This week pretty much marks the end of new TV for 2013. We've still got a monumental Doctor Who Christmas special to look forward to, and poor Nikita and Treme will quietly say goodbye between Christmas and New Year's, but other than that, most shows have already gone home to Hiatusville for the holidays. As such, we can only assume that you've got a lot of free evenings ahead of you—it's not like you've got plans to spend time with your family, right?! And that means now's the perfect time to get started on your midseason prep. The TV schedule will be packed again before you know it, so it's very important that you start catching up on any returning shows NOW, before the January onslaught. Below, we've highlighted a handful of relatively young series you might've missed in 2013, all of which we think are worth your time. Pile up a plate of holiday desserts, ignore your loved one's requests to hang out (or just invite them to join you), and dig in!
Note: You won't find Archer, Girls, Justified, Portlandia, Pretty Little Liars, Being Human, Downton Abbey, or Shameless on this list, simply because they've appeared on it in the past and we wanted to highlight different—and for the most part, younger—shows. But you should totally catch up on many of those, too.
Season 2 premieres in February (exact date TBD) on FX
COMMITMENT: One season of 13 blood-pressure-raising one-hour episodes that you'll plow through in no time.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: My fellow Comrades, The Americans is about so much more than wigs. The series was one of the load-bearing columns of the Great TV Winter of 2013 (along with a few other shows on this list), thanks to a confident first season that achieved something freshman shows almost always struggle with: consistency. From the opening beats of the pilot to the thrilling finale, the quality of The Americans never dipped during its debut run. Why? Because the series is so well layered that it can don any one of its convincing disguises at will, without ever losing its stride. It's a Cold War spy thriller set during the early '80s, it's a story about an arranged marriage that may be more than that, and it's a family drama about parents keeping secrets from their children (and those children are some of the best on television, btw; Paige is AWESOME). Ask three people why they love the show and you'll get three different answers. The Americans is one of the smartest series on television because it knows how to use its setting perfectly: The limited-but-developing technology of the decade made '80s spy games the best spy games. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are incredible in the lead roles, and Margo Martindale and Noah Emmerich are great as supporting players. Add one of the year's best soundtracks (TUSK!), and the result is required viewing. Get the vodka out of the freezer and start cramming now.
CHEAT SHEET: This is a heavily serialized drama, so skipping even one episode would be an offense to the television gods worthy of fiery retribution. But if you must be a heathen, watch "Pilot," "Trust Me," "Safe House," "The Oath," and "The Colonel." Just don't complain when you sit down to watch Season 2 and you have no idea what's going on. —Tim Surette
Season 2 premieres Friday, January 10 at 10pm on Cinemax
COMMITMENT: One season/10 hours of thrilling, graphic (both violently and sexually) action. Make it through the first couple episodes and you won't be able to stop.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Well, first of all, so you can understand why the show's diehard fans are prone to yelling BANSHEEEEEEE in comments sections around these parts. But secondly, because Banshee was one of 2013's biggest surprises and by the end of the season, one of its best new shows. The Cinemax drama knows exactly what it is: the TV version of a great old pulp novel you find at a used bookstore. While the central premise (a criminal arrives in a small town in search of his former flame, then takes on the identity of a just-murdered sheriff) and some of the set pieces are absolutely ridiculous, they're so well-executed, with such earnest vigor—particularly the awesomely choreographed fights—that the appeal is hard to deny. Similarly, though the cast is full of quasi-unknowns and typical supporting players, they really bring their weird characters to life. Antony Starr is a stable lead who looks good when thrusting his fist against another dude's face or his pelvis against any number of female co-stars, Ivana Milličević does the best work of her career here, and Ulrich Thomsen's Kai Proctor, the banished Amish criminal kingpin, is one of the most novel characters on TV.
CHEAT SHEET: Really, all 10 hours are worth your time. But if you absolutely can't commit in full, you're probably best off watching the pilot and then jumping to Episode 6, "Wicks." That one offers some some good information on the lead character's history and jumpstarts the very, very strong back-half of the season. Episode 3, "Meet the New Boss" is worth watching for the insane fight sequence alone, though. —Cory Barker
Season 2 premieres in March (exact date TBD) on A&E
COMMITMENT: A single season of 10 hour-long episodes that blend camp, horror, psychosexuality, teen angst, and insights into how Norman Bates becomes Norman Bates.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Bates Motel has a bit of an issue with tone and emotion (the last half of "A Boy and His Dog" is ridiculously heavy-handed and crass), but if you can get past the whiplash-y mood swings, character swerves, and an at-times desperate need to be Twin Peaks-y (Bates lacks Twin Peaks' sense of fear), this is an odd, fun show about a weird mother and her weird son in a weird little town. If that's not grabbing you, sample it for Vera Farmiga's Emmy-nominated performance, which is camp-tactular and sympathetic in equal measure; it's the a sun around which the other plot shenanigans can orbit and survive.
CHEAT SHEET: Bates Motel is pretty heavily serialized, and there aren't really any filler episodes in Season 1; It's only 10 episodes long, after all. If you must skip about, I'd recommend watching the premiere and then Episodes 6 through 10. The "Previously On..." segments should give you the necessary highlights. —Noel Kirkpatrick
The first course of Season 2 will be served Friday, February 28 on NBC
COMMITMENT: 13 hour-long episodes filled with suffocating dread and nightmare-scape tableaux where the food is always people. Except for that one time when creator Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daises, Wonderfalls) said it wasn't.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: In a television season that was filled to the brim with serial killers, murders, and death, Hannibal had all those things and then some. The difference between this show and the other series in its vein was that Hannibal was less concerned with solving the crime than it was with exploring the psychological damage that so much murder and death were inflicting on its brilliant profiler, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Will didn't bounce back from the murder-of-the-week at the end of each episode, ready to tackle the next case. Instead, the violence he experienced took an ever-mounting toll on him, a toll that Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) exploited to protect himself from being identified as a sought-after serial killer. Mix this mental trauma with Fuller's keen sense of peeking-between-your-fingers-because-it's-so-horrible-and-yet-so-pretty gore, and you have one of last season's best shows.
CHEAT SHEET: It's important not to rush through this meal, but if 13 courses is just too much for you, I'd recommend these seven to whet your appetite for Season 2: "Apéritif" (Episode 1), "Potage" (Episode 3), "Entrée" (Episode 6), "Fromage" (Episode 8), "Buffet Froid" (Episode 10), "Relevés" (Episode 12), and "Savoureux" (Episode 13). —Noel
Season 2 premieres Saturday, April 19 on BBC America
COMMITMENT: 10 hour-long episode, seven clones, 1 Hot Paul, and some of the best drama you've ever seen.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: You don't want to be that friend, do you? Orphan Black quietly premiered on BBC America in March 2013, but word of its compelling narrative and Tatiana Maslany's thrilling performance quickly spread. The show ended its first season as one of the most talked-about new series of 2013, and with good reason. Maslany plays seven (so far!) different clones in the series, which is generally labeled as science-fiction, but don't let that scare you off. It's sci-fi in the way Battlestar Galactica was sci-fi, which is to say: It's not. Orphan Black is an intricate and suspenseful character drama that tackles big issues like identity and humanity, nature versus nurture, and emerging hot-glue-gun interrogation techniques. In the opening moments of the pilot, the series' main character, Sarah, witnesses another clone's suicide, and from that moment she's drawn into a world she doesn't quite understand. After assuming the dead woman's identity, she begins to uncover the truth about her mysterious background, including the fact that she's a clone. As the series progresses, she meets several other clones, all with wildly different personalities, and who sometimes mix and sometimes don't mix with a colorful and talented group of supporting characters that includes foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), sometimes lover Paul (Dylan Bruce), daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), and foster mother Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy).
CHEAT SHEET: You really should try to watch all 10 episodes before Season 2 begins because each one builds on the last, but if you simply cannot get to all of them, the can't-miss entries are the pilot, "Natural Selection," and then "Instinct," "Conditions of Existence," "Entangled Bank," and "Endless Forms Most Beautiful." But seriously, there are only 10 episodes, just take a night off from sleeping. You'll thank me later. —Kaitlin Thomas
Season 2 will be sprung sometime this spring
COMMITMENT: Six heavy-yet-beautiful hour-long tales about life outside of prison for a man who barely recalls what it's like.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Usually the bait phrase "from the producers of [show you love]" is a load of bullhonky, but when Rectify tells you that it's "from the producers of Breaking Bad," it ain't no snake oil. There isn't any meth, there aren't any crazy Mexican drug lords, but there IS the same considerable attention to detail in the dialogue, the cinematography, and the pacing that elevated the story of Walter White to high art. Rectify is relentlessly beautiful, like a perfect summer day, even when it's exploring the tumultuous and dark dichotomy of life. Ostensibly about a man (Aden Young) who's released from Death Row nearly two decades after being accused of raping a teenage girl, Rectify is about the joy of breaking through, the pain of being held back, a family drawn together, and a community broken apart. The series was made for TV viewers with patience, but the rewards are bountiful.
CHEAT SHEET: What, you don't have time for six measly episodes? No cheating here. Just watch 'em. —Tim
Season 3 premieres Sunday, January 19 on PBS
COMMITMENT: Two seasons of three 90-minute episodes each, a.k.a. nine hours of Benedict Cumberbatch's flawless bone structure making you so jealous it hurts.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Did you see the part about Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones?! Sherlock is a brilliant, often funny, and wholly enjoyable adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic tales about consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (played here by Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman)—his flatmate, partner in the detective-ing business and (eventual) best friend. Set in present-day London, each episode tackles a single story from the Sherlock Holmes vault in a new and updated fashion that freshens things up for fans of the original source material. Season 2 focuses pretty intently on the presence of Sherlock's nemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott)—who tries his best to outsmart Sherlock at every turn—while still finding time to incorporate the popular character of Irene Adler (Lara Pulver). Sherlock's brilliance, arrogance, and intelligence make each episode's standalone mystery a suspenseful and fun ride, while carrying the overarching plots through to the next installment. The Season 2 finale pretty much sent the internet into overdrive with its OMGWTF-ery, so if you're just digging into this English delicacy, consider yourself lucky that you don't have to wait over a year to find out what happens next.
CHEAT SHEET: There are only three episodes in Season 2, and only six episodes in the entire series. Come on now, people. Watch them all. Make a nice Sunday afternoon of it. If you must limit yourself you can watch Season 2's "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Reichenbach Fall" and be reasonably prepared for Season 3, but you're really only hurting yourself in the end. —Kaitlin
Season 1 returns with new episodes Tuesday, February 11 on ABC Family
COMMITMENT: One hot summer season of 11 WTF, highly entertaining episodes.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Twisted is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but its premise is perhaps the edgiest thing ABC Family has ever dared to air: The dreamy Danny Dessai strangled his aunt with a jumprope when he was 11 years old, and now he's returning to high school at the age of 16. The NIGHT he comes back, another body drops. So as the hunky teen struggles to reconnect with his two former best friends (who are both girls, naturally!), the town concludes that he’s a serial murderer as his own mom (played to perfection by Denise Richards) tries to figure out whether he’s a straight-up sociopath. Plus there's a big-time love triangle amongst the three besties (the aggressively frizzy-haired Jo, popular fox Lacey, and confessed murderer Danny), plus there's making out in a graveyard, plus there's important jewelry and moms who smoke pot. Yes, all that. It’s like if DeGrassi High and a Lifetime movie had a baby and Mike Meyers ended up raising that baby. You will never get scared but you will STAY intrigued.
CHEAT SHEET: As a serialized drama allegedly inspired by Twin Peaks, Twisted makes an effort to incorporate every episode into the story. I’m not comfortable telling you to skip any of it, but if you’ve ever ironically watched a Lifetime drama-in-real-life thriller over a glass of wine, chances are you won’t want to miss anything anyway. PLEASE get caught up before the show returns in February, because I need to find people to talk about it with. —Lily Sparks
Season 3 starts its new term this spring, probably sometime in April
COMMITMENT: 18 half-hour episodes comprising two seasons full of biting dialogue, facepalm politics, and Emmy-winning performances.
WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: This sharp political satire from The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci was somewhat uneven in Season 1, but really jelled in Season 2 as the stakes were raised for Vice President of the United States Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the cast really honed in on their characters' tics, and some true villains emerged. Add in the "funny 'cause it's true" real-life governmental head-scratchers—seemingly everlasting PR pratfalls, awkward interactions with foreign heads of state, a congressional shutdown—and an amazingly talented and hilarious cast, and you've got a wonderfully cynical look at the spectacle of American politics through the (often delusional) eyes of a bunch of D.C. blowhards.
CHEAT SHEET: Veep wasn't super serialized in Season 1, but it got way more so in Season 2, so while you do have the freedom to skip a few episodes here and there, you'll want to at least watch everything in order. Season 1 must-sees—either for quality or set-up purposes—include "Fundraiser" (the series premiere), "Frozen Yoghurt," "Chung," and "Tears" (the season finale); in Season 2, early highlights include "Midterms," "The Vic Allen Dinner," and "Helsinki," and then you should probably be sure catch everything from "Shutdown" onward (Episodes 7-10) to make sure you've got a handle on possible Season 3 talking points. —Jen Trolio
Which returning midseason series are you most looking forward to? What's on your personal "shows to catch up on" list?