Masters of Sex, “Fight”
Andy Greenwald: On television, “bottle episodes” are so named for the way they limit the action to one or two settings, narrowing the focus, sure, but also saving a considerable amount of money in the process. The term itself is limiting, though. It’s possible to construct all sorts of magnificent things inside of a bottle.
“Fight,” the best episode of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, was a bottle episode. Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are in a hotel room, under assumed names and on borrowed time. At this point, their research is professional in name only. Having devoted countless hours to studying each other’s instruments, the duo have begun to probe in far more intimate ways: below the belt, yes, but also into the softer, more hidden corners of the head and the heart. While a boxing match plays out on a crackling television screen, the two grapple through 12 rounds of their own, alternately lashing out and lowering their gloves. Sex is just the undercard here; the real title fight concerns the illusion of masculinity and the limits of trust. It’s about the people we pretend to be when we step into the ring, and the scared, broken children we can’t escape when we’re outside of it.
That Masters of Sex had an otherwise spotty sophomore year makes me appreciate the majesty of “Fight” even more. It’s the rare hour in which there are no weak links: not Amy Lippman’s lyrical script, not Michael Apted’s balletic direction, and certainly not the proudly revealing performances by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Flashier cable shows go to great pains to invent worlds. At the peak of its powers, Masters of Sex is able to uncover our own.
Sonic Highways, “Chicago”
Alex Pappademas: Yes, like every episode of drummer/director Dave Grohl’s Bourdaincore rock-docu-miniseries, this one ended with a not-great Foo Fighters song summing up what we’d learned about a great American city in clichés that would make Bono wince. Yes, Grohl is nothing if not the friendly, goateed face of rockism, 2014’s most hissable music-critical straw-bogeyman. And yes, his show has the exact blind spots you’d expect — it’s lip-servicey on hip-hop and hazy on the contributions of women in general, Bonnie Raitt’s talking-head omnipresence notwithstanding.
That said, few TV shows about music achieve this one’s laudable quality-to-bullshit ratio, or find room amid recapitulations of myth to pay this much attention to craft and craftspeople. The D.C. episode, which weaves together Fugazi, Bad Brains, go-go, and the city’s transformative “Revolution Summer” of 1985, is an affecting dip into Grohl’s back pages and a stronger piece of documentary overall. But I’m partial to Chicago, because the parts that aren’t a survey course on the blues are mostly an extended tribute to the recording engineer/caustic übercrank Steve Albini, whose techniques gave classic albums by Slint, Pixies, and PJ Harvey their legendary wallop, and whose rep as the Albert Rosenfield of the American indieground perpetually threatens to eclipse those achievements. There’s a personal connection here, too: Albini recorded In Utero for Grohl’s old band in the ’90s and took only a flat fee to do so, rather than a piece of the back end, because he’s philosophically opposed to collecting royalties on his production work. As one interview subject points out, Grohl knows better than just about anyone how much money Albini gave up, and the drummer’s mystified respect for that decision comes through whenever Albini’s onscreen. There goes my hero! Wearing coveralls to work, like a master machinist! Discussing the finer points of studio masonry! Playing with a kitten who is as adorable as Big Black’s Songs About Fucking is ugly! Albini comes off as a human being and a principled professional rather than a caricature, albeit a human being constitutionally incapable of genuflecting before rock stars and their HBO crews: “There’s a whole other studio on the other side of this wall, which you’re not going to get to see, because fuck you guys.”
Mad Men, “Waterloo”
Dan Fierman: “The Best Things in Life Are Free” dates to 1927, from a stage musical called, ironically enough, Good News. But in the context of Mad Men — specifically this episode of Mad Men, one that marked the death of Bert Cooper and the end of AMC’s money-grubbing half-season “finale” — it played bittersweet. Robert Morse belting out that adopted golden-era hippie chestnut was always going to be beautiful and strange and haunting and oddly touching. But here it doubled as a reminder that all things end: the lives of characters who have an appreciation for high-quality tentacle porn, and our favorite shows alike.
As Mad Men winds to a close — and doesn’t it seem clear we are headed for a gentle whimper, not a Breaking Bad bang? — these moments of poetry and pure weirdness are to be treasured and squirreled away. There’s nothing else quite like Mad Men on TV right now. Nothing as formally daring, brazenly funny, as tripped out on nostalgia and acid enough to bring this kind of glorious weirdness into our homes each weekend.
Bert Cooper is dead. He wasn’t an astronaut. He was something better. And so is (was?) the show he starred in.
Justified, “Shot All to Hell”
Holly Anderson: Right in the middle of a season of Justified that came up short on lovability (an occupational hazard when what you’re comparing it to is previous seasons of Justified), here’s a jam-packed hour to savor. I could just start listing the delights of this episode and run out of my allotted space and time without doing anything else (we see you, Art’s unswerving allegiance to Diet 7Up), so let’s home in on one element: the tour de force performance by Alan Tudyk, who swoops in for a single guest episode and steals scenes like Boyd robbed banks.1
Maybe the biggest challenge faced by the Justified creators is how to maintain tension when we all know full well neither Raylan nor Boyd can die for a while yet. But Tudyk’s Elias Marcos, Theo Tonin’s “one-man Praetorian Guard,” had me totally convinced Art could die. Leave it to a famed goofball playing a cold-eyed Canadian mobster to turn in scene work, particularly in the diner, that belongs in a classical Western canon.
The Knick, “Method and Madness”
Brian Phillips: I watched The Knick in a state of transfixed horror-joy, staring like an early-20th-century surgical patient with an electrified crank drill showering blue sparks over my heart. Some shows just feel like they’re made for you; it turns out I really, really love moody dramatizations of the challenges facing the urban health-care complex in 1900. Some people brake for cop shows, I guess.
I love that this series makes 1900 New York seem like a place that physically exists. I love that it feels utterly free to carry you anywhere in its weird, sprawling warren — a morgue, an opium den, a tycoon’s breakfast room, a pauper’s cemetery. I love that it finds unforced natural drama in now-bizarre antique situations. (Who isn’t down for a good rival-ambulance-crew brickbat face-off?) I love that it makes me think about how natural light affects the moods of cities; you do different things in the evening because you feel different. I’m deliberately not talking about the acting because what I love about the series has more to do with structure and environment, but OK — I love Clive Owen’s track-mark-concealing white ankle boots. I could have picked any episode here; I’m going with the pilot because it was the first one I saw. The Knick is Dickensian like The Wire was Dickensian, and it’s also Dickensian like Dickens was Dickensian. God, I just love it.
Silicon Valley, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency”
Katie Baker: T.J. Miller’s Silicon Valley performance as blowhard has-beentrapreneur Erlich Bachman has always reminded me of Jason Lee’s rock band frontman in Almost Famous. Same hairstyle, same posturing, same bullying charisma — and same generous respect for an audience. “I get people off!” Lee’s Jeff Bebe screams in Almost Famous. “I look for the guy who isn’t getting off, and I make him get off.” Erlich, facing certain public humiliation at a TechCrunch presentation in Silicon Valley’s first-season finale, displays a similar confidence in his abilities. “Yeah, we’re gonna win even if I have to go into the auditorium and personally jerk off every guy in the audience,” he says.
This throwaway boast sets up the funniest and most involved dick joke ever to be written into a television script. It’s a dick joke that includes the phrases “hot swap dicks in and out” and “time to orgasm, or T2O.” It’s a dick joke gleefully lampooning the trope that every misunderstood genius must follow up an aha moment with equations scribbled on a chalkboard or a napkin. It’s a dick joke so earnestly madcap that you can read it in an academic paper written by a Stanford grad student (“Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency: A Model for Male Audience Stimulation”) who helped consult on the show. It’s a dick joke that demonstrates exactly why Silicon Valley’s pitch-perfect first season deserves an enormous valuation.
And it’s a dick joke that builds to a perfect, uh, finish. “How fast do you think you could jack off every guy in this room?” Erlich asks a beautiful and bewildered TV reporter. “’Cause I know how long it would take me. And I can prove it.”
Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You”
Jason Concepcion: At its best, Black Mirror feels less like the modern Twilight Zone than an unsettling glimpse into a recognizably fucked-up future. Case in point: “The Entire History of You,” the absolute best episode of the series.
In “The Entire History of You,” a seed-size device called a “grain” can be purchased and implanted along the neural pathways behind the ear to record, in full HD resolution and digital sound, every thing its owner hears and sees. The scenes — spanning decades, depending on how long the owner has had the grain implanted — can be streamed to any video device or replayed privately on small screens in the owner’s eyes.
Just like smartphones and cloud storage and high-speed Internet today, the grains from Black Mirror allow their owners to fulfill their best and very worst impulses. Fun memories can be shared ad infinitum (or for as long as you’ve paid your cloud storage bill) — but the flip side is that slights, betrayals, and pain are all accessible at the flick of a finger.
There’s a dinner party scene in which one attendee is gently mocked by her friends as some hippie Luddite for no having her grain taken out. I can see it happening.
Shea Serrano: My favorite episode of anything on TV in 2014 was my favorite because it was the funniest thing, and that was the trashman scene from the season opener of Louie. There’s this whole thing in that episode where Louie and his friends sit around a card table and talk about masturbation, and that’s fine and funny enough. But the bit with the trash cans — in which some trashmen pull up outside of Louie’s apartment while he sleeps and start banging around and being extra loud, and then eventually break through his windows banging trash cans and breaking things and throwing debris everywhere, all of which Louie tries to ignore — is levels and levels funnier and more clever. There was a sizable buck-back this year on the Internet re: Louie (Andy Greenwald literally wrote a piece titled “The Internet Has a Louie Problem”), and I suppose I understood why some of the criticisms being lobbed at the show and also at Louis C.K. were landing at his feet. But I don’t know. None of that matters, really. Loud trashmen are funny.
Sean Fennessey: How do you pronounce “Craig”? Is it “Creg”? Or “Cray-eeg”?
Cray-eeg-ists are just one of the targets in this peak episode from the third season of HBO’s very best — yes — active series. Some of the other targets: Apple. Silicon Valley.2 Politico. BuzzFeed. YouTube. Siri. Facebook. All websites, really. Mark Zuckerberg. Venture capitalism. Toilets. Political horse trading. Headhunting. And yeah, the Internet at large. One central gag features a contraption called a Smartch, a kind of all-purpose wristwatch computer. Three months after it aired, Apple announced the Apple Watch. Time flies when you’re making fun.
Broad City, “Pu$$y Weed”
This episode is better at lampooning Silicon Valley than HBO’s own show called Silicon Valley.
Steven Hyden: Imagine if Seinfeld were called Elaine and the combined power of George and Kramer were held inside the body of a 22-year-old Weezy fanatic who stores marijuana inside her va-yi-nya. That’s the best one-sentence summation I can muster for the genius that is Broad City, 2014’s funniest sitcom. No other TV show — not even the more publicized HBO counterpart to which Broad City is frequently (and reductively) compared — has better depicted the freewheeling, inconsequential terror of postcollegiate drift. Abbi and Ilana are like extraterrestrials who have landed on a foreign planet called Adulthood, and they’re trying to fake their way through the native customs before somebody gets wise.
In my favorite episode, “Pu$$y Weed,” each faces a treacherous trial — Abbi figures that, as an adult, it’s time she bought her own weed, while Ilana commits to doing her taxes herself like a “grown-ass woman.” We follow them during an aimless day in the city as they try to succeed in these tasks without really trying. Along the way, a quick trip to the candy store takes a disastrous turn, a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas–style mental breakdown occurs in a dentist’s office, and the sexual attractiveness of dogs (from the perspective of other dogs) is assessed. The setting is hyper-specific to New York City, but the show’s wake-and-bake buzz will be familiar to anyone who was ever in their early twenties and without a single goddamn clue.
You’re the Worst, “PTSD”
Amos Barshad: Remember how sloooow the investigation moved on the first season of The Wire? And how, after all the bureaucratic minutiae and incremental maneuverings — how great it felt once that wire finally went up? Lester Freamon’s eyes lit with joy, and we fist-pumped. Masterfully delayed satisfaction. Maybe it’s a stretch, but that’s what You’re the Worst’s “PTSD” reminded me of.
In the pilot, we meet Jimmy and Gretchen, a couple of lovably selfish DGAF L.A. jerks who are boning because Hey, why not? Which was awesome: Unlike all other rom-com pap, their relationship never felt predetermined. But it moves forward, herky-jerky, and when Jimmy somehow finds himself in bed with Hollywood “It” girl Megan Thomas … here, let’s allow Lindsay, brilliantly upending BFF cliches with every insane thing that comes out of her mouth, to explain:
Lindsay: Well, you at least have to sleep with someone else, too, or you’ll resent him forever. That’s feminism, Gretch. That’s what Susan B. Anthony died for.
Gretchen: Do you even know who Susan B. Anthony is?
Lindsay: She made an airplane disappear.
Fast-forward a few bad-idea lays later, and Jimmy and Gretchen realize this: They do only want to be with each other. From 2014’s sharpest, harshest comedy, 2014’s most well-earned awwwww.
The Honorable Woman, “The Ribbon Cutter”
Chris Ryan: Flashbacks are the new filler. When a TV series is vamping to get to the end of its seasonal run, you can count on it to pull off to the side of the road, break out the wigs, add a little nostalgic diffusion to the camera lenses, and reel in the years. Lost taught us that you can construct a show out of 50 percent flashbacks, and since then, they’ve become a bit of a crutch.
That’s why “The Ribbon Cutter” was my favorite episode of the year. Coming four episodes into The Honorable Woman’s eight-episode run, this flashback episode changed everything. After seeing what happened to Nessa Stein in Gaza, we were forced to view everything that happened in the first three episodes differently. We looked at the characters with a new perspective. Nothing was the same, all because of a journey through the past.
The Leftovers, “Guest”
Mark Lisanti: This is now the third time I’ve written about this episode in some form, so it’s obviously sticking with me. This is the one in which Nora Durst, the woman who lost her husband and two children to a Sudden Departure at the breakfast table, hires a freaked-out prostitute to fire a bullet into her Kevlar-protected, but irreparably shattered, heart. It’s not kink, it’s misery management. From there she attends a conference for Departure-related businesses, parties with the opportunistic ghouls who sell Loved Ones Bereavement Figures — RealDolls you penetrate with your grief — for $40,000 per Departed family member, and gets a $1,000 hug from Holy Wayne. The Guilty Remnant passes out hand grenades. Nora gets a divorce from her vanished husband and impulsively asks Sheriff Kevin to run off to Miami. Breakfast cereal figures prominently.
“Guest” is our clearest — and at times saddest, at other times darkly funniest — look at the world of The Leftovers. A lot of people seemed to be oppressed by the gloom, turned off by the uninvited storm clouds rolling in over their summer. Some of us didn’t mind a temporary break from the sunlight. Go ahead and shoot us in the chest. We’ll gasp, but the vest will stop the bullet, the air mattress will break our fall. And then we’ll let a laugh slip out when our breath comes back.
The Comeback, “Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees”
Molly Lambert: No TV show is a better tonic for enduring the rest of television than The Comeback, whose triumphant second season was even bleaker and darker than its first. In the third episode, Valerie preps to shoot a dream sequence as her fictional doppelgänger Mallory Church, who must give a blow job to showrunner Paulie G’s fictional alter ego, played by Seth Rogen (having a year!), and her journey from anxiety to acceptance is precarious, strewn with land mines. Part of the show’s horror-movie feel comes from never really knowing how things will turn out; Rogen ultimately relieves Valerie from the pressure of having to mime bobbing her head, instead resting it on his knee out of frame while he acts out his enjoyment. Lisa Kudrow deserves an Emmy for her work in this episode, a claw-deep satire of the endless brutal humiliations that actresses in Hollywood (and women in general) must undergo. As Valerie notices her own film crew’s camera capturing her in the moment, a smile can’t help but creep across her face, and ours.
The Good Wife, “Dramatics, Your Honor”
Juliet Litman: In the 15th episode of the fifth season of The Good Wife, the writers killed off the unequivocal male lead of the show. I yelled at my TV, “OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!!!!!!” It was hard to imagine a version of the show that didn’t focus on when Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) would finally get together. But the fact that Season 6 has been as compelling as any other season is the second-most impressive byproduct of Will’s death. This episode convinced me, a recovering spoiler addict, to actively avoid all such information about the television shows I hold dear. There’s a basic pleasure in being surprised, allowing TV writers to catch you off guard. Recap culture has trained us to analyze what we’ve seen and hypothesize about what will come next, but there’s also an argument for contemplating television a little bit less. Alicia would encourage us to keep asking questions, but I think she’d also advise us to just enjoy it, even as we continue to miss Will.