In Praise of the Stand-alone Episode of TV

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L-R: Lost's "Expose"; BoJack Horseman's "Fish Out of Water"; Breaking Bad's "Fly" Photo: ABC, Netflix, AMC

BoJack Horseman’s third season is getting plenty of well-deserved praise about lots of things — its deep understanding of character, its rich density of visual jokes, its thoughtful depiction of topics ranging from depression to addiction, its fundamental hopefulness. Among these, there’s also been much appreciation for the show’s fourth episode, “Fish Out of Water,” a stand-alone half-hour where BoJack travels underwater to promote his movie and has trouble negotiating the culture. Notably, the episode is almost entirely wordless.

The story of “Fish Out of Water,” which follows BoJack through a series of misadventures related to his inability to talk with anyone around him, is instead told entirely through the episode’s impressive animation and excellent musical score. And it’s hardly just a sequence of visual silliness and pratfalls. “Fish Out of Water” gets to the core of what makes BoJack Horseman tick. It’s an episode about the gnawing anxiety about your place in the world, the yearning for connection, and the perpetual frustration of being misunderstood. As Jesse David Fox writes in his excellent piece on the episode, it “feels less like an episode of television and more like a short film.”

I completely understand where that idea comes from, and it’s a useful way to consider the episode. Like a movie, “Fish Out of Water” sets up and resolves its narrative stakes within the episode itself. It feels distinctly self-contained. And especially when “Fish Out of Water” so strongly evokes film references like Lost in Translation, and when BoJack itself is a show obsessed with TV and the movies, describing the episode in film terms makes sense.

But it’s also important to see “Fish Out of Water” in distinctly TV-centric terms — this is a kind of episode we’ve seen before, and at its best, it represents some of the most interesting of what television can do within the episodic format. TV has a long history of exactly the kind of stylistic and narrative invention that BoJack is playing with here. You may know it best in what is often its silliest iteration: the musical episode. But it exists in other forms, too. There are episodes like the one in BoJack that play with silence; episodes that throw out the usual conventions of their show’s genre and instead spend an hour pretending to be something else, like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Big Goodbye”; episodes told from the point of view of a minor character, as Enlightened did with “Consider Helen.” And, of course, there’s the beloved bottle episode, which strips a story to its skeleton, like Breaking Bad’s transcendent “Fly,” which uses its break from the series’ normal pacing to drill to the core of Jesse and Walt’s relationship.

It’s easy to remember the great ones, but in practice, a lot of these types of episodes are lightly entertaining at best, and inanely dull at worst. There’s an episode of Bones that’s narrated from the point of view of a skull. Fringe’s “Brown Betty” episode went all in, doing a noir and a musical at the same time. Think, too, of Lost’s divisive episode “Expose,” which focused on two characters we’ve never cared about before, Nikki and Paulo. And then there’s Buffy, which did almost all of these, with varying success — the wordless episode, the episode without any incidental score, the episode from the point of view of a minor character, the Groundhog Day episode, and the deservedly famous “Once More, With Feeling.” Stand-alone episodes tend to happen more often on supernatural or fantasy shows because the premises are so easy to establish. The demon this week turned us all into teenagers! The monster last week erased everyone’s memory!

For any genre, these episodes are always a risk. You’re probably turning on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy because you like what it already is, not because you want to watch Callie Torres singing about being in a car crash. And there’s often a bit of an eye roll once the realization hits that this episode is going to be all Halloween themed or an alternate timeline from the future. You liked all of the snappy BoJack dialogue. Why would you want to watch an entire episode without it?

And with the exception of the bottle episode, which we’ve all (rightly) decided is usually a great idea, stand-alone episodes like this are also exactly the opposite of the sort of TV we tend to think of as prestigious and serious. The “golden era” of TV has also been the era of “novelistic” TV, where the best thing about TV is its ability to tell complicated stories over a long period of time, and where the boundaries between one episode become harder and harder to see. When TV looks less like an episode of Law & Order, when it’s less interested in telling the story of the week, that’s when we know it’s quality TV.

Happily, we’ve already started to move past that thinking a little. The recent glorious glut of great comedies has overwritten some of the “novelistic TV or bust” narrative, and some of the most interesting storytelling moves lately are more to do with anthologies, short seasons, and binge-releases than they are with big, outsize, endlessly complex plots. However, in this framework, the stand-alone episode can get short shrift — nothing looks goofier and less prestige-y than a singing, dancing, musical episode. 

Except: When they’re not silly beyond belief (and sometimes even when they are), these stylistic experiments can be remarkable. TV, even with more short seasons and anthologies, is still a big, big medium. We look at the same characters doing increasingly familiar things for hours on end, and even in the best, most surprising television shows, we become a little inured to the thing in front of us. We know what an episode of Breaking Bad usually feels like, or Mad Men or Grey’s Anatomy or Star Trek. TV’s ability to swerve in a new direction for the space of an episode is an opportunity to make the thing in front of us feel less familiar, and to help us see it more clearly.

Stand-alone episodes jolt us out of complacency. For a brief period of time, we get new rules, all the usual priorities shift, and we have to look at our well-known characters with new eyes. They work our engagement muscles, forcing us to pay a bit more attention. They can be TV at its best, and they’re always TV at its most fundamentally TV — using the space of one episode to play around with a new idea. Running a little experiment. Maybe it’ll be a disaster! But maybe we’ll reach some new ground. And maybe, by throwing out the usual playbook, we’ll say something about our characters and about our show, we couldn’t have otherwise said.