Once upon a time, episodes of weekly TV shows just slid on by, entire seasons like so much hum and drum.
Sure, every so often, there were Very Special Episodes, when a TV series delved into big topics such as domestic abuse, cancer, AIDS, drugs, and — unthinkable! — teen sex. The phrase was an advertising term, to draw viewers in and to distinguish the week’s episode from the countless Not Very Special Episodes that preceded and followed it. Generally speaking, each TV series was a factory line of nearly identical products released between September and May.
Now, many, many shows — particularly those on cable, but also those on the networks and streamers ― design each episode in a season as a distinct piece of work. Episodes have become akin to hour- or half-hour-long movies, in many cases, with their own directors and writers. Since the 1990s, in a way, series TV has become episode-ized, a string of Very Special Episodes, each one with its own discrete identity. When I think of “Game of Thrones,” I think of the many highly individualized hours along the way — some impressively staged battles, others more specific tragedies — as much as I think about the show in its totality.
In fact hundreds of remarkable hours and half-hours have arrived on TV since 2000, on “Justified,” “Mad Men, “30 Rock,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Shield," “Veep,” “The Americans,” and so many other shows. How many times in the past 20 years have episodes made us stop and savor what we’d just seen, inspiring a cruise of the Internet for more analysis? I think I can safely say: very many. Now imagine going back over all of them in order to pick out the best, the peak episodes of the Peak TV era.
Well, that’s exactly what I’m going to attempt to do, with your help.
Part of the development in the artistry of episodes has to do with the lowering episode counts in each season of a show, a phenomenon that took root in the United Kingdom before it arrived here. At one time, beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s, every American primetime show produced about two dozen episodes per season. Before that, some shows even pushed out 30 or more.
Now, with cable integrated into the mix, and high-quality writing more prevalent and more valued, many shows put out only eight or 10 episodes per season. Two of the four seasons of Sundance’s excellent “Rectify,” for example, contained only six episodes apiece. The three modern greats — “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” and “The Sopranos” — had notably small episode counts that didn’t exceed 13 (not including split final seasons). Why? With fewer episodes, a cable channel can afford to produce more titles, which will ostensibly draw in more subscriptions. They can also pour more money into each episode. And short seasons make it easier to hire big-name actors and actresses, who might resist drawn-out commitments that could cut into their movie careers.
So each episode counts more these days. It needs to contain more story substance, especially since most shows now have season-long arcs, and it needs to leave a bigger, more memorable impression on the viewer who is paying to watch in a competitive market. The need for filler content — to stretch out to more than 20 episodes — has diminished. Also, single episodes now also need to offer TV viewers and TV recappers enough to write and chatter about online each week that they air. There are many sites, and many corners of social media, that cover the meaning of every micro-twist, every line of dialogue, every production design element that comes into play, and they have become essential to the communal life of a show.
Off the top of my head, I can think of many, too many, episodes since 2000 to include on the list — the “Ozymandias” episode of “Breaking Bad,” the episode of “The Americans” called “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” the series finale of “Fleabag,” the “Mad Men” when Don’s friend Anna died, the “12 Angry Men” spoof on “Inside Amy Schumer,” the episode of “The Good Place” when everything first flipped, a few “Black Mirror” episodes, more than a few “30 Rock” episodes . . . Help!
No, seriously, help.
My finished best-episode ranking will run in the Globe and on the Globe’s website in a few weeks, along with the reasoning behind each choice. What are your suggestions? Do you have favorites that you want to be sure I consider? Please, go ahead and send me titles at my e-mail address, email@example.com, or submit them here.