Friday Night Seitz
Set your DVR: In the first of a two-part slide show, we count down the top 20 specific shows of the last year
20. “A League of One’s Owen”
"Men of a Certain Age" (TNT)
Written by Tucker Cawley and Itamar Moses. Directed by Mike Royce
I am really going to miss this series, a look at middle-aged men and women that had a singularly gentle vibe. Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher were all at their best here, but this was Braugher’s episode, testing his character Owen’s ability to lead rather than manage the car dealership that his dad started. The climax — a softball grudge match between Owen’s franchise and a rival dealership — was a little movie in itself, building to a comically overwrought slow-motion home run with a ruthless comic payoff worthy of “Seinfeld.”
19. “Born This Way”
Written by Brad Falchuk. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
As is often the case on “Glee,” this episode had a civics lesson aspect, but it transcended it, and in the process elevated out gay teenager Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) into the pantheon of great trailblazing pop culture characters. As I wrote in my appreciation, “All the subplots were about how society pressures unique people to conform until they hate themselves … but this was Kurt’s episode. Every scene and line led back to him. More specifically, it all tied into one musical number — Kurt’s performance of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye,’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of ‘Sunset Boulevard.’” The latter is my pick for the best musical number in the show’s brief history.
18. “Burnt and Purged Away”
"Sons of Anarchy" (FX)
Written by Kurt Sutter and Dave Erickson. Directed by Paris Barclay
The tension between corrupt club leader Clay and his reluctant successor Jax came to a head in this excruciating (in a good way) episode, which showcased Kurt Sutter’s one-damn-thing-after-another storytelling approach at its most swaggeringly confident. Like “American Horror Story,” this FX show is all of a piece, so it’s tough to choose one episode out of a very strong season, but this one felt emblematic to me. At its best it had that odd mix of exuberance and hardness that made the bloodier episodes of “The Sopranos” so addictive.
"Rescue Me" (FX)
Written by Denis Leary and Peter Tolan. Directed by Peter Tolan
As I wrote in my recap of the “Rescue Me” finale, the decision to go out with a cough and a smile spoke well of the show’s instincts. This wasn’t a three-hanky special like the “Six Feet” closer. But it was almost as satisfying, and in some ways more surprising because of its emphasis on slapstick misfortune rather than dark-night-of-the-soul emoting.”
16. “Goodbye, Michael”
"The Office" (NBC)
Written by Paul Feig. Directed by Greg Daniels
Another super-size farewell episode, but stronger than most, and surprisingly satisfying considering how the producers of “The Office” turned Michael’s exit into an absurdly protracted tease. Great gags and plenty of unforced and often unexpected poignant moments (and a couple of bits that felt like outtakes that got left in because they cracked everyone up). The airport finale was perfect, and boasted a closing line from Michael and a silent (i.e., body-microphone free) final goodbye between Michael and Pam that reminded me of really good Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous”). There was also a “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” aspect to the way that this episode acknowledged the sitcom’s artifice-within-artifice, the pretense that it’s a documentary about life in a typical American workplace.
15. “Smoldering Children”
"American Horror Story" (FX)
Written by James Wong. Directed by Michael Lehmann
I almost didn’t put any “American Horror Story” episodes on this list because in retrospect the show really does feel as if it’s all of a piece; more so than on almost any other current drama, it’s tough to single out one hour as distinct from, or distinctly better than, the rest. But this episode might stand black-rubber-suited head and shoulders above the rest. In its knowingly campy, super-twisted way, it’s perfect. As I wrote in a column, “the hour greatly escalated the madness on this already demented show … ‘American Horror Story’ has that eerie twilight quality that afflicts the consciousness when you’re half asleep or awake. You aren’t quite sure if the dream you’re having is really happening; you may wonder if the logical inconsistencies aren’t just evidence that you don’t, in fact, know everything, that there are some important workaday rules that nobody explained to you, like “Some of the people in your life that you think are alive have actually been dead for years,” or, “If a woman has sex with a male ghost, she can get pregnant, and give birth to the world-ending abomination that supposedly every ascendant Pope is warned about.”
Written by Dave Andron. Directed by Adam Arkin
The tension between Raylan Givens and the Bennett clan comes to a head when the feud claims one of the people Raylan loves most — the one who nudged him away from the criminal path he was on and eventually led to him becoming a lawman. Star/co-producer Timothy Olyphant’s finest five minutes as an actor can be seen during that monologue in the woods. Magnificent.
13. “Marine One”
Written by Alex Gansa and Chip Johannessen. Directed by Michael Cuesta
Though somewhat problematic for its refusal to wrap up a very wrap-uppable single-season story, this was one of the best length-busting special episodes to air during 2011 — a 90-minute, knife-twisting mini-epic of suspense that put all its major characters through the wringer. Damian Lewis’ performance as tormented Marine Sgt. Nick Brody might have plateaued here; during a few of the close-ups down in that bunker at the State Department, the camera was so close to his eyes that I almost felt I could see the synapses firing in his terrified brain.
12. “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”
"Boardwalk Empire" (HBO)
Written by Howard Korder. Directed by Allen Coulter
Why is poor Jimmy Darmody so effed up? This is why: He slept with his mother, then tried to run away from the implications of it by enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in World War I. It all led eventually to what Tom Lehrer’s song “Oedipus Rex” called, “A tragic end to a loyal son who looooooved his mother.”
11. “Airport/New Jersey”
Written and directed by Louis C.K.
Another great two-fer episode. Part 1 sends Louie on a completely idiotic tail-chase that lands him in New Jersey, where his buddy Chris Rock rescues him and gives him a much-needed lecture on acting like a grown man with kids (which he is) rather than a stupid teenager. The second half finds Louie driving his unrequited love, Pamela, to the airport so that she can fly to Europe and give her relationship with her ex-husband one more shot. That’s a knife in the heart, and yet when I think back on this episode, I grin, because it ends with what you might call a Freudian misunderstanding. “Wave to me!” Pamela yells at Louie from the other side of the security gate. Mis-hearing her, he beams and shouts back, “I will wait for you!”
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.