Wanna know the big stories behind your small-screen favorites? Here are 30 episodes of incredible television that changed the game as we know it.
Pop yourself some popcorn, get comfy on the couch, and whatever you do — don’t touch that dial.
Maude – “Maude’s Dilemma”
In 1972, Maude had a dilemma.
The Bea Arthur-performed character, first introduced in All in the Family, was pregnant at age 47. And she began to debate, with a surprising level of frankness and clarity, whether or not to have an abortion.
While these types of conversations were certainly happening in America, they certainly weren’t happening on high-rated sitcoms. And “Maude’s Dilemma” did its part to show every side of the story — she considers her husband Walter (Bill Macy) having a vasectomy, and a friend of her’s is pro-life.
The X-Files – “Home”
When you watch The X-Files, you know what you’re signing up for. It’s Agents Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) going on supernatural cases. It’s gonna be spooky, is what we’re saying.
But “Home” was something different altogether. Something that influenced contemporary horror shows like American Horror Story.
It was the only X-Files episode rated TV-MA, the equivalent of an R-rating. It dove headfirst into taboos like incest and abuse. Its level of violence was downright shocking, to the point where it grossed out even its crew. And Fox, in an unprecedented move, never re-aired the episode again.
Married… With Children – “I’ll See You in Court”
Married… With Children is not your average family sitcom.
Where other nuclear units were hugging and learning lessons, the Bundys were arguing and pushing the envelope with adult content. One episode pushed the envelope so far off the edge, it wasn’t even aired until 2002.
“I’ll See You in Court” opens with the Bundys at a motel, discovering an “intimate” video tape with their neighbors. They decide to get intimate themselves, and are themselves recorded. Then, everyone sues the motel.
Fox still censored parts of the graphic dialogue when they did finally air it.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – “Conflict”
“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.” With this gentle, jazz piano-underscored song, we knew we were in the warm hands of Mister Rogers. A place where even the most intense, adult ideas and concepts feel manageable to children.
Even… nuclear war.
In 1983, during the height of the Cold War (and some very real bombings occurring across the globe), Rogers made a week’s worth of episodes called “Conflict,” doing his best to explain the ideas of war, arms races, and even what to do if/when a nuclear bomb hits us.
NYPD Blue – “Pilot”
Do you enjoy True Detective or American Crime Story? Then you have revolutionary ‘90s cop drama NYPD Blue to thank. Its pilot busted down doors and caused a whole mess of controversy.
Apparently, you can show as many murders as want — but if you show one butt, God help you.
On network TV in 1993, there were certain things you didn’t say or show. And NYPD Blue said and showed them, with unprecedented levels of profanity and nudity. Some ABC affiliates refused to air the pilot, but it didn’t stop NYPD Blue from becoming a critical and ratings smash.
The Sopranos – “Made in America”
It’s the final episode of beloved HBO mafia drama The Sopranos. The country watches as the titular family eats at a diner, listening to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” A guy walks out of the bathroom. Tony looks up. And… wait. What?
Did everyone’s TVs break at the same time?
“Made in America” ends with a purposefully ambiguous cut to black, as “something” is about to happen. Beyond being the nation’s first prestige premium drama, and the first show to take long breaks between seasons, The Sopranos set a new precedent in its finale, inspiring creators to take similar risks.
South Park – “Trapped in the Closet”
South Park is not polite. But in “Trapped in the Closet,” they set their phasers from “kill” to “eviscerate.”
Centered around Tom Cruise, the episode went after the beliefs of Scientology, even displaying text after particularly bonkers moments that said “This Is What Scientologists Actually Believe.” Fallout was immense.
Cruise allegedly refused to promote Mission: Impossible III (owned by the same parent company) unless Comedy Central never aired it again. And Scientologist Isaac Hayes, who plays Chef, left the show. There was even a scandal among the fans when Comedy Central abruptly replaced a reairing with another episode.
Game of Thrones – “Baelor”
It’s the second to last episode of season one of Game of Thrones. And while we’re learning how dark and merciless the world is, at least we’ve got the virtuous Ned Stark (Sean Bean) at the center to… WHAT?!
Sorry — did we just watch our hero get beheaded?
We sure did. And in that moment, GoT changed how TV dramas are allowed to operate forever. Showrunner called it a game-changing moment for the series, saying, “We needed Ned’s death to be totally unambiguous.” It trained viewers to expect the unexpected at every turn.
I Love Lucy – “Lucy Is Enceinte”
In 1952, networks and sponsors were terrified of showing pregnant women onscreen, fearing even the suggestion of sex would offend. But Lucille Ball, creator and star of I Love Lucy was pregnant. By her costar/real life husband Desi Arnaz. And they wanted to show every part of their family.
The episode featured Lucy’s pregnancy. But CBS wouldn’t let them use the word “pregnant” (the episode title uses the French word). So in dialogue, they only used “expecting.” Eventually, CBS loosened up, and the episode where Lucy gave birth aired the same night Ball gave actual birth.
Murphy Brown – “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato”
In 1992, the Vice President gave a speech about the importance of family traditions. He called out Murphy Brown, title character of the CBS sitcom played by Candice Bergen, as being a bad influence on audiences, because of her choice to become a single mom.
Murphy Brown… had a counterpoint.
The show made their two-part season five premiere a direct response to the VP, even titling the episode after a real life spelling gaffe. It was an unprecedented call and response between politics and TV — people like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah owe a lot to this episode.
The Fugitive – “The Judgment”
Nowadays, the importance of TV series finales is a given. But in the beginnings of television, they mattered a lot less. In fact, shows were usually just abruptly cancelled and then they were done, with no fanfare.
Until 1967, when a watercooler drama stuck its planned landing perfectly.
The Fugitive knew it was coming to an end. So producers crafted a definitive finale, “The Judgment,” in which Richard Kimble (David Janssen) confronted the One-Armed Man (Bill Raisch) who killed his wife head-on. It was a resounding success, and it changed the way folks planned and consume TV forever.
Star Trek – “Plato’s Stepchildren”
In 1968, Star Trek aired a first, even for a show about space adventures: An interracial kiss, between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Despite protestations from the network and racist viewers, the crew employed some unorthodox tactics to ensure it would air.
On set, Gene Roddenberry and his crew were forced to film an alternate version where Kirk and Uhura don’t kiss. But Shatner sabotaged it, crossing his eyes and giving bonkers line deliveries in every non-kiss version. Eventually, the network had to air the kiss just out of necessity.
All in the Family – “Sammy’s Visit”
Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) is a racist. We all know this. It’s what Norman Lear’s revolutionary family sitcom All in the Family is about. But in season two, the limits of his prejudices are tested when Sammy Davis Jr. comes to town.
Davis comes into Bunker’s home to retrieve a lost briefcase. And they have a long interaction, chatting about racism and fame in disarmingly frank ways. It culminates with Davis kissing Bunker on the cheek — the audience laughed so hard at this moment, CBS had to edit some of it out.
M*A*S*H – “Abyssinia, Henry”
Anchored by wonderful actors like Alan Alda and Loretta Swit, M*A*S*H had always toed the line between comedy and drama, paving the way for shows like Scrubs and Transparent. And in season three finale “Abyssinia, Henry,” they collapsed everything together in a gut-puncher of an ending.
“I have a message. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”
This is how we all found out that a fan-favorite character, played by McLean Stevenson, was killed. No laughs. Just a TV comedy-changing moment.
Dallas – “A House Divided”
Who shot J. R.?
It’s the question that united a nation in 1980. And it was all spurred by season three finale of Dallas, where J. R. Knight (Larry Hagman) is shot by a mystery assailant. To keep the answer mysterious, producers filmed everyone (including Hagman) firing the gun.
The episode changed the structure of TV dramas forever, with more emphasis on cliffhangers. And the national conversation ate it the heck up, with Las Vegas bookkeepers even making odds on who could’ve been the killer.
The episode “Who Done It” revealed who it was: Kristin, J.R.’s mistress.
St. Elsewhere – “The Last One”
In the last moments of acclaimed medical drama St. Elsewhere’s series finale, the show cuts to an exterior view of the hospital during a snowy evening… and then cut to a child’s home. Where that child is holding a snowglobe. Of… that hospital?
What’s going on?
Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders) looks at his autistic son Tommy (Chad Allen), wondering what he’s thinking about. But to us, it’s clear: He’s been thinking about the show St. Elsewhere. It was all in his head — er, snowglobe.
The finale impressed and aggravated viewers, changing what TV creators thought possible.
Twin Peaks – “Episode 2”
“Episode 2” is, weirdly, not the second episode of Twin Peaks. It’s the third. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of David Lynch’s beyond-weird soap opera/murder mystery about the death of Laura Palmer.
Grab yourself a slice of cherry pie and strap in.
This episode features an infamous dream sequence, with The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) speaking backwards in a nauseatingly carpeted red room. It changed what levels of oddness and surrealism mainstream audiences were willing to accept in television, and influenced modern shows like Atlanta and Bates Motel.
Seinfeld – “The Chinese Restaurant”
Seinfeld was billed as the show about nothing. “The Chinese Restaurant” put that theory to the test. All the characters do is sit and wait for a table at a chinese restaurant. That’s it. And it’s hilariously game-changing — there’s no It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia without this episode.
The story’s told in real time, a “bottle episode” where the cast just hangs out in one spot with no scene breaks. NBC thought audiences would hate it because there’s not a real storyline — Larry David threatened to quit if they made any changes. Thankfully, it aired as intended.
Ellen – “The Puppy Episode”
By season four of her titular sitcom, Ellen DeGeneres was frustrated with the show’s lack of direction. Disney/ABC head Michael Eisner suggested she get a puppy. And “The Puppy Episode” was born. An episode that has nothing to do with small dogs.
Instead, DeGeneres’ character comes out of the closet as a lesbian — mirroring the comedian’s real-life journey toward coming out publicly. It was a notable step forward in LGBTQIA representation on television — and garnered a huge backlash, causing the show to get cancelled quickly afterward.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Once More, With Feeling”
So Cop Rock didn’t work. But that didn’t stop Joss Whedon from writing and directing “Once More, With Feeling,” an all musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in their sixth season. The episode is highly acclaimed, and has inspired modern works like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Glee.
Whedon even wrote the music himself — but original drafts were very bad, causing James Marsters (Spike) to say, “Joss and his wife Kai, they don’t sing very well. And they don’t play piano very well. The songs sounded really cheesy and horrible… We were saying, ‘Joss, you’re ruining our careers.’”
Roseanne – “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
Roseanne Barr, known for being a lightning rod of controversy, goes to a gay bar with her sister (Laurie Metcalf), their friend (Sandra Bernhard), and their friend’s girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway). Everything’s going fine until Hemingway kisses Roseanne on screen, though slightly obscured, in 1994 broadcast television.
ABC originally refused to air the episode, and sponsors pulled ads. Ultimately, after Barr threatened to move the hit series to a different network, they relented, promoting it heavily as a gimmick episode. It helped kickstart a series of “special episodes” where otherwise straight female characters kiss other women.
Lost – “Pilot”
Most TV drama pilots deliberately tried to cut costs, stick to formula, and keep it simple. Lost didn’t do any of that.
It was the most expensive TV pilot ever made, J. J. Abrams changed his mind all the dang time, and its plot was anything but simple or formulaic.
Lost kicked off a wave of imitators, all trying to find the next “event” series — there was even one show literally called The Event. But none could come close to the lightning in a bottle of the Lost pilot — not even, some might argue, the rest of the Lost series.
The Office – “Dinner Party”
The Office, an American adaptation of the British sitcom, already had one foot in the door of cringe-inducing darkness. “Dinner Party” broke down the door and burned the house to the ground. It is pitch-black madness, the peak of Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) misery as comedy.
As we watch the layers of Michael and Jan’s (Melora Hardin) dysfunctional relationship peel back, we can’t help but laugh while covering our eyes. It helped swing TV comedy into being comfortable into a dark, sad, anguish-filled space, rather than bright happiness.
Homicide: Life on the Street – “Subway”
Homicide: Life on the Street was already making waves as a more realistic, edgier take on cop drama than its network cousins. And “Subway” changed the game, in part because of how it changed Homicide’s realism. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, said without this episode, Bad doesn’t exist.
John Lange (Vincent D’Onofrio) is stuck between a subway train and the ground. If he moves, he’ll die. And Andre Braugher’s cop character must keep him company. It’s stylish, quiet, heartbreaking, and inspirational — it kickstarted the idea that TV cop dramas can look as good as movies.
Cheers – “Showdown”
Cheers was powered by the will-they-won’t-they friction between the hard-living Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and the well-educated Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). And at the end of their first season, “Showdown,” Sam and Diane answered the question of will they or won’t they”!
Well… kind of!
Sam asks, “Are you as turned on as I am?” Diane replies, “More.” And they kiss — and that’s the end of the dang episode!
Sitcom cliffhangers were unheard of, until this episode invented them. Spinoff series Frasier calls back to this moment — only for the woman to respond with disgust.
Moonlighting – “Atomic Shakespeare”
Moonlighting was so used to changing the game, its game was “changing the game.” The Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd detective story broke the fourth wall, played with wild genre shifts, and added a ton of fast-talking comedy to the genre.
And in 1986, they got Shakespearean on us.
“Atomic Shakespeare” is an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew with the Moonlighting cast and crew. Everyone’s dressed in period clothing, but behaving and talking like their normal, 1980s selves. This episode paved the way for the medium’s comfort with storytelling risks and gimmicks.
WKRP in Cincinnati – “Turkeys Away”
How dark could a sitcom get in 1978? WKRP in Cincinnati, always subtly ahead of its time, tested the waters in “Turkeys Away.” It began its life as an average Thanksgiving special, until it slowly built to something more… sinister.
For an ill-advised Thanksgiving parade, people throw turkeys out of a dang helicopter. And they explode like, to quote the show, “wet cement.”
The amount of gallows humor derived from this violent episode is truly wild, and we’d argue something like an Adult Swim doesn’t exist without it.
Dynasty – “The Threat”
Contemporary soapy TV dramas like Gossip Girl and Why Women Kill get wild, quickly. But they all have Dynasty to thank. And all of the deliciously catty moments we associate with the ‘80s guilty pleasure are on glorious display in “The Threat.”
Custody battles. Revelations of sexual orientation. Surprise pregnancies. Corrupt politicians. Double crosses. A knock-down drag-out fight in a pond. And the first utterance of a certain swear word ever in primetime TV. “The Threat” didn’t threaten to upend how far campy TV could go. It promised to go further.
Malcolm in the Middle – “Bowling”
Nowadays, TV comedies like Community and Master of None are eager and willing to mess with formula and structure. In 2001, an episode of dysfunctional family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle helped knock down the pins of conformity to allow this freedom. The episode title? “Bowling.”
It’s structured like Sliding Doors, where we see two paths happen simultaneously: The parents must decide who stays home with Dewey, and who takes Malcolm and Reese to a bowling party. So, we see both happen in a split-screen, edited together with technical panache and comedic excellence.
Futurama – “Jurassic Bark”
Futurama is a wild, joke-a-second sci-fi comedy from the creators of The Simpsons. But also, like in “Jurassic Bark,” it’s serious, sincere, and heartfelt. The renowned episode ends with a heartbreaking montage of a dog waiting for his owner and dying peacefully at his door.
It will crush you.
You can see the DNA of this episode in several contemporary shows willing to make you laugh while making you cry, especially in the also-animated Bojack Horseman. Originally, it was even more upsetting — it was going involve Fry’s mom, not his dog.
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