Though it might seem perverse to be assessing the bests and worsts of a TV year when the new TV year is very much upon us (The Shield started last week, and Fox's big new hope, Fringe, starts tomorrow), weirdly enough we're actually doing this earlier than last year. It's hard to know where to put the cut-off dates, but now seems the right time to get on with this. There are going to be some omissions, such as Mad Men (we didn't think the first season had anything strong enough for inclusion, and the second season, though improved, is not yet over) and The Shield (we're a couple of seasons behind, but catching up fast). Also missing are mentions of Terminator: The Sarah Conicles (© Masticator and Masticatrix) and The Middleman, two shows I think I will end up loving but have not seen enough of to be sure (and believe me, the first fifteen minutes of the third episode of Middleman was so funny it almost got into the list anyway). I will also include a couple of two-parters, because they were just too perfect to be separated, and will regrettably be going over a lot of stuff I've covered before, but what can I say? When I'm enthusiastic about something, I have no off-switch.
Best episodes of the season:
10. Pushing Daisies - Sniff It Good
For a few weeks there, I was in two minds about sticking with Pushing Daisies. Maybe I would have been more forgiving of it if it hadn't been treated like God's own TV show by most critics before it had even aired, a blanket pre-judgement that grated because no one seemed willing to admit that for everything that was right with the show, there was something very wrong. At least, that's how it was at first. As the season progressed, it became clear that the critical consensus was swinging away from blanket praise to complaints that the tone was too sickly, and just to be contrary, we began to fall in love with it. As the show became more bittersweet (in counterpoint to the colours and romance) it blossomed, and this episode represented the high watermark. Not only did it introduce Paul Reuben's olfactory expert, it ended on a heartstopping rendition of Morning Has Broken by Ellen Greene playing over a hallucinatory animation sequence that still makes me choke up whenever I think about it.
9. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Goodbye and Good Luck
Coming after the two best seasons of this long-running show, the eighth was a disappointment, though one littered with the odd classic moment. This episode, chronicling the final case of CSI Sara Sidle, was the season highlight by a long chalk. Directed by star helmer Kenneth Fink (also responsible for the excellent finale, which detailed the last moments of CSI Warrick Brown), it featured the return of Sara's arch-enemy, the bad seed Hannah West, and brought their antagonism to a surprising and moving conclusion, just in time for Sara to leave the team in an attempt to save her damaged soul. Visually impressive (as I mentioned at the time), emotionally draining, and beautifully judged, it was the total opposite of the empty gore-fest that non-fans assume CSI to be. Even when not operating at maximum efficiency, surely this is one of the most underrated shows on TV right now.
8. Doctor Who - Forest of the Dead
The general consensus is that no matter how shaky Doctor Who can be, at least Steven Moffat will pop up at some point and save the day. So it was with the River Song two-parter, which was lauded pretty much before it aired. Another truism is that heightened anticipation will often lead to disappointment, and the first part, Silence in the Library, featured so many of the tricks Moffat had already used that this felt less than fresh, even with a spirited performance from Alex Kingston. Luckily for Nu-Whovians everywhere, the second part, Forest of the Dead, was a heartbreaking triumph. Though still reusing elements from previous Moffat scripts (especially The Doctor Dances), the emotional surge in the last five minutes dispelled any misgivings, mixing uplift and tragedy with enough enthusiasm that pointing out its flaws feels like mean-spirited carping.
7. Journeyman - Emily/Blowback
Journeyman was the little show that couldn't, no matter how much we had hoped it would. Damned as nothing more than a Quantum Leap rip-off, it struggled to attract the Heroes audience at exactly the moment that the Heroes audience decided it didn't want to watch an entire episode through, let alone hang around to see what was on afterwards, even if that meant missing out on something bold, complex, and thought-provoking. By this point in the show's run we had realised something special was happening, and this two-parter, exploring the disastrous consequences of Dan Vassar's actions, and the limitations of his power, was a perfect example of its uncompromising storytelling. With our temporally-challenged protagonist's liberal good intentions responsible for attracting the attention of a serial killer (played with sleazy menace by Raphael Sbarge), he is forced to contemplate the unthinkable in order to save his family. Kevin McKidd acted the hell out of that moral quandary, Juan Carlos Coto and Kevin Falls wrote the shit out of it, and all across the internet, people finally woke up to the brilliance of this show. Sadly, it was too late to save it from cancellation.
6. Battlestar Galactica - The Hub
Bouncing back from a sorely disappointing third season, Battlestar Galactica picked up a bit but was still not firing on all cylinders. While the plot seemed to be moving pieces into place with some actual honest-to-God events, of all things, many episodes were still tainted by unconvincing histrionics, variable performances, dreary subplots, and clumsy narrative conceits. The Hub featured none of these. With super-total-ace writer Jane Espenson focusing on Laura Roslin (one of the show's most compelling characters), all of the swish pyrotechnics and gung-ho action paled next to the season's most dramatic moment; Baltar's delirious confession of his role in the Caprican genocide, and Roslin's almost homicidal response. That Mary McDonnell is not the recipient of every award going for her pitch-perfect reaction is a crying shame. And then, to top it off, she tells Bill Adama she loves him. This is the show I once loved. Where the hell has it been?
5. The Venture Brothers - Tears of a Sea Cow
After a long wait, The Venture Brothers returned with a greater emphasis on continuity and drama, to such an extent that my enormous anticipation soon withered into confusion and annoyance. While Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer were still providing the gags, something seemed amiss. By the time we reached Dr. Quymn: Medicine Woman, the repeated focus on a depressed Monarch, the creepy Sgt. Hatred, and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch's efforts to cheer her husband up had robbed the show of so much of its energy that even that episode, which featured none of those characters, was still not hitting the bullseye. Luckily, Tears of a Sea Cow marked a huge return to form. With Dr. Venture and Brock Samson missing in action for the majority of the episode, the focus shifts to Hank, Dean, and Dermot on one side, and The Monarch's defiance of the Guild of Calamitous Intent on the other, and as they all accidentally come into conflict of the most half-hearted kind, the show got its mojo back.
Nothing much happens for 22 minutes, but the details are perfect. 21's immortality misunderstanding, H.E.L.Per's incessant drumbeat (running joke of the year), The Monarch's psychosexual obsession with Dr. Venture coming into full bloom; just those three moments would qualify it for the list, but the episode was filled to the brim with comedic gems. In the last few episodes of this reinvigorated season we were treated to the sight of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen spoof, the return of Colonel Gentleman and his manboobs, the introduction of super-robot Ventronic, and a shocking two-part finale that featured death and retirement horror. Arguably, those moments were funnier or more dramatic, but Tears of a Sea Cow wins out for bringing the show back on track.
4. Friday Night Lights - Let's Get It On
As with many of these mini-posts, I've already gone on about this exemplary episode at length, so forgive me for going over old ground, but though this season didn't reach the heights of the first, it was by no means the disappointment that many felt it to be. The worrying plot threads were handled well, the stupid plot threads didn't hang around long, and the performances were as classy as ever. Though the series had many high points, including Riggins' speech to his former team-mates, Santiago's first game, and Tami's sister arriving to drive Coach insane, this episode featured the highest quota of genius moments, with special praise for Street's plunge from a boat and subsequent "baptism", and the sweet and funny Y Tu Mama Tambien scene at the end of the episode. No other show on TV treats adolescent confusion and pain with such seriousness of purpose, or respect for its characters and audience. Everyone who doesn't watch it is missing out on an incredible experience. Seriously.
3. The Office - Dinner Party
The Deposition, the episode that preceded this one, was excruciating enough, showing the relationship between Michael and Jan to be riven with distrust, mutual loathing, and flashes of inappropriate aggression, yet held together by desperation and fear of loneliness. The Dinner Party, set almost entirely in Michael and Jan's house, made The Deposition look like a traditional two-camera and laugh-track sitcom from the 70s. The vicious sniping between Michael and Jan was terrifying in its ruthlessness, made all the worse for happening in front of Jim, Pam, Andy and Angela (and, later, Dwight and his babysitter, played with deadpan skill by the wonderful Beth Grant). Director Paul Feig and writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky delivered a masterpiece of sphincter-tightening discomfort that not only showed up the original BBC series (which I would have thought was an impossibility), but also anything that fraud Mike Leigh has done. It was the kind of format-busting experiment that proves that, when given enough legroom by the suits at the network, mainstream TV can transcend expectations and deliver devastating and uncompromising storytelling. And yes, I'm aware I'm saying that about a comedy.
2. House M.D. - House's Head / Wilson's Heart
Again, I've hyper-praised these two episodes, but allow me to indulge myself once again. As with the Journeyman two-parter, it's impossible to separate these two episodes, even though this time there is a distinct quality difference between the two. While the second half, with the team attempting to save the life of Amber the Cutthroat Bitch, was measured and quiet, the first part, with hallucinations and bus crashes, was big and flashy. It was a superb episode, but mostly despite the attention-seeking efforts of director Greg Yaitanes. That he has been nominated for an Emmy while Katie Jacobs, director of the second episode, was overlooked, is regrettable (on edit: turns out IMDb lists her as co-director on the first episode, but she gets no attention from the Emmy judges). Nevertheless, this season finale represented House at its best. Coming at the end of the most entertaining and thought-provoking season yet, it was the perfect capper, the best episode in the history of the show, and proved the doubters wrong; there is still life in that controversial static formula, especially when used by a showrunning team as bold as this one.
1. Lost - The Shape Of Things To Come
I have spent the months since the season four finale of my favourite show trying to decide which episode was the one I loved the most. Was it The Constant, which used the baffling premise of the show to create a love story that defied time and mortality? Or was it that amazing last episode, filled with more action and surprise than anything other show screened all year? Or was it the one that made me even more long-winded than usual? Just a week ago, I finally came to the conclusion that it had to be this episode, featuring time-travelling, cold-blooded murder, the triumphant return of Cerberus the Smoke Monster, and the best performance of the year. Screw it, the decade. Michael Emerson's command of the screen is already frightening, and this most shocking of episodes featured his greatest moment yet, a near-wordless breakdown followed by terrifying revenge as our anti-hero chooses to unleash unworldy terror upon his nemesis, even at the cost of losing his hold on the thing he holds most dear. There were countless other superb moments in this episode, but that was the most impressive five minutes of the year. Forgive my hyperbolism, but no other work of art or popular culture has moved and amazed me more than that "simple" bit of acting. I am simply in awe of the man, and the entire Lost team for ignoring the critics and getting us to this point at the deliberate pace they have. If the rest of the payoffs are even a fraction as powerful as those featured in this episode, it will all have been worth it.
Coming up! The ten worst episodes of the year (hint: one of the shows included rhymes with Fuck. Another one rhymes with Norchwood). I might even get into some other stuff. Let's see how this week goes.