6
Dec
2012
Top Ten Television Episodes of 2012
Best Episodes of 2012
The Staff
A lot of the conversation about television at the end of the year comes down to which TV shows were the best. This is obviously worthwhile (and we'll do plenty of it ourselves, tomorrow, in Jordan's Top Ten Television Shows of 2012 list and in our Best of 2012: Television podcast), but it also misses the point that television is an inherently episodic medium. So, in honor of that, here are the episodes that we, as a staff, thought were the best of 2012. WARNING: This list will contain SPOILERS for any episode on it.

10. Cougar Town, "My Life/Your World"

After three seasons near the bottom of the ratings barrel and a midseason premiere for its third, there is little doubt that the writers went into "My Life/Your World," Cougar Town's hour long season finale, with an eye toward the possibility that this might be the end. The episode spends a lot of time meditating on the nature of change, and using that as meta commentary for the glacial pace at which sitcom characters are allowed to evolve (but also as an excuse to make a lot of jokes about how Jules (Courtney Cox) doesn't understand Groundhog Day). Grayson (Josh Hopkins) has lost his home to a hurricane and been forced to move in with Jules, making him realize that having the Cul De Sac Crew over all the time will drive him crazy after he and Jules get married. What could be a standard sitcom fight is quickly blown over when the two decide to elope to Napa (with the rest of the Crew in tow, of course), and what could have turned into a stunt wedding/vacation episode shifts to a small, focused character study when Jules sacrifices her perfect wedding (complete with a guy she's paid to keep her wine glass full 24/7) to make sure Grayson's daughter (the unfortunately named Tampa) can be at his wedding. The episode may end with Jules and Grayson literally riding off into the sunset together, but it also has great moments for virtually every member of the cast: from that look between Travis (Dan Byrd) and Laurie (Busy Phillips) that lets us know they will definitely end up together some day, to Ellie's (Christa Miller) hilariously over the top flirtation with a concierge (which culminates in her convincing him to try to kidnap Grayson's baby to bring her to Napa). Sure, the abbreviated third season meant we didn't get to see Andy's (Ian Gomez) mayoral run play out or watch Bobby (Brian Van Holt) finally move off his boat and into a home, but if this had been the end of Cougar Town it would have been a satisfying end, an examination of the difficult nature of change from a sitcom that pulled one of the biggest 180s in television history and turned itself from a broad "Courtney Cox bangs young hotties" sitcom into perhaps the best (and funniest) examination of adult friendship on television.

9. Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall"

Steven Moffat may be best known for being the brains behind Doctor Who, but his side project, Sherlock, has felt like anything other than an afterthought. Benedict Cumberbatch has gained fame in the US for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes while Martin Freeman added to his cult following as Dr. Watson. But 2012's best Sherlock episode came largely from the efforts of Andrew Scott's Moriarty in the finale, "The Reichenbach Fall." Like all other episodes of Sherlock, the finale was penned by Moffat and provided the series' most intense cat and mouse game to date. For the first time in the run of this iteration of Sherlock, we find Cumberbatch's Holmes on his toes. Moriarty plays his greatest mind games, convincing those around Sherlock that he isn't actually Moriarty and the villain is all the creation of Holmes' crumbling psyche.

Scott's unhinged performance almost reaches the point of scenery chewing, but it never goes off the rails. Cumberbatch and Martin are always brilliant, but Scott was genuinely frightening. At times he looked as though he was the suit-wearing British version of the Joker, obsessed with the chase with no regard for the potentially fatal consequences. Sherlock seems to take his own life, jumping off the top of a tall building. Watson visits the grave of his dear friend, but unbeknownst to him, the world's greatest detective is looking on from the distance. A great end that also leaves the audience wanting more - what better way to end a season?

8. Archer, "The Limited"

Some of Archer's best episodes have a thematic depth that is surprising for a comedy as fleet and absurd as this one (season three's other standout episode, "Lo Scandolo," is one of them). And some of them are just flat out hilarious from beginning to end. "The Limited" is one of, if not the funniest half hour of television to air in 2012, relying on a simple, straightforward plot, and the show's in-depth knowledge of its characters to deliver a non-stop barrage of hilarity. ISIS has been hired to deliver a Nova Scotian separatist to Canadian authorities, delivering him across the border on the titular train. Hyper-competent agent Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) suspects their prisoner's compatriots will ambush the train; Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is too hung over and obsessed with reconnecting with an Ocelot to pay much attention. The episode is a lightning-quick lark that includes great moments from most of the supporting cast (most-especially Judy Greer's Cheryl, who owns the train and wants to beat the record time to Ottowa, and Jessica Walter's Malory, who is surprised people consider her a racist), a hilarious set-piece on top of the train, and plenty of moments of Archer monologuing at the afore-mentioned ocelot. If you don't watch Archer, take our word for it: there is little funnier on television than H. Jon Benjamin engaged in conversation with himself. Except, perhaps, for "Serpentine!"

7. The Mindy Project, "Danny Castellano is my Gynecologist"

The Mindy Project has been hailed by laypeople and critics alike for its ability to take normal events, thoughts, and relationships and manipulate them into something over the top yet still authentic. With each episode of the show, we find ourselves simultaneously laughing-out-loud and cringing in horror. Everything Mindy does is something we have all said, done, or wished we'd done. For example, most people have had a competitive friendship. Whether you work together or go to school together, this person can make you laugh, get under your skin, and compel you to constantly one-up their every move. Imagine now, however, that you convince your competition-friend that the only way he can out-best you is to perform a complete breast and gynecological exam on your body.

The silly hi-jincks and great chemistry between Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina (playing Danny Castellano) is equal parts squirm inducing and hilarious. Felon-turned-Nurse Morgan (Ike Barinholtz)'s advice to Mindy on how beat Danny at his own game was the icing on the cake: find your inner-warrior. This is actually great advice on how to thrive in a competitive atmosphere. Obviously, Mindy's inner warrior is "Beyoncé Pad Thai" and she saves the day. The episode was one of the year's best because it took unremarkable nuances of friendship and created something refreshingly absurd. It also gives us the excuse to say, "Danny Castellano is my Gynecologist" again and again. We am still searching for our own inner-warrior's name; maybe one more viewing of "Danny Castellano is my Gynecologist" will lead us there.

6. Homeland, "Q&A"

Television rarely feels as vital as it does when a series blows up all of your preconceived notions, tosses its ostensible premise out the window, and takes everything to the next level. "Q&A" is that rare episode of television where a series decides to answer the "what if" that most other series would save for a final season; at the mid-point of Homeland season two, the show decided to pull out all the stops. The result is a go-for-broke episode, in which Saul (Mandy Patinkin), Quinn (Peter Friend_, and Carrie (Claire Danes) interrogate the recently arrested Brody (Damian Lewis). Their quarry is a Congressman, and the clock is quickly ticking before his absence is noticed. They must force Brody to break and admit his ties to Abu Nazir before they are forced to release him without charges. The tension would be enough to make this a solid episode, but Danes and Lewis both turn in tour-de-force performances, and their dance as they test each other's limits, admit their attraction in new and dangerous ways, and finally reach a form of bleak catharsis is the stuff great television is made of. "Q&A" will always be remembered as the Homeland episode that changed everything. But it should also be remember as one of the finest hours of television that show has yet produced, and perhaps the best acting showcase on television in 2012.

5. Community, "Digital Exploration of Interior Design,"/"Pillows and Blankets"

One of the most fascinating characteristics of Community has always been the show's ability to explore some very grounded, and sometimes very dark, themes and relationships through the lens of some of the most over-the-top, absurd devices you could possibly imagine. As is typical of the show's most memorable episodes, the "Digital Exploration of Interior Design" and "Pillows and Blankets two parter is as poignant as it is hilarious. In "Digital Exploration of Interior Design," Britta falls for and seduces Subway, the Corpo-Humanoid real world avatar of the eponymous sandwich chain, while Troy and Abed try to recreate an earlier success of constructing a huge bedtime fort, this time made out of pillows instead of blankets. However, when the Dean announces that their fort could break a world record, Troy wants to incorporate blankets into the design, while Abed is insistent on maintaining his original vision of a pillow fort. This rift escalates a tension that had been growing within their friendship throughout the season, and is fed by Vice Dean Laybourne who wants to use their divide to recruit Troy into his College of Air Conditioning Repair. With neither willing to compromise, the dispute breaks out into a campus wide pillow fight in part 2, "Pillows and Blankets". The events of the war are shown in a Ken Burns documentary style, complete with first hand accounts from text messages and Facebook comments. Some of the funniest moments of the season come from this episode, such as Britta's hackneyed war photography, Pierce's pillow suit doomsday weapon, and Jeff's inspirational speeches given to both sides to extend the conflict and as a result, the hiatus from classes. But the real heart of the episode comes from the conflict between Troy and Abed. As anyone who has fought (and I mean really fought) with a best friend knows things can get ugly. There comes a point where it is almost impossible to deescalate, and no one knows how to cut you to your core quite like your best friend does. Their fight also serves as a meta-commentary for creator Dan Harmon's struggle with the direction of the show: commercially viable versus artistically pure. The episode ends on a heartwarming note: Troy and Abed put aside their differences after realizing they like each other so much, they would fight forever just to spend time together. And Jeff plays a pivotal role in the reconciliation, valuing their friendship so much that he will indulge in their childish games. While not the most accessible episode of the series, "Digital Exploration of Interior Design" and "Pillows and Blankets" is a whirlwind tour of everything that works about Community: high concept comedy, insightful parody, genuine character moments, relatable dynamics, and silliness that will make you laugh until it hurts. Oh, and it would be a shame not to mention one of the most brilliant gags of the season: The Dean's discovery that all Greendale Students are technically enlisted in the Army Reserve.

4. Mad Men, "Far Away Places"

At base, "Far Away Places" is the story of a day in the life of three characters, each of whom takes a journey of some sort. Yet the episode's structure is so dynamic, the score so cinematic, and the editing so crisp that it becomes more of a half remembered dream. Don (Jon Hamm) takes Megan (Jessica Pare) on a romantic getaway/working weekend to Howard Johnson's, where the two confront the problems at the core of their relationship and are forced to reckon with the fleeting nature of new love. Roger (John Slattery) is forced to go to a dinner party where he takes LSD and confronts his fears of mortality and his crumbling marriage. Peggy (Elisabeth Olson) deals with a pitch gone wrong, starts drinking, and decides to go to a movie by herself, where she commits a casual act of infidelity before returning to the office to hear the origin story of a coworker born in a concentration camp. "Far Away Places" plays with time to remind us how easily our lives can slip away with us, and ultimately tells a story about relationships in different phases"”the beginning, where everything is about infatuation and reveling in each other, the middle, when the luster is gone and loneliness starts setting in, and the end, when all that remains is a distant memory of what once tied you together. More than any other episode this year, "Far Away Places" is about the nature of time, the connections people form, and the way even the most passionate of loves can be, in some sense, fleeting. It's a beautiful, contemplative, even lyrical episode of television, and the best hour Mad Men had in its finest season to date.

3. Louie, "Late Show"

Louie tends to be a difficult show to describe. It's always a surprise week to week what an episode will look like. We immediately knew that "Late Show" would be something special because it scrapped the usual opening for a static shot outside a comedy club. We see Louie's professional life change in a blink of the eye. After a successful performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Louie gets called in to CBS to meet with the network's president, played by Garry Marshall. Marshall spells out the darkest depths Louie's career might take if he doesn't go for the life-changing chance at taking over for David Letterman. Louie agrees to take the journey and is given a coach played by David Lynch, who delivers the series' most surprisingly solid performance. The episode is ultimately a Rocky-esque story of self-improvement and working to achieve a truly great goal, even if it comes at the expense of one's family. Louie's work ethic was touching and, of course, hilarious. Ultimately, Louie looks like he'd be an excellent talk show host. The test show he does with Susan Sarandon was spectacular. Unfortunately, Louie later finds out that it was all just a ploy to help negotiate Letterman down and it works. Because CK was so good on his test show, Letterman took a lesser contract. At first disappointed by not getting the show, Louie runs to the Ed Sullivan Theater and throws up his hands shouting, "I did it!" In a way he beat Letterman.
For all of the great moments talked about on this list, this was the most moving, human moment of all. It was an underdog story utilized brilliantly. Its what makes Louie the most fascinating and original show on television.

2. Parks and Recreation, "Halloween Surprise"

"Halloween Surprise" won out among many, many worthy possible nominees from Parks and Recreation. After Leslie's debate and subsequent victory in her race for city council, this current season picked up with Ben and Leslie separated with him in DC and her back in Pawnee. This episode treats us to the resolution of the long-distance relationship between Ben and Leslie. As she's looking to lease a new home, she finds out Ben has received an offer to work in Florida on another campaign. Meanwhile, Ron is trying to mend a relationship with a vice principal played by Lucy Lawless. This show earned its spot on this list for the last two minutes or so of the episode. Ben reappears from DC offering the titular surprise to Leslie who had felt defeated by Ben's potential new job in Florida. Ben pops Leslie the question and agrees to return home. It was such a genuinely sweet moment between the two, it rocketed the episode up to essential viewing. Amy Poehler deserves the most credit for her on-the-mark performance. It's a tribute to the temperament of the show that this stands out among all of the other Parks and Rec feel-good moments.

1. Breaking Bad, "Gliding Over All"

What "Gliding Over All" accomplished is something I would not have thought would be possible to do in an hour of television. Covering more time than any episode of the show previously (and, in fact, covering more time than full seasons of the show in the past), the episode traces the rise of Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) criminal empire to an international scale. Within a single montage (perhaps the best in a series full of great ones, set, as if the writers had been saving it, to "Crystal Blue Persuasion"), we see Walt get all he ever wanted and more, and we watch as he is beaten not by any adversary, not even by himself, but by the inexorable passage of time. We watch as the crusade he set out on to provide for his family and continued because it made him feel alive curdles into just another day job, as his life becomes a routine, as he begins to sleep walk through the second chance he built for himself. When the show comes to the cliffhanger we have all dreaded from the pilot, its still shocking and enervating, sure, but not because it foretells the downfall of Walter White. He is beaten well before his copy of Leaves of Grass turns his whole world, and that of his family, upside down. "Gliding Over All" is more than just a great episode of television. It is more than just a great season finale. It is a philosophical treatise; an examination from greater heights than ever before of a man with a hole at his core, and the way he turns a golden opportunity into just another way life has beaten him down. For a few, shining moments, Walter White was truly, vitally alive. By episode's end, he's just back to living.
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