What a year for TV – so many moments of audacious creativity, from groundbreaking dramas like Game of Thrones to that VH1 flick about TLC. From the Red Wedding to "Red Light Special," these were the greatest TV moments of 2013: Russian spies, New Orleans witches, bloody swords, sex doctors, prison, politics, Stephen Colbert getting lucky and Walter White saying goodnight.
Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC
Yeah, nothing happened. But that just made their face-to-face confrontation seem more real. It was a timely reminder of what TV still does better than any other medium – famous people acting crazy in real time. No disrespect to Ben Affleck.
House of Cards, Netflix
As a fabulously corrupt Congressman, Spacey struts through Capitol Hill, cutting one throat after another. Toward the end, he stops into the chapel to light a prayer candle and muse, "There is no solace above or below. Only us, small, solitary, striving. Battling one another. I pray to myself. For myself." And this is how the man talks in church.
Orphan Black, BBC America
This sci-fi oddity got slept on, stranded in the wastelands of BBC America. Sarah, a fugitive grifter, sits alone on a train and makes eye contact with a stranger on the platform who looks exactly like her – then sees her jump in front of an oncoming train. But when Sarah steals the corpse's purse, she begins to realize she's just one of many clones. With Tatiana Maslany playing all these different clones, it's a mind-warp like no other.
CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, VH1
The juiciest VH1 band-bio flick since Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story. (You remember – the one with Anthony Michael Hall as Mutt Lange.) Their conniving manager Pebbles is like Tywin Lannister with better wigs, as Chilli, T-Boz and Left Eye chase the waterfalls of hip-hop fame. If you don't shed a tear when the girls go into their pre-show huddle to chant "TLC! MTB!" ("meant to be!") you must be a creep indeed.
President Fitz meets his ex-aide Olivia Pope at a solemn occasion: the christening of the chief of staff's baby. Naturally, they slip off to go have hatecore spite-sex in the boiler room of shame. The prez says, "I may not be able to control my erections around you, but that does not mean I want you." Just another night on Scandal – this soap has some of the most depressing sex scenes since the days when Al Swearengen used to get blown and reminisce about his childhood.
American Horror Story: Coven, FX
A couple of witches bond in a Louisiana swamp cabin, listening to Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon." They ponder the greatness of Stevie Nicks. "The white witch!" one gushes. "This song was her anthem. Doesn't it just penetrate your soul and tell the truth about everything you've ever felt in your whole life?" The other replies, "Totally!" Rock on, gold-dust witches.
Rock My RV With Bret Michaels, Travel Channel
Best reality TV of the year, if not the decade. "I rocked the world, and now I'm about to rock your RV!" Bret promises motor-home dwellers he can turn an ordinary beat-up Southwind Storm into "a really classy rolling piece of art." Trashy, yet strangely moving, it's the "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" of hair-metal auto-shop reality shows.
The Americans, FX
Two Russian spies pose as a suburban married couple in 1981, with sex, treachery and nuclear paranoia. It also has TV's smartest soundtrack, especially when Roxy Music's poignant art-rock elegy "Sunset" plays as the KGB ships a baby back to Russia after they've killed its parents – just another pawn in the Cold War game.
The Colbert Report, Comedy Central
Daft Punk were (allegedly) booked to give a very special "Get Lucky" performance at "StePhest Colbchella, '013: The Song of the Summer of the Century: It Ain't the Heat, It's the Rock-midity!" But when they (allegedly) pulled out, the host had no choice but to do the song himself, raising his cup to the stars with Henry Kissinger and Charlie Rose. This bit was so funny it made Robin Thicke seem cool for about 30 seconds.
Orange Is The New Black, Netflix
The jailhouse drama has a slammer full of fearsome inmates – but none more fearsome than Red, the Russian kitchen boss, pretty much unrecognizable from her days as Capt. Janeway or Mrs. Columbo. She's at her most badass when she goes on the hunt for a chicken, explaining, "All I wanted was to eat the chicken that was smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power. And make a nice Kiev."
The Golden Globes, NBC
The best award-show hosts since Chris Rock stopped doing this shit. They took shots at everyone in the room – like when Tina Fey said, "Quentin Tarantino is here, the star of all my sexual nightmares." Even though everybody knows the Golden Globes is the most laughably pointless of all award shows, these two made it crackle with excitement – as they put it, "You can smell the pills from here!"
Eastbound & Down, HBO
The last waltz for our beloved slob hero: Kenny lives out the joke of American manhood, wrecks his marriage at the karaoke bar and battles his nemesis, Ken Marino's Guy Young, for control of his sports-chat show. So Kenny and Guy meet on the lake for a jet-pack showdown. A moral victory for Kenny – but like all his victories, it just makes him an awesomer loser.
Video Music Awards, MTV
Now this is what live TV is for – absolute offensiveness at all costs, with a former Disney moppet grinding her crotch on psychedelic teddy bears, flashing her tongue and endorsing drug-crazed hijinks. It was like the teen-pop Red Wedding. (Except the look on Rihanna's face was all "You speak Valyrian?") Thank you, Miley, for leaving a trail of sex slime all over the stage, not to mention America's brain.
When it comes to failure porn, nobody can touch Lena Dunham for agonizingly intimate laughs. This year Girls violated practically every orifice in the human body, right up to the ears. (Like the guy in the Q-tip ads used to say, "Never stick anything inside your ear, except your elbow.") But as Hannah, Lena Dunham was at her funniest and most vulnerable in her ping-pong fling with a type of guy she's never met before – one who thinks she's beautiful. ("That's not always the feedback I've been given.") For a minute there, she gets a glimpse of what it might feel like not to despise herself so damn much all the damn time. Then she goes back to normal. Better luck next year, sweetie.
Key & Peele, Comedy Central
President Obama pours the pinot and puts on a smooth-jazz version of "Hail to the Chief." Then he negotiates with the first lady for a little Oval Office personal time, using their translators Luther and Katendra. "When was the last time we had sex, woman? Re-election night? What does a brother not named Bill Clinton have to do to get some pussy in this house?" These brilliant sketch-comedy dudes always delve into forbidden zones of sex and race and politics and food. And they're really great at food, as in their inexplicably poignant "Continental Breakfast," which sums up America as a nation full of lonely, haunted men talking to their meals. "And what are you, my little friend? Not a spoon, not a fork – something in between. A fpoon. What will you think of next, Germany?"
"You're the secretary to the vice president – that's like being Garfunkel's roadie." Jesus, these people on Veep are mean. No wonder they're running the country. Has any comedy ever assembled such a killer ensemble of terrible people being terrible? Julia Louis-Dreyfus' second season as Vice President Selina Meyer got more hilariously nasty every week, capped by a finale where she rages about everything from ass-grabbing to the future of democracy: "I hate impeachments. They're so Nineties!"
Masters of Sex, Showtime
Remember when Lizzy Caplan was the struggling actress on Party Down, ranting, "I'm not mom material, man! I'm an acerbic twentysomething! The funny but fuckable waitress!" Well, look at her now. Masters of Sex is easily the year's best new show, with Caplan and Michael Sheen digging deep into the heart of American sexual repression. No matter how hard they try, they can't keep their hearts in check – especially in the pivotal scene where he officially promotes her to research assistant and she officially takes her top off.
Mad Men, AMC
Mad Men's darkest season had its ups and downs – Sterling Cooper's merger with the rival ad firm of Tedious & Turtleneck was a dramatic void that threatened to swallow the rest of the story. But the season ended with a flurry of great episodes, as Don Draper trashed his career as well as his marriage. The final scene was a real heartbreaker: Don hits the road to show his teenage daughter the whorehouse where he grew up. They stand there on a street corner in Pennsylvania, looking like a couple of lost kids, to the sound of "Both Sides Now." She lifts an eyebrow at this dad she hardly recognizes. He wonders if she's as doomed as he is. Neither says a word. What an unforgettable moment.
Breaking Bad, AMC
It's all over now, Baby Blue. Breaking Bad gave Walter White a bang-up farewell tour, as the desert-noir meth king battled with the Nazis, the cops, and his own poison conscience. The final season had week-to-week suspense, from his Skyler phone call to the awesomely cartoonish shoot-outs. (Hey, Walt gets out of a jam by inventing the Car That Shoots People! All other scientists now look like lazy-ass punks.) The scene that hit hardest: Walt holes up in his New Hampshire cabin hideout, surrounded by miles of ice and snow, begging Robert Forster to sit and keep him company. He offers ten thousand dollars for a couple of hours of playing cards. Forster talks him down to one hour. For Walter White, this is what his whole criminal empire comes down to – hiring a fellow crook to make him feel like a regular guy for a few minutes.
Game of Thrones, HBO
Damn – they could have just sent a crockpot or something. The Red Wedding on Game of Thrones had to be the year's most intense TV "wait no this can't be happening" shocker, pitched somewhere between The Wild Bunch and the "November Rain" video. On the spectrum of emotional torment, it made Ned Stark's beheading look like Liz Lemon's wedding. Fans who'd read the novels thought they knew what was coming, but they got sucker-punched along with the rest of us. Talk about the wedding bell blues.
All season long – and in case you missed it, beware spoilers ahead – Thrones kept throwing in weird glimmers of old-school heroism. Like Daenarys busting out a few words of Valyrian, or Jaime jumping into the bear pit to stand by his woman. (A very Anchorman thing to do.) But man, that Red Wedding.
The brilliant part was how the moment captured the authentic boredom of a wedding, when dinner's over and everyone sits around itching to leave. Then you notice the band is playing the wrong song – hey, isn't that "The Rains of Castamere"? And the dullard you got stuck next to at dinner – why is he wearing armor? Then it all starts to go wrong. Oh, it goes so wrong. A monster climax from a monster season. The North will never forget. Neither will we.