Friday, November 18th, 2011

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.

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  • Dylan Snowdon@twitter

    Wishful thinking on Community's Seventh season? Here's hoping

    • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

      @Dylan Snowdon@twitter Yup. Joshua Kurp really britta'd that up.

      For Parks & Rec – I'd start a little earlier in Season 2, with "The Stakeout". First episode I enjoyed from start to finish plus Louis CK. Everybody wins.

    • Joshua Kurp

      @Firas Alexander I love that "Britta'd" is a thing, but yeah, I totally did. Thanks for letting me know.

  • Anthony Coro

    Excellent article. I think you're spot on with 30 Rock, Parks and Seinfeld, although "Diversity Day" is still my all-time favorite Office episode so I'd have to give it the nod.

    For The Simpsons, I'd probably go a little bit earlier with "The Call of the Simpsons" from S1. That's the first one I can think of where the characters start to exhibit signs of who they are and what separates them from each other–before that, Lisa was essentially a female Bart (ok, so "Moaning Lisa" came one episode earlier but there's no way that's a great episode) and I still cringe at the episode where Marge gets drunk and ruins the work party for Homer.

    I'm struggling with Community…there are some earlier episodes that I definitely find funnier but I'd be hard-pressed to consider "great." Arrested Development…I really don't think there's anything in the first 2 seasons that's less than great.

    FWIW, I would suggest that the only sitcom with a pilot that is a total home run is The Cosby Show.

    • Just One Thing

      @Anthony Coro The Cosby Show's first episode, but that's a bit of an exaggeration. Don't forget the Britcoms! "Father Ted" and "The Young Ones" both had superior first episodes, as did "Spaced."

    • Joshua Kurp

      @Just One Thing Spaced does have a very, very good first episode. As for "The Call of The Simpsons," I like that episode a lot (even the Maggie and the bears thing), but I don't think it has a single uproarious moment as strong as the gorge scene. The bunny-flinging one comes close, though.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I always liked Homer and Delilah, but I haven't seen it in awhile and can't say it holds up.

    Not Without My Anus was the first time (to me) South Park showed it was more than just a show about four 8 year olds, and about whatever the hell Matt and Trey wanted it to be.

    Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you what episode 5 of Arrested Development was, but I'd give that the top spot, only because episode 5 seems to be where the friends of mine who I got to watch the show, finally "got it." After the few couple episodes, they would say I was crazy for loving the show, but after 5 episodes, they were sold.

  • Just One Thing

    I have to disagree on three out of the five. "Diversity Day" is indeed a truly great episode of "The Office," as is "Basketball". The other episodes of "The Office" season 1, besides "Pilot", were all very good as well, giving lie to the generally agreed-upon belief that the first season was somehow subpar.

    Also, "Rock Show" was the first great episode of "Parks and Rec," no question about it. That episode was to that series what "The Dundies" was to "The Office".

    "Moaning Lisa" is an AWFUL season 1 episode. It is not funny, Lisa's moaning is just annoying, and Bleeding Gums Murphy is an awful jive-cat stereotype. The first great episode of "The Simpsons" was probably "Itchy and Scratchy and Marge," although it's difficult to view "Bart the Daredevil" objectively since I watched it about 30 fucking times between age 11 and 18.

    The first seasons of "Parks and Rec" and "Seinfeld" are both highly, highly underrated. At least, they weren't nearly so mediocre as people like to remember. Watch them again. (Personally, season 1 is my favorite season of "Seinfeld", since it was "Seinfeld" in its pure form, well before every new episode began introducing some stupid gimmicky plot device).

  • Just One Thing

    One more thing: "30 Rock" suuuucks! You like stupid cut-away gags? Be my guest and enjoy dumb shit like "30 Rock". Personally I can't stand them.

    • Joshua Kurp

      @Just One Thing But season one of Seinfeld is only five episodes long. I think even Jerry and Larry have said that the show hadn't really found its footing yet, which is totally understandable. "The Chinese Restaurant" is usually considered the first amazing episode, but outside of the real-time "gimmick," I don't think it's a very funny episode. Interesting, totally. Funny, not really.
      Then again, I love seasons seven and eight, maybe more than any of the six before it and definitely more than nine, so the wacky stuff doesn’t really bother me.

  • William Ham@facebook

    Sometimes it's not a whole episode, but simply a moment or two when you get that "holy shit!" moment that tells you you're in the presence of something special. I'm not even sure which episode this comes from – pretty sure it was in the first season – but when the ice cream truck reading "Native American Ice Cream (formerly "Big Chief Crazy Cone")" appeared in The Simpsons, I was sold on them for life (if you go by whatever creature's life span runs eleven years or so).

    • Joshua Kurp

      @William Ham@facebook If memory serves, that sign is actually in season four's "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie." But the point remains. I can still remember the first time I ever saw my dad completely lose it with laughter. We were watching "Bart's Elephant" together, and there's a scene where Stampy pulls Barney out of the Springfield Tar Pit. Barney says, "Thanks, Stampy," and while walking on the tar, lights a cigarette. He instantly goes up in flames, and my dad was laughing so hard that I flew off the couch where we were sitting together. The same thing happened with my mom and the "Die/Diet" gag from "The Springfield Files."

  • Manfred Yon@facebook

    Great article. Its odd about Parks and Rec though, because the first time I watched it was on DVD. It was shown at odd times in Australia, and I didn't have a dvr. So, yeah, I watched the first season, and re watched with commentary, over a weekend in the twilight hours

    • Manfred Yon@facebook

      @Manfred Yon@facebook my point, and sorry I forgot to make it, is I feel in love by at most episode 4. at most.

  • kiara ink

    Egg-xellent. Except I like Moaning, especially "You must avenge my death…I mean Simba." I also have a soft spot for Santa's Little Helper…. And the Maggie and the bear one — that is season one, right (since you took the books…grrrr.)?

    • Anthony Coro

      @kiara ink The Simba line isn't from "Moaning Lisa," but "'Round Springfield" from season 6. And yep, Maggie and the bear is S1's "Call of the Simpsons."

    • kiara ink

      @Anthony Coro D'oh! I stand corrected. The author of this post would probably have me shot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Kibblesmith/48604494 Daniel Kibblesmith

    Yup. / Across the board.

  • Iris

    It's "Morty" Seinfeld, not "Marty".

    • Leo Venegas

      Yeah, and "Bert" Macklin, not "Burt".

  • simoneutecht

    Last Exit to Springfield is the best episode of any sitcom ever, from the McBain beginning the dentist office visit and Homer winning for once even accidentally it's perfection.