30 Classic Episodes That Changed Television Forever
Television has changed a lot since its commercial introduction in 1938. And just as TV sets have morphed and changed over time, so have the programs, shows and movies that appear on them. Before 1948, there weren't even any good shows to watch on TV.
Still, the television shows we know and love today wouldn't exist without these innovative and courageous moments from television history. Some of these episodes were shocking, and some had us in tears. And a few changed the fabric of reality forever.
Star Trek - "Plato's Stepchildren"
Star Trek broke the mold in many ways. For one, it was one of the first massively popular science fiction television shows in America. But the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" is often considered one of the most groundbreaking of the entire series.
I Love Lucy - "Lucy Is Enceinte"
Television was very different in the 1950s. On family sitcoms and dramas, parents and couples were always shown sleeping in separate twin beds. Showing anything sexual, including a pregnant woman, was strictly forbidden. So, when Lucille Ball became pregnant with her second child in 1952, CBS was furious.
M*A*S*H - "Abyssinia, Henry"
When M*A*S*H's season three finale aired on March 18, 1975, the entire tone of the show changed. Audiences were left shocked by the episode's final 10 minutes, and new fans and viewers still find themselves surprised by the finale.
Roseanne - "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
It's easy to say that Roseanne was one of the most controversial shows of the 1990s. Lead character Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) spoke her mind bluntly, crudely and sometimes offensively. Some viewers were impressed with the show's honesty and willingness to tackle difficult subjects. Others were appalled.
Ellen - "Puppy Episode"
The two-part "Puppy Episode" is unlike anything else ever broadcast. In it, Ellen Degeneres makes a brave and bold decision to come out and confess her true sexuality. Though she is in character, this decision was a very personal one for Degeneres, who immediately confirmed that she was, indeed, gay.
All in the Family - "Sammy's Visit"
Episode 21 of the second season of All in the Family is aptly named "Sammy's Visit." In it, racist Archie Bunker comes face to face with Sammy Davis Jr., whom he idolizes. The episode forces Archie to reexamine his views, and it was one of the first times that a celebrity guest-starred on a popular show.
Twin Peaks - "Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer"
"Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer," also known as "Episode 2," is the third episode of the first season of Twin Peaks. If you know anything about David Lynch, it's that he has a very particular, very surreal style. Naturally, his involvement in the series resulted in plenty of odd and memorable moments.
Maude - "Maude's Dilemma"
"Maude's Dilemma" shattered just a little of the taboo surrounding abortion. This 1972 episode features its lead character, 47-year-old Maude, coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy. She must make a decision about either keeping the child or having an abortion, and throughout the two-part episode, her turmoil is very real.
The Golden Girls - "72 Hours"
The AIDS epidemic shook the world and continues to take lives every year. When "72 Hours" broadcast in 1990, AIDS was on the rise in the United States. By 1994, nearly 2% of the U.S. population were dead or dying from AIDS or HIV. But this episode of The Golden Girls attempted to spread awareness early on.
Murphy Brown - "You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato"
The first episode of the fifth season of Murphy Brown is an absolute gem. It blurs the line between reality and television make-believe, with the lead character Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) addressing real-life Vice President Dan Quayle's criticism of her character. Quayle had famously remarked that fictional Murphy Brown shouldn't be raising her fictional baby without a husband.
The Sopranos - "College"
Though it's sometimes difficult to remember, The Sopranos didn't start with heady gang violence. The first four episodes centered on Tony (James Gandolfini) and his visits to a psychiatrist. But episode five, "College," showed viewers their first real glimpse of why Tony needed psychiatric help in the first place.
Seinfeld - "The Chinese Restaurant"
If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, then "The Chinese Restaurant" is its hallmark episode. The 23-minute-long episode is a "bottle episode," which means that it takes place in a single location and doesn't have any scene cuts. The entirety of the episode centers around Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and George (Jason Alexander) waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant.
Lost - "Pilot"
The first episode of Lost, "Pilot," blew minds when it premiered on September 22, 2004. Rather than attempting to start things off slowly, Lost jumped into events from the first second, captivating viewers. Rather than attempting to show or explain how or why things were happening, they simply showed them happening.
The Good Place - "Michael's Gambit"
The season one finale of The Good Place made some viewers cheer and others gasp. There had been some major hints at the series twist up to the final episode, and as sofa sleuths cheered about being right, polite disbelievers sat in a state of shock.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer - "Once More, With Feeling"
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most iconic shows of the 1990s. Half monster story, half teenage drama and with plenty of self-referential comedy sprinkled in, the Joss Whedon show made young Sarah Michelle Gellar a star, nearly overnight. Most of the show revolved around fighting a great evil, exploring friendships and navigating relationships.
American Horror Story - "Welcome to Briarcliff"
The first season of American Horror Story was well-advertised and extremely popular. But the season finale left audiences wondering how the writers would handle a second season. They had a novel answer for viewers that has proven to be extremely popular for the adult horror show.
The Office - "Dinner Party"
The Office may be one of the most successful prime-time comedies of the last two decades, though Friends gives it a run for its money. Still, it's difficult to find a more bizarrely awkward, charming, frustrating and loveable show. The episode "Dinner Party" is a perfect example of why audiences still re-watch The Office again and again.
Game of Thrones - "Baelor"
The finale episode of HBO's Game of Thrones is still shocking to watch, even now. Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) is a likable, honorable character, and it's easy to root for him. But Stark's fate hangs in a delicate, dangerous balance for the majority of the first season, until it reaches a dramatic conclusion.
St. Elsewhere - "The Last One"
Sometimes, a show's series finale is well-loved, beautifully written and perfectly executed. Other times, it alienates the entire audience. When it comes to the final episode of St. Elsewhere, the latter happened. Audiences felt cheated when it was hinted that the events of the entire show were a dream or a daydream.
South Park - "Trapped in the Closet"
South Park is known for generating controversy. Some would say that controversy is what the show aims for. But "Trapped in the Closet" pressed a lot of buttons in the Scientology community. It also featured commentary about Tom Cruise's sexuality, among other things.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood - "Conflict"
Fred Rogers sadly passed away in 2003. But during his time here on Earth, he made an unforgettable impression on the lives of millions of people. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood changed children's television programming forever and is still remembered fondly by more than three generations who grew up watching it.
The X-Files - "Home"
The X-Files is a beloved and classic television show for several reasons. But perhaps the most notable thing about The X-Files is how it managed to change the lives of millions of Americans during the 1990s. The show took a niche genre and turned it into a mainstream cultural phenomenon.
Malcolm in the Middle - "Bowling"
This 2001 episode of the beloved family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle did something brilliant. It used a split-screen storytelling mechanic to tell two stories at once. Both stories seemed to interact with each other perfectly, to significant comedic effect.
Cheers - "Showdown, Part 2"
While dramas and mysteries incorporated cliffhangers into their finales to keep audiences glued to their sets, sitcoms of the early 1980s were pretty tension-free. This all changed when "Showdown, Part 1" and "Showdown, Part 2," the two-part season one finale of Cheers, aired in 1983.
Futurama - "Jurassic Bark"
Futurama may have ended in 2013, but it's still lauded as one of the smartest, funniest and most touching animated series ever produced. In the episode "Jurassic Bark," Fry discovers the preserved remains of his faithful canine companion, Seymour.
The Fugitive - "The Judgement"
Have you ever watched the first season of a brilliant show, only to find out that it was canceled and there will never be more episodes? Well, in the early days of TV, pretty much every show was canceled or discontinued after the first season. That is, until The Fugitive.
NYPD Blue - "Nude Awakening"
The pilot episode of NYPD Blue generated an astounding amount of public outcry when it first aired in 1993. There was strong language, violence and a whole heap of sexuality. But it was sex that became the issue for the FCC — and some viewers.
Dragnet - "The Human Bomb"
Even if you know very little about the film and television industry, you probably know that the majority of TV shows and movies are produced and filmed in Los Angeles, California. Back in the 1950s, this wasn't always the case. But when Dragnet premiered in 1951 with "The Human Bomb," everything changed.
Dallas - "A House Divided"
Cliffhangers are pretty much expected in a season finale. But Dallas' season three finale may be the reason why. It ended on a massive cliffhanger that drove audiences wild in 1980. The phrase "Who shot J.R.?" originates from this unforgettable episode.
Breaking Bad - "Felina"
Breaking Bad transformed the way that people watch television, and in more ways than one. The series finale, which broadcast on September 29, 2013, had 10.28 million viewers. It is often called "the greatest series finale of all time."