Tag Archives: Year in Review

The Best of 2009: Episodes of the Year

Episodes of the Year

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.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: The Ones That Didn’t Make the Cut

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If you’ve been following along with Cultural Learnings’ 2008 Television Time Capsule [Full links available at the intro post], you will have surely noticed that there are shows I watch that didn’t make the list. I could have just ignored this fact, but in writing the various pieces that comprise this epic journey through the year in television I had to, for my own benefit, justify my decisions.

Here are my reasons for not including various shows on the list, and feel free to comment with any shows you think I unfairly left out of the time capsule for one reason or another.

The Shield (FX)

Last year, it was The Sopranos that had me left behind as the rest of the world of television criticism discussed its ending and the show’s role in shaping a decade of television. This year, I missed out on The Wire and The Shield both, and at a certain point I had to make a decision about which one I wanted to rectify first. The Wire won, which leaves the Shield’s highly acclaimed seventh season, and the six which came before it, on my catchup list for 2009. I reserve the right to dig up the time capsule, should its genius not be overstated.

Breaking Bad (AMC)

I fell behind on a fair few shows last year, but Breaking Bad is the one that feels like the biggest mistake: I could take not finishing off the first season runs of Reaper or Eli Stone, but this is a show that won Bryan Cranston an Emmy, had a really compelling pilot, and has earned a great deal of critical acclaim. The show is returning in 2009, and I do hope that I’ll find time to watch the shortened first season in time to see if season two might find a spot in 2009’s time capsule.

Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)

After starting out with a great deal of promise, Grey’s Anatomy’s fifth season quickly devolved into a bizarre experiment on how far Shonda Rhimes could push her audience. It wasn’t just the scandalous departure of Brooke Smith, or even Denny’s ghost rising to bring Izzie to a point of emotional breakdown, but rather that the show has at the same time introduced some elements (like the arrival of Kevin McKidd to the cast, or the guest appearance by Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica)) that should have made a difference and have been either squandered or terribly conceived. I’m willing to put a show that shows potential but doesn’t live up to it in the time capsule as a lesson, but right now I don’t want anyone following Rhimes’ example.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Project Runway – “Season Four Finale”

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“Season Four Finale”

Season Four, Episode 14

Airdate: March 5th, 2008

I was watching Definitely, Maybe over the holiday break, a charming film that I quite enjoyed, but it fell into a rather frustrating cliché. Narrating a story to his daughter about the dark ages that were the early 90s, pre-internet and pre-cell phone as it was, he adds that it was also a time without reality television.

I am aware that the vilification of reality television is neither new nor entirely unwarranted, but I remain perplexed that people are still unwilling to differentiate between good reality television and bad reality television. This idea that it is some sort of scourge was, indeed, a potential truth when every network was parading out show after show, but that pattern seems to have largely ended: not only is America’s taste for the genre subsiding, based on recent trends, but what shows have survived have for some reason stood the test of time.

I decided to limit myself to one reality television show for the time capsule (partially as a punishment for the Emmy hosting disaster), and the decision ended up being easy: Survivor has the ratings, The Amazing Race has the Emmys, but Project Runway has a Peabody Award and the distinction of being the show that perhaps surprised me most in 2008. While it was late last year that I discovered it for the first time, since then I’ve watched five seasons (if we count Project Runway Canada) and continue to be impressed.

Yes, the fourth season was far superior to the fifth, and the show is not immune to some of the casting issues that plague most reality series, but by the time the designers get to Bryant Park I care more about fashion than I ever thought possible. More than any other reality show I’ve seen, talent is a deciding factor: while some challenges lead to unfair eliminations based on some wacky expectations, both seasons airing in 2008 ended with winners who felt like they had been on a journey and matured as a designer along the way.

In picking a single episode, it is very easily the show’s fourth season finale, the victorious moment for flamboyant Christian Siriano. The show’s youngest and most cocksure designer, he emerged as a true sensation: talented, entertaining, and full of one-liners and catchphrases. The show’s fifth season largely felt so dreary because everyone, compared to Siriano, felt like an imitation.

But Runway never feels that way, charting its own course in the reality television waters and being all the better off for it. The show is also memorable this year for its off-air wranglings, with Bravo and Lifetime fighting over rights to the series and delaying Season 6. When that is eventually resolved, let’s hope the series stays on the right track.

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[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: House – “Wilson’s Heart”

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“Wilson’s Heart”

Season Four, Episode Sixteen

Airdate: May 18th, 2008

House’s fourth season was a needed shakeup of its formula, and presented some of its strongest comedy ever in its opening reality show-esque hunt for a set of new fellows to play sounding board for House’s eccentricities. But the emerging fellows also brought the introduction of Amber, also known as Cutthroat Bitch and, by season’s end, the emotional lynchpin for one of the most powerful episodes in the series.

While some may prefer the loud and dangerous “House’s Head,” focused more on the doctor’s internal struggle to remember the events of the bus crash through dangerous drugs and procedures, “Wilson’s Heart” is where the storyline truly comes together. Learning that it was Amber on that bus raised the stakes considerably, and while the first part of the finale (“Head”) gains greater meaning with this revelation I nonetheless cared less about House (who was tragically partly responsible) than I did about Wilson, who had to bear the brunt of the consequences of his friend’s actions.

While Season Five’s attempts at pairing House and Cuddy have felt similarly broad as something meaningful to the show’s emotional core, like House’s flashback to his injury in “Three Stories,” this episode felt the most tapped into something bigger than the show’s procedural construct. Robert Sean Leonard is often given too little to do on this show, with the focus being divided as it is, but he is fantastic here as a grieving boyfriend and, eventually, a friend who blames House for her death.

The episode is also a goodbye for Anne Dudek’s “CTB,” who may have been too much a female version of House to be his fellow but was too delightful a character to abandon entirely. While the winning fellows may have “won,” added as series regulars and all, Dudek got the most material by far: she was robbed of an Emmy nomination for some great work in this episode (and others), but her emotional farewell was nonetheless one of the show’s highlights through four seasons.

“Wilson’s Heart” is somewhat tainted by the fact that the show has more or less abandoned its ramifications halfway into its fifth season, but let its inclusion in the Time Capsule serve as a reminder for the writers: this is how you craft a storyline where we care about the characters and their consequences, not through giving a boring bisexual doctor a terminal illness and having her flaunt it for everyone to see. That’s not tragic, it’s just surprisingly boring for such destructive behaviour, and at the end of the day the show needs to tap into what they had with Amber before Thirteen can feel like something we should care about.

Let’s hope they listen.

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[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles – “What He Beheld”

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“What He Beheld”

Season One, Episode Nine

Airdate: March 3rd, 2008

In the show’s second season, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles emerged as something quite surprising: a competent science fiction drama with a sense of character and a growing identity. So picking an episode to include in the Time Capsule to reflect this feels like it should come from the second half of the year.

But I kept going back to “What He Beheld,” the first season finale that convinced me the show was going to be capable of being something more than just an attempt to capture the franchise’s storylines in a serial dramatic setting.

The series has since gone on to delve into deep psychological issues, both of the humans within the story and the Terminators who coexist with them. But the sequence, set to Johnny Cash, of the various police officers being thrown aside by Cromartie was the one that showed me the show was aiming higher: what could have felt like an attempt at shocking the audience with violence was played entirely artistically. There was no sense that the show was exploiting their deaths, but capturing them in the most artful of ways: we see the pool’s stillness just as a body tears it apart. The apartment building setting isn’t designed for eye candy but the sharp contrast of the mundane living arrangement meeting with the trauma of the action involved.

The show’s second season has built on this development: it was one scene to begin with, but each subsequent episode has built on it. Yes, the show still has its down periods, and every now and then I think that its vague storyline could use some clarity, but Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles is everything Heroes wants to be:  a smart, sophisticated piece of science fiction that might not be Battlestar Galactica but certainly feels like the kind of show that, given time, could prove a worthwhile journey.

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[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: The 2008 Presidential Election

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The 2008 Presidential Election

Airdate: Every. Single. Day.

It’s a staple of almost all end of year television pieces attempting to recap 2008, but in many ways I resisted placing the 2008 presidential election that (spoiler alert) saw Barack Obama ascend to the Presidency. It isn’t that I don’t think the event was historical or monumental, but rather that part of my believes that television reaches its greatest potential as an episodic medium and that the election’s impact on that has been tangential at best.

But over time, and after reading the various lists which place the election prominently, I started to realize that television is about the medium as much as it is the message. It was the media through which the world of American politics entered into public consciousness that made it so meaningful to the past year. Yes, some of these were pure novelty, like the awful and pointless attempt to channel Star Wars and introduce holograms to the CNN newsroom, but others resonated at something that fundamentally changed the way we looked at politics through television.

One of them is technological but in a more meaningful fashion: once quite rightly eclipsed by the internet as the best way to track election results, John King’s magic map revolutionized the way we monetize broadcast television (or, for those who don’t get the 30 Rock joke, made it far easier to see what data actually meant). His ability to zoom in and out seemed like a novelty, but he was able to compare stats at the click of a button, and move county to county in races that (while they were not eventually as close as they could have been) were changing with each minute.

The year also saw, though, the return of Saturday Night Live to the world of political satire and the realm of public consciousness. After Jon Stewart took over as the voice of a nation of discontented youth over the Bush administration, the rise of Sarah Palin and the talent of Tina Fey coincided in a perfect comic storm: Fey’s impression took the nation by storm, and a creatively uneven show was suddenly a household name again.

The result was that this election felt like an event that reading about wasn’t enough: perhaps it was Obama’s presence, or Palin’s incompetence becoming even more apparent when filmed (the camera adds pounds, not brain cells), but there was something about this election that demanded the medium of television to tell its story. While I was content to read about the recent Parliamentary crisis which gripped Canada, I felt like I needed to watch Barack Obama take to that Chicago stage and address the nation.

And while I may not share my brother’s enthusiasm for politics, I have to admit that in this instance their intersection with my favourite cultural medium was certainly something to marvel at, and ultimately memorialize in the 2008 Television Time Capsule.

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[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: The Wire – “Complete Series”

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“Complete Series”

Release Date: December 9th, 2008

Yes, I know this is cheating, but I have my reasons for refusing to choose only one episode of The Wire’s fifth season to include within this set. Yes, only the show’s fifth season aired this year, but on a personal level I got to experience all five seasons of fantastic dramatic television in the past calendar year. Since this is my Television Time Capsule, and because the Complete Series boxset is both readily available and surprisingly compact, the entire series makes it into the Time Capsule.

When the season started airing, I posted to a message board about whether it would be possible for me to jump in without watching the previous four seasons. Almost immediately, I received the resounding response of an empathic no; jumping in at the end was entirely misguided. It was the first time I had seen such a passionate response about it, but over time I was able to discover many more such responses, and eventually the reason why.

Considering the three-hour long podcast, and the rather lengthy piece I wrote in conjunction with it, I won’t say much more on the show’s merits. What I will say is that its fifth season deserves it spot here just as much as the previous four, not quite as perfect but nonetheless one of the finest specimens of television which aired during the period.

One thing I will add is that I understand the frustrations with the fifth season’s newspaper storylines: while the political world was given a slow introduction in Seasons three and four that allowed it to integrate into this world, and the education system had a clear enough relationship with what we’d seen before it, the media had been surprisingly absent at every other stage of the series. It felt like the most “left field” argument, and many of the connections to the main narrative felt coincidental as opposed to consequential. I don’t think it was an irreparable concern, but it helped contribute to a sort of paradox of getting our final moments with these characters, at least partially, through a lens more unfamiliar to the series than the ones previous introduced.

So while saying goodbye to the show was no doubt difficult, it was kind of nice to be able to say Hello to it in the same year: the balance helps elevate the series’ impact on my year in television, and hopefully the years of many more people to come.

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[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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