This was originally going to be a simple top ten list, with maybe a few honorable mentions. But then I looked at all the great stuff that aired in 2013, and I realized I couldn't whittle it down to merely ten. I knew from the start that there were two episodes of Breaking Bad that simply had to make it, and two episodes of Enlightened as well. That would have been almost half the list right there. So no, that wouldn't work, and I elected to expand it to 20. And still I found myself making hard choices. If you'd have told me in the spring that New Girl's "Cooler" or the pilot episode of The Americans wouldn't make the cut, I'd have had serious trouble believing it. Yet here we are. And what's so remarkable about this embarrassment of televisual riches is that it doesn't include such premium cable dramas as Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland (yeah, yeah, I've heard lots of gripes about season three, but I'll be the judge of that when I see it), and Treme. Can you imagine if I had been able to see the most recent seasons of those shows? I might have had to go to a top 40 (at least).
But in the end, 20 worked. In the interest of spreading the wealth (I could easily have filled 10 slots or more with Breaking Bad and Enlightened episodes alone), I decided to allow two episodes maximum from any one series. And since there was just so much to choose from (all of it pretty much equally great), I wound up electing to go with as many different shows as possible, with the result being that only three shows—the aforementioned pair and Parks and Rec—actually even landed multiple episodes on the list.
Behold the fruit of my labor (well, the first half it) after the jump:
First up, a boatload of honorable mentions.
30 Rock, "Florida", "A Goon's Deed in a Weary World"
The Americans, "Pilot", "Gregory", "Trust Me", "The Oath", "The Colonel"
Archer, "Legs", "Live and Let Dine", "The Honeymooners"
Arrested Development, "A New Attitude"
Awkward., "Cha-cha-cha-changes"/"Responsibly Irresponsible"
Ben and Kate, "Ethics 101"
Breaking Bad, "Blood Money", "Buried, "Confessions", "Rabid Dog", "Felina"
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "Halloween", "Old School"
Cougar Town, "Make it Better", "Flirting with Time"
Community, "Herstory of Dance", "Basic Human Anatomy"
Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, "Using People..."
Enlightened, "Higher Power", "Follow Me", "Agent of Change"
Girls, "One Man's Trash", "Boys", "Video Games", "Together"
The Good Wife, "Je Ne Sais What?", "Going for the Gold" "Red Team/Blue Team", "Outside the Bubble" (aka "every episode from the past year featuring Elsbeth Tascioni", though they're all great for other reasons too), "The Decision Tree"
Happy Endings, "She Got Game Night"
Justified, "Get Drew", "Decoy", "Peace of Mind", "Ghosts"
Last Resort, "The Pointy End of the Spear"
Mad Men, "The Better Half", "For Immediate Release"
New Girl, "Cooler", "Parking Spot", "Quick Hardening Caulk"
Orange is the New Black, "Fucksgiving", "Tall Men with Feelings", "Can't Fix Crazy"
Parks and Recreation, "Emergency Response", "Filibuster"
Rectify, "Always There, "Sexual Peeling", "Jacob's Ladder"
Scandal, "One for the Dog", "White Hat's Back On", "It's Handled"
Spartacus, "Decimation", "Blood Brothers", "Mors Indecepta"
Trophy Wife, "The Date"
Note: major spoilers for almost all the episodes on this list!
20. Happy Endings, "The Marry Prankster"
Without question, the 2013 TV scene that inspired the biggest fit of truly uncontrollable laughter in me is the cold open of "The Marry Prankster". I don't know exactly why, but the sight of Max ripping off his shirt and cursing everyone after he thinks he's won the lottery made me completely lose my ability to not laugh for roughly a full minute. I can't remember the last that happened for such a substantial length of time. (Maybe the darkest timeline in "Remedial Chaos Theory"?) And the rest of the episode is almost as funny, as Max plots his revenge and Alex reveals that "I'm not as dumb as I am" in one of the more inspired tag scenes in recent memory. Sure, the Jane/Brad subplot isn't anything special, but it's amusing enough. In any case, when everything else is so uproarious, who cares?
19. Orange is the New Black, "Fool Me Once"
If you didn't find Pennsatucky all that compelling a character, this may strike you as an odd choice. I did, but her backstory—which I'll admit isn't as interesting as that of a number of the other characters in this remarkable ensemble—isn't the reason "Fool Me Once" is to me the standout episode of Orange is the New Black's terrific debut season. No, it makes this list because of three utterly devastating scenes. 1) Miss Claudette losing her appeal, punching a guard, and getting sent to maximum security. 2) Yoga Jones explaining how she ended up in prison. And 3) The library conversation between Poussey and Taystee: a hauntingly matter-of-fact and understated attack on the U.S.'s messed-up prison and parole system (which far too often proves inescapable even for those who wish to escape it). Orange inspired more pure emotion in me than perhaps any other series this year, and this angry, sad episode is a tremendous example of the show's often astonishing power.
18. Scandal, "Nobody Likes Babies"
Scandal's Defiance arc is one of the most breathlessly paced story arcs of the year: a shamelessly ludicrous yet masterfully plotted piece of serialized storytelling that I have serious doubts about the show ever matching again. "Nobody Likes Babies" brought this absurdly entertaining storyline to a fittingly thrilling conclusion, with several more "are you KIDDING me?" twists (Fitz killing a terminally ill Supreme Court justice), a healthy dose of tension (Cyrus calling off a hit on James at literally the last possible second), and consequences that would reverberate throughout the rest of the season and into the next. The show has been largely fine (though only occasionally great) since, but this concentrated dose of pure, awesome, all-out insanity remains its high point to date.
17. Girls, "It's a Shame About Ray"
The episode that snapped season two of Girls out of its early-season funk, this is a collection of perfect scenes that gives literally every character something powerful to do. An early conversation at a party Hannah is throwing is the show at its funniest, but the rest of "It's a Shame About Ray" is dark, often very moving stuff. Ray's subway speech to Shoshanna is one of the most beautiful TV moments of the year: a heartfelt, honest moment that cemented his status as maybe the most endearing character in this group of phenomenally screwed-up yet lovable people. Meanwhile, Jessa's marriage collapses with shocking but believable rapidity, and in the episode's final moments she shows up at Hannah's, resulting in a concluding scene whose sense of melancholy is upended by Hannah's grossed-out reaction to Jessa's snot getting in the tub. That this show can move from sadness to humor based on nasal discharge at the drop of a hat is yet one more reason to love it.
16. New Girl, "Winston's Birthday"
I suppose "Cooler" would be the obvious pick to represent New Girl's superlative second season here, and it's great. But "Winston's Birthday" is just pitch-perfect farce on every level, with the return of Jess's dad, her recent hook-up with Nick, and Cece's impending nuptials all converging at once to create a hilarious nightmare of a day for her. Zooey Deschanel's performance just gets funnier and funnier as she drives to and fro, attempting to deal with everything. And the rest of the characters are on fire too, especially Winston (whose special day has of course been completely forgotten in the turmoil) and Nick. The biggest laugh, however, belongs to Rob Reiner, whose sudden change of expression as he screams "I'll kill you!" at Nick and begins to chase him is one of the single funniest things I saw this year. It may not have had The Kiss, but this was New Girl at its absolute best.
15. Rectify, "Modern Times"
A thematically perfect, emotionally rich hour of TV, and one that demonstrates just how hard it's going to be for Rectify's characters to move forward after everything that has happened. Daniel is bewildered by how much has changed in the years he's been imprisoned. But more than that, he's also stuck reliving the past, in this case through a mix tape Hanna gave him before she was murdered. As "Modern Times" soon makes clear, this inability to move on is something he has in common with his sister, whose life has also been permanently altered by the crime. In the episode's best scene, she describes painful memories from her youth to Jon, and it's clear on Abigail Spencer's face that it feels just as fresh as it did the day they happened. Raw, unshakable, and devastating, it's episodes like this that have me convinced Rectify is going to be one of TV's next dramatic masterpieces.
14. 30 Rock, "Hogcock!"/"Last Lunch"
Cheers is still the high water mark for ending a long-running comedy series as far as I'm concerned. But 30 Rock is an awfully close second. These two episodes (I'm considering them as a single unit, both because of how they aired and because they really feel of a piece) are not the funniest in the show's history, but with gags like Lutz's Herculean effort to ensure the writers get Blimpie's for their final lunch, they're definitely in the top ten percent: which, given the track record of this series, puts them head and shoulders above most of the other comedic episodes of 2013. But more than that, they provided note-perfect emotional payoffs to some of the show's key relationships: especially Liz and Tracy and Liz and Jack, who each get a pair of terrific scenes together in "Last Lunch" that are both funny and sweet. This was a borderline flawless final season, and you can remove that qualifier from this particular episode, because there's no borderline about it. It's perfect.
13. Mad Men, "In Care Of"
Coming off a triumphant fifth season, Mad Men's sixth year took some time to find its footing. At the same time, the show's thematic spine generally remained as strong as ever, and it came together especially beautifully in a season finale that I'd probably rank as the show's second best (I doubt they'll ever top "Shut the Door, Have a Seat"). Don reflects on his past, and ends up showing his children where he grew up. Meanwhile, everyone's journeys continue: some more hopefully than others, but most with a delicate mixture of the bitter and the sweet. It's a quiet, graceful, and altogether remarkable end to a season that has grown in my estimation the more I've thought about it.
12. The Americans, "Only You"
The Americans was certainly not shy about killing off members of its supporting cast this year. Among them was Elizabeth's recruit and lover Gregory, who was developed with an astonishing degree of richness considering he only appeared in three episodes (only playing a major role in two of them). I have a sneaking suspicion we may not have seen the last of him, given this show's penchant for flashbacks. I hope not, as he was a fascinating character both in his own right and in his relationship with Elizabeth. His death—and the way it flowed directly out of the events of "Safe House"—was a surprising yet logical end for a memorable recurring character, and resulted in the finest, most confident hour of one of the strongest debut seasons in TV history.
11. Parks and Recreation, "Recall Vote"
This is just about as dark as Parks and Rec has ever been. Leslie Knope has lost a few battles before, but from the Harvest Festival to the city council campaign, we've been conditioned to expect her to always win the war. This time, the war is lost. She's recalled, and that's that, leading her to briefly go on a drunken downward spiral with her husband that nearly ends with them getting tattoos. "Recall Vote" is still Parks, of course, so it's not like the episode is utter despair. Indeed, this is one of the funniest half-hours the show's done this year, what with the return of the creepy pawnshop owner (and the introduction of his "pill bucket"), Ann and Ben's Klingon-based signal as they attempt to support Leslie, and Chris bumping into mirrors. Nonetheless, it's a pretty bleak day. As always, though, the show manages to build to several moments of wonderfully earned optimism by the end. When the war is lost, what do you do? You pick up the pieces—Leslie's unfinished projects, which she has 30 days left to complete—and get ready to move on. A top-tier episode of the show that remains my favorite comedy on television.
Next Week: The Top Ten