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12.16.2013by: Paul Shirey

Top 10 TV Shows of 2013

TV is king these days, which isn't to say that there aren't some outstanding films in circulation, but when it comes to serialized filmed entertainment it's hard to beat the massive crop of shows from a number of different networks that deliver the goods on a week-to-week basis. It's near impossible to put together a Top 10 list with so many great shows out there, so the criteria was to focus on those that had the most exceptional writing, stellar performances, epic productions, shocking sequences, heartbreaking (or gut-busting) finales, and impressive debuts. From shows we've loved for years to shows we just met and to shows we're saying goodbye to, this list encompasses our favorites of the year.

10. Justified

Justified, based on the stories and characters from the late Elmore Leonard, is one of the most consistent cop shows on TV. What that consists of is a vibrant batch of characters that come and go (sometimes rather heinously) in a southern setting that feels every bit as wild west as it is modern day. Starring Timothy Olyphant as Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens (in a role he was simply born to play), the show takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky where the U.S. Marshall's service office there runs through all manner of criminals, especially the local backwoods gangs, mobs, thugs, dealers, and downright nastiest of the nasty. Season 4 saw Raylan dealing with a pregnant ex flame (Natalie Zea), a mysterious bag that implicates a high-level mobster, his imprisoned (and hateful) father, and the continued chase of his long-time former friend and current number one enemy, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), the perfect foil for Raylan's "justified" lawman.

What makes this show so great is that it reads like the best of Elmore Leonard's work, which is all about seedy, lowlife characters mixed with hard-edged protagonists, who are all embodied brilliantly by the diverse cast, who often play way against type. Recurring characters played by Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Jere Burns, as well as seasonal stars like Raymond J. Barry, Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough, Ron Eldard, and Patton Oswalt all get the opportunity to cut loose and have fun in roles that are rather non-traditional for each. This is a modern-day cowboy show and never ceases to deliver on the goods: shoot-outs, shit talk, street fights, shady villains, sexy (and tough) damsels, and some of the best scene chewing on TV. Saddle us up for season 5.

9. Orange Is The New Black

Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, this women-in-prison dramedy is another knock out of the park for Netflix paired with House of Cards. Starring Taylor Schilling as Piper, a woman who is sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for drug trafficking, the show focuses on the day-to-day lives of the various women locked up in the New York set penitentiary. The premise is appealing enough, but it's the diverse characters and their individual quirks (and crimes) that make the show so riveting (and hilarious). Schilling's Piper is the lead and she plays the well-to-do-white-girl-in-prison perfectly against her castmates, who range from all different races, backgrounds, religions, etc. making for an interesting dynamic of rivalries and friendships. The prison staff also play a large role here and it's great to see that aspect without the usual expected stereotypes (albeit with a few that work).

Joining Schilling is Laura Prepon (That 70's Show) who is like the evil twin of Scarlett Johansson, playing a drug kingpin and former lover that is responsible for Piper's imprisonment. The supporting cast, especially Kate Mulgrew as a Russian cook, Taryn Manning as a religious zealot, and Pablo Schreiber as the immoral guard regarded as "Pornstache," are all fantastic and make for a show that's part comedy, part drama, and pure entertainment. It's got some balls for a women's prison show, too, as there are quite a few moments you won't see coming (or at least hoped not to) and you'll quickly find yourself picking favorites. We look forward to being locked up for season two.

8. Arrow

With the lackluster performance of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., those hungry for a true comic-book show that isn't afraid to BE a comic book show need look no further than CW's Arrow. Built on the back of the 10-season strong Smallville, Arrow takes a similar direction, following the exploits of Oliver Queen, the green archer out for vengeance against those that would poison his home, Starling City, with crime and corruption. A simple premise, but with a more immersive set of characters, situations, and background. Chock full of DC Easter Eggs and flat out adaptations of various characters in the DCU, Arrow went from cool to kickass within one season, segueing into a second season that opened the floodgates of comic book lore.

Stephen Amell is perfectly cast (right down to the physical prowess) of Queen and the supporting cast is a mash-up of the young and sexy with some brutish villains tossed into the mix; not unlike what you'd see if you flipped open a monthly book. The real strength of Arrow is that it owns its roots and isn't afraid to reach into the DCU playground it's a part of. Characters like Deathstroke, Killshot, China White, Bronze Tiger, Count Vertigo, The Huntress, Black Canary, and hints of Suicide Squad and The League of Shadows (including Ra's Al Ghul) make for a show that feels very much like the source material it represents, rather than one that walks the line (coughAgentsofS.H.I.E.L.D.cough). With the introduction of Barry Allen and his origin as The Flash taking place in the mid-season finale, we feel like we're living within the pages of a comic, making Arrow the best comic-book TV show on the air.

7. Eastbound and Down

One of the funniest shows ever made, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green's Eastbound and Down, which chronicles the exploits of the brash, arrogant, crude, and immoral former professional baseball player Kenny Powers, is a perfectly odd, eclectic, and batshit crazy series that never ceased to make us laugh. Even after the strange turn it took in its second season, the show brought a level of humor that fit the comedic style of star Danny McBride, while never letting him simply devolve into a cartoon. Weird as it may sound, Kenny Powers had depth, which isn't what you'd expect to find in a show like this. It's made even better by series regulars Katy Mixon, Steve Little, John Hawkes, and Elizabeth De Razzo.

The fourth and final season closed up shop this year, leaving behind a legacy of antics that are ripe for a revisit, even as the last season still lingers on the brain. After exploring his role as a P.E. coach in the first season, a minor league player in Mexico for the second, and his rise to the minors in the states for the 3rd, we watched Kenny's final evolution into a TV personality and author in the 4th, which was a fitting end to his over-the-top world. With an awesome mix of guest stars throughout the series, including Will Ferrell, Jason Sudeikis, Don Johnson, Michael Pena, Craig Robinson, Lily Tomlin, and Adam Scott (amongst others) the life and times of Kenny Powers were brought to life with gut-busting hilarity, McBride leading the charge into comedy gold territory.

6. American Horror Story: Coven

Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have found a golden goose in the horror anthology series American Horror Story and the third season sees a continuation of that success with American Horror Story: Coven, which focuses on, what else, witches. Featuring a smattering of returning stars from the last two seasons, repurposed into different roles, the show taps into the dark, macabre, sexy, and supernatural elements of horror that can oftentimes make the show feel like a season long episode of Tales From The Crypt. And, that's not a bad thing at all. It's a show that pushes the boundaries of TV ratings, leaving out only F-bombs and a full frontal nudity. Everything else is fair game it seems and that makes for some unadulterated fun.

This season has seen the return of Jessica Lange as the lead character, this time as the "supreme," a ruling witch who is every bit as nasty, evil, and deviously awesome as she has been in previous seasons. The supporting cast has been a lot of fun as well with both Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates playing immortal witches with a lot of character and up-and-comers Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, and Gabourey Sidibe playing some of the younger members of the coven, each with their own dubious idiosyncrasies. The show is delicious horror fun, replete with all the blood, gore, sex, and violence that goes hand-in-hand with the genre, while keeping it fresh from season to season and this one has been chock full of the good stuff.

5. The Walking Dead

After starting off as a mostly faithful adaptation of the comic book by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead has slowly morphed and changed into a show that stands as an alternate universe version of the source material. This isn't to say that there aren't nods to the original books, but at this juncture much of it exists on a different wavelength. After dealing with the ruthless Governor last season, the show focused mainly on "prison life" for season four, allowing things to slow down a bit (too much in some instances) and get to know some of the old and new characters a bit more intimately. It seemed like it may be headed into a state of limbo for a while there, but the reintroduction of David Morrissey's The Governor late in the season as well as tension-filled outbreak in the disease-infested quarantine area of the prison lit the fuse once again, leading to a mid-season finale that literally blew the gates open.

Seeing shades of the classic confrontation of The Governor vs. the prison from the comics was more than enough to get our juices flowing for the series again and proved once more that no one is safe, no matter how much you may love them (but, seriously, you kill Darryl and we're out). Andrew Lincoln continues to own the role of Rick Grimes, making him a deeply flawed protagonist that we can relate to and many of the supporting characters have stepped up their game, including Michonne, Maggie, Carol, and even Carl, who is finally out of "annoying" territory. Regardless of the shows deviations from the source material, The Walking Dead continues to be a bloody good zombie romp that invests us in the characters each week...only to take them away from us in the next.

4. House of Cards

Based on the British mini series of the same name, House of Cards debuted all 13 episodes of its first season on Netflix and became an overnight success, garnering great reviews and a strong reception from viewers. Starring Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a particularly cunning and ruthless South Carolina Congressman, the political drama/thriller isn't the usual cup of tea for the average binge watcher, yet with director David Fincher and writer/showrunner Beau Williomon on board the proceedings the show fires off like a slow burn of intrigue, suspense, and deceit that make a compelling watch for a back-door view of Washington politics. Toss in the seedier side of things like drug addiction, mudslinging, blackmail, and intricately planned power plays and you have a show that's more appetizing than you'd ever imagine.

Terrific performances from Robin Wright, as Underwood's career-minded wife, Kate Mara, as an up-and-coming journalist and mistress to Underwood, and Corey Stoll as an afflicted Congressman only serve to enhance the absolute pitch perfect casting of Spacey as the lead. It's no surprise that Spacey would kill in a role like this, but that doesn't lessen the impact; the words roll off his tongue with a venomous sting and it's a pure joy to watch him weave his malicious and self-serving webs, which he dictates to the camera as if confiding in a trusted friend. You should hate him and everything he stands for, but he's such a charming devil that you may well find yourself rooting him on. That's a hell of a convincing act and the show has won our vote for season two.

3. Sons of Anarchy

Kurt Sutterís Hamlet-on-Harleyís biker drama on FX entered itís sixth season with a bang (literally) that once again pushed the limits of cable TV. The rebel bikers of SAMCRO had to deal with a school shooting, an especially deceptive fake pregnancy, a double cross from the IRA that resulted in the destruction of their clubhouse, a rogue former federal marshall, and betrayals stacked upon betrayals, making for one hell of an anxiety-ridden season. Toss in the loss of two major players who have been with the show since the beginning (and a handful of side characters to boot) and you can feel the walls closing in on everyone. Well, those that are left, anyway.

Everyone was on top of their game this season, but major kudos go to both Katey Segal, once again playing the ruthless, conniving "hard mother" Gemma, and Maggie Siff, who both pull out all the emotional stops for this heartbreaking season. This penultimate season was wrought with the kind of intensity, frustration, and downright shock that Sutter has become renowned for, especially with the gut-wrenching finale. Itís been a hell of a ride and we canít wait to see how it all shakes out for the final chapter next year.

2. Game of Thrones

One of the most-anticipated seasons of any series, due largely to a little thing called "The Red Wedding," the third season of HBO's Game of Thrones delivered in spades in adapting the first half of author George R.R. Martin's book, A Storm of Swords. Widely considered the best of the series, the book was broken into two seasons (3 & 4) by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, in order to capitalize on the wide array of events that transpire throughout it's entirety. The third season could easily be looked upon as The Empire Strikes Back of the series, but then again every book in the series could be considered that as well.

Stunning locations, set design, effects, and direction serve to enhance the smorgasbord of awesome characters, brilliantly portrayed by a diverse cast that have captured the essence of Martin's books to a tee. The third season saw a number of key events: Jon Snow went further beyond The Wall (and back again), King Joffrey got engaged, Tyrion Lannister got married (to Sansa Stark, no less), Daenerys unleashed her dragons and acquired an army, Jamie Lannister lost an appendage, and of course a not-so-happy wedding ceremony for Robb Stark, which spawned a hell of a reaction, particularly from those who had never read the book (or spoiled it for themselves online). One thing is for certain, though: Game of Thrones continues to be one of the most enthralling shows on television and it's only getting better.

1. Breaking Bad

The end of Heisenberg! A truly nail-biting finish to one of the greatest shows ever made, the final season of Breaking Bad brought all the actions of both Walter White aka Heisenberg (brilliantly played once again by Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to a boil, redefining the word "cliffhanger" in a big way. It was agony waiting seven days between episodes as we saw the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin sink into a well of pain, suffering, deceit, betrayal, and madness as he fought off his competition, his family, and himself in seeking redemption, closure, and revenge for the mess he made of everything.

Wrapping up a series is no easy task (just ask Damon Lindelof), but creator Vince Gilligan managed the impossible task of closing out multiple storylines in a neat, perfect, bloody little bow that felt fitting, righteous, and earned for a show we invested so much time, thought, love, and turmoil into. The sheer intensity, rage, anxiety, and heartbreak that filled every episode was almost too much to bear and now it's like a well run dry. We'll miss all our favorites; Hank, Flynn, Skylar, Saul, Marie, Mike, Gustavo, Badger, Skinny Pete, and many others who helped make Breaking Bad such a monumental show. And we'll certainly never hear the sound of a call bell the same again.

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