Here are twenty carefully curated episodes of television I think you should watch. And I mean that – they are mostly my favorites, yes, but with a tweak, in that I picked episodes I think anyone could ‘drop in’ on, even without seeing the rest of the series. I tried to therefore skew towards more stand-alone features.
Not included are episodes of mini-series disqualifying five of my favorite shows: John Adams, Dekalog, The Singing Detective, Brideshead Revisited, and Band of Brothers. Oh well.
Since it is silly to rank these so disparate achievements in television, here is a non-hierarchical, chronologically-based list:
The Obsolete Man – The Twilight Zone, S2E29 1961
This is a personal favorite. ‘The Monsters are Due on Maple Street’ comes in at a close second, and then there are the ones I like, but really appreciate more than enjoy, such as ‘Nothing in the Dark’ or ‘The Invaders’. I’ll go for social commentary, like in ‘Obsolete’ over paranormal most every time.
Free for All – The Prisoner, S1E4? 1967
Hard to choose an episode from this series. The most reliable choice, then, is to aim for the earlier episodes, before the web gets too tangled. ‘Free for All’ doesn’t need too much background to understand, which is fitting for “The Prisoner”, a show which notoriously does not reveal the background of the whole premise.
Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You – Connections, S1E10 1978
“Connections” is my favorite show of all time, hands down. So picking a single episode is tough, but it had to be either the opening salvos of ‘The Trigger Effect’ which lays out the premise, or ‘Death in the Morning’ which got me interested in history – or the finale. Since the last episode covers much of the first, and then expands, I chose it over the others.
The Psychiatrist – Fawlty Towers, S2E2 1979
I’d be pressed to find a single episode of “Monty Python” that I liked as thoroughly as “Fawlty Towers”. For my money this is the apex of the show – Basil is at his most Basil-y, abusing the guests and simpering, teetering between the fawning hotelier and the rude clerk. The laughs build to a crescendo, and are the best of either season.
The Edge of Forever – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, S1E10 1980
Carl Sagan! The Big Bang, the origins of the universe, the difficulties of multi-dimensionality; this is my favorite episode as it depicts Sagan in his element no matter the context, from describing Flatland using an apple, to travelling around India waxing poetic on Hinduism and creation.
Q Who – Star Trek: The Next Generation, S2E16 1989
The show I most enjoyed as a child. “TNG” was an excellent show for a youth’s developing moral compass – the main cast is so wonderfully supportive, loving, and noble. Which, of course, is why Q – the near-infinitely powerful Puckish prankster being, was my favorite. Also – the origin of mysterious cube ships…
A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream – Frasier, S1E17 1994
Instead of picking an example of Frasier at its height, this episode, I think, is the turning point, where the show found its feet, its beat, and the right formula that proved so successful over most of the next decade. Even with no knowledge of the characters, it’s so funny and well-written you can join right in.
Treehouse of Horror VII – The Simpsons, S8E1 1996
Admittedly, I picked this episode for the last of the three segments. The first two aren’t bad – Bart has a twin in the attic (which creeped me out as a kid) and Lisa creates life (which really, really disturbed me ‘cause I guess existential crises came to me young). But the last segment, ‘Citizen Kang’ is pound for pound the best writing of the entire show’s run.
The Final Sacrifice – Mystery Science Theater 3000, S9E10 1998
“MST3K” is tricky – I preferred the Joel format with Dr. Forester, but Mike’s commentary was stronger. In the brief years when Mike used Joel’s format, unfortunately, there aren’t many good episodes. So, here’s a late Mike – just ignore the Pearl Forester / Brain Guy / Bobo garbage that sandwiches the good stuff.
Noel – The West Wing, S2E10
If “Fawlty Towers” gets the award for Best Comedy Episode, I’d make ‘Noel’ Best Drama. Sorkin’s writing at this point was incandescent, and Whitford’s acting won him an Emmy. It digs deep, is heartfelt, painful at times, and profound.
Boxing Daria – Daria, S5E13 2001
Looking back, I was spoiled by this show. Watching it with my sister, long before ‘the Bechtel test’ I took good writing of nuanced, three-dimensional female characters for granted. ‘Boxing Daria’ feels like any other episode – not like the finale of a show’s run. It plumbs psychological depths previously unexplored with remarkable vulnerability.
Jane and the Truth Snake – Coupling, S2E5 2001
Stephen Moffat’s first great work, “Coupling”, deals with 30-somethings and their obsessions with dating and sex. I know he went on to do “Dr. Who” (‘Blink’ very nearly made my list) and all that, but this show is so funny, so endlessly re-watchable, I consider it to be superior over all, and this episode perhaps the most hilarious. Tough call.
Snowflake Day: A Very Special Holiday Episode – Clone High, S1E11 2003
This ridiculous, single-season animated show has the premise of Gandhi, JFK, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Abe Lincoln going to high school together. The opening of ‘Snowflake Day’ sets the tone: “I can hardly believe it’s only been a year since the United Nations abolished religious holidays, for the non-offensive, all-inclusive, Snowflake Day.”
The Message – Firefly, S1E12 2003
The trend of super-depressing episodes of psychological trauma notwithstanding, ‘The Message’ is easily my favorite “Firefly” episode of the series. We get the background and see the costs of the main character’s pasts. Props to Joss Whedon.
A Scandal in Belgravia – Sherlock, S2E1 2012
Literally can’t recall how any of the mysteries of this have been solved, except the Hound of the Baskervilles ‘cause it was so dopey. But – the characters, the witty banter, the excellent pacing – “Sherlock” always entertains. Runner-up, of course, ‘His Last Vow’.
Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2 – Louie, S2E5 2012
On with the theme of devastation! “Louie” was such a great show because it was both hilarious, and poignant – you could cry from pathos and from laughter. And he always made you reflect, or took you somewhere new. The ending of this episode may be in my top two or three standout scenes in all of television.
The Greater Fool – The Newsroom, S1E10 2012
So, since I’m a Sorkin junkie (I even own “Studio 60”) I’ll give him another nod with the last episode of the first season. The first ten minutes of the show rightfully went viral, but I think his most brutal and incendiary political commentary is shown here (all the more needed on the list since my “West Wing” episode is not particularly political).
Escape from L.A. – BoJack Horseman, S2E112015
This whole show is like watching a train wreck in slow motion where you can’t take your eyes off the inevitable horror and damage. No part of BoJack’s excruciating arc demonstrates this fact better than ‘Escape from LA’. Of all my recommendations this is the hardest, since it is most wrapped-up in the series’ plot.
San Junipero – Black Mirror, S3E4 2016
Charlie Brooker’s show is very fitting to end on, as it is our new Twilight Zone. I was impressed with five of the first seven episodes (spread over two seasons and a special). The most reason season was the weakest, but ‘San Junipero’ is the best episode he’s crafted so far. It’s a nightmare (dream?) which you can never truly wake up from.
But wait, I hear you say, what about the 20th promised episode? Well, having not seen such essential viewing as “The Sopranos”, “Breaking Bad”, “Lost”, or “The Wire”, clearly I need to keep a spot open on my list – until such a time as when I am able to say more definitively based on what’s out there what deserves the final spot. Feel free, however, to fill in the gap with any of the following fine Honorable Mention episodes:
I Love Lucy – ‘Lucy Does a TV Commercial’ S1E30 1952
Dick Van Dyke Show – ‘Coast to Coast Big Mouth’ S5E1 1965
Twin Peaks – ‘Cooper’s Dreams’ S1E6 1990
Batman: The Animated Series – ‘Joker’s Favor’ S1E22’ 1992
Iron Chef – ‘Lobster Battle: Ron Siegel’ S6E35* 1998
Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law – ‘Turner Classic Birdman’ S3E5* 2005
Doctor Who – ‘Blink’ S3E10 2007
Mad Men – ‘The Wheel’ S1E13 2007
Adventure Time – ‘I Remember You’ S4E25 2012
South Park – ‘Truth and Advertising’ S19E9 2015