MM, FOOD: In Which I Remember Eating Things

I went ahead and tried my hand at Yelp-style restaurant capsule reviews for every city I’ve spent significant time in. The absolute greatest spot in that city leads off and is bolded; the next five greatest are underlined, and further honorable mentions are italicized. There are plenty of skippable decent-to-bad places covered here as well. I reserve the right to not mention an eatery I’ve been to if it was unmemorable or redundant, but I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts and remarks of what I got right or wrong, or what I missed. The best overall region for density of good dining experiences is specified at the bottom. I tried as best I could to organize these in a cuisine-specific and logical way. I tried to include only independent standalone places as opposed to chains, so for all I know, some of these joints might have closed or changed their address. Happy eating!

PITTSBURGH

You may die of heart disease

3It’s likely that I’ve tried more restaurants in Pittsburgh than any other place I’ve lived. Because of this, I’ll try to organize them in a roughly best-to-worst manner, by the type of fare offered. I’ll forewarn you that the closest thing PGH has to a signature style is artery-clogging diner food, so make sure you enjoy it sparingly.

BEST:

The food at Burgatory isn’t anything Pittsburgh-unique, and it is a chain that’s local to the region. But it is utterly satisfactory and insanely indulgent, even to jaded locals. Outstanding burgers, phenomenal shakes, great appetizers, solid drink selection and really fun atmosphere – I can’t find much to complain about. Middlebrow caloric overkill in the best possible way.

GREAT:

I felt compelled to write something in memory of the recently closed Sonoma Grille, a California-style bistro with lots of wine and fancy cheese and stuff. Top-notch preparation and service; I went here for my birthday after being blown away on my first visit, and returned a few subsequent times. The steak medallions were heavenly. I wrote this list before the place shut down, so just take my word for it.

Aladdin’s is another limited chain with some of the best Mediterranean food I’ve ever had. Shawarma, kebab chicken and beef, hummus, baba ganoush, that kind of thing. Extremely delicious and consistent, with a large selection and decent price. Disclaimer: I worked here.

Mad Mex serves respectable Mexican fusion in a city that wouldn’t appear to offer much in that regard, but there’s some good stuff if you know where to look. Huge menu, above-average quality. Price and service are decent. Veggie quesadilla recommended.

Coriander is an awesome authentic Indian place right by my old apartment in Squirrel Hill. Very good deal for what you get.

D’s Six Pak and Dogz is quintessential Pittsburgh food. Fantastic meat and veggie hot dogs/sausages with super creative toppings, great drink selection, and the BEST french fries on this planet. Get the veggie pub fries. I’m not messing around.

Benjamin’s Burger Bar is a very tasty, slightly upscale burger bar by my old workplace. High quality, with some good toppings, and the owner/staff are friendly. Tell the super nice lesbian bartenders that Andrew says hello! And get the candied jalapeño cream cheese on your burger, for the love of God.

I haven’t been to Point Brugges Café for lunch, but their brunch is absolutely terrific. Definitely the best brunch in the city. Come prepared for very pretentious accoutrement, high prices and high calories. It’s worth it once in your life, though.

Gaby Et Jules Patisserie & Vanilla Pastry Studio can share a spot since they’re dessert places. They’re both the sort of cookie-cutter type of artisan cupcakery/macaron confectionery that’s experiencing a bubble right now, only they excel at the business. The former has tremendous macarons and the latter, quite tasty cupcakes.

The Porch is a cool, classy student hangout on campus that doubles as a fancy restaurant. Their pizza and brunch are excellent, albeit pricey, for what’s essentially a well-furnished money pit for parent weekends.

Mercurio’s and Union Pig and Chicken are probably too frou-frou for their clientele and their own good, but they have authentic, tasty and overpriced pizza and gelato and BBQ, respectively.

GOOD:

Franktuary, renowned from mentions on special interest network TV shows and chef recommendations, was slightly underwhelming, but still definitely worth a visit for the novelty and adequate meals. Nice compromise between the blue collar Pittsburgh street style and gentrified farm-to-table artsiness.

Fathead’s is a purveyor of more Pittsburgh-style, greasy pub food, located on the street with the most bars per capita in the world. This place has all kinds of indulgent, inventive sandwich and burger ideas which all sound slightly better on paper than they taste, but they sound really good. It’s home to a great brewery based out of Ohio, too. I like the blueberry beer because I am a fancy boy.

Mineo’s and Peppi’s (the former in Squirrel Hill, the latter in Allegheny West on the North Shore) both also exemplify the fattening foodstuffs of local ‘Burgh culture, in hospitable and generous fashion. No frills, delicious pizza/sandwiches that will give you a heart attack. Worth it. I probably gained fifteen net pounds from the Italian hero and white pizza at these joints.

Nu is a fascinating spot: a totally Kosher deli and barbeque place in the middle of Pittsburgh, with some Hasidic fare as well. Very solid hot sandwiches, as I recall.

Double Wide is a cool concept for a restaurant, with a kitchen-sink vegan/omnivore/globalized menu of such breadth it kind of hampers the quality. But everything is basically good.

Sheetz is cheap, greasy, preservative-stuffed gas station grub but HOLD ON. The quality, cleanliness, variety and consistency of the stuff you can order in this 7/11-esque atmosphere, adjacent to fuel pumps, is unlike anything else in America. Get the iced hot chocolate. I am grateful that I have tried it in my lifetime.

Crepes Parisiennes is a completely adequate bougie campus crepes place. Get there early; it fills up.

Potomac Bakery boasts out of this world donuts, with a singular crumbly texture that sounds weird, but reminds you how they’re supposed to taste from scratch.

Waffalonia is so niche and low-effort I’m wary of raving about it, but they do make the hell out of some delicious Belgian waffles and toppings. If you ran into one while peckish one morning I would totally suggest checking it out.

OTHERS:

Conflict Kitchen is pretty limited, but its concept is notable: it’s a university operated food stand whose pacifist mission is to serve the cuisine of a nation the US is currently at war with. It’s interesting, and raises awareness through food!

I got way too excited and over-ordered at the cult-worshipped Everyday Noodles. But the potstickers I managed to finish were indeed quality.

Hello Bistro is an offshoot of a local management group that operates a few different branches of family restaurant (including the perversely named Eat ‘n’ Park, which is like a slightly more adventurous IHOP). Convenient and sometimes healthy, but unremarkable. Their fries are delicious, albeit Five Guys-esque.

I thought Milky Way and Italian Village Pizza were fine establishments, particularly the latter. Others I ate with did not.

Crazy Mocha is a wacky local coffee chain with a lot of personality and decent enough java.

Coffee Tree is like the refined, upper-class yacht club rival to Crazy Mocha’s nerdy, awkward summer camp underdog.

The Independent Brewing Company is a fun hipster speakeasy-esque haunt in Squirrel Hill that’s a nice place for a drink if you’re around the area.

Special mention to Uncle Sam’s Subs. Understand: I am easy to please with most American food and will tolerate a lot in the name of gluttony. I also have a soft spot for sandwich fare, and when I learned of this nearby joint upon moving to Pittsburgh, I was eager to try it out, and even opted for the crowd favorite special, the steak and egg sandwich with fixings. This food that I paid good money for during a stressful time in my life was probably the most offensive, disgusting thing I’ve ever attempted to eat. I couldn’t even get past a few bites, and their veggie sub is somehow WORSE. How this could happen, I still don’t understand.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

The Cultural District and the Pitt downtown area have a lot of promising places, but those aren’t real Pittsburgh. Its good and bad, its hearty and even heartier foodstuffs can all be found in Squirrel Hill, although I am biased.

KANSAS CITY

BBQ, etc. 

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Of all the cities I’ve lived in or near, Kansas City has arguably the hottest culinary scene. Here are some of its treasures, along with spots it’s okay to skip. By all means, you must eat barbeque of some kind there (vegetarians can’t wiggle their way out of this one, because the portobello sandwich at my top choice is still great!), but don’t forget the wealth of other options in this up and coming city.

BEST:

Kansas City Joe’s needs no introduction. But then again, Anthony Bourdain would tell you the same thing, along with cadres of cookout championship judges across the country. Its humble gas-station-adjacent façade at one of only a few locations belies the most elegantly simple, perfected, world-class barbeque you will ever enjoy (in the KC style, at least). Lines of hyped tourists and hungry locals wrap around the building at all hours of the day. The Z-Man will not let you down. I have a T-shirt of the damn thing. Eat it and believe.

BBQ:

You want more barbeque? Good, you’re in the right place. It doesn’t get better than KC Joe’s; however, there’s stuff that’s just as amazing with a different spin on the same materials. Fiorello’s Jack Stack is much higher-end and pricier, but sublime. The Big Pig is worth subtracting a year of your life for.

Q39 represents a new vanguard of hipsters making the city’s signature cuisine their own in an appropriately gentrified area of town, and they don’t screw it up. Their beef/pork/chicken slider sampler was an unforgettable meal, and I want to have it again soon.

That just scratches the surface of KC’s barbeque riches: Smokin’ Guns is yet another of the endless well-executed, satisfying examples of the town’s signature dish. Arthur Bryant’s is the salt of the earth-type traditional BBQ spot that Obama visited when he was in town. It’s totally pleasant, but pretty undistinguished and overrated among the smokehouse titans you can find elsewhere. Same with Gates, although that place at least has novel offerings and setup. Maybe I ordered the wrong thing there, I’ll give it another shot someday. I probably should have gotten Tech N9ne’s usual.

WORLD CUISINE:

Swagat is a bizarre outlier: a fantastic Indian buffet in the middle of what’s essentially a rural white middle class strip mall. Nice décor and a selection that really impresses with its authenticity.

Jerusalem Café is a talked-about hot spot for Millennials in perhaps the most Millennial district of any Midwestern city. Terrific Mediterranean food for sure. Check out the Flaming Cheese – admit it, you’re here for the spectacle anyway. And then get absolutely lit in Westport, it’s THE place for that.

Café Gratitude is a fascinating novelty consisting of the most grassroots, frou-frou vegan fare you could imagine. Now I’m all about ethical consumption, ingenious healthy options and trying new things – all of which it delivered on – but the flavor profiles were a bit much for a novice like me. It’s cool to visit though!

As far as Mexican fare goes, Manny’s is a delightful meat-and-potatoes (so to speak) Mexican family restaurant. Then there’s La Bodega, an ultra-bougie, but also quite inventive and tasty, tapas place. Probably more authentic than Meson Sabika in Naperville, for what that’s worth. Mi Ranchito has Mexican cuisine even more homogenized and American than Manny’s, but that sort of thing is hard to screw up.

Longboards is so weird and I love it. It’s on North Oak, and they serve Polynesian and tropical-themed wrap sandwiches. Huh? I adore the Cabo Chicken, although I did have to Google to remember what was actually on it.

DOWN HOME:

I’m most familiar with restaurants in the Northland, where I lived for a while. One staple is Cascone’s, a fascinating and well-run old world Italian restaurant, with apparent historic mob connections that used to have hands in the city government. Is it okay to mention this now? If I turn up floating face down in the Missouri river, you know what’s up.

I had a catered meal at Trezo Mare once which was fairly good, but that’s a pretty easy bar to clear for free food so I wouldn’t consider that definitive.

Minsky’s is a blue-collar, family-style, low-expectation gem in the vein of so many Midwestern eateries. It’s a respectable chain that does nothing more than make awesome pizza. The Five Star is a favorite among white pizza fanatics, and it is a standout. But I like the Thai pie a whole bunch too.

Pizza Shoppe is pretty standard suburban pizza, but they’re semi-famous for an outrageously strong, salty salad/pizza/appetizer dressing (apparently there’s no distinction for topping things there).

Further afield to the west, Waldo Pizza is more exclusive and artisan than Minsky’s and indeed, tips the scales more to personality and customization. Still a lovely spot worth visiting if you’re out in the ritzy suburbs for some reason.

Beer Kitchen and McCoy’s are modern American bistro eateries at their most adequate. Being in the young, hip part of town, they put more of a focus on their alcohol.

Winstead’s is like the Hydrox to Steak ‘n’ Shake’s Oreo. They likely pioneered the formula, only to see a corporate behemoth steal and mainstream it from under their noses. Virtually the same thing as that burger titan, only more limited, small-scale and homey. But that means a marginal increase in quality. Outstanding shakes and a killer 50/50 basket for midnight snacking. Its friendly, charming KC atmosphere is the perfect antidote to chain diner boredom.

I had heard legends of a greasy spoon downtown where shameless eaters drowned their sorrows, and at long last I eventually got to Town-Topic. This old-school rathole makes Winstead’s look like the height of refinement. But that aesthetic has its own dirt-kicking charms, and something in the grease here makes for a memorable regrettable 4 A.M. burger, a la White Castle.

Jersey Boyz and Kelso’s are old fashioned mainstays in the Northland and hallmarks of KC heritage. Very comparable and competitive with the similar comfort food hangouts of Peppi’s and Mineo’s in Pittsburgh, they also dish up classic subs and pizza, respectively.

Grinders is more mass-market meat overkill in the vein of Pittsburgh’s Burgatory. Tasty stuff, dangerously large and unhealthy portions. I mean that in a positive way, just in case it was unclear.

I never really figured out the ideal sandwich for myself at Planet Sub, which is alarming for a sub fiend such as myself. But it’s generally fine, I guess.

I liked D’Bronx’s sandwich a good deal at the time but don’t remember much about it in retrospect.

Green Acres is a spotless, admirable Whole Foods knockoff in the commercial section of a rich residential neighborhood. That compound also houses a Philly Time, another probable chain but I’m too lazy to check. They make a good enough Philly, as per their name.

SWEETS/OTHER:

Glacé made me rediscover ice cream. Amidst all the specialty dessert places popping up in America, it holds a distinct place in my heart. Crazy but not ridiculous flavors, gastronomically proven to make you skeptically go “hmm…” and then discover a new favorite.

Donut King has possibly the best donut I’ve ever eaten, and they even spell it the same lazy way I do! Highly recommended.

Roasterie is a well-regarded and award-winning local brand of coffee, sold at a few brick and mortar, er, roasteries. They don’t pervert and tart up their blends with flavorings and sugar the way I like though, so my verdict is out.

Boulevard is another KC institution that’s quickly going global in popularity, although I only rarely sampled their brews since I was just barely getting into beer at the time and didn’t care for the hoppier, earthier range they dabble in. I’ve since found a few moderately enjoyable lines of theirs I can’t remember offhand. Try them, though! They make the city proud.

First Watch has since evolved to the status of a corporate chain, but it was in KC that I first encountered it and its unerringly pleasant, appetizing breakfast diner ways. Very modern and accommodating, too! Never had a disappointing thing there.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

Per capita, I suppose it’d be Westport, which I haven’t explored nearly enough. But even on its lonesome, in worn-down industrial districts just now being gentrified, KC Joe’s is worth the freaking trip to the city. (Besides those, probably the Country Club Plaza.)

COLUMBIA

Lower your expectations

columbia

Columbia is much more recommendable for its school than for its fine dining. Nevertheless, I have found some decent places there, if you consider that they operate in a relatively isolated and cheap area of the country. Generally, the nicer spots are better, but there’s stuff to love for every price range. I like sticking up for this city despite its drawbacks.

BEST:

Bleu is the place to be in Columbia, food-wise. It may be a faint echo of actual quality faux-French fare, but in CoMo even a serviceable knockoff shines in comparison. It really is a surprisingly nice spot though. I JUST NOW saw that it rebranded/closed the restaurant part to become a catering business. Way to go, CoMo. 

FANCY:

Sophia’s is only a half step below that, and even ditches a bit of Bleu’s gastronomic pretension.

Babbo’s is overpriced Americanized Italian food, but it is successfully fussed-over and higher-end, in a market that lacks such things.

Flat Branch is home to more cuisine that sounds better in theory than in practice, but points for trying. It’s still solid enough. This also gets the handicap for being in a college town in the middle of nowhere.

Upper Crust must hold a record for non-chain restaurant I have frequented the most, seeing as I went once a week for at least the last semester of college and almost always got the same sandwich and pasta salad combination. It was super tasty, fresh and a great deal on Tuesdays! This message paid for by Upper Crust. Not really.

Teller’s has the sizzle of being an urbane, food-forward bistro without much of the steak, so to speak. It took me a while going there to realize that. Once again, sympathy points for trying anything in Columbia more advanced than deep-frying a prize hog in Snickers goo.

MIDDLEBROW:

Shakespeare’s has been voted the top college town grub hangout in the country, and it’s hard to argue with that. The legend and atmosphere are arguably what you visit for, although the pizza is very well made. For my money, though, just a bit farther afield, Gumby’s has the superior slice. I love that place.

Sparky’s is really cool, being the aesthetic ideal of offbeat college-type vibes without getting too annoying or precious (dig the hilarious outsider art everywhere). More importantly, their ice cream is so good!

Pickleman’s makes a mean sub sandwich, and I would know from those, although I’m pretty sure it’s nationwide.

McAlister’s has struck it big with franchising and expansion lately, but I first encountered it in college. Perfectly agreeable deli-type place. I used to get some good meaty subs, but I now enjoy their subtler and healthier veggie sandwich.

Fazoli’s is a fairly broad chain, but it feels particularly at home in CoMo, seeing as it serves low-quality unfussy oily Italian fast food, which is a consummately American thing. I ate it and didn’t complain, so there you go.

Hotbox Cookies is a famous college student favorite, and I feel like every university town has a sweets shop that’s open late where you can make insane dining choices while drunk. Their unsoundly large cookies don’t disappoint. Actually, maybe just get a small one, you’ll still feel sick afterwards (in a good way).

Las Margaritas serves decent Mexican fare (insert refrain of Columbia being generally underwhelming).

JUNKY:

Ranking the processed, stale, trashy student union eateries in the Mizzou Student Center:

  1. The Brazilian churrascaria (Actually pretty good, if you have no real Brazilian steak experience to compare it to.)
  2. Pomodoro (Entirely enjoyable pizza!)
  3. The coffee place (It exists! And that’s about it.)
  4. The sandwich place (Very unsatisfying. And it only gets worse from here.)
  5. The burger joint (Surprisingly bad.)
  6. The sushi place (Fucking yuck, dude.)

Related: I completely missed out on any and all chances to visit the Heidelberg, supposedly the college dive to end all dives. Pity.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

I mean, it’s essentially one big area, but there never was and never will be a valid reason to go north of I-70. Sorry, that’s just how it is. Stick to downtown.

NAPERVILLE

Center of the WASP universe

naperville_skyline

The tough thing with writing about Naperville’s cuisine is there are a lot of semi-exclusive and high-end chains that I love dearly, but they are still, after all, chains. So I tried to weed out the places that seemed like standalone establishments. Plus, besides two legends discussed below, there’s not really a regional style or specialty. Nevertheless, you can count on specialty overpriced eateries to be good every now and then!

BEST:

Meson Sabika is probably my favorite restaurant. This Naperville tapas eatery combines so many things I value – it’s no Michelin starred place, but it does successfully convey Iberian cuisine with its fattening soul food recipes. And yet that doesn’t go to its head, as it’s relatively practical and unfussy, being focused on shepherding the dinner rush through the evening with economy and tact. It’s always consistent, with good service and a surprisingly broad and delightful menu. I have shared lots of memories and valuable time there with loved ones. The essentials for any visit with a group of people who want to split some delicious plates would be the stuffed goat cheese crepe – holy moly, get two, you’re gonna want ‘em – but also the bacon-wrapped dates, chicken and/or beef tenderloin skewers, stuffed mushrooms, pork tenderloin medallions, and the Iberian ham appetizer (plus the sautéed banana and profiteroles for dessert). See? Pretty standard, hearty, quasi-Spanish fare, prepared and served with just enough care and detail to be memorable. Exquisite.

BROWSING AROUND TOWN:

As with the other major cities I’ve written about, there are the two archetypal “pizza and sandwich places you’ve gotta try”. Only in Chicagoland, ours are world-renowned for their deep dish and Italian beef/hot dogs. I am speaking, of course, about Lou Malnati’s and Portillo’s, two chains that I nevertheless included. Because you HAVE to eat at both before you die (Shout-out to Giordano’s, but it can’t compete with the classic Lou extra-cheese deep dish and sausage pie). At Portillo’s, either the Chicago-style dog or sweet-pepper Italian beef and cheese will do you just fine, with some cheese fries and chocolate cake, of course (although their menu is surprisingly deep).

Chicago isn’t really known as a BBQ hot spot, but if you find yourself hankering for smoked meat, there are two places I’d suggest. The award-winning Sharko’s has outstanding sauces mimicking the styles of different regions, along with tenderly smoked brisket that’s delicious (not to mention a boatload of quality sides). On the other hand, obscure family-operated eatery Gemato’s is a favorite in my family. They have very friendly service, the option for Gyros (which are authentic, since the owners are Greek) and generous, above-average beef and chicken barbeque. Their beans are great but I’m always too full after gorging on everything else to finish them.

Speaking of styles that would seem to be fish out of water, how about fish fresh out of the water? I have acquainted myself with two outstanding sushi restaurants in the area. The first I found was Wild Tuna, which is a very utilitarian and traditional Japanese place. They have wonderful veggie sushi, which admittedly isn’t as hard to come by, but their seafood offerings are also of decent quality. And the price isn’t too bad – sushi is deceptively filling. But the second one blows their fish out of the water (hah, I love my stupid metaphors) in some regards. Blue Sake Sushi Grill is more of a high-end fusion place, but everything is of slightly higher quality and price. Their vegan Cowgirl roll in particular is astonishing.

Board and Barrel is a newer Naperville bar with a fun country atmosphere and impressive live music that has rapidly risen in my estimation because of their Nashville spicy chicken sandwich, which gets my unabashed recommendation. A slow-simmering, but gradually fierce spice on a nicely breaded breast with some mild, unobtrusive slaw and fried pickles, I was instantly impressed with it.

Empire and Craftsman are two hip, bougie hangouts that are far more about their top-notch drink selections than anything else, but probably as an obligation, they serve food as well. Craftsman has a very Napa Valley-esque sampling menu of hors d’ouevres that was expensive but generally fine. I like Empire’s grub a bit more, maybe because I’m a sucker for burgers (I enjoyed the southwestern chorizo one).

Shout out to the Naperville Cooper’s Hawk, a delightful, impressive dining and wining experience that I hesitated to include because it’s most definitely a high-end chain. Still, another of my favorite places to eat. Dat free bread tho. And Gewürztraminer! Yum!

Le Chocolat might be overrated or overpriced or overcrowded, but dang it, I go there a lot and I enjoy it! It’s nice to feel pampered and indulgent sometimes, and that’s precisely what they cater to. Their menu is primarily different varieties of hot cocoa, and all the ones I have tried are excellent. Plus some good desserts.

Smallcakes is the same type of cookie-cutter cupcakery (mixed metaphors now!) that has gained traction in the Midwest, but it’s a very enjoyable one I found on my own.

Pomegranate is like Chicagoland’s attempt to do First Watch, and it’s mostly pretty good!

Then there’s Everdine’s, a fancy-pants grilled cheese vendor that makes, well, fancy grilled cheese. It’s definitely okay. It’s hard to screw up grilled cheese.

Solemn Oath and 2 Fools breweries might have different ownership (I can’t remember) but they’re right across the parking lot from one another, tucked away in a business complex. And both are excellent for newer suburban establishments, although the sweet cider drafts of 2 Fools are much more my speed.

Pitaville is a humble, likable place with outstanding falafel. Which reminds me, I really should get around to visiting more of the plentiful Indian and Middle Eastern places in the area.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

Ummm…. Naperville?

MAINE/PORTLAND

Uh… I don’t like seafood

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So that’s a big obstacle to enjoying what the seaside has to offer for food options. That, plus the relative dearth of civilized and metropolitan areas along the coast. Besides Portland, which is really cool. Nevertheless, I’ll try to give a tour of where I’ve eaten, because some of it really is great! And the scenery is incredible.

BEST:

King Eider’s in Damariscotta is the best thing the midcoast region has going for it as far as the turf half of surf ‘n’ turf, and it’s really pretty good pub fare! Especially if you avoid ocean bugs in your mouth like I do, it’s a tasty haven in the middle of nowhere.

ELSEWHERE ALONG THE COAST:

Of course, when I say King Eider’s is the best, I secretly mean that Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro wins everything food-related in Maine, because I am a proud member of its cult. From the converted die-hard locals chomping daily on the homiest of homestyle diner food to the evangelists featured on its wall photos traveling around the world with the store’s T-shirts, this place has grown through persistence and consistency into a grassroots sensation featured on TV shows and industry rags alike. It’s nothing you haven’t had before, just better than you’ve ever had it. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but saying you went, having a pleasant meal in the middle of nowhere, and hyping it up for the next friend in line is all part of the deal. I always get the hamburger with their delectable mashed potatoes, and so it shall be. Lastly, their holiest-of-holy triple berry pie is not to be fucked with.

I practically have an ownership stake in The Cupboard. It’s charming how businesses in these small coastal towns can get so personable and symbiotically successful with their clientele. My family first palled around with cheerful owner and head baker, Mary, when she started out on her own in a much more limited space in New Harbor, peddling her world-class cinnamon rolls. Now she’s achieved as much growth as is possible on this peninsula, running a group operation out of a large log cabin ten minutes down the road and selling out her expanded breakfast menu to loyal locals every morning. It doesn’t count as going to the Pemaquid region unless you’ve tried one of those rolls.

Yet another example of this friendly generosity between owner and clientele, the rickety old penny candy and knick-knack shop Granite Hall has achieved a similar sort of notoriety in coastal Americana. The Round Pond staple is a memorable, friendly place, and pretty much what it says on the storefront: besides knit goods and housewares, they sell very cheap, very basic candy. I’m not sure whether to qualify it as a place where you eat things, but it’s certainly worth seeking out for the experience.

The Seagull Shop at Pemaquid Point is as big of a tourist trap as the midcoast has, yet it still can’t help but be charming and scenic. You can even skip out on the (overpriced but serviceable) gift shop restaurant if you feel the need, and survey the peerlessly rugged and gorgeous coast instead. In fact, this particular lighthouse and rocky shore was featured on nothing less than the state quarter. It’s a must-visit, but if you don’t eat there, just remember to get something with Maine blueberries and real maple syrup on it at some point.

Sea Dog is a surprisingly broad and accomplished limited chain of common Americana fare. Everything I’ve had there has been above average, but I may have been desperate for land-lubber food.

Portland’s The Great Lost Bear is a winningly rustic and irreverent spot that has a ton of lovingly prepared, unhealthy pub food. I personally got the BBQ Hot Mess, which is pretty much what it sounds like and served in a mason jar. Good eats.

You wouldn’t expect to find quality artisan pizza in Maine, but then, the state’s biggest city is a wonderfully surprising mini-metropolis these days. Portland Flatbread Company is a tasty restaurant right on the shore.

DiMillo’s is in a boat. That’s pretty much their whole thing. Fresh-caught seafood in a converted docked cruiser. Not wanting to be a total party pooper, I tried a bacon-wrapped scallop there once and once I got to the scallop part, I spit it into a cloth napkin. I should have gotten the fish.

The Cookie Jar is a delicious treat in a city I otherwise haven’t dined in nearly enough. They make an insanely decadent Bismarck (AKA jelly donut).

Shaw’s Wharf is a beautiful cove fishery in New Harbor that still makes acceptable burgers and chicken fingers for heathens such as I. Mostly check it out if you enjoy lobsters, clams and such. Plus they have sightseeing cruises and lovely views.

They’re really trying to be bougie at the Newcastle Publick House, and not quite succeeding. Props for trying to pull that off in the small, small town of Damariscotta, but the one time I went there with family I believe everyone was unsatisfied.

In any other region, Sarah’s would be a dime-a-dozen, vaguely Irish-themed eatery with reasonable but not great food. But on the coast in Wiscasset, it’s an oasis and a safe bet, at the very least. Just don’t expect greatness.

Besides my shameful dislike of seafood, I must admit here that I have never frequented the single most famous and busy Maine eatery, Red’s in Wiscasset. Even on the rare occasions when there’s not an outrageous line, what would I get there, a lobster roll? I think not!

BEST PLACE TO BE:

My carnivore self can’t really be trusted on this one, especially due to limited experience, but Portland would have to take it for lack of options elsewhere. Visit it if you can!

MINNEAPOLIS

A work in progress

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I have thus far only been to Minneapolis for one short trip, but crammed in a lot of good eats while I was there (I don’t think I actually ventured into St. Paul). So here’s my tentative best and worst, which I hope to augment someday with another visit.

BEST:

Perhaps Minneapolis’ biggest claim to culinary fame is just shoving melted cheese in the middle of a burger, with various nicknames and branding. Hey, I’ll take it! The storied, apocryphal legends of which warring eatery actually came up with this idea first are interesting to behold, but I tried one at The Blue Door, with their spin on it being bleu cheese in a BBQ burger. Reader, it was WAY better than that sounds. Great stuff. I also found a mild MN-based lager here that I really enjoyed and can’t remember the name of!

OTHER THINGS I HAD IN THE SPAN OF A THREE-DAY VISIT:

Dinkytown is the campus-adjacent downtown area that I explored more than anywhere else. My arbitrary first stop was Kafe 421, a perfectly pleasant, modest Mediterranean bistro. I had a nice sandwich and soup.

Black Coffee and Waffle Bar was a real standout considering its oft-repeated, marketable formula of serving fattening brunch fare to college students. All the stuff my sister and I ordered was delicious.

Psycho Suzy’s Motor Lodge is a river-adjacent complex of an eatery that is hippie/Tiki themed and primarily serves pizza, because why the hell not?? Their tacky attitude is a lot of fun and they make a great idiosyncratic slice. Plus, strong and sweet tropical cocktails!

Much like Hotbox, Insomnia Cookies is another University cookie place for stoned twentysomethings at midnight. A great, great s’mores cookie.

I had a simple, average chai at Bordertown Coffee, but I really admire their style and ethics. It’s a cute tucked-away student hangout spot.

Surly is a brewery that’s gradually growing in notoriety, further off campus. Lots of darker beers, plenty of IPAs and spicy brews, and that’s really not my thing, but they’re very solid if you’re into that. As far as their ancillary food menu, the loaded tots weren’t anything life-changing and were a bit overridden by spice, but the grub is good for brewery standards. Their campus is also immaculate, with lots of scenic party space inside and outside.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

Dinkytown, since it was the one I was closest to. To be continued!

 

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This Was A Triumph

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Portal doesn’t have as much plot as some other games, but is all the better for it since the focus on puzzles means that their setup and pacing is perfect. Its ambiguous, cynically funny tone and sleight-of-hand twist means the narrative integrates well in the spaces between gameplay. Unlike the “data log” approach that has run rampant in video game storytelling for years, much of the plot in Portal is dictated to you point blank by a mysterious computerized voice. Chell’s primary arc is her increasing awareness of what’s going on, in tandem with GlaDOS’ gradual dissolution into madness. The latter is achieved through Ellen McLain’s excellently nuanced performance, with equal parts dry menace, non sequitur and dark humor.

Unlike many similar rogue AI sci-fi stories, it’s not overwritten – each level has a few lines and (even better) visual context clues that flesh out the situation with economy and wit. Crucially, these intercom speeches almost never interrupt gameplay, unless the design dictates that the player sit still and notice something. It’s yet another smart move that Portal uses the same engine and player avatar as Half Life 2 – which is to say, the protagonist is silent and first person, leaving some mystery behind their reason for being and a chance for the player to imprint themselves on the character. (You can see from looping portals that you’re a jumpsuit-clad woman, but if I remember right, her actual name is never mentioned in the game itself.)

But discussing the dialogue leaves out Portal’s amazing achievements in mood and suggestion through elegant design. The environments tell the story, particularly the eerie and inexplicable walled-up living quarters that you first encounter at the perfect time, far enough along to notice something is amiss. Empty observation rooms peer down on you, silent cameras scan your every movement, the ambient music is at once calming and ominous, and the gradual stir craziness of being holed up in such pristine, sanitized chambers eventually starts to impact the player. (This tense mood is exacerbated by having to euthanize your “friend” in test chamber 17 and sneaking through an abrupt gauntlet of deadly turrets in chamber 16.) Furthermore, there is no context given about the world outside of Aperture until the coda. This experience is so slick and pared down, every thought counts, and the absences do some of the work too. Portal’s somewhat short runtime leaves the player wanting more, although the game has achieved everything it sets out to do by the finale.

Being a music fanatic, I have to gush about perhaps the game’s most famous moment: Jonathan Coulton’s ending song. Besides being a novel concept for a dénouement which perfectly complements the prevailing tone, “Still Alive” is a marvelous tune. It functions as an overview of the plot, filling in a last few holes. It’s an emotional peak of the game experience, especially with the shock of the cake reveal and the player being re-imprisoned immediately afterwards. It’s a clever way to display the credits and give you a reason to stick around, what with the coding language aesthetic and cute graphics. It’s a bonus epilogue that rewards the player for getting to the end with a suitably quirky payoff. It’s a beautiful melody being sung by an impersonal computerized voice – a metaphor for the whole experience, in a way. But more than anything, the lyrics are so wonderfully in character: at once a gallows humor take on the villain’s moral deterioration, a declaration of derision, and a strange plea of love (a hint at some rich subtext). There are even meta jokes in there, and a sequel stinger at the very end.

Speaking of which, Portal 2 doubles up on pretty much everything that made the first game successful (length, number of characters, game mechanics, plot twists, etc.), and is a complete success. This goes for the ending song as well, which is a worthy successor to “Still Alive”. There are technically two of them in concurrence, both very effective. I don’t want to go too much into the sequel’s many strengths, when it’s very similar to the original (in a good, harmless way that expands meaningfully on its predecessor). But both are essential experiences for anyone who cares about pop culture.

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“We Are You, Freeman.”

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Half-Life 2 flows. Its narrative takes place over three consecutive days. The pace of exploration, puzzles, combat and atmosphere is flawless and the four are inextricably woven together. There is unobtrusive, but unmistakable world-building beyond the heroic “escape, progress and retaliate” arc. There are sparing breaks in the action: some exposition delivered in close quarters here, a tone-setting televised monologue there. But the player herding in these instances is handled seamlessly, allowing time to explore its iconic environments and admire the still-capable graphics rendering it all.

Half-Life 2 sings. As with any Valve property, the physics engine and control layout have been designed with a PC in mind, and they are both extremely intuitive and responsive for what the game asks you to do. There is only one set path through the world, but the design disguises that linearity with a bold, universe-in-peril plotline and a convincing illusion of breadth and choice. The scripting (in the sense of AI and NPC dialogue) is top-notch, which keeps the fighting interesting and the interactions memorable. Speaking of singing, the score is equally accomplished, trading in tasteful ambient techno patterns and melodies at appropriate junctures, with lovely sound design to boot.

Half-Life 2 wows. From the moment it boots up, the introduction of new mechanics and concepts never winds down. The amazing thing is how brilliantly the game serves as its own tutorial, while never seeming anything less than an organic thrill ride. Again, while of its time in some ways, it is still a towering achievement of storytelling and immersion. This is thanks to its stunning technical and art design, creating an entire post-apocalyptic city through dynamic objects, textures and lighting. City 17’s maps are detailed and easy to differentiate, no matter how many corridors you walk or abandoned structures you explore. With such wrinkles as vehicular segments, cooperative levels and stealth objectives, the gameplay never flags.

Half-Life 2 endures. All its component parts, both artistic and mechanical, serve the narrative perfectly. Its aesthetic holds up thirteen years on, through careful programming and tasteful design. Besides some mild continuity, it is entirely possible to jump in and enjoy without having played its predecessor. Crucially, its themes never impede on the proceedings; they’re expressed along the way, on the fly. This culminates in a controversial, yet meaningful, open ending. After that, the two episodic sequels are outstanding continuations in their own way and get my highest recommendation. These days, all three are cheap on Steam and I would urge any adventure game fan or FPS dabbler to buy them and marvel at City 17, and Gordon Freeman’s daring one-man mission against time and fate.

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“I hope I […] get old”: The Five Year Gap

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By my count, at least 30 90s/2000s indie bands and rappers have reunited recently after a recording hiatus of five years or longer, a noticeable lull in a once-breakneck industry. It’s a strange period in the image and commerce of non-top 40 music. These groups, which had destructive and ironic stances on artistic and financial success, eventually found themselves in a niche climate where it was fashionable and reasonable to return, bolstered by the demand of their fan base. Of course numerous bands before the 90s endured this awkward pull back into the spotlight for endless reunion tours and whatnot, but it’s a strange situation when it starts happening to younger and younger artists. In any event, I have made efforts to familiarize myself with the earlier work and the new stuff by these musicians, and will categorize, based on their own standards, how well they did once they came back.

Sleater-Kinney’s new album is better than their supposed “classic” period, and my favorite since their last record, The Woods. In my opinion, they had just built up steam and figured out what worked in their songwriting with that album, and the new one picks up where they left off. Guided By Voices came out of the woodwork with a characteristic explosion of solid new material, which was silenced by their abrupt second breakup (and subsequent recent regrouping). Another band that improbably improved on their old output is Superchunk, who slowed down and polished their sound a bit, but made it more resonant and coherent in the process. Similarly, I far prefer Swans’ modern output to their old phase one stuff. It’s still psychotic, painful, impenetrable high-art chaos, but a sort that coheres into memorable musical experiences after enough exposure. It’s unlike anything else out there; the only close relatives I could describe would be stuff like Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart and Liars.

Demonstrating their usual disregard for decorum and lackadaisical unpredictability, Pavement had the stubbornness (and perhaps tastefulness) to not release any new music upon their much-heralded return, instead just touring to promote a greatest hits compilation. On the other end of the spectrum, the perennially damaged and embattled Replacements didn’t even have a chance to record before they imploded once again, out of bitterness and apathy. Dinosaur Jr., in their humble way, simply felt like making music again, and did so to general acclaim. Massive Attack does this on-again, off-again thing so often it’s more like an artistic roundtable that meets up every decade to fine-tune some collaborative work and then disappear. They’re currently in a fallow period.

Queens Of the Stone Age, like a few other groups, barely qualified for this criteria, seeing as their frontman and mastermind Josh Homme was busy with a big side project and went on a brief sabbatical between albums. But …Like Clockwork is a very good effort from them, and Villains is compulsively listenable as well. Younger upstart Vampire Weekend is also about to reach that five year gap length in 2018.

Also in this category were artists who operate slowly, and put out new stuff without losing a step. Built To Spill’s new record was fine, if unremarkable, and Beck’s five years in the making Morning Phase wasn’t very good at all, but that’s just because it’s moody acoustic Beck. In my book, moody acoustic Beck is rarely good. The pop-pandering, mainstream-slick Colors is at least a moderately enjoyable diversion, which also took a while to make.

Radiohead took an extra-long break after The King of Limbs. Thom Yorke started a couple new side projects, which were increasingly bad and didn’t bode well for the new record. Jonny Greenwood continued with his soundtracks, and Phil Selway even released a solo record. The eventual album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was definitely good, if not a revelation. The Magnetic Fields were prolific in their five-year sabbatical, crafting a behemoth five-disc vanity project I have yet to undertake listening to. LCD Soundsystem even went so far as to break up, causing their five-year split, and yet the inertia of fandom and boredom brought James Murphy back into the fold with the adequate and intriguing American Dream, justifying the return and almost making up for his foolish finality.

Elsewhere, Fleet Foxes became redundant and restless in the folksy revival they spawned, and dropped off the radar after Helplessness Blues. The Crack-Up passed by with modestly positive reviews but didn’t stay in the public eye. Grizzly Bear similarly took a sabbatical during their peak of cultural relevance, and maybe because of that, Painted Ruins is muddled and inconsistent, as though they’ve lost a step. There are still a few bangers on there amidst goofy experiments, however.

Past that category are three bands in particular who had run their course, peacefully split apart, and didn’t need to reconvene. But they did, to varying degrees of success. I’m talking about the Shins, the Strokes and Ben Folds Five. The middle band was already showing signs of wear and tear when they hung it up in 2007, and while their comeback records haven’t been bad, they haven’t really justified the regrouping beyond a few decent singles. The Shins, however, had a deceptively likable slow grower of an LP with Port Of Morrow. Not as good as their first three, but Mercer’s songwriting hasn’t lost too much luster. What’s more, it also contains perhaps the band’s best ever track, “Simple Song”. The current Heartworms is something I’ll check out at some point. I like the first single well enough. Meanwhile, Ben Folds Five misjudged the tone and cultural environment around The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind, which was quite uninspired and unremarkable by Folds’ impish standards.

Some groups had been speculated to resurface for some time after personnel changes and time for one-offs, like Modest Mouse and Blur. On both counts, these artists disappointed somewhat with their new efforts that weren’t worth the wait. Both of them split the difference between recapitulating old tricks and half-heartedly experimenting with new styles, while lacking the succinctness and energy of prior work. But by the same token, their previous legacies have secured their reputations and they could do very little at this point to ruin them. Furthermore, Damon Albarn took some time to tend to his excellent secondary endeavor, Gorillaz. Almost five years passed between their second and third albums too, due to other obligations. And it took another six-odd years for the newest one to be released. I haven’t heard many encouraging things about Humanz, but I’ll still check it out.

During this renaissance for reemerging musicians, a few long-gone bands picked up right where they left off. Faith No More’s new record is leaner and more sensible than some of their past classics, despite being no great shakes. Jane’s Addiction and Alice In Chains were also early proponents of this sort of cash grab (or revisitation, if you’re generous), but their new stuff was universally panned and I have no interest in listening to it. Longest of all these was the 21-year hiatus of 90s shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, which had become the stuff of legend. The shocking thing was that 2013’s m b v was a worthy followup to their massive cult classic Loveless.

Indie rappers got in on the action too, with A Tribe Called Quest reuniting before the unfortunate passing of Phife Dawg. De La Soul also popped up to release a couple post-breakup albums in the 2010s. It’s been more than five years since MF DOOM’s last proper solo work, or even since his most recent high-profile collaboration. Missy Elliott has been teasing new material for a while now, post-retirement. Janelle Monae is rapidly approaching this status with the follow-up to The Electric Lady, despite spreading her talents to other media in the meantime.

And then there’s the first indie/alternative outfit (at least within the parameters of this piece) to get back together after a breakup: the Pixies. They put aside their differences and went touring in 2004, even turning it into a concert film. Then, after another period of silence and solo work, they recorded two LPs of new material (without Kim Deal, which is a notable loss). Fittingly, their second act is sort of an average of all these cases. They didn’t put out any material for a while, then they did and it was regarded as awful or lackluster, whereas I find it solid with some faint hints of what once made them great. So at the end of the day, these two records may not add a ton to their legacy, but they don’t detract from it either.

Finally, an unusual instance: Chuck Berry quit the music making business in the late 70s, focusing instead on intermittent tours. When his health began failing in the last couple years, he mustered the strength to make one conclusive self-titled comeback album, before passing away earlier in 2017. The king of all things rock and roll took the longest break of all and went out on a high note.

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Reflecting On the Screen

You know me – I tend to overcomplicate things, and to write long sentences about them (I hope I’ve gotten better about that). My passion for the arts has become self-reflexive enough to the point where I admire others’ writing about them too. So analysis and lists are my jam. I have plenty of time in my life to daydream and think about what I like and don’t like in pop culture, and why, and to second guess those impulses. So my very favorite things, despite occasional misgivings, have stood up to tons of scrutiny. Usually this is because they have some fundamental truth or angle to them that I appreciate even above the formal qualities. So I had some fun and worked those ideas into these short blurbs about my personal favorite episodes of television. Hopefully that, plus the suggested further viewing, will give you the push you were looking for if you are interested in starting any of these.

These are kind of in a ranked order, but it’s vague. I liked the way some contrasted and commented on the ones next to them. There’s plenty of TV I’ve not seen enough of to judge, or haven’t thought about critically, or have forgotten over the years, or haven’t paid complete attention to, or it’s new media (which I debated including). But I only had enough discrete shows to get to 45 entries, so I’ll go with that and update this to a rounder number when I’ve seen more. Obviously, there will be some major spoilers ahead, mostly in the form of fancy pictures I couldn’t resist including. Some of these are also series finales. Consider yourself warned.

eydno1621unm16fzttvp“The Body”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“…”

The best episode of TV I have seen is more than its flawless execution, historic influence and notable experimentation. Its focus is a topic that’s crucial to humanity, approached without excess or didacticism, and every character behaves in a distinct and honest way when facing it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a very early example of the medium’s ambition and elasticity (below you’ll find the ultimate musical episode and dream episode, respectively). Joss Whedon’s masterpiece is charming and messy, overflowing with supernatural concepts. But The Body brutally deals with one very natural reality: empty space, or in other words, death. It hurts to watch, but it is perfect art.

Also watch: “Once More With Feeling”, “Restless”

Ozymandias“Ozymandias”, Breaking Bad

“We’re a FAMILY! ….We’re a family.”

Ozymandias is more or less the point of Breaking Bad, one of TV’s best and darkest shows. It is complete, mortifying catharsis for a painstaking story about constant change and decay, and the evil that people allow themselves to perform. The brutal cause and effect tragedy on display throughout this show is staggering.

Also watch: “Full Measure”, “Face Off”

Person To Person“Person To Person”, Mad Men

“A new day, new ideas, a new you.”

I already wrote about this and don’t have much to add. A superlative episode of TV about fulfillment.

Also watch: “In Care Of”, “For Immediate Release”

The Cartridge Family“The Cartridge Family”, The Simpsons

“This gun has made me lose everything… my family, my friends, everything but my precious, precious gun.”

The Simpsons needs no description, no justification, and no dissertation from me. In TV terms, it is everything. I haven’t seen even close to enough, and yet I know it well because I am alive, middle class and under 50 years old. So let me, in my ignorance, humbly pick a few episodes that I happened to watch back in the day and enjoyed immensely.

Also watch: “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”, “Bart Sells His Soul”, “Three Men And A Comic Book”, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”, at least several dozen more

Boy the Earth Talks To“Boy the Earth Talks To”, Deadwood

“AMERICA!”

Deadwood has more in common with theater and poetry than television, but David Milch did a great job cramming his literary ambitions into episodic format anyway. This show aims to do nothing less than represent the creation of America, in all its ugliness, serendipity and ambition. Crucially, Deadwood never loses sight of the intimate lives and dignity of its large cast, and has plenty of space for the personal triumphs and tragedies in its community. For example, this exciting hour glides seamlessly from talky class conflict to bloody class warfare, while introducing one of TV’s best villains in George Hearst and boasting one of TV’s best performances in Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen.

Also watch: “The Catbird Seat”, “Tell Him Something Pretty”

30

“-30-”, The Wire

“The lie’s so big, people can live with it”

Anyone will tell you Baltimore is a character in the Wire. But so are its Bureau of Police, crime syndicates, its residential street corners, public institutions like schools and city hall, its areas of industry, and its press. The individuals that populate these establishments are among the most realistic and complex characters you’ll find in television history, and this overstuffed series finale does justice to them all. -30- brings to a close a novelistic examination of the stagnant death of the American city, through crime and negligence and malice and ignorance and greed and good intentions and bad luck. In particular, its epilogue lets the themes of bureaucratic futility come (sadly) full circle, as every character replaces another and the country moves on.

Also watch: “Corrections”, “Late Editions”

The Garage Door“The Garage Door”, Freaks & Geeks

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was painful.”

Many prestigious and excellent shows focus on America in the abstract, but few of them nail the minutiae, the stuff that is somehow so specific it’s universal. While the Wire had a turbulent inner city setting, Mad Men was a straight-laced period piece, and Deadwood had a historical and linguistic remove, there is almost no barrier between Freaks & Geeks and real life (at least as a middle class white person, to be frank). The show was generous with its empathy and storylines, never going broad when it could be unflinching. The most believable and grounded of any episode on this list is unsurprisingly an emotional tour de force with a superb closing tune (which you know is my weak spot). The Garage Door is about a messy parental affair with no true villain and an awkward get-together between assorted estranged teen couples. Ripples of emotional cause and effect waft between the characters in different plots, which is sublimely affecting. No violence, no fantasy, no mysteries or weepy melodrama – the bittersweetness of childhood took place in 1980, and it takes place now.

Also watch: “Looks And Books”, “Girlfriends And Boyfriends”

Interview“Interview”, The Office [UK]

“Life just goes on.”

It’s hard to talk about this episode. It’s so superficially small and dramatically complete that it’s self-evident. Its emotional beats are subtle and earned, the tone is as real as it gets (much like the preceding entry), and the characters all have my sympathy despite being various shades of losers. You can find here the awesomeness of the human spirit and the utter futility of life, at the same time. Maybe it’s due in part to the setting, an unglamorous and profound metaphor for life and one of the best-realized workplaces in TV history. Unless he commits a crime, people will always give tiresome douchebag Ricky Gervais a lifetime pass for this show, and I understand why.

Also watch: “Judgement”, “Christmas Special Parts 1 And 2”

Godfellas“Godfellas”, Futurama

“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

This is the most complex consideration of faith and theology I’ve witnessed in pop culture, which is surprising coming from such a goofy, satirical show. The devastating final line of the episode plays just as well whether or not you’re a believer, and the journey to get there is deceptively weighty while remaining amusing and true to the typical Futurama style. That’s best exemplified in other ‘sweet, then cynical’ high-concept laugh riots such as the two classics below.

Also watch: “Parasites Lost”, “Roswell That Ends Well”

Crossover“Crossover”, Adventure Time

“You, your family… everyone will die.”

Adventure Time uses freedom wisely. The vast and malleable realm of Ooo; the archetypal elasticity of its main characters; its rotating stable of diverse writers and artists; the myriad possibilities of animation; and its open reign of eleven minutes at a time as a canvas for absolutely anything to happen. Its world-building and narrative are triumphs of paring that freedom down to the essentials, sculpting away what doesn’t work and honing the detail of what does until it achieves perfection.

I always say this and nobody heeds; oh well. The greatest show of its era is an epic, kaleidoscopic, haphazard, ridiculous, big-hearted, young-adult short-feature art film, created by nonwhite nonbinary indie comic artists on a trivialized cable network, which won many awards, spun off several successful careers and became a worldwide phenomenon during a quiet decade of excellence. To a greater degree than any other show on my list, on Adventure Time, ingenious fantasy becomes devastating reality and then turns to epic myth. See it and believe.

Also watch: I’m cheating and going with the “Islands” and “Elements” miniseries arcs

Jose Chung's From Outer Space“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”, the X-Files

“In our own separate ways, on this planet, we are all alone”

Darin Morgan might be my favorite screenwriter. Each of the six scripts he did for the X-Files is among the most lively and thoughtful television you’ll ever witness, masking casual brilliance with sparkling character humor and enhancing every inch of the story with worthwhile detail. What starts as a hysterical takedown of the X-Files format telescopes into an examination of the mythology’s true emotional underpinning, and eventually, a meditation on why storytelling exists to begin with. But Morgan pulls it off with such genial ease, he’d never dream of writing a sentence as laborious as that.

Here’s the thing though: This pick doesn’t entirely represent the show. Its revolutionary synthesis of pulpy police procedural, Twilight Zone sci-fi moralizing, romantically charged buddy cop narrative, and high-octane spy thriller intrigue made for a broad template. The other contributor to its longevity was the reliable and iconic character base, particularly the sparring, flirty lead duo of supernatural believer Mulder and skeptic scientist Scully. Some of the best TV writers of the 90s felt free to experiment with different styles and tones on the X-Files, and Morgan’s vision was but one of many. From week to week, it could be such disparate things as a heartrending true crime tragedy, a high-camp supernatural romantic fable, a terrifying found footage slasher movie, a humbly sweet mismatch comedy, an Emmy bait story arc about real life illness, or a trippy puzzle box hallucination – and lots more. Despite its central mystery running out of steam at the end of season five (and its wild unevenness in the episodes besides), about half of the long, storied series is well worth watching.

Also watch: “Zero Sum”, “Folie A Deux”

Amigos“Amigos!”, Arrested Development

“I never thought I’d miss a hand so much.”

The brain of every comedy lover (myself included) ties into knots when trying to conceptualize how one writes an Arrested Development episode. First you have to sketch out nine story arcs for a 22-minute episode, keeping the seasonal picture in mind. Every line (narrator included) has to be either plot or characterization, and most must also function as a setup or punchline. At your disposal is a world of running gags to mutate, evolve and call back to. Experiments of any kind are encouraged – from stylistic tangents to larger-than-life parody to incomprehensible chronology looping – as long as the deranged and self-defeating Bluth family is at the center, barely composing themselves and only slightly worth rooting for. Any and every type of humor is allowed; this includes esoteric pop culture references, background gags, slapstick, character bits and much more. Once you have that going for you, just do it for four whole seasons.

At the time, there was very little precedent in TV history for AD’s tone, structure and filming style, and now almost every single-camera network comedy rips it off to varying degrees of success. The first three seasons are a tremendous achievement (the fourth is a laudably ambitious step down), but Amigos! may be the high point.

Also watch: “The One Where Michael Leaves”, “The One Where They Build A House”

Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom“Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom”, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia

“How do you show love? You go and have sex with old people!!!”

The finest and tightest farce story I’ve ever come across. Not to sell short the wonderfully malicious and disturbed ensemble just starting to cohere into a masochistic comedy machine, with endless outrageous scenarios to match. Not everybody likes the outsized chaos of Sunny (their loss). Everybody likes this episode.

Also watch: “The Gang Gets Analyzed”, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot”

Scott Tenorman Must Die“Scott Tenorman Must Die”, South Park

“The tears of unfathomable sadness! Yummy!”

Like all TV shows, South Park had its peak time, place and audience. It held that power for a good long time too. But it has lost its way, as most long-running shows do. I guess that’s okay, because at the height of its powers, to the right kind of disenfranchised privileged person, its impact was global and indelible. Trey Parker and Matt Stone stole the twist for this one from Shakespeare, but to my teenage mind it was an inconceivable shock. Despite its self-serving and contradictory politics, the one thing that will never age about this show is the wicked hilarity of its characters, and Scott Tenorman Must Die raised the bar on that troll logic cruelty to an extent that they will never surpass. As an unlikely bonus, this episode also features the greatest band of the era in a surprising guest spot. When a boundary needs to be pushed (or even when it doesn’t), South Park has no peers.

Also watch: “Woodland Critter Christmas”, “Cartoon Wars Parts I and II”

Oh Louie Tickets“Oh Louie/Tickets”, Louie

“ugh”

Louie isn’t a comedy. But what is it? It had romance, grim drama, documentary-like interludes, an eerie episode or two, and okay yes, I suppose a lot of comedy. Ostensibly a Seinfeld-esque standup-centered cringe comedy showcase, it immediately pushed the limits of not only that trope, but the medium in general.

Louie picked apart the meaning and function of art just as much as it picked apart its creator, in a high-wire act of brazen indulgence and singular vision that ended up seeming humanistic at the time. Plus, with such a mundane focus and schlubby lead, it’s often hard to call it pretentious since it undercuts itself at every turn. This leads to a woozy, bizarre tone with the uncomfortable sense that anything could happen, which is a hallmark of many artworks that are genuinely new and fresh.

I wrote this blurb right before it was confirmed that CK was a sexual assaulter, which complicates the context and actual storylines of this show with what a crappy, threatening dude he is. Turns out his willingness to take shots at himself in his work was possibly an exploration of his own guilt and evil impulses. At least he collaborated with a ton of talented people on this show – chief among them Pamela Adlon – whose work still holds up. Call Louie what it really is: hypocritical, conflicted innovation.

Also watch: “So Did the Fat Lady”, “Eddie”

Royal Episode 13“Royal Episode 13 (Or, the Queen Will Be Watching)”, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

“Oh, most magnificent and merciful majesty, master of the universe, protector of the meek, whose nose we are not worthy to pick, and whose very feces are an untrammeled delight, and whose peacocks keep us awake all hours of the night with their noisy lovemaking. We beseech thee, tell thy humble servants the name of the section between the triglyphs in the frieze section of a classical Doric entablature.”

Monty Python were the Beatles of comedy. That’s really all that needs to be said (and George Harrison was the one who said it, so what other credentials do you need?). The intelligence, purity and catharsis of their work transcends even its missteps and the ravages of time, which is extra hard to do with a sketch comedy. The first season was a culture shock the likes of which probably won’t happen again, the second season saw everything coming together and the world changing around these six men, and the third season polished it all to an immaculate finish on a crest of cult popularity. The shortened, John Cleese-less castoff fourth season was a fascinating and instructive misfire with its share of classic moments. This pick is from the show’s daring peak (the ending pushes the envelope so far they had to insert mock protestation as censorship). But even at its lowest, the surrealism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is pure entertainment.

Also watch: “Spam”, “How Not To Be Seen”

A Talking Junkie“A Talking Junkie”, Mr. Show

“Hey everybody, it’s Bob and David!”

The thing that makes these past two shows the best sketch comedies of all time by leagues is inspiration. Mr. Show lays down so many ideas in such short spans of time that some parts are bogged down because of it (the juxtaposition of different concepts are as plentiful as the actual jokes).

All other sketch comedy has a specific style of writing, characterization or comedic voice that it’s tied to, and the crew makes that work. Mr. Show had such an embarrassment of talent that it went completely gonzo for four years. Some of it seems dated or ineffectual now, and not all of it is perfect. But just wait five seconds. There. Now it’s amazing again.

Also watch: “What To Think”, “Peanut Butter, Eggs, And Dice”

Made In America“Made In America”, the Sopranos

“This thing of ours”

David Chase hates telling stories. After years of oppression under the rules of being a script workhorse, on his own show he shrugged them off or subverted them every chance he got. For some damnable reason, everyone adores his work because of this. It’s undeniably evocative and singular, but also sometimes frustrating and boring, succeeding more on a tonal level than anything.

The Sopranos is the most nihilistic show ever, trading in mundane dialogue, unchanging characters, drab visuals and petty upper-middle-class concerns. It ended up drastically influencing the glut of television we are currently in, but watching the show can be a draining experience. Its controversial finale works for me so powerfully because it both is and isn’t the ending of a story. The viewers who want Tony to live unscathed through the whole meal at Holsten’s technically get their embarrassing lack of catharsis and context for the 60-plus hours they just sat through, whereas the ending sequence is shot and edited in such an explicit way as to suggest a long-gestating plot and thematic development for those of us with hearts and some semblance of taste. You decide which is better; I’m cutting to black.

Also watch: “The Test Dream”, “Long Term Parking”

Rickshank Rickdemption“The Rickshank Rickdemption”, Rick and Morty

“It gets darker, Morty”

This show blows up decades of speculative fiction just to watch it all burn, snatching every fragment of the human condition out of the rubble. It’s sophomorically funny until it’s not, turning on a dime from sloppy retrofitted improv riffing to soul-shattering darkness. The thing is, Rick and Morty is spectacularly fun and creative as well. Mashing up as many as four story tropes and concepts an episode might be the most rewarding thing for a pop culture savant like Dan Harmon to do, although he and Justin Roiland have the skill to layer existential character drama and juvenile humor on top.

Its toxic fandom presupposes that the show’s concepts are mind-bogglingly complex, when they’re not. R&M might not be the smartest show, but it is a (compellingly) sad show. In fact, the themes of mental illness, existentialism and blinkered cynicism are the destructive factors it’s cleverest about.

Also watch: “Rixty Minutes”, “Total Rickall”

One Last Ride“One Last Ride”, Parks And Recreation

“I’m ready.”

Parks and Recreation is a relief. It’s easy to write stories about human fallibility and evil. It’s hard to make those topics shine. But it’s damn near impossible to write compellingly about human compassion and bonding, and so Michael Schur has pulled off a miracle with this fulfilling and generous workplace comedy classic. There is now no excuse to not shine a little light and camaraderie into our bleak TV landscape, because Parks and Recreation proves that stakes and conflict can still exist amidst respect and an easygoing tone (not to mention lots of great character humor). As a bonus, it underlined the pride and necessity of civic participation in an era where it was never more necessary. This heartwarming finale is more enjoyable with a working knowledge of the show and characters, so go back and watch the whole thing again.

Also watch: “The Fight”, “Andy And April’s Fancy Party”

Cooperative Calligraphy“Cooperative Calligraphy”, Community

“I’m doing a bottle episode.”

Some comedies are primarily about heart and some are more about laughs. If I had to choose, Community is the one of the few modern live action shows which balances both well. The gags are things real witty people would say. The references are ones that would happen in the real world. The conflicts at least start out pretty believable.

But where Community shines (and gained its impressive cult following) is in the framing. Oh, the framing! Remember the episodes where Jeff and Britta hooked up, or Abed lost touch with his family traditions, or when Annie and Jeff learned not to underestimate each other? If not, that’s too bad, because Community’s exceptional sincerity and story craft are on display in those premises. But you definitely remember the John Woo shootout extravaganza, the Christmas claymation spectacular, and the mind-bending pillow fort conspiracy thriller, because those are the exact same episodes, respectively.

Time and time again, Community went further stylistically than any sitcom ever has (to captivating and dramatic effect!) while never forgetting Dan Harmon’s famous narrative circle graph which made the joyrides resonate with honesty. “Cooperative Calligraphy”, while another genius take on a trope, purposely underlines the simple fundamental drama between the cast, and it’s a series highlight because of this. These broken people finding redemption in one another, needing something, paying for it and reaching realizations in the end. That is fiction, and television, at its best.

Also watch: “Modern Warfare”, “Mixology Certification”

Black Tie“Black Tie”, 30 Rock

“Twirl! Twirl again! Keep twirling!!”

30 Rock is so effortlessly, exuberantly witty that it becomes transparent at times. It’s a Skinner box of laughter, and I rarely take the time or effort to give it the credit it deserves for its genius. This show is in love with all other television shows, so it’s obvious to say it nails the rhythms of TV comfort food, while mixing in a small amount of serialization and growth so as to withstand repeat viewings. It has enough of a character and narrative skeleton to get the laugh engine running, and that’s fine. I don’t mind when it gets really wacky, such as in this early oddball standout. But it’s so consistent almost any episode could have gone here.

Also watch: “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Cooter”

Reggie Watts Wears“Reggie Watts Wears A Purple And Yellow Quilted Sweatshirt”, Comedy Bang! Bang!

“Back to the time period after the present!”

Comedy Bang! Bang! was one of the first successful podcasts before it became a TV show. It’s a showcase of modern improv, with real comics and character work rambling for an hour each week. The show, also masterminded by host Scott Aukerman, is a masterpiece of indie comedy. It’s a sweeter, more upbeat offshoot of Mr. Show’s scabrous surrealism, and a worthy modern successor to it (CBB even features most of that show’s cast). Its benefit over the podcast is the integration of scripted sketch comedy material that’s as great as the riffing. This penultimate episode isn’t a logical place to start, because actual continuity is baked in (on a goofy fake talk show, of all things), but I had to choose it because the lengths to which Aukerman goes for the narrative are actually incredible. Along with Community, no show so deeply embraces the concept of limitless playfulness and delight in its ideas.

Also watch: “Ty Burrell Wears A Chambray Shirt And Clear Frame Glasses”, “Zach Galifianakis Wears Grey Corduroys And Brown Leather Shoes”

Bastogne“Bastogne”, Band of Brothers

“Hey doc, it’s gonna get busy, pal”

I am only a novice in the genre, but I haven’t seen a war story like this before. (Besides maybe the previous work of its creators, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.) Sure, you have your lulls and your girls back home and your laborious training and your heroic reversals and the bleak chaos. But what other modern war movie jumps around like this? What about the kindness in these human beings? The boredom? The humor? The rest of the world rotating around this battlefield? Bastogne is a messy, idiosyncratic portrait of the Battle of the Bulge, told from the perspective of an unlikely candidate in the conflict. Its casually brutal snowblind narrative is outstanding, as is the rest of this landmark miniseries.

Also watch: “Why We Fight”, “The Breaking Point”

Orange is the New Black - The Animals Thoughts“The Animals”, Orange Is the New Black

“Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster.”

This thrilling TV episode raised some ire, but in the service of an important topic. Orange Is the New Black premiered at the dawn of a TV movement where representation of POC and LGBTQ folks was burgeoning, and despite its white, cisgender writers’ room, at least did some justice to groups of marginalized people not often seen on television to that point. Given the delicate topics they were tackling and how they approached the characters, some thought the creators’ efforts at sensitivity weren’t good enough and didn’t justify their sensationalized plotting.

To complicate this, much like the following episode, OITNB isn’t afraid to be sentimental, to be pulpy, to lose its way or overindulge in its characters. This tonal whiplash increased the necessity of taking trans and black lives seriously in their stories. For instance, the show was refreshing in its Lost-esque flashback structure and willingness to humanize everyone, including – in “The Animals” – a privileged white rent-a-cop who accidentally asphyxiates a beloved character in a climactic tragedy.

Given the historical precedents of suffering in this era, the external machinery of OITNB, the prison-industrial complex, and other factors, the moral arithmetic here is awkward and complicated. It’s certainly not immune to criticism. But to my mind, it’s a fascinating (and inflammatory) way to look at injustice, both in the show’s prison setting and behind the scenes.

Also watch: “We Have Manners. We’re Polite.”, “You Also Have A Pizza”

Wrath Of the Lamb“Wrath Of the Lamb”, Hannibal

“It’s beautiful.”

Hannibal was a fearless show, without a doubt. It diced up the continuity it was based on to fit its needs, leapt into the source material’s inner workings and backstory without proper viewer conditioning, and spared no expense on the most incredible visuals and sound design I’ve witnessed on TV. This bravado also led it down hyper-indulgent and campy pathways which were part and parcel of its operatic aesthetic. Hannibal is wondrous overkill to the last morsel.

Also watch: “Savoureux”, “Kaiseki”

Doctor Who S9 Ep11 Heaven Sent“Heaven Sent”, Doctor Who

“Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird”

I also wrote at length about this episode elsewhere, but suffice it to say Doctor Who is one of western culture’s best fables, and the Doctor himself one of its most iconic heroes.

Also watch: “Blink”, “The Eleventh Hour”

The Children“The Children”, Game Of Thrones

“KILL ME!!!”

The incredible pivot point of a problematic, massively dense, megahit TV drama that tried to pull off much more than it reasonably could, but which deserves lots of credit despite the backlash. A deconstruction that didn’t know when to stop, Game of Thrones became an unprecedented sensation because of all its ambition and promise, and then was let down because of those same indulgences. It was gripping because any character could die, and they did so often it derailed the plot, becoming parodic and meaningless. There was an epic sweep and scope to its world, which led to characters spiraling further and further away from one another, causing bloat and lapses in the plotting. GOT tried its hand at all kinds of storytelling: there was some psychological drama, rich historical political intrigue, allegorical mystical fantasy, and all-out bloody warfare action. But they weren’t all equally accomplished, and didn’t always sit together in a believable fashion. Furthermore, after its artistic peak, its story got so hung up on topping itself and outguessing the audience that it became ridiculous, and lost any clear path it had to a traditional narrative catharsis. It aimed for detail-perfect realism, but undercut that with nonsense side plots and absurd magical contrivances. Not to mention the fact that this miserable atmosphere became viscerally unpleasant, and garnered criticism for being socially irresponsible. So, much like the embattled and ruined societies it depicts, GOT was a grandiose but haphazard and cruel mess with some true value to it nonetheless.

See also: “The Rains Of Castamere”, “Baelor”

My Screw Up“My Screw Up”, Scrubs

“Where do you think we are?”

Scrubs is a warm, sloppy, well-meaning and sometimes great sitcom peppered lightly with heartbreak. It’s more of an earnest workplace comedy than a medical drama (coincidentally, real physicians have said it’s the most accurate hospital show). Despite its lesser seasons, character devolution and erratic tone, Scrubs was always heartfelt. In fact, most fans tend to prefer its more thoughtful and sad installments, such as this one. Because of its skill with both melodrama and hyperactive silliness, it’s a wonderful comfort food show.

Also watch: “My Lunch”, “My Finale”

Tim and Eric

“Comedy”, Tim and Eric, Awesome Show! Great Job!

“Finally, everyone can laugh…”

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are geniuses of garbage. They were influenced by an era of poisonous irony, confusing postmodernism and pop-culture nonsense. In an obscure late-night airing slot on a network for nerdy teens, they salvaged low art not with any highfalutin tricks or condescension, but by cannibalizing it for their own purposes while turning the intensity up to ten. The sensory overload of the editing and intentional discomfort of their performances are something to behold, and Tim and Eric wield them expertly in lots of different permutations, from parody to gross-out gags to pure surrealism. This is anti-comedy so potent and well-executed that it becomes actual comedy. Although it’s not for everyone.

Also watch: “Man Milk”, “Greene Machine”

Part 7 Peleliu Hills“Part Seven [Peleliu Hills]”, The Pacific

“You can’t dwell on it.”

This story contains the two or three most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on TV, and it’s not close. That dubious honor of realism and emotional power goes to another knockout World War II miniseries from Spielberg and Hanks. The Pacific gives visibility to an equally maddening and monstrous side of the conflict, but dodges the potential traps of such racially loaded material by instead being an incisive psychological and cultural portrait of the American troops (more so than even Band of Brothers was). All the historical stuff is very, very brutal and matter of fact, evoking fear more than anything else.

Also watch: “Part Six [Pelelieu Airfield]”, “Part Nine [Okinawa]”

Happiness, Pillow Fight, Imaginary Friend“Happiness; Pillow Fight; Imaginary Friend”, Review

“It’s so great to hear my rights! I’m so glad for the Constitution!”

This show is like nothing else… besides the Australian program that inspired it, that is. At first, Review seems like an excuse for satirical prank humor, but there are scripted multicamera sections, and an exaggerated character being played (masterfully so) by Andy Daly. So then it rises to the level of satirical slapstick, taking the chance to get this well-meaning buffoon into R-rated situations. But there’s also the mockumentary show-within-a-show conceit, and even within the first episode, glimpses of Forrest MacNeil’s life and psychology, which become rather unsettling. At that very early point, we already have a dramatic, story-based hook behind at least two layers of fiction, since his travails carry over through the series.

After a while, the dry professionalism that hilariously carries Forrest through the worst experiences of his life becomes the predominant tone of one of the darkest and saddest comedies in a TV era full of them. At its emotional core, the flawless diamond that is Review’s 22 episode run could be compared to the macabre suffering of Job, the hollow sadness of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, or Albert Brooks’ revolutionary mass-media satires. But more than anything, Daly (and the onscreen “creative team”) has presented a bleakly funny look at insanity and obsession, wrapped up right at the point of no return. Three episodes of Review’s unique style (just watch the below episodes first) should justify all this high-minded praise.

Also watch: “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes”, “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination”

Topsy“Topsy”, Bob’s Burgers

“Electric love”

Since Parks and Recreation ended, this is the sweetest show on television. The hallmark of Bob’s Burgers is a wonderfully inclusive and celebratory attitude toward its off-kilter characters, especially its central family. To this day, it still bases plausible yet wacky conflicts between them, but never loses its heart. Add to that a penchant for musical interludes and the excellent cast chemistry, and it’s yet another sitcom for the ages.

Also watch: “Mother Daughter Laser Razor”, “Mazel-Tina”

The Third Conchord“The Third Conchord”, Flight of the Conchords

“Pied Piper wasn’t cool, he took all those kids into a cave.”

Cult classic Flight of the Conchords is a deadpan wacky Spinal Tap-esque musical comedy with an imagination that outpaces its humble beginnings and low budget. Its quality pretty much speaks for itself.

Also watch: “Bowie”, “The New Cup”

60517547“Space Conflict From Beyond Pluto”, Aqua Teen Hunger Force

“Those buttons are red! You’ll destroy us all!!!!!”

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the best in modern niche TV, and exemplifies the way much of alt-comedy blurs the lines between lowbrow and highbrow. I latched onto it, and some of Adult Swim’s other breakout hits, early in my adolescence and they were so prevalent that I forgot about them in the original version of this list. ATHF’s esoteric, fumbled scripting and lo-fi animated templates are unexpectedly hilarious, even though its irreverence indirectly led to a Cartoon Network administrative shakeup (and the show’s own decline in quality and freshness). But for the first four or five seasons, its brilliant way with immaturity makes it my favorite show to just turn off my brain to.

Also watch: “Cybernetic Ghost Of Christmas Past From the Future”, “Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary”

Archer Vice House Call“Archer Vice: House Call”, Archer

“Are we not saying ‘phrasing’ anymore?”

Archer is pretty much egotistical alcoholics arguing, interspersed with erratic genre action. Though it’s a well-animated spy thriller for plot purposes and has some amusing continuity, Archer’s comedic allure is all about the dialogue. It’s so esoteric, fumbled and fast-paced that it would frankly be even more enjoyable on the page. The show’s plotting can forget itself and turn on a dime as well, evidenced by the numerous reboots and reversals employed by creator Adam Reed to keep himself entertained. But even when the back-and-forth gabbing is too abstract for belly laughs, it earns them anyway with an amazing voice cast taking increasingly outrageous workplace comedy to its limits every season.

Also watch: “The Limited”, “Lo Scandalo”

Sit In“Sit In”, Girls

“Hannah?”

Girls is problematic and inconsistent, but was also a bold and worthwhile experiment, much like Orange Is the New Black. It had a lot of unbounded artistic promise complicated by an asshole creator, like Louie. It faced a lot of white privilege issues and anti-feminist flack, but was also complicated and probing in its themes and character work, which resulted in some standout episodes. With focuses on modern romance, mental illness, class hypocrisy and social status from an aching, aimless and idealistic band of characters, I suppose Girls is primarily an examination of millennials. With all the chaos and backlash that buzzword implies.

Also watch: “Vagina Panic”, “It’s A Shame About Ray”

Space“Space”, Off the Air

“?”

Off the Air is pure television. Pure stimulus, even. No narrative. Eleven minutes. Constantly shifting overlapping cross-edited stitches of animation and film. They’re made by random indie artists and outsiders. Soundtrack is surreal art rock and electronic soundscapes. Each entry revolves around a common theme. Only constant is the time, framework and end titles being there in some form. Full attention not required. Beautiful.

Also watch: any other two episodes

Resumes & Jamiroquai's Dad“Resumes & Jamiroquai’s Dad”, My Brother, My Brother and Me

“You guys would tell me if I looked like a very magical pervert, right?”

A friendly, off-the-cuff unpolished gem of a show from three brothers who started their burgeoning media empire with a comedy podcast. Please enjoy it and then join the all-inclusive, always-happy McElroy cult.

Also watch: “Secret Societies & Apologies To Nathan”, “Candlenights & Vape Ape”

Klick“Klick”, Better Call Saul

“What he wants and what he needs are two very different things.”

Better Call Saul had the best pedigree and head start in television history, and yet still took a while to find its footing. Reboots, remakes and prequels are fast becoming the order of the day in TV programming, and it illustrates a lot of the problems and potential with those properties. For a while at least, there is very little new here – it seems to be a photocopy of Breaking Bad’s themes and struggles, but with less cohesion and stakes, because only certain characters can be threatened due to what the viewer knows of future events. Far too many BB mainstays appear as clumsy dramatic irony or grandstanding self-reference, and its bifurcated structure is bizarre. Furthermore, the show takes a while to find its specific tone, scope and moral dilemma. But even before it does, BCS’ story execution, visual flair and performances are still among the best in the game, and it’s worth watching for that alone, especially once it starts improving. Spoilers: At the end, a better show happens.

Also watch: “Gloves Off”, “Rebecca”

Helga On the Couch“Helga On the Couch”, Hey Arnold!

“Some things are best swept under the rug, Helga.”

Hey Arnold! is a show for children, and why should that be an insult? Much like Adventure Time, at its best, it presented kids with notable empathy, imagination, and moral truth, not to mention the next best thing to swearing I was allowed to watch on TV at the time. It can be quite sorrowful under the surface, but never once loses its hopeful soul, thanks to the unusual gentleness of its eponymous lead. It does a lot of what I praised AT for, but earlier and in a gritty-realistic NYC setting. There’s mature satire here, alongside beautiful tone poems, harrowing psychic darkness, classic Borscht Belt comic relief, teenage moral lessons and grandiose escapades. Hey Arnold! was formative for me, and I still love it despite not seeing it in years.

Also watch: “Heat/Snow”, “The Journal”

Wet Painters Krusty Krab Training Video“Wet Painters/Krusty Krab Training Video”, Spongebob Squarepants

“Looks like Mr. Squarepants understands POOP.”

Spongebob Squarepants didn’t aim as high as the other two youth-oriented shows I admire, but nothing could compete with its sense of humor. It’s animated fun in the same vein as classic Chuck Jones shorts. I can only speak for its first three or four seasons, which were great enough on their own to kickstart its still-going worldwide popularity. It’s hard to pick only one standout two-pack episode, so just consider these placeholders for a very amusing show that still holds up.

Also watch: “Bubblestand/Ripped Pants”, “Jellyfishing/Plankton”

Braingeas Final Cranny
Body
“Braingeas Final Cranny”, Xavier: Renegade Angel, and “Body”, Wonder Showzen

No quotes can do these shows justice

These shows are exceedingly weird things that are super niche. They’re great and impossibly clever/alienating. Cool? Cool.

Also watch: “Damnesia Vu”, “Damnesia You”; “Space”, “Health”

A Substantial Gift“A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)”, Police Squad!

“We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.”

This is some classic old-school madcap goofball comedy that I grew up with, but I’ve already written about all those things. So while it’s a little redundant, what set the creative icons of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker apart is their dedication to beautifully lowbrow, formula-breaking gags. That and their destructive PCP habit. See, jokes like that.

Also watch: “Ring Of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment)”, “The Butler Did It (A Bird In the Hand)”

The One With the Embryos“The One With the Embryos”, Friends

“Actually, it’s Miss Chanandler Bong.”

Out of all the shows I saw incompletely before I had any interest in analysis or completism, Friends might hold the largest place in my subconscious, although it certainly isn’t high art or anything. It doesn’t always even hold up that well, but as far as slick, melodramatic nostalgia goes, it can be a lot of fun. So I went with the consensus best episode.

Also watch: “The One Where No One’s Ready”, “The One Where Everyone Finds Out”

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What Is Who?: Other Great Episodes

Doctor-Who-Ninth-Tenth-Eleventh-Twelfth

“Hello, sweetie.” 

If you liked Dalek, other notable villain episodes:

Rise Of the Cybermen

The Age Of Steel

            This two-parter reestablishes the Doctor’s second most iconic foe, also mechanical and bent on totalitarianism. Rose is initially dating a sheepish guy named Mickey, who soon becomes a companion on his own terms when he learns her secret. This story is a showcase for his meek heroism, while also demonstrating the lumpy pacing of DW two-parters. If I recall correctly, the second half is better.

If you liked The Girl In the Fireplace, other notable historical episodes:

The Vampires Of Venice

            A potentially campy filler hour that actually has a cracking good plot with tons of nice character moments, and an engrossing sense of place for this mid-budget show.

Vincent And the Doctor

            A beautiful and pointed exploration of loneliness and mental illness, where the serialization, metaphorical monster, and focal character all dovetail.

If you liked Doomsday, other notable season finales:

The Pandorica Opens

The Big Bang

            Like Doomsday, these episodes work much better with seasonal context and character empathy, but they’re roughly self-contained epic jaunts showing just how badass the Ponds and Eleven are, and how grandiose Moffat lets his twisty storylines get.

If you liked Smith And Jones, other notable season premieres:  

The Impossible Astronaut

Day Of the Moon

            A perfect example of an incredible jumpstart that Moffat mostly fumbled at the end. Enjoy these classics in the moment – they’re fun time travel stories on their own with a new villain that’s super cool (albeit cribbed in some ways from a classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode).

If you liked Human Nature and The Family Of Blood, other notable pacifist episodes:

Planet Of the Ood

            The Ood aren’t a classic adversary so much as a passive race that the Doctor keeps tabs on. Their subservient nature makes for a fascinating dynamic in this solid hour’s free will and/or racism allegory. Also, yeah, they look pretty creepy, but it is what it is.

The Zygon Inversion

            Another example of a superior second half, The Zygon Inversion hits a lot of familiar Doctor Who themes: talking through things, regret and suffering, the pointlessness of evil, showmanship and flamboyance, petulant rage, and an investigative spirit.

            The only preamble a new viewer needs is that an undiscovered alien culture on earth called the Silurians has begun to wage war and stake their claim to the planet. Their leader disguises itself as Clara and wants to wipe out all humans, in a chilling metaphor for immigration anxieties. The Doctor’s superiority over most life forms can sometimes manifest in a benevolent, doting Godlike way, as it does here.

            At one point they return to a room from Day Of the Doctor, where a universe-saving armistice plot twist was reached through the Time Lord’s shenanigans. It is there that perhaps the greatest scene and monologue from the revived series occurs, exemplifying all those above facets of the Doctor’s worldview in a brilliant performance from Capaldi.

If you liked Blink, other notable thriller episodes:

42

            This episode revels in its pulpy, high-tension premise – a then-timely ticking clock riff on 24 with plenty of action and cannon fodder.

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

            Here, there’s a surprising amount of time for moral quandaries, side character beats and developing the companions despite the unabashedly childish concept. Its threat and structure are also very unusual and intriguing.

Time Heist

            Time Heist sets up the fiction of this world to pretty much do a straightforward heist caper with minimal sci-fi, and it’s a blast.

If you liked Midnight, other notable dark episodes:

A Good Man Goes To War

Let’s Kill Hitler

            More portentous and grim than psychologically disturbing, these twisty-turny mythology payoff episodes heavily utilize Moffat’s go-for-broke puzzle-box story methods. The final result sort of collapses under its own machinations, harming the internal logic of some of the characters, but it’s a thrilling ride the first time through. This continues a pattern I observed earlier in season six. If you don’t question it and keep an emotional distance, it’s pretty impressive.

The Waters Of Mars

            This is another unusually despairing Davies episode (a long-form special, at that) about gray morality, the Doctor overstepping his boundaries, and the best laid plans going awry.

If you liked The Eleventh Hour, other notable episodes from season five:

The Time Of Angels

Flesh And Stone

            A double-shot Weeping Angel redux by way of Aliens. The iconic foes hadn’t lost their novelty or menace yet, and a familiar face shows up for the adventure, depending on which of these episodes you’ve already seen.

If you liked Amy’s Choice, other notable companion-centric episodes:

Father’s Day

Kill the Moon

The Woman Who Lived

            Next, an unrelated triptych to demonstrate how the Doctor complicates and infiltrates human existence. First, by breaking and complicating familial relationships. Then by lording over this lesser species without proper regard for their sapience and dignity. Finally, his alien machinations and ramshackle solutions tending to cause more problems than they’re worth.

            There are some interesting moral quandaries presented among these three hours. Kill the Moon is a reproductive rights allegory wisely turned over to the women in the cast, and which just barely lands on the smarter side of the issue while offering shades of opinion. Next, The Woman Who Lived finds the Doctor accidentally creating a time-prolonged demigod equal out of an innocent young girl, and the unspeakable angst that created for her contrasts with the Time Lord’s seemingly altruistic methods. Then, Father’s Day sheds light on how the families of companions carry on after their child disappears (for all they know – it’s all very Peter Pan-esque) while giving Rose some character shading.

If you liked The Lodger, other notable comedic episodes:

Turn Left

            A “what if?” episode that’s a showcase for Donna, one companion who’s not in this list a whole lot. This does a good job depicting her charming life, silliness and all.

Flatline

            This is a terrific adventure episode with an incredibly imaginative threat and a great use of Clara as a heroine. But I’m also including it here because of the most inspired comedic set piece this show has ever done.

If you liked The Doctor’s Wife, other notable TARDIS-related episodes:

Journey To the Centre of the TARDIS

            More boundless TARDIS zaniness, with a couple eerie surprises.

If you liked The Snowmen, other notable Christmas episodes:

A Christmas Carol

            A perfect Christmas episode balance of a familiar holiday tale, tweaked to fit the Doctor’s sci-fi milieu.

If you liked The Day Of the Doctor, other notable mythology episodes:

The End of Time, Part 2

The Wedding Of River Song

The Time Of the Doctor

            These three episodes are all imperfect, but still have the signature of their creators and a lot of potential. The End Of Time has a typically lackluster first part, while the second half is a surprisingly slick, moving reunion tour of different companions as Davies bids farewell to his pet project. Among them is Wilfred, Donna’s grandfather and part-time spacefarer. He’s jovial, down-to-earth and childlike.

            The Wedding Of River Song is a breathless attempt to ground a supporting character, Doctor and seasonal arc that had all gone out of control through Moffat’s increasing story escalation. That it even succeeds mildly is impressive. It’s a bit perfunctory, confusing and cynical about its characters, but essentially the plot makes sense.

            The same goes for The Time Of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary companion piece to the Day Of the Doctor (and an ostensible Christmas special, technically). If there’s any occasion to forgive Moffat’s grandiosity, it’s this impressive story arc. It also marks another important facet of the show, the one regeneration episode on my list. For season seven, Smith’s “death” is appropriately off-format and belabored, but the basics are there, and it’s still resonant.

If you liked Mummy On the Orient Express, other notable mystery episodes:

Silence In the Library

Forest of the Dead

            This fan-beloved two-parter has some of Moffat’s best story ideas, and it moves quickly and eventfully, despite a couple odd moments. It’s also crucial for introducing a rare non-companion supporting player, and a rarer still romantic foil for the Doctor. The thing about River Song (Alex Kingston) is… well, you’ll see, but suffice it to say that I skipped over her spotlight episodes in the general primer for a pragmatic reason, and your acquaintance with her should start here.

If you liked Heaven Sent, other notable existential episodes:

The Satan Pit

            This unsettling second-part entry tackles the possibility of an unknown deity, and gets very cutting with its examination of faith and religion in a stifling setting similar to that of Midnight.

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Heaven Sent

Heaven Sent 2

“I can’t always do this. Why can’t I just lose?”

Who is the Doctor from Gallifrey?

            Heaven Sent has more answers to that than almost any Doctor Who story, revealed bit by bit as the Time Lord bares his soul and overcomes his darkest hour. He wants to know things, harboring a healthy fascination and respect for all peaceful races. He has a thirst for experience and hedonism, accompanied by a madcap sense of humor. He is aware that constant change is a permanent part of his life, and as much as he would sometimes like to stay put and get attached, he never allows himself to do so. He doesn’t want to be alone, even though his travels are fundamentally lonely. He lives with a host of personal demons and failings for a hyperextended lifespan. Because of this, he has to mask his guilt and pain in various ways. He has a ferocious will to persevere and win, using his incredible intellect to do so. He is loyal to his friends and his moral code. He is incredibly resilient, willing to withstand tremendous pain for his cause. He is arrogant, having repeatedly cheated death and disaster through unlikely means. Lastly, he is afraid: of himself, of all the terrible things in the universe, of failure.

            Heaven Sent is a modern TV classic, and arguably the show’s best episode. It’s the first Doctor Who story to my knowledge without any sort of companion. Twelve is helpless, defeated and left in a desolate labyrinth to reckon with all these variables – who he is.

            It’s effectively creepy and disorienting, with one of Moffat’s trademark conceptual story gambits. Yet this one is both grander and more elegant than the rest, while serving important thematic and character functions. The increasingly weary, apocalyptic last seasons of the showrunner’s tenure get pushed to their astounding breaking point here.

            One of the most noticeable traits of Heaven Sent is its marvelous original score, on a show which usually skimps on that front. There is a lot of silence and thinking in this episode, so it’s necessary to fill in the gaps. Likewise, the show’s cinematography is brought to the fore here, and it shines. A recent loss is wounding the Doctor at the hour’s beginning, so an emotional factor is implied. After getting to know Doctor Who over these posts, those few details should be enough for you to get your bearings, so I won’t spoil any more. Enjoy!

HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat)

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