Introduction: I was going to make a list of my favorite episodes of television ever, but that is too long a list and I find myself stuck between what I think are the best episodes and what are my favorites. That isn’t always the same thing and I’m aware of that. So instead, here are my top “moments” ranked… these are the moments that stick out for me.
This does not speak for other fans, or my generation or any kind of demographic. Everyone should have their own list here of those connecting moments, the kind that remind us, even years later, why we would choose to follow a television show, week after week. These matter to us and become a part of our bank of cultural reference. Personally, it’s how (and why) I engage… even though at times, I haven’t felt like TV is something worth engaging in. Here are my (very personal) top five and why they are memorable to me.
5. My So-Called Life – “Self-Esteem”
The moment: The end of the episode, when Jordan Catalano takes Angela’s hand and walks down the hallway.
This is the ultimate teenage romance moment. Trapped in the angst bubble that is her narrative, Angela is getting to make out with Jordan but can’t enjoy it because he’s hiding their relationship from his friends. She finally has him… kinda… and doesn’t realize yet that he doesn’t really have the mystery, he’s just a pretty pothead with not a lot going on. The characters are flawed and their relationship is full of deliciously realistic hits and misses. Does this moment change everything? By all the rules of teenage melodrama, it should. But it doesn’t and that makes it all the more wonderful. An isolated simple moment of validation and chemistry and hope.
4. Firefly – “Safe”
The moment: When Simon finds River dancing.
The perfectly joyful, worryless moment of River dancing and the reassured look on Simon’s face when he finds that she is ok. In that moment, the viewer realizes that we are truly getting to see RIVER, free of the entire world of mental illness and danger that she had been given. Then we get to see Simon watch her, knowing that he hasn’t really seen his sister in a long long time… and suddenly there she is, dancing and happy. He gets that moment and we, as viewers, do too. It’s a transformative moment, an interruption into the panic of Firefly’s capers and bleakness of River’s condition. It’s perfectly filmed, directed and acted by Summer Glau and Sean Maher (the latter of which I generally find unremarkable). This moment makes me cry, every time.
3. Carnivale – “Pick a Number”
The moment: When Samson goes back to Babylon and shoots the bartender.
Carnivale was a series defined by gut-churning reveal moments. To be honest, I had a difficult time picking just one from this series (and a close follow-up would be the big Sophie reveal moment close to the end of the second season – if you’ve watched the show, you know what I’m talking about). So why did I pick this one? Well… the most memorable episode in this series and one of the most perfect, was the heartbreaking “Babylon” – what I always fail to remember, is that the emotional “gotcha” from this episode is actually in the follow-up, “Pick a Number”.
After one of their own is kidnapped and murdered by the men from the mysterious town of Babylon, they hold a trial for their own kind of justice. When that fails to punish anyone for the crime, Samson goes back to Babylon and shoots the only man he can hold accountable. It is a moment with a strange sense of perfect justice, on a show where there is a disorienting sense of chaos and fatalism, battling it out around these characters’ lives. And then, on his way out of the town, he sees the murdered girl staring out of a window… the new “whore of Babylon”, trapped there forever. It doesn’t really get more horrifyingly bleak than that.
2. LOST – “A Tale of Two Cities”
The moment – The first few minutes of the episode (and the season) when it is revealed where “the Others” live.
By this point in the series, we already knew that “the others” definitely did not live in muddy huts and wear rags. There was something else going on, to be sure, but nothing had really prepared me the perfect little suburbia that was revealed in these first few minutes. This is quite possibly the most brilliant series-arc-changing “reveal” that I’ve ever seen in a television show. In the first three seconds we are introduced to Juliet, and then her conflict with Ben and THEN the moment expanded to further reveal that we were not seeing them presently, but in the minutes preceeding the plane crash? The best plot moments are when “No-fucking-way!” is followed by “Oh my god, of COURSE…” and this was a doozy.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Becoming: Part Two”
The moment: Angel’s soul is restored, just before Buffy needs to kill him and send him through a portal to hell… and she does it anyway to save the world.
It’s the end of a truly spectacular season of television. Many people disagree, but I think the second season of Buffy might have the best single-season arc ever. It’s just so tight, on ALL levels. From a stellar ensemble of characters, David Boreanz emerges as a considerable scene-stealer (in my opinion playing “evil Angelus” so much more compellingly than he does “tortured Angel”). Buffy’s new love turns into an incredibly frightening, sociopathic enemy and their ongoing face-off rattles through the entire season like a fucking freight train, straight up until their last battle – a swordfight. It’s both epic and strangely civilized, while Buffy tries to delay the moment where she needs to let go of her love, to let go of her hope for his soul. And she does… she pushes through his insults and his evil and her own doubts to do what she needs to do. I am not exaggerating when I say that when I watched this scene for the first time, a total emotional “loss of breath” occurred in the moment when I saw his soul restored (and I know I’m not the only one). The next few minutes were so deeply sorrowful, I can’t really even talk or think about this scene without feeling it. Not remembering it – feeling it, as engaged and distraught as my 17 year old self was then.
This is number one, because this was first time, watching television, that my snide inner-critic failed in convincing me that it was “just a tv show” and it stopped feeling silly to care so much. The first time when television had the same connective power for me, as my beloved books and art and other “higher” mediums.
There really isn’t anything more to say about the kind of gift that is, in any written or visual form of storytelling. Even TV.
Note: I’m always fascinated to know what would be on other people’s lists. So please leave one if you comment. Thank you!