Friday, August 22, 2014

The Top Ten Episodes from the 2013-2014 Television Season

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Last year, I put up a list of the top 10 shows on television right now. A revised version of that list will go up Monday afternoon, but we'll conclude the calendar Emmy week (damn you NBC and your move-to-Monday-night-because-football scheduling) with a different list: the top 10 individual episodes from the past season of television.

Before we get to the actual episodes, here are the criteria for making the list. I'm using the Emmy eligibility period, which means anything that aired between June 1, 2013 and May 31, 2014 is fair game (it's also why The Leftovers episode "Guest," one of the best episodes I've seen this year, isn't on the list). I'm also limiting each show to just one episode, since otherwise I could easily make this a list of just Breaking Bad and/or Bob's Burgers episodes. Finally, and most obviously, only episodes that I have watched - i.e., from shows I regularly watch - are on the list, so if your favorite didn't qualify, I may not have seen. This is an arbitrary list, for fun, after all.

And so, without further ado, the top 10 episodes of the past television season.

10. "Birthday" (New Girl)

By having Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) run off together at the end of the show's second season, New Girl set itself a new challenge: take an element that made the show one of the best sitcoms on the air and turn it into an actual relationship. It was a perilous attempt, and there were more than a few missteps in the show's third season, but "Birthday" proved that it could be done with aplomb. Though the return of Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) to the loft did initially disturb the main cast's chemistry, by this episode everything was back in working order. Nick tries to set up a special day for Jess for her birthday, only to face a litany of unexpected obstacles. Schmidt (Max Greenfield) helps CeCe (Hannah Simone) learn to be a better bartender, and Coach and Winston (Lamorne Morris) compete with one another in preparing of Jess' party. Each character gets some hilarious material, and the episode's final scene is both funny and romantic. "Birthday" proved that New Girl could make Nick and Jess' relationship work, even if it seemed uncertain at times.

More after the jump.

9. "Chapter 17" (House of Cards)

Truth be told, most episodes of House of Cards don't quite hold up when taken on an individual basis. The show works best when binge-watched, when minor faults can be quickly swept under the rug in the pull of Vice President Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) menace. But "Chapter 17" stands out for what may be the show's finest moment: Claire Underwood's (Robin Wright) interview with CNN in which she "opens up" about her abortion and rape at the hands of a high-ranking military official. I use quotations because she doesn't really tell the truth (there was a different reason for the abortion), but it's one of the series' most emotionally-impactful moments to date. There are other things happening in the episode - namely, Frank being locked in his office with a congressman whose vote he's trying to secure after a terror threat is called in - but it's the interview that makes it stand out. And that's thanks to Wright, in what was one of the most impressive performances from any show this year. She's long been the series' best asset, and "Chapter 17" finally gave her a chance to really shine.

8. "Debate" (Veep)

Veep wrapped up its best season to date this year, buoyed by Vice President Selina Meyer's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) decision to run for president. The decision cranked up the stakes immensely, putting pressure on every member of her staff in ways that made them panic hilariously. There were a number of choice episodes from this season - particularly the The Thick of It crossover "Special Relationship" - but "Debate" was quite simply the funniest. Centering on the debate between Selina and her challengers for the presidency, the real meat of the episode comes from the characters having assembled around the event, watching Selina bullshit her way through talking points while they spout off profane asides about everyone else. The combination of juicy writing and terrific performances, especially from Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh, Reid Scott, and Timothy Simons, make this a potent half-hour of political satire.

7. "Mazel-Tina" (Bob's Burgers)

Bob's Burgers is the crown jewel of FOX's animation lineup, but it's the Belcher's oldest daughter Tina (voice of Dan Mintz) shines the brightest on the show. Tina is awkward and relatable, and "Mazel-Tina" puts her center stage and gives her a moment in the spotlight. When Tina isn't invited to Tammy's (Jenny Slate) bat mitzvah, she volunteers her dad (H. Jon Benjamin, one of the best voices in animation) to cater the event. But when Tammy gets stuck and goes missing, it's Tina who steps in and enjoys being the center of attention. More than that, though, this episode is relentlessly funny, with every member of the Belchers contributing to the madness that unfurls. But it never loses the heart that's made this series so good. It's a terrific example of this show at its best.

6. "The Watchers on the Wall" (Game of Thrones)

Most episodes of Game of Thrones have so many different storylines running through them that each episode is more of a collection of moments than anything else. That was especially true this season, but "The Watchers on the Wall" was the exception. The episode spends the entirety of its running time at the Wall, where Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) must lead the defense of Castle Black against a Wildling attack. It's the season's most action-packed episode, complete with battle sequences that involve both giants and mammoths. As directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent), the episode keeps a breakneck pace throughout the hour and is filmed with cleanly-shot action sequences (a rarity today). But the human stakes are also there, making the episode equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking. In short, it was everything that Game of Thrones is at its best.

5. "In the Woods, Parts 1&2" (Louie)

Season four of Louie was the show's most polarizing, with many episodes not even attempting to fit the mold of "comedy." "In the Woods, Parts 1&2" are two such episodes (I'm lumping them together as one), but together they make up the show's finest hour. Louie (Louis C.K.) catches his oldest daughter Lily (Hadley Delany) smoking pot, causing him to confront the memory of his teenage escapades with the drug. It's a deeply personal hour of television, with C.K. pulling no punches into turning his teenage self into a burnout who gets mixed up with dangerous drug dealer (Jeremy Renner). But the major impact it has on his relationships with the people who really matter with him, such as his friends, his teacher, and his mother. It's a heart-wrenching hour of television, one that proves just how good a storyteller C.K. really is.

4. "Beach House" (Girls)

Here's another emotionally blunt episode of television. Girls has mostly kept the four main cast members separate throughout the show's run, only uniting them for key moments. "Beach House" revolves around a trip, organized by Marnie (Allison Williams), to a Long Island beach house where she, Hannah (Lena Dunham), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) can bond and hang out. Things naturally don't go her way, which leads to the episode's centerpiece sequence: a bitter, knock-down, drag-out fight between the four of them, as they air all of their dirty laundry. It's a high-water mark for the show's third season, and though it ends on a moment of harmony, it's clear that there is still tension between these women. Girls is often at its best when it functions as a collection of short stories about growing up, and "Beach House" features some of the most cutting growing pains of young adulthood.

3. "The Secret Fate of All Life" (True Detective)

By the time True Detective reached this episode - its fifth - the show had already subverted most audience expectations, imbuing its standard murder-mystery narrative with supernatural flourishes and philosophical ramblings, as well as establishing a creepy, evocative visual style (thanks to season director Cary Joji Fukugawa). Even the preceding episode closed on a stunning, complex six-minute unbroken take that was highly unusual for a television show, even one on HBO. But "The Secret Fate of All Life" was altogether different. It begins with a masterfully clever sequence that casts detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as unreliable narrators, the visual action onscreen running incongruous with their audible testimony. From there, it only gets better, showcasing some of creator Nic Pizzolatto's strongest writing and Fukugawa's best directing. Moreover, though, it features Rust's "time is a flat circle" soliloquy, one of McConaughey's best performances and a perfect blend of acting, directing, and writing. The show was never able to match this hour, but then again, hardly anything else on television did either.

2. "Looking for the Future" (Looking)

"Looking for the Future," at its core, is Before Sunrise distilled into half of an hour. Whereas the show normally jumped between its three main characters, this one focused solely on Patrick (Jonathan Groff) as he called out sick from work to spend the day with boyfriend Richie (Raul Castillo). What transpires is an absolutely beautiful episode of television, both visually, thanks to director Andrew Haigh (Weekend), and thematically, as the two open up about their pasts and what they want for their futures. It's an episode that's heavy on talking, but the comfort of the performances by Groff and Castillo (and their chemistry together) keeps it consistently engaging. It's a bold work of art, especially of a medium that's often afraid of such episode structures. Even if Looking struggled through an uneven first season, "Looking for the Future" was nothing short of a masterpiece.

1. "Ozymandias" (Breaking Bad)

It could have been "Felina," the series finale, when the ballad of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) came to a close. It could have been "To'hajiilee," when Walter's efforts to protect himself from his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) turn deadly. It could have really been any episode from the final season of Breaking Bad. But when it comes down to it, "Ozymandias" was the only option. It's title recalls the Persy Bysshe Shelley poem about a king whose mighty empire has been reduced to sand, and it's a fitting analogy. Here, Walter has lost it all. His family has abandoned him. His business is finished. He has no more plays, no more people he can turn to. He makes one last desperate push to keep everything together. But he's delusional; there's nothing left for him here. So he runs. This was the high note of a series that seemed to be nothing but a culmination of high notes. It was the greatest single hour Breaking Bad ever produced. And there was no better episode of television this year than the hour in which Walter White's world crumbled before him.

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