The Future Freaks Me Out

betty

Adventure Time, “Betty”

At this point, the tragedy underpinning the Ice King isn’t news. As we’ve seen several times, his past is riddled with loved ones he’s disappointed and hurt, and the unwitting ignorance caused by the magic of his crown has essentially isolated him from these tragedies. But, at last, the past has broken through to the present, in more ways than one, and the events of “Betty” could have far-reaching implications in the future of Adventure Time.

When the Cool Wizards’ Club revives Bella Noche, they have no idea they’re unleashing a being made of pure anti-magic onto Wizard City. The initial revival blast robs the CWC—and Ice King, who, as usual, was hiding in the background, just wanting to be one of the guys—of their magical powers. For the Ice King, that means his crown no longer contains the magic that was not only keeping him alive, but also making him crazy. Waking up from his frigid haze, Simon Petrikov hijacks a magic carpet from eternal d-bag Ash and flies back to the Ice Kingdom to try and rectify his biggest regret: driving his love Betty away without ever getting to say goodbye. Using Finn and Jake to generate power and Hambo (an item from the past filled with Marceline’s love) as a catalyst, Simon opens up a portal to the past, to a time after he’s found the crown, but before he’s found Marceline. As he roams the streets, searching for his “princess” and firing ice magic into the air with reckless abandon, Betty (voiced by Lena Dunham) cowers behind a building, unsure of what to do next. When present-day Simon expresses his love and regret, Betty makes the shocking decision to jump through the portal, transporting herself to the present day.

When she learns that Simon is dying without the magic of the crown, Betty loads Simon onto the magic carpet and rushes to Wizard City to take on Bella Noche herself. With Death hot on their heels, Betty and Simon arrive in Wizard City just as Bella Noche has taken out the last of the holdout wizards. (It doesn’t help that Ron James the spell maker powered Bella Noche up with a bunk potion made from an old bidet and a vaporizer.) Laying Simon on the ground, where Death hovers over his sickly body, Betty flies toward the craggy tower protecting Bella Noche, finding a crack and crawling inside. Once Betty finds Bella Noche in the heart of the structure, she delivers a swift and merciless hook. Betty’s punch takes down Bella Noche, returning the stolen magic to the wizards, but it also brings the tower crumbling down around them both. Simon, now revived as the Ice King, has no memory of what happened, and returns back to the Ice Kingdom, where he kidnaps Muscle Princess and regales her with his second-hand story of what happened in Wizard City. Outside his castle, a hooded Betty looks on forlornly from the magic carpet before flying away into the distance, with only Gunter as a witness.

For an episode without a real tearjerker moment like in “Holly Jolly Secrets” or “Simon & Marcy,” “Betty” might be the saddest Ice King story yet. Not only does Ice King return to his former self and glory, but only for a few hours, he’s also reunited with his one true love, who almost immediately goes to sacrifice her own life for his. And when it comes down to it, Betty succeeded in her initial mission, to save Simon from death by returning his magic. But the Ice King’s immediate amnesia of his time as Simon, as well as Betty’s identity and her full plan, to continue working toward a true cure for Simon’s curse, ostensibly renders her sacrifice, and the fact that she survived the battle, moot, at least in regards to the Ice King. Betty, sadly, sees as much as she watches from outside the castle window. But she remains in present-day Ooo, and while she’s there, she’ll certainly be exploring every possible spell, science experiment, and mystic ritual she can to truly be reunited with Simon for good. Betty’s continued existence in Ooo adds a new arm to the still-growing cast and stories of Adventure Time, and her eponymous episode is a bold, exciting, and of course, heartbreaking entry in the final stretch of season five.

Advertisements

Are you scared you can’t tell me what your life’s about?

I’ve spent a lot of time consuming and studying a lot of fiction. TV, movies, books, comic books, concept albums, bathroom graffiti: the homes of fiction are myriad. I like fiction. It gives me comfort. Realistic fiction has helped me understand how to better interact with the world around me. Genre fiction taught me how to do that without being so goddamn obvious. I relish the tropes. I swim laps in the cliches. Fiction was a friend as a strange child, a depressed teen, and a young adult on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

But I didn’t always appreciate fiction. Or at least, I didn’t realize how much I appreciated it. My attraction to music, and subsequently abandoned path toward music education, was predicated on a love for fiction. Before I understood what teaching actually entailed, I imagined sharing the stories of music, showing children the narratives beneath the notes. I’ve always been drawn to any music that can tell a story, from a Grainger piece built on a folk tune to any number of albums I devoured in my teens that featured the tortured tales of love and hate. I used these musics to define my taste. And in hindsight, it makes sense. I was always searching for that next fix of a story, even if I was projecting onto a piece with no such intentions. But eventually I knew we just weren’t meant to be, and we went our separate ways. Sometimes I worry that I betrayed music, but I hope it understands that it was nothing personal. Music may have been a placeholder for my true love, but the times we shared truly were special.

The first television show I ever loved was Lost. I’ve spent… a lot of time talking about Lost and what it means to me. But it’s really quite simple: I found a story, and equally important, a medium, that suddenly made everything click. A story so pulled like taffy that I could see each individual atom as it made up the whole, observing and noting and making connections, pulling back to see the grand nature of it all. Lost itself worked because of the people. Sure, I saw the archetypes, understood what was going on in a metanarrative sense, but I also saw these people, these intense bits of light glowing so brightly in their own little world. I felt their their love and pain and search for purpose. I’ve connected with few the way I connected with this group of poor souls just trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing on this planet. When Lost ended, I bawled, not just because of the emotionality of the ending, but also because of the reality of the loss, the end of a story that had consumed so much of my life and fundamentally changed me as a person. Honestly, before the end of Lost, I don’t know how much of a crier I was, but Lost made me accept it, embrace it. These days, I’m lucky if I watch an entire week’s worth of television without tearing up once, though the number tends to creep up toward the middle of the single digits. I’m not ashamed. For me, it’s how I experience the story. It’s how I consume the story. It’s putting the story straight into my bloodstream, to become a part of me forever.

Stories mean so much to me, and I want to share that with people. I want to take someone by the hand and show them a story, walk them through what’s happening, not in our line of sight, but in the spaces above and below. I want others to become engulfed and enriched by these stories. I want the world to drown in stories. And yet when someone asks me why I want to write about television, I have a hard time explaining this. Maybe it’s because these feelings are such a fundamental part of who I am that being able to articulate the exact motives takes time, planning. Maybe it’s because I’m scared they won’t understand—not an unwarranted fear, if the hostility I’ve faced for this desire is any indication, though I’d rather not dwell on the negative. But ultimately, I think it’s because I don’t feel like I have to justify myself. Sure, I might change someone’s mind, but about what? I’m not trying to make waves; the work I want to do is for those already on the precipice. And I mean, have you seen the Lost finale? Shit, that’s all the explanation I’ll ever really need.

Don’t You Want Me, Baby?

red throne

Adventure Time, “The Red Throne”

Since Finn and Flame Princess broke up, Finn’s life has been… kind of a mess. But he’s been learning about life after love, a valuable education for any young person. Unfortunately, as he’ll find in “The Red Throne,” that education neither prepares you for all possible outcomes, nor is the same for every young person.

“The Red Throne” brings us back to Flame Princess, who has been sidelined since she overthrew her father for control of the Fire Kingdom back in “Earth & Water.” With the ever-loyal Cinnamon Bun by her side, FP has become the benevolent ruler the Fire Kingdom needs, helping the citizens with their problems while her father hangs in the very lantern he used to hold her captive. But the Flame King has teamed up with Don John the Flame Lord (voiced by Canadian Pro Wrestler Roddy Piper) to stage a coup, weakening FP with poison tea and controlling the minds of Fire Kingdom citizens. Flame King has also promised Don John a position as Flame Lord’s vizier, and as we all remember from Aladdin, that also means the princess’ hand in marriage.

Escaping with Cinnamon Bun, FP goes to Finn for help, a move she is emotionally mature enough (and preoccupied, what with the coup and all) to handle. Finn plays it cool, telling FP that he’s been hanging with his boys, not going on dates, but doing alright, but Cinnamon Bun can see the truth: Finn may not be hung up on FP like he was Bubblegum, but he’s not yet mature enough to understand their platonic relationship. Realizing that Flame Princess’ skin has cooled enough for him to touch, Finn takes several opportunities to try and make unwanted physical contact with Flame Princess, and Cinnamon Bun stops him every time. It’s not an aggressive move by either party; while non-consensual touching is not okay, Finn never attempts to take it past that level, and Cinnamon Bun seems to realize that Finn may not understand what is and isn’t appropriate, never chewing him out (or even explicitly stating the problems), even if it would be well-deserved. Finn does finally understand, but that still doesn’t stop his attention-starved bullheadedness.

Back at the castle, Finn ignores Cinnamon Bun’s plans, leading a charge that ends with Finn and FP being captured while Cinnamon Bun must try and rescue them by out-duking some guards and taking a key. While in the dungeon, FP pointedly informs Don John that they will not be married, because she doesn’t even know him, and certainly doesn’t like him. It’s not uncommon for the female characters of Adventure Time to have their own agency, set in this world where sexuality (and by extension, gender) is less rigid and stigmatized, and Flame Princess proves once again that she is very much her own woman, and has become even more so in her position of power. Finn, on the other hand, thinks Flame Princess only won’t marry Don John because she still has feelings for him. Let’s not forget which of them just agreed to wear a cursed sword for all eternity—or at least until that arm inevitably comes off.

Don John, hurt by FP’s rejection, goes to Flame King to complain, immediately jumping to betrayal. They both crave power, but are unwilling to compromise any aspect of their masculinity for it. Their fight is pointless in that regard, as it isn’t about losing or winning—or solving any problems, really. It’s about pleasure, the kind of pleasure two power-obsessed men can only obtain from that purest form of masculinity: beating the shit out of each other. But in all the masculine release, neither notices Cinnamon Bun releasing Finn and FP from their cell.

The undercooked pastry attempts to fight a way out of the castle for Finn and Flame Princess, but in the process is hit with a fireball square in the face. This finally finishes the last little bit of baking CB needed, smoothing his eyes and mouth, and he comes out of the flames a stronger, smarter being. Not only does he break the spell Don John put on the flame people, but he also takes his place at Flame Princess’ side as her knight and professes his love for her, a love that may be more than a little reciprocated. “Did I just get shown up by Cinnamon Bun?” Finn asks at the end of the episode, and the truth is that Finn wasn’t just shown up, he was flat-out schooled.

The other important lesson Finn learns in “The Red Throne” is that life goes on, even when you’re not there. Jake already knows this well enough, having missed the majority of his pup’s childhoods due to his unwillingness to grow up, but Finn is still in a nebulous place, and the idea that this person with whom he had such a strong connection could have moved on so completely and done so much without him has seemingly never crossed his mind before. It makes sense: Finn has never had a consistent older person to teach him these lessons, and as we’ve seen before, Finn is prone to obsessive behavior when it comes to relationships, both platonic and romantic. Fortunately, Cinnamon Bun cuts these particular behaviors off at the knee, but there’s still a queasiness to watching Finn’s unwanted touching, and a sadness to watching Finn realize he’s not the most important person in Flame Princess’ life. Finn is maturing slowly, but even these small steps are stepping-stones on the path toward adulthood, and if history is any indication, Adult Finn’s going to have plenty on his plate without worrying about relationships.

Everybody Suffers

XT

American Horror Story: Coven, “Go to Hell”

Everybody has to pay for their sins, Papa Legba tells us, and is there a greater sin in television than being boring? American Horror Story: Coven has had flashes of brilliance (about 80% of which involve Frances Conroy and a theremin), but more than anything, it’s felt incredibly boring. By the end of “Go to Hell,” the central story of Coven is exactly the same as it was at the end of the first episode, even if we didn’t realize it yet: the old Supreme is out, and the hunt for a new Supreme is on. And while Murder House similarly never really moved forward with its story until the very end, the insanity and search for pathos in all of the terrible people inhabiting the story at least made it moderately exciting. Asylum succeeded because, for much of the season, its central story was essentially abandoned, allowing the bizarre tales and tangents that made the season so great to flourish. Coven has been so bogged down by the battle for Supremacy, while barely servicing its tangential themes of race relations and female empowerment (hey, remember when female empowerment was a theme of this season?), that the whole enterprise feels stiff and lifeless.

“Go to Hell” seemingly exists mostly to tie up the various loose ends, killing off almost all of the older characters, regrouping the Supreme hopefuls (with the glaring absence of Nan), and setting the stage for the Seven Wonders Showdown in the finale. There’s a strange time jump at the beginning which adds to the season’s pacing problem. Cordelia—who, let’s remember, has lost her eyesight twice this season—regains her sight power, except now she sees… the future? Her first real vision occurs when Fiona puts a necklace on her (apparently her power now only reacts to personal objects, as opposed to touching the actual person), a decently eerie tableau showing that Fiona plans to murder the rest of the coven. But the second major vision, involving my Most Hated Character the Axeman, is dimly lit, shifting in and out of focus, and I guess it’s supposed to be from the Axeman’s point of view, but the vision makes no sense–not only is it a vision of the future, but there isn’t enough context for what we’re seeing to have any effect—and the superhero mask eye holes make it laughably incomprehensible, as opposed to just incomprehensible. In a third, lesser vision, Cordelia finds out where Misty Day is and rescues her, with Queenie’s help. Sarah Paulson is also given the thankless task of exposition dumping re: all these new powers, explaining that all the witches manifest new powers in times of crisis. Which, really, makes almost everything that’s happened thus far in this race for Supremacy ultimately meaningless.

The most interesting parts of the episode fall in its first third. The cold open, shot in the style of a silent film, finally details the Seven Wonders, and while the scene is visual exciting and helpful narratively, it’s undercut by how long overdue it is. The stuff with Queenie, Papa Legba, Laveau and LaLaurie is interesting conceptually (Coven‘s version of Hell, while not very original, is fun in its own way), but its only real purpose is to take the pieces for Laveau and LaLaurie off the table, and even the last scene, where Legba introduces Laveau and LaLaurie to their shared Hell, never hits the kind of high insanity needed to come together.

But “Go to Hell” isn’t entirely a slog. Frances Conroy continues to be Coven‘s MVP, no matter how little screentime she gets, and she and Lance Reddick seem to be the only ones having any fun with it all anymore. I’m glad Misty Day is back, because Lily Rabe is a treasure and has proven to be one of the Ryan Murphy American Horror Story Repertory Players’ strongest assets. The Axeman is finally dead, and while I think I’m in the minority, I was unashamed to dance a little jig as the young witches slasher film’d all over him.

So what else to say? I guess I’m interested to see what exactly happens in the finale, though the chances of Coven sticking a landing on a season that’s gone this far into nosedive are slim at best. Mostly I’m just ready for this season to be over. The tiny pleasures have held me over while watching each episode, but the collective shrug of a plot finally caught up to me, casting the whole season (except for those theremin scenes, God bless you Frances Conroy) in a bad light. But then again, maybe they pull it off. I just hope that Asylum wasn’t a fluke, a season that careened so sharply that it became something better altogether. If Murder House and Coven are going to be the gold standard of American Horror Story going forward, it’s going to get very old very quick. So no pressure, “Seven Wonders,” you’ve only got a whole season of television to save. Kathy Bates’ talking head needs you.

Stray Observations:

  • Fuck you, Axeman.

  • No seriously, fuck you Axeman.

  • Oh yeah, and Zoe and Evan Peters come back. They get literally nothing to do except help kill the Axeman, so there’s that.

  • No way Fiona is actually dead. I hope there isn’t some stupid scheme she and the Axeman went in on. Uuuggghhh.
  • Final Bet on New Supreme: My heart cries out for Nan, but I’m gonna go with the more viable option of Madison. With all this talk about how the next Supreme has to be better than Fiona, it only makes sense that it ends up being the most awful of them all, right?

What Would Stevie Do?

misty-day-3x10

American Horror Story: Coven – “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks”

It seems Coven is finally turning its back on the magical race war, and we’re all better off for it. “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks” is as close to “classic American Horror Story” as the season has gotten, a good balance of insanity and silliness that takes the story into new, potentially interesting places.

Probably the most notable aspect of this episode are its two guest stars. First, Stevie Nicks shows up as a “fictional” version of herself—because if anyone actually is a witch, it’s Stevie Nicks—to give Misty Day some clothes and perform not one, but two musical numbers for us. Also appearing is the nigh-unrecognizable Lance Reddick as Papa Legba, an actual voodoo figure the show reimagines as a cocaine-guzzling, soul-buying, innocent-soul-sacrifice-requiring demon in creepy-ass makeup. Turns out he’s the reason for Laveau’s immortality, as she sold her soul to him for it. His innocent soul requirement is also annual, meaning Laveau has to steal a baby for him early in the episode. Fiona tries to sell her soul to him, even offering some primo blow and to murder the people she loves (a reasonable offer, if you ask me), but he turns her down because—surprise surprise—Fiona doesn’t actually have a soul. Poor Fiona.

With the magical race war off the table thanks to Hank, the world’s worst witch hunter, Fiona and Marie Laveau are now teaming up against… everyone? In this episode alone, Hank’s dad and his witch-hunting cover business are shut down due to some bizarre spell involving a rat maze full of rats and traps and surrounded by wads of cash and the two drown Nan in a tub as a switcheroo sacrifice to Papa Legba in place of the baby Laveau stole. While this story is moderately confusing and difficult to follow, watching Lange and Bassett play off each other more is worth whatever contortions the plot must go through.

Madison spends her part of the episode with Misty Day, as the two tag along to a jazz funeral and discuss the politics of being Supreme. But things go sideways in a fun scene where Madison, in a show of her own budding powers (more on that in a second), traps Misty Day in an empty coffin minutes before it goes into its tomb. Zoe, on the other hand, accompanies Nan (pre-drowning) to the hospital, where they finally learn of Luke’s death. The two then hop over to Patti LuPone’s house, where she reveals that Luke is now a vase of ashes and therefore un-resurrectable. Nan immediately knows Patti LuPone murdered Luke because clairvoyance, then uses her new-found mind-control powers to force LuPone to down a bottle of bleach.

The battle for Supremecy is one of the more confusing elements of Coven. Of course, simply revealing who it is would be too simple for Murphy and Falchuk, but the rules of the young witch’s powers and how the Supremecy is determined—just like the rules of life/death/resurrection—are basically nonexistent. Misty Day, Nan, and Madison all started show new powers, which is exciting, but they’re all the same powers, which is too easy narratively and lessens the uniqueness of their individual powers. Besides, it seems more and more it’s just going to end up being Zoe anyway, which would be a disappointing and predictable end to the story.

And speaking of disappointing, both Queenie’s physical absence (Gabourey Sibide is one of the most electric performers of the season) and the rest of her sister witches’ complete lack of interest in whether or not she’s still alive was an odd element of the story that I couldn’t just ignore. Sure, it creates “tension” to keep a character off-screen after a possibly fatal moment, but it’s not like the events of the salon are completely ignored here. Laveau doesn’t just move into the school, her presence is known and accepted by those living there. And yet no one is worried about poor Queenie? I call bullshit.

But for the little problems, “The Magical Mystery Tour of Stevie Nicks and Lance Reddick’s Rob Zombie Cosplay” delivers the kind of fun, creepy energy American Horror Story can at its best. The changing tides bode well for the end of a shaky season, and a good ending could save even the most problematic parts of Coven.

Stray Observations:

  • Some solid laughs courtesy of Frances Conroy: we cut to Fiona working in her greenhouse, creepy theremin music in the background, only for the camera to pull back and reveal Myrtle Snow playing an actual theremin in the greenhouse. When Fiona insults the instrument, Myrtle replies with one of Conroy’s best lines of the season: “Don’t be a hater, dear.”

  • Besides Queenie, Kathy Bates’ head is also notably absent from this episode. Poor gal is probably tired of the DVD menu from that Civil Rights documentary.

  • The logistics of almost all spells used in this season make zero sense, though I admit that my knowledge of various types of witchcraft is very small. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon did a bang-up job filming that mouse spell though.

  • I’m taking bets on how far into next week’s episode we get before Misty, Nan, and Patti LuPone all reappear. Heck, I’ll throw Luke and Hank in there for good measure.

  • Oh yeah, no Evan Peters this week either. Probably too busy humping something wildly.

  • Fuck you, Axeman.

I’ll pull my hoodie up over my face, I won’t run away.

Young Avengers #14, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Young Avengers #14, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

This isn’t about TV, it’s about survival.

2012 was a year I almost died. I had one very specific plan to kill myself in place early in the year, but when I failed to go through with that, I spent the rest of the year in a suicidal haze. It was a dreary coda to a dark period of my life.

2013 was my rebirth. Dropped into my new life covered in the slimy placenta of mental illness, I spent this year rediscovering myself. I found worlds where I felt I could thrive, began to explore new ideas about what I could do with my life. And when things were looking their brightest, it all came to a screeching halt.

I’ve done more documenting than appropriate about my travails during the fall of 2013, so I’ll spare the gory details here. But what it taught me was that this stagnation act, this inability to make real moves forward, would kill me if I let it. And if I couldn’t even kill myself, I’m not about to let my inaction do it.

A lot of my physical stuff from my life pre-breakdown has fallen by the wayside. Books and CDs and records and DVDs and clothes that are never touched anymore. But there was one holdover from that period that never went away: the green Volcom hoodie.

If you know me, you’ve seen it. It’s bright green, for Christ’s sake. And by December 24, 2013, it was a raggedy mess: strips of fabric hanging from the sleeves and hems; a cigarette burn in the hood; a giant hole in the pocket bigger than the size of my fist. But I never stopped wearing it. Of course, I didn’t actually have another hoodie or jacket to wear, but that was only because I never bought one. I never bought one because I was broke, but also because I didn’t want to. To this hoodie, I was Linus, and I clutched for dear life. I lived in that thing, and in some ways, it came to define me.

For Christmas last week, I received four new hoodies. My family wanted there to be no chance of me falling back on the green Volvom hoodie. And in the last week, I haven’t worn it once. The other day I had lunch with my aunt, one of the only people in my family who have really bothered to talk to me about what’s going on in my head and what I’m thinking about the future moving forward. It was an empowering lunch, and I knew it was time to make the next steps in my slow recovery.

It’s time to officially retire the green Volvom hoodie.

Oh sure, I could just throw it away. Or worse, hang it up in my closet and forget about it for years. No, I know what must be done. Death by flame, a true ritual, a funeral pyre. I need to burn the last three years, because as long as I keep holding onto relics from that time, the harder it is to take my next step. I have to truly let go, and I think this is the only way.

Somewhere on the journey of the last few years, I realized that I’m an optimist. As much as I strove for cynicism, and as much as the thoughts in my brain try and convince me that the world is a monster of misery and pain I create myself endlessly, my heart looks for hope. For the first time in a while, a new year finally looks like that hope. I’ll be facing 2014 without one of my closest allies, but I don’t feel alone.

There’s too many shows! The best TV of 2013, pt. 1

And so another year comes to a close, and of course that means it’s time to make arbitrary lists subjectively comparing things. For my favorite shows of the year, I looked at the entire calendar year, with the only real rule being that a returning show must’ve aired at least half of a single season during 2013. Again, this is all subjective, and I can already rattle off about ten things that aren’t on my list for myriad reason (#1 being that I just haven’t watched them yet). Also, as you can see, this is part one. Part two will drop sometime between Christmas day and New Year’s Eve and will be a more in-depth look at my top two shows of the year. So without further ado, let’s begin!

1

25. Adventure Time

Adventure Time‘s mega-sized, 52-episode fifth season began airing in November of 2012, but the 37 episodes aired in 2013 have shown the kind of expansion and experimentation that a fifth-season show, even an all-ages program, shouldn’t be able to get away with. But Adventure Time continues to deliver fresh and exciting stories on a fairly consistent basis. 2013 saw the birth and raising of Jake’s pups, the development—and ultimately, dissolution—of Finn’s relationship with Flame Princess, more history of The Mushroom War and the bond between Ice King and Marceline, and greater ambiguity in Princess Bubblegum’s morality. Adventure Time also indulged in experiments in both animation (the infamous “A Glitch is a Glitch”) and storytelling (“The Vault,” “The Party’s Over, Isla de Señorita”), while maintaining its appeal to kids. At this point, Adventure Time is essentially unstoppable, but why would you want to?

2

24. Girls

Maybe the most divisive and controversial season of TV in 2013, Girls took its second season as an opportunity to get dark. Really, really dark. Each of the four main characters experienced some kind of trauma this year, from Hannah rupturing her eardrum with a Q-Tip to Marnie’s soul-crushingly awkward Kanye West cover. The show also took time to go down paths that didn’t immediately make a whole lot of sense. “One Man’s Trash,” aka “The Patrick Wilson Episode,” is essentially a one-act play with two characters, “Video Games” follows Hannah and Jessa out to the country to visit Jessa’s family, and “Boys” gives insight into the show’s male characters. But it all went to hell in the season’s final three episodes, and as the lives of the characters fall apart, the narrative comes into stark focus. The final scene of the season is a doozy, and rightfully polarizing, but whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it blows open the doors for season three.

3

23. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

On paper, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a disaster. A police department workplace comedy, helmed by Mike Schur and Dan Goor (of Parks and Recreation), and starring Andy Samberg shouldn’t work. And for the first few episodes, it didn’t, entirely. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a secret weapon (or six) hidden up its sleeve: its supporting cast. They carry the show in early episodes, and by the midseason finale, they’re just as, if not more, integral to the show’s existence as Samberg. There’s Andre Braugher as Captain Holt, the strict new captain of the pecinct whose vulnerabilities are slowly but surely brought to light; Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz, the tough, street-level detective whose iciness isn’t hiding some fragile little girl—she just happens to be a badass; Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, the over-achiever who longs to be taken on as a mentee by Captain Holt; Joe Lo Truglio as Charles Boyle, a bumbling divorcee who’s fiercely loyal to his fellow detectives and the precinct; Chelsea Peretti as Gina, the precinct’s administrator who seems to both hate and love everyone in equal measure; and last, but certainly not least, is Terry Crews as Sergeant Terry Jeffords, the leader of the sqaud, who’s recovering from a breakdown but slowly working his way back into the field, and has immense love for his baby girls, Cagney and Lacey. The supporting cast (especially Crews, who steals every scene he gets, and Peretti, who can make a ten second scene the best of the episode) make Brooklyn Nine-Nine, smoothing out any wrinkles and rough edges from Samberg. I mean, if Terry Crews destroying a pink princess castles with his bare hands isn’t enough to get you to watch, I don’t know what else to say.

4

22. Arrested Development

Let’s get some things out of the way: no, the new season of Arrested Development was not on the level of the original three, and yes, there were some problems, most specifically the episode lengths and certain characters being given too much or too little to do. But, and trust me on this, a second watch really reveals the gem underneath. The story structure is interesting, and while the decision to have each episode focus on a certain character proved problematic, it makes sense with the parallel narratives. On second watch, the season is also much funnier, as jokes and punchlines come together better, and references that aren’t revealed until later in the season make more sense. But in the end, it’s impossible for me to hate spending time with the Bluths. And as the story continues diving into the darkness of Michael Bluth (a story that, like it or not, began all the way back in season one), more and more about the true nature of the Bluths is revealed, as the importance of George Michael and Maeby becomes clearer. While still just a funny sitcom about a family of horrible people, Arrested Development also became a story about breaking free, about trying to find yourself, even when the very DNA inside you is pulling you down into the depths of awfulness. Oh, and did I mention the bees? (Beads? Bees.)

5

21. Sleepy Hollow

Talk about a pleasant surprise. When Sleepy Hollow was first announced, I couldn’t have been any less interested in a story about Ichabod Crane, Time Traveler, but as the pilot began making the rounds, the buzz grew, and it seemed this little show might not be a train wreck after all. Co-led by Tom Mison as Crane and Nicole Beharie as Lieutenant Abbie Mills, the show turned out to be a more progressive answer to Supernatural, with a healthy dose of Fringe and The X-Files mixed in. The central narrative, which is bonkers beyond belief and involves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is woven throughout monster-of-the-week stories in a way that’s smarter than a serialized Fox drama should be allowed to be. Joining Mison and Beharies are Orlando Jones as Captain Irving, Sleepy Hollow’s police captain, Katia Winter as Katrina Crane, Ichabod’s trapped-in-limbo wife who is a witch, and Lyndie Greenwood as Jenny Mills, Abbie’s allegedly unstable sister who has more knowledge of the supernatural threats than Abbie realized. Sleepy Hollow is insane, but it’s never self-serious, balancing out the heavy and ridiculous with subtle humor and sweetness, and honestly, no image on television this year was better than the Headless Horseman dual-wielding machine guns.

6

20. Orphan Black

When it comes to breakout performances, none shine quite as bright as Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black. A sci-fi show about a group of clones who discover they’re clones and try to find out where they came from, Maslany takes on not only the five main clones, but five more clones, and sometimes she’s even playing one clone impersonating another clone impersonating another clone. Entire scenes are just Maslany acting against herself, and what makes it even better is how easy it is to forget. (True story, at one point during the first season, I actually went to IMDB to see who played Cosima, the geeky scientist clone, before remembering that it’s still Maslany.) The show itself is good enough—it’s soft sci-fi, more about the connections these women both have made in their lives and are making with the new knowledge of their origins, and the supporting cast performs admirably—but Maslany’s performance is masterful, and rightfully takes front and center in any conversation about the show. The end of season one barreled into absolute madness, and with season two just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to catch up on this sleeper hit.

7

19. Veep

Perhaps it was a nice bit of synchronicity that Veep‘s sharper, funnier, and all around better second season came at the beginning of a year where public opinion of the United States government fell into its deepest malaise yet. Season two brought Gary Cole into the cast, giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyers a consistent sparring partner, as the Vice President dealt with a hostage situation hiding a government secret, a government shutdown, rekindling her relationship with her husband, and considering her political future. Louis-Dreyfus continued to deliver on all cylinders, as the supporting cast (especially Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, and Matt Walsh) only got better. Deeper characters and more interesting, serialized stories help elevate Veep into the pantheon of American political satire currently inhabited by Stewart and Colbert, and with a well-defined voice and razor-sharp wit, it could become the sharpest political satire of our age.

8

18. Parks and Recreation

If Parks and Rec‘s fifth season started off slow, its back half, which aired at the beginning of the year, picked up the slack considerably. Much of it was planting seeds for season six, but the sheer spectacle of the Knope-Wyatt wedding in “Leslie and Ben” glossed over the relatively meandering parts of the season. Fortunately, season six has been solid thus far, beginning with the hour-long premiere “London,” which featured perhaps Ron Swanson’s greatest story yet. We also got the introduction of the Eagleton doppelgangers, as well as the long-awaited recall vote, leading to Parks and Rec‘s gutsiest narrative decision in years. And of course, it continues to be one of the most pleasant shows on television, even when the wear and tear of six season starts to show, making it no surprise that the little comedy that could continues to chug along.

9

17. Justified

Justified, despite having a second season that could stand alongside the greatest prestige dramas, has always been relegated to the second tier, the shows that are good, just not that good, but season four sought to break free of that designation. Opting out of a big bad, Justified‘s fourth season instead focuses on the mystery of Drew Thompson, a man deeply ingrained into Harlan, yet also completely invisible. But as much as Justified is a show about the law, it’s also a show about a community and the behind-the-scenes power that drives it, and season four dove even deeper into Harlan than ever, giving Boyd his own narrative that, while sometimes intersecting, mostly just runs parallel to Raylan’s. Season four also saw excellent performances from the entire cast, including a delightfully badass constable courtesy of Patton Oswalt, that concluded in some of the strongest performances of Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and Jim Beaver’s careers. Few shows on television understand exactly what they are quite like Justified, and if the trend of excellence continues, it could find a home amongst its more revered brethren with time.

MALIN AKERMAN, BRADLEY WHITFORD

16. Trophy Wife

To be frank, a poorly-titled ABC sitcom simply has no business being as good as Trophy Wife is. The story of a woman marrying a man with two previous wives, with three children between them, all existing as a single family unit, Trophy Wife found its feet quickly and took off from there. As the titular wife, Malin Akerman is a delight, never pushing her character too far into any stereotypes, and her scenes with husband Bradley Whitford are some of the series best. Micheala Watkins and Macia Gaye Harden shine as the two previous wives, both creating complex, fully-formed characters without falling into caricature. And most surprising are the children, the teen-aged Warren (Ryan Lee) and Hillary (Bailee Madison) and the adopted youngest, Bert (Albert Tsai), who are never grating, and are oftentimes (well, in the case of Bert, always) standouts from any given episode. While Trophy Wife aims more for pleasant than gut-bustingly hilarious (and truthfully, there are less jokes than you’d expect), it still has moments of comedic brilliance, especially when Malin Akerman shows off her incredible chops for physical comedy. Sadly, Trophy Wife is wilting on ABC, stuck at the end of a poorly-performing night and never getting the attention it deserves. But I’m not giving up, and neither should you.

11

15. Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23

Like fellow “Best Show of 2013” Happy Endings (and perhaps, sadly, Trophy Wife), Apartment 23 suffered from the incurable scourge of being a sitcom on ABC that isn’t Modern Family. After being mishandled for the entirety of its first season and a half, ABC finally pulled the plug on Apartment 23 before the back half of season two could even air. Thankfully, Hulu picked up the bruised and battered show, bringing the final nine episodes, which just happened to be the series’ best, to audiences in the spring. Wicked, fun, and extremely blunt, Apartment 23 is surprisingly fresh in a saturated sitcom market. Krysten Ritter gives a revelatory performance as the titular bitch, but Dreama Walker is the real breakout, a relatively unknown actress whose manic energy redeemed a questionable character early in the first season, and who stood and delivered throughout the second. The second season also saw the supporting men—James Van Der Beek, Eric Andre, and Ray Ford—consistently matching Ritter and Walker beat for beat, creating a zany tone unlike anything else on TV. Unfortunately, as we now know, being unique can prove to be fatal, but we’ll always have these two seasons.

12

14. Comedy Bang! Bang!

Comedy Bang! Bang! the show struggled in its first season with transporting the tone of the podcast to the screen, but Scott Aukerman and company must’ve figured it all out between seasons, because the second, double-sized season of Comedy Bang! Bang! comes out of the gates with a, well, bang and never looks back. The couch guests run of the gamut of film and television actors (many of whom, surprisingly, have little comedy experience), while the character guests continue to be a who’s who of the alt-comedy world. And with more episodes comes greater room for experimentation, including a Lost-riffing mystery told out of chronological order, a Sliding Doors homage, two holiday extravaganzas, and a musical episode (written, of course, by “Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber”). Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts have an even better back-and-forth than season one, and the inclusion of characters from the podcast (including the classics Dalton Wilcox and Fourvel) brought even more fun to the show. For fans of comedy, Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a damn requirement.

KERRY WASHINGTON

13. Scandal

Part political drama, part soap opera, Scandal (one of ABC’s few legitimate smash hits) succeeds because of its ability to do something few other shows, today or ever, have been able to pull off: make every single episode a game-changer. Every week brings new answers, questions, lies, conspiracies, and alliances, a political and personal landscape in constant flux. The amount of plot in a single episode is enough to make it must-see television, but the fact that it’s so damn watchable is what keeps audiences invested. And it’s not just the “Oh my god!” moments; the performances, from Kerry Washington’s inimitable Olivia Pope to Jeff Perry and Dan Bucatinsky as Cyrus Beene and James Novak, the married Chief of Staff and White House reporter, respectively, fit the tone of the show spectacularly. The first half of season 3 (or 3A, according to production codes) also introduces Lisa Kudrow’s Congresswoman Josie Marcus, a Democratic candidate for President who is so far from the least complicated part of the season that it’s mind-blowing. No one’s sure how long Scandal can keep flying by on pure adrenaline alone, but it’s become the kind of television event worth being around for while it lasts.

14

12. Mad Men

It’s telling that even an off season of Mad Men is better than much of what’s on television. Though the term is bandied about with more reckless abandon than ever, season six truly was a transitional year for Mad Men, as the show began to shed it’s “male anti-hero drama” skin and emerge as a tale about those affecting change, instead of those affected by change. Nowhere is this more evident than the arc of Peggy Olson, giving Elizabeth Moss one of her best seasons to date. Peggy has been put through the wringer by various men throughout the run of the show, but in season six, she finally fights back—sometimes literally, with a home-made bayonet to the gut—and she comes out… well, not on top, but some facsimile of on top, one that historically fits the attitudes towards and opportunities available to white women of the time. Season six also gave us the glory and mystery of Bob Benson and his ever-present coffee, hiding dark secrets and top-notch corporate politics, and “The Crash,” the season’s drug trip episode which gave the world a tap-dancing Ken Cosgrove and some of the most oblique symbolism in a show stuffed to the gills with oblique symbolism. With the final season on the horizon, what’ll be most interesting about season six in hindsight is exactly how these threads lead into the series’ endgame, though as a season, it still stands perfectly fine on its own.

15

11. New Girl

2013 saw New Girl swing for the fences in splendid fashion, finally bringing together Zooey Deschandel’s Jess Day and Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller in the episode “Cooler,” then slowly but surely deconstructing every aspect of the typical sitcom relationship, while never allowing it to eat away at the rest of the season, which dealt with Schmidt’s romances of two different women, the relationship between Nick and Schmidt, and Cece’s impending wedding. While season three stumbled out of the gates a bit, the reintroduction of Damon Wayans, Jr.’s Coach brought a jolt of energy back to the show, and once moving past the dissolution of both of Schmidt’s relationships (and his childish desire to destroy Jess and Nick’s), the show has regained some of its footing. Unfortunately, none of this fixes the show’s biggest problem: having no idea what to do with Lamorne Morris’ Winston. Morris is an incredibly gifted and incredibly game actor who gives his all to whatever table scraps the writers give him, but a character can only exist on non-plots alone for so long, and the bizarre stories given to Winston more and more make him seem like an insane person. But those are problems for 2014, and for this year, New Girl took bold risks that payed off in dividends, elevating it from “that Zooey Deschandel show” to one of TV’s best comedies.

16

10. Rectify/Top of the Lake

In 2013, Sundance made a name for itself with this pair of beautiful, somber miniseries, both of which contain a central mystery, but which they often eschew in favor of moving character beats and long, dialogue-heavy scenes. Both set in small towns on opposite ends of the globe, Rectify and Top of the Lake are also both heavily defined by their lead performances. Aiden Young in Rectify takes “understated” to a new level entirely, doing more with a longing stare than many actors could do in an entire season. Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake takes notes from her West Wing and Mad Men performances, but transforms into a different beast entirely, never beating her chest, but also never backing down from the men who are constantly pushing against her. Both series also feature a stellar supporting cast (Abigail Spencer and Adelaide Clemens in Rectify and Thomas M. Wright and Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake), and traffic in the kind of atmosphere that, while more common this year than in recent memory, is still remarkably rare on television. As Sundance continues to define its brand, Rectify and Top of the Lake both stand as fantastic beginnings.

17

9. Happy Endings

Of all the sitcoms that suffered at the hands of ABC in the last year, none were treated with such condescending disdain as Happy Endings. But the final episodes of the series never soured, and they were some of the series best, making its cancellation an even tougher blow. The last 15 episodes featured a racist parrot, a black market cough medicine that causes you to sleep for days, and a food fight between two food trucks, and the ensemble cast continued to be the strongest on television, especially Casey Wilson, Adam Pally, Damon Wayans, Jr., and Eliza Coupe. While the zany, fast-paced sitcom will be missed dearly, it ended perfectly, with the main cast at the wedding of Alex’s sister, where the madness escalates into all-out insanity before ending on a note of sweetness that almost brings a tear to the eye. Oh, Happy Endings, you were just too good for this world.

18

8. Game of Thrones

There’s nothing else on television quite like Game of Thrones. Oh sure, you can find other fantasy and sword-and-sandals series, other dark dramas of political and personal intrigue, but Game of Thrones has combined these elements into a behemoth yearly television event. Season three was GoT‘s strongest season yet, despite a bizarre torture storyline that ended with a character losing his penis and some problematic racial imagery. Of course, much credit should be given to “The Rains of Castamere,” as the Red Wedding climaxes the season in even more devastating fashion than even the Battle of the Blackwater in season two. Season three also pushed new characters into the spotlight, especially Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), thrust into an unlikely partnership that became the season’s emotional center. And in one of the best developments of the series, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) finally takes center stage in King’s Landing, and his scenes with both Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Olenna Tyrell (Dianna Rigg) were season highlights. The future of the book series (and by extension, the television series) may be in constant flux, but Benioff and Weiss have created a creature uniquely their own, and damn if it isn’t spectacular.

19

7. Broadchurch

2013 really saw the death of the traditional murder-mystery drama (for now, at least), and only those series willing to experiment or bring in other elements were able to survive. Broadchurch takes the ingredients of an American murder-mystery and dresses them up in a moody British drama, creating a sorrowful, engaging series just as much about the lives of people in the tiny community of Broadchurch as about finding Danny Latimer’s killer. Led by David Tennant, in one of his best post-Doctor Who roles, and Olivia Coleman, who steals the show throughout, as the two detectives responsible for finding the killer, other notable cast members include Arthur Darvill as the local reverend, David Bradley as the town’s newspaperman, and Jodie Wittaker as Beth Latimer, the grieving mother of Danny. Heartbreaking and beautiful, Broadchurch comes together in a way that’s almost inimitable, and if it ends up being the last great murder-mystery for a while, that’d be just fine.

20

6. Masters of Sex

While all the elements of Masters of Sex work remarkably well, what truly sells the series are the performances. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Masters and Johnson, respectively, are both giving career-defining performances that are dizzying in their pure level of talent. Sheen plays the cold, unlikable Masters with subtlety, while Caplan gives a complex, layered performance that should immediately earn her a place in the top of the talent pool. Also of note are Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, as Provost Barton Scully and his wife, Margaret, who bring both levity and gravitas to the series, and give a perspective on exactly what the far-reaching implications of Masters and Johnson’s work are. Admittedly, the first season begins slowly, but it ends in fireworks, and the sheer importance of a series that really examines sexuality in American culture—despite it’s 1950s setting—simply can’t be downplayed. The first season may have just ended, but the second can’t come soon enough.

21

5. Bob’s Burgers

I’m not entirely sure when Bob’s Burgers became the best sitcom on television, but I’d put money on the episode where Jon Hamm guests as a talking toilet. But it’s not just its penchant for silliness and great jokes that make Bob’s Burgers so fantastic, it’s having a show about a blue-collar family, with blue-collar struggles, who all genuinely care about each other. The love the Belchers feel for each other holds Bob’s Burgers together in even its weakest episodes (as few and far between as they are), and its full embrace of the weirdness of every single Belcher makes the characters some of the most lovable on TV. From the year’s first episode (“Mother Daughter Laser Razor”) to the last (“Christmas in the Car”) Bob’s Burgers was consistently hilarious and enjoyable. Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz) emerged as the series’ standout character, but the show was never afraid to constantly shift the focus of any given episode. The incredible list of guest stars also grew, bringing in new guests like Molly Shannon, Jordan Peele, and the aforementioned Jon Hamm, while the series also brought back many former guest stars, making Bob’s Burgers‘ small sea-side town feel richer and fuller than most any other town on TV. It may be a dire time for animated sitcoms, but Bob’s Burgers continues to carry the torch, and it does so with aplomb.

22

4. Hannibal

Despite coming from the mind that birthed Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Wonderfalls, the idea of a series about Hannibal Lector, especially in a year full of awful “dark and gritty” serial killer dramas, was about as unappealing as they come. But Bryan Fuller and his crew crafted a series of stark, horrible beauty, using the Hannibal Lector story as a springboard to examine the nature of brutal violence, dependency, guilt, and sorrow. Mads Mikkelsen gives an inspired performance as Lector, but his performance wouldn’t be half as great without Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. Dancy plays Graham as a man barely holding it together, if at all, and constantly questioning everything in his life. Mikkelsen’s Lector is quiet, but deadly, and the scenes the two share are always thrilling. A fantastic supporting and guest cast (which includes Carolina Dhavornas, Laurence Fishburne, Eddie Izzard, and Gillian Anderson) help support the procedural elements of the show. But what’s most arresting about Hannibal is its beauty, the masterful crafting of every set, every shot. Bold colors, beautiful music selections, and harrowing imagery combine with the performances to create a tone unlike anything else on broadcast television, and while it’s unlikely Hannibal will ever make it above under the radar, it will go down as a new and exciting take on the Hannibal mythos.

23

3. Orange Is the New Black

Netflix’s spotty history of original dramas and the bad vibes of late-era Weeds seemingly marred Orange Is the New Black long before anyone actually saw an episode. But when the series’ first season was dropped all at once in July, it revealed a true treasure. A complicated series that balances its comedic and dramatic elements, Orange Is the New Black is never content with one tone for very long. All the technical components are excellent, from the writing and directing to the set design and music selections. But what really commands about the series are the characters. Orange Is the New Black may use a suburban, middle-class white woman as its entry point, but the other inhabitants of the prison make up a colorful tapestry of distinct, complex, and engaging personalities, almost all of whom receive at least a few minutes of screen time. The fact that these aren’t characters we’re used to seeing on our screens—especially being treated like real, fully-formed people instead of plot devices—makes them and their stories all the more engrossing. And while the season does have a central narrative, the show takes time to dive into the backgrounds of these characters and what they’re up to when not directly involved in that main narrative, giving Orange Is the New Black depth that its other Netflix companions lack. The cast is led by Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon, who perform admirably enough, but the true stars are in the supporting cast: Kate Mulgrew as Red, the head of the prison’s kitchen and adoptive mother to many of the inmates; Uzo Aduba as Suzanne, mockingly referred to as “Crazy Eyes,” who takes an immediate liking to Piper and has an immense love of the theater; Laverne Cox as Shirley, a transgender woman who is the prison’s hairdresser and struggles with the relationship she has with her wife and son; Danielle Brooks as Taystee and Samira Wiley as Pouseey, best friends who provide much of the show’s humor and heart; and Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky, a born-again drug addict who becomes Piper’s rival. There are so many more, but simply describing them here does them a disservice. Orange Is the New Black fills massive voids in the television landscape, but the fact that it does so while also being incredible cements it as the best new show of the year, and one of the best dramas in recent memory.