16. Bates Motel (A&E)
The story of Norman Bates — recounted in Alfred Hitchcock’s jangling Psycho — is only too familiar to most people. But under the watchful eye of executive producers Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse, the Twin Peaks-esque Bates Motel offers a fresh look at Norman’s formative years (despite the fact that the series is set in the present day and in a different location), including his relationship with his overbearing, quixotic mother, Norma (a stellar Vera Farmiga) after they purchase a run-down motel on the Oregon coastline and discover that their new sleepy town holds all manner of deadly secrets. As Norman and Norma, Freddie Highmore and Farmiga are riveting to watch, their damaged psyches threatening to erupt into violence at any moment. The result is an eerie and off-kilter drama about the things that bind us.
15. The Bletchley Circle (PBS)
This three-episode British import — about a quartet of women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and reunite years later in order to entrap a serial killer when his pattern emerges — was a taut, thrilling chase as well as a nuanced portrait of the changing role of women in the 1950s, as each of the ladies struggles with a life of mundanity after playing such a pivotal role in the war. No surprise that another go-around is on tap for the amateur sleuths; The Bletchley Circle was downright gripping.
14. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
From creators Mike Schur and Dan Goor (Parks and Recreation) comes this workplace comedy about a police precinct in Brooklyn with a consistently great comedic ensemble (Andre Braugher’s Captain Ray Holt and Chelsea Peretti’s caustic Gina Linetti already standouts). Plus, any comedy that embraces diversity yet doesn’t reduce its characters to stereotypes (no sassy Latinas here!) deserves to be celebrated. Deadpan funny.
13. Hannibal (NBC)
Beautifully grotesque or grotesquely beautiful? Hannibal — inspired by the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon and adapted by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) — is both, bringing some of the most disturbingly gorgeous sequences on television. As the titular doctor, Mads Mikkelsen is appropriately roguish and dangerous, a cunning serial killer with an appetite for destruction. Throw in Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, and Caroline Dhavernas (plus a slew of worthy supporting actors and guest stars) and you have the makings of a blood-curdling drama that will give you the most breathtaking nightmares you’ve ever had.
12. Getting On (HBO)
Based on the British comedy of the name name (which recently took home the Best Comedy prize at the British Comedy Awards) and adapted by Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, Getting On is a dark comedy about a geriatrics ward in an underfunded hospital and the staff who struggle to keep things afloat. Alex Borstein, Niecy Nash, Laurie Metcalf, and Mel Rodriguez are absolutely pitch-perfect in this caustic and often bleak comedy, which is an understated and subtle exploration of both how we treat our elders and those that are paid to care for them. Laughter — I dare you to watch Borstein and Nash’s phone call to the language line and not start cackling — and tears ensue in equal measure.
11. Trophy Wife (ABC)
The premise felt like overt situation comedy: A woman marries a successful man, only to have to contend with his two ex-wives and his flock of kids. But Trophy Wife, created by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, quickly proved to be a quirky and nuanced drama about a blended family of misfits. Every member of the cast can walk away with a scene in his/her hands and the adult foursome at the show’s center are superbly brought to life by Malin Åkerman, Bradley Whitford, Michaela Watkins, and Marcia Gay Harden. It’s a show that isn’t afraid to embrace its weirdness (watch this drunken rendition of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” for proof) and own it, rather than striving for middle-of-the-road laughs. Plus: Bert!
10. House of Cards (Netflix)
Adapted by Beau Willimon from the BBC miniseries of the same name (which is itself based on the novel by Michael Dobbs), House of Cards was a taut political potboiler anchored by tremendous performances from Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and Corey Stoll. Depicting the rise to power of the truly Machiavellian Representative Francis Underwood — who launches a vicious and meticulous attack on the administration after he is once more passed over for a key cabinet role — the dark and icy House of Cards peers into the corridors of power in Washington D.C. and finds a nest of vipers ready to strike. What unfolds is a power grab on the level of Shakespearean drama and embittered amorality is the greatest weapon in play.
9. The Fall (Netflix)
The Fall, created by Allan Cubitt and directed by Jakob Verbruggen, stars Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, an English senior police officer who is transferred to Belfast following a string of murders committed by bereavement counselor Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), whose wife and daughter are unaware of his murderous proclivities. As Paul’s desire for killing mounts, Stella must unmask him before he slips through her fingers. Anderson and Dornan — as well as The Good Wife mainstay Archie Panjabi — deliver extraordinarily compelling performances in this twisty and provocative serial killer drama, which will begin shooting its second season in January.
8. The Americans (FX)
A Cold War spy drama becomes something deeper and more profound in The Americans, which depicts the marriage between Soviet sleeper spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). It isn’t just about the war between capitalism and Communism but about the drives that each places upon its citizens. As Elizabeth remains true to her mother country, Philip finds himself seduced by the lure that a capitalist society offers…and their arranged marriage splinters under the weight of their lies. But The Americans is more than a mere intellectual exercise: The series remains true to its espionage roots as well, relying on coded messages, double-crosses, dead drops, and human intelligence. It is ultimately sleek and captivating, an enthralling drama that mines what it means to truly be an American at the height of ’80s excess and in the process, explores the psychological tug-of-war between national identities and ideologies, between spouses, and between parents and children.
7. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel)
Jane Campion’s stunning Top of the Lake (which Campion co-wrote with Gerard Lee) featured some truly mythical visuals and a shocking story — about the search for a missing and pregnant 11-year-old in a remote area of New Zealand — that pulled you into its dark undertow. Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) delivers a staggering turn as police detective Robin Griffin, whose investigation yields not only clues about what happened to 11-year-old Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), but also to her own past. Holly Hunter is breathtaking as enigmatic guru GJ, while Peter Mullan delivers a gritty performance as the raging father of the missing Tui. Dark secrets and darker truths emerge over the course of this unsettling drama.
6. Orphan Black (BBC America)
In one of the year’s strongest performances, Tatiana Maslany plays a menagerie of characters in the trippy drama Orphan Black about a group of clones who are being targeted by a mysterious organization. Imbuing each of the clones — from headstrong Sarah and uptight Alison to quirky Cosima and mentally unstable Helena — with their own unique identities, Maslany transforms a special effect into something truly special and unique. What follows is a mind-bending story that examines the ethical implications of human cloning as well as issues of identity, self-determinism, and free will. Did I mention that it’s also just kick-ass?
5. Broadchurch (BBC America)
The Chris Chibnall–created British import Broadchurch (which will get a U.S. remake in 2014 as Gracepoint) is an emotionally wrenching murder mystery that plumbed the depths of human despair and heartache. Olivia Coleman and David Tennant star in this deeply layered and heartbreaking drama in which the narrative stakes keep piling up until the weight breaks more than one character. What follows is a searing portrait of loss and grief, guilt and innocence. Lives are destroyed, secrets dragged kicking and screaming into the light, and all number of painful truths are revealed as a seaside town becomes the focal point for national attention after an 11-year-old child is murdered. I dare you not to cry.
4. The Returned (Sundance Channel)
This beautifully crafted French undead drama has captured the imagination of audiences around the world. Created by Fabrice Gobert, The Returned, which will return for a second season, is a rare beast in an era of gory zombie dramas, offering a spellbinding narrative and some truly haunting visuals. Set in a small mountain village, the series — about the dead returning to the families they left behind — casts a dark ensnaring spell as it threads its story through your heart and soul. This is dazzling, edge-of-your-seat sort of stuff, true television magic that comes but once in a lifetime. I previously said that it will “haunt your dreams,” and it has in the best possible way: Eerie, mysterious, and heart-pounding, it latches onto your imagination and never lets go.
3. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Dramas based on the lives of real-life people are tricky to pull off, but Showtime’s Masters of Sex — about researchers Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) — makes it seem effortless. This is a beautifully made drama that might appear on the surface to be about human sexuality, but which is actually about intimacy in all of its forms. As Masters and Johnson, embodied with grit and passion by Sheen and Caplan, dance around their professional-personal dynamic and push their volunteer subjects (and themselves) to their limits, there are smaller stories of personal discovery unfolding. Allison Janney’s gorgeously nuanced turn as Margaret Scully, a woman who had never experienced an orgasm and who discovers that her husband, university provost Barton (Beau Bridges) is gay, is a transcendent experience to behold, one full of regret and anger, lust and anguish. Likewise, performances by Bridges, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Teddy Sears, Nicholas D’Agosto, and Annaleigh Ashford merit special commendation. This is a show that doesn’t shy away from depicting the uncomfortable or the awkward, but instead faces it head-on.
2. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Jenji Kohan’s first-rate female prison drama Orange Is the New Black made for addictive, essential viewing in 2013, its women’s prison becoming an unlikely setting for exploring female dynamics and the root causes of crime among women. While Taylor Schilling’s Piper is our entry point to this narrative, the sprawling and diverse cast of female characters — each of whom gets her chance in the spotlight — with their unique needs and fears, their own reasons for being there, and their own dreams of life beyond the fences quickly become the reason to watch. This is tightrope storytelling at its dizzying highest, and that Orange manages to be both tartly sweet and smartly acidic is a truly sensational accomplishment.
1. Rectify (Sundance Channel)
In Ray McKinnon’s extraordinary drama Rectify, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from prison after nearly 20 years, thanks to new DNA evidence that points towards him not being the one who killed his then 15-year-old girlfriend. Daniel leaves death row to return to his family, who still live in the sleepy Georgia town of Paulie, where the murder took place. Rectify becomes a somber meditation on crime and punishment but also a beatific appreciation of the beauty of the natural world around us. Small details — a sunrise, a grove of trees, the weight of feathers falling on your face — become exuberant rediscoveries of what it means to be human. But even as Daniel tries to readjust to life outside of prison, there are dark forces that would like to see him punished for the crime, even as the true perpetrators remain at large. Stunning performances from Young, Abigail Spencer, Clayne Crawford, Adelaide Clemens, Luke Kirby, and J. Smith-Cameron push Rectify deeper into hallowed grounds. This is what the serialized drama form was made for; Rectify captures the joy and dread of life, the subtle passage of time, the pain and agony of humility, shame, and desire, and the endurance of the human spirit. This is one show to celebrate over and over again.