The Best Television Episodes Of 2008
Television: It's there in our living rooms asking so little that it's easy to take for granted. Worse, much of it frankly isn't all that good. (We'd point out Knight Rider, but why kick a talking car when it's already on the way to the scrap heap?) But the best TV demands attention be paid, even with so many distractions around. What follows are our favorite episodes of our favorite shows that ran in 2008, a sort of best-of-the-best list. (Warning up top: If you're worried about spoilers or catching up on DVD, you might want to skip a few entries.)
1. The Shield, "Family Meeting"
For most of The Shield's seven-season run, the most important episode of the series was the pilot, which ended with the murder of undercover internal affairs officer Terry Crowley at the hands of rogue cops Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins). Crowley's murder hung over the characters like a storm cloud, and in the final two episodes, karma finally rained down and washed Vic and Shane away into oblivion. If "Family Meeting" gets the edge over the shattering penultimate episode "Possible Kill Screen"—which built to a confession scene of stunning proportion—it's because finale episodes of long-running TV shows are rarely as satisfying as this one. Vic's reckoning defied most speculation, but still landed him in the worst kind of hell, while Shane's desperate final days weren't extinguished with big bang, but rather a quiet, even tranquil, resolution. It's sad to see The Shield go, but it's hard to imagine the series topping an episode as shocking and haunting as "Family Meeting."
2. 30 Rock, "Cooter"
While its gone-yet-still-inexplicably-fun-to-kick-around onetime rival Studio 60 On The Sunset wore its laughably earnest politics proudly, 30 Rock's political satire is infinitely slyer and more subtle, not to mention, you know, actually funny. In the delightful season finale, "Cooter," Tina Fey and her crack group of writers got in some hilarious shots at soon-to-be-gone-yet-still-inexplicably-fun-to-kick-around President Bush and his hapless cronies by having proud capitalist Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) hop on board the sinking ship that is the Bush Administration. Matthew Broderick put several decades of playing luckless schmucks to good use playing a flopsweat-drenched Bushie the President nicknamed "Burger" because he once saw him eating a hamburger (shades of The Office's "Big Tuna") who ushers Jack into the comic insanity of Bushworld.
3. The Wire, "Late Editions"
Throughout its five-season run, The Wire has functioned like a great epic novel unfolding, with each new season providing a mini-arc in the larger story of a city's institutional failures and how they impact the populace. And within those seasons, the penultimate episode was generally the dramatic fallout before the mournful aftermath, the hour when all the shit goes down. The great crime novelist George Pelecanos, who penned several penultimate episodes from seasons past, was brought in again for "Late Editions," which handled the mighty task of delivering satisfying payoffs for the season and the series. A number of unforgettable moments stand out: Bubbles achieving some measure of grace in his anniversary speech to AA ("Ain't no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things, too"); Michael getting the drop on Snoop; and perhaps most heartbreaking of all, the parting of poor Dukie, who leaves with a memory of more innocent times that seem eons removed from the present.
4. Mad Men, "Maidenform"
Mad Men's second season offered much more for fans to unpack about the mysteries and meaning of Don Draper, and his place in the shifting American culture of the early '60s. "Maidenform" was arguably the season's most symbol-dense episode, and one loaded with what passes for action in the Sterling-Cooper universe. Don lashes out at Betty for her revealing swimsuit, and then channels his anger into a bondage session with his mistress. Pete sleeps with a bra model, on her mother's couch. Duck releases his beloved dog onto the streets of New York City, then retreats to his office to stare down his liquor bottle. And the S-C staff works on an ad campaign for Playtex, suggesting its bras fit two sides of a woman: sensible and sexy. The episode opens with Mad Men's women looking into mirrors, suiting up for the day; it ends with Don unable to cope with his own reflection, or his daughter's adoring eyes. The message: Sometimes having two sides isn't fun, for a woman or a man. (Note: An argument could be made that Mad Men's best episode this season was "Three Sundays." Or "The Jet Set." Or the season finale "Meditations In An Emergency." This show had a heck of a run.)
5. The Office, "Dinner Party"
The fourth season of The Office was defined largely by its bracing darkness and, with the possible exception of "The Deposition," no episode was bleaker or more caustically funny than "Dinner Party." The standout episode plunged deep into the black hole of barely restrained contempt and raging bitterness at the core of Michael Scott's hate-hate relationship with boss-turned-girlfriend-turned-enemy Jan Levinson with a Dunder-Mifflin twist on Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? After turning down dinner invitations for weeks, Jim and Pam reluctantly agree to have dinner at Michael and Jan's place, where they're treated to an unwanted front-row seat to a crazily dysfunctional relationship spiraling rapidly out of control. There was no subplot to lighten the angst and bad vibes, just a painfully funny look into the deepest depths of cohabitation hell.
6. Lost, "The Constant"
Was Lost's fourth season its best yet because it finally moved the story forward—while also deepening the mythology and tugging at the heart—or was it the best because it was the shortest, and thus had a higher percentage of memorable moments? Sure, the show's first three seasons had plenty of episodes as good as the absolutely awesome "The Shape Of Things To Come," "Cabin Fever," and "The Economist." But you'd be hard pressed to find many Losts as singularly special as "The Constant," a mind-bending time-travel episode focused on poor, displaced Desmond. While Desmond—who always seems to figure into the best Losts—jumps back and forth between the present and the past, and between potential rescue on a mysterious freighter and his years of military service, "The Constant" drops hints about the time-warping properties of the island and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Charles Widmore. It all concludes in a touching virtual reunion, reminding fans that Lost is more about the journey of its characters than the history of the place they've been stranded.
7. Generation Kill, "A Bomb In The Garden"
The title says everything that needs to be said about the final episode of Generation Kill, Wire creator David Simon and company's brilliant adaptation of Rolling Store reporter Evan Wright's book about his experience as an embed with a Marine recon battalion in the Iraq War. In a stunning three-week campaign through the country, the Marines have forged their way through Iraq, overcoming poor armor, equipment failure, and inept, potentially disastrous decision-making at the top in order to get to Baghdad. Once they arrive, the war has created such chaos and destruction that the best they can do are little things, like defusing an unexploded bomb lodged in a garden where children play. It fits beautifully into an ongoing theme both here and on The Wire: That decent, well-intentioned people can make a small difference, but they're doomed to be let down by their leaders.
8. Battlestar Galactica, "Revelations"
Way back at the start of the series, the Cylons killed 99.999% of humanity and mortally ticked off the surviving 0.001%, who wound up limping off to their only possible refuge—the long-lost planet Earth. Yet over the course of the series, the humans and their killer robot prodigy have slowly come to terms with each other, until finally in Season 4—and specifically, the season finale "Revelations"—the two sides learn that their fates are connected. A higher power wants them to come back to Earth, and they can only get there if they make peace and work together. "Revelations" delivered high drama and heartbreaking work by Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan. It also left several questions unanswered: who's the fifth Cylon? What is Head Six? And who left this breadcrumb trail across space, anyway? But the show was most memorable for the cliffhanger: everyone finally makes it to Earth, only to find a charred, radioactive wreck where their paradise was supposed to be. Somebody send them a copy of WALL-E, stat.
9. Breaking Bad, "Crazy Handful Of Nothin'"
AMC's edgy drama about a high school chemistry teacher who goes into the meth business only aired seven episodes in an abbreviated January-to-March season. But a paunchy, desperate Bryan Cranston convinced viewers that the show had higher aspirations than becoming a gender-reversed Weeds. In the penultimate installment, "Crazy Handful of Nothin'," the cold open alternates between Cranston's Walter trying to establish boundaries with the twitchy, undereducated former student and current "Cap'n Cook" with whom he's partnering—"I'm just the chemist," he argues—and a nightmarish flash-forward in which a suddenly bald Walter strides out of an burning building with a bloodstained bag of money. In between, Walter starts chemotherapy, endures the therapeutic lingo of a cancer support group, and lies to his wife about their finances while kiting checks at the medical center. How did we get from here to there? That's the fascination of this show: filling in the formula that transforms a mild-mannered father into an explosives-toting badass, and watching the elements react.
10. Chuck, "Chuck Versus The Seduction"
Evidence enough of a complete Chuck creative renaissance, "Chuck Vs. The Seduction" is an homage to 1982's My Favorite Year. Chuck Bartowski, the affable sap with a government database lodged in his brain, is tasked with wooing a powerful(ly hot) Russian operative known as the Black Widow (Melinda Clarke). Of course, his IT vocab doesn't do wonders as far as "the ladies" are concerned, so he's a bit inexperienced. To help, the CIA calls in rogue agent, overall-suave-guy Roan Montgomery (John Larroquette) to walk, and talk, Chuck through the whole thing. It's certainly well-worn TV territory, but all of co-creator Josh Schwartz's talents are on display. The dialogue pops at every point (Chuck on Roan: "His liver must look like camouflage"); the guest stars are perfectly cast and wholly utilized; and Schwartz, a pop culture savant, successfully pays tribute to a piece of film he loves, all while building a show where the main character can believably fumble through a bar pick-up, then swing from the roof of the Buy More on a banner that reads: "Under New Assistant Managementship." If only season one were half this much fun.
11. How I Met Your Mother, "Naked Man"
Nearly all the elements that make How I Met Your Mother a tonic to the sitcom-depressive are present in the recent "Naked Man" episode: a high-concept sexual strategem, rampant list-making, temporary self-deception, Barney Stinson bravado (and comeuppance), a rapid-fire time-compressing montage, and just a pinch of mythology to remind us that we continue to progress toward the answer to the question posed by the series title. The gang is puzzled by Robin's capitulation to an unlikely first-date advance by short, balding, unattractive Mitch, until Mitch tells them the secret: Get into her apartment on a pretense, then strip naked. "Two out of three times, guaranteed!" Even though Ted believes that he's got something going with fellow elevator rider Vicki, he decides to risk it all on the Naked Man, leading to a cellular back-and-forth with Barney in which they practice Naked Man poses like "Mr. Clean" and "The Burt Reynolds" (complete with chewing gum). Alas, somebody has to be The Third Naked Man. Even though this episode didn't have the pathos that HIMYM can achieve, its crackerjack timing and surfeit of invention made it a season highlight.
12. The Venture Bros., "The Doctor Is Sin"
The Venture Bros. has long walked the line between parody and pity, and rarely has that line been quite as blurred as in the second episode of the third (and latest) season. When Rusty Venture turns to the magical Dr. Killinger for help reorganizing his miserable, imploding existence, he gets a glimpse of a different kind of life, one with suited thugs ("Venchmen"), stronger costume design, and the freedom to finally get some much desired revenge on his successful twin brother. It's the chance to turn his back on the self-absorbed, self-loathing "hero" persona forced on him by his father and embrace the super-villaindom to which is he seems far better suited. To the show's credit, his ultimate decision is both tragic and curiously uplifting. Oh, and funny as hell. For a series that embraces its freaks as much is it mocks them, "Doctor" is a twisted statement of purpose: that even naked, miserable, and ashamed, it's still possible to want to be the good guy.
13. Pushing Daisies, "Comfort Food"
It was a sad season for fans of the unrepentantly quirky Pushing Daisies, who watched as one of the few truly original shows left on network television floundered in the ratings and eventually succumbed to cancellation. Yet there was a little sweet to counteract that bitter blow; rather than retreat to the middle ground to draw more viewers, the show ramped up its signature blend of wacky morbidity and candy-colored tweeness, resulting in a post-cancellation string of top-tier episodes. No episode epitomized this better than "Comfort Food," which featured, among other highlights: Murder via deep-fat-frying, a character called "The Waffle Nazi" (complete with lederhosen and Hitler 'stache), a characteristically spectacular guest performance by Stephen Root, and, perhaps best of all, a musical number from lovable sprite Kristen Chenoweth, who busted out "Eternal Flame" while wearing a hat shaped like a tiny pie. It's a near-perfect episode, and a stinging reminder for fans of what they're losing.
14. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, "Mac And Charlie Die"
How crude can you be on basic cable? Excluding cut-out animation, It's Always Sunny answers that question more thoroughly than anyone actually wants to see. Exhibit A: The Shadow, the fall-down-funniest moment in the up-and-down fifth season of the show. Frank discovers a glory hole in the men's bathroom of Paddy's Pub, and Dennis gets very... excited... about sex with strangers whose faces you can't see. The Eyes Wide Shut orgy that Frank takes him to doesn't satisfy—it's just a bunch of fat guys sitting around in stupid masks, although the buffet is quite extensive—and eventually Dennis tries out the hole, in slowly extending (and quickly retreating) silhouette. Meanwhile, after angry Luther gets paroled, Mac and Charlie fake their own deaths by crashing a car into a wall and leaving a video and a bunch of teeth (which Charlie has no trouble providing, thanks to inadequate dental hygiene). When the crash fails to explode the car, Charlie urges Mac to fire his handgun into the gas tank, assuring him that "it'll blow you to safety." Although the series has suffered from some half-baked ideas this season, "Mac And Charlie Die" packed enough breakneck craziness and penile innuendo into one hour to last us all year.
15. Doctor Who, "Midnight"
The revived Doctor Who has become a phenomenon in the U.K. but remains a tough sell in the U.S. If any single episode could change that, it's "Midnight." Penned by departing show runner Russell T. Davies, it begins as a light diversion when a vacationing Doctor (David Tennant) takes a short trip with some fellow tourists while visiting a resort planet famed for its relentless, and dangerous, sunlight. Then a lot of things outside their shuttle start going wrong until the danger drifts inside. The scares come more from dramatic claustrophobia than special effects and it's the fears and short tempers of everyone involved—including the usually unflappable Doctor—that make the episode so unsettling. Like the best of the revived Who, it's great television by any standard.
16. Friday Night Lights, "Leave No One Behind"
Even the staunchest Friday Night Lights fan will admit to some tough moments in the second season, but an episode like this made those moments easy to forget. It begins with easygoing humor as the show's outwardly taciturn, bad luck-attracting quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) decides to give up and emulate his low-achieving pal (Taylor Kitsch). It climaxes with an amazing scene in which his coach (Kyle Chandler) lets his intimidating façade drop enough to reveal how deeply his concern for his players—and maybe this good, fatherless kid in particular—goes. Whatever the missteps the show made after its near-perfect first season, betraying its characters was never one of them.
17. Sons Of Anarchy, "Capybara"
It's been called "Sopranos with motorbikes," and at first the comparison doesn't seem far off. There's a strong-willed patriarch, a manipulative maternal figure, and, of course, the tight-knit band of criminals with an ironclad code of loyalty and brotherhood. But as Sons went on, things changed; characters deepened, situations grew more complex (and Shakespearean), and the ramifications and limitations of the SAMCRO code become clear. By the final episode, it was obvious that series creator Kurt Sutter had something more ambitious in mind than your standard crime drama; the hero's journey from willing sap to disillusioned warrior makes the possibilities of next season all the more exciting. In "Capybara," the third to last episode of the first season, the seeds are planted for favored son Jax's split from the group, and it's a remarkable 40-plus minutes of neatly sustained tension.
18. Skins, "Effy"
This sharp BBC series, helpfully subtitled by BBC America so we don't miss a single indecipherable Britishism, chronicles a group of high schoolers in Bristol as they navigate the many drugs, parties, and sexual pressures of adolescence—but also the loneliness, the insecurities, and the intense crushes and friendships. If it sounds like Gossip Girl with an accent and explicit content, that couldn't be further from the truth. While the teens of Gossip Girl are glamorized to the point of cartoonishness, the adolescents of Skins look, speak, and feel like actual teenagers. And while they do drugs and have sex and say things like "Ring me back when you aren't actually being penetrated, okay?," the kids of Skins never seem like walking lessons trapped in "very special episodes." They're far more true-to-life than any teenagers currently on American TV, and definitely much funnier. Each episode of Skins zeros in on one or two characters, unfolding the story from their perspectives. But the show's penultimate episode, "Effy" ends up being as much about Effy's older brother Tony, his best friend Sid, his ex girlfriend Michelle, and even Effy's parents as it is about the mysterious, often mute Effy. When Effy goes missing after sneaking out of the house, the cool, Machiavellian Tony, who has become an outcast amongst his friends because of his dishonest and controlling behavior, attempts to enlist his estranged friend Sid to help him look for her. If the show's first episode "Tony" introduced him as a selfish, somewhat cruel, cool kid, "Effy" forces Tony to atone for his past sins, and reveals his compelling flip-side—the lonely, protective, often misguided Tony. "Effy" also contains one of the most frightening sexual lines ever uttered from one parent to another: "I'll get the turkey baster, you go wash your bits."
19. Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, "Spagett"
Spagett—a freakish entertainer whose shtick is "spooking" people by jumping from behind things—began in a typically nonsensical Tim And Eric sketch, but blossomed in his own thoroughly meta episode. Eric Wareheim discovers that Tim Heidecker (who plays the long-haired, marinara-mouthed weirdo) is in the process of shooting Spagett And The Quest For The Golden Treasure with Steven Spielberg (played by a spot-on double), but there's no room for Wareheim to participate. The scenes in which Heidecker shoots the movie—all on green screen, with new co-star Brian Posehn—are incredible, filled with super-shitty CGI and stupid dialogue. But it's after the movie bombs (and Heidecker gets the Spagett look permanently) that ridiculous flirts with genius.
20. Top Chef, "Wedding Wars"
The challenges on Top Chef are all about taking the contestants out of their culinary comfort zone, and there's no crueler example than the annual "wedding wars" battle, which hits them with the impossible task of preparing a multi-course dinner (including cake) for 100+ guests within a 24-hour period. Fueled by Red Bull and a healthy supply of contempt, two mismatched teams go without sleep to grind their way through this catering nightmare, and some of them are clearly going mad. (The season's wild card Andrew, who behaved like a coked-up mental patient under the best of circumstances, said this about his creamed spinach: "I'm like Popeye's fucking wet dream right now." He also talked about having "a culinary boner.") "Wedding Wars" also gets bonus points for the always-entertaining knife-skills relay challenge.
21. House, "House's Head" / "Wilson's Heart"
House's fourth season began with the misanthropic diagnostician dealing with the loss of his team by pitting dozens of new applicants against each other in his own cruel version of reality TV. It was an entertaining twist on the House formula, but once the field of candidates narrowed—leaving only the dullest doctors behind—the show largely retreated to formulaic mediocrity. That is, until the two-part season finale, which saw Dr. House recovering from a bus crash and trying to sort through his own foggy memories to recall the name and symptoms of a missing passenger he knows is going to die. At the end of part one, House realizes that the person he's looking for is someone dear to his only real friend, Dr. Wilson. But if House tells Wilson why he was on a bus with this person, he risks that friendship. With a structure that owes more to Dennis Potter than Marcus Welby, and a conclusion that's quietly devastating, "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart" offered a powerful rejoinder to those who think House is just the same show week after week. (Unfortunately, House has spent much of Season Five proving the naysayers right all over again.)
22. Survivor: Micronesia, "If It Smells Like A Rat, Give It Cheese"
Survivor: Micronesia pitted long-time Survivor fans against favorite players from seasons past, and while the early episodes had a comfortable feel—as the contestants we already knew trounced people we never got a chance to care about—it didn't take long for the twists to start coming, hard and fast. Contestants dropped out because of injury, or homesickness, and then eventually the strongest players started getting picked off one-by-one by a core group of female contestants who week after week blindsided people who thought they were in control of the game. In the season's most stunning bit of deception, the women somehow convinced the unbeatable Erik to give one of them his immunity idol. When he went along with their plan, they immediately voted him out. It was easily the most ridiculous Survivor strategy ever—and it actually worked. So much of reality TV has become over-familiar, but Survivor: Micronesia had more "I can't believe what I'm seeing" moments than just about any show on TV this year.
23. The Middleman, "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown"
The plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity. In the heat of summer, tempt TV addicts with a pop-savvy sci-fi/super-spy series that alternately recalls The Venture Bros. (in its frequent references to a long, noble, gradually decaying legacy), Buffy The Vampire Slayer (in the presence of a smart-mouthed, uncannily gifted heroine), Gilmore Girls (in the non-stop, rapid-fire patter, rife with obscure pop culture references), and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (in its vision of a meaningless universe that presents the illusion of purpose via complex bureaucracy). Alas, ABC Family never quite got the word out to the kind of people who would've loved The Middleman, if only they'd known about it. But the lucky few who caught on early were treated to classic TV episodes like "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown," in which a '60s version of the world's official protector gets defrosted in a crisis and ends up providing a swinging, politically incorrect contrast to the strait-laced modern superhero. All that, plus Natalie Morales in a catsuit, the world's most impossible card game, and a touch of genuine twentysomething romance. Ah, Middleman… we miss you so much.
24. Burn Notice, "Double Booked"
In its first season, Burn Notice was little more than light-toned but action-packed quasi-detective series, about a disavowed spy who picks up some extra cash doing gumshoe work. Between the glamorous Miami setting, the high-tech capering, and the dry humor, Burn Notice was pure summer escapism, gripping but ultimately undemanding. But while the show has remained every bit as fun in season two, the quality of the plots, action, and performances have all reached a higher level. This past summer's run was like a series of lean, colorful pulp paperbacks brought to life. Witness "Double Booked," a tricky episode in which our hero Michael (played by the strikingly angular, surprisingly versatile Jeffrey Donovan) gets hired by an old associate to perform a quickie assassination, and then spends the next several days trying to warn his mark while investigating his client, amid a series of near-misses and double-crosses as twisty and entertaining as any big-screen thriller.
25. Xavier, Renegade Angel, "Signs From Godrilla"
Vernon Chatman and John Lee—the subversive weirdoes behind Wonder Showzen—got even more willfully strange with Xavier, Renegade Angel, which ran relatively unnoticed for 10 episodes. (It'll be back in February.) It takes some effort to find the rhythm of the show—no surprise given it's about a idiotic, philosophizing beast that's part faun, part snake, and has weird blonde hair and lots of nipples. (Not to mention the fact that the show is animated like a video game.) But start with the season's penultimate episode, a total mindfuck called "Signs From Godrilla," and you could be hooked. In it, Xavier comes to a crossroads and must choose between the heart and the mind: Somehow, in 11 minutes, it covers a gorilla messiah, horrible morning DJs, a biting indictment of religion, a repairman who restores hymens (he's got a model with an MP3 player in it), and more. It's so packed that it's almost assaultive, especially the ending, but it's worth tickling a part of your funny bone that doesn't often get attention.
Stray moments from a few other favorite shows
The Daily Show
Given the election, The Daily Show would have been on America's radar no matter what. But Jon Stewart and company stepped up in a big way, writing precise, surprisingly level-headed media criticism. Consistently. The high point came September 3, when Stewart—with help from what can only be described as the best damn clip-finding squad in history—delivered a point-by-point argument directed at Republican pundits' glaring double standards regarding Sarah Palin. The rest of the amazing episode compared Fred Thompson to Foghorn Leghorn and Joe Lieberman to Droopy Dog, but this clip continues to bite.
The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c