NEW YORK — Even after all these years, TV in 2013 continued to surprise us.
What a fine surprise was “The Returned,” a French-language zombie series aired by Sundance Channel. And Tatiana Maslany was startling in BBC America’s eerie series “Orphan Black,” in which she played nearly a dozen varied clones of her main character.
It was a year that shocked “Glee” fans with the death of cast favorite Cory Monteith, whose passing was marked in a surprisingly sappy memorial episode of the Fox series that, in the words of one character, aimed to avoid making “a self-serving spectacle of our own sadness” — then went on to do just that.
It was a year that saw once hard-hitting “60 Minutes” go soft, and worse, get sloppy, with a story on last year’s attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, based on a professed witness whose account soon came unraveled. The story’s collapse led to CBS ordering “60 Minutes” correspondent Lara Logan and her producer to take a leave of absence, and left the newsmagazine’s glorious reputation besmirched.
In February, ABC’s Robin Roberts returned to the “Good Morning America” anchor desk amid unseemly ceremony after her courageous but much-exploited battle with cancer.
Syfy’s silly horror spoof “Sharknado” triggered a Twitter phenomenon last summer. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” continued to defy all expectations, averaging 13 million viewers this fall as the highest-rated scripted series in cable TV history. And “The Bible” miniseries on the History channel demonstrated anew there’s a TV audience for the Good Book. Surprise!
No surprise: It’s difficult, perhaps even a fool’s mission, to isolate the Top 10 (well, actually 11) programs from the rest that aired during 2013. But, in the order of their airdates, here’s trying ...
— “Downton Abbey” (PBS). It was reliably delicious and also pretty deadly in its third season, which began last January. Lovely Lady Sybil died in childbirth. Then, in the season conclusion, Matthew Crawley, heir to Downton and Lady Mary’s beloved, perished in a car crash, leaving her a widowed mother. Hankies were sopping as viewers faced a long wait for Season 4 (starting next month).
— “House of Cards” (Netflix). This Beltway adaptation of the 1990s British political thriller, with Kevin Spacey as its slithery pol, would have been good viewing on any network. But the fact that its outlet was Netflix, which last February posted the entire first season online in one gulp, proved to be the wild card for “House of Cards,” which instantly made Netflix a TV game changer.
— “Behind the Candelabra” (HBO). This splashy and poignant portrait of “Mr. Showmanship,” Liberace, proved a dual career triumph for Michael Douglas, who portrayed him, and Matt Damon, who was no less impressive as the Vegas superstar’s tempestuous lover.
— “Breaking Bad” (AMC). This drama series retired undefeated as TV’s best ever. And in the final dose of eight episodes, it was never better, concluding the five-season-long saga with near-perfection. From start to finish, was there ever a more unlikely series, more successfully executed? How long must viewers wait for anything that rivals it?
— “Sons of Anarchy” (FX). If there’s anything darker than black, this motorcycle drama remained hell-bent on finding it. In its sixth season, “Sons” was as gory, complex and absorbing as ever, populated with characters who were brutish, bloodthirsty and yet somehow commanded our respect and affection. It made crime seem thrilling but never, ever, worthwhile (a neat trick). And it featured an ensemble of actors unexcelled on any other series. (Any wonder Emmy gives it the cold shoulder this and every year?)
— “The Good Wife” (CBS). Last season, it seemed to be losing its way. But with its fall return, this brainy, sexy legal drama roared back to life with the latest twist of its recombinant recipe. On “Wife,” there’s no reliance on car chases, gun play, salaciousness or even crime. It’s a series about high ambition and shifting alliances in a grown-up world. And yet it still manages to be lusty, soapy fun, while boasting a splendid cast and a parade of great guest stars. If only network copycats could figure how to crib this unique show!
— “Alpha House” and “Betas” (Amazon). Sure, this duo seized attention just for being on Amazon, an online site best known for selling books, overcoats and power drills. Just a few months after Netflix’s entry into original content, Amazon emerged as the latest new outlet for what used to be “TV.” But that’s not why these shows are on a Top 10 (well, Top 11) list. “Alpha House” (a Capital City romp created by Garry Trudeau and starring John Goodman) and “Betas” (with its Silicon Valley antics) were chosen by Amazon viewers to become series. The series that resulted are both fresh and funny.
— “Mob City” (TNT). Here’s a sassy, two-fisted show inspired by love: creator Frank Darabont’s love for the grand film-noir tradition, which he honors impeccably in this crime drama set in 1940s L.A. Beautiful look. Snappy, smart dialogue. Terrific cast. In the lingo of its era, everything about this show is Jake with me.
— “Sound of Music Live!” (NBC). Sure, it was easy to fault Carrie Underwood for her shallow (if full-throated) portrayal of Maria. Stephen Moyer as the sailor-patriarch seemed lost at sea. Still, this holiday production had much to recommend it — splendid production values and supporting players, a beloved story, incomparable Rodgers and Hammerstein score. It was a fine way to spend three hours, even for viewers busily posting snarky tweets. It made history — the first such full-scale musical staged live by a network in more than a half-century. It was truly an event. And, by the way, a huge hit.
— “Six by Sondheim” (HBO). A portrait of the legendary Broadway composer-lyricist whose works include “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” it not only explored such creations (including musical numbers beautifully restaged for this film), but, through dozens of interviews with Stephen Sondheim himself as well as scores of other voices, it also shined a light on how a genius creates. It was an exhilarating, illuminating look at artistic achievement.