by: Donna Whitehead
In recent years, the TV episode title has risen in prominence. Once upon a time, only incredibly dedicated fans were aware of an episode’s title. But these days, between Netflix, DVR, and television’s gradual and seemingly inevitable cultural takeover, episode titles have become much more common knowledge; when Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy for writing the Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias,” you can bet nobody asked, “Which one is that?”
And I think it’s great. Episode titles are wonderful things. They can be funny; they can be informative; they can enrich your understanding of the show. They can all follow a convention, like Friends‘ “The One With…” or they can bounce all over the place. Like any other aspect of a show, they can be great or they can be terrible, and the great ones deserve some recognition.
So here, in no particular order, are my picks for the ten greatest episode titles of all time.
STAR TREK — “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Star Trek: The Original Series titles sometimes sound more like poetry than anything else; “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” kind of speaks for itself, in that regard. But “The City on the Edge of Forever” walks that perfect line between being poetry and being an actual description of the contents of the episode. (There is a city, and it’s right by a place watched over by the “Guardian of Forever.”) Beautiful and simple, it’s one of the most famous episode titles of all time, and deservedly so.
VERONICA MARS — “Ruskie Business”
Some episode titles are great because they tell you something about the story. Some are great because they’re beautiful. Some are great because they’re off-the-wall. And some are just really great puns.
Veronica Mars made a lot of pop culture references in its time (episode titles included “Kane and Abel’s,” “Rashard and Wallace Go to White Castle,” and “Weevils Wobble But They Don’t Go Down”), but the sheer number of puns at work in “Ruskie Business” put it over the top. The plot has some noticeable similarities to Risky Business — the episode hinges on a woman faking feelings for a man so that she can betray him — but of course it’s also a Russian woman, and the man she’s looking for is named Tom Cruz. And through a number of plot turns that are really too complicated to get into, the B-plot ends up with Logan drunk at a school dance in a dress shirt and underwear, and Veronica’s immortal line: “I just can’t get away from Tom Cruise.”
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER — “Conversations with Dead People”
“Conversations with Dead People” is famous among Buffy fans for being on creator Joss Whedon’s top ten list of favorite episodes. It wouldn’t make my personal top ten list (take that, Joss Whedon!) but I can’t deny that it has an excellent title. Evocative, original, and mysterious, it’s the kind of title that gives you a little chill whenever you think of it. It also, like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” tells you exactly what happens in the episode.
THE WEST WING — “Dead Irish Writers”
Aaron Sorkin’s episode titles range from the very straightforward (three guesses what happens in “Election Night”) to the hopelessly long and referential (personal favorite: “The Giants Win the Pennant, the Giants Win the Pennant”). But the best Sorkin titles are the ones that take a little while to understand, because if the title seems like it’s coming out of left field, you know that it’s trying to point you to Sorkin’s favorite thing: theme.
In the case of “Dead Irish Writers,” the title points us to a series of quotes that two characters toss back and forth while debating whether a man associated with the IRA should be invited to the White House: “The blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard” (Rudyard Kipling); “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” (James Joyce); “There is no present or future, only the past happening over and over again — now” (Eugene O’Neill). Taken together, they say something about cutting through the BS and the tradition and the history that have been holding you in place, and finally taking firm action — which is, of course, what all of the characters in “Dead Irish Writers” do. There are plenty of great thematic Sorkin titles, but “Dead Irish Writers” has the benefits of being abstruse, being attached to a great episode, and of course, being tons of fun to say.
COMMUNITY — “Repilot”
For a show that is so much about narrative conventions, it’s kind of funny that Community‘s episode titles play on them so little. You’d think that the bottle episode would be called “Bottle Episode,” or at least “Introduction to Bottles” (to keep with the show’s course catalog naming convention), but it’s not; it’s called “Cooperative Calligraphy.” “Repilot,” however, fixes that. Not only does it coin a desperately needed narrative term (the episode defines a “repilot” as the moment when a show breaks with the past and completely retools itself, a la season nine of Scrubs), it also aptly describes the episode’s purpose, and finally lets the episode titles get in on the meta-commentary game the rest of the show had been playing for four seasons.
PSYCH — “Cloudy… with a Chance of Improvement”
Technically, this season eight episode’s title is “Remake AKA Cloudy… with a Chance of Improvement,” but the AKA is so clearly superior to the full title that I’ve helpfully fixed it for them. Psych had dozens of funny, inventive, utterly gonzo episode titles over the years (season two’s “Meat Is Murder but Murder Is Also Murder” was a dark horse candidate for this very list), so you’ll need a little bit of backstory to understand why it was the relatively sedate “Cloudy… with a Chance of Improvement” that made the cut.
In its first season, Psych produced an episode called “Cloudy… with a Chance of Murder,” in which Shawn and Gus become legal consultants in order to clear the name of a woman who’s been accused of murdering a local weatherman, Jackson Hale. In season eight, knowing the show was about to end, the writers started throwing caution to the wind and doing all sorts of out-there things. One of the things they did was to remake “Cloudy… with a Chance of Murder,” using the same basic concept, set at the same time in the show’s history, but outside of the show’s continuity.
Remaking an episode of television isn’t unprecedented. Older shows used to do it a lot; the series finale of Bewitched (a show that had a few great episode titles of its own) was a remake of a season-two episode. But it’s basically unheard-of in these modern days of binge-watching and DVR. Psych, being Psych, did it as a kind of parody of movie remakes, with a lot of homages and references to famous remakes, and commented on it within the episode itself. But they also had a few scenes that were clearly thrown in because the writers had come up with what they thought was a better joke than existed in the original.
The result is an episode where you never know exactly how you should be reacting in any given scene. Is the episode a brilliant parody? A sincere but failed attempt at improving an old episode? Is it both? Is it neither? Our only hint is the title, which conveys both a certain vagueness and a go-for-broke sensibility. Never did a Psych title more clearly capture the experience of watching the episode it was attached to than “Cloudy… with a Chance of Improvement.”
MAGNUM P.I. — “Did You See the Sunrise?”
There are some great episode titles out there that are taken from dialogue. The Knick has the perfectly metered “Working Late a Lot,” Elementary has the delightfully surreal “A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs,” and Fringe wrapped up its first season with the evocative and on-the-nose “There’s More Than One of Everything.” But in terms of punch and notoriety, the two-part “Did You See the Sunrise?” has to be the winner. The meaning of the title doesn’t become clear until the very last moments of the second episode, when the normally upstanding Magnum, faced with the man who held him captive in Vietnam, who has murdered several people and is going to get away with it, asks the famous question and, after hearing the answer, shoots the man dead in cold blood. It was a shocking moment, given the TV landscape of the early 80s, and the title brings it all back.
FARSCAPE — The “Liars, Guns and Money” Trilogy: “A Not So Simple Plan”/”With Friends Like These”/”Plan B”
Is it cheating to use a three-parter? Well, I don’t care. Individually, “A Not So Simple Plan,” “With Friends Like These,” and “Plan B” aren’t great titles; they’re all either common phrases or simple variations on the same. Together, though, they’re something beautiful: a ten-second crash course in three-act structure. “A Not So Simple Plan” establishes the conflict, “With Friends Like These” complicates it, and “Plan B” resolves it. It’s flash fiction, is what it is. There’s a whole story just in the subtitles.
It also scores major points for the Warren Zevon reference.
DOCTOR WHO — “The Doctor Dances”
Whenever an episode’s title refers to some tiny moment or detail within the episode, you can generally be sure that the writer is trying to point you in the direction of something significant about that detail. “The Doctor Dances” (the follow-up to “The Empty Child”) takes its name from a running bit within the episode: The Doctor, in the midst of a mad flurry of running, MacGuyvering, and day-saving, off-handedly tells his companion Rose that he doesn’t know how to dance. Later, after the day has been saved, the Doctor says, “Rose, I’ve just remembered. I can dance!” And then they do.
It’s an absurd bit of joy at the end of a dark and creepy two-parter, and it serves to remind us that the point of the episodes was to find the spot of hope and light in the darkness. “Just this once,” the Doctor says in the episode, “everybody lives.” And this was in series one, an era of Doctor Who in which “everybody lives” wasn’t just rare — it was practically nonexistent. Titling the episode “The Doctor Dances” reminded us that joy is, after all, just as important a part of Doctor Who as aliens and tragedy.
LOST — “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”
This is such a good title that for years, I was sure it must be a reference, probably to a country song. Say it out loud. Doesn’t it feel great on your tongue? Doesn’t it sound like it’s been sitting around for decades, just waiting for someone to discover it and use it as a title? In fact, it’s such a good title that eventually a song was named after it.
I mean, where do you even come up with a title like this? It’s not like there’s any cowboy talk in the episode. Yet the title perfectly conveys the feeling and theme of the Jack flashbacks, and in some ways of the series as a whole. If there’s a character on Lost without daddy issues (and, to an only slightly lesser extent, mommy issues), I certainly don’t remember him.