TV Surveillance’s Best of 2010: Top 60 Episodes, 40-31

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 WifeMen of a Certain AgeBored 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.

Here we are already folks, right in the middle of my endless rankings of the best episodes of 2010. From here on out, it feels like any episode on the list could have landed anywhere, from 40 to 1. It’s been an unbelievable year for television and the difficulty I had in parsing out the distinctions between #40 and #17 were tough.

40. Dexter, “In The Beginning” (Air date: November 28): Like every season of the series, Dexter‘s fifth season had its ups and its downs and ultimately ended up disappointing me so much that tumbled down my Best Series list by the time the finale aired. However, there were a few weeks there in the middle of the season where it seemed like Dexter was really interested in stepping away from the formula and trying something slightly different. “In the Beginning” is the culmination of that period, where Dexter and Lumen finally express their confusion, anger, regret and terror by killing someone together and then having sex. It’s a totally odd and sometimes uncomfortable episode, but at least it was different — something Dexter desperately needs. Unfortunately, the last two episodes of the season destroyed any interesting momentum season five built to with this episode and in the end, the weird intrigue of “In the Beginning” will probably be lost amid cries of “FORMULA!”

39. Modern Family, “Manny Get Your Gun” (Air date: November 17): I find that I am way more critical of Modern Family when I decide to write about it as opposed to when I’m just watching a few episodes on Hulu or something, but with “Manny Get Your Gun,” there is very little to be critical of. The series is often lauded for its supposed master ability to mix the LOL humor with the heartfelt and even if I don’t agree with that assessment on a general basis, that is certainly true of “Manny.” The series works best when the disparate family stories slowly build to one cluster-f at the end and outside of “Fizbo” and the pilot, this effort works that storytelling template better than any other episode thusfar in the series’ short run. Each character gets a moment or two of humor or emotion and as usual, the stories feel completely realistic and natural (my favorite part about the series even when I’m complaining). And thank the good lord, there is no voice-over!

38. Rubicon, “Wayward Sons” (Air date: October 10): It’s disappointing that the Rubicon finale was so middling and deflating, but if we all try real hard, we can just pretend that the penultimate effort “Wayward Sons” is actually the finale. That would be much better. Even though the series became infinitely more interesting during the middle part of its first (and only) season run, I think there was definitely some concern has to how, or if, all the great procedural-like elements would actually come together. They didn’t necessarily have to, but there seemed to be an expectation that if they did, Rubicon would certainly be a better series. “Wayward Sons” answers that question with an emphatic “Yes,” as the Kateb plotline that seemed to linger in the background for most of the season became a driving force in the narrative. Outside of Truxton’s tie speech in “The Outsider,” watching Will Travers discover that they couldn’t stop a terrorist attack — on television no less — was the best moment of the series. Too bad that finale sucked, though.

37. The Vampire Diaries, “Masquerade” (Air date: October 28): Because it’s about vampires and werewolves and on the CW — and because the first three episodes were generally terrible — The Vampire Diaries is never going to make its way on a list from Alan Sepinwall, Mo Ryan or the AV Club. It’s just not that kind of series, it doesn’t really lend itself to critical embrace. That’s fine, I found myself feeling that way all of last season until I randomly decided to catch up this summer — and thank goodness I did. I’ll talk more about this when my Best Series list comes around, but the series is just so good at burning through narrative it’s crazy. “Masquerade” is most certainly the best episode of the rock-solid second season because it personifies Diaries‘ mastery of the rapidly paced narrative in which 302 stories happen at once, within in one episode, but things never feel overstuffed (see: True Blood) or boring. I’m also a sucker for episodes where a big ensemble gets together to go on some major mission — this probably why I adore Lost — and “Masquerade” nails that vibe as well.

36. Parks and Recreation, “94 Meetings” (Air date: April 29): Looking over my entries for Parks and Rec on this list, I apparently really love the end of the season, but ultimately, that makes sense. Though the whole season is fantastic, it seemed as if the writers really kicked it into another gear in the second dozen of episodes. “94 Meetings” is an episode with a totally goofy and somewhat ridiculous premise, but it is also fully executed by the wonderful cast of characters that fills out this glorious world. I am smiling just writing about this episode, I will probably have to go watch it now.

35. Breaking Bad, “Full Measure” (Air date: June 13): The top 13 entries of this list could most likely be filled up with all of Breaking Bad‘s third season, but my desire to give other series a fighting chance means that only four episodes will be on here. The first of which is the finale “Full Measure,” which somehow follows the insanity of penultimate “Half Measures” with just as much insanity and tension that it’s damn-near unbearable to watch without putting your hands over your eyes a few times. Breaking Bad has trained its audience to never believe that anyone is safe, so even when we know Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are not going to die because they are the lead characters, it still freaking feels awful when we and they both realize they’re being led to their deaths by ABQ’s drug kingpin/chicken man, Gus. This episode sees both Walter and Jesse step into a whole new territory of dysfunction and criminality in their plan to kill the fully innocent Gale just to save their own asses, but somehow I kind of want to root for them anyway.

34. Fringe, “Olivia” (Air date: September 23): I warned you, lots of Fringe on this list. In the last batch of 10, I praised “The Plateau” for its ability to craft a really fantastic standalone, case episode, but I’m not fully sure that episode would have been as good without the season three premiere, “Olivia.” All summer, the Fringe powers that be talked about toggling between the separate universes in the first run of episodes and though that idea seemed amazing in practice, it probably could have been a mess. Thankfully, “Olivia” completely destroys any of those concerns by basically letting Anna Torv do her thing for 43 minutes without relying too much on mythology. For the most part, the episode actually avoids any major “answers” or “mysteries,” and instead sees Olivia Dunham try to orientate herself with a foreign world in which she’s something of a fugitive, even though no one else knows about any of that. Great stuff.

33. Community, “Contemporary American Poultry” (Air date: April 22): I really, really liked Community throughout its first 20 episodes, but after “Contemporary American Poultry” and my multiple rewatches of it in just the first weekend after it aired, I realized that it sneakily became my favorite series. Much like “Cooperative Calligraphy,” this effort features a slightly high-concept riff on a pop culture staple — in this case, Goodfellas — but “Poultry” does this with a purpose to tell a really great and surprisingly affecting story about how Abed attempts to relate to those around him. The montage is obviously fantastic, but the final conversation between Jeff and Abed about how to talk to people is my absolute favorite moment of Community‘s first season. It’s smart, funny and pop culture-laced, but still done with intent and emotional finesse. Oh yeah, and “Streets Ahead.” And Annie’s Boobs.

32. Louie, “God” (Air date: August 31): This is one of the most troubling, creepy and intentionally unfunny episodes of a “comedy” that I have ever seen in my life. “God” goes beyond cringe humor and into this weird space of uncomfortable intelligence where I know what I am seeing on my television screen is not meant to be particularly hilarious, but is also supposed to be funny in a completely different way. Louie challenges social norms and ideas throughout its first season, but this episode takes that approach to a whole new level, while barely actually using its one lead character and instead relies on a young child actor to carry the weight of a shockingly honest and critical conversation about religion. This episode is almost too difficult to describe.

31. Mad Men, “The Summer Man” (Air date: September 12): There was a point there in Mad Men‘s fourth season where every episode felt like an all-timer, and even though “The Summer Man” follows the series very best episode in “The Suitcase,” it’s still a fantastic effort in its own right. After seeing Don Draper be a complete mess for the first seven episodes of the season, it was a welcome change to have him slowly regain control of his addictions and his issues in “Summer,” powered by goofy, but effective journal writing and a whole lot of swimming. Even though Don isn’t the most noble or deserving of heroes, it was sad to watch him get rejected by women in the early part of S4, so when he finally figures out how to strike up a relationship with Faye in this episode, there was a lot of fist-pumping in the Barker household.

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