Dec 15, 2013

2013 in Review: My Year in TV

Writing my TV round-up post last year was a lot of fun, so here I am trying my hand at it again. Truth be told, I knew there was no way my TV watching adventures from 2012 could possibly be topped: after all, that was the year when I first discovered Buffy, Angel, Veronica Mars, Firefly, Gilmore Girls and My So-Called Life, just to name a few. But you know what? Sitting down to write this post made me realise that actually, 2013 was also a very satisfying TV year in its own way. I had a wonderful time with each of the series below; and if at times my love for them came with its complications, well, that’s part of the process of engaging with media. Without further ado, here are my favourite TV series watched in 2013 (I will make sure to avoid major spoilers, though inevitably I’ll end up giving a couple of things away):

Parks and Recreation:

The full cast of Parks and Recreation

Oh, Leslie Knope. Where have you been all my life? Parks and Recreation is hands down the best show I discovered this year. I’m actually working on a long piece about it for Lady Business (seriously, so many words), so I’ll keep this brief: just, I loved this series with a passion and completely understand why it has so many devoted fans. You were right yet again, Internet! Having Parks and Rec in my life made everything so much better.

Although this is not unusual for a long-running series, I have to say that my recommendation for Parks and Rec comes with a caveat: it gets soooo much better after the first season. The first season is worth watching as it provides context for future storylines and allows you to gain a good understanding of what the series achieves in terms of character development, but it won’t give you a good idea of what you can expect from Parks and Rec. The good news is that season one is actually only six episodes long, so you’ll get through it and find yourself at the really amazing bits in no time at all. I really love how the show went from portraying Leslie as a blundering sort of character you’re expected to feel mildly sorry for to, well, Leslie Knope as we know and love her: competent, brave, thoughtful, unapologetically smart and idealistic, and not one bit the less hilarious for it.

I also love how the humour in Parks and Rec is not usually the kind that comes at the expense of disempowered people or groups. The show has a political and social sensibility that’s close to my own, and it’s underpinned by the unspoken assumption that women are complicated human beings to whom all sorts of roles and identities are available. I wish we lived in a world where this was unremarkable, but alas. All of this made Parks and Rec perfect comfort watching for me: it’s the kind of show I can mostly watch and be cheered up by rather than get routinely depressed about what I’m expected to be laughing at.

Favourite character: Obviously Leslie, whose courage and idealism and open-hearted commitment to her work and her friends (and her waffles) I admire so much — though I have to say no one makes me laugh quite as much as Ron Swanson. Also, April! My love for April can’t possibly be overstated. Gah, can you tell I love everyone?

Anyway, expect many more words on Parks and Recreation soon.

Orphan Black:

Cosima from Orphan Black

Another series I fell in love with completely: Orphan Black is a perfect blend of science fiction and mystery, plus it’s a show that tells stories about women in a wide range of contexts (which, now that I think of it, is actually something all the series I’m discussing today have in common).

For those of you not familiar with Orphan Black, it tells the story of a group of identical-looking women who find out they’re clones and who begin to investigate the why and the how of it. These women are all played by the brilliant Tatiana Maslany, who seriously deserves all the acting awards in the history of ever for her roles.

Orphan Black is smart, fast-paced, and full of amazing characters — it’s no wonder it grabbed me from the very beginning. One of the things I loved the most about it is how layered the storytelling is. Like all the best science fiction, it explores a possible technological future while making insightful observations about the present. I think this smart quote from a Tatiana Maslany interview Amy shared with me says it all:
The beautiful and horrific thing about the patent storyline is that, for me, it resonated as a woman — this idea of your body, your personality and your image not being yours. As an actor, I understand that and the more I’m in a public consciousness, the more I understand that role a lot of women are forced to take, which is about giving up a lot of your identity to serve the public. For me, it was really incredibly resonant point in terms of the ownership women have over their bodies.
I loooove the gender subtext in Orphan Black. Also, as The F-Word so well put it, Orphan Black gives us “a striking affirmation of the feminist adage ‘biology isn’t destiny’.” The fact that the women in the series are clones doesn’t make them the same person — it’s very clear that their different environments and life experiences have shaped them into very different people.

Favourite character: COSIMA! I loved all the ladies in Orphan Black, but this smart and stylish scientist completely stole my heart.

Joan of Arcadia:

Cast of Joan of Arcadia

Oh, this series hit me right in the heart, and I really didn’t expect to fall for it the way I did. I decided to watch Joan of Arcadia because Carl Wilson mentioned it in the same breath as Buffy, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls and My So-Called Life in Let’s Talk About Love, and considering how much I love all those other series it made sense to give it a try. But I have to confess that initially I was wary of the teenage-girl-talks-to-God-premise — not, I hasten to add, because I refuse to engage with media that presents a religious worldview I don’t share, but because sometimes such media makes no space for people like me and I end up feeling disconnected from it.

However, this is absolutely not true of Joan of Arcadia. The series makes frequent allusions to the idea that there is a plan that explains the bad things that happen in the world, which is not something I personally believe in, but instead of alienating anyone who doesn’t share this perspective it gives us an honest, heartfelt and thoughtful exploration of how faith or the lack thereof affect how people navigate and make sense of life’s challenges and demands. For example, Joan of Arcardia is largely concerned with how Joan’s religious mother and atheist father make sense of their oldest son Kevin’s car accident, which left him in a wheelchair. They cope with all the changes in their son’s life by using very different strategies, none of which is presented as inherently superior to the other.

I should also add that Joan’s brother Kevin is not portrayed as a tragic figure. Yes, he’s in a wheelchair, and as a former athlete and golden boy he has a lot of adjustment to do, but the series doesn’t tell us that his life is now over and he’s to be pitied forever and ever. I particularly liked a scene where Kevin has a conversation with his boss (a black woman) where she tells him that part of the reason why his adjustment is so hard is that by becoming disabled he’s had to deal with an enormous loss of privilege, and as a black woman this is something she has some insight into. His new subordinate social status causes some clashes with his former conception of what it means to be a man, and this is something the show explores very thoughtfully. At one point I was terrified they were going to go down the awful path of “miracle cure that erases a character’s disability is portrayed as the one true path to happiness” (I’m looking at you, Downton Abbey), but thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case. For more on Kevin, I highly recommend this excellent post.

I confess I wasn’t hooked on Joan of Arcadia right away, but eventually I was won over by its open, honest and questioning nature and by the excellent characterisation. Also, an episode dealing with sexual assault was actually what made me sure I was going to keep watching, and how often do you get to say that? Usually it’s the other way around.

I loved how the teens in Joan of Arcadia felt like real kids, which isn’t always necessarily true of TV teenagers. And before I quite knew how it had happened I was ridiculously invested in the romance between Joan and Adam — like, they easily rank among my favourite TV couples ever and I could make you a list of ten Joan and Adam moments that made me cry. This (spoiler) means I eventually had my heart broken (sob), but on the other hand it was refreshing to see a break-up storyline that explicitly acknowledged and addressed the ridiculous narrative of most break-ups: you’re supposed to swear off the connection you had with your former partner and look at the time you spent together as a waste of time and not “really” love after all. It understandably takes Joan some time to get over her hurt and see what she and Adam shared as precious and valuable even though it’s over, but this is what happens in the end.

I have to say, though, that I’m eternally frustrated by TV’s insistence that not having sex is the mark of the “good girl”, and especially by the dichotomies it establishes between “good” and “bad” girls (with tragic consequences for the latter). This isn’t to say that it isn’t legitimate to portray Joan as not feeling ready for sex, and if that’s the case then it’s absolutely right for her not to do it just because she feels pressured. But for once I’d love to see a teen girl protagonist in a TV series feel ready to explore her sexuality and then go ahead and do it without, oh I don’t know, her boyfriend turning into a killer monster overnight as a result.

Favourite character: It has to be Joan, though as I said above I was ridiculously invested in Adam. Also, I really loved Grace and Glynis and Judith and Luke. The whole of Joan’s peer group was just so adorable.

Joan of Arcadia: Adam and Joan


Borgen: Birgitte and Katrine

I watched the first season of the Danish political drama Borgen last year, but sadly I never got around to writing about it. This year I watched seasons two and three, though, and they only cemented my love for this absolute gem of a show. I honestly can’t think of a smarter, more nuanced political show, or of a better look at the professional and personal lives of two incredible women.

As many of you probably know, Borgen is centred on politician Birgitte Nyborg, who for the first two seasons is the first female Prime Minister of Denmark. The other main character is journalist Katrine Fønsmark, a smart and talented woman who takes the role the press plays in a democratic society very seriously indeed.

Borgen is largely concerned with ethics, principles and ideals, and it does a fantastic job of exploring all the factors that impact political decisions. The series’ approach to politics and journalism makes it about the reality of the everyday work that goes into making things happen. It would be very easy for a series with this premise to become very focused on the necessity of compromise, or on how naïve it is to expect people in positions of power to stick rigidly to their principles when so often even getting to a position where you can begin to make a difference involves political or ethical sacrifices. And yes, there are many characters in Borgen who embody this view, but Birgitte and Katrine’s plot arcs provide a very interesting counternarrative. They both make compromises throughout the series, of course, but they also discover exactly what it is that they’re not willing to give up no matter what the prize. The series’ finale in particular is wonderful when it comes to this. In the world of Borgen, you do get to draw lines you’re not willing to cross and still get to make a difference; no matter how often we’re told otherwise, I like to believe the same is true in our world.

Over its three seasons’ run, Borgen deals thoughtfully with topics such as immigration laws, racism and xenophobia, different aspects of feminism (the episode about how sex workers are routinely condescend to within feminist discourse was so interesting), the ethics of journalism, the social cost of inequality, etc. Amy has written about Borgen at length, and as per usual I recommend reading what she has to say.

Favourite character: I adore Birgitte, but I have to say that I’m more invested in Katrine. I love how she’s respected for her intelligence in a way beautiful young women are often not, and as I said above I love her work ethics.

The Legend of Korra: Book Two — Spirits:

Oh, Korra. You break my heart and I come back for more. This is another series about which I might write something longer, as I have a LOT of feelings and they’re mostly very complicated. The mixed feelings that characterised my reaction to Book One continued in Spirits, and the more I think about it the more I believe that the self-contained story arc format of each season makes The Legend of Korra a weaker show than it could have been otherwise. Part of what made Avatar so great was the fact that the development of the various storylines across three seasons made for a nuanced approach to the themes and ideas behind the show. When you combine the fact that Korra mostly doesn’t do this with the shorter seasons, the inevitable result is a certain superficiality that keeps disappointing me.

There was, however, still a lot I liked about Spirits (as well as a lot I didn’t like but can’t really talk about without all the spoilers). My favourite aspect of the season was probably how it delved deeper into the Avatar mythos and gave us an origin story for the very first Avatar. The two-part episode that does this, “Beginnings”, is very nearly flawless. I also loved the storyline about Tanzin and his family as they visit the Southern Air Temple — it kept me invested even when the main arc was failing to grab me. Last but lot least, I loved the emphasis on Korra’s awesomeness as a person aside from her role as the Avatar. This season drives home that her power is about much more than factors she has no control over. Oh, oh, oh, and we got some awesome Avatar cameos!

On the not so bright side, the writers clearly didn’t know what to do with certain characters, the mothers problem that plagued Avatar keeps going strong, and most of my hopes for the season were quite frankly completely dashed. Having said that, I can’t wait for the next season, especially as it seems like they’ll explore the enormous implications of the changes we saw at the end of Spirits.

Favourite character: Asami continues to be awesome, and as I said above Tanzin really came into his own. I also loved Jinora — in Book One the next generation of air benders didn’t really have distinctive personalities, and it was great to see that change here.

Tenzin, Kya and Bumi

Photo of Aang and Katara with their children

Poki ♥

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: Lizzie, Jane, Lydia and Charlotte

Lastly, I have to mention The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I’ve already written about it at great length so I’m not going to repeat myself — I just wanted to say that although some of the directions the story went in towards the end of the series made me very sad, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries still brought me a lot of joy, particularly with its portrayal of friendships and sibling relationships. To my great sadness, I haven’t been able to get into Emma Approved so far. Anyone wants to convince me to give it another try?

Favourite character: I always had a soft spot for lovely, good-natured Jane (and, much like with Fred in Angel, I spent more than half the series admiring and dreaming of copying her hair styles).

It probably goes without saying that if you watched any of these series I’d absolutely love to hear your thoughts. If not, please tell me: what were you hooked on in 2013? And where do you think my TV watching adventures should take me next year? Oh, and to make recommendations easier, here’s some stuff I tried that didn’t really work for me: Community (I’m sorry!), Lost in Austen (the least said the better), New Girl, The Sopranos (though I might have quit too early). Thank you in advance!


  1. JOAN!! I knew it would get you ;)

  2. I watch the same old shows on TV plus the news, so I guess I'm missing out on a lot. Nice reviews.

    Book Dilettante

  3. I watched Parks and Red earlier this year, too, and liked it a lot. I'm ordinarily hard to please with comedies, so it was a treat to find one that I enjoyed. I do have some reservations about the show's treatment of fat people, but that's the only area where I get queasy about the humor.

    I wish Netflix would get Legend of Korra and Borgen because I want to watch both of those.

    The show that, much to my surprise, completely blew me away this year was Breaking Bad. It was very different from what I expected and an interesting and often heart-breaking look at white male privilege and entitlement run amok.

    I also watched The Wire, which I admired very much but also found frustrating at times because the show, particularly in its first two seasons, often focused on the characters I found least interesting. But it did really well at showing how the system works against people at the bottom and how hard it is to find a way out.

  4. Jodie: You know me well :D

    Harvee: I mostly watch old stuff as well. It's only in the last two years that I've been catching up with series people have have been raving about for ages.

    Teresa: Yeah, Parks & Rec does drop the ball sometimes (my co-review for LB includes some discussion of mixed messages regarding women and sexuality, even though overall the show has a clear feminist sensibility). And interestingly enough, I was talking with my partner about fatphobic jokes on another series (Brooklyn Nine Nine) just last night when he pointed out that Parks & Rec did that quite a lot too in the early seasons in particular, which I'd somehow erased from my memory. About Breaking Bad, I've read a couple of pieces recently that discuss the series from that same perspective of examining male privilege, and that plus your recommendation has made me very, very interested. Definitely one to check out in the next year. As for The Wire, that's actually another one I failed to get into when I tried it a few years ago, but I want to give it another try sometime.

  5. And... I haven't seen any of these... I am so behind the times!

  6. I am always always surprised when I keep finding amazing television out there. I wish that I was better about talking about it in a public space (a Goodreads for tv??) because sometimes I forget what I've watched. Just recently, though, I finished season 3 of The Killing, which was amazing. It was heartbreaking and smart and I fell in even more love with the characters than I had before. The other two seasons are brilliant character development for the two main detectives, Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder, but the actual story line in season 3 is much more nuanced. I bought Orphan Black, and I'm glad that I have that to watch next. I watched a little bit of Joan of Arcadia when it was on, but I haven't seen the full series. I might have to pick it up!

    And now, you have FNL to look forward to, so I promise you that 2014 is going to be an amazing TV year for you too. FNL does have some problems and it's not always even storytelling, but it's still one of my favorite experiences. Like Parks & Rec, the first 5 or 6 episodes are just ok. It took me a little while to get into it, so don't be worried if you are not obsessed right away!

  7. Oh wonderful Orphan Black! I want to buy it for everyone on my Christmas list. There are too many days in between me and the next set of new episodes of Orphan Black.

    How far did you get with

    a) New Girl; and
    b) Emma Approved?

    I'm curious because they are both things it took me a while to love, and now I love them extremely much. New Girl is one of my favorite things on television actually!

    I was not hooked on The Good Wife for the first time in 2013, but I have fallen in love with it again. It's been SO GOOD this season; it's reminded me of everything I loved about it in the first place. So maybe try that this upcoming year? It is an awfully, awfully good show -- about as good as any network show I can ever remember.

  8. My recs! You'll be sorry you asked!

    I do rec both Switched at Birth and the Fosters. These are both family dramas with loads of heart and interesting explorations of diversity. They are ABC Family shows which means the production values can feel a bit cheesy at times, but I really don't know any other shows that give me such warm fuzzies in the best possible way as these two do.

    Cancelled too soon: Wonderfalls and Don't Trust the B--in Apt 23. Don't Trust the B--was like the perfect comedy ever for me and I really don't like comedies with few exceptions (Parks and Rec and I occasionally enjoy The Middle)

    I also have to put a word out for the Americans because <333

    And I don't know if you'd ever consider Lost, but watching it all at once would probably help avoid disappointment with the end. By the way I wasn't disappointed with the ending, but I'm in the minority on that! Great characters, tho!

    I also second Jenny's rec for The Good's a pretty great show and sharp and funny with some interesting explorations of feminism. And of course I also recommend Rectify bc it is outstanding (but only one season in) and if you can get your hands on it, Orange is the New Black.

  9. I loved Orphan Black, too. Great combination of acting and writing. I haven't even started watching S2 of Legend of Korra. It's on the DVR.

    This year I really got into Scandal. I also enjoyed The Following.

  10. I loved Orphan Black, too. Great combination of acting and writing. I haven't even started watching S2 of Legend of Korra. It's on the DVR.

    This year I really got into Scandal. I also enjoyed The Following.

  11. oh! I forgot to say that I think contemporary teen dramas are getting better with the sex thing? I think both the family dramas I mentioned have been great on this front.

  12. Yay Joan!

    This year I devoured and loved West Wing (wow, I'm behind the times here) and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Studio 60 gave me chills from the brilliant writing twice in the first two episodes. And add me to the list re: Good Wife.

    I watched the first season and a half of Borgen, but I think its views on journalism killed it for me (having worked in the field, I'm pretty picky about it).

  13. Everyone and their dog, including the awesome org People I worked with last year, have been raving about Borgen for, idk, two years? But I have still not gotten around to it, which makes me sad. After exams!

    I am still in love with Glee, which gets a lot of hate, but I genuinely love it (So many girls! More queer characters than I can count on both hands! It's a comedy, but everyone is so sad!) Other than that I don't really watch a lot of television, but I will say that everyone who can should watch the Swedish miniseries Torka Aldrig Tårar Utan Handskar (Never dry tears without gloves), it is only Three episodes and it is the most heartbreaking, sweetest, most beautiful, ugliest piece of Television I think I have ever seen.

  14. Kelly: Well, to be honest most of these are pretty old :P

    Lu: Please let me know what you think of Orphan Black when you're done! And as you might have seen on Twitter, I'm optimistic about Friday Night Lights after one episode :D

    Jenny: The answer in both cases is probably not enough! I think it was three for New Girl, but it was the very first season and I know shows can take a while to come into their own. I think I remember being put off by the Girls-are-from-Venus-Boys-are-from-Mars assumptions that seemed to underpin the show, but hopefully that's something they stopped doing with time? As for Emma Approved, it was only the first four. I always meant to go back to it, though because I really *want* to love it. So I was hoping someone cool like you would come along and get me excited about it again :D

    Amy: Never! Your recs are the absolute best :D I did watch one episode of The Good Wife a while back, but most of what I remember is that GG Logan was on it :P I also quit Parks & Rec after one episode on my first try, though, so I know better than to trust that kind of judgement. And yeah, you're probably right about the sex thing. Most of my examples are pretty old!

    Tasha: I'll investigate those!

    Hannah: Joan was just so great <3 I'm so glad I decided to give it a try. And if you wanted to elaborate more on the Borgen thing, I would love to listen! Especially as someone with zero insider knowledge of journalism.

    Arrela: I'm in awe of your excellent timing :D I'll definitely be checking it out!

  15. Well, darn. I was about to want to watch Parks and Rec but so sick of fat-bashing.

  16. If it helps, I think it's more in the early seasons? They get so much better in most regards as it progresses.

  17. Okay, well this post is just made of pure awesomeness!!! The only one of these I've seen is the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (thanks to you!)...and sheesh, I just realized I never even finished it. How the heck did I let that happen?!! Anyway, this means I have oodles and oodles of great TV to watch. Well, except for the fact that I don't know where to find Legend of Korra and Borgen, because I've looked for both of those before. Orphan Black especially sounds fabulous--I can't believe I'd never even heard of it before. Oh, and speaking of things I missed in life up till now--your TV post from last year! No idea how I missed that, but LOL--now I realize you must have thought I was a complete idiot for harassing you about not telling me about Veronica Mars before. :P

  18. I'm waiting on S1 of BORGEN from the library, and I cannot wait to watch it! Everything you and Amy have said about it makes it sound like exactly my sort of thing.

    I'm also going to watch PARKS & REC next year, absolutely, for sure.

    My own big shows of 2013 were SUPERNATURAL and AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, with additional love for ORPHAN BLACK (which I watched right after I finished SPN; it made an excellent break from boys-boys-all-boys), ELEMENTARY, THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES, and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM.

    The latter was a huge surprise. I'd heard it was inferior to the anthology show's first season (MURDER HOUSE) but I couldn't turn it off. It was genuinely creepy, with plenty of moral complexity and crazy-ass plot twists. I drifted away from GLEE because the creators tended to throw absolutely everything into the pot, with dire results, but I feel like their approach works much better here. (The two shows have the same producers, but very different tones.)

  19. Yeah, New Girl improves dramatically later on in the season -- so often the way with comedies! I think you could start anywhere mid-season and enjoy it more. I think it gets more sophisticated about gender norms, for one thing, and also the jokes just get funnier as the writers got better at working with the strengths of their cast.

  20. Oh my gosh, so many to add! We tried some new series this year but they didn't work for us so we're watching Gilmore Girls again. :-)

    By the way, my blog moved to :-)

  21. Wanted to add! The Good Wife is a bit slowish, I guess the first few episodes, before the show got permission to be less proceduralish. I never really think of it as a procedural, though, because I usually really enjoy the often ripped from the headlines cases.

  22. Adding to the chorus of those recommending The Good Wife - I've watched the first two seasons and just love Alicia Florrick as a character.

    Orange is the New Black was also fantastic.

    The show I'm getting into currently is Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which I would describe as an Australian feminist Golden Age murder mystery series. Essie Davis leads the great cast as Miss Phryne Fisher.


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