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June 24 2016

The five best TV episodes written by Joss Whedon. Not bad choices, actually.

Graduation Day is probably the Buffy-est Joss-penned episode of Buffy, for so many reasons that the article author notes appropriately, but I still maintain that 'The Body' is the best episode of Buffy, in that he takes the characters we've spent four and a half seasons loving (and one half season hating) and with this palette colors a masterwork on death and loss. The Body may indeed not be the Buffy-est episode of Buffy, but it's still one of the best episodes of television anywhere.
Boy is this an impossible task. Picking just ONE episode of Buffy or Angel...yikes.

Buffy: The Body HAS to be on this list, even Joss himself has indicated before that he might be more proud of that episode than anything he's ever done (Although I'm sure he's said that about a few different episodes over the years). Hush would also be a more than acceptable answer.

Firefly: Serenity definitely belongs here, but Objects in Space could easily take it as well.

Angel: A HOLE IN THE WORLD!!!!! Ok this wasn't as hard of a choice as I originally thought, haha. Perhaps the acting is even more outstanding than the writing and therefore elevates the script, but I'm firmly planting my foot on this one regardless :)
I'll throw my hat in for Becoming, which is one of the great payoffs to a serialized story in TV history. The season does such a good job convincing you that the options are A) kill unsouled Angel or B) save re-ensouled Angel, and it doesn't even occur to you that there's the horribly painful option C.

Also, it hurts to watch!
My vote for best Joss-written Buffy has to go to "Restless." It is such a rebellion against television structure, wrapping up the season arc in the penultimate episode, then ending the season with a collection of surrealistic dreams. It is funny, bizarre, incredibly well written, acted, and filmed. It also contained a bumper crop of spoilers for coming seasons, disguised in ways that made them obvious only in retrospective.

"Be back before Dawn."
For Buffy it has to be "Once More with Feeling" which is my favorite television epidode of ANY show af all time. Also, I would include "Mrs. Reynolds" from Firefly. At the time Joss said this was the best TV episode he had ever written.
For me, a best of solo Joss 1-5 is all BUFFY: "Prophecy Girl," "Lie to Me," "Becoming," "Restless" and "The Body." Nothing he's done on the other series matches up.

Despite brilliant flashes, his solo scripts for Angel--"Waiting In the Wings," "Spin the Bottle" and "A Hole in the World"--don't hit the sweet spot that Tim Minear's scripts for Angel hit consistently. They wouldn't break my top 20 for the series. (Although "City Of...", "Sanctuary" and "Not Fade Away"--cowritten with Greenwalt, Minear and Bell, respectively--make it easily.)

Dr. Horrible is an absolutely ingenious piece of (song)writing, helped immensely by Neal Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion, working at the peak of their powers. I love both "Serenity" and OIS, but again, I think Joss' eps weren't the best examples of the series. "Jaynestown," "Ariel" and "Out of Gas" are the takeaways here.

Never saw "Vows," but let me put in a vote for "Man On the Street", the first ep that truly explored the implications of Dollhouse's premise.

Phew. An embarrassment of riches, and I've just barely scratched the surface.

Happy belated birthday, Joss!

[ edited by cjl on 2016-06-24 22:07 ]

[ edited by cjl on 2016-06-24 22:14 ]
At the risk of going out on a limb... and then sawing it off... I nominate the Joss-written episode of ROSEANNE in which Becky reads a heartfelt poem expressing how she feels ("To Whom It Concerns").
1. A Hole in the World
2. The Body
3. The Gift
4. Once More, With Feeling
5. Hush

Just off the top of my head.
I am just happy to see Waiting In the Wings! It may not be the best episode overall, but it has so many great moments and it is consistently so beautiful!
For once, I'm actually happy with this poll. Of course, opinions and seasons will change in time. That evil time change!
I don't agree with this list but the egalitarian in me is happy to see episodes I love, like Waiting in the Wings and Vows, get some attention over the usual rote litany. It's impressive that you can even comprise a list of Joss Whedon's best episodes and leave out about half a dozen already in the wider pantheon of great TV episodes, let alone Joss Whedon episodes. Having said all that it feels contrarian bordering on iconoclastic to leave out The Body, an indelible masterpiece of the small-screen.
I'm not a fan of Dollhouse, but "Man on the Street" is a much better episode than "Vows". It's a pity Joss only wrote 3 episodes of Dollhouse.

As for Buffy you could easily choose "Hush", "The Body", "Once More with Feeling" or "Conversations with Dead People". However, if you want to pick a normal episode, I'd go with "Innocence" or "Becoming" over "Graduation Day". I loved them all though.
This made me curious to research how many episodes Joss wrote each season. So I made this compilation:

Buffy:
S1: W 3/12 D 1/12
S2: WD 5/22
S3: WD 5/22
S4: WD 4/22
S5: WD 3/22
S6: WD 1/22
S7: W 3/22 D 1/22
Showrunners: Joss Whedon (S1-5) & Marti Noxon (S6-7)

Angel:
S1: W 2/22 D 1/22
S2: D 1/22
S3: WD 1/22
S4: WD 1/22
S5: W 3/22 D 2/22
Showrunners: David Greenwalt (S1-3) & Jeffrey Bell (S4-5)

Firefly:
W 5/14 D 3/14
Showrunner: Tim Minear

Dollhouse:
S1: W 2/13 D 1/13
S2: WD 1/13
Showrunners: Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain (S1) & Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters (S2)

Includes co-writing credits.
Does not include story credits.
Includes not credited "Conversations with Dead People".
The source is Wikipedia so it's not 100% reliable but I think it checks out.

Comments:
Joss was only a showrunner on Buffy. He stopped being a showrunner when he had to juggle three shows at the same time. The shows he was more involved in seem to be Buffy and Firefly.

I was really surprised by the Dollhouse showrunners both because none of them had ever worked on the Whedonverse before and I actually thought the showrunners were Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon since they were the most prominent writers. The most obvious choices would be Tim Minear, Jane Espenson or Steven S. DeKnight. I don't know why Joss wasn't more involved in Dollhouse since it was his only project at the time (I think he mentioned somewhere he was having kids or something).
I don't know if I'd be able to narrow it down to five, but I'll be honest, most of them would be from Buffy. I think of Joss's best episodes as falling into three categories: the big dramatic pay-off finales (The Gift is my favourite of these), the experimental episodes (for me you can't beat Once More, With Feeling), and the brilliantly written regular episodes (like Doppelgangland, one of my most-watched).

I was pleased to see Vows make the list. Another Joss episode that hasn't been mentioned is the original Dollhouse pilot.

@Ricardo L., I remember Joss saying he wanted to have women showrunners because of the subject matter. A smart move, in my opinion. I think Jane Espenson might have been working on Caprica at the time.
The five greatest Joss-Whedon-episodes? This is easy. In airing order:

"Restless"
"The Body"
"Once More, with Feeling"
"Objects in Space"
"A Hole in the World"

Naming a top choice out of those five proves to be a bit more difficult. Probably "The Body", though it's not my personal favourite. Actually, I don't really have one between "Restless" and the two 'non-Buffys'.

If I have any complaint about "Dollhouse", it's that none of its episodes ever stood out to me (only saw it once, though) - which is my most favourite occurence on a television show. "Buffy" did that all the time. Apart from a couple of season-7-episodes I can still distinct each and every episode of that show. Can't say the same for many other - especially current - shows, where episodes tend to melt together.
However, just doing episodic television isn't enough to make your episodes stand out. Every single crime procedual does 'stand alones', but out of the six seasons of "C.S.I." I've watched, I remember exactly one episode ("Blood Drops", which - together with the character of Gil Grissom - was a main factor in "CSI" replacing "Buffy" as my favourite show for a little while). With the exception of one scene, I remember nothing of the three seasons of "Without a Trace", I've seen. The same goes for "Millennium" (one season) or "The X-Files" (three seasons).

To me, the greatest thing about Whedon's writing is that his episodes aren't just "good" - countless writers can achieve that - they are special. They are memorable. 15-20 years later someone mentions them to you and you instantly know what they are talking about and chances are you rate a lot of his episodes pretty high up on your 'alltime list'. Not many writer's are capable of that - capable of doing stuff nobody else ever does in order to make their work stand out. Apart from Joss, Edlund had some really great ideas. Minear is a little more basic, but also incredibly good, so you tend to remember his work. Outside of the Whedonverse there are people like John Logan, who did some really great things on "Penny Dreadful" (namely the Vanessa-flashback-episodes, which should be seen and revered by everybody - Eva Green joins Amy Acker and Tatiana Maslany as one of TV's greatest actresses), Damon Lindelof, who co-wrote two tremendous single-character-focus-episodes on the first season of "The Leftovers", and of course Steven Moffat, who has written so many brilliant shows over the past 15+ years that it's absolutely ridiculous. (I'm actually pissed "Dr. Horrible" won the 'Hugo' over his "Doctor Who"-two-parter "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead".)

What can't be underestimated, when it comes to stand-out-writing, is the right set-up. Shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Angel", "Supernatural" or "Doctor Who" are special, for they nurture creativity in a way that most others don't. There isn't much, you can't do on these shows. - You want to talk about the mundane emptyness of loss? Go right ahead. You want to mix a statement against war with suction cups? Obvious choice! You want to spend an hour on 'shipping' and fan fiction? Who doesn't? You want to switch your lead actor with a puppet? Try doing that on "Breaking Bad"! - To do "crazy" things like that and still present top-notch quality is an absolute artform that deserves the highest praise. Some people think outside the box. Other present great television. But only a select few are capable of mixing the two together in order to create fiction that stands the test of time like nothing else can.

I wish Whedon would return to TV. His movies are great, his comic books are great (atleast "Fray" and "Astonishing X-Men"), but TV is where he did his most impressive work (which doesn't surprise, because it's much easier to flesh-out your characters if you have several hours of screen-time to do so). "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." wouldn't exactly suffer from gaining one or two Joss-penned episodes per season, either.
@Bluelark, you're right about Jane Espenson. I thought about her because she was a consulting producer and wrote two episodes of the first season but then she moved on to Caprica.

BTW, Echo is probably one of the best Dollhouse episodes. That's what frustrates me most. Dollhouse was a mess of a show, especially in the second season, but the initial idea of a neo noir sci-fi show with an intriguing premise was amazing.
I did love what Dollhouse ended up being, although I'm not one of the people who think the show needed the Epitaph premise to be great. 'Echo' is probably my favourite of Joss's pilots.
In terms of an overall storyarc I actually rate "Dollhouse" higher than any other Whedon-show. The other ones always cared much more about their characters than the plot.

Regarding pilotes (not just those of Joss Whedon) I can't think of anything more perfect than "Serenity". A cast of nine, fully established and - to use some wrestling-terminology - 'gotten over' by the end of the second hour. An incredible feat.
@Ricardo L, Craft & Fain had co-written 8 episodes of Angel so they had experience in the Whedonverse prior to working on Dollhouse.
INteresting choices, but some very far from what I'd call my favorites.
@Yefa I did not know that. Thanks for clarifying! The Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters is a bit weird though. Maybe Joss was just a great fan of Reaper!

About pilots, I was never in the camp that thought Whedon pilots were weak. The Buffy pilot is really good. Serenity and Echo are great. The only weak-link is Angel but it's not bad by any means. Ghost is pretty meh but it was not meant to be the original pilot.
I think Joss did all his best episodes on Buffy. Graduation Day is a good pick, but I'd probably add Restless, The Body, The Gift and Once More With Feeling.
Echoing(get it?) my love for *Vows* as well, and for the same reason as well. It was the first time I felt they really expanded on the character of Topher, and it really made his character 3-dimensional for me.

Huge props to Amy and Fran.
My picks:

Restless
The Body
Once More, With Feeling
Becoming, part 1/2 (or just part 2, if I had to pick one)
Innocence or Lie to Me (tough to decide)

Yes, I think Joss' best TV work was on Buffy. I can't think of any Angel, Dollhouse or even Firefly episodes he wrote I'd put as high as those. Most of the best Angel episodes were writen by Tim Minear.

On the other hand, I think his run of Astonishing X-Men was on par with his best work on Buffy.

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