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10 Episodes That Turned Good TV Shows Into Classics

It’s fair to say that not every TV show gets it right the first time. When you consider all the elements that make up a classic series – interesting stories, solid acting and memorable characters – it’s only natural that even the most iconic shows took a long time to hit their stride.

Sure, there’s been a few that were able to grab the viewer by the scruff of the neck from the off. Indeed it seems that in recent years, writers and producers have tried to pull out all the stops from the very first episode. The premieres of shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones rank amongst the best of their respective series.

However, looking back at some of the all-time TV greats, you can see that many had been airing for years before reaching their peak and truly become ‘classics’ – a leap they made with the help of these episodes.

10. Curb Your Enthusiasm – “The Doll”

HBO

The first of two Larry David creations on this list, Curb Your Enthusiasm is deservedly considered by many as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, with fans eagerly awaiting a ninth season of the gloriously misanthropic David’s ongoing crusade against social conventions. Inevitably, Curb was always going to spend it’s formative years in the shadow of Seinfeld, and while the first season had its moments, the humour was slow-burning and perhaps too focused on the Larry/Cheryl relationship – which despite being one of the more true-to-life sitcom marriages, doesn’t always bring the belly laughs.

However, in the middle of the second season came The Doll, which confirmed that the show had developed its own comedic identity. As is typical of the series, no one is safe from Larry’s meddling – least of all the little girl whose favourite doll gets a haircut courtesy of our well-intentioned protagonist. The daughter realises the hair won’t grow back and the episode builds in vintage Curb fashion to a foul-mouthed rant from Susie, whose actress Susie Essman delivers one of her usual swearing masterclasses.

Curb is unashamedly a formulaic show – Larry gets into a misunderstanding, tries his best to get his way out of it and usually fails spectacularly. But it’s a formula that has provided some timeless comedy over the years, and The Doll is a prime example of this.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Best Of Both Worlds Parts I & II

Paramount

Ok so I’m cheating slightly with this one. “Best of Both Worlds” is really two episodes, with the first part acting as the Season 3 finale, while the concluding part was the premiere of the following season. But nit-picking aside, the arc would go down as perhaps the most important in Star Trek history.

The two-parter saw the return of the mysterious cybernetic race known as the Borg, who capture Captain Picard and assimilate him as their spokesman. The ending to Part I is simply unforgettable TV – Riker, acting as ship captain and faced with the transformed Picard threatening his crew, gives Worf the order to “fire”. In an era where series regulars rarely got killed off, and especially for a show like Star Trek which rarely tampered with the status quo – this was shocking stuff.

Admittedly the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, but “Best of Both Worlds” remains a turning point for The Next Generation. Prior to this episode, the show had mostly stuck to a tried-and-tested “monster of the week” format, but this arc had repercussions that were felt later in the series.

The very next episode of season 4 (titled “Family”) sees Picard struggle with the psychological scars of his encounter with the Borg, while this theme was explored further in the superb big screen outing First Contact, which pitted the Enterprise crew against the sinister cyborgs once more. Ultimately this is the episode that proved The Next Generation, which had spent its formative years playing it relatively safe, was prepared to take risks to tell its story, as it would do later with such classics as “The Inner Light” and another memorable two-parter, “Chain of Command”.

8. Breaking Bad – “Phoenix”

AMC

A (slightly unbelievable) three years on from Breaking Bad’s finale, fans continue to argue over the exact moment where Walter White began his unredeemable descent into evil. Amongst the fanboy debating, one episode stands out as not only the point of no return for Walt morally, but also the episode that cemented the show as a modern classic. That episode is “Phoenix”.

The show’s second season had been building nicely, with Walt’s meth empire beginning to take shape, Jesse Pinkman enjoying a rare spell of happiness with girlfriend Jane, and the introduction of key players such as Saul Goodman and Gus Fring. Things truly came to a head by the season’s twelfth episode, which ends with Walter walking in to Jesse’s house, only to find his cooking partner and beau passed out from heroin abuse. While trying to wake Jesse, he inadvertently knocks into Jane, causing her to vomit and choke on it. At first, our anti-hero reacts like any human would – panics and tries to help – only to stop and contemplate that actually, Jane’s removal would be best for business. He leaves her to die, and as the tears leave his eyes so do his last remnants of morality.

“Phoenix” may not have had the bombast of what would come later (looking at you “Ozymandias”) but it was the episode that most boldly marked the transformation in Walt’s character, the shifting dynamic between him and Jesse, and indeed the direction Breaking Bad would go. The quirky crime drama that had opened with a middle-aged man scampering around the desert in his underpants was on it’s way to becoming one of the 21st century’s most important cultural achievements.

7. Father Ted – “Hell”

Channel 4

British sitcom writers have it tough. Whereas their American counterparts often have twenty-plus episode-seasons to perfect their shows, over in merry old England they may only have six episodes to establish the show’s world, characters and gags. While some succeed in doing this, countless of others have fallen to the wayside, never to return to the TV schedule. So for every Fawlty Towers, you have a dozen one-series wonders – who could forget Davinia McCall’s short-lived sitcom Sam’s Game? Oh, everyone? Carry on then.

Of course, Father Ted is far from your conventional British sitcom, not withstanding the fact it’s written by two Irishmen and features a cast of mostly Irish actors and comedians. The show centres on three priests and their housekeeper Mrs Doyle, with the action taking place on the fictional Craggy Island. The first series provided plenty of laughs; but it was the opening episode of Series 2, simply titled “Hell”, that truly etched the show’s name in the pantheon of Britcom greats. The premise is simple – Fathers Ted, Dougal and Jack go on their annual holiday to a caravan park, which features such attractions as St. Kevin’s Stump and the Magic Road. Hilarity ensues as the priests have run-ins with a romancing couple, raw sewage and the madcap Father Noel Furlong (played by none other than a young Graham Norton).

If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Father Ted before, I would implore you to start with “Hell”. Writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan have previously pointed to The Simpsons as a major influence on their creation, and this episode encapsulates that sense of cartoonish mania perfectly.

6. The Shield – “Dominoes Falling”

FX

Although it never had the epic, sprawling ambitions of something like The Sopranos or The Wire, there have been few shows as consistently hard-hitting and entertaining as The Shield was over the course of its seven seasons. Almost a decade after the outstanding finale, the gritty cop drama regularly pops up in various “Greatest shows of all time” lists. Why? Because of episodes like “Dominoes Falling”.

The second season had been an eventful one for Farmington’s Strike Team, with the main arc centring on Vic Mackey and his crew coming across the Armenian Mafia’s massive money laundering operation, known as the Money Train. Dirty cops have to pay the bills too, so the boys devise a plan to rob the cash. “Dominoes Falling” sees their daring scheme rattle towards its climax. In classic Shield fashion, the robbery doesn’t quite go smoothly – the suspense is ramped up to almost unbearable levels as mobsters get spooked, bodies pile up and things look bleak for the Strike Team. In the end, the heist pays off, and the episode’s final shot of the men gazing at the obscene amount of money that’s now in their possession sticks long in the memory.

The main plot of this episode would of course have repercussions that echoed through the rest of the show’s run. A recurring theme of The Shield was that of free will – that the characters had the ability to choose how they carried themselves as a cop. Following their actions in “Dominoes Falling”, Vic’s crew had rather narrowed their available choices – which would end in tragedy for them, but resulted in some remarkable television for the viewer.

5. The Office – “The Dundies”

NBC

The original U.K. version of The Office is one of those rare shows that got the ball rolling straight away – each one of its fourteen episodes are little nuggets of modern comedy gold. The same can’t really be said for the US iteration – the first season is rather rough around the edges, while the show’s quality declined around the fifth season and nosedived following Steve Carell’s departure. However, when the show was good, it was really good – and the peak began with the first episode of season 2, “The Dundies”.

The premise is simple: Michael Scott is eagerly preparing for the titular awards ceremony. As always, Michael’s intentions are good – he wants the Dundies to be a night where his staff can let off some steam and enjoy themselves. However, the night only serves to show the Dunder-Mifflin boss at his worst; desperate to please, insensitive to employees, and strangely infatuated with Ryan (the reluctant recipient of the “Hottest in the Office” award). As the night wears on, Michael’s cringeworthy MC schtick turns from hilarious to tragic as we see just how deluded this man is.

As we’ve already observed, many episodes on this list signal a new direction for their respective series. What “The Dundies” does brilliantly is establish the interoffice culture that would be the foundation of the show’s humour from that moment on. And in retrospect, the quick kiss Pam gives Jim was a key moment in the will-they-won’t-they arc that ran through the show’s early seasons. With this episode, The Office emerged from the shadow of the original and blossomed into a superb sitcom in its own right.

4. Fringe – “Peter”

Fox

Before taking it upon himself to resurrect Star Trek and Star Wars, J.J. Abrams gave the world Fringe in 2008. Upon its premiere, the show received a decidedly lukewarm reaction, with many critics pointing out its close similarities to The X Files and deriding the “monster of the week” approach that had long since fallen out of fashion. As the series went on, the show developed more of its own identity, introducing some mythology that separated it from other sci-fi fare. Halfway through the second season however, came an episode that was able to turn even the show’s staunchest critics – enter “Peter”.

The “Peter” of the episode’s title is the son of fan favourite character Walter Bishop, played by the excellent John Noble (better known as Denethor in Lord of the Rings). Walter’s boy is actually from a parallel universe, and through a flashback to 1985 he explains to series protagonist Olivia Dunham how this situation came about. It’s an intriguing concept, but concepts alone don’t make great television. Fortunately, “Peter” is masterful storytelling, giving the series an emotional core that it had been missing before. The use of the parallel universe mixed with 1980s nostalgia makes for great entertainment – the sight gag of the alternate Back To The Future starring Eric Stolz (who really was going to star before Michael J Fox got the role) is a lovely touch – but ultimately this is a story about a father’s love for his son.

“Peter” received overwhelming plaudits from both critics and fans, so much so that the writers revisited it in the later episode “Future 13”, which told the story from an alternative perspective. The original remains a huge turning point for the show, deservedly elevating it to the upper echelon of science fiction.

3. Seinfeld – “The Bubble Boy”

NBC

Now here’s a potentially controversial one. “The Bubble Boy” doesn’t show up until Season 4, so does this mean I’m writing off the first three seasons? Absolutely not – though the first season is undoubtedly slow-going, there are certainly some real gems scattered across the second and third seasons. Indeed, for most sitcoms those would be defining moments for most sitcoms. Problem is – Seinfeld is not most sitcoms.

What Seinfeld did best was create small inciting incidents and build them to inspired levels of insanity, with each character’s individual storylines beautifully and hilariously tied together. It was a formula that the writers were beginning to perfect by season 4 – the “show about nothing” became surprisingly complex in its execution. In “The Bubble Boy”, George and his girlfriend Susan plan a romantic trip to her family’s lakeside cabin. It quickly becomes a trip from hell as George gets in a legendary altercation with the bubble boy over a game of Trivial Pursuit, Jerry loses a fan after he and Elaine argue with a waitress, and Kramer manages to burn down the family cabin with a misplaced cigar.

It’s twenty-odd minutes of madcap brilliance, the kind that no other sitcom before or since has really gotten close to. The show continued to push the envelope and got funnier and funnier, but it was “The Bubble Boy” that really proved to audiences that Seinfeld was the true master of it’s domain.

2. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “The Way Of The Warrior”

Paramount

Although it never quite entered the public consciousness like Picard and company did, Deep Space Nine garnered a strong fan following and attracted a lot of critical praise. It was an altogether darker show than it’s predecessors, moving away from light-hearted space wandering and focusing more on the various races in the Star Trek universe and the complex relationships they had with each other. While the first three seasons were by no means a bad effort – certainly DS9’s primitive years have held up a lot better than those of The Next Generation – it’s the feature-length Season 4 premiere where the show really started cooking on gas.

Tensions are high in “The Way Of The Warrior”, when the Deep Space Nine is visited by a Klingon fleet on shore leave. They soon start trouble on the station, which leads to an annoyed Captain Sisko (now rocking a spiffing shaven head and goatee) calling in TNG favourite Worf for assistance. It soon surfaces that the Klingons have plans to invade Cardassia, a war that could have galaxy-wide ramifications. With the Dominion growing stronger, the Cardassians and Romulans weakened and the Federation urging caution, Sisko and their crew find themselves against some serious odds.

DS9 is praised for exploring multi-faceted themes that other Star Trek series rarely touched on – in “The Way Of The Warrior”, the focus is on the themes of suspicion and paranoia between civilisations, something that continues to resonate in our current political climate. It’s a long way from the Tribbles, that’s for sure (although to be fair, they would make a memorable appearance in the sixth season). It also highlighted just how volatile this universe was – something that would become more and more clear in later seasons as the Dominion War erupted.

1. The Simpsons – “Two Cars In Every Garage And Three Eyes On Every Fish”

Fox

It’s almost universally agreed that the golden age of The Simpsons spans from Seasons 3 to 9. I personally have an issue with this adage for two reasons. One, perhaps slightly controversially, I actually think the drop in quality occurred somewhere in Season 8. Two, it seems to unfairly miss out on the greats that are scattered within the show’s second season – “Lisa’s Substitute”, “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment” and this stone-cold classic.

Rather than centering on the show’s then-breakout star Bart, or indeed any of the Simpson brood, “Two Cars…” focuses its attention on secondary character Mr Burns and his run for political office after his nuclear plant is involved in a scandal involving his plant’s atrocious environmental record. For a program only on it’s 17th episode, it’s fair to say this was a ballsy move. It pays off big time – while the episode is as laugh-out-loud funny as you’d expect from classic Simpsons, it also acts as a sharp satire of the more absurd aspects of American politics, in particular the media frenzy that drives it. Fast forward to 2016, as the rest of the world watch gobsmacked at the current Trump v Clinton circus, this episode’s message is more relevant than ever.

What makes “Two Cars…” a defining episode for the long-running show is that it points to how the show transformed – what had been a mildly subversive but cosy family sitcom had broadened its scope to lampooning the world around them. It’s ambitious, intelligent and hasn’t been topped by any of its animated rivals. And on that note, I’ll hand over to Mr Burns for the final thoughts.

“Ironic, isn’t it, Smithers. This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you.”

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