Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
There are many shows that, when you tell someone you haven’t seen them, they gasp. The top on my list are Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. I have never seen an episode of either. At this point, the idea of going back and watching all of that seems overwhelming. Are there single episodes I could watch that would let me see what it is that I’ve been missing? Or maybe (à la an episode like Mad Men’s “The Suitcase”) ones that get referenced most often? —Joanna
Like Twin Peaks, The Sopranos is worth a try, particularly if you care about TV literacy. The goal can’t be completeness — there’s just too much TV, no one can watch everything — but if you’re trying to be a well-rounded viewer, yeah, you should give The Sopranos and Breaking Bad a go.
But if full investment isn’t on the table, I heartily support your idea of just watching one episode of each. (I’m sure people will find this sacrilege, but the Homer Simpson in me hopes more will find it sacrilicious.) For The Sopranos, its most-talked-about episode is definitely the finale, though that’s not really a stand-alone piece. I’d recommend season one’s “College,” which is one of the show’s best episodes, period. In it, Tony takes his daughter Meadow on some college visits and squeezes in some murder during the downtime. It’s a very representative distillation of the show’s central conflicts: ordinary life versus mob life, how it feels when mob life is ordinary life, what it means to be in therapy when therapy isn’t really part of your culture, the essential unknowability of one’s parents, how isolating it can be to think about what “perfect” looks like. “College” is just an excellent hour of television, even if you’ll never truly love The Sopranos.
Breaking Bad is a little tougher. There are only 62 episodes — to The Sopranos’ 86 — and for a variety of reasons, individual installments feel more difficult to excise; the show’s first season doesn’t feel representative of the show on the whole, but so much of the series relies on continued mythology, on minor characters reappearing or obscure threads of advice resurfacing. I think you can still get something out of one episode, though, so my pick is season three’s “One Minute.” There are better episodes of BB, but “One Minute” is a personal favorite. What I like in particular about “One Minute” — why it’s representative — is that it does exactly what it says its going to do. BB is a show that (largely) keeps its promises: “This person will do horrible things,” it tells us. And we think, Oh no, that probably won’t be right, because of my tender love for him! But then he does those things, and we wind up feeling surprised by what we knew was going to happen. “Here is a dangerous drug lord,” the show says. He’s probably one of those secretly very nice drug lords, we think. Nope! He was very dangerous. “This guy is very into being a cop; it’s extremely important to him,” says the show. Maybe just this one time, though, he will fudge it, because no one is that into being a cop? we wonder. Wrong again. “One Minute” has the show’s distinctive visual style, its appetite and aptitude for thrilling action sequences, and dramatic tension so tightly coiled that you think your bones might shatter.
I feel like everyone is talking about Mr. Robot. Is it really that big a deal? —Meg
Yeah, it’s pretty good. You definitely need to start at the beginning, though, and you’ll need to pay attention more than you’d think you’d need to for a USA show.
I’ll admit that I was initially not super-sold on the idea: Oh, it’s about a sad dude named Elliot who likes computers, but he is a secret mess of a human? Pass. It’s like if House were about a hacker. Except … House was really good there for a while. Mr. Robot is more cynical and bleak, and also more overtly political, with a really sour take on capitalism in general (which is why the show is distributed on a pay-what-you-like model — JK, JK). It also has that unreliable-narrator element, where we know we’re seeing things through Elliot’s eyes but his outlook is skewed both by his philosophical stances and also by his habitual drug use. And if you miss Suburgatory, Carly Chaikin is playing Dalia all over again here. Did Dalia seem like she was gonna be super into drugs and hacking culture? No, but such are the joys of headcanon.
I am thinking of starting a watch-party meetup group. But I’m struggling to come up with a show or shows that would appeal to a group of both guys and gals. I have to admit my motivation is to be able to meet people and hopefully more single guys with the same TV addiction as myself. —Korey
Korey, I think this is a bad idea. Watching TV together does not strike me as a great way to meet people. That’s an activity for when you already know people, and even then, blegh, not really a great social device. We’ve also talked a lot about how TV viewing shouldn’t be gendered, how there aren’t really “guy” shows and “gal” shows, and categorizing shows that way harms everyone and perpetuates unhelpful models of gender performance.
Many, many years ago I worked at a company that organized gatherings around shared interests, and one of the things we learned was that the more fringe and specific the interest, the higher the turnout. Popular shows didn’t really translate to popular gatherings; instead, cult shows like Xena or Buffy did. (Like I said, this was many years ago.) The TV club you’re proposing sounds challenging because people wouldn’t know beforehand how strong an affiliation they’d have to the show; getting together with people you don’t know to watch a show you might not like? I don’t know, that does not sound like fertile ground for romance to me.
But if you insist: Mystery Science Theater 3000. It combines the fun of group-watching a bad movie (fun for other people, I’ve heard; it is a personal circle of hell), and everyone’s seen some episode, so they know if they enjoy it — and yet few people have seen every single one, so it still feels like a pleasant checklist. It’s wholly episodic, so people can miss a week and not feel like they’ve missed everything, plus hosts can pick and chose which episodes they want to watch. It’s also an excellent filter: If someone is trying way too hard to make his or her own jokes during MST3K, you know to keep your genitals off-limits to this person, and perhaps to stop inviting them.
When should I stop watching Dexter? —Elizabeth
After season one. Other people will say after season four, and I understand why they think that, but those people are wrong. Dexter never returns to as good as it was in the first season. If you feel you absolutely must watch more, I can’t stop you, but dear God, don’t go past season four. Here be dragons. And not the good kind. The kind that make you think, Society is no longer for me; I need to go move to the forest and lead a life of disciplined dignity. Man, that show really got bad.