10. Banshee, Season 1 Episode 3 – "Meet the New Boss"
Here's the first of three early 2013 TV surprises: Cinemax's new show, Banshee, a small-town sheriff drama with a little extra-violent zest, is pretty good! I call this surprising because Cinemax's first two attempts at real, non-porn series, Strike Back and Hunted, sucked (I know some TV critics are bafflingly trying to pretend Strike Back is some kind of awesome guilty pleasure, but no, it's just a crappy action procedural with boobs), but Banshee is both smarter and way more fun than either. I could have picked any of its three January episodes for this slot, but ultimately went with "Meet the New Boss" on account of one of the most kick-ass onscreen fights I've seen in some time.
9. Supernatural, Season 8 Episode 11 – "LARP and the Real Girl"
2013 TV surprise #2: While I've previously found Supernatural's cases of the week to be mere appetizers to the main course of its arc episodes, in season 8, that's been soundly reversed, with my favorite hours of the season so far – "Bitten," "Hunteri Heroici," and now "LARP and the Real Girl" – all being standalones. (Filler, even.) This episode brought back Felicia Day's Charlie Bradbury, maybe Supernatural's best still-living recurring character save Castiel, and found a spin on live-action fantasy roleplaying that was funny and silly without ever being mean or hurtful about it. Just a damn entertaining episode. Forty-two minutes of top-to-bottom enjoyment.
8. Switched at Birth, Season 2 Episode 4 – "Dressing for the Charade"
And finally, 2013 TV surprise #3: I'm pretty sure Switched at Birth has supplanted Bunheads as my favorite ABC Family show. I put Bunheads way higher on my best of 2012 list, and Switched at Birth's fall arc kind of sucked, so I didn't think that would ever happen. But here we are: Bunheads has settled into a fun but disposable groove, while Switched is continually bettering itself and deepening its exploration of clashing cultures and the odd, compelling family at its center. But don't let me make it sound too serious – this episode, involving a series of escalating farcical mishaps at an ill-advised dinner party, is some of the most purely fun TV of the year so far.
7. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 11 – "Nude Beach"
One of the million things that makes Bob's Burgers the best animated sitcom on TV right now (and, at least for my money, in years) is its unusually long memory for that genre. It isn't "serialized," per se, but a number seemingly one-off characters have popped up again, weeks or even months later, picking up their stories where they left off. And in that spirit, "Nude Beach" acted as a de facto part two to the very first episode of the entire series, "Human Flesh," with health inspector Hugo Habercore coming into conflict with Bob once again, only this time in the nude. It was both a hysterically funny half-hour and also surprisingly made Hugo, previously a fairly one-dimensional villain, into a rounded, sympathetic character. When it comes to having heart without ever getting treacly or misplacing the funny, Bob's Burgers reigns supreme.
6. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 15 – "Because You're My Sister"
Many critics commented that Parenthood's fourth season finale almost stumbled over itself in a rush to wrap up every single loose plot thread into an excessively happy ending, just on the off chance this ends up being the series finale (though the ratings are high enough that probably won't happen, thank god). And they aren't wrong. But god damn if I didn't have the biggest, dopiest grin of pure joy on my face during the episode/season-ending montage all the same. This show. It makes me feel, man! It makes me feel!
5. 30 Rock, Season 7 Episodes 12 & 13 – "Hogcock!" & "Last Lunch"
I won't go too in-depth on 30 Rock's series finale, not because I don't have stuff to say but because approximately two million other online essays have already covered every facet imaginable. But I will say that from my live viewing of its October 11th, 2006 series premiere to Thursday's two-part series finale – which, by the way, makes this by some margin the longest-running series that I've followed in real time from its very beginning to its very end (shamefully, I think the runner-up on that account may be the four-season run of Heroes) – 30 Rock has never stopped being an immensely enjoyable sitcom, and this finale wrapped it up very nicely. But it's actually not my favorite 30 Rock episode(s) of the month!
4. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 1 – "Enemies of Rome"
Already discussed this in sufficient depth. Spartacus is this high because it kicks unbelievable amounts of ass. End of story.
3. 30 Rock, Season 7 Episode 9 – "Game Over"
"Game Over" isn't just my favorite 30 Rock of the month, but my favorite of season 7 and a very real contender for my top ten of the series. In uniting Jack Donaghy's long-term nemeses Devon Banks and Kaylie Hooper in one final effort to have his job, this episode brought satisfying closure to stories that 30 Rock has been slow-cooking for nearly its entire run. The series of climactic reveals detailing how Jack actually played and outsmarted Devon and Kaylie all along was both hilarious and damn impressive plotting. Beyond all that, that's a series wrap on Leo Spaceman, suckers! Lenny Wosniak returns and embraces his true identity as Jan Foster! Megan Mullally cameo! An explosively great 22 minutes of comedy.
2. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 13 – "Small Victories"
I wrote about this in some detail as well, but "Small Victories" was a fantastic, achingly emotional hour of Parenthood that took on the abortion issue by refusing to "take it on" at all, instead depicting something overly politicized as the deeply personal choice it is. And the heaviness of that story was balanced by a comedic B-plot about body odor and pubic hair that had me laughing embarrassingly loud. This show is great. Season 5, NBC? Please?
1. Fringe, Season 5 Episodes 12 & 13 – "Liberty" & "An Enemy of Fate"
The two-hour finale of one of the best sci-fi series ever, while tense, twisty and exciting, didn't miraculously leverage its modest budget into something resembling a summer blockbuster spectacular. The final, climactic action scene of the entire series ultimately boiled down to a shootout in a parking lot (with numerous sci-fi twists on its edges, of course, including but not limited to teleportation, telekinesis, and time travel).
But there are three important ways that the two-parter of "Liberty" and "An Enemy of Fate" nailed the landing. One, timing. This finale went down at exactly the right moment, after five fast-paced seasons of continually shifting status quos, character dynamics, parallel universes and alternate timelines. Fringe didn't die so fast as to be tragic ala Firefly, but it also never grew stale and didn't outstay its welcome for a second. Granted, this is more a comment on the entire series than these specific episodes, but still, it's going to be a big part of why I recommend Fringe in years to come.
Two, mythology. I don't want to go too into this right now, but needless to say Fringe is not Lost. Every plot thread was wrapped up coherently and satisfyingly, there aren't any egregious unanswered questions, and absolutely nothing was brushed aside as being magic. (I mean, obviously time travel is magic, but they explain it as science fiction with science fiction terminology. It's a subtle but really, really important distinction.)
And three and most importantly, emotion. The action in this episode may have been relatively TV modest, but on the emotional level it was an explosive, devastating, intensely moving two hours. The true climactic moment of Fringe was not an action beat but a single, four-word line of dialogue from Peter Bishop that completed a five-year character arc with stunning beauty that sent goosebumps up my arm.
And, as an added bonus, we now have a great series finale to point to when Lost fanboys still defending that show's abortion of an ending cough up the ludicrous argument that there was no satisfying way to wrap up a long-running genre serial with a complex mythology. (Angel and Avatar: The Last Airbender already soundly disproved this, but one more example is always welcome).