The 100 Greatest Television Episodes of All Time:
An Ongoing List
by Stephen Bowie
Lists, lists, lists. Best-of compilations are often nothing more than reductive exercises in list-making, especially if the selections are poorly chosen. A publication or a film institute can squander its credibility when an index of its taste turns out to be pedestrian.
So why am I risking my own credibility? Because it’s an opportunity to write a few words about some shows I love and, in many cases, haven’t been able to say anything about anywhere else. Even better, it’s a chance to be a snob and a know-it-all and offer a corrective to popular taste – which, as I’m sure we can all agree, is generally pretty hard to fathom.
A list of television’s greatest 100 episodes is not, I confess, my own idea: TV Guide published their own version in June 1997. It has been cited and kvetched about often. Reviewing it again recently, I felt that . . . it could have been worse. But it’s a selection by committee. The choices are broad and politically correct, and no historical milestone was left off by personal fiat. The best thing about the TV Guide list is that a few culty surprises, probably staffers’ pet favorites, slipped in. But it was still mainly a compendium of famous episodes: series finales, showy guest turns, and dreaded “very special episodes.” How many of those really live up to expectations? The really good stuff lies further under the radar.
There are other good reasons for this list. Bear with me.
One of the underlying premises of this website is that there are many undiscovered TV classics out there; just as the oral histories highlight unappreciated talents, this is an approach to shining a light on some unheralded shows. Every time I see a new compendium of favorite series or episodes or scenes on a TV fan site or blog (I won’t link to any, but think of sharks and parties), I despair: it seems the candidates are limited to the pool of programs that are available on DVD or have been on the air within the last decade. Broader choices are needed. A few are offered here.
And there’s a more important consideration. A long-running television series is a mosaic, a cultural form that doesn’t have an equivalent in every art (certainly not in movies). Studying the segments of a series as parts of a whole is an exercise too rarely undertaken. What happens when you upturn history and study television from the bottom up instead of the top down? TV Guide’s honor roll only included highly regarded series – a starting point that might seem logical. But what about those rare confluences of talent in which good writing, directing, and acting conspire to produce an excellent episode of a lousy series? A few years ago CBS wasted two world-class actors, David Morse and Andre Braugher, in Hack, an awful show about a taxi-driving . . . well, he acted a lot like a vigilante, but he was supposed to be the hero, so everyone tap-danced around a lot about how he was actually helping people. It made no sense, but toward the end a fine Sopranos writer, Frank Renzulli, came on staff and penned a real treasure, a single tricky, morally complex script (“Slippery Slope”) about Morse’s character’s Faustian bargain with a local crime lord.
The inverse of this effect is that, in considering long-running, well-made series like ER or The West Wing, it’s difficult to pick out the standout segments. One’s memory of them runs together into a big, interwoven tapestry, and arguably that’s the way it should work. The easy solution is to select a standalone episode, like Ray Liotta’s great ER guest shot, “Time of Death,” or playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s only West Wing script, “The Long Goodbye,” about CJ’s father’s slide into dementia.
But do these outliers really represent the best of those series, when the heart of their brilliance is in their week-to-week continuity? TV Guide’s 1997 list picked “Heart of Saturday Night,” a mushy Picket Fences from the season following David E. Kelley’s exit, and “The Zanti Misfits,” a plodding Outer Limits that reflects little of Joseph Stefano’s mad brilliance. Whoever covered those shows for the list didn’t understand them. If you really want to write about television episodes, that’s the time to call in the aficionados.
On to the list. Some ground rules: The contenders are limited to prime-time network and cable programming, from the beginning of live television to the present day, that engages in the telling of fictional stories. In short, what we tend to think of as “real” TV shows in our admittedly narrow mainstream cultural discourse. That excludes news, documentary, or variety programming, just because it’s a different kind of animal, even though it’s painful to exclude the TV Nation bit where all the New York City cabs sail past Yaphet Kotto to pick up a white convicted felon. I suppose “reality” shows should be eligible at this point, since they’re as scripted as anything else on TV, but the likelihood of one of them turning up on this page is . . . well, that’s a diatribe for another essay.
Also out: Non-U.S. television, including the handful of British and Canadian imports that slipped onto the American broadcast schedules. Many will cry foul, and it’s not that The Prisoner and Ricky Gervais’ The Office aren’t eminently worthy, but they are products of another culture and an altogether different (i.e., non-commercial) set of production circumstances. A selection taken entirely from the context of American network production is a purer sample. For better or worse, it’s the cream of what our system can create.
To make the reading experience a bit more unpredictable, and to help conceal a few chronological gaps in my experience, I am presenting the list in absolutely no order whatsoever. Seriously. That means that I am not saying that “#8” is the eighth greatest of anything; I’m only saying it is one of the hundred or so programs in my personal pantheon. Canon-making is fun, but we have to set some boundaries on our levels of pedantry.
However, it seems appropriate to begin with . . . .
1. Philco Television Playhouse “Marty” (May 24, 1953)
Paddy Chayefsky’s empathetic but never sugar-coated chronicle of the tentative connection between two lonely souls at the Stardust Ballroom is still as poignant today as it was in 1953, due in large part to Rod Steiger’s unforgettable performance in the title role. Filmgoers who have only seen Ernest Borgnine’s sentimental Marty from the compromised 1955 film version (also directed by Delbert Mann) should track down a copy of the live broadcast and study Steiger’s work, which runs an amazing gamut of emotions. For one thing, Steiger’s Marty was an authentic loser: morose, self-pitying, indecisive, overly fixated on his mother. Steiger made clear the limitations of character that went beyond Marty’s looks, and that was why Marty’s decision to take action – to ignore his friends and trust his instincts about the “dog” he’s attracted to – remains so moving. This was the “kitchen sink” school of live television at its purest: a glimpse at authentically downtrodden people whose reality could not be digested by the classical Hollywood cinema’s process of manufacturing fantasy.
2. The Defenders “Blood County” (September 22, 1962)
This unusual episode of the landmark legal drama took its protagonists, Manhattan defense attorneys Ken and Larry Preston (E. G. Marshall and Robert Reed), out of their comfort zone and into the backwoods of fictitious Blood County, Pennsylvania, where they attempt to rescue a hunter (James Broderick) railroaded into confessing to a girl’s murder. Their adventure is by turns quaint, intellectually nail-biting (as they answer redneck jurisprudence with bedrock legal precedent, only to be shot down at every turn), and finally Parallax View-style paranoid, as the local lawyer (a young James Olson) who brought the Prestons in heads for the hills with a warning that the crooked cops and officials will resort to violence to protect their turf. Director Buzz Kulik stages the climax, in which Larry Preston is savagely beaten and thrown across the county limit, with a chilling immediacy. Of course, the covert subject of Ernest Kinoy’s prescient teleplay is the peril then being faced by civil rights agitators in the deep south. The rousing finale in which Preston smuggles in a federal marshal to finally restore some law and order parallels the equally cathartic faceoffs between blatantly corrupt, segregationist southern law officers and the Kennedy Administration’s Justice Department that viewers were then watching on the news.
3. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar” (February 14, 1964)
Everyone who’s seen this one-of-a-kind, atypical faux-fantasy Hitchcock Hour – the one in which a bunch of backwoods types sit mesmerized around a mysterious canning jar fetched back from the county fair, one which may or may not contain a human head or something worse – remembers it, even decades later. But it’s worth enumerating all the reasons why it’s perfect: the sly, leisurely adaptation by James Bridges, which only slightly pads Ray Bradbury’s gem of a short story; the rogues gallery of cracker character actors, led by Collin Wilcox, cast very much against type as a sexy child-bride, and an unusually subdued Pat Buttram; the haunting Bernard Herrmann compositions; and the jar itself, a brilliant prop that sustains multiple extended closeups without ever surrendering its aura of creepiness. Oh, and producer-director Norman Lloyd’s clever staging emphasizes a droll allegory: that glass jar in Buttram’s shack isn’t really too different from the glass box in your living room, is it?
4. The Wonder Years “Goodbye” (April 24, 1990)
This was the deeply affecting climax to a story arc (spread out across the series’ third season) in which Kevin Arnold’s formidable, unsmiling new math teacher and his lack of aptitude for the subject combine to create considerable pre-teen anxiety. In “Goodbye,” Kevin achieves a breakthrough of sorts under Mr. Collins’ austere tutelage, and comes to fancy that they have a budding friendship – when suddenly Mr. Collins tells Kevin he’ll have to succeed or fail on his own, and disappears. Kevin lashes out in anger and learns the truth – that Mr. Collins was terminally ill – only later, when a vice principal who can barely be bothered tells him in passing that the teacher has died. Many episodes of The Wonder Years pulled off this formula of tender adolescent emotion filtered through the wisdom of age, but this one soars thanks to the amazingly restrained performance of Steven Gilborn as Mr. Collins. Bob Brush’s script never allows him a scene in which he confides in Kevin, and Gilborn (an actor better known for his deadpan sitcom turns) resists the temptation to telegraph any hints as to the nature of Mr. Collins’ secret. That’s why the ending is so devastating: we’re compelled to empathize with Kevin’s resentment at the teacher’s inexplicable betrayal, and later with his shame at having failed to grasp an adult truth.
5. Rawhide “Corporal Dasovik” (December 4, 1964)
Brought in fresh to executive produce the seventh season of this flagging cattle drive western, young upstarts Bruce Geller and Bernard Kowalski (only a year away from launching Mission: Impossible) blew everything up. The pair commissioned a series of scripts that systematically dismantled the basic underpinnings of the genre: “Damon’s Road” was a buoyant musical comedy with Barbara Eden as a hooker performing Geller’s infectious ditty “Ten Tiny Toes”; “The Meeting” was a weird postmodern hybrid that pitted the cowboys against a nascent mafia. The high point, though, was “Corporal Dasovik,” a very early Vietnam allegory with an uninhibited Nick Adams as the inexperienced (indeed, dangerously unfit) officer who inherits the command of a grizzled cavalry patrol. A menacing, shaggy John Drew Barrymore plays the de facto leader of the enlisted men who undermines Dasovik at every turn, urging him to abandon the guardianship of an Indian treaty that none of them understand or believe in. Dasovik goes through squirm-inducing paroxysms of cowardice before finally sacrificing himself in battle, less out of personal bravery (though he does inspire the others, in a way) than because he cannot find a way out of the trap duty has placed him in. The soldiers in this army were unshaven, filthy, larcenous, derelict, and seemingly quite capable of killing their superior officers, and the gist of Lionel E. Siegel’s Western Heritage Award-winning script was nothing less than to toss all of television’s accepted notions of militarism and heroism onto the scrapheap. Geller and Kowalski soon followed: the CBS brass fired them and ordered the new regime to “put the cows back in.”
6. Boomtown “Blackout” (April 13, 2003)
This ambitious, inconsistent mosaic of municipal Los Angeles peaked with the mesmerizing flameout of David McNorris (Neal McDonough), the masochistic, hard-drinking deputy prosecutor. After a bender of strippers and drunk driving (scored, cheekily, to Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money”), McNorris wakes up in his car, unable to remember the night’s events but suspecting he has run over and killed a homeless man. Still slugging booze the whole time (an essential detail in Fred Golan’s script), McNorris sets out to fill in the missing pieces and possibly to cover up the evidence of his crime. The plot is standard film noir, and arguably Golan cops out on the hit-and-run angle, but there’s never been a clearer case of a single performance earning a show its place in the pantheon. McDonough rides the edge of hysteria for the whole hour, playing every emotion like a virtuoso fingering all the keys of a piano: elation, rage, fear, self-pity. (Jack Bender’s able direction, with its heavy use of handheld cameras and jump cuts, enhances the sense of disorentiation.) Only in the final scene, alone at the dead man’s potter’s field grave, does McDonough hold back. It’s a moment of transcendence, but not resolution. “I’m flat out of ideas lately,” McNorris says to no one; he still can’t humble himself enough to embrace AA, as his ex-mistress (Nina Garbiras), also an alcoholic who’s hit rock bottom, has counseled. There would be a promise of rehab and redemption in the following episode but for now, appropriately, only uncertainty.
7. Adventures in Paradise “Walk Through the Night” (January 25, 1960)
A lean, fatalistic exemplar of pure action, in which directorial imagination triumphs over the budgetary limitations that typically compromise adventure fare in episodic television. Richard Landau’s script introduces the characters with economy: “Scum - all of you,” says the man behind the bar of the fetid New Guinea dive where they’re all moldering, a wandering artist (Brock Peters), a B-girl (Mara Corday), a mercenary (Lawrence Tierney), a gigolo (Nico Minardos). Soon the show’s hero, sailor Gardner McKay, is leading them on a trek through the jungle to rescue an injured man, and through a series of set pieces – hauling dynamite over a mountain, eluding a pursuing cannibal tribe – that producer-director Paul Stanley stages with a relentless pace and brutal, inescapable framing (a spider web in the foreground is a repeated motif). Stanley’s stroke of genius is to leave the cannibals entirely off-screen, an unseen menace whose absence gradually shifts the story into the realm of horror; the climax is a heroine’s primal scream that slams (on an audio cut) into a bitter, ironic epilogue. It’s an uncut jewel along the lines of the hard, nasty B-movies made in the fifties by Joseph H. Lewis or Sam Fuller or Budd Boetticher. Television had its corps of great, muscular action directors too, all as yet not written about or even catalogued. Start the list with Paul Stanley.
8. WKRP in Cincinnati “Turkeys Away” (October 30, 1978)
WKRP’s twisted Thanksgiving episode was an instant classic and makes all the “best-of” lists now, but I’d never heard of it the first time I came across a rerun and was floored by the audacity of its gore-drenched punchline. Implied gore, that is. The setup is that Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), the station’s synaptically-challenged owner, resents the notion that he’s merely a figurehead and so plans a “special” holiday promotion. Much of what follows is innocuous, as if to soften us up for the revelation – via Les Nessman’s (Richard Sanders) hilarious parody of the Hindenburg radio broadcast – that Carlson has contrived to bombard a store parking lot with live turkeys dropped from an airplane. “As God is my witness, I would’ve sworn turkeys could fly,” is Carlson’s classic line explaining his miscalculation. Such was the confidence of creator-producer Hugh Wilson and writer Bill Dial that most of the payoff (namely, the priceless array of shell-shocked expressions on the faces of the show’s peerless ensemble) plays out under the closing credits.
9. The Dick Van Dyke Show “Never Bathe on Saturday” (March 31, 1965)
Never was this series’ frank, hip attitude toward sex more evident than in this episode that sent the Petries on a second honeymoon. Chaos descends when Laura, en flagrante and awaiting her husband’s seduction, gets her toe stuck in the bathtub. Carl Reiner’s script makes terrific use of both Mary Tyler Moore’s quavery delivery (“I was playing with a drip”), all the funnier for being delivered from off-screen, and Van Dyke’s impeccable slapstick (trying to shoulder down the locked bathroom door), but it’s also getting at something a little deeper, the male possessiveness that comes to the surface when Rob Petrie is faced with the possibility of strangers seeing his wife naked. As in “Turkeys Away,” the comedy turns on what’s left to the imagination, only here it’s nudity instead of carnage. At a time when the Petries couldn’t be shown occupying the same bed, Reiner had his audience contemplating the mental image of his leading lady’s nude form for the better part of this half-hour.
10. Breaking Point “The Bull Roarer” (October 21, 1963)
“Am I a man or . . . a homosexual?” I’m not certain if that was the first time the word was uttered in a non-news program on American television (though I suspect it was), but I am sure that a lot of jaws dropped among the handful of people watching this short-lived psychiatric drama when it tackled this taboo topic a full ten years before any other series would try again. The character asking the question is Paul Knopf (Lou Antonio), a confused young man seeking psychiatric care because he doesn’t share his loutish construction worker brother’s taste for brawling and womanizing. Paul thinks he may be gay, but his doctor (and the writer, Ernest Kinoy) gently advance a subtler idea: that our notion of masculinity is cripplingly reductive and exclusionary, and that anyone who doesn’t fit “the great American male image, the great western hero, strong, silent, half neanderthal man, half Don Juan . . . is considered feminine.” The show may seem dated today because it skirts the actual topic of homosexuality, but it’s a tolerant, anti-conformist piece that must have spoken volumes to its intended audience in 1963. While Paul doesn’t turn out to be gay, it’s not assumed that it would be disastrous if he were (unlike in Marcus Welby’s justly criticized take on “latent homosexuality” a decade later, “The Other Martin Loring”), and the kicker is Kinoy’s sly implication that Paul’s macho brother (Ralph Meeker), who keeps finding excuses to grapple around with other men, may be the one who really has cause to question his sexual identity. Ralph Senensky, a terrific actor’s director, does all the right things to bring out the heart in the story, particularly in the scenes depicting the awkward romance between Paul and the sweet young woman (Mariette Hartley) who likes him because he’s sensitive.
11. Veronica Mars “Poughkeepsie, Tramps and Thieves” (January 30, 2007)
Veronica Mars was so much better than any other network show on the air during its entire three-year run: a cathartic, postmodern-Marxist-feminist revenge-of-the-oppressed fantasy in which the jaded neo-Nancy Drew heroine (the wondrous Kristen Bell) uses the tools of modern law enforcement to exact a little payback against callow preppies, principals, rich kids, and dumb cops every week. This episode stands out because the storyline – in which Veronica helps campus cheating mogul Max (Adam Rose) track down the hooker his friends hired for him because they bonded over Battlestar Galactica and he thinks she’s his true love – puts the perky P.I. into the world of paid sex work, and her reactions are priceless. She’s arch but unshockable and essentially sex-positive, an attitude I’d (sadly) never seen from a female TV character before. Diane Ruggiero’s dialogue is rich in zingers even by this show’s gold standard of snark, and there’s a pillow-talk scene of surpassing intimacy between Veronica and boyfriend Logan that’s scored to Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” How much cooler can you get?
12. The Name of the Game “LA 2017” (January 15, 1971)
As this loosely-structured reporter drama wore on it passed into a fascinating experimental phase – one episode, “All the Old Familiar Faces,” used a pop quintet as a kind of Greek chorus – but the one that went way, way far out is “LA 2017,” a grim speculative fantasy directed by a young Steven Spielberg. Overcome by fumes, influential publisher Glenn Howard (Gene Barry) drives off the road and wakes up fifty years hence, when humans have fled underground to avoid a toxic miasma that emerged without warning from the seas. There isn’t much plot, but writer Philip Wylie makes good use of the ninety-minute length to work in a lot of satirical and poignant details on the nature of a post-outdoor society: religion has been replaced with computers that spit out answers to every question, someone says “They’re running some new patterns on television,” and there’s a great Philip K. Dick-type moment when one of the last surviving aquarium fish dies. Despite some sweet-talking from the bigwigs Howard realizes that the U.S. has become a totalitarian nightmare, subject to full-time video surveillance, and vows to join the underground. The “vice president of Los Angeles” (Barry Sullivan) tells him off, though: “In your day, you knew about the environment. What did you do about it?” And the special effects are better than An Inconvenient Truth’s.
13. Outlaws “Beat the Drum Slowly” (October 20, 1960)
Borrowing from The Untouchables, this nearly anthological western marginalized its law enforcement heroes to focus on a colorful villain every week. In this one, roguish Judge Adams (Ray Walston) plots the heist of an allegedly impregnable casino, enlisting as accomplices a couple of cowhands (Vic Morrow and Dean Jones) who have been cheated by a sadistic pit boss. Walter Doniger directs the ensuing caper with such precision that we can’t help but root for it to come off, at least until Adams, shockingly, sticks a knife into the supplicant casino owner. Nothing is as it seems: Adams is a pure sociopath whose charm masks a vicious itch to kill, and the femme fatale (Anne Helm, pulling a neat trick with an awful accent that’s supposed to sound phony) is no Creole chanteuse, just a gold-digging Kansas farm girl looking for a score. Jack Curtis, one of the finest western writers, crafts a script with a Shakespearean sense of inexorable doom, one that pivots on the uncertain moral compass of its protagonists. The Cannon brothers are essentially honest, but not immune to vice, temptation, or revenge if they feel wronged. Indeed, they seem to be figuring out who they are before our eyes, which makes them atypical, almost unique, on television, where characters might run good or bad but must always be fully formed, sketched in easy shorthand for the least discerning viewer.
14. The Paper Chase “Not Prince Hamlet” (April 14, 1984)
A rare superlative outing from late in the series’ run, and one that featured mainly the second-tier cast at that, “Not Prince Hamlet” follows a grieving father as he interviews friends and acquaintances to try to find out why his law student son committed suicide. The title of the episode is also the content of the dead young man’s enigmatic suicide note, which turns out to be a quotation not from Shakespeare but from . . . ah, but if you don’t know already, that would spoil it. From the talented pen of Lee Kalcheim, who also wrote my other favorite Paper Chase, “My Dinner With Kingsfield,” a two-hander in which the foreboding law professor (John Houseman) lets his guard down (just a bit) while snowbound with his most adoring pupil Hart (James Stephens).
15. The Young Lawyers “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (March 10, 1971)
Unfairly derided as The Mod Squad with law books, The Young Lawyers was an attempt at a sixties-style social drama with a radical Jewish law student, Aaron Silverman (Zalman King), as its hero. In “Whimper,” an old girlfriend (Susan Strasberg) calls him from jail, ravaged by the effects of heroin, and Aaron hocks everything he owns to bail her out and try to help her. His friends and boss (Lee J. Cobb) warn him that she’s a hopeless case, but Aaron is still in love and won’t listen (at first, he can’t even admit that she’s using). By the end, she’s jumped bail, and when Aaron finds her she turns on him viciously (Strasberg cuts loose with a startling fury); he’s just another narc to her now. “That was another girl,” Aaron says mournfully of the Hallie in his memories. Writer Harlan Ellison disowned this one as ferociously as he did his rewritten Star Trek masterpiece, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and some of his complains were valid: the flashback scenes are full of shampoo-commercial slo-mo, and there’s an insulting epilogue in which King and Cobb jaw over how humbling the drug problem is, yes indeed. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the most deeply felt hours of television I’ve seen.
16. Cimarron Strip “Knife in the Darkness” (January 25, 1968)
The renowned science fiction writer and essayist Harlan Ellison was also one of the best freelancers toiling in television for much of the sixties, and at least a half a dozen of his scripts are contenders for this list. Along with the Young Lawyers discussed above, I’ll confine myself to one more: this audacious high-concept piece that transplants Jack the Ripper into the old west, hacking up saloon girls in the back alleys of Cimarron City. Ellison’s story was, in the words of Cimarron producer Christopher Knopf, “an examination of urban violence versus western violence, and how urban violence wins every time.” It’s postmodern in that it transmutes the show’s western format into a horror tale, but Ellison extends the utmost respect to the rules of his chosen genre, confining the action to a single night (it’s almost a “locked-town” mystery) and laying out an array of creepy suspects without ever keying on one as the obvious culprit. Is Jack the stammering knife sharpener? The blustery card sharp? The urban social reformer, or the Brit who claims to be on the trail of Jack himself? Director Gunnar Hellstrom picks out the fog-enshrouded streets as his key visual and ratchets up the tension to an unbearable level with a prowling camera and a pulsating score by Bernard Herrmann (his last for television). The image of the Ripper revealed, wielding a scalpel and a grimace of madness, is genuinely scary, and the wicked fate Ellison devises for his villain resonates on a number of unexpected levels.
17. Dr. Kildare “One Clear, Bright Thursday Morning” (November 7, 1963)
Dr. Kildare was less tough-minded than the other doctor shows of the early sixties, but this atypical episode confronted a topic that most viewers were probably loathe to acknowledge. It’s the story of Roy Shigera, a nisei (Japanese-American) doctor who learns to his horror that his pregnant Japanese-born wife Hana, whom he’d always thought was from Tokyo, was actually in Nagasaki when the hydrogen bomb was dropped there. Hana had kept that secret because it’s a source of shame among the Japanese, and now she learns (upon consulting Kildare for pre-natal care) that she is dying of fallout-related leukemia. Suddenly this cosmopolitan, modern couple, who enjoy international cuisine and listen to jazz records, find their lives destroyed by the poisonous legacy of the previous generation. The political is present on the margins, in the anti-American point of view expressed by Hana’s mother and in Roy’s childhood memories of an internment camp, but Paul and Margaret Schneider’s script emphasizes the personal. It’s a tearjerker with teeth. If this medical drama’s specialty was cardiology, then the final shot of Roy (a tightly controlled James Shigeta) extinguishing a candle in the hospital chapel manipulates the heart with a surgeon’s finesse.
18. The X-Files “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (November 30, 1997)
Shot in black and white, this deranged, semi-farcical outing sends Scully and Mulder to a small midwestern town to track down the Great Mutato, a hideously deformed, peanut-butter sandwich-loving mutant who may or may not be a hoax perpetrated by some teenaged fanboys. Creator-writer-director Chris Carter’s magnum opus turns into a mad scientist tale of sorts, but really it’s an ineffably weird pop culture fantasia that somehow unites substantial references to comic books, Jerry Springer, Cher (think Mask), and James Whale’s Frankenstein. Fully deserving its titular adjective, the episode confounds every expectation (including the initial one that Carter is only out to score points off ignorant rednecks), and the ending breaks all the rules: Mulder, dissatisfied with the melancholy outcome, cries “Author!” and we’re transported to a feel-good rock-out where Mutato and the FBI agents are high-fiving each other at a Cher concert. Seriously. A series achieves a special kind of maturity when it’s willing to leave behind the comforts of an established formula and and venture into the unfamiliar – imagine if 24 were to try a comedy, or just an episode where everyone gets stuck in traffic. The X-Files challenged its fan base with this kind of adventurousness all the time, and here Carter’s courage extends as far as throwing away most of his best bits, confident that we’ll catch the details. The best is a revelation about the townspeople’s genetic makeup that’s conveyed only through some deft edits between a few bit players and some farm animals.
19. G. E. True “Nitro” (April 28, 1963)
You wouldn’t think twenty-five minutes of nail-biting suspense could begin with Jack Webb narrating, “On July 27, at 3:05 in the afternoon, Ed Gleason was mixing an electrolyte solution of sulfuric acid and glycerine. . . .” But so it goes. The sulfuric acid turns out to be nitric, and suddenly there’s nine gallons of nitroglycerine in an urban chemical plant as the temperature gets hotter and hotter. While the police and the level-headed plant foreman (Philip Carey) methodically evacuate the neighborhood, the workman (Noam Pitlik) who accidentally mixed the wrong chemicals deals with his guilt and humiliation. Jack Webb’s fascination for the mundane and the procedural, also evident in Dragnet and Adam-12, reached its apex in this forgotten anthology series derived from actual newspaper stories, which he executive produced and hosted. I’m also partial to “Gertie the Great,” one of the most agreeably trivial half-hours in television history, about a mallard duck that becomes a sort of city mascot after nesting on a bridge pylon in a polluted Milwaukee river.
20. The White Shadow “The Death of Me Yet” (March 11, 1980)
TV shows had killed off regular characters before, but likely never one so beloved as Curtis Jackson, the Carver High basketball player who takes a bullet during a liquor store holdup in this episode. Jackson’s death occurs during the celebration after a game that sends the team to the state championship, a victory to which the show had been building for the entirety of its two-year run. The timing seems a deliberate provocation, a forceful reminder to the series’ loyal audience that life rarely permits the sweet without a dose of the bitter. “The Death of Me Yet” is not, as one might expect, about grief per se. The team accepts their friend’s death stoically; there’s a quick consensus that Jackson would want them to continue on to the playoffs. It’s implied (though not overemphasized) that none of them are strangers to acts of random violence. Appropriately, it’s Coach Reeves (Ken Howard), the middle-class outsider, who takes it hardest, spiraling into a self-pitying funk. “I’m just a basketball coach, not a savior,” he says, and considers fleeing to a cushy Moorpark College job. Reeves knows that he’s taken his kids to victory on the court, but only one has a chance at a scholarship, and the rest will stay behind on the mean streets that killed Curtis. The pragmatic vice principal (Joan Pringle) who hears him out has no patience for this: you do what you can. All the pathos in Marc Rubin’s script is saved for one scene, in which Reeves comes upon Jackson’s little brother cleaning out his locker, and it’s a heartbreaker.
21. The FBI “Collision Course” (November 13, 1966)
Wait, The FBI? Overproduced, underdeveloped and politically suspect, this QM show usually ran its expensive guests through the cops-and-robbers motions without striving for much in the way of meaning. Occasionally, though, the ingredients would come together as a near-perfect crime or action vignette, and “Collision Course” is even a notch better than that, a towering fatalistic/romantic neo-noir that, in retrospect, looks a bit like the hypercool French heist pictures Jean-Pierre Melville was making around the same time. Jack Lord, icily unemotive as a sociopathic killer and jewel thief who blows away a motorist in the teaser, does the Alain Delon thing in dyed-blond hair and dark shades. Director Christian Nyby tricks it out with dutch angles and crane shots, and cast-checks the episode’s spiritual film noir ancestry with a roll call of seedy bit players: Connie Gilchrist as a blackmailing landlady, John Harmon as a fence, Malcolm Atterbury as Lord’s abusive father. Writers Leonard Kantor and Charles Larson (a legendary TV rewrite man who was producing the show that season) humanize their beast by giving him a deaf Mexican girl as a traveling companion; by the end, Lord is dying alone and crying for his daddy, scrawling “Te amo, Teresa” in the dust of a filthy alley. The harder your edges (and Lord’s craggy face could’ve cut the hot diamonds he spends the show trying to unload), the more sentiment you can smuggle into the soft middle.
22. Kraft Television Theatre “Patterns” (January 12, 1955)
The comparisons to Arthur Miller and Death of a Salesman weren’t merely superlatives; Rod Serling understood that the surest way to probe the American character in the fifties was through the world of business. (And director Fielder Cook and his sweat-soaked cast discovered that the boardroom, as much as the vaunted kitchen sink, was a setting tailor-made for the cramped TV screen.) “Patterns” charts the corporate power struggle between rapacious paper company CEO Ramsey (Everett Sloane) and his more compassionate number two man Sloane (Ed Begley), as told from the point of view of a younger man, Staples (Richard Kiley), who realizes he has been hired to take Sloane’s place after the latter is deposed in a kind of deft samurai maneuver undertaken to avoid a public firing. Staples is Serling’s surrogate, an innocent from Cincinnati (from whence the writer had himself moved), given to mouthing idealistic platitudes; when Sloane drops dead after a vicious chewing out, Staples decides he will resign. But Serling has a trick up his sleeve: his hero has those Shakespearean flaws of ambition and indecisiveness, and comes equipped with a sweet little Lady Macbeth wife. In the end, Staples lets Ramsey talk him into staying on, ostensibly to continue to challenge Ramsey’s ruthlessness by carrying on Sloane’s moral tradition, but really just to pursue personal success. In 1955 Serling probably meant Ramsey’s argument that Staples’ talent would be wasted if he walked away to some backwater job at face value – but then, Serling stayed in business with Hollywood and wound up writing crappy Night Gallery episodes. That’s the wily value of “Patterns”; its ambivalence makes it now more than ever a sobering cautionary tale about the danger of buying the seductive lie of ethical expediency, whether it’s about business, or politics, or those polar ice caps that aren’t really melting at all.
23. Night Court “Yet Another Day in the Life” (May 3, 1989)
The breezy, episodic, by-the-seat-of-their-pants storylines in this airy ensemble comedy offered some of the most underappreciated laughs of the eighties. Here’s my favorite: the one where laid-back judge Harry decides to beat the court record of cases cleared in a single session, plowing through a blitz of throwaway gags – even some, er, topical ones like the dispute Harry mediates between some “old” and “new” Trekkies arrested for fighting at a Star Trek convention. They’re all set to ace the record until the brilliant punchline: the defendant in the final case on the docket talks . . . very . . . very . . . slowly. It’s too close to call which reaction shots are funnier as the clock ticks toward the deadline, Harry Anderson’s slack-jawed expressions of disbelief or the constipated contortions of situation comedy’s nimblest acrobat, John Larroquette, as the sleazebag district attorney.
24. Thriller “Pigeons From Hell” (June 6, 1961)
This adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulp story deserves its reputation as one of television’s scariest hours. It’s a lean, no-frills haunted house tale, in which two stranded motorists and one unflappable Southern sheriff (taciturn Crahan Denton) do battle with the spirits that inhabit a dilapidated mansion in the middle of a swampy nowhere. One of the young men takes an off-screen cleaver to the head, then somehow resurrects himself and turns lightning-fast on his brother (Brandon de Wilde), Night of the Living Dead-style. A trek into the swamp leads to an ancient voodoo priest, obviously terrified by some unseen force, who foresees accurately his imminent death by snakebite. But the most chilling bits are the simplest: De Wilde’s halting voice as he reads aloud a diary which reveals that the fates of the house’s previous inhabitants were far more gruesome than the locals had thought; or the lawman’s throwaway line that he hasn’t seen pigeons in these parts for decades, just after we’ve seen the birds bewitch one of the young men towards a ghastly fate. What’s missing is the usual barrage of horror-movie skepticism from some denier of the supernatural; these demons are corporeal, efficient, and capable of so much measurable damage that even the hard-headed sheriff concedes mighty fast that something’s amiss. There’s no time for disbelief: writer John Kneubuhl and director John Newland have too many nightmares to unfurl.
25. The Sopranos “The Happy Wanderer” (February 20, 2000)
The character actor Robert Patrick does a revelatory guest turn in this jaded entry of The Sopranos which, like many of the best episodes, navigates the surreal borderline between the civilian world and the cracked-mirror realm of the mob. Patrick often plays taciturn military types, but his guileless, slightly hangdog look was perfect for David Scatino, a sporting goods dealer whose teenaged son is a classmate of Tony’s daughter Meadow. David, revealing a self-destructive streak a mile wide, worms his way into Tony’s all-night, high-roller card game and ends up 45 G’s in the hole, despite Tony’s politest efforts to keep it from happening. Frank Renzulli, who nailed the intricate mafioso slang better than any other staff writer, contributes a blitz of dazzling poker-table dialogue and a brilliant ending. David, in an utterly craven gesture, finds a pretext to confiscate his son’s SUV (“the tires are muddy!”) and uses it to pay his debt to Tony – who gives the car to Meadow. The children’s friendship is the final cost of their parents’ bad behavior. The deeper point is, of course, that given the opportunity the “straight” people of the world will exhibit the same larcenous impulses and weakness of character as Tony’s thugs. James Gandolfini finds a marvelous new wrinkle in his portrayal of Tony, a sort of a glad-handing, executive demeanor that he uses on outsiders; he’s so good that when David finally sees the real, terrifying Tony for the first time, the one we’re used to, we still think for a moment that Tony won’t really smash his fist into this cleancut, upstanding citizen’s face. But he does.
26. Saints and Sinners “A Night of Horns and Bells” (December 24, 1962)
It’s New Year’s Eve and cub reporter Nick Alexander (Nick Adams) is drafted into emergency service as the night city editor of a New York paper. He struggles to cover the night’s news with only a skeleton crew, and to make decisions that are new to him, such as whether to run the photo of a missing woman (Cloris Leachman) who may or may not be suicidal. Meanwhile Nick’s society girlfriend fumes over missing the holiday parties, but soon she’s taking down copy over the phone, and a surrogate staff of misfits and drop-ins is cohering to get the late edition out. The creator-producer of this terrific, short-lived newspaper drama, Adrian Spies, and the writer of this episode, David Davidson, were both veteran journalists, and they brought a predictable verisimilitude to the chaotic newsroom setting. Davidson’s script has the sharp, staccato character sketches of good reporting, epitomized in Edward Everett Horton’s lovely turn as an elderly “pet editor,” filling in on a holiday shift, who enjoys one last moment of glory as a rewrite man once Nick realizes he had apprenticed with some of the legendary Jazz Age newsmen. The ending is perfect: the veteran editor-in-chief (John Larkin) returns to offer a kind but blunt assessment of Nick’s handling of each of the evening’s stories – some better than the competition, some not as good.
27. Zane Grey Theatre “Miss Jenny” (January 7, 1960)
An arc of the lyrical, unsentimental revisionism that would animate Sam Peckinpah’s iconic feature films a decade later can be traced through his stints on The Rifleman, The Westerner, and The Dick Powell Show. The finest of these early works is “Miss Jenny,” a discomfiting vignette about a city woman (Vera Miles, rarely this good), her diffident and drunken settler husband (Adam Williams), and the backwoods sociopath (Ben Cooper) who comes upon them and announces his intention to simply take the man’s wife, by force, as his own. Jenny’s husband ends up gut-shot, but not mortally, and as she tries frantically to get him medical care, Peckinpah (who directed and co-wrote the teleplay with Robert Heverly) conveys the danger and uncertainty of frontier life with a palpable urgency that’s missing from most TV westerns. Peckinpah has no interest in clear-cut ideas of right and wrong: Jenny’s impatience with her husband’s lack of ambition and survival skills, and her initial attraction to the man who will soon abduct her, are conflicts that plague her with guilt. The audience must come to terms with these ambiguities, as Peckinpah insists on compassion for all his characters. “He was just lonely and wanted somebody to live with,” is Jenny’s eulogy for the violent man she’s finally forced to kill. “He went about it all wrong.”
28. Battlestar Galactica “33” (January 14, 2005)
The series’ premiere (following its launch via a mediocre four-hour miniseries) had a perfect high concept premise in the style of a classic science fiction short story: the entire fleet must teleport through space every thirty-three minutes just before the Cylons catch up and wipe them out. Nerves are frayed, no one can get any sleep (or do anything that requires more than a half-hour’s concentration), and fatigue is beginning to take its toll in fatalities in writer Ronald D. Moore’s grim, precise study of a system collapsing under stress. It’s a lingering shame that this half-smart, half-dorky cult show never again achieved the standard set by the tautly directed and cannily performed “33.”
29. Columbo “Any Old Port in a Storm” (October 7, 1973)
Columbo had a rigid, clockwork formula, and the episodes that succeeded almost always matched the shabby, loquacious detective against his opposite: one of the Nietzchean supermen played with cold calculation by Robert Culp or Patrick McGoohan or Robert Vaughn. “Any Old Port” is the only one that scores by giving Columbo a nemesis with a soul. Donald Pleasence delivers a towering performance as Adrian Carsini, a winemaker who murders his brother because the sibling wants to sell the family winery that Adrian runs for pleasure rather than profit. Like the film Sideways, Stanley Ralph Ross’s script (from a story by Larry Cohen) takes us inside the minutiae of wine appreciation, how to savor the bouquet and properly decant the wine, and builds an argument that the aficionado’s way of life may be more rarefied and rewarding than that of someone who lacks his all-consuming passion. The beautiful irony is that Columbo, though he’s as unrefined as any person can be, is the only character who gets this. The detective and Carsini form a sort of mutual admiration society – Columbo studies up on fine wines and Adrian compliments his knowledge and taste – even as they go through the motions of trying to outwit one another. Watching Falk and Pleasence play off each other in the final scene, in which predator and prey share “an excellent dessert wine,” is one of the true joys of seventies television. Falk hits just the right note of regret over having to nab this tasteful killer without betraying his character’s moral nature, and Pleasence’s rueful laugh – well, it’s a rare vintage port indeed.
30. Mr. Novak “I Don’t Even Live Here” (October 8, 1963)
This portrait of a corrupt teacher is full of the quotidian material at which the workplace drama Mr. Novak excelled: gripes about students stealing teachers’ parking spots, debates over teaching the texts versus teaching the test. At the center is Harold Otis, an English teacher whose dubious methods come under scrutiny when rookie Mr. Novak (James Franciscus) finds his incoming students from Otis’ class underprepared. Sitting in, Novak realizes that Otis achieves his popularity through comedy, sidelining the curriculum for a steady stream of wisecracks. Novak tries it himself but feels cheap. Then, with the righteousness of a fallen disciple, Novak realizes that Otis passes his pupils by feeding them the answers to the tests, and sets out to bring him down. As Otis, Herschel Bernardi traverses a precisely worked out arc: first wry and cynical when Otis is in his element, then cagey, scared, surly, self-pitying, and finally meek. It’s a world-class performance, but writer Milton Rosen understands that Otis is the sort not to reveal himself and supplies most of the key insights via third parties. “He’s afraid of us, I think,” says one student (Shelley Fabares), and Novak lands the death blow: the kids are laughing as payment for favors, not because the jokes are funny. Rosen gives his pathetic creation a second chance that rings false by today’s standards, but this is such a full-blooded character study that it would be churlish to begrudge Mr. Otis at least the possibility of redemption.
31. The Twilight Zone “Walking Distance” (October 30, 1959)
The temptation is to pick a scary one – “It’s a Good Life,” with little Anthony wishing his terrified neighbors into the cornfield – or one of the political allegories, like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” with the suburban everypersons turning on each other to root out the unspecified alien among them. But the best Twilight Zone is this portrait of Martin Sloane, a burned-out Madison Avenue exec who’s so fed up with the rat race that he sets out, on foot, toward his long-lost home town and finds that it’s still 1936 there – and that he’s still there too, still eleven years old and carving his name on the same bandstand in the town square. Everything comes together in Rod Serling’s finest treatise on his favorite theme, the double-edged allure of nostalgia, laid out here as a barely disguised requiem for his own idyllic Binghamton childhood. Bernard Herrmann’s score is sublime, and director Robert Stevens’ brave use of extreme closeups expresses a deserved confidence in his amazing cast. As Sloane, Gig Young taps an unsuspected well of melancholy beneath his glib charm. He’s matched by Frank Overton as the father who accepts the impossible and gently tells his time-travelling adult son that he must return to the unhappy present, so that the young Martin’s childhood may remain unmolested: “only one summer to a customer.” And that’s where Serling will break your heart, because, contrary to his father’s faintly expressed hope, the Sloane who returns is no wiser, no more at peace among the cacophonous rock-and-rolling soda-fountain teens of 1959 than when he left.
32. Six Feet Under “I’ll Take You” (May 19, 2002)
In the penultimate episode of its second season, Six Feet Under did something that few serialized dramas can ever afford to do: it paid off all the emotional threads it had cultivated with a sometimes infuriating deliberateness over the whole of its existence, very much as if that had been the master plan all along. Relationship doormat Ruth dumped her indifferent boyfriend (in the middle of a bad movie), Claire found kindred spirits awaiting her in art school, Keith tanked his career in an outburst of pent-up violence, and even the noxious Chenoweths found a kind of anti-redemption in a new-agey renewal of their vows. But the gestalt was Nate and Brenda’s abrupt breakup. Nate realizes that her erotic fiction is real and they confront each other in a white-hot fury, commitment-phobe versus sex addict. Every betrayal of the previous twenty-four episodes is laid bare, every rationalization dismantled, in Jill Soloway’s incisive, punishing dialogue, until finally Brenda’s reminder of how their dysfunctional beginning (anonymous sex in an airport closet) brings them (and us) back full circle to the pilot. Suddenly, a series that communicated mostly in symbolism, dream imagery, and snark shifted into absolute literalism as swiftly as a sock to the solar plexus. Peter Krause and Rachel Griffiths are superb in this scene, Griffiths playing half turned away and drowning her lines in a snivel, Krause crude and callous (and yet I never despised Nate in the way that many people who have written about this show do). Some would say that Six Feet Under was about a family, but for me it was always the story of a relationship – Nate and Brenda’s. Once that ended, the show had three more years to run, and nowhere to go.
33. Peter Gunn “Let’s Kill Timothy” (January 19, 1959)
Blake Edwards’ gumshoe-jazz fugue, which never seemed to take its rote film noir iconography very seriously, was always a little twee for my tastes, but in this outing Edwards (who directed and co-wrote, with Lewis Reed) pushed the comedic element so far that the result was a kind of dadaist gem that could be mistaken for an outtake from his filmic masterpiece The Party. In the first ten minutes, there’s a lot of standard chitchat about Gunn playing bodyguard for some two-bit jewel thief’s pal, a guy named Timothy – and then Timothy turns up and for no particular reason he’s a trained seal on a leash. For the rest of the show Gunn and his cop sidekick (Herschel Bernardi, whose comic timing was always impeccable and who I’m guessing improvised the line where he says the whole situation seems very “inconguous”) vamp and mug and seem to be having a great time as they follow the seal around waiting for it to, er, pass the diamonds that the thief has fed it inside a fish. There are bathroom jokes, and Henry Corden turns up as a beatnik creator of “sound paintings” with titles like Ode to a Purple Baboon. You just have to go with it. Which should happen more often on TV, especially in formulaic genre shows like Peter Gunn.
34. Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Inner Light” (June 1, 1992)
The lightning-paced, martial, often terrifying Borg sagas were what finally earned the Star Trek sequel its deserved mantle of critical respect, but its richest legacy are the more delicate high-concept outings like “The Inner Light,” in which Captain Picard lives out an entire lifetime in the body of another being. Zapped by an alien probe, Picard awakens on a relatively primitive planet where everyone knows him as Kataan, an ironsmith. We, and the rest of the ship’s crew, know that Picard is really just in a trance on the Enterprise bridge, but for him there is no escape from his new surroundings. Years pass and he grows accustomed to, then enriched by, the road not taken, the simple joys unavailable to an explorer and a man of action: friendship, family, community. By the time the “real” Picard is revived, Kataan is eighty-five, and our captain will carry a whole second lifetime of experience with him for the rest of his days. Morgan Gendel and Peter Allan Fields’ elegant script is a moving, mind-expanding delight, and Patrick Stewart nimbly avoids all the sentimental traps as he fills in the image of the Picard that might have been.
35. East Side / West Side “The Sinner” (September 23, 1963)
This gritty social drama’s premiere outing may also have been its most heartbreaking. Carol Rossen electrifies the screen as Layna Harris, a proud, resentful single mother fighting a losing battle to keep custody of her child because she also happens to be a prostitute. Starring as Neil Brock, the social worker who tries to intervene, George C. Scott smartly goes contrapuntally, countering Rossen’s fire with a worn-down terseness not at all like his trademark intensity. Writer Ed De Blasio and director Jack Smight pull off an ending even more bleak and sardonic than those which capped the series’ more celebrated race-themed segments, “Who Do You Kill” and “No Hiding Place.” Lana remains stoic as her baby is taken away, offering matter-of-fact advice on its care and feeding, but after the camera pulls away we hear her calling plaintively down the stairs, begging for a second chance. One of the tenement harpies who led the crusade against Lana congratulates Brock on their victory. “Don’t mention it, Mrs. Kopachek,” Neil says bitterly. “Who knows? Tomorrow I may be able to help you.”
36. Medic “Flash in the Darkness” (February 14, 1955)
Medic was a doctor show created by ex-Dragnet writer James E. Moser, but nothing in its earnest provenance prepared viewers for the uncompromising bleakness of this what-if story that projected the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Los Angeles. Dr. Konrad Styner (Richard Boone) assembles with some other medical professionals at a warehouse in the suburbs for what at first seems like a drill, but a sudden, blinding light makes it clear that the worst has happened. They makes their back into the city as far as they can to provide first aid, but it’s mostly futile. A boy is blinded and dying of radiation poisoning; another little girl, wailing in pain, is denied morphine because the dwindling supply must be conserved for those with a chance of survival. Writer-director John Meredyth Lucas turns the miniscule budget to his advantage, confining the show’s perspective to that of Styner as he performs operation after operation in blood-soaked scrubs, learning of the outside world only from frantic messengers and the leaden voice of a radio announcer, who tells of multiple strikes against major cities, looting, and retaliatory attacks against “the enemy.” The ending tries for a dubious note of hope (“It’ll be a better day tomorrow,” Styner says), but on the whole this was a rare dose of reality in the era of the duck-and-cover drill.
37. Chrysler Theatre “Kicks” (October 13, 1965)
After a weak heart sidelined him from producing, the terrific blacklisted writer Arnold Perl spent his last years freelancing for the last dying anthology dramas. “Kicks” may be his masterpiece, a wild black comedy that’s way ahead of its time, totally unliked the gritty social realist fare Perl was known for (he produced East Side / West Side and co-created NYPD), and nearly indescribable. It’s the story of supermodel Holly (as in Golightly), played by unknown Melodie Johnson, whose compulsion for thrills sends her out to gamble on anything that will take her action, even (in a wonderfully wacky image) a high school ping-pong match. When the need for kicks escalates to murder, Holly offs her bookie Lefty (Mickey Rooney), and because we do such things for the pretty people, her entourage dumps the body and covers for her. Enter two chatty cops (Don Gordon and Jack Weston), a playful inverse of the existential hit-men cliche. One of them lays out a complex theory on how her need for paternal love led Holly to commit the crime, until Holly blithely cuts him off with, “Oh, I did it myself.” This climactic moment is the one time Perl rises to any kind of recognizable temper, and only to mock the cop’s outdated, ham-fisted psychology; otherwise, mimicking his sociopath antiheroine, he adopts a tone that’s completely without affect. “Hey kids, take ten – years, that is,” Holly calls out gaily to her acolytes as she’s carted off to the clink. It’s Dostoyevsky with a dash of Warhol, or vice versa.
38. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation “Slaves of Las Vegas” (November 15, 2001)
A body found in a sandbox leads the CSIs to an underground sex club in this pivotal episode that gets inside the heads of the main characters without betraying the show’s essential mandate of focusing on the professional, not the personal. Credited ambiguously as a “consultant,” the cult novelist-memoirist Jerry Stahl was the secret weapon on CSI’s writing staff for several seasons, contributing an array of episodes that limned the funny, naughty ins and outs of outre sexual fetishes in jaw-dropping detail. “Fur and Loathing” (about “furries”) and “King Baby” (adult babies) were wilder, but “Slaves” was the template, introducing the fascinating recurring character Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke), a madame and dominatrix who forms a unique bond with the enigmatic lead investigator Gil Grissom (less-is-more star William Petersen). From the opening scene in which Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) asks Grissom if he gets his trademark aphorisms out of a book, and he calls her “Grasshopper,” Stahl lets us know that he’s going self-reflexive. In his hands Lady Heather becomes the team’s unlikely interlocutor: Nick (George Eads), freaked out by her dungeon, reveals himself as a prude, while Catherine, a former stripper, is impressed by Heather’s success as a businesswoman and single parent. But the two long scenes in which Grissom and Heather spar verbally, then flirt, are the real delight. It’s Stahl’s conceit that Heather’s professional skills make her both a gifted amateur sleuth and the only person thus far to have some real insight as to what makes Grissom tick (a talent that clearly turns him on). Positing that your law enforcement hero’s moral/intellectual/romantic counterpart is a sex worker, and that there’s nothing particularly unhealthy about that: how’s that for subversiveness within a Nielsen megahit?
39. Cain’s Hundred “The Left Side of Canada” (May 1, 1962)
Cain’s Hundred was a lame Untouchables rip-off with Mark Richman as a vigilante out to get the mafiosos who killed his family, only nobody on the show could call him a vigilante, and he couldn’t behave like one. Enter maverick writer S. Lee Pogostin and director Robert Altman, who fashioned this one-off episode into a stunningly perceptive disquisition on the nature of mob malevolence. Harry Guardino was usually a ham, but Altman reinvents him here through physical transformation: sporting a moustache and gray sidewall haircut, Guardino is nearly unrecognizable as John Maychin, a gangster who banishes a nightclub singer (Beverly Garland) to Alaska after his nephew (Bruce Dern) falls for her. Pogostin’s distinctive dialogue, beat-influenced and elliptical, remains intact, and he puts it all into the mouth of Maychin (Alaska: “It’s on the left side of Canada, and it’s different”). Like Tony Soprano, this hood has gravitas; he’s impossible not to watch, even when his ugly, misogynistic core is revealed in the claustrophobic, dangerous centerpiece scene where Maychin brutalizes the singer. Everybody else is a wimp, especially the putative hero who’s being courted by Cain to inform, a mob accountant (Philip Abbott) in serious denial about his accountability. His relationship with Maychin traces the central theme, a grim calculus by which implacable evil handily conquers uncommitted resistance. “Oh, Howard, buy some books for me,” Maychin sneers, already plotting his comeback as he’s carted off to jail. “I think I’ll study medicine. I’ve always wanted to be a medicine man.”
40. The Andy Griffith Show “Bargain Day” (March 23, 1964)
Stubbornness and parsimony among beloved relatives are mined for sweet, sometimes uneasy laughter in this comic gem. Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier), teased by Andy about the freezer she got a great deal on at auction and never uses, decides to take advantage of a sale at a new butcher’s, Diamond Jim’s. Only she has to buy “a whole side of beef,” it’s the hottest day of the year, and the freezer starts bucking like a bronco when she plugs it in. John Whedon’s script keeps topping itself, finally generating one of TV’s immortal catchphrases when Aunt Bea balks at summoning an expensive repairman from Mount Pilot. “Call the man, Aunt Bea, just call the man!” becomes Andy’s exasperated refrain. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina – not as small as Mayberry, but close enough to feel a bit like Opie – and my own father’s mannerisms and vocal inflections resembled those of Griffith’s Andy Taylor character. The Andy Griffith Show reran in local perpetuity, and this strange consonance in paternal images resonated most strongly when “Bargain Day” would play, because for a time my father adopted “Just call the man, Aunt Bea” as his retort to anyone evading the most obvious solution to a problem. So much of Andy’s wisdom here echoes my dad’s philosophy: his anger when Aunt Bea brokers a deal for Mr. Foley, the kindly butcher to whom she’s been disloyal, to store her bargain beef, because he believes in solving one’s own problems; and his surprise decision to buy a new freezer (at full retail price!) just because life is short. So I’m hardly qualified to write about this show objectively, but it seems to me that the tag, in which Andy reminisces for his son about the days of ice wagons (“but don’t ask what came before the ice age, because ah don’t go back that far”), achieves a kind of perfection, not trying to be funny or heartwarming, just content to lean back on the porch and pass the warm night.
41. Harry O “Gertrude” (September 12, 1974)
The debut episode of Howard Rodman’s offbeat detective show establishes the character of Harry Orwell more flavorfully than either of the made-for-TV movies that preceded it. Pensioned off after being shot in the back, Harry is an ex-cop and reluctant private eye who lives on the beach, building a boat that looks like it’s never going to sail anywhere. He’s television’s ultimate drop-out hero, with David Janssen supplying just enough gravitas to keep him from seeming shabby. The phone rings and Harry decides he’ll answer only if it goes eighteen times (“You must really want to talk to someone at this number”). So commences the plot, and it’s a shaggy-dog number about a missing sailor that turns into something even less consequential – a search for a missing shoe. Rodman doesn’t care about the mechanics of a mystery, but he’s not out to implode the architecture of film noir like Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye. Instead he pitches down the middle, mocking the genre’s pretensions by giving us the most modest sleuth imaginable. Harry eludes a man following him by taking the bus, and interrogates a suspect by asking him for to distract him from his back pain. Everyone in Rodman’s world talks in riddles, including the daffy ingenue of the title (Julie Sommars), but the aphoristic narration and intricate dialogue fit Janssen’s gravelly voice like a shot of whiskey down the gullet.
42. The Practice “Part V” (April 1, 1997)
In this quintessential early segment, writer (and former lawyer) David E. Kelley mapped out all the major concerns of his legal drama. The “A” plot takes us through an arcane legal maneuver with a real insider’s feel of authenticity, as hotshot lead lawyer Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) orchestrates a “jury nullification” defense (that is, encouraging a jury to ignore the law and release a transparently guilty client) under the glaring eye of a disapproving judge (a perfect Philip Baker Hall). The “B” story builds a sturdy foundation (with the race issue as its cornerstone) for the show’s best character, brilliant African-American lawyer Eugene Young (Steve Harris), whose Achilles’ heel is his ego; here he wins a robbery case and a side bet by epically dismantling a witness on cross-examination, only to realize to his chagrin (and Kelley delivers this sucker-punch just right) that he never asked if his client, a young black man, was guilty. But the heart of the episode is buried in the “C” storyline, on its surface a comic throwaway in which overweight lawyer Eleanor (Camryn Manheim) blows off a blind date with a bald, dorky guy (Michael Monks) because of his looks. One of Kelley’s specialties as a writer is his extraordinarily specific insight into mindset of the lonely and disenfranchised, and another is the sudden emotional twist that flips a situation just when it seems to have played out to a predictable end. Here the two skills dovetail brilliantly in the moment when Eleanor vents, to a pretty, disapproving friend, about how, as someone who’s been considered unattractive all her life, she should have every right to turn the tables. That the blind date (Michael Monks) would return the next season to offer an equally wounded and poignant rebuttal is one of the joys of Kelley’s world.
43. It’s a Man’s World “Molly Pitcher and the Green-Eyed Monster” (October 1, 1962)
I’ve never been as enamored of this vanity project from producer-director Peter Tewksbury as are the members of its fervent cult following, which extended so far as to earn the show a lengthy encomium in the New York Times forty years after its demise. The hour-long scripts drag, and the cast – particularly a bleating Ted Bessell – indulges in behavior that might charitably be described as “always on.” But this segment has an indescribable magic. It begins as a nearly formless comic romp, in which all the characters are thrown out of their comfort zone. Uptight law student/mechanic Wes (Glenn Corbett) helps beatnik Nora (Ann Schuyler) tow her jalopy and ends up chasing tires down a hill and romping in a pigpen and a haystack. Meanwhile Wes’s square girlfriend Irene (Jan Norris) attends his gas station and must figure out how to help a game middle-aged lady gas up her car and change the oil (in a sequence that’s not as sexist as it sounds). Then the characters reconverge, and the second half is as tightly structured as the first was freewheeling. Wes’s enthusiasm at having been briefly freed from the pressures of his daily routine plants a seed of jealousy between Irene and Nora, and this leads to a mortifying outburst and then a terrific scene in which the two women reconcile while chatting about everything except the subject of their conflict. In one sense the script by David Duncan and James Menzies is delightfully about nothing in the Seinfeldian way, and in another it’s rich in observation on subjects such as nonconformity versus responsibility and the durability of friendships between women.
44. Green Acres “A Square Is Not Round” (December 14, 1966)
This especially deranged segment by Elroy Schwartz (one of the few not penned by the producing team of Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat) springs from the same premise that operates every entry in this subversive sitcom: city-bred novice farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert, TV’s best straight man) stumbles through some insane chain of events that seem perfectly reasonable to the loonies who populate the bizarro world of Hooterville. In this case, one of Oliver’s hens begins producing cube-shaped eggs. “One of the girls must have a square egg-maker,” is his blissfully left-brained Hungarian wife Lisa’s logical explanation. Even funnier is the subplot about the toaster that only works when someone says “five” – a reference to the running gag that all the Douglases’ appliances have a numerical value which must total less than seven when plugged in or, as Lisa would put it, a “fooz” will blow in the “electricical.” This leads to a Preston Sturges-worthy exchange in the general store in which various kibitzers inform Oliver that he must have an outdated model, as all the newer models start at an eight, but perhaps Mr. Drucker (Frank Cady) can tinker Oliver’s toaster up to a six and a half. It’s marred only by an unnecessary “it was all a dream ending,” but perhaps that’s a badge of honor – a confession that this outing was a tad too surreal even for this fourth-wall shattering show.
45. The Shield “Dragonchasers” (May 14, 2002)
It wasn’t until the tenth episode that I could be certain this undeniably exuberant and well-acted cop drama had more on its mind than coyly endorsing the appalling vigilante tactics of its crooked cop anti-hero Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). The turning point comes during a sequence in which Vic’s antithesis, the intellectual, socially awkward detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) questions a serial killer he’s been trying to nab all season. The suspect appears to turn the tables on Dutch, calling him a “joke” and a “lowly civil servant” and even diagramming his inadequacies on a dry-erase board. The brilliant stroke in Kurt Sutter and Scott Rosenbaum’s script is to put Vic and his Strike Team of nitwit lackeys in an adjoining room, watching the interrogation on a video monitor. The Strike Team, who routinely haze Dutch, revel in the spectacle of seeing their favorite punching bag lap up all this abuse; only Vic stands apart, frowning, sensing that something else is going on. When Dutch reveals he’s had the upper hand all along – he’s stalling while bodies are dug up on the man’s property – we understand that Vic’s recognition of and respect for good police work separate him both morally and intellectually from his own pack. It’s our clue that he can be redeemed, and The Shield would probe that potential for the remainder of its run. There’s a powerful emotional payoff too, a scene in which Karnes (an extraordinary actor who can steal scenes even from the powerhouse Chiklis) lets us see that his adversary’s daggers hit their target.
46. The Senator “A Continual Roar of Musketry” Part Two (November 29, 1970)
One of the most courageous acts in a time of real timidity on television was the broadcast, only six months after the real incident, of this drama based very blatantly on the Kent State massacre. The premise is simple: liberal, charismatic young senator Hayes Stowe (Hal Holbrook), the central figure of this short-lived show, chairs a committee investigating the campus shootings of two students by national guardsmen. Writer David W. Rintels’ decision to employ a Rashomon structure in the first half of the two-parter can be taken as either even-handed or cowardly; in any case, the usually fine character actors (John Marley, John Randolph, Paul Stewart) end up advocating the guilt or innocent of the authority figures they portray a bit too strenuously in the multiple skewed reenactments. But in this second half, as Rintels gives voice to the young people, the real, jagged emotions come out: the national guard officer (named Lieutenant “Caffey,” probably in a reference to My Lai’s Lieutenant Calley) is haunted by his decision to open fire; one of his underlings, obviously lying under oath, is so callous he doesn’t recognize the names of the dead; a lone girl (Pamela McMyler) breaks the student embargo on cooperating with the commission to testify on behalf of her fallen friends, even though she doesn’t believe it will make any difference. Some of the politics are too on the nose, but some aren’t: the leader of the student protests challenges Stowe on why these commissions never rule against the authorities, and the senator can only lamely cite some “mixed verdicts.” Director Robert Day stages the flashbacks to the confrontation in a series of freeze-frames that recall the famous Mary Ann Vecchio photograph. The inspiring finale has Senator Stowe recommending that a grand jury indict not only the guardsmen but the whole chain of command, a call to accountability that (of course) never happened in real life.
47. The Loner “The Homecoming of Lemuel Stove” (November 20, 1965)
Rod Serling’s last hurrah may have been this episode of his short-lived existential western, the story of a freed slave (Brock Peters) who returns from service in the Union army to find that his father has just been tortured and lynched. As in The Twilight Zone, the allegorical elements are pointed – the dead man is hanged because he was “uppity,” a term with modern resonance, and the lynch mob wears the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan – but not overdone. Serling’s dialogue, by this point, tended toward the purple, but here the severity of the subject matter spurs him to a spare eloquence: “Something hanging from a tree, that could be just a plain old carcass. But if a son come to cut it down, it’s a human being.” Peters’ outsized intensity is tailor-made for the climax, in which Lemuel and a few courageous others stand against those who would leave the dead man’s body on profane display. But the best scene is probably the first one between Lemuel and the show’s eponymous hero, Colton (Lloyd Bridges), a simple, moving sketch of the beginning of a friendship, in which Colton sees that the other man’s boots are worn through and offers him his own.
48. Naked City “The One Marked Hot Gives Cold” (March 21, 1962)
A bolt-upright howl of anguish on behalf of the unloved everywhere, this raw, wintry Naked City showcases a powerful early performance from Robert Duvall as one L. Francis Childe, a volatile, disturbed young loner whose only friendship – with an imaginative little girl who trades tall tales with him in Riverside Park – is a sweet idyll waiting to be misunderstood. That the cops in this putative cop show often cared more about psychoanalyzing the bad guys than arresting them, and that the storylines had to contorted themselves to shoehorn the police into the action in the first place – these, in retrospect, were the genius of this pugnacious Great Society snapshot of Manhattan’s eight million. Writer Abram S. Ginnes exploits the conceptual loopholes to sketch out a set of vignettes of troubled souls in crisis, all linked by their hothouse craving for some absent affection. A boy in an orphanage sees a burglar and pleads, “Mister – take me.” A landlady seduces her tenants, then sics the cops on them if she spurns them. Francis’ meeting with his long-lost father comes as a hallucinatory shock image, of the sort Ginnes was prone to drop into his Naked City scripts: the man (perennial movie weakling Edward Andrews) literally crawls, prostrate, from behind a sofa, an objective correlative for paternal inadequacy. Then the false spectre of child molestation is raised, and it seems impossible that the show’s delicate parade of emotions won’t succumb to melodramatic excess. But Ginnes’ fable-styled ending has no interest in hysteria, only a wounded sorrow over one little girl’s loss of faith in her parents.
49. ABC Stage 67 “The Trap of Solid Gold” (January 4, 1967)
Rarely have middle-class money woes been dramatized so viscerally as in this adaptation of a John D. MacDonald story that examines a very particular economic vise – the plight of mid-level executives paid handsomely but driven to the brink of financial ruin by the custom of ostentatious “status living” to impress bosses and neighbors. Cliff Robertson plays Ben Weldon, a Manhattan company man (his exact profession remains unspecified) with a family, a Long Island home, and a real passion for his job: he’s eager to head up “the computer project” at work, and the CEO says that he’s grooming Ben to be “top brass.” But in the meantime Ben’s going broke on a $23,000 annual salary. You can practically sense their stomachs clench with anxiety as Cliff Robertson and Dina Merrill (playing Ben’s wife Ginny) trod expertly through the cringe-inducing predicaments and humiliations that writer Ellen Violett concocts to illustrate the Weldons’ situation. Ben quits smoking to save pocket change but pretends it’s for his health. Ginny considers stealing a ten-dollar tip left on a table by an inebriated dining companion. In a scene that must have inspired a famous passage in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dustin Hoffman appears as an accountant who breaks down exactly how Ben’s expenses overtake his exorbitant (for 1967) income. We begin to follow the gains and reversals in the Weldons’ finances as closely as one would the blows in a boxing match, until finally Ben commits the ultimate faux pas of asking for a raise. All smiles, his superiors dispatch him to manage the regional office in Denver, a $20,000 promotion that dead-ends Ben’s career. The last lines, spoken on a plane headed west, have a double meaning: their future is here, Ginny exclaims, and now they don’t have to dream any more.
50. Mad Men “Red in the Face” (August 30, 2007)
This episode turns its attention to Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the character most emblematic of the show’s slick sixties Madison Avenue milieu. The terrific first half exposes the needy, boorish alcoholic behind Roger’s veneer of good looks and charm, as Roger invites himself over for dinner at his right-hand man Don Draper’s suburban home and winds up making a drunken pass at Don’s wife. Mainly preoccupied with character and metaphor, Mad Men distinguished itself from its contemporaries with its willingness to set aside the demands of narrative in order to luxuriate in the atmosphere of the period setting. Case in point: the final act of “Red in the Face,” a three-martini lunch after which Roger and Don (Jon Hamm) – finding the elevator out of order – have to trudge up twenty-three flights of stairs to get back to their office. Their forced march concludes with a gross-out moment that I think is destined to achieve some kind of infamy in the annals of television. Don’s smirk in the last shot confirms that the ad men’s misadventure has been a kind of payback for Roger’s earlier transgression, but what’s important – what Mad Men is all about – is not the sidewinder path of the story, but the rich, impressionistic sketch of a bygone ritual: the sybaritic business meal where men in vests, slumped down in red vinyl booths and enveloped in a cigarette haze, gulp down oysters and gin and crack sexist jokes. Writer Bridget Bedard delivers a second daffy, sideways jab at masculine pride in a subplot where corporate weasel Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) finds his own ersatz charm wholly lacking as he tries to navigate the lunchtime line of a department store returns counter. Both threads, which were among the best moments on television in 2007, consisted of little more than actors in three-piece suits standing around, talking, on notional sets. A throwback to Rod Serling, and a polished rebuke to the expensive but mindless chaos of what now passes for drama on the networks.
And what about the other fifty? Stay tuned . . . !
Thoughts on my selections, or want to nominate your own? Write your comments here.
Copyright © 2007 Stephen W. Bowie
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