For most of my life, I considered television to be mindless twaddle. It was fine, every once in a while, if I needed a way to turn my mind off. But wasn’t I always better off with a book?
Today, however, the quality of many television programs has skyrocketed. They are smarter, more intelligently written, darker, and more complex. I would argue that, as a storytelling medium, television gives books and films a run for their money.
These are some scenes, episodes and story lines, in some of my favorite shows, that stand out in my mind. What would be on your list?
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
In no particular order:
1. “Are You Going to Hit Me with that Thing?” Fargo: “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”
The Coens’ 1996 film is among my five favorite movies of all time, so I approached this series with trepidation. I was surprised at how much I loved the first season. With its compelling drama, dark humor, brilliant writing, and top-notch casting and direction, it’s a gorgeous homage to the Coens’ work.
I could have chosen many scenes from this series. This one stands out, in part, because I was surprised at how quickly the plot progressed in the first episode. The evil seeds sown by Lorne Malvo blossomed quickly! And this is a pivotal turning point — it’s our first glimpse of the ruthlessness beneath Lester’s passivity and “aw, geez” demeanor. This character is both a foil for Lorne’s icy, brutal confidence and — by the end — a reflection of his soulless sociopathy.
And — oh. my. God! — the look on Lester’s face. It’s pure gold. One of the things I love about this moment is that it highlights one of the most brilliant aspects of this series, the way it blurs the line between darkness and humor. This scene is brutal, shocking, and absolutely, delightfully hilarious.
2. “It’s Usually Subtext” Sherlock: “A Scandal in Belgravia”
And before we leave the wonderful Martin Freeman … this isn’t a scene — it’s just a quote, my favorite quote in this cleverly written series:
Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face! …
Dr. John Watson: Punch you?
Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me. In the face. Didn’t you hear me?
Dr. John Watson: I always hear “Punch me in the face” when you’re speaking, but it’s usually subtext.
Aside from the fact that I find it absolutely hilarious, this reveals so much about John’s relationship with his partner. John has no delusions about Sherlock. He is cold, callous, and infuriating, not to mention a “high functioning sociopath.” He’s a nightmare to work with. But he provides the excitement and sense of purpose John needs. He intellectually stimulates him, and they share a fierce bond of loyalty. John sees Sherlock for exactly who he is, and he loves him.
3. Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Waited”
Doctor Who isn’t “hard” science fiction by any stretch of the imagination — you could drive a truck through the plot holes. And I find the writing somewhat uneven. Nevertheless, I love the show. It’s at its best when it’s doing intriguing, fanciful things with time and parallel universes, when it focuses on emotional, character-driven storytelling, or when it introduces us to a world we haven’t seen before.
The Girl Who Waited combines all three, and it highlights — more than any other episode I’ve seen — the intensity of the love and commitment between Amy and Rory.
4. Firefly: “Jaynestown”
I love every single episode in this series. And the executives who decided to cancel it after one season are headed to the Special Hell. The one for child molesters and people who talk in movie theaters.
The moment when Mal, Wash, Kaylee, and Simon realize that their most unheroic crew member has been immortalized in the form of a statue is priceless. And the end of the episode gives us a glimpse of Jayne’s human side.
5. Breaking Bad: Peekaboo
How many ways do I love this episode? It exemplifies the heart of what I love about Breaking Bad, the complex, morally ambiguous characters, moments of stark realism, and flawless blending of dark humor and tragedy. When Jesse reaches the humble abode of “Spooge” and “Skank,” he stumbles upon a vulnerable, neglected child. It’s heartbreaking. What about the parents’ addiction and the whole murder-by-ATM debacle? It is tragic. And insanely hilarious.
This episode also marks a turning point in Jesse’s character development. Having fallen away from his privileged background and become a methamphetamine dealer, for the first time, he sees the brutal toll addiction takes on drug abusers and their children. He may have had a vague idea about the consequences of substance abuse. But now he gets a jarring glimpse of just how far down that rabbit hole goes. And, in the process, Jesse’s tenderness for kids clearly emerges, foreshadowing events to come.
6. Lorne’s Random Acts of Maliciousness: Fargo: The Crocodile’s Dilemma
Lorne Malvo, the ruthless hit man brilliantly played by Billy Bob Thornton, usually commits brutal crimes with an end game in mind. But sometimes he performs random acts of maliciousness for no reason at all. Just because he feels like it. He gets a bellhop in trouble after putting him up to urinating in his boss’s gas tank, and — right after their father’s death — he pits Hess’s idiot sons against each other.
In an interview with Spinoff Online, Thornton said, “He just fucks with people for no apparent reason. He doesn’t need a reason. It’s just, well, they’re there. ‘I don’t like the way they look, so I’m going to mess with them.’”
Unfortunately, I’ve known a few sociopaths, and this rings true. They get bored it they aren’t manipulating someone, causing drama or pain, or simply pissing people off. This also highlights how unpredictable Lorne is, making him even more terrifying.
7. Taystee’s History with Vee: Orange is the New Black: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”
My favorite part of this series, so far, has been the stories of characters’ lives before prison. This particular tale stands out for me. Despite her bleak circumstances, Taystee is funny, loyal, spirited, and hopeful. Seeing her heartbreaking past, as a lonely orphan taken in by a ruthless, predatory “mother” figure, made me admire her resiliency even more.
8. Lorelei’s Relationship with Emily — Gilmore Girls
I recently binge-watched this show, and I had mixed feelings. I loved the dialogue, and the relationships among characters are well developed. The constant barrage of book and movie references was a sheer delight. But in terms of the plot, I found the writing uneven.
One of the high points, for me, were the performances of Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann as Lorelei’s cold, controlling, entitled WASP parents. It is a tribute to the writing, as well as their memorable performances, that although Richard and Emily are generally insufferable, we can’t dismiss them entirely. The ties that bind (and gag) the Gilmores are complicated, and at times, Lorelei is inexplicably cruel. Besides, at moments like this Richard and Emily’s tenderness and humanity shines through:
I was particularly drawn to Lorelei’s relationship with Emily. I had a terrific mother, but Lorelei’s toxic relationship with her mom speaks volumes about so many mother-daughter relationships. Emily sometimes lets her vulnerability peek through a chink in her armor or reveals a bit of her love for her daughter, along with the agony she suffered over their long estrangement. Then the gate slams shut again, and Emily is ensconced behind her wall of superiority and disapproval. No wonder Lorelai dreads Friday night dinners.
9. Ann Dowd’s Performance in True Detective: “Form and Void”
As police gather at the Childress family estate, they find Betty, a frightened, isolated woman. We’ve been watching her for a little while, and she seems to have found some joy in her creepy incestuous relationship with her presumed half-brother Errol. This scenario is undoubtedly disturbing, but Betty is oddly compelling. What might have been a ridiculous stereotype of inbred Southern “rednecks” is elevated to an unforgettable segment, thanks — in large part — to Ann Dowd’s amazing performance.
10. Tyrion’s Confessions in Game of Thrones
This scene, performed brilliantly by Peter Dinklage, speak for themselves.
In the Vale — “A Golden Crown”