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.
4. The Office, “Stress Relief” (February 1, 2009)
For most of my career as a TV critic, I would cite three sitcom moments as being the obvious ones to go into a time capsule: Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory, Mary Richards trying not to laugh at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral, and Reverend Jim taking his driving test on Taxi. Starting with “Stress Relief,” I had to add Dwight Schrute’s fire drill, which is an astonishing bit of comic business, building and building in intensity and unexpected laughs — I still gasp at the “Save Bandit!” moment — and somehow being at its most explosively funny at the very end, when Michael Scott is giving Stanley a reason to not die. The episode that follows is pretty great, too, particularly the roast sequence that forces Michael to briefly understand how the staff really sees him, followed by his pathetic attempt to turn the tables (“Boom, roasted!”) somehow endearing himself to Stanley and the others more than ever before. Where some other sitcoms have loaded up on guest stars for their own Super Bowl showcase (take the Friends with Brooke Shields and Julia Roberts… please), The Office knew to just be a slightly bigger and more ridiculous version of itself.
5. Grey’s Anatomy, “It’s the End of the World” (February 5, 2006)
It was a tough call for this last spot between this and The X-Files‘ “Leonard Betts,” which is an extremely strong Monster of the Week outing. Ultimately, I went with Grey’s — the first half of a two-parter involving a surgical patient with a live bazooka round lodged in his torso, the paramedic (Christina Ricci) with her hand on the explosive, and the steady bomb squad veteran (Kyle Chandler, right before he became Coach Taylor) brought in to solve the crisis — because the melodramatic grandeur of it (particularly that cliffhanger ending) felt more appropriate for the Super Bowl showcase.
Besides “Leonard Betts,” there was Prince’s New Girl guest appearance, the premiere of Survivor: The Australian Outback, the “Company Picnic” episode of Malcolm in the Middle, House remotely diagnosing Mira Sorvino’s Antarctic researcher in “Frozen,” and “Sunday, Cruddy Sunday,” the better of the two Simpsons episodes to air on Super Bowl Sunday.