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The 15 Best TV Episodes Of 2013

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 12, 2013 4:06 PM
18 Comments
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12. "Justified" - "Decoy" (Season 4, Episode 11)
For a show that could have just been a rote police procedural, "Justified" has done a remarkable job at frequently reinventing itself. Having dealt with yearly big-bads in the shape of Margo Martindale and Neal McDonough across season 2 or 3, the show changed tack a little to become a mystery, with Timothy Olyphant spending much of season four searching for Drew Thompson, a criminal once associated with his dad who faked his own death after shooting Detroit crime boss Theo Tonin. It was an involving and twisty tale, but it was only once it was revealed that the local sheriff (Jim Beaver) was Thompson himself that the show kicked into gear, with "Decoy" marking perhaps the high watermark of the series to date. Thompson is in custody, awaiting transfer, but Tonin's henchman Nick Augustine (a colorfully nasty performance from "Glee" star Mike O'Malley) isn't going to let that happen, enlisting a semi-reluctant Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, exemplary as ever) to kill the former sheriff. The result is an impossibly taut episode that moves like an top-notch Walter Hill action/western, despite there only being one real action sequence of note (and that one features Patton Oswalt as the hero). It's fat-free, nail-biting stuff, but still finds time for the characterful and textured dialogue that's made the show one of the finest-ever adaptations of the work of the late Elmore Leonard, who passed this year (the exchange between Marshall Tim and Ron Eldard's Colt is a piece of writing so good that is should be taught in screenwriting courses). Every character gets a key moment, from a worthy goodbye for Jim Beaver's fine performance to the unlikely heroics of Oswalt's Constable Bob, and the only problem is that the following two episodes couldn't help but feel like an anti-climax as a result. Dutch would be proud.

11. “Veep”- “Helsinki” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Veep” is just such a fantastically great show that it’s extremely difficult to pick just one episode as a standout, but “Helsinki” is an example of how when this show is firing on all cylinders, it is unstoppable. When the Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) goes on a trip to Helsinki for some sort of “agreement,” she also ends up having to do damage control after a mildly offensive song about Europe that she sings at a private dinner is posted online (thanks, Jonah). “Helsinki” demonstrates perfectly what “Veep” does best: melding the serious and the absurd. The Veep ends up having to deal not only with the awkwardness of Finnish humor—guest star Sally Phillips is spot on as the Finnish Prime Minister—but she also receives word that POTUS knew one of the hostages from an earlier crisis in Uzbekistan was a spy, putting Selina in a tough place, as she’s already been on record saying the opposite. To top it off, the Finnish Prime Minister’s husband, portrayed impeccably by Dave Foley (he “looks like a Disney villain,” Selina’s bag man Gary hisses), gropes her breast during a smoke break at a state reception. As Gary (Tony Hale) describes it, it’s a “sexual 9/11… or at least a sexual Cuban Missile Crisis.” Every performer hits it out of the park, in even the smallest of appearances, from secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) working from her bed, on Helsinki time, to Congressman Roger Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) showing up to hurl a few of his patented insults (“Laurel and Retardy”). But the episode basically wins Louis-Dreyfus and Hale their Emmys, as they are the MVPs, landing every tossed-off line, side-eye and gesture with laser accuracy. When Selina complains to chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) about the “axis of DICK,” it’s funny, but it’s also a moment of Selina showing her true feelings about being a high powered woman in government. The groping is played for silly laughs, but this moment shows the reality of sexual harassment in this particular workplace, especially when they decide they can’t say anything about it for fear for her legacy. You can be the most powerful woman in the world, but some creep can still remind you of your status as a woman. It’s an important message embedded in one of the funniest episodes of TV of the year, and that’s what “Veep” does best.

10. "Orange Is the New Black" - "Lesbian Request Denied" (Season 1, Episode 3)
Aside from being a potential game-changer in terms of its delivery system, "Orange Is the New Black" feels positively revolutionary when it comes to the stories it's telling. The show might center on an upper-middle-class WASP woman, but creator Jenji Kohan has been upfront that she's using Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as a gateway to tell stories about people otherwise ignored on television: poor women, African-American women, gay women, Latino women, old women, forgotten women. It does so with wit, warmth and compassion, and perhaps does it most effectively in the third episode of the series, "Lesbian Request Denied." About the point at which the show really starts to hit its stride (and directed, interestingly enough, by Jodie Foster, which is almost enough to make up for her performance in "Elysium" this year), it sees Chapman trying to fend off the attentions of her admirer, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), while focusing its flashbacks on Laverne Cox's Sophia, the prison hairdresser who was once a male firefighter, who committed credit card fraud in order to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. It's almost impossible to think of a TV series giving this prominent a role to a transgender character (let alone one played by an actual trans actor), but Sophia isn't simply a symbol: she's a flawed, selfish person who, nevertheless, is hugely sympathetic. We wish the show made better use of her later in the season, but here's hoping she's more present in season two, because "Lesbian Request Denied" is certainly a highpoint of an excellent show so far.

9. "House Of Cards" - "Chapter 8" (Season 1, Episode 8)
We’ve been TV binge-watchers for quite some time now, but the concept of gorging oneself on an entire season’s television in one or two sittings really made it into the public consciousness at large with “House of Cards,” the first original program from streaming-service-turned-content-provider Netflix. And since it’s a show that was seemingly devised with binging in mind (note the absence of top-of-the-hour recaps), and largely consumed that way, it seems more difficult to select an individually great episode—what, you mean it wasn’t all part of a single, seamless continuum? But for us, the episode that really changed up what was already a deliciously dark, sinuous story of greed and corruption and power, was the eighth, in which actually almost all the trappings of the traditional TV show format are jettisoned in favor of exploring a dual-character background that doesn’t do much to further any of the many season arcs in play, but does, in one fell swoop, give us a gargantuan dose of context, for Spacey’s Frank Underwood especially. 

Frank journeys to his alma mater to attend a ceremony for the opening of a library in his name, and is therefore outside his natural, poisonous element—Washington D.C. And this time the scene is not even of a triumph of his conniving ways outside of those support structures (like, say the Giant Peach episode had been), no, here the revelations are internal to Frank’s psychology and feel as instantly, retroactively truthful as they are unexpected. And it’s a mark of the sophistication of the script and performances that the most surprising element is not that Frank had a homosexual relationship, it’s that he is capable of loving anyone, of pining for anyone at all. Elsewhere Peter Russo (2013 breakout Corey Stoll) returns to the constituency he sold out to try and shill for support and we see him too, in a new light; he’s the Cowardly Lion gaining some nerve while Frank’s Tin Man reveals that he once had a heart. Within the framework of a tightly-plotted show of twists and turns and malleable loyalties, “Chapter 8” might feel like a digression, and we’re certain that were we watching the show week-to-week it would have felt minor. But in this newly forged context it’s in fact a terrific example of what elevates “House of Cards” above its traditional TV show brethren: we’re not just caught up in what is going to happen to these men; we are encouraged to consider what made them the way they are.

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18 Comments

  • Janice | January 15, 2014 9:22 PMReply

    What about the season 6 finale of Sons of Anarchy!? That episode was jaw dropping!

  • Josh | January 11, 2014 11:15 PMReply

    When does Broachurch get "silly"

  • Jerry | January 10, 2014 9:48 PMReply

    Really? Not even a MENTION of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special? That was the most well-received episode of the longest-running sci-fi show of all time!!

  • NewYorker | December 19, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    my 15 favorite new tv shows of 2013 are defently
    1-Dads
    2-Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
    3-Liv and Maddie
    4-Brooklyn Nine Nine
    5-The Goldbergs
    6-Sam & Cat
    7-The Millers
    8-Trophy Wife
    9-Bates Motel
    10-The Fosters
    11-Real Husbands Of Hollywood
    12-Mom
    13-The Haunted Hathaways
    !4-Twisted
    15-Super Fun Night

  • Kyle | December 20, 2013 4:30 PM

    Come one man, Agents Of Shield...really ?

    Plus, some of those shows have been cancelled..............

  • Michael Bycroft | December 19, 2013 7:42 AMReply

    The mid-season finale of 'The Walking Dead' was possibly one of the best episodes of the series so far, completely drained me of all emotion. Left me feeling weird and numb, one of those episodes where you kind of wish you'd never seen it in the first place.

    And the season finale of 'Homeland' aired this week was brilliant too, brilliantly tying up all the loose ends and story arcs of the past three seasons. Although I'm very scared for where season 4 is gonna go, I'd much rather that episode was a SERIES finale rather than just the end of a season. Although I'd hate to see one of my favourite programmes end, I don't think they'll be able to top that episode when it actually does come to the series finale further down the line.

  • Delilah Joe | December 17, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    The final episode of Bunheads - "Next!" with its amazing audition sequence, musical numbers and gut wrenching "nobody said it would be easy" ending for girls and women has to be up there. Has to.

  • Ibod Catooga | December 15, 2013 10:13 PMReply

    I negated a negrooo. Lololol ROFL COMPTER

  • MadFan | December 13, 2013 9:40 PMReply

    It's no longer Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Price. The firm is now called Sterling, Cooper & Associates.

  • - | January 3, 2014 10:52 AM

    Wasn't it Sterling Cooper & Partners?

  • Thomas Maier | December 13, 2013 12:31 AMReply

    I think Michelle Ashford has pulled off a brilliant translation of my book. For more: NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ Talks Again About Masters of Sex! http://amzn.to/18bEF8n http://bit.ly/1gvgD0g #mastersofsex http://n.pr/1aXjBD7

  • Willy | December 12, 2013 9:57 PMReply

    Please do a best tv character list just for Madison Montgomery.

  • TheoC | December 12, 2013 6:58 PMReply

    Great shout on the Enlightened episode, Wilson is so good in that. I really like Girls, but I found that episode the most indulgent of the series and the easiest ammunition for the anti-Dunham people, Patrick Wilson begs her for sex! anyway another nice feature.

  • Meals | December 12, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    Showtime's Masters of Sex tends to eclipse Ann Biderman's strong Ray Donovan, which is a shame. The second last episode of that, where the priest is held in the boxing gym was brilliant. The final reveal completely changed our reading of Ray and added new layers to his hatred of Jon Voight's character.
    And Top of the Lake - in Australia it screened differently (6 not 7 episodes) so it's hard to pinpoint one but something in the middle when Robyn's backstory was explored, as was Johnno's.

  • Jamey DuVall | December 12, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    Bravo on including that particular episode of 'Masters of Sex', a show I think is being underrated in general.

  • Erik | December 12, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    I would've put up 'The Ghost Is Seen" as the best Enlightened episode. I found that such a perfectly moving, sad yet hopeful episode.

  • Howie | December 13, 2013 3:50 AM

    I would have picked that one too. While I also loved Levi's episode, I found "The Ghost is Seen" much more riveting. It was also interesting and fun to see Amy, who has been the main focal point of the show, basically acting as the wacky comic-relief supporting character for once. And that voice-over narration was just fantastic. It was one of the most perfect episodes of television.

  • Sean | December 12, 2013 8:16 PM

    Both are good eps but I agree. The Mike White centred episode was heartbreaking in so many ways.

    I also think Six Minutes from the Killing deserves a spot. At least more so than the P&R episode choice.

    And personally, I thought the Boys episode of Girls was way better.

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