As I said in an earlier post, Shades of Caruso needlessly busted ass to watch as much TV as possible in an effort to widen the scope of these awards. It meant catching a lot of reliably great shows and finding some new favourites, such as Justified, Community, and Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Naturally it also led to the discovery of some new sources of bemused frustration like V and Luther, which stand alongside long-time SoC bêtes noire such as Dexter. Even though we watched over thirty shows in their entirety, there were some that fell by the wayside. Well-regarded shows like Archer, Bored To Death and Cougar Town threatened to take up even more of our time, as well as established fan favourites like Southland and True Blood (three seasons behind on that one). Who knows, maybe this list would be completely different if we had seen those shows. Maybe there would be sexy vampires all over this list, having all of that sex they have all the time because vampires are all about the superpowered sex-genitals after all.
This is a last burst of positivity before I put on my mean face next week, but I hope my extreme giddiness goes some way to mitigating that inevitable negativity. The majority of the shows featured in this final post are genuinely incredible episodes, better than almost all of the films I’ve seen in the last few years. Certainly my number one pick rivals (but doesn’t quite top) my favourite hour of TV ever, The Shield‘s Postpartum. More on that season-dominating masterpiece down the page. Rules applying from the previous posts: only completed seasons, only one episode from each season, there will be spoilers, though I’ll keep them mild, etc. Here are the first and second parts of the list, in case you’ve come here a-fresh.
10: Treme - Smoke My Peace Pipe
David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s civic-minded project drew attention to the recovery of New Orleans after Katrina, and balanced joy and sadness with enormous skill. One of their greatest achievements was ensuring the show focused as much on the indomitable spirit of the residents as it did the sickening failure of the American government to come to their aid. This episode felt like the moment the balance shifted. The closure of Desautel, which had been brewing since the first episode, hits harder than you’d expect, with the always superb Kim Dickens doing a great job at conveying how the restaurant’s failure is a cultural loss as well as a personal one. Albert’s protest at the Cooper projects starts off well but eventually becomes terrifyingly violent. Antoine’s mentor passes away, Davis sells out, and Annie fails an audition. It’s all great drama, but low-key compared to the revelations about LaDonna’s brother Daymo. His body is finally found in a makeshift morgue: the back of a freezer truck containing stacks of corpses, the unclaimed victims of the hurricane. The wordless moment with Khandi Alexander leaving the truck and looking around at dozens of identical vehicles, all containing lost bodies, is possibly the most wrenching image of the year.
9: 30 Rock - Emmanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land
Take that, backlash! Forget the complaints about 30 Rock running out of steam: the fourth season of my favourite sitcom EVER was arguably the best since the first, building on a slow start to end on a series of hysterical high-notes. 30 Rock‘s alternate universe – a universe that also seems to contain 60s ad agency Sterling Cooper, if a mid-season throwaway line is to be believed – grows each year, and this is never more apparent than when revisiting the show’s cast of amazing secondary characters. The first half of the two-part season finale sees Jack still unsure which of his perfect partners to commit to, and Liz Lemon desperately revising her past boyfriends to find a date for a series of weddings — the combination of plots mean we get some choice moments with Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Jon Hamm, Dean Winters and Jason Sudeikis. This fealty to the show’s history also raises the hope that we will see Michael Sheen’s magnificently clueless Wesley Snipes in future seasons: his terrified rant about the London 2012 Olympics was pitch-perfect. Even better was Tracy Jordan’s trip into his own past. Breaking through some serious psychological blocks, Tracy rattle through a rush of memories as if they were some kind of hysterical “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” of bleak poetry. “I watched a prostitute stab a clown! Our basketball hoop was a ribcage!” By now 30 Rock is operating on a level of imagination and boldness that all other sitcoms can only look at with miserable envy. Long may it reign.
8: The Thick of It – Episode 4
“I made my daughter come to this fucking school away from all her friends and she just turned into a total fucking droog!” The Thick of It is often spoken of as just a display of poetic profanity and a cynical dissection of modern politics with little “heart” in it. In the latest season showrunner Armando Iannucci and his band of improvisational writers and actors expanded upon the specials (Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers) which had touched upon an emotional angle that critics often miss while praising the breathtaking wordplay. Though this episode features a memorable verbal demolition of odious Phil Smith by Malcolm Tucker, it is DoSAC head Nicola Murray’s quandary that sets it apart. The decision to send her daughter to a comprehensive school to avoid a political scandal backfires after she bullies another pupil. With her daughter facing “exclusion”, Nicola begs the blameless headmaster for help, which he duly provides. Horribly, as the spin doctors and press conspire in the background, the headmaster is forced to resign. More than any other episode, this is where the miserable cost of our ghastly, dead-end spin-obsessed politics is expressed with the greatest clarity. It’s hard enough seeing decent people like Murray and opposition counterpart Peter Mannion being manipulated by unscrupulous, short-sighted spin-doctors as it is, but it’s the final scenes of Nicola (great work from Rebecca Front) breaking down in Tucker’s office that make this arguably the best episode of The Thick of It to date.
7: Sons of Anarchy – Balm
The sophomore season of Kurt Sutter’s hyper-macho biker epic was arguably less outrageous than the first, but more coherent, ambitious, and exciting. It had everything you could hope for: porn wars, sickening revenge, neo-Nazis getting stomped, healthcare PSAs, violence against eyes, an infected scrotum, double/treble/quadruple crosses, and lots and lots of cigars. Racing through ten UK drama’s worth of event in thirteen breathless episodes, it’s hard to pick a highlight, but praise is due writers Dave Erickson & Stevie Long and ace director Paris Barclay for confidently placing a calm in the middle of the storm, and yet still managing to provide the most dramatic and moving moment of the season. At this point SAMCRO VP Jax Teller has been pushed so far by his anger at “King” Clay Morrow that it is jeopardising the club, to the extent that even his allies realise it would be best for him to leave and go Nomad. The episode unfurls at a slow burn, the sound of rock music and bike engines subdued, as the club members come to terms with their decision to lose the young prince. Realising the club will be doomed without her son, “Queen” Gemma makes a fateful decision that changes everything. The final montage, featuring career-best work from Katey Sagal, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman and Maggie Siff, is quietly devastating.
6: Community - Modern Warfare
It’s not even the funniest episode of Community‘s freshman year (that would either be Beginner Pottery with its insane boating setpiece, or The Art of Discourse, featuring the exhausting “Duh! A-DUHHH!” showdown), but when the magnificent first season closed, this — with a college-wide paintball game used as an opportunity to pay homage to the entire action genre — was the one everyone remembered. And with good reason. Though on first viewing it seems a bit like a wasted opportunity, subsequent viewings reveal a humbling mastery and understanding of the genre, above and beyond the spot-on references. The structure of the episode — with the cast whittled down, allegiances made and broken, friendships betrayed and then restored in times of adversity — refer to all action movies, not just specific ones, all while telling a story relevant to the characters and the season as a whole. That’s the key to Community‘s success. Beneath the hipster attitude and referential fireworks, the show is about a group of lonely individuals slowly accepting their need for each other, a point missed by the show’s critics who don’t even notice what the show’s name means. Modern Warfare dares to remove those alliances and affections, and the result is discombobulating: proof that the core characters have grown on us. Other than that, numerous highlights spring to mind: Jeff’s ruthless use of Pierce as a decoy; the hilariously mean-spirited (and accurate) digs at Glee; the many Mexican standoffs. Best of all is Senor Chang entering the common room in a wonderfully well-judged nod to both Hard-Boiled and Scarface. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the episode is this: I would happily pay $16 to watch a 90 minute director’s cut at the cinema.
5: Fringe - White Tulip
Has a show ever rebounded from a slump with a run of such unexpected excellence? The second season of the other Abrams-produced sci-fi show had — for the most part — lived down to complaints that the show was merely an X-Files rip-off after abandoning the momentum from the end of the previous season for several uninspiring standalones. One-third of the Shades of Caruso Massive had given up, and another third was considering it. Then, there was the miracle. A couple of episodes were reassuringly good, though the threat of a return to procedural doom remained. Then came Peter, a superb flashback episode that gave a sometimes bland show a powerful emotional core to build on, and then a couple of weeks later came this time-travel story about two men who have lost a loved one, and the terrible things they will do to dull their pain. The existence of Fringe is entirely justified by this episode alone. Guest star Peter Weller and fan favourite John Noble do stunning work here, with a beautifully performed scene about God and science being the riveting centrepiece of a sensitively written episode, but it’s the time-spanning, faith-inspiring final scene that pushes this into the pantheon of truly great sci-fi TV, alongside Star Trek‘s The City on the Edge of Forever, ST:DS9‘s The Visitor, and The X-Files‘ Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.
4: Friday Night Lights - The Son
By now it feels like praising this nigh-perfect drama is an act of defiance against an indifferent world, but it’s been worth it. Slowly but surely people come around to its understated charms and well-judged realism: this year it even got some Emmy nominations. Four years too late, but still. This fourth season was arguably the best yet, spending more time in deprived East Dillon and exploring the African-American experience that made up such a significant portion of H.G. Bissinger’s book. Most of the original characters have left by this point, making way for memorable newbies like Vince Howard and Luke Cafferty, but the most memorable and affecting moments of the season belonged to Matt Saracen. As with Buffy‘s The Body, this episode deals with the aftermath of terrible loss with a laser-like focus, to the extent that it’s hard to remember anything else about it. Zack Gilford’s performance is the stuff of legend, a towering display of technique and honesty that caught FNL fans by surprise. Instead of your tidy TV funerals, with their acoustic guitar backing and choreographed tears, we see unchecked anger, horror, messy humanity and the confusion it can generate in those on the periphery of a tragedy. For this episode’s bravery and sensitivity, the only logical response from the audience is a kind of grateful awe.
3. Lost - Ab Aeterno
The tale of Richard “Ricardo” Alpert’s arrival on the island was the closest the sixth season of Lost came to providing an episode as moving as The Constant or La Fleur. While fans’ expectations of a flurry of answers was stymied, those of us who value Lost as much for its superb storytelling as for its skill at generating compelling mysteries were thrilled by this sweeping, epic tale of love lost and found. At the heart of it was a heart-breaking performance from Nestor Carbonell, showing us a completely different side of his immortal Other, whose confidence and gravitas were replaced by fear, sadness, and frustration. His final scene of redemption, aided by great work from the underrated Jorge Garcia, was just as powerful as the final scenes of The Constant: a miracle considering the tragic story of Alpert was being revealed for the first time with no significant build-up. Praise is also due to Tucker Gates for creating such a rich visual experience: many shots here became instantly iconic. Somehow he managed to make the island seem like new, just as we began to realise that the tales on the island were as old as time itself. The final moments, which gave us a sense of the enormity of the animosity between Jacob and The Man in Black, took the breath away, and cast the entire series in a new light.
2: Mad Men – Sit Down and Have a Seat
A common complaint during the third season of Mad Men was that it lacked the focus of the first season. The ambling pace that had set the show apart had become too slack, until there appeared to be no direction to it. As the main characters were all falling apart perhaps that formlessness seemed apt, but for those who had taken Matthew Weiner’s comments about not planning season arcs to heart, the downbeat atmosphere and increasing pace of dissolution were signs that the show had been planned too loosely, and that a satisfying resolution was impossible. Nothing could have been further from the truth: the season finale was a spectacular success, turning the show on its head and providing more laughs and thrills than any action-oriented show made this year. From the moment Roger, Bertram, Don and Lane come up with a plan to create Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, to the final scenes with the new ad company taking shape in a hotel room, Sit Down and Have a Seat was a joy to watch, as assured and hipster-cool as a 60s heist movie, but providing devastating character beats and pay-offs with what seemed like no effort. It proved the naysayers wrong, made perfect sense in the context of the season, and showed the faithful that the best cable show on TV was willing to throw its format and icy tone out of the window, meaning we can all rest assured that the show’s best years could well be on the horizon. If anyone reading this doubts that, I suspect they have yet to see season four’s The Suitcase, the masterful bottle episode featuring Don and Peggy on a long dark night of the soul. As mentioned before, award rules mean I can’t include it in this year’s list, but it is such a miraculous episode I can guarantee it will be on next year.
1: Breaking Bad – Full Measure
When SoC saw The Shield‘s Postpartum, our reaction was a kind of horrifying existential nausea that lasted for days. It’s an emotion that no other narrative or work of art has been able to generate in our guts. Until now. Breaking Bad has excelled at exploring how even the strongest sense of morality can be corrupted by fear or greed. By the third season things have spiralled so far out of control that Walt’s sense of humanity is in danger of becoming completely distorted. Is he involved in a criminal drug-dealing industry because he needs to be, or because he’s secretly enjoying the power it gives him? Showrunner Vince Gilligan tested audience sympathy in the second season by giving Walt an opportunity to do a good thing with terrible consequences or a terrible thing with seemingly good consequences, and the ensuing carnage was on a scale that no one could’ve anticipated. This time around we see the fallout from his criminal activities on a much smaller scale, and the result is far more upsetting.
In the third season we spend a lot of time rooting for Walt because we want his partner Jesse to survive, if not for Jesse’s sake then for the sake of Walt’s soul, to see all of the horrific choices he has made become justified. We’ve come to an understanding with him, knowing with awful certainty that he is now capable of doing terrible things to help his family and friends. The audience can be forgiven for pessimistically thinking there is no moral line left to be crossed, but little did we know. The finale of a pretty much perfect season (every episode would qualify for the top ten of this list, and three of them would top it) finds new horror to explore, placing our drug-dealing anti-heroes in mortal danger with their only hope being an act that will ultimately corrupt their souls. All the audience can do is wait and endure the dread as the intricate plot plays out like clockwork, all while posing a question that cuts right to the heart of our humanity: how far would we go to ensure our survival?
Can The Best Show On TV maintain this level of excellence? Will the audience still root for Walt and Jesse in the fourth season, and if we do, is it because secretly we realise that we might do the same thing if we were in the same situation? Have Vince Gilligan and his incredible writing team written themselves into a corner? Sadly the wait for those answers is longer than ever: the hiatus between seasons is almost unendurably long. In the meantime, everyone who reads this blog and hasn’t seen this phenomenal show yet has plenty of time to catch up. You won’t regret it.
That’s my pick of the bunch in this long and ultimately wonderful season, but unfortunately where there is light there must also be dark. It’s not pleasant for Shades of Caruso to dwell on the bad shows of the year, but dwell it must, if only to justify sitting through the crap and lance the boil it has left on my soul. That’s a crappy journey I shall embark on next week, but it won’t all be me complaining: I’ll put some happy stuff in there too, including the best new characters of the year, the best new shows, and miscellaneous things about stuff. Join us then.