Best Episode of the Season: Scandal Season 3

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Season Analysis: Scandal started to turn into Alias a bit in Season 3, which was good, because the subterfuge was a whole lot more interesting than Olivia and Fitz’s umpteenth attempt to make their impossible love affair work.

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“Everything’s Coming Up Mellie”
Scandal is a sort of opera, insofar as every character has the biggest emotions possible at any moment.  Thus, the best performances that can be wrung from that style are those that cover every the full range of big emotions.  Bellamy Young is able to imbue First Lady Mellie Grant with just this range by playing her as villain, hero, victim, and manipulator.  And she got to shine in all those roles like no other time with the flashback-heavy “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie.”  This episode revealed that not only has Mellie been a victim of unfaithfulness, but also a victim of rape by her father-in-law.  But she used that total loss of control to take charge like never before.  The whole point of this episode is that you cannot peg anybody so easily.  Even when people are direct and show their personalities so openly – and Mellie easily fits that description – you never know just what is in their past and who they really, fully are.  And that is the trick of Scandal at its best: its operatic emotions make it seem like everyone can be easily judged, but its most revelatory moments make it clear that nobody can ever be so simply pegged.

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Best Episode of the Season: Parenthood Season 5

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Season Analysis: Parenthood probably works better with shorter season orders, as the 22-episode fifth season allowed it to indulge in storylines that were not always working.  Still, there was stellar acting throughout, particularly from Ray Romano and Max Burkholder.

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“Promises”
Smack dab in the middle of the season, “Promises” was the point at which every Braverman story – the questionable and the sensible ones both – were all clicking.  I was always skeptical of the Joel and Julia marriage troubles storyline, because the existence of their issues required some unusually unreasonable behavior.  But when it produces scenes like Julia confiding in Adam about her problems, with Erika Christensen perfectly conveying how she cannot understand how her life is the way it is right now, it doesn’t really matter if the story didn’t make much sense in the first place.  Then there is the weird, but totally engaging, love triangle with Drew, Amy, and Natalie in which it was kind of just fun to examine the personalities of these characters and analyze who really fits with whom.  But the best moments of this episode – and really the whole season – come from the best storyline of the year, Max hanging out at Hank’s photography studio.  The latest crisis with Max leads Hank to realize that he too might have Asperger’s, and Ray Romano delivers a whole host of reactions that convey how this revelation changes everything about his past and present.  It is cathartic because everything finally makes sense but devastating because it might be confirmation that things will never be better.  It is this sort of emotional conflict that is Parenthood’s bread and butter, the device that guarantees a few tears will be jerked every episode, and it is rarely pulled off more consistently than it was in “Promises.”

Best Episode of the Season: Broad City Season 1

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Season Analysis: A big deal is often made when female voices emerge in male-dominated genres, and Broad City accomplished that, but not because that was what it was specifically attempting.  It worked out that way because Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson – who conveyed their unique, optimistic, and pleasantly skewed perspective on young adult life in New York City – just happen to be women.

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“Hurricane Wanda”
Bottle episodes– those half-hours that take place entirely within one physical location – continue to be sitcom staples because they continue to work so well.  Keeping everyone stuck in one spot raises the pressure and thus the emotions that have been simmering over the course of the preceding episodes.  When a hurricane keeps Abbi and Ilana stuck in Abbi’s apartment, they are forced to deal with the overwhelming presence of Abbi’s crush Jeremy, the overwhelming (in a different way) presence of Abbi’s roommate’s boyfriend Bevers and Bevers’ sister (UCB stalwart Shannon O’Neill in an energetic performance befitting an episode named after a hurricane), and a malfunctioning toilet.  There wasn’t much development on the Jeremy front (although we did get a memorable threesome dream sequence thanks to Ilana).  The Bevers siblings, while freakishly aggressive to most everyone else, were mostly destructive towards each other, thanks to the mystery plot of the shit in the shoe.  Ultimately, like all of Broad City, this episode was about the power of friendship, with a coda showing Ilana’s duct tape-aided adventure in disposing of Abbi’s turd that would not be flushed.

Best Episode of the Season: True Detective Season 1

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Season Analysis: A mystery that focused on its characters but wisely chose to also allow its mystery to be solved, True Detective succeeded on the strength of its acting, directing, and detours into mysticism.

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“The Secret Fate of All Life”
A time jump is a nifty trick employed by television shows that more often than not works to re-energize series that have lost a bit of their edge.  This trope has avoided falling into cliché because it still immediately subverts a show’s established expectations.  The time jump in “The Secret Fate of All Life” works especially well by taking the subversion even further.  A time jump is unexpected with just about any show, but even more so of an anthology series with a narrative contained in one season.  Add to that the fact that True Detective was already jumping back and forth between 1995 and 2012; it had not to this point offered any indication that it would be visiting a third period in between those two.  Then there was the surprise of Rust Cohle walking out of his interview with Papania and Gilbough.  It was almost fourth-wall breaking; the 2012 interviews had seemed to merely be framing devices, but now they were headed in the direction of continuing the narrative.  “The Secret Fate of All Life” even subverted the narrative rules TD had set for itself, with the one-two-three punch of Marty and Rust’s covered-up killing of Reggie and DeWall Ledoux in 1995, the introduction of the Yellow King in 2002, and the implication of Rust as a suspect in 2012 leading the show to focus on plot in defiance of the character study established in the season’s first half.  It was still a devastating study of tragic personalities, but this was the point when it became clear that it was not satisfied with keeping matters so simple.

Best Episode of the Season: Axe Cop Season 1

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Season Analysis: As Axe Cop’s title shot prominently declares, it was co-created by a 5-year-old.  Its first season certainly felt like it was, and – thanks hugely to Nick Offerman as the titular hero – it was an ideal realization of a show co-created a 5-year-old.

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“The Rabbit Who Broke All the Rules”
An area in which Axe Cop the TV series largely excels is its well-considered mythology, which serves to establish layer upon layer of Axe Cop’s motivations.  When Axe Cop becomes a foster father to a strange orphan boy, it is revealed that the boy is possessed by the ghost of the first creature that Axe Cop ever killed: the unconventional titular rabbit.  Axe Cop’s opposition to this hind-leg standing, coconut-eating hare is a little fascistic, almost uncomfortably so.  But it works as well as it does because it is such a strong character choice.  Axe Cop’s black-and-white ethical code may be too simplistic and too intensely applied, but he is committed to it so firmly, and that makes him interesting as a fictional personality.  As all-powerful as he may seem, and despite how unassailable his results tend to be, the appropriateness of his methods or lack thereof are worth considering, even though he obviously exists in a fantasy world.  Sometimes, dispensing with subtlety proves to be fruitful.

Billy on the Street: Best of Season 3

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Season Analysis: Season 3 of Billy on the Street leaned a little too heavily on the excessively staged stunts for my taste, but the vast majority of it is still pop culture maestro Billy Eichner interacting with New Yorkers, and thus it is still excellent.

Season 3 Superlatives:

Best Contestant: Elena

The first non-celebrity to return, Season 2 Quizzed in the Face contender Elena is the epitome of the type of New Yorker that Billy on the Street celebrates.  She played a round of “Cash Cow” against Lena Dunham (during which she misunderstood Billy’s pronunciation of “Weird Al” Yankovic) and stopped by later for a special round of “For a Dollar,” which featured this classic exchange between her and Billy:
Annie? They’re making a new movie of it?”
“Yeah, Quvenzhané Wallis, the little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild, is playing her.”
“Oh, I love her.”
“Yes.”
“She’s not playing Annie!”
“Yes, she is.”
“Oh, Annie! I was thinking of that, what was that Woody Allen movie…”
Annie Hall?!”
“Yes!”
(runs away) “Elena, never, ever speak to me again!”

Most Prepared Celebrity Contestant: Lena Dunham, who cruised through a round of “Steve Harvey or Harvey Milk”

Most Challenging Celebrity Game: “John Mayer or Pepé Le Pew,” in which Olivia Wilde struggled to identify whether such quotes as “Everyone should have a hobby, don’t you think?  Mine is making love” and “I really don’t want to be a hunk” were uttered by the bad boy of pop-rock or a cartoon skunk.

Best New Contestant: David, an aspiring novelist and screenwriter decked out in L.A. Kings gear who won Quizzed in the Face by correctly identifying that Charles Manson would be a fan of Family Guy.  When Billy expressed bewilderment about Kristen Chenoweth having sex with Aaron Sorkin, David noted, “She’s a trouper for that.”

Best Prize: The Good Wife coloring book (I gave one to my mom for Mother’s Day!)

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And some more quotables:

From a round of “Humpty Dumpty or Mary J. Blige”
“Sold more than 50 million albums worldwide.” “Humpty Dumpty.”
“Fell off a wall, unfortunately.” “Mary J. Blige.”
“Could not be reassembled, unfortunately.” “Mary J. Blige.”

“Sir, for a dollar, name a movie.” “Uh, RadioShack.”

“Do you think Miley Cyrus is on point?”
“Ummm, I don’t really like her.”
“Why?!”
“I don’t really know, there’s just something about her. I miss Hannah Montana.”
“Oh, come on!”
“I do! I do!”
“She can’t be that forever.”
“I know.”
“She’s a grown-up.”
“She could’ve done what she did so much better, though-”
“Really?!”
“-like she could have done it so much better.”
“What are you talking about? Everybody’s talking about her. How much better can you do that?”
“I don’t know. I just, I don’t know.”
“Okay. What do these bozos think? Do you like her?”
“I do like her. I feel bad for her, though, because-”
“Why?!”
“I feel like she’s going through such a hard time.”
“What do you mean?! She’s so popular! She’s completely in control, the whole thing.”
“She doesn’t have Liam anymore, and like-”
“She doesn’t need him, please. It’s the best thing that ever happened to her.”
“Okay, well, if she’s happy, then that’s all that matters.”
“She’s obviously very happy.”
“Okay.”
“It’s like, this is the most successful she’s ever been. She’s smart, she seems edgy, the music is good. What do you think, idiot?”
“I- I love her.”
“I agree.”
“I think she’s doing a great job at introducing a new style to music.”
“I absolutely agree.”
“Yeah.”
“You look a little like a duck, but I love it.”
“Thanks.”
“Okay, bye.”

“Sir, for a dollar, any thoughts on Kaley Cuoco’s yearly Emmy snub?”
“On whose what?”
“Kaley Cuoco’s yearly Emmy snub.”
“How can I have an opinion?  I never heard of it.”
“Kaley Cuoco, she’s on, what, The Big Bang Theory?”
“I don’t have a TV set.”
“You’ve never seen The Big Bang Theory?”
(clears throat)
“BLEGHHH!”
“I wonder what you’ve missed.”
“What?”
“I wonder what you’ve missed.”
“What do you mean, ‘what I’ve missed’? I’ve missed nothing.”
“Muh muh muh muh.”
“Mi mi mi mi.”
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“I’ve missed nothing!”
“Who wrote A World Lit Only By Fire?”
“Huh?”
“Who wrote A World Lit Only By Fire?”
“2 Chainz! Boom!”
“This is- someone’s gonna watch that?”

“Who let the dogs out! Who, who!”
“Goodbye, game over. Thanks very much. Go back to Florida. I mean, I can’t.”

“Miss, I know you’re getting out of a car, but it’s the 10th anniversary of The Passion of the Christ.”

“Miss… Vince Vaughn… What happened?”

“Sir, for a dollar, are you a Key or a Peele?”

“Sir, Meg Ryan said she would consider a return to television.” “I don’t care.”

And finally:
It’s not Pitbull – it’s Amy Poehler!

Best Episode of the Season: Community Season 5

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Season Analysis: Community had a lot to accomplish in Season 5: get its narrative back on track after the unfocused Season 4, deliver fitting farewells to Troy Barnes and Pierce Hawthorne, re-orient the rhythm of its ensemble with those departures and the addition of new regulars, once again craft a potential series finale or set out a map for a future beyond Season 5, and on top of all that, continue the storylines of the characters who remained.  This was a tall order for 13 episodes to fill, and it did an admirable job of nearly pulling all of it off.  Perhaps 3 more episodes would have allowed Shirley an adequate storyline and resulted in a better balance of high-concept and grounded episodes.  Season 5’s theme ultimately appeared to be the difficulty of moving on at a time in life when moving on should be natural.  This message was not delivered quite as strongly as it could have been, but it was done strongly enough that Community resumed its rightful place as one of the most entertaining and most important shows on television.

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“Basic Sandwich”
After my initial viewing of “Basic Sandwich,” I declared that it did a great job of hedging its bets between being a de facto series finale or just another season finale.  It put a cap on saving Greendale, while leaving open plenty of storyline avenues that could easily fill out at least another whole year.  But I made that statement with a fair degree of confidence in renewal.  So once NBC threw down the cancellation decision, I realized just how unsatisfying “Basic Sandwich” really would have been as the absolute end.  But then Yahoo! came through in the last minute, and suddenly this was an even more perfect episode.  This is the show that refuses to die, the cult favorite that actually will get to end on its own terms despite all the forces that have tried to prevent that from happening, and that defiance was completely woven into the fabric of this episode. Even before the cancellation/renewal whirlwind, the crisis in “Basic Sandwich” of whether or not the study group should move on mirrored the situation that Community fans found themselves in.  Annie’s fears of losing Jeff romantically led her to question the value of saving Greendale, as she realized it wasn’t quite the same place it had always been, now that it was missing certain great people and their attendant charms.  But Abed proved once again that his meta, deconstructionist nature, and by extension, the meta nature of Community, has never been detached, but always a loving embrace to the people important to Abed and to the fans of the show.  Yes, Greendale had changed, and yes, Community will probably continue to change.  But that does not mean, as Jeff and Britta almost scared themselves into thinking, that the best option is running away from it all at the end of an era.  All good things must come to an end, but they should not be abandoned.  Understanding that difference is a major part of what Community is exploring in its latter years, and “Basic Sandwich” presented an episode-length dramatization of that conundrum.  And it also managed to make Dave Matthews Band cool.

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Runner-up: “Geothermal Escapism”
A game of “the floor is lava” as a send-off for Troy could have been a disappointing paintball knockoff, and at first it did seem to be following the beats of those classics (though with enough dystopian style of its own to make it worthwhile).  But it took a third act turn that stunned with a side of Community we had not quite seen before.  Abed wanted to let Troy go, but he literally could not help but seeing that as a disaster – the floor actually was lava to him.  We had seen Abed’s mental breakdowns before, but never one that he had acknowledged and confronted so head-on.  This crisis of wanting to let go but not quite knowing how made Troy’s departure that much more heartbreaking but also that much more satisfying.

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