2011-2012 season wrap: Top 10 episodes of the season

The 2011-2012 television season has been over for almost a couple of weeks now, which means a sufficient amount of time has passed and we are primed to reflect. Over the next handful of days, I will be producing some pieces and lists looking back on the season that was. I missed out on a lot because of my hectic schedule, but hopefully these full-season views will make up a little for the lack of episodic reviews or content throughout the early part of 2012. And lists are always fun, at least for me.

The season wrap rolls on with yet another list. After tackling the best 10 series of the season, I now bring the 10 best individual episodes. I have to admit: This list was tough to tabulate. There were all sorts of great seasons or strings of wonderful episodes, but finding one tremendous episode amid a bunch of others was more difficult than I imagined it would be (and certainly tougher than last season). Ultimately though, I feel pretty confident about this group. Two rules: First, only one episode per series and two, to be eligible for this list, an episode had to air between September 19, 2011 and May 23, 2012. Here we go, in descending order.

10. Glee, “Goodbye”: I am little surprised more people weren’t talking about this but Glee sort of secretly had a pretty solid third season, one that ended pretty damn well. As myself and others have reiterated over time, the series works best when it is pushing the sadness forward and thankfully, the indecision and fear surrounding graduation and the future brought that forth in spades. The season finale was very light on actual plot, instead it was chock-full of big, emotional moments for characters I (somehow still) care about. In short, the kind of episode that Glee knocks out of the park. That final sequence was probably the best thing to ever happen on and to the series, should Ryan Murphy and company follow through moving forward.

9. Girls, “The Return”: In many ways, I have experienced most of what Hannah experienced in “The Return,” which is likely why it played so masterfully to me. Girls knows exactly how to get at the heart of being a fairly educated but still kind of worthless post-grad and that is my life. I can’t not relate, laugh awkwardly and recall the times I probably should have changed my major to Accounting.

8. Fringe, “And Those We’ve Left Behind”: I’ll hopefully get to this later in wrap (not that I have been quiet about it anyway) but briefly: This season of Fringe was a mess. Many of the big choices made about the season’s direction made little sense to me. Most of the season, I watched while nodding and saying “That’s nice.” Nevertheless, a handful of the standalone episodes kept the entire ship from sinking. One of those was “And Those We’ve Left Behind,” a stirring story about love and loss fueled by some wonky time-altering. So you know, a classic Fringe recipe. For all its grand mythology (much of which grew tiresome this season), Fringe is secretly often the best, most compelling procedural on television. This is a reminder why.

7. Mad Men, “Signal 30”: On one hand, it is unfortunate that “The Other Woman” aired “out of season.” On the other hand, despite the powerful reaction that one elicits, it is a bit of a mess. The Mad Men representative on this list, “Signal 30,” is definitely less overtly gut-punchy, but better put together. My Pete biases may be on full display here but the series is rarely better when it hones in on one character, and typically, their misery or at least lack of satisfaction and no character is less satisfied than Peter Campbell. This one will be remembered for the epic Pete-Lane fight that is somehow immediately hilarious, thrilling and terrifying all at the same time, but smaller moments like Pete’s face when he sees that Don has fixed the leaky sink he thought he fixed will remain in my head for a long time.

6. Cougar Town, “Down South”: People still assume Cougar Town is a comedy about Courteney Cox boning younger dudes (not true) or just friends sitting around drinking wine (somewhat true) miss out on the program’s giant, beating heart, something that is on full display in “Down South.” Travis and Laurie’s relationship is series’ one long-running, long-burning story and the way it is addressed in this effort is even more moving than it is funny (and it is damn funny). Dan Byrd will never, ever sniff Emmy nomination recognition, but he probably deserves it for his work here.

5. Justified, “Slaughterhouse”: Justified’s third season is going to play so much better on a re-watch after this tremendous episode seemingly tied the previously disparate, messy threads together with a strong conclusion. “Slaughterhouse” doesn’t quite help this season of the series touch the previous one, but it retroactively makes certain events clearer and more memorable. The final 15 minutes of this one are evocative, stirring and full of Emmy-worthy performances.

4. Breaking Bad, “Face Off”: I was so happy to remember that a few Breaking Bad episodes aired during the official season. Really, all three that did are worthy of making this list, but it I had to go with the insanely entertaining season four finale. “Face Off” somehow delivered exactly what many of us assumed it would and still made the revealing of those events seem shocking and uncomfortable. Plus, Zombie Gus Fring is truly one of the best things to happen on television in a long time.

3. Homeland, “The Weekend”: Before this episode, I knew Homeland was having a great freshman season. After this episode, I knew Homeland was something more than that. I could watch Claire Danes and Damien Lewis sit at an old table and talk/secretly probe each other for hours.

2. Awake, “Pilot”: Two seasons in a row, Kyle Killen has turned in the best pilot of the season. Two seasons in a row, the series that followed those pilots failed to catch on with audiences. I LOVE the Lone Star pilot and I still think the Awake pilot is better. This opener tells a beautiful story that could stand on its own, features a great performance from leading man Jason Isaacs and features some of the best use of color I have ever seen on television. Awake ended up being a really great single-season series and it still couldn’t really touch the greatness of this initial episode. I will randomly watch this one for years to come.

1. Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory”: Although there were a few episodes in Community’s third season that packed more of an emotional wallop, this one perfectly aligned the series’ ambition, innovation and heart in one perfect package. “Chaos Theory” is an episode that only Community (with Dan Harmon leading the ship) could do. It is smart, kind of dark and twisted, supremely funny and just a bit poignant. Likely the best episode the series will ever do.   

On the outside looking in: The Good Wife, “Another Ham Sandwich”; Enlightened, “Consider Helen”; Parks and Recreation, “Debate”; Game of Thrones, “What is Dead May Never Die”; Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall” 

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