TV Surveillance’s Best of 2010: Top 60 Episodes, 10-1

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.

My Christmas gift to you: THE TOP 10 EPISODES OF 2010. Yay! I have watched all of these episodes multiple times over the past calendar year and if I didn’t have 21 more family gatherings today, I’d have a nice little marathon of them again. Here we go.

10. Supernatural, “Swan Song” (Air date: May 13): The episode is just a little tainted now since Supernatural has returned for a crazy, scatterbrained sixth season, but the makeshift series finale was an episode that discarded mythology or big battles and replaced them with the things that matter most in the series: the Winchester brothers’ relationship. On a certain level, the throwdown between Michael and Lucifer was completely underwhelming, but it was obvious that Eric Kripke and company knew they didn’t have the budget for anything like that and in reality, that’s not really how Supernatural rolls anyway. So instead, “Swan Song” is a well-paced and emotionally heartbreaking 41 minutes with a tremendous framing device in Chuck’s last writings. It shouldn’t really work that after multiple seasons of well-plotted mythology involving angels, demons, God, Lucifer, hell, heaven and more, the final episode is really all about an old car, but god damnit, it works on every level. This is an episode that forgoes narrative pay-offs so that it can revel in the emotional ones, and while that might be something of a cheap trick, it’s a wonderfully affecting one.

9. Parks and Recreation, “The Master Plan” (Air date: May 13): This is probably an interesting (read: wrong) choice for the Parks and Rec fans out there, but I think I have good logic to back it up. Parks and Recreation was fantastic throughout its second season. It created wonderful characters, developed great relationships between them and in general, could have succeeded for another season or two on that formula and set-up alone. But apparently, Michael Schur doesn’t really like to stay stagnant. He surely had a big hand in the shake-ups that happened during season three of The Office and the events of “The Master Plan” pull a similar-sized rug out from underneath the comfortable fans. The fluctuation of characters — Mark leaving, Ben, Chris and Lucy appearing for the first time — and the major plot development of the shut-down government were at least slightly risky choices, but everything was integrated into the Parks and Recreation universe with relative ease. Moreover, this episode suggests really exciting and big things for the future of the series, which helps its case even more. Also: It’s very, very funny.

8. Fringe, “Peter” (Air date: April 1): Before “Peter,” Fringe was an always good, but only occasionally great series. Ever since this episode aired, Fringe has been on a completely different level of quality and the series’ writers are noticeably more confident in their ability to tell the stories they want to tell. “Peter” is an interesting case because it’s the biggest and most important mythology episode in a series that’s built on important mythology, but instead of trying to subvert audience expectations with big twists or shocking revelations, the episode just delivers the moments and beats the audience wanted to see. I have never seen an episode of a big mythology series like Fringe give the audience exactly what they want and have the audience respond so positively. Usually, fans are bored when they figure out the answers beforehand (but of course also don’t like it when the series goes against their wishes), but not with “Peter” and ever since this episode, not with Fringe. The episode answers a number of the questions from the first season-and-a-half, but never loses sight of what those answers mean to the Bishop men and most importantly, Walter.

7. Justified, “Fire in the Hole” (Air date: March 16): We all know how important pilots are. First impressions and all that. Though the Lone Star pilot is certainly my favorite of the year, Justified‘s initial offering “Fire in the Hole” is technically a better episode. This is a completely obvious thing to say, but “Fire in the Hole” feels like a mini-movie that could stand alone if the series never went anywhere after the fact, but it also compellingly sets the table for all the great characters and storylines to come in the rest of the season. The relationship between Raylan and Boyd is so well-developed in this episode that the writers decided to bring Boyd back and that’s a testament to both how good the characters are written and how great the performances are.

6. Terriers, “Sins of the Past” (Air date: November 17): Flashback episodes are tricky, particularly when there are major moments the audience wants to see in those past years. Terriers’s “Sins of the Past” is one of the better flashback episodes I have ever seen because (like the series as a whole) the effort doesn’t shy away from showing us the terrible state that Hank was in. And like all episodes of Terriers, it features one gut punch after another, never letting up with the emotional hits. They all hit like a mack truck of impact, so even though we knew that Hank and Britt had bettered themselves in the present, it was devastating to watch.

5. Breaking Bad, “One Minute” (Air date: May 2): Breaking Bad is always intense. That’s one of the main adjectives I would use to describe AMC’s best series. But “One Minute” is beyond intense. I am not even sure what word to use. OVERLY intense? EXTREMELY intense? FREAKING INSANE CRAZY intense? And obviously, I am referring primarily to the major throwdown between Hank and Cousins, but there are other moments in this episode — most notably Jesse’s speech to Hank and Gus’ decision to take out the Cousins — that are just as intense, only in a different kind of way. This episode is shockingly, thrilling and slightly uncomfortable, all of Breaking Bad‘s best elements.

4. Friday Night Lights, “The Son” (Air date: June 4): Yeah, I know this episode first aired in 2009 on DirecTV. But thank goodness for NBC’s summer dumping of Friday Night Lights because “The Son” deserves to praised yet again. Though the Taylors are the moral center of the series, Matt Saracen has always been the heart. The world has beaten him down since day one and it’s been traumatic and heartbreaking to watch over the five seasons of the series. Season four’s “The Son” is both the culmination of the first four years of Saracen heartbreak and the catalyst for his maturation process. Oh, and it’s also the most moving episode of television from the past year. Zach Gilford has been rock-solid from the beginning of the series, but his work in this episode is outstanding and Emmy worthy — which he of course didn’t get — from start to finish. We never actually saw his father die or get a look at his body, but Gilford’s emotions and eyes tell us everything we need to know in all the important scenes. And because all great episodes of FNL need an awesome Coach Taylor moment, the sequence with Matt breaking down in front of the Taylors and Coach just grabbing him and saying “I’m going to walk you home” is the perfect contrast to the terrible relationship Matt had with his actual father. I’m about to cry as I write this.

3. Mad Men, “The Suitcase” (Air date: September 5): Despite all their struggles, Don and Peggy have always been the center of the Mad Men universe. I’m not sure anyone has really ever wanted them to be romantic partners, but the two of them have had a unique and compelling-as-hell relationship since the pilot. Season three didn’t feature a whole lot of Don and Peggy action, but as Don began to hit rock bottom professionally and personally in season four, Peggy was there on a number of occasions to give support or tough love. “The Suitcase” is the centerpiece of the series’ fourth season, the turning point in Don’s recovery and a major moment in his relationship with Peggy. The two of them are familiar enough with one another that Peggy can recognize Don’s issues, but they’re also alike enough that she can help him make strides in life. This episode gets out of Don and Peggy’s way and lets them act out a series of little plays covering their histories, personal feelings and uncomfortable issues. It’s something of a bottle episode and most certainly the best-acted episode of television I saw in 2010. For longtime fans of Mad Men, “The Suitcase” we had been waiting on for four years and it’s completely and utterly worth the wait.

2. Community, “Modern Warfare” (Air date: May 6): And now we’ve come to my most-watched episode of 2010. I have seen Community‘s much-hyped “Modern Warfare” at least 10-12 times since its debut in May and it wouldn’t shock me if I popped it in a few more times before 2010 ends. I have probably been repeating myself in reference to the series’ big episodes on this list, but what makes “Modern Warfare” so fantastic it is that it balances the high-concept framework and action movie set-pieces with a nice story about Jeff and Britta’s tension-filled relationship. As an obvious will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, Jeff and Britta didn’t really work in the traditional sense, but as the season went on, they found a nice rhythm as antagonistic friends. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense that amid a ridiculous intense situation, they would give in to the sexual tension and then try to pretend it didn’t happen after the fact. This episode relies more on the framework and the references than “Contemporary American Poultry,” but those  elements are just so well-integrated into the series’ universe that it’s hard to deny the fun that everyone on the cast seems to be having during the big paintball battle.

1. Lost, “The End” (Air date: May 23): “The End” did not answer all the minor mysteries die-hard Lost fans wanted it to. Hell, it didn’t answer some of the major mysteries die-hard Lost fans wanted it to. But by the time it was over, I was a mess because the 2.5 hour series finale was one hell of an experience. Which, of course, is fitting for Lost‘s finale because the series ended up being way more about the experience of the ride than the answers, the mythology or really anything else. Sure, “The End” sometimes felt like it was being manipulative with its flash-sideways “greatest hits”-like sequences and sure, it sometimes felt like the episode was using shorthand storytelling to move certain characters into certain places (i.e. Desmond’s usage). But there are just so many fantastic individual moments in this episode — Jack’s flying punch, Jack and Kate’s admission of love, Juliet and Sawyer’s reunion, Hurley’s new job and Kate’s dress — that all the questions and skepticism just wash away. I found the revelations about the flash-sideways universe to be fairly satisfying even if they didn’t retroactively make some of the season’s weaker episodes like “What Kate Does” and “Recon,” mostly because I think it still took some balls from Lindelof and Cuse to make the decisions they made in that final season and this final episode. It doesn’t make up for all the jungle-walking or the misuse of Desmond, but “The End” is a fitting and well-executed conclusion to one of the best television series of all-time.

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