Suzanne Cryer (left), Ryan Reynolds, Traylor Howard, Richard Ruccolo, Nathan Fillion

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: A small group of twentysomething friends try to navigate the treacherous waters of the real world after college. It’s the basic premise of any hang-out comedy, and it works just as often as it flops, both critically and popularity-wise. Somewhere in between the realm of working and flopping lies Two Guys, A Girl And A Pizza Place, later given the briefer and more hang-out appropriate title Two Guys And A Girl. Despite its relative ratings success and a winning ensemble cast featuring future stars Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion, Two Guys And A Girl remains a somewhat forgotten sitcom.

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The two guys and the girl were Reynolds as slacker-turned-med-student Michael “Berg” Bergen, Richard Ruccolo as the neurotic Pete Dunville, and Traylor Howard as Sharon Carter, the volatile professional of the bunch. When the series begins, Pete is only seven months away from 25. He’s in grad school, and obsessing over the fact that when his father was his age, he had a career, a house, a wife, and a child (that would be Pete). Meanwhile, his buddy and roommate Berg is a philosophy major—for now—and can’t even imagine a world where he has to be that decisive. Sharon (who lives in the apartment above them) works as a marketing executive for a chemical company, hating the fact that she sells a piece of her soul with every passing day. In the first season, the cast is rounded out with Pete’s girlfriend who’s not “The One” (Jennifer Westfeldt as Melissa), the owner of the pizza place (Julius Carry as Bill), and a regular patron who regales the characters with stories from his life that are actually movie plots (David Ogden Stiers as Mr. Bauer). It was young, hip, and completely off-brand with what ABC became in the following decade.

While the network’s comedies have traditionally focused on the family, after the heyday of TGIF and Home Improvement, the ABC of the late ’90s found itself struggling to get out of third place, and in that failure found itself at a crossroads. Thus began a new, yellow-hued, and surprisingly controversial (yet highly memorable) advertising campaign for the 1997-98 season: “TV Is Good.”

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The campaign was all about making television hip and cool, targeting Generation X-ers and viewers in the coveted 18 to 34 age bracket, the obvious audience demographic of Two Guys And A Girl. (If that weren’t evidence enough, a promo for the show’s second season premiere spoofed the era’s ubiquitous “Got Milk?” ads.) ABC was suffering an identity crisis, and while the next season saw the yellow color return with the new tagline “We love TV,” the supposed damage of the ironic, detached brand reboot was already done.

Critical consensus was that Two Guys, A Girl And A Pizza Place was a dud, for all the reasons mentioned above. The first season is a mess at worst and a standard sitcom at best. The show’s greatest strength was the trio of Ruccolo, Reynolds, and Howard, and even that wasn’t good enough for critics. A People C+ review of the first season called Ryan Reynolds “a young, less ingratiating John Ritter.” Sharon fell into the trap of being an outspoken woman, which led to Entertainment Weekly calling the character “a too-short-skirted, inexplicably hostile career woman who can’t seem to hold on to a boyfriend.” “They should have named her Elaine McBeal,” the review states, as if that combination is a bad thing. The only thing more one-note than the show, it would seem, were all of the pizza jokes critics threw into their reviews.

But unlike other non-Friends shows like Significant Others and House Rules that it was constantly compared to, Two Guys And A Girl actually made it past its first season. For season two, executive producer Danny Jacobson (Mad About You, Roseanne) claimed to be changing Two Guys And A Girl into “less of a a frat romp and tapping into more relatable issues.”

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The show’s underlying and sometimes bizarre take on sitcom conventions made it salvageable. While plenty of criticism was directed at Mr. Bauer’s one-joke nature, few addressed the fact that such a weird character even existed—and even fewer addressed the fact that he successfully used the Jedi mind trick in one episode. The first-season finale featured a lengthy sendup of Apocalypse Now, starring Pete, not Mr. Bauer. On the surface, Two Guys And A Girl was a standard hang-out sitcom, but—much like its characters—it wanted to break free.

So with its season-two refocus (the beginning of the “relatable” seasons) Two Guys And A Girl became what it wanted and needed to be. At least for a time: This season introduced Johnny Donnelly (Nathan Fillion) and Ashley Walker (Suzanne Cryer), love interests for Sharon and Berg, respectively. The Berg/Ashley relationship ushered in a new era and genre for the show entirely: romantic comedy. While the first season cast Berg as the slacker/womanizer sidekick in Pete’s search for “The One,” season two flipped a switch, realizing that Ryan Reynolds would make a much better and more convincing romantic lead. The show hit its creative peak as Berg pursued Ashley, with the added romantic bonus of Johnny and Sharon’s relationship building to a cliffhanger marriage proposal. The once hard-working, goal-oriented, and romantic Pete ended up dropping out of grad school, got stuck working at the pizza place, and developed feelings for Sharon despite her relationship with Johnny.

In season three, it’s Berg’s world that’s crashing down around him, while Pete gets back on track, and Sharon—who finally quits her job after constantly talking about it—struggles with whether she wants to marry Johnny. As the show shrugged off its rom-com trappings, and ditching school as a factor (with the exception of Berg’s medical studies), Two Guys And A Girl let go of another defining trait in season three’s second episode, “Au Revoir Pizza Place.” With the help of a naked Blink-182 and a youngster named Germ (Giuseppe Andrews), the gang abandoned a setting whose remnants were already mostly gone. The fourth and final season was tonally off during its first half, as the characters had gone through the wringer so many times, it was hard to believe that they would ever have any reason to laugh or cause laughter. Germ became a regular character (and basically Berg’s best friend in his time of failure and need), reaching mass overexposure in an episode titled “A Germ Runs Through It.”

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The original trio’s interactions were minimized in the last two seasons, as the realities of life caused them to drift apart. Pete’s quest for love merged with a personal attack on his friends, as he fell for both Berg’s mother (Bo Derek) and Ashley. ABC kept airing episodes out of production order, despite the fact that the show followed a linear narrative continuity.

Even when Two Guys And A Girl was inconsistent, it never failed to try something new within the confines of its rigid multi-camera walls. The show was experimental in a way not typically seen in hang-out sitcoms—especially not in multi-camera sitcoms, though its contemporary The Drew Carey Show also went out of its way to do the same. If nothing else, that should be Two Guys And A Girl’s legacy: A series that constantly redefined itself. As Pete, Berg, and Sharon went through their quarter-life crises, so did the show. Like its characters and its network, Two Guys And A Girl was looking for an identity. Along the way, it touched something unique, and these are the 10 episodes—listed in original broadcast order—that best embody what that was.

“The Pilot” (season one, episode one): In Two Guys And A Girl’s “frat romp” era, the introduction is full of everything critics didn’t like about the show. At this point, Ryan Reynolds’ gesticulating isn’t a part of his charm (or a punchline for the other characters to make), as he isn’t a known-enough quantity to have “a charm.” But the first line Sharon utters in the episode is a quick “You guys suck” to Pete and Berg (in the form of a greeting), telling viewers everything they need to know about what they’re getting into.

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“Two Guys, A Girl And How They Met” (season one, episode 11):

Answering the loaded question of why neither Berg nor Pete date Sharon (beyond Berg and Pete’s rather flippant answer of “She’s Sharon”), this flashback to the trio’s college and pre-pizza place days is full of goofy Milli Vanilli jokes and terrible facial hair. It’s also another example of just how much these characters could change in a short while, as Pete thinks his goatee is a good idea (and thought yet another girl was “The One”), Berg is a Russian economics major, and Sharon is saving the world, one petition at a time. It answers the question of how three kind-of-terrible people found each other and stuck together, even through all their identity crises. As for why they’re not dating Sharon, the answer is simple: “This girl is a nightmare.” “She’s like us. Only a chick.”

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“Two Guys, A Girl And A Psycho Halloween”/“Halloween 2: Mind Over Body”/“The Satanic Curses” (season two, episode six/season three, episode six/season four, episode four):

Much like the last three seasons themselves, there’s a case of diminishing returns with each Two Guys And A Girl Halloween episode, but that doesn’t negate the rush of watching them all in the first place. The first one, “Two Guys, A Girl And A Psycho Halloween” is a classic, with a “Psycho Berg” going on a spree and killing, well, everyone. The fact that it’s the first Halloween episode of the series makes it all the more unexpected and solidifies the “no rules” nature of these types of episodes: The episode’s twist is a sign of the times, and the morbid end tag is one of the most brilliant in the show’s run. Season three offers brain swapping and Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion coming insanely close to kissing, and season four sees a satanic curse with an ending better than anything that comes before it.

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“Two Guys, A Girl And Oxford” (season two, episode nine):

Berg spends the episode living out the role of Richard Gere in a romantic comedy (while Pete lives out the role of Richard Gere in American Gigolo), making grand gesture after grand gesture to get Ashley to choose him over her long-distance boyfriend. It’s here that Ryan Reynolds’ future role as a leading man (and not the sidekick) is solidified. The ending to the episode is one of the more heartbreaking moments of the series, and still only a preview of what’s to come for the Berg/Ashley saga.

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“Two Guys, A Girl And Barenaked Ladies” (season two, episode 21):

Up until this point, Two Guys And A Girl hadn’t really pointed out just how self-involved and destructive the show’s original straight man was. Here, the traveling chorus of the Barenaked Ladies puts that point to music, as Pete looks for a new career and ruins the lives of others around him in the process. Until the episode tag, this comes across as less of a promotional ploy than Blink-182’s appearance in “Au Revoir Pizza Place.” But even with that gimmick looming overhead, it’s a fun experiment that leads to the show’s first farewell to the pizza place.

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“Sunday In The Apartment” (season three, episode five):

“Sunday In The Apartment” is 99 percent a bottle episode, with the gang finding every excuse not to go to a football game, see a movie, or get Chinese food, despite Pete’s promises to pay and the lies they accidentally tell crazed neighbor Irene (Jillian Bach) about meeting up with her. Bringing the Friends comparisons back, this aired three years after “The One Where No One’s Ready,” but in true Two Guys And A Girl fashion, the episode doesn’t put any emotional weight into the situation, instead focusing on just how shallow and trivial these characters can be.

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“Bridesmaid Revisited” (season three, episode 13):

Even on a list of the strangest episodes of the series, this one takes the (wedding) cake. “Bridesmaid Revisited” sees an a cappella group follow Ashley and Sharon around as their consciences, singing songs like Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” (before that became synonymous with Bridesmaids) and Barbra Streisand’s “People.” The plot itself solidifies the friendship between Ashley and Sharon, previously bound only by Ashley being Berg’s girlfriend (and then ex-girlfriend who wouldn’t move out) and the fact that neither of them had any other girl friends. It’s odd, for the most part, but at times, the a capella moments actually lend themselves to genuine feelings.

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“The Monitor Story” (season three, episode 14):

Reminding the audience that crummy people are the key to any acceptable hang-out show (but not too crummy, Mixology), “The Monitor Story” sees new apartment superintendents Sharon and Johnny stumble upon a set of monitors, allowing them to watch every one of their friends and tenants like television shows. Sharon and Johnny become obsessed with the monitors, using them as a tool to manipulate their friends, all while Two Guys And A Girl pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock with riffs on Rear Window and Psycho. But what really makes “The Monitor Story” work is that neither Sharon nor Johnny really learn anything from the experience.

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“The One Without Dialogue” (season four, episode six): Obviously, this is a tip of the hat to Friends in terms of episode titles, because if you’re going to get such comparisons, you might as well lean into them. The thing about “The One Without Dialogue” is that it’s more a set of vignettes than it is a true episode; a spiritual and more narrative successor would arrive three episodes later, in the form of “The Drip.” Pete’s storyline is the big one, as his never-ending search for “The One” turns into a beautiful Singin’ In The Rain ballet homage, but the episode is also a good one for the physical comedy of Ryan Reynolds.

“The Internet Show” (season four, episode 22): In the gimmick episode to end all Two Guys And A Girl gimmick episodes, the unexpected series finale found each of the series’ regular female characters possibly pregnant. The show left it up to the internet to decide who was expecting, choosing from Sharon (the obvious choice), Ashley (the actual winner), Irene, or no one. Being the series’ last episode, “The Internet Show” left things on a cliffhanger, as Ashley being pregnant coincided with her departing for a residency at Stanford. (If you wanted to see the other outcomes, the episode ended with each filmed version.) And so Two Guys And A Girl drew to a close, raising more questions about these characters’ futures than they could raise themselves.

Next time: Joshua Alston selects 10 strains of Weeds.

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