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Status at the Half (TV), Part 2: Best of the Rest

Status at the Half (TV), Part 2: Best of the Rest

As my Televerse cohost Simon Howell and I discussed in our Top 10 TV Series of 2013 (So Far), this has been a spectacular year for television, with many shows delivering remarkably consistent seasons (or half-seasons) of memorable, moving television. A number of series were in contention for our Top 10 but didn’t quite make the cut, often because they lacked the week-in, week-out consistency of our final picks. Here is our list of the Best of the Rest, the standout episodes of 2013 from shows that didn’t make our Top 10. With so many choices, and because we’ve seen and are drawing from different series, Simon and I are offering more personalized picks here. As with our Top 10, the list is alphabetical.   –Kate Kulzick

Screencap from Adventure Time, Simon & Marcy

Adventure Time, “Simon & Marcy” / The Venture Bros., “What Color is Your Cleansuit?”

Adventure Time, “Simon & Marcy”
Written and Storyboarded by Cole Sanchez and Rebecca Sugar
Directed by Adam Muto (Supervising) and Nick Jennings (Art)
Aired March 25th, 2013 on Cartoon Network

Simon’s pick: However it is we got here, the two series with the densest mythologies on television are both animated, though they have little else in common. “Simon & Marcy”, a clear standout in Adventure Time‘s excellent current season, turns the clock back – way back – in order to spend some time with the Ice King back when he was a mild-mannered scientist looking after a wayward little girl, Marcy, who would later become known as Marceline the Vampire Queen. The Ice King has long been Adventure Time‘s most pathetic figure, but “Simon and Marcy” manages to imbue his transformation with pathos and even a little straight-up tragedy. Admittedly, the competition isn’t that fierce at the moment, but Adventure Time’s vision of a post-apocalyptic storybook kingdom (yes, really) is one of the most fascinating worlds in any medium right now. For further evidence of same, the trippy dual opener (“Finn the Human” / “Jake the Dog”) presents an alternate vision of our heroes worthy of the “serious” speculative fiction of your choice.

Screencap from The Venture Bros., What Color is Your Cleansuit?

The Venture Bros., “What Color is Your Cleansuit?”
Written by Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick
Directed by Jackson Publick
Aired June 2nd, 2013 on Cartoon Network

Thanks to its long seasons and insane production schedule, Adventure Time runs practically year-round; Venture Bros., on the other hand, gets round to airing a new season whenever co-creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick can hammer one out. It’s always a treat when it returns though, combining uber-geeky universe-building and pop-culture revisionist history with honest-to-goodness character development. While the show occasionally let its plotting get impossibly dense in the (still excellent) previous two seasons, season five has seen a rewarding, renewed focus on the show’s most endearing characters, Hank and Dean, whose innocence, optimism, and openness serve as a welcome contrast to the cynical and/or evil machinations of virtually every other character. “What Color is Your Cleansuit?” shows off nearly all of the show’s strengths in a briskly-paced hour that finds room for Dean’s newfound sense of rebellion, Hank’s nascent heroism, a revolutionary mutant uprising, and a brand new Arch for Quizboy. Generally, when any series attempts a double-length premiere, there’s at least some filler evident; not so with The Venture Bros., a show as long on imagination as its painfully prolonged absences from the airwaves.  (SH)


Screencap from American Horror Story: Asylum, Madness Ends

American Horror Story: Asylum, “Madness Ends”
Written by Tim Minear
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Aired January 23rd, 2013 on FX

Simon’s pick: A funny thing happened to American Horror Story. Its first season/series, eventually subtitled Murder House, was – for this viewer, at least – a nigh-unwatchable mess hampered by its thinly drawn, arbitrarily unpleasant characters, its corny “scary” imagery, its maddening editing, and its tragic waste of Connie Britton’s time and effort. So it was with some shock and delight that Asylum wound up besting its predecessor in every possible way, thanks to a much better-suited setting, a carefully balanced sense of campy excess and deadly seriousness, and a whole lot of indelible imagery. “Madness Ends” had the potential to undo a much of that goodwill, but thankfully, veteran genre-TV writer Tim Minear (surely the series’ greatest boon and possibly its actual savior) manages to conclude a season that featured aliens, demonic possession, a killer Santa, and horrific medical malpractice without either over-explaining or relying on groan-worthy contrivances. AHS co-creator Ryan Murphy has a well-documented obsession with creating pop-art that provokes and entertains in equal measure; thanks at least in part to his excellent taste in collaborators, Asylum is the first time in a long time that he managed to fulfill both requirements without insulting his viewers. Bring on Coven. (SH)


Will Arnett as Gob Bluth in Arrested Development, Colony Collapse

Arrested Development, “Colony Collapse”
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz and Jim Vallely
Directed by Mitchell Hurwitz and Troy Miller
Released May 26th, 2013 by Netflix

Joint pick: The long-awaited season four of Arrested Development arrived this year with a flurry of fanfare and promptly fizzled. While the performances remained strong, the realities of production with a group of very busy name actors, as most of the cast have become since season three, stripped the series of its single greatest strength- its group dynamic. Without the whole family playing off of each other, many of the season’s episodes, while still entertaining, failed to ascend to anything approaching the show’s earlier heights. An exception to this, however, is “Colony Collapse”, which follows Gob and features, among other gags, a hilariously ill-conceived illusion, a ridiculously catchy earworm, the return of Forget-Me-Nows, and Gob as a gentleman honey farmer. The episode also benefits from the increased presence of Mae Whitman (more Mae Whitman is always a good thing), as well as judicious use of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. With more Arrested Development on the way, hopefully the next batch will feature more episodes as consistently laugh-out-loud funny as this one. (KK)


The Red Wedding, Game of Thrones, the Rains of Castamere

Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere”
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Directed by David Nutter
Aired June 2nd, 2013 on HBO

Joint pick: Perhaps the single most hotly anticipated episode of television this year, at least by those who knew what was coming, Game of Thrones’ “The Rains of Castamere” had three seasons of hype and expectation to live up to. The episode’s climax at the Red Wedding is a highpoint for the series and a shaping event for much of the story to come, so it needed significant gravitas and emotional weight, and with a significant portion of its audience fully aware of what was to come, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to both completely shock unaware viewers and nod with approaching dread to book-reading fans. Benioff and Weiss, along with director David Nutter and the show’s fantastic cast, rose to the occasion, creating a beautiful and unforgettable episode. Twitter and the world of TV fandom was abuzz for weeks talking about the Red Wedding, but along with its chilling ending, the episode featured setpieces to the far North and South, giving dramatically satisfying moments to each of the characters featured and intersecting several long-separate strands in touching, heartbreaking fashion. (KK)


Lena Dunham, Patrick Wilson, and Alex Karpovsky in Girls, One Man's Trash

Girls, “One Man’s Trash” / “On All Fours”

Girls, “One Man’s Trash”
Written by Lena Dunham
Directed by Richard Shepard
Aired February 10th, 2013 on HBO

Kate’s pick:  Girls experienced some growing pains in its sophomore season, but despite its issues, the series delivered several strong, memorable episodes. One example is “One Man’s Trash”, which stirred up controversy when some viewers balked at its central premise, that a character as attractive as Patrick Wilson would be romantically interested in someone like Lena Dunham. Putting aside that fascinating meta commentary (yes, sexism is alive and well), the episode succeeds by taking Hannah out of her usual surroundings, giving her a vacation from her life and helping her to an emotional and psychological breakthrough. Which, this being Girls, is then immediately undercut by a reaffirmation of one of her biggest flaws. “One Man’s Trash” is funny and thoughtful, with great performances from its two central figures, and is somewhat of a formal experiment for Dunham. Hopefully next season will bring us more of the same. (KK)

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls, On All Fours

Girls, “On All Fours”
Written by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner
Directed by Lena Dunham
Aired March 10th, 2013 on HBO

Simon’s pick: Girls‘ second season was all kinds of flawed: its pacing was all over the map, its character beats often frustratingly repetitive, and its formal and tonal experiments not always as effective as Lena Dunham and co. clearly intended. But I have a lot of admiration for the way the series allows us to see characters we want to like screwing up in the most horrific fashion imaginable – or finding new ways to screw up we’d never even dreamt of. Case in point: “On All Fours”, possibly the most viscerally upsetting episode of television from the past season that didn’t involve anyone dying, showcased Hannah and Adam at their respective worst, and more or less everyone who’d stuck around late enough into the season to catch it recoiled in terror. It’s hard to say which was worse – Adam’s cruel treatment of Natalia, which started a “was it rape?” conversation that may have actually been productive for a change, or Hannah’s deteriorating mental state, which prompted her to stick a Q-Tip beyond its natural extremity – twice. Too often, cable series’ version of “pushing the envelope” just means a whole lot of nudity and gore; it’s refreshing when a series takes advantage of its lack of content restrictions to genuinely unsettle and shock. (SH)


Screencap from Inside Amy Schumer, Real Sext

Inside Amy Schumer, “Real Sext”
Written by Kyle Dunnigan, Jessi Klein, Gabe Liedman, Kurt Metzger, Tig Notaro, Daniel Powell, Amy Schumer
Directed by Neal Brennan and Steven K. Tsuchida
Aired May 7th, 2013 on Comedy Central

Simon’s pick: As we’re all too acutely aware, there’s no Louie this year; CK is taking some well-deserved time off. In his absence, a whole fleet of comedian-driven series have floated in, hoping to make some kind of dent on the medium. Three of them are on Comedy Central: Anthony Jeselnik’s repetitive but undeniably effective The Jeselnik Offensive, Nathan Fielder’s inventive quasi-reality-series/entrepreneurial satire Nathan for You, and the best of the lot, Inside Amy Schumer, which sees Schumer try on skits, standup, interviews, and (wo)man-on-the-street segments with varying degrees of success. “Real Sext,” the second episode, features the show’s highest hit-to-miss ratio to date, and should prove a solid litmus test as to whether or not Schumer’s frank discussion of social and sexual mores is up your alley. While Schumer is still finding her feet as a screen performer, it’s a little remarkable just how little attention the series has garnered, given that its explorations of modern sexuality and femininity are just as daring and refreshing as the likes of Girls – and, generally speaking, a hell of a lot funnier. (SH)


Screencap from Mad Men, The Crash

Mad Men, “The Crash” / “In Care Of”

Mad Men, “The Crash”
Written by Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Aired May 19th, 2013 on AMC

Kate’s pick: As a viewer completely over the anti-hero in general and the mystique of Don Draper in particular, season six’s Don-heavy approach for the most part left me cold. While each episode remained wonderfully executed, the storylines frustrated and the featured characters often failed to inspire even basic curiosity (a notable exception being the delightful Bob Benson).  “The Crash”, while perhaps the most gimmicky episode of the season, provided welcome relief from a disappointing year for Mad Men, with the speed-induced antics at the office and predictably level head of Peggy counterpointing the continuing theme of Don’s self-centeredness. The tone throughout is downright weird and puts the viewer on edge, not quite sure what to believe. The episode has clear flaws (the less said about those terrible flashbacks and on-the-nose final line the better), but it still wound up being of the most entertaining and memorable of the year. (KK)

Promo pic for Mad Men, In Care Of

Mad Men, “In Care Of”
Written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matthew Weiner
Aired June 23rd, 2013 on AMC

Simon’s pick: There are as many takes on Mad Men‘s sixth season as there are Mad Men viewers, but for me, it wasn’t a patch on season five, which played host to a half-dozen or so of the series’ best episodes, even if I found myself frustrated with the way Joan’s late-season plot was handled. Season six, on the other hand, ambled from one pretty-good episode to another, leaning too hard on Don, who has long been one of the series’ least interesting characters. “In Care Of,” by contrast, moved and impressed me for its ability to, after all we’ve seen, humanize Don again somewhat by suggesting that, by God, he might be capable of some change or improvement after all. Not only does he break down in solemn, tearful fashion in front of some very confused Hershey’s executives (shortly after making an admirable, if too drastic, attempt to kick booze), but he ends the episode by giving his kids a window into the world of Dick Whitman for the first time. Hell, he even does a good turn (of sorts) for Ted, a man he neither likes nor particularly respects. There’s an asterisk next to the inclusion of “In Care Of” here: if Matthew Weiner decides to backpedal with Don like he’s done in every other season, I’ll retract my admiration. But the notion of an even slightly changed Don is enough to make me excited for the final season. (SH)


Screencap from Parks and Recreation, Leslie and Ben

Parks and Rec, “Emergency Response” / “Leslie and Ben”
Written by Norm Hiscock and Joe Mande / Michael Schur and Alan Yang
Directed by Dean Holland / Craig Zisk
Aired February 14th / 21st, 2013 on NBC

Kate’s pick: Parks and Recreation, though consistently one of the most entertaining and satisfying network comedies, has yet to return to its season four greatness. Without the narrative drive of Leslie’s campaign, the series has struggled to bring its characters together in particularly meaningful, or believable, ways. One two-parter that did, though, is “Emergency Response” and its follow up, “Leslie and Ben”. Though separated over two weeks by a scheduling snafu, the episodes work much better as an hour-long story with the payoff of Leslie and Ben’s wedding a culmination of the crazy day’s events rather than a standalone adventure. The series’ first surprise wedding (April and Andy’s) was handled with humor and heart in season 3 and while this doesn’t quite live up to that standard, it’s a very close second. The ceremony is spontaneous and personal and, in the context of this show, a great choice. Throw in the humor of part one, with Matt Walsh’s fantastic guest spot and Leslie’s turn from uber-competance to throwing the game, and we have the combination of community, friendship, and silliness that makes Parks and Rec such a joy to watch. (KK)


Felicia Day and Jensen Ackles in Supernatural, Pac-Man Fever

Supernatural, “Pac-Man Fever”
Written by Robbie Thompson
Directed by Robert Singer
Aired April 24th, 2013 on the CW

Kate’s pick: There was a time, around season four and five, that Supernatural was one of the most consistently entertaining and well-executed shows on network television. Unfortunately, after the conclusion of the series’ original five-season arc and departure of creator Eric Kripke, it’s struggled to regain its footing. This season it’s finally bounced back, though some bad moves have marred its full recovery (soft-focus flashbacks are never a good idea). In recent seasons, two of the show’s biggest problems have been its complete lack of recurring female characters and its lack of peers for Sam and Dean; both problems were addressed this year with the reappearance of Felicia Day’s Charlie. Her first episode this season was a bit uneven, but “Pac-Man Fever” was a return to form for the series, with strong writing, a good premise, and a return to the familial camaraderie and themes at the core of the series. Day gave a moving performance, one of her best yet, and it was great to see the Supernatural of old once more. With more episodes like this, that seamlessly combine humor and realistic, human emotion, there’s little reason the series can’t regain its previous standing. Fingers crossed for season nine! (KK)


Nina Dobrev as Elena Gilbert in The Vampire Diaries, Stand by Me

The Vampire Diaries, “Stand by Me”
Written by Julie Plec
Directed by Lance Anderson
Aired February 21st, 2013 on the CW

Kate’s pick: Much of the most recent, rather disappointing season of The Vampire Diaries was spent with its lead, Elena, freed of any agency, instead controlled by her love interests, the Salvatores. They spent an inordinate amount of time discussing her fragility in her newly vampiric state and how they could best manipulate her towards the decisions they felt safest, as another serious blow could destroy the tiny thread by which she was holding herself together. This blow came when her brother was killed and the fantastic “Stand by Me” shows the immediate aftermath. In one of the series’ strongest entries, we see each of the characters react to the death, in particular Elena, who remains stubbornly in denial until the very end of the episode. The writing is strong, but the performances, in particular Nina Dobrev’s early self-delusion and episode-ending breakdown, are what make it come together so powerfully. In a season filled with mediocrity, “Stand By Me” shows what The Vampire Diaries is capable of- it’s a shame they now so rarely live up to their potential. (KK)


Lennie James as Morgan in The Walking Dead, Clear

The Walking Dead, “Clear”
Written by Scott M. Gimple
Directed by Tricia Brock
Aired March 3rd, 2013 on AMC

Joint pick: When is a truly great hour of television also a damning indication of a series’ wider issues? “Clear” is one such case, a truly stunning episode that may very well be the best of The Walking Dead‘s entire run. The difficulty is that much of the episode’s appeal comes from its strict focus on a handful of characters, including one who hadn’t been seen since the series’ pilot. Written by incoming third(!) showrunner Scott M. Gimple, “Clear” is only able to be as good as it is because it neatly sidesteps just about every major plot element of the season – Woodbury and The Governor are nowhere to be seen. In essence, “Clear” provides a remarkable window into the series The Walking Dead has the potential to be, but will have great difficulty living up to as long as it allows so many undercooked characters and plot elements to crowd the screen. With just a few characters and minimal dialogue, “Clear” is able to conjure more dread, emotional devastation, and potent character beats than any of the series’ more elaborate outings. For The Walking Dead, less is more, and unfortunately, there’s insufficient evidence to suggest that AMC will recognize that going forward.  (SH)