15 shows — “Bones,” “Cougar Town,” “Chuck,” “Dexter,” “Glee,” and “Supernatural” among them — brought out their A-game in 2010. To see which episodes made our list, and why they did, read ahead:
“Community” – “Modern Warfare”: This post-apocalyptic “Warriors” spoof set to an intra-college paintball competition marked the moment that woke a lot of people up to the fact that “Community” is one of the best series on television. I am no exception. The show elevated cutesy pop culture parody to brilliance in one of the funniest (and simultaneously riveting) half-hours of TV all year. They also graciously ripped the band-aid off for Jeff and Britta inevitable hook-up and promptly moved on from — something a lesser series would have stretched out for seasons.
“Mad Men” – “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”: It’s hard to pick any one episode of “Mad Men” as the stand-out of the year, but this half-way point of Season 4 broke the largely dreary developments with a farce that brought me back to the Season 3 finale. In an effort to woo a potential Japanese client, the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang pretends they’re filming a spec commercial (a clear violation of the company’s rules in the bidding war) in an effort to get their competitors to actually make one — spending money and embarrassing themselves in the process. It ends with a classic Draper coup de gr�ce, pulling out of their bid in the name of “honor” and clearly coming off as the most desirable agency to the Japanese businessmen. The beautiful and hilarious image of Peggy Olsen circling a stark studio on a cherry red Honda also settles the debate of what a Woody Allen/Benny Hill collaboration might have looked like.
“Bones” – “The Doctor in the Photo”: After strumming “Dueling Banjos” on our heartstrings all year, “Bones” finally gave us what we’ve been waiting six seasons for during the winter finale. Brennan finally realized that maybe a life with Booth is what she wants after all. Sadly, that ship sailed 10 episodes earlier. But even though we still don’t get our lead couple, we get the best showcase yet of why Emily Deschanel is one of the most unsung leads on television.
“Cougar Town” – “You Don’t Know How It Feels”: I could single out a bunch of individual moments from numerous “Cougar Towns” — joke-for-joke, the funniest comedy on TV right now — but this season’s Halloween episode had maybe the best mix of ridiculous jokes (Grayson as Prince, Laurie and Ellie dressing up as each other) and genuine emotion (Jules reconnecting with her dad, played by “Scrubs” veteran Ken Jenkins) of any the show has done.
Conan O’Brien‘s last “Tonight Show”: Conan’s last couple of weeks as “Tonight” host — after the Jay Leno mess went down, after he knew he had nothing to lose — were loose and often hilarious, and a reminder of everything he can do as a talk-show host. The final episode had Tom Hanks (whom we have to thank for coining “Coco”) as a guest and a comedy bit with Steve Carell and ended with Will Ferrell and his very pregnant wife singing “Freebird” while Conan played guitar. It was insane, and also kind of brilliant.
“Breaking Bad” – “Fly”: Best bottle episode ever.
“Parks and Recreation” – “Telethon”: Ron Swanson sleep-fighting and caning a chair. Leslie’s manic attempts to make the telethon successful. Detlef Schrempf as himself. Maybe not the best “Parks” of Season 2 (I’d go with “Practice Date,” which aired in October of ’09), but riotously funny nonetheless.
“Chuck” – “Chuck vs. the Beard”: A very difficult call over “Chuck vs. the First Fight,” but Zachary Levi‘s directorial debut was a ridiculously jam-packed episode that featured both great comedy (Chuck and Morgan’s breakup and makeup, a Jeffster!-led revolt at the Buy More) and a huge development in the ongoing story (Morgan enters Chuck-world). It gets the nod for the continuing dividends of Morgan being part of the team.
“The Walking Dead” – “Vatos”: You want a zombie attack? Okay, we’re giving it to you in all its horrifying, limb-chomping, precognitive glory. All that other stuff in the city, finding another survivor’s camp, was funny and all, but that was only to lull us into a false sense of zombie-proof safety.
“Dexter” – “Practically Perfect”: Guest stars Julia Stiles, Peter Weller and Jonny Lee Miller brought great performances this season, but this early episode really showcases Shawn Hatosy. It marks Dexter’s first true, ritual killing of the season, which simultaneously sets into motion the Lumen plot. Plus, Boyd Fowler trying to one-up Dexter on their respective hospital gurneys is hilarious.
“Lie to Me” – “Beat the Devil”: We love us some Jason Dohring, even when he plays a homicidal psychopath that preys on women. Better yet, nobody believes Lightman (again), so it’s all the sweeter when he’s right. Dohring gives a particularly charming and therefore chilling turn as the masterful student.
“Glee” – “Dream On”: Naturally we give props to Neil Patrick Harris, who got that Emmy for guest starring as the jaded Bryan Ryan, but credit must go to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon for leading us deftly through the difficult but emotionally genuine storylines. Artie’s post-dance reality check and his falling literally flat on his face were heartbreaking.
“The Vampire Diaries” – “Masquerade: Cute boys in suits! TV-types always refer to sweeps episodes as “game-changing,” but this o
ne actually delivered on its promise. Katherine “masqueraded” as Elena at the latest Lockwood party, where she proved her all-around villainous awesomeness by snapping a girl’s neck in the middle of the dance floor, brazenly fending off both Stefan’s and Damon’s attempts to kill her, and putting Elena in danger without ever coming near her. In between, she had time to shamelessly flirt with Matt. Then there was the fact that Tyler’s werewolf curse was triggered when he accidentally killed a girl while she was compelled to attack him. Where can we get an invite to these parties? Oh — and also, there were cute boys in suits. Did we mention that already?
“Supernatural” – “Swan Song”: When a CW show about brothers who fight ghosts can have us crying within the first 5 minutes, you know it’s a hell of an episode. The Season 5 finale was presented in a different format than any episode that came before it, employing the use of voiceovers and flashback montages to illustrate the idea that destiny and free will may go hand-in-hand. (We know — deep, right?) We were full-on bawling by the time they showed flashbacks to Sam and Dean’s rare happy moments together. Sam hasn’t had many heroic moments throughout the show – he was easily swayed by the call of demon blood, and he never managed to save his brother from hell — but he finally took charge of Lucifer in the episode’s final moments and sacrificed himself for the good of mankind… and he wouldn’t have been able to do it without his brother.
“Smallville” – “Homecoming”: The 200th episode of “Smallville” was an important milestone, and the writers didn’t let it pass by without a bit of fanfare. When Clark Kent and Lois Lane returned to his high school — and hers, as she insisted on reminding us — we were given a nostalgic trip down memory lane and a rather epic glimpse of Clark’s future as Superman. The epic satisfied everyone from the comic book geek dying to check out Clark in flight to the die-hard shipper, waiting for Clark and Lois to take the next step in their relationship. Perfection.