While re-watching of Doctor Who recently (inspired by my own post about Matt Smith’s 11 best eps) I started thinking about my favorite hours of television, period. What would I watch if I spent one day just binging on the best possible TV I could find? That’s the beauty of having untold hours of TV at your disposal: you make it what you want it to be.
It’s really hard to pick. I can tell you. Ask me what the best episode of any particular show is, and I’d have two or three I could tell you right away. For some there’s a single clear winner. But pitting episodes of different series against each other is hard. So much relies on context and tone. A lot of your feelings toward any particular episode are colored by your feelings towards the show or season as a whole. Plus your favorites aren’t always the best. Really, really good episodes of television can be hard to watch (lets all think about last week’s Game of Thrones now. Crying? Good).
So taking that all into account, I’ve compiled a list of the best twenty-four episodes (read: one whole day or the sunlight parts of one whole weekend) of television that I have come across. Here are the first twelve, ranked because, why not. It does include multiple episodes of some shows, because this isn’t about episodes representative of the series, but rather stand alone hours. This excludes half-hour shows, for complexity’s sake. And though I love classic TV and there are some great episodes from way back (see Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” or The Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough at Last”), I’m sticking to the past twenty years or so.
This also, pretty obviously, only includes shows I’ve watched, and I haven’t watched everything. For example, The Wire is conspicuously absent. (I’m going to watch it soon I promise!) I do, occasionally, have to do something else besides watch TV.
Some things I noticed when compiling this list are that series tend to show greatness when they move away from their formula, say, benching the main character or flashing forward or back. Series/season finales and premiers also tend to shine, but there are the occasional diamonds in the rough of a regular season.
Spoilers for the shows listed, so if you haven’t seen that show up to that season, skip down.
24. “Epitaph 1” Dollhouse Season 1 Episode 13
Fair warning, there’s going to be a lot of Joss Whedon on this list, but there’s a damn good reason: he makes really great TV. Although Dollhouse wasn’t always the most loved of his shows (or really, the most understood) it definitely had some standout episodes, most notably the season 1 ender that Fox didn’t air. It is an incredibly compelling hour that taps into our collective fear of dystopia and of fast-advancing technology. The complex and confusing concept of the entire show is seen as going somewhere beyond the scenario-of-the-week. Not a very good somewhere, but still. And suddenly we all have to ask ourselves what makes identity, what makes life? Consciousness? Body? In the future, none of that may matter.
23. “Into You Like a Train” Grey’s Anatomy, Season 2 Episode 6
It’s been quite awhile since I’ve watched ABC’s soapy doctor drama, mostly when the odd medical situations and irrational character decisions became a weekly occurrence the show became too much to believe. But I was really captivated by the series at the beginning; especially by this season 2 episode where a train collision becomes a metaphor for the way the characters’ lives are spinning out of control. And because the show was able to make me care so much about these guest stars tangential to the real action, it brought tears. It was a hard-hitting emotional moment, and it was genuine. The series went downhill when these started being fake.
22. “Pilot” Glee, Season 1 Episode 1
Like Grey’s, I haven’t watched Glee in awhile (I gave up midway through season 2). It was one of the sadder times I ever gave up on a series, mostly because Glee had so much potential. The first few episodes, and namely, the pilot, were something new and different, a nuanced look at high school, marriage, and social norms. Back when “Don’t Stop Believing” wasn’t a cliché the kids of McKinley High rocked it to great dramatic effect. I didn’t want to stop believing in the show. But unfortunately, after they came back from that season 1 hiatus, I did.
21. “Company Man” Heroes, Season 1 Episode 17
Heroes may have started its slow decline in season 2 but midway through season 1 the show was at its peak, especially with this extremely personal episode. Moving away from the location hopping it was prone to, the episode focused on Claire, her father, and how they got where they are. Why do we do the things we do? Because of our pasts. Questions are answered, new ones are raised, and fans were left wanting more. Unfortunately, they never got another episode like this.
20. “Hush” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4 Episode 10
Joss Whedon likes to circumvent expectations. When most of the praise Buffy the Vampire Slayer was getting revolved around his fast-paced and witty dialogue, he turned the tables by writing an episode that was three-quarters a silent film. Only on Buffy can you do a special episode like this, where it’s already supernatural so anything goes. Here the terrifying Gentlemen (easily Buffy’s scariest monsters) come to Sunnydale and steal all the voices so no one can scream. But the episode is really about communication, be it Xander’s inability to tell to Anya how much he cares about her, Buffy and Riley’s inability to tell each other how they feel, or newcomer Tara’s inability to speak in front of people at all. Of course, when the characters stop speaking they start communicating. And also do some very funny hand gestures.
19. “What Kind of Day has it Been?” The West Wing, Season 1 Episode 22
Aaron Sorkin really likes to structure his episodes back-to-front, showing a series of scenes we don’t understand at the beginning and then filling in the blanks with the rest of the hour. This is perhaps best executed in the season 1 finale, which seems like an ordinary day at the office, and escalates to one heck of a cliffhanger (gunshots, sirens, a call over the radio: “who’s been hit?”). Who said there can’t be action in a workplace drama? Certainly not Sorkin, who saw the success of the assassination storyline and structured the three other seasons he stayed on the show with cliffhanger endings.
18. “Pilot” Twin Peaks, Season 1 Episode 1
David Lynch’s crime thriller ventured from the melodramatic to the downright absurd, chronicling an eccentric FBI agent in his investigation into the murder of a popular high school girl. TV owes a lot to the drama, the anti-procedural that drew out a single mystery over a season and a half. There was a creative decline in season 2, but when it premiered, the pilot of Twin Peaks was unlike anything else. Nothing in this small Pacific Northwest town was what it seemed, and nothing about the show was what it seemed either.
17. “Baelor” Game of Thrones, Season 1 Episode 9
This was the moment that Game of Thrones changed something about TV. Granted, George RR Martin killed Ned Stark off back in the 90s in the first installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire book series. But even though fans can go check Wikipedia summaries of the books, they were still shocked beyond belief that a show would kill off its main character, and supposed hero, during its first season. The episode is impeccably shot, most notably the way we see Ned’s death through his daughter Arya’s eyes. It was shocking, it was sad, and mostly, it changed the rules of the game. Of course that was nothing compared to this year’s Red Wedding, but you could not have one without the other.
16. “Out of Gas” Firefly, Season 1 Episode 8
This flashback-heavy episode is made all the more important by the fact that Fox never aired the original pilot for the series, which did a much better job establishing life on Serenity than “The Train Job” did. Here, while the life support on the trusty ship is failing, we get moments from each character, an introduction we’ve never seen before, doorway into this unlikely family. This episode is everything that made Firefly great, the characters and Serenity. It was never about outer space, just the people flying through it together.
15. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” Mad Men, Season 3 Episode 13
The season 3 finale of Mad Men has the rare quality of being an undeniable bit of fan-service (SCDP is born! Joan comes back! Don respects Peggy for a hot second!) but also a damn good hour of television. Everything changes for Don at once here, as he divorces both his wife and the old company. It also serves to showcase what really matters to this man, namely, his own notoriety and power. He refuses to be swallowed up by the McCann and Erickson machine and so he starts a new company where he gets to be in control. And without that pesky suburban life of his, he has more time to focus on maintaining his power at the new firm.
14. “Once More With Feeling” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6 Episode 7
TV musicals are hard. There have been some really great one-off musical episodes over the years, but none of them can compare to “Once More With Feeling.” Joss Whedon took time off from running the show to write and compose all of the songs, with great results. It’s another instance show’s supernatural setting allows for a “special” episode (read: a demon comes to town who uses magic to turn life into a musical). But it’s not a fluffy episode, there’s a lot going on. Tara discovers Willow has been playing with her mind, Giles decides to go back to the UK, Anya and Xander realize how they might not really want to get married, and Buffy reveals that the gang didn’t bring her back from some hell dimension, but rather violently pulled her out of heaven. Oh and Buffy and Spike kiss for the first time. All while singing and dancing.
13. “Cat’s in the Bag” Breaking Bad, Season 1 Episode 2
Only in its second episode, Breaking Bad lays all its cards on the tables, and the audience realizes what it’s getting into. On Walter White’s journey there is very little time to think about morality and to decide what side you’re on. He kills someone right away. It’s pretty clear where he’s going. There’s a lot of gruesomeness to the episode, whether in the images of dissolving flesh or in the way Walter and Krazy 8 try to manipulate each other. It’s just a shade of things to come.
So what do you think? Am I horribly wrong? Am I awesomely right? What do you think are the best hours of TV? Let me know! And look out for the top 12, coming soon.