Seven Great Returning Shows and How Newbies Can Still Get In On Them

Even the most loyal TV fan can’t watch everything, and sometimes good shows pass you by. Don’t blame yourself: It’s the nature of the beast, the price of living in an era when there’s more television on in one night than was on in a whole year a generation ago. Often it only takes one missed season to write a show off: No matter how many times you hear it raved about, it just seems too daunting to think about backtracking on an existing series when so many other shows are being stockpiled by your DVR. But it doesn’t always need to be this way! We’ve selected seven existing, fantastic shows that you can still get in on while they’re as good or better than they’ve ever been, just by using our quick tutorial and study guide of three past episodes each: With that small amount of viewing, you’ll be able to know just what these shows are about and can easily hop aboard for the new round of episodes. You can’t afford not to watch more TV.

Season three started September 13 at 10 p.m. on NBC.Why It’s Worth Getting Into: Nothing will ever replace Friday Night Lights, but showrunner Jason Katims brings the same emotional intelligence to the Braverman family that he did to the Taylors (and the Panthers and then the Lions). Family dramas are a rare breed today, but Parenthood’s many in-show factions somehow make it feel like many different dramas in one. Plus, Lauren Graham is great (if a bit Lorelai Gilmore 2.0) and Mae Whitman is the best crier on television.All You Need to Know: Grandparents Zeek and Camille Braverman (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia) have four adult children: the self-destructive Sarah (Graham), who, with her two teenagers Amber and Drew, moved back in with her folks; the upstanding Adam (Peter Krause), whose young son has Asperger’s; the uptight Julia (Erica Christensen), who is the family overacheiver; and the free-spirited Crosby (Dax Shepard), who’s still trying to figure out how to be a parent to the 6-year-old son he didn’t know he had. And don’t worry about much else: The Bravermans are a very verbal bunch, with the characters constantly naming their feelings, which brings new viewers up to speed in pretty much every scene. Three Episodes to Get You Up to Speed: “Wassup” (season 1, episode 4): The show starts finding its regular internal rhythms, with Crosby learning to parent and Sarah dealing with the fact that her kids don’t have a strong father figure in their lives. “Team Braverman” (season 1, episode 12): Everyone gets in some good screaming and crying when Amber sleeps with her cousin’s boyfriend. Hoooo boy. “Meet the New Boss” (season 2, episode 12): Parenthood blends sentimentality with vulnerability, and one of the show’s most perfect moments is teenage Amber singing at an open-mike night at a coffee shop. Her family’s there, beaming at her as she sings through her nerves, so proud but so scared that she’s almost grown up.  Alternately, just jump right in with last night’s season premiere.
Season three starts September 15 at 10:30 p.m. on FX.Why You Should Get In On This: It’s a brash, bawdy cartoon that doesn’t rely too heavily on episode-to-episode continuity, so jumping in at virtually any point is pretty easy, particularly for those familiar with and partial to an Adult Swim–like style of aggressive ridiculousness. It’s a spoof of the spy genre, yes, but it’s also a twisted workplace comedy in which characters constantly bicker (“why do you keep not shutting up?”), with an undercurrent of Arrested Development–like family dysfunction, thanks to Jessica Walter providing the voice of the often drunk, very mean mother. All You Need to Know: Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is the world’s best spy and probably its biggest jackass; Lana (Aisha Tyler) is his badass ex; dweeby comptroller Cyril (Chris Parnell) is Lana’s more-recent ex; and Mallory (Jessica Walter) is Archer’s icy mother — and everyone’s boss at the spy agency. Three Episodes to Get You Up to Speed: Archer isn’t really serialized, but these three are some of the show’s best: “Skytanic” (season 1, episode 7): The gang tries to disable a bomb on a luxury blimp. “Dial M for Mother” (season 1, episode 10): Archer and Mallory confront the issues in their terrible relationship, and Lana tries to coin the term “sploosh.” “Placebo Effect” (season 2, episode 9): Archer gets breast cancer and seeks revenge on the makers of bogus cancer drugs in the show’s darkest, weirdest episode.
Season two starts September 20 at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.Why It’s Worth Getting In On: Because My Name Is Earl — also created by Greg Garcia — never got the respect it deserved. This loopy family comedy about a single dad who lives with his parents (who had him when they were teenagers) has a winning earnestness that’s cut with a sense of mischief and appreciation for seediness. Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton as the super-young grandparents are sort of a blue-collar Gomez and Morticia Addams: They’re not quite made for the outside world, but boy are they made for each other. All You Need to Know: Jimmy had a one-night stand with a woman who turned out to be on the run from the cops; she got pregnant and had their baby shortly before being executed. (The show starts on a weird note. But it’s not bleak!) Now Jimmy, with the help of his parents Virginia (Plimpton) and Burt (Dillahunt) and the hindrance of his rarely lucid grandmother Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), is trying to raise his infant daughter. Also, he has a huge crush on Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), the girl who works at the grocery store. Three Episodes to Get You Up to Speed: “Dream Hoarders” (season 1, episode 3): Jimmy’s attempts to baby-proof the house lead him to conclude that his mother is a hoarder. It’s also the sweetest tribute to the power and necessity of fantasies, and probably the only tribute to include vacuuming a baby out of a pile of rubble. “Happy Halloween” (season 1, episode 5): Jimmy finds out that Burt used to frighten him on purpose so that Jimmy would give him huge, needy hugs. “What Up, Cuz?” (season 1, episode 14): Amy Sedaris guest-stars as Virginia’s cousin, and watching her and Plimpton trade feats of physical comedy (like wearing Spanx made of saran wrap) is priceless.
Season three starts September 25 at 9 p.m. on CBS.Why It’s Worth Getting Into: The Good Wife is a show about grown-up people with grown-up problems. Rich people with rich people problems, yes, but their conflicts are about public betrayal, professionalism, and power. It’s an incredibly patient series, and all of its takes are slow burns; compared to other legal procedurals or dramas in general, the show moves at a glacial pace. But in its own context, that slowness is how the show makes small things important — a gesture, a look, one legal brief, one kiss all take on massive consequences. All You Need to Know: Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is maybe not quite the typical politician’s wife: When her husband Peter (Chris Noth), a state’s attorney, gets caught in a prostitution scandal, she only sort of stands by her man. She enters the workforce as a low-level associate at a high-level firm, where she reconnects with Will (Josh Charles), one of the firm’s partners and a former love interest from law school. She befriends the firm’s mysterious investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), only to be devastated at the end of the second season when she finds out Kalinda slept with Peter years ago. It’s the last straw for Alicia, who finally — finally! — gets it together to fully separate from Peter and pursue Will. Three Episodes to Catch You Up: “Home” (season 1, episode 3): The depth and permanence of Alicia’s humiliation are themes that run through the entire series, but this early episode really drives home that she didn’t just lose her marriage or her public persona. She lost her whole identity. “Taking Control” (season 2, episode 1): Alicia and Will’s would-be relationship gets thwarted when Peter’s campaign manager (Alan Cumming, amazing) intercepts a message between them. “Closing Arguments” (season 2 episode 23): After 46 episodes of flirting, Will and Alicia, at long last, get it on. Photo: DAVID M. RUSSELL/©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Season two starts September 28 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.Why You Should Get In On This: The show’s still finding its exact footing, but at its best, it’s a sharp, engaged ensemble comedy where the characters display genuine affection for each other and banter like actual friends might. Pop references abound. All You Need to Know: There’s the jilted Dave, the jilt-er Alex, the high-strung marrieds Brad and Jane, the panicky Penny, and chubby gay Max, by far the best character on the show. Otherwise, the week-to-week shenanigans explain themselves, and the never-ending stream of nicknames (“Gay Guevara,” “Lance Charmstrong”) goes so far into lameness that it becomes cool again. Episodes to Get You Up to Speed: “Pilot” (season 1, episode 1): It’s the weakest episode of the show, but it sets everything in motion when Alex ditches Dave at the altar. “The Girl with the David Tattoo” (season 1, episode 8): Alex and Dave get their matching tattoos lasered off, and Max holds potential dates to unbelievably high standards. (Though an affection for midnight showings of Showgirls en español goes a long way.) “You’ve Got Male” (season 1, episode 9): Dave reconnects with his favorite high school teacher, and Alex and Max try to keep a chain store from opening in their neighborhood.
Season two starts September 28 at 10 p.m. on BBC America.Why You Should Get In On It: Idris Elba stars in this British import as the emotionally tortured detective with a dark streak who investigates brutal, often terrifying serial killers. It’s a procedural with stronger characters than most serialized shows, and it’s somehow less lurid than CSI while being tenser and much more frightening. All You Need to Know: Luther was off the force for a while following a total breakdown, and he’s on a pretty short leash. Or he should be, but instead he’s befriended the sociopathic genius Alice, who he knows murdered her own parents, and keeps finding himself in increasingly dangerous circumstances. He’s reeling from his separation from his wife, and the first season ends with a two-part episode in which he’s framed for her murder. Three Episodes to Get You Up to Speed The whole first season is only six episodes (and this second season is only four), so your best bet is just to hunker down and watch them — they go fast, and they’re great. But if you’re only gonna do three … “Episode 1“: Luther meets Alice. “Episode 5” and “Episode 6“: Easily the most intense two hours of crime drama in recent memory. (Take that, Dick Wolf.) Everything spins out of control all at once, but it happens with such a dread-inducing inevitability that the melodramatic story lines never feel manic or unearned.
Season three starts October 6 at 10:30 p.m. on FX.Why You Should Get In On This: Where else are you going to learn terms like “Eskimo brothers” (people who have a sexual partner in common) and “the vinegar strokes” (the moments before orgasm when men make a face like they just smelled vinegar)? All You Need to Know: Pete, Ruxin, Taco, Kevin, Andre, and Jenny are gonzo about their fantasy football league, but the show only loosely references football; NFL knowledge is definitely not required. Andre (Paul Scheer) is the group’s whipping boy, Taco (Jonathan Lajoie) its crazy free spirit, and Pete its emotional center. Three Episodes to Get You Up to Speed “Mr. McGibbets” (season 1, episode 4): Taco dresses up as Kevin and Jenny’s daughter’s favorite TV character, Mr. McGibblets. “The Shiva Bowl” (season 1, episode 6): The ultimate prize in the fantasy league is the “Shiva Bowl,” named after one of the guys’ high school classmates. “Ghost Monkey” (season 2, episode 7): Taco believes he’s being haunted by the spirit of a monkey he tried to steal from a petting zoo, and Kevin tries to host an “adult Halloween” party.
Seven Great Returning Shows and How Newbies Can Still Get In On Them