50 Greatest Episodes of the 21st Century
Part 1: Episodes 50 through 46
About a month ago, in conjunction with TV Guide’s 65th Anniversary, the publication did a variation on a theme that it’s done about every ten years or so. Rather than try to determine which are the 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time, they decided to settle on the 65 Greatest Episodes of the 21st Century. Apparently, having considering in a permanent position the great moments of Hill Street Blues and Homicide and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they felt that since the 20th century is pretty much locked and loaded, it made a certain amount of sense to go in the new century. They also conceded, considering how rich the Golden Age of Television has been, its time to start considering what the new age will present us with.
This led to a certain level of reflection on my part. About ten years ago, I wrote my own list of the 50 greatest episodes of the last twenty years. Done in the early stages of my professional criticism, there was a certain level of amateurism to it. I didn’t include Breaking Bad, for one thing, I had issues with series like ER and The Sopranos, which I had never made an emotional connection with, and I’m pretty certain my decision on Fringe was premature. But I did have a certain level of foresight that I will admit. No less than five episodes that I considered among the best were listed among TV Guide’s most recent selections.
Unfortunately, the remnants of the lists have been lost, not only to history, but also to me — somehow I never had the foresight to keep track of that long essay. So, using the TV Guide Article as an impetus, I’ve decided to follow up with some of my own choices for the 50 Greatest Episodes of the 21st Century.
But first, a few provisos. Don’t consider this a mathematical ranking — to try and figure whether a series is 43rd rather than 41st includes a level of madness that I’m not prepared to go down, and I can be quite anal in my calculations. Second, there are going to be some noted gaps in what I consider ‘great’ — I’ve never watched Game of Thrones or Walking Dead, I haven’t gone around to Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve never been a fan of Law & Order SVU or any of the CSIs. In their places, I intended to try and put a couple of episodes that might not make the cut for series that were either ignored or never quite got their due. And third, in order that my choices don’t completely curtail with TV Guide, I’m going to look for some alternate choices within the TV series that they’ve listed. Fortunately, a lot of them have more than a few options when it comes to among the greatest ever.
Finally, I want the average reader to consider this a listing for series that are among the greatest ever made. Some will be obvious choices. Others may be ones that I really hope that the average viewer will seek out on their own. They may not be everyone greatest hits, but in my mind, the list starts here.
UPDATE: It’s been a year since I began writing this piece. In that time, there’s been a lot of good television, and in retrospect, there were a couple of great moments in TV that I inadvertently left out. So I’m including five additional episodes that I believe more than meet the standards I set out with the first 50, and in some cases were even better.
50. Transparent — ‘Elizah’ — Episode 3.1
Despite the controversy that has emerged over the series in the past year, one can’t deny that there was an energy and realism to this series that few TV shows on any service could have provided. And in my mind, the highpoint of the series came its most atypical outing, when Maura working at an LGBT suicide hotline, receives a call from a troubled woman, and frantically goes on a search to find her. A journey that becomes both increasingly surreal and incredibly painful for Maura, mixed with a sermon from Raquel, makes for the finest episode the series ever did. It may have been Jeffrey Tambor’s finest hour, and the fact that he won’t be able to continue with the series next season is another reason I won’t watch any more.
49. True Detective -’ The Long Bright Dark’ — Episode 1.1
Yes, there’s no denying this limited series degenerated into a hot mess, and turned what was the most highly anticipated season into a disaster. But that doesn’t change the fact that for the briefest of moments, this series was one of the great achievements in HBO’s history, and that’s saying something. And watching two of the worlds greatest actors — Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey breath life into two of the greatest characters they would ever play — particularly McConaughey, whose Cohle’s deterioration and philosophical stylings rank of there with some of the greatest monologues of David Milch — made for some truly memorable TV. The fact that the mystery itself may have been smoke and mirrors almost didn’t matter — that what happens with far too many of these shows.
48. The Blacklist — ‘Anslo Garrick — Part 1’ — Episode 1.8
Considering how messy this series eventually became, its easy to forget just how remarkable it was, particularly in the first two season. Rarely has there been such a perfect match of character to actor as there has been with Raymond Reddington to James Spader. He works with such charm and smarminess that he almost makes you forget how monstrous Raymond truly is. And yet Reddington’s finest hour came when all of his boundless energy was contained within a small, closet like box where he was being held prisoner and tending to a man who would, at that point, have left him to die had the tables been turned. As he tries to tell him to hang on the life, he also witnesses the loss of one of his closest allies, only to surrender his position when another friends is about to die. It may well have Spader’s greatest moment in the medium, and yes, I know he won three Emmys for two other series.
47. Master of None — The Thief — Episode 2:1
There were so many brilliant comic moments in this Netflix series all too brief run that its hard to pick which episode was by far the best. One could easily choose ‘Parents’, the first season episode which dealt with all the main characters problems with their family, or the Emmy winning ‘Thanksgiving’. But in my mind, the moment that will probably linger far longer was the most daring experiment actor-showrunner Aziz Ansari took. Set in Italy, after Dev relocated following the trauma of season 1, the episode paid homage to the Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief by having Dev lose something even more vital than that of the hero of that film — his cell phone. Mostly subtitled in Italian, and filmed in black and white, it was a glorious production, and hysterical to watch. Ansari may be under a cloud now, but one can’t deny the brilliance of his work.
46. This is Us — ‘Super Bowl Sunday’ — Episode 2–13.
As any longtime TV viewer can tell you, its the rare revelation behind a series’ big secret that lives up to the hype. It is typical of just how brilliant this new series that when we finally learned, after nearly two years, how Jack Pearson finally died that it packed so much of a gut punch. And the writers did everything they possibly could to make it sting more — we never saw Jack’s actual death, just some offscreen rushing, and Rebecca’s reaction to it. That alone made it powerful. It was watching how all the Pearsons reacted to it nearly two decades later that gave the episode even more of a punch, particularly from Kevin, in the way he finally confessed to his dad how he felt he had failed him. The rare Super Bowl episode that actually lived up the hype, I see a lot of Emmy nods in this series future.