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The Ringer’s Irrational No. 1 TV Episodes of the Century

Now that the official, well-reasoned list has been published, many staff members have scalding-hot takes on what they believe to be the best episode of television to air since 2000

FX/Showtime/AMC/Comedy Central/Fox/Kadokawa Entertainment/Warner Bros. Television/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday morning, The Ringer unveiled its list of the 100 best episodes of TV in the 21st century. The list was assembled by compiling submissions from the staff and then arranging them with as much as objectivity as possible. The process from beginning to end was executed soberly and seriously, with the staff genuinely trying to pinpoint the best episodes of the past 18 years. Now that the week is over, the leash of rationality is being unclasped. The Ringer staff has been asked to voice their support for the television episodes they are unreasonably obsessed with, the episodes they know are not the best, though they will insist they are the best until their dying day. Here are The Ringer’s irrational no. 1 TV episodes.

“Dexter,” Dexter

Ben Lindbergh: In January 2008, a little more than a year after Dexter’s pilot premiered on Showtime, parent company CBS announced that it would also be broadcasting the series, making Dexter the first show in 20 years to jump from premium cable to a broadcast network. In response to the news, the professional finger-waggers on the Parents Television Council put out a press release decrying the decision. “The series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn’t get discovered,” the concerned missive said, adding also that “Dexter introduces audiences to the depths of depravity and indifference.”

Yep! That’s why it was great. In fairness to the fun police—who successfully pressured CBS into making minor desecrations to the edited episode, such as forcing the delightfully foul-mouthed Deb to say “frickin’”—I was slightly disturbed by how much I identified with Dexter. Not with his constant need to kill, of course—really, I promise—but with his feeling of faking social niceties and, at times, feigning feelings themselves. During Dexter, though, I never needed to muster more social energy than I had on hand: My college friends weren’t into the show, which left me with no choice but to watch each week in undemanding, Dexteresque solitude.

It seemed strange to be so drawn to a character who garrotes a guy, drills a hole in his head, and then flashes back to a childhood chat about killing a dog, all in the first few minutes after you meet him. But between the episode’s suspense, soundtrack, sense of style and place, noir-ish narration, black comedy, and Michael C. Hall’s mesmerizing performance, I was as hooked as I’ve ever been by a pilot. My adolescent self found a lot to like in this principled and increasingly sentimental serial killer, and long before he became a lumberjack, I even bought his henley to wear on Halloween. Suck it, censors.

“Vanity Unfair,” Pretty Wild

Kate Knibbs: The 2010 E! reality television program Pretty Wild, which follows the exploits of Alexis Neiers and Tess Taylor, a couple of poorly supervised teenagers making even poorer life choices, is a disturbing cultural artifact. It was supposed to be a Kardashians-style family jaunt, but it ended up chronicling what happened after Alexis was arrested for her involvement with a group of burglars who targeted celebrities, known as the Bling Ring. Running for only one depraved season, Pretty Wild is a deeply misguided show about deeply misguided people, and it is, almost in spite of itself, one of the most harrowing, absurd, and darkly funny documentaries about fame ever made. It was meant to be aspirational, and ended up as a grim, grubby blow-by-blow about life on the Z list. To get even darker, both stars have since revealed that they were addicted to opiates during filming. “Vanity Unfair,” in which Alexis freaks out on reporter Nancy Jo Sales, is the season’s sickly frothy apex, revealing how completely cut off from reality its so-called reality stars were at the time. I think we should put a DVD of it into a capsule and shoot it out to space to ensure that the aliens leave us alone.

“Endless Eight,” The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Justin Charity: In the second season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Haruhi’s whims as an unwitting but omnipotent god culminate with an astounding gimmick—an eight-episode arc known as “Endless Eight,” which is, in fact, a single TV episode made eight times. It’s summer. School’s out. Subconsciously, Haruhi has caused a time loop to postpone the next school year indefinitely. A few episodes into “Endless Eight,” the recycling dawns on Kyon, who must then identify the narrative root of Haruhi’s paradox and resolve its logic once and for all.

As storytelling, “Endless Eight” is playful and clever enough, adapted from one of the original Haruhi light novels, The Rampage of Haruhi Suzumiya. As television, “Endless Eight” is excruciating. For the animators, “Endless Eight” meant re-drafting the same TV episode several times over. For the voice cast, “Endless Eight” meant recording eight different “final” takes. For the Haruhi viewer, “Endless Eight” meant eight consecutive weeks of watching the same, mundane summer festivities—channel-surfing, pool-lounging, karaoke—play out with just enough curious variations to discourage simply skipping the episodes all together. But even the clues do not repair the indignity of tuning into Week 5 only to learn that the gimmick is still going. “Endless Eight” exploited a mischievous premise in the extreme, spooling tension and rage from nothing but cartoon sitcom ennui. The episode inspired a backlash so brilliant that it happened to illuminate the tragic nature of these characters, the fundamental mischief of their genre and the overall exhaustion of its tropes, the sad state of the 2000s anime industry, and the unruly communication between creators and fans in the digital age. “Endless Eight” was a reckoning, a TV episode so infuriating that it defies recommendation, even among Haruhi fans.

“Heaven and Hell,” World of Jenks

Donnie Kwak: The documentary-style show World of Jenks, which first aired in 2010, followed a 24-year-old guy named Andrew Jenks as he shadowed the lives of people who were totally different from him—that is, people who were not gratingly earnest and mostly clueless white dudes venturing outside of the safety of their suburban bubble. The series lasted 22 episodes, and within them there are probably some nuggets of wisdom that one could glean from Jenks’s experiences. I’ll never know, because I will never watch them. Because I’m too busy rewatching the premiere episode, in which Jenks attempted to live the life of the rapper Maino.

“I want to see what it’s really like to be a rapper,” says Jenks to Maino in the opening minutes. “We see, like, the bling, the lingo, and the music videos, and the Cribs episodes, but I want to see what it’s really, really like to be a rapper.” So what’s it like? Over the course of the episode, Jenks is surprised to learn that Maino does laundry, shops at Bloomingdale’s, and—gasp—loves his son. Rappers, it turns out, are something like us! Things seem fine until Jenks feels comfortable enough to pass judgment on the more hedonistic aspects of Maino’s lifestyle. Backstage at a show, Jenks suggests Maino might be a better role model if he didn’t party so much. Maino doesn’t take kindly to the unsolicited sermon. “You know what it take to be me?” he asks Jenks, his voice rising. “You know what I done been through to get here?” Then things get really real:

Maino, in fact, served 10 years in prison to get here. Jenks immediately learned an indelible lesson: You can’t speak to everybody in the same patronizing tone—and especially not to a rapper renowned for slapping people with the “Hand of God.” The sudden dispute passes, and everything is neatly resolved by the end credits. Maino and Jenks apparently remained friends afterward; and I thank them both for providing this unforgettable TV moment.

“Grandpa,” High Maintenance

Danny Heifetz: Each episode of HBO’s High Maintenance chronicles a different person, but the best episode of this series—and of this century—isn’t about a person at all. It’s about a dog.

With camera angles and audio from a dog’s point of view, we are introduced to Gatsby, a dog who develops a crush on Beth, his dog walker. Beth pushes Gatsby beyond his comfort zone; she shows him new trees to pee on, introduces him to new dogs to play with, and always has “the best motherfucking treats.” Gatsby quickly falls in puppy love. When Beth gets fired for smoking pot at the apartment, Gatsby becomes depressed. He refuses to eat or leave his cage, and his misery is exacerbated by his owner’s own sadness. One day at the park, Gatsby sees a cracked fence, gives his owner one last look, and then makes a break for it.

Rooting for a dog to run away is among the most unnatural instincts I can think of, but there I was, my dropped jaw rising into a grin as Gatsby bolted across the street and down the block. Instead of feeling anything for his owner, all I could think was that Gatsby had never looked so happy. Many episodes of television have expanded my empathy by making me walk in someone else’s shoes. “Grandpa” is the only episode that made me walk in someone else’s paws.

“Face Off,” Yu-Gi-Oh!

Miles Surrey: Yu-Gi-Oh! was all the buzz growing up—no sooner did someone tell me about the card game and corresponding TV series than I started trying to collect all five pieces of Exodia and send my unsuspecting peers to the Shadow Realm. The crux of the show was its nexus of rivalries and competing destinies. None were more compelling than that of the protagonist, Yugi Moto (and Yami Yugi, the spirit of an ancient pharaoh who inhabits his body … think Mr. Robot for Kids) and mega-rich antihero Seto Kaiba, who first squared off in the pilot episode. Being a kids’ show, the template was relatively simple: Challengers would square off against Yugi, and they would lose, because he was the king of games.

My irrational no. 1, “Face Off,” is when the Yu-Gi-Oh! formula was flipped on its axis. Kaiba is dueling Yugi for pride, but more importantly, to rescue the soul of his little brother, Mokuba, from the clutches of Maximillion Pegasus. Kaiba is desperate—so desperate, in fact, he dares Yugi to win the duel while he stands on the ledge of a tower, where he’d fall to his death from the impact of the final attack. Yami doesn’t flinch—it’s up to Yugi Moto to stop the pharaoh spirit from delivering the fatal blow. The Yugis lose, for the first time in the series, and the two souls are in conflict. As for Kaiba? He’s rewarded by getting humiliated by Pegasus and losing his soul. Is “Face Off” the best episode of this century? Certainly not, but I’ll never forget the feeling of watching the episode on a Saturday morning as the most important show in my narrow purview blew my mind.

“Revenge of the Queens,” RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars

Alison Herman: The infamous “face crack of the century” is one of the most over-the-top and dramatically executed reveals in reality television history, as befits the over-the-top and dramatic nature of its participants. For All Stars 2, RuPaul’s Drag Race stepped up its game with a devilishly manipulative elimination strategy: Rather than having the week’s losing queen selected by RuPaul herself, the decision would instead be delegated to that week’s winner, resulting in some vicious queen-on-queen violence that, in retrospect, would come back to bite the victors in the butt. Nothing could have prepared us, however, for the vanquished contestants to come back from the dead IN FULL DRAG on the other side of a TWO-WAY MIRROR, much to the chagrin of the remaining contenders who had been shit-talking them not five seconds earlier. Reader: I was slain. RuPaul’s Drag Race has always excelled at delivering a heightened version of the already heightened reality that is unscripted television, and with “Revenge of the Queens,” World of Wonder gifted us with a twist that put Survivor to shame. We aren’t worthy.

“Mystery Spot,” Supernatural

Kate Halliwell: While the undying Supernatural has lost plenty of viewers since its first few (exceptionally good) seasons, the show has retained its lighthearted willingness to play with form. In Season 5’s “Changing Channels,” the characters had to make their way through a series of TV universes to defeat a mischievous god. In Season 6, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) traveled to an alternate reality, where they embodied human actors known as … Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Season 10 sent Sam and Dean to an equally meta alternate universe where high school students put on a play about a series of cult “Supernatural” books. They even did an episode from the perspective of Dean’s beloved car.

But the best episode of Supernatural, and the single TV episode I’ve rewatched perhaps more than any other, is Season 3’s “Mystery Spot.” It’s Groundhog Day meets absurd slapstick death comedy, as Sam repeats the same day over and over, which always ends the same way—with his brother’s death—and begins anew with Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” a song I will never not smile upon hearing.

It’s a genuinely incredible episode—entertaining, wildly funny, yet deeply disturbing in the larger context of the series. Simply put, Sam gets used to seeing his brother die, and while time eventually returns to its normal passage, he never forgets the experience of living that endless Tuesday. What a nightmare for him, and what a delight for us.

“My Screwup,” Scrubs

Shea Serrano: It doesn’t make any sense. How do you put together a list of the 100 greatest TV episodes of the century and not include one single episode of Scrubs. It was (and is) the no. 1 show about doctors (and nurses) (and janitors) (and chiefs of medicine) that has ever been made. It was a consistently smart, funny, sweet, and tender show, and the moments when the characters would gather up all of their strength and sock you in the stomach with an emotional gut punch were truly special. I mean, remember the final episode when J.D. is watching his life play out? Or the episode where we find out that the annoying lady who won’t stop talking about her son won’t stop talking about him because he passed away? Or the episode where Carla has to say goodbye to Laverne? Or the episode where Dr. Cox has a breakdown because several of his patients die on the same day? Or —OH MY GOD—or the “Where do you think we are?” episode? That’s it. That’s the one. How do you not have that episode ANYWHERE ON THE LIST, let alone not in the no. 1 spot? It was Dr. Cox at his most vulnerable. And J.D. at his strongest. And Brendan Fraser at his most Brendan Fraser–y. It’s the most iconic line in the show’s history. It’s the most unexpected twist in the show’s history. It’s the most EVERYTHING in the show’s history. And it was left off? For what? For SpongeBob SquarePants? Shame on you.

“Sizzurp,” Man Seeking Woman

Michael Baumann: Man Seeking Woman should have been a revolutionary television program. It’s a commentary on the romantic comedy, in which a 20-something slacker named Josh (Jay Baruchel) tries to move on from his ex-girlfriend. The catch is that what we see is a heightened, surrealist version of what’s going on in real life, based on Josh’s emotions. So when he has to decide what to text a romantic interest, we see his internal monologue, set in a Situation Room–like bunker. When he doesn’t like his ex’s new boyfriend, we see literal Adolf Hitler. When his sister has an affair with a married man, that married man is Santa Claus. MSW was brilliant, moving, and above all hilarious, but like six people watched the show, so it lasted only three seasons. Which is why Britt Lower—who was fantastic as Josh’s sister, Liz, and carried some of the show’s best episodes—was forced to be the second lead in those annoying Verizon commercials with Thomas Middleditch, instead of having Alison Brie’s career. We live in an unjust world.

Anyway, in “Sizzurp,” Josh is dating Whitney (Minka Kelly), who introduces him to an old friend, Tanaka. Josh gets jealous, and Tanaka manifests as a transdimensional penis monster, voiced by Fred Armisen, leading to the funniest sight gag in TV history.

I had something to wrap this up with but now I’m laughing so hard I can’t remember what it was. Man Seeking Woman was great. Shame on all of you for not watching it.

“Twins,” Kroll Show

Lindsay Zoladz: The only possible answer to this question is an episode of Kroll Show, because it is the entire history of 21st-century television in one deliriously funny series. And although my runner-up pick is a 29-way tie between every other episode of Kroll Show, I don’t think I’ve watched any of them as much as “Twins,” if for no other reason than because that episode opens with a minute-long interview with Nick Kroll’s absurdist Pitbullesque character, Señor Feeture (“I come from Flor-i-da, you know, Fort Lauderdale. But because I like to fuck feet I call it Foot Lauderdale. Ha-ha!”).

No other show has parodied reality TV as sharply and as strangely lovingly as Kroll Show, and by its third and final season it was an Arrested Development–esque whirlwind of self-referential in-jokes and sure-why-not crossover skits. And so in “Twins” we get such classic characters as Chelsea Peretti’s Farley (hosting her hit makeover show “Look Like DIS”), Jenny Slate’s perpetually nervous lawyer Ruth Diamond Phillips, and of course Canadian pop sensation and Wheels, Ontario star Bryan La Croix, known for his smash hit “Ottawanna Go to Bed.” I still miss Kroll Show deeply, but it was always moving at such a hyper speed, chock full of blink-and-you-missed-it jokes, that it’s still endlessly rewatchable.

“Far Away Places,” Mad Men

Andrew Gruttadaro: “Far Away Places” is an awfully sad episode of television. It essentially documents three relationships in varying states of decay: Peggy and Abe fight and reunite—but not before she gives a stranger a handjob in a movie theater in between—Roger and Jane Sterling finally come to terms with the irreparability of their marriage, and Don and Megan ride the roller coaster that is their union, from romantic getaway to passive-aggressive sherbet-shoveling to abandonment to physical confrontation to forced forgiveness. By Season 5, the characters of Mad Men had been chewed up and spit out, all of their desperate pleas for happiness and meaning left wanting.

But “Far Away Places” is also an awfully incredible episode of television, full of flexes and flourishes. The gimmick of tying Don, Roger, and Peggy’s stories together with one scene from which they all diverge is excellent—evidence of the leap in experimentation that Mad Men made in Season 5. The way each of the characters’ relationships and emotions are laid bare and made parallel to each other is brilliant. The way the episode works in Ginsberg’s backstory—that he was born in a concentration camp—is subtle and halting. Also, I just really love to see Roger smoke a cigarette while high on LSD.

Sorry, “The Suitcase,” but this is the best episode of Mad Men—and also the best episode of the 21st century.