So we all know about watercooler moments. Those episodes where everyone starts whispering at 9.03am “Did you see it? Have you watched it yet? Did you guess the ending?” Those are pretty excellent, as long as you’re up to date.
But what about those episodes where, despite the fact the series continues, those moments stick in your head? You can remember what you felt, where you were. You can probably remember most of the dialogue, and every time you think about it, you have a really strong visceral memory. Everyone has one. Or two. We have six! This is a run down of episodes which stand apart, alone and ahead of the crowd, episodes which made your jaw drop, your pulse race and your clenched fingers turn white …for the sake of being succinct, I’m calling this list Episodes That Knock Your Socks Off.
#6 “House’s Head” House, 2008
House is a brilliant, misanthropic doctor with a complex relationship with pain pills. A diagnostician, the series follow a pattern of patient-of-the-week with an overarching storyline shedding light on House and his (varying) team of supporting specialists. Notable for propelling the very British Hugh Laurie into the American spotlight, House is a medical drama with a seriously grumpy anti-hero.
The first of a two-part conclusion to season 4, this episode begins with House in a strip club, more interested in why he doesn’t remember arriving than looking at the strippers. He diagnoses himself with retrograde amnesia, and, stepping outside the club, discovers a horrific bus crash. House realises he was in the crash, which explains the head injury, and is determined to work out exactly why his subconscious keeps smacking him with flashbacks to the crash, thinking it’s because he spotted a symptom indicative of a serious health condition – unfortunately he can’t remember the symptom, the patient, or the condition.
House demonstrates his worrying focus on the problem by not only ignoring his skull fracture and brain bleed, but by putting himself under stressful, unethical and dangerous conditions in order to prompt his memory to return. Even for a seasoned viewer used to his unorthodox methods, it’s pretty unnerving to see him induce a heart attack by taking alzheimer’s medication, and the twist moment when it becomes clear what he was trying to remember is powerful. Strong supporting performances abound here, including Robert Sean Leonard in those last five minutes, but House is a show dominated by the man himself, and this episode is no exception.
The flashback sequences are by turn, creepy and funny and anxiety-inducing, and the persistence and variety of House’s methods to access his memory mean that there is a genuine building sense of tension by the time it’s all revealed. While the second part of the two-parter “Wilson’s Heart” is more strictly the culmination of the storyline and has its own notable strengths, “House’s Head” is much more unnerving than the usual episode structure, and therefore has a better impact.
#5 “The Visitor” Deep Space Nine, 1995
Deep Space Nine is a spin off series from Star Trek: The Next Generation which, unusually for a Star Trek series, is set on a static base and has an involved political and spiritual plot involving the Cardassians subjugating another race, the Bajorans. Its focus on character-led storylines involves some really excellent writing across seven seasons.
The time-loop correction is a storyline used several times in Star Trek, and appears in other sci-fi shows too, but the delicacy with which this is handled makes it a stand-out example. The episode starts with an aspiring writer asking an aged-up version of Jake Sisko why he stopped writing before he was 40. Through a series of flashbacks and contemporaneous narrative, he tells the story of watching his father, Captain Ben Sisko, get sucked out of time following an unsual wormhole event, and the intermittent contact he has with his father across his entire lifetime. This story is powerful and well-structured; the newly introduced characters are strong, and the display of grief is unusually effective. The viewer is shown the immediate aftermath, the antipathy and aimlessness of Jake as he tries to ‘go back to normal’ in the months following Ben’s death, and then the sense of singlemindedness that Jake shows over his entire lifetime in trying to save his father. It’s impressive that the sense of time passing is conveyed so well, and while the episode is only 45 minutes long, it’s a real body blow at the end of the episode where you realise the conclusion. You don’t have long to get involved in this story, but it really packs a punch.
#4 “Goodbyeee” Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989
Blackadder was four seasons (and a few specials) covering four different time periods; the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan court, the Regency era and the trenches of the First World War. Blackadder is smart, ruthless, selfish and ambitious in every incarnation, and is supported by a strong cast of misfits and idiots, including Baldrick.
The last in the final fourth season, this episode is set when Captain Blackadder, Private Baldrick and Lieutenant George are expecting the order to go over the top and attack. They try to come up with strategies to avoid the order, including pretending insanity. Some of these early scenes are laugh out loud funny, but the tone becomes slowly more sombre. The impending realisation affects all the characters, including Captain Darling who is usually behind the lines assisting the loud and ridiculous General Melchett. Darling is sent to the front because the stupid General thinks Darling wants to claim some of the ‘glory’ – it’s a deeply sad moment watching his horror as he has to follow the General’s order.
This episode is notable for the dramatic end. They are soldiers in the trenches, it’s not a surprise, but up to this episode it’s been a sitcom in a dark setting. This episode feels more like drama than sitcom. It’s inevitable, horrifying and startling – you realise there is absolutely no way out, not even putting your underpants on your head, sticking two pencils up your nose and saying ‘wibble’. Insanity is not enough to rescue them, and the silent slow fade ending is striking. The style and tone means this episode can stand alone from all other Blackadder episodes, but the writing is stunning, and creates a fitting and effective end to the characters.
#3 “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse” Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1994
Launching Will Smith’s acting career, Fresh Prince is a classic. Funny, irreverent, full of slighly cringy early 90s clothing, it’s a staple of pop-culture for a whole generation. The relationships were always at the heart of the show, and the light touch treatment of all kinds of topics meant that you could rely on the Fresh Prince for a laugh.
Will’s dad Lou turns up after 14 years, and despite his family’s reservations, Will spends time with him and makes a plan to join him on a road trip in his dad’s truck. Uncle Phil warns Will about getting his hopes up, but instead they argue. Uncle Phil is clearly really affected by the prospect of Will getting hurt, but the strength of the episode shines through in Will when he blusters about how relaxed he is about his dad reappearing after so long. Cracking jokes, pushing through, until the climax when it becomes clear that Lou is leaving without Will. There are two lines that stand out, the first to his dad when he says it was nice to see you. “You too, Lou.” Will’s delivery of this line is crushing – his refusal to call him Dad shows the immediate emotional step back he takes when he’s being left again. The other to Uncle Phil – “How come he don’t want me, man?”
The long pull away shot without either music or audience reaction is brutal, and effective. A killer punch for a 22 minute episode.
#2 “Isaac and Ishmael” The West Wing, 2001
For the unitiated, the West Wing is the political and strategy wing of the White House, and the seven seasons of the show follow President Bartlet and his advisors through two terms across eight years. The show is known for its accurate research, its slick script, walk-and-talk dialogue style (also seen in Gilmore Girls and ER) and highly complex interwoven plot. It helps if you know anything about American politics, but I started watching this when I was 15 and it taught me a lot about American politics, so prior knowledge is not required.
This episode was aired on October 3, 2001, and was a specially written episode in response to the events of September 11, 2001. It is not designed to be watched in any particular place in the seasons, and is completely standalone. The White House gets ‘crashed’, which is when security identify a credible threat and shut down all movement in the building. There is a school party having a tour, and they get stuck in the cafeteria, where various staff pop in and out throughout the episode. One student asks the deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman why people threaten the President, and why they hate America. This raises an in-depth and really well executed analysis of historical foreign policy and political theory, as explained by the staff using real life examples.
This sounds a bit dry. It isn’t, it’s emotionally hard hitting and showcases an incredibly well explained argument, and isn’t jingoistic – in fact there is no sabre-rattling patriotism. It’s an attempt to actually explain issues to an American public who were largely completely unaware. It feels real, and when you understand this was written, filmed and released only three weeks after the biggest terror attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour, it was hugely impactful at the time. Even 16 years later, this episode makes me cry, makes me angry, and makes me hope for better things. It’s excellent writing, a difficult topic, and a total must-see.
#1 “The Body” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2001
Buffy is one of the most referenced tv shows of my generation, and is credited with kicking off Joss Whedon’s showrunner career. Led by women, the cast is strong and the storylines cover the supernatural, teenage life experiences, comedy, drama… and grief.
2001 was a good year for television. This episode is two thirds of the way through season 5 of Buffy, and is unique for a number of reasons. The episode begins with a three minute sequence with no cuts, as Buffy enters her home to find her mother on the couch, and tries to waken her. The episode has no music, which feels unflinching and bleak; the silence pulls you in, and makes you feel like you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with Buffy as she realises she can fight everything else but this. The realisation of what’s happening in those first minutes is slow and then inevitable – on first viewing I kept expecting something to happen, to distract you from the sucker punch… it never happens.
The supporting cast are heartbreaking, particularly the character of Anya, and the writing is some of the best I’ve ever seen. For a tv show about a teenage girl killing vampires, there is absolutely no silliness in the grief seen in this episode.
What an episode. What a show.