This one is tough one, there was a lot of great TV this year, and since I’m including episodes from two seasons of TV, it was tough to limit myself to just one episode per show. Here goes.
Mad Men “The Suitcase”
In an ensemble show, it’s tough to take a full episode to just focus on two characters. Mad Men nailed it with “The Suitcase,” written by the show’s creator and runner, Matthew Weiner, the majority of the action takes place on a late night in Don Draper’s office, as he and Peggy Olsen work all night on a campaign for suitcase-maker Samsonite (get the title now?) What I loved so much about this episode, was that it played like a two-character play. Don and Peggy are the real leads of the show, as they both showcase strong desires to do succeed without worrying about how it affects their personal lives. Peggy, being the protegé, looks up to Don, and takes pride in the fact that she quickly became a copy-writer as a woman, under Don’s guidance, and strives to be seen as one of the guys, or at least wants her work to speak for herself and not her gender. Don understands this and appreciates Peggy’s determination, and the two garner an unspoken respect for one another. In season 4, not much had been touched on with this relationship until this episode, and that’s why the episode was so great – both characters had kind of coasted on their own without much personal interaction throughout the season, and it was about time they put the two together again. Through their night-long work session, they get into each other’s personal lives, something that neither character really allows any other character in the office to do. Peggy, in a relationship for the first time in a while, manages to still put her work before her personal life, even on her birthday. Don on the other hand, is dealing with the impending news of his friend Anna’s death from cancer. He is too scared to call her niece and hear the news out loud, so he’s surrounding himself in work to get his mind off it. After the episode’s events take place, Don finally makes the call, and the two characters fall asleep on his couch after emotionally draining nights. Not only was this a great episode for these two characters, and of course extremely well-written in that sense, but the performances by Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss was also incredible, and perhaps Hamm may find himself with an Emmy for it at the end of the year. For a show that continually puts out incredible episodes, this one in particular really shows how great the Mad Men crew is.
Community “Modern Warfare”
Stepping into comedy, Community hit one out of the park with this episode, affectionately known as the “Paintball Episode.” Greendale is overtaken by a school-wide paintball fight, as students pine for first dibs on creating their schedule for the next semester. In the madness that ensues, we see our main characters turning on each other, even in the form of Jeff and Britta having sex finally, after a season’s worth of sexual tension between the two. The episode was my favorite from season 1, and was as action-packed as the movies they were paying homage to (with enough laughs to match it).
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Community (again) “Epidemiology”
From Season 2, another homage to a film-genre, this time in the form of a zombie-apocalypse (not unlike The Walking Dead, see my notes on one of my favorite new shows of 2010 here). Using an actually well-believable premise that the punch at the school’s Halloween party is spiked, but not with alcohol. The semi-poisonous concoction turns students into feverish, zombie-like beings, who infect those that they bite (you know the deal with zombies). Our main characters are quarantined into the study room to survive the apocalypse until help can arrive. As they figure out the problem, they determine that if they lower the temperature in the building, maybe the fevers will be broken. After the study room is compromised and some characters attacked, the remaining survivors attempt to get to the thermostat and lower the temperature. The entire episode was great, and like “Modern Warfare,” took a genre and paid homage to it without making fun of it, in the vain of Sean of the Dead. Despite this, the best moment was when Troy, Abed and Jeff find themselves in the basement, and a flying, attack cat screeches across the screen. Not having to do with anything zombie-related, Jeff aims to find out what is making that cat fly the way it is “Is someone throwing it?” Moments like that show how well the show can achieve comedic moments even outside of their episodic homages.
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Community (one more) “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
The Christmas episode, shot in stop-motion, a-la Frosty the Snowman, the episode follows Abed’s imaginary journey to find the meaning of Christmas. The other characters, sympathetic to his emotional duress, play along, some more enthusiastic about it than others. What we find out is that Abed is upset about not being able to spend Christmas with his mother, a tradition that has never been broken. Stop-motion animation aside, the episode was great because it told an emotional story without sacrificing any comedy, which is something the show is good at when it wants to be. Bonus points for the “Lost” season one lack of payoff joke, and the remote-controlled Christmas pterodactyl. Not one who has any strong emotional ties to Christmas, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode and understood Abed’s emotional journey. I also commonly wish my life were animated in some sort of cartoon-ish state, instead of this boring live action world.
Terriers “Hail Mary” (Watch)
The season/series finale, I talked a bit about it in my Best New TV Shows of 2010 post, the show came to an end in a way that both concluded up the story arc that had continued to reveal more twists and turns, including one big one in the finale, and left the viewers satisfied with how the main characters play out their role as detectives, and remain optimistic about their rough personal lives. Brit, as I noted in the other post, was on his way to prison after being arrested for assaulting Katie’s classmate, whom he mistakenly thought was her lover. Hank on the other hand, had just dealt with the death of Gretchen’s new husband Jason, a situation in which Hank was indirectly responsible for, as Jason was brought in on the detectives’ theories on the land-grab conspiracy. Brit has prison to look forward to in the immediate future, but the promise of a new start with Katie after he gets out. That is, if he doesn’t decide to flee to Mexico with Hank. The season’s mystery arc was finished satisfyingly, although with a surprising new character thrown into the mix as the brains behind the land-grab. A little sudden, but not entirely unbelievable. Bad Guy Lawyer Zeitland proved not to be the main man behind the conspiracy, and of course, if you think about it, a corrupt lawyer would be likely to take orders from a more corrupt business man, and not be the brains behind the outfit himself. It was sad to see the show go, but a well-done finale that can strongly serve as a series finale.
The Walking Dead “Days Gone By” (Pilot)
The first episode of The Walking Dead was a great one, and it played out exactly like a full zombie film. Rick Grimes wakes up in the hospital to find the world is now surging with human-flesh-craving zombies. His first instinct is to go home and find his family, but instead he finds and empty house with signs of them leaving peacefully (the photo albums are missing). He runs into a father (Morgan) and son (Duane) who are hiding out in Rick’s neighbor’s house, waiting it out. Their hesitancy to move on is capped by their wife/mother’s zombie body walking the streets of the neighborhood. The emotion that is still ripe in both these characters is very prevalent when the zombie wife approaches the house’s doorsteps and attempts to open the door – Duane gets scared and hides under the covers. In another sequence, toward the end after Rick leaves the two with some well-need artillery from the police station, Morgan sets up a sniper spot upstairs to knock out the walkers outside, and when he gets his wife in his sights, he still can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. While Rick starts out on his journey toward Atlanta to find safe haven, we find out that his wife Lori and son Carl are with a group of survivors, lead by Rick’s old partner Shane, who is now sleeping with Lori. As Rick gets trapped in an abandoned tank in the streets of now zombie-infested Atlanta, the episode ends on him getting a call on the walkie inside the tank, asking if he needs help. The episode perfectly sets up the situation and characters we’ll spend the next 5 episodes observing, and turns out to be the most prominently zombie-filled episode of the season.
Lost “Ab Aeterno”
Decided not to use the finale, because while I enjoyed it when it aired, it still remains a slight disappointment as far as a culmination of the series, and while season 6 was also a disappointment and confusion-filled season, one remaining great episode that most fans can agree on is, “Ab Aeterno,” an entirely Richard Alpert-centric flashback episode, that finally explains why this mystery character has been around so long in the island, and how he got there in the first place. First off, kudos to Nestor Carbonell, who really got to show his range as an actor, as mid 19th-century Spanish man as opposed to his normal, mysterious, English-speaking island veteran. The episode gave detailed backstory on Richard and his plight that lead him to the island – a dying wife, a murderous mistake, a prison sentence and disastrous shipwreck that culminated in him being the only survivor, thanks to the smoke monster. Through a series of tricks from the Man in Black, Richard is thrown into the brotherly feud between “good” and “evil” forces on the Island, and eventually sides with Jacob, who gives him eternal life (and also kind of explains what the island is – a cork that aims to keep “evil” from getting out – still not sure about that one.) In a season where most were expecting answers to long-awaited questions, Ab Aeterno actually provided a big one – “who the hell is this Richard guy?”
24 Series Finale
Can’t believe I almost forgot to add this, it’s probably because I was mostly thinking of shows that aired during the summer and through this current season. Anyways, I covered it in a long 1,721-word review of the series and its final episode. While there were some great “oh shit!” moments on the show in the episodes leading up to the finale, which could very well had taken the cake had the finale not been the show’s last episode, (I’m thinking specifically of Body-Armored Jack single-handedly attacking Logan’s caravan, to Logan’s terrified “That’s Jack Bauer!” revelation. The episode served a season finale content-wise, because really how can a show like “24” sum up a whole series worth of television in a real-time hour of a day? It’s not an emotional montage type show. “24” was able to capture the emotion of a show ending simply within the last few minutes, as Jack and Chloe, the series’ two longest-running characters (who hadn’t ever got caught in cougar traps), speaking to each other on the phone for one last time. Jack reveals to her that at the beginning, he never thought she’d be the only one to have his back this entire time, a sentiment that echoed the audiences’ from Chloe’s early season on the show. In a sense, having Chloe be Jack’s most trusted ally throughout her seasons on the show was one of the show’s big twists, however slowly it developed. Jack’s heartfelt goodbye brought them both to tears, rare occurrences for both characters. Chloe closes out the show’s dialogue with three words “shut it down,” as she and Jack have a brief moment via video screen, Jack looking up at the drone in the sky and Chloe looking at the feed, right before he rushes off to uncertain destiny, and she walks out of CTU as the lights turn off. The countdown clock reaches 00:00:00, and 24 fans wait to see if we’ll get to witness our favorite bad-ass character in some sort of movie version.
Honorable mention – Conan’s last two weeks on “The Tonight Show” (NBC). After making what could only be one of the toughest decisions of his career, and more-than-likely life, and stepping away from a job he strove for for 15 years, Conan’s last two weeks on NBC brought back the carefree Conan we came to love after his 15 years at 12:35. He didn’t care about alienating viewers, or upsetting the network since he was in a bigger spotlight at 11:35. He openly made fun of his employers, and just let loose in general about the unfortunate situation he found himself in. Conan has always been great a self-deprecating humor, and coupled with seething nightly attacks at NBC, Jay Leno and the entire situation, he was on fire for those two weeks. Luckily, he was able to keep that momentum going through his stage tour and now his TBS show, “Conan.” Special note goes to his final episode, where he signed off with another heartfelt goodbye, as he did the year before after signing off on “Late Night.” And he ended his NBC run jamming out on guitar to “Free Bird.” Come on, who wouldn’t love to do that?