Just because TV takes the holidaze off doesn't mean you should. The winter break is the perfect time to attack your ever-growing "shows to watch" list, and no series are more deserving of your immediate attention than these beloved midseason entries that will be returning early in the new year. But if you can't take a ton of time off from your intense caroling schedule, don't worry; we've highlighted the bits and pieces of seasons past that will catch you up all quick-like. So pour yourself a glass of eggnog, grab a piece of ham, and start cramming!
Commitment: One-and-a-half seasons, 35 hour-long episodes
Why You Should Catch Up Now: Sometimes trashy, sometimes kind of great, Pretty Little Liars is always entertaining. The series follows a group of four pretty little high school girls whose lives revolve around the text messages they receive from a mysterious person named 'A,' who happens to know all their secrets; you can join the show's addicts in trying to solve the "Who is 'A'?" mystery before the titular liars do. While most TV mysteries are dragged out to the point of frustration, this one is so fun, you won't care. Plus, the Season 2 midseason finale left the girls in dire straits (again).
Cheat Sheet: You're going to have to watch all of it. Though you could skip around to the big shockers, you'd be liable to miss the important clues sprinkled throughout. What are the "important" clues? Your guess is as good as ours.
Commitment: One season, six half-hour episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: Both hipsters and people who roll their eyes at hipsters can appreciate this sketch comedy show by SNL's Fred Armisen and former Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, which doesn't so much make fun of Portland's eccentric residents and weirdos as it does write love letters to them. It's bizarre yet relatable comedy--and how can you fault a show that promotes its second season with a clip about Battlestar Galactica addiction?
Cheat Sheet: You can really jump in wherever you like, but some of our favorite (YouTube-able!) bits include Did You Read?, Customers Only featuring Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi, Dumpster Divers, House Sitter featuring Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza, Cacao, Whose Dog Is This?, and the music video that kicked off the whole series, Dream of the '90s.
Commitment: One season, seven hour-long episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: You should probably lower your expectations: Downton Abbey is not the second coming of Jane Austen or E.M. Forster or whoever else. It's just a very entertaining update on Upstairs/Downstairs, with a stellar cast (Maggie Smith in particular gets to chew up the scenery and earns her big laughs), beautiful production values, and some (tame) naughty bits thrown in to keep you titillated. You're either into this stuff or you aren't, and if you are, you'll be hooked early on.
Cheat Sheet: Since most of the action is limited to the house itself, it doesn't take long to figure out the politics of the place. It's easy enough to watch all of Season 1 in one sitting (I did), but if you're really that pressed for time, watch Episode 1, Episode 3 (the "Mr. Pamuk" episode), then skip ahead to Episode 7.
Commitment: One season, 13 hour-long episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: This U.S. adaptation of the U.K. original is unlike most trans-Atlantic imports in that it doesn't suck when compared to its source. Three roommates live together in a Boston apartment and navigate normal problems that all twenty-somethings face. Did I mention that they're a ghost, a vampire, and a werewolf? Supernatural's Jeremy Carver runs the show here, and he's imported that CW series' sense of humor, horror, and heart to create one of Syfy's biggest surprises.
Cheat Sheet: If you don't have time for all 13 episodes, catch up with the two-part premiere "There Goes the Neighborhood," "I Want You Back (From the Dead)," "You're the One I Haunt," and "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Me Killing You."
Commitment: Two seasons, 26 hour-long episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: People are still warming up to Justified, but Season 2 was scalding and one of the best seasons of television that FX has put together. Based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, Justified is a throwback to cops-and-robbers shows and Westerns of old but with modern sensibilities and a very gray moral compass. Raylan Givens (played perfectly by Timothy Olyphant) is one of TV's greatest (and handsomest!) lead characters, and each season brings in a fascinating supporting cast as writers press the reset button and bring more trouble to Kentucky.
Cheat Sheet: Season 1 admittedly went through growing pains, but the series found its groove in a big way in Season 2. Watch the pilot "Fire in the Hole," skip to the last two episodes of Season 1 ("Father and Sons" and "Bulletville"), then marathon Season 2 with a bottle of moonshine.
Commitment: Two seasons and a couple specials for a total of 26 half-hour episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: Your friends are all saying "You're in the Daaaaanger Zone!" and you don't know what it means. You can fix that by watching FX's adult cartoon Archer, which leads the TV league in jokes per minute with an astounding 25.42 JPM (unofficial). Set in a made-up world of suave espionage, Archer is one of television's funniest shows and is developing a loyal cult audience. Plus it features an awesome voice cast that includes H. Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, and Judy Greer. Get on board now while the street cred is still there.
Cheat Sheet: It's a cartoon sitcom; there's no real need to watch them in order. But if you're pressed for time, check out these standouts: "Diversity Hire," "Skorpio," "Skytanic," "Stage Two," "Placebo Effect," and "El Secuestro."
Commitment: One regular 13-episode season and one subsequent six-episode "prequel."
Why You Should Catch Up Now: Spartacus: Blood and Sand was a groundbreaking show from Starz when it debuted in early 2010. A direct descendant of the big screen phenomenon that was 300, the series was visually dazzling, filled to the brim with gory CGI effects. But it went one better than 300's hokum, boasting some deliciously campy (but smartly so) drama, pulpily Shakespearean in its conspiratorial intrigue. Andy Whitfield in the title role was something of a revelation, a soulful and fearsome action hero. Tragically, cancer took him far too soon. But the franchise has lived on, first as a prequel series, and next in Spartacus: Vengeance, with Liam McIntyre in the title role.
Cheat Sheet: You can skip Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, the Spartacus-less prequel, but I recommend catching at least the pilot, "The Red Serpent," and the brutal season finale, "Kill Them All," of Blood and Sand.
Commitment: 13 half-hour episodes: six in Season 1, seven in Season 2.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: Eastbound & Down is a rare marriage of hilarious concept, hilarious dialogue, and visionary director. You can invite your old frat brothers and your hipster Brooklynite neighbors over for a marathon viewing session, and all of them will have their minds blown by some of the most crass humor HBO has to offer and an almost wistful (and certainly artful) depiction of one man's downward spiral. The series is a vehicle for Danny McBride at his best: sad-eyed, loud-mouthed, and directed by Jody Hill. He is lovable yet detestable as Kenny Powers, a nationally famous major league baseball player now deposed of his fame and fortune, who remains a super-entitled, hyper-arrogant man-child. In Season 1 he returned to his small hometown to work as a gym teacher and reclaim his ex-girlfriend; by Season 2, he was living under an assumed name in Mexico and wrangling cockfights for money (despite not knowing any Spanish). Filmed on location, Season 2 is both darker and harsher in tone, but its satirical edge, luxurious visuals and Danny McBride's buoyant cockiness keeps things weirdly joyful.
Cheat Sheet: Each season builds on running jokes and lovingly developed characters, and while all the episodes are standalone funny (99 percent of the lines are as well), they are exponentially more so in context. Plus they're short enough that you can watch each season in a marathon session. Season 1's careful character development of Kenny, and the dynamic between him, his brother (played by Deadwood's John Hawkes), and his brother's family should be savored, and gives impact to the sucker punch Season 1 finale. Season 2's "Chapter 11," in which Kenny finds his father in Mexico (perfectly played by Don Johnson) really requires the emotional groundwork of both full seasons and sets a new tone of self-revelation for the rest of Season 2 and Season 3.
Commitment: One season, 13 half-hour episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: Bob's Burgers is secretly the year's best new family comedy this side of Suburgatory, and the kids (as well as the parents) are among the funniest new characters of 2011. The show features the voice of H. Jon Benjamin (better known as Sterling Archer from Archer) as the titular proprietor of Bob's Burgers, the family diner. Bob is a loyal husband to Linda and father to Tina, Gene, and Louise. Louise (voiced by Kristen Schaal) is probably the standout: the youngest of the bunch, she's always wearing pink bunny ears, but she's often the smartest... like a perfect mix of Lisa Simpson and Stewie Griffin. Her sister Tina is at the point of becoming a young woman, and her coming-of-age story provides a bittersweet backdrop to Louise and her brother Gene's antics. Want proof? Observe this clip from Episode 6, "Sheesh! Cab Bob," one of Season 1's best.
Cheat Sheet: The aforementioned "Sheesh! Cab Bob," guest-starring The Office's Oscar Nunez and 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer as tranny hookers, plus "Sacred Cow," "Sexy Dance Fighting," "Weekend at Mort's," and "Torpedo."
Commitment: Four seasons, 52 hour-long episodes.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: If you've stayed away from Mad Men this long, you're likely either turned off by period dramas, or just not the type to buy into hype, or maybe you feel you've already missed too much. So let's knock them out one at a time: 1) Yes, Mad Men is singlehandedly responsible for reigniting a wave of '60s nostalgia and copycat shows, but the show is really addressing the way we live now as much as it is reminiscing over how we were then. 2) Four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series may seem like overkill, but this is a series that actually lives up to its reputation. The dialogue and casting is uniformly superb. It's in the details. 3) A lot has already transpired, but I honestly feel any single episode of Mad Men stands on its own. It's not hard to pick up on the basics quickly: The agency pecking order, the sexual dynamics, the rhythms of the ad business. Go ahead, dive in.
Cheat Sheet: Watch the first two episodes of Season 1 to get a feel for the world, then skip to Season 4. Watch Episode 1, "Public Relations," and Episode 7, the amazing two-hander, "The Suitcase." (But you really should watch the whole series.)
Commitment: A single, 10-episode season. Easy peasy.
Why You Should Catch Up Now: HBO's fantasy epic is appearing on critics' "Best Of 2011" lists and awards-show nomination sheets for a reason: It's ridiculously awesome. We're talking phenomenon here, people, and no one likes to be left out of a pop-culture sensation that's sweeping the nation. The adult-oriented tale of clanging swords and royal musical chairs isn't as boring as the snoozefest that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and will more than fill your weekly quota of nudity and violence, all while telling a story that's as engrossing as The Sopranos. This is a genre-buster with shockers that dare to do what other shows are afraid to. Don't be the only person among your friends who doesn't know House Lannister's motto.
Cheat Sheet: DO NOT CHEAT! Watch them all or you'll be hopelessly lost. For extra credit, read the book; it's worth it.
What shows are you planning to watch over the holidays?