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.
Let’s just jump right in, folks.
30. The Pacific, “Part Nine” (Air date: May 9): I personally believe The Pacific improved immensely once Eugene Sledge had a more prominent place in the narrative and to watch him become this cold, sometimes monster of a man in “Part Nine” is one of the most powerful character transformations I saw in all of 2010. The evils seen during this episode’s throwdown at Okinawa were perhaps the most brutal of the entire miniseries, which lines right up with Sledge’s personality overhaul. This episode feels like the culmination of his entire story throughout The Pacific and considering that Sledge is the most successful and interesting character of the whole story, it makes sense to pick “Part Nine” as the series’ best offering.
29. Lost, “The Candidate” (Air date: May 4): Despite how you or I feel about the final season of Lost, it is impossible to deny that those 18 hours featured a number of emotional highs and a fair share of lows. The series ended up being more about the experience than any actual narrative coherence and “The Candidate” exemplifies that dynamic pretty well. Do we have any idea what the hell was really going on with Sayid in season six? Absolutely not. Do we really believe that both Sun and Jin would decide to die together instead of Jin surviving to raise their toddler child? Probably not. But were most of us completely wrecked when Smoke Locke trapped everyone in the sub, put a bomb in Jack’s backpack that subsequently blew up said sub and killed Sayid, Jin and Sun? Oh my lord yes. It’s a sequence that probably should have come earlier in the season to really raise the stakes, but when Hurley, Sawyer, Jack and Kate washed ashore with exasperated, drained and destroyed looks, I couldn’t help but feel exactly the same. Sure, Smoke Locke turning into a fairly rote evil villain was disappointing, but some of his evil villain actions still wrecked me.
28. Terriers, “Change Partners” (Air date: September 22): I really enjoyed the Terriers pilot and its lightweight second episode. But it wasn’t until “Change Partners” came along did I recognize what kind of emotional wrenching stories the FX series could tell. The story with Olivia Williams’ character is good in its own right, but in the effort’s climax when Hank tells her sleazy husband that he had sex with her and he subsequently kills himself AND THEN Hanks forges the documents he needs, I was shocked and overwhelmed. “Partners” showed us that Terriers was going to be very willing to late its lead characters’ deficiencies really bring them down and not just pop up when convenient. Hank and Britt were flawed people and they were going to make awful decisions that harmed a lot of people. This was just one of many for Hank, and it was glorious to watch.
27. Boardwalk Empire, “Paris Green” (Air date: November 28): As I noted in my Best New Series post, it took me a little bit to warm up to Boardwalk Empire, but by the time the penultimate episode “Paris Green” came around, I realized that I actually cared about the characters and the plotting much more than I thought I did. After throwing all these narrative balls into the air early on, Terrence Winter and his team finally began pulling them together and showing the impacts of the characters’ dealings. Van Alden snaps, Margaret recognizes Nucky for what he appears to be and Jimmy is forced to deal with some of the familial drama he’s obviously tried to bury down deep. I think there were a number of episodes that had better moments, but “Paris Green” pulled them all together in a really great, influential way.
26. Mad Men, “Waldorf Stories” (Air date: August 29): “Waldorf Stories,” despite its darker moments, is just a fun episode of Mad Men. Dipping into the pasts of Roger and Don and how they met, the CLIO awards ceremony, the drinking, Don awkwardly and drunkingly pitching lame ideas to Life Cereal — it’s all great! Okay, it’s also sort of depressing in the ways that most of the first half of S4 happens to be, but Don, Roger and Joan going to an award show just feels…right. Of course, the episode smartly follows the vibe that mirrors how we expect Don’s weekend went: It starts gloriously, feels fun and loose and then quickly zooms to the end where he wakes up without knowledge of how the rest of the weekend unraveled. It’s a great example of how far Don Draper has fallen in 1965. But it’s also still kind of fun for a while.
25. Cougar Town, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (Air date: October 27): I jumped back on the Cougar Town ship at the beginning of season two after hearing so many good things near the end of season one, and while I fully enjoyed those first five episodes, I wondered if the series could really bring anything more to the table but drinking games and stupid fun. Well, the Halloween episode “You Don’t Know How It Feels” answered my concerns with relative ease by introducing Jules’ father (played by the always-awesome Ken Jenkins) and intelligently exploring the rocky, but not overly so, relationship between the two of them. Jenkins is an actor who can nail the quiet sadness that comes with a part like Jules’ father, but “Feels” is also a nice showcase for Courtney Cox, who often plays Jules with a shrill energy that is hard to respect or really like. Thankfully, the heartfelt conversations don’t fully replace the childish gags, which makes for a really great episode of one of television’s most underrated series.
24. Fringe, “White Tulip” (Air date: April 15): A lot of people in the internet TV criticism community love “White Tulip.” And they should. I don’t have it ranked as my best Fringe episode of the year, but that has more to do with other things outside of the narrative grace and emotional punch delivered by this episode. Daniel Walters and I were talking about this episode in comparison to Lost‘s seminal standalone “The Constant” a few weeks ago and I find that to be an apt comparison. Both episodes present high-concept narrative devices that are used primarily to tell a really potent story about longing, loss and a whole lot more, but even though I like “The Constant” better, “White Tulip” is probably objectively the “better” episode because the events within it seem to have more of an immediate impact on the narrative (versus Desmond and Penny’s lack of importance after S4 of Lost). It is the best standalone episode of a complex sci-fi leaning serial that I have ever seen.
23. Breaking Bad, “Half Measures” (Air date: June 6): Breaking Bad has its characters do a lot of shocking, horrible stuff. But it’s unbelievably odd that after all the terrible things that Walter White has done to Jesse Pinkman, his big apologetic moment is running over some drug dealers with his Pontiac Aztec right before they kill Jesse. There is no other series out there where the lead character could commit such an act and I would fist pump and consider it to be a moment of forgiveness and acceptance and all sorts of other things. Breaking Bad is unlike anything else on television and episodes like “Half Measures” prove why.
22. Community, “Epidemiology” (Air date: October 28): After “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare,” Community began to be known primarily for its theme or high-concept episodes, which was both a good and bad thing. Early in season two, it kind of felt like the series might have been chasing that feeling in some episodes (most notably the middling “Basic Rocket Science”), and I was definitely a bit concerned about whether or not I even wanted the series to try something like those two standouts again. Thankfully, “Epidemiology” convinced me that Community could basically do whatever the hell it wanted. I don’t really care for zombies or the genre, but the series full-boar riff on the concept has become a weekly viewing for me because not only does it nail all the big tentpoles of the genre, but it does so by telling a really great story about Troy’s journey from jock to nerd and what that means to his relationship with Abed. It’s a short, but sweet tale about friendship and I just love it oh so much.
21. Rubicon, “The Outsider” (Air date: August 15): Truxton’s tie speech. Seriously, what else do you need to know about this episode, which convinced a great deal of critics that Rubicon could be a quality series that focused more on characters than plot? Seriously, just go watch the clip on YouTube.