55 minus 43: One-offs, part 1… television

Posted: 5 July 2019 in 55 minus, one-offs, television
Tags: , ,

I started this entry as a daily braindump on goingcheep, but quickly realised that it would be more suitable here. And almost as quickly realised that it’s not one blog entry but three. Actually, maybe 3½. We’ll see.

Here’s part one, anyway.

Back in the day, when the UK only had terrestrial television, and three or four channels at that, one of the most common, and regular, complaints in the UK was “too many repeats”.

Just imagine that, those of you born at a less comfortable distance from the apocalypse. Three television channels. Three. And no video on demand, no ‘that’s ok, I’ll record it and watch it later’. If you missed it, that was it… until or unless it was repeated months or years later.

(Channel 4 started in November 1982, and I watched the opening hour or so in the common room of Manchester Polytechnic’s students’ union. First and only time I’ve watched a major channel go live.)

But yeah, repeats. It was such A Thing that listings pages in the newspapers even felt it necessary to denote repeats with (R) after the episode’s information/solicitation.

How things change.

With multi-channel tv, one of the pleasures of watching telly is an old favourite series, or even a favourite episode, appearing on the electronic programme guide, so you can watch, or record, an episode you’ve previously missed, or one you’ve enjoyed.

And considering how many ‘baddie of the week’ shows there are in serialised tv drama, individual episodes shouldn’t ‘matter’ so much. But even in a ‘baddie of the week’ show, an episode will stand out for some reason: the guest star will knock it out of the park, or the writing on that episode will always particularly impress, or the plot will reward rewatching. Could be any number of things.

(The same applies, of course, to long running comic books which, let’s face it, are also serialised drama. I’ll write about them in part 2, next week. Part 3? Part 3½? Well, I’ll let you ponder that for a bit, and you’ll find out what else falls within this entirely made up category in a couple of weeks.)

But when it comes to television, and individual episodes of long running dramas, there are too many, far too many, for me to list all that I’ll almost always make an effort to watch if they’re shown.

But here are ten. (Of course with some series, there are multiple episodes I’m happy to rewatch, but I’ll limit this to one episode per show.)

Fair warning: there are spoilers for the episodes discussed below, and there may be spoilers for the series itself.

CSI New York: “Yahrzeit” (Season 5, Episode 22)
There’s nothing that should make this episode jump out at anyone, but as so often with episodes that do, it’s the little touches, the revelations of main characters’ backgrounds. And as so often, it’s a guest star that lifts the episode into ‘Oh, yeah…’ territory. With this one, it’s Edward Asner as the ostensibly Jewish holocaust survivor who turns out to have been a survivor from the camps… but from the other side of the fence. And there’s a beautifully played coda to the episode that tells you more about Gary Sinese’s character’s family, and what it meant to survive when others didn’t.

New Tricks – “Parts of a Whole” (Season 9, Episode 9)
In many ways, this episode is one of the few in the series to completely subvert the reason for the whole show – the main story has only a faint connection to what the show is about – but it’s an excuse for the actors to have an enormous amount of fun playing against type, while staying true to who they are. Again, you find out some of the background of one of the main characters, and one of the recurring characters. (They met at sandhurst, did something naughty; it comes back to haunt them decades later.) However, as well as all that, and the fact that the actors are obviously having a blast, the writer of the episode is a comics fan, and sprinkles scripts with the names of comics professionals. So there’s a journalist named Greg Rucka who was killed decades ago… It’s just fun and I like the episode a lot.

Law & Order: “Called Home” (Season 18, Episode 1)
This is from very late in the run – the show ended with season 20. Law & Order went through a lot of cast changes in the ensemble through the years. With six main characters, there were half a dozen junior lawyers, and the same number of junior detectives. And while I’ll bow to no-one in my admiration of Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe, I always liked the episodes where new people came in, and no moreso than the start of season 18. On the “Order” side of things, Sam Waterston’s character has been promoted to be the new District Attorney and Linus Roach comes in as the new ‘main’ lawyer. On the “Law” side of the show, Jeremy Sisto comes into the show. And just like that, the show that had been getting a bit stale comes alive again. The new dynamic just works and the new characterisations work as well. Waterston’s character has to mature, and does so, and his reluctance – because he stepped away from the courtroom – to allow his people to do their jobs rings true.

The West Wing: “17 People” (Season 2, Episode 18)
The ‘bottle show’ to end all bottle shows. The season was over budget, and the writers were told to write something that takes place wholly within the existing sets, inside the White House. And in doing so, Aaron Sorkin came up with one of the best scripts of the entire show. Every character rings true, every emotion screams out of the screen, and every actor does their job and then some. Especially, Richard Schiff. It’s his episode from the very opening shots, and he makes the most of it. And the opening is one of the finest pre-credits teaser the show ever had, hell one of the best four minutes’ opening to any show.

Doctor Who: “School Reunion” (Season 2¹, Episode 3)
(¹OK, it’s season 2 of NuWho; the season numbering was restarted when the show returned after 19 years in 2005)
It’s the Sarah Jane episode. That’s all that should need to be said. The first time the show explicitly brought back a character from the ‘old’ run of the series into the new run. It addressed old continuity, set up the differences between OldWho and NuWho, showed Rose what it means, what it really means, to travel with an effectively immortal alien, has character growth, has the usual silliness of Tennant’s run, and to top it off, a star turn from Anthony Head as the baddie. Glorious in every way, and not a bad bit in it.

NCIS: “Heartland” (Season 6, Episode 4)
The “Gibbs goes home” episode. After five series, you find out something about who the mainstay of the show is. Ralph Waites is superb in the guest star (which became a recurring) role, but then Waites always was superb in anything he did. It addressed ageing, filled in some holes in Gibbs’ backstory, while setting up a whole set of new questions, and everyone.. has fun. It’s obvious that the scriptwriters had a blast with the episode, and the actors duly ran with the fun created for them, and ran with it. It’s just… fun.

Highlander: “An Eye For An Eye” (Season 2, Episode 5)
From very early on in the tv series, the obvious unanswered question wasn’t ‘what’s it like living forever?’ The movie had dealt with that, and the series tried to address it as well. No, what was missing was ‘what happens when you become immortal?’ Not flashback, not legends, but in real time. And this episode answered that when one of the main characters gets killed (in the previous episode) and then wakes up. And is cocky, and unsure, and confused, and figures he’s gonna be all right… and then discovers very, very quickly that the cockiness is unwarranted, the confusion sure as hell is, and unless he learns how to handle a sword very, very quickly? Well, that ‘gonna be all right’ isn’t going to be true for long. Another immortal comes for him… and he hasn’t a fucking clue how to defend himself. And it takes Macleod some time to realise that it’s his responsibility to teach Richie in a way that works. Not to bully him into it. The training montage is just fun to watch, and when Richie gets his chance to take the baddie’s head… well, it doesn’t go quite how he expects. There are a dozen or so episodes that I’ll watch for pleasure, but this one always gets a rewatch if it’s on.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Season 3, Episode 15)
I’m a sucker for time travel stories, for alternative universe yarns, for ‘what if…?’ tales. And I like Star Trek. Yeah, was kind of inevitable I’d like this one. But it’s not only all the foregoing. The story’s a cracking one, the acting – given that they’re playing alternative versions of their characters, but not ‘evil mirror’ versions, the same versions in an entirely different situation, at war – is first class, and the production values, though now pretty dated, are excellent for their time. And one character gets the ending her character deserved, rather than the “empty death” she got in the main timeline. It’s beautifully played, and considering how much is done in 45 minutes, the show doesn’t seem rushed at all. A tribute to all concerned.

Bergerac (all the ‘Philippa Vale’ episodes)
OK, I’m cheating with this one. But hey, it’s my list. Liza Goddard appeared as jewel thief Philippa Vale in half a dozen episodes of the 87 episode run. And in every episode that she’s in, she lifts the show from a typical ‘baddie of the week’ police procedural which happens to be set on Jersey into a semi-romantic drama-comedy. The interplay, the flat out flirting, between John Nettles’ (later the star of Midsomer Murders) character and Goddard’s Vale is always a pleasure to watch. She’s like no one he’s ever encountered before, and he’s equally fascinated and attracted to her… while you’re never quite sure whether it’s solely because he’s unattainable that Philippa likes Jim… or whether she thinks a bit of naughtiness would make him more attractive or less.

Well, that was fun.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s coming tomorrow. See you then.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

  1. Two observations:

    1) I am also old enough to remember the age of the dinosaurs. In my case, three channels and that was after CBC/Radio-Canada set up their French-language service as a separate channel in Saskatchewan. And it was CBRFT-TV that introduced me to anime, I think. Albator, le Corsair d’Espace AKA Captain Harlock.

    2) I have both of Aaron Sorkin’s script books for The West Wing. “17 People” is, as you might rightly expect and demand, included in the first volume. Seeing that script in particular was a pleasure and an education in itself. Especially given the performance as we saw it on the TV screen. The actors – especially Richard Schiff – blew it out of the ballpark.

    • Both books are on my shelf, together with lots and lots of other script books, both for tv and comics. I’d recommend both Blackadder and The complete Ronnie Barker for masterclasses in comedy.

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