Time for one more Best of 2010 list before the year’s out: some of my favorite episodes of the year.
Now, a list of my actual 10 favorite episodes would draw heavily from the shows that made my lists of the best new or returning series of the year – “The Suitcase” from “Mad Men,” “One Minute” from “Breaking Bad,” “Modern Warfare” from “Community,” etc. – so in the interest of both spreading the wealth and acknowledging that less-than-perfect series can sometimes have perfect episodes, I’m going to restrict this list to shows that didn’t quite make the cut for my other lists. (Though shows that I listed as Tough Omissions were eligible.)
If you listened to the Firewall & Iceberg Podcast a couple of weeks ago, some of these choices will sound familiar, but others weren’t discussed in that show. Because I’ve already added a few qualifiers, these are listed alphabetically, rather than trying to subjectively rank them in order of greatness. Clips included where available, as well as links to my original reviews.
“30 Rock,” “When It Rains, It Pours” (NBC, September 30): The fourth season of “30 Rock” was by far the show’s weakest, and the mediocre fifth season premiere had me bracing myself for another year of lowered expectations. Then came this hilarious second episode – in which Tracy had to take the “Cash Cab” to get to the hospital for the birth of his daughter, Jack began recording video messages to his own unborn child, and Liz basked in the desirability that comes from being in a healthy relationship – which felt very much like vintage “30 Rock.” It was hilarious, but it also didn’t sell out its characters for the sake of the joke.
“Better Off Ted,” “Beating a Dead Workforce” (ABC, January 5): I didn’t find the second season of the low-rated corporate satire quite as strong as the first. But this episode – in which the company used the memory of an employee who literally worked himself to death as a religious-style symbol to goad the rest of the staff to burn the candle at both ends – was as smart, funny and scary an episode of comedy as you’ll find. (NOTE: I couldn’t find a clip from this one, so instead I’m including an NSFW outtake from the other episode I might have put here, in which a memo’s typo leads to an outbreak of pottymouth at Veridian Dynamics.)
“Chuck,” “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” (NBC, April 26): The next time some idiot tells me that a show with a big Unresolved Sexual Tension component will be ruined if the main couple gets together, I’m going to sit him down in front of this episode of “Chuck” – the first after Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) officially became a couple – and show them just how funny and sexy and exciting it is, and how foolish it can be to stall for years when this sort of fun is a real possibility.
“Fringe,” “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?” (FOX, October 14): “Fringe” really found itself last spring, setting up a war between two parallel universes and a switcheroo between two Olivias (Anna Torv) that turned even standalone-style episodes into arc episodes. Case in point: this scary, moving Monster of the Week show about a shapeshifter (Marcus Giamatti) who’s become too attached to the life he stole, and how the actions of the Fauxlivia unravel his cozy family life.
“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Sanctuary/Death and All His Friends” (ABC, May 20): Drama episodes where a gunman terrorizes the workplace – and particularly ones where the only people killed off are characters nobody cares about – are usually a sign that the shark is circling below. With “Grey’s,” it was a sign that the show had rediscovered itself after a bunch of uneven-to-bad seasons. Yes, the assault on Seattle Grace was melodramatic and manipulative as all get-out, but that’s what Shonda Rhimes does – and in the two-hour season six finale, she did it as powerfully as she ever has, getting heart-tugging performances from Chandra Wilson, Sandra Oh, Ellen Pompeo, and everyone on down to guest star Mandy freakin’ Moore. And where many shows try this kind of stunt and forget it quickly, the seventh season has been all about the doctors trying to cope with the horrors they saw that day, and that fallout only makes the finale even stronger in hindsight.
“How I Met Your Mother,” “Natural History” (CBS, November 8): “HIMYM” followed a terrible season in the spring with an uneven one in the fall. That’s an improvement, as half the episodes have been at least pretty good, and this one – in which the gang had some major life revelations while attending a black tie museum gala – hearkened back to the series’ better days with the way it played with time and narrative and took the characters’ emotions very seriously, even as it told funny jokes.
“Luther,” “Episode One” (BBC America, October 17): This British police drama about an unstable homicide cop (Idris Elba from “The Wire”) went off the rails after a few episodes, with the end of its brief first season consumed by an out-of-left-field new villain. But the debut episode was a tense, riveting duet between Elba and Ruth Wilson, as the beautiful sociopath Luther was chasing.
“Modern Family,” “Manny Get Your Gun” (ABC, November 17): I’m sometimes accused of being too hard on “Modern Family,” and episodes like this one, or last year’s “Fizbo,” are why. The family comedy has so many great pieces, but they only occasionally all fit together to create a cohesive, entirely satisfying picture. (The rest of the time, the show just has to settle for being one of the funnier shows on television; tough life.) This episode, in which all the families raced to be on time for Manny’s birthday, took the idea of everything coming together literally – the half-hour climaxed with everyone narrowly missing a four-way head-on collision – but in its separate subplots and their combined relationship, it represented what this show is capable of being at its best.
“Sons of Anarchy,” “NS” (FX, Nov. 30): Can a bad season of TV be redeemed by a great last episode? Not really, but the “Sons” season 3 finale left a much better taste in my mouth than most of the 12 episodes leading up to it. After a year in which the Sons had been pawns in the games of other characters we barely knew or cared about, they finally took control of their own destinies in a “Godfather”-style maneuver that settled all family business in one clever, lethal afternoon. And the finale left everyone in a very interesting place for the start of season 4.
“The Walking Dead,” “Days Gone Bye” (AMC, Oct. 31): The rest of this zombie epic’s brief first season had its ups and downs, but that unevenness should take nothing away from the haunting, devastating first episode, in which Kentucky cop Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) woke up from a coma to discover that the world he knew had been replaced by an unrelenting nightmare. Just a magnificent use of mood and silence by writer/director Frank Darabont, and featuring a stunning guest performance by Lennie James as a man with a daily reminder of the personal cost of the zombie apocalypse.
I’m sure you have your favorite episodes from the year, and you don’t have to be restricted by my “nothing from the Top 10 lists” rule, so feel free to nominate some of your own choices (and it can be 1 or 2; doesn’t have to be 10). Explanations preferred but not necessary.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org