Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The best five TV episodes of 2010

Thanks to the efforts of innovative television companies and singular creative talents, the standard of television has never been better, and 2010 was another spectacular year for quality shows.

While there continues to be an increase in dire reality rubbish and a proliferation in programmes featuring ugly people wearing ugly clothes and ugly smiles dancing ugly dance steps to ugly music, there has also been a lot of brilliance.

Out of the hundreds of hours of television I enjoyed over 2010 - including entire series like Justified, South Park, The Trip, True Blood, Peep Show, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Sherlock, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Treme - there were five particular episodes from five particular series that stood out from the rest as my absolute favourites.

As always, it’s a mix of personal tastes and undeniable brilliance, but these five individual episodes were easily my favourite television shows of the past year.

Boardwalk Empire
A Return to Normalcy

Boardwalk Empire couldn’t avoid a clumsy start – the weight of expectation on the project only got heavier wityh Scorcese’s involvement, and there was the creeping sense that this sort of operatic gangster epic was nothing new, and was always going to be trapped in the shadow of The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos.

But by the time the final episode aired, Boardwalk Empire had become its own beast, taking several surprising turns into areas really touched upon in gangster fiction. The way the series has looked at returning veterans from a terrible war and the way conflict has gouged out their souls is something new and interesting in the genre. This is partly the story of men capable of terrible things because they’ve seen so much worse - men like the exceptionally eerie Richard Harrow, who can fake humanity for a while, but was hollowed out by the fighting that took half his face.

The climactic episode showed that the series had come into its own, with several exceptional performances that were simply wonderful.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise, as the show is stacked with brilliant actors. Steve Buscemi is finally shining in a real leading role, while Michael K Williams exudes wounded honour, and has already had one brilliant scene all of his own, when he tells a member of the KKK that he ain’t building no bookcase. Kelly Macdonald and Aleksa Palladino have both played wounded women who don’t take any crap to perfection, and Michael Shannon, Stephen Graham and Michael Stuhlberg have all been outstanding.

But the real star is, surprisingly, Michael Pitt. It was always easy to dislike Pitt as an actor because of his smug blankness, but there is no smirk here, leaving him devastatingly empty. While great performances were expected from the other actors, Pitt has blown (admittedly low) expectations away.

Pitt’s portrayal of a man who sees all the angles but fails to find the words he really needs was part of the richness of the series' final episode. It featured powerful swings in power and brutal, bloody executions, along with a terrific little twist after Agent Van Alden’s tiny indiscretion, but it was three moments where three very different men open their hearts to their loved ones that made the series finale so emotionally rich.

Pitt is incredible as he reveals that much of his confusion since the return to the real world is because he never expected to get out of the war alive, while Shannon sells the moment where he talks about his own deep unhappiness, although he fails to quite sell it to his wife, who is horrified at the idea of being the wife of a grain salesman.

And the moment where Buscemi talks about his own deepest pain is just extraordinary. The contents of his speech is rarely surprising, considering the blatent clues about Nucky’s attitude towards babies and his lost wife, but Buscemi is superb in the scene, especially the part where he just stops talking, because it’s too goddamn painful.

The first season of Boardwalk Empire ended with a cold and uneasy dawn, with the three most important men in Nucky’s life – essentially his father, brother and son – all conspiring against him. A genuinely unexpected move that lays a solid foundation for the next series, and giving the show more of a chance to find its own voice.


Venture Bros
Assisted Suicide

Operation P.R.O.M. and Everybody Comes To Hank’s were both brilliant episodes in another brilliant season of Adult Swim’s finest cartoon, (and the throwdown between Billy and Pete in Every Which Way But Zeus might have been the funniest thing I’ve seen all year) but it was a journey into the mind of the Rusty that was my favourite Venture Bros episode this year.

It was just that it had some of the most quotable dialogue the series has ever had – I can’t stop muttering about my special secret mind powers in a slightly disturbing English midget accent – and it also had the best post-credits zinger in the entire series (“What happened when I was 16 - THAT was my life.”)

Like any other Venture Bros episode, this particular one was packed with incident and plot and killer lines. It showed why Doc Venture is the only one who can really be in charge of this motley crew, while literally getting inside his head to see what makes him tick. Like every other episode, it gets a lot deeper than it has any right to do, with Rusty’s mind overrun with guilty ghosts of the cloned sons he has lost, and a sexual drive that runs on that terrific self-delusion that he could have had any of the beautiful women he had ever met, “if he just put in the effort”.

Some say the Venture Bros is going over old ground, but it's still a rich and plentiful harvest, wry humour, some surprising subtlety and the best voice work in modern animation.

Assisted Suicide is another example of the series at its fuinest and funniest, and while almost any other episdoe this year could have made it onto this list, this episode had just a few more of the little moments that mange to be a little bit touching, a tiny bit tender and a whole lot of ridiculous than the others.


Doctor Who
The Eleventh Hour

New Doctor, new TARDIS, new companion, new everything.

It’s still unquestionably my favourite television show of all time, at the absolute peak of its powers. Deeper and funnier and smarter than ever before, with a startingly new Doctor, all new adventures in time and space with a healthy acknowledgement of the past.

The current Doctor is always my favourite Doctor, and his introduction on that hospital roof was all I needed to fall in love with the show all over again. The future is eagerly awaited.


Mad Men
Hands & Knees

Like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men has overcome early expectations to flower into an exceptionally rich, complex and satisfying show that is frequently rewarded for going into strange and uncharted new territory.

The period setting has always giving the series a beautiful style, but all those cigarettes and afternoon drinks and quaint old attitudes have often obscured the series’ real story of people going to extraordinary lengths to get what they think they want, and confronting the abyss that opens up when they achieve this goal.

The fourth season of Mad Men is arguably its best, with a number of smart and thoughtful individual episodes such as The Suitcase and the climactic Tomorrowland, but Hands and Knees, which came about two-thirds of the way through the season, was an absolute stellar piece of television.

It had major changes for the firm with Lucky Strike’s move, a pair of Beatles tickets that looked certain to be the main focus of the episode until more dramatic events occurred, poor Lane Pryce’s odious father and Joan’s own terrible experience at an abortion clinic.

It also had some beautiful acting from Jon Hamm, who has made Don Draper one of the most complex and interesting characters in modern fiction. The scene where he is on the phone and learns that the delicate house of cards which is his life could be about to crumble is just astonishing – he goes from confident Master of the Universe to Scared Little Boy in 30 seconds.

Finishing off with a terrifically enigmatic last shot that would pay off in the finale, Hands and Knees was a wonderful piece of drama in a series that has reached new narrative heights and bold emotional depths.


The End

Live together, die together

When Lost wrapped up this year, there was a thoroughly expected outbreak of contagious snark. Many viewers who had watched the series over the past six years couldn’t wait to go out in the world and tell everybody they knew how awful the ending had been, how it had answered nothing and how they had wasted more than 100 hours of their life that they could have used to write the Great 21st Century Novel or something.

This was to be expected, and the outrage that greeted the touch of the divine in the series’ climax was always going to annoy people who had tuned into the show expecting nice and clean scientific explanations and ended up with a whole bunch of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

But all that metaphysical malarky has been a part of the show’s appeal since the start. Combined with a hopeless romanticism, excellent punching scenes and extraordinary characterisation, it all produced one of the best television programmes I have ever watched.

In that respect, I could not have been more satisfied with the climax. There were all sorts of loose threads and left turns, but anything neat and tidy would have been massively underwhelming.

As somebody who genuinely cared about these characters and the long, strange journey they had taken, while quite happy to be left with divine mysteries that defy explanation. I adored the way Lost ended.

Because it went beyond the happy ever after to the only ending that all of us faced, and gave us a little hope to go with that inevitability. The thing that I loved most about the two hour climax was its suggestion that the most traumatic experience any of us will ever have – our own deaths – is something that doesn’t need to be done alone, despite all evidence to the contrary. I just can’t muster any snark over that idea.

The funny thing about telling a romantic storyline is that they just don’t work if there is any irony involved. Romantic stories need to be shamelessly bold and earnest, or it all falls apart.

The end of Lost showed that the series was, after all the weirdness, one of the most earnestly romantic show ever produced, with True Love playing several important parts as it all came together.

I don’t mind a bit of love, especially when it’s all mixed up with some divine inspiration. And not just the traditional love between a man and a woman, but between people who went through extraordinary events together. Seeing that plane take off, and knowing that Sawyer and Kate were away, finally away and free, showed that these people, who have been through some truly extraordinary experiences together, can reunite in the world beyond this and move on together.

In much the same way the brilliance of Deadwood was showing how civilisation could rise out of the blood and mud of the old west, Lost’s greatest strength was in showing how a suspiciously diverse group of people could still pull together in a community, and all it took was a baffling and weird environment to do it.

What does always surprise me is how many people harshly rant against any kind of happy ending. There were plenty of people who seemed genuinely outraged that Battlestar Galactica ended with green fields instead of radioactive death and were determined that Lost had to end with something like Jack being eaten by a polar bear if it was ever going to be any good.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit you really like something, flaws and alls, but perfectly acceptable to rip into something for half-arsed reasons. I don’t mind. As a series, Lost had some gaping flaws and long stretches of pointlessness, but that final episode was moving, funny and a pure dose of hope for humanity. I just can’t sneer about that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I completely agree re Lost! I wasn't that into the whole divine explanation, but it sure bet everything else they could've chosen.

BTW, you seen this?
I'm yet to see/watch it ...