I am a big advocate of taking show recommendations from friends, largely because they are recommendations made out of love. But sometimes the shows they recommend are long and daunting. Or they start out terribly and you wonder why your friend likes them so much. Sometimes the beginning just isn’t the best place to start because the show basically reinvents itself at this point. But if you’re going to judge a show by one episode, it would be better if it was a pretty great episode. Not necessarily the best in the series, but one that exemplifies the best the show has to offer. So that’s what I’ve compiled for a selection of shows I love. If you’re interested, give them a shot. Then head to the comments to tell me what you think and recommend a show based on an episode for me to try. If you’re particularly sensitive to spoilers before you watch an episode, then skip my explanations and just make note of the episodes.
Battlestar Galactica – 33 (1×01)
I love the miniseries but honestly, what amounts to a 3 hour movie to kick off a series can be a hard sell for someone looking to start the show. The first twenty seconds of this video are all you really need to know going into the first official episode.
“33” is a rare example of a fantastic (pseudo) pilot. The entire episode is viscerally tense. The writing and acting and great but Bear McCreary’s incredible talent as a composer and the makeup artist’s work to make the entire cast look 100% exhausted made this an episode that makes you tired in the best possible way as a viewer. It transports you into the show for 45 minutes.
It gives you the best of what this show has to offer. It is upfront about the fact that this show will push its characters into uncomfortable places. It asks “how far it is acceptable to go when the fate of the human race is on the line?”. But it is not all bleak. Hope is not lost. We see compassion and affection in moments like Colonel Tigh prolonging his watch in order to give Captain Adama a chance to rest. We feel the history between Kara and Lee as he tries to be in charge and they dissolve into sleep-deprived giggles. We watch the possibility of a future flash across Roslin’s face as she is able to add a number to her count of humanity. It is a brilliant episode and one I think everyone should watch, regardless of their interest in continuing with the show (though I think you should do that too and come talk to me about it).
The 100 – Day Trip (1×08)
I haven’t made it a secret that I love this show but really don’t like the pilot. The tone is off and the music cue when the delinquents land feels all kinds of wrong to me. It finds it’s footing relatively quickly in my opinion and while they are good episodes before this one, “Day Trip” is a big episode in the series. It redefines key characters and relationships as well as sets things in motion for the future.
The most significant moment is the emergence of Bellamy and Clarke as true co-leaders of the remaining kids. Full disclosure, I do ship them and hope to see them together romantically at some point in the future, but romance aside this is one of the core relationships of the show. It’s amusing to watch them bicker and develop a tentative working relationship in earlier episodes but the scene at the tree reveals that they are scared and don’t know what they are doing on their own but they might be able to lead together. They have messed up and there is so much pressure but there is comfort in not being alone. And to me, that is what this show is about at its core, at least in the first two seasons. It is about finding connection and the hope that comes from believing in other people and how that is what makes the toughest situations survivable.
This episode also manages to be slightly lighter in tone than some of the other episodes, despite a lot of darkness and murderous plots, and it is largely due to Monty Green. Monty is already a lovable character but he is adorable when he is high on hallucinogenic nuts. With such a dark show, you need someone to provide some lightness. While it isn’t always as a comedic relief (though in this episode it is), Monty is here to provide some balance. He is a sweet and kind and good individual and the series wouldn’t be the same without him.
Parks and Recreation – Flu Season (3×02)
This episode comes a lot later in the series compared to my first two choices but this felt like the episode where the show solidified its voice. This episode is one of many tributes to Leslie’s power to inspire those around her. Even high on flu medication, Leslie made the Harvest Festival possible through determination and passion. It left Ben in awe and it did the same to the audience. Allowing yourself to be moved by Leslie is at the heart of this show and if this episode doesn’t do that for you, it may not be a show for you.
This episode is like a waffle from JJ’s Diner. It is comforting and makes you feel better whenever you watch it and while Leslie’s amazingness is certainly part of that, another part comes from the fact that it is one of the funniest episodes of the series. Andy diagnosing Leslie with network connectivity problems makes me laugh every time I see it as does Leslie declaring that she needs to prepare for the Chamber of Secrets.
Playing House – Let’s Have a Baby (1×09)
You can actually jump into the show at any time and the second season premiere would also make an excellent choice for this feature but you would miss out on this beautiful episode. To love this show is to love the friendship between Maggie and Emma. If you can get onboard with that, the potential romantic relationship between Emma and Mark and the wonderful friendship between Maggie and Mark is just some (very delicious) icing on the cake.
In this episode, Maggie gives birth. She’s tired and scared and missing her mom but Emma is there to hold her hand and tell her that she’s right there with her and they can do it together. She is her cheerleader and the biggest part of her support system and with Emma’s encouragement, Maggie gives birth to her baby girl and it is a moment that neither could imagine not sharing with each other. It is a beautiful and honest depiction of the power and strength that comes from the love between female friends, especially ones who have known each other for so long and once you see this moment, you’ll want to watch the rest immediately. Which you should absolutely do.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Lie to Me (2×07)
There are two earlier episodes that I could have chosen to introduce a new viewer to Buffy. Prophecy Girl (1×12) which is the first of seven great season finales from this show and School Hard (2×03) introduces Spike. As much as I like those episodes (and frankly, even some of the earlier, less impressive episodes that precede them), Lie to Me holds a special place in my heart for a final scene that gets at the heart of the struggle of this show.
This is a largely standalone episode, which makes it very accessible for new viewers. It may not be the best introduction for Angel as a character as we see the brutality he was capable of as Angelus but it drives home the point that he used to be evil very effectively.
In the final moments, after Buffy is forced to stake a former friend who was turned into a vampire, she remarks about how growing up is harder than she expected it to be. Things stopped being black and white. So she asks Giles if it ever gets any easier. Always the guardian, Giles asks what she needs him to say in that moment and she asks him to lie to her. So he replies, “Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.”
Buffy isn’t a fairy tale, nor is its spinoff Angel. Sometimes even the best people fail and make bad decisions and the bad guys can look a lot like the good guys sometimes. Fighting leads to loss and everyone most certainly doesn’t get a happily ever after. But that doesn’t mean you stop fighting. You keep fighting even when it costs you everything. And that’s what Buffy did. She fought until she she couldn’t anymore then she still got back up and kept fighting. It’s always been a story of growing up and facing the world around you but it’s also one of hope and perseverance. The lie may be nice to hear for a moment but for Buffy and for us, it was more helpful to see through the lie and learn to appreciate life anyway.