15. “Silicon Valley: Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency”
(Season 1, Episode 8)
Here’s the thing — this episode is on this list because of a dick joke. It is a great dick joke. It’s a four-minute long dick joke, grounded in real mathematics, that is embedded seamlessly into the episode’s narrative and also happens to be hilarious. It is Emmy-nominated, this dick joke. It is really, really good.
So that is why this episode is on this list. “Silicon Valley” showed a lot of promise in Season 1, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Season 2. But while this episode, and this show, is solid… Well. We put it on this list for exactly one reason.
14. “Outlander: The Wedding“
(Season 1, Episode 7)
Starz, as a network, has a reputation for amping up the sexual content of its series, to an almost absurd level. But for much of the first half-season, “Outlander” was relatively conservative, focusing on Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) struggles to adapt to 18th century Highlander culture after being sucked backwards in time. All that changed with “The Wedding,” the seventh episode of the series, which devoted itself wholeheartedly to depicting the wedding night of Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan).
It’s certainly a sexy hour of television, with a few unconventional twists (like Claire, having previously been married, being the more experienced of the two) and a honest take on how awkward sex can be at times. But it also includes some narrative creativity — like a flashback structure that lays out key details of the wedding day — and a certain level of restraint, when it comes to the show’s overall problematic reliance on voice-over. For fans of the “Outlander” books, this was the episode they’d been waiting for, all season long. For newcomers, it was some quality adult television, and perhaps proof of the show’s greater promise.
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13. “Web Therapy: Trust Exercise“
(Season 4, Episode 3)
The beauty of Lisa Kudrow’s Showtime comedy lies in its simplicity. The format, where Kudrow’s therapist character meets with patients online for brief sessions, brings in a great cast for recurring roles, series regulars and a wealth of cameos. From time to time, a character doesn’t work out, and the episode as a whole suffers — the season, even, can be slowed if a regular guest doesn’t carry their weight (though the setup is simple, the long takes and improv make shoots far from an easy task for the actors). Yet when it all comes together, “Web Therapy” can compete with any other comedy, laugh-for-laugh.
In “Trust Exercise,” Kudrow’s Fiona Wallace takes on two new patients. One, played by “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson, is a recent lottery winner who doesn’t know what to do with his money. Wallace “helps” him work through his trust issues by playing a “game” where he writes her a check, and much like in her HBO series “The Comeback,” it becomes difficult to tell when Kudrow’s character is serious or playful. Her greed is self-evident, even if her true intentions aren’t so clear. Still, it’s the second new patient who truly takes “Trust Exercise” to the next level, as Jon Hamm fully commits to his role as a phone sex operator for the elderly. You need to see it to believe it.
12. “New Girl: Goldmine“
(Season 4, Episode 7)
We used to argue the only A-level aspect of “New Girl” was Max Greenfield’s portrayal of Schmidt. That’s not fair. The writing can be absolutely top tier if it’s not getting in its own way, creating romances where they don’t belong. But as Season 4 has found the steadiest groove of the series so far, it’s clear… Schmidt is still the key to making everything work. Greenfield has molded a character as ludicrous as he is sincere. The best episodes of the series are always those when Schmidt is given a proper plot to handle. Here, that plot is the mourning of Cece’s upcoming breast reduction surgery.
Yes, we know how utterly juvenile that statement reads. Yes, we realize Schmidt and the rest of the “New Girl” gang are in their 30s and not high schoolers, like Jonah Hill and Michael Cera were the last time this topic came up in entertainment (“Superbad,” for those who have forgotten). To make the episode even more of an unlikely success, the A-plot revolves around Nick pretending to be gay so Jess’ new boyfriend feels comfortable with their living situation. Yet Greenfield and his not-so-subtle antics not only hold it all together as he literally slips in and out of scenes as needed, providing unknowing support to Nick, Jess, Winston and Coach — enlivening the rest of the gang like no one else can. Schmidt a one-man show, even when he’s the sixth man.
11. “Masters of Sex: Fight”
(Season 2, Episode 3)
Two characters alone in a room: The perfect bottle episode set-up. But while “Fight” isn’t a bottle episode, officially — for one thing, the characters escape their surroundings more than once — it is intimate on a new scale, zeroing in on the characters of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) as their evening alone in a deserted hotel becomes an intense exploration of their relationship. Thematically, the episode is all about masculinity — a topic kicked off by the delivery of a baby with indeterminate gender and Masters’ instinctual dislike of the baby’s bully of a father, which proves to unlock a mess of other issues. But the episode is really about two people in an awkward affair, learning more about each other — and maybe not happy with what they discover. The end result kicks the series into a whole new level of quality.
10. “The Good Wife: Dramatics, Your Honor“
(Season 5, Episode 15)
If this had been a bad episode of “The Good Wife” that just happened to have a shocking plot twist in it, we wouldn’t have included it on this list. But the thing is, the episode that [SPOILER ALERT] lead to series star Josh Charles leaving the show was the sort of brilliant drama that has kept “The Good Wife” on the lips of critics otherwise enamored with basic and premium cable fare. The horrific, keen attention to detail, on top of the heartbreaking moments that made Will Gardner’s death feel like a knife to the gut — all of it was in line with “Good Wife’s” talent for compelling procedural storytelling, but elevated with the tragic loss of one of the show’s own. The impact on the show was seismic. But the episode, on its own merits, deserves recognition.
9. “Parks and Recreation: Moving Up (Part 2)”
(Season 6, Episode 22)
For the end of a sixth season that was perhaps the first not to improve on the year last, “Parks and Recreation” pulled out all the stops. Leslie had been asked to make a decision that would aide not only her career but the country as a whole, but her dream job would also take her away from the city she loved, just as she was ready to make a family with her dream man, Ben Wyatt. But as the Michael Schur- and Greg Daniels-created show does when it’s at its best, the writers found a way for Leslie to have it all without making the impossibly perfect Leslie Knope feel any less authentic. Throw in a time jump leading into the show’s final season and an A+ cameo from Jon Hamm, and you’ve got yourself one of the best episodes in “Parks and Rec” history — which easily puts it in TV’s Top 10 this year.
Next: Kidnappings, talking horses and blowjobs…
8. “Homeland: About a Boy”
(Season 4, Episode 5)
“Homeland” got its groove back in a serious way in Season 4, and it all started with the shocking twist in “About a Boy.” Up until [SPOILER ALERT] Saul was kidnapped from an airport bathroom, Carrie and her CIA cronies were repeating a lot of the same mistakes made in previous seasons. She was drinking and using sex to hook new recruits. Saul was avoiding his old office altogether, though he couldn’t help getting sucked in for a few things. Quinn was claiming he’d retired and moping around about moral responsibility.
It all seemed like a rerun, but then BAM! Saul was taken. Carrie didn’t know it. And everyone was a suspect. Whether or not it was co-creator and current showrunner Howard Gordon’s plan to lull us into submission before whacking us upside the head with this episode, “About a Boy” changed the game for “Homeland,” establishing the bigger picture not only with its heart-stopping action but also by beginning to push Carrie to her breaking point. The discussion hasn’t died since, and that’s what makes for great drama.
7. “Bojack Horseman: The Telescope”
(Season 1, Episode 8)
Netflix’s original animated comedy gets off to a rough start, but those who stuck with it were treated to some truly amazing ’80s and ’90s jokes in this flashback episode to Bojack’s early comedy days. It’s also a surprisingly emotional inside-showbiz story that features Stanley Tucci as Bojack’s former best friend, to whom Bojack owes his career, and Anjelica Huston as the chilling and intense network executive who forces Bojack to choose between fame and friendship. Oh, and Olivia Wilde is there too! (Damn, “Bojack” had some great talent in its voice cast.) “The Telescope” isn’t the most accessible episode of the show, but it provides essential backstory, and the final beats kick off an interesting shift in tone that ended up helping the show finish much more strongly than it began.
6. “The Knick: Get the Rope”
(Season 1, Episode 7)
We’ve gone over the issues with “The Knick” in detail (great detail), but one episode shines through the noise of a full season. “Get the Rope” begins with a murder and ends with two very different sexual encounters. In between is a race riot that nearly destroys the hospital and illuminates the human condition of our antihero Dr. Thackery, while exposing his would-be second-in-command’s hidden night work.
Steven Soderbergh’s foray into television was always gorgeously captured. His various browns and whites contrast as often as they coalesce, providing a nice parallel for the race relations simmering in Episodes 1-6 and boiling over here. Yet the cliched story with frustratingly pigeon-holed characters opens up in “Get the Rope.” Suddenly, Dr. Thackery is more than just a drug-addicted doctor whose racism ironically hinders his desire for medicinal progress — he’s challenged on all these ideas at once, and in a way brought out by action rather than exposition. For one all-too-brief episode, blood courses through “The Knick” from head to toe. Here’s hoping for something of a similar vein in Season 2.
5. “The Comeback: Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees“
(Season 2, Episode 3)
The meta brilliance of “The Comeback” was never more apparent than in this episode, which kicked off production of “Seeing Red,” the gritty HBO dramedy-within-a-mockumentary that dominates the Michael Patrick King/Lisa Kudrow series’ second season. Not only does Seth Rogen make his first appearance as himself, he also makes his first appearance as the on-screen analog for writer Paulie G., who has created “Seeing Red” as pretty clear revenge against erstwhile sitcom star Valerie Cherish, with whom he worked in “The Comeback’s” first season. Paulie G.’s revenge, in this episode, comes in the form of making Valerie perform a blowjob scene on his character analog — a tense situation that only gets worse as the lines between fiction and reality grow fuzzier. How it all gets resolved — sorta — comes down to a brilliant bit of negotiation that makes Rogen into a hero, even while Valerie realizes just what she’s gotten herself into, in agreeing to star in “Seeing Red.” Things get dark, and they’re only going to get darker.
4. “True Detective: Seeing Things”
(Season 1, Episode 2)
It’s difficult to look back on the eight-episode first season of “True Detective” and single out much more than scenes. Moments stand out more than episodes, as the cinematic storytelling meshed with the flashback structuring create a singular unit of measure. “Who Goes There,” with its impressive long take, and “The Secret Fate of All Life,” which explains how the case was first “closed,” came to mind first, but it’s because of their stand-out scenes more than an evenly and exceptionally-executed whole.
“Seeing Things” is that perfect, flat circle. The mesmerizing element of the series grips you from the onset, as present-day Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) “drifts” into his revealing philosophic speech before explaining to his questioners where he and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) first gathered their evidence in the fateful 1995 case. The duo travels across the hidden Louisiana countryside, checking in on a whorehouse it’s hard to imagine anyone would ever visit and a tent-revival church sermon Cohle tears apart with vigor. “Seeing Things” ideally illustrates how Cohle’s oft-wondering mind and Hart’s wandering eye affected the case as much as the men. And that, in the end, is the heart of what made “True Detective” great.
3. “Mad Men: The Strategy”
(Season 7, Episode 6)
It took more than six seasons, two failed marriages, endless flings and a liver that has to be on its last legs for Don Draper to turn from antihero to hero, and frankly, it happened just in time. The show that started the movement of jerk protagonists on television also wisely moved away from it in the first half of its final season, rounding out Jon Hamm’s edgy character into a man worth rooting for in the final seven episodes. He, along with the dream team of Roger (John Slattery), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and, most surprisingly, Pete (Vincent Karthesier), end the episode sitting at a booth in a Burger Shack, finishing up the pitch Don and Peggy worked out together after a late-night confessional (and dance!) in the office. “The Strategy,” which also included Bob Benson’s failed proposal to Joan, ended on a scene so many other business-based shows take for granted, but “Mad Men” had to earn over six-and-a-half seasons: colleagues working together and sharing a meal for the betterment of the company. Who would have imagined such a simple scene could be so powerful?
2. “The Leftovers: Guest”
(Season 1, Episode 6)
The first time “The Leftovers” broke from its ensemble cast format, for an episode focusing on Christopher Eccelston’s tortured Reverend, it threw viewers for a bit of a loop. But the second time it spotlighted a member of its talented cast, it not only totally shook up the show, but also made the character of Nora into the series’ emotional anchor. Breakout star Carrie Coon proves more than capable of carrying the episode, which focuses largely on Nora attending an out-of-town conference for people working in the various industries born out of the Rapture-esque event which kicks off the series. Over the course of 24 hours, Nora runs an insane gamut of emotions that ends with her maybe, finally, being able to approach the grief of losing her family. And that ending proves key, because it’s a rare moment of hope that after six episodes of nihilist bleakness was almost essential toward keeping viewers on board. That statement is a shoutout to more than one Indiewire fan/employee, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence it’s true.
1. “Veep: The Choice“
(Season 3, Episode 2)
Armando Iannucci’s take on U.S. politics gone wrong continues to sharpen its biting satirical teeth with every passing season, and never was it more piercing than in “The Choice.” Forced to take a stand on abortion, VP and prospective presidential candidate Selena Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) throws everything she has at the decision — hoping she won’t have to make one. As is always highlighted by the show, language is key, and Selena’s team bands together using everything from a whiteboard to various fruits to try to determine how to phrase her statement, without ruining her candidacy in the eyes of opposing thought. Between the speed, ferocity, and volume of words tossed around in the episode, “Veep” becomes a textbook lesson on how every element of production can work together to form one perfect piece of entertainment — and the best of the best in a superb 2014.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments. Tomorrow: The Best New Shows of 2014!
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