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Dip your toe into the Greats

Six exceptional episodes from incredible shows, from ‘Deadwood’s ‘Reconnoitering The Rim’ to ‘Archer’s ‘Jeu Monegasque’

A still from the ‘Deadwood’ episode ‘Reconnoitering The Rim’.
A still from the ‘Deadwood’ episode ‘Reconnoitering The Rim’.

Some television shows can be great enough to intimidate. You know they are out there. Too many colleagues (and columnists) swear by the Best Shows Ever, enough for you to believe they must indeed be landmarks in episodic storytelling. Yet it feels uphill, the idea of investing in a show several box-sets deep which may only pay off 32 episodes or five seasons in, plus the pressure of having repeatedly been told we must revere them. Isn’t it just easier to keep watching what we already know we kinda like? Or to discover something new alongside the rest of the world, without bothering about canon?

Sure. Yet the masterworks of television—the ones that heralded in this golden age, and the ones that continue to keep it gleaming—deserve exploration. Therefore, at a time when we are socially cutting ourselves off from the world (and a time when the creation of new entertainment has slowed down), I believe it might be interesting to single out exceptional—and yet typical—episodes from incredible shows, episodes that would adequately express their flavour. Not the first episode, which could get expository and spend too long setting the stage and letting the principal players meet, but instead something from the middle of the action. Remember when back in the days of flipping channels, we would land on a truly intriguing film scene? One that compelled us to catch up with the rest of the film? If you love these episodes (as I am betting you might), you can then start from the beginning, knowing what’s coming up.

So here, then, are a few entry points I recommend for a few superlative shows. Dip your toe in. The water’s wonderful.

The Sopranos (Hotstar), episode 9, season 1 ‘Boca’

David Chase’s show deals with a mobster, Tony Soprano, played by the astonishing James Gandolfini, undergoing therapy in order to be a better husband and father. Nearly every episode of The Sopranos yanks you in, and College (episode 5, season 1) is a masterpiece, but gives away too much. Boca is an episode about masculinity, where a crime boss, Junior, is humiliated by gossip about his bedroom habits and Tony finds himself eventually loathing a soccer coach he first likes. What these men do—and the toxicity of their feelings—defines where this show stands.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Hotstar), episode 1, season 2 ‘The Car Salesman’

Curb is about the guy who co-created Seinfeld being a grouch with no time for the world. Some call Larry David an acquired taste, and the first season, I concede, is uneven. The second is a stunner. Each episode is self-contained and, like Seinfeld, you will find laughs in random episodes, but this was where Curb started intricate (and preposterous) season-long story arcs, a longer comic game with more rewarding pay-offs. In The Car Salesman, David pitches a TV show idea to Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander—who played George, a character based on David—only for them both to develop decidedly George-ish issues. Also, for no reason at all, David tries to sell cars. Quintessentially Curb.

Deadwood (Hotstar), episode 3, season 1 ‘Reconnoitering The Rim’

The 36 episodes of Deadwood are among modern television’s very best, so it seems particularly sacrilegious not to tell you to start right at the top—but the greater crime would be not giving this violent, melancholic, novelistic Western a chance. Involving historical characters like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood tells the story of a lawless mining town in the 1870s. Its impossible to look away. In this episode, protagonist Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) meets his nemesis, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe). You can decide who’s good and who’s ugly. Everyone’s bad.

Archer (Netflix), episode 11, season 2 ‘Jeu Monegasque’

This animated comedy about a womanizing boozehound spy is more evolved and nuanced than any James Bond parody deserves to be. The insanely talented voice-cast and the visual gags (and lofty literary references) are terrific, and the show is made great by its wonderfully messy character dynamics. How better to get to know a crew than with a heist? This mission to confront a French extortionist takes Sterling Archer and his gang to the Monaco Grand Prix, and it should provide enough of a primer on these nuts to make you catch up on their innuendo-filled shenanigans.

The Wire (Hotstar), episode 12, season 1 ‘Cleaning Up’

Ah, the unholy grail. The “greatest of all time" label—which this show may actually deserve—makes it hard for any first episode to match up. Drugs, corruption, the media…this Baltimore crime drama written by former police reporter David Simon deals with it all masterfully. Written by crime novelist George Pelecanos, this particularly flammable episode works like a crackerjack film, one which throws us in at the deep end, lays down the stakes, introduces unforgettable characters and exposes several facets of the show’s uncut brilliance. What a rush.

Boardwalk Empire (Hotstar), episode 1, season 1 ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Set in Atlantic City in the Prohibition era, this thoughtful and intense drama starts with a bang: a 2-hour pilot episode directed by the one and only Martin Scorsese. It is a consummate introduction to the protagonist, Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson (played by the one and only Steve Buscemi), and the conflicts steering him towards inevitable moral downfall. This is a television event, one of the first times the small screen exploded into something that felt larger, and it involves Scorsese directing Al Capone. Now look, I know I cheated. I know I wasn’t supposed to use any first episodes, but then hey—these guys weren’t supposed to drink.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter: @rajasen

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