You can scarcely swing a dead cat lately without hitting some kind of best-of-the-decade list (even though, technically, the first decade of the 21st century doesn’t end till next year).
Well, here comes another one. Rather than try to construct another best-shows-of-the-’00s list, though — something that’s already been done here, there and everywhere — I decided to focus on individual episodes from 2000-09. Are these the flat-out “best” episodes of television over the past 10 years? Probably not. But these are the ones that stick with me, that I can still remember not just for brilliant lines or beautifully constructed plots, but for how I actually felt while watching them. They are, simply, my favorites.
Here’s my list, in no particular order. What’s yours?
“Final Grades” (“The Wire”)
HBO sent critics the entire run of season four of “The Wire” before it premiered in 2006. I had watched the first seven episodes over a few days, then sat down late-ish one night to screen one or two more. I ended up watching the final six in one marathon sitting, nearly six hours in all. By the time “Final Grades,” the season finale, got to its end credits, I was a complete emotional wreck as three of the four corner kids the show had followed — Michael, Randy and Dukie — end the year in worse places than they started, a reality made all the more devastating by the opportunities, small as they might have been, that slipped past them.
“Mud Bowl” (“Friday Night Lights”)
The first season of “Friday Night Lights” may have been among the most beautifully executed seasons on all of television in the ’00s (and certainly on network TV). “Mud Bowl” was the show at its best, both for the football side of things — after a chemical spill shuts down the school, Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) moves a key playoff game to a cow pasture, and we get a ton of great game action — and the personal stories the show does so well: Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) fighting off her attacker, Coach and Tami (Connie Britton) getting frisky in the pasture a couple days before the game. Just a brilliant episode.
“Good Grief!” (“Arrested Development”)
For my money, the most screamingly funny episode of one of the best comedies of the decade. George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) in a spider hole, Maeby (Alia Shawkat) plotting her emancipation, Tony Wonder (guest star Ben Stiller) — all great. But what makes it an absolute classic is this, the kind of visual joke that no show in recent times has done better:
“Everyone’s Waiting” (“Six Feet Under”)
I dropped out of “Six Feet Under” somewhere toward the end of its third season and didn’t really come back until the series finale in August 2005. I’m exceedingly glad I did — otherwise I would have missed one of the most perfectly constructed final episodes I’ve ever seen. A show revolving around death sort of demands a close-ended finale, and Alan Ball and Co. pulled it off magnificently.
“Family Meeting” (“The Shield”)
At the other end of the series-finale spectrum is “The Shield,” which capped seven increasingly intense and often brilliant seasons with a finale that pulled the rug out from under rogue cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), and maybe a little bit from all of us who had rooted for the guy all those years. Vic escaped death and prison, only to end up isolated from his family, his colleagues and the thing he loved most, being on the street, to end up in a desk job with the feds. It was immensely satisfying, but in a way I didn’t really expect.
“Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” (“Freaks and Geeks”)
NBC didn’t air this “F&G” episode during its lone season, but qualifies because what was then the Fox Family Channel (now ABC Family) aired it in October 2000. And thank goodness, because the episode, where Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) finds out his mom is dating his faculty nemesis, Coach Fredericks (Tom Wilson), captures the feelings of bewilderment, betrayal and surprise (at finding out the coach isn’t such a bad guy after all) Bill goes through almost too well. Plus this:
“My Old Lady” (“Scrubs”)
This one was a tough call. “My Screw-Up,” the “Sixth Sense”-esque episode that was John C. McGinley’s finest moment on the show, is probably a better-constructed episode, but “My Old Lady,” just the fourth episode of season one of “Scrubs,” gave me the first real sense of how well the show could combine comedy and drama without cheapening either part of the equation.
“Bastogne” (“Band of Brothers”)
Told from the point of view of Easy Company’s medic (Shane Taylor) during the Battle of the Bulge, “Bastogne” gives the viewer a visceral sense of the brutal conditions the men faced in the winter of 1944-45. A standout hour in the best miniseries of the aughts.
“Slap Bet” (“How I Met Your Mother”)
The Slap Bet Commissioner. Premature slapulation. Barney’s awful decision to choose five slaps at any time over 10 all at once. And of course, Robin Sparkles.
“Three Stories” (“House”)
Some of “House’s” best episodes have been when the show has departed from the usual murder mystery-in-lab coats formula. It’s never done that better than in “Three Stories,” when House (Hugh Laurie) delivers a lecture to a group of med students that gives us insight into his past and how he got both his limp and his misanthropic outlook on life.
“Whoever Did This” (“The Sopranos”)
Another tough choice. “Pine Barrens” is great but ultimately tangential to the larger story, “Whitecaps” and “Long Term Parking” are emotional punches to the face, the series finale is one of the great ambiguous endings. I choose “Whoever Did This” for both the thrill of seeing Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) get his and the gruesome, mordantly funny way Tony (James Gandolfini) and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) go about disposing of him.
“A Trip to the Dentist” (“Veronica Mars”)
Veronica (Kristen Bell) solves one big mystery of the unexpectedly great first season — who drugged and raped her, leading to her being cast out of the cool kids’ clique in Neptune — that leads her to solving the bigger mystery of her friend’s murder in the season finale the following week. That finale was very satisfying, but the emotional roller coaster Bell rode in “Dentist” was the high point of the season, and maybe the entire series.
“Through the Looking Glass” (“Lost”)
After ABC and the “Lost” team agreed on an end date partway through season three, the show started to pick up the narrative pace, and it became focused in a way it hadn’t been since arguably the early part of season two. I had become a “Lost” skeptic in the intervening time, and I still was even when the show started to improve in the spring of 2007. But after I saw “Through the Looking Glass” — particularly the final scene below — and picked my blown mind up off the floor, I was all the way back in. It was the episode that made me fall back in love with the series.
A few honorable mentions:
- Episodes that just missed the main list: “Booze Cruise” and “A Benihana Christmas” (“The Office”), “Say Goodnight, Gracie” (“Gilmore Girls”), “Once More, With Feeling” (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”)
- Best episodes (so far) of relatively young series: “Chuck vs. The Ring” (“Chuck”), “The Gypsy and the Hobo” (“Mad Men”)
- Best episode of a sketch show: The “Chappelle’s Show” with Wayne Brady. Love the Rick James one, but “Does Wayne Brady have to choke a b**ch?” lives on.
- Best episodes of shows supposedly past their prime when they aired: “The One Where Chandler Can’t Cry” (“Friends,” February 2000), “Behind the Laughter” (“The Simpsons,” May 2000)
- Best episode of a show I’m occasionally ashamed to say I like: “Into You Like a Train” (“Grey’s Anatomy”). A great mix of the medical and soapy parts of the show.
- Best episode of a bad show: “The Article” (“Method & Red”). My brain knew that “Method & Red,” part of FOX’s failed scripted-shows-in-the-summer experiment of 2004, wasn’t great. The part of me that loves goofy humor didn’t care. This episode, written by future “HIMYM” creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, was a half-hour of awesome.
- Best episode of a forgotten show: “Up the Steaks” (“Lucky”). “Lucky” would probably do just fine on FX now, but in 2003, people still didn’t know to look for a darkly funny half-hour series there. Too bad, because it was really good, especially here.
What would you add to this list?
Photo credits: HBO, The CW, NBC
For the record: An earlier version of this post mentioned a scene from “The Wire” that took place in an earlier season four episode, “That’s Got His Own,” rather than “Final Grades.”