There's too much good TV to keep up with. This is a universal truth. But with New Year's Day approaching as a prime marathoning opportunity, we present our field guide to catching up on the returning shows set to premiere in early 2014.
Returns: January 2
Why you want to be ready for it: Sound the trumpets and prep your anti-social Tumblr posts, Dan Harmon is back in the saddle as Community showrunner and in-joke-maker-in-chief. If you're a fan of the show, clearly this is good news, especially coming off of a Harmon-less Season 4 that everybody agreed was terrible. (If you're not a fan of the show, Harmon's return likely just means that the show will go back to being terrible in the way it was in its second and third seasons.)
Best way to get caught up: Honestly, this might be a bit pointless, as the only people still watching Community are the serious die-hards, and those people haven't missed an episode. And if they did, it's because they boycotted the show when Harmon was gone. Still, if they're into experiencing the Harmon-less wasteland of season four before exalting in his big return, the entire series of streaming for free on Hulu Plus.
The Carrie Diaries
Returns: January 3
Why you want to be ready for it: It's very quietly become the best teen drama on television, surprisingly enough, offering the familiarity of a few Sex and the City characters while overall serving up a far less grating version of that world. Plus, things may well begin to get a bit darker as the more grim realities of the 1980s begin to settle in.
Best way to get caught up: New episodes resume on Friday, but luckily, there are only 20 or so episodes in the entire series, so even if you're staring from scratch, it's very do-able. The entire first season is streaming on Netflix, and Hulu currently has all episodes from the current season, except the second and third (those you can purchase from iTunes if you're into the show; which you should be).
The Good Wife
Returns: January 5
Why you want to be ready for it: The bust-up of Lockhart-Gardner in the first half of the current (fifth) season has been some of the best, most riveting TV around, and things don't seem to be getting any less intense. Just be sure to have your coping mechanisms in place for when the show detours into Melissa George's quirk-heavy ethics officer. (Also, the intense focus as of late on Jason O'Mara's thuggish new lawyer can also calm down at any time.)
Best way to get caught up: The first four seasons are streaming on Hulu Plus, so this is a great show to start from scratch on. You know, if you have a spare 100 years. Network shows are some of the most impossible to catch up to on account of their lengthy episode orders alone. If you just need to get back on track with season 5, however, CBS has the whole season to date On Demand.
Returns: January 5 (for three more episodes, before going on hiatus until March 9)
Why you want to be ready for it: Yes, the second season was terrible enough to have driven many viewers away, but if you've been hearing rumblings that the third season has righted its ship and focused more on the immediate clash between Emily and the Graysons, this could be a decent time to peek back in.
Best way to get caught up: The first couple seasons are streaming on Netflix, in case you need to remember why you watched in the first place (and then why you went away), and the entire third season to date is up on Hulu Plus.
Returns: January 5
Why you want to be ready for it: You have to see what happens in the aftermath of Matthew Crawley's ill-fated road trip, right? Who else will this show mercilessly sacrifice to the gods of buzz and the influenza outbreak? Paul Giamatti joins the cast this season, too, and that's an odd-seeming fit you'll want to see for yourself.
Best way to get caught up: The first three seasons (or series; we are talking about a British import, still) are streaming for free on Amazon Prime.
Returns: January 7
Why you want to be ready for it: It's only one of the best shows on TV, coming off of what was either its second-best or best season, depending on who you talk to. Last season ended with the indomitable Ava Crowder getting thrown in jail, so the expectation is that her devoted criminal love Boyd will be dedicated to getting her out. It also looks like the Crowe family of penny-ante crooks will get a renewed focus this year, with Michael Rappaport and Alicia Witt among the new Crowe cast members.
Best way to get caught up: FX is one of the most stingy networks around when it comes to letting the fans of its shows catch up. The series to date is available on Netflix (though not streaming) and available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.
American Horror Story: Coven
Returns: January 8
Why you want to be ready for it: The home stretch awaits in the new year, as Coven airs its final four episodes. And if the end run of Asylum is any indication, there should be a lot still waiting to go down. There's still Kathy Bates's head to deal with, not to mention a Stevie Nicks cameo (the episode airing on the 8th is in fact titled "The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks").
Best way to get caught up: FX strikes again. The last two episodes to air are still available On Demand, but if you want to catch up on the seven episodes that aired before that, you'll have to purchase them on iTunes or Amazon.
Returns: January 12
Why you want to be ready for it: Because everybody's going to be talking about it anyway, so you might as well. Also, because this season is loaded up with guest stars and bit players that, just in the first three episodes alone, include Bob Balaban, Debra Monk, Kim Gordon, Gaby Hoffman, Richard E. Grant, and certified breakthrough star of 2013 Danielle Brooks.
Best way to get caught up: If you have HBO, the entire series is available on HBO Go. But you're probably just going to leech off of your parents' HBO Go login and watch it for free without paying a blessed nickel, aren't you? (Otherwise, it's available on Netflix DVD, Amazon, and iTunes.)
Returns: January 13
Why you want to be ready for it: Why wouldn't you want to watch as many episodes as possible of one of the funniest shows on television? Plus, you'll want to reward FX for keeping this show on the mother channel rather than shunting it off to the hinterlands of FXX with all the other shows you stopped watching this fall because you couldn't find FXX on your cable grid.
Best way to get caught up: The stinginess of FX strikes again, as the most recent (fourth) season is only available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. But please do yourselves a favor and watch the first three seasons, currently streaming on Netflix.
Returns: January 15
Why you want to be ready for it: There are few things more satisfying to do on a lazy holiday at home than marathon a good primetime soap. You'll want to get onboard with Hayden Panettiere's performance as a monster version of Taylor Swift, too.
Best way to get caught up: Season 1 will take some extra effort on your part, as it's only available on Netflix's DVD plan, plus iTunes and Amazon for purchase. Maybe you'd be better off just jumping into Season 2, which is streaming in its entirety on Hulu Plus.
Returns: January 19
Why you want to be ready for it: Because you're a Cumberbitch just like the rest of the internet. Also because it's one of the most acclaimed shows on TV and you can get yourself fully caught up in the span of an afternoon. The entire series to date is merely six 90-minute episodes.
Best way to get caught up: Series 1 and 2 are streaming for free on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus, so pick your poison (and hope Holmes is able to deduce what kind of poison it is after he finds your poisoned corpse).
The Walking Dead
Returns: February 9
Why you want to be ready for it: The first half of the current fourth season ended with death, dismemberment, and a baby that might be dead or is at least missing. Just another ordinary day on a planet where any sensible person would have killed themselves months ago.
Best way to get caught up: The first three seasons are streaming on Netflix, if maybe you gave up early on and are looking to hop back on again. The season four episodes that have aired to date will have to be purchased from either Amazon or iTunes.
Returns: February 26
Why you want to be ready for it: Because the first season, while clunkier and junkier than you might have heard, left things in quite a state, with Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth bonded through his near-death, and double-agent Nina looking to turn on fed Stan. Plus how many more ways will the show find to gross us out with "Clark" and Martha's sexcapades?
Best way to get caught up: The first season doesn't make it to Netflix (discs only) until February, so you'll have to pay for episodes on Amazon and iTunes.
Returns: February 27
Why you want to be ready for it: Because OLIVIA'S TERRORIST MOM IS RIGHT OUTSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE OH MY GODDDDD FITZ JUST LOOK OUT YOUR WINDOW THERE SHE IS. Also, Cyrus is maybe suffering from one nervous breakdown too many, some drug kingpin is looking to kill Harrison or something, and Huck is basically Dexter at this point.
Best way to get caught up: Stream the first two seasons on Netflix (power through some choppy early episodes), bite the bullet and pay for the first five episodes of season three on iTunes or Amazon, and then coast through the next five on Hulu Plus. Then watch all of Alias season two, because that's basically where things are going for the Pope family.
Returns: February 28
Why you want to be ready for it: Somewhat improbably, Bryan Fuller's prequel series about the pre-incarceration days of Hannibal Lecter—and actually, the FBI team of Jack Crawford and Will Graham— has become one of the best shows on TV. There is no better show at conveying a suffocating mood of sheer dread for an entire hour, every week.
Best way to get caught up: The first season is on Netflix, if you have the DVD plan. Otherwise, the first ten episodes are well worth an iTunes/Amazon purchase, until you get to the final three hours of season 1, which are streaming on Hulu.
Why you want to be ready for it: Because Vera Farmiga is doing ... something on that show every week, and you do not want to miss it when she starts doing it again.
Best way to get caught up: Nothing streaming as of yet, so it's Netfix DVDs, iTunes, or Amazon for you.