This is part two of my yearly list of the year's best episodes. Part one, the dramas list, is here, along with a bit of ruminating on terminology and format: sitcom versus drama, half-hour versus hour, and where the distinctions start to blur.
As I did last year, I've mixed in live-action half-hour and hour scripted shows with cartoons. I know some readers don't think that's fair, because animation gives storytellers a level of visual freedom that you can't get with actors and sets (not on a TV sitcom budget, anyway). But as far as I'm concerned, a story is a story is a story, and once you've committed it to paper, the rest is structure, style, and performance.
Share your own picks — or argue with mine! — in the comments section.
1. Arrested Development, Season Four
Am I cheating by counting all of season four as one episode? Maybe. The Netflixed fourth season of Arrested Development also claimed the No. 1 slot on my series list for its structural innovations and kooky visionary grandeur. But think of it this way: There isn't a single self-contained episode of this series that feels truly complete until you've watched the whole season, preferably in a binge-type situation that assures that setups from one or two episodes ago pay off in whatever chapter you're watching at that moment. So where does that leave us, definition-wise? Is season four a rare example of what cinema-cowed TV producers keep insisting they've made: a long movie? I don't think so, because the entire season doesn't feel like a movie broken into pieces, as Neftlix's Americanized version of House of Cards did, and as the miniseries Top of the Lake; Arrested Development has the rhythms of a sitcom, not a very long film, and it's practically Cubist in the way it stages and restages key moments, or shows us the "beginning" or "end" of a scene we already thought we'd seen the "beginning" or "end" of in an early episode. (Orange Is the New Black, which I've cited below on this list, attempted something similar, but it wasn't as radical in the way it leapt around in time and space — and it is possible to treat particular episodes as self-contained, or at least satisfying, stories.) As Ellen DeGeneres might say, my point — and I do have one — is this: The fourth season of Arrested Development isn't just a lark and a puzzle, it's an innovative work that confounds the usual distinctions between the season and the episode, as well as the usual distinctions between episodic television as "a long movie."
3. Girls, "One Man's Trash"
Wherein Girls creator and star Lena Dunham and guest star Patrick Wilson enact the arc of a whole relationship in less than two days. This episode prompted some arguments about whether anything that occurred in it was supposed to be perceived as "real," but the script fudged that subtly enough that you weren't entirely sure how to take the affair, much less what impact it had on the heroine's emotional development or what it revealed about her limitations.
4. 30 Rock, "A Goon's Deed in a Weary World"
Liz Lemon and the gang hatch a plan to save The Girly Show by seeking sponsorship from Bro Body Douche; its exec wants to re-title the program Man Cave and have Liz supervise it under the pseudonym Todd Debeikis, to hide her gender. It’s a great meta episode of an already super-meta sitcom — creator Tina Fey is working through some real anxieties and grievances here — but it's also one of the show's tightest, funniest half-hours. The B-plot, in which new Kabletown CEO Jack Donaghy leads potential successors on a talent-scouting tour modeled on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — is a feast of sustained silliness.
5. Parks and Recreation, "Recall Vote"
Leslie gets depressed after losing the recall election; Tom and Ron desperately try to save Rent-a-Swag; the office sets up a haunted house. Pretty much every mode that Parks and Recreation does well is represented here: shtick, relationship humor, office politics, regular politics, and the gap between our dreams and reality.
10. Veep, "Running"
A hilarious show that's not known for real-world political complexity (or terribly interested in it, really) aired a stingingly observant half-hour with "Running," which finds Selina chafing at the tight spot that her vice-presidency has wedged her into. Her boss's administration seems to be cratering, but she can't set up the pieces for her own redemptive presidential run without seeming like a disloyal schemer. What's a veep to do?
5 more + honorable mentions at vulture