Sunday, June 14, 2015

Episodic Highlights from 2015

Cory Barker's blog has a year-end roundtable where they ask panelists to name their favorite episodes. While I love the critical format of looking at a TV series on an episodic basis, it wasn't until I participated in Cory's roundtable last year that I ever thought of defining a year of TV by its best episodes. Although I don't plan to amass some big or definitive episodes of the year list, it seems worthwhile to put some thought into episodes that resonated with me as we near the midpoint of the year:

While I eventually got bored of the show and hobbled to the finish line of the show's first season, there's a lot to be said for how strong 12 Monkeys came out of the gate.  The show's first three episodes built up high stakes and set up the ground work for loopy sci-fi scenarios with promising speed and efficiency. The series' two main characters were also strongly established from the start and their chemistry intrigued me enough that I was still invested after the way-too-soon death of Leland Goines in the pilot episode.

Though Modern Family is seen by many as a show that has gone stagnant, I continue to consistently enjoy it and maintain my faith that the writers are able to bring it when the occasion calls. "Connection Lost," in which the entire story is told from a half-hour screenshot of Claire's laptop, is the kind of ambitious episode premise that's dynamite if executed well. Some might call the idea of using various apps to tell a narrative might ring to some of shameless product placement, but it's unquestionably innovative and has a high degree of difficulty. This episode reminds me of those art class assignments involving found art.

Fresh off the Boat's 5th episode, "Persistent Romeo". was one of those episodes with a comic hook-- the boys mistake one of those sexual harassment videos they show during orientation as a how-to guide for picking up women -- that was executed perfectly just as the series was finding its groove. The show harkens back to 90's sitcoms in both a meta way and as a stylistic preference. The innocent idea of a kid badly wanting to fit in with his friends and the suspense around whether he'll be able to pull it off with a halfway decent sleepover was also an idea executed well here. My review at TV Fanatic is here.

I've always been weary of praising bottle episodes. Are we celebrating your lack of a locations budget or your homage to some era in TV history few people care about when locations budgets were a big deal? Of course, that was before I saw Archer's bottle episode "Vision Quest" which plays off the character beats so masterfully and establishes new gags (Cheryl's claustrophobia, Cyril's masturbation habit, the uselessness of 911) that escalate enormously over the course of a half hour. My review at TV Fanatic is here. I also gave high marks to the episode "Pocket Listing" for dealing with the sexual chemistry between Lana and Archer so well, for letting Cheryl unleash her crazy, and for giving everyone someone to do in a grandiose comedy of errors.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had another season that blew its competition out of the water. "The Gang Spies Like US" demonstrated the show's ability to mine tremendous comic depth out of a single comic misunderstanding with Dee causing such unparalleled destruction that it reminded me of some of the more well-executed set pieces in the Pink Panther series. "Charlie Work" was another one of those episodes that pushed the boundaries of a comedy and had the kind of innovative camera work that just won a film a Best Picture Oscar.

The inclusion to this list of Wayward Pines' second episode, "Do Not Discuss Your Life Before", is a testament to the potential it squandered by tipping its hand too early. The show is a mystery with an all-star cast and a solid premise, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, about a sheriff trapped in a town where people have a habit of getting lost and staying in place for years. The show started out with promise and the second episode really heightened the tension by teasing out answers that seemed attainable but out of reach. The relationship between Juliette Lewis's Beverly and Matt Dillon's Ethan was also starting to give the protagonist a much needed sounding board. Unfortunately, the episode's end solved what I considered the most intriguing mystery (whether the town was in cahootz) and ended the storyline of the much-needed confidante. As a season finale it worked wonders, but the problem was it was the second episode.

I'm a fan of Silicon Valley but I'm generally enjoying it for the strong character work and sense of place and would disagree with an assessment that the site is consistently a laugh-out-loud comedy. The show's humor is generally long-form which can occasionally yield a home run like last year's season finale (which I cited on last year's list of favorite episodes). This year's "Homicide" was another such episode with a hilarious plot (Richard dealing with a client who secretly hates Ehrlich) and an even more hilarious side trip for Dinesh and Gilfoyle (although it's always a given those two will have the funnier plot) enhanced by another visual gag for the ages. On top of that, it was also a meaningful development moment for Richard as he first shows some backbone here. 

Inside Amy Schumer's "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is an incredibly ambitious long-form sketch that pays off in droves. The key to the humor is the extreme attention to detail combined with the way accomplished actors Paul Giamatti and John Hawkes tackle the inanity of the subject with utmost seriousness.

My favorite episode of the year, to date, would be "The Gang Beats Boggs" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The show's black comedy elements-Frank practically murders a kid, airplane security is jeopardized- were next level uproarious, the confined space of the airplane lent to a great comic intensity, and the running gag (of keeping score) held up throughout. This was the gang at their unruliest and the show at its most hilarious.

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