Friday, November 1, 2013

Best TV Episodes, October 2013

10. Arrow, Season 2 Episode 3 - "Broken Dolls"

It's been a dark TV year for me in a lot of ways: A solid half-dozen shows I adored ended (Spartacus, Fringe, 30 Rock, Breaking BadBunheads, Futurama), and another half-dozen or so I started the year liking or even loving have lost their luster (we'll talk more about those at the end of December). But then, a green light piercing the darkness: Arrow. That little superhero show that inspired a "not bad" from me last fall has grown by leaps and bounds in 2013, its creative fire burning hot, and is now one of TV's pure kick-ass pleasures. "Broken Dolls" is just one of their more typical case-of-the-week installments, but the show is now so damn good that even those are worthy of my monthly list.

9. Scandal, Season 3 Episode 1 - "It's Handled"

First off, props to Scandal for finally popping its Tim's TV Talk Best TV Episodes list cherry. Like Arrow (and Orange Is the New Black, and Hannibal), Shonda Rhimes' The West Wing-on-crack opus has been something of a bright spot in a dark TV year for me, and its third season finale carried on nicely with the snappy pace and operatic melodrama of season 2. Joe Morton, who I know primarily from my roughly one million viewings of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, fits perfectly into the show as Olivia Pope's father, delivering lines with booming, Shakespearean magnitude.

8. Parenthood, Season 5 Episode 5 - "Let's Be Mad Together"

I'll be the first to admit: The mayoral election arc of Parenthood season 5? Not exactly my favorite thing the show's done. In fact I might go so far as to say that Kristina's election is to Parenthood as Landry murder is to Friday Night Lights: Just not the kind of story I normally love and revere this show for. But "Let's Be Mad Together" put the race on hold for a week, and good times were had by all. And by good I mean bittersweet, because this is Parenthood. Drunk Joel shopping for cake was delightful, and the subplot with Max's photography makes this honestly one of the best episodes for Max in the show's entire run to date. He's actually bordering on likable and sympathetic! For Max, that's a pretty big deal.

7. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Season 9 Episode 5 - "Mac Day"

If it weren't for the badass hockey flick Goon from a couple years back, I'd have to call Seann William Scott's performance as Country Mac in "Mac Day" his best work since the original American Pie in 1999. Genuine celebrities and Always Sunny can feel like a slightly volatile combination, but by positioning Country Mac as the improved version of Regular Mac in every way – superior at stunts, a better fighter, a master of the ocular pat down and open instead of closeted with his homosexuality – Scott's star power merely emphasized how overmatched Mac was. After "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" from last month, I'd have to call "Mac Day" my second favorite Sunny of the year so far.

6. Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 Episode 5 - "Erlkönig"

One of the great pleasures of TV as a medium, and one that film rarely achieves in its allotted two-hour slices, is the ability to turn the spotlight on the supporting players, transforming glorified extras over years into rich, three-dimensional characters. (The classic Buffy episode "The Zeppo" commented on this directly.) Hence, this episode's focus on Nucky's body man Eddie Kessler, a character I would have called minor comic relief in the first couple seasons, proved quite powerful and moving, straight through to the haunting final shot. The fact that "Erlkönig" also included a huge gun battle in the Chicago subplot with the Capones and Van Alden and the cops is just icing on the cake.

5. Arrow, Season 2 Episode 4 - "Crucible"

The Canary has been a massive boon to Arrow in its second season, an immediately likable, interesting and badass addition to the ensemble (let's call her the anti-Laurel Lance in that regard), and the episode that revealed her true identity and background did not disappoint. Hell, it wasn't even really the main point of "Crucible," which also squeezed in a solid case of the week and an awesome "OH SNAP!"-inducing reveal about the big bad behind everything in the hour's closing seconds. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., pay attention: Arrow is showing you how to keep televised superhero storytelling aggressively paced, emotionally involving and hugely exciting. Watch it. Study it. Take notes.

4. Bob's Burgers, Season 4 Episode 2 - "Fort Night"

Last year's Bob's Burgers Halloween special, "Full Bars," was one of the show's bigger episodes in terms of scale and sheer number of newly-designed locales, with the Belcher kids exploring an entire adjacent town. So it seems a fitting counterpoint that this year's Halloween special "Fort Night" features the Belcher kids stuck in a small fort made of refrigerator boxes for most of the episode. It managed to combine the high stakes of a Halloween special (the fort is under threat of being crushed by a truck) and a chilling "villain" in Millie with the pleasures of a bottle episode. It's easily the best episode of season 4 so far.

3. Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 Episode 8 - "The Old Ship of Zion"

Though it has its merits all through the hour, amping the Chalky vs. Narcisse conflict up to the next level, "The Old Ship of Zion" is ultimately ranked this high on the strength of its final scene, where the visual cues and performances and general film grammar truly convinced me that a main character was about to die. It was, on account of this, one of the most intense and harrowing TV scenes of all of 2013. It's a powerful scene I'll remember for some time. I know I'm being vague as fuck here, but trust me, there's a reason.

2. Arrow, Season 2 Episode 1 - "City of Heroes"

Arrow had its work cut out for it trying to measure up to its debut season's epic finale, and I'm pleased and frankly a little shocked to report that they pulled it off. "City of Heroes" saw season 2 exploding out of the gate. Like season 1, it owes a huge debt to Chris Nolan's Dark Knight movies, but using the medium of television's strengths – namely a sprawling canvas – it was able to arguably improve on a couple concepts from those films. Firstly the realization and construction of Oliver's no-kill rule, something Batman Begins had to get through within the space of a couple scenes in its opening half-hour but which Arrow (the show) and Arrow (the superhero) has had some time to chew and ponder on.

Also, taking a page right from the opening scenes of The Dark Knight, the Arrow now has copycat vigilantes in town; copycats who wield guns and use lethal force. But unlike the chubby cosplayers from The Dark Knight, Arrow's copycats are ruthless military-trained killers. It was a potentially fascinating concept The Dark Knight didn't have the spare time to devote much attention to, but thanks to the medium of television, a whole hour can be set aside to explore it in depth. And that's why TV is cool.

1. The Legend of Korra, Season 2 Episodes 7 & 8 - "Beginnings" (two-parter)

Easily the best episode (well, technically episodes, but they aired together and they go together, so whatever) of The Legend of Korra to date and what would have to be in contention to be called the best episode of the entire Avatar franchise, "Beginnings" took us back to the prehistory of the Avatar world and showed us the life and genesis and battles of Wan, the first Avatar. And, as far as genre prequels go, let's call it the exact fucking opposite of The Phantom Menace: Something great and beautiful and damn near perfect in every way. It enchanted me, it intrigued me, it thrilled me, it moved me, it left me both grinning like a dope and damn near on the cusp of tears. It's basically Korra's stab at a Miyazaki "concept episode," and it does Princess Mononoke damn proud.

If you were to pluck "Beginnings" from its home on TV and call it a movie, I don't know that I've enjoyed an animated movie so much since... god, WALL•E, maybe? Very, very few episodes of television have made me feel giddy and excited and moved and just freaking in awe of the sheer potential of onscreen storytelling like this in years. Maybe ever. The animation? Beautiful. Breathtaking. The emotion? Goosebumps all over my body. The action scenes? Immensely badass. The sheer scope of its storytelling? It rivals entire epic fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in the space of about forty minutes of television. "Beginnings" is TV of mythic power. I love, love, love, love, love it.

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