By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 13, 2012 at 2:52PM
Ah, "Community." One of the more dramatic behind-the-scenes stories of the year that didn't involve Michael Mann killing horses, "Community" ended up its third season with a headline-grabbing feud, with a timeshift change for its fourth season, and with most of the show's key creative personnel leaving or being fired. But none of that should take away from a season that, while highly divisive, was to our mind the show's best yet. Opening off with a musical number in which the cast promised to "have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined," Dan Harmon went on to live up to the first half of the promise, but certainly not the second, as the formal experimentation of the show moved from parodies of gangster and zombie movies to far more obscure and experimental techniques. Across the season, we got one episode that showcased seven alternate takes on the same three minutes, a "Treehouse of Horror"-style anthology, a parody of "Hearts of Darkness," a Manga segment, a full-blown musical episode, a Ken Burns parody, an almost unexplainable dream episode, a pitch-perfect "Law & Order spoof, a fake clip show, a 16-bit animated video game homage, and a heist flick. Nothing else on TV -- even the formally nebulous "Louie" -- has anything like the experimental mindset of "Community," and it's a consistent joy to see what it'll turn to each week, and more often than not they pull it off with aplomb. Not that they can't handle more traditional sitcom-type plots: indeed, some of the season's highlights were the more grounded stories (grounded being a decidedly relative term, it should be said). But no matter what they were up to, you could generally be assured that it would be consistently, gut-bustingly funny, and contain Harmon's rigorous sense of story-above-all-else. It's a show that, however out there it got, is generally rooted in actual human behavior and isn't afraid to go to some dark places. There were a few duff episodes, but fewer than in previous seasons, and experiments with heavier serialization towards season's end fell a little flat, thanks mainly to an odd plot direction for Chang (Ken Jeong). But virtually nothing on this list was as bold, as rib-tickling, as surprising, and generally satisfying as "Community" this year. We suspect it'll be the last great season, but we live in hope that its brilliance will continue into the end of its story.
Must-See Episode: A viciously difficult one to pick -- meticulously plotted heist parody "The First Chang Dynasty," the insanely ambitious and emotional raw "Virtual Systems Analysis," Ken Burns parody "Pillows and Blankets" and "Glee"-skewering Christmas episode "Regional Holiday Music" all could have filled this slot. But nothing quite beat "Remedial Chaos Theory," the episode that shows a party across seven different timelines, removing one member of the cast from the equation each time. It was, quite simply, perfect, and one of the best sitcom episodes in the history of the form.
Last time we compiled one of these lists, "Game of Thrones" hadn't even finished its first season. King Robert and Ned Stark were still alive, the kingdom was still at peace, and there were no such thing as dragons. Things have changed, and changed even more by the end of the second season, with more characters introduced to the world, and just as many have left it, normally in brutal fashion. And while it didn't necessarily have the shock of the new, the sophomore season didn't skip a beat, maintaining an incredibly high level of consistency across the ten episodes, and only getting better and better as it went along. There were issues along the way, to be sure: the arcs of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen felt like they were mostly stalling for the third season -- when you think about what the characters actually went though, it's worryingly little. But there were so many other joys throughout, from seeing Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in power and the interactions of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) to the fall of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), that the show mostly didn't suffer for it. It still remains genuinely spectacular in terms of the production value, telling stories on a scale never seen on TV (it's clear that the budget had been amped-up second time around), and directing and writing across the board has been world-class (there were as many quotable lines as most comedies, but Bronn's "There's no cure for being a cunt" has to take the prize as line of the season). And that cast only gets richer and more expansive even as heads roll, with new additions like Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham, Nonso Anozie and Rose Leslie all doing sterling work. Thanks to a year of repeats and the DVD release, it's winning over more and more fans who'd otherwise been put off by the fantasy elements (even our editor-in-chief, rarely a TV watcher has been addicted), and right now, our biggest issue with the show is that we've got to wait more than nine months for it to come back on screen. With that army of white walkers heading towards the Wall, things are only going to get darker and darker, we imagine.
Must-See Episode: It's got to be "Blackwater," the focused, penultimate installment, which revolved entirely around the battle ensuing when Stannis' forces try to attack King's Landing. Matching thrilling action with terrific character beats, it's the kind of thing that's rarely, if ever, been seen on television.
Uh-oh. We imagine that any mention whatsoever of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow's HBO comedy, anywhere on the list, would bring out the show's fervent gang of furious detractors, let alone making it this high up the list. But while we obviously appreciate and accept diversity of opinion on... well, anything, it's becoming increasingly difficult to see why so many spend so much time and energy loathing a show that, as far as we're concerned, has proven itself to be the best comedy airing on TV over the past year. The wall of hype that preceded the show was certainly off-putting -- even we were a little suspicious. But it's proven to be a truthful, complex and deceptively original take on twentysomething life, free of sentiment but not without heart. Your twenties are a horrifically self-absorbed time, and Dunham has portrayed that perfectly, something that's meant that some viewers have struggled to latch onto the characters, finding them "unlikable." But we care less about whether we like characters on TV shows, and more about whether they're interesting, and like Don Draper, Walter White and Theon Greyjoy, the girls of "Girls" do terrible things because they're human beings, and that's what human beings do. You're not meant to find them paragons of virtue, and the show has expertly twisted perspective on its protagonists as time's gone on, demonstrating that they, like the viewer, might not sympathize, but they certainly empathize. It helps, too, that the series isn't just beautifully observed (most people we knew, whether under or over the age of thirty, have at least had one moment of squirming recognition), but also incredibly funny without ever sacrificing tone or character integrity for the sake of a gag. The supporting cast have been consistently surprising and enjoyable (the strong dramatic turn from Kathryn Hahn in the most recent episode was a particular highlight), and the behind-the-scenes talent just as strong, with Dunham's directorial skills improving a hundredfold since "Tiny Furniture," and collaborators Richard Shephard and Jody Lee Lipes doing sterling work too. For all the facile "Sex and the City" comparisons, it can't just be Judd Apatow's presence in the credits (and the presence of Betty Anne Baker as the mother) that makes us thing that the show is closer to a successor to "Freaks & Geeks" and "Undeclared" in its mix of humor and raw, autobiographical emotions. It's been uneven in places, a few episodes became a little too traditionally sit-com-y in spots, but we wouldn't bet against Dunham and co. fixing these and raising the game even further in season two.
Must-See Episode: Installment seven, "Welcome To Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident" is the best evidence yet of the show firing on all cylinders -- hilarity, drama and new perspectives on its characters all within a brisk half-hour.