Today I continue the list I started of the best hours of TV. Like 24-13, this list only includes hour-long series from the last twenty years or so, and only shows I’ve watched (again, sorry about the lack of The Wire). Again, spoilers for all these shows up the the episode listed. So if you’re not caught up skip down.
12. “Blink” Doctor Who, Series 3 Episode 11
It’s a bit of a shame that the only episode of Doctor Who to make my list doesn’t really feature much of the Doctor, but that’s part of the reason this episode is so compelling. Following Sally Sparrow (an early-career Carey Mulligan!) as she interacts with vestiges the Doctor has left behind after being trapped in 1969, the episode uses time travel in a truly unique way. It’s an episode longtime fans and neophytes can enjoy equally, as the audience is reintroduced to the Doctor along with Sally. Steven Moffat is at his best here, before he became showrunner, telling a story about some truly terrifying monsters who can only move when they aren’t seen. He taps into one of our fundamental fears: you must look at the thing that wants to kill you, stare at it unblinkingly, or it will get you. I’d recommend not watching this episode too close to bedtime.
11. “Q&A” Homeland, Season 2 Episode 5
It’s hard not to watch this episode from Homeland’s second season and say to yourself, “damn, this is good television.” That’s certainly what I said to myself as I watched Carrie systematically break Brody down in the interrogation room, all pretentions, secrets, and distractions gone. The sometimes absurd nature of the show is gone. The extraneous teenagers are gone. The exotic settings and characters are gone. It’s just the two of them there, in that room. Claire Danes and Damien Lewis are those characters. They own this episode. And they will take your breath away.
10. “The Wheel” Mad Men, Season 1 Episode 13
“Good luck at your other meetings,” Duck Phillips says to Kodak after Don’s intense presentation of his campaign for their new slide projector. Really, Matthew Weiner is saying to the audience, “good luck watching any other TV show after seeing this.” Mad Men started off its first season a little shaky, with a great concept but so-so execution. Quickly it morphed into the best show on television (at that moment) and culminated in this astounding season 1 finale. A lot happens and a lot is wrapped up, but the episode is really about those minutes with Kodak and Don. Don’s pitch with photos from his own Potemkin life with Betty was so convincing he even sold himself on this life a little bit. And so he rushes home to what he imagines will be a glorious welcome, but in reality, is the emptiness he has enshrouded himself in.
9. “Two Cathedrals” The West Wing, Season 2 Episode 22
After Aaron Sorkin ripped out our souls by killing Mrs. Landingham (the late-great Kathryn Joosten) in the penultimate episode of season 2, he delivered this force-of-nature episode to close out the year. If The West Wing was about bringing a microscope to the often faceless government and humanizing a figure as distant as the president, it never does it better than in this episode. It’s actually perfect, from the flashbacks to President Bartlett’s youth with his father to the scene in the National Cathedral with the cigarette to the moment a rain-soaked Bartlett decides to run for a second term by putting his hands in his pockets and smiling. Yeah he has Multiple Sclerosis and yeah, he lied about it and yeah, it’s going to be hard but he’s going to run again. And we’re going to run to season three with him.
8. “33” Battlestar Galactica, Season 1 Episode 1
Not exactly a series premiere, in that it is preceded by a miniseries that introduced the setting and characters, but “33” does start the show by establishing the tone and pace of the Battlestar Galactica to come. That tone is dark and that pace is very, very fast. In the episode the remains of humanity in the Colonial fleet must jump through space every 33 minutes lest the Cylons find them. When they realize the Cylons are tracking one particular ship, Adama and Roslin order it destroyed, even though it may be carrying humans. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of. But the world is basically over and you know what they say about desperate times. The always amazing Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are particularly brilliant in this exceedingly well-written episode, which tells us the one thing Battlestar Galactica is about more than anything else: survival.
7. “College” The Sopranos Season 1 Episode 5
Tony Soprano has been described as TV’s first great anti-hero, and it’s this episode where that status is cemented. While taking Meadow on a college tour Tony spots an old wiseguy in witness protection. In a very literal show of his personality, he spends half his time tracking down and killing the snitch and half the time being a father who encourages Meadow’s denial of his real profession. This is where you learn to love and hate Tony with some consistency. He’s never going to be just a good or just a bad guy. Yeah he killed a federally-protected man with his bare hands, but he also really loves his daughter. It’s this cognitive dissonance that keeps you coming back to The Sopranos.
6. “Blackwater” Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 9
Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire are gifted with one episode per season written by the big man himself, George RR Martin. In season 2 he took on an episode which I consider to be the most ambitious hour of television ever. Take a battle the scale of any one battle from The Lord of the Rings or Braveheart or any other cinematic epic, add a big old green explosion, lots of exposition, and no real hero or villain, and do it all in one hour on a television budget. The result was the best any fan of the show or the book series could have hoped for, something epic and intimate all at once. The stakes were high, the writing was tight and urgent, and the usual disparate locations and characters were abandoned for an hour focused just on King’s Landing. When people talk about TV being the “new cinema,” they’re talking about episodes like this.
5 & 4. “Pilot Parts 1 and 2” Lost, Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2
Lots of fans will point to season 4’s The Constant as the best episode of Lost and one of the best episodes of all time, but although the hour devoted to Desmond and Penny is beautiful and sad, it does not compare to the brilliance of the pilot. The two-hour pilot is so well-written and executed, establishing the rules of the show without relying too much on exposition or becoming too complicated for a viewer. They’ve crashed, and there’s something weird about this island, and not in a predictable way at all (how many of you were able to guess that there would be a polar bear in the South Pacific?). The flashbacks in the entire series may have been slightly uneven, but in the pilot they are pitch-perfect, leading up to the reveal at the end of the episode that the seemingly-innocent Kate (Evangeline Lilly) was the one wearing the handcuffs all along. Whatever your feelings about the series as a whole, its hard to deny these episodes place as one of the best episodes of all time, and perhaps the greatest pilot ever.
3. “Objects in Space” Firefly, Season 1 Episode 14
This episode is one of the most poetic and philosophical things you’ll ever see on a TV series. The last episode produced before Firefly was cancelled, “Objects in Space” is wonderfully weird and trippy but also dark and pondering. Whedon really gets down to the very soul of his characters in the context of action. Using a bounty hunter named Jubal Early searching the ship for fugitive River, Whedon exposes each character’s greatest weakness, fear and insecurity by having Early systematically take each of them down. While some confrontations are physical, his interaction with Kaylee is brutally psychological. River is only able to defeat Early by mounting a similar psychological attack, momentarily convincing him that she has spiritually joined with Serenity and eventually tricking him into being pushed into space by Mal. The final words of the episode, as Early floats through space into oblivion, are especially haunting: “Well…here I am.”
2. “The Suitcase” Mad Men Season 4 Episode 7
Mad Men is great because it combines a shared history (the 60s) with a workplace that tends to reveal things about its broken characters, and a particularly compelling anti-hero. This episode is the pinnacle of all of those things. The history is the Ali vs. Liston fight, the Samsonite campaign reveals a lot about Peggy, and Don is at his most “hero” (as in, not the terrible person he normally is) when dealing with the death of Anna Draper, the only person who ever knew him. The relationship of these two characters is what Mad Men is all about in the end, and this episode highlights their lives in a profound way. It’s not just that Peggy doesn’t think Don appreciates her. It’s not just that Don doesn’t think Peggy is good enough. It’s so, so much more. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are undeniably fantastic in the episode, the best of the series by far. When it focuses on these two essential characters, the show is creating something incredibly captivating. Basically, anytime Don and Peggy are in a room together talking, Mad Men shines.
1. “The Body” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 episode 16
Here it is, in my opinion, the best episode of television ever. I wish it wasn’t so far in Buffy’s run so that people who have never seen the show could just watch it right now. It’s the saddest, most gut-wrenching hour you’ll spend watching TV, and the realest, even though it takes place in a supernatural world. Buffy’s mom, the immeasurable Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), an incredible mother to Buffy and surrogate to her friends, has died of a brain aneurism. Separate from the world of vampires and demons she is used to, Buffy must deal with this real and horrible loss, and so must her sister and her friends. The show, normally bouncing to the tune of an action score, lacks music for the entire hour, pounding the sound of every sob and angry word into the ears of the viewer. This episode is Joss Whedon’s true masterpiece. It’s impeccable in every way. Seven people must deal with loss, and so must everyone who watches.
So there it is, the best day of television you could watch. Let me know if you think I’m right or out of my mind.