If you read Vox’s “25 episodes that changed television” you’ll probably agree with them. There aren’t too many shows I’d add to that list. If you watch these shows, you’ll see that they weren’t just the “first time” that someone did something. Spend 25 or so hours watching these specific episodes and you’ll get a master class in television, and indeed in our culture.
But I could add a few more.
I don’t know what other episodes the staff considered. Clearly they wanted to keep it to a round, resonant number. Calling it “37 episodes” probably wouldn’t have gained as much SEO power. Still, I think they missed a few. Where possible, I’ll tell you where you can stream these.
“Blossom Blossoms,” Blossom, 1990
Here was a show you really loved if you were a Generation X teen girl. Since there are a lot more people who aren’t GenX teen girls than who ever were, a lot of folks haven’t heard of this show.
Right off the bat in its second episode of its first season, Blossom talks about a teen girl getting her period. This is the first time television handled this thorny subject with a teenager. It was also the first time the term “Next, on a Very Special Blossom” was uttered, a phrase that became shorthand for the coming of an unnecessarily maudlin moment.
“The Contest,” Seinfeld, 1992
The show about nothing was certainly about something in 1992 when the leads engaged in a contest to see who could exhibit the most personal self control in one private area. The subject was so controversial (and still is to a degree) that the most common terms for the act of self-love were never uttered, not even once. In a show that was groundbreaking week after week this one might be the one that wins hands down.
Seinfeld is streaming on Hulu.
“Where Did I Come From,” The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1962
In 1962, we did not talk about sex on television. We just didn’t. So, when a writer and his young bride get asked by their son, “Where did I come from?” the result was a hilarious half hour of mumbling and stumbling. It turns out to be a misunderstanding, but it’s so funny by that point you don’t care.
The Dick Van Dyke Show is on Prime, Hulu, Tubi, and other sources.
“The End,” Lost, 2010
Note: I didn’t say all these episodes changed television for the better. Lost was a juggernaut of the 2000s but is rarely talked about today. It was a certified phenomenon and arguably the first show to really benefit from an internet community who worked together to solve puzzles. Without Lost there could have been no Game of Thrones, a show with a similarly clever online following.
Unfortunately, bad writing and stratospheric expectations doomed the last episode of Lost. In one of the most colossally reviled hours of television, Lost wrapped up without actually solving anything. It ignored pressing questions that fans had been obsessing over for six years. Instead its saccharine and weak storyline ended with many people simply vowing not to talk about the show ever again. And they didn’t.
Stream Lost on Hulu, but don’t blame me if you’re disappointed.
“Hollywood, part 3”, Happy Days, 1977
Without realizing it, this may have been television’s first meme. For the third season opener of the incredibly popular Happy Days, the gang take a trip to California (easy, since that’s where the show was filmed.) Fonzie, who had started off as a supporting character, started his rise to being a superhero in this episode. With no previous experience, he waterskis up a ramp and jumps over a man-eating shark that “just happens” to be in the water. In future episodes, he would stop time, defeat aliens, and teach school (yes that’s a superpower.)
In retrospect, people took to saying that this was the moment when the show strayed so far from its core that it stopped being good. A generation later, Jon Hein’s book Jump the Shark popularized the term for that moment when your favorite show just stops working. It’s a common term today but this is where it all started. Yes, that’s a way this episode changed television.
Stream Happy Days on Prime.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1975
So I’m not sure this episode “changed” television but it is frequently quoted as one of the all-time funniest pieces of scripted television, ever. Colleges teach it in class. On the show, the children’s show host Chuckles was leading a parade dressed as Peter Peanut and a rogue elephant tried to shell him, with mortal results.
It is hard to find an episode of television that is just flat out funnier. (WKRP‘s “Turkeys Away” comes close without the pathos.) Mary Tyler Moore delivers as the one holdout in the office who can’t believe people are making jokes, only to be unable to stop laughing at the funeral. Treat yourself to this episode, streaming on Hulu. It’s worth the time, I promise.