2013 was an absolutely amazing year for television, with shows like Breaking Bad and Spartacus going out with some of their best episodes yet and new series like Hannibal and Orphan Black bursting onto the scene. While the jury’s still out on how this year will compare to last, at the halfway point, 2014 is shaping up to be pretty darn great year as well. Continuing favorites have come back stronger than ever and just like last year, a few new series have quickly made strong names for themselves as well; the variety of truly great television, from comedy to drama to the many series that don’t so easily fit either description, has never been so pronounced. However, with so much TV out there, some of the best episodes (and series in general) of the year have flown under the radar, so a handful of Sound on Sight’s podcasters and critics have put their heads together and come up with a list of the best television episodes of 2014 (so far). A panel of SoS’s Editor-in-Chief Ricky D, Televerse Podcast cohosts Kate Kulzick and Sean Colletti, Managing Editor for TV Deepayan Sengupta, and SoS TV critic Randy Dankevitch have put together this list through an exhaustive nominations and voting process–to make the cut, each episode needed to have been seen by at least half the panel and agreed upon by a majority. Of course, not everyone can watch everything, and so along with the agreed-upon list, each panelist also gives an individual pick for one of the best episodes of the year. If the second half of 2014 is as strong as the first half, this year has the potential to be another tremendous one for television. Here are the SoS TV panel’s picks as the best episodes of television of the year (so far):
It’s easy to search for meaning in a Community episode: given the show’s uber-meta construction, it invites critical dissemination of itself in a very unique way. This includes episodes like “Basic Sandwich”, a story so bare-bones and un-Community, it almost feels as if Dan Harmon and company are teasing us, presenting us what appears to be a lot of loud, anti-climatic nothing, then simply dropping the microphone and walking off-stage. Yes, “Basic Sandwich” technically completes the season’s journey of Saving Greendale – but as “Basic Story” went out of its way to point out, the Save Greendale Committee had already saved Greendale. We knew Greendale wouldn’t become Subwaydale – and having that knowledge from the beginning casts both parts of the finale in a very different light.
As one half of a season (series? say it ain’t so, NBC!) finale, it’s hard to judge “Basic Story” in a vacuum. Double that when it’s an episode where nothing actually happens – until everything is happening, and the fate of Greendale is in the balance, as is the sanity of every member of the Greendale 7 (except Shirley, I guess? She just kind of vanishes at some point). In those final moments, it does feel like Community is straining a bit to give its finale purpose, throwing in tease after tease (including one I’m really hoping is just a big, fat mislead for “Basic Sandwich” to demolish) – though again, the episode plays things so close to the chest it’s hard to tell what’s actually going on.
There are numerous plot devices Community uses as foundations for stepping into alternate universes – none more than campus competitions and psychotic breaks, however. So when “G.I. Jeff” opens up with Jeff Winger taking on the identity of G.I. Joe (with no framing device preceding it), it’s clear there is something very wrong with Greendale’s law professor – why else would he bury himself inside an early-1980′s children’s cartoon? What follows is arguably the most spot-on parody Community‘s done in its wildly experimental five-year run; and though it kind of hustles through its final moments to justify it all, is a quiet, contemplative piece in the spirit of “Critical Film Studies”, or its most obvious spiritual companion, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (written by Dino Stamatopoulos and animated by his studio, as was “G.I. Jeff”).
Community‘s self-contained ‘sequels’ are often a mixed bag – compare “A Fistful of Paintballs” to something like “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” – a point Abed makes very clear in “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” opening moments. And with that warning prefacing the action and drama of the episode, it almost feels like the writers of Community know they aren’t on the top of their game, despite a strong central story and some of the best directing (welcome back, Joe Russo) in the entire run of the series.
Community Ep. 5.09 “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” skims the surface of its most interesting elements
Although Community‘s largely been a lighter show in tone the last few weeks, the darkness of the show’s recent departures have lingered in the background – particularly with Abed, whose friendship with Troy was the show’s emotional center. It takes a little while to get there (thanks to the distracting, mostly pointless Shirley plot), but “VCR Maintenance” uses a little bit of stunt casting to its advantage, accelerating the friction between Abed and Annie first seen in “Virtual Systems Analysis” (hence the nod to that episode in the image seen above), ultimately circling back to Abed and his ever-present fear of being left alone (as he says, sometimes it happens and he doesn’t even know why).
There’s been two distinct motifs in the first four episodes of Community‘s fifth season that come together for a brief moment in “Geothermal Escapism”, when Britta and Troy are trying to revive Abed, whose fallen into the fake lava (long story short: the school’s playing Lava Floor in honor of Troy and Abed’s friendship) that he sees as being real. Britta suggests to Troy – understanding that engaging Abed’s alternate realities are more useful than rejecting them, shown best way back in season two’s “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” – that they create a perfect clone of him, Dr. Who-ing him (or Inspector Spacetime-ing him, if you prefer) for the next journey of his life. Like “Repilot”, the moment is all about redefinition, about moving forward in life – but with the impending departure of Troy Barnes (and by definition, Donald Glover) weighing over the episode’s events, it gives them a whole new emotional meaning.
The first piece I ever wrote for Sound on Sight was about Chevy Chase’s imminent departure from Community, and how his exit denied the show the opportunity to reconcile its main conflict: Jeff Winger’s conflict with his father (and by proxy, himself). When season four actually tried to bring Jeff’s father into the fold, it ignored the fact he already had a father, an old man with a lot of money and daddy issues of his own – and thanks to Chase’s limited availability, left the writers no option but to push an increasingly senile character to the background. It appeared Community had forgotten about Pierce – but Dan Harmon didn’t, even with the knowledge Chevy Chase wouldn’t return (save for his cameo in the season premiere, of course). After three episodes of dancing around what happened to the heir to the Hawthorne throne, “Cooperative Polygraphy” (the spiritual sequel to “Cooperative Calligraphy”, trading in a pen for Pierce) serves a lot of important narrative purposes, giving Pierce a memorable send-off while reminding us all why we love these characters so much (a lovely little palette cleanser after the ugliness of last season).
“Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” is a very… weird episode of Community. It’s not quite a traditional concept episode (by this show’s terms, at least), inserting homages to everything from The Profiler to Unsolved Mysteries and 1970′s detective shows into a story about The Ass Crack Bandit of Greendale. And that’s just the first act: by the time “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” reaches its climatic moments, it’s shoving in the death of Pierce Hawthorne and some completely random Jeff/Annie material like it was season two all over again (not to mention putting every other member of the study group in the background for the entirety of the episode). And yet despite all those oddities, “Numismatics” is clever and charismatic, full of that familiar Community energy missing from season four, as entertaining as it is scatterbrained.
This week, on Community: The study group gets back together (mostly), Jeff transitions to teacher, and Nicholas Cage breaks Abed
Community makes its triumphant return this week for its fifth season (and given NBC’s current comedy slate, we may actually get a sixth- who would’ve predicted that four years ago?). After the uneven, Dan Harmon-less fourth season, fans are understandably excited for not just the show to be back, but the creator as well. “Repilot” addresses this, referencing a “gas leak” year, but it quickly moves on, more concerned with justifying how the gang will get back together. Harmon and co. are in a tough spot with this- if they keep the group apart at least somewhat and build toward their re-enrollment, they sacrifice the group dynamic that the show is based on, and if they plop the group right back together, their graduation and the growth that led to it is undermined and their post-graduation lives are cut off as potential story arcs.