TV Guide’s “100 Episodes We’ve Heard Of” List

TV Guide has published its “Top 100 [U.S.] episodes of all time” list (you can see it reproduced here among other places; the official episode-by-episode countdown is going on at the official site). It’s kind of a depressing list, because most of it was clearly arrived at merely by taking the name of a very famous or popular show and picking the episode that the writers, and/or readers, were most likely to have heard of.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but what are the odds that the most famous episode of a show can be the best episode, over and over again? Not so terrific; in fact, some of these episodes not only have no business on a top 100 of all time list, but are poor episodes by the standards of the shows they come from. I mean, they picked “Fonzie Loves Pinky” from Happy Days, which was closer to the worst episode that show had produced up to that point (worse was yet to come). And in many other cases I think — and this is personal opinion, obviously – they picked fairly unexceptional episodes that had some kind of hook to make them famous: the early Angel episode where Buffy dies yet again, the Scientology episode from South Park, the Dan Quayle episode of Murphy Brown, that not-terribly-funny Gone With the Wind sketch from Carol Burnett. My opinion of those episodes is purely personal; what’s objectively true is that most of the episodes on this list have some kind of external significance – increasing the likelihood that a casual reader will have heard of them – that goes beyond their qualities as television episodes. 

So the impression you would get from that list is that the best episodes are the ones that happen to be remembered for some kind of issue/guest-star/gimmick. As opposed to episodes that are not big, spectacular or attention-grabbing, but happen to be great examples of the art of making a unique/moving/funny/thought-provoking episode of television. It’s like they’re not working with any actual standards for what makes a TV episode good, let alone great.

The last time TV Guide did a list like this, about a decade ago, they were a better publication and assumed a more TV-knowledgeable viewer, so they actually had some episodes on the list that were not the “obvious” choices. “The Contest,” which is now the # 1 episode of all time and shouldn’t be, wasn’t even on that list, because their Seinfeld episode of choice back then was “The Boyfriend” (the Keith Hernandez/JFK) episode — a better episode in my opinion, but certainly not the reflexive choice.

Have a look at their 1997 list. Even adjusting for the fact that the new list needs to drop some of those episodes to make room for the many excellent shows in the last 12 years, that list has many more interesting or un-hackneyed choices of episodes.

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TV Guide’s “100 Episodes We’ve Heard Of” List

  1. A telling substitution is the respective choice of family ties episodes – "my name is alex" in 1997 and "the real thing (part2)" in 2009. it doesn't quite hold up Jamie's theory because they're both obvious choices, but they're still miles apart.

  2. While I agree with your overall point, I think "The Contest" is much stronger than "The Boyfriend," which is an almost textbook example of a two parter that is too long for one part but which can't quite sustain two.

    The other point is that "The Contest" is surely famous simply for being a particularly good episode from when the show was at its height. If they were choosing purely gimmicky / notable / unusual / oft-referenced episodes, "The Chinese Restaurant" would have been the obvious choice.

    Myself, if pressed for Seinfeld's best episode I'd probably pick "The Outing," which makes me laugh every time.

    • The other point is that "The Contest" is surely famous simply for being a particularly good episode from when the show was at its height.

      At the time, it was almost the Seinfeld equivalent of a Very Special Episode, because nobody had dealt with that subject (at least not at any length) on U.S. TV. There was lots of talk about it, editorials about it, articles about how Larry David had to fight to get it on the air. So it has that news-making, issue-raising quality that makes episodes stick out for TV Guide editors.

      I generally think Seinfeld's hour-longs can't sustain two parts, but I make an exception for "The Boyfriend," because the three stories are so strong and collectively are kind of the essence of Seinfeld: awkward arguing over the rules of an unusual relationship (Jerry and Keith), surreal comedy with a dose of movie parody (the spitter) and old-fashioned wacky sitcom scheming (Vandelay Industries).

  3. I get your point Jaime — I noted it for Smallville "Rosetta" which has nothing going for it except that Superman himself Christopher Reeves guest starred. Any of the first season was more compelling. I am glad, though, that they finally had the guts to put something from the last 35 years at the top! But in one way they've become more consistent, like admitting it's a U.S. list and dropping the token "Fawlty Towers" (why ignore a country's entire canon but claim that one show? And if so, you'd have to add the pilot of "Queer As Folk" to the list, which was unique and compelling TV. I'd also replace the FRIENDS ep with "The one with all the resolutions", where Ross tries to wear leather pants. He was almost Lucy-esque in those things!

  4. I would say the most obvious indicator that this list isn't 'real' is that they have at most one episode from each show (as far as I could tell). If it really was the best 100 episodes, surely some show would show up two or more times on the list.

  5. I think it's ironic that "The Contest" is considered the quintessential Seinfeld episode, since it's really very un-Seinfeldian: it's centered around a single plot and the basic concept is an ancient comedy cliche (character gives up a vice, only to be constantly tempted in increasingly absurd ways).

    The Simpsons pick is a real headscratcher. They skipped "Last Exit to Springfield," (which is fine by me), but "Krusty Gets Kancelled" isn't even the best Krusty-themed episode.

    • Actually, I just barely looked at the 1997 list, and they chose same Simpsons episode back then too, though they listed the wrong title ("Gabbo is Fabbo"). Apparently someone at TV Guide really, really likes that episode.

      • It's a big guest star extravaganza episode. Those are like catnip to writers of TV Guide and its ilk.

  6. This list leans way too heavily towards recent fare; about half of it is stuff that first aired after the last list was published. A lot of it seems, to me at least, to be the kind of stuff that's not going to stand the test of time; some of it has already failed it (Ally McBeal, seriously?). There's something to be said for AFI-style stodginess…

    A lot of the recent series represented are also extremely serialized, which raises the question of just what the hell this list is supposed to be. It's already apples-and-oranges enough to rank hour-long dramas against half-hour-long comedies; now they're comparing episodes that, structurally, are like chapters from novels to others that are like short stories. The SNL episode is even more incongruous (it must've been the one with three funny sketches).

    Really, though, any list of great TV episodes that fails to include "Security Door" from Newsradio isn't worth taking very seriously, anyway.

  7. The SNL one is the Steve Martin episode that introduced The Blues Brothers.

  8. I agree, and I also find it strange that of all these shows representing the best of television, no series has more than one episode on the list. Did I miss that rule in the introduction?

    Some of the choices are baffling. My Musical was not the best episode of Scrubs, though I love it; My Life in Four Cameras and My Butterfly were gimmick episodes that stuck with me more (My Butterfly was a lot like the Bowling episode of Malcolm in the Middle, which to play devil's advocate actually was the greatest episode from that show), while My First Lady and My Screw Up were the ones that hit you emotionally. There are many, many episodes of The Simpsons which beat out Krusty Gets Kancelled, great as that was (and I always assumed that Marge vs. the Monorail was considered the most famous/iconic episode). Blue Harvest from Family Guy had a lot of moments, but it was an annoying gimmick episode through and through. The Office U.S. had at least a few episodes from each season that eclipsed Diversity Day, which is mostly noted for being groundbreaking in diverting from the original. Arrested Development's finale was kind of disappointing and the callbacks to the pilot went a bit overboard to the point where it seemed more like a rehash than good writing (the episode about marijuana and learning lessons was the greatest). Black Tie was 30 Rock at its wackiest, but not its best. I could go on.

  9. I'm surprised that the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" is absent from both lists.

  10. Very belatedly, this list is WAY too US-centric to even be interesting to anyone outside the States, or relevant. Plenty of the best TV episodes of all time are NOT US-made.

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