The 2010-2011 television series officially ended yesterday. Obviously, there will be a lot of great television coming in the summer months ahead and it is sort of silly to stick to the ancient constructs of the broadcast television season (which ran from September 20, 2010 to May 25, 2011 this season), but I’ve never claimed to not be silly. Therefore, over the next handful of days, I’ll be writing some reflection pieces on this season. These posts will range from lists (like this one!) to season reviews for my favorite series. There’s no set schedule for what’s to come, but stay close to the site and to Twitter and you’ll be fine.
To kick things off, I’m doing what I do best (or at least like to do most): A list! With this one, I’ll be discussing the 10 best episodes of the season. There was a lot of great television this season and it was damn difficult to parse my larger group down to just 10, but I’m actually pretty proud of myself for having some restraint. A few caveats before we get started here: First, I decided to keep it to one episode per series. If I didn’t, this would be a list full of Community and Parks and Recreation episodes with maybe a few Terriers episodes thrown in. Secondly, I am keeping to the constraints of the actually television season, so episodes that aired just before that September 20th start date (like Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase” or anything from Louie or Breaking Bad‘s seasons) aren’t going to be here. It means nothing of the quality of those episodes, they just didn’t make the deadline. And finally, this list is obviously about individual episodes, not full series or seasons. Meaning, there will be episodes here from series that didn’t have tremendous seasons or even last that long. The point is that these series had especially great efforts (in my opinion, obviously), despite the context in which those episodes might have aired.
With that said, here we go. The top 10 episodes of the 2010-2011 television season, in reverse order.
Just outside the top 10: The Good Wife, “Ham Sandwich,” Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife,” Fringe, “Entrada”
10. Supernatural, “The French Mistake” (Air date: February 25, 2011): This season of Supernatural was nothing short of a mess, but that didn’t keep “The French Mistake” from being one of the series’ best efforts yet. Series like Community get a lot of publicity for being meta, but it’s not hard to argue that Supernatural is actually the most meta series on the air right now and no episode exemplifies that idea more than “The French Mistake.” I had actually grown a bit tired of the meta-ness of the series, but this Ben Edlund-scripted effort that sends the series’ characters into the “real” world where they’re just actors on a series called Supernatural is strikes a great balance between all-out meta references, up-its-own-ass gags and narrative logic. Perhaps most impressively, “Mistake” still works for the uninitiated and is, without a doubt, the most fun episode on this list.
9. Mad Men, “Hands and Knees” (Air date: September 26, 2010): There are probably at least two, maybe three episodes of Mad Men‘s fourth season that I love more than “Hands and Knees,” but unfortunately, they aired before the cut-off date. It’s a testament to the series that its third-best episode still makes it on this list, but when you’re one of the two best series on television like Mad Men is, these things happen. We in the audience had been waiting for four years for the series to finally let Don’s identity theft some crashing down upon him and “Hands and Knees” grants that wish with an intense, frantic hour that features one of Jon Hamm’s best performances in a season of all-time performances. And, gulp, January Jones is pretty good here as well.
8. Terriers, “Sins of the Past” (Air date: November 17, 2010): Much like Community and Parks and Recreation, it was difficult to pick just one effort of the one-and-done Terriers to make this list. The series crafted a fantastic season of stories with a number of lovely moments, but Terriers works best as a whole instead of just highlighting one episode. However, I think “Sins of the Past” stands out most. Flashback episodes are always tricky and oftentimes not very good, but they’re apparently Tim Minear’s specialty. The journey back into the lives of Hank and Britt not only filled in some useful blanks in their pasts, but provided the series’ typical gut-wrenching emotional moments. The ways in which Hank loses control in this episode is both endearing and painful and serves as a glorious showcase for Donal Logue’s tour-de-force performance.
7. The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye” (Air date: October 31, 2010): I’ll be the first to admit that the first “season” of The Walking Dead wasn’t very good. The characters were shallow vessels for boring, clichéd dialogue and the plot movement vacillated from too slow to too fast in a short amount of time. I was not impressed with the season as a whole. But the extended pilot episode? I was very impressed. The episode’s use of silence is one of the most effective approaches of its kind that I can recall, allowing the tension to build to tremendously high levels in quick fashion and never really letting go. This episode might be like the first 20 minutes of a zombie movie extended to 75 minutes, but it’s the one of the best versions of that story I have ever seen. It’s scary, intense and ominous, everything you want a zombie story to be.
6. The Office, “Goodbye, Michael” (Air date: April 28, 2011): The execution of Michael Scott’s departure from Dunder Mifflin had its bumpy moments through The Office‘s seventh season, but ended on an extremely high note here. “Goodbye, Michael” treats the titular character’s goodbye with the right combination of saccharine emotion and sharp humor. Most importantly, this episode works because it allows Steve Carell to do the things he does best: Be charmingly goofy and sympathetic amid obvious faults. Michael gets wonderful moments with all the series’ important characters and his goodbye conversation with Jim will go down as one of my favorite moments of the series’ run. Saying goodbye to major characters is never easy to do or execute, but The Office got this almost all right.
5. Lone Star, “Pilot” (Air date: September 20, 2010): Ugh, I’m honestly still upset over the cancellation of Lone Star. I understand that I shouldn’t care about a series after only two episodes and a whole lot of potential, but seriously, there is SO MUCH potential in this initial episode. I have watched it countless times since that original airing in September and it has yet to feel old or tired. From James Wolk’s complicated and layered performance to Marc Webb’s beautiful direction, there so much to love here. It probably would have never worked after episode five, but I’m okay with that. Lone Star had its brush with brilliance in this episode and that’s more than many television series can say.
4. Parks and Recreation, “April and Andy’s Fancy Party” (Air date: April 14, 2011): I apparently don’t like laughing. For both comedies that made this list I picked episodes that weren’t the most obviously hilarious, but I think what makes both Community and Parks and Recreation great is their ability to offer more than just laughs. “Fancy Party” is unbelievably sweet, charming, warm, lovely, I could really go on with positive-leaning adjectives. Parks and Recreation is a very romantic series and the way it treats the super-sudden wedding of its youngest characters is something to marvel at. April and Andy’s wedding is entirely “them,” but still heartwarming and beautiful. This is definitely one of the best ways to subvert the “will they or won’t they” tension that lesser series might have tried to explore with the two characters. But don’t let all that fool you, this effort is funny. Everything that is great about Parks and Recreation is visible in this episode.
3. Justified, “Brother’s Keeper” (Air date: April 6, 2011): Justified‘s jump in quality during its second season was one of the biggest stories of the season. The FX series jumped up into the upper-echelon of current television drama with one of the best 13-episode stretches I’ve seen in my time watching television with a more critical eye. Season two deepened the world and cast of characters surrounding Raylan Givens and methodically showed us important chinks in the super-Marshall’s armor. By the time the season’s ninth episode, “Brother’s Keeper,” rolled around and a number of characters were plotting, bargaining and ultimately, fighting for their lives, the tension was suffocating in the best of ways. The final four episodes of the season were very, very good, but the season really climaxed well here.
2. Community, “Mixology Certification” (Air date: December 2, 2010): I think you all know that Community is my favorite series on the air right now, so you can imagine how difficult it was for me to pick just one episode for this list. Off the top of my head, I can pick at least eight episodes that I strongly considered for this spot, but I really wanted to pick the episode I thought most embodied the kind of things this series can do and the themes I found to be the most important in this second season. “Mixology Certification” is that episode, I think. It’s an episode that really emphasizes how pathetic and alone each of these people is outside of the Greendale campus and thus reinforces the bonds that they have with one another within Greendale’s walls. “Mixology” isn’t the episode that provides the most belly laughs and in fact, it’s probably the most obviously sad episode of the season. But it’s so realistic and raw about where these people stand in the world and gives us a really great look into why act the ways that they do at Greendale.
1. Friday Night Lights, “Always” (Air date: February 9, 2011 [on DirecTV]): In recent years, drama series have disappointed with their endings. From The Sopranos to Battlestar Galactica to Lost, it has been a difficult time for conclusions, at least in the eyes of many of those series’ fans. Although it held less balls in the air and no real mythology to handle, the series finale of Friday Night Lights still sticks the landing about as well as any fan of the series could have hoped. “Always” hits all the important emotional moments and gives most of the series’ best characters the farewells they deserve without feeling like a different kind of Friday Night Lights episode. What a conclusion to one of the greatest series in recent memory.
There you have it folks. What do you think?