How to Discover the Shows Within Your Favorite Shows

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Back in TV’s Jurassic era, you had no choice but to watch a show exactly as it was presented: one episode at a time, interrupted by hiatuses and commercials. This is why so few series dared to tell long-form stories or make callbacks to past installments. That started to change in the ’80s and ’90s, but it wasn’t until the advent of DVRs and online streaming that you could break a show into Cubist fragments, examining particular facets and excluding others. It’s now possible to cherry-pick episodes on the basis of your own private manias, transforming one show into several smaller shows about particular characters or themes. Here are three ­examples.

Malcolm in the Middle: The Breaking Bad Prequel
In a DVD extra, Bryan Cranston and his Malcolm in the Middle co-star Jane Kaczmarek parodied their sitcom marriage after Breaking Bad ended by having Malcolm’s Hal wake up next to his wife, Lois, following a nightmare that he was a drug dealer. As it turns out, Malcolm is filled with subplots and images that weirdly anticipate Breaking Bad. Where to stream: Netflix

Episodes List:
Season 1:
8, 13, 15, 16
Season 2: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 (“Convention,” Hal accuses a colleague of stealing his great idea), 13, 14, 20, 25
Season 3: 1, 6 (“Health Scare,” Hal may have a serious illness), 10, 11, 12, 16, 20
Season 4: 2, 7, 8 (“Boys At Ranch,” Hal and his friend Otto get stranded in the desert), 13, 14, 17, 18 (“Reese’s Party,” A gang turns Francis’s party into a crystal-meth operation), 20, 21
Season 5: 1, 6, 16, 19, 21, 22
Season 6: 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19
Season 7: 1 (“Burning Man,” Hal and Lois borrow an RV), 2, 3, 7, 14, 19, 22

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The X-Files: The Conspiracy
The X-Files offered two kinds of installments: monster-of-the-week episodes, wherein Scully and Mulder wrapped up an investigation at the end of the hour, and “mythology” episodes elucidating a conspiracy involving Area 51, the Cigarette Smoking Man, and bee pollen. If you found that confusing, consider a rewatch that factors out the monster-of-the-week episodes. You can even concentrate exclusively on the series’ best bad guy, the Smoking Man. Where to stream: Amazon, Hulu, Netflix

Episodes List:
Season 1: 1 (“Pilot,” The Smoking Man’s first appearance), 2, 4, 10, 17, 23
Season 2: 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 16, 17, 25
Season 3: 1, 2 (“Paper Clip,” First sustained exploration of mythology), 9, 10, 15, 16, 23, 24
Season 4: 1, 7 (“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” Flashbacks to Smoking Man as Evil Forrest Gump), 8, 9, 12, 14, 17, 18, 23, 24
Season 5: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 13, 14, 15, 20
Season 6: 1, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12, 19, 20, 22
Season 7: 1, 2 (“The Sixth Extinction,” parts 1 & 2, The Last Temptation of Mulder (Smoking Man as Satan)), 10, 11, 15, 22
Season 8: 1, 2, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19. 20, 21
Season 9: 1, 2, 6, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19 (“The Truth: parts 1 & 2,” Mythology explained (sorta); Smoking Man dies), 20

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Mad Men: The Horror Show
Mad Men may be an ensemble series about an advertising agency, its staff, their significant others, the power of forgetting, and the effect of history on individual lives, but it’s also a show about an impostor hiding and ruminating on his past, which seems Dickensian in its horror if you watch the relevant episodes back-to-back. Where to stream: Amazon, Google Play, Netflix

Episodes List:
Season 1: 1, 2, 3 (“Marriage of Figaro,” Dick Whitman steals Don Draper’s identity in Korea), 8, 12, 13
Season 2: 9, 10, 11, 12
Season 3: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 (“The Gypsy and the Hobo,” Don admits his true identity to Betty), 12, 13
Season 4: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 (“The Suitcase,” The real Don’s wife dies, shattering our Don), 8, 10, 11, 12, 13
Season 5: 1, 2, 4 (“Mystery Date,” Don dreams of murdering an ex who knows his secret), 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13
Season 6: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 (“The Crash,” Drug-induced flashbacks to Don’s bordello childhood), 9, 11, 12, 13
Season 7: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7

*This article appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.