2013 was a banner year in television. Now, more than ever, television became a destination event, with what was on the small screen often equaling, if not outright outclassing what was on the big screen. What changed radically, however, was how we watch television. While it’s certainly true that certain shows became must-see, watch-as-it-airs events, such as “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead” and “Games of Thrones,” other shows took an alternative route to such an extent that a new term had to be invented: binge-watching.
The surprising pioneer of such a thing? None other than Netflix. What a difference a few years makes! Back in 2011, many were predicting Netflix’s demise, after the decision was made to split up their on-line streaming and disc rentals into two separate services, leading to mass derision and subscribers leaving in droves. Fast forward a few years, and the entire way people have chosen to watch their favorite television shows has radically changed.
Now, it’s not at all uncommon for people to get together and watch entire seasons or more of a respective show in one sitting, making the Netflix streaming option a preferable one for many. Indeed, many have stopped watching “live” TV all together, losing pay cable services altogether, and even cable as a whole, in exchange for Netflix or the likes of Roku. After all, why have to wait from week-to-week for a show to air in real time, when you can watch several episodes in one setting as if it were one long movie or mini-series or what have you?
Netflix may have lost a lot of their subscribes to the likes of Redbox, who emerged as the leader of DVD and Blu-Ray rentals for new and popular films, but what they lost in at-home rentals, they regained as online streaming and binge-watching became the new standard. Smartly, the service took advantage of the new trend by offering up entire seasons of original programming in one fell swoop, some of which was exclusive to the channel. While some of it didn’t fly (Hi there, “Hemlock Grove” over there by your lonesome!), other shows garnered critical acclaim, and even award consideration, with the end result of Netflix being classified as its own channel.
And these weren’t some low-budget, tossed-off, internet cast-offs, mind you, but big ticket shows with name stars like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright (“House of Cards”), revivals of popular cult shows (“Arrested Development” and the forthcoming new season of the former AMC show “The Killing”), and the latest from respected show creators like Jenji Kohan, of “Weeds” fame (“Orange is the New Black”).
Add to this multiple award nominations, including Emmy and Golden Globe nods, plus an upcoming roll-out of a host of Marvel characters in their own series, including a reboot of Daredevil and an impending “The Defenders” mini-series that will tie all of it together, and you’ve got a mini-empire in the making that may not stay mini for too much longer. Not too shabby for a service many saw as dead in the water mere years ago.
2013 also saw the endings of some of our favorite shows, including, of course, “Breaking Bad,” as well as shows with strong cult followings, such as “Fringe,” “Futurama,” “Eastbound and Down” and “Dexter.” Though opinions varied on the ultimate outcomes of these shows, at least they went out on their own terms. Ditto some of the many characters that met often-untimely fates on faves like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Homeland” and, of all things, “Family Guy.” At least the latter has animation on its side, making a resurrection of the much-beloved Brian much more welcome than it might be on the likes of “The Walking Dead.” Although zombie Brian might be kinda cool, come to think of it!
Others went out more with a whimper than a bang, including cult favorite “Attack of the Show,” which saw its entire network, G4, go down in flames along with it; or at least a big sigh: we hardly knew ye, “Nikki & Sara Live.” Ditto “Gossip Girl,” “The Cleveland Show,” “Don’t Trust the ‘B_ _ _ _’ in Apt. 23,” “Bunheads,” “Smash,” “Victorious” and “Shake it Up!”
Some got the appropriate amount of fanfare, be it shows that were a tad past their prime, like “30 Rock” or “The Office,” or others that went out at the top of their game, like “Breaking Bad” or even the underappreciated “Nikita” or “Burn Notice.”
There were also the “Were those even still on?” shows that ended: “Private Practice,” “90210,” “CSI: NY,” “Happy Endings,” “Rules of Engagement,” and “Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Then there was the end of “Whitney,” whose creator, Whitney Cummings, also saw her E! talk show, “Love You, Mean It” cancelled, though her co-created “2 Broke Girls” managed to eke out another year, seemingly on the considerable power of Kat Dennings’ unstoppable snark.
I will, however, pour out a toast to the passing of “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” a clever, politically-oriented talk show that was co-produced by Chris Rock and shared his cutting-edge political humor, boasting a great roster of stand-up comedians with great bits on a host of topics. You will be missed, Mr. Bell and company. On a side note, though, what the what was that whole FXX thing all about? I’m still confused.
On the new show front, there were many pleasant surprises, including “Sleepy Hollow,” which sounded positively dreadful on paper, but was actually shockingly watchable and clever, thanks to a relatively unknown cast, including the winning team of Tom Mison (as a heavily revamped Ichabod Crane) and his partner Nicole Beharie, the rare female African-American lead of a major drama. (Don’t think I forgot you, the delightful Kerry Washington, of “Scandal” fame- and BTW, you killed it on “SNL”!) Also surprisingly fun was “Almost Human,” from the team that brought us “Fringe,” featuring a winning buddy cop formula involving a human (“Star Trek”-vet Karl Urban) and an android (Michael Ealy) solving crimes in the future.
I also enjoyed the Marvel brand extension that was ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” featuring sharp writing from “Buffy”-creator and “Avengers”-director Joss Whedon and his brother, among others, and a winning, likable cast of mostly newcomers, save erstwhile “Mulan” Ming-Na Wen and lead Clark Gregg, of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” fame. Though not without flaws, the show is a lot of fun, with some great comic allusions and cameos from the Marvel universe, including appearances from Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders.
Speaking of “Buffy,” the woman herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, rebounded from the iffy “Ringer” with the much-stronger effort, “The Crazy Ones,” which also served a comeback for comedian Robin Williams. Both are in fine form here, with Gellar a surprisingly solid foil for Williams as her much put-upon daughter. The show was a bit rickety at first, but got better quickly, with some great moments, including Gellar’s interaction with some high-minded and super-savvy Victoria’s Secret models and her recent videogame-induced meltdown. The key is in the deft ensemble, who play off each other wonderfully. You sense they’re having a lot of fun, and it translates to what’s on the screen. Ditto the getting-better-all-the-time “Mom,” with Allison Janney and Anna Faris.
Indeed, Janney had a banner year, between that show and the superlative “Masters of Sex,” which, along with the very-nearly-as-good “Ray Donovan,” proved that Showtime’s success with the likes of “Homeland” and “Shameless” was no fluke. Though “Homeland” was a bit off its game for most of the season, “Donovan” came out swinging, with superlative turns from lead Liev Schreiber and a love-to-hate-him turn from the legendary Jon Voight, in what may prove to be the performance of his career.
And don’t even get me started on the phenomenal “Masters of Sex,” which is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, right out of the gate. It makes the much-lauded “Mad Men” look like an old folks’ home, thanks to a sexy, charismatic turn from former “Mean Girl” Lizzy Caplan and a tightly-wound take from erstwhile Tony Blair, Michael Sheen. If this thing doesn’t sweep the floors with the competition during awards season, there’s no justice in the world.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention guilty pleasures like “Hello Ladies,” from original “Office” co-creator Stephen Merchant, which was often as painful to watch as it was funny; “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” with its unlikely-but-genius-in-retrospect teaming of goofball “SNL”-vet Andy Samberg and “Homicide” cop Andre Braugher, as a wonderfully un-cliché gay character stuck with him; and the getting-better-as-they-go-along CW genre shows “The Tomorrow People” (which features a great turn from former Jacob of “Lost” fame, Mark Pellegrino) and “The Originals,” a spin-off from “The Vampire Diaries” that might actually prove better than its sister show.
The most maddening-and compulsively watchable-shows of the year had to be the ever-more-twisted “Pretty Little Liars” (Well, hello there, Ali! Or not…maybe…agh!); the One-Degree-of-Kevin-Bacon serial killer drama “The Following”; “Bates Motel,” which featured a great cast, including Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates, and the hook of Norman (Freddie Highmore) being among the least crazy people in town.
Let us not forget the brilliantly refocused, truly nightmarish and always comment-worthy “American Horror Story,” who ventured into New Orleans in their third season, the witch-themed “Coven.”. Honestly, is there a better ensemble cast on television right now? I mean come on: Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, and Danny Houston; plus a gifted younger cast that includes a never-better Emma Roberts and “Precious”-star Gabourey Sidibe. And if you don’t love Lily Rabe as a Stevie Nicks worshipping, dead-reviving swamp witch, I’m not sure I want to know you. (Stevie herself will drop in on the next episode, scheduled for next Wednesday, January 8th.)
Also worth mentioning are the imported zombie-themed “The Returned” from the Sundance Channel, nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of the popular subgenre that could only come from France; the Thomas Harris-inspired “Hannibal,” featuring a demented reinvention of everyone’s favorite cannibal (with Bond Villain Mads Mikkelsen in the titular role) and a clever ongoing plotline involving a teenage girl who may or may not have been involved with her serial killer father’s murders and who just happens to be Hannibal’s psychiatric patient; and “Orphan Black,” a BBC offering that featured the most awe-inspiring performance- or should I say performances- from relative newcomer Tatiana Maslany, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her fantastic turns as a host of clones, all from different places, complete with different accents and personalities.
In short, 2013 was a winning year for great TV all around. Indeed, given the also stellar year in movies, I dare say the medium has forced Hollywood to raise its game to boot, and how can that be a bad thing? Honestly, the only truly bad thing about television was that there was too much good stuff to go around. Of course, there’s always binge-watching to catch up!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to re-watch the entirety of “Veronica Mars” before the big movie reboot comes out, then get caught up with “Parks and Recreation” and maybe watch “The Fall” with Gillian Anderson and “Top of the Lake” with Elizabeth Moss and then…oh, who needs a life, anyway?