The Best Television Episodes of 2013

Without wishing to engage in the tiresome “TV shows or movies, which are better?” debate (not better, just different, plenty of toys for everyone) we have noticed a distinct uptick in our TV consumption over 2013, reflected in the increased number of shows we’ve been reviewing or recapping for your pleasure, including: “American Horror Story: Coven” “Boardwalk Empire” “Veep,” “Hello Ladies,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Newsroom,” “Family Tree,” “Girls” and “House of Cards,” along with miniseries “Top of the Lake” and “Parade’s End.” But rather than simply run down our favorite shows of the year, we thought this time out we’d change it up a bit and select our favorite single episodes from this whole past year of television. It means that some of our favorite shows may go unrepresented, because we didn’t feel there was a single episode that really stuck its head above the parapet (and usually we're looking for an entry that either fully encapsulates a show or that fundamentally changes it), and conversely some shows which we hardly ever talk about may get a mention here for having turned in an episode that we just couldn’t ignore.

It certainly seems to have been a strong year for television, with the emergence of Netflix as a force in original programming (“House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black”), while AMC, Showtime and others (even NBC, a network!) have challenged HBO’s hegemony over quality, appointment TV too. And with the news that Amazon will also be getting into the original TV business, it seems that the new Golden Age Of TV (often delivered via the internet but whatever) is truly upon us. We may be moviegoers at heart, but a rising tide lifts all the ships, so we can’t regard this increase in quality as anything but a win/win situation. Without further ado, our hat-tip to 15 TV episodes that had us glued to our small screens in 2013.

Parks and Rec Cones

15. "Parks and Recreation" - "The Cones of Dunshine" (Season 6, Episode 9)
Now one of the longer-running comedies on television, "Parks and Recreation" might not be hitting the near-perfection of seasons 2 and 3 anymore, but it remains perhaps the most consistently funny and warmest sitcom on the air at present. Season 6 has found new blood by thwarting its character's ambitions—Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) losing her recall election and being kicked out of city council, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) having his business taken over—and it's given it new creative vigor, with "The Cones of Dunshire" being a fine example of the series working at the top of its game. Jon Glaser's Councilman Jamm, Leslie's nemesis across the last couple of seasons, has been a divisive figure among fans, but he's easily put to his best use here, as Leslie and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) negotiate with the corrupt, super-douchey, Japanese-culture-loving politician, who's given depths here that haven't always been apparent. Meanwhile, Tom and Donna (Retta) try and help Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) sell one of his cabins, while one of the show's best recurring gags, the accountancy firm that keep employing Leslie's husband Ben (Adam Scott), only to be abandoned by him, returns to glorious effect. The show's done big events (weddings, etc.) better than most, but it's just as strong on the less earth-shaking episodes, and this is a prime example: great A, B and C stories, consistent belly-laughs, and a big heart. We'd worried that the show might dip, with co-creator Mike Schur's attentions now split (he's also behind the confident, hugely promising "Brooklyn Nine Nine"), but if "Parks and Recreation" is going out (a seventh season seems unclear right now), it's going out on a high.

Hannibal Coquille

14. "Hannibal" - "Coquilles" (Season 1, Episode 5)
2013 has been a good time for scary shows on TV, between the unparalleled commercial success of "The Walking Dead" (we confess that we stopped watching a little while ago), the beautifully unhinged "American Horror Story," and countless net and cable series about witches, vampires and werewolves. But the cream of the very spooky crop has to be "Hannibal," Bryan Fuller's highly stylized, deeply disturbing take on everyone's favorite cannibal serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (this time winningly re-imagined by Mads Mikkelsen). Shockingly violent and profoundly unsettling, perhaps the greatest episode of this past season (based largely on Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" novel) was "Coquilles," which focused on a killer who turned his victims into grisly, angelic tableaus. It was the episode where we got the impression of just how nutty FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) could be (the fantasy sequences with the feathered stag are as scary as any gory murder scene) while also showing some heart by introducing a plot line in which head honcho Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) discovers that his wife (Gina Torres) has cancer. (This plot line was never resolved but will hopefully be addressed next season.) The episode, moodily directed by Guillermo Navarro (a cinematographer who has worked with Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino), is a great primer on why "Hannibal" isn't just one of the best scary shows of the year, but one of the best shows, period. Unsettling, memorable and oddly beautiful in its gothic tones, "Coquilles" contains all the light and dark of the season at large.

Masters of Sex Catherine

13. “Masters of Sex” - “Catherine” (Season 1, Episode 5)
The first half of “Catherine” is filled with such humor that it’s a particularly brutal gut punch when it ends the way it does. Between the struggling-to-conceive couple who don’t understand that sleeping together means more than, well, sleeping together and Dr. Langham’s exasperated “Why won’t my dick work?!” the series’ fifth episode isn't afraid to get a little silly. However, those moments of levity lead to much darker scenes in the second half of the show, adding up to one of the most devastating hours of television we’ve seen recently, and in an entirely different way than juggernauts like “Ozymandias” from "Breaking Bad" and “Game of Thrones” highlight “The Rains of Castamere.” Those brilliant episodes are (hopefully) very far from our everyday experiences, while the tragedy of “Catherine” can—and does—happen all the time. While at an anniversary party for the provost (Beau Bridges) and his wife (the always welcome Allison Janney in her first appearance here), Libby Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald) miscarries, causing her pristine white dress to bloom with blood. That’s only the beginning, with Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) delivering his own stillborn daughter (given the name Catherine) and breaking down in front of secretary Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). In its first four episodes, the biggest issue with “Masters of Sex” was its central character, a brilliant but cold doctor. “Catherine” goes a fair way toward redressing this issue by developing the character while deepening his connection with Virginia, and the audience.