Episodic storytelling is what makes TV special and if you pay attention long enough, you begin to notice some patterns. Most TV pilots play like mini-movies that often end up quite tonally different from the rest of the series to come. Season finales naturally tend to be a show’s best effort of the year as they must satiate the audience for the long offseason. But what about all the episodes in-between? What episode numbers are consistently great?
We endeavored to find out.
Yes, what you’re about to read is not a list of the “Best TV Episodes of All Time” but the “Best TV Episode Numbers of All Time.” Numbers as in literally “episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, and so forth.” By taking a holistic view of the TV industry at large, we’ve determined which episode numbers are more likely to produce quality than others.
The challenges in figuring this out are obvious. For starters, this is a tremendously silly idea that will waste everyone’s time. We quickly decided that wasn’t a problem. But more importantly: no two TV shows are alike. Episode counts vary wildly from program to program, featuring close to 100 episodes per season for a late night talk show, around 25 for the average network sitcom, and anywhere between three and 13 for most streaming and cable series. As such, we decided to stick to only scripted shows for the purposes of this list, which made roughly episodes one through 30 eligible (though some old-timey sitcoms could cram in as many as 40 episodes a season). From there, we cut the final list down to the top 15.
Without further ado, please enjoy this very strange undertaking.
15. Episode 23
Examples: Community “Modern Warfare”, Dawson’s Creek “True Love”, I Love Lucy “Lucy’s Italian Movie”, Lost “Through the Looking Glass: Part 2”
In the network TV world, episode 23, 24, or 25 often represents a season finale. We crunched the numbers and determined that “23” was the integer most likely of the three to produce a good one. As you can tell by I Love Lucy‘s inclusion here though, a higher number doesn’t automatically equate to a season finale but can still produce some good television all the same.
14. Episode 3
Examples: Succession “Connor’s Wedding”, Sherlock Holmes “The Reichenbach Fall”, Girls “All Adventurous Women Do”, The Last of Us “Long, Long Time”, Curb Your Enthusiasm “Palestinian Chicken”, Battlestar Galactica “Exodus Part 1”
Third episodes can present some real curveballs in TV storytelling. We learned this lesson most recently with Succession‘s brilliant” Connor’s Wedding” which completely reset the path of the classic drama in its final season.
13. Episode 9
Examples: Game of Thrones “Battle of the Bastards”, Game of Thrones “The Rains of Castamere”, How I Met Your Mother “Slap Bet”, Veep “Testimony”, Cheers “Thanksgiving Orphans”
Before we set out to make this list, we assumed that episode nines would perform well as many 10-episode HBO dramas adopted the policy of having their penultimate episode be the most shocking. In looking into the reality of it, however, it became clear that that HBO rule was pretty much all that episode nine had going for it.
12. Episode 2
Examples: Arrested Development “Top Banana”, The Simpsons “Cape Feare”, Parks and Recreation “Flu Season”, Friends “The One Where No One’s Ready”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “The Visitor”, The X-Files “Home”
Episode two ended up being a very strong installment for comedy. Which makes sense as writers are surely eager to get back to jokes after resetting the plot from the previous season finale in their respective show’s first episode back.
11. Episode 8
Examples: Twin Peaks: The Return “Part 8”, The Leftovers “International Assassin” The Twilight Zone “Time Enough At Last”, Doctor Who “Silence in the Library”, South Park “Make Love, Not Warcraft”, Atlanta “Woods”
This is the point on the list where we have to start judging quality over quantity. There aren’t too many classic eighth episodes of television but the ones that are classics are like…really classics. Twin Peaks: The Return‘s “Part 8,” The Leftovers‘ “International Assassin” and The Twilight Zone‘s “Time Enough At Last” are all major, major hits. They just don’t have much accompanying them to crack the top 10.
10. Episode 14
Examples: Breaking Bad “Ozymandias”, Freaks and Geeks “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”, Brooklyn Nine-Nine “The Box”, Schitt’s Creek “Happy Ending”, Scrubs “My Screw Up”, Friends “The One Where Everyone Finds Out”, The Jeffersons “Sorry, Wrong Meeting”, Frasier “The Ski Lodge”
Speaking of quality over quantity, episode 14 is the home of Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias,” which is considered the best television episode of all time by numerous critics and fan voting aggregation sites like IMDb. Fourteenth episodes don’t have much else going on, but the presence of Walter White’s downfall alone is enough to get this spot into the top 10.
9. Episode 1
Examples: Pushing Daisies “Pie-Lette”, South Park “Good Times With Weapons”, Black Mirror “Be Right Back”, Friday Night Lights “Pilot”, The Office “The Dundies”, I Love Lucy “Job Switching”, Battlestar Galactica “33”, Lost “Pilot”
The thing about first episodes is that they don’t always have to refer to a series’ pilot. While many pilots are represented amongst the episode one examples (including Lost and Battlestar Galactica), more often than not a great episode one of a show comes later in a show’s run like with The Office, Black Mirror, and South Park.
8. Episode 11
Examples: The Sopranos “Pine Barrens”, The Wire “Middle Ground”, The Shield “Postpartum”, Seinfeld “The Contest”, Mad Men “The Gypsy and the Hobo”, 30 Rock “MILF Island”, The Odd Couple “Password”
Here’s another episode number that comes along with one hell of an outlier. Episode 11s are largely unassuming but they also happen to include “Pine Barrens,” which is frequently considered the best episode of TV’s best ever drama, The Sopranos.
7. Episode 10
Examples: Game of Thrones “The Winds of Winter”, Succession “This is Not for Tears”, Doctor Who “Blink”, Andor “One Way Out”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Hush”, I Love Lucy “Lucy Is Enceinte”, Cheers “Endless Slumber”, The West Wing “In Excelsis Deo”
In the pay cable universe of HBO, a tenth episode can sometimes be a finale, like with Game of Thrones‘ superb “The Winds of Winter.” More frequently, 10 is just a mid-season episode number that tends to turn out an unusually high amount of bangers.
6. Episode 12
Examples: The Clone Wars “Victory and Death”, Six Feet Under “Everyone’s Waiting”, Dexter “The Getaway”, Deadwood “Sold Under Sin”, The Simpsons “Marge vs. The Monorail”, Friends “The One With the Embryos”, The Larry Sanders Show “Flip”, I May Destroy You “Ego Death”
Episode 12 is another season finale contender, as we see with Six Feet Under and Dexter‘s respective entries into this list. The best episode 12s, however, tend to arrive in the middle of a season like The Simpsons‘ all-time classic “Marge vs. the Monorail.”
5. Episode 5
Examples: Barry “ronny/lily”, Firefly “Out of Gas”, Party Down “Steve Gutenberg’s Birthday”, Better Call Saul “Chicanery”, Lost “The Constant”, The Haunting of Hill House “The Bent-Neck Lady”, Friday Night Lights “The Son”
Damn, who knew episode five was stacked like this? Lost‘s “The Constant,” Friday Night Light‘s “The Son,” and Better Call Saul‘s “Chicanery” are all season finale-level quality stuff.
4. Episode 6
Examples: BoJack Horseman “Free Churo”, The People v. O.J. Simpson “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, Fleabag “Season 2 Episode 6”, Seinfeld “The Soup Nazi”, The Sopranos “University”, Atlanta “Teddy Perkins”, Fawlty Towers “The Germans”, Derry Girls “The President”
Here is where we start to get a sense of just how diverse TV episodology can be. There’s really no reason for the sixth episode of any given series to stand out, and yet continually stand out they do. Episode six is home to everything from great episodes of BoJack Horseman, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Atlanta, and Derry Girls.
3. Episode 4
Examples: Community “Remedial Chaos Theory”, Rick and Morty “Total Rickall”, Black Mirror “San Junipero”, Chappelle’s Show “Episode #2.4”, True Detective “Who Goes There”, South Park “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, The Sopranos “College”, Battlestar Galactica “Exodus Part 4”, The X-Files “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Response”, Dallas “Who Done It?”
Episode 4 presents a murderer’s row of both comedic and dramatic television. Arguably the best Community and Rick and Morty episodes? Number four. Arguably the best Black Mirror and The X-Files episodes? Number four? That insane True Detective season 1 tracking shot? Number four. The Battlestar Galactica falling from the skies of New Caprica and deploying its Vipers before jumping away to safety? Number four. Hell, even the long-awaited answer to TV’s most burning question “Who shot J.R.” happens in a fourth episode of Dallas.
2. Episode 13
Examples: Breaking Bad “Face Off”, Hannibal “Mizumono”, Mr. Robot “Hello, Elliot”, The Americans “The Colonel”, Alias “Phase 1”, The Good Place “Michael’s Gambit”, Justified “Bloody Harlan”, The Office “Dinner Party”, Mad Men “The Wheel”, The Simpsons “And Maggie Makes Three”, The Twilight Zone “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, The Sopranos “Whitecaps”, The Wire “Final Grades”
Of all the most frequently occurring finale episode numbers, number 13 comes out the highest on our list by far (ahead of contenders like six, 10, 12, and 23). That’s because 13 can lay claim to some of TV’s best ever finales: Breaking Bad, The Good Place, Justified, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire – the list just goes on and on and on. But even the non-finales that air as episode 13 are shockingly great. The Twilight Zone, The Simpsons, and The Office all saved some of their best episodes for 13.
1. Episode 7
Examples: Better Call Saul “Plan and Execution”, Rick and Morty “The Ricklantis Mixup”, The Walking Dead “Pretty Much Dead Already”, Homeland “The Weekend”, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games”, Nathan for You “Finding Frances”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Once More, With Feeling”, Mad Men “The Suitcase”, The Mary Tyler Moore Show “Chuckles Bites the Dust”, Curb Your Enthusiasm “The Doll”
Seven – not a premiere number nor a finale number – but it’s TV’s best episode number all the same. Who could say why? Perhaps it’s just the inherent luck of the number as how else could anyone explain the sheer power of the episodes that have occupied this spot in the season order? Just take a gander at the list of examples above and tell else what else should be ranked first. No really … tell us! Comment section is right there.