It's time for our annual list of the 50 best episodes of the past year. (For previous lists check the bottom of this column.) We'll be counting down 10 episodes a day until we get to the best episode of 2003 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. Anyway, on with the show...
10. "joan of arcadia: pilot"
originally aired: september 26, 2003
Just a fantastic opening to what's becoming one of our favorite series, "Joan of Arcadia" surprised us all with its touching look at family, God and well, just being a teenager. Not since "Once & Again" left the airwaves has a TV family felt more compelling and real.
9. "the wire: all prologue" (hbo)
originally aired: july 6, 2003
There's simply been nobody like Omar (Michael K. Williams) on television before and he absolutely steals the show in this episode as he's called on to testify for the D.A.'s office. After being grilled by the defense for his less than moral activities, Omar responds with a amazing, funny and cheer inducing monologue about the legal system.
8. "twenty four: day 2: 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m."
originally aired: may 20, 2003
Who doesn't love cliffhangers? This one certainly blew us away as out of nowhere season one assassin Mandy (Mia Kirshner) appears and gives President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) a poisonous handshake. Just the image - the president laying on the ground - and the sounds - his heart beating - as the clock ticked away its final seconds - still gives us chills.
7. "the shield: dead soldiers" (fx)
originally aired: january 14, 2003
Do not piss off Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). When drug lord Armando "Armadillo" Quinter (Danny Pino) is caught raping young girls and tattooing them, Vic gives him a tattoo of his own: he holds Armadillo's face on an electric stove and burns it. Just thinking about it still gives us the heeby jeebies.
5. "six feet under: i'm worry i'm lost" (hbo)
originally aired: june 1, 2003
Like a drink of water in the desert, "Six Feet Under's" season finale reinvigorated the series plodding and depressing third season. Everybody gets to shine here - from Ruth seeing her late husband crying over her new marriage to Nate's turning up on Brenda's doorstep - it all felt like the old "Six Feet Under" we know and love.
4. "without a trace: fallout, part 2" (cbs)
originally aired: may 15, 2003
Just the image of Jack (Anthony LaPaglia), arriving home after one of the worst days in his life, slumping in his chair across from his sleeping wife as the camera pans between a photo of the New York skyline and the current view without the Twin Towers while Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" plays might just be one of the most beautiful and haunting scenes that has appeared on television in years.
3. "alias: phase one" (abc)
originally aired: january 26, 2003
The TV equivalent of knocking all the chess pieces on a board to the floor and starting a new game, "Alias'" Super Bowl episode rewrote the book on everything we've come to expect from the series each week. And damn if it wasn't one of the most riveting hours of TV of the past year. Plus who could forget the jaw-dropping final moments as we see Francie's (Merrin Dungey) body with a bullet hole in her head.
3. "ed: captain lucidity" (nbc)
originally aired: february 26, 2003
Ed's (Thomas Cavanagh) experimentation with lucid dreaming was by far and away the best episode to date from the Stuckeyville gang and easily the funniest of any series last year. Filled with far too many laugh out loud moments to list here, "Ed" works best when the whole cast gets involved and the writers just have fun.
2. "carnivale: the day that was the day" (hbo)
originally aired: november 30, 2003
After 11 weeks of vague intuitions and shell games that could give "The X-Files" a run for its money, the "Carnivale" crew pulled back the certains so to speak for all to see in this episode. And by God was it white knuckle, turn off the lights and sit with your mouth wide open "holy shit" compelling. Plus any show that can trot out Hans Zimmer's score from "Thin Red Line" to raise the drama even further deserves kudos in our book.
1. "everwood: episode 20" (wb)
originally aired: may 5, 2003
Just wow. We'll say it again: wow. It had all the early markings of a cringe-inducing "very special episode" but damn if it wasn't the best hour of TV in 2003. A pregnant teenager (Kate Mara) and her father (Kevin Tighe) come to Dr. Brown (Treat Williams) for guidance about terminating her pregnancy. What followed absolutely blew us away. Characters take surprising positions on the issue, particularly Dr. Abbott (Tom Amandes) who with each week is becoming one of the most interesting characters on TV, a far cry from the fussy stick-in-the-mud he was originally introduced as. The whole "Everwood" crew should take an big bow for not letting the issue at hand get in the way of the characters, something that dogears all "very special episodes."