With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
In 2000, Alan Ball, a TV writer who’d worked on Grace Under Fire and Cybill, hit the jackpot. American Beauty—a satirical melodrama he’d written about the suffering, brutalizing, twisted soul of the suburbs—won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), and Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), which is not too shabby for a movie that was originally turned down by Chevy Chase. Ball, whose script had already earned him a Golden Globe, took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The 43-year-old Ball found himself turned overnight into a very hot property. In an earlier era, this would have been his cue to line up his feature-directing debut. But in the post-Sopranos age, it was no longer clear that movies had more cultural cachet than TV. So Ball set out to join the ranks of HBO’s creative all-stars, creating Six Feet Under and continuing his exploration of the secretly tortured inmates of the normal American family.
The “ripping the lid off the ’burbs” genre was not new by the time Ball strapped it to his dissecting table. In fact, the genre was worn to the nub, having produced its masterpiece, Blue Velvet, 13 years earlier. What made American Beauty feel like a different, provocative take—aside from Kevin Spacey’s way with a put-down—was the power of its subtext: that, just as being trapped in the closet could turn a person into a self-hating bully and even a murderer, America’s reluctance to deal openly, honestly, and compassionately with homosexuality was making everyone miserable. Ball continued to tinker with this theme in Six Feet Under, which, like American Beauty, is basically a naturalistic family drama with a few mildly surreal touches.
In his second series, True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, Ball discovered the metaphorical power of the horror genre, as well as a setup that provided great opportunities for that eternal standby of HBO’s original programming, what used to be quaintly referred to as “gratuitous” sex and nudity, violence and gore. Instead of delicately addressing his theme, or alluding to it in code, he blew it sky high, to very gratifying effect.
True Blood is set in a steamy Louisiana backwater called Bon Temps, in a world where vampires, liberated from their need to feed on humans thanks to the development and marketing of a synthetic blood substitute called TruBlood, have “come out of the coffin.” Having had their existence officially recognized in the most American way possible—by being marketed to as a consumer bloc—they want to live peacefully among humans, assimilate, gain social acceptance, and accrue political power. At least, some of them do; others are proud of their identity as monsters on the margins of polite mainstream society, and they delight in their ability to disturb the sleep of the fangless squares. The most diabolically ambitious of them even dream of war, of turning back the clock to the Dark Ages when the Nosferatu were unquestioned masters of the earth, treating the cowering mortals as straw dogs.
Sookie (Anna Paquin), a telepath whose ability to hear the thoughts of those around her has been the bane of her social life, is the connection point between the human and vampire communities of Bon Temps. All but the most militant vampires take one look at her and start to think that maybe there could be something to this assimilation business after all. (In later seasons, it’s explained that it’s not so much what she looks like as how she smells. Sookie is a supernatural creature herself—a faerie, with blood that has an especially tantalizing aroma for vampires. In the kind of line that TV writers have learned to insert into their scripts since anticipating Internet reaction to big plot developments became a thing, Sookie herself reacts to the news of her faerie heritage by exclaiming, “How fucking lame!”)
When, in the first season, Sookie falls in love with the gallant, gentlemanly vampire (and Civil War veteran) Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a major part of his appeal is that she can’t read his mind; what makes him not human allows him to preserve some of his mystery, even after they’ve gone to bed together and rattled the shingles off the Stackhouse homestead. But Sookie is also, reluctantly, drawn to the “sheriff” of the local vampire community, the smoking-hot bad boy Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard), who isn’t looking to do anything that will cause trouble for himself but is far less enamored of the human race as a whole than the soft-hearted Bill. In pulp-fiction terms, one might say that Bill is the Martin Luther King of the vampire-rights movement and Eric is the Malcolm X, except that whenever Martin Luther King or Malcolm X made a speech, everyone in the audience wasn’t anxiously wondering how long it would be until he took his shirt off.
In terms of the role pop culture can play in charting and promoting social progress, True Blood is almost Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to Will & Grace’s Julia. The tame, formulaic Will & Grace, which was promoted as a trailblazing show less than a decade before True Blood premiered, was of the “We’re just like you, please don’t hit us!” school of tolerant-liberal entertainment. True Blood is more in the spirit of, “You’re right, we’re not like you. We’re a million times sexier, and if you hit me, I’ll tear your fucking head off!” To the limited degree that True Blood can be said to have a coherent philosophy, it’s a show that prizes differences. It’s in favor of individuality, and opposed to those who have a problem with that, whether it’s the human religious fundamentalists and peckerwood vigilantes who fear and despise the vamps, or the mealy-mouthed spokespersons and smiling fascist leaders of the Vampire Authority, who, for expediency’s sake, would slot everyone into the same square holes.
Long before its seventh and final season got underway, conventional wisdom held that True Blood had shot its wad and withered into a tawdry imitation of its own best self. As often as not, conventional wisdom has its head up its ass, but in this case, it’s probably made the right call. True Blood hit its full stride in its second and third seasons, with exciting storylines powered by tremendous back-to-back villains: Michelle Forbes as the maenad Maryann Forrester, whose powerful unleashing of deranging Dionysian energies made her a standout in the “gratuitous” sex-and-nudity category, and Denis O’Hare’s unrepentant vampire supremacist Russell Edgington. But even when the blood started to drain from the show’s cheeks, it still had a big cast full of talented actors who were game for anything, and a wild spirit that even the most misguided narrative choices could never entirely tamp down. Even viewers who tuned out on the show before it crossed the finish line will have reason to miss the people of Bon Temps.
“I Don’t Wanna Know” (season one, episode 10): The first season begins to gel with Sookie’s discovery that her boss and friend, the apparently uncomplicated good ol’ boy Sam Merlotte, is actually a shapeshifter, setting the stage for their big conversation about just how prevalent those who are supernatural—different—really are in society. The introduction of Deborah Ann Woll’s baby-vamp character, Jessica, counts as a quantum leap for the show in terms of its fun factor.
“You’ll Be The Death Of Me” (season one, episode 12): The first season’s finale episode wraps up an uninspired whodunit-mystery plot, while unfolding possibilities within possibilities for the characters’ futures, ending in a state of flux. The thing is, flux was always a good look for this show.
“Hard-Hearted Hannah” (season two, episode six): The Maryann Forrester story achieves maximum velocity with the most True Blood climactic set pieces in the history of True Blood: a bestial pagan orgy scene that proves sex and nudity can be sinister, and still delightfully gratuitous.
“I Will Rise Up” (season two, episode nine): A key episode in the development of the Eric-Sookie relationship, complete with Sookie healing Eric by sucking his blood for a change, and the heartbreaking exit of Eric’s maker, Godric—a being of godlike power who preaches peace and nonviolence and gets what preaching that usually gets you. Also, Jessica’s first boyfriend, Hoyt, urges her to meet his mother, a scene that defines the concept of “This can’t go well.”
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” (season two, episode 12): In an especially satisfying season finale, Maryann goes out in glory, and Sam proves that, despite all the evidence included in the rest of the series, there are certain situations in which he can be good for something.
“I Got A Right To Sing The Blues” (season three, episode six): Russell Edgington all but takes full control of the show, and hints are dropped that Sookie has a major secret that even she isn’t in on. Also, does anyone remember that Evan Rachel Wood used to be on this show? I’m not sure she remembers, either.
“Everything Is Broken” (season three, episode nine): When all the copies of all the episodes of True Blood have burned to radioactive ash and the last survivors of our world have hunkered around the last campfire, they’ll be talking about their grandparents’ descriptions of Denis O’Hare’s big editorial reply scene here. Great closing song, too.
“She’s Not There” (season four, episode one): The fourth season begins with a casually executed time-jump, when Sookie returns from the land of the faeries to discover that a year has passed in the lives of her friends and family, giving the writers an excuse to radically reshuffle many of the characters’ positions. The show would do basically the same thing at the end of the sixth season, but it’s more effective, and funnier, here.
“Cold Grey Light Of Dawn” ( season four, episode seven): The title refers to the lethal threat that sunlight represents to vampires, but also to the fact that, by the end of the previous episode, Sookie had finally succumbed to Eric’s Nordic charms. There is officially a love triangle! One with four sides, if Alcide counts.
“Lost Cause” (season seven, episode five): One of the nicer episodes from the later seasons, in which an impromptu wake for Alcide shifts into a hangout episode with most of the remaining characters flirting, dancing, reminiscing, and even a marriage proposal. As the evening winds down and Jessica and Jason find themselves alone, the two of them even remember that they’re hot for each other, which allows for some gratuitous… you know the drill.
And if you liked those, here are 10 more: “Cold Ground” (season one, episode six); “Nothing But The Blood” (season two, episode one); “Shake And Fingerpop” (season two, episode four); “Timebomb” (season two, episode eight); “Trouble” (season three, episode five); “Fresh Blood” (season three, episode 11); “Evil Is Going On” (season three, episode 12); “If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin’?” (season four, episode three); “I Wish I Was The Moon” (season four, episode six); “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (season five, episode one.)
Availability: The entire series can be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray, downloaded via iTunes or Amazon, viewed on HBO GO, and the first three seasons can be streamed on Amazon Prime.