By Tristan Lejeune
It was a dreary year for new television shows.
Not a single freshman series from broadcast TV earned a Screen Actors Guild nomination, and very few did better with the Golden Globes, only a fraction of the evidence that 2013 will pass with little in the way of creative debuts. Meanwhile, old beloveds like “The Office,” “Futurama,” “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad” took this year to bow out, most in great style.
Far more terrific shows are nearing their final laps, or else staring down the barrel of cancellation, and it is these endangered species we consider today. These are the shows that best used 2013 to prove themselves deserving of your valuable time, and they won’t ask much more of it. But it’s not too late! Any of these 10 stands a very good chance to be the best TV show of 2014.
1. “Mad Men”
“Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland” were what kept the water coolers busy this year – and with good reason – but the drama that spoke most eloquently and had the most to say, the one that made us most yearn for Sunday night, roamed the 1968 Manhattan halls of Sterling Cooper & Partners. It was “Mad Men”’s best season in years, but it won’t be its last; part seven will be divided between 2014 and 2015. If you’ve never tried AMC’s haunting advertising soap opera with a mind like a steel trap, season six gave nothing but evidence that you should. Viewers were rewarded with a mature, elegant hour of art every week. Forget what was said earlier about no creative debuts: Linda Cardellini, accented in fur and lurking behind elevator doors as Don Draper’s latest more-than-he-bargained-for mistress, was enough to take your breath away. And as Bob Benson, the year’s most friendly (or is it menacing?) enigma, James Polk grinned and bluffed his way into an American dream. Nobody was burned alive by a dragon on “Mad Men.” Nobody was eaten, or dissolved with acid and buried in the desert. They were deeply preoccupied with death, however, and most characters took the time to ponder their own. Hopefully we could face our end with the poise of this series.
You’ve probably never heard of this gut-bustingly funny comedy, and that’s with just cause: one of the few live action entries on Cartoon Network, “Eagleheart” airs Thursdays at midnight. Lacking the good press of “Children’s Hospital” or “NTSF:SD:SUV,” this 15-minute gem is probably not long for this world, and that’s a crying shame. Imagine an adult game of cops and robbers, starring Chris Elliot as a trigger-happy U.S. marshal, with hard R-rated violence (recently, the walls bled) and plotlines out of an opium addict’s fever dream (also they screamed; the walls screamed). It’s part “Justified” parody, part warped childhood fantasy, and all genius. In just one of countless scenes as silly as they are gory, our protagonist flagrantly lies to internal affairs about a coworker’s brutal woodchipper death. Then he looks down and flips out when he sees that he has unwittingly signed his statement “I KILLED BRETT.” In this day and age, the gun violence is downright subversive, but horrible law enforcement hasn’t been this hilarious since Barney Fife.
Easily the best new show of 2013, NBC’s vivid riff on Thomas Harris’ serial killer hunters pre-“Red Dragon” was – pun intended – too much for viewers to stomach; ratings fell off sharply and ended below 2 million. A second season has been ordered, however, and oh how the first one is worth a look. With characters named Jack Crawford, Will Graham and, of course, our dear Dr. Lecter, you know things are going to be psychological and dark, but it’s impossible to be prepared for the circus of nightmares show runner Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies”) unveils in this stylish, intelligent mood piece. Those names above are played by Laurence Fishburne, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively, and they’re all aces. You’ll ponder the dialogue for days, when you’re not checking under your bed. “Hannibal” has a bloom, freakish and horrific, but beautiful, like a rose with petals of blood.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tufto4fGxg
Oh, “Community.” You just won’t stay not dead. Everyone’s favorite meta-comedy that they don’t really watch but their friend does has lost its creator, got him back, shed a star or two, been banished to Fridays by NBC and brought back without … actually coming back. Here’s the thing though: your friend who tells you this under-viewed show is actually quite good – they speak truth. Sweet, colorful and with a kooky rhythm all its own, “Community” isn’t shy about needing your help to survive (“Six seasons and a movie!”), but that’s part of its winsome message. It’s right there in the title, after all. This show is made by people who delight in fun pop culture, for same.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-3kFjFbSSE
5. “Doctor Who”
Just kidding! It’s never going anywhere…
6. “Arrested Development”
Netflix original shows “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” can compete with anything on traditional television … so long as the competition category is “most overrated.” The fourth season of “Arrested Development” wasn’t much more solid, but, like the girl in the Mother Goose rhyme, when it was good, it was very, very good. Buster, Lucille and Gob “Mouse behind your ear!” Bluth are just as funny as we left them seven years ago when Fox canceled “AD.” This crew probably only has another season or two (and mayhaps something feature-length) in them, but please, please, please let them capture that original magic, otherwise we might all be singing “go away, get away.”
7. “The Venture Brothers”
Honestly, I have no idea if this witty and wild serial is in danger of going the way of the dodo, but it’s been the jewel in Adult Swim’s crown for so long (at least since “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” starting Xeroxing itself), that every new episode is practically a stunt at this point. Who would have thought that what started as a “Johnny Quest” satire would last more than 10 years? “The Venture Brothers” is perfect for fans of “Archer;” they both have rich villains, hysterically lovable but unlikeable heroes and mythology that they wear very lightly. Oh, and they’re both completely charmed by their own awesomeness. You will be, too.
8. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
Moving this perverse farce from FX to FXX may be the most boneheaded instance of fixing something that wasn’t broken in 2013 television programming. All 10 of these shows have their little niche – none of them are really blockbuster entertainment – and this one got its niche all messed with. But Dennis, Mac, Dee, Charlie and Frank are such grandly color-outside-the-lines monsters that they draw your eye wherever they go. A whole spate of 21st century shows have presented characters who grow more irredeemable, not less. “Always Sunny” plays that for laughs. And drinks. Lots of drinks. Will Paddy’s Pub wither in its new garden, or will the sun keep shining?http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNay4FWlfn8
9. “Parks and Recreation”
Back to NBC for the third time on this list, and what summons us to Pawnee, Ind., is the exit of old friends. Never a good sign and often a death knell, the departure of cast members, in this case Rob Lowe and been-there-since-the-pilot Rashida Jones will hurt “Parks & Rec,” plain and simple. But TV’s most reliable sitcom is handling the shuffle gracefully, and still bringing belly laughs in the meantime. This one can stand alongside shows like “30 Rock,” “Seinfeld” and “Cheers” as one of the very best things the Peacock has run on Thursdays.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0nH0QOaqIw
10. “Downton Abbey”
More departing cast members! Holy sinking ships, Batman! And this time, because we’re talking about a drama, the curtain calls came in the form of unpleasant deaths. Truth be told, “Downton Abbey” has already outlasted a standard series’ run in Britain, where it draws far less favorable notices, so we’re pretty much on borrowed time as it is. The show, airing on PBS again next year, has yet to match its first season in terms of quality. Perhaps some new faces will spur more creative storytelling. Cheers.