It's time for our annual list of the 50 best episodes of the past year. (For last year's list check the bottom of this column.) We'll be counting down 10 episodes a day until we get to the best episode of 2002 on Friday. The episodes on this list are based on nominations by myself and the staff as to what we think the standout moments of the year were. In some cases while we were fans of certain series we couldn't pin down a particular episode we thought was of special merit so don't be stunned to see a few of our regular favorites missing from the list. As always I'm sure we'll differ from your favorites so we'll give you a chance to submit your own later this week. Anyway, without further ado...
50. "everwood: pilot" (wb)
originally aired: september 16, 2002
While easy to dismiss as a cross-section of overused TV clich�s (man leaves big city for a small town, man speaks to his dead wife, moppet child is wiser beyond her years, etc.) "Everwood" started off - and continues to be - a surprisingly engaging drama. Key to that has been the series' strange ability to put a new spin on said clich�s. Want to keep "the" boy and "the" girl apart? How about throw in the fact the girl is still in love with her boyfriend - who just happens to be in a coma caused in part by her own brother's recklessness. Want to throw a wrench in the little girl's budding friendship with the bully at school? Mention that the bully happens to not only play with dolls, but actually had been born with both sex organs. Sure it sounds like something out of "Days of Our Lives," but if you watch the show, the writers, producers and actors somehow manage to make this all feel "right" and compelling. The pilot in particular hit all these notes as all the characters were cleverly introduced. I mean who would have thought the bus-driver narrator was actually the husband of the woman who works for Dr. Brown and is also the mother of the man whose daughter Dr. Brown's son is in love with. Nothing is simple in "Everwood" and we wouldn't have it any other way.
49. "family guy: family guy viewer mail #1" (fox)
originally aired february 14, 2002
Not a stranger to breaking the fourth wall, "Family Guy" did nothing but in this installment where the characters answer fan mail about the show. The resulting vignettes were priceless, including one where the Griffin family all get superpowers. Our favorite dialogue:
Peter (watching Seseme Street): Hey, is the Count a Vampire?
Brian: What's that?
Peter: Well he's got these big fangs. Have they ever shown him doin' somebody in and then feedin' on em?
Brian: You're, you're asking me if they've ever done a Seseme Street in which the Count kills somebody and then sucks their blood for sustenance?
Brian: No, they've never done that.
48. "undeclared: eric's p.o.v." (fox)
originally aired march 12, 2002
"Undeclared" closed its run with a truly laugh out loud installment featuring Ben Stiller as Eric's (Jason Segel) stepdad. One of the funniest running gags of the show was the copy center trio of Jason Segel, David Krumholtz and Kyle Gass and this episode put them front a center. Still agonizing over losing his girlfriend Lizzie, Eric's quest to get her back sees him doing everything from accidentally swallowing someone else's tongue ring to seeking advice from his stepdad (Stiller), a 12-step program addict. I say it too much at this site: damn, I'll miss this show.
47. "titus: insanity genetic, part 2" (fox)
originally aired august 5, 2002
Not many series have the stones to end their runs with a main character being sent to a mental ward (okay "Seinfeld" ended with everybody going to jail), but as always "Titus" bucked the trend. After being arrested by the F.B.I. due to a misunderstanding on an airplane, the Titus clan is forced to either commit Christopher or risk spending 20 years in jail - a decision made easier when they find out Christopher's commitment would only be three months. Definitely not something you'd see on "Friends." As clich� as these words are, dark and edgy "Titus" was and we'll miss the show because of the chances it took to find new sources of humor.
46. "curb your enthusiasm: the benadryl brownie" (hbo)
originally aired september 22, 2002
It's almost impossible to describe what makes this show so funny. But for those who are familiar with it: Larry David and cell phones. Enough said.
45. "south park: free hat" (comedy central)
originally aired july 10, 2002
"South Park" continues to not get enough credit for its skewering of pop culture. This episode in particular, where the boys try to prevent Steven Spielberg (coming off his "E.T." director's cut) from re-cutting "Raiders of the Lost Ark," provided loads of laughs by indicting the strange phenomenon as of late where directors sanitize and change their films from its original form for no apparent reason. Even better was an amusing live-action sequence where creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone make an appearance to sell a "special edition" of the pilot episode of "South Park" with improved special effects because after all "we always wanted Dewbacks walking around in the background but we couldn't afford it." Funny, funny stuff.
44. "futurama: where no fan has gone before" (fox)
originally aired april 22, 2002
"Another great science fiction series canceled before its time," says Bender in one of the series' more clever outings. Fearing the effect they have on society, Earth had banished every episode of the original "Star Trek" to an uninhabited planet. Fry however is determined to find them: "The world needs Star Trek to give people hope for the future." "But," replies Leela, "it's set 800 years in the past!" Featuring appearances by virtually the entire original Trek cast (and even "The Next Generation's" Jonathan Frakes in an amusing bit), the episode was filled to the brim with everything from pot shots to insider jokes about "Star Trek" and science fiction fandom in general. But what really set it apart was its own subtle joking about its own future. Not since "Sports Night" has a series winded down its run more cleverly.
43. "the chris isaak show: chris isaak day" (showtime)
originally aired january 20, 2002
Showtime's "The Chris Isaak Show" works best when it plays against Isaak's own nice guy persona and there's few better than this entry in which he gets a street named after himself in his hometown. In his usual "aw-shucks" manner he attends the ceremony only to find not everybody is as excited as he is. A particularly funny sequence features Chris going to a store where he visited often as a kid only to have the owner get annoyed that he has to change all his stationary to "Chris Isaak Ave." Sure it's not groundbreaking comedy, but there's a style and mood to this show unique among any series you'll find on this list.
42. "buffy the vampire slayer: conversations with dead people" (upn)
originally aired november 12, 2002
"Buffy" has gotten a lot of mileage out bringing back dead characters and yet each time it doesn't feel cheap or out of place. A perfect example of this was in this episode where The First (i.e. the first evil of the world) plays its hand by impersonating those close to Buffy and her friends. From this we get everything from a heartbreaking scene between Willow and someone speaking for her beloved Tara to Dawn getting a visit from her mother in which she's told her sister won't choose her in the end. Heartbreaking and deliciously evil at the same time - that's "Buffy" at its best for sure.
41. "the west wing: game on" (nbc)
originally aired october 30, 2002
While I can't say I was a huge fan of "The West Wing's" ugly attempt to re-live the Bush/Gore election (the debate between Martin Sheen and James Brolin in this episode is particularly cringe inducing), the seed to what we presume will be Rob Lowe's exit from the series was watered in this episode. I fully expected his send off to be something quick and painless however Sorkin went against the grain here by starting a sub-plot about what the future of Sam Seaborn is. More importantly though, this episode brought Josh Malina ("Sports Night") back into regularly scheduled primetime programming. That's worth a spot on this list by itself.