A quick reminder of the stupidly complicated rules of the Caruso Awards: only shows whose latest season (or half-season) has finished by the time of publication are eligible, hence the inclusion of an episode of The Venture Brothers from ages ago; and only one episode of each season is allowed. This is to prevent Spartacus: Blood and Sand from dominating the list (just like the gladiator Spartacus dominates the arena!). Apologies for any poor editing here. Much to my eternal shame I’ve discovered that no matter how long I spend picking over these goddamn things some awful mistake (or twelve) will always slip through. It’s like I’ve been cursed by some grammar-witch for all of my shaky writing. Somewhere in this house is a haunted Thesaurus that needs to be exorcised. And with that superstitious outburst, on with the praise, and the SPOILERS…
20: Misfits - Episode 4
Post-Heroes, it’s perfectly understandable that any “metahuman” show introducing a character with the power to travel through time is going to give the viewer pause. The narrative knots created by Hiro Nakamura in that horrid show were so complicated the showrunners could never untangle them, even with some desperate efforts in the final season. You can imagine our pleasure when this Curtis-centric episode managed to adhere to plainly obvious temporal rules, kept things straight and logical, and revealed heaps of new information about our favourite lairy superpowered ruffians. The main thread of the episode is Curtis’ efforts to make amends to his former girlfriend in a Butterfly-Effect-esque sequence of disastrous trips into his own past, but it mostly resembles Firefly‘s excellent backstory-heavy Out of Gas. By giving us more of a sense of just how messed up our heroes were before The Storm transformed them, showrunner Howard Overman humanises even the most annoying of the group. Though Curtis is the central character, it might be Nathan who benefits most. The endless sarcastic asides from the obnoxious little gobshite are given context as we see the antagonistic relationship he has with his father (a perfectly cast Dexter Fletcher). It’s a clever development that gives Robert Sheehan new notes to knock out of the park.
19: Caprica - Ghosts in the Machine
Where once this blog railed against Battlestar Galactica and the way it frayed and fell apart before our eyes, this thought-provoking prequel series did much to repair the damage done to its parent show by nervy Syfy chiefs. Ronald D. Moore, David Eick and Jane “Unappreciated Genius” Espenson replaced the sprawling and ill-tended mythos with greater focus and fewer characters. With a sturdy base and a dependable cast, the showrunners were able to explore sci-fi concepts with the rigour Galactica once did and then add some welcome melodrama. This grounds the speculative fiction in human emotion, the centre of which is the grief felt by two families who lost daughters in a terrorist attack, not realising that those children exist in a new state elsewhere. Here we see Daniel Graystone’s suspicions about the erratic behaviour of his lone Cylon come to a head just as Joseph Adama searches for the incomplete avatar of his daughter in V-World. While the grief-stricken Tauran lawyer approaches his daughter from a position of supplication, Daniel attempts trickery and calculation to try to get Zoe Graystone to reveal her secret existence within the Cylon’s robot shell. The tragedy is that neither father is willing to accept that their children have moved on in more than one sense. For all its speculative ambition, it’s the human truth of this rift that makes this show — and this episode in particular — so memorable.
18: Big Love – Sins of the Father
The oft-derided fourth season of Big Love was actually pretty great for most of its truncated run if you were willing to roll with Bill Henrikson’s decision to run for Senator — merely his latest bad idea in long line of them. A couple of early episodes were blackly comedic mini-classics, amping up the absurdity of the show while not becoming unpalatable. Sins of the Father rose above them all with its Godfather-like depiction of a man losing everything. However, while Michael Corleone loses everything by allowing his dark heart to overwhelm him, Bill loses everything with the revelation of his own hypocrisy, turning his back on son Ben after he admits to having feelings for Margene even though he was once cast out by his own father. Director David Petrarca and writer Seth Greenland do a superb job of making Bill’s ridiculously overwrought internal struggle make sense to an audience who would probably just forgive Ben, couching the drama in terms of Bill’s very specific insecurity: will he be usurped by his own son one day? For a show primarily about religion, Big Love deserves praise for playing these themes and Biblical references so lightly. Add to that a couple of great comic set-pieces involving Bill’s three wives, Bill Paxton’s best performance to date, and a sense of dramatic urgency the show has often lacked, and this episode can be placed next to last year’s Come, Ye Saints as a keeper.
17. The Venture Brothers – Pinstripes and Poltergeists
It’s tempting to hate Pinstripes and Poltergeists for being the final part of the bisected fourth season, just to be petty. The sudden disappearance of The Best Animated Show On TV was especially galling as it was finally picking up a good head of steam. Nevertheless, at least the show left us with something that is, as 21 says, “like Christmas, a first BMX bike, and meeting the cast of Firefly all in one”. Highlights include the long-delayed introduction of evil bureaucrat Monstroso (“Cigar?”), Rusty Venture discovering chatrooms and pop-ups, and the revelation that Brock Samson has been living on the Venture compound all along while working with the shadowy organisation S.P.H.I.N.X. (“Sphinx!”). Perhaps the best thing about this episode is that it can be used as a perfect example of how The Venture Brothers is more than just a snarky pop-culture melange. The characters have evolved so much that Brock’s outburst to Rusty about being close to Dean and Hank, yet not being able to contact them, has an emotional power unheard-of in Adult Swim’s roster: see also 21′s vengeful pursuit of Brock, which is finally resolved with a fight, an understanding, and an alliance against a common enemy. It’s enough to tug the heart-strings. There is also the small matter of 24′s ghostly nature: the revelations about him in this episode have made his continued “existence” as big a mystery as any number of polar bears, Rambaldi devices or parallel universes in the Bad Robot canon.
16: Dollhouse - The Left Hand
It’s easy to miss classic TV episodes when their parent network decides to burn through a condemned series with a burst of two-parters. After the second season of Joss Whedon’s brainwipe thriller started with a series of underwhelming standalone episodes, we were treated to a quick rush of excellent, mythology-heavy dramas that expanded the backstory of our characters and the shadowy Rossum Corporation, along with some of the most head-melting concepts in popular sci-fi drama. This season highlight was the best mix of mythology and standalone episode before the showrunners were regrettably forced to cut their five-season plan short. Our hero Echo and poor manipulated Senator Daniel Perrin are held captive in the Washington DC Dollhouse by slimy Stewart Lipman (a welcome appearance by SoC favourite Ray Wise) and the complicated Dr. Bennett Halverson, who is torturing Echo for a past transgression. The LA Dollhouse attempts to save its Active using two Tophers (both played brilliantly by Fran Kranz and a never better Enver Gjokaj), but the web of double-, triple-, and quadruple- crosses wrecks their plans. It’s a packed-to-bursting hour of action TV, both thrilling and funny. Truly, no other show on TV could dramatise such potentially alienating hard sci-fi ideas about personality-cloning and mind-manipulation with such playfulness.
15. Party Down – “Not On My Wife” Opening Night
My love of Cheers (a deep, deep love) did not migrate to spin-off Frasier, whose tone irked despite the generally excellent cast. The general air of satisfaction generated — possibly because the obvious jokes were interspersed with the odd reference to Mahler — swamped the gags that did work. All was forgiven when the show concentrated on farce, which it did brilliantly. Party Down, on the other hand, has a better episode-to-episode hit:miss ratio, and adding farce pushes Opening Night to the top of the heap. The aspiring actors and writers of the catering team are forced to work through the opening night of a farce performed by a community theatre group they consider beneath them, and end up embroiled in a whirlwind of sexual misadventure, misunderstanding, and escalating panic. It’s a superb example of the genre, with veils, masks, secrets and lies in abundance, but while John Enbom’s expertly judged script (and David Wain’s perfect direction) are to be praised, it’s the little things that stick in the memory: Casey’s inept flirting with the lesbian producer from Warners; Roman’s Bacchanalian behaviour; Kyle’s pitiful attempts at being sexy; and Ron misreading Lydia’s signals and ending up with a faceful of mace. The sight of his puffy, snot-covered face will linger in my memory forever.
14: Justified - Long In The Tooth
Whenever a show makes a big splash with its first episode, there is often a worry that comes with it: will this show keep the quality up? Will it somehow ruin it, go in the wrong direction, abandon everything that made that first hour so good? In a post-Sopranos age, we expect the best shows to be serialised, and the procedurals of network to be less impressive. Would Justified be able to create a serialised drama out of its short story origins? Or would it be little more than a well-shot villain-of-the-week show? The fourth episode of the phenomenal first season went both ways. Alan Ruck plays a crook on the lam from our hero Raylan Givens, forced to give up his career as a dentist after a memorably nasty encounter with an obnoxious patient. The episode works extremely well as a one-off: Ruck is perfectly cast as the impulsive but likeable foil to laidback Raylan, and his character is so well-drawn it’s genuinely upsetting that he can’t become a regular on the show. What makes this our favourite of the consistently stellar first season is the knowledge that even though Justified eventually becomes more serialised (even taking into account the nerve-wracking shoot-out with Miami goons near the end), it could have been a great, unorthodox procedural too. No matter what the showrunners did, we were prepared to love it unconditionally.
13: Sherlock - A Study In Pink
It’s rare that a TV show can come out of nowhere and capture the public’s imagination with the modern publicity machine being what it is. Perhaps because UK TV often has big events that don’t add up to much it was easy to expect little from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ “reimagining” (forgive me) of Britain’s most beloved fictional character, especially with Rupert Murdoch’s snivelling toadies in the Sun spreading snide rumours about reshoots and disastrous pre-screenings. Thankfully it was just the odious Antipodean arsehole playing shenanigans: the first episode of Sherlock was a supremely confident, exciting 90 minutes of TV, instantly transforming Benedict Cumberbatch from that guy who appeared in the things into a TV icon, all spindly limbs and ghostly face, his lovely coat flapping in the wind as he chased villains around Cardiff London. Paul McGuigan invented a visual palette that was showy but not intrusive, with a brilliant floating-text conceit that allowed us to see Sherlock’s thought processes. Even better, Moffat filled the movie-length pilot with plot and event, moving things along at a clip and never relying on tedious exposition to bloat out a flimsy script. It felt substantial, like the arrival of your new favourite thing. We can only hope this was not a fluke: more on that to come.
12: The Pacific – Okinawa
Saying The Pacific wasn’t as feel-good as Band of Brothers seems crazy: after all, the original HBO mini-series featured the hell of war in startling, miserable detail. Nevertheless, it’s not called Band of Brothers for no reason. The most important point the series made was that in the middle of the carnage and horror, there was someone there who had your back, who would remind you of your humanity and your responsibility to everyone around you. The Pacific has very little of that uplift. The ninth episode of this ten-part mega-downer is possibly the bleakest hour of TV screened since the BBC’s Threads, as the 1st Marine Division find themselves trapped in a purgatorial war of attrition with a ruthless enemy at the base of an almost impassable mountain. Joseph Mazzello does excellent work as Corporal Eugene Sledge, pushed to the edge by relentless rain, despicable and dehumanising Japanese tactics (often involving civilians and children), and the low morale of his companions, most of whom die in agony because of mistakes borne of fatigue. With his humanity seemingly crushed forever, we watch in dread as he finds a dying Japanese civilian – the victim of an artillery strike he was involved with – and brace ourselves for further horror. The choice he makes is revelatory, cathartic, unforgettable. So yes, a gruelling hour of drama, but also an essential one.
11: Spartacus: Blood and Sand – Whore
This indecently entertaining sword-and-sandals epic never stints on surprisingly graphic sex and violence, with boobs, dongs, blood, buttocks and heads flying at the camera with such regularity you’d be forgiven for thinking it was originally meant to be screened in 3D. Neither the sex nor the violence were that important, certainly on a plot level, being there mainly because Starz were happy to let the showrunners go a bit mental. However this season highlight used graphic sex as a way to explore not only the levels to which the slaves of Batiatus’ ludus are expected to lower themselves, but also as a way to further dramatise the antagonism between our hero Spartacus and delightful snake-woman Illythia, wife of his mortal enemy Gaius Claudius Glaber. Most of the episode does a good job of adding new levels of debasement to the proud gladiators, now fully expected to be prostitutes as well as warriors, but it’s Lucretia’s conniving which makes this an instant classic. Playing a trick with masks to teach her former friend Illythia a lesson, the plot to humiliate her spins out of Lucretia’s control in the final moments. TV has arguably never seen a sequence as pornographic, violent, and purely Grand Quignol as this, but it never abandons character or plot for a second, a detail that you might miss as your jaw dislocates from dropping so fast.
The final ten will be here tomorrow. Anyone who has followed my tweets of the past few months will probably find few surprises: many of the episodes that broke the top ten drove me to such paroxysms of joy that I went a bit nuts over there. We’re talking many, many multiples of 140 characters.