It is that time again folks! The end of the year is upon us and that means it is time to look back on the highs, lows and WTFs in television from the past 12 months. There is a lot to reflect on in regard to television 2011. Charlie Sheen went crazy. Well, crazier. Comedy supposedly made a big comeback. We found out what The Event was, I think. Steve Carell and Michael Scott said goodbye and we were sad. The guys from Entourage also said goodbye, and we were less sad. AMC tried to break a Guinness Book World Record for number of stupid PR disasters by a cable network.
This year brought us a number of great new series such as Homeland, Happy Endings and Game of Thronesand a slew of horribly awful ones such as The Paul Reiser Show, How to Be a Gentleman and Charlie’s Angels.True Blood and Glee kept getting worse while Community and Justified kept getting better. 2011 was the year of Louis C.K., the year of sexposition and the year of The Killing. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting all sorts of lists, podcasts and pieces reflecting back on the year that was. So join me in saying farewell to what was a very compelling year in television. There will be so many lists.
You folks know how much I love making lists. Sometimes, that love gets out of control. This is one of those times. I had initially thought of doing another top 50 episodes of the year list. Then I pushed that number to 75 episodes. By the time I put the finishing touches on it Wednesday night, the total crept up to 100. Thankfully (I guess?), I stopped there.
With all that being said, I will, over the next two days, present to you the top 100 episodes of television from 2011. There are of course caveats and points of positionality I must inform you of before we actually get to the listing part of the proceedings. First of all, as always, this is a list that reflects my personal tastes and interests just as much as it reflects my “critical faculties” or whatever you want to call it. This means that certain series won’t appear on the list, either because I flat-out don’t like them or I just couldn’t get to them in 2011. Included in this small group are the likes of Downton Abbey, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Shameless, Treme, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Children’s Hospital.
Second of all, I decided to limit the number of episodes each series could have on the list to five. This presents the list from being dominated by all 13 episodes of Breaking Bad, Louie and Justified’s respective seasons or just as many episodes from broadcast series like Community or Parks and Recreation. This leads to a more diverse list, particularly in the bottom half, where I have inserted single episodes of series nowhere near the quality of the year’s greats. Those episodes aren’t objectively better than a sixth or seventh episode of series that dominate the list, but I think it’s still important to give them their due nonetheless.
You might scoff at an episode of Nikita being higher than episode of Breaking Bad, and I of course agree with that surprised sentiment. Thus, ultimately, this list ends up being less a completely scientific rendering and ranking of individual episodes and more a reflection and cross-section of the many great things that we saw in 2011. The numerical rankings matter, especially in regard to which group of ten individual efforts fall in (i.e. episodes 31-40 were purposefully chosen to be above 41-ownward, even if the distinctions between 31 and 32 or 34 and 35 are less important), but not dramatically so.
One final note: Because of the sheer amount of episodes on this list and the amount of content I’ve written over the last week, I’m eschewing providing blurbs about every episode. I really hope that doesn’t upset you. Precautionary apologies.
All right, I think that’s enough set-up. Let’s just get to it. I present to you the episodes 100-51 of the best episodes of the year.
100. True Blood, “I Wish I Was The Moon”: True Blood was truly bad this season. This was the only episode I remember liking. At all.
99. Once Upon a Time, “Snow Falls”
98. Perfect Couples, “Perfect Crime”: By the time Perfect Couples was unceremoniously canceled so that NBC could inflict The Paul Reiser onto audiences, it had become a very enjoyable, funny series.
97. Prime Suspect, “Regrets, I’ve Had a Few”
96. Chuck, “Chuck Versus the Last Details”
95. The League, “The Lockout”
94. Burn Notice, “Dead to Rights”: Burn Notice had a quiet resurgence this year, with Michael having to balance his newfound CIA work with his personal life and his “whatever villain X played by recognizable actor Y” jobs creating an additional layer of tension the series desperately needed. I usually complain about USA mid-season finales, but this one was a fun embodiment of the Burn Notice formula: action-packed, thrilling, propulsive and just a bit moving.
93. Revenge, “Trust”
92. Suits, “Play the Man”: It’s very telling that the best episode of Suits, a presumed legal drama about lawyers, is all about a mock trial.
91. Doctor Who, “The Impossible Astronaut”
90. Hart of Dixie, “The Crush and the Crossbow”
89. White Collar, “Countdown”: White Collar struggled a little bit re-defining its lead character’s motivations this summer, but the summer finale did a lovely job of exploring Neal Caffrey’s internal struggle between criminal and hero.
88. Luther, “Season Two, Episode Two”
87. Happy Endings, “Secrets and Limos”
86. Raising Hope, “Henderson, Nevada-Adjacent, Baby!”
85. 30 Rock, “Queen of Jordan”
84. The Good Wife, “What Went Wrong”: A great case, a few great character moments and a nice, albeit curious, twist help make this a strong close-out effort for The Good Wife in 2011.
83. Awkward., “Queen Bee-Atches”
82. Enlightened, “The Weekend”: Enlightened is such a divisive series that even among its supporters, no one can decide what is really going on what is good. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about this as one of their least favorites, but I love it. Chances are this includes Luke Wilson’s best performance in a good half-decade.
81. House, “Bombshells”
80. Nikita, “Fair Trade”
79. Alphas, “Blind Spot”
78. Louie, “Eddie”
77. Up All Night, “Birth”: A turning point for the fall’s most comfortably innocuous (in a good way) sitcom.
76. Fringe, “And Those We’ve Left Behind”: It saddens me how disappointed I am in Fringe’s fourth season, but this episode reminds me that this team still knows how to craft emotionally complicated and heartfelt stories about random strangers that have surprising thematic connections to the lead characters.
75. Game of Thrones, “A Golden Crown” : I started to feel more comfortable with Game of Thrones an episode before this one, but that crowning scene pretty much guaranteed that I was going to stick with the HBO fantasy drama for the long haul.
74. Suburgatory, “Halloween”
73. Supernatural, “The Man Who Would Be King”: Supernatural had all kinds of random and not-so-random issues in its transitionary sixth season, but this episode almost made up for all of them. The series had been hinting at Castiel’s turn to the less-than-good side and I loved how Ben Edlund’s writing and direction forced the character to more or less confess all his sins directly into the camera. They knew we’d be upset and while some fans still haven’t gotten over what the writers did to Castiel, at least we will always have this episode and this great performance from Misha Collins.
72. Wilfred, “Doubt”
71. Parenthood, “Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs”
70. Southland, “Code 4”
69. How I Met Your Mother, “Tick, Tick, Tick”
68. Homeland, “The Vest”: A great platform for Claire Dane’s crazy eyes. Also her powerhouse performance. But seriously, “The Vest” is the best kind of penultimate episode. It serves as the culmination of many of the season’s stories (Carrie’s psychological issues and their impact on her job) and lets the dread permeate deeply into the narrative, leaving the audience wondering clinging to the hope things don’t get worse.
67. Misfits, “Season Two, Episode 4”
66. Breaking Bad, “End Times”
65. Modern Family, “Two Monkeys and a Panda”: I can count the number of Modern Family episodes in seasons two and three that evoke the first season’s pitch-perfect mix of middlebrow humor and emotion on one hand. This is the first one that comes to mind. Great work from Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson here.
64. The Vampire Diaries, “The Dinner Party”
63. Friday Night Lights, “Texas Whatever”
62. Justified, “The Spoil”
61. The Office, “Garage Sale”
60. Pan Am, “Pilot”: One of my favorite pilots of the season. Too bad Pan Am was dull and rudderless by episode three or four.
59. Sons of Anarchy, “Fruit For The Crows”
58. Glee, “Asian F”: No, it wasn’t the best episode of the series, as some loudmouth journalists were saying pre-airing. However, “Asian F” is evocative, moving and expressive in the way Glee was when it was at its best – which is perhaps the best that we can hope for at this point. Harry Shum Jr. was fantastic.
57. Community, “Critical Film Studies”
56. Fringe, “The Firefly”
55. Louie, “Oh Louie/Tickets”: Although judging Louie on episodic basic is sometimes difficult because he works outside of traditional constraints, there’s no question that the reality-blurring segment following his reluctant desire to get in touch with Dane Cook is one of the best things to happen on television this year.
54. Game of Thrones, “The Pointy End”
53. Archer, “Stage Two”
52. Parks and Recreation, “Citizen Knope”
51. Cougar Town, “Free Fallin’”: Cougar Town’s quite a funny and lightweight comedy, but my favorite episodes are those that make a concerted effort to deliver emotional depth like Bill Lawrence’s previous baby Scrubs did. “Free Fallin’” does that by playing up the simmering tensions between Jules and Travis and the latter’s overbearing approach to parenting. Also, there’s Penny Can. PENNY CAN!
50-1 tomorrow! Your thoughts on the bottom half?