04 December 2009

Television: Best Single Episodes of the Decade

Arrested Development – “Pier Pressure” (Jan. 11, 2004)
When a show is the best of the decade, and a strong contender for the best sitcom of all time, it’s a little difficult to narrow down a single episode as the series’ best 30 minutes (try doing this with The Simpsons or Seinfeld—near impossible), so I could only pick a personal favorite. Here, everyone learns a lesson, particularly Michael, who learns from George Sr. the importance of not teaching lessons. Between the Hot Cops, never-nudes, and a Big Yellow Joint, fewer shows packed as many laughs into such a short amount of time.

Chappelle’s Show – Season 2, Episode 12 (Apr. 7, 2004)
Art imitated life as the second season of Chappelle’s sketch show drew to a close. He grew tired of the immense pressure on him from demanding Comedy Central executives, and personally felt conflicted about some of the series’ more race-focused skits. So Chappelle quits, and the network hands things over to harmless Wayne Brady. But then they really go for the laughs in a side-splitting parody of Training Day, with Brady as Denzel Washington’s corrupt cop. No one would ever question Brady’s toughness again.

King of the Hill – “Reborn to be Wild” (Nov. 9, 2003)
Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s realistic. But the thing many people forget about this show, is it’s a got a lot of heart. Bobby, looking for a new group of friends, joins a Christian youth group obsessed with skateboarding (they use the term “righteous” a little bit differently). But Hank, discouraged at Bobby’s disobedience and preference of shirts bearing the words “Satan Sucks,” forbids the boy from going to a concert with groups like the A-Men. But at the end of the episode, Hank explains the reason for his discipline: he doesn’t want Jesus to become just another hobby Bobby grows out of. It just proves that Hank Hill is the best TV dad since Cliff Huxtable.

Lost – “Pilot” (Sept. 22, 2004)
Much like the plane crash that began the episode, you couldn’t take your eyes off it. Before the series began too collapse under the weight of its own twists and turns, for once viewers were grateful they couldn’t predict what would happen next. You didn’t know who to trust or who would survive. The unpredictability would keep viewers coming back, and for now it was simple curiosity and not overwhelming frustration.

Malcolm in the Middle – “Bowling” (Apr. 1, 2001)
In two simultaneous versions of the same episode, Malcolm and Reese are taken to the bowling alley by each of their parents. When they go with Lois, Malcolm bowls a pathetic score but winds up winning the affections of a girl at the party. When they go with Hal, Malcolm has a lot more confidence but misses out on his kiss because of equipment failure. Funny and revealing, it was a highlight of a series that quickly lost steam.

Modern Family – “The Incident” (Oct. 14, 2009)
Shelley Long made one of the funniest casts on TV even funnier, guest starring as Ed O’Neill’s insane(ly) jealous ex-wife. The title refers to her drunken tirade at his wedding to Sofia Vergara and her attempts to make amends. It was wall-to-wall laughs, and it capped off with an hilarious song—written by Sarah Hyland’s boyfriend—called “In the Moonlight (Do You),” a tune every bit as clever as and catchy as anything in the Flight of the Conchords arsenal.

Monk – “Mr. Monk Bumps His Head” (Jan. 20, 2006)
Many people dismissed Monk as cutesy and trite, and hated that Emmy voters kept showering him with Best Actor awards, but this episode plumbed emotional depths, revealing the character’s underlying loneliness. It was also a showcase for the great Laurie Metcalf, who takes advantage of Monk’s amnesia to pass him off as her husband. It was pretty deep for a quirky little sitcom, but a high point for a show that was known to repeat itself.

The Office (U.S.) – “Stress Relief” (Feb. 1, 2009)
How’s this for power? It made me take back everything bad I said about The Office up until that point. The first 10 minutes are comedy perfection, the remaining 50 nearly as good. Hardly anything in this episode has to do with the ongoing drama that drove me from the series in the first place. It keeps the focus on the jokes, which include a Silence of the Lambs parody and comparing Michael’s, er, endowment to an MP3 player. The episode gives plenty of time to each character, and showcases what a well-rounded cast the show has when it’s not trying to be Friends.

Scrubs – “My Hero” (May 14, 2002)
Who knew someone as goofy as Brendan Fraser would lend gravitas to a series known for its silliness? But the star of films like George of the Jungle and The Mummy did just that playing Dr. Cox’s leukemia-stricken brother-in-law. But Fraser never goes for movie-of-the-week sympathy. It’s just the right amount of heart for a show that was just beginning to strike the right balance between absurdity and poignancy.

The Simpsons – “E. Pluribus Wiggum” (Jan 6, 2008)
Complaints about the series will never end. “It’s not as good as it used to be!” the cynics cry. But anyone who saw this episode would have to second-guess that judgment. This episode is clearly among the series’ best. A brilliant send-up of the media frenzy surrounding presidential primaries, reporters and candidates from both parties descend on Springfield. Between jokes about registered sex offenders, political murders and bond issues, writer Michael Price packed the episode with so many laughs you can’t even catch your breath. It’s more than just hilarious; it’s essential.

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