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.