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FEATURE: Best Episodes of 2010, #21-#11

For every television critic, the inaugural Best Of is a test: a test to see what they value and what they forget, what they cherish and what they banish to the scrap heap. You guys got a taste of my tastes with the Honourable Mentions, but here we are: The Top 20 episodes of 2010! Part one.


Before we dig in, I’ll have to note that no list is perfect, including this one. Nobody has the time to watch everything,  and while I can be reasonably sure I wouldn’t place an episode of American Idol in this list had I watched it, there’s a lot of good TV I just never had the time or opportunity to watch. I expect that the exclusions of Justified, Terriers, Boardwalk Empire and Rubicon, to name a few, to be especially galling for some fans. I myself wish I’d given more time to Durham County, likely the only Canadian show with a shot at making the list. Thereare also shows where I couldn’t pinpoint particular episodes of brilliance in time for publication, like In Treatment. However, the list below is filled with worthy contenders for your time, whether or not any of their brethren have been left behind.

Also, though officially the list is 20, I’ll be including 21 items. There was a last-minute addition that I couldn’t dare leave out.

Now! The List! Part one.

#21: Doctor Who 5.08: Amy’s Choice

In this episode, the Doctor is trapped with Amy and Rory in two worlds, either of which could be real: dying in the TARDIS, trapped in the orbit of a cold sun, or in a small English village years in the future, facing aliens in the form of the elderly. The episode focused beautifully on the core theme of the middle stretch of the season: would Amy choose real life, or fairytale? Grow up with Rory or be the Wendy to the Doctor’s Peter Pan? We’d eventually learn that the choices didn’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, but this story in which the Doctor subconsciously forces the issue digs wonderfully into the dynamic between the three. It also contains a few beautiful character moments, such as Rory’s dream death, the Doctor ruminating on the meaning of his own dream-creation, and Amy’s realisation that she was willing to sacrifice herself because she did indeed love Rory. The emotional complexities of this episode bumped it up above some of the season’s other strong contenders, such as the delightfully creepy Stone Angels two-parter or the rock-em-sock-em finale.

Stéphane reviewed the episode in greater depth here.

#20: Sherlock 1.01 : A Study in Pink

Though I haven’t yet watched the remainder of the season of this fantastic Sherlock Holmes modernisation, the pilot stands alone quite well as a deeply enjoyable mini-movie. Benedict Cumberbatch may drift a little bit into reading like the Eleventh Doctor on Doctor Who, with a similar manic energy and written by Steven Moffat, but there’s a very different character wearing those similar clothes. This pilot builds Holmes as a fascinating figure walking the tightrope between hero and villain, pushed to solve mysteries not because of a thirst for justice but a desire to solve the puzzle. He’s very ably assisted by Martin Freeman, whose sidekick John Watson is a wonderful audience surrogate, as his addiction to Holmes’ lifestyle grows alongside our own. His psychosomatic limp was a great way to reel us into the character. What really set this pilot ahead was a combination of two things: its sheer love of technology, from cellphones to computer-trackers, and the scenes in which Holmes breaks down his discoveries. Each one, from discovering the suitcase was missing to his analysis of Watson’s phone, made for fantastic viewing, and were very stylish. Though it took Holmes a little longer than it should have to come to the answer, it was an hour and a half of fun and wonder, with a nice undercurrent of darkness.

I reviewed the episode in greater depth here.

#19: Mad Men 4.05: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Mad Men is generally a very strong series, difficult to read because comparing it to other shows is like comparing apples to oranges. But this hour, wherein Roger Sterling finally takes something seriously and Don pulls a classic trick to destroy Teddy Chaough, leading to an hour that amused, engaged and impressed me. The episode served most of its players well, and was very entertaining; something you don’t get much from the often-dour Mad Men.

#18: The Big C 1.01: Pilot

I’ve watched many an episode of television multiple times, but there are few that I’ll watch three times inside of a couple weeks. The pilot for The Big C was one of those odd, engaging, powerful episodes that inspired multiple watches. Cathy’s thoughts on life and death mirrored realisations I had a few years ago, and watching her slowly deal with a series of crises in her life (even if in potentially harmful ways) was pretty cathartic. There was a series of moments that hit me pretty strongly, particularly the sequence in which she begins forcing her son to become an adult, even if against his will. Very powerful, even if the series itself was a bit weaker in some areas.

I reviewed the episode in greater depth here.


#17: Weeds 6.01: Thwack

Few shows can reinvent themselves six seasons in, or even redeem themselves. Weeds has suffered for years because of its frangmentation within its cast and stories, and its increasing disparity between the original premise of the show and that of its later seasons. Season five told stronger stories, and funnier stories, but it still seemed wildly far away from the beginning of this story. It’s only with the season six opener that everything begins to feel like one big story: not ‘suburban mother begins to deal pot’, but the story of the slow self-destruction of Nancy Botwin, and the consequences of living a life constantly in survival mode. This episode is a great culmination of that.
I reviewed the episode in greater depth here.

Dexter logo, in red.

#16: Dexter 5.06: Everything is Illumenated The big arc of season five was a departure from previous seasons for a number of reasons, but the biggest of these was the inclusion of Julia Stiles doing some of her best work as Lumen, Dexter’s accidental partner-in-arms. Nowhere else was the improvement more obvious than in this blackly comedic hour, in which one of Dexter’s regular kills is complicated by Lumen fumbling through a kill of her own, forcing Dexter to play reluctant master to her trainee. The dynamic between them really blossomed here, as Dexter realised that he maybe wanted to help her after all, and the stage was set for the greater manhunt. Few episodes have been as funny, or as strong, as this one was in a while.

I reviewed another episode in Dexter season five, “Circle Us” (5.10) in greater depth here.

Chuck logo, white letters on black.
#15: Chuck 3.06: Chuck versus the Nacho Sampler

This episode is a key one in the ‘Chuck becoming a real spy‘ arc of the show, and its one of the best. Chuck is largely in charge of handling his own mission here, handling an asset who is just as nerdy and adorable as he is. Unfortunately, this nerd is also planning to sell his own version of the Intersect to the highest bidder. In the end, Chuck has to ‘burn’ his asset, sending him deep underground and burying his sadness in Casey’s preferred drink. Though I would’ve liked to see Casey mentor Chuck even more throughout season 3, this episode used it well. It was also hilarious and entertaining, but that’s par for Chuck. This one just had that little extra kick of character work.

Community logo, from the title sequence.

#14: Community 2.06: Epidemiology

Some people class “Contemporary American Poultry” (1.21) or “Basic Rocket Science” (2.04) as being in the same league as ones like “Epidemiology” or “Modern Warfare” (1.23), but there’s a key difference. “Poultry” and “Rocket Science” had some good character work, but neglected or weakly-served the large cast. “Poultry” delved deeply into the characters of Jeff and Abed brilliantly, but left the rest of the cast mostly with drips of character work. “Science” mostly offered off-kilter or weak character work. Episodes like “Epidemiology”, in spite of their gimmick (here, zombie movies), gave a proper story for each character that tied into their own traits. Jeff’s vanity, Troy’s nerdiness-vs.-coolness conundrum, the Dean’s obsession with Abba… Everything seemed to work well. It was also wonderfully directed by Anthony Hemingway, whose work here rivals Justin Lin‘s great work in “Modern Warfare”.

Glee logo, with the common 'l for loser' hand gesture making the L.

#13: Glee 1.19: Dream On

Maybe every episode of Glee would be as strong as “Dream On” if directed by Joss Whedon. The musical numbers were strong, the themes worked well, and the character work was probably the best dose of the season. Whedon makes sure everything ties back to character motivation, something Glee often forgot in season one, and also offering some pretty striking visual moments – look to “I Dreamed a Dream” or “Dream a Little Dream of Me” for simple scenes that nonetheless leave an impression. These all add up nicely, making for an extraordinary episode of a regularly pretty unextraordinary show.

Treme logo, painted on concrete wall in New Orleans

#12: Treme 1.07: Smoke My Peace Pipe

It’s hard to choose one Treme episode above the others, but this one stands out nicely in a strong first season David Simon excels at series where even the victories turn out to be losses, and the real pleasures in life are small and personal. That’s key to this heartbreaking episode, in which LaDonna and Toni finally locate LaDonna’s missing brother, and he turns out to be long dead by the time they do. Possibly the most evocative image of the season is LaDonna stepping out of that morgue trailer and loking around at all of them, realising that there’s a family going through exactly what she went through for every body there. This paired with an assortment of meaningful plots – Annie choking on a big audition because of Sonny, Janette’s first days as a ‘mobiel chef’ post-restaurant, the end of Davis’ brief political career – makes it the season’s most memorable outing.

Supernatural logo, from title sequence

#11: Supernatural 6×04: Weekend at Bobby’s

Every show that runs long enough typically begins to centre the occasional episode around its side characters. This works for a number of reasons: side characters are less fatigued, still often have retained more mystery, and offer the opportunity of a nice off-format episode. And if the character is good enough, the episode is often a standout. Here, it works beautifully: Bobby, the boy’s mentor and support for years, is at the centre of this episode that takes a look at a weekend in the life of the world’s most overlooked hunter. Rather than getting out there and getting himself killed, Bobby works from home – as we’ve seen in snippets, doing on-the-fly research, performing as the man who gets phoned by those verifying undercover hunters, and generally helping out his cadre of friends. This episode is ultimately not just funny, but revelatory, deepening our understanding of what a typical ‘hunt’ six seasons in, and touching, both in a hilarious gone-wrong love story and in Bobby’s ultimate connection to his real family: surrogate sons Sam and Dean Winchester.

Stay tuned for the top ten, later this month!

What did you think? Respond to the list here, on Twitter to @signal_tv, or via email to thesignaltv@gmail.com!

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