The Essentials – Television Episodes

By D.G. McCabe

I did an Essential Movies post a long time ago – its time to do an essential TV episode list.  The only rule is that the episode has to be at least five years old to give enough reflection time.  Anyway, in order of date, here goes:

Lucy Does a TV Commercial (I Love Lucy, 1952)

Generally speaking, television wasn’t very good in its formative years of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  TV shows were quickly churned out, formulaic, and edited to appease advertisers.  So why choose any episode from this era for an Essentials list?

Lucille Ball was so popular that she could get away with things that other TV stars couldn’t – doing a whole episode where the premise is that she gets really, really drunk for example.   We might take such plots for granted now, but its pretty special to see something like this that came out so early in the history of television.

Chuckles Bites the Dust (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1975)

We skip a couple of decades to the 1970’s, when TV comedies were starting to hit a good run (TV dramas still had some catching up to do).  The most innovative comedy of its day was the Mary Tyler Moore show, the prototype for all workplace comedies to follow.

The humor could get dark at times, and nothing demonstrates that more than the untimely death of Chuckles the Clown.  After being chomped to death by a parade elephant, Chuckles becomes the butt of endless office jokes.   What follows is a hilarious journey that takes us from hilarity to mourning and back again.

Abyssinia, Henry (M*A*S*H, 1975)

M*A*S*H was ahead of its time for its often dark humor as well.  But the humor isn’t what made it groundbreaking and popular – it was the attachment the audience felt to the characters.

Abyssinia Henry takes that attachment and uses it  for full emotional impact.  In the early seasons of M*A*S*H, it’s easy to forget the show takes place in a war zone.  The end of this episode makes that impossible afterwards.


Hill Street Station (Hill Street Blues, 1981)

The first drama episode on our list is the pilot for Hill Street Blues.  Hill Street Blues was a departure from the formulaic and soapy dramas of the first decades of television.  Its characters were complex and it dealt with the topic of 1980’s urban decline directly and without mercy.

The pilot puts us right in the middle of that decline and shows that Hill Street Blues won’t be like its predecessor cop shows.  Unlike those shows, the cops don’t get the crook or have a nice moment at the end.  Instead, the episode ends in horror.

Fortune and Men’s Weight (Cheers, 1984)

Cheers was almost like dozens of “will they or won’t they” sitcoms before it.  That was until it gave the audience exactly what they wanted – Sam and Diane to get together.

Fortune and Men’s Weight is the archetypical episode of why we should be careful what we wish for as an audience.  Sam and Diane weren’t ever going to work as a couple, and Fortune and Men’s Weight was when this was made abundantly clear.

The Contest (Seinfeld, 1992)

Seinfeld is the show about nothing where there is no hugging and no one learns anything.  It is, after all, about four hilariously awful people.  It is probably the most influential television comedy of all time and might be the most influential show period.

It is hard to pick a Seinfeld episode.  I had originally picked “The Chinese Restaurant,” but then I remembered that there’s no Kramer in that episode.  Anyway, The Contest is about who becomes “master of their domain.”  I don’t need to get into any more detail than that.

Last Exit to Springfield (The Simpsons, 1993)

The Simpsons is the longest running scripted program in television history.  Lots of shows have influence on other shows, but the Simpsons is influential on the English language itself.  D’oh!

The fourth season of the Simpsons is widely regarded as its best, and no episode quite packs in the jokes like Last Exit to Springfield (although A Streetcar Named Marge is a close second).  Gather round children it’s high time ye learned, of a hero named Homer and a devil named Burns….

24 Hours (ER, 1994)

After dozens of cast changes, re-hashed plots, and a case of overstaying its welcome by about four seasons, it’s easy to forget how innovative ER was when it first came on television.  It was fast paced, it was realistic, it had real medical terminology, and it might have the best pilot of any network series ever.

The pilot is a two hour mini-movie pulling the audiences into the intense world of the emergency room at the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago.  From then on, great television dramas were expected to have a certain production value and realism.

Pine Barrens (The Sopranos, 2001)

There is television before The Sopranos, and television after The Sopranos.  While its predecessors moved television closer to a place where a show like it could exist, The Sopranos for the first time demonstrated the artistic potential of the medium.

Pine Barrens is my pick for the essential Sopranos episode.  The cold, hellish terrain that Paulie Walnuts and Christopher traverse within serves as a microcosm of the entire series.  After all, isn’t The Sopranos about being trapped in a horrible situation, chasing after something that might not even be there?

Two Cathedrals (The West Wing, 2001)

The Sopranos gets due credit, but another show came out in 1999 that demonstrated the artistic power of television.  The West Wing has its flaws, but no other network show has its level of Shakespearean gravitas.

Two Cathedrals is a near flawless episode, exploring Jed Bartlet’s past as he addresses the greatest crisis of his presidency.  The scene in the National Cathedral itself is my favorite scene from any episode of any drama that I’ve seen.

Middle Ground (The Wire, 2004)

The Wire is nearly perfect in its execution, self-contained continuity, and emotional power.  It may be the most consistently high quality television drama produced up until this point.

Its third season is its high-water mark, and Middle Ground is the best episode of that season.  Arguably the entire first three seasons build up what happens in this episode, and everything else afterwards is about living with the consequences of those events.

The Wheel (Mad Men, 2007)

Mad Men is doubtlessly the highest quality and most influential period drama in television history.  Its production value is almost as rich as the depth of its characters, which are its absolute strength.

The Wheel sets the tone for the characters that are with us for the rest of the series.  Don and Peggy are the series lead characters, and this episode demonstrate the central dichotomy that they have in common – triumph at work, failure at home.

(c) 2014 D. G. McCabe