What Makes a Worst Episode?


Television Without Pity’s list of the worst episodes of great TV shows (by which they mean “shows that have been on in the last 10 years) is a bit heavy on episodes with plot elements they don’t like, as opposed to genuinely terrible episodes. For example, it is tempting to pick “Where the Wild Things Are” as the worst episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because the basic story hook is not only stupid, but kind of stomach-churningly disgusting. (And by that I mean, of course, sex with Riley. Between that and the many giant phallic snakes on the show, I think the snakes are far less horrifying.) But it’s not really a badly-executed episode: it aims to be cheesy with a heavy-handed metaphor, much like some of the sillier season 1 episodes, and it does what it intends to do; I like the fourth season of Buffy because it was the last season to be unashamed of the cheese factor.  Whereas a much worse episode, like “Wrecked,” actually wants to be serious and moving, and fails completely. I think there’s sometimes a tendency to pick as the “worst” episode one that has a particularly loathsome or upsetting plot hook, like Michael Scott trying to frame Toby, as opposed to episodes that are just badly done.

As Myles McNutt pointed out on Twitter, “short-term memory” plays a part in this as well, because we sometimes tend to pick the worst recent episode, as opposed to the early episodes that were worse. 30 Rock‘s uneven early episodes had many worse efforts than this season’s Night Court episode.  (But you could argue that a show should be given a pass for mistakes it makes when it’s still trying to find its voice, whereas there’s no excuse for turning out a poor episode once the show is in its prime; that’s why, say, a bad recent episode of The Simpsons is more annoying than a bad episode from the first batch of 13.)

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What Makes a Worst Episode?

  1. confused with the last line. are you implying that The Simpsons is currently in "its prime"?

    • confused with the last line. are you implying that The Simpsons is currently in "its prime"?

      No, but it's certainly not finding itself, either. The feeling of a show like that is that they should know how to make a good episode by now, whereas we cut them more slack for an early episode when they're figuring things out.

  2. Or, alternatively, in the case of The Simpsons, cutting them slack after the show has exhausted itself 10 years ago… one has much lower expectations today, then say, Season 6.

  3. You can tell by the animation if The Simpsons' is a good one or not, and if you watch them enough you'll know by the first frame.

    The Simpsons hasn't been good since the 90's; I just classify all 00-era Simpsons as bad episodes. I then find myself force laughing at the average ones when around company.

    It really is two different shows, the first 8-10 seasons or so were all classics. Since then though, it has never even came close.

  4. I thought that the Night Court episode of 30 Rock was terrific. A desperate attempt to squeeze in those guest stars? Harry Anderson and Charles Robinson are such ratings-grabbers? Really?

    • Harry Anderson and Charles Robinson are such ratings-grabbers?

      If everybody in the world were me, this would be a true statement.

  5. That Lost episode was, however, by far the worst of the series.