Time has become a precious commodity for television viewers. With dozens of original shows regularly premiering on streaming services alone, there are more options than ever, especially when embarking on new show catch-up. When whole seasons are available overnight, that can make prospects seem even more daunting.
But even if it’s just for a single season, sometimes a show’s best episodes come later in their run. And when they arrive, part of these memorable episodes stand out because they stand alone.
That’s why, in the spirit of helping out with a TV streaming sampler of sorts, we’ve compiled a must-see list of ten episodes from Amazon, Hulu and Netflix series that offer a convenient non-pilot entry point. Sample them à la carte or use them to help get some new fans hooked.
Like any good sitcom, the best episodes of now-departed “The Awesomes” knew just how to use their guest stars. The animated misfit band of oddball superheroes had their share of overarching enemies, but the individual problem-of-the-week adventures made for an amusing collection of intergalactic one-offs. In this case, the team’s travels take them to a far-off planet where Muscleman (Ike Barinholtz) finds himself embroiled in a paternity test, enlisting Impresario (Kenan Thompson) and Frantic (Taran Killam) for help. The climactic talk show sequence has a few surprises, anchored by a particular one-word line delivery that’s one of the best things Bobby Moynihan has ever done.
Every year, there’s an episode of this show that Bojevangelists use to make an argument to non-viewers. Season 1 had the drug-trip episode “Downer Ending” that really signaled the show’s extra depth and willingness to indulge in different animation styles. BoJack’s detour to New Mexico at the end of Season 2, “Escape from L.A.,” found the show moving away from its home base and hurtling towards heartbreak. In Season 3, “Fish Out of Water” showed that “BoJack Horseman” can not only switch tone and location, but challenge a few formal conventions along the way. The dialogue-sparse episode starts with a handful of film festival-centric jokes, but quickly expands to a silent exploration of shifting responsibility, all with some unexpected thrills along the way. There might not be much Princess Carolyn or Mr. Peanutbutter, but it’s the starkest example of the show’s willingness to subvert expectations at every turn.
This early entry from the sophomore season of “Casual” comes at the beginning of Alex’s ill-fated attempts to home-school his niece, Laura. Indulging both of their rebellious streaks, this episode also becomes a convenient shortcut to understanding what fuels both of their distinct sets of interests. Valerie’s thread here also shows her strengths (and distractions) in her therapist role. But outside the office, her situation is a tricky one, bringing along a bit of the show’s uncanny ability to place its characters in illuminating, cringeworthy circumstances. In keeping with the overarching “Casual” guiding light, following people desperate for a better way to connect in their everyday lives, this sees the show’s main trio all at key stages of the journey. (Plus, who doesn’t just love a good trivia night?)
The between-season time jump brought “Catastrophe” a new set of daily obstacles, both in Rob and Sharon’s relationship and their individual confidence in their ability to handle their changing roles as parents. “Episode 2” best shows how each of them turn those challenges into lively married banter that keeps its sharp, biting edge without endangering the love that lies underneath. This installment also gives time for the two of them to each face down their respective hurdles. Sharon does her best to escape a coven of fellow new mothers while Rob carefully sidesteps some aggressive workplace flirtation. This pair’s journey from chance encounter to a couple that seems fated to return to each other is one of the hidden joys of “Catastrophe.” Theirs may not be a storybook love, but watching their teamwork strengthen in unexpected ways is what drives this show and makes it a consistently special viewing experience.
Admittedly, having a sketch-based show on this list is a bit of a cheat. But this underappreciated experimental Netflix comedy fulfills the great promise of a changing TV landscape: giving talented people the freedom to indulge their strengths. Other participants in this series took a more scattershot approach to their character-based sketches, but comedian Kate Berlant’s half-hour is a bit more unified. Denise St. Roy, the Marina Abramovic-like leader of an artistic movement, is the perfect hook for an episode that somehow finds Berlant also playing St. Roy’s assistant and husband. (Good luck watching this episode and ever taking a normal approach to smoothie-making ever again.) Berlant’s “555” partner-in-crime and fellow “The Characters” participant John Early also figures into this St. Roy universe. Berlant’s art gallery proclamations and Early’s tear-soaked reaction shots alone are worth pressing “play.”
A season premiere is its own kind of checkpoint, but there’s enough here of what makes “Difficult People” absurdly propulsive that really makes it stand on its own. Julie and Billy are up to their usual unapologetically opportunistic tricks in work and romance. John Mulaney’s matter-of-fact performance as Billy’s latest fling (and a man voluntarily stuck in 1920s garb and mannerisms) seems like the guest spot he was born to play. Tina Fey’s cameo as herself, going one-on-one with a rarely-better Andrea Martin is the icing on this scrumptious triple-subplot cake. Every piece of the show working in perfect sync? You’d be hard-pressed for a better intro.
It’s hard to top the show’s pilot for the purest distillation of what makes this show so exciting. But for those dead-set on starting somewhere other than the beginning, this silent retreat episode is another example of the special “Fleabag” storytelling. At the initial run’s halfway point, Fleabag herself takes a bit of a back seat, shifting some of the focus from herself to her tricky relationship with her sister Claire. Still, we get to see Fleabag taking unique delight in pushing people out of their comfort zones and calling out the absurdities in the lives of those around her. A turning point for her, Claire and the audience’s understanding of the tragedy that she can’t quite shake, it’s also a testament to the Fleabag web of rich secondary characters that’s filled out surprisingly fast.
The Gus/Mickey back-and-forth dating dance defined much of “Love” Season 1. Gus’ relative tentativeness and Mickey’s self-sabotage meant that the two spent episodes’ worth of time setting (and then breaking) relationship boundaries. In last month’s fresh batch of episodes — immediately following a shrooms-centric adventure that could easily be on list too — the couple find themselves back at the beginning. Taking a casual day of impulsive excursions across all sides of Los Angeles, Gus and Mickey finally get the fresh start that both had been longing for. Even when one member from Mickey’s past materializes unexpectedly, the relative ease with which the two go about their breezy day is a resetting that offers slightly more hope than the more cynical elements of the first season rarely afforded.
Not many shows can pull off a metaphysical diversion like this one. But some 80s-era body-swap shenanigans not only make for a half hour that helps push two of its characters forward, it would have been a hit in the time that the show is set. Richard Kind and Craig Roberts take center stage when the father-son duo’s casual celebratory drinks eventually lead them to switch bodies. It’s hard to pick which actor’s impression of the other is more entertaining: Roberts’ newfound boisterousness or Kind’s abruptly hangdog demeanor. The hijinks are pretty standard (changing physicality, mistaken conversations, unexpected situations with unsuspecting family members), but this Amy Heckerling-directed episode grounds everything in an added layer of understanding that sticks closer to sincerity than sci-fi.
This Season 1 flashback episode travels back two decades, shining some light on the Pfefferman family dynamic of yesteryear. Removing the show from the present also gives new viewers what was, at that point, the earliest point in the show’s chronology. As a result, Maura’s early experiences at the wooded Camp Camellia cross-dressing retreat offer an early milestone in her self-discovery. Aided by old friend Mark (Bradley Whitford) and new acquaintance Connie (Michaela Watkins, as a wife who tags along for her husband’s weekend escape), Maura finds a place that allows her more freedom than her everyday life. But in a development that reverberates through the episodes before and since, this new oasis slowly becomes a dream that begins to tarnish with each passing interaction. It’s that blend of momentary catharsis and lingering disappointment that’s come to paint all three seasons of the show.