2011 is dead. Long live 2011. Longer live these great episodes, which came from 2011.
11. The Walking Dead – “Pretty Much Dead Already”
The Walking Dead is the most frustrating show on television. The writing is often bad enough to make a person want to buy a crossbow, learn how to effectively load and shoot the crossbow, rig a system to remotely operate the crossbow and the shoot an arrow into one’s own head. But considering its promising concept and terrific season one pilot, it’s clear there is a great, compelling drama bubbling right underneath the surface of questionable character motivations and baffling leaps of logic. “Pretty Much Dead Already” makes the list because it erased a great deal of frustration in one fell swoop – it hardly took care of all the show’s flaws, but it certainly wrapped up season two’s biggest flaw of the lingering lost little girl storyline. After six episodes, the case of Sophia’s disappearance had become a complete joke, lingering in the background as if the writing staff knew they were supposed to deal with it but didn’t know how to assign it any importance. Then this episode dovetailed it perfectly with the season’s other main conflict, that between Rick’s band of survivors and the zombie domesticating vet Herschel. It was a moment the show needed, and “Pretty Much Dead Already” built up to it so well that it might temporarily restored my faith in the series.
10. South Park – “You’re Getting Old”
Nearly every South Park episode ends with Stan or Kyle presenting some sort of moral, so to say the show has never gone into sentimental territory before would be inaccurate. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone have definitely never expressed an idea as artfully or in such a moving way as they do in “You’re Getting Old” (well, maybe the puppet sex scene in Team America: World Police, but this is a close second). Here Parker and Stone use their trademark juvenile humor to create a genuinely powerful metaphor for growing up, as Stan begins to see everything he once loved literally turn to shit. It’s a concept that allows for a lot of great sight gags, but excellently cuts to the core of one of the most terrifying aspects of adulthood: Not only is the world around you evolving, but you yourself are evolving, and you have little control over either of those events. The episode’s ending was so powerful that many South Park fans began to worry that the show might be about to end and leave them behind – an oddly fitting meta reaction, one that I’m sure wasn’t lost on Parker and Stone.
9. Boardwalk Empire – “Gimcrack and Bunkum”
Richard Harrow is without a doubt the breakout character of Boardwalk Empire. He has an impressive level of depth, gets many of the show’s most badass moments, is perfectly portrayed by Jack Huston and has inspired more Halloween costumes than the rest of the show’s ensemble combined. So it’s no surprise that season two’s best episode featured more Richard than any other in a stunningly filmed woodland sequence. The whole ordeal could have been a great short film, with Richard attempting to take his own life, only to be delayed by a mask-stealing hound dog and later convinced to make another go at life by two charitable woodsmen. The storyline was alternately heartbreaking and touching, and finally ended with Richard and his commander/only friend Jimmy Darmody kicking the season into high gear with an old west style scalping of a racist Atlantic City elder. “Gimcrack and Bunkum” was not just compelling television, it was art.
8. The Daily Show – “May 2, 2011”
I never really predicted the death of Osama Bin Laden would be one of those moments where everybody remembers where they were when they heard. It might be because I thought he’d never be caught – I always thought he’d collapse from a heart attack in a cave somewhere, and the world would find out about it months, maybe years after the fact. Or maybe after a decade of the War on Terror I was just cynical enough that I didn’t think his death would matter. I’m still not sure if it does. But I won’t deny that there was at least a bit of catharsis as I sat in a dark student newspaper office, wearing an oversized Joe Mauer jersey, scrolling through the early announcements on Twitter that the bastard was dead. And as with many seminal events of the past decade, Jon Stewart was able to articulate that feeling better than anybody. The joy as he scrolled through a series of celebratory Bin Laden jokes was unmistakable – as was the subtext of weariness, frustration and anguish that had proceeded the reaction for nearly a decade.
7. Louie – “Oh Louie/Tickets”
Louie is a very ambitious show. It seeks to deconstruct its medium, it hopes to make people look at comedy in a new way, etc., yada yada, blah blah. The genius of Louis CK has been explained a lot more eloquently than I can do here. But even if you strip all of those ambitions of Louie away from the show, “Oh Louie/Tickets” is must see television in the classic sense of the term, because it shows you something most people never thought they would see: a frank, candid discussion between comedic polar opposites Louis CK and Dane Cook. The extended scene where our titular hero tries to pursuade Cook to get him some Lady Gaga tickets for his daughter, while Cook rants about the supposedly unfair lynching he received for supposedly steadling jokes, is just something that you don’t see. Anywhere. And considering Cook isn’t really known as the most self-aware or self-deprecating figure, it was kind of like a rare unicorn sighting. This is a moment the guys at 60 Minutes would kill to broadcast – but instead it was in the last ten minutes of a sitcom on FX. Either way, it was riveting, pure unflinching honesty – and with the benefit of being a lot more hilarious than Steve Croft.
I’ll have the rest of my list up later tonight - and if you think I’m an idiot by my first five choices alone, fear not - Kevin will have his up tomorrow.
(Photos courtesy AMC, Comedy Central, Home Box Office and FX)