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Here's why picking a Top 10 list of best TV shows has become such treacherous work for critics this year: Quite simply, 2013 was the year quality exploded in the television industry.
Thanks to the simultaneous maturing of Netflix, AMC, FX, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, BBC America, Sundance Channel, iTunes and many more media platforms, fans of great television had more options than ever to find high-quality product whenever and wherever they liked.
This is the stuff I dreamed of as a young media nerd in the mid-'90s, when I predicted technology would eventually allow viewers to download an episode of TV whenever they liked.
We're as close to that dream as ever, with so many options for mainlining episodes of great television out there, "binge-viewing" has become the phrase of the year for the media industry.
So here's my list of 2013's best TV shows, with a few caveats and honorable mentions thrown in at the end. And, yes, because I've had time to think, this list will be a little different from the tallies I pulled together earlier this year for Salon and Hitfix.com (told you making choices was hard!)
[Editor's note: Plot details regarding several shows follow. Proceed at your own risk.]
Breaking Bad (AMC) — The most finely crafted drama on television nailed the most spine-tingling series finale in modern TV. An awesome affirmation of all that is possible in this new age of quality television.
Broadchurch (BBC) — The murder of a boy in a small English town reveals just how connected everyone is in such a tiny community, explored in eight taut episodes that keep you guessing until the end.
House of Cards (Netflix) — The video service's first original series was a lush, acid exploration of power in Washington, D.C., turning its central figure from antihero to villain in 13 episodes. What can they do for season two?
Game of Thrones (HBO) — The "Red Wedding" episode stood out in a season where those who hadn't read the source books were surprised to see the story's hero brutally murdered and the collection of characters thrown into wonderful disarray yet again.
The Good Wife (CBS) — Producers finally jettisoned the Will/Alicia romance storyline in the best way, blowing it up with a war over competing law firms, which breathed new life into a show now in its fifth season.
The Walking Dead (AMC) — The show's meditation on what it takes to hold onto your humanity in a world-crushing apocalypse reached its ultimate expression in the end of its villain The Governor, killed by someone who once loved him after she realized what a monster he had become.
John Oliver's guest hosting stint on The Daily Show (Comedy Central) — At first, it sounded like a recipe for disaster — handing TV's best news satire over to a guest host while Jon Stewart directed his first film. But Oliver stepped up admirably, earning his own show on HBO as well-deserved reward.
Scandal (ABC) — Yes, many of its plot swings make no sense, and too much of the action is explained by characters in breathless monologues. But for fans of pure soap opera drama, there was no better outlet in 2013.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) – As creator Jenji Kohan has admitted, this show about a Waspy white woman sent to prison used its blonde star as a Trojan horse to bring viewers compelling stories about black transsexuals, lesbians, immigrants and the absurdities of life behind bars in a women's prison.
The Bridge (FX), The Returned (Sundance Channel), Doctor Who (BBC) — In my other Top 10 lists, I essentially flipped a coin to choose between these. FX made a compelling drama about murder on the border of Mexico and Texas that crossed cultural lines and showcased star Demian Bichir; Sundance aired a French TV series about dead people coming back to life that played like a mesmerizing, multipart foreign film; and the BBC gave a grand 50th birthday episode to the oldest science-fiction show still airing on TV, with entrancing turns from star Matt Smith alongside guest John Hurt and former star David Tennant.
Honorable mentions: Justified (FX), The Americans (FX), Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel), Mad Men (AMC), The Fall (BBC), Parenthood (NBC), Southland (TNT), Parks and Recreation (NBC), Orphan Black (BBC America), The Big Bang Theory (CBS).
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