2. "Communication Problems," Fawlty Towers (1979)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
If I had simply ranked the sitcom episodes I've laughed the hardest at, this list would include seven or eight Fawlty Towers entries, or most of the 12 episodes that have ever been produced. John Cleese and Connie Booth, who play Basil and Polly, also co-wrote the series, and their timpano-like concoctions of lies, misunderstandings, and pratfalls are architectural wonders.
Hotel owner Basil Fawlty, one of the most anti-heroic characters ever to lead a sitcom, has already appeared at No. 65, in the riotously demented "The Germans." In that post, I tried to get at his perverse appeal:
He's no one's idea of a hero. Still, in his fits of temper he swings in and out of a zone where we can understand his frustrations. Basil has an infantile attachment to order and predictibility, similar to a young child who freaks out if served cereal in the wrong bowl. He has an anti-id: Ashamed of his own pleasure drive, he constantly tries to thwart everyone else's. Unfortunately, he runs a hotel in a resort town, where people go specifically to pursue pleasure and toss aside rules.
In "The Germans," a blow to the head causes Basil to lose his already limited diplomatic skills, and the episode climaxes with him doing a silly-walk Hitler impersonation across the hotel lobby. "Communication Problems," which may be Cleese's most sympathetic turn as Basil, does not rely as much on the bonkers version of the hotel owner. He spends much of the episode simply trying to be heard (and understood) by other people, a situation that often vexes the most well-adjusted of us. Basil, of course, is not well-adjusted, so he gets especially frustrated. He's like a trapped animal, resigned to a loveless marriage and an awful job but hoping to get a bit of happiness from winning a bet on a horse race — despite his wife's prohibition on gambling.