It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.
While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.
Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).
The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.
Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.
Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.
Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.
There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet), as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.
Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.
All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.
Long may it continue.