Sunday, March 3, 2013

Best TV Episodes, February 2013

10. Community, Season 4 Episode 3 – "Conventions of Space and Time"

As I've discussed, my feelings on Community (which, mind you, was for a time my favorite show on television) have been both complicated and simplified by the ousting of Dan Harmon. Complicated in that I'm always watching going "Is something off? Would Harmon have done it like this?", simplified in that I spend a lot less time rewatching and analyzing episodes, content to just go "That was fun. Ok, moving on with my life." None of season 4's efforts so far have been anywhere near the upper tier of Community classics, but they've all been enjoyable enough removed from outside context. I could've gone with any of them for this #10 slot, and landed on "Conventions of Space and Time" because, hey, why not.

9. Revenge, Season 2 Episode 14 – "Sacrifice"

I honestly didn't expect to ever be putting Revenge on one of these lists again, as the show has stalled and lost focus in its second season, but they pulled one hell of a tragic, surprising, climactic hour out of their hat in February, with secrets coming out and battle lines being drawn and not one but two prominent character deaths. "Sacrifice" is the kind of TV episode that makes you nod with appreciation and say, yeah, that's soap done right.

8. Justified, Season 4 Episode 8 – "Outlaw"

I'll level with you guys: I'm not sure how I feel about Justified season 4's serialized season arc. The idea of the team cracking a decades-old cold case is potentially intriguing, but in practice has amounted to the characters doing a whole lot of running around Harlan asking people if they've seen Drew Thompson. But Justified can still have a lot of good pulpy crime fiction fun on an episode-by-episode basis and even deliver just a hint of emotion, as this episode does via the relationship between lawman Raylan Givens and his criminal father Arlo. (But don't worry, people get shot too. This ain't no touchy feely show!)

7. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 13 – "My Fuzzy Valentine"

One of the main things separating Bob's Burgers from most other animated sitcoms at the moment is how unreservedly charming and sweet and mild-mannered it's content to be for long stretches at a time without feeling the need to undercut it and tell you, pfft, you shouldn't actually care about any of this. No, Bob's Burgers can be a truly nice show, one that is just pleasant to watch, and that carries over into its first Valentine's Day episode as Bob goes on a townwide journey to find a piece of memorabilia from he and Linda's first date as the perfect Valentine's present.

6. Bunheads, Season 1 Episode 18 – "Next!"

Bunheads' first season finale was a really wonderful episode of television in every way except one: It did not feel – narratively, thematically, or in terms of the show's character arcs – in any way like a season finale. It didn't conclude, wrap up, or put a bow on anything. In fact, it ended on a pretty grim note for this generally fun series, and, not knowing whether there will even be a second season, that makes me nervous. But outside of that it was great. Protagonist Michelle's journey to Hollywood to audition for a musical was an exhilarating fifteen-minute sequence that had more energy and excitement and genuine filmmaking verve to it than, well, most feature films, and the episode also did very well by the show's younger cast. If only it was episode 18 of a 20-to-22-episode season, I'd probably consider it one of the five best TV episodes of the year so far.

5. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 2 – "Wolves at the Gate"

As Spartacus (the character) makes good on his plan to attack and take over a Roman city the very episode after hatching it, Spartacus (the show) continues to deliver monumental, climactic episodes every other drama on television would save for their season finales week after week like it's the most natural thing in the world for a TV show to be operating at this level. An awesome episode and another successful chapter in the exhilarating highwire act that is War of the Damned.

4. Bunheads, Season 1 Episode 16 – "There's Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit"

I thoroughly enjoyed 2012's ten-episode run of Bunheads, but the one big complaint I had was that two of the show's supposed main teen characters, Ginny and Melanie, felt continually underserved, always shoved in the background to let Boo and Sasha shine. The show's 2013 run has fixed that completely. "There's Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit" dedicated much of itself to developing blonde bunhead Ginny's theatrical ambitions, and didn't just do right by the character but arguably made her the singular highlight of Bunheads' teen cast. It's the show's best episode this year.

3. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 14 – "Lindapendent Woman"

Linda leaves the burger restaurant and takes a job at a grocery store, and hilarity ensues. (Literally, I mean, not in the snarky way.) I love this show so much that I sometimes wonder if this might be how animation fans felt watching The Simpsons' golden years back in the early and mid 90s. It's just great. It's so fucking funny and just so much fun to watch, week in and week out. There's no other comedy on the air right now that's even close.

2. The Vampire Diaries, Season 4 Episode 15 – "Stand By Me"

I know, right?! What the hell is The Vampire Diaries doing this high?? I'm the one putting it here, and I myself am looking at it going, "Huh?" But "Stand By Me" was a hugely affecting hour of television any way you cut it, following up on the death of a very major character at the end of the previous episode in a way that even had me thinking just a little of Buffy's "The Body." Of course it's not nearly as good as "The Body" – literally a handful of episodes of television ever made are – but the fact that it even had me drawing mental comparisons speaks highly of it. It also kept the season's greater arcs moving along, even busting out a couple pretty big twists, but what makes this one of The Vampire Diaries' finest hours lies primarily in its exploration of loss and grief.

1. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 4 – "Decimation"

Beyond its insane pacing and beyond-the-pale awesomeness, one of the big things separating Spartacus from most other cable dramas – especially those involving life-or-death stakes – is that it's not and never has been centered around a morally ambiguous antihero. Spartacus is a hero and he's noble and we like him and root for him and want him to succeed, and that's pretty much that.

But, in "Decimation," Spartacus came around to cable antiheroism through an interesting roundabout method: Spartacus himself may be a hero, but his army of thousands contains every shade of morality across the spectrum. Some, as Spartacus, fight for the freedom of all slaves, willing to give their lives to shake the foundations of Rome. Many simply follow Spartacus' orders to the letter. Others seek vengeance. And a few are, unbeknownst to Spartacus, in it for plunder and murder and rape.

Thus was the subject of one of Spartacus' darkest episodes to date, as Spartacus' occupation of the Roman city Sinuessa en Valle began to go really, really bad for the Roman prisoners under Spartacus' protection, spurred along by Julius Caesar – posing as a rebel slave and acting as Marcus Crassus' man on the inside – and a particularly nasty soldier in Spartacus' army by the name of Nemetes.

"Decimation" was some dark, ugly, crazy, thrilling, heart-pounding, next-level television. And it was yet another example of how thoroughly Spartacus is schooling everything else on TV right now in everything from pacing to excitement to narrative complexity to moral difficulty to even the baser pleasures like crazy twists and action scenes. It packs more into every hour than certain other shows (*cough* Walking Dead *cough*) do into entire seasons, and does so with style to spare. TV don't get much better than this.

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