The theme this Friday is ultimate episodes… basically, the episode of a show that is both exceptional on its own and completely embodies what the show is all about. There are fantastic episodes of television that I’ve enjoyed that work in part because the show took a huge risk and stepped outside of itself for a moment. This is not that list. This is about celebrating shows we love, when they were at their very best.
5. A Different World – “12 Steps of Christmas, Part 1” – Season 5, Episode 12 – 1991
Let’s start with the number one show from my childhood, shall we? I was obsessed with A Different World. It aired right around the time when a preteen girl becomes fixated on what high school and college is going to be like (in the same way 17 year old girls are too old to read Seventeen magazine but it’s like crack for a 12 year old). I maintain, to this day, my belief that Whitley Gilbert is one of the best sitcom characters of all time. Years before Megan Mullally would craft Karen Walker’s trademark voice, Jasmine Guy perfected Whitley’s uniquely Southern, nasal, high-pitched drawl, equal parts grating and endearing. She chewed up so much of the scenery at Hillman that by Season 5, Lisa Bonet would be long gone and our Whitley was the undisputed star of the show. Which is amazing, and a testament to the complexity of the character, because on paper, she should indisputably be the show’s villain. In “12 Steps of Christmas”, my favorite episode, when director Debbie Allen guest stars at Whitley’s insane therapist, Whitley’s allure is on full display- she’s grasping, vulnerable, comically loose-limbed, and yet always, somehow, retains her dignity. You cannot stop watching her.
4. Bones – “Aliens in a Spaceship” – Season 2, Episode 9 – 2006
Procedural shows can be tough because there’s clearly a template to follow, some shows possessing a more rigid one than others. Bones liked to toy with their structure more than others of its ilk, just enough to throw the viewer off guard. It didn’t get enough credit, in my opinion, for its season-ending cliffhanger episodes, its character twists (they made one of their leads the apprentice to a cannibal) or for how deftly they defied the Moonlighting curse. All of these things would lead to the show being on air for a thousand seasons. But the core of the show is about solving a mystery with science. In “Aliens in a Spaceship,” you get a little bit of everything that made Bones so enjoyable to watch, week after week. They toy with their template structure here, still have a double-murder to solve, a serial killer to catch, but first they have to get Bones and Hodgins out of a car that’s been buried underground.
And to top it all off, we have Bones and Booth in a church, quietly reaffirming their faith in each other’s abilities to survive. This one has everything.
3. Community – “Paradigms of Human Memory” – Season 2, Episode 21 – 2011
Let’s get meta! Clip shows kind of suck but a fake clip show? That’s forever. Community loves pop culture as much as we do and the show operates as a sentient being that knows precisely what it’s doing and that you know what it’s doing so let’s just all talk about it and cram it full of jokes while we’re here. This ep is Community in its purest form, cranked up to 10. The gang is in the library, as usual, working on their last diorama of the year, when a monkey busts in, swipes one of Annie’s beloved pens and escapes into a vent. What follows is a bottle episode that’s also a clip show except the clips are all for tropey sitcom-like episodes that don’t actually exist. There’s a montage of pop-ins from the Dean, in costume. Just enough Chang. A hug-it-out moment, led by Jeff. And it also features one of my most favorite lines from Donald Glover (national treasure) as Troy:
If this episode doesn’t make you want to watch Community, nothing will.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Graduation Day, Part 2” – Season 3, Episode 22 – 1999
Joss Whedon’s theme for the first three seasons of Buffy could be distilled into a simple tagline: high school is hell. In Sunnydale, it’s literal. There are countless episodes of Buffy that could be chosen as its penultimate moment but Graduation is my stand-out. The whole season has been leading up to Buffy’s showdown with the Mayor, who has been transforming himself into a demon, as most politicians do. There’s Faith, there’s Angel, there’s drama but ultimately, it’s about high school ending. Our little Buffy is growing up. We know this, because of how she chooses to take on the Big Bad – not alone, not by martyring herself but by inspiring the people around her to fight back, to help her as she’s helped them. When the graduating class, the same kids who have tormented her and been confused by her and frightened of her, throw off their graduation robes to reveal their weapons, it’s an awesome moment.
Worth waiting for.
1. Friday Night Lights – “The Son” – Season 4, Episode 5 – 2009
There’s a moment in this episode that I love. Julie goes to see Matt after his father has died, with a stack of casseroles from her mother. It’s a very quiet break, in an episode that is essentially perfect and filled with laudable, emotional, heartbreaking scenes. But it’s the details, like that undeniably Southern gesture, that make up the vibrancy of Friday Night Lights. And no detail in “The Son” is wasted or taken for granted. Everything aligns here and every single moment has been earned by the episodes that came before it; the camaraderie of the team, getting Matt drunk and taking him to the funeral home so he could see his father’s body; the boy’s breakdown at the dinner table when he goes to see the Taylors and Eric’s silent walk with him after; the look Julie gives her own father in the living room as he plays with her baby sister on the floor and the one he gives her, knowing she’s thinking about his own mortality; what it means for Matt to honor a man who preferred war over being his parent and in doing so, becoming a man himself.
When people tell you they haven’t seen Friday Night Lights because they “don’t like football,” this is the episode they should see.