In advance of our Best TV of 2015 list coming later this week, we’ll be running a few essays digging deeper into the best television had to offer this year.
When You’re the Worst‘s episode “LCD Soundsystem” began, I was legitimately confused. It opened with characters I’d never seen before, Lexi and Rob, going about their daily routine as if they’d been on the show all along. I’m new to the series—I haven’t seen the first season, and can’t because I don’t have Hulu—so I spent some time wondering if I should know these people.
No one knew those people. Late in the episode, Lexi and Rob’s connection to the characters we do know, mainly Gretchen, was revealed. Even then, answers came slowly. Gretchen was watching Lexi and Rob. But had she met them before? Was he an ex-boyfriend, or was she an old classmate?
Wondering was exhilarating. And making me wonder was a bold move. The show trusted that disorienting its audience by throwing it into the middle of a situation with never-before-seen characters without any explanation would be okay. (It was.) It believed that viewers would stay and watch these new, not-yet-loved characters for a large portion of the episode without getting frustrated and turning off the episode. (They did, or at least I did.) And it had faith that its audience would do the work, thinking about who Lexi and Rob were, guessing about their connection to Gretchen, and sticking around until the whole thing was, in its own time, revealed.
To me, all that made “LCD Soundsystem” one of the best episodes of television I saw in 2015. And it made me wish, yet again, that more series would dabble in stand-alone episodes.
“LCD Soundsystem” has a lot in common with “One Man’s Trash” from the second season of Girls. That was a divisive one — even I have problems with the way Hannah turns so abruptly at the end of it — but it also chose to explore Hannah’s character by removing her from the familiar relationships she had with the regular characters. And, like in “LCD Soundsystem,” the new environment made the whole thing feel fresh, kind of exciting, and definitely worth talking about and dissecting.
It’s easier for comedies to do this kind of episode. There are often season-long arcs for the characters in a sitcom, but the priority in a sitcom is to serve the characters, not a season-long plot. More and more, dramas are all about the story, and therefore don’t have time to waste on stand-alone episodes.
But why does it have to be that way? Some of television’s best dramas did stand-alones just fine. (Yes, I am a fan of Breaking Bad‘s “The Fly.” Come at me.) Pretty much every episode of Mad Men serves as its own story; sure, there’s an overarching plot, but nobody watched the series to find out if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (or whatever the hell it was called this year) would be sold to McCann or not. Instead, we were all in it for the episode-to-episode storytelling. Mad Men skipped large swaths of time between each epsiode, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that constant cliffhangers — making a viewer feel like they need to know what happens next so badly that the next episode should pick up with the very next second of the plot— is what makes a good drama. Instead, it was more about the way the events of the series served the world of the series, which any show worth its salt should be able to do in a compelling way without resting on the crutch of a suspenseful season-long arc.
I wish more dramas (and sitcoms) had the guts to do what Mad Men did. For five seasons, I mentally begged Justified to do a stand-alone episode from Art’s point of view. I desperately wanted to know how he answered the phone in his office, knowing that the person on the other line was probably reporting another one of Rayland’s misdeeds. I wanted to see how he was able to exert his influence not through seething rage like Rayland, but through some exasperated office maneuvering (and maybe through some shrewd deployment of the underused Tim and Rachel). I never got my Art episode.
In Vulture, Jessica Jones creator Melissa Rosenberg said that showrunners now head into the creation of their series knowing that, if they’re launched on a platform like Netflix, people will watch the episodes one-after-another, so episode breaks don’t really matter. “Instead, this is like a 13-hour movie,” she said. This is becoming my least favorite thing to say about a series. People complain when real movies are two and a half hours long; why is that unacceptable, but a “movie” that’s five times that length is great? I’m not saying Jessica Jones isn’t wonderful — it is. But couldn’t the series have benefited from, as Jesse suggested on Twitter, seeing Jessica work a case that wasn’t connected to the whole Killgrave situation, so we could see what she was like investigating something that didn’t touch her rawest nerve?
The whole point of a TV series is that creators get to tell a story over time, and that shouldn’t be confused with telling a story without breaks. It means the creators have the real estate to divert from the main arc of a season and really explore the world they’ve created. Even a short, 10-episode season has the elbow room to try something different. But most series don’t, instead opting to just barrel through the main story, and a gob-smacking episode of a scrappy little comedy like You’re the Worst proves why that’s a shame.