10) “Argentina” — Dexter
One of the nicest surprises on television this year was Dexter’s renaissance in quality. After some misguided years and a true nadir of a season in 2011, Dexter finally embraced a real progression in the story—having Debra find out about her brother’s “hobby”—and was all the better for it. The tension between Deb and Dexter led to some of the show’s best scenes ever. And since Dexter didn’t spend the entire season chasing his usual Big Bad Guy, Season Seven actually had decent subplots, including great guest performances from Ray Stevenson and Yvonne Strahovski. In “Argentina,” the show was even able to address the weirdest element of last season—Deb’s crush on her brother—in an impressive and compelling way.
9) “Eggs” — New Girl
Although New Girl just missed my list of shows I was most excited for this season, it actually took a big step forward in quality during its second season. While every character had worked in stretches during the show’s first year, by this fall the show knew how to make the whole cast funny at once. “Eggs,” for example, had funny moments from everyone, while also keeping every character in a perfectly appropriate story. Nick freaking out about his zombie novel, for example, was both funny and fitting. And the story of Jess and Cece’s worry about their fertility was an excellent example of show taking a complicated, tricky issue, and telling a realistic and funny story with it.
8) “Leave Me Alone” — Girls
With all the fuss people made about Girls, it was easy to miss the actual substance of the show. But it was quite good. The season’s penultimate episode had the final showdown between Hanna and Marnie, but it also had some great, simple moments leading up to that. There was Hanna working at the coffee shop, and her attempt to write an “important” story about death. Things like this often went overlooked in discussions of the show, but they’re what made its first season so compelling.
7) “Q&A” — Homeland
Homeland had an eventful second season. When the show quickly got Carrie and Brody together, after separating them seemingly for good at the end of last season, it let the show play to its strengths for a long time. By the end of the season, though, Homeland was recycling plots from the later years of 24 and almost becoming a parody of itself. But when Claire Danes and Damien Lewis had scenes together, particularly when one or both of them were trying to hide something, the show was riveting. So “Q&A” which was largely just an interrogation between those two, was an amazing hour of television.
6) “The Debate” — Parks and Recreation
In a year full of political humor and election parodies, Parks and Recreation did the best of these storylines, largely by staying away from current events. Instead of parodying Barack Obama or Mitt Romney (though Bobby Newport, played by Paul Rudd, bore some resemblance to Romney), Parks and Rec was able to satirize the process more generally (“I agree that movies should be more faithful to the books they are based on”), while still getting the audience to root for Leslie Knope. Plus, this episode had Andy reenacting scenes from Die Hard and Babe, which was one of the funniest things on TV all year.
5) “Two Imposters” — Boardwalk Empire
After killing off one of its best and most central characters at the end of last season, there was a risk that Boardwalk Empire would suffer this year. But by embracing a more traditional gangster storyline than ever before, and by getting a great performance from Bobby Cannavale, the show actually turned in its best season yet. Watching Nucky Thompson scramble for his life in “Two Imposters” was the highlight, culminating a year of watching Thompson slowly lose his grip on power. Plus, this episode had one of the coolest endings of the year.
4) “Pillows and Blankets” — Community
It was not the best year for Community fans: The show was put on hiatus (twice), and Dan Harmon was fired. Still, despite all the turmoil, it got renewed for a fourth season and, most importantly, it never strayed from its uniquely brilliant style. The parodies, for example, continued, whether it was episodes based on Law & Order or, as in “Pillows and Blankets,” the Ken Burns documentaries. The fake documentary episode showcased the vast universe that Community has developed in only three seasons. Alhough the show focused on the strongest relationship it has—the friendship of Troy and Abed—it featured great moments from the Dean, Magnitude, Leonard, Chang, and Starburns (as well as an allusion to the cast’s ongoing love of The Cape), not to mention the seven main characters. Behind all of Community’s cleverness, it has one of the deepest casts on television.
3) “Far Away Places” — Mad Men
After a long layoff, Mad Men returned with probably its most experimental season thus far. Season Five took a lot of risks, whether it was spending a lot of time on a new character like Megan, dabbling in dream sequences, or taking characters like Joan, Peggy, and Lane to extreme places. In “Far Away Places,” Mad Men tried a kind of Rashomon-style episode, with one day seen from three different perspectives. What could have been very hackneyed turned into some of the best extended sequences of the series. Don and Megan’s fight at a Howard Johnson’s showed the tension between them while also showing how much they care for each other. And any episode where Roger Sterling takes LSD is going to be great…
2) “Dead Freight” — Breaking Bad
Breaking up the final season of Breaking Bad interrupted the show’s usual rhythm—parts of the first half of Season Five felt rushed or glossed over. But on an episode-to-episode level, the series was as good as ever. “Dead Freight” illustrated how the show both plays with and transcends genre. The centerpiece of the episode was a train robbery, but with a twist that was distinctly Breaking Bad. As a result, the sequence was fresh and as thrilling as any on television this year. But it was the horror of the final scene that made this episode really memorable.
1) “The Late Show” — Louie
This is cheating—technically these were three different episodes. But since they function basically as a trilogy, I’m including them as one and, once again, Louie takes the #1 spot of the year. Taken together, these three episodes had all of the things Louis C.K.’s show does well, from the brutally honest scenes with few laughs to the surreal humor of David Lynch’s guest role to the straightforward comedy of C.K.’s “test show” with Susan Sarandon. Plus, “The Late Show” functioned as a poignant illustration of middle age, with Louie as the Rocky Balboa of stand up comedy, given one last chance to prove his mettle. It was the kind of thing no other show does, but which we’ve come to expect from Louie.