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The Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2012 — Part One!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my Best-of-2012 lists so far!  Follow these links to read my Top 15 Movies of 2012: part one, part two, and part three, and my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012: part one and part two.

When writing my Top 10 Episodes of TV list last year, I wrote that I’d considered not doing a best-of-TV list anymore, and the same thought crossed my mind this year.  My life has gotten so busy these past few years, and as a result I watch far, far less TV than I used to.  I manage to do a pretty good job of still seeing lots of movies, but I am much more of a niche TV viewer these days.  There are not that many new shows that I watch, and much of the TV that I see is actually old stuff in the form of DVD season sets.  But I do still love me some great TV, and so here is my list of the most wonderful television I watched this year.  One last caveat before I begin: know that I have not seen seasons 2 or 3 of Louie or seasons 2 or 3 of Boardwalk Empire, or any episode of Breaking Bad and Community. All of those are shows that I would love to catch up on, and I actually have DVDs of all of those shows sitting on my to-watch shelf.  Someday!  OK, enough delay, here’s my list:

10. Mad Men: “The Phantom” (season 5, episode 13, aired on 6/10/12) — This was a spectacular season of Mad Men, possibly my very favorite season.  The year was stuffed with memorable moments and fantastic episodes.  I thought about including on this list the season 5 premiere, “A Little Kiss,” for the Zou Bissou Bissou scene; or “Tea Leaves” for the fantastic comedy of Harry and Don Draper back-stage at a Rolling Stones concert; or “Signal 30” for the hysterical and awkward dinner party in which Pete and Trudy host Ken and his wife and, of course, the fantastic moment in which Lane punches Pete.  But, instead, I opted for “The Phantom,” the fifth season finale.  There’s a lot of greatness in this episode, moments both comedic and very sad, including the connections between Lane’s suicide and that of Don’s brother , Adam (from season one); Peggy and Don at the movies; and Roger on acid again.  But what earned this episode a spot on my list is its closing shot, that iconic image of Don Draper, in all his James Bond badass glory, walking away from his wife on a brightly-lit soundstage and into the darkness of a bar, while the theme from You Only Live Twice plays.  It’s probably the single most memorable image I saw on TV this year.

9. Girls: “Pilot” (season 1, episode 1, aired on 4/15/12) — This first episode of Lena Dunham’s series was a bold announcement of the arrival of a major new talent.  I love television shows and movies that have a specific and distinct voice, and boy does Ms. Dunham’s series have that in spades.  Impressively, Ms. Dunham wrote and directed the pilot (and many subsequent episode of the show’s first season) in addition to starring in it.  I found the first season to be a little uneven, but I was quite captivated by the initial episode, which introduced us to the not-as-successful-as-she-believes-she-deserves-to-be Hannah Horvath and her three friends Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, as well as the weird boys in their orbit: Adam, Charlie, and Ray.  Despite declaring herself “the voice of her generation,” Hannah finds herself in a financial pickle when her parents announce that they will no longer support her.  These girls are each a mess, and the show is daring in making them all strongly unlikable at times, but I was quite taken by them.

8. Futurama: “Free Will Hunting” (season 7, episode 9, aired on 8/8/12) — After a crazy morning in which Bender lives a life-time of bad mistakes before lunch — enrolling in college but taking a mafia loan at an interest rate of 10,000% in order to pay his tuition; joining a gang of street-toughs; dropping out of school; getting addicted to “something analogous to drugs,” degrading himself for money  (Hedonism-Bot: “Simply vomit on me ever so gently while I humiliate a pheasant”) — the cycle of “despair, addiction, and discount prostitution” prompts Bender to commit himself to making good decisions.  But when it is revealed that no Earth robots contain a free-will unit, Bender struggles to come to terms with the meaning of his decisions and whether he truly possesses self-determination.  This weighty subject matter is wrapped tightly in one of the densest joke-per-second ratios of Futurama’s run (perhaps because this episode was written by show-runner David X. Cohen).  From a great title-sequence caption (“Warning: Do not show to horses.”) to some great visual gags (the MC Escher-inspired building in the Robotic Order of the Binary Singularity, the Robotic priest’s holding a Bible labeled “whole e-book” (say it out loud, then you’ll get it), Bender’s tighty-whiteys, the sign outside Mom-Co: “Trespassers will be deathsecuted”), to some spectacular one-liners (when Bender decides to join the Robotic monastery, he asks the leader “How does a robot join this monk-outfit?” to which the leader replies: “Just put on this monk outfit”), this is a spectacularly hilarious episode.  I love the call-back to previous episodes, such as a great appearance by the chicken lawyer (“not one kentucky kernel of truth”) and the Robot Homeworld from way back in season one (particularly the hilarious, “Silence!”-yelling members of the Council of Robot Elders).  I love the third-act return of Mom (her evil swivel-chair is hilarious) and the references to her youthful relationship with the Professor.  I love Bender’s final show-down with the Professor, and think I laughed harder at “oh, the safety was on” I did at almost anything else I saw on TV all year.  (I can’t really explain — just trust me, it’s a terrific gag.)  Brilliance.  I am so glad this show was rescued from cancellation.

7. 30 Rock: “Live From Studio 6H” (season 6, episode 19, aired on 4/26/12) — The once-great 30 Rock got a little wobbly in seasons 5 and 6, but their now-annual live episode reminded me why I fell in love with this show in the first place.  The episode’s plot — Jack Donaghy decides to stop broadcasting TGS live (“from now on, you write and shoot the whole season in two weeks — like The Price is Right and Fox News”), leading Kenneth to retell the history of their studio, 6H — was a terrific framework for a raucous half-hour filled with guest stars, including Amy Poehler appearing as a teenaged Liz Lemon; Paul McCartney; Jimmy Fallon as a young Jack Donaghy, and a very brave Jon Hamm in blackface.  One terrific sketch followed quickly after another.  I loved Jenna singing the 30 Rock theme (with lyrics!); I loved the return of Chris Parnell as Doctor Spaceman (“I’m Nazi Doctor — I mean, Doctor”); I loved Lutz vomiting; I loved Jenna as Dusty Springfield; I loved the Laugh In parody; I loved Jon Hamm and Alec Baldwin as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, freaking out over a woman reporter (“Honey, you’ve got a dynamite shape, but you’re going to have to shut up and let a man tell us what’s happening.  Now, is your father or a policeman nearby?”); and I loved Paul (Will Forte) proposing to Jenna while singing Zou Bissou Bissou.  But the two highlights of the show for me were seeing Alec Baldwin as Jackie Gleason (“One of these days, Doris, I’m gonna take a shotgun and BLAM! Blow your face off!”), and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gag of Tina Fey miming pulling a pubic hair from her mouth after she blurted out a product placement mention of the new film Rock of Ages.  Comedy gold from start-to-finish.

6. Parks and Recreation: “Operation Ann” (season 4, episode 14, aired on 2/2/12) — The great Parks and Recreation is the only show with two episodes on my Top 10 list!  In this, the first episode to make my cut, a “Galentine’s Day” outing leads to Leslie to set out to help Ann (Leslie: “oh, Ann, you beautiful spinster”) find a man.  All of the main characters get a lot to do in this episode, from Ron (“sorry, I was talking to these ribs”) Swanson, to Leslie (with her emergency Ann Perkins office meeting and her insanely complicated cryptext-involved Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt for Ben), to a newly-depressed Chris (MC’ing a Pawnee Valentine’s Day party with the dour introduction “don’t let my sadness diminish your night”).  The parade of pathetic men that Leslie and Tom find for Ann is a riot (including the guy whose opening line is: “you’re not as beautiful as my sister, but you know the law”), but that’s nothing compared to the hysterical moment when Ben, Ron, and Andy run through the list of all the mural-titles in the Pawnee state-house building (my favorite: “Eating the Reverend”).  We even get a guest-spot from Freaks and Geeks’ Martin Starr (“working the late shift at the snow globe museum”) and a little bit of sweetness when Ann and Tom wind up on their first date together.  Pretty much a perfect half-hour of television.

And yet, there were five episodes of TV in 2012 that I thought were even better!!  C’mon back tomorrow to see numbers five through one!

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