Best TV show, worst 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.
My boyfriend recently confessed to detesting Mad Men. I completely understood his stance once he said he based his opinion on the only episode he had seen, “The Chrysanthemum And The Sword,” in which Sally Draper masturbates, Betty slaps her, and Roger Sterling hates Japanese people. The episode relied on the shocking truths of its era in a petty way that the series normally resists. That episode, I think, is a great show at its worst. What are the worst episodes of your favorite shows? —Ben
This is going to make Todd mad, and probably some other people too, but I absolutely hated the Breaking Bad episode “Fly.” HATED it. It doesn’t advance the overall plot, it doesn’t develop the characters, it teases the idea that it just might go somewhere, with an exhausted Walt almost revealing the truth to Jesse about what happened the night his girlfriend died… and then it doesn’t. But mostly, it’s just the two characters chasing a fly around a room for an hour. For me, it was boring and annoying and a waste of time. It was also a vision of Walt that did not in any way coincide with the mental image I’d built of him over the course of the series, as a self-justifying, angry man who could be a real badass when required: Instead, we have to see him as irrational and petty to the point of rank stupidity, taking moronic action after action that clearly risks his safety and well-being… all to catch a fly. If I wanted to convince someone that this show had flown up its own ass and had nothing more to offer, this is the episode I’d show them.
The classic Mary Tyler Moore Show was probably the platonic incarnation of a kind of sitcom that, in its purest form, barely exists now, a hangout show with a bunch of ideally relatable characters who function together as a family. Current shows that use a similar template, such as 30 Rock and Community, are primarily concerned with being funny and playing around with the form, but while TMTMS was often funny, its primary appeal for most viewers was that it made them want to be one of those people. Somehow, I doubt that many people want to be Kenneth the page. (The closest recent equivalent may actually be, God help us all, Entourage.) The characters sometimes got to do things that were fairly extreme for their time, such as when Ted was temporarily stricken with impotence and Lou and Sue Ann had a one-night stand, but the very nature of the show meant there was a medium-low ceiling for how painful and open-ended their problems could be; everything had to be wrapped up, or at least made peace with, by the end of the half hour. The show hit that ceiling, with a loud splat, when Murray—always the most problematic character, because he was the one the show was most likely to ask us to just feel sorry for—decided he was in love with Mary and spent a whole episode building up to telling her how he felt. She let him down gently, of course, which was the kindest result he could have possibly hoped for: If she’d even suggested that she might be open to him leaving his wife for her, angry mobs would have converged on the CBS building and burned it to the ground. The final image of this humiliated, perpetually dissatisfied middle-aged man, who would have made an exceptionally creepy stalker if he’d only had the energy, sitting alone with his misery lingered in the background of the show until the end of its run. And sometimes it would move uncomfortably to the foreground, as whenever Murray would get bitchy about the guys Mary dated, one of whom—somewhere, Sigmund Freud is puking—turned out to be Murray’s father.
Firefly didn’t last long enough to have a chance to grow terrible. But even at the series’ scant 14-episode length, there’s room for a weak link—and “Safe” is it. Granted, the haughty, reserved Simon Tam is the one Firefly character I always had a hard time connecting with—which was sort of the point, only he never really got the chance to evolve. He certainly doesn’t do it in “Safe.” After being captured by villagers from a Salem-in-space-like sect, Simon and his psychic-warrior sister River are more or less abandoned by their reluctant smuggling-ship captain, Mal Reynolds. There’s more behind that abandonment, of course, but not much, which makes the eventual cavalry appearance feel less like an inevitability and more like a crutch. Worse, though, is Simon’s ultimate heroic gesture (and accompanying mini-speech), which he somehow manages to make more about him than her. It’s partly due to a wooden script and partly due to a wooden performance on the part of actor Sean Maher. Combined, they make for one of Firefly’s few glaring, jarring false notes, not to mention its lone sore-thumb episode.
Only the most devout Whedonites would be willing to claim that there’s no such thing as a bad Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, but there’s a vocal group which likes to pretend that their man Joss got all of the dross out of his system during the show’s first season. Don’t you believe it. Even as late as season six, there were still occasional craptacular segments. The evidence: “Doublemeat Palace,” which slaps one of the most powerful female characters in recent television history behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant. Whedon has said in the past that this storyline ultimately fell by the wayside because the network was skittish about taking on a concept that highly resembled some of their major advertisers, and if that’s true, then we owe a big thank-you to the Golden Arches for keeping a potential long-term plot arc down to only one hard-to-watch hour. There’s dark comedy to be had out of the hamburger industry, but this silly storyline was woefully out of place in the Slayer’s world.
While I remain fiercely, perhaps even irrationally devoted to Mad Men, I really, really did not care for “The Summer Man,” the episode from the show’s fourth season in which a newly sober Don Draper takes up lap-swimming and—say it ain’t so—journaling. The healthy habits were meant to illustrate how Don had turned over a new leaf, and the message was virtually impossible to miss. Everything about the episode —the voiceover from Don’s diaries, the POV shot of an icy tumbler full of whiskey, the water/rebirth metaphor—struck me as obvious, ham-fisted, and out of character on a show distinguished by its pleasurably oblique storytelling. Even the soundtrack (e.g. “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones playing as Don ogles some female passersby) was way too on-the-nose. And as much as I adore 30 Rock, I found “Stone Mountain”—the episode in which Jack and Liz travel to Kenneth’s hometown to find out what middle America finds funny—annoyingly self-conscious. And there’s no excuse for giving the dreadful ventriloquist/insult comic Jeff Dunham, who made a guest appearance in “Stone Mountain,” any more air time than he already has.
Even though Seinfeld is considered one of the greatest, most influential sitcoms of all time, it was far from perfect. In fact, Jerry, Larry David, and company were good for at least one or two cringe-inducing episodes per season, usually centering around an absurd Kramer plot (pigman, anyone?) or a George plot that went one step beyond funny into “That’s just wrong” territory. But the clunkers increased after David left and Seinfeld himself took over the day-to-day running of the show. There was more absurdity, more forced catchphrasing (“The Yada Yadda”) and more evidence that the writing staff was running out of things for the gang to do. It all culminated in “The Puerto Rican Day,” the last scripted episode before the David-written (and equally terrible) series finale. In it, the gang are blocked from going home from a Mets game by the Puerto Rican Day parade, and they each deal with it in a different way. While eventless episodes like this in the past were mostly classics, like “The Chinese Restaurant” or “The Parking Garage,” this one felt more like a hollow tribute to those episodes rather than the inspired idea it seemed like at the time. The episode culminates in Kramer accidentally setting fire to—and stamping out—the Puerto Rican flag. NBC pulled the episode from later runs due to the outcry over the flag scene, as well as a number of scenes that didn’t seem to shine a kind light on Puerto Ricans in general. But I always wondered if they just used that excuse to pull an extremely unfunny episode that smacked of a writing staff that was running out of gas.
As the last A.V. Club man standing (at least in Chicago) when it comes to watching The Simpsons every week, I’ve remained a dedicated fan for more than 20 years. If my loyalty were ever truly tested, it was during season nine’s infamous “The Principal And The Pauper,” where Seymour Skinner is revealed to be an imposter, only to have the whole plot chucked at the end of the episode. We talk about it in next week’s Inventory as a commentary on how long-running series deal with their characters, but the premise felt less like a sly nod than laziness masked as irony. Good thing it’s sandwiched between two great episodes, “The City Of New York Vs. Homer Simpson” and “Lisa’s Sax,” in a strong season that makes up for the misstep. The Simpsons even mocked the episode in season 11’s great “Behind The Laughter”—the Simpsons version of Behind The Music—when it says the show resorted to “gimmicky premises and nonsensical plots” over a clip from “The Principal And The Pauper.” Creator Matt Groening may not think the show’s quality has dipped, but even he knows that episode sucks.
Is there any praise to offer The Cosby Show that hasn’t already been offered? It was a wonderful ensemble show about family life that somehow managed to be funny while being sweet, comforting without being cloying. And it was one of the few television shows that made marriage look fun and sexy, even when family life took its toll. It’s the ultimate feel-good show. But what did not make me feel good was the 1989 episode “The Day The Spores Landed.” In it, Cliff dreams that all the men on the show are pregnant, and they eventually give birth to objects like hoagies and toy sailboats. This is one episode I would nap during if I was sick on the couch enjoying a Cosby binge. First, the Cosby show is not a dream-sequence type of show. It wasn’t the most realistic series ever, but I liked pretending it was real, so a piece of fantasy like this was off-tone for me. Plus, there was so much slapstick in the episode, like the pregnant men dancing around extensively; it just seemed less intelligent than the rest of the series. Finally, after waking up from his dream, Cliff tells Clair how much he appreciates her, and women in general. On a contextual level, this seemed unnecessary, as the issue of Cliff appreciating women never seemed to be a problem of his. (Elvin, on the other hand, could maybe use the lesson, but the show wasn’t about him, thank God.)
Throughout most of its run, HBO’s Big Love was uneven but compulsive viewing, sharply divided between the juicy domestic melodrama of three sister-wives and their husband in suburban Salt Lake, and the grotesqueries of the dusty Juniper Creek compound. But after hitting its stride in a superb third season that addressed various crises of faith head-on, Big Love swerved drastically in the wrong direction in season four, which became such a clusterfuck of zany subplots (like Bill’s absurd run for Republican state senator) that all credibility was gone. The fourth season hit its nadir in “Blood Atonement,” a notoriously awful hour that had Bill and his brother driving down to Mexico to free their parents and Bill’s son from Hollis Green’s poorly guarded compound. It was a “How did we get here?” moment from a show that had permanently lost its bearing.
From its onset, Mystery Science Theater 3000 gave itself an unenviable task: Making entertainment from the unentertaining. Miraculously, the series managed to do so for 10 seasons, 198 episodes, and a feature film. The secret? While the series purported to present the worst movies ever made, its writers instituted a degree of quality control that kept Joel Robinson, Mike Nelson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo from being subjected to anything truly wretched. However, that screening process didn’t prevent Best Brains, Inc. from hanging one of the series’ final episodes on a drab production of Hamlet made for German television. Bad drive-in fare is one thing, but bad Shakespeare is a whole different ball game—especially when Mike and the bots aren’t working with their A material. (Ghost: “Murder most foul.” Crow: “He killed a chicken?”) The movie is flatly dubbed, drearily staged, and statically blocked, but MST3K’s take on Hamlet comes off less like a group of smart-ass Midwesterners sticking it to pretentious Germans, and more like an impudent teen scribbling in the margins of a library book.
As The A.V. Club’s resident booster for The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, it pains me to even have to point out the show’s weak points. To its credit, the show had relatively few of them, but unfortunately for fans, the series finale, “Saturday,” was one of them. Perhaps remembered best as the episode where Big Pete gets an absolutely abysmal haircut from a chatty J.K. Simmons, the episode is scattershot at best, focusing on ancillary characters like Wayne, Monica, and Bus Driver Stu Benedict rather than on the Wrigley clan. The acting is overblown, the cinematography looks second-rate, and even the dialogue is awkward. It’s as if, knowing they were on their way out, everyone involved just gave up on Pete And Pete rather than putting out the best product possible. It’s disappointing, to say the least, and borderline-unwatchable, even for the most diehard fans.
30 Rock has never lacked ambition or audacity, but it’s never been as bold as when it decided to pay tribute to the television of yesteryear with a live episode. Live episodes are tricky and difficult under any circumstances, but for a show reliant on editing, machine-gun banter, and cutaways, it appeared downright foolhardy. While plenty of folks felt 30 Rock pulled off the live episode, including our estimable Todd VanDerWerff, I felt like it embodied all of the show’s flaws in unusually pure form. The demands of a live audience forced the cast to mug for the camera and hold for laughs, while the bigness of the comedy at times threatened to become Mama’s Family-broad. The in-jokes were leaden and widely telegraphed, and the whole shebang reeked of self-congratulation. 30 Rock eventually recovered, but the live episode suggested the show’s best days might permanently be in its distant past.
I watch enough old TV that I’m rarely put off by the attitudes of the time the TV was made in. It’s just a regrettable fact that older shows are going to hail from an era when gender roles were rigidly defined, and people liked to pretend other racial groups didn’t exist. This got particularly bad in the ’60s, when the country’s politics were exploding, but television aimed to portray America as a nice, safe place you’d like to visit, and maybe stay a while. This means that lots of my favorite shows from the era got caught up in reinforcing the rigidly defined world the people sitting at home and watching television (and not taking to the streets in protest) might like to see. Take, for instance, the Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Washington Vs. The Bunny,” which came fairly early in the show’s run. The writers were still figuring out how to balance Rob and Laura Petrie off each other, and this episode seems especially clanging to modern eyes, as Laura requests that Rob skip out on a business trip to see a school play their son, Richie, will be starring in. This seems like a fairly classic family-sitcom setup, but it quickly turns into a harangue on how Rob, as the man of the house, has certain duties, and Laura shouldn’t even so much as feel bad if he can’t make it to a dumb school play. The show, revolutionary for blending a workplace and domestic environment, and doing both well, seems to be creating ironclad rules for its characters, ones that can never be flexible. Even worse, the episode—though it tries to rally by having Rob encounter a man who suggests he should think about things from his wife’s point of view—suggests that Rob is essentially right, that Laura really should just shut her big mouth and stop being sad when Rob has to miss out on school plays and the like. This is the loving couple that epitomized fictional ’60s marriage? Maybe this didn’t strike people as off at the time, but it sure does today.
The show is Friday Night Lights, but the episode is not the much-maligned season-two première where Landry kills a guy. It’s far too easy to dismiss the second season of FNL based on that misbegotten turn of events, but there’s actually a lot of good stuff throughout the season (Tyra and Landry’s budding relationship, the arrival of Gracie Bell and her giant forehead, Riggins crashing with the Taylors) to redeem the bad (Killer Landry, shark DNA, The Swede, Santiago, sexy Guatemalan nurse). Unfortunately, “Who Do You Think You Are” concentrates all that bad stuff into one episode, then doubles down on the suck by throwing in a message subplot about racism, something FNL has tried and failed to do well several times. Smash’s new white girlfriend and Santiago’s old Hispanic homies provide lots of opportunity for ham-handed racial conflict that does little to advance the characters or the story, but much to manufacture unearned dramatic tension. On top of that, the episode actually asks us to care about the departure of Carlotta the Sex Nurse (which Scott Tobias brilliantly compared to Poochie’s departure in his episode review) by making us attend a Quinceañera with her and Matt. It also forces us to endure the stylings of Lyla Garrity, Christian-radio DJ. It’s just too much who-cares bullshit masquerading as significant moments, and even some cute family time with the Taylors can’t salvage this cumbersome episode.
For five episodes in the middle of Twin Peaks’ second season, the single dullest plotline of all 30 episodes was introduced: an affair between transparent femme fatale Evelyn March (Annette McCarthy) and good-hearted but obtuse, deadly dull James Hurley (James Marsh). This plotline takes James out of town and ends up having almost zero relevance to the main storylines, inexplicably making the center of attention the least interesting character. Out of these five episodes, the worst is probably “The Black Widow,” which has nearly no interesting moments in the other storylines, and spends an ungodly amount of time laboriously setting up James for a fall: overheard conversations, stolen kisses, no heat. The next episode introduces Windom Earle in earnest and reactivates terrifying trucker Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) as a threat, diluting the pain of sitting through James’ earnest blundering, but in “The Black Widow,” it’s his show.
The debate between whether Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Angel was the better show may rage on the Internets until Wolfram & Hart re-open the Hellmouth. However, the latter’s season-one stinker “I Fall To Pieces” might be the worst hour either show ever aired. The fourth episode ever produced, it’s the kind of episode that could have sunk a show not bearing the name “Whedon.” Long before Wesley, Gunn, Fred, and Lorne arrived on the scene to fully flesh out Angel Investigations, we met Ronald Metzer, a surgeon who could detach his body parts in order to stalk, maim, and kill. What follows is an hour in which Angel, Cordelia, and Doyle seemingly wander into a bad Roger Corman film, where the only true horror lies in the ineptitude of the episode. “Angel” was still a long way from finding its true rhythms, with this early installment possessing neither the wit, scares, or deep mythology of later installments. Instead, all it has is a terrible villain, bafflingly bad FX, and the stench of the worst hour Mutant Enemy ever produced.
I love Sex And The City. Genuinely. But Carrie's longtime boyfriend and ex-fiance Aidan Shaw (as played insufferably by the not-always-this-hatable John Corbett) remains, without question, my fictional nemesis. TV's Manic Pixie Dream Girls have nothing on the character I like to call "Sugarbear." For a cumulative two-ish seasons, Aidan strutted around like a smooth-talking, indecipherably accented male escort with a penchant for humble carpentry, overpriced nylon button-downs, infuriating sanctimony and queasy-affectionate nicknames for Carrie that mashed together metaphors from the animal kingdom and five food groups. Whereas future boyfriend Jack Berger (Ron Livingston) embodied a scathing composite of every maddeningly insecure, failed New York scribe, Aidan was pure writers' fantasy, a rustic cowpoke with sophisticated taste who's kind of sexy when he's an asshole. He has forever rendered whole chunks of Seasons 3 and 4 unwatchable, and whenever Corbett's unmistakeable humble-man's drawl voices over the latest Applebee's ad, I half expect it to end with either nauseatingly flirtatious baby-speak or some lecture about how I'm afraid to commit even though he knows I'll never be an Applebee's kind of guy.