Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is below (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Anyone who's shared a bedroom with a sibling has eventually hit upon the idea of dividing the room down the middle with some "uncrossable" tape.
Not an earth-shaking plot, but the show hits the right note in conveying what a big deal this is to a little boy. You can believe that it's actually a life-changing experience for Opie.
You can be sure that Lucy Ricardo spends most of this episode asking herself, "Why? Why did I have to do something so dumb?" And that's a feeling everyone has had at some point or another.
It was inevitable (and I mean that in a good way) that a single-camera sitcom would attempt a full-episode musical after new Broadway shows like Avenue Q started attracting younger audiences.
"Showdown" also gives us a romantic relationship that's more about lust and one-upsmanship than about the love we've seen displayed between the Ricardos, Petries, and even the Bunkers on other sitcoms.
Gracie has a presumably unwitting ability to create as much havoc — and lob as many insults — as Bugs Bunny.
What I like about the later years is that the show covers such a wide range of themes, thanks to its format of having so many one-shot characters (mostly criminals and victims) come through the small, two-room set.
Here we get a philosophical debate over the definition of "favor": If you ask someone on the job, like the deliciously named Mocha Joe, to do something completely unrelated to his work, do you still have to tip him?
The lesson is that we should be happy with the way we are — which is odd, considering all the commercials between scenes that tell us the opposite. Also mentioned: "Archie the Donor," All in the Family, and "My Blonde-Haired Brunette," The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The pair are at each other's throats before they realize that they actually have a perfect relationship — as long as they keep out anything new that might upset their delicate balance. Also mentioned: "Br-rooom, Br-rooom," The Dick Van Dyke Show; "Barney's First Car," The Andy Griffith Show; "The Gift," Everybody Loves Raymond; "An Old-Fashioned Piano Party," Will & Grace; and "Sabrina Has Money," Raising Hope.
Just as we seem to be losing privacy in real life, sitcom characters seem to have run of hiding places. Also mentioned: "Archie Goes Too Far," All in the Family, "Bargain Day," The Andy Griffith Show, and "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," Frasier.
The British satire, which pits well-meaning but rather cowardly cabinet minister Jim Hacker against red tape and bureaucracy, can be enjoyed by those on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Also mentioned: Parks and Recreation.
Who can resist a campaign ad warning of Hillary Clinton's plan for an "all-homosexual" army?
Edith shames Archie away from blackmailing a lesbian schoolteacher by simply saying, "I can't believe you'd do anything that mean." Also mentioned: "Edith's 50th Birthday," All in the Family.
The four guys and a girl on Sunny are unrelentingly selfish, but they're almost invariably driven by a desire to connect with someone (arguably more so than the chilly Seinfeld quartet). Also mentioned: Peep Show.
Ted has an on-air heart attack and becomes endlessly fascinated by spider webs. Also mentioned: "The Bottom of Mel Cooley's Heart," The DIck Van Dyke Show, "Rhoda the Beautiful" and "The Last Show," The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Victor's exasperation at his incredibly bad fortune is a main source of comedy, but his stubborn refusal to lay down and die is what keeps the audience from feeling too sadistic.
The episode makes a common object seem threatening just by multiplying it and putting it in places we don't expect — in the same way a common word can suddenly seem strange if we stare at it long enough. Also mentioned: "Washington vs. the Bunny" and "The Bad Old Days."
The main plot involves son Theo's terrible report card, and it's essentially a rebuttal of "Opie's Ill-Gotten Gain" (No. 99 on this list), with Cosby playing a trick on the studio audience.
Dan's "we'll never, ever do this again" is an echo of George Costanza's "I am never doing that again" in Seinfeld's "The Contest" a year before this episode, and we all know how that turned out.
This is a Don't Look Down episode, in which characters stop to consider where they are — and freak out about it. Also mentioned: "Change Your Partners," Car 54, Where Are You?, and "Gloria Sings the Blues," All in the Family.
This episode could logically end with The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling stepping out of the shadows to tell us that the gang never leaves the crummy diner and "motel" where they seem to be the only customers. Also mentioned: the Danny Thomas Show episode that led to The Andy Griffith Show.
Michael may be more sympathetic here than in any other episode, as the paper merchant stands athwart the Digital Age yelling "Stop!" Also mentioned: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the films The Artist and Singin' in the Rain.
Blackadder is sentenced to death for the crime of trying to stay alive. Also mentioned: Green Acres, Newhart, and Arrested Development.
Going out to buy a specific food item and not returning with it is about the most emasculating experience a New Yorker can have (far worse than handing your wallet to a mugger).
Edith accidentally dents a stranger's car with a can of "mmm mmm in heavy syrup." Also mentioned: The Baxters, 227, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The measured performance by Jeffrey Tambor as Hank introduces a cringe factor when he does act like an ass, making him something of a forerunner to Ricky Gervais and Steve Carrell in the British and US versions of The Office. Also mentioned: "Performance Artist," sweet vs. sour sitcoms.
I like this episode as a stand-alone comic short story, and I wish the series had continued in this direction, as a kind of anthology series about real or imagined wartime exploits — kind of like the westerns Death Valley Days and Gunsmoke. Also mentioned: Blackadder and Scrubs.
This is a great example of how Van Dyke and the show's producers managed to create a central character who's both a straight man and a clown. Also mentioned: "One Angry Man," "My Husband Is a Check-Grabber," "My Husband Is Not a Drunk," "Who and Where Was Antonio Stradivarius?", and "One Hundred Terrible Hours."
This is a musical sitcom, something rarely attempted since The Monkees in the 1960s, and it covers an impressive range of musical styles, in addition to creating a fine set of characters.
Taxi operates on the principle that a random meeting in, say, a bar can turn one's life around. And it's why so many introverts, perversely, choose to live in big cities with lots of forced interaction with other people. Also mentioned: "Elaine and the Lame Duck," "Blind Date," "Fledgling," Seinfeld, and The Andy Griffith Show.
Another example of a lesson that has been showing up again and again in this Top 100 list: Be thankful for the people who are already in your life. Also mentioned: "A Guest in the Yard," Chico and the Man, and Steptoe and Son.
David Cross, who has played a variety of characters whose stupidity or stubbornness is more creepy than endearing, is a perfect fit for the role, especially as he keeps turning on and off his "slowness." Also mentioned: "Diane's Nightmare," Cheers, "The Pickle Jar," Hung; "The Library," Seinfeld; "The Light Housekeeper," Sanford and Son; and the Brady Bunch episode of Day by Day.
This is sort of a MacGuffin episode, except the object at the center is not "the stuff that dreams are made of" (as Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade described The Maltese Falcon) but is more a repository for grudges and resentments. Also mentioned: "The Kipper and the Corpse," Fawlty Towers.
By the end of the episode, Ward comes up with an elegant solution to the problem and even apologizes to Beaver for his rotten parenting. Also mentioned: "Beaver and Chuey," "The Last Day of School," The Donna Reed Show, and Everybody Loves Raymond.
Basil has an anti-id: Ashamed of his own pleasure drive, he constantly tries to thwart everyone else's. Also mentioned: "The Wedding Party," Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, Jack Benny, and George Costanza.
This series is in a small genre I'd call flâneur-coms, after the French term for someone who likes to walk through a city and take in all its experiences. Also mentioned: "Christmas Shopping Show," The Jack Benny Show; "Jurying," Peep Show; Louie.
Louie and Kim are adult characters who can never completely disregard each other's feelings even when they get obsessed with some pretty animalistic urges, and much of the show's comedy is from their frustration with this conflict. Also mentioned: "The Mango," Seinfeld; The Bob Newhart Show.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is great as Elaine, trying to be both alluring and dispassionate as she and Jerry rationalize their way to the bedroom.
There's a hopeful theme in some sitcoms that's typified by Mary's advice to Lou about a supremely awkward blind date in this episode: "Mr. Grant, why don't you just go through with it?" Also mentioned: The Honeymooners; The Carol Burnett Show.
Because this is a Ricky Gervais show, none of the misunderstandings get sorted out, and apologies for social offenses only make things worse.
The death of Cousin Oscar, whom we never see, is more mysterious than bizarre, but the bits of information we get about him conjure up a fairy-tale ogre.
For a few minutes, Jeff believes that Abed can become the confidant he desparately needs, someone with whom he can drop all of his artifice.
This is a silly, broadly acted episode of a typically low-key, semi-serious sitcom, and that contrast may explain why it's one of the best-remembered episodes of the 1970s.
The British, perhaps because they don't send as many people to the Big House, have been more successful in utilizing the prison setting, and Porridge was one of the more popular UK sitcoms in the 1970s.
One great thing about this episode is the revelation that Laura Petrie, so often concerned with maintaining a proper appearance, is really into role-playing.
It's hard to top the pungency of "Racial Insensitivity," in which the Veridian company blithely installs separate, manually operated drinking fountains for the convenience of its black employees.
The best thing about this series is its demolishment of the idea that people were ever nobler than they are now.
Jerry and company are never able to relate to other people as anything more than threats to their self-image, and it's kind of reassuring to see that a change of scenery does them no good whatsoever.
To the British, this episode includes a scene as iconic as Lucy in the candy factory, or Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker.
This is a key moment in the real-world education of Darlene Connor, but it's not in Very Special Episode territory. The biggest revelation is that Roseanne has been tricking her kids by putting cheaper cereal in "name brand" boxes.
Ed wants to watch Captain Video and imagine himself traveling to Mars. He's childish, but maybe his less-attainable fantasies are what makes him happier with his real life, in contrast to the ever-scheming Ralph.
Alternate timelines are explored, and Hal's insistence on following a complicated good-luck routine every time he rolls the ball is a hilarious foreshadowing of Bryan Cranston's role as the routine-obsessed Walter White on Breaking Bad.
People react to sickness in all kinds of different ways. Some of us feel guilty for neglecting our health (or touching a door handle in a rest room), some feel a kind of relief at having an excuse to slack off, and some just refuse to acknowledge being sick.
The complaint box, which is supposed to bring some order to the griping about colleagues' behavior that goes on in any office, is more like a toy thrown into the monkey cage at a zoo.
The episode is a pretty big wink to the audience, given the gay subtext on Frasier. "She thinks we're some sort of... couple," Frasier pouts to his brother.
"Diane's Perfect Date" might have worked as a full-length screwball comedy in the '30s, but the fluid nature of Sam and Diane's relationship feels contemporary. When do colleagues, platonic friends, and even friends with benefits become something more, and who makes the first move?
Even though I've never been married, I can believe that a husband and wife would leave a suitcase on a landing for weeks without talking about it, and that the husband would try to force the situation by hiding a piece of pungent cheese in the suitcase before leaving on a business trip.
Since so many sitcom stories involve household members or co-workers learning to get along with each other, it's fun to find an episode that puts strangers in temporarily close quarters like this; it's more like a mini road movie (Edna Grundy: The Original Easy Rider).
Louie is short, balding, and overweight (he must dream of being as attractive as George Costanza), and he's obviously had to deal with people mocking or ignoring him for all of his life. Worst of all, he just looks like someone who's going to say something nasty, so people undoubtedly have a negative reaction before he even opens his mouth.
I hate that every high-aspiring sitcom has to follow Arrested Development's rules now, but the show is still damn funny. The pilot episode is a masterpiece in introducing its large cast of distinct characters and setting up future situations.
The change in scenery emboldens some characters and shows others at their most vulnerable. This episode also helps establish Troy and Annie as the real protagonists of the series, as Community focuses less on second chances (Jeff returning to school after being disbarred) and more on the process of defining oneself as an adult.
The usually perfectly-put-together Mary Richards has a cascade of bad luck that begins with a leaking coffee mug, proceeds through a "hair bump" and slippery floor, and (presumably) ends with her struggling to stay on her feet for what should be one of the proudest moments of her career.
The Petries are usually so perfect that there's a comic charge in seeing them ruin a dinner party because their feelings are a little bruised. It's like one of the periodic winks to the audience on The Office that Jim and Pam are a little too pleased with themselves.
Diane sees The Sun Also Rises as an unexpected tool in her campaign to remake Sam as her perfect man (still masculine but newly appreciative of fine arts and totally dependent on Diane to learn about them). Sam is at least mildly piqued by the novel (not enough to show any interest in reading more Hemingway) but mostly feigns interest to get out of a jam and into Diane's pants.
This is a sweet episode that, typically, is also very funny because of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton's performances. Its premise, that you're never too old to come out of your shell, used to be a common sitcom theme (back when actors over 50 could get roles other than as sight gags on How I Met Your Mother) but rarely felt as authentic as it does here.
There isn't much time for one-liners, given the show's fast pace. Instead, the comedy is from the escalating absurdity of the situation — specifically, Ritzik losing his grip on reality and Bilko getting tangled in his own reputation for deviousness.
"Arthur After Hours" is about a tragic figure most commonly found in the worlds of politics and show business: the right-hand man. Talk-show producer Artie is a born leader, able to make snap decisions and put them into action. He's the most powerful person in his world — except for the jerk who gets all the credit for Artie's efforts.
"Casino Night" is a great season finale and cliffhanger, but it's also on this list because it has great little moments for almost everyone in the cast. This was back when the show approximated reality by giving us periodic clues about each character's personal life, the way most of us learn about our officemates. "Casino Night" divulges a little more than usual because most of the episode is set at an after-work charity event where people let their guard down slightly.
The highlight of "Turkeys Away" is a stand-up routine that could have been on The Ed Sullivan Show or on a 1960s comedy record. Les Nessman's narration of live turkeys being pushed out of a helicopter and "hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement" is similar to the absurd situations described by the deadpan Bob Newhart on his "Button-Down Mind" albums — with the big difference that Nessman (Richard Sanders) goes for an overwrought "Hindenburg" delivery of the news.
I Love Lucy was a pioneer in the use of celebrity guests, and "Hollywood at Last" was the first of dozens of Lucille Ball sitcom episodes with film and TV stars appearing as themselves. (Journalists weren't such camera whores yet.) They make for a strange dynamic in that Ball, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood and a no-nonsense perfectionist on the set, almost invariably played her character as a starstruck "ordinary person" bowing and scraping before Charles Boyer, Orson Welles, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, etc.
In "Rosemary's Baby," Liz Lemon learns to accept her fate as an artistically compromised but financially secure TV writer. I hope that 30 Rock creator Tina Fey also follows her destiny, which is to create a comic rejoinder to Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom.
There are several dreamlike aspects of Louie, including unpredictable scene lengths and bits of surrealism. (In the pilot episode, Louie dates a woman who evades his attempted kiss on a park bench by jumping into an inexplicably waiting helicopter.) The series also has flashbacks to Louie's childhood, and "Bully" features a scene with pre-adolescent Louie forced to act ridiculously adult, followed by a scene in which adult Louie finds himself in a ridiculously childish situation.
"The Architect" is the only sitcom episode I can think of that borrows a plot from the irrepressible Ayn Rand, but that's not the main reason it's on my list. My favorite aspect of the episode is the relationship between Barney and Wojo, who often seem more like father and son than supervisor and subordinate. During a chaotic Sunday that includes a hostage situation and a time bomb, the most shocking development is Wojo's bald-faced lie to his mentor. The boy is finally growing up.
"Thank you for being my family," Mary Richards tells her co-workers on the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her WJM colleagues, she says, had made her "feel less alone" and "really loved." But both real and surrogate family members can do something else: shatter your self-esteem with some well-aimed ridicule.
Newhart always seems to be thinking, "Wait, am I dreaming this?" On his comedy albums, that thought might occur to the security guard watching King Kong scale the Empire State Building. On The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Robert Hartley seems to be questioning reality whenever he sees his patients, who only seem to get more neurotic.
Hell is a long-weekend traffic jam that becomes a prison for Victor Meldrew and the two main women in his life. But after threatening to suck on an exhaust pipe, Victor finally decides, in a typically British way, to keep calm and carry on.
"Archie Is Branded" almost plays as a Twilight Zone installment, both in the eeriness of the situation and in the moral parable with a Rod Serling-like ending. Which makes it all the more impressive that Vin Bogart's script is also so damn funny.
Funny and perfectly structured, "Epidemiology" fills two sitcom niches: the sci-fi/supernatural story and the parody. And it does so without shortchanging either.
Its comedy comes instead from the rituals and routinized conversations that allow us to spend time with each other — assuming that we're lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to spend long stretches of time with our loved ones. If you've ever felt a mild sense of dread upon entering a room and having an elderly relative say, "Oh! I didn't tell you...," you can identify with the triviality-based humor here.
Mary's lesson — that laughter helps us cope with tragedy, and it's a mistake to try repressing it — is so flattering to comedy writers that it's no surprise they love "Chuckles." The episode is reminiscent of Preston Sturges' film Sullivan's Travels, when a film director played by Joel McCrae has an epiphany about the power of comedy while laughing with chain-gang prisoners at a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David (Larry David) has a definite idea about how people should behave — that is, like himself.
"Coast to Coast Big Mouth — with an Emmy-winning script by Bill Persky and Sam Danoff, who also wrote "That's My Boy?" — is the sitcom genre's best example of a Gaffe Episode, and it's a lot more fun than anything that happens in a presidential campaign.
"Charity" is the penultimate regular episode of the original "Office" series, and it's one that could have never been adapted for the American version. David finally faces the music here (after foolishly dancing to an imagined tune in an earlier scene), and his fall is swift, unsentimental, and darkly funny.
"Better Living Through TV" is the quintessential get-rich-quick-scheme episode of The Honeymooners, which, in turn, makes it one of our most vital stories about trying to achieve the American dream.
We've come to the first series finale on the list, and it's one of the darkest TV episodes ever. In "Goodbyeee," Captain Edmund Blackadder and his crew are ordered to leave their trench for the "big push": a suicidal run toward German machine guns somewhere on the western front during World War I.
Dumb-but-sweethearted characters are well and good, but we also crave the occasional person with an id-like propensity to do whatever he wants — a sitcom psychopath. Sue Ann Nivens blew the door open for utterly shameless women in TV comedies.
Frasier did several farces about deception and mistaken identity, but this fourth-season opener, penned by Joe Keenan, is its most elegant charade. Every regular character gets a new identity as a result of the fiction that Daphne is married and thus unavailable to her "layabout" ex-fiancee from England.
Plenty of solid jokes, strong character development, and the absence of anyone running to a church make this a superlative wedding episode.
The characters were still mostly sympathetic at this point, but "The Contest" foreshadows the more narcissistic qualities that would drive later episodes. Here are a bunch of emotionally stunted, single adults getting aroused by a nameless, naked woman seen though an apartment window; another woman getting a sponge bath behind a screen in a hospital; and, in Elaine's case, the thought of starfucking John F. Kennedy Jr.
Sir Humphrey's stupification at encountering a locked door — and then having his key taken away from him — is a fine joke on all the sitcom neighbors who never call before dropping in. And his instant mental breakdown, which has him frantically looking for any way to get into Hacker's office, is a marvelous piece of understated physical comedy.
What makes the Vitameatavegamin scene so funny is that we know how much Lucy had to go through to get the pitchman's job and we wonder what's going to happen to her afterward. One of the reasons Lucy has to descend into drunkenness so slowly is that the threat of Ricky's "I told you so" is hanging over her, and she's highly motivated to fight off the effects of intoxication for as long as possible.
Lessons learned, parents and children understanding each other... why wasn't this show a hit?
"The Letter" was cringe comedy before Ricky Gervais made it the default tone for sitcoms with highbrow appeal.
Mary Richards is a warm, generous person who wants guests to enjoy themselves in her home. She's also rather uptight and desparately wants to avoid "scenes." In the world of sitcoms, this is a combination that guarantees trouble.
I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Mr. Tucker, introduced as a businessman who wants to get the hell out of Mayberry as soon as possible, is still there at the end of the episode. The last shot of the episode shows him asleep in a chair on Andy's front porch. Does he ever leave?
This episode takes place a year after Sam and Diane bowed to the inevitable and became a couple (see "Showdown"), and we're seeing what happens long after the closing credits on a screwball comedy like It Happened One Night or a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn film. The movies have conditioned us to think that opposites attract, but in the case of the hedonist bartender and the intellectual waitress, their differences only grow more problematic.
Jean Stapleton gives a classic sitcom performance here, switching back and forth from her usual cheery self to a ball of frustration and anger. It might be over-the-top if not for the suggestion that menopausal Edith can't help letting out some feelings that she's been bottling up for years.
The plot of "Communication Problems" ties together several scenes of Basil getting increasingly frustrated in his attempts to convey information to different characters. "I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation," he says during an exchange with Manuel. "Please try to understand before one of us dies."