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The Best TV Scenes of the Year: Two Very Different Takes

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 18, 2014 at 3:14PM

Should a great TV scene stand on its own, or are they bound to the episodes that contain them?
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True Detective

Entertainment Weekly posted its "50 Best TV Scenes of the Past Year" yesterday, and today, Vulture's TV Awards works its way up to its own best scenes, as selected by TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. 

Perhaps it's not fair to compare a list (apparently) chosen by committee with one selected by an individual critic -- I always prefer the latter; YMM, as they say, V -- but it's striking not only how the two lists differ but how they embody two very different understandings of a what a good TV scene should do.

EW's list is topped by the final confrontation between Walter White and his family in "Breaking Bad's" "Ozymandias," and no argument there. It's an amazing sequence, beautifully written by Moria Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson, and one that, as Melissa Maerz points out in her EW writeup, it genuinely feels like the whole series was building to. Perhaps the last two episodes were anticlimactic, but after that, how could they not be?

But EW's list gets into trouble with its second choice, which is Tyrion Lannister's "I am guilty of being a dwarf!" scene from "Game of Thrones'" "The Laws of Gods and Men," and digs the hole deeper by citing the third-act long take from "Louie's" "So Did the Fat Lady." Tastes differ and all, but these are not good scenes, and even close to the best their respective series had to offer. What they are is clean lifts, self-contained setpieces that announce themselves as Big Moments -- and as such, undermine the narratives they're meant to be part of. 

Seitz picks a few set pieces as well: The (in)famous single-take shootout from "True Detective," Lorne Malvo's slyly underplayed mob-headquarters massacre, from "Fargo." But he favors scenes that move the story and the emotion of an episode forward rather than stopping it cold to make room for a tap-dance. The introduction of the ARPANET in "The Americans" sets the stage for the season to come by emphasizing themes of inter- (and dis-)connection, and his choice from "Louie" is the final scene from "Elevator, Part 6," a beautifully quiet summation of a romance that could never have worked. (Personally, I would have gone with "Violin Duet" or "A Day in the Life of Todd Barry," but let's not quibble.) Seitz's top choice, also from "True Detective," is more of a supremely efficient bit of character-building than a bravura show-stopper.

For my money, the best-directed sequence of the half-year is a much quieter sequence in the same "True Detective" episode that showcased that amazing housing-project sequence. It shows Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) committing to their cockamamie scheme to flush out an accused serial killer by having Rust infiltrate a biker gang. It’s a perfect example of how to design a montage that gets across salient plot points while simultaneously giving the audience an eerily beautiful something extra.

Some of EW's choices, especially those drawn from comedies or sketch shows like "Broad City," work great on their own: the late Christopher Evan Welch's musings on Burger King "breadings" from "Silicon Valley" pops out of the story because it's meant, illustrating just how little his eccentric tech visionary cares about the imminent funding crisis faced by the startup he's (barely) taken under his wing. And the bit where "Hannibal's" Mason Verger feeds pieces of his face to Will Graham's dogs -- especially the way Michael Pitt chuckles, "I'm full of myself" after he eats his own nose -- will haunt my dreams forever. But if you're picking scenes that do what scenes are meant to do rather than ones that make tidy YouTube clips, Seitz's list shows a much deeper understanding of which ones get the job done.

This article is related to: Game of Thrones, Louis C.K., True Detective


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