For the first 15 years of its existence, the Super Bowl wasn’t really thought of as a TV show launching pad. It was an enormous ratings success, but the networks that had the rights to that year’s game rarely gave much thought to what would air immediately after it, hopefully holding on to a good chunk of that massive audience. Shows to air following the game in the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s included a CHiPs rerun, two different golf tournaments, three installments of 60 Minutes, and an episode of The New Perry Mason, which would be canceled after only one additional episode aired.
Then, on January 30, 1983, NBC scheduled the second episode of a new action drama called The A-Team to air after the Redskins-Dolphins game, and it turned the adventures of Mr. T and friends into a massive hit. For the next dozen years, the post-game slot was usually given to a new show that year’s network had high hopes for, even though only one other series, The Wonder Years, became a genuine hit out of it, while a number of the choices — a Stephen J. Cannell police sitcom called The Last Precinct, or John Schneider and Paul Rodriguez as bounty hunters in Grand Slam — seem like head-scratchers in retrospect. When the ski mountain search and rescue drama Extreme flopped in 1995, NBC tried something different the following year, opting for a special episode of one of its biggest hits, Friends, that was laden with big guest stars like Julia Roberts and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ratings were enormous, and from that point on, the networks have mostly used that slot to try to boost the fortunes of pre-existing shows, whether turning a hit into a bigger hit, or exposing a show executives feel should be a hit to a bigger audience. As the games — and post-game ceremonies — have run longer, the ratings impact has been diluted a lot, but it’s still considered a big deal, which is why NBC is airing the This Is How Jack Died… Really… We Promise No More Messing Around… For Serious episode of This Is Us on Sunday night.
Between the newbies and the veterans to get this showcase, there’s been a lot of excellent TV to air after the big game. Here are what I think are the five best, plus a lot of honorable mentions:
1. The Wonder Years, “Pilot” January 31, 1988
Nearly two months passed between this and the second episode, which seemed a radical scheduling move at the time but now feels old hat in an era when pilots are often released online well ahead of their traditional premieres. And ABC knew they clearly had a show that people would remember until late March, in this classic Boomer coming-of-age story (back before the whole genre would become ossified and unbearable) about middle schooler Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage as a kid, narrated by Daniel Stern as an adult) navigating both the problems of adolescence and the tumult of the late ’60s. Everything is perfect: the soundtrack, the fashions, and especially the climactic scene where Kevin and his friend and crush Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) grieve the death of her brother in Vietnam and share their first kiss while “When A Man Loves a Woman” plays. I prefer the next series on this list overall, but this is one of the greatest pilots ever made, and easily the best episode of anything to air after the Super Bowl.
2. Homicide: Life on the Street, “Gone For Goode” (January 31, 1993)
Family Guy (which debuted in 1999, albeit with a Simpsons ep between it and the game) has since passed it, but for a long time, Homicide was the longest-lived series to debut after the Super Bowl, running seven seasons. It’s also easily the best show to debut after the game — not just for being the series that brought David Simon (whose non-fiction book was its inspiration) to television, but for smart writing, amazing dialogue, and a wave of great characters headed by Andre Braugher as the silver-tongued Frank Pembleton — but also so philosophical and weird that it’s amazing NBC thought football fans would be excited to watch a show that began with two unknown detectives wandering a dark alley looking for a shell casing and discussing the very nature of looking for things. Directed by Barry Levinson, “Gone for Goode” isn’t quite peak Homicide, but only because that show’s very best stacks against the best of anything to ever be on TV. And even while it’s busy establishing all the characters, the pilot still has room for great moments like this scene where John Munch (a role Richard Belzer was still playing on other shows 20-plus years later) does not appreciate being lied to like he’s Montel Williams:
3. Alias, “Phase One” (January 26, 2003)
“Phase One” is both an incredible hour of TV and a cautionary tale in several ways. Remarkably, it almost didn’t get the Super Bowl slot, as the Alias producers made a largely self-contained episode guest starring Ethan Hawke that they felt would be more easily understood by the borrowed football audience. Instead, everyone agreed to go with this, which brought the series’ original arc, where Jennifer Garner’s young spy Sydney Bristow realized the agency she worked for was secretly evil and worked to bring it down, to an abrupt but thrilling end. From the opening lingerie fashion show to the dismantling of SD6, it’s the series’ creative peak, but two things went wrong. First, ABC’s belabored post-game show (which included both a Penn & Teller magic trick and a Bon Jovi performance) ran over an hour, pushing the start of Alias so late that many potential viewers had gone to sleep. Second, while wrapping up the SD6 arc so soon was amazing, the Alias creative team didn’t have enough ideas for what to do after, and the series spent the rest of its run rebooting itself every half season or so in search of a new direction that worked.