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ictured: (l-r) Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, Danny Pudi as Abed, Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Joe McHale as Jeff, Alison Brie as Annie, Chevy Chase as Pierce, Donald Glover as Troy in Communiity.
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in ‘Breaking Bad’.
Lena Dunham, fifth season of Girls.
Kyle Chandler in Friday Night Lights
Sarah Snook as Siobhan Roy in Succession.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (2016).
Ann Dowd and Justin Theroux in a scene from a Season 2 episode of The Leftovers on HBO Canada.
Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and January Jones.
When we look at the best television of the decade, a pattern emerges. It includes creative world-building, absurdist humour and great emotional nuance. These are the elements that elevated television through the last 10 years and, for the first time in history, made the medium more surprising and promising than anything film could offer. It changed television, but it also changed audiences, shaping the future of storytelling forever.
These are the decade’s 10 best episodes of television:
10. Community; Season 3, Episode 4; “Remedial Chaos Theory”
For a very long time, it was rare that a sitcom could compare to television drama. In the last few years, with an influx of tragicoms, that’s begun to change, but Community was a standout from the start as a high-concept narrative that never needed to venture all that deep. Though when it did, it was through a stellar joke-per-minute average and outstanding work from every single member of its cast. With a plethora of innovative storytelling to choose from, though, it’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” that captures why Community was so singular. Following Troy and Abed’s housewarming party, we watch as Jeff decides to roll the dice to decide who picks up the pizza, which leads to six different timelines. We watch each one play out to different dramatics between different characters (leading, most notably, to the first time Jeff and Annie get close), some resulting in far greater chaos (an actual fire) than others (Jeff hits his head on the ceiling fan every time). It’s effortlessly funny, but also gives every actor a chance to flex their comedy chops, while demonstrating what each character brings to the table.
9. Breaking Bad; Season 5, Episode 14; “Ozymandias”
“What is wrong with you? We’re a family,” Walt shouts as his wife and son watch him from the ground in fear, and dial 911. In that harrowing moment, the entire course of Walt’s journey flips as he realizes he is what’s wrong and that, at some point along the way, everything he was doing was no longer for his family but himself. As he questions his own motives, the audience is left to question why they are rooting for him — if they still are. It’s a physical test to witness this episode, which moves like an action thriller. It barely lets you take a pause from the moment Hank is shot to when Walt tells Jesse he watched Jane die, to Jesse being held as a meth-cooking slave after Walt betrays him, to the confrontation at the house, to that final phone call with Skyler, to the unbearable moment he leaves Holly behind by herself at a fire station and disappears. It’s a masterclass in acting and direction (by the great Rian Johnson, who also shot Season 3’s incredible “Fly”) that carefully pulls off a narrative to which the entire series was building. It’s why “Ozymandias” still rests at a rare perfect 10 on IMDB.
8. Real Housewives of New York; Season 3, Episode 12; “Sun, Sand, & Psychosis”
Like a child turns to a blanket for comfort, I turn to the long list of Real Housewives episodes that built the landmark reality franchise and catapulted RHONY (the indisputably best incarnation) to the echelons of Peak TV, all through its 11 seasons so far. But none compare to the hellish trip to the Virgin Islands the cast takes in its third season, culminating in a set of episodes lovingly dubbed “Scary Island.” The chasm between Bethenny and Kelly grows, as the latter insists she feels the former is “channelling the devil” and is out to kill her. In fact, Kelly grows increasingly unhinged as the episode goes on, ranting about everything from jelly beans to Al Sharpton to “Gwyneth, my friend Gwyneth” (Paltrow, as it happens). Although the trip is meant to celebrate Ramona’s vow renewal (minus her husband), it becomes a near-intervention for whatever Kelly is going through (or is on), as she insists the women are “systematically bullying” her and Bethenny famously screams for her to “Go to sleep! Go to sleep!” As Kelly snipes in one of her more lucid moments, the rest of the women are “in a horror film,” but she is “in a Disney movie.” Incomprehensible and yet iconic.
7. Broad City; Season 1, Episode 6; “Stolen Phone”
There is no such thing as a bad Broad City episode. A comedy of errors at its finest, Abbi and Ilana’s best adventures tend to go one of two fun ways: A simple misfortune will somehow lead to unbelievable chaos or the pair will make their way through New York City finding themselves embroiled in, yes, chaos with the best and oddest guest stars (from Kelly Ripa to Tony Danza). “Stolen Phone” is both of these things. It has one of the series greatest openers, as the pair hunt for boys on Facebook, and then bar crawl to find hook-ups “in real life.” After Ilana has the best and hilariously feminist sex of her life, the two go on a hunt through the city for Abbi’s lost phone — which contains the number of her supposed dream guy. I haven’t laughed harder this decade.
6. Girls; Season 2, Episode 5; “One Man’s Trash”
Lena Dunham said she wrote “One Man’s Trash” — in which the typically insufferable Hannah is never more endearing as she spends two days shacked up with Joshua (Patrick Wilson), a handsome, successful, stable man — in a “fever dream.” She described it as “Hannah getting lost in a version of what could be her life,” leading to an episode that feels universal from a series that tended to offer an otherwise privileged perspective. Like the similarly engrossing “Panic in Central Park,” this one is a bottle episode, which means we get to see characters connect in isolation, their insecurities and desires exposed, making them more relatable and human than ever.
5. Friday Night Lights; Season 4, Episode 5; “The Son”‘
More than any other series, Friday Night Lights offered a level of sincerity that may never be in fashion again. It had this most in “The Son,” when backup QB Matt Saracen discovers his father — a verbally abusive man who avoided his family by reenlisting four times, leaving his only child at home to take care of his ill grandmother — has died in the Iraq war. It’s a solemn hour, a close read of the grieving process. Zach Gilford delivers an emotionally searing performance from the moment he sees his father’s faceless corpse at the funeral home to when he bursts into tears at the Taylors’ kitchen table, realizing, “I hated him, I don’t like hating people. I put all my hate on him so I don’t have to hate anyone else, so I can be a good person — to my grandma, to my friends, to your daughter. I just wanna tell him I hate him to his face, but he doesn’t even have a face.” The end delivers the heaviest emotional wallop, as he says goodbye and buries his father until his shovel is smeared with the blood from his hands.
4. Succession; Season 2, Episode 10; “This Is Not For Tears”
An unparalleled mix of gut-busting comedy and heart-wrenching drama, only Shakespeare could compete with the cocktail that is Succession. Its second season finale — with its wild (though inevitable, in hindsight) twist and triumph for its long-suffering lead jerk-turned-anti-hero — is the best of the series only because it is the rare show that somehow improves upon itself with each episode.
3. Fleabag; Season 2, Episode 4; “Episode 4”
It would be easy to say that this episode can be summed up in one word: “kneel.” But so much of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s groundbreaking writing happens in and around that fiery moment in the church confessional. We discover that Hot Priest can see Fleabag breaking the fourth wall, which means he sees her, he understands her, and he might love her. We learn that whatever god means to each of them might be there in the space between them, and that, if they can feel that weight, then maybe they’ll be okay.
2. The Leftovers; Season 2, Episode 8; “International Assassin”
It’s an incredibly difficult task to choose one episode out of The Leftovers and call it “best,” so consistently creative and profound was this three-season series about what happens after two per cent of the population disappears. It wasn’t about answering the endless questions, but about the way we each interpret the meaning of life to begin with. In “International Assassin,” one of the most polarizing and innovative episodes, we watch Justin Theroux’s Kevin awake in a seemingly alternate reality where he’s been hired to take down Patty who, in this world, is running a presidential campaign. If he completes his mission, he can return to his regular life. Throughout it, Kevin sees visions of his father, and struggles with the morality of his task. He returns to this world once again in another memorable episode in Season 3 (where he infamously uses a key part of his body as a kind of key), and we discover it has a lot to do with his relationship with Nora. It threw logic to the wind more than the series already had, twisted audience perception, and took everything to a new existential level.
1. Mad Men; Season 4, Episode 7; “The Suitcase”
Sometimes, it’s the platonic relationships in our lives that impact us the most, that speak louder than the romantic ones. Don and Peggy’s bond is never better explored than in this episode, which provides the kind of spotlight platonic connections are rarely granted in television. Despite the fact that the episode centres around only the pair, a lot happens: Peggy’s boyfriend breaks up with her; Don almost punches Duck on her behalf; the pair discuss her baby and his past; she cries; he cries; he falls asleep with his head in her lap and wakes up to the news that Anna, the only person who ever knew him, has died. In the morning, they settle on a new pitch, and he takes her hand — so much is said in this moment, most of it love, all of it intimate.
Black Mirror; Season 3; Episode 3; “Shut Up and Dance”
Catastrophe; Season 3, Episode 6; “Episode 6”
Inside Amy Schumer; Season 3, Episode 3; “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”
The Killing; Season 3, Episode 10; “Six Minutes”
Master of None; Season 1, Episode 2; “Parents” + Season 2, Episode 8; “Thanksgiving”
The Walking Dead; Season 1, Episode 1; “Days Gone Bye”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019