TV's top surprises of 2013: Josh Charles, 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine,' Ricky Gervais and more

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2013 - 2:42 PM

A look back at the unexpected treats of the year.

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Kerry Washington, right, got down with the “Saturday Night Live” crew, including a skit with cast member Nasim Pedrad.

Photo: Dana Edelson • NBC,

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It’s that time of the season when I’m supposed to reveal my favorite programs of the year. There’s just one problem: I’m not qualified.

I may watch TV for a living, but it would take a 15-month calendar to get to all the programs bombarding us from cable, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and various websites.

Instead of putting together a best-of list that might overlook quality shows I haven’t gotten to yet, here’s a look back at what surprised me the most in 2013 — moments and people I didn’t see coming.

Walk on the dark side: Josh Charles has always been an amiable TV performer, the kind of good egg who can easily slip into a role as best friend. But Charles showed his claws in a game-changing episode of “The Good Wife” when he slowly realized that Alicia (Julianna Margulies), his former lover, had betrayed him and was preparing to steal the law firm’s clients. “Wife” has been a showcase for its actresses, but let’s give Charles his due for showing he can be just as vicious in a catfight.

Cop rock: I expected the new series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to be an Andy Samberg smirkfest, but creators Michael Schur and Dan Goor are more ambitious. As they did with “Parks and Recreation,” the team has created a diverse ensemble in which everyone gets a chance to play ball. Kudos to the Golden Globes for recognizing this police-station comedy as one of TV’s best.

Double duty: It seems silly to underestimate a four-time Emmy winner, but that’s just what we’ve done with Allison Janney, who seemed to have lost her footing since “The West Wing.” That all changed with her scene-stealing turn as a potty-mouthed recovering alcoholic in the steadily improving “Mom” and her heartbreaking performance as a repressed housewife in “Masters of Sex.” Welcome back, old friend.

Sentimental journey: It was a banner year for Netflix, thanks to “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Arrested Development,” but subscribers shouldn’t forget about “Derek,” Ricky Gervais’ super-sweet dramedy about an autistic nursing-home attendant who has nothing but unabashed love for everyone around him, most notably nurse Hannah, played by relatively unknown Kerry Godliman, in this year’s most touching performance. No doubt Gervais will return to squirm-inducing comedy, but for now, enjoy the soft side of one of our most creative, unpredictable minds.

The host with the most: Kerry Washington had plenty of OMG moments on “Scandal,” but she saved her most outrageous moves for “Saturday Night Live,” where she contributed to one breakout sketch after another, including a clever nod to “SNL’s” lack of black females and an instantly viral spoof of “What Does the Fox Say?” Is it too early for a return engagement?

Curtain call: I know I said it’s impossible to pick the top shows of the year without seeing everything, but I can’t imagine any program being as downright brilliant as the final season of “Breaking Bad,” which is now in the running for the greatest drama of all time. Lots to praise, but I’ll focus on that final scene (spoiler alert!) in which Walt (Bryan Cranston) looks over his meth lab for the last time to the strains of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” which opens with the line: “I guess I got what I deserved.” It was the ideal coda for a man whose love for power cost him his family and his life.

Totally robbed: A lot of talk shows came and went without much fanfare, which was a shame when it came to “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” a totally original series that never found an audience. Unlike Arsenio Hall, whose show seems like a sad attempt to relive the past, Bell focused on a uniquely black perspective, one that’s sorely needed in TV. Let’s hope Bell finds another platform to present his witty, wise words.

An affair to remember: I have mixed feelings about “Girls,” mainly because the writers seem to despise the characters. It’s an interesting experiment, one that often comes off as unnecessarily mean, but I did admire the episode “One Man’s Trash,” in which creator Lena Dunham has her Hannah embark on a crazy day of creepy sex with guest star Patrick Wilson. It may have been one of the loneliest half-hours in TV history, but give Dunham credit for trying something new — even if it involved naked table tennis.

Mindy’s other project: Mindy Kaling was just fine on “The Mindy Project,” but my favorite memory is her cameo on the woefully underrated series finale of “The Office,” running away impulsively with B.J. Novak’s Ryan and leaving his baby with the totally inappropriate Kevin (Brian Baumgartner). Yes, the sitcom probably should have ended the moment Steve Carell departed, but then we wouldn’t have had an unhinged Will Ferrell, a creepy arc featuring James Spader and an ending that hit all the right notes.

Dance fever: I’m officially tired of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” — unless I’m watching Stephen Colbert’s gut-busting video, which he put together after the band (reportedly) backed out of an appearance on “The Colbert Report.” Colbert, who also showed his musical chops in a PBS production of “Company,” can genuinely boogie, which makes the bit even funnier as he gets down with Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges and a slew of other celebrities. I’ve watched this video a half-dozen times and, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go for No. 7.

 

Neal.Justin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @NealJustin

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