In years past, at the beginning of the new US TV season, Shades of Caruso has handed out plaudits and grouchy insults to shows from the previous year. Here are the entries from 2006-2007, and here are the three entries from 2007-2008, where I went nuts over Lost and sneered at the continual failure of Torchwood. This year is slightly different. Firstly, there will be more of it, simply because I seemed to watch even more TV than in previous years, and secondly because this is a new blog and I should land with a splash, right?
Anyway, an explanation of why some shows are on here and some aren’t. As I’m judging from 2008-2009, using the first week of the new season as a cut-off point, I’m including shows that have finished their season by now. This means I’m assessing the first season of Hung (which finished last night), but not the third season of Mad Men (it finishes in a few weeks). There are a couple of popular shows missing that I’ve not yet had a chance to see (Damages, True Blood, the second season of the excellent Breaking Bad). Hopefully I’ll be up-to-date on them by next year, because I really do need to be watching even more TV, obviously. Anyway, here are my favourite single episodes of the year.
10. Fringe – Safe
There were probably better episodes of Fringe in the first season, but Safe was where the intended pace of the show was revealed. Instead of ambling like early seasons of Lost, Fringe was going to pay things off as fast as they could be introduced, and while this made a mockery of the original “disposable sci-fi procedural” format, for fans of intricate mythologies and bold narrative leaps, Safe was manna from heaven. It also featured some of the most sophisticated storytelling of the season, with both Walter Bishop and Olivia Dunham struggling to take command of their faulty memories, while a skilfully deployed red herring distracts the viewer from the true goal of the Big Bad, the oily David Robert Jones. If future seasons of Fringe can crank out a greater percentage of thrilling hours such as this, we will be a lot more forgiving of the weak monster-of-the-week nonsense necessary to pad things out.
9. Party Down – James Rolf High School Twentieth Reunion
At first, Party Down seemed like it would be an Office-style cringe-com focusing on Ken Marino and his portrayal of the hapless and officious Ron Donald. Fair enough, but you would expect more from the creators (Paul Rudd, plus Veronica Mars showrunners Rob Thomas, John Enbom, and Dan Etheridge). A couple of episodes in, and it was clear that the show was channelling — and possibly surpassing — a different UK sitcom: Fawlty Towers. Beautifully plotted and performed to perfection, the year’s best new sitcom improved week by week, even surviving the loss of cast member Jane Lynch (replacing her with Jennifer Coolidge was a masterstroke). Every episode has its considerable pleasures, but this wins out simply for the final, brilliantly timed shot during the credits, working not only as a brilliant sight gag, but also as an upsetting cliffhanger and commentary on the disappointments of life. But, you know, more funny than profound.
8. Friday Night Lights – New York, New York
After the second season disappointed some demanding viewers (though that was not the case here at Shades of Caruso), the showrunners took strength from their guaranteed thirteen-episode season order and delivered a run of episodes that bordered on perfection. With no single episode better or worse than any other, selecting a highlight is a nightmare, but it was the departure of Jason Street — Scott Porter, hopefully going on to mega-stardom, as should everyone on this show — that inspired even more tears of sadness and joy than usual. As this show is gloriously sentimental in the best possible way, that’s saying a lot. With Street and best friend Riggins cast adrift in New York, the showrunners risked failure by showing two Midwest yokels struggling to find their way in the world in that hostile environment, but their determination and love for each other becomes inspiring, and the happy ending is truly earned. Even at the end of a major character’s arc, we’re still finding things out about who he is and what he can do. For the third year running, Friday Night Lights provides the best depiction of young people in all of pop culture. Who needs vampires when you’ve got a show team this good?
7. Big Love – Come, Ye Saints
The third season of Big Love — also to be known as The Best Season Yet — felt more complicated and dense with possibility than ten multiverses. With a cast of characters that dwarfs even Lost‘s pantheon of weirdos and damaged losers, the story possibilities for HBO’s polygamy drama are endless, but you don’t expect the showrunners to test that supposition by lighting the fuse on a dozen plot fireworks each week. Though such narrative richness is to be applauded, the most simple episode of the season was arguably the best, though simplicity doesn’t mean undramatic. A pilgrimage for the Henricksons, from their home in Utah to a Mormon pageant in New York, turns into a hellish experience for the entire family, as much a tribulation as a road trip. Events from as far back as the first season finally blow up, shaking Bill’s faith in his family, his calling, and himself. Progressing expertly from comedy to tragedy, writer Melanie Marnich and director Daniel Attias twisted the screws with consummate skill. The most underrated show on TV continued to amaze.
6. Mad Men – The Jet Set
Critical darling Mad Men began to exceed expectations in the second season, moving beyond the first season’s reliance on cultural juxtaposition and exploring the characters as much as the period setting. Episodes created complex narrative and thematic patterns that rewarded repeated viewings, achieving a richness and unpredictability that is usually only found in novels.
Even taking this complexity into account, The Jet Set was a cut above, changing the locale and format so completely that it was like watching an experimental short stuck into the middle of the season. The preoccupations of the show to that point — the growth of the youth movement, the value of experience, fear of obsolescence, the attractions of the unfamiliar — were painted with a richer palette, as Don has a holiday in the sun with gloriously decadent Europeans. Possibly the most thought-provoking episode of the most intellectually stimulating show on TV.
5. Sons Of Anarchy – The Pull
For a show as violent and unpredictable as this, it takes a lot to outdo itself in terms of shock value. Taking the moral muddiness of The Shield as a starting point, Sons of Anarchy lived up to the promise of its early episodes with a shocking display of narrative confidence. By the halfway point of the episode there have already been two failed assassination attempts on major characters. As if that wasn’t enough, the Hamlet-inspired show’s Ophelia-surrogate — Tara, played by Mad Men‘s Maggie Siff — is placed in a terrifying situation and kept there for ten unbearably tense minutes, as she tries to outwit her insane stalker, played with surprising menace by Jay “Dutch from The Shield” Karnes. The resolution of this stand-off is unforgettable, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable on TV. In a flurry of jawdropping violence, with a side-order of sex, the year’s best new show arrived with a gloriously amoral bang.
4. Dollhouse – Epitaph One
It looked like the most disappointing new show of the year for almost half a season, before creator and all-round genius Joss Whedon took control of the reins and steered Dollhouse into ever-more fascinating directions, delivering more philosophical enquiry and narrative tricksiness than almost every other show on TV. Several good-to-great episodes rounded out its initial Friday night Fox run, and one or two of them could have been included lower on this list. However, the best was saved for last. Missing out on a US broadcast, Epitaph One was premiered at Comic-Con and broadcast internationally, becoming a sensation. Rightly so. What had seemed like a promising show suddenly became one of the most daring and exciting things on network TV for years, easily as intelligent and surprising as Battlestar Galactica or Lost at their best. Expanding the scale of the show from assignment-of-the-week action shenanigans to post-apocalyptic tech-nightmare epic, Whedon and his amazing staff of writers pulled the rug out from under the audience with all of the skill of a consummate showman. The battle to keep this amazing show on air for as many seasons as possible starts now.
3. In Treatment – April: Week 4
The format of In Treatment, that has so upset delicate TV reviewers in the past, lends itself to long build-up and eventual pay-off of varying degrees. The result is that, while every week has its pleasures and trauma, it’s the final week of confrontations, breakthroughs, and regrettable failures that provides a good proportion of dramatic beats. This was different. At roughly the halfway point in the second season — seventeen episodes into its thirty-five episode run — the most moving and startling confrontation to date happens, and the ramifications of it affect everything that follows. Therapist Paul — Gabriel Byrne in a career-best performance — is forced to intervene in the life of patient April — Allison Pill, also in a career-best performance — after she refuses to get treatment for her life-threatening lymphoma. Two stubborn individuals meet head-on in a draining confrontation, with April terrified of taking control of her future, and Paul scared to become too involved in yet another patient’s life. Despite their reservations, and even though Paul’s decision dooms their therapeutic relationship, he has no choice but to cross an ethical line. Emotionally exhausting and pitched perfectly it is, as I have said before, a masterclass in acting and writing.
2. Lost – The Incident
The fifth season of Lost gave us the most shocking tone twist yet: presenting domestic bliss in the middle of the usual head-bending surprises. That calm was threatened throughout by an approaching storm, The Purge. With much of the island’s past set in stone, and Faraday’s rules of temporal solidity stressed on a regular basis, the time travel plot seemed to put too many constraints on what had previously seemed to be a web of narrative possibility. At least, until The Incident shattered all of our expectations, generating unpredictability out of the most cohesive and restrictive continuity on TV. What had seemed like a strange late-series rut was preparation for the biggest mindfuckery yet, casting new light on who our heroes are and how they came to be, and then leaving their fate in what amounts to an Eigenstate of uncertainty. Following the final, shocking white-out, no one knows what will happen next, but then this is what the die-hard Lost fan wants most of all: the itch of confusion, bewilderment, and dread, something akin to a perverse punishment, especially for fans of gun-toting fertility experts. In 2010, pop culture is about one thing and one thing only: finishing this incredible journey, and bringing these characters home.
1. The Shield – Family Meeting
One of the biggest problems with the new breed of serialised long-form TV drama is that there is always the possibility that shows will falter at the last post, tainting what has come before. Sometimes the finale is deemed unsatisfying by the fans (The Sopranos, Buffy), or it doesn’t provide satisfying answers to long-running mysteries (Battlestar Galactica), or it just stops dead with no closure at all (Deadwood, Twin Peaks). Committing to a show can be a risky proposition. Will this investment of time pay off? Perhaps more than any other show yet made, The Shield rewarded its viewers’ patience, ending on an incredibly satisfying high, and paying off seven seasons of increasingly tortured narrative with more brio and boldness than anyone could have hoped. Other than a couple of Farmington cops, every arc played out in ways that hardly any viewer could have expected, without betraying any of the characters’ core personalities, or by following the easy path. Shane and Ronnie’s final moments, in particular, still chill the blood months after first viewing.
At the core of the show was Vic Mackey, morally compromised hero or self-justifying maniac, depending on how you look at him. It was Michael Chiklis’ stage to play on, and the whole enterprise depended on him stepping up to the plate. In Family Meeting, he managed to top his breathtaking work in the penultimate episode Possible Kill Screen. Vic’s final scene, with our anti-hero standing on the edge of a metaphorical precipice, rendered this viewer speechless with anticipation and delirious pleasure. It was as perfect an episode of TV as will ever be made. To those who have yet to watch The Shield, you can jump in with confidence. The rest of the series is worth anyone’s time, but the last ninety minutes was something else: a storytelling accomplishment that viewers will be talking about for decades to come.
Hung – The Pickle Jar: HBO’s adorable male prostitution fairy tale hit its stride four episodes in. The final scene, with Thomas Jane breaking through Margo Martindale’s defences, was one of the highlights of the year.
Better Off Ted – Racial Sensitivity: The deceptively innocent corporate satire really showed the bite behind its chirpy exterior for the first time, as a glitch in Veridian Dynamics’ new security system turns the clock back to the days of segregation. It’s funnier than it sounds.
House – Birthmarks: The fifth season of House featured few highlights, but the reunion of House and his best friend Wilson was gold. Working through their differences on a road trip to attend a funeral for House’s father, Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard proved, yet again, that they’re the best double act on TV.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – 19 Down / One To Go: Writing a beloved character out of a popular show in such a way as to not annoy every fan must be almost impossible, which makes this two-parter — during which Gil Grissom solves one last serial killer case with the help of new team member Dr. Raymond Langston — all the more notable. The creepy performance by Bill Irwin and the happy ending were the cherries on top.
30 Rock – Generalissimo: Bouncing back from a disappointing sophomore year, 30 Rock fully embraced absurdity and delivered episodes to rival the first season. This featured numerous hoary sitcom stereotypes, but for Alec Baldwin’s turn as Hector Moreda, and Jon Hamm displaying his considerable comic talents, it wins out.
Tomorrow, I’ll announce my least favourite episodes of the year. For those who have followed this blog for a long time, there is a shock number one. Because, for once, it’s not Torchwood. There was a lot worse out there. A lot worse. I couldn’t believe it either…