The 10 Best Episodes of the 2011-2012 Network Television Season

Now that the end of the network season has arrived, I thought it would be fun to catalog the ten best episodes of the network season (again, note the word “Network,” which excludes shows on HBO, FX, AMC, and Showtime). In compiling the list of the ten best episodes, I also wanted to provide some variety and, rather than includes a bunch of “Parks and Rec” and “Community” episodes, limit the number of episodes per show to one, which also makes it more of a challenge to choose the single best episode of each series.

Before we begin, however, here are a few honorable mentions: “Fringe” (And Those That Were Left Behind); “Bob’s Burgers” (Moody Foodie); “Modern Family” (Election Day); “Raising Hope” (Jimmy’s Fake Girlfriend); and “Saturday Night Live” (Maya Rudolph Hosted Episode).

With that out of the way, here are the 10 best single episodes of the network season.

10. “30 Rock” — Leap Day: It wasn’t the best season of “30 Rock,” but the Leap Day episode with Leap Day William — who emerges from the Marianas Trench every four years and trades children’s tears for candy — reminded us of better days on the sitcom. The clincher? The trailer for Leap Day William starring Jim Carrey. “Nothing that happens on Leap Day counts!”

9. “How I Met Your Mother”– Symphony of Illumination: Again, it was a frustrating season of “HIMYM,” but the sitcom always manages to land one devastating episode a year. Last year, it was when Marshall’s Dad died. This year, it was in this episode, narrated by Robin to her supposed children, in which she thought she was pregnant but later learned that she cannot actually have children. It also went a long way toward humanizing Barney, making the season finale reveal a little more natural.

8. “New Girl” — Jess and Julia: Remember how “New Girl” wasn’t that great an series during the first few episodes, and how Zooey Deschanel’s Jess came off as obnoxiously whimsical? The singing. GAWD. This is the episode in which Julia (Lizzy Caplan) confronted Jess about all of her quirks, and the writers offer a transparent defense of both Zooey Deschanel herself and the Jess character. It changed the entire tone of the show, allowed us to accept Jess for who she was (even as they toned down her character) and made it possible for the equally as good “True American Hero” episode to succeed later in the series.

7. “Awake” — Turtles All the Way Down: Kyle Killen’s cop show was doomed from the beginning by a concept perhaps too sophisticated for network audiences. During most of the season, Killen downplayed the premise, making the show more of a high-concept procedural palatable to larger audiences, but in the end, he pulled out a stunner of a finale in a way that “Life on Mars” (which worked from a similar concept) never could manage. It’s too bad “Awake” was cancelled, but the season finale worked just as well as a magnificent series finale.

6. “The Good Wife”: Another Ham Sandwich — It was an all-around fantastic season of the best show nobody in the 18-49 demo watches, but this episode stood out among the rest. Will and Kalinda pulled off a masterful double-cross to put ethical charges against Will to bed. Will and Diane got only enough time to pull out a victory dance, however, before we learn that the Bar was still suspending Will. I would kill for a GIF of that victory dance.

5. “Cougar Town”: Ain’t Love Strange — Bill Lawrence’s show was a great season from start to finish, but the best two episodes — the first and the last — were written by Lawrence himself. This one (the premiere), which aired on Valentine’s Day, featured one of the sweetest moments of the year, turning a possible arrest for vandalism into a heart-tugging marriage proposal.

4. “Parenthood”: Road Trip — “Parenthood” has been outstanding since the beginning; there are no bad episodes. This one, however, stood out among the rest because the entire family left their home setting and took a road trip that would divide the Bravermans only to bring them back together again in a wonderful, silly, and ultimately, a powerfully poignant hour of television.

3. “Happy Endings”: Spooky Endings — Anyone still skeptical about “Happy Endings” had to be won over by their outstanding Halloween episode this year, which had everything from Max’s Dancing Baby to Alex Kerkovich’s Brett Butler turned Transgender Marilyn Monroe impression. It was not just one of the best episodes of the year, it was one of the best Halloween episodes of all time.

2. “Parks and Recreation”: Smallest Park — It’s hard to pick a favorite among a stellar season of episodes for “Parks and Recreation.” There was the city council election finale; there was the Tammy #1 episode early on; and there was the magnificent “End of the World” episode which had Andy and April take a trip to the Grand Canyon. Ultimately, I went with “Smallest Park” because it had an incredibly strong A and B plot. Ben finally admitted to Leslie what he was thinking all along and Ron Swanson betrayed his sweetest moment to date, helping Andy get into community college. “He’s one of the people I don’t actively root against … there I go getting all sappy.” (It was also the episode with the Swansonism: “You would look great as a brunette.”) But it was the kiss in the smallest park in the world at the end of the episode that competely sealed it.

1. “Community”: Remedial Chaos Theory — I actually thought I could avoid giving best episode of the season to “Community,” because overall, “Parks and Recreation” had a better season. But it’s impossible to beat “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the “Community” episode that set the stage for a season worth of callbacks and, more than any other episode of the show, worked itself and “The Darkest Timeline” into the fabric of our popular culture. All of the other episodes on this list were great; this episode was flat-out genius.