Best show, best episode
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I always want to get my friends watching all my favorite TV shows—Parks And Rec, Community, etc. But I’m sometimes at a loss as to what episode to recommend watching first. Is there an episode of your favorite TV show that perfectly wraps up all your favorite aspects of the show? —Katie
I talked about Breaking Bad when we did the opposite of this question, our least favorite episodes of our favorite shows, so it seems only fair that I come back to it here. The main reason Breaking Bad’s season-three descent into squirmy familial discomfort and misery bugged me so much was that for me, the best parts of the series have always been when Walter White is either being an unmitigated badass, or struggling with his conscience and trying to decide, based on his own complicated internal barometers, whether that’s really the direction he wants for his life. I’m secretly of the Scott Tobias school of You Must Watch A Series From The Beginning, Even If The Beginning Is Weak, Or You’ll Miss Too Much, so I would absolutely recommend taking Breaking Bad from the start. But while the pilot is essential, intense, and ultimately pretty funny, the series hit a whole new groove for me with episode three, “…And The Bag’s In The River,” where Walter struggles to decide whether he wants to kill the drug dealer locked up in a basement. There are profound practical problems with either decision, and even more profound moral ones, and the show turns them over thoughtfully and with full consideration. But more significantly, the dealer and Walter start to talk, and to actually see each other as people, complicating the decision further. For me, this one was where the quality of the series first came into focus—the way it was planning on pursuing its themes methodically and intelligently, and what those themes were going to be. It also marked the point for me where Walter and Jesse became complicated enough that I cared about the decisions they made, and where I started seeing just how great the show’s core cast is. It also features some profound, significant forward movement for the cast, which tends to sum up what I like most in any episode of any serialized story.
Had I not recently written about “The Constant” for The A.V. Club’s Advent Calendar, that Lost classic would be my choice here. And while I also subscribe to the notion that it’s often best to watch every series from the start, I’m going to buck the trend here by listing the very first episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer I ever saw: season six’s “Once More With Feeling.” It’s an entirely bizarre introduction to the series, filled with characters I didn’t know and situations that were essentially impenetrable. But the wit, pathos, and sheer audacity on display convinced me to start the show from scratch and see what led up to that particular episode. By the time I came full circle, I realized that “Once More” is singular in the show’s run, but also representative of the show’s signature qualities: its love of language, love of genre, and above all, love of character. It isn’t a stand-alone episode, in which the world of Buffy suddenly stops for a ratings stunt. It’s as much a part of the season’s continuity as its series’ continuity, layering in a demon who forces characters to sing out their deepest desires at a moment in which everyone is keeping secrets from each other. “Once More” isn’t just an homage to why people bother to sing in musicals. It’s an homage to the way Buffy, as a whole, used pop culture to illuminate the joy and pain loved ones can bring each other.
If you haven’t experienced the nail-biting wonder of The Shield, you should definitely stop reading right now. While the resolution of the series’ main character, Vic Mackey—played expertly by Michael Chiklis—left some people cold (not me, I’m just sayin’), the final scene of Shane Vendrell—played expertly by Walton Goggins—really provided the full-stop for the series. It was clear after a couple of seasons that The Shield wasn’t just another cop show, but the depth to which Goggins took his character was incredible. Who would have thought a few seasons prior that his goofy, redneck shitkicker would end up—seriously, spoiler alert—having an emotional epiphany that led to the murder of his wife and beloved son, and then himself? It’s a brutally honest moment in a brutally honest episode.
I’ve been fortunate enough to write about a lot of my favorite episodes of television for this site, whether it’s “Boy The Earth Talks To” on Deadwood or “Long Term Parking” on The Sopranos. And if you’ve ever corralled me somewhere and asked me to talk about my absolute favorite episode of my favorite show, I’ve probably gone on at length about “Marge Vs. The Monorail” from The Simpsons. But one episode I got to write about last year stands out to me, because it’s the episode that made me realize, “Hey, this television thing might be something I’m really interested in.” That episode is the third-season X-Files masterpiece, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” an absolutely genius episode that starts from a very typical place for that show—an alien abduction—and winds in and around the story in such a way that it makes fun of the show itself, pokes holes in the idea of UFO conspiracies, suggests a much more plausible alternative theory, and finally gets back around to examining the great theme of the episode’s writer, Darin Morgan, which is the way all human beings are ultimately alone, whether we want to admit it or not. It’s a brilliant piece of television, one I’ve seen probably three dozen times, and after I first saw it at age 15, I knew I’d found a new calling.
Seinfeld is, to me, the quintessential American television show. I couldn’t possibly imagine any other comedy, drama, reality competition, or variety hour that would give aliens or future homo sapiens a better and more entertaining snapshot of our complexly self-absorbed, collective Western psyche. And amid a landmark fourth season, itself part of the show’s hugely influential panoply of sitcom perfection, “The Cheever Letters” makes me laugh harder than any single episode of TV I’ve ever seen. Consistently. Every time. The notorious “panty remark” scene—in which Jerry confesses to George that he scared off a date with inept dirty talk about “the panties your mother laid out for you”—is Seinfeld at its most impossibly charming. George, for once, gets to convey his exasperation with Jerry, whose boundless immaturity even extends to the bedroom; the punchline itself (taken from the actual life of writer Tom Leopold) is transcendentally embarrassing but comically wholesome, and there’s even a suggestive little sight gag involving George’s malfunctioning ketchup bottle. The fact that such an indelible exchange (punctuated by Elaine’s gotcha zinger at the episode’s end) is incidental to discovering that Susan’s father (Warren Frost) carried on a longstanding bisexual affair with famed writer John Cheever. The structure not only offers wall-to-wall funny, it flaunts Larry David and his team operating at their functionally loony best.
I’m a fan of bottle episodes, mainly because they shake up a show’s formula, and leave viewers really satisfied without knowing that often the reason for the bottle episode is so the producers can cut costs for a week and use the savings elsewhere. One of my all-time favorite bottle episodes was when the gang at M*A*S*H spent “A Night At Rosie’s” during the show’s seventh season. Yes, at that point the show was deep into preachy territory, but this was one of the episodes where the original anarchic spirit came through. It opens with Hawkeye, coming into the just-outside-camp watering hole early one morning after being in surgery for two days straight, and ordering “a beer and a bowl.” He pours some Rice Krispies in the suds. One by one, the major members of the camp come into Rosie’s and don’t leave, with Hawkeye and BJ deciding they’ve had enough of the horror and declaring Rosie’s a sovereign country. Meanwhile, Charles comes in to demand Hawkeye fulfill his officer-of-the-day duties and gets tied up for his trouble, Margaret falls in love with a scrappy sergeant named Scully, and a massive brawl breaks out. Colonel Potter eventually gets the gang to come back to camp, but not after a night of fun that everyone desperately needed. Yes, I’ve pretty much memorized this episode.
Tasha beat me to the punch on Breaking Bad, so I’m afraid you won’t get to read my thoughts on the awesomeness of “Half Measures.” Instead, I’ll delve into the archives a bit and tackle a comedy which tends to be so revered by its fans that those who’ve only read about it are almost afraid to give it a chance, lest it not live up to their expectations. I’m willing to accept that The Young Ones may be less an all-time classic than an artifact of its time, but if you’re ever going to appreciate the adventures of British college students Mike, Rick, Vyvyan, and Neil, then the best way to start is with the second-season premiere, “Bambi.” Although it’s just as all over the place as any of the episodes, there’s some semblance of a traditional plot—the lads find their way onto an episode of University Challenge (an adventure which I wrote about in my first-ever piece for The A.V. Club)—and in addition to offering up several great guest stars (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson), it offers one of the best musical performances of the entire run of the series, courtesy of Mötorhead. It just doesn’t get better than “Ace of Spades.”
Although I wrote about “The Sermon For Today” for my Very Special Episode column, my favorite episode of The Andy Griffith Show is “Class Reunion,” primarily for the first seven minutes, in which Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith) and his deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) sort through some memorabilia of their teen years. That scene should be issued to anyone who wants to learn how to write Southern characters, and how to act them. Beginning with Andy and Barney moving a heavy trunk and worrying that one of them might have ripped their pants (“You’re all clear. How about me?” “10-4.”), the conversation evolves into a discussion of those “make money in your spare time” ads, and then a casual chat about what’s in Barney’s trunk, starting with a rock (“my daddy’s rock”) that Barney used to strike a match on to light his father’s pipe. Then Andy finds their old yearbook, which he himself no longer has because “Aunt Bea gave it away to a disease drive.” They talk about the club that Andy was in but Barney wasn’t, because ”Jack Egbert didn’t like you.” Then Andy looks at Knotts’ yearbook picture—”I was painfully thin then,” Barney says. “I got my mother’s family’s frame. When I was 17, I could reach into a milk bottle and pull out an egg.”—and looks over Barney’s list of high-school achievements, including “board of directors of the tin-foil drive” and ”volleyball-court maintenance crew.” After a pause, a still-fuming Barney mutters, “You know, Jack Egbert was no prize.” The way the dialogue subtly smiles at the piddly details of Podunk life—without ever smirking or mocking it—encapsulates everything I love about Andy Griffith.
Choosing a favorite episode of The Simpsons during its golden era is a Sophie’s Choice-type proposition, in that it almost invariably leads to the death of a small child. (And yet I’m doing it here all the same!) Television doesn’t get better than The Simpsons at its best: For that matter, pop culture doesn’t get better than The Simpsons at its best. And I cannot think of an episode that has stuck with me or provided more pure joy than “Marge Vs. The Monorail.” I grew up loving musicals—my father fed me a steady diet of them as a kid, in an attempt to rid me of my burgeoning heterosexuality—so when my favorite program spoofed one of my favorite musicals, The Music Man, I was overjoyed. Actually, “Marge Vs. The Monorail” doesn’t spoof The Music Man so much as it pays loving homage. As written by young-whippersnapper-with-a-rosy-future Conan O’Brien, the episode is defined by an infectious sense of joy, never more so than during “Monorail Song,” a toe-tapping spoof of The Music Man’s “Trouble.” But the soul of “Marge Vs. The Monorail” is Phil Hartman’s wonderful vocal turn as con-man extraordinaire Lyle Lanley. Lanley was the latest in a long line of smarmy über-narcissists Hartman voiced on The Simpsons (you might remember him from such unforgettable early fixtures as Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, as well as a number of great Lanley-like one-shot characters) but Hartman made me root for him and his nefarious schemes all the same, even if, unlike The Music Man’s Henry Hill, his huckster exterior most assuredly did not mask the proverbial heart of gold.
Last year, Erik Adams did a tremendous Gateway To Geekery for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 which involved watching a few episodes at our office. Watching part of the “Pod People” episode with him took me back to my first exposure to the series, which also happens to remain my favorite entry in the show’s run: “Time Of The Apes.” It’s hard to list some of the contextual jokes here and have them make sense, but the plot summary of the Japanese film should be enough to hook any viewer game for fun: Two children and an adult are frozen and wake up thousands of years in the future when the earth is ruled by apes (sound familiar?), including one leader who looks like Colonel Sanders. There, they get assistance from a renegade human named Godo. The cheap, campy, rip-off nature of the film only adds a layer of surrealism to the comedic observations that come rapid-fire and on-point from the show’s three jokesters.
I don’t know if The Bob Newhart Show is my favorite TV show ever, but it’s on the short list of a dozen or so shows I like as much as anything and never seem to get tired of revisiting, and I do know what my favorite episode is: “Death Be My Destiny,” a hilarious take on a heavy subject that makes getting laughs out of every person’s deepest fear look easy. It’s the one where Bob receives a memento mori after almost falling down an elevator shaft, and transfers his terror of dying into a phobia about elevators. It’s the perfect half-hour for anyone who ever wondered what Newhart had that so many other comedians who tried to helm their own series didn’t have: his regular-boring-guy dryness, which he knew how to use to get laughs without ever overdoing it and becoming a cartoon, took the curse off touchy material and allowed the more broadly funny members of the supporting cast freedom to strut their stuff without threatening his position as the show’s indispensable tentpole. Room for one more!
Unlike countless other shows where the first episode isn’t indicative of a show’s entire run, Friday Night Lights’ pilot is about as pure a distillation of the issues it wanted to grapple with as possible. I still vividly remember reading Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times review when the show premièred, which called the pilot “not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting.” The fourth-season standout “The Son” remains my pick for the strongest episode of the entire series, but it holds that place partly because of how it rewards entire seasons of groundwork to make Matt Saracen’s unraveling so significant. The pilot, on the other hand, really puts the hooks in right from the start. If you’re immune to those 40-plus minutes of the show, especially Kyle Chandler’s final speech, no subsequent episode is going to further convince you to invest your time.