The Golden Age of Television is upon us. True, the black hole of TV crap seems to be expanding exponentially, but for every Honey Boo Boo out there, there’s a Walter White. Because of the range and depth of the quality on TV right now, it would be impossible for me to rank them in any concise list. Last year, I chose to compile a list of my favorite characters on TV, but since a similar list this year would yield nearly identical results, I decided to take a different route this year.
Below are my favorite moments from my favorite shows this past year (of the ones I’ve seen, at least). They range anywhere from single scenes to entire episodes, but they are all unforgettable in their own ways. To avoid any sort of hierarchy, they are simply presented in chronological order:
- The Colbert Report, Maurice Sendak interviews from “Grim Colberty Tales” – We may have lost Sendak this past year, but at least we have this memorable tribute to his wonderful, deranged little mind. Taped interviews such as these are typically highlights in the Colbert Report oeuvre, but Sendak’s toast-dry, asphault-dark sense of humor makes him perhaps the perfect subject for Colbert’s finely-tuned interview style. From discussing the idiocy of Newt Gingrich to ruminating on his apathy towards MILF’s to expounding on his general distaste for adults and children alike, it’s a great wonder how this tandem wasn’t discovered earlier and exploited more often.
- The Superbowl – It’s always a major TV event, but this year’s instant classic actually surpassed its monumental hype. Not only did the underdog Giants once more upend the favored Patriots, but Eli Manning engineered yet another improbable last-minute drive to cap their incredible comeback. And just like last time, there was a miraculous game-saving reception in that drive that we’ll probably be seeing for the rest of our lives. The commercials may have sucked, but the game more than made up for it.
- 30 Rock, “Leap Day” – Tina Fey’s crown jewel is in the midst of one hell of a swan song, and its current winning streak – and arguably the pinnacle of said streak, as well – started with this ingeniously twisted spoof of cheeky sitcom holiday episodes. Scribe Luke del Tredici and director Steve Buscemi create a Christmas-esque level of stupid traditions and mythology surrounding Leap Day, including wearing yellow and blue, catchphrases like “real life is for March!”, and a holiday moving called Leap Dave Williams starring Jim Carrey. This is as cartoonishly zany as the show has been for a while, and 30 Rock has always been at its best in these conditions.
- The Daily Show w/ Jon Stewart, Grover Norquist interview – The range of conversations had with TDS guests is astounding, but the most intriguing tend to be ones with guests of opposing ideologies to its host’s. Stewart has a penchant for engaging in open-minded discourse, and he knows how to ask questions that will require thoughtful responses without coming off as condescending. Nowhere was this in finer display this year than in his interview with notorious tax troll Grover Norquist. Granted, nothing was really resolved, and neither changed their mind on anything, but it was still a fascinating (if not long-winded) conversation. Even if Stewart didn’t enlighten Norquist to his logical shortcomings, he did a pretty good job of exposing them to everyone else.
- Community, “Pillows and Blankets” – Few shows do direct pop culture parody as well as Community, as Dan Harmon & Co. have discovered a glorious balance between completely embodying that which they parody and staying true to their own voice. While the end of Season 3 had a few fine examples of this, “Pillows and Blankets” is an easy standout. What makes it work so well is that is a nearly perfect recreation of a Ken Burns documentary (complete with a narration by Keith David, who deadpans lines like “Part man. Part pillow. All carnage.”), but it is still clearly imagined through its own perspective (“Leonard likes this post.” / “Were you in The Cape?” “No.”).
- Mad Men, the “Tomorrow Never Knows” montage at the end of “Lady Lazarus” – It was, quite literally, Mad Men’s $250,000 moment. A cable network ponying up that much for three minutes of Beatles bliss was historic in itself, but it was also an artistic zenith for Matthew Weiner as well as a moment that will surely go down as a defining point for the show years after it runs its course. The montage is a sterling (no pun intended) example of what Mad Men does best – it weaves its characters together in a way that simultaneously shows how connected and disparate they are from one another, and particularly with Don, you get a great sense of how close he comes to change without actually following through with it (which is a nice parallel for his character’s arc this season). Plus, “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds so good here.
- Modern Family, “Disneyland” – Somehow, MF is simultaneously one of the most overrated and underrated shows on TV. There’s no way it’s as good of a show as its Emmy record would portend, but it’s also a lot better than the show’s haters would have you believe. 2012 has been a particularly strong year for the show, and nowhere is that in finer display than in this late Season 3 episode in which the family spends a day in Disneyland. The episode was full of great bits, but the scenes where Dylan tries to win back Haley under the guise of his Little John costume are oddly touching and hilarious.
- The Late Late Show, Steven Wright answers Tweets & Emails with Craig and Geoff – Any Tweets & Emails segment with Craig and Geoff is guaranteed to have at least a few solid laughs, but add in the duke of deadpan, and you’ve got something truly unforgettable. Highlights include Wright showcasing his knack for penning catchy jingles (“Tweets and emails… we’re all gonna die”) and ruminating on the connection between our nation’s most prominent Portlands (“If you fold the map of the US in half (claps hands), right there. That’s not a coincidence – they’re the only two cities in North America that do that.”).
- Game of Thrones, battle sequence from “Blackwater” – It was impossible for HBO’s version of George R.R. Martin’s brilliant series to fully encapsulate the scope and agony of the climactic battle from A Clash of Kings, but to their credit, they came far closer than should have been expected. It helped that the episode was written by Martin himself. But the visual effects were stunning, and presenting much of the battle through the perspective of anti-hero Tyrion gave it a strong personal touch.
- Breaking Bad, cold open for “Madrigal”/ train heist scene at the end of “Dead Freight” – There were so many great moments from BB’s penultimate season, but I’ve singled out these two because they are exceptional demonstrations of the show’s wide-ranging strengths. (Also, it gets two because it’s so awesome.) The former example might be the funniest sequence the show has ever done, and it perfectly exemplifies how BB uses black humor to remain somehow relatable. It is such a bizarre scene, what with its use of characters we’ve never met before, Germans in lab coats, and what is surely the most hilarious ketchup tasting in TV history. Yet it also fits perfectly within the show’s narrative, and it gives us a better understanding of how far-reaching the consequences of Walt’s horrible decisions have gotten. And speaking of Walt’s horrible decisions, that train heist. Oh dear god, that train heist. The gist of the scene is that Walt’s group must stop a train, siphon an entire car’s worth of methlamine, and replace said contents with the same amount of water all before anyone notices. George Mastras, who wrote and directed this episode, executes all this in a way that is more exhilarating and cinematic than most Hollywood blockbusters. And to top it off, we’re left with an ending that is as tragic as anything the show has done.
- The Walking Dead, cold open for “Seed” – TWD probably wins the award for most improved show this past year, and the tone was set right out of the gate with the first couple minutes of its Season 3 premiere. The sequence is purely functional, but it is more concise, effective, and artistic than anything the show had done up to this point. Without using a single word of dialogue (an added bonus with these writers), we find out that a good chunk of time has passed since the end of Season 2, and we learn that Rick & Co. are so good at protecting themselves from zombies that they’ve become virtually numb to the process. There have been quite a few other surprising moments like this sprinkled throughout Season 3’s first half, but this is easily the biggest (if not most subtle) turning point in the show’s short existence.
- SNL, “Lincoln” digital short – Since I am only able to watch Louie via Netflix (and am thus behind a season), this entry from Louis CK’s recent hosting stint acts as a surrogate for not having seen the show’s third season. Although in fairness, this was a hilarious skit in its own element, and it was easily the standout segment from SNL’s streak of lacklusterness. The premise is simple: what would happen if Louie was told from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln? The results are as rewarding as you might think.
- Parks and Recreation, cold open for “Pawnee Commons” – When Parks & Rec is at its best, it’s spinning a satirical cocoon for its Anytown, USA-esque biosphere, like a live-action Springfield you can point to on a map. The most effective example of this came from this NPR-spoofing opening, which was both a hilariously lampooning and warmly embracing send-up. They’ve got a venerable orgy of cross-country host replacements, a segment know as “Jazz + Jazz = Jazz” (after all, research shows that their listeners really like jazz), and – fittingly – a guest spot by Homer J. Simpson, himself.