Unlike films, television series exist in sometimes long stretches of installments, and they can fluctuate in quality from episode to episode as much as they can from year to year. Even great seasons have low points, and it's also definitely possible for a show to have a largely unexceptional year marked by one or two instances of greatness -- which is why I've put together this list of the 15 best episodes of 2013 to balance out my earlier one of its 10 best overall shows. I kept myself to only one episode per series, so by virtue of having more slots this list was already bound to include shows that weren't on that first one, but it also reflects the fact that some series I thought were terrific overall, like "Orange is the New Black," just didn't break easily into single standout episodes. If TV is a medium caught between the push and pull of serialized versus episodic storytelling, this is an ode to the latter, as well as a way to call out some series whose season ends dangled over from last year. Note: The blurbs below discuss plot details in the episodes.
15. "Girls": "Bad Friend"
January 27 on HBO
I couldn't stand the most talked-about episode from this year's uneven second season of "Girls" -- "One Man's Trash," in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) had a delirious weekend of sex with a handsome doctor played by Patrick Wilson. His was a character who just felt to me like a hollow construct dropped into Hannah's path specifically to give her a chance to deliver that wince-worthy monologue about being exhausted by chasing new and often rough experiences for her art. But "Bad Friend," the episode in which Hannah did cocaine in order to have material for a freelance assignment in a sort of bookend to the Wilson installment, was giddy and obnoxious in the best ways. "Girls" is so often about the misery of being young that this unfettered moment of irresponsible enjoyment felt like a gasp of relief, Hannah freed by substances to actually act silly for a second without any sense of humiliating consequences looming. The sequence in which Hannah and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) dance to Icona Pop's now inescapable "I Love It" is a total joy, and drama doesn't even immediately ensue -- it takes a few minutes. Plus, there was Marnie's (Allison Williams) hilarious seduction-by-art by the smarmy Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone), in which he used the force of his will to both lure her to his bed and compel her to buy into his bullshit conceptual art, which even includes the use of Duncan Sheik's "Barely Breathing" as a soundtrack.
14. "Elementary": "Solve for X"
October 3 on CBS
"Elementary" will always exist in the shadow of "Sherlock," the contemporary Sherlock Holmes adaptation that preceded it and that has the can-do-no-wrong Benedict Cumberbatch for its star. But CBS's quieter, American-based take has settled into a very solid show with a genuinely interesting relationship between its Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). Rather than pursue romantic tension, the show has connected its two roommates by way of their interest in starting over, Sherlock a recovering addict building a new life in New York while Joan pursues this change in career after losing a patient as a surgeon. "Solve for X" offered a particularly nice look at the pair's ever-deepening, slightly co-dependent relationship by revealing the details of the case that led Joan to quit her career in medicine and the guilt she feels by way of Joey Castoro (Jeremy Jordan), who forgave Joan for letting his dad die but who also feels comfortable playing on her sense of responsibility by hitting her up for money. How Joan and Sherlock, who naturally deduces what's going on, navigated Joan's ties to Joey and Sherlock's own ties to his partner was delicate and mature in ways unexpected for a series whose episodes are structured around fairly forgettable mysteries -- a testament to "Elementary" being, at heart, more character study than procedural.
13. "The Mindy Project": "Harry & Mindy"
February 5 on Fox
The heroine of "The Mindy Project" has a well-established obsession with romantic comedies, the joke being how little Mindy (Mindy Kaling) resembles a traditional lead in that rickety genre in looks and behavior (thank god). Mindy occasionally longs for scenarios out of a rom-com, but real life keeps proving more humiliating, strange and funny than the Meg Ryan movies she so adores. In one of the best episodes of the series to date, however, Mindy did end up in a honest-to-god rom-com storyline, just not in the role she wanted. Having met the charming Jamie (Kaling's former "Office" coworker and series executive producer B.J. Novak) in the previous installment, Mindy could only find one fault with the guy -- his extremely close but apparently platonic relationship with his best friend Lucy (Eva Amurri Martino). In "Harry & Mindy," Mindy tried to set Lucy up with Danny (Chris Messina) for a Valentine's Day double date, only to lead her own boyfriend to realize who he's really been in love with all along. "I’m like the Joan Cusack character in the romantic comedy of your life," Mindy observed as Jamie happily united with Lucy -- poignant and hilarious. Hell, Joan Cusack's always playing the person we'd want to hang out with anyway.
12. "The Americans": "Pilot"
January 30 on FX
Helmed by "Warrior" director Gavin O'Connor, the first episode of FX's Cold War spy drama walked a careful line between serious drama and indulgent one. Which was just as it should be -- the premise, that two Soviet sleeper agents had managed to blend seamlessly into suburbia as your average born-and-bred American couple, required a giant pinch of salt. The pilot established "The Americans" as substantive pop art, straddling spy tropes, like the cocktail bar pickup that starts the episode, alongside real angst, like the trust issues between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) in their arranged marriage. The flashbacks ably laid out the unusual start and even more unusual present of the pair's relationship, culminating in that sex scene in the car, post body-disposal, to one of Phil Collins' biggest era-appropriate hits -- at once ridiculous and deeply moving, the follow-up to a bloody but sincerely felt romantic gesture that's way more interesting than gifts of jewelry or flowers.
11. "Scandal": "Everything's Coming Up Mellie"
November 14 on ABC
It's not fair to say the revelation in this episode that Mellie was raped by her father-in-law made the character, played by Bellamy Young, more sympathetic. The word's a silly one to apply to any of the show's characters, who can turn into betrayers and back again on a dime, and who include an adorable professional torturer and a protagonist who's romantically involved with the married President of the United States -- and anyway, knowing an awful thing happened to Mellie in the past doesn't change who she is in the present, just deepens our understanding of it. What "Everything's Coming Up Mellie" made bracingly clear is the steeliness of Mellie's spine and how much she has sacrificed for her husband's career. She's the show's most complicated figure, smart, calculating and stuck in a largely ornamental supporting role as the First Lady, having set aside her own ambitions to support those of Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), despite their relationship at this point being just for show. The episode was a piercing reminder that all the people around the President are far more formidable than he is -- and that from Mellie's perspective, "Scandal" is a tragedy and a tale of endurance.