2010 has been a fantastic year for television. This year brought us a slew of great new programs and if we include the second halves of all the series that debuted in the fall of 2009 (which I am for these features), we have probably just experienced the best run of newbies since 2004. While we were just getting comfortable with great new series like Justified, Boardwalk Empire and Louie, we had to unfortunately say goodbye to the likes of Lost, 24 and Law & Order. NBC mishandled its attempts to correct its late night situation and continued to dig itself deeper into a primetime hole. Meanwhile, the ever-popular True Blood and a stable of great new series helped HBO regain its early-aughts swagger. 2010 gave us a reborn Coco, awesome Survivor tribal councils, the Rally To Restore Sanity, “The Rocky Horror Glee Show,” the World Cup and even more awesome episodes of Jersey Shore. LeBron made his decision, CNN brought David Blaine on as an analyst during the Chilean Miner Saga, Dancing With The Stars became about politics and President Obama made appearances on more non-news programs than I can even count. Broadcast ratings might be down, but 2010 yet again proved that “television” does not always happen on the big screens in our living rooms. It’s everywhere, it’s everything and this is my celebration of it.
Throughout the next week or so, I’ll be going through all sorts of random categories and giving out fake awards for the best, worst and all that was in between for television in 2010.
Sorry for the sparse posting over the last few days, I have been enjoying a little R&R after ending my first semester in graduate school. These things are needed.
In any event, I’m back and ready to power through the rest of my 2010-in-review features, which includes a too-long list of top episodes from the past calendar year. Before we get started with the list of 60 episodes, I figured it is best that I describe my methodology and positionality a bit so I don’t get a lot of angry tweets or emails about leaving off certain series or episodes:
1. I don’t watch everything. It might seem like it during certain periods of time, but I actually don’t watch every series on television or even every major series. Therefore, you will notice that list lacks episodes from things like The Good Wife, Men of a Certain Age, Bored to Death, Doctor Who or Eastbound and Down. Some of these series I just haven’t watched and probably never will, some of the others, I just haven’t gotten around to this season or whatever else, so it’s better that I don’t even pretend to know about them just to present some facade about my ability to be a “critic.”
2. This list is skewed. Even for amid the dozens and dozens of series I do watch, I have my favorites. Some series are heavily represented on the list, some appear only once. I know that it’s nearly impossible to create a fully objective list of best anything, especially with just one person. Therefore, I’ve certainly tried to take stock of the differences between what is actually “good” and what I just like and tried to balance that within the list. Therefore, I know that there isn’t really one episode of Smallville or probably even The Vampire Diaries that belongs in the top 60, but I really enjoy both of those series and feel as if they deserve to be acknowledged.
3. Numbers…who needs ’em. Two final things: First of all, while some series are heavily represented on this list, I’ve tried to restrain myself a bit in how often Breaking Bad, Mad Men or Community makes an appearance. I could probably fill a top 60 with only episodes from those three series and a few from the likes of Parks and Rec, Terriers and Fringe, but I curbed my enthusiasm for those six series just enough that they only get one slot in each grouping of ten, meaning they can only be on this list a total of six times. I know every episode of Breaking Bad season three is top-10 material, so I tried to not go too crazy.
Second of all, the rankings themselves are less official than they may seem. Each group of 10 isn’t really ranked per se, but there are distinctions between 60-51 and 50-41 and distinctions between 50-41 and 40-31 if that makes sense. Within the grouping of 10 episodes, there is little difference between #60 and #51, but there is definitely more difference between #51 and #41 and so on. I think that’s pretty clear.
Okay then. Let’s get started.
With the bottom 10 episodes, I really tried to highlight some series that are probably not going to end up in my top 25 list, but still had some really great moments along the way in the calendar year. There was an unbelievable amount of good television on in 2010 and even if something didn’t crack the top 25 in the series list because it was too inconsistent, there are a number of cases that got it all right for at least one episode, and there is a lot of that going on here in 60-51.
60. House, “Office Politics” (Air date: November 8 ): Even though I have been fairly satisfied with House in its season seven run this fall, my loyalty to Hugh Laurie and a few of the other actors cannot blind me to the fact that the series just isn’t what it used to be. Thus, you won’t find it anywhere near my top 25. However, “Office Politics” is a nice episode that smoothly introduces Amber Tamblyn’s Martha Masters, a character who has given the team enough of a shot in the arm to keep the cases interesting. Meanwhile, “Politics” is another instance of the writers somehow figuring out how to make House and Cuddy’s romantic entanglements interesting and important, but not obnoxious. An episode like “Office Politics” wouldn’t stand out among all-time House efforts, but it’s a fine, entertaining effort that features a lot to love.
59. The League, “Vegas Draft” (Air date: September 16): FX’s fantasy football comedy upgraded from an amusing distraction in season one to a must-watch series in season two and that was notably apparent in the season two premiere, “Vegas Draft.” It is an episode that gives all the characters a moment or two in the sun, acknowledges some of the terrible fantasy football logic the series had in season one and also includes a surprisingly potent guest turn from NFL Wideout Chad Ochocinco. It might not be the most obvious choice for the series’ best episode of season two, but it set a great tone that was carried through in future episodes. Without “Vegas Draft,” I would have never tuned in to The League again.
58. Luther, “Episode One” (Air date: October 17 on BBCA): I talked a lot about this in my review of the Luther premiere episode, but because I am not fully familiar with the UK’s detective stories, I found the Idris Elba-starring series to be a breath of fresh air. Well, at least in this episode. The chemistry between Elba and Ruth Wilson is off the charts, so much so that it doesn’t even matter that the story more or less feels like a retread of Silence of the Lambs. The other five episodes didn’t really touch the promise this one suggested, but that doesn’t fully take away from this 60 minute effort.
57. Burn Notice, “Out of the Fire” (Air date: December 16): It might be the recency effect washing over me, but I’m still fairly excited about the Burn Notice two-part finale from last Thursday. The first hour “Out of the Fire” is most definitely the stronger effort thanks to fantastic returns from the series’ two best villains (Larry and Brennan) and a situation that actually backed Michael Westen into a corner (if only for a little bit). The biggest problem with the last season and a half of Burn Notice is that it lacked any real heft or stakes, but “Out of the Fire” presents us with a story that actually has those things and actually could serve as a catalyst for a number of cool things to come in season four. If anything, this episode deserves a heap of praise for making Burn Notice really, really good again, if only for a night.
56. Sons of Anarchy, “SO” (Air date: September 7): Sons of Anarchy‘s third season was a giant mess, one that we’ve been talking about throughout this fall. It’s unfortunate. However, I can still remember back to the premiere episode of the season when hopes were still high and the feelings of disappointment and frustration hadn’t quite set in. Detached from the rest of the season, “SO” is actually one hell of a follow-up episode to the fantastic season two finale and even considering the events of S3 as a whole, this episode stands up as an intriguing table-setter. It’s not “SO”‘s fault that some of the great possibilities set up here weren’t carried through in the subsequent 12 episodes.
55. The Office, “Classy Christmas” (Air date: December 9): It felt really odd to not put an episode of The Office in the top 50, but there really isn’t any episode that deserves it. I think I am a bit higher on the series than most people at this point, but I’m not an idiot. I have enjoyed a good number of season seven’s episodes, but right now, I am not sure that my enjoyment of those episodes is in full reaction to the misguided and flaccid season six or there is an actual, sizable improvement. No matter, there is not a whole lot to complain about with S7’s Christmas episode, because for the most part, I can rarely complain about any Office Christmas episode. Hell, even S6’s “Secret Santa” makes me laugh a few times. “Classy Christmas” makes it on to this list for its old-school feel, but also because it serves as a pivot point for potential. With Holly back in the picture, Michael/Steve Carell’s departure feels real now, and I’m hoping that the scattered good moments seen here will only increase as the season winds down and Michael says goodbye.
54. Smallville, “Salvation” (Air date: May 14): Hating on Smallville is a really, really, REALLY easy thing to do. The series was never well-regarded even when it was actually good, and once it devolved into disaster in the middle seasons, there was no going back. However, the last three seasons have been shockingly satisfying and even more surprising, kind of good in the most traditional sense. The season nine finale “Salvation” is the episode I like to point to for people who enjoy hating on Smallville, because even though it took the series 190+ episodes to make its version of Clark Kent Superman, it’s damn awesome to watch Tom Welling personify one of America’s biggest icons in all the most important ways. This episode has everything good Smallville provides: Solid Clark stories, romance, decently developed narratives and well-choreographed action. I’ve learned not to ask for much from the series, but sometimes, it goes well beyond those lowered expectations.
53. Treme, “Wish Someone Would Care” (Air date: June 13): Excuse me while I channel Wire/Treme creator David Simon for a second: Treme isn’t one of those series that lends itself to a list like this one. Episodes of Treme don’t work as well without thinking about the whole season together. They build on one another, it all adds up to a complete story, yada yada yada. Okay, out of Simon mode. Seriously though, even though I really like Treme, I had trouble picking out one episode to put on this list. The gut-punch of an ending to “Wish Someone Would Care” is so good that I figured it was as good a choice as any.
52. Chuck, “Chuck Versus Phase Three” (Air date: November 22): Chuck offers us a number of really interesting supporting characters, but so often, Sarah Walker gets pushed to the side so those supporting players get their time in the sun. This is not the case with season four’s “Chuck Versus Phase Three,” a tour-de-force for Sarah and her portrayer Yvonne Strahovski. In this episode, Sarah gets to kick a lot of ass, get confused for a she-male, cry and save her kidnapped beloved, all in 41 minutes. It doesn’t fully make up for the fact that Sarah often felt sidelined in season three while Chuck and Shaw fought over her, but it comes close.
51. Supernatural, “Weekend at Bobby’s” (Air date: October 15): I really wanted a season six Supernatural episode on this list, and honestly had a little trouble picking one that I felt really personified the craziness that the once methodical and well-plotted series has morphed into this fall. I still don’t really know what the hell is happening on the series anymore, but after “Weekend at Bobby’s,” I began to realize that those feelings are actually a good thing. Supernatural, for better or for worse, was written with obvious directions and beats in mind over the last two seasons and this season, that’s all gone. Things get introduced and quickly dispatched in just a few weeks and there’s a manic pace to all that’s both exciting and scary. “Weekend at Bobby’s” personifies that, and is also just a damn good episode in the vein that we have come to expect from one of television’s most underrated series.