Welcome to the TV in 2012 roundtable. I’ve assembled nearly 20 of my fellow critics, scholars and friends to reflect and review the year in television. Between now and the end of the year, the group will discuss various topics covering the highs, the lows and everything in between. See previous entries of the roundtable here.
And here we are, the final TV in 2012 roundtable. I’d like to thank all the various contributors for making this a fun couple of weeks. I think we all enjoyed participating in these discussions, so hopefully you enjoyed reading them. We’ll be back really soon with some 2013 predictions and prognosticating.
But today, we close out with our picks for the best episodes of 2012.
Cory Barker: One final 2012 roundtable, by some request: Best episodes! Let’s hear those picks.
Julie Hammerle: Watching Game of Thrones with my husband, who has not read the novels, I spent much of our time watching season two making excuses for A Clash of Kings. “It’s a lot of set-up,” I’d tell him. “There’s going to be a huge payoff, I promise (and season three is going to be amazing anyway, so just ride this one out.)” As the episodes ticked by, he believed me less and less. But then “Blackwater (Episode 9)” happened, and it was as if the Powers That Be had been saving every penny of their budget for that one hour (or not, apparently, according to the always reliable Wikipedia. They were originally going to show the whole “battle” from Sansa’s perspective. What?). There was green fire! And fighting! And boats! And Tyrion chopping off people’s legs because that’s as high as his axe could reach! Aside from all of the exciting visuals, this episode, which takes place exclusively in King’s Landing, puts several of our beloved characters in peril, from the fighting imp to Sansa Stark, being held hostage by a really excellently drunk Cersei Lannister. To top it all off, this episode includes my favorite scene in the whole book series (to date), the one where The Hound shows up in Sansa’s room and offers to take her away from Joffrey. Sansdor 4-EVER!
Adam Wright: Best episode of the year for me is an easy one. I’ll keep this short and sweet because I’ve mentioned it several times during this great roundtable: The best episode of the year for me has to have significant impact on the series and its fans. The Dexter season seven premiere episode “Are You…?” not only did that, but it redeemed the series and changed the game forever.
Noel Kirkpatrick: It’d be weird if my choice for “best” episode wasn’t from my best show, wouldn’t it? Like when the Best Picture at the Oscar loses Best Director or something. So with that in mind, 30 Rock‘s “Live from Studio 6H” is probably my favorite episode of 2012. Yes, it’s a series of sketches, but it’s a brilliant series of sketches that lampooned all aspects of TV history, from telethons to network news anchors being misogynistic chain smokers to the hysterical Amos ‘n’ Andy send-up. Most importantly, it celebrated how TV, but specifically live TV, can unite us as an audience.
Les Chappell: 2012 was a great year of episodes for so many shows – tragic train robberies, fragmented triptych narratives, 8-bit adaptations, city council elections, tense interrogations, and war declared on a capital city. But of them all, I think the one I enjoyed and rewatched the most would be Archer‘s “Lo Scandalo,” a spin on the closed-door mystery that saw the ISIS crew dealing with the ramifications of a dead prime minister. It was a terrific ensemble episode, first with Archer, Lana and Malory going over the chain of events to no one’s satisfaction, and then the entire ISIS staff being caught up in Krieger’s body-disposal efforts. It was smaller-scale than the show’s bigger spy mission episodes, but that just made it better as it turned up the pressure on all the characters. And of course it was eminently quotable, between the confusion over Italy having a king, Malory’s casual racism, Krieger in his deranged element, and Cheryl getting so into the ELEGANT DINNER PARTY theme. Archer was my favorite comedy of 2012, and this was the best episode they produced.
Andrew Rabin: Wait Noel, why does your best episode need to be from your best show? What if one show has a season of A- episodes, and another has all B- episodes and one A+?Happy Endings is my best show, but none of its episodes made my top ten.
When I listed my ten favorite episodes of the season, I refused to rank them, but I labeled my top three (shameless, but relevant plug). I think there’s a good chance you guys will talk about two of them, so I’m gunna tackle one for a show I think is constantly overlooked. Suburgatory can be wildly inconsistent, but when it is at its best, it can be the best show on television. And the Thanksgiving episode, “The Wishbone” was the show at its best. The show ranges from the absurd to the sentimental, and this episode displayed all of that range. The introduction of Malin Akerman as Tessa’s mother was perfect, as she brilliantly blended in to the absurdity that is Chatswin. I did not have the same emotional connection with the episode that Todd VanDerWerff did (and that’s a must-read if you haven’t), but it still came through as a spectacular episode of television, and a showcase for what this insanely talented cast can do.
Andy Daglas: Oh god Rabin’s going to statistically rank every show Noel watched this year everybody run away.
Andrew Rabin: I knew I should’ve spent my winter break developing an anime-only ranking system.
Andy Daglas: …you mean you didn’t?
Greg Boyd: My choice was pretty much determined in May, and it’s stayed the same ever since: Parks and Rec’s “Win, Lose, or Draw”. While season four as a whole wasn’t quite as strong as season three, to me the campaign story is the best thing the series has ever done: particularly when it really got going during the second half of the season. The conclusion to that story wasn’t the show’s funniest episode ever (although it had plenty of laughs), but it might have been its most powerful on an emotional level. It was the perfect ending to one of the most ambitious season-long arcs in TV comedy history, and another example of why this is one of the best sitcoms ever made.
Cameron White: A lot of great episodes of television have been named in this discussion, so I’m going to rattle off some of my favorite second-place takers before getting to my favorite. Though I really loved the mostly-soft ending of Chuck, the penultimate episode “Chuck vs. Sarah” is the better one of the two final episodes that brought the show to a close. The dramatic conflict between Sarah, whose memory wipe is at odds with the family she’s come to embrace, and Chuck, who slowly begins to realize he has to fight for the woman he loves all over again, is just too good to pass up. The Revenge season finale was named for its excellent use of “Seven Devils” by Florence + The Machine, both in the episode itself and in the promos for it, and I wholeheartedly agree. I didn’t know what to expect when I caught up with the show this year, but I have come to enjoy it quite a lot, and the finale was a good example of the factors that sucked me into its orbit. Most people I talk to seem to think Community‘s third season wasn’t as good as its second; as someone who loves embracing the weird and the wonderful, I have to disagree, especially pointing to “Pillows & Blankets,” “Virtual Systems Analysis,” and the season finale “Introduction to Finality” as examples of how that show has remained one of the best sitcoms I’ve ever seen.
In the actual second, third, and fourth-place slots: Game of Thrones was hot and cold for me in season two; as a Daenerys fan, it was hard for me to really get behind the vague attempt at giving her more to do than she has in the second book. But “Blackwater” is one of those episodes that will stand the test of time. As war and wine flow through the cast of characters at King’s Landing, the episode hits on almost everything that makes the show, and the book series it’s based on, one of the finest pieces of fiction in recent years. Meanwhile, on FX, Louie (and Louie) took a huge risk with a three-part storyline about an opening at David Letterman’s show, and it paid off with one of the most beautiful and cathartic conclusions I’ve ever seen. You could really point to any of the three “Late Night” episodes as exemplary, but I just want to lump ’em all together and say “THIS IS AWESOME.” And on broadcast, I often feel like the only person alive who still digs Fringe as much as I did when I first saw the pilot (when it aired, I hadn’t seen LOST yet, so allow me some measure of excitement here; I’d never seen anything quite like it) but even those who weren’t keen on its fourth season enjoyed the brief diversion into the future that was the show’s typically atypical nineteenth episode, “Letters of Transit.” Starting with how striking the resemblance is between Georgina Haig and Anna Torv (are they long-lost sisters or something?!) and ending with an excellent iteration of dystopian tropes while still being about science and ethics and all the stuff that makes the show cook, “Letters of Transit” was another risk Fringe took that made me love the show all the more.
But if I’m going to pick one episode to highlight the kind of year that 2012 was in TV, there’s only one I can honestly pick: “Fifty-One,” the stellar fourth episode of Breaking Bad‘s final season. Any description of events that occurred in this episode will sound dull (go read the Wikipedia summary of the episode if you don’t believe me) because, more than most shows on television, Breaking Bad is a show about how the visual and the dialogue work together to tell a story. As Walt prattles on about his fake normal life, the one that hides his meth-making career so well, Skyler takes matters into her own hands and submerges herself in the pool. If there’s ever been a show that could depict how deep a wedge has been driven into a marriage the way Breaking Bad did with that moment, I simply don’t know of it. That that moment was just one of a string of superb moments throughout the hour is the reason that this one stands above the rest. And now we wait… for the cancer to come back.
Kerensa Cadenas: There were a ton of excellent episodes from this year, so this is unbelievably hard. As Cameron mentioned, “Fifty-One” from Breaking Bad was a stand-out in an already incredible season and Anna Gunn steals the episode. I really loved “Mystery Date” from Mad Men, an episode that delved into the dark recesses of Don Draper through a Lynchian-esque fever dream. And pretty much name any episode of Parks and Recreation and guarantee it made me cry, even a little bit.
However, I’m going to keep my Lena fan-girl streak running and pick “The Return” from Girls. The plot of the episode is fairly straightforward and mundane, Hannah goes home to Michigan visit her parents for their anniversary. She reconnects with old friends, questions her choices about living in New York and hooks up with a high school classmate. While there isn’t a ton of action, the episode is emotionally on point. Going home to where you grow up can be a weird emotional landmine where you are equal parts drawn to and disconnected to old friends and crushes, question your personal life decisions and ultimately are ready to go back from wherever you have come from even if it hasn’t been exactly what you dreamed of. It was also an episode, that began to develop one of the most interesting male characters on TV, Adam, who in a lovely last shot, Hannah talks to on a late-night call in her parents’ front yard. It was simply an episode, to me, that echoed feelings that I’ve felt a million times and perfectly executed it.
Wesley Ambrecht: I’m glad we decided to address our favorite episodes of 2012, because I got lazy this year and didn’t bother putting anything together for my own blog. That and I’ve been waiting to shower effusive praise on Sarah Watson (and the rest of Parenthood‘s writing staff) for “The Talk.” I singled Monica Potter out for her work as Kristina in one of our earlier round-table discussions but, truthfully, the entire show has evolved tremendously this season.
More so than any other episode of television that aired in 2012, I think the reason “The Talk” has continued to be a talking point for me is the way it took a topic I rarely if ever think about and really forced me to. In discussions with other people, I’ve said it’s the type of story that only Parenthood could really tell, and I maintain that. There simply isn’t a plethora of series (network or cable) telling the kind of intimate stories that Parenthood does. In “The Talk,” they broach the subject of race and frequency with which the n-word had permeated mainstream culture. There is an utterly heartbreaking scene where Crosby (Dax Shepherd) is forced to watch helplessly as his African-American wife Jasmine (Joy Bryant) explains the history of that word to their mixed-raced son Jabbar (Tyree Brown). The pain on all-fronts is devastating. Parenthood has been my favorite show of 2012 and this episode was a high-water mark.
Andrew Rabin: That’s a good pick Wes. I think so much of the Parenthood praise has been on Potter and the Kristina arc, and well deserved, but you’re right, the whole show has raised its game.
Though picking a Haddie-free episode stings a bit.
Emma Fraser: This is indeed a hard question to answer with just one episode as there has been so many great shows, producing such brilliant episodes throughout the year. As I’ve previously mentioned, this was the first year that I watched Parks and Recreation and binge watching this over the summer is probably the best TV related decision I made in 2012. No show has made me laugh and cry in this manner and so I’m going to choose the Amy Poehler written and directed “The Debate” as my favorite episode of the year. It’s the perfect showcase for all the characters and shows how much they care about Leslie and that she wins the election. It also has many amazing hilarious moments such as Andy acting out movies such as Rambo and Road House, if the episode had just been Andy doing this I’d probably still pick it. Paul Rudd is brilliant once again as Bobby Newport and the other candidates (including Buddy Garrity!) provide a range of silly answers in a wonderful quick fire question montage.
What this episode is really about is why Leslie should win and her closing argument is what gets me all misty eyed. It’s a scene that highlights the strengths of Parks and Rec over an average comedy; they’ve made a show where as a viewer I really care about what happens to these characters and the world they live in. Bobby Newport sums it up perfectly with his comment of “Holy shit, Leslie that was awesome!”
I’m also going to give a special mention to another comedy, because while it has been an excellent year for drama it’s comedy that I end up rewatching. New Girl found its feet in 2012 after a patchy first few outings and while I could highlight several episodes it is the Nick cancer scare “Injured” that is my personal highlight. It’s another example of how comedy and emotion can go together, if handled in the right way and Nick’s admitting his fears thanks to this scare does just that. This is a group of characters who has chemistry beyond simple will they/won’t they and this episode highlights this important reason as to why New Girl has been so good in 2012. Plus it continues Schmidt’s random obsession with wanting to see Nick’s penis, which is always amusing.
Chris Castro: At first I thought I would have to think long and hard about all the episodes I watched or all of my favorite shows to answer this question. And I did start thinking about that until I saw the actual list of shows I watched this year and saw the Thick Of It sitting there and knew this was actually the easiest question to answer.
“Series 4, Episode 6” (unofficially titled “The Inquiry”) was not only the penultimate episode of The Thick Of It but a complete culmination and payoff of everything this show had done during its run. Set inside the chambers of an official inquiry, one by one, the (fictional) backstabbing, ruthless, selfish, and, usually, hopelessly incompetent political movers-and-shakers in the two British political parties were grilled on their seedy practices and their culpability in the death of another political figure. The funny thing about this episode of the usually gut-bustingly hilarious show is it was actually quite serious and shined a spotlight on how everything these characters had done was only to serve themselves and just how broken the modern-day system of government has become. For an hour we got to see every character sweat as their asked point blank about their involvement in the practice of “leaking” sensitive and private information to the press. Watching them squirm and go straight to passing the buck to the next person felt distressingly real and was almost hard to watch. It felt like every actor knew their character inside and out, and each of their reactions and stutters and nervous chuckles felt absolutely perfect. (Reportedly, creator Armando Iannucci made sure his regular players knew what they were going to say, but did not tell them the order in which the inquiry panel would be asking the questions, making this whole episode seem even more insane and risky.)
Most impressive of all was to see the dramatic range of Peter Capaldi brought to the forefront of this episode. He’s been in tons of other shows during his long career, most of them dramas, but he’s always been most known as the gleefully abrasive, verbally abusive, profane poet of insults Malcolm Tucker. Tucker was always a level above every other character on the show and obviously knew it and enjoyed the hell out of it. But to see him hold back that intense persona in front of the inquiry and go from quietly charming to starkly frank and defeated over the course of an hour was truly a performance for the ages.
Even with all the great performances of the characters subpoenaed to answer questions, I couldn’t take my eyes off one character in the background audience: Tucker’s assistant, Sam. It was strangely thrilling to watch her reactions to the unfolding events and to even eventually see the other characters notice and interact with her as the episode went on. The show had done such an amazing job of creating this world that a character that, at most, had five or six short lines over the course of the entire series felt like a fully fleshed-out character that was as important and exciting to watch as even Malcolm Tucker. It’s the little things like that which make this possibly the best episode of one of the greatest television comedies of all time. And the episode had barely any jokes.
Eric Thurm: Most of my favorite episodes of the year have either already been discussed (“Fifty-One”) or I’ve talked about them for different parts of the roundtable (“Q&A”), but I want to talk about one of my most purely enjoyable TV experiences of the last year – Adventure Time‘s two-part season premiere “Jake The Dog” and “Finn The Human.” Over the past year, the show has deepened its exploration of an increasingly convoluted (but somehow totally appropriate) backstory with the Mushroom War that destroyed humanity. Though “I Remember You” has gotten most of the attention for that (and rightly so), I think “Finn The Human/Jake The Dog” better exemplifies what makes Adventure Time so great. There’s a lot of time-bending and universe saving, of course, but the best thing about Adventure Time for me has always been how surreal the show can be while staying grounded in a relationship between two best bros. That shines through, even in an episode that largely takes place in an alternate reality where Jake can’t talk and Finn has a weird nose and a family. Really though, it’s hard not to love an episode that features Jake hanging out with Prismo (a god voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) and the Cosmic Owl, who brings board games to Cosmic Being Bro Time and mass death via Mushroom Bomb, all with the genuine emotion Adventure Time regularly churns out now. And sandwiches.
Cory Barker: After thinking about this for a few days, I’ve decided on the pilot episode of Awake. Like every year, there were a slew of great individual offerings to choose from, but of course, so many of those choices require a certain level of context and/or knowledge. While that’s far from bad, the great pilots often provide us with a singular piece of television that works as both the beginning to something compelling and as a wonderful standalone story. The Awake pilot is one of those great pilots. I still have a big soft spot in my heart for Kyle Killen’s previous pilot for Lone Star, but the opening episode of Awake is even better because it’s more assured, complex and haunting. Everything in that first hour–Killen’s script, David Slade’s measured but innovative direction, the color scheme, the performances, etc.–works in concert with one another so well. Nothing is out of place. The result is an episode that while somewhat convoluted, still carries the narrative through to the end thanks to a consistent stream of emotional wallops. Like most great pilots, Awake never quite reached the visual, thematic and emotional highs of its initial episode, but that doesn’t really matter does it? This is a wonderful individual episode; nothing can take that away.
Danny Grinberg: Time has always been critical on Breaking Bad. The biological countdown on Walt’s life, the precise calculations to creating blue glass meth, the one minute before the twins reach Hank’s car. Yet, as excellent as the show has been about creating suspense through its five seasons to date, I still needed extra time to recover from the jolts of its most recent finale, “Gliding Over All.” Walt watching the red hands revolve on his birthday watch, as the synchronous sequence of murders he ordered unfolded, marked a chilling new level of cold-bloodedness. Another stunning montage followed in quick succession, compressing the formerly precious commodity of time for the characters as carefreely as Walt now dispatches of his enemies.
But as the minutes ticked down toward the end of the season, I couldn’t shake the sense that some cataclysmic event was still on the horizon. Walt and his family were just casually chatting in the backyard. Then Hank excused himself to go to the bathroom. Each drawn-out moment felt so scarily innocuous and ordinary. Sure enough though, after building to this event over so many seasons, “Gliding Over All” packed in one last gut-punch in the nick of time. Just when Walt was ready to abdicate his empire, Hank finally cracked the identity of Heisenberg. After a year of absolute ruthlessness and endless bloodshed, Walt may have just lost everything he’s worked for in the time it takes to take a shit.
Heather McLendon: It is far too difficult to pinpoint a single favorite episode — there were many stellar episodes last year, as it’s been mentioned over and over again by everybody here. Oneof my favorites has to be “Sexy People” on Don’t Trust the B. Its deconstruction and critique of People’s ‘Sexist Man Alive’ edition is exquisitely hilarious and rude with just the right amount of raunchiness. Krysten Ritter says such lines as “Look what I made with my hands!” and gives birth to the “smackwich.” Her method of firing two people, gazing out the window and drawing a “peen” on the board is just the best. “Sexy People” has all the awesome aspects of Don’t Trust the B and minimizes the show’s not-so-great attributes (like June’s annoying primness and the ubiquitous Skype conversations with her mother).
“Strawberry lip balm, a beret and smints – that’s what’s in your purse. We told you those items were hot and you went out and bought them. That’s the kind of power we have.” Has there been a better, more succinct and clever assessment of fashion magazine/pop culture than that? So good.
Another close favorite is “Anatomy of a Joke” from The Good Wife. It brings back Matt Czuchry’s Cary Agos to the plot’s forefront. (He was horribly underused during the first part of the season.) We finally got a break from the tired subplot of yet another sex scandal coming to light and instead were given a humorous side story between Alicia and Peter regarding birthmarks and genitalia — a story so outrageous it causes Alicia to give that fabulous, raspy laugh of hers. (She needs to laugh more often, and any episode that has her LOL immediately receives points from me.) The main legal case in this episode is also stellar and speaks to a topic raised time and again in 2012 — that of female comedians, women’s “place” in comedy, what’s considered “acceptable” humor. It explores these topics while allowing its characters to remain unsure and ambiguous of their own opinions about network TV and humor in general. In the end, there is no obvious “this is how you should feel about comedians and their humor” statement. The viewer is left up to form her own thoughts and opinions, which is a trademark of The Good Wife, and excellently executed in “Anatomy of a Joke.”