America continues to be a two-tiered society when it comes to television. Back in the 1980s, when I covered TV fulltime, there was still the sense that the best television was on the networks — “St. Elsewhere,” “Cheers,” “Miami Vice,” Jennings-Brokaw-Rather while cable was all wrestling, sports and soft-core porno movies on HBO and Cinemax. Twenty-four hour news channels were just making their presence felt via CNN.
Times do change. Now the networks are home to reality nuttiness and cookie-cutter cop shows while the vast majority of creative work is being done on cable and, more recently, streaming on services like Netflix. But let’s not get too carried away. The networks and public television can do great work when they want to and cable has its own ratings issues — witness the cancelation of the wonderful show, “Enlightened,” on HBO.
Still, there’s more good TV these days than even the couchiest potato can absorb. Maybe 2014 will be the year I connect with “Game of Thrones,” “The Returned,” “American Horror Story,” “The Americans” or find time to watch “Veep.” Maybe not. (Actually, "Orphan Black" on BBC America is the show I'm most interested in catching up with in 2014.)
There was too much other stuff in 2013, beginning with:
(Spoiler alert: This is the final scene.)
1. “Breaking Bad,” American Movie Classics. Not everyone was thrilled with the Old Testament ending to the show, but I don’t see how it, or the show, could have been better. Walter White was a man for the times, adrift from conventional morality, grasping for any excuse to justify his lethal behavior, but still trying to find an anchor in family. Vince Gilligan said that he had been watching “Casablanca” before writing the ending and Bryan Cranston turned Walter White into as iconic a figure as Bogie’s Rick.
As I said at the time, the moral ambiguity, great writing and underrated direction of the show made every other “noir” show ("The Killing," "The Bridge," "Top of the Lake," etc.) look like bleak chic in comparison. To find something half as good you’d have to go 180 degrees in the other direction for:
2. “Doc Martin,” Acorn TV and DVD. Acorn released the whole five-season set of the “good” doctor along with the two movies that led to the series and then streamed the sixth series on Monday nights. The new season is also available on DVD and comes to Channel 44 later in the year. It’s a great gift and unlike “Breaking Bad,” guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of your donee. Not that this is feel-good TV. Doc Martin is the curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, a top doctor who’s, originally, forced to live among yokels in Cornwall. Now, thanks to the love of a good woman, it’s a matter of choice. It doesn’t make him happy, but we love it.
3. “Enlightened,” HBO. Laura Dern and Michael White, also the writer-producer, did battle for two seasons against the forces of greed, though they were hardly angels. In fact, time and again, White asked us what was motivating them and it was rarely selflessness. And they knew it: "Am I an agent of change, or a creator of chaos," asks Amy in what would be the final episode. But they could be heroes, and for more than one day, to paraphrase David Bowie.
4. “Homeland,” Showtime. Season 1 was a blend of John le Carré and “24,” from the same producers. Season 2 was all “24.” Season 3 was all le Carré. That’s a good thing. As Saul, Carrie and Brody tried to infiltrate the Iranian higher guard it wasn’t quite half angels doing battle with half devils, but the producers constantly upended the characters’ expectations, as well as ours, about political morality, and it all resonated.
These four shows and “Mad Men” were my four appointment shows. Some of the other highlights came from completely unexpected sources.
5. The Marathon bombing and the Red Sox victory. There are certainly naysayers who think these two events aren’t linked. Who cares. Mythology can be more reflective of reality than causality. And the fact is, as manager John Farrell said, the team did feed off the sense of civic tragedy and obligation and the city responded in kind. The local TV stations didn't distinguish themselves quite as much as the men in beards, but there was a lot of very good coverage mixed in with some nitwittery as Boston went into lockdown. The 24-hour channels were indispensable, at least until Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera arrived on the scene at Fox.
6. It’s easy to forget, among all the great drama series, that we’re also living in a golden age of the documentary, on TV and in the movies. “Frontline,” “Independent Lens,” and “HBO Documentaries” all had their claims to fame this year, but the one that I found most riveting was Marina Zenovich’s “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out.” Polanski was guilty of rape, no doubt about it, but the lengths that his prosecutors-turned-persecutors, in the US and Switzerland, have gone to in pursuit of him is preposterous. As Zenovich hints, it’s almost out of a Polanski movie. His victim, Samantha Geimer, agrees.
7. “Mad Men,” American Movie Classics. The last of the appointment-TV series was a disappointment this year until the final episode. Don Draper’s descent was not fun or particularly edifying to watch this year, but the final scene of the season finale (above) made up for most of it and whetted our appetite for how it will all end as Don came clean with his children about who he is.
8. Netflix. Forget those prepaid envelopes. Netflix again changed the viewing paradigm and viewers seemed eager to embrace streaming services as a sign of change — and maybe relief from those three-figure cable and satellite bills. I joined the crowd after hearing so much about “Orange is the New Black” and the American version of “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey. Intriguing, definitely. Game changers, no. I didn’t think either quite lived up to the billing.
9. The Networks and PBS. I’m not ready to give up on them yet, not with the likes of “Elementary,” “Modern Family,” “The Simpsons,” “Frontline,” “Masterpiece” and “American Masters.” I don’t’ watch them every week, but I’m usually happy when I do. Unless “Masterpiece” is showing “Downton Abbey.”
10. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central. Same as above. No matter how bad the politics of the day get it’s a relief to call it a night with these guys.More ARTery/WBUR 2013 Favorites
ARTery: Top 10 Reasons To Celebrate A Great Year In Film
ARTery: A.R.T. And ArtsEmerson Are Stellar In 2013, But 11 Shine
ARTery: 1 Nobel Prize To Celebrate, Nine Books To Read
2013 In Music From WBUR
ARTery: 12 Great Albums To Listen To Before The End Of 2013
ARTery: Six Unforgettable Shows From Boston's Music Underground In 2013
ARTery: 10 Great Classical 'Friends' And Their Recordings
ARTery: From 'Grand Theft Auto V' To 'Gone Home' — 7 Must-Play Video Games From 2013
On Point: Books of 2013
This program aired on December 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.