10. The Returned (Sundance) A mesmerizing French series adopted by the Sundance Channel, “The Returned” feels a lot like the longest “Twilight Zone” episode ever, but also evokes elements of “The 4400,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Lost.” It followed a handful of dead people who inexplicably find themselves unearthed, cleansed and returned to perfect health. Some have been dead a few years, others decades. All return at the age they died, and none have any memory of an afterlife. Plus the local lake, full of mysterious and floaty wildlife, keeps changing its level; engineers cannot figure out why. The impact on the lives of the returned’s families is fascinating and usually well imagined. The season-one finale was both intriguing and frustrating, and perhaps more will be explained when the second season airs in 2014.
9. House Of Cards (Netflix) A tale of ruthless political ambition produced and directed by David Fincher from teleplays by the guy who wrote “Ides of March,” “House of Cards” stars Kevin Spacey as House majority whip whose hunger for power could make Hitler blush. Kate Mara, as a tiny newsgirl in heat, is impossibly sexy. (I suspect movie producers now consider “Dragon Tattoo” sister Rooney Mara only a backup if Kate isn’t available.) The superb Spacey gets away with tearing down that fourth wall – and then some – as master schemer Francis Underwood. Corey Stoll is fantastic as the bad Pennsylvania congressman Spacey’s character gets to whip. Gerald McRaney is commanding as a connected zillionaire. And don’t get me started on the sheer yummitude of Sandrine Holt, Constance Zimmer and Kristen Connelly as they help service this remarkable series about serving the needs of the many and the few.
8. The Walking Dead (AMC) Merle Dixon joined Team Prison for a bit. There was a callback to Rick’s episode-one adventures. Milton was locked in with a bound Andrea. Rick developed a three-question strategy for recruitment, had to sacrifice the livestock he raised, gave his watch to a nice couple and exiled Carol for killing potential zombies. the Governor proved the world’s worst caddy, then discovered ruling Trailerland was not enough. 2013 was the best year for TV’s most popular scripted series, and kept getting better under the stewardship of new showrunner Scott Gimple.
7. Downton Abbey (PBS) Robert Crawley lost the family fortune and found himself at odds with his son-in-law over the estate’s management. Shirley MacLaine, as Cora’s American mother, proved a perfect and hilarious foil for Maggie Smith’s Dowager Violet. Violet’s wild great-niece Rose entered the fray. Mr. Carson fumed with highly entertaining disgust as Thomas came to lust after handsome new footman Jimmy. Edith’s wedding hit a heartbreaking snag, former maid Ethel had to make a heartbreaking choice regarding her bastard son, Anna endured heartbreak when she stopped getting letters from the incarcerated Bates -- and former servant Branson got some heartbreaking news of his own. For all the emotional stakes, “Downton” remains one of the wittiest entertainments found on small screen or big.
6. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix) An unusually funny hourlong about a women’s correctional institution from “Weeds” mastermind Jenji Kohan, “Orange Is The New Black” depicts a hot yuppie blonde who unexpectedly finds herself serving out 15 months in prison for her decade-earlier role in a drug-smuggling scheme. Having hungrily consumed in one afternoon the first six episodes made available to critics, I think I’d have to go as far back as the premiere of HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” to remember when I’ve had more fun with a new series. “Orange” is loosely based on the Piper Kernan memoir, but it feels like what we’d see if Kohan decided to finally depict the three lesbitastic off-screen years “Weeds” heroine Nancy Botwin served in prison on drug charges. Though there’s a necessary darkness to the series, the prison to which Piper Chapman (“Mercy” vet Taylor Schilling) is exiled feels more like a shabby boarding school, with its own cliques, uniforms, classes, recesses and cafeteria food. There’s a decent amount of verbal conflict – some playful, some less so – but no actually shanking, at least in the early going. The element of Chapman’s new life that seems to trouble her most, in fact, is that she’s locked up with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, never sexier thanks to darkened hair and hipster eyewear), the estranged smuggling partner and scorned lesbian lover who provided the testimony that got Chapman tossed in stir. So instead of “Born Innocent” shower rape and other types of unpleasant prison violence, we get a lot of entertaining and often likeable characters. One of my favorites is George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber, who also played Nick Sobotka on “The Wire”), a guard who manages to be vulgar, cruel and truly funny all at once – much in the manner of R. Lee Ermay’s iconic Sergeant Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket.” More than a few of these beguiling characters sport recognizable faces, among them “American Pie” vets Natasha Lyonne and Jason Biggs (the latter gets a sight gag involving AMC’s “Mad Men” that got a huge laugh out of me), “Star Trek” icon Kate Mulgrew, “8 Mile” refugee Taryn Manning, and the great Todd Sussman (once Officer Shifflett on “Newhart”) – always hilariously deadpan as Chapman’s disapproving future father-in-law.
5. Boardwalk Empire (HBO) “I don’t mind saying, this has all got me pretty rattled,” allowed fake T-Man Warren Knox in the fourth-season premiere. The biggest and most beautiful bad this season was J. Edgar Hoover’s ruthless, murderous, sadistic toady Jim Tolliver, and a hand-to-hand parlor fight he joins in the season’s final episode is one of the most satisfying things I’ve seen on TV ever. Eddie Kessler enjoyed a night of merriment with a visiting Capone. Eli’s son Willie killed a guy. Arnold Rothstein made a deal with the former Margaret Thompson. Gillian went house-hunting with the handsome Roy Phillips. Chalky had some words with Dunn Purnsley. Nucky found himself dressing down New York mob boss Valentin Narcisse. George Remus explained Remus does as he pleases. Richard Harrow tried to kill his own dog. The godless Nelson Van Alden patiently explained to a former co-worker and his cohorts: “Gentlemen, please!! This is not a good time!!’ Terence Winter, who wrote “The Wolf Of Wall Street” for “Boardwalk” executive producer Martin Scorsese, runs this show, and runs it well.
4. Justified (FX) Its fourth season, built around the decades-long search for mobster Drew Thompson, returned to us Raylan, Boyd, Wynn, Arlo, Ava, Johnny, Shelby, Lindsey, Art, Ellen May, Rachel and Tim, and introduced us to Robert Baker as angry pugilist Randall Kusik, Mike O’Malley as funny mobster Nick Augustine, Bobby Campo as brutal henchman YOLO, Joe Mazzello as Preacher Billy, Lindsay Pulsipher as his sister Cassie, Ron Eldard as sleazy war vet Colton Rhodes, and especially Patton Oswalt as Constable Bob Sweeney. Some of these episodes, all based on characters created by Elmore Leonard, were as good or better than great Elmore Leonard movies like “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.” Which, admittedly, is saying a lot. A spectacular season of FX’s best show.
3. Mad Men (AMC) This is the one that introduced Bob Benson and Dr. & Mrs. Rosen, and brought Peggy Olsen back to something eventually called Sterling Cooper and Partners. Megan Draper got famous and propositioned by a co-star, Betty Francis got skinny again, Robert Kennedy caught a bullet, Don cheated on Baked Beans to make a play for the Coca-Cola of condiments, Joan and her married friend went on a stranger-kissing tour, Sally Draper let a middle-aged African-American into the Draper residence and was forbidden to speak by potential future classmates, Glenn got cooler, Trudy kicked Pete to the Curb, a sun-kissed Mrs. Campbell tasted the ocean spray, “Things I Like About Mitchell” was drafted, Ted Chaough kissed Peggy, Peggy contended with rats and saved Joan’s career, Roger Sterling fired a guy he already fired, took a low blow and rescued Don from drowning, Harry demanded a partnership, Stan Rizzo boned the newly dadless Wendy Gleason, Dr. Hecht shot everybody up with “energy serum,” Ken Cosgrove danced, many saw “Planet of the Apes” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and a serviceman named Dinkins explained that death does not make you whole. This season was a crazy masterpiece.
2. Game Of Thrones (HBO) The fabulous Diana Rigg, once Mrs. Emma Peel of The Avengers, joins the cast as Margaery and Loras’ brainy, charming and hilariously candid grandmamma Olenna Tyrell; Rigg instantly became one of the best things about this great series, and establishes herself immediately as something akin to the “Thrones” version of Maggie Smith’s dowager countess Violet Crawley over on “Downton Abbey.” There was also the Slaver’s Bay translator and her loutish master. The striking visual effect that precedes Jon Snow’s first meeting with wildling king Mance Rayder. Joffrey peering out of his conveyance. Catelyn’s admissions regarding her husband’s bastard. The foreclosure strategies employed by The Iron Bank of Brothers. Also? Theon requested finger removal. Roz helped Joffrey with some target practice. Tyrion dragged a chair and brought bad news to Sansa. A naked, dismembered Kingslayer finally revealed why he slayed the king. Sandor Clegane was spared by the god of light and Beric Dondarrion demonstrated his Wolverine-ish healing power. Robb decided to invade Casterly Rock. Shireen Baratheon began teaching the the Onion Knight to read. Tywin ordered Cercei to marry gay Loras and offered to have Joffey carried to the Tower of the Hand. The Khaleesi offered the Yunkai emissary the gift of his life. Arya reminded us her god is not the Red God. Walder Frey had difficulty remembering Merry’s name. Robb’s helpless direwolf came to a supersad end. Oh, how I adored season three!!
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) Carol dropped her groceries, Badger engineered a grisly fate for Pavel Chekov, Walt advised Hank to tread lightly. Lydia and Todd took charge of quality control, Marie tried to kidnap her niece, Skyler learned the cancer was back, and Walt dashed my dreams of a “Storage Wars” finale. Walt gifted Hank and Marie a home movie and Jesse decided what the White residence needed was a thick coat of gasoline. Todd caressed Lydia’s lipstick, Huell seemed ill-prepared for questioning, and Saul donned underwear more protective than that of any Mormon’s. An ancient Navajo did not want to sell his truck, Skyler brandished a large knife and Walt planted his infant daughter in a firetruck. Saul learned he was headed to Nebraska, perhaps to manage a Cinnebon. Todd’s Nazi collaborators retrieved from Hank Schrader’s home the Jesse Pinkman videos, the videos implicating Todd in -- among many other things -- the slaying of an unlucky preteen cyclist. Jesse Pinkman created purer, bluer methamphetamine in a cage beneath a Nazi compound. We learned Todd could get to Skyler even with cops parked in front of her home. Walt learned he was the proud owner of two copies of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and that his magical Heisenberg Hat did not give him enough power to get him down eight miles of snowy road. As Walt waited for the DEA to take him into custody, a Charlie Rose interview publicizing a $28 million grant from the Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz Foundation precipitated a change of heart. Magnificence!
There are way too many great scripted hourlongs out there, but the nine I am saddest to leave out of my 2013 top ten are:
The Americans (FX)
Bates Motel (A&E)
The Killing (AMC)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
The Newsroom (HBO)
Finally, The 10 best sitcoms of 2013:
Bob’s Burgers (Fox)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
The Office (NBC)
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Rick & Morty (CN)
South Park (CC)
The Venture Bros. (CN)
I warn you not to defy me!