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The Best ‘Concept Episodes’ on TV, Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey

From silent episodes to musical ones, from those that take place in the afterlife and in the realm of fantasy, these episodes stand out from the usual narrative in the best way possible.

Best Concept Episodes: "The Leftovers," "The Simpsons," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "BoJack Horseman"

HBO, Fox, 20th Century Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock, Netflix


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is the best concept episode that’s been on television?

Sonia Saraiya (@soniasaraiya), Variety

I have to admit a recency bias, I guess, but “BoJack Horseman’s” “Fish Out of Water” has stuck with me in a way that no other concept episode has — a gimmick that didn’t feel gimmicky but instead desperately necessary for the forward motion of the episode. It’s not quite fair, because “Community,” for example, is comprised almost entirely of concept episodes, and it’s hard to disagree with how much “Buffy’s” “Hush” and “Once More, with Feeling” inspired other, later shows. But “Fish Out of Water” was my favorite episode of 2016 for being both an underwater episode, a trip episode, and a silent episode all at once, as well as an homage to silent film and an elegy of loneliness.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

The time has already come to begin putting last season’s “Fish Out of Water” episode of “BoJack Horseman” in the pantheon of “concept episodes” and if this question had included any recency restriction, I would surely celebrate this nearly dialogue-free masterpiece of silent, underwater animated comedy. But if it’s *any* concept episode for *any* show over *any* period of time, I just can’t pick a new animated concept episode over the classic “22 Short Films About Springfield” from the seventh season of “The Simpsons.” Never a show afraid of tinkering with format, this was perhaps the first “Simpsons” episode to embrace, certainly to this degree, the idea that there were literally no rules regarding what a half-hour of “The Simpsons” could or had to be. Celebrating the show’s already deep bench of supporting characters, “22 Short Films” gives welcome spotlight moments to such luminaries as Cletus, Bumblebee Man and Herman the one-armed owner of Herman’s Military Antiques. Nearly every joke hits and the ones that don’t land as robustly are already in the rear-view before you notice. As great as the episode is on its own, it’s even greater for how it inspired the show’s writers to continue to experiment in the years to come, leading to many of the creative highlights even as the show has soared past 600 episodes.

James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

At the risk of repeating everyone else (but in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary this week), the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” is my pick for TV’s best concept episode. The hour stands out as was one of the series’ best episodes certainly, but it also stands out from the rest of TV as it stretched the limits of what TV could be at a time when most television shows weren’t taking the same risks. Perhaps more importantly, like “Buffy” itself, it’s an example of a concept episode that has inspired or influenced many of the shows that have come after it. To this day, “Once More, With Feeling” is the musical episode all other musical episodes are judged against.

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

If I don’t say “Once More with Feeling,” will the officials come and take me away for re-programming? Because yes, that was a phenomenal musical episode, but I would say that it fit perfectly into a show that got away with bold strokes. The silent “Hush”? The doppelgänger ep? All great concepts that were executed with the same panache and bravery. So stepping away from the Buffy of it all while staying close to the musical concept, I will go with Fringe’s “Brown Betty.” Framed as a bedtime tale for Olivia’s niece Ella, as told by a very stoned Walter, the hour was a song-filled 1940s noir fantasia about Liv’s search for the missing Peter and Walter’s guilt over stealing his alt-self’s son from Over There. It’s a weird, gutsy and wonderful proof that this show had so much creativity to spare that it could leave the lab — and reality — and still deliver the goods.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

Because they might go unmentioned otherwise, I’m going to take this opportunity to celebrate how over the course of five seasons, “Fringe” had three incredibly crazy installments that ran the gamut from musical to animation to dystopian fiction. “Brown Betty,” “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” and “Letters of Transit” totally rewrote the rules of the show with such glee; they exploded “Fringe” in such delightful ways… Look, I’ll just let this clip speak for itself:

AND THAT’S NOT THE WEIRDEST THING TO EVER HAPPEN on “Fringe.” The weirdest thing is probably this?

Okay, that didn’t take place during one of the official concept episodes, but it’s still great. “Fringe,” I miss you.

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

The best concept episode I can think of was the best concept episode of a series that specialized in concept episodes, “Community’s” “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It flipped through each character’s POV and spiderwebbed outward to different possible timelines for one of the most inventive episodes of comedy ever. Heck, we’re still saying “this is the worst timeline” today. Special shoutouts to “Community’s” “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” and “Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Bojack Horseman’s” “Fish Out of Water,” “Seinfeld’s” “The Betrayal,” “The Simpsons’” “22 Short Films About Springfield,” and “Supernatural’s” “Changing Channels.”

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall),  Uproxx

My real answer is probably “Hush,” the silent episode from “Buffy” Season 4, which is the platonic ideal of a concept episode: a great idea executed perfectly on both a technical side (I still shudder thinking about the Gentlemen floating through Sunnydale and taking out their scalpels) and a thematic one (because the silence comes at a moment in the season when the characters are struggling to communicate with one another). But I assume at least five other people you survey are going to name it, so I want to give my vote to something else.

But what? The backwards “Seinfeld” (or, for that matter, “The Chinese Restaurant”)? The first “Community” paintball episode, or “Remedial Chaos Theory”? If not the silent “Buffy,” then the brilliant silent episode of “BoJack Horseman,” “Fish Out of Water”? Since Patrick Wilson just popped up on “Girls” again, is the time right to celebrate “One Man’s Trash”? Walt and Jesse trapped in the desert in “4 Days Out,” or playing exterminator in “Fly”? The non-chronological LSD episode of “Mad Men”? Paulie Walnuts and Christopher wandering around the Pine Barrens? Mulder and Scully in the Bermuda Triangle? The “NewsRadio” gang in space?

I love high-concept episodes, so this is hard. But even though I’m writing from the heart of “Sopranos” country, I have to go with a more recent HBO formal experiment: “International Assassin” from Season 2 of “The Leftovers.” Other shows have done episodes where a character visits the afterlife (the “St. Elsewhere” episode where Fiscus travels between Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory after getting shot would be another fine choice), but none have been quite as imaginative, weird, moving, or just plain fun as seeing Kevin Garvey swallow poison and wake up in a nice hotel, with his only way to get back to his life and family being to assassinate his nemesis Patti Levin, who in this version of the afterlife is running for POTUS. The episode is hilarious, it is thrilling, and it is ultimately a gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s everything “The Leftovers” can be and everything TV can be.

"The Leftovers"

“The Leftovers”


Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I have a ton of answers to this question, but I want to dip back into TV’s past a bit to celebrate “Moonlighting” and especially its episode “Atomic Shakespeare,” which is the concept episode too few shows have attempted: the Shakespeare episode. At its height, few shows in TV history could compete with “Moonlighting” for density of writing and cleverness of scripts, and the idea of filtering the series through the vision of a kid who’s supposed to be reading Shakespeare but would much rather be watching “Moonlighting” was the kind of mental gymnastics that made the show so fun. I tend to love series that play fast and loose with their premises and continuity, and I suspect that love comes from just reading about “Moonlighting’s” many tricks at a young age.

Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch

To me, concept episodes often feel gimmicky, and I’m annoyed. Just do the show you do, and do it well. So I’m going to declare one of my favorite episodes of television ever, “The Constant” on “Lost,” a concept episode. It stepped outside the usual format, focused on Desmond and Penny (sigh) and managed to be romantic, heartbreaking, thrilling and perfect. I’d watch an entire series that was spun off “The Constant.” Hey, that’s a concept.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

I refer everyone to Mr. Sepinwall’s elegant answer and echo his vote for “The Leftovers” as the best episode to date (of many exquisite contenders), “International Assassin.” “Imaginative, weird, moving, and fun” are all ideal descriptors of an episode that defies explanation, so the only point I’ll add is how greatly I admire Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s willingness to revisit their most daring creation so soon after unveiling it. They wrote a make-or-break episode of TV, and before they could gauge reaction to it, before they could even shoot that one episode, they wrote another one relying on the concept originated in “International Assassin.”

Kevin (Justin Theroux) doesn’t die once: He dies twice, and when he gets shot in the Season 2 finale, he goes back to the hotel. Most concept episodes leave it at that: a singular, stand-out episode. “The Leftovers” dared to turn their concept into an ongoing aspect of the series; one that cannot be separated from the characters without drastically changing our perception of them. Real or imagined, the hotel matters. And that makes the episode all the better.

READ MORE: ‘The Leftovers’: An Oral History of the Finale’s Karaoke Scene, from Damon Lindelof & Justin Theroux

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “The Americans” & “Feud” (2 votes)

Other contenders: “Baskets,” “Black-ish,” “The Expanse,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Legion” (1 vote each)

*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.

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