"The ThinkProgress Year In Culture: ‘The Americans,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ And The Best TV Of 2013"
There is no area in which that’s more gloriously true than television, and never more so than in a year that proved that the so-called Golden Age of television isn’t close to over–it’s still in lift-off. Was it a breakout year for women, and thanks to Orange Is The New Black, Scandal and Sleepy Hollow, women of color in television? Absolutely. Was it a year when television got intensely small and personal, almost too intimate to talk about? Without question. But it was a year when it seemed like television was growing so quickly, and in so many directions, in quality as well as quantity, that it seems impossible to sum up 2013 in a single trend.
Instead, I went back and relived my year in watching television, from the outrageous bounty of spring and summer, to the dry airwaves of fall, with signs of renewal yet to come next January. These are the television shows, movies, documentaries, plot points, and character developments that hit me hardest and changed my thinking most in 2013.
Alex Gibney takes on clerical sex abuse in Mea Maxima Culpa. The world of television can be narrower and less curious than the one we actually live in. But in his powerful documentary about a group of deaf men who were subject to clerical sexual abuse, Alex Gibney uses stark cinematography to give voices to people who have often been denied them, highlighting their hands when they speak American Sign Language. And he illuminates a newer, and uglier, corner of a sad and familiar American story.
Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and members of the Central Park Five revisit a heinous failure of criminal justice. The prosecution of the so-called Central Park Five is an immensely ugly chapter in American journalism and criminal justice. Ken and Sarah Burns turned their documentary lens on the prosecutors, columnists, and even courtoom sketch artists who turned five young men into something less than human. And they gave space to let those boys, now men, explain what their lives were and what they are now.
Edith finally gets a job on Downton Abbey, writing a newspaper column, natch. Downton Abbey‘s gotten increasingly silly, but it was incredibly nice to see Lady Edith, the much-neglected, jilted middle sister finally find a purpose in life, namely, a newspaper column. Too bad the job has to come with a love interest with a wife in the madhouse to go with it. Edith could just use some time to do her.
30 Rock brings its exploration of gender, race, business, television, and having it all to an end. There was so much that was great about 30 Rock, from Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy’s shared terrible taste in partners, to the Six Sigmas, to Queen Of Jordan, that it was impossible to try to sum it up as Tina Fey’s game-changing, proudly silly, incredibly sharp exploration of network television pratfell its way out the door. I’m particularly fond of the show’s take on race, whether 30 Rock was educating us about the Black Crusaders, introducing us to the pleasures of Honky Grandma, or finally giving Grizz and Dot Com their own show. Or, as Tracy Jordan put it, “I could talk about how the moon is a spy satellite put there by Oprah and Minister Farrakhan and not the Minister Farrakhan you’re thinking of.”
The Americans, which ties with Orange Is The New Black for best new show of 2013, arrives on television to the tune of “Tusk!” Lushly soundtracked, elaborately-bewigged, full of Tragic Secretaries, and in a year of escalating movie destruction, smart about the ways in which lies and posturing heightened the dangers of the Cold War, The Americans was some of the most intelligent, enjoyable television of the year. Anchored by Kerri Russell’s steely performance as Elizabeth Jennings, a long-time undercover KGB agent, Matthew Rhys as her husband, who’s fallen in love with both Elizabeth and America, and Noah Emmerich as Stan, the kindly FBI agent who moves in across the street, The Americans simultaneously introduced a credible female anti-hero and tapped incredibly deep wells of feeling.
Lena Dunham’s weekend tryst with Patrick Wilson on Girls breaks the internet and starts a conversation about looks and what people deserve in sex and relationships. It’s hard to think of a show that prompts a higher ratio of internet firestorms to actual viewers. In its first season, the conversation about Girls centered around race and the media environment in which it had come to be. This year, the biggest explosion came after the bottle episode “One Man’s Trash,” which left some viewers flabbergasted by the idea that a man who looks like Patrick Wilson could possibly want to have sex with a woman who looks like Lena Dunham. The result was a sustained conversation about beauty standards, sexual chemistry, and the apparent mysteries of the human heart.
Justified dives deeper than ever into what it means to be a man, in particular, what it means to be a father and a son. Justified still hasn’t quite found a Big Bad as compelling as Mags Bennett. But as Raylan Givens chased a long-lost fugitive while dealing–or failing to deal–with both his impending fatherhood and his father’s decline, and Boyd Crowder hoped for a respectable life with Ava, the show offered up an atmospheric, powerful, and tender exploration of what it means to be a man. Now that’s a direction for anti-hero dramas to evolve towards.
Scandal smacks down House of Cards, proving that so-called soap opera can mine deeper truths about contemporary politics than “realistic” anti-hero drama. Scandal was already stepping up its game in its second season when Netflix released its highly-touted remake of the British mini-series House Of Cards. But the latter threw into sharp relief the virtues of the former. House Of Cards gestured at realism as a way to conceal its smug, highly detached view of power in Washington, while Scandal used the conventions of soap opera to capture the fever dream that is life in a racially volatile country and an ever-expanding surveillance state.
Ben and Leslie get married on Parks and Recreation, beginning a new and striking chapter in network television’s most feminist romance. I’m not ashamed to admit how many times I’ve watched idealistic Pawnee city government employees Ben Wyatt and Leslie Knope tie the knot (countless) or that the couple’s affirmation that they love each other and they like each other has become part of the language of my own romantic life. It was a lovely capstone to a story about a couple that exhibits a striking dynamic for popular culture: when sacrifices have been necessary, it’s been Ben who makes them as a vote of confidence in Leslie’s career.
In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, Enlightened turns into a piercing parable about taking the consequences of an activist life. I knew Aaron Swartz as a reader of and one-time contributor to this blog, rather than as the internet pioneer he was. As I learned more about his work after his death, it was impossible for me not to think about him as I watched the final season of HBO’s brilliant, criminally-ignored, and utterly uncategorizable Enlightened. Mike White’s kind, perceptive exploration of the gaps between one woman’s dream of making a difference in the world and her capacity to do it, her desire to do good and the vainglory that was inseparable from it, could be like the sun: so bright it was hard to look straight at it.
The death of Bunheads reminds us what’s missing from television: niceness and genuine sadness. The single dumbest, most tragic cancellation of a television show this year was ABC Family’s decision to kill Bunheads after a single season. The show about a former Vegas showgirl who ends up running a small ballet school on the California coast was kind, funny, pop-culture-literate in a way that made it Community‘s unrepentantly girlier cousin, and full of beautiful dance sequences. Television, and the cause of television as art, are poorer for its loss.
Top Of The Lake makes a splash as indie feminist crime drama arrives on the Sundance Channel. There’s a lot of talk about women fleeing feature films to television in search of better parts. But the Sundance Channel did itself and viewers a service by giving space to director Jane Campion to make this ferocious mini-series about a New Zealand detective investigating the pregnancy and disappearance of a teenager, revisiting her own youthful sexual assault, and navigating a land dispute in a rural area. Elisabeth Moss may have made her name in Mad Men, but in Top Of The Lake, she began showing off an even wider range of her talents.
Game of Thrones returns to television with a leveled-up third season. Game Of Thrones has been one of my favorite shows on television since its debut three years ago. But in its third season, particularly with the introduction of the Tyrells, the show stepped up to another level in its consideration of female power in misogynist societies, the depths of personal cruelty, and the early days of nascent states. There’s no show on television that manages as many storylines as deftly, or that has shown such a skill for casting actors, particularly newcomers.
With expanded roles for young women, Mad Men, The Americans, and Homeland provide an alternate lens on prestige television–it’s all young adult fiction. One of the prevailing ideas of the Golden Age of television is that it’s inextricable from a particular character trope–the white, middle-aged, male anti-hero. But the debut of The Americans, and the growings-up of Sally Draper and Dana Brody provided an alternate lens on the boom in quality television: maybe they’re all young adult fiction about young women coming of age with difficult fathers.
Mad Men makes its exploration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination a meditation white privilege. I was never as devoted to Mad Men as many of my peers, and this year, I found myself decisively over the show. But that didn’t mean it didn’t, at times, deliver. I was particularly fond of the show’s decision to use the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to explore the white privilege of the show’s relatively lily cast. It was a meta move, a nod to the show’s relative lag behind the actual diversification of the advertising industry, and it worked.
Behind The Candelabra is one of the best movies of the year–on HBO. Rob Lowe’s turn as Liberace’s plastic surgeon in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra is one of the greatest moments in camp of 2013. But the movie, about self-abnegation in the name of love, the way lack of legal recognition of gay relationships could poison those very relationships, and how hard it is to breathe under satin and rhinestones, is profoundly serious, and a serious triumph of filmmaking. Matt Damon and Michael Douglas have an enormous amount of fun in the service of some big ideas.
Veep follows the Parks and Recreation formula to an improved second season. Armando Iannucci’s sitcom about the Vice Presidency laced its cocktail a little too strongly with hemlock in its first season, making the titular Veep Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) incompetent as well as self-centered. In its second year, we got to see why Selina was on the ticket in the first place–she’s great out on the road, self-protective with other world leaders, and self-centered enough to do the job right, even at a cost to her family. And Iannucci and his supremely talented cast created one of the best portraits of what it’s like to be young, ambitious, single and approaching 30 in Washington, DC.
Orange Is The New Black becomes a giant hit for Netflix, obliterating assumptions about formulas for prestige television. How do we love, thee, Orange Is The New Black? Let us count the ways. There was Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), prison hairstylist, atheist director of a Christmas play, friend of nuns and maker of fabulous shower shoes, who’s simply the best trans character ever to appear on American television. There’s the glorious, hilarious friendship between Poussey and Taystee. The contained rage of Miss Claudette. Red’s tragically uncontainable impulses. The grandness of Alex and Piper’s affair, and the ugliness of Larry’s appropriation of women of color’s stories to further his own career. Orange Is The New Black was, with The Americans, the best new show of the year. And its transformation into a cultural phenomenon shines in the face of years of lies and false assumptions about what kinds of stories culture can and can’t tell and still be successful.
Catching up on Call The Midwife, and finding a quiet revolution that America’s ignored in favor of Downton Abbey mania. If the biggest shift in viewing of the past few years is binge-watching and catching up to shows in progress, I did that with Call The Midwife, a PBS import based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, about her work as a midwife in the post-World War II East End. The main characters, nuns and single women delivering babies and providing sexual health care in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods, are steel dipped in caramel. And the stories are sharper about sex, class, race, and gender than nearly anything that originates on American networks.
Sleepy Hollow crash-lands as the best new drama of fall. You could not have possibly convinced me that the best new network drama of the fall would be a story in which Washington Irving’s meek schoolteacher is transubstantiated into a badass abolitionist spy for General Washington, then proceeds to kill one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, get put into deep freeze by his witch wife, and resurrected to solve supernatural crimes with a black female cop in upstate New York. And yet, here we are. Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie are tremendous. The show is weirdly good about Revolutionary War history. And at a moment when many of the shows that aspire to prestige status seem to believe that unrelenting grimness is the hallmark of greatness, Sleepy Hollow was unapologetically fun.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Breaking Bad‘s series finale has set more and more poorly with me the longer I think about it. But “Ozymandias,” one of the last episodes of the show’s tremendous run, seems to me like it will stand as one of the greatest, most starkly moral episodes of television, in viewing history.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Trophy Wife emerge as the best new comedies of the fall. If these two shows were part of a comedy block with Parks and Recreation, it would be the smartest, sweetest hour and a half of television anywhere on the dial. Trophy Wife has a terrible title, but it executes brilliantly on an unpromising premise: the third wife of a lawyer tries to build a family that includes his previous spouses and children from those marriages. Based on creator Sarah Haskins’ own experiences, Trophy Wife has the radical idea that it can mine comedy from the characters’ affinities rather than their animosities. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a low-stakes crime comedy that’s making terrific use of Andre Braugher’s deadpan, Terry Crews’ muscles, Joe LoTruglio’s gameness, and the considerable chops of Stephanie Beatriz, Melissa Fumero, and the utterly shameless Chelsea Peretti.
The Bridge comes to a close, but gives us two of the strongest new characters of the year. FX’s The Bridge had a wildly uneven debut season, seeming to ignore some of its strengths in favor of crazier developments. But it gave us one of television’s best new friendships, the reportorial collaboration between Adriana (Emily Rios, a veteran of Breaking Bad) and Daniel (Matthew Lillard, who’s in the midst of one of the most striking comebacks in the entertainment industry). She’s a lesbian from Juarez with an incredible work ethic. He’s an insecure addict. They’re one of the most compelling partnerships, be it between cops or journalists, on television. Thank goodness The Bridge is making them series regulars next year.
Looking forward. It’s easy to get burned out by a bad fall development season, as was the case this year. But as screeners for new television have started to arrive on my desk, I think 2014 could be an incredibly exciting year. From HBO’s astonishingly written and acted anthology crime series, True Detective, to its look at the gay community in San Francisco in Looking, to Fox’s big-hearted military comedy Enlisted, January seems like the new September.