By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 26, 2013 at 1:03PM
For now at least, many of the stalwarts of the cable drama world are still going, so relatively few new ones were premiered, and those that were ("The Newsroom," "Bates Motel") felt pretty underwhelming to us. The happy exception was "The Americans," created by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg, and produced by "Justified" mastermind Graham Yost. The series had an irresistible premise -- a married couple in D.C in the 1980s, who are secretly long-embedded KGB agents, whose union is technically a sham, but seems to have become more and more real as time's gone on. That said, irresistible premises haven't always led to anything more than a decent pilot, but "The Americans" started strong, and only got better over time. Anchored by a trio of phenomenal performances from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the central duo, plus Noah Emmerich as their FBI Agent neighbor, the series flirts with the edges of credulity thanks to some positively "Alias"-esque spy plots and disguises, but balances it out both with its beautifully detailed period setting (complete with great and surprising musical choices from the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins), and by grounding the whole thing in domestic drama. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings might be stealing missile plans and battling West German assassins, but they're doing so while trying to keep their marriage and family intact. On paper, that makes it seem like a sort of TV take on "Mr. And Mrs. Smith" or something, but by seeing this world through the eyes of the "enemy," it lends their actions real weight and consequences. Which isn't to say that it isn't fun -- it's one of the most entertaining spy series we can remember -- but it's not lightweight either, and all the better for it. Viewing figures dropped off swiftly for the show, but not before a second season had been commissioned; hopefully people check it out over the summer, because we'd love to see this one run and run.
Best Episode: "Only You," which sees Derek Luke's Gregory, a radical who's also been Elizabeth's lover for years, come front and center.
We're cheating a little bit here with a double bill, but if you can't lump in two superb animations with great vocal turns from Kristen Schaal here, when can you do it? To be honest, we haven't been big animation people since "The Simpsons" went off the boil -- Seth MacFarlane's shows leave us cold, we stopped keeping up with "South Park" a while back, and we're a bit baffled by "Adventure Time," meaning that only "Archer" has been holding up the fort (and even that show had a solid fourth season without quite hitting past glories, hence it dropping off the list this year). But two shows showed us the light this year, one a big comedy that's finding an ever-growing audience, and another that you've probably barely heard of. The past season saw us finally get on the "Bob's Burgers" train (along with many others; it was one of the few shows whose ratings actually grew in 2012/2013), and all of those who've been calling it the true successor to "The Simpsons" are entirely correct. The series (about a dysfunctional family who run a burger restaurant, as the title might suggest) falls right between Matt Groening's masterpiece and the taboo-pushing MacFarlane stable, but it gets the balance just right; it's odd, a little surreal, occasionally smutty (not least when it comes to Tina, the eldest of the children, and her stormy hormones) and has a deceptively large heart. The low-key tone can take a few episodes to find the rhythm of, but you'll be soon hooked. Meanwhile, while Schaal plays youngest daughter/trickster god Louise on "Bob's Burgers," she pops up as Mabel in "Gravity Falls." Created by Alex Hirsch, it airs on the Disney Channel (probably why you haven't heard of it), and owes as much as "Bob's Burgers" to peak period "Simpsons," while cross-breeding it with "The X-Files," "Twin Peaks," "Freaks & Geeks" and "The Hardy Boys" along the way. Following two preteens (the other played by Jason Ritter) on an extended vacation with their uncle in the titular town, which is plagued by all manner of paranormal activity, from gnomes to a Miyazaki-esque candy monster, it's very, very funny, gloriously weird, intricately plotted, and features Alfred Molina as the voice of the Swedish-pop-loving Multi-Bear. Oh, and it looks gorgeous. What more could you want? It's been frustrating to watch the show, because it airs in fits and starts (three episodes, then an absence of months), and we're not sure if that's usual for the Disney Channel or not. But hopefully, as its cult grows, it'll move to a more regular schedule.
Best Episode: For "Bob's Burgers," the highlight was "Mother Daughter Laser Razor," which exemplifies so much of what the show does well. For "Gravity Falls," it's "The Inconveniencing," which blends awkward coming-of-age with convenience store ghosts.
Ok, ok, don't yell at us all at once. "Breaking Bad" is undoubtedly one of the best, most important shows of the current era, and will go down in the history books alongside "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" as a classic. And there was the usual mix of greatness in the first half of the final season when it ended last summer. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul remain titanic as Walter and Jesse, it's directed as well as anything on television and the twists and turns can make you gasp more than anything else on the air. And perhaps most importantly, it has such a handle on individual scenes and set pieces: even with its truncated run, it contained all kinds of memorable moments and set pieces, from the magnet-aided heist in the opening episode to its final shot. But, to our mind, for all the greatness in there, season 5.1 of "Breaking Bad" saw some of the flaws stick out a little bit more. It still doesn't know what to do with its female characters (something not helped much by the addition of Laura Fraser's Lydia, who's pretty much a straight lift of Tilda Swinton's character from "Michael Clayton"). It's plot-driven to such an extent that it doesn't necessarily have the weight of some of the other top tier dramas. And most crucially in this season, it accelerated the demonization of Walter. By the end of season four, Mr. White was rapidly heading towards the dark side, but still had some texture to him. By the start of season five (barely days later), he's become virtually irredeemable, and despite the greatness of Cranston's performance, it feels like a slightly different character. We don't want to dwell on the downsides too much; the show's still one of the most furiously entertaining programs on TV. But if you're wondering why it's number eight, rather than number one? Now you know.
Best Episode: "Dead Freight," which is basically a full-on western, and which features a train heist as thrilling as anything the show's ever done, and a button at the end that's as shocking.
There's something extraordinary about the way that "Game Of Thrones" has managed to capture the popular imagination. A little over two years ago, it was a serious risk: a hugely expensive, incredibly dense adaptation of the kind of books that most people would never dream of reading (at least judging by the covers), seemingly destined to be known as "Lord Of The Rings" with T&A. Now, its characters, settings and stars have penetrated to the zeitgeist to an impressive degree, as familiar as Frodo and Mos Eisley and Daniel Radcliffe, and major plot developments that can keep water coolers both real and virtual busy for days, if not weeks. Perhaps most impressively of all, it's stayed remarkably consistent across the three seasons so far; try to think of a truly duff episode of the show, and you'll likely struggle to find one. It's fair to say that in places in the third season, the show did drag a little. Sometimes it can feel like you're checking in perfunctorily on a character for five minutes just to remember where they are. And we're still not massively engaged with events North Of The Wall, despite the efforts of Ciaran Hinds and Rose Leslie this season. But even when the show isn't soaring, it's still an absolute pleasure to hear the best cast on TV (Diana Rigg and Paul Kaye among the highlights of the new additions) deliver deceptively great writing. And when it does soar -- Tywin Lannister and Lady Tyrell facing off, the turns in Jamie Lannister's story, Daenarys getting one up on the slave trader, the already-legendary Red Wedding -- there's nothing that gets the pulse pounding and the synapses firing in the same way. We're coming up to what we're told is a crunch point (apparently book four is the weakest of the bunch by some distance), but it's a testament to the continuing quality of "Game Of Thrones" that it's hard to envisage it ever dropping off our watch list.
Best Episode: It has to be "The Rains Of Castermere," which was a fine episode even until its climax, a moment that instantly entered the TV hall of fame.
It's so rare for a television series to go out on its own terms. Either no one watches a show and it's taken from us prematurely, as with this year's most-missed premature casualty, "Ben & Kate," or it becomes a huge hit, and networks decide to keep it on the air long past its natural lifespan ("Lost" and "The Office" spring to mind as recent examples). But Tina Fey's "30 Rock" fell in between -- never commercially successful enough to become a schedule mainstay, but just critically acclaimed enough to make it to seven seasons before Fey, Alec Baldwin and co decided to call it a day. And "30 Rock" is doubly rare, because not only did it pick its own exit date, but it also went on a season that, when all is said and done, may end up being considered its very best. Even during its slight dip in its fourth and fifth seasons, the show was always capable of inducing big laughs, but knowing that the end was near, seemed to have lead to an all-killer-no-filler run of episodes, going from Jack purposefully trying to tank the new NBC schedule to a finale that should be studied by future showrunners as a textbook example of how to wrap it up. The gags came at the same furious speed as before (if not more so), but it also managed to twang the heartstrings in a way that it had never quite done before (try not to sniffle a bit when Liz Lemon meets her soon-to-be-adopted kids). The ideal finale for a show brings things to an end in the most satisfying conclusion you could ask for, while making you reevaluate and reappraise the show that's gone before. Fey and co did that over not just their last episode, but the whole of their last season, and it was only as it drew to a close that we realized how much we'll miss a sitcom that deserves to sit among the greats.
Best Episode: Almost any (perhaps bar a slightly shaky election-related two-parter), but we'd have to go with the double-length finale "Hogcock!"/"Last Lunch," which was satisfying on just about every level.