FEATURE: Best Episodes of 2010, #10-#1

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!

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. There are 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 neen left behind.

Now! The List! Part two!

#10: Archer 1.02: Training Day

Summary: Archer trains Cyril to be a secret agent. Written by Adam Reed and directed by Mack Williams.

To be honest, this spot could be taken by almost any Archer episode. One of the amazing things about Archer is, while I can’t exactly pinpoint which jokes were where, every episode is such a consistent barrage of laughs that it blows me away. “Training Day” gets the spot because so many of its jokes are specifically memorable send-ups of the spy genre, a great introduction to the cast of zany characters, and a very specific story. Plus, Archer calling karate the ‘Dane Cook’ of martial arts is one of the best lines I heard in 2010.

#9: Community 2.11: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

Summary: Abed wakes up seeing everything in stop-motion animation, which leads to a fantastic Christmas adventure through the winter wonderland in his mind. Written by Dino Stamatopoulos & Dan Harmon and directed by Duke Johnson.

Community goes stop-motion for Christmas, as Abed deals with a Christmas crisis, and the group delve into his own mental Winter Wonderland to help him solve why he’s seeing everything as claymation. This episode did some great work with every character, between Shirley’s Christmas elitism, Jeff coming back after purposely getting himself ejected “to go get laid”, and Prof. Duncan’s aim to get published using Abed as a case study. The wonderful thing about this episode, though, is that it constantly operates on two levels: we are seeing Winter Wonderland, with its remote-control pterodactyls and singing flowers, but we’re also acutely aware (and constantly reminded) that this adventure is being talked out in the study room. Few shows could pull that off, but Community does so while offering a funny and genuine look at the meaning of Christmas.

#8: Fringe 2.16: Peter

Summary: A flashback episode, as we witness Walter Bishop lose his son and try to cure the Peter from another universe, only to kidnap him in order to save him. Written by Jeff Pinkner & J. H. Wyman & Josh Singer and directed by David Straiton.

The backstory between Walter and Peter had been teased for over a year when “Peter” aired, either subtly or, as was the case in early season two, less so. But seeing the events unfold in the past, with the well-meaning but terribly dangerous Walter, was powerful even as we knew the outcome. John Noble was brilliant, as ever, and seeing how things played out really expanded what we knew not just of Peter and Walter, but their family and Nina Sharp.

#7: Friday Night Lights: Injury List

Summary: The team has trouble focusing; Tami gets involved in a controversial matter; Julie receives an upsetting phone call; Riggins makes a big purchase; Luke does his best to hide the pain. Written by Kerry Ehrin and directed by Seith Mann.

Like Mad Men and Treme, Friday Night Lights is so serial and character-based that its often difficult to pick a standout episode; it’s much easier to pick a standout plot-thread, which largely tend to be brilliant the whole way through. Thus was the case here: this episode didn’t feature the best scenes from Tami’s story (those belonged in the previous episode), nor the strongest in Vince’s (to come the week after this one), but this episode features my favourite classic Riggins story: the moment he’s too good to screw up the good thing he’s got going, it falls apart around him. Thankfully for him, it gave Becky the chance to tell him who he really is, despite everyone else’s doubts: he’s a good, kind man who deserves all the love nobody will give him. A powerful moment, which promoted “Injury List” to this level here.

#6: Community 1.23: Modern Warfare

Summary: A game of paintball on the Greendale campus spins out of control, putting our favourite characters in the middle of every action movie ever written. Written by Emily Cutler and directed by Justin Lin.

“Modern Warfare” is at once two things: a fantastic parody of action movies, and a pretty good episode of Community. The character work sometimes falls prey to the parody over character (specifically, the show takes some liberties with Troy and Annie), but has enough to be pretty strong: Shirley battling hard to win morning classes to get home and see her kids, Jeff and Britta’s sexual tension finally resolving itself. And as an action parody, it is glorious: beautifully shot and directed, with every scene both recognizably within the episodes story yet also recalling a thousand such movies. This may not be Community’s strongest episode, but this is he episode that put the show on he cultural map.

#5: Fringe 3.01: Olivia

Summary: Olivia, trapped in the other universe, struggles to escape, while slowly losing hold of her memories Written by J. H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner and directed by Joe Chappelle.

“Peter” may have had a fantastic level of character work, but much of the episode was dictated by what we already knew. “Olivia”, being a new story, is both able to dig into Olivia’s character (contrasting the two Olivias’ lives) and tell a thrilling story about a woman grappling with alterations to her memory. The action stayed largely between Olivia and her one friend, the unlucky cab driver she hijacked, building a beautiful relationship between the two over the course of an hour.

#4: Breaking Bad 3.10: Fly

Summary: Walt and Jesse are stuck in the lab, as Walt is obsessed with killing a fly that could contaminate the batch. As they do, secrets begin to come to the surface between the two. Written by Sam Catlin & Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson.

Walter White is monstrous. The powerful thing about him, and the reason why he’s so interesting to watch, is that he knows it and feels guilt over it. In a season where his obliviousness to the dominos falling around him was a key element, “Fly” reminds us that underneath the hubris and the barely-concealed rage, Walter White knows he’s done some horrible, horrible things and knows he can’t undo them. He feels guilt, and never more than for Jane’s death- which he comes so close to admitting to Jesse. Watching these two damaged people spend an entire day in the lab, played by these two amazing actors, was a fantastic treat. More bottle episodes, please!

#3: Community 1.20: The Science of Illusion

Summary: As April Fool’s Day hits Greendale, Britta attempts a prank that goes horribly wrong, prompting temporary camopus security guards Annie and Shirley to investigate. Written by Zach Paez and directed by Adam Davidson.

This might seem an odd choice to take one of the top sots on the list; in terms of the show, with no mindblowing, game-changing events happened (such as Jeff and Britta sleeping together in “Modern Warfare”), and no flashy, all-episode-encompassing parody plot waving its hands for your attention (um, also “Modern Warfare”, actually). But this episode is funny, really funny, and services every member of the cast. The writers found a plot that spoke to both Annie and Shirley when they’re paired together as temporary April Fools Day security, both trying to break out of their shells as the schoolgirl and the housewife, respectively, as Abed enjoys them becoming an unconventional buddy-cop movie. Britta spends the entire episode trying desperately to get out of the ‘buzzkill’ hole she’s unintentionally fallen into, getting funnier and funnier as it caves in around her. And Jeff and Troy pull off one of their more meanspirited, yet funny, pranks on Pierce when they convince him his cult has given him a wizard’s cloak and cookie wand to ‘focus’ his new powers upon ascening to Level 6. This is the show performing at its best, consistently hilarious with a few of the series best moments; particularly, Annie accidentally macing herself in the face, and Abed’s performance as a police chief when the Dean fails to shine in the role. This was my favourite episode of season one, narrowly beating out 2009’s “Football, Feminism and You” (1.06) and “Debate 109) (1.09).

#2: Mad Men 4.07: The Suitcase

Summary:  Don makes Peggy stay late to work on a Samsonite ad, missing a birthday dinner with her boyfriend. Anna Draper dies, and an intoxicated Duck visits the SCDP offices in search of Peggy. Written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Gatzinger.

You can’t really go wrong with giving Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss an hour-long showcase, can you? Peggy’s experimentation with having a boyfriend ends as it was always going to, with her choosing her career over him, albeit in more spectacular fashion than she anticipated. Meanwhile, Don loses the most important person in his life when the news comes in that Anna has died, leaving him disconsolate. This episode had it all: comedy (with Peggy’s moron of a boyfriend, and then her other moron of an ex-boyfriend), drama (both Peggy and Don have some wonderful moments of catharsis here), and, above all, a love letter to Don and Peggy’s friendship/mentorship. If anything demonstrated how far both have come from where they respectively were in the pilot, it’s this one.

#1: Community 2.06: Cooperative Calligraphy

Summary: The gang are locked into the study room when Annie’s pen goes missing, and demands the group find the culprit. Written by Megan Ganz and directed by Joe Russo.

Some people will vehemently disagree with this episode placing on top, or even making it to the list after all; after all, I’d argue that there is barely a joke in here funny independent from the viewers’ relationship with the characters. But, to me, that’s the point; this truly is an episode that shows how strong these characters are, and how devoted to them we are.  I loved every minute of this episode, and have every time I’ve rewatched it – probably four or five times. It’s structured beautifully, with everything unfolding naturally as tensions rise among the group, with their strong bond utterly tested by the depths they go to in their search to placate first Annie’s betrayed anger, then Britta’s righteous wrath over being ‘Guantanomo’d’. The best episode of what has, in a season and a half, become my favourite series on television.

So, thoughts? . I expect, if only for the Community monopoly alone, this will inspire a bit of controversy. Rants and raves? Kudos? Hit me!


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