We call them TV’s “turning points”: The moments at which a series won us over, earned our devotion, leaped—as Counterpoint did just last night—from good to great. In fact, the evolution of Starz’s sci-fi spy drama got us to thinking about the turning points in our own favorite TV series. Here are 10 of the very best, as selected by Paste staff and TV contributors:
The sixth episode ever of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ Reagan-era spy thriller is possibly best remembered as the one in which Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), a Russian spy masquerading as a D.C. area travel agent, unleashes holy hell on her new handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale). How dare they think that she and her husband/compatriot Philip (Matthew Rhys) would ever leak information—or crack under the vigorous torture they just endured? “Tell whoever approved this that your face is a present from me to them,” she spits as Philip drags her off the woman she’d just battered and nearly drowned.
And while seeing the former star of Felicity throw down certainly got those at home to sit up, it was a scene after the fact that really made the episode a game-changer. Upon escaping their captors, Philip realizes that it was Elizabeth’s own remarks that got them in this mess in the first place. Did she actually tell them that he considered defecting? “I told them you liked it here too much,” she admits. As if it weren’t already clear, audiences now understood that this wasn’t just a story about two people who wear wigs and infiltrate our country, it’s a conversation about family, trust and how doing this job means you’re never really safe. —Whitney Friedlander
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t all that impressed when I first watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I know—the horror!) The whole show was a little too kitschy and campy for me. Perhaps it was the lingering memory of the movie, which I saw due to the Luke Perry factor (obviously). But I stuck with it. Then came “Surprise” and “Innocence,” second season episodes that aired on consecutive nights in January 1998. Angel (David Boreanaz) and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sleep together and Angel’s one true moment of happiness takes away his soul. As he falls to the ground shouting Buffy’s name, he becomes the malevolent vampire Angelus once again. Those two episodes pivoted the series into the defining TV show of the turn of the millennium and one of the best TV series of all time. The moment—a metaphor for how sex really does change a relationship and the boy you loved can become someone you don’t even recognize—was transformative. After that, I couldn’t look away. —Amy Amatangelo
One of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s foremost merits is its capacity for reinvention — from my bad-day mainstay “You Stupid Bitch” to Season Three’s jet-black, self-aware Swimfan riff, “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy,” Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s musical comedy has had enough “turning points” for a list of its own. The first of these, Donna Lynne Champlin’s rousing, gospel-inflected “Face Your Fears,” is the one that convinced me—still skeptical of the series’ premise, not to mention its jejune plotting—to stick with it, and boy am I ever glad I did. Sit on my lap like I’m Santa and listen to me: “Face Your Fears” is the moment I started to fall for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and if for some ungodly reason you aren’t watching yet, I suspect the same will be true for you. —Matt Brennan
When Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) and her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson) embark on a river-rafting trip in the series’ fourth episode, Enlightened—at that point a hard-to-pin down half-comedy about a woman’s return from a nervous breakdown—comes into perfect focus. As I wrote in advance of the second season, HBO’s masterpiece finds, in the ruins of a marriage as in the shadow of a mountain ridge, the vein of resignation that runs through all our lives at one point or another; what I didn’t realize until later is that “The Weekend,” in Amy’s poetic description of her own disappointments, is also a signal of its faith in our ability to change:
You can try to escape the story of your life, but you can’t. It happened. The baby died. The dog died. The heart broke. I knew you when you were young. I know your heart broke, too. I will know you when we are both old, and maybe wise. I hope wise. I know you now, your story. Mine isn’t the one I would have chosen in the beginning, but I’ll take it. It is my story. It’s only mine. And it’s not over. There’s time. There is time. There’s so much time.”
In this extraordinary monologue at episode’s end, Amy clarifies the subject of one of the decade’s best series. That’s no small feat. —Matt Brennan
After a disappointing start, HBO’s wild, wrenching drama — which later earned effusive praise from critics, this one included — had shown signs of its trademark eccentricities in the Matt Jamison-focused “Two Boats and a Helicopter” and the brutal cold open of “Gladys.” But it’s in “Guest” that The Leftovers homes in on its most compelling character, Nora Durst (the unconscionably brilliant Carrie Coon), and on its distinctive structure, telescoping in on specific characters within the swirl of its near-apocalyptic world. By turns spikily funny (“Oh, fuck your daughter!”) and desperately moving (the orange stickers by which Nora measures her inconceivable loss), it’s an episode I knew, even as I watched it, would change the way the series was seen. I’m not often right, but I’ll take credit for this one: ”’Guest’ confirms what I’ve felt in my heart for weeks,” I wrote in the summer of 2014. “The Leftovers is great television.” —Matt Brennan
In an odd coincidence, practically everything I write about The Simpsons below also applies to MST3K. Season One of the show on Comedy Central was a truly rough watch, with very low production values and a loosey-goosey attitude toward film riffing that all too often leads to the riffers speaking over one another when making fun of bad movies. Season Two of the series offered many refinements, along with a new voice (Kevin Murphy) for series regular Tom Servo, but there’s still a sense of naivety and innocence to the proceedings. But by the time Season Three opened with the series’ first true classic, Cave Dwellers, it was clear that MST3K had truly found its stride. This episode simply represents a quantum leap in terms of presentation and writing—an evolution in the art of movie riffing that would stick with the cast from here on out. The pacing is quicker; the riffs better rehearsed and synched to the action. The voice actors have settled into their roles and each developed a unique voice for their characters. The film itself is equally delightful—a colorful swords-and-sorcery Conan rip-off with a requisite burly hero with “pecs like melons and knees of fringe.” It makes a superior episode to introduce someone to the Joel Hodgson-led era of the show, being bright, sunny, approachable and funny as hell. —Jim Vorel
By the second season of The Office, the NBC sitcom was finding its groove, having shaken off any lingering frustrations that fans of the BBC original might’ve harbored about bloody Americans trying to recapture what Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant achieved. But where the U.S. series took its biggest leap forward was with this mid-season episode that showcased the perceptive writing and comedic genius of the show’s celebrated staff. Written by Mindy Kaling, the episode revolves around Michael Scott’s perfectly Michael Scott accident: burning his foot on a George Foreman grill. The construction of the half hour is perfection, highlighting Michael’s tone deafness, Dwight’s unwavering devotion to his boss and how the rest of the Dunder-Mifflin staff relish these moments of insanity to cut through the drudgery of their working lives. It was also an episode entirely free of the sentimentality that hampered later seasons. Instead, Kaling and co. kept the ridiculous coming and turned The Office into something truly special. —Robert Ham
As much as I love Amy Poehler’s unstoppable workaholic Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation was little more than an uneasy follow-up to The Office until state auditors Ben (Adam Scott) and Chris (Rob Lowe) showed up in Season Two’s penultimate episode, “The Master Plan.” Activating the potential lying untapped in the show’s seething bureaucratic core, these auditors gave the stakes of the sitcom a kick in the pants—allowing the ensemble cast to bond over a charismatic pair of common enemies—while introducing two of the best sitcom characters ever created. Chris’s overwhelming positivity fits the show’s dynamic just as well as it fits Ben’s dour cuddliness. In fact, both fit so well into the cast that they became a key part of the group’s dynamic, with the latter forming half the nuanced, beautiful central relationship that made Parks and Rec so special. —Jacob Oller
I fell so hard for Pretty Little Liars that it’s nearly impossible to remember a time when the show wasn’t a part of my soul. “Scroll back seven hundred years of our texts lol,” my best friend/ride-or-die PLL co-recapper suggested glibly when I asked her if she remembered what I didn’t. But while now I can look back at the pilot and feel like I was in love with the show’s whipsmart undercurrent of blackest, most literarily allusive comedy from the moment the Hastings Murder Barn flashed in the moody light of a September storm, it’s more likely that I didn’t totally trust the genius of the show until the sixth episode. In which the Liars’ mysterious omniscient cyberbully, A, takes a turn into the omnipotent by infiltrating their Chinese takeout with threatening real-world messAges inside their sealed fortune cookies. In which Hanna is inspired to find her tactless groove when nerdy Lucas derails the “Just Say No” role-playing sexercise in Life Skills by enthusiastically accepting her deadpan advances. In which still-closeted Emily spends every scene across from Maya with her eyes all full of super gay hearts. And in which the Homecoming dance, like every dance to follow, is absolutely the very last point. (Did I mention that A planted messages in their fortune cookies, because they did, and then sabotaged the Homecoming dance’s fortune teller’s tarot cards, and then possibly killed a series regular and changed the population total on the Rosewood city sign in the episode’s final moments?)
That was the point, I think, at which I stopped thinking about my Season One binge as laundry television and started instead appreciating the audacity with which I. Marlene King and crew were approaching and systematically dismantling the Mean Teen Girl Gang tropes, using our subverted expectations and a million references to deep cut literature and classic cinema (in this case, Max Ophül’s Le Plaisir) to examine all the ways in which omnipresent toxic patriarchy and just not believing girls can poison a community and ruin lives.
And it all started with a fortune cookie. —Alexis Gunderson
The Simpsons has run its way through 29 seasons to date. Think about that number. Roll it around in your head. It’s an unconscionable total. Arguably the greatest comedy in television history during its heyday, the series has now been bad for a significantly longer period than it was actually good. But man, when The Simpsons was in peak form, there was nothing else on TV that could touch the show for snappy writing and ridiculously dense, joke-filled episodes. You will of course hear a lot of argument about what constitutes the “golden era” of The Simpsons, mostly in reference to where one should place the end point. Purists will stick the last great episodes as Season Nine. The more lenient, myself included, believe there’s good stuff to be had through about Season 12. But regardless, one thing is certain—the show made a huge leap forward in terms of quality between each of its early seasons. Season One Simpsons, to be frank, is often painful to watch today—the animation is sloppy and the characters are painfully sincere, still trying to find a more biting, satirical edge. Season Two is a marked improvement, but it still isn’t quite full-strength Simpsons. It’s Season Three where the show enters its golden age.
That episode is “Stark Raving Dad,” perhaps more easily remembered as “that one with the voice of Michael Jackson in it.” In it, Homer is committed to a mental institution, largely for the sin of wearing a pink shirt to work, in an extended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest parody. It was an important moment in Simpsons history to land a guest star the caliber of Jackson, who voices a lumbering prisoner who believes himself to be Michael Jackson, a watershed in the show’s popularity and evidence of the pop cultural impact it was having at the time. Some of the sweet sincerity of Seasons One and Two is still present (you wouldn’t have heard a song like “Happy Birthday, Lisa” a couple seasons later), but it’s been supplemented at this point by a more corrosive form of sarcasm and satire as well. It feels like the moment when The Simpsons arrives fully formed, well on its way to becoming the behemoth it still remains. Now please, FOX, put it out of its misery after Season 30, will ya? —Jim Vorel