Think Twice, It’s Alright: the Best Two-Part Sitcom Episodes

It’s tough enough for TV writers to make viewers laugh for 22 minutes — to extend an episode’s length to 44 minutes, even spread over two weeks, that’s just downright crazy. But every so often, a sitcom plot will be spread over two episodes (with the occasional “To Be Continued” thrown in for good measure), oftentimes with mixed results. Below we choose twelve of the best two-part episodes, some season-ending cliffhangers, some series finales, and some that work as a two-part story arc. And don’t worry: some Simpsons, too.

“Ship of Spies,” Get Smart (April 1966)
Written by Buck Henry and Leonard Stern; Directed by Bruce Bilson

As much as I enjoy and respect Steve Carell, I’ll never forgive him (or director Peter Segal) for besmirching the legacy of Get Smart with that terrible 2008 film. If you want a good place to start with the Mel Brooks co-created show, which aired from 1965-1970, you couldn’t do much better than the two-part “Ship of Spies,” which won co-writers Buck Henry and Leonard Stern (the co-creator of Mad Libs) the Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy. Agent 44 dresses as a gorilla, part one ends with Maxwell falling overboard, and the phrase “scum of Europe” is used. “Ship of Spies” accomplishes exactly what Get Smart intended to do: suck you in with the jokes, keep you there…with the jokes, but also some mysteries on the side.

“Flashback: Mike and Gloria’s Wedding,” All in the Family (November 1972)
Written by Rob Reiner & Phil Mishkin; Directed by John Rich & Bob LaHendro

In All in the Family’s chronology, Mike and Gloria’s wedding took place before the show began, so it only makes sense to flash back to it. It’s an episode that shows off what the show did best — taking serious topics and mining them for laughter. There’s a nice balance of heart and humor on display here. The status of Mike and Gloria’s (and the Bunkers’) future seems rather grim at times, but the writers still manage to keep things light and funny. Even though Archie Bunker grows a smidgen as a result of his experiences in “Mike and Gloria’s Wedding,” he’s still the same old lovable jerk by the episode’s end.

“Good-Bye Radar,” M*A*S*H (October 1979)
Written by: David Isaacs and Ken Levine; Directed by Charles S. Dubin

In 2006, Ken Levine, who co-wrote “Good-Bye Radar” with David Isaacs, published a post on his blog about the episode. He wrote, “The one thing David and I wanted to avoid was a lot of schmaltz. We did not want long gooey farewell speeches with a lot of crying and hugging.” Mission accomplished, because Radar doesn’t leave sad; he leaves the 4077th conflicted, knowing that his mom needs his help back on the farm in the United States after Uncle Ed passed away, but he still has a job to do in Korea. He knows he has to depart, however, and although a farewell party is planned, the festivities are cut short when wounded soldiers arrive at the camp, requiring the attention of the staff. Radar leaves the war quietly, wondering how he’ll cope with being back in familiar, peaceful Iowa. It’s not the funniest episode(s) of M*A*S*H, but it’s certainly one of the best.

“Shut It Down,” Taxi (January and February 1980)
Written by Howard Gewirtz and Ian Praiser; Directed by James Burrows

The Taxi double-header “Shut It Down,” in which the cabbies strike for safer vehicle maintenance, is a fine example of the classic sitcom firing in all cylinders. The show’s at its best when Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito) is at odds with the cabbies, and the labor dispute in these episodes gives Danny DeVito a great showcase for what Danny DeVito could do with this character. We get to see him running through the garage to escape the angry cabbies so he can hide in his cage, manipulating dunderhead Tony Banta (Tony Danza) to take his side, Louie’s collection of strikebreaking cab drivers (they’re all elderly except for a child), and that’s just in part one. Part two is when things really get rolling, with Louie finally coaxing Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) into going on a date with him, culminating in an unforgettable kiss between the two.

“The Pilot,” Seinfeld (May 1993)
Written by Larry David; Directed by Tom Cherones

Seinfeld’s fourth season finale, “The Pilot,” which examines the disastrous production of Jerry and George’s television pilot based on their lives, is a great bit of meta-storytelling, long before meta was all the rage. Their sitcom, Jerry, is “a show about nothing” and a fantastic winking reference at Seinfeld itself. We follow them casting the pilot (with a young Jeremy Piven giving an excellent George Costanza impression) and shooting it, only for the series to be canceled because the network exec who championed the show, Russell Dalrymple, is lost at sea. The entire arc about Jerry and George creating their own sitcom is an ambitious one, especially for its time period, and it’s a nice piece of reflexive storytelling. In real life, Seinfeld was almost canceled a number of times before it became a hit, so it’s no stretch to imagine a fictional version of the show would face its demise rather easily. I’d argue Seinfeld’s fourth season was when the show was at its creative zenith, and “The Pilot” nicely wraps up that year’s various plot threads.

“L.A. or N.Y.?”/”Montana,” The Larry Sanders Show (September 1993/June 1994)
Written by Garry Shandling, Peter Tolan, and Paul Simms; Directed by Todd Holland

The second season finale and third season premiere of The Larry Sanders Show aren’t an official two-parter, but they complement each other nicely and tell a complete story that offers a characteristically frank look at show business. When Larry grows sick of the network meddling with his talk show, he opts to do something he’s always wanted to do: retire to Montana, away from the pressures of show business. Once in Montana, however, he realizes how boring his new life is and wants his talk show back almost instantly. Larry has no choice but to admit to a phony drug problem to convince the network to give him another chance and becomes wildly popular with the audience for said problem. It’s a raw look at the reality of retreating from the spotlight and offers up a funny glimpse of what the cast and crew of the fictional Larry Sanders Show’s lives are like without the show. Best of all is series stand-out Hank Kingsley’s new gig announcing Powerball winners on TV.

“Who Shot Mr. Burns?” The Simpsons (May and September 1995)
Written by: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein; Directed by Jeffrey Lynch (part one) and Wes Archer (part two)

Between May 21 and September 16, 1995, the world, or at least the 8.7 million people who watched the season six Simpsons’ cliffhanger finale, was asking itself, “Who shot Mr. Burns?” It turned out not to be any of the usual suspects — I thought it was Grandpa, which is really stupid in hindsight — but rather, the person whom Mr. Burns stole candy from: Maggie. Thousands of fans guessed the culprit in an official contest held that summer (one of the first Internet and TV tie-ins), and not a single person answered correctly. “Who Shot Mr. Burns” was a rare publicity stunt that was not only up to the show’s usual standards, it ended up becoming one of the series’ finest episodes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and watch Pardon My Zinger.

“Into That Good Night,” Roseanne (May 1997)
Written by Jessica and Jennifer Pentland (part one) and Roseanne Barr and Allan Stephan (part two); Directed by Gary Halvorson

The majority of the ninth and final season of Roseanne is bad. The Conner’s become millionaires after winning the lottery, a prince falls in love with Jackie, and Roseanne daydreams about Darlene giving birth to Satan and, two episodes later, she meets Hilary Clinton on a train after saving her from women-hating terrorists. And yet, the season doesn’t feel like a bust, and even the prince played by Ernest makes sense, all because of the finale, where, as we find out in the final moments of the final episode, the family didn’t actually win the lottery. Not only that, but Dan didn’t survive his season eight heart attack; Jackie, instead of mother Bev, turns out to be gay; and Mark and Darlene and David and Becky are the couples, not the other way around. The stories of season nine were just Roseanne coping with the fact that her husband is dead, by writing an autobiography in the writing room her children had made for her back in the show’s early years. Ugh, I’m going to cry all over again.

“Out on a Limb”/“Hand to God,” Arrested Development (2005)
Written by Chuck Martin and Jim Vallely (part one) and Mitchell Hurwitz and Chuck Martin (part two); Directed by Danny Leiner (part one) and Joe Russo (part two)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus dropped by for two different two-part episodes of Arrested Development during its unfairly short run, playing scheming attorney Maggie Lizer. She’s great as this character and these four episodes easily rank amongst the series best. While both of the Maggie Lizer two-parters are excellent, “Out on a Limb” and “Hand to God” from season two stand out as being slightly stronger. Arrested Development always packed an hour’s worth of story into half an hour, so it’s nice to see the writers get the chance to let this story breathe a little and to add on a few more layers than what a normal-length episode could handle. Perhaps my favorite joke in these episodes involves Mr. Show vets Jay Johnston and Jerry Minor as a gay couple (and police partners) who both donated sperm to Maggie Lizer for artificial insemination but don’t want to know who the father of their unborn child is, despite the fact that one of them is black and one is white. It’s a joke so good that Glee “borrowed” it for its series premiere.

“Cartoon Wars,” South Park (April 2006)
Written and Directed by Trey Parker

Since 2000, when “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”/“Probably” aired, South Park has done numerous multi-part episodes, including “Go God Go”/”Go God Go XII,” “Pandemic”/”Pandemic 2: The Startling,” and, of course, the “Imaginationland” trilogy. But none have sustained their humor over 44 minutes (or more) as well as “Cartoon Wars,” which somehow managed to mock Family Guy and its staff of manatee writers, and expose the fact that Bart Simpson isn’t nearly as badass as he thinks he is, while actually being a two-part episode about censorship and the prophet Muhammad. Best of all, part two ends with George W. Bush, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Carson Kressley, and Jesus Christ pooping on the American flag.

“A Benihana Christmas,” The Office (December 2006)
Written by Jennifer Celotta; Directed by Harold Ramis

The Office has aired several quality two-part episodes throughout its run, but few have reached the level of “A Benihana Christmas,” the show’s second Christmas episode and its first two-parter. With all of the chaos and plot shuffling from the Dunder-Mifflin branch merger out of the way, this was the first real celebration the entire office had together. Jim is back and Karen and Andy have now been firmly established as characters and can get in on the fun. There’s plenty of great Michael/Andy action as their relationship is explored deeply for the first time on a trip to Benihana (or “Asian Hooter’s,” as Andy calls it). Look for Kulap Vilaysack (co-host of the Earwolf podcast Who Charted?, Childrens Hospital nurse, and wife of Scott Aukerman) as one of the two Benihana waitresses whose arm Michael marks with a Sharpie so that he can tell her apart from the other waitress. As if all of that’s not enough, we also get to see Pam and Karen become unlikely allies against Angela’s party planning tyranny, various office workers sing karaoke, and Pam and Jim trick Dwight into thinking he’s been recruited by the CIA,

“Stage Two”/”Placebo Effect,” Archer (March 2011)
Written by Adam Reed

Right from the start, Archer was a very good show, somehow finding a new angle on the spy comedy with rapid-fire jokes and one of TV’s finest voice acting groups. But it didn’t become great until the middle of season two, with the one-two combo of “Stage Two” and “Placebo Effect.” Malory (Jessica Walter) believes she has breast cancer and wants everyone to feel as bad for her as she does for herself — until a doctor reveals she’s not the one who has breast cancer; it’s her son, Archer, thanks to all the sex’ing he’s done in front of x-ray machines. Then, for the first time in the show’s history, Archer starts acting like a decent human being, or at least what he thinks makes for a decent human being — one person’s great inspiration of getting the wee baby Seamus tattooed is another person’s awful idea. Later on, we find out Krieger’s a Nazi; Cheryl has no idea what cancer is; and Archer, who’s been given sugar pills instead of actual cancer medicine, holds a group of Irish hooligans hostage, asking them to name who they’re working for in the style of Family Feud. “Stage Two” and “Placebo Effect” work at a breakneck pace, and not a single joke is a dud. With these two episodes, Archer joined the discussion of Best Comedy on Television.

Bradford Evans and Josh Kurp are also in two parts.

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