30. Veep — ‘Kissing Your Sister’ — 5.9
I’ve always had mixed emotions about this series — yes, it can be raucously funny at times, but given our political situation, it’s held a mirror up to our time far better than I would like to think. That said, it is a brilliant series, and by far the most entertaining episode came in the middle of an election season only slightly more confused the one just past. An atypical episode, it looked at all of the chaos from the perspective of the one truly nice person on the series — Catherine, Selina’s much abused daughter, as she tried to a take candid look at people who are always putting on a fake face. She got a better look at the electoral process than she probably would’ve wanted, and yet came closer to getting a happy ending on a show that pretty much avoids endings as much as possible The Meyer Presidency came to an end (for now), but to see real emotion — or at least as real as it would get — was actually remarkable.
29. Deadwood — ‘A Two-Headed Beast’ — 3.5
For some reason, this groundbreaking series gets less respect than the other three of the troika of great HBO’s dramas (we’ll get to the other two in due time, believe me.) But David Milch’s radical reinvention of the western was one of the towering achievements in television history. One can argue which moments were among the truly great ones, but in my mind, the most astonishing moment came and involved none of the poetic dialogue the show would be famous for. As the struggle between Al Swearengen and George Hearst continues, its most powerful moment comes when Dority and Capt. Turner, their respective lieutenant,s after episodes of snarling at each other, finally engage in an all out five minute brawl. Filthy and unsparing, it ends with one of the more stunning moments in TV history, when Dan gets the better of Turner by gouging an eye out of Turner’s socket, then putting the man out of his misery with a nod from Al. This grotesquerie is also met with a quieter, but no less painful death, when Bullock, after failing to resolve an issue between two minor characters, reacts when one of them kills himself. It is a matter that shakes Seth so thoroughly, that he jails Hearst that night -and in another way, makes any reconciliation impossible. At least, that’s how it ended before it got canceled. Can we get that movie, HBO?
28. Atlanta — ‘Teddy Perkins’ — 2.6
Donald Glover has always been a creative giant, and in just two seasons, he’s created some of the most incredible moments, both funny and poignant I’ve seen on TV. But one of the more astonishing pieces of work so far came when Darius went to pick up a piano from a music legend — and ended up in the surreal mansion of ‘Teddy Perkins’, a Michael Jackson type recluse played (and I didn’t learn this til much later) by Donald Glover in white-face. In a bizarre combination of work, we looked inside a vastly disturbed individual caught inside his own past, and so broken that he never seemed to realize, not even til he got shot. It was uncanny, it was frightening, it was funny, it was Donald Glover at his absolute best, both in front of the camera, and on the page. I’ll be astonished if this episode isn’t the one he submits for Emmy consideration. It just makes me so mad that I may have to wait God knows long for Season 3.
27. Masters of Sex — ‘Fallout’ — 1.10
In my mind, this is Showtime’s greatest and most consistent drama for the past ten years. I know that I’m in a decided minority when it comes to this, but this fictionalized version of the work and lives of groundbreaking sex researchers Masters and Johnson was, at it’s peak, as good a period piece as Mad Men, and nearly as good a drama. Never was this better illustrated in what was their finest hour, set against the horror of a nationwide civil defense drill in preparation for a nuclear war. Simultaneously, almost every major character went through their greatest drama. Bill (the undervalued Michael Sheen) resisted Virginia’s (Lizzy Caplan, ditto) desire to help a woman who was pregnant from one of their tests. He got into a fist fight dealing with the pregnancy of his own wife, and worst of all, had to deal with the consequences of Virginia finally retaliating after months of being treating like an inferior, and quitting the study. But even that paled to Margaret Scully (Allison Janney) and her revelation that her husband of nearly thirty years was gay. By the time this episode was finished, everybody on the series had gone through their own personal apocalypse.
26. Dexter — ‘The Getaway’ — ‘4.12
Alright, technically this episode is already listed on TV Guide’s greatest episode, but I put it on my list eight years ago, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. What you don’t have to believe is that the season finale in what would be Showtime’s signature series (Homeland’s taken up the torch now, we’ll get to that too) was arguably the finest hour dealing with this series finest monster — the Trinity killer, played to perfection by John Lithgow. When Trinity finally learned Dexter Morgan’s true identity, it seemed like it would end in horror. The final confrontation between Dexter (Michael C. Hall’s finest hour, arguably) and Trinity played out incredibly well, but it was the series greatest fakeout, as Dexter returned to find Rita, his wife and one of the few true innocents in the entire Dexter saga, lying in a bathtub of blood, with Harrison (like his father once had) sitting next to his mother’s dead body. This was ranked as one of TV’s most shocking character deaths nearly six years ago, and it still has tremendous power even now. It may not have been the dramatic peak of the series (there were still some great moments to come) but as lasting images go, and demonstrating its lead character’s final fate, it worked supremely.