Having already presented my lists of the best overall shows of the year, the best returning shows and the best new shows, it’s time for my final superlatives list: 10 great episodes of shows that missed the cut on any of the other lists.
Some come from shows I like a lot, but not as much as some others that actually made a top 10. Some come from shows I once loved universally and now stick with for the occasional reminder of the good old days. And one comes from a show I came to hate pretty thoroughly, as a reminder that even bad shows are capable of greatness for an hour or two.
In no particular order…
“The Office” – “Garage Sale”: The post-Steve Carell version of “The Office” has mostly been a diluted version of what the show used to be, but the run-up to Carell’s departure featured a string of terrific episodes and moments. I could have easily picked his farewell episode for how well it showcased the many different sides of Michael Gary Scott, or “PDA” for being one of the funniest episodes the show has done in years, but I ultimately went with “Garage Sale” for doing the best job of showcasing both the ridiculous and romantic sides of “The Office” and its departing main character. In trying to craft the perfect proposal for Holly, Michael got to be reckless and oblivious, but he also got to be sincere and winning, and Pam’s attempts to control his bad impulses provided Jenna Fischer her best material in a long time. And the subplots about the garage sale itself featured one of Jim’s strongest (and yet simplest) pranks on Dwight and a goofy but charming C-story in which Kevin ultimately taught Andy and Darryl the true meaning of “Dallas.”
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” – “Mister Softee”: “Curb” did three pantheon-level episodes this season, including this one, “The Palestinian Chicken” and “The Vow of Silence.” It was ultimately about splitting hairs in choosing one over the others – I didn’t think the very last scene of “The Palestinian Chicken” worked, for instance, even though until then it was maybe the funniest of the three – and also enjoying the density of an episode that featured Bill Buckner’s redemption, a Larry David origin story, Leon with glasses, Robert Smigel unleashing a symphony of profane taunts and Susie and Ana Gasteyer both having way too much fun in Larry’s car. As I said at the time, it almost felt like “Curb: The Motion Picture,” it seemed so epic.
“Doctor Who” – “The Girl Who Waited”: For a while there, it seemed that the Steven Moffat era of “Doctor Who” had established a pattern where the Moffat-written arc episodes were fantastic and the standalones by other writers were mostly filler. The back half of the latest season finally broke that pattern, as one of my favorite modern “Who” episodes – in which a time anomaly forced Rory to choose between saving the Amy he knows and a cold, bitter Amy from decades into the future – was written by Tom MacRae, not Moffat, and featured some of the best work either Karen Gillan or Arthur Darvill have done on the series.
(NOTE: For some reason, I got the air date for “Chuck vs. Phase Three” completely wrong in my head, when it aired in November of 2010. I’m leaving the video clip in, because Sarah fighting in Thailand is cool, and plugging in my next runner-up at the bottom. Apologies.)
“Chuck” – “Chuck vs. Phase Three”: When actors direct episodes of their own shows, the logistics often require them to appear only briefly in the episode before the one they direct. So while Zachary Levi was prepping last season’s Thanksgiving episodes, “Chuck” took advantage of his minimal presence to fashion a kick-ass episode in which Sarah was suddenly the hero of the show, fighting her way through Thailand to rescue her man. Just a tremendous showcase of everything that Yvonne Strahovski has brought to the table on “Chuck” over the years, from dramatic range to physicality. I love “Chuck,” but “Phase Three” almost had me longing for a spin-off about the Giant Blonde She-Male of Thailand.
“Cougar Town” – “Something Good Coming”: Hour-long comedy episodes can be an iffy proposition, and comedy episodes filmed on location when the characters take a trip can be even iffier. But “Cougar Town” pulled both off in its warm, weird, funny season finale, in which Jules and the rest of the Cul-De-Sac Crew flew out to Hawaii to bring Travis home and get him out of a post-break-up funk. The hour featured the usual collection of running gags (Grayson’s obsession with the morning routine song was my favorite), paid off (for now) the obvious chemistry between Travis and Laurie, gave new depth to Bobby and even worked in an extended cameo by Sam Lloyd reprising his “Scrubs” role as singing lawyer Ted.
“The Killing” – “The Cage”: The series fell apart eventually, but this second hour (which aired back-to-back with the pilot) suggested that Veena Sud and company were actually going to do something special with the gimmick of telling a single murder story over many hours. There were so many moments in “The Cage” that took advantage of the extended time, like a lingering, painful scene where Stan and Mitch Larsen visited the morgue to see their daughter’s body, or Detective Holder hustling a pair of high school girls into pointing him to the possible murder scene. That the show eventually revealed itself to have a collection of thin characters and annoying red herrings and other plot twists doesn’t take away from this strong early hour. But the quality of “The Cage” is a big part of why so many of us were so frustrated when things took a bad turn later in the season.
“Archer” – “Stage Two” & “Placebo Effect”: As usual, I have to cheat at least once per list, and so I’ve combined the two episodes comprising the mini-arc about Archer being diagnosed with breast cancer. It was at once a joke – a character obsessed with his own machismo gets a disease associated with women – and oddly, wonderfully poignant. “Archer” had no need to go serious – arguably had no business going serious, considering how wildly irreverent the show had been to that point – but it worked, brilliantly.
“How I Met Your Mother” – “The Ducky Tie”: It feels like “HIMYM” annoys me more often than not these days, though that may just be the way I feel given the twist near the end of the most recent episode. That said, the show is still capable of turning out a vintage episode from time to time, and “The Ducky Tie” – which brought back Victoria (Ted’s best non-Robin love interest) for some closure, and got Marshall and Barney involved in a complicated bet – was as smart and sweet and funny as the show’s good ol’ days.
“Parenthood” – “Do Not Sleep With Your Autistic Nephew’s Therapist”: Besides having maybe the best title of any episode of television in 2011, “Do Not Sleep” was also the episode that crystallized my Hulk Theory of “Parenthood,” wherein the madder the show gets, the stronger it gets. Lots of Bravermans had lots of reasons to be angry this week – Jasmine at Crosby for cheating on her (even though she’d kicked him out), Adam and Kristina at Crosby for robbing Max of his behavioral aide, Amber at her mom and brother for trying to reconnect with her deadbeat dad, etc. – and as tempers rose, so did the caliber of acting on display. Most episodes of “Parenthood” tend to be of a piece with the others, but every now and then, one stands out like this.
“Sons of Anarchy” – “Hands”: “Sons” season 4 had its ups and its downs, but this outing – in which Tara suffered a potentially career-ending hand injury during an abduction attempt, while Gemma confronted Clay about his misdeeds and suffered a savage beating for her trouble – was not only the highlight of the season, but one of the best hours the series has done to date. Great performances from Maggie Siff, Charlie Hunnam, Ryan Hurst and Katey Sagal, and an overpowering sense of dread as one character after another recognized that no one gets out of Charming, or the club, alive, and that what they once thought of as a wonderful outlaw family has turned into a corrosive influence on everyone’s lives.
“30 Rock” – “Double-Edged Sword”: “30 Rock” tended to get lost in the shuffle of NBC Thursday last season, between “Parks and Rec” having a season for the ages, “The Office” saying goodbye to Carell and “Community” morphing into a new kind of show every week. But “30 Rock” season 5 was quietly strong, and maybe the show’s most consistent overall since season 2. One of the reasons the season worked so well is that Liz spent much of it in a secure but infrequent relationship with Matt Damon’s Carol, which allowed her to be a bit less pathetic than usual while not forcing the show to give her a romance plot every week. All good things come to an end, and if Liz and Carol couldn’t stay together, at least their break-up was spectacular, as she realized she was through with him while stuck on the worst flight in airline history.
Okay, those are 10 of mine. What are some of your favorite episodes of 2011, and why? You’re obviously not limited the way I was, so if you want to give me a bunch of “Breaking Bad”s, “Parks and Rec”s and “Louie”s, go for it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org