And so it begins! To be honest, this is my favorite time of the year because it gives me an excuse to indulge in one of my greatest pleasures: list-making. I kick things off with my Top 10 television episodes of the year.
2010 was an exciting, if uneven year for television. The dead walked, Jack Shephard saved the Island, Jack Bauer finally stopped torturing dudes, and Heroes was, at long last, mercifully and rightfully put to rest forever. Here are the standouts, in my opinion. Oh, and SPOILER WARNING.
1. The Walking Dead- “Days Gone Bye”
Episode 101, series premiere
If Frank Darabont’s “zombie show” can keep up the standard of excellence it retained throughout the majority of its six-episode first season, it’ll likely become my new favorite show. Great characters, great writing and great source material (Robert Kirkman’s comic series) produced, as cliché as it may sound, 2010′s must-watch series. For those of you who think a show about a zombiepocalypse could never be intellectual, think twice. Like LOST, which the show shares some similarities with, The Walking Dead uses the undead and the mythology behind them as a backdrop for what is essentially a character study. That isn’t to say zombies aren’t an important part of the drama- but Darabont and his now-fired writing staff found interesting ways to use them to explore the psyches of their characters. What do you do when one of your group has been bitten? Or when your dead sister is moments away from rising as a flesh-eating monster? These are the sort of conflicts zombie movies generally skirt over for the sake of time and bloody headshots. And that’s what makes The Walking Dead so special- its longer length allows it to explore ideas that even George Romero’s finest work never really could.
While all six episodes were pretty stellar, none were as impressive as the premiere, which was extra long and felt almost like its own, self-contained little zombie film. It grabs you in its first moments, in which protagonist Rick Grimes is forced to shoot a zombified little girl. It then flashes back pre-pocalypse, introducing us to Rick and his partner Shane, before treating us to one of the most badass shootouts I’ve seen on television. Pulling a 28 Days Later, it then flashes forward a month to post-pocalypse, and follows Rick as he grapples with the nightmare he’s woken into and attempts to find his wife and son. The premiere featured (for the only time so far) who I think may be the show’s most compelling character: Morgan, a father holing up with his young son, after his wife was bitten and zombified. The show even finds ways to make shooting zombies emotional, particularly in a heart-wrenching scene in which Morgan tries futilely to put down his zombie bride. I wrote an entire review of the episode after it premiered, which you can read here, so I won’t chew your ear off about it. Just know that this is one of the most innovative shows on television. Its pilot had the same awe-inspiring effect LOST’s had when it premiered in 2004.
2. Fringe- “Over There, Parts 1 & 2″
Episodes 222-223, season finale
Over the course of its two and a half seasons, Fringe has transformed from a guilty pleasure to one of my bonafide favorite shows. Its current season has been absolutely stellar, particularly now that it has embraced its alternate reality concept and become much more serialized. While episodes such as this year’s “Entrada” have really explored what it means to live with an alternate dimension filled with doppelgangers, none captured my imagination or filled me with wonder quite like our first true look at “the other side.” Broken up for the sake of ratings, this 90 minute finale plays out like an epic sci-fi film, with Olivia, Walter and a trio of Cortexifan superheroes introduced in prior episodes traveling to the alternate reality to retrieve Peter, who has agreed to assist Walternate in the construction of a device the Observers have prophesied to be of an apocalyptic nature. That may all sound ridiculous, but what attracts me to Fringe is its eagerness to explore sci-fi concepts that other shows would find too polarizing. If you’re not into complex mythos and things like alternate dimensions and monsters and the like, then Fringe isn’t for you. If you do like those things, Fringe is probably one of your favorite shows on TV right now.
“Over There” was epic in every sense of the word. We got to see alternate versions of Olivia, Broyles, Charlie and even Astrid, as well as the return of Leonard Nimoy as William Bell. One of the cool things about Fringe is that its actors essentially get to play two roles. While Fauxlivia and Walternate may look almost identical to the versions we’ve come to know and love, they’re intrinsically different, in fact Walternate is essentially the show’s big bad. An episode filled with action and suspense, “Over There” excelled by presenting us with a world that is like our own, but filled with subtle dissimilarities, some subtler than others. It also ended in one hell of a cliffhanger, one that paved the way for Fringe’s best storyline to date, one that just concluded recently. Here’s hoping the show doesn’t go the way of Firefly now that FOX has resigned it to the infamous “Friday Death Slot.”
3. Dollhouse- “Epitaph Two: The Return”
Episode 213, series finale
Speaking of the Friday Death Slot, here’s Dollhouse, another tragic victim of the time slot, and another Joss Whedon show that seemed to only resonate with FOX viewers who have some tiny semblance of good taste. The show didn’t exactly come out of the gate running, though. Its first season was very uneven, and most of its 13 episodes were generally “what wacky personality will they download onto Eliza Dushku’s brain this week?” installments. Its finale introduced a concept that would become integral to the second year: that Echo was no longer just a blank slate, but a real individual, sharing Caroline’s brain with the dozens of personalities she’d been imprinted with over the years. But what really skyrocketed the show into a new realm of quality was the post-finale bonus ep, entitled “Epitaph One,” which flashed forward ten years to an apocalyptic world where the mind-wiping technology has run amok, turning people into killing machines called butchers as well as mindless zombies that have been totally wiped. The remnants of the Rossum corporation cycle their consciousnesses through a variety of bodies, living in decadence and essentially enslaving what little is left of the populace.
“Epitaph Two” picks up where “Epitaph One” left off, and concludes the Dollhouse saga in a very satisfying manner, while giving the show some of its most hardcore sci-fi moments. For example, it’s revealed Victor has joined up with a group of nomads that download skills into their brains much in the same way Neo and Trinity do in The Matrix. This concept isn’t there just to be cool- it creates tension with Sierra, who’s raising the couple’s child and frowns upon Victor’s potentially harmful practices. It was also cool to see the characters introduced in Epitaph One, including those played by Felicia Day and Zack Ward, interact with the series regulars. The stakes were high, with not all the characters making it out of the finale alive. The episode ultimately brought a fulfilling conclusion to both “Epitaph One” and the series as a whole. It’s exactly the kind of ending Dollhouse deserved: a bittersweet one. The damage Rossum caused is erased, but at what cost? The world is in shambles and many of our friends are dead. The final moments are perfect, a swan song to the tragic romance between Echo and Ballard. Dollhouse will be missed, and while I’m a little worried about The Avengers, I can only imagine Whedon will continue to excite our imaginations.
4. Mad Men- “The Suitcase”
As much as I want to call Mad Men overrated, I just can’t. While it may not feature an alternate reality or a magical island, it has some of the best writing and finest characters ever to grace a television set. Season four was much less uneven than its predecessor, though with so much going on it often didn’t know which characters to focus on. “The Suitcase” however, centers on what is arguably the show’s best relationship- the mentor/apprentice vibe between Don and Peggy. Like Jack and Liz on 30 Rock, Don and Peggy are fascinating because they are one of the few male/female duos on television that are neither romantically involved, nor have any sexual chemistry. They’re just friends, but friends that rely on each other. Their bond is stronger than most of Don’s relationships, probably because he sees some of himself in Peggy.
The events that transpire in the episode only help to further strengthen that bond. Not only does Don defend Peggy’s honor by getting in a drunken fight with Duck, but Peggy reveals she had a baby. By the end, after Don learns that Anna has died and breaks down in front of Peggy, the two are closer than they’ve ever been. It’s an interesting episode when compared to the first season, when Peggy was a nervous secretary unsure of her own abilities, and Don was… well, to be honest he was pretty much the same, except married. “The Suitcase” has even more significance later on in the season, when Don gets engaged to Megan and tells Peggy that Megan reminds him of her. It’s thus implied that Megan is being fast-tracked to become a copywriter when Peggy had to struggle to get the job. It’s also insulting on another level, as Don has slept with every secretary except Miss Blankenship and Peggy, who even tried to flirt with him back in the day. It’s these sort of raw, real character dynamics that set Mad Men apart from most of the shows on television right now.
5. Rubicon- “Wayward Sons”
Rubicon was one of those shows that was just destined to be cancelled. AMC gave it virtually no marketing campaign, probably because they were already banking on The Walking Dead, and the sloth-like pacing turned away all but a select few of die-hard fans, including myself. In fact all anyone could ever seem to talk about when it came to Rubicon was its slow pace, thought to be fair, its initial few episodes were so sluggish they were hard to pay attention to. But as protagonist Will Travers began to unravel the conspiracy behind his mentor’s death, the show began to pick up, presenting its audience with some of the most compelling character drama you can find, while sprinkling tiny breadcrumbs throughout that eventually came together for a rousing two episode closer. The finale ended on a rather dour yet interesting note, with Will ousting his boss Truxton Spangler and threatening to reveal the evidence he had uncovered linking him to the previous episode’s terrorist attack in Galveston Bay. Spangler responds with “Go ahead. But who will really give a shit?”, a fitting conclusion to a series that was, more than anything, about the fallible nature of the United States’ intelligence community.
The episode that preceded it, “Wayward Sons,” however, was an excellently composed hour of television, one that took a great risk by having its heroes ultimately fail. What was interesting about the ep was how it intercut our main players scrambling to prevent a terrorist attack they have no idea of knowing where or when will occur, with quiet, generally dialogue-free scenes of the American-born suicide bomber preparing for his last hurrah. First he gets some burgers and shakes from a fast food restaurant. Then he cranks one out to som good ol’ fashioned porno. Then he methodically composes and addresses a series of letters, including one to his ex-girlfriend. This was a big change, stylistically, for the show. Previously, Will and his team would talk about and analyze the various players they suspected to be involved with Al-Qaeda. Even though we never heard any of these people speak or saw them outside of a photograph, we still felt like they were characters on the show. Then it’s revealed that the head honcho, the guy API’s been trying so hard to get, is actually a relatively young American-born former soldier, which was a nice twist. And then to actually see the guy, especially doing things that one doesn’t generally associate with the stereotype of a terrorist, was jarring, but in the best way possible. In a tragic moment worthy of a Greek play, Will manages to put the pieces together and figure out where the attack is going to occur, mere seconds before it’s announced on the television that Houston has been attacked. As depressing as this resolution was, it felt very true to life, true to our country’s inability to ever really protect us.
6. Caprica- “End of Line”
Episode 109, mid-season finale
I think it’s pretty clear that the Sci-Fi Channel, ahem, excuse me- SyFy -is trying desperately to rebrand themselves as a TLC for people who like ghosts and urban legends. I wouldn’t be surprised if in six months 90% of their programming is reality shows, 75% of which are
scam artist ghost hunter-centric, the other 10% of their lineup populated by SyFy Channel Original Movies such as the classic Sharktopus. On the one hand, I feel sympathetic because being the CEO of a network as niche as SyFy must be a living hell. How can a basic cable network like SyFy even hope to compete with a channel like “Generic Boring Procedurals With Generically Wacky Characters” USA? And yet, one can’t help but chastise them for continually canceling the very series their viewer base love. First it was Farscape, then Caprica, and now, to everyone’s surprise, Stargate. All considered hallmarks of the genre, all cut loose in their prime (well, maybe not Stargate. That shit’s been on forever).
Then again, Caprica is no Battlestar. Sure, it’s got similar themes, a lot of cool ideas and Cylons, but its soap opera-esque melodrama doesn’t really hold a candle to the realistic military intrigue of BSG. Which is why its mid-season finale, “End of Line” was such a great episode, one that breathed promise into a series that didn’t seem to know what kind of show it was. The heart of Caprica is Zoe Graystone, the daughter of Eric Stoltz’s robotics mogul Daniel Graystone and the mother of all Twelve Colonies Cylons. Much in the same way Fringe explores what it means to have a doppelganger, Caprica examined what it means to be an artificial teenager with the memories of a dead girl living in a robotic exoskeleton. While the Joseph Adama subplot was occasionally compelling, particularly when he was searching for his own dead daughter avatar in the GTA-like virtual world of New Cap City, I found my interest waning every time Zoe was absent from the screen. It was also frustrating to watch a show where the protagonist was stuck in an immobile robot for the majority of the season, which is why it was so exciting to see her break free in “End of Line.” The episode culminated in an epic climax, with Joseph finding Tamara who then banishes him from New Cap City and orders him never to look for her again, Zoe fleeing for her life in the Cylon prototype, Amanda Graystone losing her mind, and the conflict between Barnabus and Clarice finally coming to a head. It ended on a superb note, with Zoe exploding in a massive car crash and Amanda jumping off a bridge. The final shot was the definition of good TV- Daniel answers a phone, hears bad news, and slumps his head, defeated- but what is he devastated about- the destruction of his beloved Cylon, or his wife’s suicide?
The show might have been better if it had just ended on that poetic note, which really seemed to speak to the conflict of being a brilliant scientist who also has a family to care for. The show was always destined to be cancelled, which it was four episodes into its second half, none of which were particularly impressive. For example, Zoe only appeared in one of them. SyFy was so disdainful of the series they wouldn’t even give it a proper burial- the final five episodes were pulled from the air and will be aired in one five hour block a week after the DVD hits stores. Be sure to check back here for my review of Caprica Season 1.5 later this week.
7. Community- “Modern Warfare”
Community continued to establish itself as one of TV’s best comedy series during its first season, and despite low ratings, its quality is only continuing to improve this year. Though the recent stop-motion Christmas episode and the Halloween zombie episode were both stellar, the second season has yet to capture the superb ridiculousness of the first’s action movie-themed installment, “Modern Warfare.” Community is known for its pop culture references- hell, there’s a character (Abed) who is constantly referencing TV shows and movies that resemble the scenarios the characters are in. Unlike shows like, say, Family Guy, which just throw in a reference to Star Trek for no other reason than to make a reference, Community fully embraces its winks and nods and in the case of “Modern Warfare,” makes it the basis of the entire plot.
The episode starts with Jeff taking a nap in his car. When he wakes, Greendale has transformed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and when he renters the school, discovers that the Dean set up a paint ball contest with a prize so amazing (priority registration for classes) everyone went crazy trying to win. He’s saved by Abed, who delivers the amazing one-liner “Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.” What follows is twenty minutes of hilarious action movie references, none of which ever feel forced or out of place. It even had some real drama, with Jeff and Britta finally hooking up despite their apparent distaste for each other. The episode culminates in the two best references: first, the Dean hires Señor Chang to take out the remaining students because the contest has gotten out of hand, leading to a John Woo homage in which Chang bursts into the study room complete with sunglasses, opera music, and dual paintball guns. At the end, Jeff is the last man standing, and storms the Dean’s office in a very silly take-off of John Rambo’s “It wasn’t my war!! It was your war!!!” monologue from the end of First Blood.
Community may just seem like a knock-off of 30 Rock with the pop culture sensibilities of a Seth MacFarlane cartoon, but it’s honestly one of the best comedies on TV right now. If you need proof, watch this episode and you’ll be hooked. Considering most of the landscape is dominated by sitcoms like Big Bang Theory and Charlie Sheen Acts Like a Douchebag, and NBC’s other new shows- Outsourced and Perfect Couples are horrendous- you really ought to give Community a chance.
8. Burn Notice- “Breach of Faith”
Along with Glee and The Event, Burn Notice is one of my last remaining guilty TV pleasures. It has a certain charm that always keeps me coming back. Maybe it’s because I really liked Jeffrey Donovan on Touching Evil, or more likely because Bruce Campbell is a badass, but whatever the reason, producer Matt Nix’s spy series has kept me entertained for four years. Season four was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand we got some more serialized installments and a progression to the weird burned spy syndicate mythology the show had been hinting at for the previous three years. On the other hand, we got Jesse Porter, a new character that changed the classic Michael-Sam-Fiona dynamic we’d come to know and love, and was also too earnest and generically likable to get me to ever relate to him.
Fortunately, he wasn’t very present in this episode, which saw Michael and Sam impersonating bank robbers to help, you guessed it, one of Sam’s innumerable “buddies” get back stolen money from a crooked bank manager. While Burn Notice is good, it’s never impressed me enough to warrant a spot on this list. And I even considered replacing it with an episode of Weeds or the Lethal Weapon 5 episode of It’s Always Sunny…. But “Breach of Faith” was such a unique episode of Burn Notice I feel it deserves some recognition. While it more or less followed the established BN formula- teaser sets up a mytharc subplot, which is mentioned throughout the next four acts all of which focus on Michael and the gang accomplishing a “job of the week.” Then, in the tag, we come back to the mytharc, usually with some kind of revelation that acts as a set up for the next episode. “Breach of Faith” didn’t stray too hard from that formula, but it did have subtle differences that made it very enjoyable to watch. Sam and Michael are isolated from Fiona and Jesse for most of the episode, have the police surrounding them, and not too many options at their disposal. Times are often desperate for Michael Westen, but not often as desperate as this. Burn Notice may still be nothing more than a quirky procedural, you know, like everything else on USA (characters are welcome there, after all), but at least it’s a procedural that takes some risks and occasionally messes around with its formula. Plus Bruce Campbell’s in it.
9. Futurama- “The Late Philip J. Fry”
Though Futurama’s return had the same stale stink Family Guy had when FOX resurrected it, no other animated series has ever managed to elicit the same kind of emotional response in me, not even The Simpsons. I literally cried when I watched the episode about Fry’s dog. While “The Late Philip J. Fry” didn’t bring me to tears, it did manage to be both beautiful and hilarious at the same time, and had a pretty neat sci-fi concept I don’t think I’d really seen before. It involves the Professor roping Fry and Bender into testing out his time machine with him, one that can only go forward in time. Fry is anxious as he doesn’t want to be late to another dinner date with Leela- the two’s budding relationship is at best, shaky. Of course there’s a mishap with Bender and instead of going a few seconds forward, the trio goes thousands of years forward. The Professor figures their only way back is to keep going forward until they find a civilization who’s created a backwards time machine, leading to a hilarious montage of a variety of wacky futures, set to a parody of Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” Eventually they discover a post-apocalyptic Earth with various Statues of Liberty, providing a Planet of the Apes knock-off courtesy of Fry: “You bastards! You blew it up! And then the apes had a civilization, and they blew it up! And then the cows… and I don’t really know what you are!”
It’s a touching episode because it focuses on Leela and Fry’s love, making it believable for probably the first time in ten years. It’s beautiful because Fry, Bender and the Professor witness the death of the universe and the subsequent birth of an identical universe. And it’s hilarious because it ends with the time machine accidentally crushing the trio’s doppelgangers, whose corpses Bender quickly buries under a bridge. ‘Nuff said.
10. LOST- “The End”
Episode 616, series finale
I deliberated on whether or not to include this entry in the top 10 list, but ultimately decided that despite LOST’s many grievous errors, it still deserved recognition for its innovation in the medium. Many fans feel sick to their stomach just thinking about LOST after the show’s resolution, like my girlfriend, who any time I try to talk about it nowadays tells me to shut up because “LOST is dead to me now.” As possibly the show’s biggest fan, I understand people’s resentment. Thinking about how the writers handled the final season always helps to make me feel depressed, and yet it’s hard to deny that “The End” wasn’t a superbly constructed and emotional closer for one of television’s greatest creations. Sure, the final scene, set in the universe’s most politically correct meta-church where a guy named Christian Shephard- yes you heard right, CHRISTIAN SHEPHARD, opens heavenly gates so our heroes can bask in the glory of Jeebus or whatever the fuck the writers were going for, made my heart sink. But every single second spent on the Island thrilled me to the core, from Jack and the Man in Black’s epic duel, to Jack and Kate’s tearful farewell and Hurley’s appointment as the new Island Protector. If the entire episode, hell the entire season, had taken place solely on the Island, I doubt I would have this sour taste in my mouth every time I think or write about LOST. But “The End” was still a work of art, a flawed one at that, and I stand by my belief that it deserves recognition. Yes, the explanation behind the Flash-Sideways was mind-numbingly stupid. But before you knew what it was, seeing Sawyer and Juliet and Charlie and Claire reunite was incredibly emotional. Say what you will about Darlton, the guys still know how to wrench some tears from their audience.
I think “The End” and the rest of LOST’s final season can now act as a cautionary tale for other shows (looking at you Walking Dead) on how NOT to end a series. It’s almost as if the writers forgot they were writing an actual finale and not a piece of fan-fic, as they seemed to go for a sappy reunion episode vibe, with everyone from Shannon to Libby making an unnecessary appearance, as opposed to a resolution that wrapped the story up in a satisfying way. And still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad to see the show, and all those characters go, even if it wasn’t all ended in a manner that satisfied me. Though this will likely be the last time I ever write about this show. You’re welcome.