2018 has been a year for a lot of really great television, but one thing it’s failed to provide — like every year since 2003, really — was a new classic when it comes to the New Year’s Eve episode. It’s not necessarily the year’s fault, because there’s so very rarely a worthwhile New Year’s Eve episode of television in the first place.
Think about it. A truly classic, definitive New Year’s Eve episode of television is sweet while also acknowledging just how lame of a “holiday” the end of the year is. (There’s a reason the movie about this day — called New Year’s Eve — is bad. Clearly, all the blame about its quality lands on the shoulders of the day itself.) It’s also about the particular night before the new year, not New Year’s Day. And it’s definitely not about New Year’s resolutions, because that’s looking ahead to the future, and New Year’s Eve is a singular moment. A proper New Year’s Eve episode captures a moment in time so perfectly that you’ll be telling your children and grandchildren about it for years to come, even long after Peak TV has completely ruined television as we all know it.
Based on this carefully-researched criteria, I can tell you that plenty of the episodes you’d argue are actually the definitive New Year’s Eve episode of television are instantly disqualified:
- Boy Meets World, “Train of Fools”: Sure, this episode could be considered great… if you’re a child and not at an age where it’s now slightly iffy that all the white kids don’t get that, when the black kid (played by Wesley Jonathan, of City Guys and What I Like About You fame) says “partay,” he clearly means “party,” But as we all know, Boy Meets World didn’t understand race relations until Angela was introduced. We also know that pre-Crisis Eric Matthews — you know, before he was seemingly lobotomized — only had a handful of good episodes centered on him, and this was not one of them.
- Mad Men, “The Good News”: This episode is of course disqualified for ending on New Year’s Day and the aftermath of the events of New Year’s Eve. Sorry, Caity Lotz.
- Friends, “The One With All The Resolutions”: As I’ve already noted, get that New Year’s resolution crap outta here.
- Friends, “The One With The Routine”: This episode is one big cheat, as it’s a combo Christmas/New Year’s Eve episode… and it’s not even really New Year’s Eve, as it’s all about how Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve is taped weeks in advance. This is a false New Year’s Eve episode.
- Frasier, “RDWRER”: Look, this isn’t a good episode because it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s a good episode because it’s Frasier.
- King of the Hill, “Hillennium” / Seinfeld, “The Millennium” / Being Erica, “Everything She Wants”: Come on now — Y2K and new millennium episodes are a whole other beast than straight New Year’s Eve episodes. And in the case of Being Erica, the New Year’s Eve stuff is only in the past, not the present.
- How I Met Your Mother, “The Limo”: At one point, “The Limo” would have been the only other worthwhile New Year’s Eve episode of television. But as with all things How I Met Your Mother these days, many points have since been deducted for the way the series ended. Despite what it may look like, I actually didn’t make the rules: I’m just enforcing them.
Given the criteria, that so very clearly just leaves one episode of television as the definitive New Year’s Eve episode: The O.C.’s “The Countdown.” Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) try to get out of their marital rut; Ryan (Ben McKenzie) says “thank you” to Marissa’s (Mischa Barton) “I love you;” Kirsten’s wild child sister Hailey (Amanda Righetti) comes to town; there’s traction on the love triangle between Seth (Adam Brody), Anna (Samaire Armstrong), and Summer (Rachel Bilson); and a beloved little character named Oliver (Taylor Handley) teaches us all the joys of saying the word “mojito,” when he’s not teaching us all the power of upping the stakes in a classic teen drama’s already breakneck first season.
It aired in 2003, which means it’s sufficiently past the panic of Y2K, despite being in the throes of Pepsi Blue. And despite the Chrismukkah tree and decorations still being up — because the Cohens were just as real a family as yours and mine — the episode’s literally all about New Year’s Eve, which is, of course, key. Any attempts to have an “epic” New Year’s Eve in this episode are also of course ruined for by the fact that there is no such thing as an epic New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve can be memorable though, which is exactly the case for Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, who end up at a swinger’s party in this episode. (And they take it all pretty well, which is why they’re up there for best TV married couple, right alongside Eric and Tami in Friday Night Lights and Brad and Jane in Happy Endings.) And when it comes to resolutions? The O.C. doesn’t even mention them until the next episode (“The Third Wheel,” aka “The One With Rooney”), as rich douche-turned-human puppy dog Luke Ward says his New Year’s resolution is to “punch people less.” Again, The O.C. knew what it was doing. More proof it knew what it was doing? The end of the episode montage that was so iconic showrunner Josh Schwartz had to do it twice:
“You know what they say: The way you spend New Year’s Eve is the way you’ll spend the rest of the year.” – Hailey Nichol, professional shit-stirrer
That quote from this episode is nonsense, and in true O.C. fashion, it’s repeated (by Summer, when she and Cooper Scooper get to Oliver’s party) to really drive home the theme of the episode. (By this logic, the other theme of the episode is a bizarre combination of Carson Daly, Dick Clark, and balls dropping.) But despite this nonsense being part of the episode, at no point does The O.C. actually put that much weight on this “holiday” — after all the presents people have gotten earlier in December, to call New Year’s Eve a holiday as well just feels wrong, okay? — to claim it really believes that. Plus, the rest of the season proves just how false the statement is, as the only couple in this episode who make it there together and solid as a rock is Sandy and Kirsten.
“The Countdown” isn’t just the best New Year’s Eve episode of television, it’s the best holiday episode of The O.C. That’s 14 episodes of television in total, meaning it even surpasses all four Chrismukkah episodes. Again, I’ve done the research. There’s even an argument to be made that it is the best episode of the entire series, though that argument feels like it crumbles when you really consider just how lame Hailey’s last-minute New Year’s Eve party is. Which is absolutely true to New Year’s Eve, the lamest holiday. The O.C. still has layers, even after all these years.