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Charlie Toft

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Charlie Toft used to win awards for book criticism, but decided that reading was too much work. As a TV writer, his specialty is an encyclopedic and possibly unhealthy knowledge of American Idol.

Best TV Episodes of 2009

As 2009 winds down in a haze of repeats, here is a look back at some of my favorite episodes of the year — limiting myself to just one per series so you don’t have to keep on reading “Mad Men sure was great that week, wasn’t it?”

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1. “The Oath” and “Blood on the Scales,” Battlestar Galactica (January 30, February 6): Its series finale was the biggest disappointment of the year if not the whole decade, but nothing on television in 2009 was as thrilling as the two episodes that dealt with mutiny on board Galactica. It’s a tribute to the sensitivity of the writers that the humanity and even the logic of the mutineers was acknowledged, even as we had to hope they would fail and recognized they would die in the attempt.

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2. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” Mad Men (November 8): What a run of brilliance in the latter half of the Mad Men season, with this most plot-heavy episode in the show’s history as the capper. Don Draper spearheads an audacious plan to regain the independence on the job he has always craved, while at the same time dealing with the absolute final collapse of his marriage. And we still have to wait eight more months to see what comes next? Grrrrr.

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3. “4 Days Out,” Breaking Bad (May 3): Like Mad Men, it’s hard to pick a representative hour from this series, given its consistent greatness. But I chose the episode that found Walter White and his surrogate son/punching bag Jesse trapped in the boonies with a huge quantity of newly synthesized meth and a dead battery in their RV. Bryan Cranston was at his gaunt best, and Aaron Paul was never more heartbreaking as poor stupid Jesse.

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4. “Hello, Goodbye,” Friday Night Lights (February 6): In order for any series dealing with high schoolers to stay realistic, it has to be willing to let its young characters age even if it means writing them out. It’s a tribute to the great work of the FNL producers that viewers could witness Brian “Smash” Williams achieve his dream of college with something like paternal pride.

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5. “Pilot,” Glee (May 19): Speaking of shows with old-looking teenagers … this series took full advantage of the American Idol lead-in for its pilot episode by showing off all its strengths (and to be fair, a few weaknesses too). The integration of music into the plot and the caustic humor (most of it courtesy of the scene-stealing Jane Lynch) make Glee a unique experience in the current primetime landscape.

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6. “Come, Ye Saints,” Big Love (February 22): This series gave its fans something they had been wanting for three seasons even if they didn’t quite know it: an episode featuring just the core Henrickson clan taking a cross-country tour through Mormon history and coming to terms with family secrets. Thinking about Nikki (Chloe Sevigny) blaming her use of birth control pills on addiction still makes me giggle months later.

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7. “The Table Read,” Curb Your Enthusiasm (November 15): We had been catching glimpses of the old Seinfeld gang all season long, but it wasn’t until the next-to-last episode was highlighted by a run-through of the “reunion episode” that we could marvel at how easy it was for everyone to recreate the magic. All that, plus a subplot involving Larry David‘s familiarity with a little girl’s medical issues that was hilariously tasteless even by Curb standards.

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8. Saturday Night Live (May 9): SNL has been in the post-election doldrums for far too long now, but the hosting turn by Justin Timberlake this spring was easily one of its great moments of the ’00s — he’s a rare host who really can carry the show on his back. While he doesn’t have to sing to succeed on SNL, his digital short with Andy Samberg proposing the grossest Mother’s Day present ever was the night’s jaw-dropping highlight.

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9. “A Spy in the House of Love,” Dollhouse (April 10): This series started to get good late in its first season and has been even better this fall, but its early missteps doomed it. If only Fox had begun with corkers like this episode, which advanced the mythology, provided lots of work for the supporting character Dolls (all better actors than star Eliza Dushku), and dropped a startling bombshell about ice queen Adelle.

10. “The Variable,” Lost (April 29): Damn, I had really hoped that loon Faraday was going to make it.

11. “Final Four Perform,” American Idol (May 5): It certainly wasn’t the best performance night of Season Eight, but it was the most memorable, as both Kris Allen and Adam Lambert showed off the styles that would make them the ultimate finalists, the terrific Allison Iraheta got a rocking swan song, and Danny Gokey provided the season’s viral disaster with an Aerosmith cover from hell.

12. “Shareholder’s Meeting,” The Office (November 19): This series has been alluding to the troubles in the wider economic world for the last two seasons, and it was here, as Michael Scott made one of his patented questionably helpful appearances in front the pissed off shareholders. But as often seems to happen, he set himself up as the potential hero in the end, in a half hour that may help point the way towards a potential conclusion to the series.

13. The Late Show with David Letterman (October 1): Boy, when Dave tells his audience a story, he really tells them a story. Letterman’s revelation that he had been the victim of attempted extortion, and that said extortion related to his history of affairs with members of his staff, was so artfully done that in a year dominated by news of male celebs behaving badly, he made himself highly sympathetic.

14. “Hungry Man,” Dexter (November 22): This is on my list for one awesomely tense scene: Dexter’s attendance at the Thanksgiving meal of Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow) and family. Mitchell’s family isn’t aware (as Dexter and the audience are) that Daddy has been a serial killer for decades, but it’s apparent from their nerves and from Lithgow’s increasingly unhinged behavior that Norman Rockwell won’t be painting the Mitchells any time soon.

15. “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” True Blood (July 26): There wasn’t as much of Eric as a good hour of True Blood typically has, but this was a pretty representative hour of the series, featuring a flashback that was the most violent scene in its history, as well as a whole lot of orgying going on, as Sam Merlotte learned his new girlfriend was less perfect for him than he had hoped.

16. “Week Four: Walter,” In Treatment (April 27): Not that the Emmy voters noticed, but John Mahoney did great work this past season as a disgraced but still arrogant CEO who won’t admit his real issues even to himself, much less to the psychiatrist he’s paying. This was the episode where the walls really began to crumble; Mahoney looked almost physically ill as Walter unraveled.

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