In Canada, there’s really only two streaming head-honchos in town, CraveTV and that other guy (RIP Shomi). In an effort to be the most complete cultural critic that I can be—which amounts to sitting on my ass and pissing people off with my thoughts—I signed up for a CraveTV subscription to get a good look at their offerings. And it turns out, there’s a ton of TV shows, most importantly, HBO’s back catalogue, on here that are pretty hard to find anywhere else in Canada.
From Game of Thrones, The Wire (must watch), Band of Brothers to even Seinfeld, it seems to be all here, along with some less shows like Party Down, Nathan for You, The Knick and Broad City.
And what do ya know, I made a ‘best TV episode’ list out of some of the best CraveTV episodes just to prove this point to you in the most non-promotional way possible, because this is not a promotion. I swear. (Disclosure: Bell Media, which owns CraveTV, recently signed a partnership with VICE Canada.)
Minor spoilers ahead.
The Sopranos - Pine Barrens
It’s not the craziest damn thing in the world to put “Pine Barrens” in a best episode list; I’m expecting zero brownie points here. But to this day, “Pine Barrens” sits as the most un-Soprano-like Soprano episode of the series, and it must be included as a result. Back to 01’, creator David Chase, with Emmy nominated writers Tim Van Patten and Terence Winter seemed to go for episodes that were more unusual and self-contained. Pine Barrens sat as the creative peak of that design; taking two Goodfellas stand-ins and dropping them into a two-stooges-like scenario. For one, there was Paulie Walnuts and Christopher who get lost in the woods—already funny—and then there’s the Slavic gangster who they tried to whack near the woods who then escapes right into the woods. Older Paulie is cold, “It’s the fuckin’ Yukon out there!” he says. They go on to worry and argue as the mystery of the missing Slavic hangs. Classic.
Party Down - "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday"
Criminally underwatched, Party Down features one of the greatest ensemble casts of any sitcom (Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Ken Marino, Martin Starr, Megan Mullally, Jane Lynch) and really nailed the sadcom long before Bojack Horseman. While virtually every episode of this two-season wonder is a banger, this second season episode stands above the best. In this episode, the Party Down gang caters a non-birthday party for Steve Guttenberg, which morphs into impromptu reading of Roman’s (Starr) god awful sci-fi screenplay. It’s hilarious but pulls together a number of thematic undercurrents, most importantly, the realization that Henry (Scott) has given up on a dream he should still be pursuing.
The Wire - "Middle Ground"
Aside from a certain vile boy king of a beeyotch named Joffrey Baratheon few antagonists triggered collective blood vessels like Stringer Bell. Assuming you’ve seen this show made by god himself—which if not, have fun in TV hell—you already know where I’m going with this. He was second in command to a Baltimore kingpin. He shat on every damn rule in the game. And of course, “Where’s Wallace, String?!” nuff said. He needed to die and this show took forever to make it happen. The Wire was always that show with a carefully designed ecosystem; networks of plots on subplots to tell a larger story. “Middle Ground” brought several major plots to a close—Stringer Bell’s death, Avon Barksdale’s arrest and Officer McNulty's completed case. So few TV shows have the courage withhold what constitutes as audience satisfaction in favour of a story that feels authentic to its pace. But this one did.
Letterkenny - "Les Hiques"
Wayne, Derry, Squirly Dan and Katy venture to "Kwee-beck" for some good ol' fashion ice fishing. Upon finding a perfect patch of ice, they encounter "Les Hiques", their snooty Quebecois doppelgangers, just a few meters away. What ensues is a back and forth exchange of yelled insults that highlights the series' knack for creative verbal takedowns— Letterkenny is, in many ways, the Canadian Veep. Naturally, a brawl ensues that features some pretty impressive choreography—think The World's End. The episode is particularly funny if you're bilingual. In a country where "it feels very Canadian" is typically code for "it sucks", it's refreshing, exciting even, to have such a good comedy that is distinctly Canadian.
Broad City - "Mushrooms"
“Sometimes I think our dynamic is special and we should capture it”—this episode quip could pretty much sum up four seasons of Broad City, a comedy that luxuriates in the absurdist riffing of its stoner buddy leads. Drug stories are usually boring, so it’s an impressive feat that Abbi and Ilana capture the high-as-fuck highs and the excruciating lows of a psychedelic trip in such relatable, funny detail. Suddenly the most basic tasks are a mountain to overcome, and friendship becomes a secret weapon/escape hatch in a messed up situation. The animation in this episode is spectacular, by the show’s title sequence creator Mike Perry, oddly reminiscent of Bojack Horseman’s most surreal moments. By the end of the episode I had the same googly eyes as these two.
Game of Thrones - "The Red Wedding"
The episode is actually called The Rains of Castamere, but no one cares for that poshy designation. A wedding happened and it was made red from blood. When thinking back to this GOT moment, it’s important take in the shelf-life of the average TV character in the interest of fandoms and what can sell. Back in 2013, you were probably fresh off of a Breaking Bad stint and no one loevable died from The Walking Dead just yet, and here came this episode putting the final nail in what you thought this series was going to be coffin. Those good guy Starks you were rooting for have lost. The bad guy Lannisters won. Writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made you watch an entire family get stabbed repeatedly out of an entire series, and every watch from here on out would have you questioning everything and expecting the deaths of everyone. GOT became the GOAT this day, and it was beautiful.
The Expanse - "Home"
The best sci-fi show currently airing is most easily described as “ Game of Thrones in space,” and like its fantasy brethren, it is based on a series of books and thus, often feels like a long novel rather than a series of TV episodes. But much like Thrones, there’s a few eps that really stand out, and for the Toronto-shot Expanse, that’s season two’s “Home.” The unofficial end to Thomas Jane’s character’s central mission, “ Home” is hard, heady sci-fi that also pulls on the heartstrings.
Girls - "American Bitch"
There’s been A LOT of TV about brilliant, but deeply, deeply problematic men—most often with them as the leads of their shows (see: this list). But in the last few years, we’ve started to see shows coming from different POVs grapple with shitty men and what to do about them. And say what you want to say about Lena Dunham (and there’s a lot to say) but Girls put together one of the finest episodes ever on art and toxic masculinity. “American Bitch” features a stunning turn from (now Emmy-award winning) Matthew Rhys as troubled novelist in conversation with Hannah (Dunham), attempting to play the sympathetic bad boy while also saying things like “I’m a horny motherfucker with the impulse control of a toddler.” It’s a brilliant, challenging episode of TV, made all the more amazing in that it’s all over in a half-hour.
Band of Brothers - "Bastogne"
It’s Christmas 1944, and the 101 Airborne Division is low on supplies while surrounded by a German offensive just outside of Bastogne, Belgium. By now, HBO’s Band of Brothers fermented a kinship with an audience. The men in military outfits holding rifles and bayonets were fully fleshed-out people. You hoped for their survival. In this carefully re-captured true-to-life event about the bloody Battle of the Bulge, viewers witnessed Allied forces taken by surprise for a change. What followed was a visible terror captured brilliantly on screen thanks to director David Leland’s vision. Every shiver, and wide-shift-eyed expression added to the reminder that this event happened, and it didn’t care for who the good or bad guys were. Dead was dead and lives were made at their most disposable that day.
The Knick - "Get the Rope"
I’m probably not the first person to say this, but I always describe The Knick as ER, but set at the turn of the last century. The show is packed with the same type of complex characters, and gory realism, but filtered through the added complexity of pioneering surgical procedures at the same time as electricity is first being introduced to the hospital. Plus all the episodes are shot and directed by mastermind Steven Soderbergh during his “retirement” from making movies, and features gorgeous natural lighting and loads of complicated tracking shots, the latter not unlike ER. Everything about Dr. John Thackery’s (Clive Owen) combination of god complex and chemical dependency (liquid cocaine and opium are his drugs of choice) is consistently riveting, but even better are the episodes like “Get the Rope” where the focus shifts to Dr. Algernon C. Edwards (André Holland), the only African-American surgeon in the hospital.
True Detective - "Who Goes There"
True Detective “Who Goes There” is more “moment” then episode. For a series centering on an investigation about the murder of Dora Lange by Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, very little forward momentum occurs in the span of 58 minutes. It’s the several minutes in and a second half later, when audiences were given a technical showcase that remains one of the most awe-inspiring 15-minutes of television in the history of ever. The entire sequence in question is a six-minute tracking shot completely absent of cuts, taking our man Rust through a stash house, gun fight, and into an elaborate escape into partner Marty’s car. Even after the rubbish that was Season 2, the memory of this scene will keep True Detective alive for several listicals to come.
Twin Peaks: "The Return - Part 8"
The eighth episode of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return is wilder, more experimental, and more affecting than almost anything else in the series, and frankly, on television period. There’s a lot to scratch your head at in the universe of Twin Peaks, but this episode blows you away with the force of the A-bomb blast that takes center stage in explaining (insofar as Lynch explains anything) the origin of evil in the series.
Star Trek: "The Next Generation - The Best of Both Worlds"
It was a first for a Star Trek episode to end on a cliff hanger. They had to. Shatner stanning trekkies were tagging The Next Generation crew as pretenders at the helm, so a departure needed to be taken. When the unstoppable alien race known as the Borg made a return, our captain, future adorable Twitter icon Patrick Stewart, was captured and transformed into the de-facto delegate for the enemy collective. The episode ended with Picard’s second in command Riker giving the order to “fire” a superweapon, presumably killing Picard upon the Borg ship. But cut screen, enter credit line…“to be continued.” The idea that a character that stood at the heart of the show could be killed off rocked the trekkie world and forced everyone at the time to wait an entire summer to get a conclusion. But it also transformed a series inspired by the campieroriginal, into a must-see sci-fi epic willing to take serious risks for a new generation. And Picard is better than Kirk btw.
Seinfeld - "The Contest"
It goes like this: George “Master of my Domain” Costanza is caught by mother Costanza while leafing through an issue of Glamour magazine. Momma Costanza falls and nearly breaks her back, landing her in the hospital. George then vows to never pleasure himself again as we all laugh at the thought. It’s here is when the legendary wager between four friends on who could hold out the longest begins. Each individual challenge became a series of interlocking stories of relatable comedy. Elaine and her dream man, John F. Kennedy Jr. Jerry Seinfeld and his dilemma of dating a virgin. And Kramer who immediately stiffens at the sight of an exhibitionist across Jerry’s apartment. The word “masturbation” is never spoken we leave the episode not knowing if Jerry or George won the contest. Groundbreaking.
Nathan for You - "Mechanic/Realtor"
There are certain scenes of certain shows that instantly become a defining moment of a series, the one you constantly ask “have you seen it?” Nathan for You has a lot of contenders between “Dumb Starbucks” and that poo yogurt one, but the most talked-about sequence has to be when not-quite-comedian, not-quite-business-consultant Nathan Fielder helps a realtor market houses based on a “ghost free” guarantee. The “mechanic” segment of this episode gets a little lost in the background while the in-home exorcism and penis demons leave so many unanswered questions, you pretty much have to watch it repeatedly and debate with your friends until you run out of opinions.
South Park - "Scott Tenorman Must Die"
In 2001, you couldn’t fully comprehend just how far Matt Stone and Trey Parker were willing to go for a joke. It was the ep “Scott Tenorman Must Die” that brought audiences to the point of no return. When younger Eric Cartman gets crossed by ninth-grader Scott Tenorman, our pudgy rebel with a cause comes across a kid who seems infinitely smarter at every turn. After being made into a recurring fool, Cartman no longer satisfied in getting that typical, family wholesome revenge, goes for murdering Scott’s parents before tricking him into eating their remains. South Park had already taken liberties for being a show without a fuck to give, but this marked a moment when the Comedy Central animation would solidify that reputation.
Dexter - "The Getaway"
There’s a refreshing dance between a semi-bad guy finally getting the drop on the bad guy, to which the bad guy still gets the last laugh (John Lithgow). It’s an unending dosage of darkness for an episode that left viewers completely spent. A single scene laid it bare: serial killer of serial killers Dexter is looking at baby Harrison crying in a pool of his wife’s blood—an experience he tried hard to shield from his son.
It’s rare to have an antagonist that’s written to understand an anti-hero so completely as to strike him squarely where hurts audiences the most. Even in remembering that neck scruff of a finale episode, this sequence is a reminder of how great this show was once upon a time.
Six Feet Under - "Everyone's Waiting"
Each episode in HBO’s Six Feet Under—a story about the Fisher family (Michael C. Hall, Peter Kraus, Lauren Ambrose, Fraces Conroy, Rachel Griffiths etc) who own and operate a funeral home—starts with a theme of death and life’s fragility. The last episode isn’t as depressing and downtraden as you’d expect around a series about that cycle. Instead, there’s a hope in the family Fishers finding moments of breakthrough when self-destructive patterns are discarded at at the end of the five season watch. Through a montage of deaths as healmed by director Adam Ball, audiences witness not only the death of each main character, but the best snapshots of their lives. It’s made more clear compared to any piece of fiction that life isn’t about the tragedy of loss, but about the moments we gather gather along the way.
Chappelle’s Show - "I’m Rick James"
“There are some great storytellers in the world we live today, man. Who the fuck can make up that shit?” says the late Charlie Murphy at the end of one of the greatest comedy sketches of all time. It all began back to February 11, 2004, the fourth episode of season 2 of Chappelle’s Show, well before Chappelle went completely rogue.
Audiences were still absorbing this bold sketch show that held zero topics sacred—from “The Nigger Family”to “White People Dancing” —the buzz was mounting. So in enters comedian Charlie Murphy, emerging in front of a green screen mock-like aesthetic of a E: True Hollywood Stories segment, but with a Charlie touch( Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories). This stood just before social media removed every iota of mystery from the occupational celebrity, when a celeb that wasn’t Beyonce could be marked with a sense of mythos and secrecy; Rick James being among that old-school few. But here stood Charlie laying an insane story bare in front of a camera about the singer—punchline after perfect punchline—as Chapelle personified James before topping it off with a kicker “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”. Everything was set into motion and the skit is still likely the first TV comedy sketch to actually go viral.
Jersey Shore - "A New Family"
It’s a moment in television history when millions upon millions were introduced to an alien society in New Jersey on some shore. Red dyed young adults were grouped and studied at an MTV sponsored summer house with the following names—Paul DelVecchio, Nicole Polizzi, Michael Sorrentino, Samantha Giancola, Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, Jennifer Farley, Vinny Guadagnino, Angelina Pivarnick and Deena Nicole Cortese. They also possessed strange characteristics: tanning, working out, and laundry—not necessarily in that order. And lastly, each had a designation such as Schnooki, Snickers or Snookums. Much of what they communicated revolved around booze, sex, or a fist pumping mish mash of both. What made the show so endearing wasn’t that it was anything close to smart—it was actually god damned dumb—it’s that it wasn’t afraid to be dumb and flaunt a dumbness that that has infected an entire generation to this day…
Roots - "Part 2"
Alex Haley’s eight-part epic Roots from 1977 is important for one very obvious reason. It was the first to introduce the image of Americanized slavery into suburban living rooms. From night to night, a series about a young African named Kuta Kinte (LeVar Burton and John Amos) being stripped from his home and sent to an American setting of slave-dum would depict an experience previously restricted to words in a book. While part-1 displayed the journey, part 2 unleashed the full frontal brutality of once proud people being reduced to cattle. Before this moment, sections of America were mighty comfortable with the ideas of institutionalized racism. But a good look of rusty shackles, and the strained face of a beloved personality like LeVar Burton put a dent to that white comfort.
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