This week’s question was prompted by Allison Shoemaker, who launched the debate on Twitter last week:
What is the strongest set of three consecutive episodes of a TV series? No using multi-season arcs (e.g., the last two episodes of one season and the first episode of the next), and nothing you have to round up to make it work. Lastly, two-parters are certainly admissible, but it’ll be more impressive without one.
I could over-analyze this question for days, but sometimes you’ve just got to roll the hard six and go with your frakking gut: There’s no finer three-episode run of TV than “Occupation,” “Precipice,” and “Exodus,” a.k.a. the New Caprica arc of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. (And yes, I’m counting the two-part “Exodus” as a single episode. Bite me, collaborator.) Quitting the search for Earth and settling down on a gray, muddy, Toaster-controlled dirtball might have been hell for the crew of the Galactica, but it brought out the best of the show, offering up a complex tale of tortured loyalties (and heroes) that riffed on Iraq War discontent and sci-fi action with equal skill. It all builds to “Exodus,” which ends on two of the most iconic images of the entire series. First: The Galactica, wreathed in flames, and falling like an avenging angel through the atmosphere to rescue her wayward people. And second: The heartbreaking look of anguish in the single remaining eye of Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), as he stands trapped in a crowd of celebrating victors, quietly mourning the crimes the Resistance committed against itself in order to stay alive.
My thoughts immediately went to Community’s stellar first season as a good source for three great episodes, but it turns out the iconic “Modern Warfare” episode was preceded by the relatively crummy “The Art Of Discourse,” so that won’t work. Luckily, season two was just as good, and it’s hard to top the run of “Cooperative Calligraphy,” “Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design,” and “Mixology Certification.” The last one—in which the study group goes to a bar to celebrate Troy’s 21st birthday—is an unexpected highlight of the entire series, mostly because it pretty much stops trying to be funny in its third act in favor of Troy learning a poignant lesson about the difference between age and maturity. “Cooperative Calligraphy” is the bottle episode, a meta breakdown of some specific TV tropes that is very Community, and it’s a good example of the show’s self-aware style. “Conspiracy Theories” is just a madcap race from one hilarious situation to the next, built on a ridiculous conspiracy (that is, itself, built on a ridiculous conspiracy).
It’s certainly unusual for the same show to come up more than once in an AVQ&A, but regardless, my pick is also a three-episode run from Community, this time from its just-as-stellar third season. These three episodes are the final ones of the season, minus the actual finale (which feels strangely tacked-on, like it’s a mid-season filler episode that was added arbitrarily to the end of the season). “Curriculum Unavailable,” “Digital Estate Planning,” and “The First Chang Dynasty” pay off season-long arcs, mostly a culmination of Chang’s ascent to dictator of Greendale, but also a conclusion to Pierce’s contentious relationship with his father. “Curriculum Unavailable” plays with a Shutter Island premise, where guest star John Hodgman’s faux psychiatrist tries, and almost succeeds, in convincing the “Greendale Seven” that there is no Greendale Community College, but that they’re all in a psych ward sharing the same hallucination. Then the study group plans an elaborate heist in “The First Chang Dynasty” to wrest control from Chang and save the real dean, who’s been replaced by a deanelgänger. The episode in between those two, “Digital Estate Planning,” guest stars Giancarlo Esposito and features the study group’s video game avatars for the majority of the episode, making it one of the many formally interesting experiments Community conducted over the course of its run.
Fearing that I may inadvertently fall into an unplanned binge session, there are some shows that I simply have to approach with extreme caution. The Office will always be one of those shows, and “The Surplus” is a particularly dangerous landmine. Why? Because then I have to stick around for “Moroccan Christmas” and the explosive (for corporate America) fallout, “The Duel.” “The Surplus” is, admittedly, a bit of a Trojan horse. On the surface, the episode appears to be a mere glimpse at mundane office politics and a mild wedding venue visit to Schrute Farms. However, what you get is Michael Scott finally getting the popular treatment he’s always wished for himself (all in the name of swivel chairs and photocopiers) and evidence of the unyielding spark between Angela and Dwight. Their clandestine romance (and Andy’s oblivion) segue perfectly into “Moroccan Christmas,” where Phyllis, freshly scorned and fully aware of their affair, blurts their secret to the entire office (sans Andy) in one of the most festively petty moments of the series. The only way to enhance upon such a reveal is to immediately follow it up with one of the greatest showdowns in Scranton couched in a sequence of truly sensational moments: Michael informing Andy of the affair as he’s actively driving away, Jim wearily collecting Dwight’s poorly hidden weapons from around the office, and Andy’s tactical Prius strike, to name a few. It all amounts to an exciting time for Dunder Mifflin, courtesy of The Office’s most scandalous couple.
Quick confession: After maundering on to myself about possibilities from Buffy, Cheers, The West Wing, and on and on, I eventually realized I wasn’t stalling because I couldn’t land on a particular show, but because I couldn’t settle on which three episodes of The Leftovers I was gonna go with. It’s a tough pick between arcs from seasons two and three, and it hurts me in my heart to have to pass over the second season’s “International Assassin” (not to mention “Lens”), but ultimately, I find myself coming back to that series-ending triumvirate of “Certified,” “The Most Powerful Man In The World (And His Identical Twin Brother),” and “The Book Of Nora.” (And you could easily make this a four-part answer by adding the sex-boat orgy brilliance of “It’s A Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.”) In those last three episodes, Amy Brenneman’s therapist finds a moment of grace in Australia, a sequel of sorts to “International Assassin” manages to up the emotional stakes of its alternate reality, and we get a finale so affecting that I can’t begin to describe it in such few words. If you haven’t seen the series, this all sounds vague and possibly ridiculous. I love it so much.
Mad Men remains my pinnacle of excellent TV, especially the three episodes that ended season three. In “The Gypsy And The Hobo,” my all-time favorite episode of television, Betty confronts Don after she’s finally found out that he’s really Dick Whitman. All those years of building up a perfect façade crumble in an instant as Don’s past is exposed, and he drops his confident exterior right along with his cigarette. That explosive episode is followed by the fallout of “The Grown-Ups,” in which Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald on television, and Betty realizes she can’t stay married to Don. His worst nightmare has come true: She has learned the truth about him and wants to leave. But “Shut The Door. Have A Seat” still ends the season on an upswing, as Don, Bert, and Roger craft a coup to wrest their company away from their corporate overlords at Puttnam, Powell, And Lowe. The caper part of the episode is fun, as Don smashes through doors to get to old company files, and charms his favorite employees over to the new firm. At the end of the episode, and the season, he’s lost his family, but has gained a new one in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Mad Men was always great, but never better than this run.
You could throw a dart at any stretch of The Simpsons that aired between 1991 and 1997 and come up with a good answer to this question. Give or take a clip show, there’s an unbroken span of classics running from the middle of season four through the end of season five—containing such heavy hitters as “Mr. Plow,” “Marge Vs. The Monorail,” and “Deep Space Homer”—that’s unsurpassed in the annals of television comedy. But let’s jump ahead a few years, to the seventh season, when “A Fish Called Selma,” “Bart On The Road,” and “22 Short Films About Springfield” all aired one after the other. This is the show harnessing the full strength of the massive world built during its creative peak, bookended by a tour de force episode for supporting-cast MVP Phil Hartman and a half-hour whose daisy chain of comic vignettes proved so inspired that it nearly inspired a spin-off. And in between you’ve got an all-time great vacation episode, a travelogue through (understandably) unsung portions of North America whose ultimate destination manages that quintessentially Simpsons trick of rendering forgotten pop culture flotsam—in this case, the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair and its signature building, The Sunsphere—into an immortal punchline. The internet-at-large can thank this run for “Steamed Hams”; my personal vocabulary would be much poorer without the lyrics to Stop The Planet Of The Apes, I Want To Get Off, “Bam, second encore,” and that most versatile of rejoinders, “Do you find something comical about my appearance when I’m driving my automobile?”
My answer is a bit of a punt, since it’s specifically about the best three-episode run of the second half of a show, but I don’t know if anything on television has ever managed to fill me with as much pure wonder as “The Heartless Giant”, “Lighthouse Island,” and “The Soldier And Death,” the first three episodes of The Storyteller from The Jim Henson Hour. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Erik Adams recently highlighted a piece he wrote about the show, which suffered a troubled and rocky production. But for an 11-year-old nerd into mythology and Dungeons & Dragons, it was unlike anything I had ever seen, and created a sense of utter joy and wonderment that I haven’t replicated since. It was astonishing not just that a show would retell some of the strangest stories from folklore through a blend of puppetry and live action, but would do so with such loving attentiveness and care for detail. Hearts hidden in duck eggs, devils that will play poker for magical sacks—The Storyteller had everything.
While I’d like to pick the run that spurred the aforementioned Twitter debate—that would be “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy,” “I Never Want To See Josh Again,” and “Josh Is Irrelevant,” from the third season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—it’s probably more interesting to spread the love. Besides, the ghost of Mrs. Landingham compels me to choose the season-two-ending stretch of The West Wing: “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You,” “18th And Potomac,” and the exemplary “Two Cathedrals.” (It’s actually possible to argue this one up to four episodes, beginning with “17 People,” but then you’ve got one of those Josh-explains-stuff-to-Donna subplots in the mix.) Combining the climax of the multiple-season-spanning “Bartlet conceals multiple sclerosis” storyline with the heartbreaking death of Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), it’s The West Wing at its best, allowing well-meaning people to make costly mistakes, behave selfishly or foolishly, struggle, and find a way to rise above in service of something great. Come on, Martin Sheen curses at God in Latin, and it’s totally earned. How is that even possible?