Every so often, a TV show likes to go outside its usual comfort zone and do something different... something weird. It abandons its usual format to try something else, suddenly becoming a musical, a comedy, a documentary, a Western, anything. If an episode manages to pull it off, it usually ends up becoming a classic—and here are 10 of those episodes.
[Note: Community is not on this list. That show tried new genre formats like it was trying on hats—to the point where turning into another genre wasn’t a one or two-time thing, but one of the defining characteristics of the show.]
Long before the minds at the CW were cooking up a Supergirl/Flash crossover with singing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer went out and proved how good a musical episode could be. It’s a miracle, really, that the show managed to pull this off—coming up with a plot that worked, writing all those original (and catchy!) songs, get through the recording and choreography process, and filming it. There’s a reason a lot of TV series have tried doing a musical episode, and it’s Buffy—although few of them have had the same success.
This isn’t the first or last time Star Trek would go to the “character questions the reality of the show they’re on” well, but it’s probably the best. The drama in “Far Beyond the Stars” wasn’t in proving that the Star Trek show was real, it was showing author Benny struggle to get his scifi story starring an African-American hero published. It’s a perfect example of the power of science fiction, and the actors are regular humans for almost the whole episode.
Dollhouse’s first season was uneven, but its best episode by far wasn’t initially shown in the United States. “Epitaph One” was done so that there would be 13 episodes in Dollhouse’s first season for DVD and international sales. It was a futuristic, post-apocalyptic survival story instead of the usual episode about Echo and her various imprinted personalities in the “present.” It was done on shoestring budget and had very little of the regular cast in it—and it was so good it became the basis for a number of plot threads in season two.
To celebrate the show’s 200th episode, Stargate SG-1 decided to bring back the idea that fueled the 100th—a show that was a very loose version of the Stargate program was on TV written by an alien living on Earth. In “200,” the alien is asking for help to write the movie based on the show. The main characters each pitch a story, which cycles through a number of other genres. Puppets? Zombie invasion? A detective mystery? A romance? ALL OF THEM.
There was an episode of The X-Files which was done in the style of Cops. This is already a hilarious concept, but the show used the documentary format to deliver both jokes and scares. It was found footage, except, you know, Cops. “X-Cops!” enlivened a weak season seven, and had so many layers of reality to it that the episode was introduced with a reminder that it was actually an X-Files episode. The episode is generally fun, but starting with the actual Cops “Bad Boys” intro and disclaimer is hard to beat. But Scully’s hatred of the cameras and the repetition of their boss’ statement that “The FBI has nothing to hide” come close.
Instead of dramatic, fantastic, action-adventure or the... more out there episodes that came later, “A Day in the Life” tracks everything that Xena and Gabrielle do in a day, including staving off boredom by playing 20 questions and inventing the kite. It’s a slice-of-life episode that is rightfully beloved by fans.
While every other episode on this list is a science fiction show trying out a new genre, this episode was a sitcom deciding to see what it would look like set in space, which basically meant changing the costumes and a few props. “Space” contains my two favorite science fiction jokes of all time: First is the radio ad for Soylent Green which contains, uh, one pretty big spoiler. “For a tasty treat that’s good to eat, try Soylent Green. Soylent Green is people. Soylent Green, made from the best stuff on Earth: people!”
The second is the news report on the explosion of the Death Star:
Tragedy struck today in Sector 9 as rebel terrorists blew up the Death Star killing thousands. The Rebel Alliance, a fringe group of Anti-Empire fanatics, has claimed responsibility for the terrorist act. Fortunately Lord Vader escaped without harm. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims.
NewsRadio was doing this long before Robot Chicken started doing its Star Wars skits, and I’m still prone to summarize the A New Hope with this exact description.
In this Farscape episode, while main hero John Crichton is in a coma, his mind envisions the usual Farscape antics but with a Looney Tunes-esque filter. Meanwhile, over on Eureka, the usual scientific mishap cycles the town through several forms of animation. Both keep the soul of the show intact, but change the visuals significantly.
Way back in season one of Battlestar Galactica, the show actually thought it wouldn’t be a drama every single episode. Not that the later show didn’t also have comedic moments, but BSG never again did an episode which was—almost from beginning to end—entirely a comedy. And not just any comedy, but a pun-eriffic “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” which was also a dinner party farce. And if there is a finer use of facial expressions than the ones on Adama, Lee, and Roslin’s face during that dinner, I have not found it.
In the classic alternate universe form, “Vegas” follows another version of John Sheppard who is a detective investigating a series of murders in Las Vegas. Oh yes, there is a reason this episode was initially called “CSI Atlantis.” The episode begins with a straightforward CSI gloss, looking nothing like the usual show. But eventually it brings in the required aliens, along with an ending that is much darker than the usual parody episode.