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Why Standalone Episodes Matter Now More Than Ever

In a sea of serialized TV shows, the best series are finding a creative jolt in one-off episodes that break from format, explore a single theme or focus on just one character — and the payoff for viewers is huge.

Donald Glover as Teddy Perkins in 'Atlanta,' Sissy Spacek in 'Castle Rock' and Alison Brie in 'GLOW."

Donald Glover as Teddy Perkins in 'Atlanta,' Sissy Spacek in 'Castle Rock' and Alison Brie in 'GLOW.'

Guy D'Alema/FX, Dana Starbard/Hulu, Erica Parise/Netflix

A funny thing happened last week. Funny coincidental, not funny ha-ha, since it involved two different comedies going completely serious. Last Friday, Netflix released the fifth season of the animated BoJack Horseman, while Amazon premiered the first season of its new Maya Rudolph/Fred Armisen series Forever. Two seasons released on the same day, both featuring sixth episodes that completely broke from what had happened before or since, structurally as well as tonally. BoJack gave us the remarkable episode-length eulogy “Free Churro,” while Forever‘s “Andre and Sarah” abandoned the show’s regular characters for the eponymous newcomers, played by Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau(*).

(*) In another coincidence, Chau had a recurring role on this season of BoJack as Mr. Peanutbutter’s new girlfriend, Pickles, though she (like every non-Will Arnett BoJack voice) sat out “Free Churro.”

“Free Churro” saw one of TV’s best and most ambitious series somehow finding a new level by going minimalist with its half-hour monologue. “Andre and Sarah,” on the other hand, represented an uneven show temporarily finding itself in part by abandoning ongoing aspects that weren’t working. But both were incredibly strong arguments for why episodes themselves still matter, no matter how many showrunners insist that what they’re really making is “a 10-hour movie” or similar nonsense. Even in our current, ultra-serialized environment, distinct episodes — whether outright format-breaking episodes like these two, or simply a memorable chapter of a continuing story like Better Call Saul‘s “Quite a Ride” (which showed us the beginning and end of Saul Goodman’s career, albeit not in that order) — add enormous value to a viewer’s experience. If you’re watching week to week, a great episode thrills you and makes you excited to count down to when you’ll get the next one. And a standout episode can shake you out of the ennui that can come when bingeing even a great ongoing tale.

I’ve been banging this particular drum for years, and even had a long talk about it with one of the top programming executives at Netflix, where the dramas in particular seem entirely focused on dragging out a limited plot, episode after episode. But the BoJack/Forever sixth episode convergence was a forceful and welcome reminder that even in this age of streaming bloat and lousy pacing, 2018 has actually been a remarkable year for the episode, the best in quite some time.

When I look back over this year in television, I’ll no doubt think of great seasons like The Americans’ farewell or what Saul has been up to. But the first thing that will probably come to mind will be “Teddy Perkins,” Atlanta‘s haunting, beautiful, wholly unexpected meditation on abuse and racial self-loathing among the iconic black male music stars of the 20th century. As a whole, Atlanta had an amazing season, in part because it’s always focused first and foremost on the micro of each half-hour, even as all tie into the macro of Earn and Alfred’s relationship. Any other comedy would consider itself lucky to have an installment as funny as the one where Paper Boi got shanghaied by his obnoxious barber, any drama to have an origin story as fundamentally potent and sad as the Nineties flashback “FUBU.” “Teddy Perkins” was one for the ages, so indelibly written, directed and acted that you couldn’t blame anyone who came out of it believing the title character and his mysterious brother Benny Hope were real, tragic figures whose paths the fictional Darius had the bad luck to cross.

And after I’m done shuddering and laughing at my memories of “Teddy Perkins,” my mind will probably wander on over to “The Good Twin,” a delightful installment of GLOW that gave us an entire episode of the pro wrestling show-within-the show, even as it paid off various character arcs involving its cast and crew. Or to “The Queen,” the Castle Rock episode in the vein of Lost‘s “The Constant,” where we came to understand how dementia and the supernatural elements of the titular town had caused Sissy Spacek’s Ruth Deaver to become unstuck in time. Or to “Not Yet,” the heartrending, theatrical finale to One Day at a Time Season Two, where Lydia’s loved ones gathered to prepare themselves for her possible death from a stroke. Or “All That Josh,” an often musical episode of Syfy’s The Magicians where our heroes harmonized on a performance of “Under Pressure” that transcended barriers of time, space and even death.

And that’s before I even get to the all-interrogation episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (“The Box”), The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’s Judith Light showcase (“A Random Killing”), Darin Morgan’s latest X-Files meta masterpiece (“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”) and too many more to list here.

Some cases, like “Not Yet,” were in the mold of “Teddy Perkins” or “Free Churro,” wherein series that are episodic decided to be more conceptually daring in a particular chapter. Others, such as “The Queen” or Westworld‘s “Kiksuya” (a touching spotlight on the previously minor figure of Akecheta) were more like “Andre and Sarah,” where ineffective season-long plots were put on a welcome pause to focus on characters and actors worthy of our short-term attention.

In either mold, these episodes and others compellingly lay out the case for television as television, rather than “a movie, only longer.” There are things this medium can do within each 30- to 60-minute segment that a film or a book or a play can’t. They are smaller stories within larger ones, satisfying experiences in and of themselves that only become more satisfying because of their connection to what has come before and after. (Even something like “Andre and Sarah,” which seems to have nothing to do with the rest of Forever, takes on enormous added poignance once we see how it does tie in with the main story.)

As a short film, “Teddy Perkins” might be a classic anyway, but putting Darius into the middle of Teddy and Benny’s tragedy makes it even grander than that. “Not Yet” is structured like a play, but it feels extra vital because it’s part of a TV show where we’ve spent so much time with the characters delivering these heartfelt speeches. “The Good Twin,” in addition to being endearingly goofy, provides a deeper understanding of what Ruth and the other wrestlers are working on by giving us their show and nothing but. (Similarly, that season’s other standout episode, “Mother of All Matches,” recontextualizes the wrestling alter egos of Tammé and Debbie, which affects how we view them in all future appearances.) “The Queen” doesn’t by itself make the rest of Castle Rock more consistent or scary, but it’s potent in large part because we’ve been watching Ruth make odd choices in previous episodes that now make perfect, devastating sense once we understand what’s really happening.

(It also, like “Kiksuya” with Zahn McClarnon or “A Random Killing” with Light, demonstrates the power of letting a great actor be great at length, even if the story the rest of the time requires them to be in the background.)

Whenever I write about a standout episode of a series, particularly something more experimental like “The Queen,” people will ask if they can watch it without having seen the rest of the show. It’s an understandable impulse in Peak TV, particularly for a show like Castle Rock that may not feel worthy of the full 10-hour investment. But they work as well as they do because they’re part of something bigger, even if the bigger thing isn’t nearly as interesting when you get past this one Very Special Episode. (Would I recommend someone sit through all of Westworld Season Two to get to “Kiksuya” or the two other episodes — “Riddle of the Sphinx” and “Akane No Mai” — that mostly worked? Probably not, but I’m still glad I got to see those three.)

But this has always been true of television, going back decades to when the conventional wisdom was that nobody watched even their favorite show every week, and stories had to stand completely alone as a result. You could watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s immortal “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (Mary can’t stop laughing at a clown’s funeral) or Magnum PI‘s memorable “Home From the Sea” (Magnum has to stay afloat in the ocean after a boat accident) and appreciate them for the sheer craft on display, but they wouldn’t mean as much to viewers who didn’t have a pre-existing relationship with either Mary or Magnum.

There’s been an assumption, thanks to binge-viewing, that serialization is a good thing in and of itself, and that if a show doesn’t conform in some way to that “XX-hour movie” model, it’s too insubstantial to be worth the time. But television could be complex even in its more episodic days, and other than The Wire, most of the giants of this century were serialized and episodic at once. (It’s one of many admirable traits Better Call Saul has in common with parent show Breaking Bad.) Some recent dramas still understand this balancing act: The Americans didn’t do wholly standalone episodes, but each hour had a particular conflict and theme introduced and addressed before the credits rolled. (Case in point, this final season’s “The Great Patriotic War,” where Philip wrestled with whether to let Paige and Kimmy become tools of a cause in which he no longer believed.) But too many shows(*) now have made themselves into an enervating mush of plot, either because the creators think that’s what they’re supposed to do, or because they’ve come from the world of movies or theater and don’t fully appreciate what TV can and often should be.

(*) This remains more of a problem on the drama side, as even Netflix’s comedies like BoJack and GLOW have the freedom (and/or the desire) to differentiate one installment from the next. But there are also half-hour shows like Forever that feel shapeless too much of the time.

In an earlier era, an episode like “Andre and Sarah” or “Teddy Perkins” or “The Queen” would be held up as something special just because of its quality. Now, they’re commendable not only because they’re great, but because they feel like a relief in a never-ending sea of To Be Continued, At All Costs.

In this programming landscape, they feel very special simply for being episodes.

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