The 20 Best TV Shows Of 2013

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England had the Elizabethan one; comics had the 1930s, and television’s golden age is happening right now. The small screen has, many would argue, thoroughly surpassed its bigger brother for many kinds of storytelling, and the result has been a slew of quality shows that it’s almost impossible to entirely keep up with. Here are the best of the year, kicking off with the one that everyone was talking about…


Breaking Bad

The tagline: The king of kings.
This year saw: Series 5
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte

If you had told the early adopters of Breaking Bad back in the day quite how big – in pop cultural terms, if not always in ratings – this series would become, they would have given you a comforting pat on the shoulder and suggested that you lay off the meth. But thanks to Vince Gilligan’s obsessive plotting, his writers’ skill and the superlative performances from everyone on screen, it went out on a huge high with a run of episodes that will live on in telly history. Thank goodness it got to wrap up the way Gilligan intended.

Best episode: Ozymandias. Gilligan has cited it as his favourite from the series and we can see why. Everything works perfectly.


House of Cards

The tagline: The power behind the throne.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly

We went in with high hopes, given that this is a show starring an Oscar (the correct collective noun) of respected film stars with David Fincher behind the camera for the pilot and several episodes thereafter. Happily, House Of Cards lived up to the billing and proved more than just a fresh adaptation of the 1990 BBC drama or its source novel. Relocating the story to the US, with its fractured political system and sloshing piles of political money, paid big dividends, and as the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the heart of the piece, Spacey and Wright were flawless. But amid the bigger names, it was Corey Stoll who truly won us over, offering the portrayal of a political wannabe struggling with his demons.

Best episode: Chapter 11, which sees things go off the rails in a number of ways, and it’s Stoll’s best performance.



The tagline: There’s a new sheriff in town.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Anthony Starr, Matt Servito, Russ Blackwell, Matthew Rauch, Ryann Shane

Banshee was more of a pulpy answer to the likes of True Blood, with lashings of sex and violence layered on as are standard issue. It’s all tied to a plot about Lucas Hood, an ex-con who poses as the sheriff of a small town when the incoming lawman is murdered en route. Oh, and his girlfriend and accomplice is now living quietly in town as a soccer mom, and the local kingpin is Amish. It’s OTT and silly at times, but the nicely twisting plot, moments of the old ultra-violence and genuine originality kept us hooked.

Best episode: We Shall Live Forever, which sees quite a bit of manure intersect with the rotating cooling blades and appears to have a rather ironic title.


The Returned

The tagline: Day of the continental dead.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Anne Consigny, Frederic Pierrot, Clotilde Hesme, Celine Sallette, Samir Guesmi

Zombies are big on TV right now: just look at ratings champ The Walking Dead or the Beeb’s much more low key (but still great) In The Flesh. But trust the French to find a fresh way to make the living dead work, as those thought dead return to a small mountain community. And that’s only the primary mystery here, because a serial killer is stalking the place… With wonderful acting and tight scripting, this convinced Channel 4 to run its first foreign-language drama in 20 years and even made the jump to America. Subtitles: nothing to be scared of. The horror element, on the other hand…

Best episode: La Horde, where the tension is dramatically cranked up a notch.


Game of Thrones

The tagline: The good, the bad and the wedding.
This year saw: Series 3
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairly, Kit Harington

That Game Of Thrones impressed us once again this year was not really a surprise; it has long since become one of the most wildly entertaining shows on TV. This season may not have had an episode this year to match the grand scale of Blackwater, but it delivered up the biggest shock since (spoiler alert) Ned Stark parted company with his head back in the first year. Yes, we’re talking about The Red Wedding, which, though slightly altered from George R.R, Martin’s book, carried enough power to break hearts, boggle minds and melt the Internet briefly. Long may it continue! Well, at least until winter finally shows up.

Best episode: The Rains Of Castermere, no question. Murder! Mayhem! Music?



The tagline: The spies like us.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor, Noah Emmerich, Keidrich Sellati

Spy dramas are ten a rubel in telly drama, but The Americans found a clever spin on the idea by casting Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a pair of Russian sleeper agents living and working in the US during the 1980s Cold War period. Dealing with the fact that their relationship – they’re married with kids – is a sham as well as the constant threat of discovery has led the show to mine some rich drama. Nor do the leads solely dominate the show: work from the likes of Emmerich and guest star MVP Margo Martindale (as their sarcastic handler, Claudia) offers real shadings.

Best episode: Covert War, wherein an assassination prompts Russell’s Elizabeth to strike out on her own mission, with dangerous consequences.



The tagline: The Danish political stew.
This year saw: Series 3
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Emil Poulssen, Freja Riemann, Thomas Levin

If you needed more evidence that Danish drama was smashing through language barriers and providing gripping, soulful entertainment, Borgen is it. Upending the status quo right from the start of this third run, it offered plenty of material for the magnetic Knudsen to chew on as her statsminister lost the election, turned to the lecture circuit and was swiftly offered the chance to build her own party and challenge the government. Never less than compelling, it’s led the charge for a wealth of other shows from around the world to reach our screens.

Best episode: Sons Of The Past sees Birgitte under pressure after announcing a controversial candidate with a Communist past for a key role.



The tagline: The wronged man.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Aden Young, J. Smith-Cameron, Clayne Crawford, Luke Kirby, Jake Austin Walker

It’s rare to find a show that truly wants to take its time with meticulous, measured storytelling. In an age where the prime demographic seems obsessed with shiny, flashy, fast-moving dramas, Rectify is almost a throwback. But what an achievement… It chronicles the difficult return to society and his local community of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who has spent 19 years in prison for a murder that DNA techniques have proved he didn’t commit. Daniel’s tough transition was never less than gripping and we’re thrilled that the series is getting more than the initial six episodes.

Best episode: Jacob’s Ladder. Hallucinatory, violent and emotionally shattering, it brings the first run of episodes to a close leaving you wanting more.


The Vikings

The tagline: The Norse gods.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgard, Jessalyn Gilsig

Few would have predicted that a drama made for the US History channel (not exactly the first destination on viewers’ minds for quality fiction) and overseen by The Tudors’ Michael Hirst would be quite so compelling and rich. But The Vikings won us over quickly with a healthy dollop of action and character development driven by a look at the society of the time in amongst all the axe swinging. The show has since launched Travis Fimmel into the next level of his career, as he’s now on track to star in Duncan Jones’ Warcraft.

Best episode: Burial Of The Dead. After posturing, betrayal and a high level of smack talk, Ragnar and Earl Haraldson finally have their reckoning.



The tagline: If anything can go wrong…
This year saw: Series 8
Cast: Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Mark A. Sheppard, Osric Chau, Felicia Day

After a relatively lacklustre season 7, the consistently underrated Supernatural was back on form. Brothers Dean (Ackles) and Sam (Padalecki) Winchester continue fighting demons and killing things while bickering, this time with an arc that sees them attempting to lock the gates of Hell forever. As you’d expect of this particular pair of walking disasters, everything that could go wrong does so, amid brilliantly bizarre episodes that see them fighting cartoon tropes, golems, time-travellers, LARPers and gods. This season also features a Winchester wielding Mjolnir, just in case you needed some superheroics for good measure.

Best episode: Bitten, an almost Winchester-free story of werewolves and found footage.



The tagline: The small-town thriller.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker, Andrew Buchan, Adam Wilson

David Tennant leaves the Doctor’s spirited whimsy behind and layers on a coating of grim determination and haunted detective work in this attention-grabbing, onion-peeling mystery drama from Chris Chibnall. Olivia Colman also shines as the local copper who resents, but ends up respecting, the new arrival. The blend of small town attitudes and a bubbling undercurrent of crime and murder made it one of the more watchable examples of British police drama this year. No wonder America has snapped it up for a remake, with Tennant travelling to star.

Best episode: Episode 8, where the truth comes out and nothing will be the same again.



The tagline: The me, me, me generation.
This year saw: Series 2
Cast: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver

Though series 2 dived into a much darker and lonelier place than the first, particularly with Dunham’s Hannah confronting her OCD, Girls remains sparky, solid entertainment. Delving into the lives of a close-knit (well, not always) group of 20-something women in Brooklyn, Girls is an often unflinching look at love, lust, life, work and how it can be tough to figure them out. Wade through the controversies and you’ll find at its heart a story of people simply trying to cope as the world shifts around them.

Best episode: Bad Friend, which sees Hannah do cocaine for the first time with predictably manic results.



The tagline: The scuffed copper.
This year saw: Series 3
Cast: Idris Elba, Warren Brown, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Nikki Amuka-Bird

We might not see much more of John “Loofah” Luther thanks to Elba’s inconveniently exploding film career, but we’re grateful that he, creator Neil Cross and the rest of the team came back to offer these four supercharged episodes. Here, Luther’s intemperate actions catch up with him again, as an investigation is launched into his methods. Still, it didn’t stop the man known for the thousand-yard glower and the ability to shout every other word from doing what he does best: tracking down villains, no matter the cost.

Best episode: 3.1, featuring the creepy serial killer-under-the-bed scene that gave people nightmares.


Orphan Black

The tagline: The clone ranger.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Tatiana Maslany, Kevin Hanchard, Dylan Bruce, Jordan Gavaris, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Few shows have launched a star quite as fully fledged as Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany. As a young woman who discovers she’s actually a clone, and that several variants sharing her DNA are out there in the world, Maslany has somehow made playing seven identical yet distinctly different women look easy. Thanks to some impressive effects and solid writing, the sci-fi drama feels human and dramatic rather than techy or gimmicky, and sees Maslany backed up by some fine fellow performers, particularly Gavaris as the louche, funny Felix, her foster brother. It’s no surprise that they’ve been quickly snapped up for guest spots on other shows, but we’re glad to see Orphan Black back next year.

Best episode: Variation Under Nature, where Sarah learns just how deep this cloning rabbit hole goes. At least, she thinks she does…

15. VEEP


The tagline: The political paddling pool.
This year saw: Series 2
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Sufe Bradshaw

Armando Iannucci’s searing satire of American politics went from strength to strength in series 2, anchored by a winning, willing and freakin’ funny performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s not just her show – she’s surrounded by hilarious folk, including Hale (who won an Emmy alongside his TV boss this year), Walsh, Scott and Chlumsky. Plus, there’s a superb well of other players who pop in and out and have adapted perfectly to the way in which Iannucci and his writers work. It’s gratifying to see that the Thick Of It formula works so well – albeit tweaked – in the US political system, which offers no shortage of material.

Best episode: Running, which saw Selina on happy pills, big political planning afoot and insults flying thick and fast.



The tagline: The high concept crime drama.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: James Spader, Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Ryan Eggold, Harry Lennix

Crime dramas are always looking for a fresh tweak and The Blacklist provided one, thanks to the idea of master criminal Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) turning himself in to offer the FBI a list with the location and methods of the world’s most wanted baddies. It could have fallen prey to a host of clichés, but Spader’s scenery-chewing performance and Boone as the heart of the show make it so much more. Knowing Spader is there has attracted some solid guest stars as the villain of the week, and everything looks like a film thanks to a pilot and selected other episodes from Joe Carnahan. Can it keep the twists coming and the concept fresh? That remains to be seen, but it’s strong out of the gate.

Best episode: Pilot. Everything is set in play and it’s a great start for the show.



The tagline: The stylish cannibal.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Laurence Fishburne, Scott Thompson

In the serial killer head-to-head, it appeared from first glance that The Following would get all the attention and Hannibal would be the underdog. Consider the marks against it: an attempt to adapt Thomas Harris’ book and iconic Hannibal Lecter character, which had already spawned a multiple-Oscar-winning movie, on a TV budget with the usual gore/language restrictions. And guiding it was Bryan Fuller, a man with a reputation for quirky and quickly-cancelled shows. Happily, thanks to great work from Dancy, Mikkelsen and the rest of the cast and some startling visual panache from producing director David Slade, Hannibal proved itself head, shoulders, lungs, heart, kidneys and spleen ahead of the competition and developed a devoted online fanbase.

Best episode: Trou Normand, which offers a particularly chilling crime scene and great interactions between Will Graham and Dr. Lecter..


Orange is the New Black

The tagline: The prison drama with a twist.
This year saw: Series 1
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, Emma Myles, Laura Prepon

Though House Of Cards grabbed the initial headlines thanks to its creative pedigree and starry cast for Netflix’s big original content launch, Orange – which sees Weeds creator Jenji Kohan adapting Piper Kerman’s real-life memoir of time spent in a women’s prison – was soon garnering an equal level of buzz and, more importantly, praise. Featuring fascinating, fleshed-out characters, a female-focused cast, interesting takes on the usual prison tropes and some great performances, it earned a deserved early renewal. Particular kudos to Uzo Aduba as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes Warren”, turning what could have been a one-note role into a heart-breaking favourite.

Best episode: The Chickening, which had some of the best comedy moments on the show, and a standout turn from Kate Mulgrew as Russian cook Red.



The tagline: The police drama for today’s world.
This year saw: Series 5
Cast: Michael Cudlitz, Shawn Hatosy, Regina King, Ben McKenzie, C. Thomas Howell

Southland struggled in the ratings for most of its life, cancelled by US network NBC after two years and revived by cable channel TNT. Though it never challenged the franchise behemoths in the ratings, it is a critically beloved show for good reason. Featuring complicated, interlinking stories and characters that drilled down to explore the life of police officers at a much deeper level than some of the competition, the show was at its best when it was focused. Sadly, after its cancellation this year we must bid goodbye to the officers of the LAPD, and they will be missed.

Best episode: Chaos, which offered a kidnapping and a brutal shock for the team.



The tagline: The modern-day Western.
This year saw: Series 4
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Erica Tazel

Following a barnstorming series 2 (think Margo Martindale’s searing, award-scooping work as villain Mags), and a series 3 that perhaps suffered from her absence, the fourth run of Justified proved it still has what it takes. Olyphant continues to impress as the central trigger-happy U.S. Marshal, while Goggins remains the show’s MVP as the cunning, calculating and charming Boyd Crowder. But perhaps the series’ biggest strength is its deep supporting cast, including the likes of veteran Jere Burns and guests like the inimitable Patton Oswalt.

Best episode: Decoy, where Olyphant’s Raylan must whisk a suspect out of Harlan before his partners take him out. It will not be easy…