The 50 Greatest TV Episodes of the 21st Century
Part 9: 10–6
Bonus #2: Jane The Virgin — Chapter Chapter Eighty-Four — 4.18
As this incredible series makes it way towards it end, I have reached the conclusion that not only is it the CW’s greatest accomplishment (though Crazy Ex-Girlfriend came really close), it is one of the great shows of the 2010s. This very funny, incredibly romantic, and very moving series had so many great moments, it should be hard to choose the best. But it’s not. The most heartbreaking moment in this series’ history occurring when Michael, Jane’s policeman husband/first husband died from the aftereffects of a gunshot wound in Season 3. Watching the series unfold, with Jane and Rafael, her baby daddy/soulmate finally get their act together and fall in love was just as wonderful. So the season finale for Season 4, when Raf was finally going to propose should have been the series crowning achievement. Then he learns something from a drug lord’s snitch, and he becomes cold and detached. We know something horrible is going to happen, but no one could have expected the last minute when Jane comes to Rafael’s apartment and finds… Michael. Alive. In an era where even the best effort to keep secrets end up on the Internet regardless, the show’s writers kept it entirely under wraps to reveal one of the great twist endings in the history of the medium, period. However the series ends, it will have to work really hard to top this moment.
10. 30 Rock — ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ — 2.4
Trying to pick the best episode from 30 Rock is really a crapshoot — all of them were stuffed full of so many incredible jokes that there’s a good chance I’ll overshoot one of them because so many of the subtle ones. But I’m going to stick with the one I went with nearly a decade ago. When Liz finds herself getting involved with a writer she idealized growing up (the incredible Carrie Fisher), she seems willing to throw everything away — until she learns how pathetic Rosemary’s life really is. Meanwhile, Jack tries to send Tracy through therapy — which leads to one of the great three minutes segments in comedy history, where Alec Baldwin channels everybody in Tracy’s family, and reaches arguably his highest point on a series that gave him greatest moments. And yes, even though we see what would probably be considered the inevitable Princess Leia, Fisher delivers it with such perfect timing, one can’t help but go into hysterics.
9. The Good Wife — ‘Hitting The Fan’ -5.5
This series is, without question, one of the greatest TV shows of the past decade. And what made this series such an incredible one was how brilliant is was willing to completely upend itself, particularly in its second half. And while some might consider the death of Will Gardener its finest moment, I really think its most incredible one came a few months earlier. Upon learning that Alicia is planning to leaving Gardener-Lockhart to start her own firm with Cary, Will marches in to her office, barely able to keep his emotions in his check, trying to figure out whether he feels more betrayed or angry. Finally he utters three simple words: “You were poison!”, and in swift motion shoves all of Alicia’s papers and books on to the floor. It isn’t just that Alicia has decided to leave the firm, but in this motion, she utterly destroys any possibility of the Will-Alicia relationship ever being realized. This was Josh Charles finest hour, made even more remarkable considering that he’d had to be talked into staying for Season 5 by Juliana Marguiles. The series would do some truly brilliant shifts, but it would rarely change the game more confidently — or magnificently — than it did here.
8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer — The Body — 5.16
By now, its considered a given that the finest hour for this classic series came in its musical episode ‘Once More With Feeling’. And there’s no question that Joss Whedon managed a great accomplishment in a way that even his biggest fans didn’t think he could pull off. But frankly, I’m inclined to give this episode just the tiniest bit less credit because it was the beginning of the downfall of this great series. And really, the episode that resonates with me even more (at least, the one that qualifies for this list) came earlier in 2001. Buffy dealt with death so much that we were becoming inured to it, so when Joyce Summer died in this episode from complications from brain surgery earlier in the season, it stunned us — mainly because she died in a way no one in the series had before or would again — peacefully. But the episode was all about everybody’s reactions to this death — Dawn’s mental breakdown, Willow being unable to choose a shirt, Anya, the most glib member of the group, who lived for over a thousand years, utterly unable to come to terms with what had happened. All of which, by the way, was done with no background music at all. Few series, past or present, have been able to deal with death as soberly or as well as did. The series being robbed of Emmy nominations was — until David Simon came along — the awards shows biggest blunder. That the episode wasn’t even nominated is something I still can’t forgive the Emmys, even nearly two decades later.
7. 24 — ‘Day 5- 6PM-7PM’ — 5.12
How do you pick the greatest episode of the ultimate serialized drama? Jack Bauer’s adventures over eight days featured some truly incredible moments, but most of them don’t work unless they’re seen in context. So ultimately, the choice comes down to what was 24’s finest hour? And that’s still an easy call. Without question, the greatest season was Day 5, when Howard Gordon and company decided to start taking out most of the characters we had come to know and care about over the first four seasons. And in this episode, they decided to lay waste to CTU itself. The last ten minutes of the episode are among the series finest, as Jack spends it trying to find an invader. Then we see that there’s a nerve gas container in CTU. In a matter of seconds, the staff begins dying right and left. Jack gets Chloe to seal off certain rooms, with people still dying right in front of them. And then: “Oh no.” Edgar, one of the most beloved characters on the series comes into the room. He has just enough time to get one word out: “Chloe.” Then he begins to double over. Its not the silent clock that rams the moment homes. Its the look on Mary Lynn Raskjub’s face as she watches her best friend die. This is the moment that probably won the show its Emmy for Best Drama. Never were moment and award so perfectly matched.
6. The Shield — Possible Kill Screen — 7.12
This series was the first non-HBO series to determine the true potential of basic cable. And unlike so many of the great series in the early years of the Golden Age, its one of the few that never had a bad season, and whose last season may well have been its best. When I first did this list nearly eight years ago, I listed the last episode as one of the greatest ever. But in retrospect, the penultimate one had one of the far greater moments. After years of eluding justice for his illegal activities, Vic Mackey has finally gotten into a position with the government where he can agreed to work for them in exchange for immunity. The final fifteen minutes of the episodes are among the greatest in TV history, and I’m not sure which parts are among the best — the more than forty second closeup on Vic as he readies himself to confess his sins, the look of horror on the face of the government agents when he confesses to the murder that took place in the Pilot, the way he keeps talking, and almost seems to be taunting her, by telling her there’s no way he’s leaving anything out, or the look on Claudette and Dutch’s face as they finally realize that the man they’ve been chasing since the beginning of the series is finally and unalterably out of their reach. All I know is that there’s only one possible reaction to this: “Oh my f-ing God.”