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 ofParks 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.
Time for the second round of top episodes from 2010, folks. Starting with this group, you’ll start to see some familiar faces and series that I’ve been talking about since this blog started back in May. Again, I tried to keep each series limited in some way, but when certain series are really, really good it is too hard to deny them placement.
50. Fringe, “The Plateau” (Air date: October 7): As I was compiling a 100-plus episode introductory list to this one — which is pathetic in its own right because I’ve gotten jabs about the girth of this batch of 60 — no series appeared more than Fringe. At first I was shocked by that notion, and then I realized that Fringe is probably my favorite hourlong series on television right now and it’s been damn good throughout 2010. It all makes perfect sense. Anyway, back when the series debuted, I never would have thought that a case-based episode of Fringe would make a top anything list, but in season three every episode has been at worst really good. “The Plateau” is probably the best of the S3 procedural efforts and features both an excellent case and some intriguing character developments for Olivia while she’s trapped over in the alternate universe. Of course the procedural episodes in the alternate universe have locked-in higher stakes because it’s a new, unique place, but even aside from, “The Plateau” is just great procedural storytelling.
49. Glee, “Dream On” (Air date: May 18): It’s interesting that a number of readers have taking me to task for being a Glee hater when I regularly find myself talking or writing or thinking about the series. I guess that doesn’t mean I’m not critical, but I actually do love Glee and I think this list and my series list will reflect that. “Dream On” is most certainly the best episode of the car-wreck that was the back-9 of the series’ first season, which is a fairly easy title to attain. But even if this episode took place during a better overall run, I think it would still stand out. I like my Glee to be a little sad and sometimes even a lot sad, and “Dream On” latches on that sadness in a number of interesting ways. It is nice when the series allows the characters to see that as much as they want to be happy and see happy songs, those feelings can’t really cover up the inherent sadness that comes along with life. “Dream On” offers that for Rachel, Artie and guest star Bryan Ryan (Neil Patrick Harris, in an awesome guest turn). Also: This episode has great musical performances, which we can never disregard with Glee.
48. Justified, “Fathers and Sons” (Air date: June 1): I have said this on countless occasions but my favorite part of Justified is how quickly it turned its setting into a living, breathing place full of quirky (read: for the purposes of this series, dirty and criminal) individuals from Raylan Givens’ past. And the most important characters that have helped morph this section of Kentucky into one of the better places on television are the Crowder and Givens families. “Fathers and Sons” brings all those characters together in a fantastic penultimate episode. The effort sees the sons decide it’s finally time to step away from their fathers once and for all, which for Raylan means avoiding crime and for Boyd means something else entirely.
47. Lost, “Dr. Linus” (Air date: March 9): The flash-sideways storytelling device wasn’t an overwhelming success. I think most of us can agree on that factoid. But in certain cases, the structure allowed for the final season of the series to feel a lot like the first one — which was the obvious intention — wherein individual characters were given interesting and new stories to toy with in that world. The most successful of all the individual-centric FS sideways episodes has to be “Dr. Linus,” an effort that sees Ben Linus finally stop plotting and actually try to relate to people on the island who he’s previously tried to kill, mame or remove from the equation. And in the FS universe, Ben gets another chance with his daughter Alex, a story that still holds up in effectiveness and emotion even with the knowledge of what the actual FS world is. “Dr. Linus” is a fairly standalone episode in the final season since Ben isn’t as important as he was in previous seasons, but damn it’s a good one.
46. 30 Rock, “When It Rains, It Pours” (Air date: September 30): These days, it’s easy to throw out the rote complaints about 30 Rock and how it’s not as good as season two, how it uses too many guest stars, etc. However, amid all those complaints and buzz for the two newer NBC comedies, 30 Rock has kind of quietly had a tremendous 2010. The spring run of season four saw the series get its swagger back and 30 Rock hasn’t slowed down this fall in the fall efforts of season five. It feels good being excited for this series again. “When It Rains It Pours” is a nice example of how the series has turned it around where Tracy isn’t just an annoying idiot and where the guest stars (in this case, Paul Giamatti) can be put to good use. Of course, I’m also a sucker for Cash Cab, which could be completely clouding my judgment.
45. The Pacific, “Part Eight” (Air date: May 2): The Pacific had an uphill battle to climb thanks to the obvious comparisons to Band of Brothers, but even for someone like myself who hasn’t seen all of BoB, I found the Pacific Theater miniseries to be sluggishly paced and sometimes oddly plotted. But around the halfway mark, the narrative started to come together and the characters were more sympathetic. Jon Seda’s John Basilone was the driving force in those stumbling early efforts and his goodbye episode is the start of an unbelievable final three hours. “Part Eight” is thrilling, excruciating and saddening.
44. Terriers, “Quid Pro Quo” (Air date: November 24): All season long, Terriers was tremendous at delivering one emotional gut-punch after another and the penultimate episode was no different. The FX drama quickly made us care enough about Hank Dolworth’s romantic rival Jason Adler that when he was gunned down in a convenience store at the end of this episode, it felt like one of the worst things to happen on television this season. “Quid Pro Quo” has everything we would normally want in a penultimate episode: It clarifies the ongoing narrative, raises the stakes, gives the characters a catalyst to take part in their final actions and generally makes the audience feel like there is no hope out there in the world. There is a lot to praise in this episode.
43. Community, “Cooperative Calligraphy” (Air date: November 11): This is the first of many appearances on this list for NBC”s Community and as I said in the introduction to the feature, I could have filled at least half of this list with my favorite episodes from the series. Because of that restriction, “Cooperative Calligraphy” beat out a few other favorites (“Physical Education,” “Anthropology 101” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”) for the “lowest” Community spot on the list. It’s weird that this episode feels sort of underrated since it was followed by much-talked about episodes like “Mixology Certification” and “Uncontrollable Christmas,” but the series’ intelligent, heartfelt riff on the bottle episode still stands out for me as an exemplar for how many stories it can tell. It’s very difficult to parody the bottle episode and actually create a bottle episode that follows the format we expect it to.
42. How I Met Your Mother, “Natural History” (Air date: November 8 ): How I Met Your Mother is not quite what it used to be back in the glory days of seasons two and three, but I think season six has been a nice return to form. Well, most weeks. “Natural History” is the most obvious example of the series returning to its roots. The episode is a great mix of stupid sight gags, too-earnest conversations about life’s biggest questions and a few gimmicky time-space continuum beats. Also: It’s hilarious. I no longer expect the series to be this good every week, but I guess that means when it actually does reach those high points, I feel even more satisfied and excited.
41. Parks and Recreation, “Telethon” (Air date: May 6): Detlef Schrempf!!!! That is all you need to know about “Telethon.” Seriously though, this Amy Poehler-penned episode is a great showcase for not only her Leslie Knope, but also the rest of Parks and Recreation‘s fantastic supporting cast. Andy’s band gets to perform, Jerry presents his shockingly good piano playing, Ron shows the audience how to cane a chair and Tom has one hell of a night with Detlef. And there is Leslie, right in the middle, eating too much candy and vamping around like a 5-year old buzzed out on Fun Dip and Nerds. This is certainly one of the strongest efforts of Parks and Recreation‘s second season, even if I had trouble deciding between it and about 10 other episodes for the lowest entry for the series on this list.