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Jason Bateman, left, and Michael Cera in Arrested Development.

year in culture 2013

Matt Zoller Seitz’s 10 Best TV Shows of 2013

1.  Arrested Development
Netflix
Fans of Fox’s beloved cult comedy series had good reason to fear that this oft-delayed fourth season would be a case of trying to recapture the magic of past triumphs long after the artists (and the world) had moved on. Delightfully, though, creator Mitch Hurwitz rose to the challenge, taking advantage of Netflix’s all-at-once viewing option to create the most formally ambitious season of Arrested Development yet, and turning a major casting headache—figuring out how to get so many sought-after and overscheduled comic actors into the same universe again—into a creative strength. Unlike previous seasons, which jam-packed most of the noteworthy incidents into half-hour blocks, season four plays like a collection of parallel yet interwoven short stories that, when watched in succession, keep revealing new bits of comic business. Varying in length from 28 to 37 minutes, the chapters replay events from different vantage points, with new information that changes their meaning, revealing that certain characters were in the same space at the same time and didn’t know it, or that an action that one character thought had been carried out in secret was in fact witnessed by someone else. When critics write that the streaming model of scripted TV offers new creative opportunities for writers, it’s this kind of storytelling that they’re talking about: a comic epic made of intricately crafted mosaic tiles that reveal a big picture as you binge-watch.

2. Hannibal
NBC
Just when you thought you’d had enough of serial-killer stories—and Thomas Harris’s Ayn Randian super-cannibal in particular—along came this unusually daring network series, a dreamspace horror drama comprising painterly tableaux that suggested art installations or Renaissance visions of hell. This is the most visually and atmospherically striking network series since Twin Peaks, maybe since Miami Vice, and co-stars Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen reinvent tortured profiler Will Graham and bloodthirsty psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter as flesh-and-blood individuals journeying through a landscape of signs and symbols.

3. Breaking Bad
AMC
The searing final stretch of Vince Gilligan’s drug drama did not disappoint. It would have been assured a spot on this list just for its final three episodes—particularly “Ozymandias,” which sparked furious debates about character motivation and the moral responsibility of storytellers to their audiences—but the other five episodes were keepers, too. Not since the final season of The Sopranos has a cable drama been scrutinized so closely, deservedly so. And on top of all that, it was funny.

4. Boardwalk Empire
HBO

After three seasons of close-but-no-cigar, Terence Winter’s Prohibition-era gangster saga finally smoked that baby. The Chalky White story line dominated, but there was rich material for Gillian Darmody, Richard Harrow, and Eli Thompson as well, and the decision to fix most of the show’s energy on a handful of characters and let everyone else play glorified backup allowed a smoky, bluesy undertone to seep out, giving what had previously been an entertaining period drama a tragic weight.

5. Game of Thrones
HBO

Although it’s one of the most expensive dramas in TV history, this adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels is never content to rest on spectacle. It’s a character-driven series that always moves inexorably forward, observing its characters’ power plays with wisdom and empathy. The third season’s bloody showpiece chapter, “The Rains of Castamere,” is assured a spot on any list of the most horrifying hours of TV ever.

6. Orange Is the New Black
Netflix
A structural triumph in the same vein as season four of Arrested Development, this white-collar prison comedy from Jenji Kohan (Weeds) was also one of the most forward-thinking shows of recent years, presenting a complex gallery of characters whose stories cut across racial, class, gender, and national lines, revealing a shared humanity.

7. Girls
HBO

Season two of Lena Dunham’s comedy series went deeper and darker, revealing the heroine’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, airing a dreamy and unnerving stand-alone episode that charted the complete arc of a relationship in just two days (“One Man’s Trash”), and building toward a finale that felt like a traditional rom-com climax until you thought about it for a second and realized just how utterly perverse it was.

8. Justified
FX
This Kentucky-set crime drama is one of the greatest adaptations of the work of Elmore Leonard—who died this year at 87—because it so effortlessly captures the master’s tone of wry amusement at how people deceive each other and themselves. This season’s D. B. Cooper–inspired story line drew career-best performances from the show’s recurring cast, some of whom tragically did not make it to the end.

9. Scandal
ABC

At some point near the end of season one, Shonda Rhimes’s series about a PR wizard secretly knocking boots with the president took off into a realm of delirious nuttiness, like The Good Wife by way of 24, and in pumps. Yet no matter how cruelly and duplicitously the characters double-cross each other, they remain grounded in emotional reality, a neat trick.

10. The Americans
FX
Easily the best new drama of 2013, this series about two Reagan-era Soviet spies posing as married suburban D.C. travel agents mixed espionage action with astute observations about domestic life. And the sexy was really sexy.

*This article originally appeared in the December 16, 2013 issue of New York Magazine. 

Photo: Sam Urdank/Netflix