What is it about comedy that swiftly morphs into drama (or melodrama) that hits me so hard? Absolutely lethal, that combination is; the best examples of it are my favorite episodes of any television shows, ever.
No, I’m not talking about “Ally McBeal” (for the second time in less than a month). It’s important that the comedy is good, the drama is done the right way – I prefer the undersell to the hard sell, as a rule – and the characters are identifiable and sympathetic types to begin with. If you’re not invested in them, you’ll realize that you just don’t give a crap during that crucial turn that is supposed to bring on the sadsies. This is why the episodes where Ray’s brother got ass-cancer on “Everybody Loves Raymond”* weren’t very touching.
In honor of the writer’s strike which is currently killing television, I’m proud to present a list of the best television episodes that made me giggle and then moistened my eyes. Because if there’s a pair of lessons you can learn from this blog, it’s that 1. I’m a little girl, and 2. little girls like TV. Here there be spoilers:
~ Scrubs episode 60: “My Screw Up.” Scrubs is a pretty slight show on the whole, increasingly cartoonish throughout its run, and drawing most of its humor from the fact that JD and Turk act like gay teenaged retards. But it has good cast chemistry, solid timing, and makes better use of the Goofy Sequence That’s All In The Lead Character’s Imagination than GSTAITLCI pioneer “Ally McBeal” did (yes! I have now completed the Ally McBeal reference trifecta). So I likes it. I realize Zach Braff became kind of insufferable and ubiquitous after “Garden State,” but try not to hold it against him.
Anyway, the real corker among “Scrubs” episodes doesn’t focus on JD at all. It’s the one where Dr. Cox’s brother-in-law (played by that guy, The Mummy Hunter) dies of leukemia. What hurts about it is that the series had established well in advance that said brother-in-law was the only person stoic, sarcastic Dr. Cox loved and trusted unconditionally – they were like a couple of kids together. It was hard enough watching Cox find out that Ben had cancer in an earlier episode. But in this one, Ben returns, gets his condition checked out, and seems to be fine… but it’s all a trick of Cox’s mind. He’s in denial, it turns out. And the veil is finally lifted in the last minute when Cox (played beautifully, as usual, by John C. McGinley) realizes he’s not at his son’s birthday party but is instead at his friend’s funeral. Honestly, I get a little sad just thinking about it. The capper is the look on McGinley’s face in the waning seconds as a typically wan little folk number warbles on the soundtrack: the tears are streaming of course, but underneath that he looks puffy and beaten, like someone in the stranglehold of real grief. Now that’s acting.
~ Futurama episode 58: “Jurassic Bark.” “Futurama” had an almost unparalleled ability to turn hilarity into poignance. I could present several episodes as evidence (and I will offer up another shortly), but this is the chief exhibit right here. “Jurassic Bark” uses the story of Greyfriars Bobby as a jumping-off point for a real tearjerker about Fry and his dog. Short version: when Fry was flash-frozen and woke up in the future, his loveable shaggy dog lived 15 more years without him. Fry finds this out and assumes he had a full and happy life as someone else’s pet, but in a sequence at the end of the episode that almost qualifies as overkill – relying on the mournful song “I Will Wait For You” to really break your heart – we see the dog waiting patiently on the sidewalk outside Fry’s old pizza joint for the rest of his life. Eventually he curls up, goes to sleep, and doesn’t wake up. Not nice, Futurama writers – you sick doggy-killing bastards. (Sniffle.)
~ Futurama episode 39: “The Luck of the Fryrish.” This is edged barely by the aforementioned episode 58 in the list of bittersweet Futuramas. In his pre-future life, teenage Fry finds a lucky 7-leaf clover that leads him to many small triumphs (winning a breakdancing competition, beating his brother Yancy at basketball, etc.). He tucks it away for safekeeping and later ends up in the future without it. When the future treats him badly, he goes looking for his old house and the clover again. Of course the clover is gone. Fry seems to learn that his jealous brother stole the clover and made good with it – becoming the first man on Mars, fronting a hit rock band, and so forth. His brother even seemed to steal Fry’s own first name (Phillip) to become famous.
Full of anger, Fry goes to his brother’s famous grave (floating in a typically “Futurama”-whimsical space cemetery) to dig it up and get the clover back. But when he brushes moss off the headstone – oh man, here come the waterworks – he realizes that actually the grave belongs to his nephew, Yancy’s son. Yancy named his son after his brother, and gave him the clover, because he missed Fry so much. That closing moment never fails to get to me, even though Bender digs up celebrity graves nearby and wisecracks about it all through the ending.
~ The Simpsons episode 24: “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish.” Any Simpsons fan worth his or her or its salt knows this episode, and all the early episodes, quite well. Homer discovers he likes sushi and eats a whole menu’s worth of it, including a possibly poison fugu blowfish. He is then told he may die in a day or so. So he drives around like mad, cramming his last day with a trip to Moe’s, quality time with the kids, snuggling with Marge, and a lot of other regular guy activities. He ends up in his easy chair, listening to the Bible on tape. In the end, he doesn’t die – luckily for us, since the show would go on to produce at least seven or eight more years of quality television. (Perhaps he should have eaten an actual poison blowfish at the end of season 9.) This episode is nowhere near to being the funniest “Simpsons” ever, but it’s certainly the most touching, and Homer’s most human 22 minutes.
~ Friends episode 64: “The One With the Morning After.” Let’s get this out of the way right now. I fucking admit it: I have seen most of the run of “Friends” (although I missed most of the last two seasons). I almost never watched it first-run, but have seen a large number of episodes in syndication. And you know what? It’s not an awful show. It’s only a little north of “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “Frasier” territory overall, but the cast had good chemistry (which sustained it through an ugly, overwritten first year) and out of that bunch came Jennifer Aniston, an actual good actress, and Matt LeBlanc, whose one-and-a-half note performance as Joey gradually redeemed previous Italian-American blights on the sitcom landscape like Tony Danza. In hindsight “Friends” only had about two seasons I’d categorize as rewatchable, but those two seasons were compulsively entertaining in a shallow way.
And in the middle of that run, Ross and Rachel took a break, Ross slept with somebody else, and Rachel dumped him. It was David Schwimmer’s best moment as an actor in any context (c’mon, who else saw “The Pallbearer”..? What, just me?), and Aniston is typically convincing as the angry, wronged party in the relationship. When Ross gets down on his knees and pretty much begs Rachel for forgiveness, if you have any investment in the characters at all, it’s pretty touching. Probably the best moment “Friends” had – certainly better than earlier attempts (like the overwrought and fairly dumb episode where Ross calls in a request for U2’s “With or Without You” to get Rachel to forgive him for pointing out her chubby ankles) and most later ones (e.g. anything involving Monica and Chandler’s hideously unbelievable marriage, which apparently the writers saw as a plot device goldmine). Anyway, I cast aside my cynicism and cool guy exterior to give this episode four out of five heartbroken teddy bears.
Shows that missed the cut, and why:
~ Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially the famous episode “The Body.” “Buffy” had its share of very sad episodes, none more so than the wrenching hour where Buffy’s mom died and sent everyone into a tailspin of grief and shock. But when this show was at its saddest they cut out all the humor and went straight for the tear ducts. There’s not a single laugh in “The Body,” not even a tiny one when Buffy’s talking to her mom who she thinks is alive, but is – ha ha! – already dead on the floor.
~ Seinfeld episode 134, “The Invitations.” I was deeply saddened by this episode’s touching exploration of the death of a loved one – shortly before George and Susan’s intended wedding, even – but strangely most viewers found it callous and objectionable. How can this be? Clearly, in the end, George is desperately seeking consolation in the arms of Marisa Tomei – consolation he longs for but cannot attain. It wounds the heart. In any case, I bend to the will of the people.
~ Twin Peaks. It pains me to leave behind the show that gave me my start in the business, because I think “Peaks” could be funny and touching – and also terrifying and weird and dramatic – within a single episode. In fact, most episodes juggled many moods, plots, and characters quite deftly. But very few entries in the series qualify as predominantly comedic, and only a couple are actually sad. If I were to suggest one, it would be episode 16, in which… pardon me for a moment. I have some friends and regular readers who have yet to watch the second season of “Twin Peaks.” So I again remind you that HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. Got it? Don’t read on if you don’t want to know WHO KILLED EFFIN’ LAURA PALMER. …….In fact, I’m going to go ahead and render this in Invisotext. Highlight with your mouse to read.
……If I were to suggest one, it would be episode 16, in which Leland dies and asks Laura’s forgiveness under the police station fire sprinklers, in Agent Cooper’s – er, my – arms. I’ve seldom felt so much sympathy for a man who did such bad things to his daughter. Kudos to the show’s creators for evoking such mixed emotions over the death of one of TV’s most complicated, frightening characters.
……..And we’re back! OK. So yeah, that was a pretty sad episode.
Well, Diane, I don’t have anything else to say. Except to cross my arms and announce, “End transmission.”
* Episode 562, “Cancerass.”