Top 10 Television Episodes of 2011
Group TV Top 10 List
Chris, Jordan, Michael Richardson, Rachel
Top Ten Television Episodes of 2011

Sometimes, even great shows have standout episodes, the ones that make you stop and say "damn," and really stick with you. Other times, shitty shows (or, to be fair, formerly great shows) put forth an episode that surprises you, and makes you wish that the show in question was able to perform regularly. This list is dedicated to those episodes, the ones filled with moments that shine brighter than the plot elements and that you remember, even at the end of the season. Also, just for full disclosure, this list is chock full of spoilers, so beware.

10. House, "After Hours"

Every once and a while, a show that may seem to have run its course reminds us of why it is deserving of its longevity. "After Hours" is such an episode. As has been true of most of the recent episodes of House that can be called great (or even good), "After Hours" shirks the usual "team tackles case of the week" format, to focus on three separate stories that are intense as they are intimate. Taub attempts to distract himself from his personal faults through a random act of kindness, and learns the hard way that you reeeeaaaally shouldn't touch the talent at a strip club. 13 enlists Chase's help in diagnosing an acquaintance from her stint in prison who is also currently on the run from the police. The reason she insists on keeping her word to this felon, giving her whatever medical aid she can short of bringing her to the hospital where the authorities would be alerted to her presence, despite the risk this poses to the patient who obviously does not hold 13 in the same regard that she does eventually comes out in a poignant moment of catharsis between 13 and Chase. Both characters had been dealing with feelings of extreme isolation all season long due to their decisions to cross that line that no doctor should, and are finally given an opportunity to confide in someone who can empathize. But the real meat of the episode, the reason it is deserving of a position on this list comes from the story focusing on the show's titular character. For several episodes preceding "After Hours," House had been secretly and illegally taking a drug to regrow muscle tissue in his leg. When he discovers that the drug causes tumor growth that have killed all the test animals in the trial, he settles on the one course of action that will save his life and prevent him from going to prison. In what has to be one of the most beautifully shot and brutal to watch sequences in the show's history, House scrubs down his bathroom until it is sterile, pops a fistful of Vicoden, and attempts to remove the tumors himself. I had long thought that the writers had run out of ways for House to shock and appall the audience. "After Hours" proved that I was very, very wrong and did so in a way that highlighted the stubbornness, determination, and parasitic co-dependence that makes us love to hate to love House. This episode proved that House still has a pulse, and vindicated the loyalty of viewers who stuck with it long after many had pulled the plug, with gripping character moments, incredible cinematography, and a whole slew of terrible decisions.

9. Friday Night Lights, "Always"

Going into the finale of Friday Night Lights, it was very clear that, even if the episode was shoddy, it was going to be moving. "Always" wound up being incredibly well done, tying up the loose ends of the fantastic show in a way that makes viewers happy even if things don't end the way we necessarily wanted them to. The Lions have made state, the Taylors are at an impasse, Tim is struggling to get his life together, and Matt proposes to Julie, all in the span of an hour. This is when they Taylors are truly at their best: when times are hard. It's easy to have a strong marriage when things are shiny and happy. But, most of the time, things are not so shiny. They are hard. And that's when a real relationship works. The episode let the characters be quiet, even as the major plot points moving towards the end of the series are taking place. Friday Night Lights has always been a show about real life and the beauty of simple dreams, and "Always" is a delicate nod to this fact. Too often, Tim and Tyra would have wound up together, and Tyra would be tethered to a life in the small town that is clearly not for her. Or Tim would be resentful and heartbroken and ridiculous. But Friday Night Lights is awesome, so that isn't how it happens. It can be dangerous to have this level of ambiguity in a series finale, but somehow, I trust the universe of FNL to have everything work out as it should. I think it's silly for shows that deal with high school relationships make it seem like they're all infinite. And while Matt and Julie get engaged, at least they're smart enough not to get married in some kind of knee-jerk, shotgun wedding. In the locker room before the last game, Coach Taylor says to Vince, the star quarterback, ""You may never know how proud I am of you." In 10 words, Coach Taylor manages to portray his entire ethos, an ethos he exhibited with nearly every football player on his team. It really does only take one person really believing in you to change your life. The pass landing in another place, so we don't see the massive celebration, is also spot on. Because it isn't about that. We've already seen where these people are going, and we're perfectly content with the delicate recap montage at the end, played to "Devil Town" by Bright Eyes, which has appeared in nearly every season. Plus, Tim Riggins babysits, which is screech-inducingly adorable, and he makes a Sarah Palin joke, which is pretty baller too. All in all, a more-than-solid ending to a show that will be sorely missed.

8. Archer, "Placebo Effect"

Following up on the brilliant, pitch black story it began in the previous episode, "Placebo Effect" follows Archer as he goes through chemo, which sounds pretty damn dark (and is), but also results in an episode with probably two or three of the best set-pieces the show has yet come up with. When Archer discovers that instead of his chemo meds, he has been treating himself with sugar pills and Zima (and, of course, a shit ton of weed to combat the nausea he thinks he is handling well because he's such a stone cold bad ass) because of a scheme hatched be the Irish mob, he decides to go on a mission of vengeance, taking his righteous fury to the streets in a quest he calls "Terms of Enrampagement." First, there's the endlessly hyseterical interrogation scene, which the buzzed and probably high Archer decides to turn into a Family Feud homage. If that isn't enough for you, there's the subplot in which we learn that Krieger is the offspring of Nazis who fled to Brazil (or, just possibly, a clone of Adolf Hitler) and get a flashback where we see how Mallory conspired to have the family dobermans eat Krieger's dad. Then there's the confrontation in which Lana realized she's been hotboxed by Archer's smoking (and Archer confuses smoke grenades and actual grenades, which look nothing alike), and the penultimate scene where Archer finally works his way to the top, only to find out the crippled old man behind the scheme has banged his mom (just like seemingly every other older male character on the show, in an endlessly rewarding running gag). "Placebo Effect" isn't the tightest episode on this list (it isn't even the tightest episode Archer did this year), but it is an example of the show taking huge risks and reaping their rewards in one of the darkest, most absurd, and most hilarious episodes of television that aired this year.

7. Pan Am, "Truth or Dare"

One of the (many) reasons we love Pan Am is its deft handling of history, presenting important events and trends in a way that is skillfully woven into character growth. "Truth or Dare" takes on two heavy hitters for any show about the 1960s: communism and race relations. And even though it gives these themes to the Cameron girls, Kate and Laura, who are, to say the least, not my favorites, they handle it well. I didn't find Laura completely insufferable, dense, and overly bambi-esque as she spends an eventful day with Joe, a navy submariner she meets on a shuttle flight to the US. Joe, an African American from Alabama, is as far from the lily White Connecticut girl Laura as you can get, but, strangely, they share a kindred spirit, a desire to see the world, and a deep-rooted sensitivity that connects them almost instantly. An awkward moment with the super, who forces Laura to kick Joe out of the apartment, actually leads to her bonding with him more, in her odd way, over her frank, almost naïve, acknowledgment of the innate prejudices she was raised with, paired by her admirable desire to better herself by pushing past them. This storyline is great for Laura, because it shows her honest attempt to change herself, and to be the change she wishes to see in the world, a need that is solidified when her visit to a train station with Joe enflames some serious racial violence. Kate, meanwhile, is dealing with the severe consequences of becoming a CIA courier, now that Uncle Sam has decided to turn her boyfriend Niko Lanza, who she encountered two episodes earlier on a mission in Monte Carlo, by blackmailing him with secret recordings of some of their political conversations. As with Laura earlier, Kate is forced to reevaluate the assumptions central to her character (for instance, that her government is good and just), and things don't end all in sunshine and rainbows, as she leaves for a round-the-world trip and Niko flies off to the dangers of a double-agent life in Yugoslavia. Their goodbye is heartbreaking, in a restrained way indicative of their precarious situation, full of regret and the inability to just be. The episode is rounded out by two great Dean and Colette moments, one that involves Colette tying a cherry stem into a knot, much to Dean's amusement, and the other showing the serious bond between these two, as Dean fulfills Colette's dream of flying a Pan Am jet. Overall, this episode is a subtle homage to everything great about Pan Am: historicity, realistic and relatable character growth, and connection between people, in a world that is ever expanding and made more complicated every day.

6. Parks and Recreation, "Fancy Party"

TV weddings have always been considered a ratings grab, often a crass spectacle where characters are permanently paired after seasons of will-they-won't-they tension. Parks and Recreation doesn't follow suit. Andy and April, after being together for one month, decide to have a surprise wedding based on a dare with one another. Stupid idea right? If this weren't Parks and Recreation, I'd be inclined to agree. But the characters on this show are so precisely drawn, their motives so understandable that such a shocking twist manages to be the most moving spectacle on a comedy this year. By the actual ceremony, stripped of the pretenses, the fancy clothes, the unnecessary gestures, we have the emotions of two characters we've loved from the beginning, giving speeches tailored to their tastes. It's not shocking, or even surprising anymore. These characters were meant to be with one another, and it makes perfect sense that they would commit before the month is out. Of course, if the episode were just sentimentality, it wouldn't be a triumphant episode of TV's funniest comedy. We have Leslie running around desperate to stop things, the upbeat Chris talking to April's weird silent friend, and Jean-Ralphio and Tom working on the best-man's speech (Need a Vince Vaughn quote? "Fred Claus."). But the episode's centerpiece is a testament to comedy that can work without cynicism.

5. Louie, "Subway/Pamela"

Louie is fucking great at just absolutely breaking your heart as it makes you laugh like hell. It's weird that way, that you can be just numbingly sad and still find something absolutely hilarious, but this show has managed to perfect that vertiginous sensation. Maybe it's derived from the show's location, New York City, a place of conundrums, contradictions, and complexities that the opening scene of "Subway/Pamela" portrays perfectly. Louie's experiences on the subway, first on the platform, where he is brought to tears by a performer as a homeless man grossly bathes in the background, and later on the train, full of grotesqueries and blunt realities, is one of the more memorable sequence of the series. Paired with the awkward encounters that fill the "Pamela" section of the episode, in which Louie faces the rejection of his feelings by his friend Pamela, and the painful miscommunication that causes him to continue to pine over her, is definitely Louie at its best, which is saying something, considering the generally stellar caliber of this entire season. There may be no moment more bittersweet on television this year than when Louie gives his tender, hopeful, futile little speech to Pamela, telling her he loves her in one of the most tragically romantic moments we can remember on television. We all know how the speech will turn out, and so does Louie, but in that moment, its hard for any of us to care: we're all just too caught up in the moment.

4.Downton Abbey, "Series One, Episode Three"

First off, it must be said that the second series of Downton Abbey is not being considered here, because it hasn't aired on American television yet. Not that the first series doesn't offer a number of serious contenders for placement on this list. "Episode Three" shows Downton in all its glory, as it prepares for a visit by a suitor of Mary and his friend, an important (and incredibly handsome) Turkish diplomat. A handsome foreigner in a sea of pasty English nobles? Yes, please. This episode is among the top three most important of the entire show. The consequences of the one day depicted by it stay with Mary for every episode that follows, and it helps her grow past being a rebellious child to a woman with her own beliefs, thoughts, and concerns. It also kicks off the dominos that continue to fall between Mary and happiness for every episode that follows. The episode starts with Mary at the top of her game, everyone eating out of the palm of her hand as she makes decisions that are probably bad ones but are at least exciting and entirely her own. When the Turk makes advancements towards Mary, she decides to take their flirtation to the next level, but is terrified when he dies mid-tryst. Mary, Anna, and Cora enter into a strange fellowship, with Mary's honor at the center. They're nowhere near successful, and Mary has to deal with the comeuppance of her awful treatment of her sister and the shame induced by her actions, but at least it keeps Mary from being your typical British gentlewoman, and provides drama that lasts at least through the end of the second series, with ripples that are sure to continue until the show comes to a close. Add Matthew pining, the insufferable Thomas getting shot down, Lady Edith trying desperately to assert herself and be taken seriously, the English hunt in all its glory, and some great lines from Violet ("No Englishmen would dream of dying in someone else's house"), and you've got a top notch episode, for sure.

3. Community, "Remedial Chaos Theory"

At its best, Community is a high-concept, joke-per-minute comedy with a huge heart and deep thematic resonance. It's a show about a group of screw-ups looking for a second chance and finding it in each other. But it's also a show that is willing to think outside the box like nothing else on television right now, a show that is unafraid to give us zombies, claymation, and clip shows full of clips from episodes that don't exist (and, in case you were curious, "Paradigms of Human Memory" was definitely in consideration for this list). Rare is the episode of television that can be hilarious and heartfelt, light as a feather and black as midnight on a moonless night, romantic and cynical, heartwarming and heart-wrenching all within a 22-minute span. But "Remedial Chaos Theory" pulls it off, taking us through seven different timelines showing the ways Troy and Abed's housewarming party plays out when each member of the group leaves to fetch the pizza. Its a simple concept that allows us to see just what the group would be like without each of its members (you DO NOT want Troy to leave this group), giving us incite along with the laughs and the pathos. This is the kind of television episode true fans of the medium dream about at night; a near-perfect distillation of what Community is at its best, and an episode that not only reminds us why we love this show, but actually imparts some true, lasting wisdom about how we live our lives. Rare is the episode of television that might actually make its viewers better people for having seen it, but that is what we have here. "Remedial Chaos Theory" is an episode that transcended the show it's on and reminded us how good television can be at its best. This is not just an episode that everyone should watch. It is an episode that all fans of good television, and good living, should treasure.

2. Game of Thrones, "Baelor"

Serialized dramas on HBO often use the penultimate episode of each season to wrap up the overarching plot, finishing up the story so the last episode can tie up lose ends and everybody can leave happily. "Game of Thrones" refuses to do this, just as it refused to adhere to all strictures of genre, character and exposition the entire season. After months of simmering tension, Westeros boils over. Robb Stark, newly crowned King of the North, rides against Jaime Lannister. The Night Watch prepare to make a fateful decision over the body of a zombified friend. Daenerys watches as her husband and her grasp on power both fester in the saddle, weighing what she would give up for her love. Much of this is overshadowed by the biggest moment of the episode, and indeed of the season: the death of Ned Stark. Those who had not read of the books or knew the story were shocked, and for good reason: Ned Stark was supposed to be the character audiences related to, a good guy among a collection of snakes and backstabbers. But when King Joffery orders him to be beheaded and we see the sword coming down, we have to grapple with the ethos of "Game of Thrones": you win or your die. When Cercei says that episodes earlier, we're conditioned to think otherwise, that our heroes can win by adhering to honor or law. Here, justice is not fated to prevail. In that way, Game of Thrones is anything but a fantasy series - it may be the most distressingly realistic series on television.

1. Breaking Bad, "Face Off"

Like Game of Thrones, this episode of Breaking Bad will likely always be remembered for the death that occurs at its climax. Yet we, as fans of television at its finest, would be remiss if we did not also treasure the near-perfect episode that hangs around those climactic moments. At it's most intense, Breaking Bad is a show about survival, a show that is not afraid to let its characters go primal to achieve their most basic need. And from the pulse pounding opening moments, in which Walter White has to quickly disarm a car bomb (and carry it into a hospital, naturally), "Face Off" is all about how far its characters are willing to go to survive. Season Four of the show was ostensibly built around the conflict that came to a head here, the struggle for control that kept Gus Fring one step ahead of Walter, and our Mr. White constantly, desperately vying for a leg up. But actually, the season was more about Walter White's struggle with himself, his efforts to reconcile his views on the world with the way it actually works, and to ultimately take things farther than ever before in the interest of his survival. Over the course of the episode, Walter puts the life of his sweet neighbor in jeopardy, shoots two men in the head, burns down the meth lab he has called home for the past two seasons. Oh, and conspires to set off a bomb in a nursing home, resulting in the epic, and somehow inevitable death of Gustavo Fring. Perhaps the most telling moments, however come in the episode's closing moments; in Skyler's shocked face as she realizes her husband is responsible for the carnage she is hearing about on the news, in Walt's coldly triumphant sign-off, "I won," and in a final shot that puts a dark button on all we've just seen and reminds us that for all the evil we have ween Walter White do, there are much lower depths he has already sunk to, and chances are, this man has a whole lot further to fall.

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