Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.
Was Stella a sitcom? Was it sketch comedy? Apparently it was “dumb comedy in a suit.” That’s how Comedy Central promoted it, and that did not really do the show any favors. To be fair, Stella was not an easy show to explain in a way that could make it widely appealing. It was a sitcom more than anything else, but it is unlike any sitcom that has aired before or after it. That is not meant as a criticism, or a compliment – it is purely descriptive. An extension of Stella the comedy act, Stella the TV show was Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain as id-driven man-children versions of themselves who wore suits all the time. Stella is one of my all-time favorite shows, thanks a great deal to its frequent subversion of common television tropes in the most absurd manner imaginable.
“Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
The guys get kicked out of their apartment, deal with homelessness, search for a new place, and ultimately end up right back where they started at their original apartment. The stretching of natural logic that defined the series was here right from the get-go: the torrid love affair that begins as soon as Wain meets the co-op broker to the strains of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (“What are we doing?”), the guys having only a single bean to eat while homeless but a full plate of condiments, the mustache disguises that fool everyone, the dance while wearing skunk tails that wins over the co-op board, and the boys performing open-heart surgery despite obviously not being doctors, along with Wain running off in the rain in the middle of it to make a Big Public Declaration of Love and then sticking his hands right back in the patient’s chest after coming back from the rain. There is also the petty bickering, accompanied as it often is with the shaming of Michael Sho. Finally, the bizarre lessons learned ending is also established right away, with the guys being presented gifts such as a wicker laundry hamper from Pier One to recognize their killing of Josef Mengele (because, as it turned out, their landlord was the Nazi doctor in hiding). Also, Rashida Jones is in the pilot as one of the three girls who lives downstairs (she didn’t stay on for the series and was replaced by Samantha Buck).
“Campaign” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Michael Ian Black runs for resident board president after the current president, Bob Feldman, doesn’t allow them to have any fun around the apartment (“Fine, Mr. Zookeeper, we’ll go back to our cage”). With Michael Sho as the campaign manager, David is relegated to menial intern work, leading him to turn to Bob (Robert LuPone in a wonderfully straight-faced guest performance), who tasks David with assassinating Michael Black. Regarding playing around with tropes in the most absurd manner imaginable, Michael Black explains that he was going to read from prepared remarks, but then read from the heart, but then he decides to NOT read from the heart and actually read from his prepared remarks. It is revealed that the Michael Black that David shot was actually a robot – a robot that is obviously just metal with a picture of Michael’s face taped on. And there is a flashback to explain that Michael Sho knew what David was planning, by virtue of the hint he dropped when he told Michael Black, “You won’t be saying that after I kill you!”
“Office Party” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Amy, one of the girls downstairs (in a rare moment of the girls not appearing altogether), asks Michael, Michael, and David for some tape, and the guys use the request as a chance to beg Amy to let them join her at her office party. They run afoul of a couple of office bullies, then get their revenge at the office picnic, at which they manage to get hired and put in charge of the “big account.” Stella had great guest stars, in this case fellow The State alum Joe Lo Truglio and everyone’s comedy friend Paul Rudd as the office bullies and Sam Rockwell as the previously mentioned but not seen Gary Meadows. The office presentation scene is a television classic, and it sometimes progresses from the guys getting fired to them informing the mayor (who wears a sash that says “Mayor”) that they are in charge of him as members of a democracy. The phone call with the black teenage girls and the office picnic game montage (reminiscent of Wet Hot American Summer) are also highlights.
“Coffee Shop” (Season 1, Episode 4)
Worried that their lives are purposeless (sort of), the guys all get involved in the coffee business: Sho becomes a barista at their local coffee hang, Black starts a coffee stand on the corner across the street from the shop, and David starts a coffee joint that becomes the latest hipster hangout. Everything is wonderfully inexplicable: Sho inexplicably wants a job despite the guys never previously showing any concern about employment, Black has exactly one explicably loyal customer (played by Alan Ruck), and Wain’s shop is inexplicably a runaway success (and the guys burn it down at the end of the episode). This episode is also notable for its framing device, in which the guys recount the coffee story to the girls downstairs to teach them a lesson about friendship (which was sort of the theme of the entire series of Stella).
“Paper Route” (Season 1, Episode 5)
The guys accidentally run over their paper boy Kevin and then agree to take over his paper route so that Kevin can continue to earn the money he has been saving for college. But before making that offer, the guys try to make up for hitting him by giving him a harpsichord. The guys eventually get the hang of the paper route (on a bicycle built for three), but they then have to deal with the teenage bullies who have been tormenting Kevin. After the bullies beat them up, they experience the tribal shaming culture of the paperboy world. The guys eventually stand up to the bullies by performing “The Friendship Song,” whose magnificence must be observed to be believed. Guest starring is The State alum Ken Marino, who fully commits to the role of the paperboy gangland boss.
“Meeting Girls” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Sick of spending Friday nights alone, the guys head to a bar to meet girls. Michael and Michael both hit it off with someone (Michael Black’s girl is played by Elizabeth Banks), while David remains alone. This episode is the best example of Stella stretching the limits of logical temporal development: Michael and Michael go through every stage of a relationship, while David gets new roommates and changes his name, and the entire episode takes place over a couple of days. Also, in a romantic comedy parody ending, David chases after Michael and Michael as they board a plane – but finds time to stop for a bite to eat on his way there. This episode is also notable for Michael Black introducing himself to a bar patron by saying, “Hi, I’m Michael Ian Black. I love the ‘80s.”
“Camping” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Desperate to escape the rat race of the work week (because apparently the guys have jobs now), the guys head out on a camping trip. Things quickly go awry, but a kindly mountain man promises to lead them back to their car, but they accidentally kill him (or so they think), and things get even worse until a group of rangers rescue them. “Camping” deconstructs the trope of flashbacks revealing the truth in – you guessed it – the most absurd manner imaginable: they didn’t kill the mountain man, he was actually a ghost; they didn’t eat the mountain man’s remains, they ate hamburgers and French fries! (Although they did kill someone – just some loser camper nobody cares about.) Tim Blake Nelson pulls double guest star duty as the mountain man and the head ranger. The montage of the rangers cleaning the guys after rescuing them was a prime example of the homoeroticism Comedy Central wanted them to refrain from.
“Novel” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Wanting to make something out of their lives, the guys are inspired by novelist Jane Burroughs (Janeane Garofalo) to write their own novel. But Jane, who is suffering from writer’s block, steals their story, and they do not have any backup copy with which to prove their authorship. So they must write the whole thing again in the course of one night before Jane can turn it in to her publisher. The montage of the initial novel writing – which also took place over one night – is the best montage of the series. The Jane Burroughs book reading scene mercilessly skewers stupid book reading questions (e.g. David’s “What is a book?”). The chase scene of the guys running after Jane – including David pulling Michael and Michael along in a rickshaw – is epic, with a piece of bologna serving as an example of Chekhov’s gun.
“Vegetables” (Season 1, Episode 9)
The guys luck into discovering that their apartment floor is perfect for growing vegetables, which they then hawk on the street, and they start selling like hot cakes. But their avarice results in them over-plowing the land (i.e., their apartment floor), and they are forced themselves to work on a plantation. This episode stretches both temporal AND economic sense. Once again, the action takes place over no more than a week, if that. There are takes on the tropes of the wise minority/magical Negro (fellow plantation worker Maggie reminds the guys of the importance of friendship – and spends the night with Casanova David) and the newly rich tossing dollar bills out of a limo (“Maybe throwing money out of the limo wasn’t such a good idea”).
“Amusement Park” (Season 1, Episode 10)
The guys have tickets to the amusement park, but it’s raining, so they attempt to recreate the experience at their apartment. It doesn’t work, they get to fighting, and the girls insist that they go into therapy together. I will not spoil the twist of this episode, as it brings the whole series together, but I will mention that it is perhaps the greatest subversion ever of the “You look familiar” trope and also a suitably bizarre example of altered flashbacks filling in previously unknown information. The guys prove to be the worst possible subjects for traditional therapy as they are so incredibly, bizarrely, and thoroughly petty (“Black has such a superiority complex,” “Sho’s a little girl,” “Wain’s a sex addict and a compulsive masturbator”).
If you liked those, well, I can’t recommend 10 more, because only 10 episodes ever aired!