The problem with the existence of so many TV networks and so many good TV shows is that something worth watching is almost always airing somewhere. That means a lot of good shows didn’t make our list of the best television series, including plenty of the more niche programs not all of our writers were able to watch. Here, in chronological order, is a tribute to the best installments of the very good, tiny, inconsistent, and/or downright weird shows that either just missed our main list, or weren’t in the running, but merited special recognition.
Dollhouse, “Getting Closer” (Fox, Jan. 8)
The second season of Dollhouse was an unexpected gift from Fox to Whedon Nation. So Joss Whedon and his writers had a choice: Try to reboot, keep things simple, and see if they could bring new viewers on board. Or go deeper into the show’s expansive mythology, knowing the show was unlikely to get another season. Episodes like “Getting Closer,” the mind-blowing lead-up to a two-part finale, make it abundantly clear which choice they made. Even longtime viewers of the series had trouble keeping up. Written and directed by the reliably excellent Tim Minear, “Getting Closer” effortlessly volleys between flashbacks to Eliza Dushku’s mysterious past and the goings-on at Rossum Corporation, which has nefarious designs for the Dollhouse. It includes the death of a major character, a big reveal about another, and an insurgents-as-heroes political subtext that’s pretty radical for network TV.
Better Off Ted, “The Impertence Of Communicationizing” (ABC, Jan. 12)
When a misprint on an office memo orders the employees of Veridian Dynamics to “now use offensive or insulting language” (instead of “not”), the workplace becomes a war zone, with co-workers concocting inventive profanity to tell their colleagues exactly what they think. Lampooning corporate directives and the notion that people should be allowed to speak freely, “The Impertence Of Communicationizing” highlights everything we’re going to miss about the now-canceled series. The episode takes a clever premise, adds some sharp satirical barbs, then lets its crack comic ensemble fire jokes at each other at a machine-gun clip.
The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, “Tom Hanks/Will Ferrell/Neil Young” (NBC, Jan. 22)
We spent much of January breathlessly following the story of NBC reneging on its promise to grant Conan O’Brien The Tonight Show—or at least The Tonight Show in the time slot generations have come to expect The Tonight Show— when the grand Jay-Leno-at-10 experiment failed. O’Brien finally realized he was doomed and gave up, but not before giving the world a final two weeks of hilariously pissed-off shows with recurring bits like nightly attempts to (allegedly) waste millions of dollars of NBC’s money. And though other late-night talk shows got in on the fun, the crowning moment came when O’Brien bowed out from late night until November (when he resurfaced on TBS), with a surprisingly moving episode focused on following dreams and capped by a strange, sweet musical number featuring O’Brien on guitar and a plenitude of guests.
Chuck, “Chuck Vs. First Class” (NBC, Jan. 24)
The forever charming, perpetually underachieving Chuck struggled to find its footing in its third season, frequently stranding its strong supporting cast on the sidelines and seemingly altering the DNA of key characters’ personalities. (Most notably: Yvonne Strahovski’s Sarah, who apparently lost her spine for much of the season.) But when it hit, it hit well, most memorably in the episode “Chuck Vs. First Class,” which forced the show’s fumbling, would-be-spy hero (Zachary Levi) into action on an overseas flight where he’s caught between a charming woman (Kristin Kreuk) and a hulking bad guy (Steve Austin). It’s a showcase for the winning Levi, one that forces his character to rely on himself while removed from the comfort of his usual support system, and one whose outcome never seems certain.
The Inbetweeners, “Thorpe Park” (BBC America, Feb. 1)
One of the biggest TV puzzles of 2010: deciding whether a given installment of the BBC America series The Inbetweeners—a show about insecure teenagers and their raunchy, uninformed quests for sex and love—was brilliantly uncomfortable, or just squirmily so. “Thorpe Park” (which originally aired in the UK in 2008) manages to be both, putting the boys through multiple humiliations, as Simon (Joe Thomas) learns to drive from a female instructor who hits on him, and his friends pressure him to take them all to an amusement park where women’s breasts allegedly sometimes pop out of their blouses while they ride the roller coasters. Is there any more apt portrayal of the anguish of adolescence than finally getting your license, then having to decide whether you want girls to see you in your crappy car?
Temple Grandin (HBO, Feb. 6)
Claire Danes won justified praise and awards for her portrayal of the autistic animal-scientist and ASD advocate Temple Grandin. Her portrayal is all the more remarkable for the way she conveys the unique gifts and personal perspective that an autistic spectrum disorder bestows, not just the difficult challenges that autists face. The movie as a whole is just as strong, avoiding the “How will I raise this affection-averse alien child?” clichés of so many autism-themed dramas, and instead letting viewers see the world through Grandin’s eyes.
Men Of A Certain Age, “How To Be An All Star” (TNT, Feb. 12)
In keeping with a show that defies easy categorization—an often funny, often sad drama about three guys who don’t solve crimes, commit crimes, or heal the sick—the penultimate episode of Men Of A Certain Age’s first season gave the show its real powerhouse, with changes and surprises galore as all three leads (Ray Romano, Andre Braugher, and Scott Bakula) made decisions with far-reaching consequences. Nothing goes as expected, and no pat lessons get learned. It’s just the drama of the everyday, played out with exquisite tension.
Big Love, “Under One Roof” (HBO, Feb. 14)
Big Love’s third season made it one of the best series of 2009, alternating heartfelt emotion with big, soapy moments and dozens of plotlines. Season four attempted to go even bigger, and created the biggest bust season of a previously solid drama series in recent memory. Some of the individual plotlines worked, but it felt like too much getting crowded together for no good reason. On the other hand, there were good episodes sprinkled amid the problematic ones, like “Under One Roof,” wherein the would-be politician Bill (Bill Paxton) announced his master plan, the deeply closeted Alby (Matt Ross) gained and lost a lover, and an old flame of Bill’s returned to toss turmoil into the Henrickson household. Season four was a mess overall, but individually powerful moments, like the close of Alby’s storyline, proved the show still had it, just more sparingly than before.
Caprica, “Ghosts In The Machine” (SyFy, March 19)
Few news shows in 2010 were as frustrating or fascinating as Caprica, a science-fiction soap prequel to Battlestar Galactica about, among other things, what it means to be sentient, and the building of virtual worlds to go alongside the real one. The ambitious combination of elements never completely gelled, and the network seemed hellbent on killing the show at the same time. On the other hand, the series produced borderline-transcendent moments, as in this episode, where a mad-scientist father stricken by grief tried to force a giant robot into revealing it contained his daughter’s consciousness, a silly-sounding idea Caprica made mournfully sad.
RuPaul’s Drag Race: “Golden Gals” (Logo, March 22)
RuPaul’s Drag Race provided a bunch of replayable moments involving contestants "reading" each other by saying witty, horribly mean things to each other. But the outrageous show struck a legitimately touching chord with “Golden Gals,” which required the queens to dress up older gentlemen in drag, the better to make said older gentlemen into their “drag mothers.” The contestants got a real-life lesson on what it was like to be gay in a not-so-distant and much-less-tolerant past, and the viewers saw that there’s much more to becoming a drag queen than a wig, dress, and makeup. The sometimes creaky results, with Cloris Leachman and Debbie Reynolds judging, were awkward, funny, and touching.
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, “Episode Two” (ABC, March 26)
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver brought his quest for healthier kids and better school lunches to the U.S. in a surprisingly riveting six-episode reality miniseries. Oliver’s mission to Huntington, West Virginia avoided easy caricatures and treated the overweight residents as real human beings, not reality-show freaks. But the series could be educational as well, as in this episode, where Oliver underlined all of the problems with the U.S. school-lunch programs, taught some kids what really goes into a chicken nugget, and tried to show a group of set-in-their-ways school chefs that cooking a nutritious, tasty meal is possible on a budget. It was a little cheesy, sure, but its vision of a reality-show Frank Capra movie was also weirdly heartfelt.
The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, “Kristen Bell/Grant Imahara” (CBS, April 5)
Few shows are as relentlessly entertaining as The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, a series whose host seems uniquely devoted to ditching the tired old late-night format as often as possible, usually in favor of strange throwbacks to the earliest days of TV. Take this episode, wherein Grant Imahara of MythBusters stopped by to provide Ferguson with a new sidekick, a blue-eyed, mohawked robot named Geoff Peterson, programmed to offer up a handful of cliché catchphrases in a monotone, metallic voice. Even better, Kristen Bell, whose flirty relationship with Ferguson makes her one of the show’s most amusing guests, dropped by for the grand unveiling.
Human Target, “Christopher Chance” (Fox, April 11)
A former assassin turned action-based philanthropist, leading man Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) has the kind of mysterious past that begs for backstory. Over the course of its first season, Human Target hinted at the man Chance had been and the reasons why he changed sides, but the series didn’t finally show its hand until the season finale. Within an exciting framing story, “Christopher Chance” finally revealed that its title character, who formerly worked for inarguably evil Armand Assante, gave up his evil ways when he was ordered to kill guest star Amy Acker. Who could blame him? Target was never afraid of embracing a well-done cliché, and here was a beautiful innocent betrayed, a killer with a heart of gold, and Lee Majors: action TV cheese, done to classy perfection.
Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains, “Survivor History” (CBS, April 15)
The one lesson Survivor contestants fail to learn, season after season, is that the game changes daily, which makes planning three moves ahead not just difficult, but often foolhardy. The title of “Survivor History” refers to one of the dumbest moves in the history of the game, in which J.T. of the “Heroes” tribe slipped an immunity idol to the ultra-villainous Russell of the “Villains” tribe, because he assumed—mistakenly, and with no evidence—that an all-female alliance dominated the Villains, and he hoped to keep Russell around for the tribal merge. The scene of J.T. passing the idol along is dramatic enough, but it’s trumped when Russell and his partner-in-crime Parvati read the heartfelt note J.T. attached to the idol, and laugh their asses off.
The Ricky Gervais Show, “Nuts” (HBO, April 16)
Animated versions of 5-year-old podcasts? That would define “unnecessary” if The Ricky Gervais Show wasn’t so screamingly funny. “Nuts” is stuffed with the segments that make this show one of the most reliably entertaining half-hours on television, including Karl Pilkington’s diary as read by Stephen Merchant in mellifluous tones that make Karl’s mundane rationalizations into Beat poetry, and a “Monkey News” that could stand as the Platonic ideal of the form. As Karl relates how one airline with suspiciously small pilots was somehow able to keep running during a pilots’ strike, Ricky moves from hilarity to disbelief to anger. And when the monkey-pilot subterfuge is uncovered by a passenger who wondered why nuts were being delivered to the cockpit and not the passengers, the deadpan animation fulfills its promise by layering on one more level of ridiculousness.
The Pacific, “Part Six” (HBO, April 18)
The Pacific never built up the kind of buzz that accompanied Band Of Brothers, perhaps because it’s less sentimental and more diffuse. But for those who were on the miniseries’ wavelength, the mix of dark, bloody battle scenes and mournful reflection remained powerful throughout, never moreso than in the extra-grim “Part Six,” which details the hard grunt work of removing enemy soldiers from the fortresses they occupy, and shows how that work leaves permanent scars.
Parenthood, “Rubber Band Ball” (NBC, April 20)
The idea of a second TV series based on the 1989 Ron Howard movie Parenthood—much less one tossed onto TV long after anyone last gave the movie much thought—seemed pointless at first, but developer Jason Katims turned the movie’s basic format into the kind of small-scale family drama he learned how to make under the tutelage of thirtysomething creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. The new Parenthood took a while to get going, but in this episode, where immature Crosby (Dax Shepherd) sat in stunned silence at footage of the son he just learned he had being born, the series’ commitment to tiny stories told well began to pay off.
The Life & Times Of Tim, “Personality Disorder/Stu Is Good At Something” (HBO, April 23)
It’s tough to pick one standout episode of The Life & Times Of Tim, one of TV’s most consistent and underrated comedies, but both halves of this installment are a joy. In the first, Tim goes to a child psychiatrist (voiced by Elliott Gould) to get a fake diagnosis to get off the hook for a hot-dog Halloween costume, and is made to push toys around while Gould intones horrible diagnoses. The second focuses on Stu, who bites off more than he can chew with a ping-pong star (Judah Friedlander). The bewildered Tim is a great straight-man protagonist: He’s something of a schemer, but like all comedy schemers, he’s usually miserable by the end of the episode. And Stu, a livewire barely hiding layers of neuroses, provides a hilarious foil.
Supernatural, “Two Minutes To Midnight” (The CW, May 6)
The end of the world can make for great television. The fifth season of Supernatural had the Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) Winchester facing off against the devil himself, and while the apocalypse never got as apocalyptic as it might have, the best episodes managed to capture that horrible slipping sensation of a world collapsing by the minute. Of those, “Two Minutes To Midnight,” the season’s penultimate episode, showed the series at its stylish, gloomy best. After helping his brother Sam defeat an emaciated Pestilence, Dean makes a deal with Death to try and stave off doom. The stylish direction, bold story choices, and always-funny sibling interactions were on full display, as the show continued its commitment to being the coolest B-movie on TV.
MythBusters, “Waterslide Wipeout” (Discovery, May 19)
Though MythBusters saw a number of small format tweaks in its early years—remember the staff “folklorist”?—it’s settled into a pattern that works. The B-team (Kari, Grant, and Tory) handle the more straightforward myths, while stars Adam and Jamie pursue legends that require grand scale and ingenuity. Their most spectacular triumph this year was recreating a (faked) YouTube video that depicted an amateur daredevil launching himself off a giant waterslide. If you want to live vicariously through TV, watching a couple of guys hurl themselves off a 165-foot hillside Slip ’N’ Slide isn’t a bad way to go.
Treme, “Smoke My Peace Pipe” (HBO, May 23)
The first season of Treme tried to put so much distance between itself and David Simon’s previous series, The Wire, that its ambling slice of New Orleans life occasionally suffered from an absence of narrative momentum. But the back half of the season paid major emotional dividends as subplots developed to full flower. Two major events gave this episode a special distinction: Enraged by the city’s opportunistic attempt to condemn a housing project largely unaffected by the hurricane, Albert (Clarke Peters) attempted to break into a boarded-up apartment and orchestrate a standoff in front of local media. Meanwhile, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) and Toni (Melissa Leo) finally discovered the whereabouts of LaDonna’s missing brother. What they find is completely devastating, both on a personal level and a systemic one, and the actresses play it with dignity and breathtaking torrents of emotion.
Nurse Jackie, “What The Day Brings” (Showtime, May 31)
Due to network proximity, Nurse Jackie is often compared with Weeds and The Big C, Showtime’s other dark, dry comedies about women whose complexity can verge on irksomeness. But Jackie is really much closer to Mad Men; both are heavier on tone than plot, and both study characters who have woven a cocoon of lies so elaborate, they can no longer breathe inside them. “What The Day Brings” is the penultimate episode of Jackie’s uncharacteristically brisk second season, wherein Jackie (Edie Falco) has gotten so clever with her deceptions that she isn’t not clever enough to maintain them. In an effort to flee questioning and a drug dealer she fleeced, she takes the family on a road trip, only to end up at a bed ’n’ breakfast filled with bizarre bric-a-brac. Ultimately, Jackie misses sleeping in her own bed, however inhospitable she’s made it.
The Boondocks, “The Fundraiser” (Adult Swim, June 13)
While it’s still one of Adult Swim’s most popular shows, The Boondocks ended its run with its superb third season. The show’s long production cycle didn’t allow the kind of timeliness creator Aaron McGruder might have liked; his Obama election satire felt at least a year behind the curve when it aired. But when it directed its satire toward more general targets, the show remained perfectly on target, thanks largely to the strength of its characters, particularly brothers Riley and Huey Freeman. This episode uses both brothers’ personalities to the hilt, as a candy sales fundraiser at school spirals gradually and hilariously out of control.
30 For 30, “June 17, 1994” (ESPN, June 16)
The back half of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series became more conventional in its subject matter and approach, but the series still left us with many new classics in the sports-doc genre. It’s been a strong year for documentaries in theaters, but the best of 30 For 30 can stand alongside the likes of Restrepo and Exit Through The Gift Shop. Yet as terrific as “Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks” and “No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson” are, none of the pieces were as brilliant and daring as Brett Morgen’s “June 17, 1994,” which weaves the raw news footage from the day of O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase into a rhythmic, free-associative meditation on media narratives and how sporting events—and unexpected crimes—defy our feigned expertise.
Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist, “Opposites Attract” (Bravo, July 28)
Those who pegged Work Of Art as formulaic reality fare weren’t wrong, but the show still offered an engaging look at the creator’s role in art. In “Opposites Attract,” the contestants were forcibly “inspired” by trite dualities like “heaven and hell.” The “male/female” team paired Jaclyn, a feminist with a tendency toward nude self-portraiture, and Miles, the show’s most talented, conniving contestant. Miles not only manipulated Jaclyn into painting a portrait of herself masturbating, he convinced her she was engaging in an act of female self-empowerment. As the layers of irony piled up, the artistry was dubious, but the intrigue wasn’t.
Futurama, “The Late Philip J. Fry” (Comedy Central, July 29)
This summer, Futurama returned to the airwaves for its first traditional television season since Fox cancelled the show in 2003. While the creative team had released four full-length movies in the interim, the show still had to remind audiences why everyone was so sad it got cancelled in the first place. The new season proved uneven but ultimately solid, as a reduced writing staff worked to reconnect emotionally with characters and return to the series’ mix of slapstick and high-concept. Nowhere did they achieve that balance more perfectly than in “The Late Philip J. Fry.” A time-travel episode that actually managed to do something new with time travel, “Late” was smart and cynical, and it rewarded audience investment in the relationship between Fry and Leela. It proves Futurama is still capable of greatness, provided it leaves out the singing ass-boils.
My Boys, “Be A Man!” (TBS, Aug. 8)
It’s too bad this low-key, fast-paced comedy got the axe from TBS, because it was a blast spending time with sportswriter P.J. (Jordana Spiro) and her male poker/drinking buddies. Part of the attraction came from how enthusiastically the guys throw themselves into various self-improvement schemes, a trope exemplified by “Be A Man!” After P.J. is impressed by the easy masculinity of NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, the men challenge themselves to complete tasks in a magazine list of the hundred things a man ought to be able to do. While Kenny (Michael Bunin) and Mike (Jamie Kaler) sort out who will throw a punch and who will take a punch, no-longer-twentysomething Brendan (Reid Scott) tries to defend dating a 22-year-old, leading to one of the show’s classic sequences of escalating burns. Farewell, My Boys. We’ll always have Chicago.
Rubicon, “The Outsider” (AMC, Aug. 15)
This was the episode where those still watching AMC’s sadly canceled Rubicon realized the show was going to be about more than shadowy conspirators and homages to ’70s movies. Regal Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) takes newly promoted protagonist Will (James Badge Dale) on a trip to Washington, mellifluously opining on the difficulties of private intelligence analysts remaining independent from the federal government while leaning on it for funds. Back at headquarters, the moody ciphers with whom Will works become fully shaded characters, as they weigh whether to confirm an order to kill. Henry Brommell took charge of a show he hadn’t created with this episode, giving realistic depth to what had been a stylish but insubstantial conspiracy thriller. Instead of being a base for Will to mull about swirling dark forces, the API offices became, for the first time, a real, lived-in place about which audiences could care.
Project Runway, “There IS An ‘I’ In Team” (Lifetime, Aug. 26)
By airing 90-minute episodes in its eighth season, Project Runway ensured viewers would get “more.” In most weeks, this resulted in wasteful excess that dragged the entire show down with it. However, “There IS an ‘I’ in Team” was a reality storytelling masterpiece, the extra half-hour making each stage that much more satisfying as contestant Gretchen reached total collapse. By forcing us to linger on her vapid and dominating workshop behavior and refusing to cut away as she dug herself a hole to China on the Runway, the editors ensured that Tim Gunn’s epic smackdown at the episode’s end became perhaps the single most satisfying moment in the show’s history.
Sons Of Anarchy, “SO” (FX, Sept. 7)
The problematic third season of Sons Of Anarchy got off to a roaring start, picking up from the multiple cliffhangers of the second-season finale and exploring just how deep in the shit the various members and satellite members of SAMCRO had gotten themselves. Best of all, “SO” introduced Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s senile, newly widowed father, launching a short arc that provided some of season three’s most emotional moments and tied Gemma to the series’ recurring theme of how children handle their legacies.
Lone Star, “Pilot” (FOX, Sept. 20)
In a fall season considered weak by any critical yardstick, the quick cancellation of the promising Lone Star after just two episodes became a painful symbolic loss. Yet for all the hand-wringing about what Lone Star’s failure would mean for the future, the loss wasn’t just symbolic: Creator Kyle Killen started to lay the groundwork for a great show, one that sought to wed the sterling production values of big-budget network television to the serial plotting and moral ambiguity of cable fare. The pilot had to do a lot of heavy lifting, introducing the double life of its duplicitous hero (relative unknown James Wolk), a Texas con man married to one woman in Houston and committed to another in Midland. Killen took a risk by asking viewers to embrace a seemingly unsympathetic man, but he and Wolk suggested someone genuinely torn between old habits and a nagging conscience.
Delocated, “The Mole” (Adult Swim, Sept. 23)
The reality-show parody Delocated enjoyed a funny first season of seven 15-minute episodes, but it really took off when it made a switch to 30-minute stories with its second season. The season’s best episode was an elaborate Face/Off parody, sending series star “Jon” (Jon Glaser) into the midst of the Mirminsky family, hoping to uncover… well, his goals become less clear as the episode goes on. Add in a number of terrific twists, fine deadpan comic acting, and a bleaker-than-black sensibility (with an ending to match), and you have one of the year’s funniest half-hours.
Dexter, “My Bad” (Showtime, Sept. 26)
Dexter’s fifth season ended up being a colossal disappointment, which shouldn’t have been surprising, given how often this show has disappointed in the past. Still, it began strong with a season première that suggested the year to come would grapple with the questions of Dexter Morgan’s (Michael C. Hall) place in the series’ cosmos, as he attempts to grieve for his dead wife, but can’t kickstart even the emotions he’s learned to fake. It’s a grand, often ghoulish hour of television, and it includes one of the series’ most memorable scenes, wherein Dexter, wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, has to tell his stepchildren their mother has been murdered with only a funeral director’s words (“I’m sorry for your loss”) as his guide.
The Venture Bros., “Everybody Comes To Hank’s” (Adult Swim, Oct. 3)
By its fourth season, The Venture Bros. had settled into a familiar routine: breathless plotting, a cast of hundreds, and a willingness to deflate the absurdities of superheroism while still embracing the boy adventurer in everyone. That routine got old at times, and what makes “Everybody Comes To Hank’s” such a standout in a consistent but unremarkable year for the series is how the episode picks one basic storyline and sticks with it throughout. Hank decides to uncover the mystery of his friend’s parentage, but gets way more than he bargained for. The arc allowed for pokes at film noir, found a surprising solution to one of the show’s longer-running mysteries, and featured a Venture brother at his most enthusiastically naive.
Glee, “Duets” (FOX, Oct. 12)
Glee has a cavalcade of variables: guest stars, song choice, the WSRC (Will Schuester Rapping Coefficient), etc. “Duets” captures the series’ core: There are no large-scale group numbers, no prominent guest stars, no Sue Sylvester, and no attempts to address adult and teenage storylines simultaneously. Instead, it’s a simple story of teenagers negotiating the politics of love and hate through the power of song, a (relatively) subtle hour of television for a series most often defined by bombast. While the elements it stripped away largely define the series culturally and remain a key part of its broad appeal, episodes like “Duets” signal that somewhere in Glee there’s still a show that may avoid being subsumed by the chaos of… well, of this.
The League, “The Marathon” (FX, Oct. 14)
The League’s much-improved second season was best when all the characters play the same game. “The Marathon” is the show’s finest accomplishment, as the gang unites to antagonize Andre (Paul Scheer)—oblivious and lame like he’s never been—and his attempt to run a marathon. They do such a good job that Pete (Mark Duplass) even recruits the waitress at their favorite bar to get in on the fun. The episode also shows that The League was never really about fantasy football: Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) has come to terms with his wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) joining the league, but his patience is tried when she brings smack talk into their relationship. The episode shows off all The League’s toys, and shows them off well.
The Office, “The Sting” (NBC, Oct. 21)
After seven seasons, there’s been an obvious shift in The Office. Second bananas like Andy and Darryl have all the fun, while Jim and Pam deal with parenthood issues. But “The Sting,” a bright spot in the uneven season, brings the show back to its ensemble-based roots. Michael (Steve Carell) is angry at losing so many sales to competitor Danny (Timothy Olyphant), so he recruits Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and Jim (John Krasinski) to orchestrate an elaborate operation to observe Danny in his natural element and steal his sales tricks. It’s a plot that perfectly captures The Office at its finest: Embrace the crazy.
Bored To Death, “The Case Of The Grievous Clerical Error!” (HBO, Oct. 31)
Bored To Death’s second season rose to new heights by introducing some sobering reality into the show’s hazy mystery fantasy. Leah (Heather Burns) broke up with Ray (Zach Galifianakis), who vowed to win her back, and George (Ted Danson) was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The potential disasters to main character Jonathan’s (Jason Schwartzman) friends shook the show’s core, lending new urgency to the events of “Grievous Clerical Error!” and imbuing Jonathan with a sense of purpose. Ray and Jonathan freed dogs from a neighborhood snatcher, giving Ray a way to prove his devotion to Leah. And Jonathan, visiting George in the hospital room before the surgery, is able to enjoy a nice moment with George as his father-figure. Of course, the episode’s title gives away the twist, but the ride remained entertaining, and Bored To Death spun its temporary problems into more satisfying comedy and compelling stories.
The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye” (AMC, Oct. 31)
The shortened first season of The Walking Dead belied just how frantically developer Frank Darabont and network AMC tried to throw the show together, alternating moments of supreme terror and melancholy with clumsy dialogue and character development. The series’ smashing pilot, however, was one of the best zombie movies in years, waking up central character Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in a hospital bed and sending him into the middle of the zombie apocalypse, all with the capable aid of special guest star Lennie James as a man trying to hold onto his essential humanity in the face of all that had been lost. The haunting use of silence and the series’ stunning 16mm cinematography created a product that was simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.
Circus, “First Of May” (PBS, Nov. 3)
PBS’ commitment to the documentary miniseries form found a new standard-bearer in the six-part Circus, a series that took viewers into the heart of the eponymous institution as the folks of the Big Apple Circus opened their doors to filmmakers interested in examining the costs of putting on a show for a modern audience. The opening episode was a heartbreaker, exploring what it takes to make the show go on via a troubled, litigation-plagued couple questioning whether they belonged in the circus. By focusing on sacrificing dreams for those you love, the series went from insightful to moving.
How I Met Your Mother, “Natural History” (CBS, November 8)
HIMYM is now more scattershot than the finer days of seasons past, but sometimes it gets the balance of silly comedy, character development, and future-foreshadowing just right. This episode is set in New York’s American Museum Of Natural History, and it advances the plot well using the setting’s magic acoustics. There are plenty of giggly dirty jokes, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) engage in a wacky “hands on an ancient artifact” game, and Ted (Josh Radnor) develops hesitantly romantic feelings for another non-mother love interest. But the final act, in which Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Barney both unexpectedly confront hard truths provided a great example of how clever and true-to-life this show still can be.
Weeds, “Theoretical Love Is Not Dead” (Showtime, Nov. 15)
It might seem counterintuitive to root against a series’ lead character, but Weeds’ biggest problem over the past few seasons came from the Botwin family’s apparent immunity: No matter how badly Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) fucked things up, she got away with it, with nary a lesson learned. In the season finale, at least some of Nancy’s chickens finally came home to roost: She got her family safely on a plane to Europe and narrowly escaped being murdered, but only because the alternative involved turning herself in to the FBI. Sure, she’s escaped the ultimate punishment for now, but she has to take real responsibility for her actions, unless she ends up sleeping with all the agents, or something equally implausible.
The Big C, “Taking The Plunge” (Showtime, Nov. 15)
The Big C had a maddening first season, largely because it inhibited a first-class cast with bad writing and a less-than-propulsive plot. It wasn’t Cathy’s (Laura Linney) refusal to tell her family about her illness that made it frustrating, so much as the sometimes-silly ways she dodged it. Changes in the season finale, which loosened up the show and made the characters feel much more real and natural, let the audience finally to care about their future.
Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, “Bruce Springsteen” (NBC, November 16)
It’s not entirely clear why, in promoting the release of The Promise, Bruce Springsteen chose Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night for his sole television appearance. Perhaps the two bonded over Fallon’s performance of “Born To Run” at this year’s Emmy awards, or maybe Bruce worships The Roots as much as everyone else. Regardless, the result provided a perfect example of Fallon’s talent as late-night host. While still far from the world’s best interviewer, Fallon’s combination of playfulness (convincing Springsteen to play ’70s Springsteen while Fallon did a Neil Young impression, covering Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”) and honest reverence for Springsteen’s work created the right atmosphere to sit back and enjoy the Boss, a credit both to Fallon’s willingness to show restraint and Springsteen’s willingness to play along.
In Treatment, “Adele: Week 5” (HBO, Nov. 23)
The hyper-quiet, deeply reflective In Treatment got damn dark in season three, where Dr. Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) patients included a recent Indian immigrant with a creepy obsession with his daughter-in-law, an actress trying to come to terms with her sister’s impending death, and a teenage boy confronted with the decision of whether to contact his birth parents. But the darkest stuff was saved for Paul’s sessions with fellow therapist Adele (Amy Ryan), where he walked to the edge of admitting his deep crush on her, one that horrified him a little. The Adele episodes had plenty to say about being stuck in stasis while conveying a sense of a man grasping at straws to find a reason to go on working, or even living.