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The Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2011 — Part One!

Well, we’ve finally arrived at my last Top 10 list for 2011.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the previous lists!  (Follow these links to check out my Top 15 Movies of 2011: part one, part two, part three, my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2011: part one, and part two, and my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011.)

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to put together a Top 10 Episodes of TV list this year.  For a whole host of reasons, I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to.  I’m super-busy, and there just aren’t that many shows that interest me enough to want to watch religiously these days.  And a whole heck of a lot of the TV I watched this past year was OLDER TV — in the form of DVD box-sets (of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Party Down, etc.).  There’s a lot of current TV that interests me that I just haven’t had time to watch: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Community, Homeland, Louie (season 2 — I have watched season 1 on DVD and LOVED it — I’ll be posting a review soon), Bored to Death (I also just finished season 1 on DVD and loved it — I’ll be posting a review of this soon, as well, and I’m hoping to get to seasons 2 and 3 soon).  All of those shows look interesting and I do hope to eventually sink my teeth in them all via the magic of DVD.

So I felt weird putting together a list, seeing that there’s so much probably-great TV out there that I haven’t seen.  But when I sat down to start to compile the list, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily the top ten choices manifested themselves.  I guess I DID watch some great TV this year!  But keep the above list of TV-I-haven’t-yet-seen in mind when perusing my choices.  OK, enough intro, let’s dive in:

10. Game of Thrones: “You Win or You Die” (season 1, episode 7, aired on 5/29/11) – I’ve never read any of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, and I wasn’t immediately taken by the first few hours of the HBO adaptation.  But after a few episodes, the complex fantasy story started to get its hooks in me, and by the time I arrived at this stand-out episode I was loving this show like few other things on TV.  Pretty much all of the show’s continuing story-lines jumped to the next level in this installment, which left me absolutely desperate for the next episode to arrive IMMEDIATELY.  In this episode, a grievously wounded King Robert names Ned Stark as his regent to rule in his place, while Cersei makes her moves to have her son Joffrey installed on the throne instead, while far away Jon Snow joins the Nightwatch and, even farther away, a failed attempt to kill Daenerys leads Khal Drogo to swear vengeance and vow to invade and destroy Westeros.  In between all of these huge events, we still get time for phenomenal little moments like Littlefinger’s story of how he got his name.  The whole thing ends with a jaw-dropping sequence in which the show’s hero, Ned Stark, makes a dreadful miscalculation that results in the deaths of many and which sets the course for the season’s final episodes.  Marvelous.  None of those fantasy names in the previous sentences meant anything to me before I started watching this series, but now just typing those names leaves me more desperate than ever for season two.

9. Futurama: “All the Presidents’ Heads” (season 6, episode 10, aired 6/28/11) — As I wrote in my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Ray list, I like to keep reminding myself how thankful I am that the brilliant Futurama was rescued from cancellation.  What a delight it is to have new episodes of this show!!  In this loony installment, during a party at the Presidential Head Museum that goes awry, the gang learns that by licking the preserved Presidential heads they can travel back in time (due to the temporal properties of the liquid in which the heads are stored).  Playfully acknowledging the existence of an actual person, David Farnsworth, who was convicted of treason during Revolutionary times, the show postulates a scenario in which Professor Farnsworth feels the need to stop his crooked ancestor and remove the blot from his family name.  Of course, Fry messes things up so that when they return to the future, in shades of Back to the Future II they discover they’re now trapped in a timeline in which Britain defeated the Colonies.  The party in the Head Museum at the start of the episode is filled with all sorts of clever little jokes (Ulysses S. Grant puking on the Bushes — George Sr. and Jr.– was a riot), and the whole business in the Britishified future (from the outfits, to the documentary, to the accents, to Bender’s teeth) is great fun.  But my favorite part of the episode is the running gag in which, back in Revolutionary times, no one is freaked out by the robotic Bender because they keep mistaking him for a crock pot, a still, scrap metal, etc.  So funny.

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm: “Palestinian Chicken” (season 8, episode 3, aired on 7/24/11) — Larry and Jeff discover a Palestinian chicken restaurant which serves absolutely amazing chicken, and they are unfazed by the anti-Israel posters on the wall or their Jewish friends who roundly denounce the existence of a Palestinian restaurant so close to a famous Jewish deli. Larry gleefully continues to eat there (declaring it the ideal place for Jewish men to go when cheating on their wives), and even starts dating a Jew-hating (or at least Jew-disliking) beautiful woman who works at the restaurant.  (When Larry asks her what’s not to like about him, she replies “Eh, you’re a Jew.”)  Every moment of the episode is pretty much brilliant, from the newly-dedicated-to-Judaism Marty Funkhouser to the bit about “verbal texting” to the brilliant B-story in which Larry’s friends try to use his skills as a “social assassin” to their benefit (to predictably disastrous results).  Curb is at its best when it is joyfully dancing right over the lines of political correctness, and this episode is a stand-out, jaw-dropping example.

7. Parks and Recreation: “Harvest Festival” (season 3, episode 7, aired on 3/17/11) — In the climax to the story-arc that opened Parks and Recreation’s absolutely stellar third season, Leslie and the gang are able to pull off an elaborate Harvest Festival that saves their department.  The run of episodes that began Parks and Rec’s third season shot the show into a whole new level of genius comedy, and this “finale” style episode tied everything together in a phenomenal, and hilarious, bow.  We get Joan Callamezzo, we get Perd Hapley (“the question that this reporter has is a statement”), we get Indian curses, we get Li’l Sebastian, we get Ron Swanson’s girlish squeal to glee upon seeing the afore-mentioned Li’l Sebastian, we get April telling Andy that she loves him and his reply “Dude, shut up!  That is awesomesauce!”, we get Tom’s Li’l Sebastian video, we get Ann’s post-breakup-with-Chris dive into meaningless relationships and Donna’s grudging approval, and lastly we get the joy of watching Leslie and her motley crew actually succeed.  Super-funny from start-to-finish, this show, and this episode in particular, just makes me happy all over.

6.  George Harrison: Living in the Material World (part one aired on 10/5/11 and part two aired on 10/6/11) — This almost four-hour, two-part documentary on the life of George Harrison was directed by Martin Scorsese.  It’s a phenomenally personal look back at the life and art of one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century.  Mr. Scorsese’s innovative hand is clear right from the beginning — this is not a standard chronological, talking-head-filled documentary.  No, Living in the Material World is a far more immersive, almost stream-of-conscious affair.  Though the film has a basically chronological over-all structure, it often abandons the chronology entirely to shift from one topic to another, based on some sort of thematic connection, or to remind us of the broader context of certain events.  (So after a sequence about George’s early days with the Beatles, we’ll cut to footage of a news announcer announcing the band’s break-up.)  Filled with wonderfully personal interviews and reminisces from some of the key people in George’s life (Eric Clapton, Paul and Ringo, Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann, Pattie Boyd, and many more), the documentary explores George’s music, his spirituality, the people who influenced him and the many who were influenced by him.  While we do get to see some modern-day interviews, the film is mostly a tapestry of footage from throughout George’s life, which gives this documentary a sense of life and dynamism that so many spotlights-on-famous-people lack.  And, most importantly, we get to dive into George’s music.  The film is stuffed full of musical selections from throughout George’s career, and the leisurely pace allows us to really immerse ourselves in the music.  For a hard-core Beatles fan like myself, this was absolute gold.

We’ll wrap up this list — and my look back at 2011 — tomorrow!