When good shows go bad: Terrible episodes of great TV dramas
"The Sopranos" is one of the greatest drama series ever made, but it was not immune from clunkers. (When Tapper made that joke, several followers protested that episodes featuring dreams, Vito in New Hampshire and/or Janice's love life all were more deserving of the Comic Book Guy-esque scorn.) "Breaking Bad" managed to make it through 62 episodes without a bad one (though your mileage will vary on that depending on your feelings about "Fly"), but that's the exception more than the rule. Sometimes you get the stinkers early on, when a show is still figuring itself out (say, during "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" season 1). Sometimes, they come much later in the run, when the writers are starting to run out of ideas (say, a certain "ER" helicopter crash). Comedies tend to have a much higher variance than dramas — I could very easily come up with a list of 10 terrible episodes of "The Office" while sticking only to the Steve Carell years, and I loved "The Office" — so it stands out more when a great drama has a bad outing (whether at the time you're watching or in hindsight) than when a comedy stumbles.
So before Columbus Day is too far in our rearview mirrors, I thought I'd take a look at some of the weakest episodes of some of the best dramas over the last few decades.
"24"Photo Credit: FOX
Episode: Day 2: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. (Season 2, episode 11)
AKA: "The One With the Cougar"
The very design of "24," and the unplanned way in which it was made, guaranteed it was going to be an uneven series, one where there are characters, lengthy story arcs and even seasons that are better off being ignored. The second season, however, was one of the show's strongest from top to bottom — yet also one featuring arguably the silliest idea to ever come out of the writers' room: Kim Bauer, still on the show even though she outlived her usefulness after the first season, is at the moment a fugitive from the law, running through the hills outside Los Angeles, when she spots a nearby cougar showing interest in her, and in her haste to get away from the big cat, she gets her foot caught in a hunter's snare that only makes her very obvious cougar-bait. It somehow comes across as even sillier than the time in season 1 when Kim's mom got temporary amnesia — in both those cases, as with many of the dumber "24" stories over the years, the motivator was to keep a character in the same location for multiple episodes — and years later, "24" co-creator Joel Surnow couldn't even remember what animal it was, telling me, "Listen, we had her chased by a raccoon or something. You can't be proud of everything."
"Battlestar Galactica"Photo Credit: Syfy
Episode: "Black Market" (Season 2, episode 14)
AKA: "The One Ron Moore Immediately Apologized For"
For most of the run of "BSG," the show's developer and executive producer Ronald D. Moore released a series of podcasts designed to function as DVD-style commentary tracks for each episode. He opened the one for "Black Market" — an episode dealing with the show's civilian fleet, as Jamie Bamber's Lee "Apollo" Adama gets mixed up in a world of organized crime through his relationship with a single mom prostitute — with a startling bit of candor for any showrunner, saying, "We're going to be talking about an episode that I don't particularly like and discussing maybe the reasons why it doesn't work and the problems that I think are inherent in this particular episode." Other than the performance by character actor Bill Duke as the head black marketeer, Moore finds little to compliment about the episode, which skips too many steps in setting up both Apollo's romance and the origins and side effects of this criminal ecosystem. Early in the series' conception, Moore had hoped to split time close to evenly between action on Galactica and what was happening on the civilian ships; budget problems prevented him from doing it often, and the creative failures of "Black Market" killed most of his remaining enthusiasm for the idea. (Though a later episode, season 3's "Dirty Hands," did a much better job of showing how terrible life must be for the non-regulars.)
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Television
Episode: "I Robot... You Jane" (Season 1, episode 8)
AKA: "The One With the Demon on the Internet"
"Buffy" season 1 was very much a work in progress, and it might be more fair to pick a later misstep like the goofy episode with Dracula, or Buffy working at a fast food restaurant, or Willow hanging out at a magical crack house. But "I Robot" — about a demon who gets uploaded, like a computer virus, onto the Internet, then placed in a cheesy-looking robot body — is such a howler (all the computer talk felt dated even in 1997) and such a perfect example of the ways in which Joss Whedon's "Buffy" formula could go awry, that it's terribleness needs to be recognized. That the show could evolve past this low point and produce episodes like "Innocence," "The Zeppo," "The Prom," "Hush," etc. is remarkable.
Episode: "Freefall" (Season 10, episode 8)
AKA: "The One With the Helicopter Vs. Romano... No, the Other One with the Helicopter vs. Romano"
There are some good moments in "Freefall," as there always were in any of the impeccably-produced "ER" disaster episodes. (I'm partial to the surprise reunion of Susan Lewis and her presumed-dead paramedic boyfriend Chuck.) But the death of Paul McCrane's Dr. Romano — a once-nuanced antagonist who turned into a two-dimensional goon whose arm was cut off by a stray helicopter rotor — from the fall of another helicopter is one of the few moments in "ER" history that played instantly as self-parody. As the chopper fell towards him, Romano wasn't a character anymore; he was Wile E. Coyote, waiting for the boulder.
"Friday Night Lights"Photo Credit: NBC
Episode: "Last Days of Summer" (Season 2, episode 1)
AKA: "The One Where Landry Kills a Guy."
It's reductive to say that "Friday Night Lights" season 2 is bad because Landry — formerly the wisecracking everyman sidekick of quarterback Matt Saracen — kills the man who had tried to rape Tyra in season 1, and that Tyra then talks Landry into trying to hide the body. There are an awful lot of creative missteps in that second season, many of which are on display in this premiere, including half-developed new romantic entanglements (here with Julie Taylor dumping Matt to chase an older lifeguard) and a diffuse focus that often forgot that this was a show about a football team. There would be many bad ideas over the course of the abbreviated season (plus a couple of very strong episodes at the very end, right before the Writers Strike shut down production). All that being said... Landry kills a guy. And hides the body. It's a storyline that this show, and this character, had no business getting involved in, and it was such a bad idea that once it ended, Tyra, Landry and the writers all understandably treated it like it had never happened.
"Homicide: Life on the Street"Photo Credit: NBC
Episode: "Wu's On First" (Season 5, episode 15)
AKA: "The One With Babe Ruth's Uniform"
"Homicide" made plenty of miscalculations in its later seasons: evil drug lords, helicopter chases, trading in Melissa Leo for Jon Seda and Callie Thorne, etc. But among the "Homicide"-adoring group of friends I've had for 20 years, no episode invites a shudder faster than "Wu's On First." It's co-written by David Simon, who was presumably going for something autobiographical in telling the story of the relationship between Pembleton and the Baltimore Sun's new police reporter. But that story is completely undercut by the casting of Joan Chen, whose clunky line delivery sticks out particularly when working opposite the great Andre Braugher. And the B-story, with Kellerman's brothers (guest stars Eric Stoltz and Tate Donovan) stealing an old uniform of Babe Ruth's to pay a gambling debt, isn't as ridiculous as various shootouts between the Homicide unit and arch-nemesis Luther Mahoney, but it's so goofy that it feels worse; the Mahoney stuff was at least reaching for something big and missing, you know?
"Lost"Photo Credit: CBS
Episode: "Stranger in a Strange Land" (Season 3, episode 9)
AKA: "The One With Jack's Tattoos"
As an hour of television, there's really no defending "Stranger in a Strange Land," whose flashbacks struggle mightily to answer a question no "Lost" fan had ever asked: Where did Jack get those tattoos? It features Jack at his most self-destructively obstinate and a half-interested guest performance from Bai Ling. It's terrible. But "Stranger in a Strange Land" is also one of a handful of the most important "Lost" episodes produced, because showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were in the middle of trying to convince ABC to set an end date for the series, and were able to point to this one as Exhibit A for why the "Lost" formula as it existed at that point couldn't continue much longer, much less indefinitely. ABC's executives reluctantly agreed, an end date was set, and "Lost" set off into much more interesting dramatic territory in a hurry.
"Mad Men"Photo Credit: AMC
Episode: "Tea Leaves" (Season 5, episode 3)
AKA: "The One That Introduced Fat Betty"
Poor Jon Hamm. After four years of playing Don Draper, he finally earned a shot to get behind the camera and direct an episode of "Mad Men," just as co-star John Slattery had done so well before him. I can only imagine Hamm's reaction to getting the script to "Tea Leaves": Wait, so we're dealing with January Jones' pregnancy just by making Betty fat? And it's mainly an episode about how much Betty hates being fat? And then Don and Harry go to White Castle? Can I pass on this one and take my turn in an episode where Don gives a big speech in a client meeting?
"The Shield"Photo Credit: FX
Episode: "Co-Pilot" (Season 2, episode 9)
AKA: "The One That Tried to Explain Too Much"
"The Shield" is among the more consistent of the great 21st century cable dramas. You might prefer one season to another, or be able to pick out some memorable individual episodes, but there's also no sore thumb season like most of its contemporaries had, and there's really only this one episode that doesn't work at all. And it's not for a lack of trying, either. Because the actual series pilot plopped viewers down in mid-story, creator Shawn Ryan and his top lieutenant Glen Mazzara decided to use this episode as a true origin story, detailing the creation of the strike team, Aceveda's arrival as commander of the Farmington district, his recruitment of Terry Crowley to spy on Vic Mackey, etc. Ultimately, "Co-Pilot" tries to squeeze way too much incident not only into an hour of television, but into a short period of story time. The original pilot suggests, for instance, that the strike team had been together a long time before Terry was assigned to the group, which is how he winds up on the outside looking in, but "Co-Pilot" has Terry show up only a few days after the group is formed. In the show's later years, Ryan would quote his friend and sometime-collaborator David Mamet's philosophy that "backstory is bullshit." That approach might have convinced him not to bother with "Co-Pilot."
"The West Wing"Photo Credit: NBC
Episode: "The Long Goodbye" (Season 4, episode 13)
AKA: "The One Aaron Sorkin Didn't Write"
Okay, so there are actually three seasons Sorkin didn't write, and there are definitely problems in those John Wells-run years (particularly the first one). But those are essentially a spin-off under the same name, especially once Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits are introduced as the candidates to succeed President Bartlet. "The Long Goodbye," on the other hand, was made during the Sorkin years, and is the only episode of his tenure he wasn't involved with, leaving the writing to playwright Jon Robin Baitz (who would go on to create "Brothers & Sisters.") "The Long Goodbye" is designed to stand out from the series, as it deals with CJ's trip home to Dayton to care for her senile father. As much as some of the Wells episodes (especially early on) felt like a zombie version of "The West Wing," none felt quite so sluggish, gooey and completely lacking in the voice of the show as this one. Baitz is a talent, but when you have one man with a very distinctive writing style involved in 88 out of 89 episodes over four seasons, the one episode done without him is going to feel very, very wrong.