Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Best TV Episodes, October 2011

I've decided to kick off a new feature wherein, on the first day of each month, I go through and rank and give some brief (spoiler-free) thoughts on my ten favorite television episodes that aired over the last month, plus pick a few runners-up. I can't watch everything, so I make no claim of this being any kind of definitive guide, but I thought it would be a fun way to organize my thoughts and share them at the same time, and maybe even talk a little about some shows I otherwise don't much.

Keep in mind that there's no "only one episode per show" rule in effect, so it's entirely possible that a few shows may dominate the top ten any given month. I may be a liberal, but the Tea Party should approve of this feature: there is no sharing the wealth here.


17. The Vampire Diaries, Season 3 Episode 5 – "The Reckoning" 16. Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 5 – "Meet 'N' Greet" 15. Revenge, Season 1 Episode 5 – "Guilt" 14. Boardwalk Empire, Season 2 Episode 2 – "Ourselves Alone" 13. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 4 – "Semper I" 12. Parenthood, Season 3 Episode 4 – "Clear Skies From Here on Out" 11. Community, Season 3 Episode 5 – "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps"

Top Ten:

10. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 5 – "Blind Spot"

Last Sunday's Homeland did a great job further cementing the show as, as I labeled it in my pilot review, the thinking man's 24. It excels at depicting espionage, intelligence gathering, interrogation, and other anti-terrorism activities in a way that adheres a million times more closely to reality, and continues to move the plot quickly yet patiently forward. I plan a full review of this episode in a day or two, so I'll leave it at that.

9. Breaking Bad, Season 4 Episode 12 – "End Times"

I mentioned in my Breaking Bad season four review that I found this episode arguably the weakest of the final act of the season, with a closing scene that seemed to take a certain character from smart to psychic. But, just as your favorite food slightly misprepared is still probably preferable to most anything else, problematic Breaking Bad is still Breaking Bad.

8. Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 3 – "Born & Raised"

Joan Callamezzo is one of Parks and Recreation's great secret weapons, always hilarious but never overused and made stale (her talk show also anchored one of the funniest scenes of one of the funniest episodes of the series, "Media Blitz"), and she makes her season four debut to huge laughs and a really well-structured, interconnected plot. An all-around great episode for Leslie's character development and Ben being hilarious, because Adam Scott is always hilarious.

7. Parenthood, Season 3 Episode 5 – "Nora"

Parenthood is one of the most difficult shows on TV to define my enjoyment of, because the show is, at its heart, about decently well-off people having mostly small-scale, quickly resolved first world problems that have no impact whatsoever on the world at large. But showrunner Jason Katims (also behind Friday Night Lights) has a deft, borderline-magic touch for making these people so likable and their issues so compelling regardless that I end pretty much every episode with a goofy grin on my face. "Nora" was simply the goofy grinniest of October.

6. Boss, Season 1 Episode 1 – "Listen"

The second-best pilot of the fall and one of the best of year, Boss, the story of a fictitious Chicago mayor and the machinations surrounding the office, is dense, brainy, literate television, hugely stylish and theatrical but with a thick undercurrent of realpolitik running through it. At showing the corrupting power of politics it excels far beyond the recent George Clooney film The Ides of March, and Kelsey Grammer is so ferocious as the titular boss that he damn near scrubbed the residual nightmares of his recent sitcom Hank from my mind.

5. Boardwalk Empire, Season 2 Episode 5 – "Gimcrack and Bunkum"

Long-simmering tensions between two characters come to a perfect boil, series dark horse Richard Harrow gets an awesome, actor-friendly showcase, and there's not one but two scenes of gruesome, beyond-the-pale violence. Hands down the best episode of the season, and one of the best of the series since the pilot; a sweaty, heart-pounding episode of a show that can occasionally feel cold and detached.

4. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 3 – "Clean Skin"

Effectively the third act and climax of the first act of Homeland's debut season, "Clean Skin" may be in certain ways the least cerebral Homeland yet, but it's also the most tense and thrilling, with one particularly shocking moment that will make almost anyone watching jump. It's the episode of Homeland where it's most evident the show is run by two of the same guys as 24, but without ever giving into that show's baser instincts.

3. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 1 – "Pilot"

Homeland's pilot, for my money, jumps ahead of the (both now deceased, the former more tragically than the latter) The Chicago Code and Lights Out and stands behind only Game of Thrones as having the best pilot of the year. While it does a great job laying the show's groundwork as a terrorism thriller, its true accomplishment is building its two key figures, Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis's Nicholas Brody, into startlingly rich, compelling, three-dimensional characters within the space of one hour. Watching Danes in this episode was the first time I was riveted watching an actor in a new series this fall.

2. Breaking Bad, Season 4 Episode 13 – "Face Off"

As perfect a fourth season finale as I think any of us could have hoped for a few months back, "Face Off" is explosively tense, violent, satisfying, and just plain climactic television, bringing tons of plot threads to their conclusions and showing an awesome, wicked delight at sending the show's premise spinning in a wildly new direction. (The episode is also surprisingly funny at points, particularly when Hector is spelling things out with his bell.) It doesn't necessarily contain Bryan Cranston's greatest performance of the season, but it does take the character into fascinating new territory, one where they now might as well go ahead and retitle the show Broke Bad. The stage is well set for a terrific fifth and final season next year.

1. Community, Season 3 Episode 4 – "Remedial Chaos Theory"

The first two seasons of Community each have a pair of episodes that loom tall and monstrously above the rest as little 22-minute comedy masterpieces among the best television has ever seen. Season one had "Modern Warfare" and "Contemporary American Poultry." Season two had "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" and "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design." And now season three is halfway to the same place with "Remedial Chaos Theory," a blast of dizzyingly clever comedic brilliance that singlehandedly makes almost all of the tens of thousands of sitcom episodes that have come before look lethargic and unambitious in comparison.

It has a hugely clever and perfectly-executed central gimmick, does terrific character work spanning the entire cast, is loaded with uproarious jokes, and has as heartwarming an ending as anyone could hope for, one that filled me with warm fuzzies that even Parks and Recreation at its best struggles to measure up to. If Community gives us just two or three more episodes on the level of this and the other four I mentioned before series' end, Dan Harmon can look back on a life's work and consider himself one of comedy's great architects.

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