Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Whedon Week: The top 30 episodes of Joss Whedon's shows

This was, by far, the hardest list to produce.  How do you narrow a total of 294 episodes down to a list of 30?  After a long and difficult ranking process, I finally was able to do it.  I wanted to try to have a well-distributed representation, or else it would mostly just be Buffy episodes, due to the fact that it's my favorite, and the nature of the show allowed for there to be more standouts.  So the order might be a little wonky, so as to not clog the top 10 with one show, and also because every episode here is so good that it doesn't matter whether something is 24 and another is 23.  I tend to have pretty different favorites from others (I love "Doublemeat Palace" -- that's all you need to know about me), so I imagine many Whedon fans would be pretty annoyed by this list, seeing as there are some big ones missing.  But overall, I'm pretty happy with it.

30. Ariel (Firefly, Season 1 Episode 9)
This is just an excellent heist episode, one that splits the crew up and lets the dynamics fly.  It's amazing that they were able to show restraint and not just try to do this kind of episode every week, given how good it is.

29. Expecting (Angel, Season 1 Episode 12)
Although I imagine that very few people will agree, this episode is the first truly great episode of Angel.  It was also the first time that everybody began to gel as a group, as the story really stressed the growing closeness between the characters.  Like I said earlier in the week, Cordelia episodes tended to be the strongest ones in the early years of the show, and this one, featuring a strong performance from Charisma Carpenter, is no different.

28. Two to Go/Grave (Buffy, Season 6 Episode 21 & 22)
This is crazy talk, but "Two to Go/Grave" is my second favorite Buffy finale (see: #6 on this list for my favorite).  Most people prefer "Becoming Parts 1 & 2" and "The Gift," but this is easily the most emotional one to me.  In a year full of internal drama, the episode starts not with a "previously on...," but with Xander saying "here's what happened this year on Buffy the Vampire Slayer."  It's a small change, but one that's indicative of all the mud that everyone trudged through during the season.  This finale also managed to conclude two storylines that had bumpy spots -- Buffy's depression and Dark Willow -- in a satisfying way.

27. Man on the Street (Dollhouse, Season 1 Episode 6)
I like 4 of the first 5 episodes of Dollhouse to varying degrees, but this is where the show takes "The Leap."  It's the first episode that really introduces the dark moral implications of the show, ones that will only continue to get deeper and seedier.  Not only that, but it's thrilling and filled with great action sequences.

26. Birthday (Angel, Season 3 Episode 11)
Here we are with another Cordelia-centric episode, a classic type of "what if" story, but more emotional.  It's also the climax of her vision arc, serving as a metaphor for her growth as a character and how empathetic she's become.  Not to mention it sets up what will eventually become her season 4 storyline -- no really, let's not mention it.

25. Soulless/Calvary (Angel, Season 4 Episode 11 & 12)
The Angelus arc, planted in the middle of year, was an adrenaline shot to a season that was already running at a feverish pace.  Angel's de-souled counterpart is always great because of the unpredictability he adds, and his clinical breakdown of the group from the inside makes this a tense, exciting, and fantastic two-parter.

24. Band Candy (Buffy, Season 3 Episode 6)
One of the most interesting things about Buffy is that despite each episode having Joss Whedon's unified vision, you can still feel little unique touches of each of the writers, depending on whose credited.  "Band Candy" is a Jane Espenson episode -- her first one, at that -- so naturally, it's absolutely hilarious.  The premise -- a special candy makes the adults in Sunnydale act like teenagers -- basically sells itself, but the episode goes above and beyond when it comes to the joy of the Joyce and Giles storyline.  This one's just another terrific episode in a season that's overflowing with them.

23. Harm's Way (Angel, Season 5 Episode 9)
Angel has many episodes that have a similar concept to an earlier Buffy episode, and "Harm's Way" is one of the best ones.  It's similar to "The Zeppo," but with an even more peripheral character, the flighty and aloof Harmony Kendall.  The episode allows us to see the world of the show through a very different lens, and it's a real delight.  After some network prodding to make the show more procedural, season 5 focuses more on Wolfram & Hart, but this episode goes full-on workplace comedy, as we follow Harmony through her day.

22. The Attic (Dollhouse, Season 2 Episode 10)
"The Attic" is basically season 2 in a nutshell: crazy.  It was psychedelic; structurally daring; and, as my first foray into a Whedon show, pretty mind-blowing.  After the show spent so much time teasing the concept of The Attic, Dollhouse finally showed it, and it totally lived up to its promise.

21. Smile Time (Angel, Season 5 Episode 14)
Season 5 of Angel is the most like a season of Buffy and this episode is probably the most Buffy-esque in its sensibilities.  Most Angel fans would crucify me for putting "Smile Time" this low, seeing as it's many people's favorite.  Not only does this episode take the concept of Angel being turned into a puppet to its comedic heights, but it's also genuinely spooky and unsettling in some parts.

20. Spin the Bottle (Angel, Season 4 Episode 6)
This another example of a Buffy redux -- essentially "Tabula Rasa" but better.  Put simply, it's just insanely fun learning about these characters as their younger selves and watching them play off of one another.

19. Spy in the House of Love (Dollhouse, Season 1 Episode 9)
I love episodes that show events from multiple perspectives, so I was predisposed to like this one from the start, but it's also just magnificently structured, and does a great job of paying off seeds subtly sewn in previous episodes.  Most of all, it serves to deepen Adelle, thawing through her icy exterior and revealing her to be a tragically lonely character.

18. Fool For Love (Buffy, Season 5 Episode 7)
The final scene alone -- where Spike goes to Buffy's house with intentions to kill her, but changes his mind after he finds her crying on her porch -- is enough to plant this episode firmly on the list.  But the rest of the episode, which features multiple flashbacks of Spike and informs us about his slayer days of yore, is amazing as well.  Plus, even though my viewings of Buffy and Angel didn't coincide, "Fool For Love" pairs beautifully with "Darla," the Angel episode that aired on the same night.

17. Passion (Buffy, Season 2 Episode 17)
Bookened by narration from Angel, "Passion" might be the most poetic episode of Buffy.  It's pretty much the pinnacle of the epic romance story of Buffy and Angel, and its tragedy reaches Shakespearean proportions.  Jenny Calendar's death isn't the saddest in the show's run, but it may be the biggest, in the way that it impacts our impression of the series going forward.

16. Objects in Space (Firefly, Season 1 Episode 14)
We eventually got a film three years later, but if we didn't, "Objects in Space" would be a fitting ending to the series.  It's definitely the show's most brainy episode -- philosophical, eerie, and melancholy all at once.  Plus, Jubal Early is just a great villain, and it's a shame that he could never make a return.

15. This Year's Girl/Who Are You? (Buffy, Season 4 Episode 15 & 16)
The Faith arc in season 3 is one of my favorite things about Buffy, and its continuation in season 4 is just as good.  After being comatose for most of the season, Faith awakes to a world that's moved on in ways that she couldn't have imagined.  Buried beneath the anger, there's a pain, a "how could you forget about me?" feeling that presides over her actions.  The body switch between Buffy and Faith leads to great performances from Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku, and results in that powerful moment when Faith, as Buffy, is essentially beating herself up.

14. Out of Gas (Firefly, Season 1 Episode 8)
I wrote about this episode further, so there isn't much else to say about it, but it's basically the heart of the show.  "Out of Gas" is the classic type of television episode showing how the crew came together, but between deep layers of flashbacks.

13. Sleep Tight (Angel, Season 3 Episode 16)
"Sleep Tight" is probably the best plotted episode in Whedon's oeuvre, with everyone fighting for Connor converging at the end, and the conclusion is just thrilling and jaw-dropping television.

12. The Zeppo (Buffy, Season 3 Episode 13)
"The Zeppo" is a classic, no doubt.  It's the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of television.  The episode takes Xander's minor adventure and treats it like an A-story, and meanwhile, treats the impending apocalypse as something that's only worth seeing glimpses of, and it's totally brilliant.  Like many of the high-concept episodes in the Whedonverse, this one also manages to move some plot elements forward, and certain events have pretty big effects on the larger narrative.

11. Conversations with Dead People (Buffy, Season 7 Episode 7)
"Conversations with Dead People" is only one of two Buffy episodes that features a title card, almost as if the episode is coming out of the gates announcing, "this is going to be one for the history books."  It's an example of a criminally underutilized episode construct, featuring tiny little vignettes that don't have any intersection between them.  Each of these vignettes offer something a bit different: Dawn's is scary, Willow's is sad, Buffy's is philosophical, and Jonathan & Andrew's is nostalgic.  The only other episode I can think of that's like this one is Avatar: the Last Airbender's "Tales of Ba Sing Se," which is also wonderful.  Do this more, TV writers!

10. Hush (Buffy, Season 4 Episode 10)
"Hush" is one of the most iconic episodes of Buffy, and the one that I'd recommend to first-time viewers.  It has the best villains -- the disturbing and gangly Gentleman -- and a gimmick that serves a purpose.  The "silent episode" is a great concept, but it's also a way to comment on all the difficulty that many of the characters are having with communication at this point in the season.  It introduces Tara, moves Buffy and Riley forward, and is the moment when Xander and Anya define their relationship -- proving that episodes written and directed by Joss Whedon aren't just the most fun, but also the most cohesive as well.

9. Earshot (Buffy, Season 3 Episode 18)
One of the biggest themes running throughout Buffy is the idea that everybody's in pain, and if we could just could communicate that to one another, maybe we'd be better off.  But everybody's so wrapped up in their own pain, they can't help others.  "Earshot," which got pushed back in the season because of Columbine, channels that theme into a single episode, as some sort of demon goo gives Buffy the ability to read minds and learn that somebody is planning to shoot up the school.  The episode could easily be manipulative, luridly focusing on the violence and sadism behind school shootings, but it's barely even about that.  The scene where Buffy walks out into the hallway and overhears just how lonely and anxious everyone is is one of my favorites of the entire series.

8. Our Mrs. Reynolds (Firefly, Season 1 Episode 6)
"Our Mrs. Reynolds" is the best example of what makes the crew of the Serenity great.  The entire episode is basically just everybody busting Mal's balls for accidentally getting married on a passover planet, and it's so hilarious.  Pretty much everybody gets a great scene or line.  The episode is also notable for introducing the world to Christina Hendricks, who's so good in this that you might be fooled by the twist, even on a rewatch.

7. Not Fade Away (Angel, Season 5 Episode 22)
This right here, aside from being the best Whedon series finale, is one of my favorite series finales of all time.  It's just a cinematic, propulsive hour of television from start to finish, delivering some classic action-adventure.  But of course, this is a Joss Whedon show, so there's some pretty dark material for Lorne and Wesley.  The final scene of the episode, where the crew is in the rain, facing down Hell, is just so awesome.  Not only is it a lasting image visually, but it's also a great wrap-up thematically -- no matter what comes, you've just got to keep fighting.

6. Restless (Buffy, Season 4 Episode 22)
This is one that I didn't like at first, but on second viewing, I realized how much of a fool I was.  Most episodes written and directed by Joss Whedon show off his skills as a writer, but "Restless" is the biggest example of his directorial talent.  It's the "dream episode," and it takes dream logic to downright Lynchian levels.  There's some gloriously surreal comedy, like Riley's enthusiastic cowboy bit, or a random dude saying "I wear the cheese.  It does not wear me."  Yet each story gives you insight about the characters.  Willow's dream is all about fear and self-doubt, Xander's is about feeling left behind, Giles's is about his place in Buffy's life, and Buffy's is about loneliness.  It may not have anything to do with the rest of season 4 from a pure plot standpoint, but in many ways it's the most perfect season finale, reflecting on what these characters have been through in past year, while also providing a vision of what's to come.

5. Life of the Party (Angel, Season 5 Episode 5)
I mentioned before how my tastes frequently diverge from the consensus when it comes to Buffy and Angel.  It's rare that I hate an episode that everybody loves or vice versa (well..."Doublemeat Palace"), but some of my favorite episodes are ones that others don't find very memorable.  I don't think anybody dislikes "Life of the Party," but I'm certainly the only Angel fan who would put this as their second favorite episode of the series.  It's just so darn fun though!  After all of the darkness of season 4, it's just nice to see everybody having a good time, even if they're under some kind of spell.  And nothing -- NOTHING -- is better than Fred and Wesley drunk.

4. Belonging (Dollhouse, Season 2 Episode 4)
On the other side of the spectrum, there's "Belonging," which is about as dark as you can get.  It's the last standalone episode before the episode goes full throttle with its serialization, but's important to providing characters with an activation energy, offering insight into Sierra's past, while also being important to Topher's arc as a character.  Read more about it here.

3. Waiting in the Wings (Angel, Season 3 Episode 3)
Another concept redux, "Waiting in the Wings" bears alot of similarity to the end of "I Only Have Eyes For You."  It's just a hypnotic, sophisticated look at one of the most essential elements of storytelling -- love.  Read more about it here.

2. Once More, with Feeling (Buffy, Season 6 Episode 7)
God, I just love this episode so much.  Some people will tell you "this episode is great, despite the quality of the songs," but I love the songs too.  So many threads from the previous 6 episodes get brought together here: Giles feeling the need to let Buffy go, Xander and Anya's fear of the future, Willow using magic on Tara to make her forget their fights, Buffy's post-resurrection frustrations, and Buffy and Spike's burgeoning relationship.  As I spoke about in my season 6 defense post, Buffy's depression is something I can really relate to, so songs like "Going Through the Motions" and "Give Me Something to Sing About" just crush me.  Who would've thought that a musical episode on a show about vampire slaying would make me openly weep?  "Once More, with Feeling" is just that good; even people who hate season 6 like it.

1. The Body (Buffy, Season 5 Episode 16)
I've said it before and I'll say it again: "The Body" is my favorite episode of television.  I've seen it many times and I don't know why I put myself through that, but it's such an outstanding achievement that it insists upon itself.  I talked about the direction and the writing already in my Canon piece, but the acting is superb as well.  The fact that Sarah Michelle Gellar didn't get an Emmy nomination for her raw, draining performance in this episode is crazy.  It's not just her that's great though -- Allyson Hannigan, Emma Caulfield, everybody's as good as they'd ever been here.  That scene in the middle of the episode where Willow is trying to figure out what to wear is just a heartbreaking scene.  It may be an exhausting episode to watch, but "The Body" will change your life and the way that you think about television.  Read more about it here.

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