While Todd launched right into his list yesterday with little introduction, I’m going to offer a few more caveats before I present my list.
- Despite being pretty underemployed right now, I have not spent all of my free time watching every episode of every show. I’ve missed a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, Justified, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Man Up (“a few” in this instance meaning “all of them”).
- There are a few shows sitting in my ever-growing pile of “must-watch” shows, defined as a show that someone has told me I “have to watch before you do anything else,” yet I have not seen a single episode of, including old shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Doctor Who, and new shows like Enlightened, Downtown Abbey, and Friday Night Lights.
That being said, I watched as much as I could and tried to evaluate as many episodes as I could. So without further ado, here is the first half of my Top 11 Episodes of 2011.
11. The Office — "Goodbye Michael"
Season seven of The Office was a mixed bag at best, and an extended goodbye party for Steve Carell’s Michael Scott at worst. But for all of the problems Carell’s final season faced — unrealistic character interactions, Dwight Schrute fatigue, and way too many overdramatic grand gestures (whose idea was it to fill an entire office with candles?) — ”Goodbye Michael” let Carell exit the show with quiet dignity. It was unexpected to see Michael Scott make an inauspicious exit given his propensity for sensational parties and unnecessary motivational speeches, but that’s what made his departure pack such an emotional impact. Sure, the episode wasn’t perfect (Pam’s tearful airport goodbye felt like a less sexually charged version of the Friends series finale), but it was the best episode of The Office in years, which — despite not being good enough for Emmy voters and their inexplicable love of Jim Parsons — was good enough for me.
10. 30 Rock — “Queen of Jordan”
30 Rock has been much-maligned as of late by critics, and although I don’t particularly agree with them, I can understand why. With five seasons under its belt, 30 Rock has to work harder than ever to come up with fresh ideas and avoid letting the characters become caricatures (though it may be too late for Kenneth and Jenna in that regard). ”Queen of Jordan” was the perfect antidote to the fatigue of a Liz and Jack-centric season, allowing bit player Angie Jordan to (literally) take over 30 Rock by replacing it with her own Bravo reality show. Aesthetically, the episode was a pitch-perfect send-up of the Real Housewives franchise, from its inexplicable dramatic in-fighting to the interview confessionals with a group of completely new characters, highlighted by gay stylist D’Fwan and ex-stripper Randi. Perhaps the best part of the episode was the main characters falling into (or vehemently avoiding) reality show tropes, with Jenna trying to get screen time by convincing Pete to throw her an intervention and Jack refusing to be pigeonholed as a “clumsy, gay flatulent.” With perhaps its most ambitious episode since “Live Show,” 30 Rock showed it still has new ideas more than 100 episodes into its run.
9. Homeland — “Semper I”
After the incredible crop of new shows that debuted in 2009 and 2010, 2011 really lacked a bonafide critical darling. With the October debut of Showtime’s Homeland, all of that changed. Tightly written, frenetically paced, and devoid of the jingoistic histrionics of its counterterrorism predecessor 24, Homeland had me hooked. The top episode this season was “Semper I,” a more contemplative episode that gave us a chance to become better acquainted with the protagonists Carrie and Brody (Claire Danes and Damian Lewis) after the action-packed first three episodes. Much like the premiere of the fourth season of Mad Men, Homeland jumped to a completely different point in time from the first three episodes, simply because the story didn’t require it. It was at that point when I realized how different Homeland really was from 24 — rather than wasting away hours of storytelling to satisfy the 24-hour plot gimmick, Homeland, like Mad Men, tells the story it wants to, when it wants to.
8. Justified — “Bloody Harlan”
I’ll admit, I gave up on Justified in season one. Just like Todd, procedurals don’t really hold my interest, so even though Justified did have story arcs that carried through multiple episodes, it didn’t have the type of tight, engaging storytelling to match a show like Mad Men, so I tuned out. For anyone who did the same, I strongly suggest getting changing your mind, because season two is miles above season one in terms of character depth, narrative arcs, and shocking twists. “Bloody Harlan” wrapped up season two while also ending Margo Martindale’s brilliant, Emmy-winning turn as conniving matriarch Mags Bennett, as she *SPOILER ALERT* took her own life via a glass of her own spiked apple pie drink. Brilliant twists like these, along with powerhouse performances from Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, pretty much guarantee that Justified will have another must-watch season come 2012.
7. Game of Thrones — "Baelor"
While I’ve tried to avoid repeating any episodes from Todd’s list, Baelor was the absolute best episode of Game of Thrones, not only because it was chock full of the typical multiple expansive storylines, but because it showed to fans of George R. Martin’s book series that HBO was doing it right, and was not going to shy away from *SPOILER ALERT (BUT YOU MUST HAVE HEARD OF THIS BY NOW, SO I DON’T FEEL THAT BAD)* killing off their protagonist in Sean Bean’s Ned Stark. As someone who had never read the book series, the death came as an absolute shock to me. Rarely has a series dared kill off their protagonist (and the most famous actor on the show) in the ninth episode. But if the show’s breakout success is any indication, fans new and old appreciated the unflinching, no-holds-barred approach HBO took with this series, and will continue to watch in droves. I know I will, if only because I’m hoping Arya will return to the castle and get the chance to stab Joffrey in his stupid face.
That concludes part one of my year-end list. Be sure to check back later this afternoon, when I post my top six.