"M.A.D." is a standout Season 1 episode of the universally excellent VERONICA MARS.
A girl wants to dump her abusive boyfriend. The dilemma she's in: the boyfriend roofied her at a party once, and has incriminating, raunchy video of her that he will post online if she leaves him. He's not interested when Veronica approaches him about playing nice, and gambits to retrieve the video go nowhere.
Finally, with no other choice, Veronica arms the girl with potent ammo of her own. The boyfriend's a homophobe. Veronica mocks up a website that looks like a love letter he's created to another guy. The girls threaten to release this to his friends and the Naval Academy, his dream school, if he publishes the video. This is the Mutually Assured Destruction of the ep's title.
It doesn't work.
The jerk releases the video and the girl is humiliated.
She does not retaliate with the website, being a better person than he (and arguably better than Veronica, who would've fired back with both barrels not to mention coming up with the idea in the first place).
Veronica, smart, capable Veronica, failed. And this makes her more interesting. More accessible, more human.
Of all the episodes of CSI and COLD CASE that I've seen (and that would be all of them), some of the ones that stick most in my memory are the ones where the bad guy gets away or someone screws up. Where, due to circumstance or error, our heroes just can't bring the case across the finish line.
It doesn't happen often, and shouldn't. These aren't the Keystone Kops, after all. But the occasional setback helps ground the show in some semblance of reality -- shit happens to us all -- offers rich character opportunities, and keeps the stakes interesting.
In a serialized drama, failure is almost a necessity. Speaking of diverging from reality, I nearly gave up on PRISON BREAK early on when things kept going so swimmingly for Michael.
But when things started going wrong, they got interesting. Losing his toes? Groovy. Stuck with psycho T-bag in on the plan? Fabulous.
This is true of more than TV, of course. Beyond the expected twists and reversals of a well-plotted story, movies who put failure at their center can really be something special.
A heist movie is a heist movie, right? But have the scheme go south and you get the spare, heartbreaking A SIMPLE PLAN.
There's a whole subgenre of compelling, inspiring sports movies where The Good Guy Loses, because winning the big game is not what those stories -- ROCKY, TIN CUP, MURDERBALL -- are really about.
Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE is a crashing bore because the cat. Can. Do. No. Wrong. How much more watchable is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE FUGITIVE, or AIR FORCE ONE? Give me Harrison Ford getting beat up and left for dead, any day.