Here are three episodes of comedy, on ice. You can watch these without following the entire show, without knowledge of context, or character. These episodes left their backdrops behind, allowing characters to bloom in new and exciting ways.
It’s always sunny in Philadelphia (Hotstar)
‘The Gang Wins The Big Game’ (season 13, episode 9)
One of the points of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is that nothing goes according to plan. The owners of Paddy’s Pub hatch many a plot but all their hare-brained schemes fail, which is why it feels like a remarkable pay-off when this episode celebrates how—following many, many a hiccup—the Philadelphia Eagles finally win the Super Bowl in 2018 for the first time.
Naturally, the gang takes the credit for this real-life triumph.
The episode celebrates the silliest (and most gruesome) of superstitions, yet it becomes impossible, as a sports fan, not to relate to this madness. Viewers of sport have rituals, habits, things they simply will not do when a favourite player is at bat, and—while every member of the gang takes this to a disgusting extreme—this is one time we actually empathize with these idiots as they (all but Charlie) leave the pub behind and head to the stadium to will their team forward. Their behaviour is inexcusable as always, yet we get it. Their motivation couldn’t be purer. Go team.
Sex and the City (Hotstar)
‘Boy, Interrupted’ (season 6, episode 10)
Manhattan is melting. With New York nearly too hot to drink Cosmopolitans, our well-heeled heroines need some kind of escape, and Samantha Jones finds the ideal one on a tip from a Spice Girl.
Geri Halliwell (in one of this episode’s two incredibly-1990s guest appearances) gushes about the fabulous rooftop swimming pool at SoHo House. Samantha wants in but she isn’t a member—and can’t become one. Worse, the desk clerk doesn’t even know who she is. It is the kind of insult that would destroy the PR queen, whose self-image has been taking quite a battering all season. But then she finds someone else’s ID and puts on a bonkers British accent to feign a membership.
What happens next is the very definition of “summer hi-jinks", and that accent seals the deal.
The Office (Amazon Prime)
‘Beach Games’ (season 3, episode 23)
I saved the best for last.
One afternoon, Michael Scott is asked to name a possible successor to his managerial role. Michael hasn’t yet gotten a promotion, but in his head he is already leaving his little office behind and feels that the Dunder-Mifflin chicken needs a new head. He sets up a Beach Day for the staff—one of his most popular decisions—but it soon becomes apparent that he has something more sinister in mind.
Michael asks Pam the receptionist to make copious notes about everyone’s behaviour the afternoon, hunting for “humour, charisma and that indefinable quality that makes you all glad to follow me".
Michael’s low-rent Survivor tournament is blighted from the start, not least when he gets exasperated enough to tell the candidates what the stakes are—an announcement that suddenly gets the taciturn Stanley not merely to participate but also feign enthusiasm.
This is a terrific Pam episode, where she goes from toeing the line to obliterating it, her character starting modest and emerging spectacular, pulling off the feat of ultimate honesty. The visual of a beaten Andy Bernard—a defeated man wearing an inflated sumo wrestler costume and toppling into the water—is not easy to forget, and episodes like this made the American remake of The Office a classic in its own right. The highlight is a fantastic exchange between Michael and Kelly Kapoor:
Michael: The aspect of my job that is the most important (is) something that I call the Bob Hope factor.
Kelly: Who’s Bob Hope?
Michael: God! He’s a comedian.
Kelly: Oh, like Amanda Bynes?
Michael: Who’s Amanda Bynes?
This sounds standard, pop-cultural references lost across generations, but it doesn’t end there, as Kelly is too oblivious to see Michael belonging to a different demographic. She answers, smiling:
Kelly: She’s from What A Girl Wants.
Michael: Oh, I love that movie! Yes, Kelly is right. The person to replace me has to have a great sense of humour. And the leadership qualities of a Hope, or a Bynes.
We could all use a break. I suggest we step away from our viewing patterns and try shows unlikely to be up our alley. Watch a few varied first episodes instead of bingeing the usual suspects. Try it. A swallow may not a summer make (I can hear Michael elatedly exclaim, “That’s what she said!") but it counts.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen