Ten Great Gimmick Episodes

This week’s list takes a look at TV episodes that ventured outside of their shows’ established formats. In order to highlight originality, I specifically asked Josh to avoid common gimmicks like the “bottle episode.” And to keep things from getting too meta, we’re leaving “Community” off the list altogether, because its gimmick is using gimmicks so often that they’re no longer gimmicks. And now my head hurts. –Ed.

3D Episode of “3rd Rock from the Sun”
The year 1997 was an odd time for 3D’s relationship with pop culture. Long gone were the original “golden years” of the technology, used largely for horror films in the 1950s, and it was still a decade before The Polar Express and Avatar made millions with the gimmick. The two most notable instances of 3D in 1997 were Frogger 3D and “3rd Rock from the Sun’s” two-part second season finale, “A Nightmare on Dick Street.” The episode featured Dick (John Lithgow), Sally (Kristen Johnston), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Harry (French Stewart, still annoying), dreaming for the first time (highlight: “Newman” in a Fellini-esque film), with the sleep fantasies airing in 3D to the audience. The glasses were originally available at 7-Eleven stories (four pairs for $2!), but they now come with the complete second season DVD box set.
The “COPS”/”X-Files” Crossover Episode

As you probably know if you’ve seen the “Simpsons”’ episode “A Star is Burns,” Fox was big into crossovers back in the day. While some argue the authenticity and quality of Pulitzer Prize-winning Jay Sherman visiting Springfield, it’s tough to argue against “X-Cops,” a Season 7 episode of “The X-Files” that plays like an episode of “COPS.” It’s shot using shaky hand-held camera footage, and the story has police offers and the documentary crew eventually running into Mulder and Scully investigating the same case.
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The Day-Off Episode of “Law & Order”
The only episode of “Law & Order” to not feature a case, “Aftershock” begins with the execution of a man who clubbed a woman to death. Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) is so shaken up that she decides to take a day off, as do Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt), and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston). Over the course of the episode, we see the characters interact with their families, have one-nighters with a pre-“Alias” Jennifer Garner, and get drunk. I’ve never been much of a fan of “Law & Order” for all the obvious “lack of a continuing storyline” reasons, but “Aftershock,” which ends with the death of one of the characters named above, at least stands out from the “Law & Order”’s other 455 episodes; it shows who the characters are, rather than simply telling us.
The Upside-Down Episode of “Letterman”
In 1987, for no other reason than it’s fun to mess with people, an episode of “Late Night with Dave Letterman” began rotating onscreen, at 10 degrees an hour. It began during his opening monologue, with no mention from the host until later in the show, when he said, “Tonight…we bring you the 360-Degree Image-Rotation Television Program.” By 1 a.m., he was upside down, or at least that’s how he appeared to those watching at home. According to New York magazine, hundreds of people called in to NBC the next morning, “complaining of headaches, dizziness, and nausea.” Although the network was pissed, Dave and his writing crew were ecstatic because all the complaints meant that people were watching and stuck around to feel nauseated.
The Episode of “Six Feet Under” That Never Cut Away
According to Alan Poul, executive producer of “Six Feet Under,” Season 4’s “That’s My Dog” was nicknamed “the departure episode,” because unlike any of the other installments of the great HBO drama, it didn’t cut away from the main plot (at least after the first 15 minutes of the episode). David Fisher, played to perfection by Michael C. Hall, picks up a hitchhiker named Jake, the two begin to flirt, and then… Jake robs David, makes him smoke crack, beats him up, throws gasoline on him, and puts a gun in his mouth, without any explanation of why he’s terrorizing the defenseless funeral director. The show never cuts away from David’s misery, and it’s so brutal and disturbing that you wish you could turn the DVD off, but you know you need to find out what happens. The episode felt like it lasted three hours—and it’s still one of my favorites from the show.
The Backwards Episode of “Seinfeld”
A few shows have done the backwards episode gimmick—including “The Venture Bros.” and “Red Dwarf”—but “Seinfeld” is the best example. “The Betrayal” begins with Jerry, George, and Elaine (nursing a broken nose) returning from Sue Ellen’s wedding in India as the end credits run, and ends with Kramer and Jerry meeting for the first time, where Jerry foolishly says, “We’re neighbors; what’s mine is yours.” What goes in between is what makes the episode a classic, like Jerry and George getting Elaine drunk on Schnapps to get her to talk and the story of why FDR wants Kramer dead.
The Pop-Up Video Episode of “NewsRadio”
To celebrate their 50th episode in 1997, “NewsRadio” aired “Our Fiftieth Episode.” Nothing particularly clever there, but what was intriguing was the show’s one-time use of pop-up videos to display little tidbits about the episode. Like the VH1 show itself, some people hated the gimmick, especially considering it was a strong Bill McNeal episode (he gets sent to the mental episode after going ballistic when a police officer gives him a ticket) and didn’t need a ratings ploy, while others thought it cute. My favorite pop-up: many actors, including Charlton Heston, refused to guest on the show because they had never heard of it.
The Musical Episode of…Everything
I won’t focus on “Buffy” here (that comes later), because there are plenty of other, non-“Glee” shows that have a dedicated an entire episode to their characters singing, dancing, and, in one case, paying a troll toll to get into a baby boy’s hole. Notable examples: “Influenza” from “Even Stevens,” “Daria!” from “Daria,” “My Musical” from “Scrubs,” and “The Nightman Cometh” from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Less notable and more insufferable: “Song Beneath the Song” from “Grey’s Anatomy,” featuring cast-member renditions of The Fray and Snow Patrol that somehow made their songs “Chasing Cars” and “How to Save a Life” even worse.
The Silent Episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
As promised! The premise of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” lent itself nicely to have off-format episodes: when there’s a new monster in town every week, the writers are allowed to indulge in their creativity, and one of the show’s finest episodes is also one of its most unusual. Of the 44 minutes that “Hush” lasts, only 17 consist of dialogue; the rest is, well, hushed. The residents of Sunnydale have lost their voices courtesy of the terrifying Gentlemen, so Buffy & Co. are forced to non-verbally communicate with one another to defeat the bad guys. Series creator Joss Whedon wrote the episode in reaction to the media saying the dialogue was “Buffy”’s best quality, so not only is “Hush” a great episode; it’s also one big F*ck You to critics (like me!) who overly praise a certain aspect of a television show.
The Live Episode of “The West Wing”
Ever since the second season of Fox’s “Roc,” which was broadcast live (not just “live in front of a studio audience,” but actually LIVE) back in 1992-1993, no scripted show has had enough balls to hope everything works out in a single take. Every so often, though, some program will make a spectacle of airing a “live episode,” like “E.R.” in 1997 and “30 Rock” just last year, usually with a lack of mistakes, much to the audience’s chagrin. The riskiest, and best, example of this ratings stunt is “The Debate” from “The West Wing,” which is just that: a debate, between Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). Not a single original cast member appeared in the episode, and, for a brief moment, Jimmy Smits was watchable.