Thursday, August 1, 2013

Best TV Episodes, July 2013

10. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 10 – "Bora Bora Bora"

Warning in advance: One show holds a tyrannical reign over July's Best TV Episodes list. This isn't just because said show is great – though it is – but because just about nothing else of note aired last month. Jenji Kohan's women's prison drama Orange Is the New Black revealed itself to be a pretty damn accomplished piece of work from early on, but its final five-episode run in particular is what makes it one of the best shows of the year. From Scared Straight visiting the prison – giving Piper and other lowly prisoners a chance to actually boss others around for once – to the tragic events at episode's end, "Bora Bora Bora" continued tugging the show's energy in simultaneously funny, sad and moving directions.

9. Teen Wolf, Season 3 Episode 6 – "Motel California"

Remember last month when I talked about how summer's thin TV schedule lets shows that probably wouldn't have made my Best TV Episodes lists in January-May or September-December slip through the cracks? Well, last month it was Defiance, now it's Teen Wolf, for a moderately fun, Buffy-esque hour where team teen wolf winds up staying overnight at a haunted hotel. As with Defiance, it's silly that Teen Wolf finds itself represented on a series of lists that I've yet to find room for far better shows such as New Girl or Scandal on, but unless New Girl or Scandal decides to debut a spare episode in June or July there's shit all I can do about it.

8. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 5 – "The Chickening"

Much as the rat symbolized obviousness, the mysterious and fleetingly-glimpsed prison yard chicken in "The Chickening" was but thematic statement trapped in the flesh of a beast. But that doesn't mean that the feathered embodiment of hope and faith and freedom didn't work its magic on me just as it did Piper Chapman, and Piper's final, futile run to the fence at the episode's end to try to prove the bird's existence is one of my favorite moments of the first season of Orange Is the New Black.

7. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 12 – "Fool Me Once"

The main reason Orange Is the New Black's penultimate episode makes the cut for this list is because of its pulse-raising, "Holy shit!"-inducing final line and the thrilling and perfectly-timed cut to orange that immediately follows. The rest of the episode was very good too, but the final ten seconds are what had me scrambling for my remote to fire up the season finale. That right there is TV playing you like a fiddle, and it's a good feeling.

6. The Fosters, Season 1 Episode 9 – "Vigil"

Like Defiance and Teen Wolf, ABC Family's new drama The Fosters (which I also highlighted last month) probably wouldn't be represented on these lists if it weren't airing during summer, but unlike Defiance and Teen Wolf I'm actually kind of glad to have an opportunity to talk up this little-known minor gem. In all fairness, this episode, which showed flashbacks to events before the beginning of the series from the point of view of a character currently in emergency surgery, is a pretty blatant ripoff of the classic West Wing two-parter "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," but what worked back in 2000 still works damn well in 2013. My heart went out to the characters.

5. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 13 – "Can't Fix Crazy"

I'll admit first thing that I can barely recall anything that happens before roughly the final ten minutes of Orange Is the New Black's first season finale (which I won't go too in depth on, because I know not everyone's gotten around to Orange yet). But man, what a moving sequence the prison musical is and what a dark and haunting but also kind of exciting and weirdly grin-inducing final image for the season to go out on. It's the kind of finale that both satisfies but also hooks you in for season 2; the sort of finale that's been in short supply this year.

4. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 2 – "Tit Punch"

Truth be told, it took me a couple weeks to get around to hitting play on the first episode of Orange Is the New Black. Yes, TV critics went apeshit over it, but between the joyless House of Cards, the glacially-paced and emotionally dead The Americans and their continued fellating of the abysmal Girls, TV critics have burned me again and again in 2013. So when I finally did hit play on episode 1, it was with a hint of dread. That turned into curiosity by the end of the pilot, so I played another. And after episode 2, the less-salacious-than-it-sounds "Tit Punch," I was fully on board. The starving out of Piper is immediately frightening and visceral, gives her a great "puzzle" to solve for the episode and instantly establishes kitchen boss Red as a fascinating figure to be both feared and respected.

3. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 9 – "Fucksgiving"

Any time you hear about a dark and mysterious location in any TV show that we the viewer haven't seen yet, you're gonna wanna see it. That's just human nature. Basic curiosity. This applies to everything from the hatch on Lost to the lands north of the Wall on Game of Thrones to the Special Housing Unit (or SHU) on Orange Is the New Black. Well, nine episodes in, our curiosity was sated, SHU was visited, and it was pretty terrifying. As a fundamentalist introvert, it's the first thing I've seen that actually makes me consider that if I wound up in prison maybe I wouldn't prefer solitary confinement after all. The drug smuggling and Thanksgiving subplots are just gravy on the cake, baby.

2. Switched at Birth, Season 2 Episode 15 – "Ecce Mono"

This isn't the first time this year I've put ABC Family's teen/deaf culture drama Switched at Birth higher than, well, higher than you'd expect a show called Switched at Birth to be on my Best TV Episodes lists. But it seems Switched at Birth has a bit of a creative streak. First there was "Uprising," the silent, all-sign language episode I discussed back in March, and now, with "Ecce Mono," Switched goes full alternate-universe and shows us a world where the show's titular switch was switched back. The alt-universe concept is so fucking inherently cheesy and in just about any other show would make me groan, but in this case the idea behind it was simple and immediately accessible and the new light it shined on the characters was interesting, engaging and surprisingly kinda dark. So more gimmick episodes, Switched at Birth! You're weirdly good at them!

1. Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 11 – "Tall Men With Feelings"

There's no question that the montage of the inmates huddled around their radios, reacting to the PBS interview Piper's fiancé Larry is giving about Piper's time in prison, is the best moment of Orange Is the New Black's first season and one of the best TV moments of the year.

It's enormously effective on a pure character illumination level, with Larry's secondhand impressions of Piper's fellow inmates – many of them based on what Piper had told Larry a long time ago when she first started her sentence – making various women alternately feel thrilled or proud at Piper's positive impressions of them or heartbroken at feeling betrayed by a woman they'd viewed as a friend. It's on the backs of that latter group that the scene also works as a riveting, dramatically thrilling "Oh shit, what's gonna happen next?!" shakeup to the show's narrative and character dynamics. This sequence is everything you hope for from great TV writing, operating at a level only three or four other dramas have managed to achieve in 2013.