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.
Into the top 20! Hey-o!
20. The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye” (Air date: October 31): I think The Walking Dead is shockingly overrated after what was not even a real season of television, but those feelings don’t take away from how great the pilot episode is. “Days Gone Bye” is basically the best traditional zombie movie made in the past 10 years. It’s beautifully paced, beautifully acted by Andrew Lincoln and just plain beautiful. The episode smartly doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining details of the zombie apocalypse to Rick or the audience at home, and instead lets the horrors of the situation wash over he and the audience for 90 minutes without letting up. It’s kind of unfortunate that the other five episodes do not come anywhere near the quality of this pilot episode, but at least we know that Frank Darabont and company have a Walking Dead effort like this one in them.
19. Mad Men, “The Beautiful Girls” (Air date: September 19): Though the series hasn’t discarded its female characters in any shape or form, the men of Mad Men get more interesting and complex things to do. That changed a little bit in season four, particularly in “The Beautiful Girls,” an episode that highlighted a number of the series’ great ladies and their disappointments of living in the mid-1960s. The episode features an odd, but surprisingly effective tonal crash with the death of Don’s secretary Mrs. Blankenship, the subsequent madcap sequence in which Pete and company try to cover it up and then the heavy-duty emotional scenes between Don and his runaway girl Sally. It’s a grouping of scenes that shouldn’t work together in influential way, but somehow, it does. And of course, this episode is also important because it really sets up the Megan character and her possible candidacy for the job of new Mrs. Draper.
18. Lost, “What They Died For” (Air date: May 18): Penultimate episodes of Lost aren’t supposed to be this good. Most of the time, the ABC series used penultimate episodes to move all the pieces into play for the crazy events of the finale to come. “What They Died For” certainly does accomplish that goal of table-setting, but it’s so much more. Ben gets his (shockingly quick and matter-of-fact) revenge on Widmore, Smoke Locke’s plan becomes a lot clearer and most importantly, the remaining candidates have the all-important conversation with Jacob. And unlike a lot of the “answer” conversations had in season six, Jacob’s state of the island to Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Hurley is both informative and affecting and actually makes a lot of the poorly-executed things in the past seem less important. I really loved that in the end, it was all about free will and choice after we spent five seasons watching these four people get dicked around by forces unseen.
17. Glee, “Duets” (Air date: October 12): I’m not really sure what the hell happened with “Duets.” I enjoy Glee, even when I hate it, but I never expect the series to correct its most glaring flaws in character development, even in one episode. But then we have “Duets,” an episode where Ian Brennan read every complaint or jotted down each character inconsistency from the end of season one and just decided to fix them, or at least address them in such a way that suggests fixing could be coming . And because of that, “Duets” is most certainly the best Glee episode of 2010 and probably the best outside of the “Mattress”-“Sectionals” double feature from the tail-end of the initial 13. The duets structure gives almost every character a nice little story, from the real introduction of Sam and his relationship with Quinn, to the shockingly appealing Artie-Brittany pairing and even Mike Chang gets a few fun things to do. And most importantly, the awful and wrongly celebrated events from “Theatricality” between Finn and Kurt are finally addressed with a good amount of context and mature discussion. Glee hasn’t hit the character highs of this episode in the rest of season two, but if we discard the terrible entity known as “Rocky Horror Glee Show,” the series has been much better since “Duets” aired. That’s important.
16. Party Down, “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” (Air date: May 21): Oh Party Down, how I miss you so. The second season had a bit of a rocky start with the new management structure inside the company and the integration of Megan Mullally’s character, but this episode, the fifth of the season, really jumped-started the series back to its S1 greatness. When you see a title like “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” you expect the episode to make lots of damning jokes about the once-famous actor because that’s the kind of thing Party Down did so well. And yet, Guttenberg gets to be a likable, but still slightly parodic version of himself that actually spurs on the hilarious action instead of being the butt of the joke. It’s a surprisingly good performance. Moreover, the events of this episode directly relate to the character development of Adam Scott’s Henry, who rediscovers his ability to act thanks to Guttenberg’s encouragement.
15. Breaking Bad, “Fly” (Air date: May 23): This is a polarizing episode of Breaking Bad, but ultimately, that’s probably a good thing. Bottle episodes have been given more publicity lately and “Fly” is most certainly the reason for it. Walt, Jesse and a fly, for 45 minutes. It’s a glorious, emotionally wrenching and sometimes frustrating episode of television.
14. Chuck, “Chuck Versus The Other Guy” (Air date: April 5): When your fanbase has certain desires and expectations, it’s probably really hard as a showrunner to figure out a successful and entertaining way to give them exactly what they want. In fact, I imagine most showrunners and EPs try their hardest to subvert those expectations. But by the time the 13th episode of Chuck‘s third season had rolled around, the series’ die-hard fans were in a fervor. They wanted Shaw to be a bad guy, they wanted Chuck to finally sack up and be a hero and most importantly, they wanted Chuck and Sarah to be together, in L-O-V-E, forever. With “Chuck Versus The Other Guy,” Chris Fedak just said “Screw it,” and gave all those Subway-eating fans exactly what they wanted. And with little exception, the resulting episode is the finest Chuck effort of 2010 and most certainly one of the four or five best episodes of the series, period. This episode doesn’t totally make up for the missteps taken in season three, but it comes damn close in accomplishing that.
13. Community, “Mixology Certification” (Air date: December 2): It is a real testament to Dan Harmon and his writing staff that they can take the study group outside of the Greendale walls and have such a successful, weird episode. “Mixology Certification” is not a high-concept theme episode. It features very little pop culture references. In fact, it’s the one of the most traditional sitcom-y episodes the NBC comedy has done in its 1.5 years on the air. But despite all that off-formula kind of feeling, “Mixology” is such a satisfying episode of television because it isn’t afraid to show that the characters we love are basically lost without one another. Jeff and Britta might be real cool at Greendale, hell, Abed and Annie kind of seem somewhat cool within those walls as well, but take them out to the real world and it’s just not the same. Troy finds that all out the hard way on his 21st birthday, but he strongly keeps it together because that’s just the kind of guy Troy Barnes is. “Mixology Certification” isn’t the most obviously successful episode of Community, but it’s definitely one of the most emotionally potent.
12. Louie, “Bully” (Air date: August 17): Much like the “God” episode of Louie, “Bully” is not overly funny, but instead spends most of its 21-minute running time being uncomfortable and intense and just flat-out weird. Louie being made fun of and intimidated by a high school student stars off being funny in a cringe-inducing kind of way because we’ve seen him being embarrassed on dates throughout the first season. But when Louie decides to follow the bully home, on the subway and on a ferry over to Staten Island, you’re just waiting for a lot of horrible things to start happening. And then the episode zigs again, turning into an interesting and sort of heartbreaking discussion about fathers and sons and raising children. It’s an unbelievable and suffocating episode of television.
11. Lone Star, “Pilot” (Air date: September 20): I have watched the Lone Star pilot four or five times since its premiere in September and I love it just the same every time. Even though the series was unceremoniously cancelled after just two episodes, the pilot remains a fascinating 44 minutes that just sticks with you. Marc Webb does a fantastic job behind the camera, Kyle Killen’s script is rock-solid and there are a number of great performances, led by James Wolk’s powerhouse work. Sure, it feels like the season premiere to a third season and suggests that the series is going to need a lot of juice to continue the promise presented within the pilot, but as an individual episode of television, the Lone Star pilot is fantastic. It probably holds up even more because the series got cancelled and I might be romanticizing things just a bit, but this is one of my favorite pilots ever and I felt that way at 10 p.m. on September 20 as well.