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Qualler's Episode of the Month: August/September

You guys, this has been a pretty awesome year of TV overall, but, one thing that makes it challenging to write these recaps on a monthly basis is that the two best shows of the year, Louie and Breaking Bad, are just so dominant that I wanted to give the other shows that aren't those two awesome, awesome shows a chance to shine. Luckily, two months worth of TV is gonna do that for you. Here is the best of the best on the TV landscape in August and September.

Oh, and it should go without saying that what follows is full of spoilers, if you are averse to those sorts of things.

Rescue Me has not made this list, or any of my Best Of lists since probably its second season. The show's problems are well-documented - the season three Tommy Gavin rape-but-actually-she-likes-it scene made us all squirm, and eventually give up on finishing that season. I took the entire season four off, before checking in for most of the fifth season which had some remarkably excellent episodes(*) and some remarkably terrible episodes(**). A show like this shouldn't go on as long as it did, which I think is why the seasons after the second feel so wildly up-and-down.

(*) Michael J. Fox's story arc was a twisted good time, Tommy jumping off the wagon again was surprisingly powerful, and the episode "Torch" stands as the show's best.
(**) Of course, the episode after "Torch" was an idiotic episode about kids driving the firetrucks all over the place and Lou doing wacky stuff, and the season finale was a horrible letdown that ended like almost every other season ended, in Misery Porn craziness.

Thankfully, creators/writers Denis Leary and Peter Tolan didn't totally forget what made the show intriguing in the first place: the mixture of dudes-talking-to-each-other (which, still, even in the bad episodes was usually the show's saving grace - the dudes in Ladder 62 always had great chemistry) combined with sudden bursts of firefighting action. And the series finale, "Ashes", was not lacking in either of those qualities. It somehow made Lou's death by fire explosion sad but comic. The perfect vortex that occurred on the way to his ashes pouring ceremony was a perfectly executed comic set piece that felt extremely authentic in the universe of the show(***).

(***)And it featured Stephen Pasquele trying to poop out Lou's ashes that got stuck up there. Priceless.

There were a few things that were remnants of the bad stuff the show has done, like the fake-out intro where the funeral for five firefighters was totally just Tommy's dream (although the dream sequence was a great performance by John Scurti), and Tommy ending back up with Janet doesn't work because, well, that's one of the less interesting things the show does. Part of that, I think, is that Andrea Roth is just kind of there as his ex-wife. Callie Thorne as Sheila was completely fearless on the show, even when Leary and Tolan made her do completely stupid, arguably sexist stuff. All in all, a fine conclusion to a show that had brilliant moments.

Awkward. is one of the few shows that is on that will cause Brigitte to stick her head up from the mess of work that she's got going in her Ph.D program. And while the show as a whole only occasionally rises above the enjoyable romp category of shows, its likable cast and sharp dialogue make it stand out on MTV. It's probably the best scripted show on MTV since Daria. Episode seven, "Over My Dead Body" was the right synthesis of 30 Rock-lite madcap comic setpieces, genuine teen angst (but not too angsty), and straight-up laughs. The ever-suffering Jenna Hamilton gets roped into playing Dead Stacey, a long-standing character in a long-standing school assembly who was played by Jenna's mom in the 90s. In a lot of ways, the show resembles a more madcap version of a late-90s WB dramedy, which means it gets to skip over a lot of the more maudlin stuff that it would inevitably get involved in. All in all, Awkward. is a surprisingly (because of the network it is on) subtle look at life as a teenager while being simultaneously funny, charming, and well-acted.

Archer had a fantastic second season, one which I raved about constantly and even netcasted about. FX is a brilliantly run network that apparently knows when they have a great show, and as a result, has gifted us a hybrid third season opener / special TV movie / miniseries that has aired the last three Thursdays(****) in September titled "Heart of Archness". If the second season was brilliant in how it developed into an ensemble comedy (animated or no) on the level of Arrested Development, then this three-parter is all about showcasing the many ways the show flexes its multiple strengths. H. Jon Benjamin is so, so good as Sterling Archer, and Jessica Walter is the perfect mom / foil for Archer. And now that the show's main cast has such great chemistry, adding Patrick Warburton and David Cross just upped the comedic notches even more. So many quotable moments, so many flashes of why Archer is actually a damn good secret agent, and so many laughs. If you need an entry point to the show and don't want to sit through the also-good-but-slightly-uneven first season, try this.

(****)Premiering a very good three-part episode of the show after the highly popular It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is also a great business strategy. John Landgraf from FX, I want to make TV business love to you(*****).

(*****)And that's even after you had to cancel Terriers and Light's Out. And that's a sign of how well you run the business: I don't even blame you for cancelling them! I totally understand! Wow!

Speaking of great shows on FX, Louie is probably the second best show of the year and had another ridiculously strong season, even stronger than its very good first season. It went to darker places than its first season, not afraid to confront them head on, especially in the very excellent episode "Eddie", and it went to straight-up weird places like the front-half of the "Halloween/Ellie" episode, or the back half of the "Bummer/Blueberries" episode. In my mind, the high point of the back half of the second season was episode eight, "Come On, God". It opened with Louie as a pro-masturbation activist on a Fox News show, with lots of easy but no less hilarious digs on the Conservative Religious Right, and one hilarious point by Louie that, if God wants sex to happen only in monogomous marriages, then He is probably using those marriages to masturbate to. (OK, Louis CK delivers that much, much better than I do, obviously.)

But like the show does so well, it eschews the easy holier-than-thou attitude a lesser show would have taken  when he went out for drinks with his debate partner on the Fox News show. He finds that she is indeed interested in getting to know him and avoids making any kind of judgment on his life choices. Like the show does so, so well, it gets to be simultaneously touching, funny, sad, and most of all, super honest. It is these qualities that help elevate Louie above Really Funny Comedy and into the Great Shows category in my brain.

It seems so unfair, then, that the Episode of the Month award winner goes to what is far and away the best show on TV and, according to Chuck Klosterman, moving into Best Show of All Time territory(******), Breaking Bad. The first half of season four was very good, especially the phenomenal season premiere "Box Cutter". Episodes two through seven were all about the slow burn of plot mechanics, introducing the elements of the fourth season that make their way to the forefront of the show in the back half. And holy hell, what a great back half it has been. As Brigitte & I have caught up on season four, I kept thinking, starting with episode eight, "THIS is definitely the best episode of the season so far." As the season has progressed to its conclusion (which comes next Sunday, October 9), the events have just built upon each other to the point where episode eleven, "Crawl Space", reaches an unbelievable level of dread, one that the show has not yet reached, which is incredible given the dread faced in season two's "ABQ" , or season three's "One Minute", "Half Measures", and "Full Measures.

(******)Personally, I think that kind of debate is problematic in general, which I think is what Klosterman is saying in the actual piece that he wrote. Comparing The Wire to The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Mad Men is not a true Apples to Apples comparison. 

But according to the rules of this thing that I made up, I have to pick a specific episode. So if you put a gun to my head, I'll choose episode nine, "Bug", if only for its surprising re-introduction to the Skylar-Ted plot, Walt's growing anger and resentment over Jesse's perceived disobedience to him, and the raw, rip-out-your-heart conclusion with Walt and Jesse's brawl that ended with Jesse beating the shit out of Walt and telling him, chillingly, "Get the fuck out of here and never come back." If that's not some serious finality to a relationship that was getting more and more strained, then I don't know what is. Of course, the episode before that had the incredible Gus Fring origin story in "Hermanos", episode ten "Salud" had the badass Scarface-like takeout of THE ENTIRE CARTEL(!!!!!!) by Gus, Mike and Jesse, and "Crawl Space" had the aforementioned culmination of the season's creeping dread with Walt maniacally laughing like a freakin' comic book villain in his cash hideout after coming to the realization that, because Skylar gave Ted the money to make the IRS go away(*******) he can't escape from his and his family's inevitable death by murder while Marie calls Skylar frantically to tell her that the Cartel put a hit out on Hank again and HOLY CRAP THAT WAS INTENSE.

(*******)Which was, in my professional opinion as a CPA, the right move, although I would not endorse the means of acquiring said money.

So, yes. Other shows, you are also great, but Breaking Bad, you are extra great. Again.

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