Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Best Television of 2011

Okay I'm going to cheat here and give you a list of the best television episodes of 2011 - it's a much simpler list to make, and it allows me to include shows that would have otherwise not approached a top ten list with a ten foot pole (I'm looking at you, Glee). It's well established that we're in the golden age of television, and even with my relaxed criteria, it became hard to narrow the list down to ten. Here we go -

10. Silly Love Songs, Glee: Ah, how the mighty have fallen. There was a time, not too long ago, when this musical comedy was at the top of the pop culture echelon, a critical and ratings smash. Then, before you could shout "Regionals!" we found ourselves stuck with too much grating Sue Sylvester, too little sensible Will Schuester, and gaping continuity issues. Still, the reason I continue to watch Glee is for its ability to occasionally pull out episodes like its Valentine's Day confection: this was a delightful little ode to teenage love, and it gave us the show at its best. Puck gyrates to Fat Bottomed Girl, Kurt pines over Blaine, and Rachel gets to be a Firework. The episode caps off with a lovely acappella rendition of the song that it gets its title from, with Kurt heart-gesturing to his two faithful fag hags. Heartwarming, really.

Tied with: Rumours, Glee:  A lot of the theme episodes on the show haven't really worked (ugh Britney, and UGH Gaga), but with this Fleetwood Mac tribute, the show fired on all cylinders. It was touching, it had some great performances, and it actually managed to integrate the songs - and the theme of the album itself - in manner that was organic and NOT outside the established story canon of the show. Now how hard can that be Ryan Murphy?

9. Spooky Endings, Happy Endings: The first Friends knock-off that is a genuinely good show in its own right, Happy Endings supplies the highest rate of laughs-per-minute for this particular viewer. This episode is one of its most hilarious, and bizarre, with a mother-and-child costume that features the baby's head peeking out kangaroo style and a move-to-suburbs-plot that goes for some great sight gags. There's also a drag competition. With a Marilyn Monroe dance. Please watch.

8. White Wedding, Grey's Anatomy: The long running medical drama enjoyed a creative resurgence in its seventh season, with a cathartic storyline as the surgeons moved past the trauma of the hospital shootings. The best moments of the season featured people pushing forward to make decisions that featured just how much their characters had matured post the crisis. The perfect showcase was this double wedding episode that featured strikingly lovely interweaving between a perfectly legal straight marriage, and a purely ceremonial lesbian one. Just another sweet payoff for those of us who've stuck with this show through its now eight year run.

7.  Queen of Jordan, 30 Rock: It might be an ageing comedy, but 30 Rock is still capable of delivering some of the best - and strangest - laughs on television. This inspired take on reality television was the best kind of spoof - one that actively pushed the story forward, while simultaneously going to some particularly strange places. Of course, it doesn't quite compare to the other show that does a similar thing with many episodes (and features prominently near the top of the list).

6.  Lonesome Sundown, Cougar Town: This show has long transcended its banal title to become one of television's most underrated treasures - episodes spent in the company of the wine-guzzling gang evoke the familiarity of just sitting and having fun with your closest friends. This particular one features the inanity of a punishment council when the gang takes each other for granted, coupled with a moving plot where Courtney Cox's Jules takes an important step forward in learning to let go of her teenage son.


5. Pilot, Revenge: Delicious, delicious fun. This is the soapiest show currently running on television, and man does it take its duties seriously. Spinning a story of how one wronged woman plots a web of revenge around the people who destroyed her father's life, the pilot episode gives us a big dose of what will go on to be one of the show's most reliable pleasures: the always on the edge of hostile standoffs between Madeline Stowe, chief betrayer and high society extraordinaire, and Emily Vancamps' Amanda (well, Emily actually. uh, it gets confusing) as the wronged woman with a vendetta. Like I said, delicious. The best way to watch this show, internet consensus has it, is to end every episode with your fist pointed to the sky and yell "REVENGEEEEE".

   Do it. 

4. Pilot, Homeland: A U.S. Marine-turned-Prisoner of War is rescued 10 years after being captured. He's a war hero - but Claire Danes' CIA Agent has her doubts. She suspects he might have "turned" and is plotting an attack on the country, and will breach every ethical principle to get to the bottom of the mystery. Also, she's mildly unhinged. The show takes this fantastic premise, and gallops with it, giving us one of the most cinematic episodes of television it a while with its compelling opener. Without hitting us over the head with the point, the show talks about  how the casualties in war extend beyond mere body counts, as we watch our marine struggle to interact with his family, and our agent struggle with her grip on reality.

Tied with: Executive Order 13224, The Good Wife: An exceptionally smart show, The Good Wife combines a mix of great ripped-from-the-headlines plots with an enthralling mix of workplace and family drama. Ever so often, it also teaches you a thing or two about the legal system, and in this, its best episode in a very good year, it centers on the controversial eponymous post 9/11 order. Questions of state security are weaved into a narrative where Alicia Florrick finds her personal interests might just be at odds with that of her firm. Cue an absolutely stellar performance from recurring lawyer Elsbeth Tasconi, and a tense cat-and -mouse game with the government.

3.  Paradigms of Human Memory,  Community: . You know that tired old thing where a show does an old clips episode, where the characters ruminate on past events? Cue audible groans from the bored audience. Well, Community tried a clip show too: except that it featured new clips, from memories that we'd never seen before. As if that wasn't good enough, the memories that we see allow the creators to go flat out surreal -  Community does Glee! Community goes to a ghost town! Community goes to an asylum! - and in the process, even more hilarious.

2. A Fistfull of Paintballs, Community:  Yes, Community deserves two slots on this list, it's that good. The strength of this hugely ambitious show lies in its ability to take on pop culture tropes and fashion storylines around them. This was the most wildly entertaning version of the idea, with the show taking on the Western genre with dazzling style, an abundance of wit, and actually propelling the emotional arc for its characters foward.

1. Andy and April's Fancy Party, Parks and Recreation: The show with the most heart on television is also one of the medium's funniest. This episode focuses on one of the things Parks and Rec does best: its focus on the woozy romances between its utterly lovable characters. A housewarming party thrown by new couple Andy and April turns out to be a surprise wedding. In one step, the show strode past the engagement and wedding jitters tropes so characteristic of this genre and gave us this marvellously heartwarming piece of showcraft. This show frequently knocks it out of the park (ha! pun) in so many ways, and here's the best example.

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