bevan), another PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferer who feels liberated by her undead, but conscious, state.
There are hints of a larger world here that we don't quite get to in three episodes, and the suggestion of something much more dangerous than local prejudices on the horizon and luckily, we'll get the chance to see what else Mitchell has to s
ay in this playground when it returns in 2014!
Returns 2014 with a 6-episode season!
Cops and Killers
Luther (Season 3 – UK – BBC One)
In 2013, writer/creator Neil Cross brought DC Luther back for one final go-around and boy was it a good one! For those of you who've never encountered Luther, he's played by the magnificent Idris Elba and he's a good cop who isn't afraid to bend the rules to make sure justice is served. And he's kind of like Batman sometimes.
Series 3 only ran four episodes but they put the pressure on Luther as he not only had to track down serial killers and emotionally damaged vigilantes, but also had to deal with an internal affairs case being built against him and the possible betrayal of his bestest partner DS Ripley (Warren Brown).
It's all good fun but it really isn't until the finale, when Luther is charged for the murder of Ripley (hint: he didn't do it), and the amazing Ruth Wilson returns as Alice to clear his good name. And probably kill some people. She's complicated like that.
I had lamented the fact that Alice wasn't included in the second series at all, but had learned to live with it, but as soon as she was back on the scene, Luther catapulted into the stratosphere of awesomeness. Wilson brings a dynamic to the show that was simply irreplaceable and I'm thrilled that she got to return for the series finale. And to return in such a great way.
Those final moments are gold.
Returns never. The series is done, but there may be a film on the horizon!
Hannibal (Season 1 – NBC)
Easily the prettiest show on American network television, Bryan Fuller's exploration of the backstory of Thomas Harris' Hannibal the Cannibal was the most impressive show NBC has aired in decades. Telling the story of Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) as they team up to hunt serial killers, we get to see the psychological warfare that led to the passionate hostility that came to the surface in Red Dragon (both films and the book).
Not every episode was great, but every episode LOOKED and SOUNDED great. The technical work that went into Hannibal week in and out was above and beyond anything I could have dreamed of. There's only one other show this past year that even came close to paying this much attention to every aspect of the frame (hint: It's discussed in the next section) and crafting a sensory experience that made the story almost secondary.
The performances of Mikkelsen and Dancy were about as perfect as could be. At this point, Mikkelsen is my preferred Hannibal. And Dancy projects suffering and inner turmoil in a way I haven't seen since Ben Browder tore my heart to shreds in Farscape. When you throw Laurence Fishburne into the mix as Jack Crawford and Gillian Anderson as Hannibal's psychiatrist Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, you've got a cast that you can't take your eyes off of, and every interaction is filled with tension and hidden meaning.
And if you're just a gore hound, every week you'll find grotesqueries that straddle the line between gut-wrenching and simply beautiful.
The season ended with a mind-bending twist that came out of nowhere, but had been carefully built toward all along, setting the stage for a remarkable second season as Fuller and Company attempt to complete their Seven Year Plan (with definitive adaptations of Red Dragon (season four), The Silence of the Lambs (season five), and Hannibal (season six) in the works). Whether or not we'll get there is up to you people, since the second season is essentially a gift. Ratings for the show were atrocious and I'm going to hold you all accountable if season two isn't a huge megahit.
You've been warned.
Returns February 28, 2014.
Orphan Black (Season 1 – BBC America)
For someone who has been working in film and television for over ten years, Tatiana Maslany is this year's surprise discovery for her extremely impressive work in the BBC America/Canadian co-production, Orphan Black. The show is a spotlight for her talents as she plays a group of clones, each with their own distinct look and personality, who, upon discovering the truth about themselves have set out to, um, do something.
Don't get me wrong. This is an awesome show with plot twists galore and Maslany is brilliant, but by the end of the season my head was turned all around and I didn't know what was what anymore. And that's a good thing.
Our main character, Sarah takes the place of her clone Elizabeth after witnessing her suicide. Sarah is a problem child and suddenly found herself having to pretend to be a cop on the receiving end of a shooting probe. From there, the 10-episode first season introduced soccer mom Alison, evolutionary developmental biology grad student Cosima, and religious nutcase assassin Helena. Sarah's foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) adds flamboyant attitude to the show and ex-mercenary Paul (Dylan Bruce) adds brooding violence. And while they're all trying to negotiate the dangerous world of mad science and intrigue, Elizabeth's partner, Detective Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard) is trying to track down what really happened and who the hell Sarah is.
There's a lot going on and all of it is delicious. Just pay attention or you might miss something important.
Returns April 19, 2014.
Utopia (Season 1 – UK – Channel 4)
All of which brings us to the best show of the year: Dennis Kelly's Utopia.
I don't have any problem calling this one the best, even though there's a wide range of amazing stuff that hit this year. That's because it is the most beautifully constructed six hours of television I
've seen in years. Maybe ever. It is brutal and violent, sweet and sad, horrifying and inspiring all at the same time.
This is the show that inspired me to buy a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch it over and over in glorious high-def.
And this is a show that rewards that investment with every second of glorious intrigue, perfect visuals, and a soundscape like nothing I've ever heard before. Hannibal comes very close to equaling this combination of elements, but Utopia's story and scripts are on another level entirely.
From its gut-wrenching opening moments as two hit men enter a comic shop and proceed to murder everyone in the joint in their search for a mysterious graphic novel that holds the secrets to a global conspiracy to wipe out a huge chunk of humanity and save us all from ourselves, Utopia is like nothing you've ever seen. Especially when one of those hit men, Arby (Neil Maskell) goes from being a nightmare of flat-affect murder to a sympathetic savior.
Fiona O'Shaughnessy plays the enigmatic and other-worldly Jessica Hyde, an off-the-grid killer also searching for the graphic novel manuscript, who recruits Becky (Alexandra Roach), Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Grant (Oliver Woollford), and Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) after they become Arby's targets. In a parallel storyline, Paul Higgins plays civil servant Michael Dugdale whose dalliance with a Russian prostitute leads to his being blackmailed into playing a part in the conspiracy that nearly destroys him and his family.
And there's a bit of Michael Smiley in that first episode, too, so this show has it all.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.