Well, the 2012 list is pretty much all wrapped up, but what were the best episodes of TV in 2011?
10) “You’re Getting Old” – South Park
This was not the funniest episode of South Park this year, or even the best, but it was certainly the most memorable for the way it dealt with the show’s ongoing existence. As Trey Parker and Matt Stone found success on Broadway with The Book of Mormon while their aging series had now passed its 200th episode, they were bound to start questioning the value of a show that “just shows how shitty things are.” When Randy and Sharon Marsh broke up, it seemed like a thinly veiled commentary by Parker/Stone on the series itself (“Every week it’s kind of the same story in a different way, but it just keeps getting more and more ridiculous”). It was so jarring that some people expected it to be a surprise series finale. Of course, I’m happy Parker and Stone are continuing with the series, and the fact they are willing to question the value of the show is part of why it’s so great.
9) “Palestinian Chicken” – Curb Your Enthusiasm
It was an oddly unbalanced season of Curb this year. 2011 saw some of the show’s worst episodes, but also some of its best. “Palestinian Chicken” was definitely among the latter. For one, it was probably the season’s best use of Larry’s newfound bachelor status, as his relationship with Shara forced him to turn his back on his Jewish faith (“The penis doesn’t care about race, creed, or color. The penis wants to go to its homeland”). The episode also deployed Larry in the role he was born to play—a “social assassin”—which of course even he screws up. Finally, this episode was one of the few glimpses of Marty Funkhouser this season, whose presence is always appreciated.
8) “The Weekend” – Homeland
Although the set-up of Homeland—an American POW may have been turned by terrorists—was promising, it was a show that could have failed in a lot of ways. It could have resorted to 24’s guiding philosophy of “never plot more than one episode in advance.” It could have cluttered itself with red herrings, like The Killing. Or it could have made its characters irrational and boneheaded just to keep the audience guessing. “The Weekend” showed how the series avoided all of those traps, particularly the last one. In a rather shocking twist, Carrie’s surveillance of Brody was exposed in only the seventh episode, and the two confronted each other directly, with Brody answering all her questions honestly… or so it appeared. Of course, the plot got far more complicated in the next episode, but in ways that made moments from “The Weekend” more significant, not less. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis were great together, making the scenes between them both riveting and touching.
7) “Fear” – Wilfred
Judging from some reviews, I seem to have found Wilfred–my favorite new comedy of 2011–more laugh-out-loud funny than other viewers. The show was more character-driven than most comedies—and thus paired perfectly with Louie—but I still laughed more at this show than I do at most sitcoms. Perhaps that was merely because I never tired of the central joke of the series: Though Wilfred talks and thinks like a person, he is still a dog. It’s a simple joke, but one the show found dozens of angles on. In “Fear,” when Wilfred tries to explain yet another it’s-just-the-way-the-world-works point to Ryan, he explains, “I don’t know, Ryan. Why is the sky gray? Why is the grass gray? Why is a rainbow gray, gray, gray, gray, gray, and infragray?” The episode also features Ethan Suplee as a comically disturbed, porn-obsessed neighbor.
6) “Don’t Go” – Friday Night Lights
The more I think about the way Friday Night Lights ended, the angrier it makes me. Nevertheless, the valedictory season had a lot going for it before that finale. An episode like “Don’t Go” was a perfect example of what the series was about: courage in the face of heartbreaking disappointment. Friday Night Lights was always at its best when it was honest and realistic about the fact that most people fail (Coach said as much in the pilot). So an episode that deals with the fact that Luke may never play football again, that Vince may not get a D-I scholarship, and that Tim and Billy won’t magically reunite when he gets home from prison is the kind of episode that shows the value of someone like Coach Taylor. He’s someone who will show up to a former player’s parole hearing, and who will turn down a lucrative coaching gig for the sake of a community that loves him and a player who shows up on his lawn to declare football—and his coach—saved his life. Of course, that whole message would be completely undercut in the finale, but let’s just ignore that…
5) “To the Lost” – Boardwalk Empire
The first season of Boardwalk Empire was a strong debut for the highly anticipated series, but it seemed to leave a lot of people wanting more. A lot of the major conflicts were only set up, with most of the resolution being saved for Season Two—which was why this season ended up #2 on my Fall Season Preview post. Season Two certainly delivered—it pared down the action to the show’s most interesting characters, and built to a tremendous series of episodes down the stretch. The season finale, “To the Lost,” specifically stands out, both for the shocking ending (which hits the perfect medium of being totally surprising at first, and then glaringly obvious in retrospect) and the brilliant character work done by Michael Pitt and the rest of the cast.
4) “Media Blitz” – Parks and Recreation
It’s hard to pick a favorite episode of Parks and Recreation from 2011—it was so consistently great that picking highlights is difficult. I’m going with “Media Blitz,” though, for the brilliant performance of Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt undergoing a minor public meltdown. Scott is usually playing the straight man on Parks, as Ben reacts to living with Andy and Aprilor working with Ron. This episode, on the other hand, makes him the comedic focal point. Few shows can have such a great episode focusing on such a grounded character, but Parks is far more versatile than most shows. Ben’s manic performance on Ya Heard? With Perd is one of the best scenes of the series (“Look! Who hasn’t had gay thoughts? Who?!… Sometimes I feel like I might need glasses… Is there a bird in here?! I swear I keep seeing a bird in the studio…”)—and revealing the scene as a playback for Ben and his coworkers is the kind of subtle yet perfect twist that the show is great at.
3) “Paradigms of Human Memory” – Community
Community remains my favorite comedy on TV for the second year in a row thanks to its ambition, and “Paradigms of Human Memory” is a perfect illustration of that ambition. Every time I feel like the show has run out of genres to spoof, they find something new. Here it’s the very structure of a clip show. Instead of simply finding an excuse to rehash old stories and scenes, “Paradigms of Human Memory” uses the model to introduce new plotlines and past events that the audience has never seen. Whether the plots were as big as Jeff and Britta’s secret relationship, or as simple as Abed’s obsession with NBC’s shot-lived series The Cape, they all had more nuance than most standard plots on other sitcoms. Of course, the nature of the episode also enabled Community to embrace a joke-a-second structure—like the one in the montage of Jeff’s speeches—that led to one of its funniest episodes thus far.
2) “Crawl Space” – Breaking Bad
If I were ranking entire seasons, Breaking Bad would certainly finish first. The Fourth Season was a nuanced and unabashedly realistic depiction of Walter White’s moral descent, and the last hour was particularly thrilling. And it’s not as if this season lacked the intensely rich episodes the show is known for. Aside from the finale, there were “Problem Dog,” “Hermanos,” “Bug,” and “Salud”—all of which had amazing final scenes. But the most memorable episode for me is still “Crawl Space,” for reasons I mentioned in my season review. Overall, “Crawl Space” was not as strong as the episodes I just mentioned, but the final scene was so harrowing, and affected me so viscerally, that it makes the list at #2.
1) “Come On, God” – Louie
What can I say? I’m a sucker for masturbation episodes, and Louis C.K. produced the best one since Seinfeld’s “The Contest.” And whereas Larry David attacked the subject’s social sensitivity—as he always does—C.K. attacked it from the perspective he’s most comfortable with—deep personal shame. C.K.’s willingness to confront shame so directly is probably why so many people call Louie a “half-hour drama” or “short-film series” instead of just a “comedy.” Unlike most comedies, there’s no other perspective to hide behind. But I don’t approve of this trend, since it belies just how funny the show is. I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at anything this year than I did at the scene of Louie on Fox News. Even a scene like Ellie’s explanation of her relationship fantasy sets up a brilliant cut to Louie masturbating again. This kind of slyly clever joke manages to be both deeply dramatic and realistic, while no less funny.