Consider this the companion piece to my Top 10 TV Shows of 2008 list. Unlike that list, this one is a more standard year end list, only covering episodes that aired January 1st to December 31st. Because I’m judging thousands of episodes, there was a bunch of contenders for this list, many of which were bunched pretty closely near the end of the list, so I used the 8-10 spots for shows that missed my other list just to change things up.
NOTE: Since I’ll be talking about specific episodes, the write-ups will be necessarily spoilerish. For people who want to skim but remain unspoiled, the pictures are fairly unspoilery. On that note, I’ll reiterate that I haven’t caught up to The Shield, so please don’t spoil it for me by telling my how amazing the final was and how dumb I am for leaving it off this list (well okay, you can tell me that it’s awesome. Just please don’t tell me why).
10. “Nothing Tastes Better Than Five Hundred Dollars”, Survivor: Gabon – Season 17, Episode 10, Airdate: June 3
Gabon wasn’t one of the best seasons of Survivor, in fact, it was pretty much instantly forgettable (well, in my case, I mean that figuratively, as I seem to remember everything about this show. Which I’m not proud of). But this was one of the better episodes of the past 17 seasons (yes, there’s been 17 seasons of this show, which will shock those of you who stopped paying any attention 15 seasons ago), mostly because it offered something that scripted TV can’t: the complete and utter comeuppance of a real life bully. After spending most of the season as one of the most mean-spirited, ungracious, bigoted contestant in the show’s history, Randy found himself on the outside looking in after a few game twists and miscalculations left him with only one ally (the even more detestable Corinne). His big plan for survival? Be an even bigger ass to everyone, trying to get everyone to vote for him so he could use Bob’s hidden idol. The problem? Bob didn’t have a freaking hidden idol, Sugar did. And had it for weeks, but Randy was so dismissive of her and her intelligence that it didn’t occur to him that she could have it. Instead, Bob had a fake idol, which he gave to Randy on Sugar’s behest, all so Randy would look like an idiot at Tribal Council. And he did, and it was GLORIOUS. He smugly played the fake idol, had it thrown in his face, had those whose previous losses he never failed to throw back in their faces get to laugh in his, while Randy remained bitter and awful until the end.
9. “Mac & Charlie Die” (parts one and two), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Season 4, Episodes 4 & 5, Airdate: May 3
It’s Always Sunny can be one of the funniest shows on TV when it’s on, but it’s generally hit or miss. This one was mostly hit throughout the two-part episode, with the manic energy of the cast resulting in some inspired bits like Charlie’s easily pulled teeth, his wild card reaction to Mac’s plan (complete with a chair thrown through the window), Mac’s crazy car scheme, their funeral, Sweet Dee’s harrowing bus ride, and “the shadow”. The only problem I had with the episode (well, besides Frank, who I could completely do without) was that I was watching it on my iPod, and bursting out laughing uncontrollably was a bit embarrassing.
8. “Hello, Goodbye”, Friday Night Lights – Season 3, Episode 4, Airdate: October 22
After a wildly uneven second season that largely got by due to affection the characters had earned in the first season, this third (and probably final season) has been largely improved, given the characters we fell in love with a proper send off. The show started with the official send offs with the fourth episode of the season, with the departure of the now graduated Smash Williams (they would repeat the trick later with Jason Street). It was classic FNL, in that if you didn’t nearly choke on the lump in your throat that developed about halfway through and only grew until the beautiful finish, then you lack a proper functioning soul. (PS- yes I know that picture doesn’t do the true highlights of the episode justice, it’s just the best I could do. This season doesn’t have much of a web presence yet, as I imagine NBC doesn’t want too many spoilers out there until it’s had a chance to air it).
7. “Meditations in an Emergency”, Mad Men – Season 2, Episode 13, Airdate: October 26
The season finale of Mad Men saw Don Draper return from his California sojourn just in time to prevent Sterling Cooper from disintegrating, while the rest of the country is worried about a more real disintegration during the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mad Men is a show more about small moments and atmosphere, but as both season finales have proved, they can do bigger moments exceedingly well when they need to. Well, bigger moments by their standards, that is. Because when you have a season as richly developed as this one was, you can make moments like Duck’s attempted coup or Betty’s pregnancy seem like true emergencies, and moments like Don getting the best of Duck or the final scene with Betty and Don accepting their fate with their new baby seem monumental. The two biggest moments of the episode for me were Betty finally stepping out on Don, in a move that seemed to symbolically push her away from the child-like emotional behaviour she’d exhibited in the first two seasons (with season two being more of an emotional adolescence) and into adulthood, and most spectacularly, the scene between Peggy and Pete, where Peggy quietly and assertively tells Pete the truth about her pregnancy, devastating poor Pete in the most subdued fashion possible. Pete can be a little creep, but it was hard not to sympathize with the poor bastard there.
6. “Goodbye, Toby”, The Office – Season 4, Episode 14, Airdate: May 15
The Office has always been good at closing out seasons, with “Hot Girl”, “Casino Night”, and “The Job” all being some of the best the series has had to offer. Season four’s closer was no exception, giving us the big moments like Toby’s farewell, Phillis catching Dwight and Angela, Jim’s thwarted proposal to Pam (OMG!), and the downfall of Ryan. But the best part of the episode was the introduction of Amy Ryan’s new HR rep Holly Flax, who instantly made Michael Scott a better man, and resulted in one of the season’s funniest bits, when Dwight (fairly easily) convinced Holly that Kevin is “special”. A good season finale will leave a viewer desperate for the next season to begin, and this one certainly accomplished that.
5. “Succession”, 30 Rock – Season 2, Episode 13, Airdate: April 24
30 Rock was riotiously funny coming back from the writer’s strike, with “Subway Hero”, “Succession”, “Sandwich Day”, and “Cooter” all contending for this list. I give the nod to “Succession” not only had for the great gags of Liz’s corporate makeover (and her and Pete’s reactions to executive salaries), Dr. Leo Spaceman’s phoning for diabetes repair, and Frank introducing the concept of “the Uncanny Valley”, but also for the brilliant Amadeus spoof that pushed the episode over the edge to become something truly sublime.
4. “The New Girl”, Mad Men – Season 2, Episode 5, Airdate: August 24
When you have a season as uniformly excellent as season two of Mad Men was, it can be difficult to pick out the best episode. Sure, the finale stuck out, which is why it made the list, but in many ways, the resolutions found in the finale aren’t as indicative of the pleasures of this show. A better representation comes from episodes earlier in the season, which show the strengths of the series in how it can slowly unfold its characters. Of these earlier episodes, “The New Girl” was probably the strongest, and not just because it added another beautiful woman to the cast in the form of Don Draper’s new secretary. Instead, “The New Girl” stands out because of the spotlight it gave to the relationship between Don and Peggy, filling in some of the gaps that came when the series jumped ahead two years. Knowing how Don helped Peggy out following her surprise pregnancy offered a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Dick Whitman/Don Draper. I still get chills when I think about Don sitting at Peggy’s hospital bed, leaning in to say “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened”.
3. “Alex – Week Eight”, In Treatment – Season 1, Episode 37, Airdate: March 18
The unique format of In Treatment allowed the audience to get deeper into characters than most shows, which was one of the best elements of the series. But the best episode belonged to pinch hitter Glynn Turman, who showed up briefly in the previous episode before coming to Paul’s office the next day, and delivered the best, and most devastating, performance on television in the year 2008. Beyond the power of a distant father mourning the recent loss of his son, and the weight he carried believing himself responsible, what made the performance so strong was how Turman was able to adapt the small mannerisms that Blair Underwood had put into his son throughout the season, so that there was no doubt that this was Alex’s father, or where many of Alex’s tendencies came from. That’s a kind of dedication you don’t often find in television performances, much less from an actor brought in for one, 22-minute episode. Turman won an Emmy for his performance, which he’ll get to reprise in the second season of the series.
2. “The Constant”, Lost – Season 4, Episode 5, Airdate: February 28
Even when things weren’t going well, Lost always finished strong with finales that brought viewers back. This past season, they decided not to wait til the final episode to deliver their best episode of the season; perhaps the best of the series. The show had already proved that it had come back strong with flash forward episodes like “The Beginning of the End” and “The Economist” (another strong contender for this list), then blew everything away with “The Constant”, going back to the flashback structure, kind of, telling the story of Desmond… a man unstuck in time. It was a wonderful mindfuck of an episode that wound up being the most emotionally affecting in the series history, that made all those annoying “you’re gonna die Charlie” promos from season three worth it.
1. “Late Editions”, The Wire – Season 5, Episode 9, Airdate: March 3
The Wire tended to deliver their strongest episodes with the penultimate episodes of the season, letting the season finale serve as the elegy that comes after the explosions of the previous episodes. These episodes tended to be written by detective novelist George Pelecanos, and “Late Editions” was no different. To close out the series, Lester Freamon was finally able to get Marlo in bracelets (leading to Jamie Hector’s strongest moment in the series as Marlo finds out what his crew was keeping from him), Bubbles celebrates his sobriety anniversary, and a happy endings were given to Namond and Bunny Colvin. On the not-so-happy front (or “completely, absolutely devastating front”) the show ended with Michael killing Snoop to save himself, then the sublimely profound goodbyes to Bug and Dookie. For all the gritty crime realities, Greek tragedy, and intricate plotting, the real reason why The Wire is the greatest series in television history was how deeply it made you care about its troubled, complicated characters, to the point where it’s still difficult for me to think about a murdering drug dealer say goodbye to his friend without getting choked up.