December 20th, 2009
[This is the second of three lists recognizing the best of 2009 in Television: Performers of the Year has been posted, and Series of the Year will be posted tomorrow morning. These other lists will recognize parts of some of the shows missing from this particular list.]
When you review individual episodes all year, you might presume that it’s easy to be able to then categorize those episodes for the sake of an end of year Top 10.
You would be right…and wrong.
See, on the one hand, I have a pretty good memory of individual episodes that really made an impact, ones which stood out from the pack and connected with me. However, on the other hand, comparing an episode of Lost to an episode of 30 Rock doesn’t feel particularly natural, and more importantly you can’t actually create a list like this in a bubble. You have to consider which shows are making it onto other lists, and whether the sum of their parts are perhaps more worthy of recognition than a single episode. And you also need to consider whether a single performance was more likely the cause of an episode’s greatness as opposed to its collective influence. Throw in concerns about nostalgia or proximity clouding your judgment, and you have just as large a challenge whether or not you write episode reviews for the heck of it.
As such, my Top 10 Episodes of the Year are not, perhaps, the best episodes that aired this past year, but rather those which either really connected with me, or felt incredibly important to their individual shows’ success, or those which are on the list so that I’m not so embarrassed as to have those shows represented on none of the lists I put together. It’s not an exact science, but it eventually created a list (which is ordered by air date, in case that isn’t clear) of ten television episodes that really stuck with me this year.
“Unnatural Love” – Flight of the Conchords
Aired: February 15th, 2009
While “Prime Minister” was a fine example of the Conchords’ adjustment from musical comedy to comedy with music, this episode (directed by Michel Gondry) captured everything I love about the series: the great music (“Carol Brown” is perhaps my favourite thing the show has done), the New Zealand/Australia humour, and just the general fun of it all. Combine with Gondry’s visual style, and you have a fantastic half-hour of television.
“Daybreak: Part 2” – Battlestar Galactica
Aired: March 20th, 2009
In its two-hour conclusion, Battlestar Galactica delivered intense action and provided for all of its characters some sense of closure. Some have complained that some of the endings don’t “add up,” or that it’s all too rushed and inorganic to truly be effective, but the conclusion nails emotional beats that overcome an unorganized and poorly paced fourth season to give the show a legitimately powerful finale.
“Apollo, Apollo” – 30 Rock
Aired: March 26th, 2009
In a season I’d ultimately call uneven, the show was never better than this madcap collection of stories. While there are some hilariously funny moments (“I was staring at your mouth!”) and some brilliant concepts (Kenneth’s muppet world view, Lizzing/Jacking), it all works because it ties together in the end, as Tracy’s hilarious space dreams coincide with Jack’s birthday anxieties to deliver just a tremendous half-hour of television.
“Racial Sensitivity” – Better Off Ted
Aired: April 8th, 2009
While it has very funny characters, Better Off Ted’s defining moment was its depiction of how Veridian Dynamics handles learning that their new motion sensitive lights do not “see” black people. What follows is a hilarious bureaucratic response which becomes more and more ridiculous as the company fumbles their way into every race stereotype you can imagine, cementing the episode (and the show) as one of the year’s finest.
“Broke” – The Office
Aired: April 23rd, 2009
As someone who found “Stress Relief” uneven and overlong, the conclusion of the Michael Scott Paper Company arc is by far The Office’s finest work of the season. Michael Scott being put in the position of having to lie in order to get himself out of a hole is the ultimate test of his character, and that he powers through out of appreciation of his co-workers demonstrates the control the writers and Steve Carell had over the character during this important arc.
“My Finale” – Scrubs
Aired: May 6th, 2009
Like The O.C. before it, Scrubs wore out its welcome to the point where I had given up all hope in the show having a worthy finale, but somehow Bill Lawrence put together a (sort of) send-off that in its final montage brought to the surface emotions I thought Scrubs had given up on. If the show had gone out on this note, no one would have minded, and even thought it has returned for a ninth season nothing can take away the strength of this finale.
“Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” – Party Down
Aired: May 8th, 2009
There was plenty of evidence to suggest that Party Down’s ensemble cast were hilarious, and that the show’s use of guest stars was inspired, but this episode (featuring Steven Weber as the eponymous Russian gangster exonerated of murder) is equal parts natural and absurd in a way that solidified the show’s greatness. Somehow, this setting proves a perfect fit for our has-been cater-waiters, and the show was never funnier as it was wrapped up in this ludicrous world of screenplay-writing mobsters.
“Epitaph One” – Dollhouse
Released: July 2009
While fascinating enough in terms of its distribution, available only on DVD and iTunes, this post-apocalyptic flashforward is the sort of bold narrative move I wanted Dollhouse to make earlier in its run. As a “proof of concept,” the episode bought the show a personal reprieve, and our knowledge of where things would eventually lead became a fascinating beat which elevated nearly every story regarding technology in the show’s second season.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat” – Mad Men
Aired: November 8th, 2009
Mad Men had a lot of standout episodes this year, including episodes which shocked with bloody carnage and those which stunned with character revelations, but I loved the finale because it managed to do what I want every season-ended to do: close off a season’s worth of storylines while starting a whole new journey. The caper-esque genius of the main action of the episode was punctuated by those intensely emotional moments that spoke to Don, Betty, Peggy, Pete and every other character in a way that Kennedy’s death never could, and it was a rollercoaster ride with depth and meaning that I’d stand in line all day to ride again and again.
“Balm” – Sons of Anarchy
Aired: November 10th, 2009
In a second season defined by internal conflict within the motorcycle club at the heart of the show, “Balm” was proof that we as the audience have been led far enough into this world to be able to understand what it means for someone to go Nomad, and that we know these characters well enough to understand how much that closing scene would shake the show’s foundation to its core. The series has always been thrilling and provocative, but never had it used such small scenes and small actions to represent intense emotions, and it’s a masterful stroke of dramatic television that defined a brilliant season.
Your Turn: I’m sure I left off a whole host of episodes (and here’s your daily reminder that I have not seen Breaking Bad or Big Love, which apparently aired some great television this year), so feel free to share your own favourites below.