Aug 23 2013
There are great episodes of television, but not all great episodes of television are something you’d want to see more than once. Breaking Bad‘s “Box Cutter,” The West Wing’s “Posse Comitatus,” Mad Men’s “Far Away Places,” The Wire‘s “Middle Ground” – these are some of the best, most gripping episodes in modern television. But I’m not sure I’d want to see them a second time. There’s some heavy, dark, nuanced emotion happening in great episodes of TV, and it’s not something to enter into lightly.
On the other hand, some episodes seem perfect for any situation. Some shows have a certain quality that makes them eminently rewatchable. Below, I’ll explain my criteria for what exactly that quality is, and give you 10 episodes that fit them perfectly. And to make it just a little more challenging, I’ll make it 5 comedies and 5 dramas. (It could easily be 10 comedies, because there’s an inherent lightness and levity to comedic shows that gives them a rewatchable edge) So, without further ado, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what I mean by “rewatchable:”
1. One size fits all: A rewatchable episode has to be something you don’t need to be in a specific mood to enjoy. It has to be extremely compelling on its own terms.
2. Don’t skimp on the payoff: A rewatchable episode has to have an arc unto itself; there has to be some kind of emotional payoff during the later acts.
3. Buy the premise, buy the joke: A rewatchable episode should have an interesting and unique premise. It should be self-contained in a certain way. Of course it fits into the show’s general narrative, but there should be something special that this episode does or sets up that just belongs to that episode.
4. That’s so him: A rewatchable episode should be one that exemplifies certain characters. The good and the bad, the highs and lows, the whole package. You watch these episodes to remind yourself how amazing certain characters were.
5. The X-Factor: If you’re going to claim that you could watch an episode “over and over,” it should have that little something extra. A moment, a scene that just endears itself to you. Something to fight the accumulated dullness and apathy that multiple viewings can engender. This “something extra” is tough to nail down precisely, but like pornography, you know it when you see it.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes:
Note: Due to length, this will be Part 1 of a 2-part series. This article covers spots 10-6. Expect spots 5-1 next week. I have the episodes in mind now, but if someone comes up with a better one in the comments, I’ll write it up!
#10 - Sherlock, “A Scandal in Belgravia”
What’s remarkable about this episode, and what makes it so rewatchable, is how effortlessly it manages to hold the tension and juggle multiple plot points over 90 minutes. The relationship between Sherlock and Watson really hits its stride in this episode, too. They’ve evolved a bit from Season 1, with Watson no longer completely playing The Watson. While he maintains this role to a certain extent, he also has a great buddy dynamic with Sherlock, and though their relationship will never be completely equal, it definitely blossoms into something that works really, really well in this episode.
Plus, this episode is just chock full of scenes that are fun. You start off resolving an incredibly tense standoff with Moriarty. You get a hilarious montage of stupid cases Sherlock solves/passes over and/or insults the client. Then there’s the iconic scene where Sherlock puts on the deerstalker cap and starts to get Internet Famous. Then there’s the backfiring car / dead guy, which transitions into the “Sherlock in a sheet at Buckingham Palace,” which sets up the whole Irene Adler main plot. This episode just does not have a dull moment.
Number of times I’ve watched it: 4 or 5
# 9 – The Office, “Dinner Party”
For me, this is a perfect episode of The Office. It takes something they’ve always hinted at (Michael and Jan’s twisted, dysfunctional relationship) but only shown glimpses of, and brings it to the foreground in a way that does not disappoint. Michael had made some oblique references to his crazy-train thing with Jan before, such as:
“Jan made me breakfast this morning. Well, she bought the milk.”
“What do you think of roleplay? Jan has this schoolgirl fantasy…I just… I feel uncomfortable wearing the dress.”
“Jan says anything that doesn’t scare us is not worth doing. I don’t know, maybe we’re different people. I like cuddling and spooning, and she likes videotaping us during sex. And then watching it back right afterward to improve my form.” Karen: “That is not healthy behavior.” Michael: “No, it’s not that bad. The worst part is that she shows it to her therapist and they discuss it.”
So when you finally get to see the two of them in a domestic environment, with a helpless Jim and Pam looking on, completely trapped, it’s a train wreck, of course. This is what The Office did so well; moments that are so awkward you want to look away, but you can’t because you’re laughing.
As Jim says, to the documentary crew: “Michael and Jan seem to be playing their own separate game. And it’s called, ‘Let’s see how uncomfortable we can make our guests.’ And they’re both winning.”
This episode is chock-full of great character moments. You’ve got just the right amount of Dwight, you’ve got Michael’s insanity, and you’ve got some special Jim/Pam moments as they commiserate over the horror and plot their escape.
Number of times I’ve watched it: At least 5, probably closer to 10.
#8 – The West Wing, “Hartsfield’s Landing”
Really, about 90% of the The West Wing is endlessly rewatchable. This is Aaron Sorkin in his prime, and whatever you want to say about the man, his knack for smart, superb dialogue is second to none. This episode has two things going for it that make it a classic. First, chess. It’s part of my somewhat nerdy personality, but anytime they break out the chessboard in a movie or TV show, I’m automatically giving that scene my full attention. Part of the reason I got hooked on The Wire was that scene early in Season 1 when D’Angelo uses chess to explain the intricacies and hierarchy of the Barksdale criminal organization to his flunkies. Chess is such a powerful metaphor, and you can do a lot with it.
Number two: character moments. This episode encapsulates and exemplifies perfectly some of the crucial interactions and dynamics between this excellent cast. You have President Bartlett being equal parts tormented, soul-searching and fearsome in his chess game with Toby, and then you have him being soft, inspirational, and awesomely intelligent in his chess game with Sam. You have Bartlett setting up Sam as his natural successor, and Sam – idealistic, brilliant, a little naive, always reaching for the stars – for Sam, getting that validation from a man he admires so much is huge.
You have CJ and Charlie with their prank war, adding an element of levity, including some of the best lines of the series:
- C.J. Cregg: The anal retentive side of you is not going to help you get girls.
- Charlie Young: I do OK.
- [later, as CJ and Charlie are discussing a copy of the President's private schedule - which she has hidden in retaliation for him making her sign a copy out earlier - before walking into the office outside the Oval Office]
- Charlie: Look, CJ…
- C.J. Cregg: You’ll find it in your filing cabinet, under “A” for “anal.”
- [they both EXIT]
- Larry: I don’t really wanna know what he’s going to find in his filing cabinet, do you?
- Ed: No.
You also have some priceless Donna/Josh interactions, as they try to convince a single family to vote for the President in the upcoming election. This episode balances light and heavy perfectly. For every wacky moment when Josh is arguing with Donna about salmon preservation, there’s a dramatic moment that perfectly shows the relationship between two layered, complex characters:
- Bartlett: [playing chess with Toby] Let me tell you, you’re really showing some something tonight. A lot of spunk, a lot of pluck. This game isn’t all about size, you know. There’s a little thing called heart and you’ve got it, my friend
- Toby: You know what, old man? The very minute they swear in the next guy you and I are going round and round.
- Bartlett: Check.
Number of times I’ve watched it: At least 5
# 7 – Community, “Cooperative Calligraphy”
Community is another show that has many, many rewatchable episodes. But this one definitely takes the cake. By its very nature, it completely fits one of my rules (number 3), in that it’s completely self-contained. As a self-described “bottle episode,” this one takes place entirely in one location. The premise is that Annie is missing a pen, and someone stole it, so they have to find it before anyone leaves, because otherwise they’ll never know which one of them is a “complete monster.”
What seems like an innocent mistake and an easily-solved problem quickly escalates into the kind of insanity that Community does so well. Annie ends up accusing everyone, no one will admit to the deed, and having torn the room apart looking for it, they all strip to their underwear (YAY fanservice) before finally admitting defeat. Between and betwixt, you have the kind of moments that make this an amazing show.
It’s a bottle episode. No gimmicks (except for the fact that they lean on the fourth wall pretty hard by acknowledging the fact that it’s a bottle episode). So the cast is left entirely to their own devices, and the question is, can they carry a show based on their interactions and relationships alone? Yes. Yes. Definitely yes. This is so self-contained, so rewatchable that I’d watch this episode anytime, anyplace. Every thirty seconds there’s a quotable line, and it ends on a great note.
Number of times I’ve watched it: More than 10
#6 – Star Trek: TNG, “Schisms”
This episode is one of the “mystery” episodes of TNG, by which I mean the main plot arc is “something strange is happening on the Enterprise and they have to figure out what it is before everyone dies.” This is also an episode that gave me nightmares as a child. Why would you want to rewatch it if it’s made of Nightmare Fuel? Because it’s totally creepy in the best way, and because of one specific scene.
I wish I could find a video link to the holodeck scene, but I can’t. Doesn’t exist. You’ll have to watch the episode itself, and in a way, it’s better, because it’s the buildup to the holodeck scene that gives it its power. Just go watch it, damn it. Hulu Plus, Netflix, whatever, TNG episodes aren’t exactly hard to find these days. Here, here’s a bit of fun from that episode:
But you guys, YOU GUYS – the holodeck scene. It’s a tour-de-force of how to build tension. When all you’ve got is a black box and four people trying to figure out why they’re having strange sensations, prying at the line between awake and asleep, between dreams and nightmares… as they slowly, painstakingly recreate the memory of something they’ve been compelled to forget… DAMN. It starts so innocently, with a wooden table. And it gets creepier and creepier. You can see the recognition on their faces as each detail is added. And when they add the SOUND… oh my god, those clicking sounds coming from the darkness. “Faster,” orders Riker, to the holodeck. “Louder. More of them.” The unnamed civilian woman slowly covers her face in abject terror. “I’ve been in this room before,” says LaForge. “We’ve all been in this room before,” says a grim-faced Riker. Hooooooooooly hell, that’s how you nail a tense scene.
I know I’m being a bit vague, but for those of you who know what I’m talking about, you get it, right? And for those of you that don’t, please, go watch the episode up to this point, at least, and get in on the fun. Seriously. Those clicks from the darkness… my skin still crawls when I watch that scene, 10 years after I saw it for the first time. You don’t need stunning visual effects or cheap “made you jump” moments to create real, creeping terror in your audience. All you need is a blank room, a cloud of doubt, and a sense of something awful.
Number of times I’ve watched it: The full episode, 3 or 4. Minutes 20 to 28, probably 15 times, at least.
OK, that’s it for part I! Sound off below. We’ll look at the top 5 spots next week. As I said above, if anyone trumps one of the 5 I have in mind, I’ll write it up for next week’s article.
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