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year in culture 2013

Seitz’s Top Comedy Episodes of 2013

This is part two of my yearly list of the year's best episodes. Part one, the dramas list, is here, along with a bit of ruminating on terminology and format: sitcom versus drama, half-hour versus hour, and where the distinctions start to blur. 

As I did last year, I've mixed in live-action half-hour and hour scripted shows with cartoons. I know some readers don't think that's fair, because animation gives storytellers a level of visual freedom that you can't get with actors and sets (not on a TV sitcom budget, anyway). But as far as I'm concerned, a story is a story is a story, and once you've committed it to paper, the rest is structure, style, and performance.

Share your own picks — or argue with mine! — in the comments section.

1. Arrested Development, Season Four
Am I cheating by counting all of season four as one episode? Maybe. The Netflixed fourth season of Arrested Development also claimed the No. 1 slot on my series list for its structural innovations and kooky visionary grandeur. But think of it this way: There isn't a single self-contained episode of this series that feels truly complete until you've watched the whole season, preferably in a binge-type situation that assures that setups from one or two episodes ago pay off in whatever chapter you're watching at that moment. So where does that leave us, definition-wise? Is season four a rare example of what cinema-cowed TV producers keep insisting they've made: a long movie? I don't think so, because the entire season doesn't feel like a movie broken into pieces, as Neftlix's Americanized version of House of Cards did, and as the miniseries Top of the Lake; Arrested Development has the rhythms of a sitcom, not a very long film, and it's practically Cubist in the way it stages and restages key moments, or shows us the "beginning" or "end" of a scene we already thought we'd seen the "beginning" or "end" of in an early episode. (Orange Is the New Black, which I've cited below on this list, attempted something similar, but it wasn't as radical in the way it leapt around in time and space — and it is possible to treat particular episodes as self-contained, or at least satisfying, stories.) As Ellen DeGeneres might say, my point — and I do have one — is this: The fourth season of Arrested Development isn't just a lark and a puzzle, it's an innovative work that confounds the usual distinctions between the season and the episode, as well as the usual distinctions between episodic television as "a long movie."

2. Futurama, "Meanwhile"
The dominant mode of this beloved sci-fi cartoon by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen was spoofy-silly, but it wasn't afraid to go poignant when the occasion warranted, and this final episode was a perfect excuse to unleash the audience's collective waterworks. This was probably the series' best riff on time-travel since "The Late Phillip J. Fry" — an episode that in many ways now feels like the setup for the finale’s payoff. 

3. Girls, "One Man's Trash"
Wherein Girls creator and star Lena Dunham and guest star Patrick Wilson enact the arc of a whole relationship in less than two days. This episode prompted some arguments about whether anything that occurred in it was supposed to be perceived as "real," but the script fudged that subtly enough that you weren't entirely sure how to take the affair, much less what impact it had on the heroine's emotional development or what it revealed about her limitations.  

4. 30 Rock"A Goon's Deed in a Weary World
Liz Lemon and the gang hatch a plan to save The Girly Show by seeking sponsorship from Bro Body Douche; its exec wants to re-title the program Man Cave and have Liz supervise it under the pseudonym Todd Debeikis, to hide her gender. It’s a great meta episode of an already super-meta sitcom — creator Tina Fey is working through some real anxieties and grievances here — but it's also one of the show's tightest, funniest half-hours. The B-plot, in which new Kabletown CEO Jack Donaghy leads potential successors on a talent-scouting tour modeled on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — is a feast of sustained silliness.

5. Parks and Recreation, "Recall Vote"
Leslie gets depressed after losing the recall election; Tom and Ron desperately try to save Rent-a-Swag; the office sets up a haunted house. Pretty much every mode that Parks and Recreation does well is represented here: shtick, relationship humor, office politics, regular politics, and the gap between our dreams and reality.

6. Enlightened, "All I Ever Wanted"
When investigative reporter Jeff gets a big break in the Cogentiva story that Amy's been helping him with, they embark on a passionate affair. It goes great until Amy's estranged husband Levi returns from Open Air, the New Agey detox facility she'd convinced him to attend. Pretty much every note in this episode is sitcom-typical, but its attentiveness to emotional detail makes it uncomfortable and then heartbreaking. Plus: the letter.

7. Archer, "Coyote Lovely”
Archer goes to the border to apprehend a notorious immigrant smuggler known as El Coyote and is shocked to discover that she's a beautiful woman; he ends up helping her and even taking bullets for her. This might be the most loosely plotted episode of this season, but it's the funniest: an early Mel Brooks–style gagfest that's always hilarious, sometimes shockingly so. Best scene: Archer being operated on by an unlicensed veterinarian.

8. Eastbound & Down, "Chapter 22"
In the season-four premiere, Kenny Powers has no sooner settled into his new life as a family man — er, "family man" — than that old itch needs scratching. This is one of the great illustrations of one of my favorite maxims about storytelling: Drama is about people changing, while comedy is about people reverting to type.

9. Bob's Burgers, "Two for Tina"
Tina dates a ballet dancer, making Jimmy Jr. jealous and setting up a dance-off; in a parallel plot, Linda convinces Bob to attend his first-ever school dance. This wasn't Bob's Burgers' funniest 2013 episode — I'd probably go with "Broadcast Wagstaff School News" or "Topsy" or "Christmas in the Car." But it just seems a perfectly shaped showcase for everything this cartoon sitcom does well, from American Splendor–style "Yay nerds" cheerleading to absurdist slapstick to understated domestic pathos. 

10. Veep, "Running"
A hilarious show that's not known for real-world political complexity (or terribly interested in it, really) aired a stingingly observant half-hour with "Running," which finds Selina chafing at the tight spot that her vice-presidency has wedged her into. Her boss's administration seems to be cratering, but she can't set up the pieces for her own redemptive presidential run without seeming like a disloyal schemer. What's a veep to do?

Honorable mentions:

30 Rock, "Hogcock" and "Last Lunch"
Adventure Time
, "James Baxter the Horse," "Simon and Marcy," "A Glitch is a Glitch"
Archer
, "The Wind Cries Mary," "Live and Let Dine," "The Sea Tunt Parts 1 & 2"
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
, "The Vulture," "Thanksgiving"
Bunheads
, "Take the Vicuna" and "Next!"
Girls
, "Videogames" and "Together"
Enlightened
, "The Ghost is Seen," "No Doubt," "Higher Power"
Eastbound and Down
, "Chapter 26" (couples therapy) and "Chapter 29" (finale)
New Girl
, "Cooler"
Orange is the New Black
, "Moscow Mule," "Fucksgiving," "Tall Men With Feelings," "Fool Me Once"
Parks and Recreation
, "London" and "Filibuster"
Real Husbands of Hollywood
, "The Bump Stops Here" and "The Harder They Fall"
South Park
, "Informative Murder Porn," "World War Zimmerman," "The Hobbit"

This post has been changed since it first went up.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Comedy Central, HBO, FOX and Netflix