From Breaking Bad to Modern Family: 2013′s Emmy noms confirm TV’s at the top of its game

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

I write this day before the Emmy nominations are announced. As a member of the TV Academy I vote for the Primetime Emmys; and for several years now it’s been hard to choose a favorite in each category.  This year in particular has had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to outstanding TV.

Rather than try to predict the nominees (to be announced tomorrow) or the winners (revealed during the live broadcast on September 22), here is a very subjective list of can’t-miss current series. I am also including some guilty-pleasure shows I’ve been known to watch, none of which run the risk of getting an Emmy nomination.

Sometimes I come late to a series that has already become a phenomenon (24). Or I’ll skip it all together (Lost.)  I mention this to explain why I am the last person on the planet not to be caught up in Game of Thrones mania.  I watched the first episode and didn’t find a good reason to come back to that world or those characters.  But everyone tells me it grows on you, so I will catch up one of these days.

Another reason I’m not actively seeking another series to watch is that there are so many great ones that I’m hooked on already.

The most amazing TV story of 2013 is that one network, AMC, a basic cable channel that has been in the scripted series business for less than a decade, has produced four of the best shows on TV.  In fact, I think Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead rank among the best one-hour dramas in the history of the medium.The Killing is the fourth excellent series running on that network right now.

There is one comedy I cannot miss, ABC’s Modern Family.

On premium cable, I am addicted to HBO’s sumptuous Boardwalk Empire and Showtime’s brilliant, suspenseful Homeland.

The third season of Downton Abbey was perhaps the show’s best, even with the not-so-subtle machinations involved in eliminating certain actors‘ characters from the series.

Another powerfully-addicitive series is FX’s Justified.  Great setting, super-cool hero and really bad bad guys.

Netflix’s House of Cards was ambitious and well-realized.  I only wish every series could be served up all at once as it was.  Binge-watching has become extremely popular, and with good reason.  It’s really like getting swept up in a great novel.

The biggest surprise for me this year was CBS’s Elementary.  When I first heard about it I figured it would be a complete misfire.  Holmes in contemporary times?  Already been done (quite well, thank you) in the UK with the mighty Benedict Cumberbatch.  Lucy Liu as Watson??  Blasphemy!  Then I watched the pilot.  Immediately hooked.  She and Jonny Lee Miller are excellent; and every single one of the 24 episodes was written way more smartly than they needed to be for a fluffy, prime-time network confection.  Also, the season had an unusually well-realized and satisfying wrap-up to the overall story arc.

Now for my guilty, bag-of -Doritos-for-dinner-like pleasures.  I don’t record these shows on the DVR, but will happily watch ‘em if they happen to be on: History Channel’s Pawn Stars and Counting Cars, and Animal Planet’s Gator Boys.  I can’t even really explain why they’re so stinkin’ compelling, but dammit they are. Will any of these shows win an Emmy?  Not likely.  But don’t sneer until you try them. 

So, which show got my vote for best drama series? It was a tough call between Breaking Bad and Homeland.  I went with Breaking Bad.  Homeland is a masterful suspense show with great flawed characters. But it still follows the broad conventions of the genre.  Breaking Bad is an episodic series about a situation that surely could not be sustainable for five seasons, with characters we really should not be rooting for, who often make The Sopranos look like The Brady Bunch.  Breaking Bad broke pretty much all the rules, and triumphed by doing so.  Well played.

Ross LaManna is chair of the undergraduate and graduate Film departments at Art Center College of Design.

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