2011 has been a bit of a crap one for movies so far. There’s very little I’ve outright loved — only Attack The Block, Rango, and Fast Five have really fired my imagination, and even the current London Film Festival has left me cold so far. It’s made me worry that there’s something wrong in my head. Have I experienced too many stories? Have I become immune? Will I never again enjoy a story without thinking the final act needed an extra level (The Skin I Live In) or thinking someone else did it better (Rampart = A trailer for The Shield)?
Perhaps it’s good, then, that I’m doing this list now. Ordering these shows has been a nightmare. They’re all truly great hours (or half-hours) of TV, with barely a micron of difference in quality between them. Even the top spot (in my next post) was hard to decide on, as there were three episodes that were eligible candidates. I’m happy with my final choice, but it took some pondering. I think I’m good with this part of the list as well, though I’m sure I’ll regret something once I’ve hit Publish.
20. Big Love – The Noose Tightens
The final season of HBO’s underrated polygamy drama had a lot to do before it came to a close. The first few episodes appeared to be concerned with dealing with the fallout from the previous, much-derided season’s worst excesses, as well as setting up the biggest plotquakes to come. The result was a dispiriting lack of urgency for several episodes, but a forgiveable one when this barnstorming hour is taken into account. Everything that had been set up thus far kicked off here: Margene’s guilt over her underage marriage to Bill leading to her hysterical reaction to Cara Lynn’s affair with her tutor; Bill’s desperate anger and bullying of Barb as she prepares to spread her wings and leave his church; Alby’s plot to finally free himself of his arch-enemy Bill with the help of Verlan; the wives facing up to the fact that they are likely to lose their husband as Bill pleads with Senator Dwyer to drop the procurement prosecution aimed at Barb. It’s a packed episode; fireworks go off in every scene, leading to a heart-stopping finale with Alby’s mania finally finding a victim. Chloe Sevigny, who has always been the best thing about Big Love, reaches new heights here, her performance ranging from blazing defiance to mortal terror. The show – and the masterful creation that was Nicolette Grant-Henriksen – will be greatly missed.
19. Terriers – Fustercluck
Viewers who caught the first three episodes of FX’s almost uncategorisable slum-noir P.I. show were likely confused as to what they were getting. The tone seemed at odds with expectations; neither as funny as Ted Griffin’s work on Ocean’s Eleven, nor as gritty as Shaun Ryan’s Shield, it seemed to straddle a number of genres. There were also quibbles about the overall structure; was it going to be serialised or episodic? The fourth episode was where Griffin’s masterplan came into focus, and also made it clear that the first three episodes were actually tonally consistent, not to mention intentionally unpredictable. Hank and Britt – two well-drawn characters unlike pretty much anyone else on TV – come into focus as two street-smart chancers making it up as they go along, and getting themselves into more trouble than they bargained for when they become accidentally responsible for the death of the shady real estate developer who hired them in the first episode, whose body they are then forced to hide. With that act the show suddenly made a weird kind of sense; these were not the normal TV heroes, and this was not a normal TV show. Most shows have a format for you to hold onto, but at this point Terriers leapt into the unknown, and became essential viewing.
18. The Vampire Diaries – The Descent
No matter what your feelings about the capabilities of handsome Ian Somerhalder as an actor, his Vampire Diaries character Damon was always one of the best things about this oft-po-faced supernatural teen drama. It’s only fitting that the best episode of the massively improved second season should be Damon’s finest hour. Our anti-hero takes on the responsibility of looking after his sexual partner Rose as she slowly succumbs to the mortal wound inflicted by a werewolf. Other momentous events happen in this episode, all courtesy of SoC writing heroes Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, but the episode makes the list thanks to the final ten minutes, beginning with a surprisingly moving fantasy scene with Damon easing Rose’s pain with a manipulated dream that allows her some dignity and comfort before he euthanises her. Our new awareness of his compassion is then blown away in a horrifying final scene, as a clearly mentally unstable Damon finds a lone woman driving through Mystic Falls, and regretfully but violently kills her. The final shot of the episode, showing Damon’s vampire eyes, bloodshot and almost glowing with confusion and malevolence in the darkness, is the most chilling of the entire 2010-2011 TV season. It’s not the only time The Vampire Diaries outdoes its prestige TV rivals by messing with the audience’s expectations, but it’s the most memorable.
17. Boardwalk Empire – Paris Green
For SoC there was no greater frustration this year than that experienced while watching Boardwalk Empire. The setting, cast, and production values were all well within our wheelhouse, but the show never took off the way we had hoped. Time will tell if this is just a stumble before a sprint, but until then we can at least be grateful for this memorable late-season belter. For the most part Paris Green appears to be a quiet meditation on the imminent death of the Commodore, which leads to a series of revelations for Jimmy Darmody. Once more Michael Pitt excels as the bitter, thoughtful heavy, burning with frustration at his lot in life and torn between two emotions as his father nears death. Of course, in the final surprising act it isn’t his father who dies, but a man with a secret allegiance to Nucky Thompson – the man who acted as a guardian to Jimmy. Poor Agent Sebso, who finally proves to be as foolish as his cover persona seemed, is coerced into his own death at the hands of his unhinged boss. Michael Shannon shakes the screen as the evangelically-powered Nelson Van Alden, blasphemously baptising his Jewish lackey in a final scene of terrifying power that goes disastrously wrong. If only the rest of the series had scenes as riveting as that, or the beautifully shot moment when the two prohibition agents initially find the baptism site. Hopefully season two will harness the potential of this delirious insanity.
16. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena – The Bitter End
Most, if not all, Spartacus fans would have been fine with the show taking a year-long break while star Andy Whitfield recovered from cancer, but the showrunners cleverly and graciously gave him time to rest by creating this prequel mini-series while keeping him on staff in order to support him, in the hope he would return. Sadly, this was not to be. With only six episodes in the series it was possible that Gods of the Arena wouldn’t achieve the same narrative momentum that the first season did which, if you don’t recall, was moving as fast as a bullet train by the time the final episode arrived. The worries were for naught; with many of the familiar characters in place, Gods of the Arena had a head start. Even with so much of the story already told, GOTA still managed to throw in a few surprises, especially the insight into just how cunning Lucretia truly is. The last episode of the season was a balls-out shocker with an amazing final setpiece; a huge ruck in the new arena which features the immensely satisfying resolution of numerous arcs, including the developing animus between Batiatus and Solonius, the reason for loathsome Ashur’s hatred of Crixus, and the surprising reason why Gannicus isn’t present in the House of Batiatus in Blood and Sand. It’s thrilling, shocking, gorgeous and gaudy and as addictive as smoking, just as we had hoped.
15. The Walking Dead – Days Gone By
I’ll have more to say on this in a forthcoming post. I’ll link back once it’s published. For now, just look at that awesome picture and try to remember how promising that pilot was, how excited everyone got when it aired. So long ago…
14. Parks and Recreation – Fancy Party
There were funnier episodes in the third season of Parks & Recreation (also known as The Show That Shades Of Caruso Once Foolishly Said Was Terrible But Actually Turned Out To Be One Of The Great Sitcoms Of Our Time, for short), and there were more ambitious ones, but no other episode this year encapsulated the life-affirming fantasy elements of this show so completely. The city of Pawnee transforms all who live under its umbrella of optimism, and all who have committed themselves to following this remarkable show are similarly affected by its cheer-inducing rays. This episode saw April and Andy get married after being together for a little while (“My Brita filter is older than their relationship,” says Ben, adding, “Wait a second, should I change my Brita filter?”). The sensible characters object, the foolish characters rejoice, and for once common sense is utterly wrong. Only in Pawnee can an obviously disastrous life-decision be the only right thing to do, and not just because their young love finally motivates Leslie to begin her courtship of Ben. It’s also encapsulates the beauty of Parks and Recreation; a sentimental show that makes that oft-derided philosophy acceptable, a sitcom that offers the audience a chance to embrace light in a dark world, without shame. Long may it run without being tampered with by NBC executives.
13. Caprica – Apotheosis
If SoC had its way, Caprica would still be with us. Its cancellation was inevitable, seeing as only about fifteen people watched it, but at least the show went out in style. Last year saw the similarly regrettable cancellation of Dollhouse; another cerebral sci-fi show that had more on its mind than episodic threats or tedious alien invasion plots. That final season almost fell apart under the weight of completing its story. The last few episodes were a mad dash through several seasons of plotting, and I’m grateful for that, but it did mean the finale was compromised. Caprica comes up with a solution that is simultaneously more satisfying and yet still upsetting; the show ends with a montage of what would have come if Caprica had run for ten years like it should have. The tease is fascinating, forming a link between this Battlestar Galactica prequel and the rest of the franchise. The main body of the episode is magnificent too: we see the Graystone family find peace as they reconcile with the avatar of Zoe; we see the failure of Clarice Willow’s dastardly plan, as Daniel and Amanda Graystone thwart the Soldiers of the One in their quest to promote the Monotheistic Heaven; and we see the Adamas take their revenge on the Guatrau following the death of the first Bill Adama. It’s a great season finale, and the only thing that stops it from being a great series finale is that it shouldn’t have been a series finale. ::wears black gloves in mourning, as is the Tauron way::
12. Rubicon – A Good Day’s Work
Rubicon travelled a short distance from 70s-style conspiracy drama to cerebral 24-style topical thriller with some peculiar baggage including the spate of uninvolving office romances and a malfunctioning sub-plot featuring Miranda Richardson as a woman being sad in some rooms. It was the eleventh episode that fulfilled the promise of both versions of the show, with our paranoid hero Will Travers finally revealing to Catherine Rhumer the results of his research; shadowy corporation Atlas-McDowell is in the Shock Doctrine business, wrecking the world and profiting from the chaos. The show suddenly comes into focus, and writer Zack Whedon and director Brad Anderson crank up the suspense with a nerve-wracking fight scene between Will and smug assassin Donald Bloom. It’s the build-up and pay-off that seals the deal; Truxton’s anguish when he realises what he must do to protect his evil cabal, and Kale’s efficient disposal of the dead body of his former lover. This immensely exciting hour of TV ends with Will slowly falling apart, as he realises just how much danger he is in. Plus we get to hear Rocket from the Crypt’s On A Rope over the sound of a body being dismembered. How often does that happen on TV?
11. The Shadow Line – Episode Six
Addicts of Hugo Blick’s dread-soaked drama, shunned by those who proved immune to the almost other-worldly oddness of it all, could well have felt vindicated in their obsession by the rush of shocking moments that occur in the middle of this episode. The first half of it seems like an elaborate set-up for an imminent disaster, which comes during a typically lengthy set-piece that sees Jonah Gabriel face off against his would-be assassin Gatehouse in the home of his mistress and secret son. The audience, of course, knows that they are not alone, and the traps set by both Gatehouse and Glickman end up going horribly wrong. This ten minute centrepiece, in an already exciting episode, is one of the crowning achievements of the TV year, a sequence of bombshells layered so expertly over each other, occasionally in contravention of usual dramatic logic, that any quibbles about the plausibility of it fade away. It’s deliberately played straight at the audience, who can only react with numb horror. Which is not to say that’s the only good thing about the episode. Gatehouse’s final scene, rising like Lazarus to face his would-be assassin, is memorably chilling and, as with the rest of this remarkable show, commendably precise in execution.
Top ten tomorrow. If I can stop shuffling the order around.