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...
20. "the job: barbecue" (abc)
originally aired march 13, 2002
This under appreciated series gave one of its finest entries in this hilarious episode that saw the squad attending Pip's (Bill Nunn) barbecue. From McNeil's (the always fun Denis Leary) feeble attempts to hide his philandering to the squad themselves trying to cover for their drinking during the "dry" party, this episode kept me in stitches from start to finish. Damn I miss this show.
19. "scrubs: my big mouth" (nbc)
originally aired october 17, 2002
Some of the funniest moments from "Scrubs" come from J.D. (Zach Braff) and the Janitor's (Neil Flynn) little trysts and you can't get much better than in this episode where J.D. accidentally calls the Janitor stupid. What follows is some of the funniest stuff the series has managed to date. Mocking his words the Janitor begins to torture J.D. with feigned signs of stupidity: everything from not being able eat to his soup with a fork to not knowing how to answer a telephone. Even better is when J.D. tries to apologize: "I know you're not stupid, I mean it's not like you're ladling out sloppy joes all day or anything..." only to turn around to the steely gaze of a cafeteria worker. The Janitor then takes him under his wing in his attempts to annoy J.D. Funny, funny stuff.
18. "the sopranos: the strong, silent type" (hbo)
originally aired november 17, 2002
Intervention never got a more amusing twist than in this episode where the Soprano clan tries to confront Christopher (Michael Imperioli) over his drug addiction. None too pleased by their attacks, Christopher launches into his own full frontal assault, laying out some of their own dirty laundry in front of their wives and friends. Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) returns to fine form here as he lets "Chrissy" really know how he feels about the situation.
17. "monk: mr. monk and the candidate" (usa)
originally aired july 12, 2002
The opening image of a crowd of police officers reacting jaws open to Adrian Monk's investigation of a murder scene made an instant impression as to what this series would be. It seems Monk can't get past the fact he thinks he left his iron on. Never mind the fact he's already pieced together what happened at the scene. Such a strange (and charming) dichotomy is central to what makes "Monk" so enjoyable. Here's a man that for all his talents and abilities, is handcuffed by his own mental issues. Sweetly underplayed by Tony Shalhoub, Monk is one of the most original characters to come down the TV pipe in quite some time. Sure, his cases seem like they fell out of a 1991 episode of "Murder, She Wrote" but that's not the point - you're there for the show, not the meal. Equal kudos go out to his nurse/assistant Sharona (Bitty Schram) whose disgusted/sympathetic reactions to Adrian's foibles make the series twice as enjoyable.
16. "once & again: the gay-straight alliance" (abc)
originally aired march 11, 2002
One of the best things about "Once & Again" was its immensely talented cast of young actors. Two of them: Julia Whelan and Evan Rachel Wood get placed front and center in this episode about their attractions to "taboo" people - the former her teacher (Eric Stoltz) and the latter her girlfriend Katie (Mischa Barton). I have to say, both of these storylines were hard sells to me on paper but as usual Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick delivered, providing one of the most emotional episodes of the series' third (and sadly final season). Also, I would be remised if I didn't mention Zwick's fine turn as Jesse's therapist Dr. Rosenfeld, whose interaction with Jesse over the course of the series provided several great moments.
15. "smallville: tempest" (wb)
originally aired may 21, 2002
You'd be hard pressed to find a more riveting cliffhanger that "Smallville's" first season swan song. Everything from personal to life and death issues got the four-star treatment in this episode, where a trio of tornados hit Smallville. I don't know about you guys, but from the haunting image of Lex (Michael Rosenbaum in a breakout role) pausing to see if he should his save his father to Clark (an underrated Tom Welling) racing without fear into the eye of the storm left an impression that lasted all summer. September 24 couldn't have gotten here fast enough.
14. "enterprise: dear doctor" (upn)
originally aired january 23, 2002
The first truly great episode of the latest "Star Trek" spin-off saw the same kind of ethical dilemma that has defined the franchise over the past 30 plus years. After stumbling upon a planet with two different races, the crew learns that the dominant one (the Valakians) requires medical assistance as they are suffering from a devastating plague. A problem arrives however when Dr. Phlox (the always enjoyable John Billingsley) - in his quest for a cure - discovers that the Valakians are actually suffering from a genetic flaw that if left unchecked would signal the extinction of their race. Throwing an even larger complication into the mix is the fact that the "lesser" race (the Menk) is not only immune to the plague but also is showing signs that they are on their way to involving into a highly intelligent race. As most "Star Trek" fans know, despite the dilemma, the Prime Directive tells them not to interfere with other races' affairs. But "Enterprise," taking place before the days of Kirk and Picard, has no such limitation so it's almost twice as heartbreaking to see Capt. Archer (Scott Bakula) wrestle with the issue. Should they play God and help them, forever changing how the natural progression of things? Or should they leave them alone, sacrificing millions to keep the principle behind the Prime Directive intact? You can't get much better "Trek" than that.
13. "alias: almost thirty years" (abc)
originally aired may 12, 2002
"Alias" closed its freshman season in the same fine fashion it started, even mirroring the events of the pilot in some sequences. The closing act however pushed this episode into "the best of the series" territory. Syd's (the great Jennifer Garner) heartbreaking reaction to seeing Vaughn (Michael Vartan) swept away to his apparent death had us gasping for air ourselves. But who could forget her closing words as the mysterious "The Man" approached: "Mom?"
12. "the wire: old cases" (hbo)
originally aired june 23, 2002
While the taboos of adult language and nudity are slowly being eaten away on network television, it could be only on HBO that you have an entire five minute sequence where two characters simply say "fuck" in a myriad tones as they investigate a crime scene. This series got a lot of flack for its rampant potty mouthing but I deny anyone to watch that scene without cracking a smile. More importantly is that it fit perfectly with the harried personalities of partners McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and wasn't just a cheap "we're on HBO" stunt.
11. "the sopranos: whitecaps" (hbo)
originally aired december 8, 2002
Everybody was waiting to see who the big "whacking" would be this year but I don't think anybody saw it being the Sopranos' marriage. In a magnificent example of acting at its finest, Edie Falco and James Gandolfini (both of whom more or less locked up their Emmy nominations in this episode) have a throw down four years in the making where nothing was taboo. Just as powerful were the children's reactions, including a brief flashback to one of the series' earliest episodes. The 16 month wait was definitely worth this payoff.