Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Top Ten: Television Episodes of 2010-2011 Season

I don't comment as often about television as I do film, but I do believe it's an essential part of the entertainment business.  It's typically overlooked, and not every brilliant show gets the chance to shine. Some are cut short before their prime, and some are just unappreciated in the wider spectrum. So, I decided to take a look back at the most outstanding individual episodes of the 2010-2011 television season. It's a particularly difficult job dissecting ten episodes out of hundreds of hours of entertainment. Some shows just didn't make the cut because they excel better in the long term story arc. How I Met Your Mother was one of the best shows on this season because of how it broke down expectations and delivered an emotionally powerful overarching story. That being said, no single episode encapsulates that.

Best Dramatic Performance: Anna Torv in Fringe: Marionette

I was close to throwing this episode into my list until I realized that the greatest thing about this episode, and the thing that in fact carries it so brilliantly, is Anna Torv's performance. She has done a brilliant job across this entire year, but the performance that rocked my world so completely was not as Fauxlivia or Bellivia, but as the original Olivia. Two years ago, it felt like she was becoming less of a lead character and more of somebody in the background. She commands the screen with a devastating portrait of somebody whose life has been stolen at the time it should have been getting perfect. I doubt Torv will enter this episode in for Emmy consideration, but it's the one that I'd personally choose.

10. Glee: Funeral

FOX may have already picked up Glee for season 3, but that doesn't mean that I have to. That being said, it has managed occasionally deep pleasures, and this happened to be one of them. This episode brought together two things that the show has been sorely lacking in: realism and tragedy. Sue Sylvester has become mostly a cartoon caricature this season, so a revitalization of her emotional connections to humanity was well warranted. It dabble in the idea that there is no rationality behind events that happen, and that's fine. On top of that, I felt like my personal voice was given a character in Jesse St. James, as he criticizes most of the new directions members, as he should. That being said, he shows too much bias towards Rachel. The midsection of songs is the weakest part of the episode, and a part I ignore. However, I did ball my eyes out at the funeral song. That was beautiful, even if I hate the film it's based on.

9. Fringe: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

And here is the only cartoon on my list... kinda. The whole fun of a science-fiction show is doing things that are ridiculous and insane, and seeing as Fringe does that on a weekly basis, they really had to up the ante on this one. While something of a homage to Inception, the Christopher Nolan sci-fi action flick, it is otherwise a unique adventure story with stunning visuals in the live-action sections, and grand action sequences in the animated parts. There is some of the show's greatest humor at work, as well as some emotionally resonant heart to hearts for Broyles, Peter, Walter, and Olivia. And bringing Leonard Nimoy on for a voice credit is never a bad thing either.

8. Mad Men: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Mad Men is a very hard show to get into, and the fact that people usually don't watch it is due less to the quality and more to the nature of show. It's very interesting material, but it's also very independent work, so of all the episodes this season, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was the most accessible. Much like Shut the Door. Have a Seat, it takes on a sort of fast-paced espionage feel, with Don and his crew working specifically against competitor Teddy Chaough for an account. As always, there are multiple stories working at the same time. Roger almost ruins SCDP's chances at the account, and Sally Draper becomes a fan favorite with her acts of rebellion against Betty. Everything works separately to draw the viewer in to these character's lives, and it's one hell of a hook.

7. Community: Critical Film Studies

Community is one of those shows that doesn't attempt success through staggering emotional twists, and it's most often hilarious when it keeps the emotion on mind, but at a distance. That's what makes Abed such a wonderful character is that he's intelligent and analyzing, and he does have a handle on feelings, but he doesn't cling to them so dearly. This episode is a wonderful showcase of that. It also holds one of the most brilliantly written monologues on human intelligence and the way of the world that I've ever seen on television, let alone a half-hour comedy. What was initially just a Pulp Fiction homage became something so much better than we expected, and I loved it.

6. Parks and Recreation: Andy and April's Fancy Party

I had a Twitter-gasm during the half hour in which I was watching this episode of Parks and Recreation. Andy and April are two of my favorite characters on the show, and their relationship has been completely perfect. So nothing made me happier or more fearful than the surprise that their dinner party was actually their wedding. It came up in such a hilarious and expected way, but it caught me so off guard. It was a time of joy and panic. I know what happens in these sorts of television situations. The main character starts meddling, and it ruins the entire relationship, and that almost happened, but it didn't! It kept us on edge until the final burst of unbridled joy. It was everything a comedy should be. Awkward intensity paid off in boundless happiness.

5. Lone Star: Pilot

I never said that this list was going to be filled to the brim with successful shows. Lone Star was abruptly cut short after only two episodes aired, and it's such a miserable thing too. The pilot episode managed to be the most compelling and interesting of the new syndicated shows. It sets up the character of Bob/Robert Allen, who is married to the daughter of one his marks, and living a second life with a girlfriend in Midland. He's a con man, roped into it by his misunderstanding father, yet a good man at heart. From this episode, I could have seen the show going on to be a Mad Men style hit, but it should have gone for cable instead. AMC would've been the perfect home for this show. As it is, the show leaves us with a pit in our gut, desperately wanting more, yet knowing we won't get it, much like the protagonist.

4. Mad Men: The Suitcase

Shoot me in the eye for only having it at #4, and behind another episode of this show, but I did love this episode just as much as anyone else. Mad Men usually has several different plot strands wavering in the wind at any point in time, but The Suitcase brings them all together tangibly rather than just metaphorically. As a way to close out the first half of the season and open the second half, it's genius. The conflict and reconciliation between Don and Peggy is core to the episode, and the relationship between those two has always been strained but respectful. All we ever want is to just let our anger out on the people who anger us, and they actually lash out this time, and as such they grow individually and as a pair. But, love the episode as I may...

3. Mad Men: Waldorf Stories

...I love Waldorf Stories even more, because it really defines the arc of the first seven episodes. Mad Men is best when it's misbehaving, and that's a great deal of what makes this episode so interesting. It's the ultimate showcase of 1960s self-destruction through drinking. That theme is core to two of the three plot strands. The mistakes that Don makes whilst he is drunk constantly push us towards a place of bizarre pity towards Don, and that's wonderfully contextualized by an introduction into how Don first became employed at Sterling Cooper. It adds so much to the "self-made man" persona with the idea that Roger may have never even hired Don at all. The smug look on Don's face at the end of the episode do leave us with that question. As an episode within this series, I couldn't have asked for more.

2. The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye

I've criticized the awards buzz for AMC's new show The Walking Dead, because the show did only run for a 6 episode season, but what an awesome season it was. It was all pretty fantastic, but it never met up to the dynamite opening directed by Frank Darabont. Right from the opening, it was a bloody, intense, and emotional ride, never forgetting its artistic roots. We were introduced to this post-apocalyptic world with unbelievable grace, and the psychological journey of the protagonist carries us through this episode. I've always wanted to see a topic like this in a long-form cinematic manner, and it never feels like I'm watching something small. It's gritty and compelling, and it makes us fear for humanity.

1. Fringe: The Day We Died

I'm still recovering from the mind-blowing season finale of Fringe, which blew away the quality of the entire third season. Many are still too baffled or disappointed, but I applaud the writer's decision to opt out of a more action packed venture, and instead go for something more intimate. This show has always been about the emotions between characters, and that was ultimately paid off. The future is real, and it is devastating. Peter's one-on-one with Walternate was heart rendering for translating the suffering of a man who only ever wanted to save his world, and failed. It also wrapped up the arc of the war between universes in a way that's unexpected, hopeful, but ultimately open-ended. Not to mention that cold and clinical final line that still chills me to the bone with gut-wrenching possibilities. The two worlds have become inextricable to the point in which to change the history of one is to change the history of both, and we'll no doubt delve into that further next season. As it is, I cried and felt more than I have from any other show this season.

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