5. “God,” Louie
One of the reasons the superlative in the title of this post is “memorable” and not “best” is to make room for episodes like “God.” It wasn’t the funniest episode of the first season of Louie—and it wasn’t even necessarily my favorite—but it was certainly the most distinct and memorable episode of a show that was consistently original. I remember watching the scene in which the creepy, nameless doctor tells a young Louie to stab Jesus Christ in the wrist and thinking, “It’s very unusual that this is on television.” The dark humor, the nuanced take on religion, and the controversial point of view are all things rarely seen on TV, and yet they were precisely the kinds of things that made Louie such an innovative and enjoyable show.
4. “The End,” LOST
Another great example of why “memorable” is a more appropriate adjective than “best”: The quality of the Lost series finale is certainly debatable—I enjoyed it, but many were disappointed or even betrayed by it—but it’s hard to deny that the episode was a memorable television event, if not THE television event of 2010. The entire final season played out in typical Lost fashion: It was convoluted and confusing, alternately exhilarating and boring, poignant and baffling. The finale was the same: Even people who were generally upset by it seemed to find something great in the finale, whether it was Sawyer and Juliet getting together again, or Claire giving birth to Aaron again, or Kate shooting Locke 2.0. Every fan, in other words, seemed to get a reminder of why he liked Lost, and why it will be missed when it’s gone.
3. “The Suitcase,” Mad Men
The plot of Mad Men moves very slowly—to a fault in many instances—but the payoff of the deliberate pace is an episode like “The Suitcase,” in which nuances of a relationship that have been brewing for three-and-a-half seasons (and five years in the timeline of the show) boil to the surface. The performances of Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss were enough to distinguish this as one of the great episodes of the series, but it is also a credit to Matthew Weiner’s script. “The Suitcase” serves several different arcs, both within the season and the entire series, while also working as a self-contained story about two kindred coworkers. In other words, it is an example of television at its finest.
2. “Modern Warfare,” Community
Speaking of television at its finest, “Modern Warfare” was the most hilarious and ambitious episode of television to air in 2010. It’s hard enough to pull off just one of those feats, but to do both is pretty rare. Community didn’t just execute a pitch-perfect parody of action/war movies, complete with its own slow-mo shootouts (brilliantly directed by Justin Lin)—it also manages to do so in a way that, instead of stretching the characters into cartoonish exaggerations of themselves, actually stays true to what is funniest about each of the characters. Each member of Community’s deep cast gets a laugh in this episode, from Abed’s stern instructions (“If you don’t want paint on your clothes, come with me”) to Troy’s surprise to see Jeff alive, to the girls sneak attack in the bathroom. And they even manage to take a nice shot at Glee (“Learn some original songs!”) which is always a plus.
1. “Fly,” Breaking Bad
What might be most amazing about “Fly” is all the things that aren’t featured in the episode. Three of the five main characters don’t appear at all, which means that the moral counterweight that Hank often provides is entirely absent. There are no guest stars, like Bob Odenkirk or Giancarlo Esposito, who often drop by to steal scenes, and there is none of the beautiful cinematography that comes from shooting in the landscape of New Mexico. Instead it’s just Walt and Jesse locked in a laboratory for a whole episode, doing something as mundane as trying to kill a fly. Even so, “Fly” is a stunning blend of tension, emotion, and humor. The guest-direction of Rian Johnson (who also directed Brick, one of the best films of the Aughts) is great at capturing the infuriating elusiveness of the fly, but this episode is mostly made by the two greatest actors on television right now, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Walt’s sleepy, drug-induced admission that he’s “lived too long,” and Jesse’s pained memory of Jane were two of the best acting moments on TV this year, and they happened to come in the same episode. Plus, Cranston and Paul have established such a deep and fascinating rapport that I feel like I could watch hours of Walt and Jesse doing pretty much anything. This relationship, more than anything else, is what I’ll remember about TV in 2010.