By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 26, 2013 at 1:03PM
Unlike the movies, which do operate on a January-December basis when it comes to awards consideration, the TV season is a slightly different proposition. With ratings dipping in the summer, new shows tend to be unveiled in September or early fall, and are usually wrapping up by May. The rise of cable networks like FX and HBO has staggered this more, but the Emmys taking place in September tends to mean that the season has a more definitive end at this time of year.
Indeed, voting for the biggest and most prestigious TV awards closes on Friday, and as such, and as we've done the last few years, we thought we'd take the opportunity to take a look at some of the best TV of the 2012/2013 season. Voters certainly have a wealth of shows to choose from, but away from the domination of "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory" and company, there's all kinds of greatness that's likely to get overlooked when it comes to the nomination announcements.
Indeed, we found narrowing our (entirely subjective) choices down harder than ever this year; with new outlets like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and even the History Channel emerging, there's more original programming than ever before -- and crucially, more great original programming. We managed to chip it down to fifteen below, but it should be noted than at least the top five are pretty much interchangeable with each other. So what follows "Parks & Recreation" and "Mad Men," our victors the last two years, into the number one slot? Find out below, and let us know where you agree and disagree in the comments section below.
While it might have been revolutionary in its method of financing and delivery -- Netflix paid as much as $100 million for two seasons, and debuted the first in its entirety simultaneously on its streaming service -- "House Of Cards" didn't exactly reinvent the TV wheel when it came to its content, despite big movie names like David Fincher and Steve Zaillian in the credits. But while the show's likely to be remembered more for its method of distribution than for its drama, that doesn't mean that the 13-episode series was a disappointment. While perhaps not a very top-tier show, "House Of Cards" was still furiously entertaining, excellently acted and beautifully directed television. Expanding, and in many aspects improving on, the BBC original, the series followed Democratic congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)'s machinations after he's passed over for the Secretary of State job, with subplots that follow rising journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), young, troubled Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Underwood's wife Claire (Robin Wright). As we discussed earlier in the year, it has its flaws, undoubtedly, including some eye-rolling plot contrivances, a few sub-plots that go nowhere, that clunky product-placement, and some thin material for the female characters. But it also had one of the most complex portraits of marriages on television, some fine performances across the board (not least a star-making one from Stoll, who's going on to headline Guillermo Del Toro's series "The Strain"), and a confident aesthetic that saw filmmakers like James Foley and Joel Schumacher aping the style that Fincher established in the pilot. Not an unreserved success, creatively, but more than enough to land it on this list for us, and one senses that the show is only just starting to hit its stride (if it can get past the death of a certain key character, anyway...)
Best Episode: It divided fans, with some calling it the draggy low-light of the season, but we loved "Chapter Eight," which broke with formula to take Frank back to his military-school alma mater, fleshing him out and showing his humanity in a way that, for all its strengths, the original series never really came close to doing.
No one would have blamed you for avoiding "New Girl" based on the first couple of episodes, or even the initial marketing. For many, the show's never given them to reason to tune in after its "adorkable" tagline, or its uneven, awkward early episodes. But those who stuck around, or were tempted back, discovered the show picking up confidence over that first season. And in its second season, it really started to fly, somehow turning from something mostly skippable, to a consistently strong and thoroughly enjoyable series. The secret has been shifting emphasis away from Zooey Deschanel's Jess and making it more of an ensemble hang out -- arguably the most creatively successful of its kind since "Friends." Which is not to say that Deschanel's the weak link -- she's actually proven over the 50-odd episodes so far, that she's as talented a comedienne as you could ask for. But the rest of the cast -- Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris and Hannah Simone -- are easily her equal, and have more than found their feet this season (Morris still gets the weakest plotlines, but excels in each one). So when they're all on form, as they mostly have been across the second season (the show's great asset of late has been its sheer consistency), there's hardly anything else on air that can match it for laughs-per-episode. And yet it's more than just a gag delivery system; the show's excellent roster of indie-leaning guest directors including Lynn Shelton, Jesse Peretz, Larry Charles and Max Winkler lend "New Girl" an amiable looseness, and more importantly, a sincerity to its low-key gradual character development that insures that we care about real people, even when the show's at its broadest. There are TV shows that are doing more with the medium, sure, but few were as purely pleasurable to watch over the last twelve months as "New Girl."
Best Episode: Again, the last season or so proved to be so consistent that it's hard to separate from the pack. "Winston's Birthday" might have been the funniest, but we'd lean toward the more emotionally satisfying "Chicago," which saw the gang come together for the funeral of Nick's father (Dennis Farina), including predictably excellent guest spots from Margo Martindale and Nick Kroll.
"Parks and Recreation" -- now heading into its sixth season as the lynchpin of NBC's comedy line-up, something that seemed unthinkable a few years ago -- might not be the best comedy on TV any longer (indeed, after its pitch-perfect third season, we called it the best show on TV full stop). But it's all too easy to take it for granted at this point, and looking back over the fifth season, we're reminded of how much we'll miss it when it's gone. Moving away from the only semi-successful election arc in the previous season, things were shaken up just a little by placing Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler, in her finest run yet) inside the city council, where she butts head with the lazy, corrupt Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser of "Delocated," an appropriately repellent villain). And indeed, almost every character was allowed to grow or change or find new texture in a way that hadn't necessarily been as successful with the previous season -- Ron Swanson falls in love with a single mom played, appropriately, by Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless, Ann and Chris find their way back to each other, even the long-suffering Jerry gets a moment to shine as he retires. The actors -- still the deepest bench of a comic ensemble on TV -- know these characters like the back of their hands, and they're able to wring every single laugh out of the already outstanding scripts. And there was more emotion to the show this year than ever before, including several episodes that proved to be legitimately tear-jerking. Again, "Parks and Rec" hit such a high a few years back that it's easy to overlook it for the thrill for the new, but there's still a consistent brilliance to it that we hope long continues.
Best Episode: "Halloween Surprise," which shows the depth of the show's universe and pairs Nick Offerman with two preteens dressed as princesses, and closes off with the best marriage proposal we've seen in a long time.
Every year, we finish a season of "Justified" and fully expect it to figure in the top 5 when we come to compile this list. And every year, we find it pushed lower down by the stiff competition. Which is to say that its relatively low placing should not be taken as reason to avoid the show; "Justified" has been fantastic for the past three seasons, seemingly reaching a peak, and then finding new heights to hit. Seasons two and three focused on major antagonists -- Margo Martindale's Mags and Neal McDonough's Quarles -- but season four subtly reinvented itself, with the plot lines revolving around the search for a long-missing bank robber who has both the law and the Detroit Mob on his tail. And in doing so, it confirmed that over the years, Graham Yost and co have established in its Harlan County setting a world that's as rich, detailed and stacked with memorable characters as Pawnee or Westeros, and a lot of that world building paid off in the hunt for Drew Thompson. Timothy Olyphant got to play Raylan Givens as even more of a (lovable) asshole than before. Walton Goggins' Boyd continued to contain countless multitudes, and thrive as his back was against the wall, even as he paid a terrible cost by season's end. And virtually every character, from MVP recurring guest stars Jim Beaver and Ron Eldard to one-episode walk-ons, feels fully realized. On both a micro and a macro level, the show is plotted, acted and shot in a way that would make Elmore Leonard (creator of Raylan Givens) proud, and we can't really think of anything more pleasurable than the idea of a new Leonard tale every week; even if he wasn't directly involved, his spirit sings in every line or twist. Maybe it'll drop off one day, but for now, "Justified" keeps going from strength to strength.
Best Episode: Unquestionably "Decoy," an action-packed armrest-gripper that was more exciting than every summer blockbuster we've seen so far this year.
It's fair to say that "Girls" was the most-talked about series of 2012, at least in proportion to its relatively small ratings. It's probably also fair to say that the second season -- written before the first had even aired, and back on HBO barely six months on -- wasn't quite as triumphant a success as the first, probably because of that shortened time frame. In places (particularly a slightly questionable third episode that marks the series' lowest point so far) it felt more of a traditional sitcom than what we've come to expect from Lena Dunham's show, and it could benefit from letting the rest of the ensemble have as much time as Hannah, while the final run of episodes didn't build to as satisfying a conclusion as they did first time around. So sure, a slight case of second album syndrome. But when "Girls" is good, as it was for much of its sophomore season? It's really, really fucking good. The show came off the blocks with a confidence that belied its status as a relative newcomer (starting to address some of its concerns about a whitewashed NYC, even if only in passing), with the same big laughs, and stings of accuracy, that marked its earlier run. Like most modern sequels, it was darker, putting the characters through the wringer (most notably Marnie, who sung an excruciating karaoke song, and had a fling with the dreadful Booth Jonathan), and giving some of the supporting players, most notably Shoshanna and Ray, more texture. And yet its most exciting moments were when it broke from formula, turning episodes into weird, tonally dextrous little mini-movies (which feel inspired by "Louie" as much as anything to us). Even if the slight downward curve continues for the upcoming third season, "Girls" will still remain one of the best shows on TV.
Best Episode: "One Man's Trash," the aforementioned formally experimental, dreamlike half-hour that sees Dunham unexpectedly shack up for a few days with a lonesome divorcee played by Patrick Wilson. The show's critics saw it as a sort of wish-fulfillment, which was to somewhat miss the point...