When Did Great Sitcoms Have Their First Great Episode?
Yesterday, not long after Splitsider published an article by Samer Kalaf about the long-term health of network sitcoms with long-term arcs, Hallie Cantor followed up with a post, via The Hollywood Reporter, on how viewers and networks are giving up on shows if they’re not immediately great sooner than ever. That’s a terrifying thought, because unless your show has a pilot as strong as Cheers’ or Freaks and Geeks’, both of which Bradford and I covered in our list of the Ten Best Comedy Pilots in TV History, it means that you have less time than ever to make a strong impression on your audience, before they give up and watch repeats of The Big Bang Theory instead.
Many classic sitcoms don’t have an immediate great start – most, in fact. I took a look back (CHECKED IN, if you will) on when eight of my favorites had their first great episode. (One note: one of the shows in this list is a repeat of a show in the pilots list mentioned above; just because it has a strong pilot doesn’t mean it’s a great episode, which says more about the quality of sitcom pilots than anything else.) This is entirely subjective, of course, and I’m curious on whether you thought the initial all-around amazing episode happened before or after the one I actually chose. Because that’s kind of the point: that first “holy shit” moment happens earlier for some people and later for others, and if a sitcom has even the smallest glimmer of potential, it should be given at least a full season’s worth of chances. As you’ll soon see, it took even The Simpsons some time to develop a classic.
Seinfeld, “The Pony Remark” (Season Two, Episode Two)
Airdate: January 30, 1991
Like Parks and Recreation, Seinfeld had an abbreviated, underwhelming first season (even if “The Stake Out” did receive a Writers Guild Award nomination – it’s so bizarre seeing anyone other than Barney Martin playing Marty Seinfeld!); it lasted only six episodes and the production order vs. airdate scheduling was all over the place. The first episode of season two, “The Ex-Girlfriend,” received poor ratings (ah, remember a time when 10.9 million wasn’t a great Nielsen rating?), as did the second, “The Pony Remark.” All these years later, though, we can now recognize “Pony” as the first absolutely great Seinfeld episode, because it established the show’s main character, Jerry, in a way the previous episodes hadn’t. It showed him to be an insensitive narcissist who cared more about how a comment he made might have killed his aunt (“I hate anyone who had a pony growing up”), rather than the fact that HIS AUNT DIED. Then he contemplated playing in a softball game over going to her funeral. Why is that so great? Because we’d think the exact same way, and that begrudging reliability is one of the reasons Seinfeld became one of the greatest sitcoms ever. Plus, this is the episode that introduced us to Uncle Leo and had Kramer deciding to give his apartment “levels.” That’s just funny.
The Simpsons, “Bart the Daredevil” (Season Two, Episode Eight)
Airdate: December 6, 1990
Season one of The Simpsons had some very good episodes, including “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Moaning Lisa” (it also had one of my least favorite episodes, “Life on the Fast Lane,” though some hardcore fans love it), but no all-time greats. That wouldn’t happen until “Bart the Daredevil,” the eighth episode of season two and the first with a truly memorable scene, of course referring to the one where Homer attempts to jump Springfield Gorge on a skateboard. (It’s also the first where we see the geographical expansiveness of Springfield – why wouldn’t it have a gorge?) In early 2000, creator Matt Groening told Entertainment Weekly that the scene where the ambulance a post-jump, crippled Homer’s been loaded into hits the tree and he falls down the Gorge again is the “funniest moment in the series.”
Community, “Introduction to Statistics” (Season One, Episode Seven)
Airdate: October 29, 2009
Honestly, if I hadn’t just re-watched this episode, I probably would have chosen “Contemporary American Poultry” or “Modern Warfare” instead. Those two are more easily classifiable (their alternate titles may as well be “The Goodfellas Episode” and, simply, “Paintball”), but I think “Statistics” is the first time the writers really got a handle of who the characters are and who they were going to become (and also the first episode to not be so Jeff-heavy). Take Britta, for instance, who complains to the rest of the Seven about girls dressing slutty for Halloween, so she decides to go to a party in a squirrel costume (an adorable squirrel costume, to boot). She’s proving a point, but in an over-the-top, undercutting way, and that’s why she’s become my favorite character on the show. “Statistics” is also a good episode for Abed, whose devotion to pop culture means that he never breaks character as Batman, and for us, too, because we get to see Chevy Chase trip balls in a Beastmaster costume.
Arrested Development, “Pier Pressure” (Season One, Episode Ten)
Airdate: January 11, 2004
With the exception of “Pilot” and “Top Banana,” every episode of Arrested Development before “Pier Pressure” is great by any other sitcom’s standards. “Bringing Up Buster” has the Cornballer and Steve Holt; Gob says “I’ve made a huge mistake” for the first time in “Key Decisions”; “Visiting Ours” introduces us to Kitty; etc. Any of those episodes would be the greatest episode of most other series. Thing is, Arrested Development wasn’t “most other series”; it’s one of the best series, and by its own season two standards, I think “Pier Pressure” is the sitcom’s first flat-out brilliant episode. Just listing the names of people and songs in “Pier Pressure” makes me laugh: J. Walter Weatherman, “Big Yellow Joint,” the other George Michael, the Hot Cops, etc. Mitchell Hurwitz named it, along with “Making a Stand,” as his favorite episode of the show, and Will Arnett has done the same. “Pier Pressure” is so good that you don’t even realize it’s one of Arrested’s three Tobias-less episodes until you look up the fact on IMDb.
The Office, “Basketball” (Season One, Episode Five)
Original Airdate: April 19, 2005
Eight seasons later, it’s hard to remember that The Office was once an underdog, a midseason replacement for another midseason replacement, Committed. Its first episode was essentially a remake of the original British version’s pilot, and while “Diversity Day,” “Health Care,” and “The Alliance” had their moments (the fact that they were written by B.J. Novak, Paul Lieberstein, and Michael Schur certainly helped), they weren’t great. Michael’s a bit much in “Diversity Day,” and Dwight has the same problem in “Health Care”; it was just too early in the series for full exposure to Dwight’s twisted mind, and it would have been better as a slow build to him cutting everyone’s benefits. The Greg Daniels-written “Basketball,” on the other hand, feels like the first episode to really break away from the original. We’re introduced to the Warehouse crew, who would play a larger role on NBC than they ever did on BBC, and having the plot based around a basketball game was a clever way of getting the entire staff involved. The episode ends with the most Michael Scott-ish of Michael Scott lines, “Let’s not be gloomy here, man. We’re all in this together. We’re a team. You know what? Screw corporate, nobody’s coming in tomorrow. You have the day off. Like coming in an extra day is gonna prevent us from being downsized. Have a good weekend.”
South Park, “Terrance and Phillip in Not Without My Anus” (Season Two, Episode One)
Original Airdate: April 1, 1998
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have disowned many episodes of South Park from seasons one through three for a very good reason: they’re not very good. They’re not clever or all that funny, and most of them succeeded or failed on whether audience members thought little kids swearing was funny. Season one ended with a cliffhanger on the identity of Cartman’s father, and fans of the show were massively excited for season two, when they’d get their answer. In the first of many instances of Trey and Matt fucking with their audience, instead of part two of the saga of Cartman’s dad, viewers were instead given “Terrance and Philip in Not Without My Anus,” about the titular, toilet-loving Canadian duo battling not only Saddam Hussein but also Scott, a dick. Many, many, many people were extremely pissed off: Comedy Central received more than 2,000 email complaints about the episode, and numerous critics denounced the show based on the prank alone; Stone even went so far as to say, “If you get that pissed off because you don’t know who a little construction paper kid’s father is, then there’s really something wrong with you.” What everyone who hated the episode missed, though, was the point: South Park is a forum for Matt and Trey to call out people on their hypocritical attitudes, and clearly, many fans of the show didn’t mind laughing at others, but hated when the joke turned on them. That’s just brilliant.
30 Rock, “Tracy Does Conan” (Season One, Episode 7)
Original Airdate: December 6, 2006
Unlike the other shows on this list, 30 Rock doesn’t really have any signature episodes. There’s no “Marge vs. the Monorail” or “Meet the Veals” in the show’s episodeography (is that even a word?); there’s no one episode that you would tell a friend who hasn’t seen it to watch. 30 Rock is a string of extremely funny moments, and it doesn’t get much funnier than Dr. Spaceman, who’s introduced in the Emmy-nominated “Tracy Does Conan,” and the Blue Dude. But this episode was also the first time where the jokes were based around the personalities of the show’s characters, rather than Family Guy-like “remember when?” tangents; gags about Liz’s trouble splitting time between work and her personal life and Tracy’s crazy tendencies work better here than in the episodes before because we’re more familiar with the characters by this point, and therefore, they’re more sympathetic. Tina Fey’s mind-grapes were working overtime on this episode, and “Tracy Does Conan” ended up being 30 Rock’s first fully-formed episode.
Parks and Recreation, “Greg Pikitis” (Season Two, Episode Seven)
Original Airdate: October 29, 2009
It’s fun going back to the recaps of the early episodes of Parks and Recreation’s second season, to see the number of variations on, “My God, this is a totally different, and better, show than it was last year!” Ah, hindsight. It’s totally true, too, because I, like many others, disliked season one of Parks. The pit, Leslie’s female Michael Scott personality, Mark Brendanawicz etc. It’s all been covered many times before and there’s no reason to go over the specifics again, especially because of how great the show has become, beginning with “Greg Pikitis,” the first episode that truly made me realize Parks was no mere Office clone. It’s got it all: Leslie battling her arch-nemesis, teenager Greg Pikitis; Louis C.K. as Officer Dave Sanderson; T-Pain Tom; and the introduction of FBI agent Burt Macklin. The show had been equally funny in other preceding season two episodes, but what makes “Pikitis” a classic is that this was the first time where I really loved spending time with these characters. It was the perfect balance of funny and charming, even if that Pikitis kid is a total twerp.
Josh Kurp wants to know the first time you thought 2 Broke Girls had a great episode.