Monday, December 21, 2015

Best Episodes of 2015

Hello! Welcome to another year of my annual tradition of counting down my 20 favorite episodes of 2015. Rules are the same as always: only two episodes from any one show can make the cut. And just as I did last year, while I'll list my top 20, I will only be writing about the top 10 (due mostly to post-semester writing fatigue).

We begin, as always, with the enormous list of all the other really great episodes I saw this year.

The 100, "Survival of the Fittest", "Coup de Grace", "Resurrection", "Bodyguard of Lies"
Adventure Time, "Evergreen", "Jermaine", "Bonnie & Neddy", "Varmints", "Stakes" (all eight parts)
The Americans, "EST Men", "Open House", "Dimebag", "Salang Pass", "Born Again", "Walter Taffet", "Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" "I Am Abassin Zadran" 
Archer, "Pocket Listing"
Better Call Saul, "Five-O", "Bingo", "Pimiento"
Bob's Burgers, "Can't Buy Me Math", "Eat, Spray, Linda", "Hauntening"
BoJack Horseman, "Brand New Couch", "Let's Find Out", "Escape from L.A."
Broad City, "The Matrix", "St. Mark's"
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "The Wednesday Incident", "Boyle-Linetti Wedding", "Sabotage", "The Funeral", "Halloween III"
Catastrophe, "Episode Three", "Episode Four"
Community, "Laws of Robotics and Party Rights", "Basic Email Security", "Advanced Safety Features, "Basic RV Repair and Palmistry", "Modern Espionage", "Wedding Videography"
Faking It, "Boiling Point", "School's Out"
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia 
iZombie, "Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat", "Blaine's World", "Grumpy Old Liv", "Zombie Bro"
Jane the Virgin, "Chapter Ten", "Chapter Thirteen", "Chapter Fourteen", "Chapter Sixteen", "Chapter Twenty-Three", "Chapter Twenty-Five"
Justified, "Fate's Right Hand", "Noblesse Oblige", "The Trash and the Snake", "Fugitive Number One"
Mad Men, "The Forecast", "The Milk and Honey Route", "Person to Person"
Manhattan, "The Threshold", "The World of Tomorrow", "Human Error"
Master of None, "The Other Man", "Nashville", "Ladies and Gentlemen"
Orange is the New Black, "Mother's Day", "Finger in the Dyke"
Parks and Recreation, "Ron and Jammy"
Rectify, "Hoorah", "Thrill Ride", "Sown with Salt", "The Source"
Review, "William Tell; Grant a Wish; Rowboat", "Buried Alive; 6 Star Review; Public Speaking"
Rick and Morty, "Auto Erotic Assimilation", "The Wedding Squanchers"
Sense8, "What's Going On?", "W.W.N. Double D?", "What Is Human?", "Just Turn the Wheel and the Future Changes", "I Can't Leave Her" 
Steven Universe, "Alone Together", "On the Run", "Marble Madness", "The Message", "The Return", "Jailbreak", "Say Uncle", "Keeping It Together", "We Need to Talk", "Cry for Help", "Too Far"
UnREAL, "Princess", "Future"
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, "Auditions", "Electro/City", "Day is Done" 
You're the Worst, "The Sweater People", "Born Dead", "Side Bitch", "Spooky Sunday Funday", "The Heart is a Dumb Dumb"

Best Episodes of 2015:

20. The 100, "Rubicon"
19. Manhattan, "Brooklyn"
18. You're the Worst, "LCD Soundsystem"
17. Justified, "Trust"
16. Parks and Recreation, "Leslie and Ron"
15. Mad Men, "Lost Horizon"
14. Broad City, "Wisdom Teeth"
13. Community,  "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television"
12. Sense8, "Death Doesn't Let You Say Goodbye"
11. Rectify, "The Future"

Major spoilers for many of the remaining episodes! 

10. Inside Amy Schumer, "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer"

I'm pretty much done being a consistent Inside Amy Schumer viewer at this point, having grown tired of its tendency to punch down at familiar targets (such as sex workers and people with disabilities) for far too much of its humor, as well as the continued blind eye that's been turned towards the behavior of certain people involved with the show. Yet it's hard to deny that "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is a masterpiece. Along with the season premiere's note-perfect FNL parody about rape culture in football, it demonstrates just how effective Schumer's style of comedy can be when it's not settling for cheap shots or lazy jokes and actually making funny, meaningful points. The concept behind the episode is simple—reenacting famous scenes from 12 Angry Men in which the men sit in judgment of whether Schumer is "hot enough" to be a TV star. And the dialogue hilariously skewers the kinds of sexist "debates" that happen in Internet forums every single day, mocking every single guy on the jury with withering precision. What Schumer does with certain scenes (especially the iconic knife scene, which has been transformed into an uproarious argument about dildos) is beyond inspired, both for its meaningful, scathing commentary and because it's just plain funny. My overall issues with the show aside, this is an instantly legendary piece of TV comedy.

9. Review, "Conspiracy Theory"

It remains to be seen whether Review returns for a third season, but they've now pulled off back-to-back season enders that could each have worked beautifully as a series finale. "Conspiracy Theory" is the better of the two, though; while the potential for a happy ending seen in "Quitting; Last Day; Irish" was entirely earned, the bleak hilarity of this finale was fitting for a season that found Forrest doubling down on every single mistake he made last year for the sake of his show. The season as a whole may have been slightly less successful; there was some stumbling around in the early going, as the show tried to work out how to top moments like last season's "Space" segment (and failed utterly a couple of times). But the back half was a masterclass both on the level of individual segments ("Rowboat" and "6 Star Review" are both things of utter beauty) and in terms of building towards that magnificent moment when Forrest grabs his producer Grant into a perilous freefall. Part of me wants to see a third season, just out of sheer curiosity as to how Forrest will justify doing all of this yet again. But if not, then Review joins an extremely limited group of shows to end with their single greatest episode. So it's a win-win. (For us. Not really for anyone else.)

8. Master of None, "Mornings"

Outside of maybe You're the Worst's Gretchen and Jimmy, no TV couple quite captured my heart in 2015 the way Master of None's Dev and Rachel did. One could certainly point to "Nashville" as the show's finest first season episode; it's a lovely piece of television built around winning writing and the terrific chemistry between Noel Wells and Aziz Ansari. But as much as I'm a sucker for a good rom-com, I'm even more of a sucker for stories about the ups and downs of a relationship from one day to the next. And since that is literally what "Mornings" is, it shouldn't be too surprising that it towers above almost anything else in the TV romance department in a good long while. Condensing a year in these two characters' lives together into a single half-hour shouldn't work, but Ansari and co-writer Alan Yang choose exactly the right information to include in every brief snapshot, trusting that body language will help present the full emotional picture. It's simply a remarkable episode: hilarious, affecting, and deeply thoughtful about the struggles and pleasures of two lives intertwining.

7. Steven Universe, "Rose's Scabbard" and "Sworn to the Sword"

To anyone who follows my Twitter account, my ongoing love for Steven Universe's Pearl has become either a delightful or a totally insufferable (take your pick) running gag. But it is utterly sincere; there are many reasons to love this incredible show, but Pearl's ongoing journey—which is equal parts hilarious and tragic—has been my favorite thing about it since day one. I initially gravitated towards her because her anxious personality and relative shyness reminded me (often humorously) of myself, and that's still a big part of why I adore her. But Steven Universe dives deeper than that, and these two episodes (no, I won't pick between them, and you can't make me) showcase another huge part of Pearl's story: her unrequited love for Rose and her struggles to define herself now that she's gone. And . . . well, it's heartbreaking. It took my love for the character to a whole new level, while also explaining so many of the (sometimes terrible) choices she's made in other episodes. "Sworn to the Sword" is also notable for containing the greatest song I've ever seen on a TV series: "Do It For Her", in which Pearl attempts to teach Connie swordfighting but ends up using it to relive her own days as Rose's champion. I'm tearing up all over again just thinking about it.

6. The Americans, "March 8, 1983"

In a mostly quiet (up until those last few minutes) finale, The Americans affords its characters a few moments to pause and try to reflect on a series of events that left their lives and relationships in a more tenuous position than ever before. Elizabeth takes Paige (only recently made aware of who her parents really are) overseas to see her dying mother, hoping it will help the two of them forge a deeper connection, only to collapse in silence in the bathroom as her daughter explains that she's praying. It's one of many scenes in this episode where so much is left unspoken. Silence is, as The Americans constantly reminds us, both a necessity and a curse for these characters. It eats away at them inside, and you can almost sense a certain relief when they are finally forced to spill some of them. This relief never lasts long, though, because those revelations come with a new set of dangers and may not erase the gulf between, say, a pair of KGB agents and their American-raised, Christian daughter. She may call her pastor and say those two words: "They're Russians." And The Americans may have wrapped a perfect season of television with the best finale of the year.

5. Mad Men, "Time & Life"

So this is how the long and illustrious history of Mad Men caper episodes ends: with a stunning subversion of a time-honored tradition. "Time & Life's" placement in this final season (and the series as a whole) really couldn't be more perfect; it at once pays homage to classic hours like "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" and "Waterloo" while at the same time constantly playing on our awareness that times have changed. It's a dark hour in which seemingly well-laid plans are thwarted, and Don, Roger, Joan, and others are forced to reckon with the inevitability of new professional roles that they (for various reasons) do not find at all appealing. Mad Men has on some level always been about its characters having to adapt to a changing world, and for the most part they've been able to manage it by the skin of their teeth. But as this episode closes with an unstated "What now?" vibe, it seems as though many of the characters going to have to look elsewhere to find their elusive peace (or perhaps not find it at all). And so they did over the next three episodes, all of which are masterpieces as well. But this is the show's crowning achievement in its final year, and one of its finest episodes ever.

4. Archer, "Vision Quest"

I have very little to say about "Vision Quest", other than, "good grief, this might be the funniest episode Archer has ever done." Its genius is wonderfully simple: all the characters get stuck together in an elevator. They say a bunch of mean, hilarious things to each other, without any side plots to distract from the caustic and lightning-fast dialogue.

That's basically it. Isn't it beautiful?

3. You're the Worst, "There is Not Currently a Problem"

"There is Not Currently a Problem" may also be the funniest installment of You're the Worst so far. And it's partially for the same reasons as "Vision Quest"; the episode traps the show's core ensemble (plus the equally funny Dorothy and Vernon) under one roof and uses it as an opportunity to let the comic sparks fly even more than usual. Choice quips abound, including the delightful running gag of Jimmy having never seen The Lion King. (I haven't either, I'm ashamed to admit.) But all the while Gretchen, stuck in the last place on Earth she wants to be, is drinking and trying to feign happiness in the midst of a serious episode of depression. Finally it's too much, and she delivers a lengthy rant in which she scathingly mocks everyone. It's the finest scene in a season full of fine scenes, featuring both beautiful writing and a tour de force performance from Aya Cash. But almost as powerful is the scene where Lindsay comforts and advises Gretchen in spite of everything she's just said. Because she cares. As does almost everyone on You're the Worst when it comes down to it. The show's initial hook may have been many of its characters being . . . well, the worst. But Stephen Falk and company have never shown interest in following in the footsteps of Archer or It's Always Sunny. Underneath all that withering wit and those displays of self-absorption are a bunch of wounded souls that are willing and able to empathize when they need to. This episode (and this season as a whole) proved that again and again.

2. Rick and Morty, "Total Rickall"

You might be sensing something of a pattern here. Yeah, I'm a sucker for comedy episodes that get the entire group of characters together in one location. And when that location is also besieged by parasitic aliens that can conjure up false memories? Well, so much the better. "Total Rickall" can be said to be something of a spiritual cousin to Community's clip shows, but that sells its genius short. As good as those episodes were, this strikes me as a much darker and deeper (while still being hilarious) look at the dysfunctional Smith family, giving every character a moment to shine as they battle their own fake recollections of happiness and an ever-growing cast of ridiculous characters. All that would be genius enough, but the episode's brilliant kicker is what happens once the secret to the parasites' deception is revealed, and suddenly all those unpleasant incidents become a lifeline that can guide everyone back to reality. Sad, sad reality. But it's all they've got, and at least they're in it together. It might seem strange to find that sort of message vaguely uplifting, but this is the show that gave us "come watch TV" as a profound statement of existential angst last year. At its best, Rick and Morty suggests, with quiet pathos amidst its exuberant sci-fi humor, that the sour truths of life can be somehow sweet at the same time. Perhaps even more so than last year's "Rixty Minutes", this may be the shining example of that gift to date.

1. The Americans, "Stingers"

In a more just television world where The Americans is a Walking Dead-level cultural and ratings phenomenon, "Stingers" would be the kind of jaw-dropper of an episode (a la Game of Thrones' "The Rains of Castamere" and Lost's "Through the Looking Glass") that would dominate every television conversation for the better part of a month. Paige finding out? Sure, it's been on the table for a long time. But watching season three play out in the masterful slow-burn style The Americans is known for, I can't imagine anyone expecting it to happen like this—in one extended, brilliantly acted conversation around the family dinner table. It's the logical culmination of two of the show's best ongoing arcs: the shared desire of the Jennings parents to find a way to keep their family together  and Paige's continuing certainty that there's something amiss here. When she lays down an ultimatum for the truth—go Paige!—it forces Phillip's hand, and in a beautifully subtle gesture from Matthew Rhys, he gives a slight nod full of quiet conviction. What ensues is a stunning, series-defining setpiece in which Holly Taylor matches two much more experienced actors beat for beat, followed by several more scenes the next day and night that illustrate just how much Paige's world has just spun off its axis. As she looks at her parents and Stan, we see her starting to take in the sheer depth of this deception. Her world will never be the same.

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