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View Count: 107 |  Publish Date: December 27, 2013
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2013 TV highlights: 'Breaking Bad,' streaming

The past year in television will be remembered for two things: The finale of one of the greatest series of all time and the game-changing emergence of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
The series, of course, was Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligans great American television novel about a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth after hes diagnosed with lung cancer.
Gilligan has described the show as one that no one ever thought would fly, but its exactly that kind of out of the box creativity that made Breaking Bad so good.
Instead of trying to figure out how to tweak a traditional police procedural by, say, making the cops androids in some dystopian future, Gilligan devised a show that dared to allow its characters to evolve - something that doesnt happen very often in television.
It wasnt just that Walter White was thrown for a loop by his cancer diagnosis - there was darkness in his soul all along, and it would have emerged even without the diagnosis.
Breaking Bad is one of the reasons people talk about this being a golden age of television.
To be sure, television is awash with excellence, but lets not kid ourselves. Theres also a lot of junk, especially in the reality show category, and there is a distressing lack of creativity in comedy, both in broadcast and cable.
Some days, the gap between the great and the gruesome seems wider than ever. Its not just the obviously terrible shows like We Are Men and Ground Floor: You find yourself wondering how many of the middle-ground shows got made in the first place. A show like Vegas cant make it, but Betrayal slogs along, stumbling through tired cliches, obvious writing and wooden performances.
There seem to be almost as many dramas on TV as there are reality shows, and many of them are great. NBCs The Blacklist, CBS Person of Interest, ABCs Scandal are just three of the better dramas.
Any of them could have made my top-10 list, along with Game of Thrones, Mad Men, In the Flesh, Masters of Sex, Top of the Lake, House of Cards, Chicago Fire, Tremé, Boardwalk Empire, The Americans and American Horror Story: Coven.
Mad Men is in a weird phase as it begins moving toward a series finale, which will air in two clusters, next year and the year after. Last season was challenging as Matthew Weiner nudged Don Draper toward facing truth, and it wasnt always pretty.Homeland
Homeland felt wobbly this year, so much so that when the season finale aired and that major character was killed off, it didnt really surprise viewers as much as the demise of major characters in other shows did. The danger of Homeland all along was that its a very high-concept show, and high concepts are not easy to maintain over the long haul.
The Walking Dead is still good, but it was always better when its creator, Frank Darabont, was on board. Many viewers found two international zombie shows - Frances The Returned and Britains In the Flesh- more entertaining and more intelligent.
The police procedural became, if anything, even more of a TV staple in 2013, but sometimes with a twist: Instead of plain old cops and robbers, such as the lamentably canceled Southland, TV continues to dress the genre up in various costumes.
Take away the androids from Almost Human, the all-seeing computer from Person of Interest, the master criminal working with the FBI in The Blacklist, and Ichabod Crane coming back to life and solving crimes in 21st century Sleepy Hollow, and you wind up with the ever-reliable police procedural.Cable comedies
I wont recycle the old saying about how hard comedy is compared with dying, but it continues to be true in television. The very best comedies still wind up on cable: Veep, Getting On, House of Lies, Shameless, Episodes. MTVs Awkward is still one of the best-written shows on TV of any category.
ABCs Modern Family seemed to stop treading water this year and regained some of its initial energy. The Middle is so reliably great week after week, it gets taken for granted.
FX and FXX have cornered the market on edginess in basic cable comedies, with Wilfred, Legit and Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The network erred in moving its fledgling late-night talk/comedy show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell from once a week on FX to four days a week when it launched its new where-the-hell-do-I-find-it channel FXX, and Kamau had his bell rung because of it.
Of the new sitcoms, some are already gone, like How To Live With Your ... - I ran out of energy to even watch it when it was on, much less type its complete name now.
The Crazy Ones is crazy great because it features a terrific ensemble cast - I could watch Hamish Linklater and James Wolk play off each other all day. The Michael J. Fox Show is good but hasnt entirely found its grove. The Millers, Mom and The Goldbergs are three sitcoms Id watch even if I didnt have to. Dads and The Ground Floor are two sitcoms I watch only because I have to.
Whether they are good or bad, though, every television show faces the challenge of the radical shift in how people access content.
The most obvious evidence of the changing landscape was Netflix coming out with three of the better shows of this or any year: House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange Is the New Black.
Americans have changed the way they watch programs. Its not just binge-viewing, to which Netflix tailors its original content - its also about what is known as time-shifting.
As much as that may sound like some science-fiction term, its very real: It means watching content when and where you want it, not to mention what you want it on - a TV set or a computer, among other devices.
If you decide, for example, to save a show to your DVR and watch it later, how does an old-fashioned broadcast network figure out where to place that show in its schedule? In the old days, you programmed with the idea of drawing the most viewers to your show as opposed to whatever was on the other broadcast networks.
Then cable came along, then digital cable and the poor TV programmer had to figure out how to compete against hundreds of other shows. Its anybodys ballgame.
All of this may seem like a matter of convenience for the viewer, but its having a huge impact on TV programming. Time-shifting means television has to be more competitive, and that should mean more creative, but too often, it can mean the opposite, simply because there are so many content platforms that need to be fed 24/7.
More than ever before, that puts real power in the hands of the viewers. Making informed choices may be difficult simply because there are so many options, but the excellence is there for us to find. And the best way to ensure more of it in the future is to seek it out today.Top 10 worst shows of 2013
It should be easy to come up with the worst shows of the year - at least, thats how it might appear at first.
Moronic fare such as Toddlers and Tiaras, Finding Bigfoot, Amish Mafia, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and The Real Housewives of (Fill-in-the-Blank) gets churned out like sewage day after day and is not only bad, but irrelevant.
Heres my list of the worst shows of the year, chosen either because they are profoundly stupid or waste decent talent:
1. Ground Floor, TBS
2. Red Widow, ABC
3. Do No Harm, NBC
4. How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life, ABC
5. Low Winter Sun, AMC
6. Doomsday Castle, National Geographic
7. We Are Men, CBS
8. Dads, Fox
9. The Following, Fox
10. Million Second Quiz, NBC
- David Wiegand
Documentaries
While the rest of the world seems to think in-depth means anything more than 140 characters, television is learning to celebrate documentary filmmaking in a big way. Several superb documentary films not only helped us gain new perspective on past events, but helped us make sense of more recent history as well.
Here are several examples of excellent documentary filmmaking:
1. League of Denial, Frontline, PBS
2. Sondheim, HBO
3. Raising Adam Lanza, Frontline, PBS
4. Seduced and Abandoned, HBO
5. Latino Americans, PBS
6. The March, PBS
7. JFK, American Experience, PBS
8. The Cheshire Murders, HBO
9. Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, HBO
10. Time of Death, Showtime
- David Wiegand
Top 10 shows 1. Breaking Bad, AMC
Vince Gilligan not only masterminded a perfect conclusion to a perfect show, but brilliantly assembled a walkup to the finale that was both filled with surprise and entirely faithful to the series and its themes. One of the greatest TV series ever.2. Orange Is the New Black, Netflix
The streaming platform became a major player this year with several superb series, and this one, about a classy New York woman who learns a lot about life and herself in a womens prison, is one of the best. Taylor Schilling heads a terrific cast that includes Kate Mulgrew, Pablo Schreiber and the amazing Natasha Lyonne.3. Broadchurch, BBC America
A riveting murder mystery set in a small seaside town that was as much about the secrets of the town folk as it was about who killed a small boy and left his body on the beach. Wrenching performances by Jodie Whittaker, David Tennant and Olivia Colman.4. The Good Wife, CBS
The drama about a lawyer who refuses to be a victim of her husbands philandering has always been good, but it stepped things up big time this year, with agonizing breakups, both personal and professional, at Lockhart Gardner. Textbook example on how a great show can get better several seasons in without jumping any sharks.5. Arrested Development, Netflix
A few longtime fans were upset the series didnt just follow the format familiar from the shows Fox days. But the brilliance of the new season is that its tailored to every type of TV watching: real time, time-shifting and binge-watching.6. Veep, HBO
Julia Louis-Dreyfus became even nuttier and more self-absorbed this year as Vice President Selina Meyer. If only real politics were half this funny, we might put up with its oppressive inefficiency. Another great show that got even better.7. Please Like Me, Pivot TV
Australian comic Josh Thomas stars in this autobiographical sitcom about a giggly, gangly goofball whose realization that hes probably gay gives him no more direction in life than he had when he thought otherwise. Most of the broadcast comedies were kinda OK at best, but thats all the more reason to recognize genius with shows like PLM and Veep. Comedy really is hard.8. The Returned, Sundance Channel
The Walking Dead has nothing on the genius of this moody French series about the resurrection of several dead residents of a small mountain town. With a minimum of rotting flesh, the series brilliantly probes metaphysics of human existence. As more of the formerly dead appear, the level of the towns man-made lake drops lower and lower, revealing the ghost of a flooded town long hidden from view.9. Orphan Black, BBC America
Tatiana Maslany gives the performances, plural, of a lifetime as several young women who learn they are clones. In the wrong hands, this could have been a misfired gimmick, but it works brilliantly. Terrific supporting cast includes Jordan Gavaris, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Dylan Bruce.10. Mob City, TNT
Frank Darabonts loving, exquisitely nuanced celebration of noir filmmaking was somewhat underappreciated and may not get a second season - maybe people were expecting zombie gangsters. But great writing, terrific performances and stunning attention to period detail should earn the series a second shot. Jon Bernthal is perfect as L.A. cop Joe Teague, and Alexa Davalos plays femme fatale Jasmine Fontaine like a reincarnated Ava Gardner.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicles executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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