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...
40. "without a trace: suspect" (cbs)
originally aired october 24, 2002
While it often feels like "C.S.I." transplanted into a missing persons setting, "Without a Trace" is slowly but surely forming its own identity. This episode in particular stood out as a fine showcase for lead Anthony LaPaglia in which a headmaster at a high priced prep school is suspected of kidnapping a child whom he was molesting. Left with no other means to find the child, LaPaglia appeals to the man's basest instincts by pretending to express sympathy over his disturbing predilection, even promising him five minutes alone with the child once they find him. When the boy is found, LaPaglia reveals his lie ("You've had your five minutes") but can't help but be disturbed what he had to in order to find the boy. The episode closes with something you don't see very often: LaPaglia's character throws up in disgust.
39. "the simpsons: i am furious yellow" (fox)
originally aired april 28, 2002
It's been a while since "The Simpsons" spent the bulk of an episode raking a social trend over the coals and in this case it was worth the wait. After Bart garners fame as a cartoonist by turning Homer into a comic called "Angry Dad," an internet company approaches him to turn it into a web cartoon. What follows is easily some of the funniest stuff "The Simpsons" has churned out in a while, especially if you've had any experience in the dot com field. Everybody here being from that background ourselves, we certainly couldn't not put this episode on the list.
38. "ed: trapped" (nbc)
originally aired november 20, 2002
Having dragged the Ed/Carol plotline kicking and screaming through its third season, the producers finally got around to answering the question of "will they or won't they?" Annoyed themselves by the constant bickering between Ed and Carol, their friends decide to use one of the best known TV plotlines to their advantage: they lock up Ed and Carol in the bowling alley and swear they won't let them out until they've sorted their feelings out. Things go through their usual motions as the two take a while to get civil and just when you think you know what's going to happen: the resolution turns out to be far from what you could have expected. In a dark twist, just as Carol is about to kiss Ed he stops her. Fed up with all the hoops he's had to jump through in the past three years, he says "I'm done," pushes her away and demands their friends open the door. Definitely not the sweet, syrupy dramedy the series started out as. Of special note in this episode was a fall out of your chair hilarious sequence in which Mike (an underrated Josh Randall) tries to entertain his wife and Molly while they wait in front of the bowling ally. Just the thought of Mike break dancing is enough to make me laugh any day of the week.
37. "the dead zone: destiny" (usa)
originally aired september 15, 2002
Everyone here admires when shows get bold and break from the norm and that was the case for the season finale of "The Dead Zone." Fully able to milk the Johnny/Sarah (an extremely likeable Anthony Michael Hall and Nicole de Boer) tension for seasons on end, the producers decided to take a different direction as the two have an affair. One of the more compelling elements of the series has been the heartbreaking notion that the five years he missed felt like yesterday to him but (obviously) five years to everyone else. Watching his now born son and now married girlfriend ripped away from him - but still be there - is an interesting twist, added to the fact he's burdened by abilities he doesn't completely want or understand. And when you consider that from Sarah's perspective that he hasn't changed a day since she last saw him (when they were deeply in love), it's twice as heartbreaking. It's nice to see these elements touched upon and used compellingly to push the series off in a different direction. Oh, and did we mention Johnny meets a politician and has a vision of Washington, D.C. in the middle of an apocalypse?
36. "haunted: grievous angels" (upn)
originally aired october 1, 2002
"Haunted" was one of those series that if you got past a decidedly weak pilot, you'd be surprised how good the show got. Such was the case with the series' second episode that made better use the "I'm back from the dead and now I can see them" plotline that seemed somewhat trite in the first episode. While investigating a missing club girl, Frank (Matthew Fox) is helped by one of her plucky friends who points him in the direction of a reckless British band. Frank is particularly invested as the parents of the missing girl had previously lost their elder daughter as well. When the truth is revealed (she was killed when she told one of the band members she was pregnant with his child), a heartbreaking sequence occurs where Frank realizes the girl who helped him was actually the ghost of the missing girl's older sister. Episodes like these showed that "Haunted" was not your typical "booga-booga" ghost story.
35. "buffy the vampire slayer: normal again" (upn)
originally aired march 12, 2002
One of the few highlights in an overall disappointing season was this episode in which Buffy is led to believe she isn't a vampire slayer at all. She wakes up in a mental ward where she's told the past six years were actually just her active imagination, an imagination that has forced her to be committed. The doctors (along with Buffy's now alive mom) offer her a solution to her dilemma however: the next time the "dreams" happen she should simply just kill off her friends as that will break the link between the two worlds in her mind. The ensuing climax was actually quite frightening as Buffy gets close to doing such a thing. Thankfully she doesn't and the twisted spell is broken.
34. "stargate sg-1: abyss" (sci fi)
originally aired july 19, 2002
Sure we were disappointed by Michael Shanks' exit from the show however a solid effort by Corin Nemec to fill the void made us look past losing the cast member. But it wasn't until this episode in which a captured O'Neill (the always great Richard Dean Anderson) is visited by the, well, let's just say spirit of Daniel Jackson that we remembered exactly what made Daniel such a special character, and more to the point, why his friendship with O'Neill was one of the series' best relationships. Captured after a botched rescue attempt, O'Neill finds himself being routinely tortured and subsequently brought back by a despot Goa'uld. As the repetition begins to eat away at his mind, he's visited by Daniel in an effort to ease his pain. He can't rescue him but he can take him to place he went. What results is a series of conversations that reveal how deep their friendship goes and also how O'Neill sees himself. As a whole this episode was a startling testament as to why this series shouldn't be cast into the B-list syndicated pool it often is characterized as in the mainstream media.
33. "angel: spin the bottle" (wb)
originally aired november 10, 2002
"Angel" has been home to some of the more radical character changes in the Joss Whedon universe. After all, toss in early episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and then watch a recent episode of "Angel" and you'd be hard pressed to see how those dots connected for a character like Cordelia Chase (the lovely Charisma Carpenter). But as long time viewers know, that progression has felt anything but abnormal as the spoiled brat rich girl has become something of a humbled warrior in the fight for good. So it was particularly interesting in this episode to see Cordelia (along with the rest of the cast) forced to revisit their younger selves after a memory spell goes awry. How Chase, David Boreanaz, Alexis Denisof and company all step their characters back a few years without missing a beat is something that borders on extraordinary to watch.
32. "monk: mr. monk and the airplane" (usa)
originally aired october 18, 2002
The title of the episode says it all for us.
31. "robbery homicide division: mini-mall" (cbs)
originally aired october 4, 2002
You'd be hard pressed to find a more riveting opening sequence in 2002 than in this episode of the now defunct drama "Robbery Homicide Division." In a montage of everyday events, Tom Sizemore and company go about their daily routine as the day winds to a close. We then see two black and whites doing the same thing as one must stop at a mini-mall to use a pay phone. As she gets out two men spot the squad car and assume they are coming for them and proceed to unload their automatic rifles into the car, murdering the cops. While it may sound pretty average, the execution was something to behold as the moody "Blood on the Motorway" (D.J. Shadow from the album Private Press) played in the background. Michael Mann has a knack for making what should be average look spectacular and that was definitely the case here.