“It starts slow, but it starts to pick up after episode seven.”
“The first two years aren’t very good, but it gets really interesting in season three.”
“It’s not like a TV show. It’s more like a 20-hour movie.”
We’ve all heard some variation of those exhausting lines far too many times during this era of “ Peak TV.” Almost always delivered without any self-awareness, they suggest it’s perfectly fine to ask audiences— already inundated with more viewing options than they can handle—to invest time for a payoff that may never actually come. But you know which series none of those sayings will never apply to? The Boys. The Prime Video hit isn’t just a great show, it’s the show that does TV incredibly well. The Boys being one of the best shows on TV that really gets the medium is true for one simple but vital reason. It knows every single episode should entertain us while also offering other necessary elements of development.
The Boys announced what it was all about in it’s season one opening scene, when A-Train turned Robin into two hands and a Jackson Pollock painting. This is a show where sh*t happens. And then it keeps happening. And, when you think it might finally stop happening, other sh*t you didn’t expect happens. Action aside, every episode comes loaded with plot development, meaningful characterization, insightful social commentary, and world-building. All of which is is delivered with a combination of drama, comedy, gore, and outright absurdity. You will never walk away from an episode thinking, “The writers were just treading water,” or, “Nothing important happened,” or (worst of all) “That was a waste of time.”
That’s not even close to hyperbole, either. Pick any single installment from the show’s first three seasons and list what happens. In an age of television where so many shows love slow, monotonous builds to nowhere, it doesn’t seem possible what The Boys pulls off on a weekly basis.
I picked a random episode to highlight just how true that is. (To make it truly random I asked one colleague to pick a number between one and three. And then I asked another to pick a number between two and seven. I omitted season premieres and finales when we’d most expect stuff to happen on any show.) The result was season two, episode six, which is an absolutely incredible hour of television.
This is an incomplete (I repeat: incomplete) list of what happens in “ The Bloody Doors Off“
- Frenchie flashbacks that reveal his emotionally devastating backstory with the group
- Homelander crushes a mugger’s head while Stormfront rubs his groin, followed by them having sex in an alley
- The Deep gives Maeve a GoPro with footage from the airplane she and Homelander let crash which she then decides to use to blackmail Homelander
- The Deep begins recruiting A-Train into the Church of the Collective
- The Boys break into the Sage Grove Center and discover a secret adult-Super test facility
- Frenchie, M.M., and Kimiko watch their archenemy Lamplighter burning a Supe test-subject alive on Stormfront’s orders
- A Supe named Cindy who can crush things with her mind escapes and causes a hospital-wide riot
- To survive the riot the Boys work with Lamplighter, who reveals he never mean to kill Mallory’s grandchildren and is haunted by his mistake, same as Frenchie who wasn’t there to prevent it because his best friend OD’ed that night
- A Supe named Love Sausage chokes M.M. with his giant anaconda penis
- An escaped patient causes an EMP blast, which leads to Hughie getting impaled
- A lovesick Homelander burns down Stormfront’s trailer, then nearly chokes her to death after he catches her lying to him
- Starlight accidentally kills a father whose car she needed to save Hughie’s life
- Stromfront tells Homelander her real Nazi identity and that he will lead a new race of white super people
That’s one episode! One single episode that is at times absolutely heartbreaking, laugh out loud funny, absolutely bonkers, genuinely shocking, and always engrossing. There are shows that don’t accomplish that much in one season, let alone with the incredible writing, directing, and acting that The Boys is the best at delivering every week.
In terms of modern shows that fundamentally understand what TV is supposed to be (an episodic storytelling medium) and what it has become in the 21st century (shorter seasons with overarching stories), The Boys is the best at combining both aspects. It can—and will—make you laugh, cringe, gasp, and cry all in 45. And it will do that week after week as a reward for putting in the time to watch, because it respects your time and appreciated your decision to invest in it. There’s no making you wait for the “good” stuff. It’s all good stuff. But because it also does all of that while also remaining mindful of its larger story, you still get the same emotional payoffs that “slow build” shows spend years working towards.
The Boys is great for a lot of reasons. It features some of the smartest writing on TV even while it also features some of the most absurd. But it never forgets we have to care about it’s characters if we’re going to care about the absurd things that happen to them. But it’s approach isn’t the only successful way to make great television. This year alone series like Andor and Better Call Saul highlighted there are many ways to make an all-time great show. But in terms of fully embracing the fundamental building block of the medium, the episode, and remembering that every episode should be great unto itself so we’re rewarded for watching every week, The Boys holds the top spot as television’s best show at being what is it, a television show.
And if anyone ever tries telling you The Boys is really like a 30-hour movie, just respond like Butcher probably would, oi?
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.