In curating this list of the best eight to 10 hours of television I watched over the past 12 months, I looked for episodes that did three things. First, I wanted to choose episodes that were representative of what their series did especially well this year. So, for example, I selected an episode of Parenthood that best conveyed that potent blend of heartache and sappiness that has made its current season so excellent. Second, I chose episodes from what I deem the most successful shows of 2012. As a result, while I thought The Office and Parks and Recreation had a number of hilarious episodes, I didn’t think either series had a particular great 2012, so I kept them off the list. Finally, and most importantly, I wanted to commend episodes that were entertaining. Like, maybe-I-didn’t-blink entertaining. So, with that out of the way, let’s dig in.
10. Parenthood: “What to My Wondering Eyes”
I love a good Christmas episode. I love Friday Night Lights, creator Jason Katims’ previous series. But Parenthood often frustrates me. Its fourth season was by far its best, largely due to the cancer storyline, bringing emotional weight to a series too often gushy with feel-good moments and storylines that give me headaches from rolling my eyes so much (oh, of course she’s a great playwright: she’s a Braverman!). The winter finale of Parenthood put the focus on the incredible Monica Potter and Peter Krause, who are absolutely crushing this storyline. Their performances are so good that I am genuinely conflicted; I both want their suffering to continue, and yet, at the same time, I want them to be happy. The episode provided tears, joy, and a couple cringe-worthy moments, but mostly a bunch of good Christmasy feelings effectively stirred up.
9. Dexter: “Surprise, Motherf**ker”
The seventh season of Dexter was among its very best. Coupled with the intense scenes between Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) and Dexter (Michael C. Hall), Yvonne Strahovski’s revelatory performance as femme fatale Hannah McKay was among the year’s best. As a series, Dexter works when it creates tension, ratcheting it up episode by episode while leading toward a usually inevitable conclusion, with Dexter overcoming whatever obstacles have been placed in his path. Like the series’ other best finales, in this one surprises us, both with Debra’s decision in the final moments and, even better, with McKay’s improbable survival; never before has a guest star lived to see the next season. I’m betting that we will see a lot more of her in Dexter’s final season.
8. Sherlock: “A Scandal in Belgravia”
The first of the three episodes comprising Sherlock’s second series, “A Scandal in Belgravia” brought Irene Adler into the insular world of Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), Watson (Martin Freeman), Moriarty (Andrew Scott), and Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), and what a joy that turned out to be. I vaguely remember the series of crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses that ensued, but I vividly recall the incredible chemistry between Holmes and Lara Pulver’s Adler, the comical modernizing of Holmes’ increasing levels of fame, director Steven Moffat’s riveting presentation of code-cracking and problem-solving, and the utter joy of the episode’s final reveal.
7. The Walking Dead: “Killer Within”
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of The Walking Dead’s third season, as did many other people. The show broke numerous cable records across its eight episodes, retaining nearly all its audience share throughout this cluster of high-stakes episodes. Importantly, it also upped its game after the departure of showrunner Frank Darabont, launching the Governor storyline and doing away with multiple cast members in the process. One “killer within” led to the deaths of T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and the disappearance of Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride); the other “killer within” was Rick’s (?) baby, whose birth via an exceptionally gory C-section killed its mother. Carl dispatched her off-camera, an event that would reverberate throughout the remaining episodes. Still: could someone host an episode-titling clinic for whoever came up with this groaner of a title? We might also invite the writer who came up with the title for Homeland’s “Broken Hearts” episode, in which a pacemaker was remotely “broken,” causing a heart attack. Speaking of which…
6. Homeland: “Q&A”
While the second season of Homeland left a lot of people (including me) scratching their heads, it certainly wasn’t without its pleasures. As the show raced recklessly through what seemed to be whole seasons worth of plotlines, the episode in which Brody was brought in for questioning was the pinnacle of Season Two. Other moments hit harder, as when Saul (Mandy Patinkin) found the tape or Carrie (Claire Danes) broke the sting, as well as the ambush in the tailor’s shop, but the lengthy showdown between Carrie and Brody (Damian Lewis) at the center of this episode made it one of this year’s most memorable hours. Let’s just overlook the fact that the episode also spawned the controversial hit-and-run storyline.
5. Louie: “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Part 2)”
The highlight of a hit-or-miss third season, this episode found Louie on a date with a woman he met at a bookshop in the previous episode. With this flipside of their meet-cute in the earlier episode, Louie explored the ways men project what they want onto the women in their lives. Darkly twisting the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Louie’s date, brilliantly and hauntingly portrayed by Parker Posey, took him on a fascinating ride down an increasingly disturbing path. It’s hard even to talk about how and why this episode worked as well as it did, but it was one of those most riveting, oddly moving half-hours of television I have ever seen.
4. Breaking Bad: “Dead Freight”
The first half of Season Five memorably displayed Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) transformation into Tony Montana, complete with music montages, giant piles of money, and startling acts of violence. Like Mad Men’s celebrated “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” episode, “Dead Freight” played with tropes from Rat Pack-era heist films, as Walter and his cohorts stole 24,000 gallons of methylamine from a freight train. Unlike the Mad Men episode, however, Breaking Bad’s homage concluded with a shocking moment of violence that snapped both the characters and the viewers out of the adrenaline rush.
3. Girls: “Pilot”
The first season of Lena Dunham’s Girls was so consistently good that it’s hard to single out a single episode. While most of extra-good episodes occurred in the second half—including back-to-back standouts “The Return” (where Dunham’s Hannah visited her hometown in Michigan) and “Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a. The Crackcident” (where the gang attended a particularly raucous party and, you know, everybody learned a little something)—the pilot was riveting. As I brought little baggage to the viewing experience, having never seen Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture or read her Twitter feed, I found a raunchy, refreshing, deeply funny show. I especially enjoyed the pilot’s awareness of its Sex in the City-like premise, both mocking and embracing it. Highlights included the hilarious portrayal of Hannah’s parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker); the wildly awkward sex scenes; and the incredible casualness with which Dunham tossed off lines like “I may be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice, of a generation.” Is the show self-obsessed? Absolutely, but aren’t we all?
2. Mad Men: “The Other Woman”
I remain fascinated by how The Sopranos structured its seasons, with the penultimate episode almost always dropping each season’s biggest bomb. Matt Weiner has taken a more varied approach throughout Mad Men’s five seasons, though the episodes leading up to the finale are almost always more memorable than the finales themselves (apart from Season Three’s electrifying “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” arguably the best season finale of any series ever). “The Other Woman” was the 11th episode of the season, and in it, Megan (Jessica Paré) was moving toward a choice between her career and her relationship with Don (Jon Hamm), while Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was realizing that she will never reach her potential as long as she is working in Don’s shadow and Joan (Christina Hendricks) agreed to sleep with a potential client in exchange for 5% of the business and a partnership. This episode was absolutely packed with amazing moments, including Lane’s (Jared Harris) shrewd advice to Joan, her sad pronouncement of Don as “one of the good ones,” the brilliant non-chronological presentation of Don’s pitch and his/our discovery that Joan chose to prostitute herself, the look on Don’s face as he realizes what Joan had done, and, finally, Peggy’s final scene as Don’s employee.
1. Sherlock: “The Reichenbach Fall”
The conclusion of Sherlock‘s Series Two, “The Reichenbach Fall,” presented Holmes’ most challenging case to date, as Moriarty convinced the police and the public that Holmes had been staging the cases he was solving in order to gain fame. This episode had it all: a killer beginning, as Watson told his therapist that his best friend recently died; a particularly excellent Moriarty-driven plot that provoked real pain and danger for Holmes; a handful of dynamite Watson-Holmes scenes, as Watson wondered whether Holmes actually did fake the cases and then dealt with the resulting guilt after his apparent suicide; and, finally, something to keep its audience thinking and debating while e wait for new episodes. We know Holmes isn’t dead—in the final scene, we saw him in the shadows, watching Watson visit his grave—but we knew that all along. What we are left to chew on is: how did he do it?