Though critical buzz sometimes made it seem like "Breaking Bad" was the only show on TV in 2013, this was also a year of television defined by breakout characters, by shows that shattered the male anti-hero trope in favor of scrappy underdogs and quirky new voices. I chose to organize by episode in order to spotlight some of the specific high points in my favorite series, as well as episodes that stood out in shows that had more uneven seasons. This round-up still leaves a lot out—to name a few, "New Girl," "The Good Wife," "The Americans," "Top of the Lake"—but here are my picks for best TV of 2013:
Masters of Sex (Catherine)
This show is an intense combination of sexy and harrowing, but the episode “Catherine” was completely devastating. It opens with a meeting between Dr. Masters and a young couple who are so oblivious about sex that they think sleeping together means simply sharing a bed, which makes a kind of bookend for the scene of crushing biological reality that comes later in the episode: Masters’ wife Libby miscarries her baby, first signaled by a gruesome red stain on the back of her ballgown. It’s suspenseful, tragic, and beautifully acted.
Enlightened (The Ghost Is Seen)
The best episode of this near-perfect season of “Enlightened” is a toss-up between “Higher Power,” in which Levi (Luke Wilson) goes to rehab in Hawaii, and “The Ghost Is Seen,” which focuses on the character Tyler, played by the show's creator, Mike White. “The Ghost is Seen” features some of the loveliest, most haunting narration in a show known for the poetry of its voiceovers. “It’s okay to be a ghost,” Tyler says at the opening of the episode. “It has its pleasures. You’re light. You’re float. You slip in and out unseen.” Tyler—a shy low-level employee at the corporate behemoth Abaddonn—had mostly played lackey to Laura Dern’s Amy until this episode, in which he emerges in full color: his bare apartment, the lonely routine of his daily life, and his rush of new happiness when he meets a woman he likes.
Scandal (Everything's Coming Up Mellie)
Scandal has had quite a season, but the breakout episode for Bellamy Young, who plays First Lady Mellie to Tony Goldwyn’s Fitz, was one of the most intense and affecting. In “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie,” we got some key backstory to the their marriage, including a particularly brutal scene that revealed the full extent of Mellie’s sacrifice for Fitz: She was raped by her father-in-law as a newlywed. It’s an amazing performance from Young, whose face in that scene—horror turned to blank, resigned staring—is hard to forget.
John Oliver hosting The Daily Show during Weinergate
It's hard to pick a single "Daily Show" episode from John Oliver's illustrious, too-brief stint in the hosting chair, but his Anthony Weiner commentary is a highlight. Whereas the mainstream media's coverage of Weiner was depressingly sanctimonious, Oliver handled the spectacle with just the right amount of incredulousness and a clear sense of fun. The "Carlos Danger dance," needless to say, was an instant classic.
House of Cards (Episode 8)
This episode was set at a different dramatic pitch than the rest of the series: wistful and sad instead of intense and dark. In “Chapter 8,” the congressman Frank Underwood goes back to his alma mater in South Carolina to attend the dedication of a library in his name. He stays up until dawn with some of his old a capella buddies, drinking and reminiscing. It's free from the oppressive themes that weigh on “House of Cards” overall: corruption, ambition, the murky ethics of modern journalism, the evils of government. Instead it is does more than any other episode to humanize Frank.
Orange is the New Black (Lesbian Request Denied)
Piper, protagonist of "Orange Is The New Black," is by far the least interesting inmate. Much more compelling is Sophia, the transgendered former firefighter with a wife and son at home, whose story made for my favorite episode of the season. In "Lesbian Request Denied," the prison cuts back on Sophia's daily dose of estrogen, which is devastating to Sophia, who had given up nearly everything to afford her sex change. Through sensitive, revealing flashbacks, we see the impact of her struggle with gender identity on her relationship with her family. She's at once brave, selfish, and fully sympathetic.
Saturday Night Live's Fake Wes Anderson Trailer
SNL had many bright spots this year: Kerry Washington's performance as host, Bruce Willis in "boy dance party," Miley Cyrus and Taran Killam as Michele Bachmann and John Boehner in a music video spoof of "We Can't Stop" ("We Did Stop"). But the high point was SNL's impeccable fake Wes Anderson trailer for a horror movie titled "The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders." It was perfect, down to the whimsical details (an old record player, a stuffed falcon, a stop-motion mouse), the bouncy soundtrack, and Ed Norton's very persuasive take on Owen Wilson.
The episode "Helsinki"—in which Selina Meyer goes to Finland to meet with the prime minister—encapsulated much about what made this season of "Veep" so much better than the first: the treatment of the veep as not just a disempowered stooge but someone who is vain and gaffe-prone while still fundamentally good at her job. In this excellent episode, Selina soldiers through a series of hilariously awkward conversations with Finland's prime minister, is groped by the Finnish first husband, and deals with a genuine p.r. crisis involving a lie to the public about an American spy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is at her taut, grimacing best.
Key & Peele Halloween episode, October 30th
The Halloween-themed episode of Key & Peele on Comedy Central was a sendup of the horror genre overall: its heavyhanded, minor-key foreshadowing, its creepily eroticized violence. This whole episode is worth watching, but perhaps the best sketch is a spoof of the Twilight-era sexy vampire trope, in which a new recruit (Key) arrives at a dark, gothic-chic vampire dungeon. Amid all the undead decked out in eyeliner and leather, he wears a track suit. "Do you have any pants with laces up the legs?" asked the head vampire (Peele). "I'm just wearing what I got bit in," says Key.
Breaking Bad (To'hajiilee)
Choosing the best episode in the best TV season of the year was surprisingly easy: the cliffhanger that ended with a desert shootout but cut to black before we saw who was killed. The episode was a kind of homecoming, a return to the place where Jesse and Walt first cooked together. Every second was perfectly choreographed and suspenseful—from Walt's race to his buried money; to Jesse and Hank's arrival; to that gutwrenching final moment while the bullets flew.