The Best New Shows of 2013
As the year draws to its close, the time comes to debate the merits of everything that happened over the course of the past year. Among the time honored rituals in the world of television criticism is putting together various lists highlighting the best of the past 12 months of TV. And let me tell you, that is a particularly difficult task this year.
2013 was an incredible year for television. And when it comes to picking the best new television show of the year, it's a nearly impossible task. I easily came up with a list of ten excellent shows that could take the title. Alas, I'm only allowed to select one winner (and, mercifully, two runners-up). So, after much internal debate, and quite a bit of guilt (assuaged a bit by the knowledge that three deserving but unchosen shows will get their due when I write up my Best Foreign Show of 2013 piece next week), I have selected this year's Best New Show, along with two additional excellent shows that just missed getting the title.
Second Runner-Up: Rectify (Sundance Channel)
The Sundance Channel had an incredible year, and I could have easily chosen any of the three shows it premiered this year (The Returned
and Top of the Lake
being the other two) as one of the best new shows of the year. But Rectify
stood out just a bit more than the others for two reasons.
First, the show is a master class in how stillness on screen can be a compelling acting and directorial choice. The show centers on Daniel Holden who was convicted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend as a teenager and sent to death row. When new DNA evidence casts doubt on his conviction, he is released and must return to life in his hometown where a pall of suspicion still hangs over him. In many ways, Rectify
is the opposite of Orange is the New Black
. I'm sure Piper longs for the solitude Daniel experiences once he returns to his old life. For long minutes, the camera is trained on Daniel as he sits in his room, alone with his thoughts. After years alone in a cell, he no longer has the ability to deal with normal human interactions, and simple things we take for granted, such as trips to the local supermarket, are terrifying and overwhelming. Every movement Daniel makes is calculated and tinged with fear, and, as a result, each movement really matters. It's incredible to watch Aden Young (Daniel) portray this broken man.
The other reason Rectify
is a cut above is found in the story arc. The first season is only six episodes long. In those six episodes, we learn a bit about Daniel's family and start to get glimpses into who Daniel truly is under the years of trauma and isolation. But this series relishes the slow burn. We don't get any major answers to our burning questions. We don't learn if Daniel is indeed guilty or innocent. We don't find out the secret Daniel's former high school friends are desperate to hide (although it certainly appears to have a link to the murder). And, you know what? That's perfectly fine. Each knew piece of knowledge is a treasure and a piece of a complex but intriguing puzzle. Thankfully, the series will return this spring with new episodes. But, hopefully, only a few new answers, as I, for one, want to enjoy this series for as long as possible.
First Runner-Up: Hannibal (NBC)
Honestly, when I first heard NBC was putting together a television series about Hannibal Lector, I rolled my eyes. After all, there have already been five films featuring the character, along with four novels written by Thomas Harris. What more could be done with such overused material? Well, it turns out that there is still plenty to glean from everyone's favorite cannibalistic serial killer. All the story needed was the steady hand and incredibly artistic eye of Bryan Fuller to make Hannibal compelling once more.
The series focuses on Hannibal's relationship with Will Graham (who is the central character in Harris's Red Dragon
novel, as well as in the film by the same name and the film Manhunter
), which is tumultuous at best. The interaction between the two characters is enhanced by the superb work of Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) and Hugh Dancy (Will). The pair are mesmerizing to watch, and Mikkelsen, in particular, gives a tour de force performance that makes the role his own.
However, what sets Hannibal
apart from other crime thrillers is its handling of violence. Yes, there is violence present. After all, the central characters are FBI profilers who work with a cannibalistic serial killer (although, of course, they don't know that yet). But unlike other shows that deal in gore and death of the week stories, Fuller elevates the death to an art-like quality. Fuller is known for creating distinct television worlds awash with color and charm (see Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, or Pushing Daisies
). Here, he films in dark tones, with bursts of color only used sparingly. The kill scenes are artistically framed and the gore isn't highlighted. It's this eye for stunning visuals, combined with incredible acting and writing, that makes Hannibal
the second best new show on TV this year.
The Best New Show of 2013: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
No one thought that Orange is the New Black
would turn into the phenomenon it has become. After all, Netflix barely promoted the series (compared to the influx of promotion it provided for its other three original shows), and it certainly didn't have big name stars attached to it like House of Cards
. But through positive word of mouth (both from viewers and critics), the series blossomed into a huge hit for the streaming website. And you know what? It totally deserves its success, because it is truly an incredible piece of television.
The series follows privileged Piper Chapman as she enters federal prison after being convicted for her role in a drug trafficking operation. We share her pain as she is separated from her family, her frustration and fear as she tries to assimilate into prison culture, and laugh with her as she fends off the clumsy advances of Crazy Eyes, a fellow inmate who wants Piper as her prison wife. Taylor Schilling is great as Piper in the show's early episodes, offering us a look into Piper's psyche and creating a sympathetic character for us to root for. But she's even better as the season progresses and we rightfully begin to doubt Piper's trustworthiness as our eyes and ears in the prison community.
It isn't until a few episodes into the season that you come to realize that while Piper may be the show's protagonist, her story isn't the only one being told. What elevates Orange is the New Black above and beyond so many shows currently on the air is that it is an ensemble show in the truest sense of the word. Throughout the course of season one the writers slowly begin to peel back the many layers of the show's various characters. The caricatures and one-dimensional characters Piper led us to believe inhabited the prison are torn down and replaced with vibrant and damaged women, each with her own incredible story to tell.
Wrapped up in tales of pain, heartbreak, and loss, we being to see these women (and the few men that dot the cast) in a new and different light. That slow burn storytelling is what makes this show exceptional. The writing is excellent, drama mixed with humor. The acting is amazing, with veteran actresses like Kate Mulgrew and Natasha Lyonne holding court, but also ceding the spotlight to new up-and-coming talents such as Uzo Aduba (the aforementioned Crazy Eyes) and Danielle Brooks. With still months to go before the second season is released, the only consolation is that the show is still available and streaming on Netflix. Who would have thought a trip inside prison walls could be such an amazing experience?