The Caruso Awards traditionally occur at the beginning of the new US TV season, which lands a few days into September. I say traditionally, but as ever these awards are being announced a couple of weeks late. Partly this was due to the late finish of the second season of Hung (Shades of Caruso prides itself on being one of the nine or ten internet venues that still cares about that show now that it’s obvious Ray Drecker’s mega-wang isn’t going to be displayed). Mostly it’s because time is tight, and this year — in which SoC has been on lengthy breaks for long periods — there has been more to write about in order to catch up. Bear in mind, to judge the state of TV more fairly, SoC has seen over thirty shows in their entirety this year. That’s not easy, though thankfully it’s mostly been a blast, despite the best efforts of ABC.
Some of the awards given might seem a little odd, and so clarification is necessary. To qualify for these awards, shows must have finished their current run by the time we publish. This means the fourth season of Mad Men, the second half of the fourth season of The Venture Brothers, and the first season of Rubicon are sadly not eligible for awards, though Mad Men 3 and the first half of Venture Brothers 4 are. Though this means you will have to cast your minds back to last year to remember how great SoC’s pick of Mad Men‘s exceptional third season was, it keeps things in line with previous years. Regrettably — and much to the frustration of SoC co-founder Daisyhellcakes — this means the list will not feature the recently aired episode The Suitcase (aka Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm’s award reel), which might represent the pinnacle of Matthew Weiner’s career so far. I’m tempted to add it to the list anyway, but instead will adhere to the other main rule of the Caruso Awards: only one episode from the most recently completed season is eligible.
This might seem arbitrary, but this is to prevent this top thirty from being dominated by most of Mad Men 3, half of Sons of Anarchy 2, and all thirteen episodes of the third season of Breaking Bad — a season of such humbling perfection that the only logical response is genuflection and obnoxious hyperbole, of which this is an example. It’s only fair to give all the shows I’ve watched a chance, meaning even flawed shows like The Vampire Diaries and Glee get a chance at a placing. We aims t’be fair. If I get time I might give some props to other highlights from my favourite shows (God knows I agonised over what were the best episodes from the aforementioned instant classic seasons), though the already ridiculous length of these posts tend to suggest there will be a competition between myself and you, dear reader, for who gets bored first.
And so, with no further ado, here are the episodes ranked 30-21 in SoC’s top thirty of the season. The next two posts will come before the end of the week. Remember, there WILL be spoilers. SPOILERS! Okay? If you see a show listed here that you intend to watch at some point, I’ve tried to be kinda vague but let’s be honest, you shouldn’t know ANYTHING about them. You have been warned. WARNED IN ALL-CAPS!
30: The Vampire Diaries – Founder’s Day
Like an undead O.C., The Vampire Diaries burned through a lot of plot in its first season, which is easy when you happily grab story elements from so many other sources. Though SoC found much of this teenage angstiness rather dreary — not helped by the stultifying blandness of the protagonist — showrunners Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson did an okay job of throwing up cliffhangers strong enough to keep even sceptics tuning in. It’s tempting to criticise the season finale for having the same flaws as the previous episodes, but the various plot strands came together better than expected, and featured a couple of genuine shocks and some unexpected gore. It also deftly set up some intriguing plot threads for next season, including the return of A FACE FROM THE PAST and WEREWOLVES and so on and so forth. It might have been chapter-end-by-numbers, but it rose above its usual level of dull professionalism for a moment, achieving everything you could hope for from a season finale. SoC would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that pleasant surprise, and praise the showrunners for spinning out a potentially boring Twilight cash-in into something that will keep us watching for at least another year (especially now ace writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain have signed on).
29: Glee - Theatricality
The zeitgeist-hogging breakout hit of the year came, went, and then came again as Fox extended its original run of thirteen episodes with a further nine, meaning the showrunners were forced to undo all of the closure of the original season finale and put the characters through the same old dramas all over again (except this time sans Jessalyn Gilsig, for the most part). The redundancy of much of the show to this point (with the same plots cropping up again and again) dogged this final stretch even more than usual, but one revisit was worthwhile. While the main character conflicts ran in ever-decreasing circles, the side story of Kurt’s attempts to connect with his father hit big here, with a devastatingly performed scene in which Kurt’s father destroys Finn for insulting his son and mocking his sexuality. Even if this arc had seemed to have reached a satisfying conclusion earlier in the season, the showrunners are to be commended for returning to the well if it gives us a moment as cathartic and unexpected as this. Also this episode: the Glee club perform Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance with great verve, and Brittany wears some lobster claws in one of the best sight gags of the year.
28: Persons Unknown – The Way Through
Shades of Caruso attempts to give every show a chance, even when the first few episodes turn out to be underwhelming. A lot of the time our initial bad impressions are correct, but the times we’re proved wrong justify our patience. Then there are the other shows, that intrigue us from the get-go and then turn out to have been a terrible, terrible, oh my so terrible mistake. As much as it seems right to exclude from our list all shows that eventually turn bad, that would be dishonest. This third episode of the NBC mini-series seemed to hit a nice groove of mystery show and political commentary. Our seven captives — trapped in a weird small town by a mysterious antagonist — are beginning to get desperate, resorting to tunneling under the invisible barrier keeping them trapped. When this fails, they end up fighting over three gas-masks, and the true nature of some of the “inmates” comes to light. Not much is given away, but weird sci-fi touches like underground metal barriers and smoke traps mix with unnerving contemporary symbolism — prison motifs and subtle references to Abu Ghraib and torture — to generate a powerful mystery that eventually comes to naught. A shame, but credit where credit is due — up to this point, Persons Unknown captured my imagination.
27. Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule – Food
For those of us who consider John C. Reilly to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, a performer possessed of astonishing timing that allows him to deliver both normal comedy and grating anti-comedy with perfect judgement — and a fantastic singer into the bargain — this has to be included. Perhaps its greatest achievement is to avoid the hit and miss nature of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job by focusing on just one character, expanding our understanding of the good “Doctor” by showing his interactions with others and placing him in new settings. Anything that gives Reilly more material to work with should be applauded. While later episodes could get bogged down with a single joke stretched beyond humour into the realm of the experimental, this season opener just concentrated on letting Dr. Steve Brule do his thing, which include a humiliating attempt at flirting with a woman who turns out to be his cousin, falling face-first into a cake, and getting territorial with “Dr. Jimmy Brungus”.
26: Human Target – Lockdown
For five episodes Fox’s Human Target provided mild diversion, with DC Comics hero Christopher Chance and his squabbling associates Winston and Guerrero protecting various non-player characters from uninspiring antagonists in a variety of familiar settings. For the sixth episode, with the template of the show established, Human Target began to flex its muscles a little. Ostensibly a hostage rescue plot bolted onto a Die Hard framework, viewers were treated to a slick and exciting forty-five minutes of pure action-movie drama directed with confidence by 24 veteran Jon Cassar, and plotted smartly enough to finally match the plot mechanics with some believable human stakes. Filling the cast out with dependables such as Kevin Weisman, Mitch Pileggi and Autumn Reeser was a great move, but nothing made this episode stand out as much as the imaginative showdown set piece in an elevator, with Mark Valley excelling as a Bourne-style fighting machine. It’s just a really thrilling hour of adventure TV, something that is deceptively hard to do as well as it was done here.
25. Louie - Bully
How odd it feels to praise a sitcom for not being funny. Most episodes of Louie contain at least a few belly laughs (usually during Louis C.K.’s excellent stand-up routines) and quietly amusing “sketch” sequences, but Bully contains almost no jokes, instead spending almost its entire length depicting a single experience, its unexpected aftermath, and then exploring the backstory. Like some weird cross of A History of Violence and James Watkins’ Eden Lake, Bully picks at a modern variation on an age-old fear in fine detail, with Louie — on what seems to be a successful date — unwisely confronting a group of rowdy teenagers, resulting in total humiliation. His date ruined, Louis is inspired to follow his tormentor home. What follows is a long, almost wordless sequence that builds on the horrible, miserable tension of the preceding scene, and culminates in a showdown that ends in an unexpected way. Though the neat answers of the final scenes might be a little trite, it is still an unexpectedly troubling journey into the male psyche, paced with skill by Louis C.K. and beautifully shot by Paul Koestner.
24. Hung - The Middle East is Complicated
The second season of HBO’s likeable comedy was criticised for being unfocused or underpowered, but for this viewer it remained a funny, unpredictable half an hour featuring enough lovable characters that a lack of urgency was not a deal-breaker. This episode appeared to be more chaotic than most, with some highly entertaining work from Anne Heche, Lennie James and Gregg Henry, but under all the comic setpieces and drama there was a very simple through-line: while everything explodes around male prostitute Ray Drecker, he finds the way to endure. At this point in the show’s run Tanya and Lenore’s battle for Ray’s soul (i.e. power over his magical cock) appears to be going in circles, but Ray is given perspective on this when dealing with the differing points of view of his Israeli neighbour and a Lebanese client, who both express disgust over his ignorance of Middle Eastern politics and the origin of hummus. Surrounded by furious mania and cyclical conflict, Ray retreats to a safe position, and thus finds a way to make his prostitution work: removing his prejudices and loyalties from the equation in order to satisfy the person he is with: the prostitutional equivalent of Switzerland, a safe haven for those who need him. Thomas Jane’s final scene, with him reassuring guest star Merrin Dungey that he was on her side, was well-earned, well-played, and particularly satisfying.
23: Doctor Who – The Beast Below
It was all change on Doctor Who this year. The busy but entertaining season premiere did a terrific job of introducing super-likeable new Doctor Matt Smith. It also gave us Amy Pond, who — as an entirely new character — had more to prove. This episode gave us the best example of her pluck, evading mysterious Smilers and saving the day despite the Doctor having a hissy-fit about how crap humans are. Considering how rarely he did that during Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner, this return to curmudgeonliness was more than welcome, as was Amy’s heroic act. Partially because she saves the day, saves the space whale (no news if it is related to Spacey the Space Whale from Torchwood‘s execrable Meat), and earns a Golden Ticket to Doctor Wonka’s Adventure Factory, but mostly because she actually terminates the monarchy on Starship UK. An anti-monarchy message in a children’s TV show? Add to that the nifty political satire earlier in the episode, where Amy blindly votes at random and has no recollection of her decision-making process — bold of Steven Moffat to suggest the British people are being bamboozled by political messages that cloud their judgement — and you get an unusually acidic episode of Who. It was also the last time we would like Amy Pond. More on that later.
22. The IT Crowd – Italian For Beginners
The latest season of The IT Crowd was arguably the best yet, possibly a consequence of Matt Berry getting more screentime as Douglas Reynholm. It’s also great that the show seems more confident about keeping the characters apart in their own plots, with only the slightest hint that they might coalesce at the end. Linehan’s love of the absurd is tonally different enough from Larry David’s approach (rooted more in uncomfortable truths in the real world) that his love of Seinfeld is only occasionally obvious, but here he gets to show off his understanding of Seinfeldian-structure with several joyous flourishes, especially the way he sets up Moss’s fear of childbirth and the IT-Crowd-niverse’s iPhone fixation with sly jokes in the first act before paying them off with a wonderful unifying set-piece in Namco. However, the episode’s crowning glory might be his brilliant fusing of Linehanian madness and LarryDavidian* observational cringe-humour in the sub-plot featuring Roy’s girlfriend, orphaned when her parents died in an inexplicable and surreal accident that possesses him in the same way a UFO sighting drove poor Roy Neary crazy in Close Encounters. It’s a sub-plot fit to sit alongside those of Linehan’s comedy idols.
*I’ll stop that now.
21. The Office – Niagara
I was dreading it. One of my least favourite episodes of The Office was Phyllis’ Wedding, but only because Michael Scott crossed so many lines in his desperate need to be the centre of attention that he became utterly unlikeable. Of course that was the point, but the rage his solipsism induced is no less vivid. For a few episodes after it was hard to see him as a silly oaf and not as a spoilt and spiteful child prone to unforgivable tantrums. The Office is not in the habit of retconning this behaviour, so there was no chance Michael wouldn’t attempt to hijack Jim and Pam’s wedding. Thankfully everyone got to have their cake and eat it. Even though Michael and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin team do indeed take over the ceremony by doing an imitation of the JK Wedding Entrance Dance video that colonised the Internet last year, the showrunners knew to give Jim possibly his finest moment yet — anticipating this display and organising a different marriage ceremony for him and Pam on the Maid of the Mists. It’s a funny episode all round, and has some clever plot developments (not least Dwight and Michael’s romantic successes), but it’s the glorious shot of the newly-betrothed couple – in full wedding gear - on the deck of that boat that sets this episode miles (and miles and miles and miles) apart from the rest of the season.
More unsettling enthusiasm to come…