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The 15 Best Single Episodes of Television in 2011

By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | December 19, 2011 | Comments ()


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15. 30 Rock, "Double-Edged Sword" -- The trouble with celebrity stunt casting on TV shows is you know the celebrity's character won't stick around. So Matt Damon's Carol on "30 Rock" was not long for Liz Lemon's world, but he was given an appropriately Lemony send-off in Season Five's "Double-Edged Sword." He and Liz were supposed to be on their way to a romantic weekend aboard a plane he was piloting, but as the plane sat on the tarmac, hour after hour, Liz's patience and soon sanity wore thin. Jack Donaghy warned her that her and Carol's similarities were a double-edged sword, and he was right: the two ended up in a hilarious, over-the-top fight, with Carol pointing a gun at Liz as she held a fellow passenger hostage. While silly, the moment was one of several in the season where Liz had to realize she wasn't evolving as a person, or at least not evolving into one she wants to be. She had to make a change. It was fun while it lasted, Carol. -- Sarah Carlson

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14. Happy Endings, "Dave of the Dead" -- If there were ever a sitcom episode tailor-made for Pajiba, it would be this one from last season's "Happy Endings." We've got a zombie theme, we've got making fun of hipsters, and, yup, we've got zombie hipsters. (This episode would be extremely edifying for those of you who throw around the word "hipster" like it was going out of style.) Worth watching for Max and Penny's hipster fashion montage alone, this episode also featured the birth of Dave's "Steak Me Home Tonight" truck, an outlet for Jane's competitive nature and a good ol' fashioned dance-off. Though "Happy Endings" is often compared to "Friends," the way they tied up this episode, tidily weaving together all the themes, was positively Seinfeldian. -- Joanna Robinson

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13. How I Met Your Mother, "Bad News" -- It wasn't until "36" that I noticed the numbers and realized what was happening, that we were counting down to something. After a delightfully (and, in retrospect, necessarily) goofy episode--complete with the final doppleganger, a Robin Scherbatsky best-of reel and the return of the Sensory Deprivator 5000!--when the anvil finally dropped, it wasn't the news itself that ached most, or even Alyson Hannigan's typically devastating cryface, that after fourteen years of seeing it, I still can't handle. When the cab, marked with a '1', drove off, leaving Lily to inform Marshall that his beloved father had died of a heart attack, it was Jason Segel's perfect delivery of that last line, one he came up with in the moment: "I'm not ready for this." Jesus, are any of us? -- Courtney Enlow

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12. The League, "Bobbum Man" -- "Bobbum Man" is not for everyone, nor would it be a good entry point into the series. It's also nearly impossible to describe the hilarious abstract fear of Bobbum Man, a telephone persona that Pete created to horrify Kevin in college. But that was just one of several plotlines running through the episode, including the A-plot -- Taco's off-line social network, Myface, and an offline avatar of Bobbum man played by Raffi -- as well as Kevin and Jenny's sexaversary, that weave together in the end and climax with a hilarious stomping of Andre. -- Dustin Rowles

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11. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games" -- It's rare that a show finds a way to re-hit its stride seven seasons in, yet that's just what "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" managed to do this year, delivering its funniest season since the second or third. And "Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games" was easily the best of the batch. The premise of the episode is so simple -- bored, the gang digs out the old game "Chardee MacDennis," which Charlie tells us is "not just a game, it's a war." But in this simple premise lies gold. The game is quite brilliant in its alcoholic stupidity, with its three levels of challenges and drinks (mind/wine, body/beer, spirit/hard alcohol) containing stupid shit like answering "trivia" questions ("Dennis is asshole, why Charlie hate?"), having darts hucked at your hands, getting locked in a dog kennel and, of course, copious amounts of drinking. And the episode itself, while simple on its face, is actually quite deftly crafted and paced. It offers an example of truly perfect storytelling comedic timing, smartly ebbing back and forth from frenetic, drunken highs to quiet, drunken lows. "Chardee MacDennis" is not the smartest episode on this list, and it may not be the funniest, but it is one of the most enjoyable. -- Seth Freilich

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10. Boardwalk Empire, "To the Lost" -- The penultimate episode of "Empire's" second season, "Under God's Power She Flourishes," filled us in on a critical time in Jimmy Darmody's life, showing how he ended up with his wife, Angela, and just how deeply Oedipal his twisted relationship with his mother, Gillian, was. So in the finale, with Angela and his father, the Commodore dead, the latter at Jimmy's hands, combined with his betrayal of Nucky, Jimmy had little to live for. And by his account, he wasn't really alive anyway -- he died in the World War 1 trenches along with millions of others, those he would toast to as he drank, raising a glass "to the lost." "You can't be half a gangster," Jimmy told Nucky in the series pilot, a notion Nucky finally came to terms with. He got his hands dirty in the end -- "I am not seeking forgiveness," he told Jimmy before he pulled the trigger a second time, sending another bullet into his former protege's head. Jimmy expected to die then, and was prepared for it, but most viewers surely weren't. It was a tragic end to a tragic life, but one that was beautifully and powerfully told. -- SC

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9. Homeland, "The Weekend" -- CIA case officer Carrie Mathison always expected Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody of being a POW turned terrorist. And by Episode Seven, "The Weekend," she already had pretended to accidentally bump into him, an encounter that lead to another meeting, which led to them hooking up. But here, the two spent time together at Carrie's family's secluded cabin -- sleeping together soberly for the first time, as he joked -- and truly connected. They were two damaged people finding the kind of solace in the other that each had given up looking for. A slip-up from Carrie revealed she knew more about him than she should thanks to her surveillance, which led to a stunning confrontation as she demanded answers about his time in Iraq. A phone call as Brody left informed her he wasn't the POW who was turned, but it was too late -- he was done with her, and she realized she cared about him too much to be OK with that. And as viewers learned in later episodes, this gripping weekend wasn't the end of their story. -- SC

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8. True Blood, "And When I Die" -- Season Four of this vampire drama wasn't its strongest, but creator Alan Ball had several characters taken out -- and several resurrected -- for "And When I Die." Between Bill and Eric, Sookie chose neither, all after a battle with witches and spirits and memory loss and werewolves and all the mess that flows around Bon Temps, La. Poor Jesus died at the hands of his lover, Lafayette, who was channeling the witch Marnie's spirit. And even poorer Tara was shot by the disgruntled were Debbie, enraged at the idea that Alcide could love Sookie more than her. Viewers don't know if Tara is dead or not, but they do know Russell Edgington was freed from his cement tomb and the Bible-thumping, vampire-hating the Rev. Steve Newlin showed up to visit Jason sporting fangs. As far as finale's go, this one packed more than the average number of surprises and the promise of two memorable characters, Russell and Steve, returning next season. -- SC

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7. Louie, "Oh Louie/Tickets" -- Louie C.K. has turned "Louie" almost into performance art. It's no longer fair to call the show a comedy, but it's not really a drama, either (at least, not as we normally think of dramatic shows, with regular storylines and character development). "Louie" is a series of vignettes, almost like a free-form poetic television show, and while many would argue that the Afghanastan episode was the best of the season, "Oh Louie/Tickets" better shows just what kind of brilliance Louie can mine from the experimental nature of what he is doing. The first portion of the show visits the idea of selling out for television sitcomdom, eschewing honest situations for hokey, enjoyable situations. It's amusing but, more importantly, it offers insight into what Louie C.K. thinks televisions shows should do and be. In fact, while it's hard to tie a theme to many of the "Louie" episodes, there is an ever-so-slight nature of comedy theme to this episode, as this vignette is followed by a brief stand-up interlude which shows a comedian free-forming and testing new material. From there, the takes an unexpected turn, putting Louie face-to-face with Dane Cook to hash out a years-long dispute over Cook's allegedly stealing of jokes. While scripted, the scene has a documentary/improvisational feel to it in its dark honesty. While there are moments of levity, the discussion is really quite serious, making you think about the different approaches comedians take to the art of stand-up, and what it means to sell-out. And even though you know it's scripted, there is something very voyeuristic and uncomfortable about watching the scene. Of course, "Louie" strives to live in that zone of uncomfortable voyeurism, and when it hits its mark, it's nothing short of mesmerizing. -- SF

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6. Justified, "Brother's Keeper" -- It's hard to pick just one best episode from the last season of "Justified." The already solid cast was joined, in the second season, by a slew of unforgettable supporting characters, most notably Mags Bennett, her sons Dickie and Coover and young Loretta McCready (played with remarkable maturity by Kaitlyn Dever). Though there were many delightful highlights of the episode (the revelation of Mags' master plan, Boyd Crowder's clogging and Margo Martindale's singing), the entire episode was tense as all hell from the very beginning when Loretta noticed her dead father's watch on Coover Bennett's wrist. I was absolutely certain something dreadful was going to happen. And it did. Jeremy Davies' absolutely brilliant, weaselly cringing, Kaitlyn Dever's convincing terror, Timothy Olyphant's steely determination and, most of all, Margo Martindale's free fall from grace sent us hurtling through the rest of the season and into one slam bang of a season finale. I can't wait for next year. -- JR

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5. Game of Thrones, "Baelor" -- "Baelor" was easily the most emotionally affecting episode of the series, regardless of whether or not you'd read the books. The painful and desperate acts, the treacheries and the heroics that each of its characters have been living through come to a head in this episode, and we see each of them suffer in some fashion or other. Yet no moment is more poignant and awful and brilliantly rendered than young Arya, forced to witness the unthinkable, a perfect encapsulation of the harsh and brutal world of "Game of Thrones." -- TK

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4. Community, "Remedial Chaos Theory" -- Dan Harmon spent two and a half seasons worth of episodes teasing out the study group's dynamic, exploring the people within the group's relationship with each other. And just when you thought he couldn't squeeze anything else out of it, 'Remedial Chaos Theory" comes along and throws a Frank Capra bomb: How would the group work without one of its members? "Remedial Chaos Theory" was one of the bravest, and smartest episodes of television in 2011, setting up jokes and knocking them down scenes later, trusting the intelligence of its audience enough to delay the payoff. It was also an episode that completely revitalized a show waning during the first quarter of the season and, ultimately, made its impending hiatus all the more painful. -- DR

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3. Friday Night Lights, "Texas Whatever" -- The final season of "Friday Night Lights" featured several callbacks to its first season, but none more affecting, more heartbreaking than Bright Eyes' "Devil Town," which played over the final scene in the penultimate episode of "FNL" as Coach Taylor learns the fate of the football team he resurrected from the ashes as the show reminds us that -- for all the victories that football has brought the characters of Dillon, both on and off the field -- football is a commodity. That's a force too great for any Coach, for any player, or for any team. "Friday Night Lights" never shied away from its realistic depiction of high school football in Texas, and this episode brought it home. The Taylors could affect the course of individual lives, but they were helpless against the institution. -- DR

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2. Parks and Recreation, "Lil Sebastian" -- A lot of sitcom finales focus on big high stakes events and I think, early on in the season, most of us were expecting The Harvest Festival to be the focus of the third season. Other shows would have made Andy and April's wedding the culminating event. But while the action of this episode centered around the funeral of the beloved L'il Sebastian (show some damned respect), it really focused on more mundane issues. Tom being offered a job opportunity, Leslie being offered an even bigger job opportunity, Andy asking April to manage his band, Ron's fatherly concern over Ben and Leslie's relationship. This show, more than any other, is truly about the characters, their relationships with each other, and the little day to day ways we all care for each other. Oh and it's magnificently hilarious thanks mostly, in this episode, to a healthy amount of Jean Ralphio. This show, which fumbled in the first season and picked up the pace in the second season, really hit its stride in the third season. From an eyebrowless Ron Swanson to a surprisingly catchy farewell ode to L'il Sebastian, this was a highlight of the year. -- JR

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1. Breaking Bad, "Crawl Space" -- There is little argument that "Breaking Bad" is the best drama going, and any episode from this past season could've justified taking the top honors on this list. But "Crawl Space" makes the cut for so perfectly representing everything the show does so well. "Breaking Bad" has become the epitome of the slow burn, letting us see the meticulous details of the various plans that its characters put into motion (with the notable exception of Walt's final plan in the finale). And this episode fits right into that mold by showing us just how prepared Gus was for his assault on the cartel, just how complete his planned revenge against Tio was, and just how far ahead he has been thinking in terms of using and manipulating Jesse. To that end, "Crawl Space" provides more of the deft Gus-and-Walt chess match that dominated so much of the last two seasons, culminating in what Gus believes is his one move away from checkmate, the gripping scene in the desert.

That scene, itself, also represents two of the show's other strengths - the beautiful, cinematic visuals, and the unbelievable acting. Throughout "Crawl Space," as through the whole series, every actor and actress is simply phenomenal, as it is throughout the series. They're gritty, they're dark, they're funny and, at times, they're terrifying. And Bryan Cranston pulled all of those things together expertly at the episode's end. While "Crawl Space" may not have offered the defining image of the season (hey Gus, Harvey Dent called and said you're treading on his turf), but it did offer the best departing moment since season three's "Half Measures" ("...run!"). Laying in that crawl space, Hank faces the resulting hopelessness from Skyler's news about where the money has gone square in the face. And laughs. Maniacally cackle. Completly breaks down. And then the camera pans up from his still body, leaving the crawl space entrance framing him in a metaphorical coffin. It's funny, dark, twisted and brilliant, just like the show itself. -- SF


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