Best and Top of Everything : Top 10 TV Episodes of 2012

Friday, January 4, 2013

Top 10 TV Episodes of 2012

10. Breaking Bad, “Fifty-One”


The first half of Breaking Bad‘s final season demolished the last of Walter White’s rationalizations for his drug career: that he was doing it all for the love of family. If that was ever true, it’s not anymore; rather than give up his throne of blue crystal — even when he could easily afford it — he allowed himself to be estranged from his children. And as this episode shows with quiet brutality, he has poisoned his marriage. He forces Skyler to stay in a sham marriage in the belief that in the end, he will win, just as he has in his drug career. But in the depths of her powerlessness, she finds a way to strike at him. She can’t deny him a joyless 51st birthday party, cooperation in his drug business or even sex. What she can do, she says, is “wait … for the cancer to come back.” Breaking Bad is known for its spectacular visuals and violence, but sometimes the most chilling thing it does is quietly smolder.


9. Awake, Pilot


Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) never sleeps. Or he does, rather, but each time he does, this police detective, who just survived a car crash with his family, wakes to a different reality: one in which his wife died in the crash, and one in which his son did. Coupled with the crime cases he solves in each “reality” is an overarching, internal detective story in which a different psychiatrist in each waking world tries to explore why his psyche has created the other reality. It’s an emotional story, thanks to Isaacs’ smoky intensity, but not the downer it may sound like. Instead, the premise offers a way to explore the mourning process without having to definitively kill off either of Michael’s loved ones. This twisty series didn’t make it past its first season, but this hour was a lovely introduction to a dream.


8. The Good Wife, “Another Ham Sandwich”


The reason The Good Wife stands above every other major-network drama right now is not so much that it’s smart as that it recognizes that you are smart enough to watch it. This pivotal episode — which resolves an ongoing ethics investigation against law partner Will Gardner — is this year’s prime example. Here, the series gets Will off the charge without exactly saying he is innocent; instead, it suggests that for all the good work they do, the members of Lockhart Gardner, even heroine Alicia Florrick, skate close to a moral line. The ethics charge against Will uses the very premise of a TV legal drama to ask, Does Lockhart Gardner really win so many difficult cases through talent alone? What makes this a great legal drama is that it simply presents the evidence and says, You be the judge.


7. Mad Men, “At the Codfish Ball”


It was a season full of bravura episodes, from the surreal (“Far Away Places”) to the shocking (“The Other Woman”). But the one that sticks with me above all is this straightforward, minor-key episode about some of the things that make Mad Men great: disappointment and regret, as experienced by fabulously dressed people. Focusing on a supposed triumph, with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) attending an awards gala, the episode takes him and his guests through a series of rude awakenings. He learns that his anti-tobacco statement has made him celebrated but, to big companies, unhirable; his new wife Megan confronts the failure of her parents’ marriage; her father realizes his academic career is at a dead end; and daughter Sally ends her night of glamor by catching Megan’s mother and Sally’s “date” Roger Sterling in a compromising position. The evening ends with a tableau of the characters sitting at the banquet, each in a private world of gloom — but, this being Mad Men, it’s a gorgeous gloom indeed.


6. Parks and Recreation, “The Comeback Kid”


Sometimes a best episode of the year amounts to a best scene of the year, and that certainly influenced my thinking here. There are maybe a half-dozen Parks and Rec episodes I might have put on this list (“The Debate,” “Win, Lose or Draw” and “Halloween Surprise,” to name a few). But when I think of the show’s past year, I can’t not think of the image of Leslie Knope and her campaign team, at the nadir of her city-council run, walking slowwwly across an ice-skating rink to the tune of Gloria Estefan’s “Get on Your Feet.” It’s a slapstick moment worthy of I Love Lucy, but the image — Leslie supported by her hapless but loving crew, including Ron Swanson, bearing an incontinent three-legged dog — also gets at the heart of the show: friends who will bear any indignity to help, because they believe in one another.


5. Girls, “The Return”


One of Lena Dunham’s stated influences in this coming-of-age series was Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, and this episode makes clear that it wasn’t something she said just to be polite to her co-producer Apatow. He co-wrote “The Return,” and the episode shares the setting of Michigan — where Dunham’s Hannah Horvath brings her personal baggage (and laundry) for a fraught visit home — guest star Becky Ann Baker (as Hannah’s mom) and, above all, a rare sense for the bittersweet feeling of realizing you’ve outgrown your childhood. Influences aside, “The Return” is also pure Dunham. She can be unsparing about Hannah’s self-absorption (as a confidence builder before going out, Hannah tells herself, “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting”). Yet as Hannah comes to terms with the idea that her parents are getting older too, she shows a new maturity. Sometimes, “The Return” tells us, growing up is something that happens while you’re standing in front of your mom and dad’s fridge.


4. Homeland, “Q&A”


It says something about the intensity of this episode that the most wrenching scene is not the one where a guy gets stabbed through the hand. Coming on top of a shocker about-face, in which Congressman Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) is revealed as a terrorist sleeper agent, this hour-long interrogation involves a man already broken by imprisonment and brainwashing and takes him apart again. Brody’s pursuer and onetime lover Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) pries off his protective layer of lies, brutally and tenderly. At the end, Brody is curled up on the floor like an infant, and this viewer felt like joining him. Brody’s terrorist captor, Carrie says, pulled him apart “until there was nothing left but pain.” The lingering question: Is there still a Brody left in there to rebuild?


3. Game of Thrones, “Blackwater”


For a fantasy saga about kings and dragons, Game of Thrones is very intimate, choosing conversations and verbal sparring over effects spectacles and battle scenes. But it gets epic with a capital E in this high-water (and flaming-water) mark when it pares down its usual sweep across story lines and continents to focus on the fight for capital King’s Landing in the series’ central civil war. Even in pitched battle, some of the episode’s hardest blows are psychological as it depicts the darkest moments within the besieged castle, with royals and subjects huddling with candles and poison. It delivers on a grand scale when sympathetic antihero Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) executes a brilliant tactical defense on behalf of his thankless and undeserving royal relatives. “Those are brave men knocking at our door,” he exhorts his men before battle. “Let’s go kill them.” For this spectacular hour, Game of Thrones killed it.


2. Community, “Digital Estate Planning”


At its warmest, Community takes apart its misfit-toy characters — adult learners at the nation’s worst community college — to see what makes them hurt and what makes them tick. At its weirdest, it takes apart the very form of TV comedy, experimenting with new ways to tell funny stories in a half-hour. And at its best, it does both at the same time. Here, crotchety Pierce (Chevy Chase) has to confront the legacy of his controlling, racist father by competing with the rest of the crew in a Nintendo-style virtual-reality video game to earn his inheritance. That the episode could make an emotional connection with its characters mostly drawn as 8-bit avatars is a testament to how well imagined the show’s world has become. At the end of Season 3, Community‘s mad-genius creator was forced off the show by NBC, but this late episode may have been the series’ best ever.


1. Louie, “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Parts 1 and 2″

Louis CK’s comedy/short-story collection paints New York City in particular, and the world in general, as a place of surreal, disturbing wonders. And this two-parter distills that beautifully when Louie asks out bookstore clerk Liz (Parker Posey) and goes on what is less a date than a crash course in life experience. As they take a weird, adventurous after-hours tour of the city — fitting Louie in women’s clothes, helping a homeless man get medicine, scarfing cured fish at Russ and Daughters — Liz spills out a story that includes a childhood near-death experience and hints of a mentally troubled adulthood. But though the evening ends on a minor-key note, “Daddy’s Girlfriend” is far from a downer. It is, like the show in general, a full-throated endorsement of being open to life’s weirdness and surprises at any age — and truly a night to remember.