New episodes are dwindling as we near the end of the year, and after this week it's safe to say that your DVR will (mostly) be hibernating until January. But don't let the lack of television fool you into spending your precious viewing hours visiting with your family and friends or engaging in holiday cheer! Now is the perfect time catch up on returning midseason series, so we've compiled a checklist of shows that deserve your immediate attention—the better to prepare you for their upcoming premieres. Pour yourself a glass of eggnog, grab a plate of gingerbread men, and start cramming!
Note: You won't find Archer, Justified, Portlandia, Pretty Little Liars, Being Human, Downton Abbey, or Spartacus on this list, simply because they appeared on it last year and we wanted to highlight different shows. But you should totally catch up on many of those, too.
COMMITMENT: Ten episodes of the Gilmore Girls-style speed-talking you didn't know you missed.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Don't be faked out by the series' name; while it may be a goofball, esoteric reference to ballet dancers, there's a humor and voice to Bunheads that's not well-represented anywhere else on television. The series follows Michelle Simms, an ambitious Vegas showgirl victimized by circumstance to live in a small, not-at-all-Vegas town whose residents find her peculiar, perplexing, and maybe a little whorish. Naturally, she's a hit with all the high school girls who've been taking ballet all their lives under the guidance of a stringent mistress and town matriarch who, by that same twist of fate, is Michelle's new housemate. The show is bright, at times cheery, but not without moments of pathos. For Gilmore Girls fans—Bunheads is the work of GG creator Amy Sherman-Palladino—it's like watching an alternate universe where Stars Hollow rejects Lorelai like a baboon heart and it's fascinating. Also, in one of the episodes, there's a dream dance sequence set to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," so that should sew it up for you right there.
CHEAT SHEET: Watch the pilot, "For Fanny" (Episode 2), and "Nutcracker in Paradise" (Episode 10) to get a basic feel for the story. Catch "Movie Truck" (Episode 6) and "What's Your Damage, Heather?" (Episode 7) for more insight into the kids. GG fans should probably make sure to include "No One Takes Khaleesi's Dragons" (Episode 9) for a Kirk fix. —Nick Campbell
COMMITMENT: Three seasons comprised of sixty-one half-hour episodes, though almost everyone—including producer Bill Lawrence, in oft-repeated public statements—recommends you skip the first few and start at either Episode six, “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” or the Season 1 Thanksgiving episode, “Here Comes My Girl.”
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: If you’ve avoided Cougar Town because of its title or its erstwhile premise, you’re missing out on a sitcom with more warmth and nuance than those high-concept vestiges suggest. (And if you've avoided it because of its low ratings on ABC, its move to TBS for Season 4 should give it a little more freedom in the numbers department.) In the last two-and-half seasons, the series has rounded into a fine ensemble piece about friends and neighbors forging a charmingly codependent (and wine-dependent) community. The cast—which features Courteney Cox, Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, and Brian Van Holt—shares an easy, buoyant chemistry that preserves the balance between unabashed silliness and emotional honesty. Co-created by Lawrence and Kevin Biegel, Cougar Town shares the manic comic sensibility of their previous work, Scrubs (as well as many of that show's actors in roles of various size); if you enjoyed Scrubs, you’ll probably enjoy this one, too.
CHEAT SHEET: Fifty-plus episodes can be a lot for a show not currently streaming on Netflix or Hulu. If you want a sample, add Season 2, Disc 1 to your Netflix queue; it includes an especially winning string of episodes, and a representative cross-section of Cougar Town’s comic and emotional strengths. —Andy Daglas
COMMITMENT: One enriching and life-affirming ten-episode season.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: One of television's under-discussed gems, the not-quite-comedy-not-quite-drama-not-for-everyone Enlightened stars Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who treats a work-related nervous breakdown with New Age mumbo-jumbo and returns to the office as a self-proclaimed "agent of change" and proponent for all things eco-friendly who's in harmony with the universe's invisible vibes, man. Amy is one of television's most fascinating characters; her well-intentioned good will is grating on those around her, just like those Greenpeace kids who go door-to-door, but Enlightened manages to simultaneously parody and praise the do-good movement by making Amy both a villain to the accepted norm and a champion for quieter voices, whether they be dolphins in fishing nets or the losers in her basement department. But where Enlightened is especially wondrous is in its overall production. This is the most "complete" show on TV next to Breaking Bad because of its cinematography, musical score, direction, and writing. I was late to Enlightened, like many of you probably were, but once I started I devoured it. I LOVE this show.
CHEAT SHEET: There's no such thing as a bad episode in Season 1, and because they're only thirty minutes long, you're just being lazy if you skip around. But if you must, watch the ground-laying "Pilot," the mobbing "Someone Else's Life," the mystical "The Weekend," the charming "Sandy," and the alternate-perspective-showcasing "Consider Helen," one of the best episodes of television in all of 2011, when the show last aired. —Tim Surette
COMMITMENT: Ten very marathon-able half-hour episodes.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Hopefully by now we can forget about that weird buzz-typhoon that accompanied Girls' premiere, but make no mistake, initially it was downright impossible to appreciate creator Lena Dunham's quarterlife dramedy on its own merits. Words like "wunderkind" or "overprivileged" or "hipster" or "white-centric" were thrown around as though they couldn't be applied to nearly any successful modern comedy, and one big fact got lost in all that noise: Girls is terrific. Who knew a show about a very specific group of friends from a very narrow demographic could hold such universal appeal? With its understated humor, observational wit, fantastic soundtrack, and occasionally heart-wrenching angst, Girls is not only a show to fall in love with, it's a show that aims to love you back.
CHEAT SHEET: Ten episodes is not a huge commitment, plus most of the show's subtle emotional arcs benefit from experiencing every awkward moment. But definitely don't miss "Pilot," "All Adventurous Women Do," "Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident," and "She Did." —Price Peterson
COMMITMENT: Twelve half-hour episodes of animated awesome.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: The Legend of Korra is one of my top shows of 2012, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I think everyone should prepare for the next installment. The show takes place 70 years after the also awesome Avatar: The Last Airbender; the titular character is the world's latest incarnation of the Avatar, a spiritual figure who can bend (read: control) all four elements—earth, air, water, and fire—while other people can only bend one element, and some no elements at all. Set in a city rife with anti-bending rhetoric from a group calling themselves the Equalists, the series has lots of terrifically animated and choreographed action and a dark, twisty, and compelling plot that at its core is about class and politics. It won't be long before you forget you're watching a "kids' show." And you'll be okay to watch Korra even if you've never seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, so don't let that deter you... though having seen it will add a bit of depth to some aspects in Korra.
CHEAT SHEET: It's twelve episodes of a half-hour show! You can watch it on a single Saturday! Oh, like you've never watched twelve episodes of something in a day? Fiiiiiiine. I guess you can skip to Episode 6, "And The Winner Is...," to get a sense of the show during one of its best episodes without being totally lost or having too much spoiled. If you like it, go back an start from Episode 1 and work forward to have some plot holes filled in. And then, since you watched it all in one day, you can just move on to all three seasons of A:TLA! —Noel Kirkpatrick
COMMITMENT: Twenty-four hours of sometimes-silly comedy, realistic family drama, and cathartic, raw emotion.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: We throw around terms like "underrated" so often that the designation almost loses all meaning, but Shameless is, without a doubt, the most underrated show on television. It doesn't get any real awards attention and it's never brought up in the discourse of current greats, and that's just, well, a shame. Part of the reason you probably haven't caught up is that Showtime wrongly promotes and positions the show as if it's this wacky family comedy with William H. Macy at the center and while those things aren't untrue, they also aren't really fundamental to what makes Shameless tick. This is a show about the whole (giant) Gallagher family, and somehow, John Wells and his writing staff manage to service each of the characters quite consistently. But at the center is a powerhouse, complex performance by Emmy Rossum that rivals all the great leading performances across television. Few shows know how to build devastating, wrenching moments like Shameless. If you like Parenthood but wish the Bravermans weren't so well-off and comfortable, this is a show for you.
CHEAT SHEET: The show is serialized but not extremely plot heavy, so in theory, you could jump in with the beginning of season three this January. But in doing so, you'll be missing out on wonderful character development and a number of good, long cries. At worst, burn through the second season's dozen episodes. —Cory Barker
COMMITMENT: Twenty-two one-hour episodes full of snarky comebacks, bromance, and Gina Torres being an HBIC.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: The first season of Suits was great and all, but the first half of the second season, which left us clinging to the side of Hiatus Mountain back in August, managed to take an enjoyable show with an admittedly slapsticky premise—former slacker fakes his way to corporate lawyer nirvana—and turn it into a captivating, character-driven drama. Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams cash in on their chemistry as two of the most complimentary characters to hit USA since Neal and Peter over on network sibling White Collar, and they keep the tone from getting TOO heavy with pop-culture laden barbs, but the stakes are very real this season with a few blasts from the past showing up to ruffle our leads' impeccably dressed feathers.
CHEAT SHEET: The entire series is currently available on Hulu, but if you don’t want to go back and start from the veeeery beginning, you can probably get a handle on Season 1 armed with the pilot and the Wikipedia summary. However, we’re only ten glorious episodes into Season 2 and January 17 is almost an entire month away, which is ALMOST forever, so, uh, no excuses. Besides, do you REALLY want to skip Gale from Breaking Bad being a manipulative dick for ten episodes? I didn’t think so. —MaryAnn Sleasman
COMMITMENT: Thirty half-hour episodes full of glossy-eyed goodness.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: You know those types of guys who start off as abrasive jerks but after a few beers with them you realize that they're just good-natured, insane magnets of fun? That's Ders, Adam, and Blake, the stars of this rollicking Comedy Central slacker comedy. Workaholics is littered with jokes about boners and marijuana—topics that often lead to fratty locker-room talk—but in the hands of the show's bumbling stars result in blissfully unaware and hilarious idiocy. This is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia for a new generation that prefers its scumbags stupid instead of selfish.
CHEAT SHEET: There's nothing serialized about the show, so feel free to flip around. But if you're looking for highlights, try Season 1's "To Friend a Predator," Season 2's "Dry Guys" and "6 Hours Till Hedonism II," and Season 3's "The Business Trip," "Real Time," and "Flashback in the Day." —Tim