Something happened in the most recent episode of The Americans. Spoiler: Phillip wore a wig. Then something else happened. It was a shocking moment, one that not only signaled a raising of stakes in the series’ story, but a raising of game by the creative forces behind it. In one scene, The Americans made the jump from being good to great. As we discussed on this week’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast, this was an “Oh shit!” moment; it’s when a show you’re watching takes the leap — whether it’s when a sitcom goes from being amusing to being must-see TV, or when a high school drama becomes a meditation on human frailty. These moments are really the reason we give shows a chance in the first place. They can happen in the pilot or in the third season, but when they happen, there is really nothing like it. So here are the Grantland staff’s favorite “Oh shit!” scenes, from some of our favorite shows. —Chris Ryan
NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR SOME OF THE MOST BELOVED SHOWS ON TELEVISION. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The O.C., “The Gamble”
Bill Simmons: As much as I enjoyed the pilot, I wasn’t sure The O.C. could work as a television series until Ryan’s drunk loser of a mom showed up. Why would a ritzy Orange County couple adopt a degenerate troublemaker with no future who accidentally burned down a house? So he could teach their dorky son how to steal cars and smoke Winstons? Come on, it was just too big of a stretch. But when Ryan’s mom arrived and pulled the white-trash floozy routine at a fund-raiser before deciding to bail the next morning, the affecting moment when Ryan realizes she’s ditching him (again) eventually became the formula for every pivotal O.C. scene — basically, (two characters trading forlorn stares) + (an important life decision) x (mellow alternative music from Josh Schwartz’s iPod). By the end of that scene, you’re thinking, They should just adopt Ryan, why not? GIVE THE KID A BREAK! And from that point on, the premise of the show made sense. I miss being welcomed to the O.C., bitch.
Twin Peaks, Episode 2
Andy Greenwald: Originally I was going to pick Lost. “Guys … where are we?” Charlie’s freaked-out query at the end of the pilot — and an hour after the grisly end of Greg Grunberg’s pilot — is the gold standard for contemporary “Oh shit” moments. It’s a perfectly placed, delicately paced question mark that doesn’t just end a sentence, it sparks a mystery. One day that single line will be taught in weeklong Robert McKee–like seminars across the country, as hundreds of blinkered, would-be Lindelofs tinker with their specs to maximize them for grabbiness and quirk. (“It’s not an island … it’s an isthmus! And there are raccoons everywhere, which is weird because everyone knows they’re native to North America! Also, Walt.”)
But I decided to go back a bit further, to the moment that didn’t just make me say “Oh shit” — although I probably didn’t, really; I was 12 and watching with my parents — it cracked my adolescent head like a soft-boiled egg. Every surreal detail of the nearly five-minute Red Room dream sequence in the third episode (counting the pilot) of Twin Peaks is burned into my brain: the shadow of what is either a vacuum cleaner or a very chill bird that passes behind the couch, the way tiny Michael J. Anderson is much better at saying his lines backward than Sheryl Lee, the way her arms sometimes bend back, that gum you like coming back into style. Twin Peaks was already the most stylish, weird, and hypnotic series ever broadcast on television; Cooper’s dream suggested a whole other level of art and indulgence lurking just beneath the surface, a strange mirror version of a detective show in which the unsolved mysteries were maybe the best part. It wasn’t just “Oh shit!” It was truly WTF.
In the time it took for Kyle MacLachlan to plaster his bedhead back into place, I went from being a fan to being obsessed. (Remind me never to show you the Twin Peaks fanzine I wrote and printed out on perfect dot matrix pages in my middle school’s computer room.) Cooper’s dream made me care about these characters and this show and TV — it made me care about caring — in a way I didn’t know was possible. Thanks to a jazzy dwarf and some terrible latex, I’ve never really stopped.
Deadwood, “Sold Under Sin”
Chris Ryan: Ah, so this mercy killing set inside a Caravaggio painting takes place in “Sold Under Sin,” the 12th episode of the first season of Deadwood. Truthfully, I knew from the first episode, from the first scene, that this was going to be a special show. Looking back, it’s hard to find a flaw with the first season (that is, unless you have a problem with the word “cocksucker”). But what we’re talking about here is “Oh shit” moments; we’re talking about making the leap. This moment in Deadwood, where Al Swearengen puts the Reverend Smith out of his long-suffering misery (he’s sick for most of the season, but you could argue he was doomed ever since he left the Civil War — a conflict that looms over many of the characters, including the praying Doc Cochran), is where Deadwood, for me, vaulted into some special kind of stratosphere. This is where it becomes a show for the canon. There are a lot of gutter-poetic moments previous to this one — Al’s “You got a stagecoach to catch?” monologue (NSFW) was in the episode previous — but if we’re talking about a moment that made you sit up, or fall to your knees, or simply sit, slack-jawed, then this is the one. You could boil it down to “shut the door,” you could take Al dabbing at the reverend’s forehead, you could say it’s “You can go now, brother,” or maybe that look Al gives Trixie outside the room (maybe the most human and vulnerable moment of that character’s entire arc). But truthfully it’s all of them. Truthfully, it speaks for itself.
Breaking Bad, “And the Bag’s in the River”
Emily Yoshida: I’m honestly not sure if this episode of Breaking Bad is considered the show’s “leap” episode by TV critics at large, but it was the first of what would be many times that Vince Gilligan’s obsessively cause-and-effect-driven Greek tragedy caused me to throw my hands over my face — both from shock, and because it was so smart I was afraid my brain would fall out of my mouth. The entire sequence with Krazy-8 in the basement, with a still mostly innocent Walt agonizing over the decision to kill him (“Pros: It’s the moral thing to do. Cons: He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go“) is great, riveting stuff, but I’m talking specifically about THE PLATE. After a long heart-to-heart over beers about cancer and baby furniture, Walter believes he’s bonded with Krazy-8; he sees his humanity, he has hope for a world where even the most murderous drug runners can solve their conflicts non-violently. He resolves to set him free, and goes upstairs to get the key to the U-lock. But as he’s throwing the empties in the trash, he notices something that only the detail-obsessed Walter would notice — a piece is missing from the shards of the broken plate on which he served Krazy-8’s cheese-and-mayo sandwich earlier. A piece shaped conveniently like a shiv.
The rest is history — Krazy-8 meets his end and Walter learns never to let his heart soften toward his enemies again. What’s great about the scene is that it’s both a metaphor for Gilligan’s storytelling style (if there’s a piece missing, that’s not an oversight on the part of the writers — it will come back and try to murder you later) and the real catalyst for Walter’s moral downfall. The deeply human moments, no matter how thoughtfully drawn, are eventually choked by the U-lock of practical inevitabilities, which is what has made Breaking Bad equal parts intellectually mind-blowing but emotionally heart-blowing.
The Thing That Happens in Season 1 of Game of Thrones
Mark Lisanti: I’m not sure why I’m playing it coy with the headline to my submission, other than as a potentially ineffective warning to those who haven’t yet taken the plunge on Game of Thrones. (And if you haven’t, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re not making the best possible life choices. Winter is coming on March 31; it’s time to wrap yourself in a direwolf pelt, send out some ravens to let your family know you’re going to be a little busy for the next week, and get caught up.) Consider it the severed head on a pike that signals you to turn back before things get crazy.
Anchored by the books that inspired the series, Thrones arrived more or less fully formed in its vision. But for viewers who hadn’t read the books, it was this scene in Season 1’s ninth episode that taught its audience, in no uncertain terms, what kind of a show this would be going forward. We’re talking about “turning points” in this post, and “Oh shit!” moments that kicked shows up another level; when that telephone pole–size broadsword came down on Ned Stark’s neck, even after he had humbled himself at the feet of weasel-faced boy-king Joffrey — a death in itself for the proud Eddard — I viscerally recall yelling “Oh, shit!” in the moment. This is the kind of show that kills off its ostensible protagonist before the end of its first season, not the kind of show that saves him with a perfectly aimed arrow through the executioner’s eye that enables a thrilling escape through a confused throng.
Game of Thrones is The Sopranos if they whacked Tony in Season 1 and left Carmela, A.J., and Christopher to keep the family together. Oh, shit.
The Sopranos, “College”
Molly Lambert: It might be a cliché to say that “College,” the Emmy-winning fifth episode of The Sopranos, is the exact moment the show hit its groove, but it would also be untrue; it hit its groove from the very beginning. Like Mad Men, whose pilot also contains the DNA of the show, that meant that things just kept on getting groovier. “College” is the episode that made us realize Tony was a cold-blooded murderer, but we loved him despite (or because of) it. It perfects the show’s combination of suspense, melodrama, and comedy; genres layered exquisitely like the sweet sausage and basil leaves in Carmela’s signature lasagna. “College” was the episode that I remembered most vividly, because it won the Emmy but also because I was in high school when I saw it, neck-deep in college application anxiety. I would eventually go to college and take a class called “Middlemarch and The Sopranos,” which my parents would make fun of a lot. I always thought Meadow Soprano was kind of a Shoshanna, but rewatching it recently I keep noting how cool Meadow seems to me now, possibly because my vision isn’t clouded by teen angst. And while Tony and Meadow’s trip through Maine culminating in Tony’s encounter with Febby Petrulio is the major arc, the B-plot with Carmela and Father Phil always stuck in my mind even more. The uncomfortable, possibly sexual tension that turns grotesque made me squirm, but I also felt astonished by what television could be capable of. Something about Carmela’s baked ziti and The Remains of the Day on DVD. “What’d you guys do for 12 hours, play name that pope?” Remains of the Day wasn’t even released on DVD until 2001 — that is how powerful Tony Soprano is!
Seinfeld, “The Chinese Restaurant”
Michael Weinreb: There are the 15 Seinfeld episodes that aired before this one, and when those reruns come on, they feel almost like the rough draft of a novel: awkward and unpolished and writhing through an artistic purgatory. And then, of course, there’s everything that came after. It’s been almost 21 years since “The Chinese Restaurant” first showed up on network television and stir-fried everything we thought we knew about sitcoms. We are all Cartwrights now.
The West Wing, “Dead Irish Writers”
Charles P. Pierce: I was an agnostic on The West Wing for most of its first couple of seasons. Though the acting was superb, the dreaded Malina Effect had not yet descended on the proceedings, and I have a sweet tooth even for the clever excesses of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, which occasionally is nothing but clever excesses (Jesus, man, enough with the Gilbert and Sullivan, OK?), there was far too much Beltway on-the-other-handism to President Jed and the crew. This led to subplots in which a Democratic White House knuckled environmentalists, made an African American Cabinet official apologize to a peckerwood Republican senator, and refused to hire the chief of staff’s sister because she’d blown the whistle on some home-schooled Christianist larvae at a football game. The show hired John Podhoretz and Pat Caddell and Peggy Fucking Noonan as credited consultants. It’s a wonder there wasn’t a plotline regarding magic dolphins. Back when we were both writing in one form or another for The American Prospect, Nick Confessore (now a New York Times man) and I contemplated starting a Dump Bartlet Movement in the lefty blogosphere.
Season 3 began inauspiciously with “Isaac and Ishmael,” the 9/11-aftermath one-off that may be the most embarrassing hour of respectable television ever aired. But later that same year, the show aired “Dead Irish Writers,” and the whole thing turned around for me. Everything that was bad about the former episode was made whole in the latter. It redeemed the whole damn project.
First, there were the great subplots of all the ladies of The West Wing getting sockless with the First Lady, who was on the verge of losing her medical license for doctoring up President Jed. Also, we discovered that, quite without her knowledge, Donna Moss’s hometown had been rejiggered into Canada. But the best part of it was when gloomball Toby Ziegler adjourned to a joint down the block with Lord John Marbury, who was hands-down the best recurring character on television in the first decade of the 21st century. The question is whether a Gerry Adams type should be allowed to visit the White House, and Marbury, in a roundabout dialogue, explains why it can’t happen, and yet it must happen, and what looked to be standard Sorkined middle-ground blather got exploded. The show finally had a brain tuned to nuance and not just a series of fast-twitch autonomic reflexes concentrated on its perennially jerking knees.
And Joshua Malina had not yet joined the cast. Scoreboard!
Survivor, Season 1 finale — “The Rat and the Snake”
Sean Fennessey: Sue Hawk, the vowel-lolling truck driver who formed one quarter of “The Alliance” from the first season of CBS’s Survivor, changed reality-TV competition forever. The final tribal council, an opportunity for stymied contestants who’d been voted off to ask one question of the finalists, was meant to be a sort of emotional quiz. It was a way to ascertain strategic insight or truth about the human spirit. It was a chance for theater. Hawk trumped that chance, opting not to ask a question but instead choosing to air her grievances at Richard Hatch and former friend Kelly Wiglesworth. Her speech is a totemic moment, both devastatingly clear and utterly inarticulate. At times, it sounds as if she’s reading from a teleprompter. At others, she is Lady Macbeth, a clear-eyed madwoman able to illuminate all the evil plans of the world. Sue Hawk was a bad loser, but America understood her fury. When you lose and you feel you’ve been cheated, you want to spell out how you were wronged. Sue’s speech ushered in an era of transparency on reality television — dozens of contestants have followed in her footsteps, harrumphing about what could have been, lauding their own play, and lamenting an assumed, failed friendship. These people have all been fools — Sue, too — but at least they told their truth.
Parks and Recreation, “Ron and Tammy”
Dan Fierman: By now, the disappointing first season of Parks and Recreation has become a Very Special Hollywood Lesson in Patience in the Field of Sitcomery and Humor Studies. Six flat episodes. Rumors of cancellation. An offseason regrouping. Then, in Season 2, Simpsonian, Cheersian magic.
But the switch didn’t quite flip like that. The creative process moves more slowly, particularly when it comes to a group of very smart, very funny people finding their creative voice together. (Am I projecting? Maybe. But bear with me.) The truth is that Parks and Rec slowly gathered momentum in those early episodes, sending up green shoots of life before it finally got into gear and ginned up to speed. But it wasn’t until the Ron and Tammy episode in Season 2 that we knew we had something special on our hands. And it wasn’t just because it featured real-life married couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally as mutually obsessed, self-destructive lunatics.
Because it’s old, and because of copyright and because of HuluPlus and Amazon Prime and money, we cannot bring you video of the greatest jokes in this episode. Just trust me. There are many. It’s worth whatever it costs to rent. And as you go through life, please remember: The library is the worst group of people ever assembled in history. They’re mean, conniving, rude, and extremely well read, which makes them very dangerous.
Dan Silver: After imbibing too much liquor, one topic I’ve been known to spout on about is how BBC’s Spaced was the transition point from the more straightforward comedy of the ’80s and ’90s to the self-referential, quirky, and semi-cynical comedic style running rampant today. At its core, Spaced’s episodic narrative structure wasn’t too different from a typical post-Friends situational comedy about male-female relationships, but instead of focusing on Monica and Chandler, it focused on their less well-adjusted cousins, children of a semi-self-entitled generation so influenced by pop culture that they viewed their existence as if it were their personal TV show, film, or comic books.
These were “nerds,” and it could have been easy to depict Spaced‘s characters as douchey, unlikable, or even outcasts. But the genius of the show was to flip the classification of “nerd” into something that should be embraced. Spaced was the “training wheels” for Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s now patented genre-melding humor and visual style. Along with series co-creator Jessica Hynes, the reverence for fandom saturates every moment of the show and is the reason why Spaced is absolutely one of the first signifiers that “Geek Culture” was on the rise.
Although it comes late in the second (and final) season, this moment has always been my favorite bit because it shows how the self-aware and pop-culture DNA-coated prism of Spaced takes the very Seinfeld-ian concept of “unspoken male telepathy” to an entirely different level. And what’s more, that the same skill, shrewdness, heart, and respect from a moment like this is still evident even after Wright, Pegg, and Frost started operating with real budgets.
[Ed. note: We hear you, and we agree that we should feel terrible about originally leaving out the following clip. Luckily, it is possible to edit the Internet. Take it away, Mays.]
That Thing That Happens Near the End of Season 1 of The Wire
Robert Mays: There were iconic Wire scenes before the first season’s penultimate episode — Omar’s arrival, Bunk destroying trace evidence, and some choice crime-scene language come to mind — but those often incited a knowing smirk more than an actual outburst.
The scene in which Poot and Bodie are forced to kill Wallace is when The Wire reached its “Oh shit” moment in almost every way. Watching it now, there’s still a visceral reaction somewhere deep in my gut. Wallace’s pleading, Bodie’s posturing, Poot steeling himself. My insides turn over every time. This wasn’t just a moment where the show’s audience learned that any of their now-beloved characters could die; it was the first peak expression of the show’s ethos. Anyone can die. The chaos of the The Wire was supposed to be as undiscerning as the chaos of the actual world it depicted — those who inhabited it rarely had a choice in how its greater structure would affect them. They were subject to its whims, and in this case, that meant losing the one person who never deserved to go.