Movies love gimmicks, whether it’s watching with 3D glasses or singing along to a bouncing ball. Television has been hard-pressed to come up with things it could do to compete with the novelty, but it has managed to give us some of the best (and worst) ways to add a little extra something to regular storytelling. Here are the 10 best gimmick episodes ever seen on TV.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer – The Silent Episode and the Musical Episode
Buffy had not one but two tremendously successful and critically acclaimed gimmick episodes. One was “Hush,” a fourth season episode in which demons steals the voices of the main characters — leading to the gimmick that most of the show was completely silent. The other, and complete opposite, was the sixth season’s “Once More With Feeling,” in which a demon compels people to sporadically break into song and dance. While this gimmick had already been tried (poorly) in the 1990 series Cop Rock, Buffy was a tour de force and inspired other series to do musical episodes, including Scrubs, Community, and How I Met Your Mother.
Seinfeld – The Backwards Episode
Not the first show to do a backwards episode gimmick, but Seinfeld’s version, broadcast during its ninth and final season, is among the best. The episode starts at the end where it looks like the characters have just gotten out of a bar fight and ends at a point much earlier in time before the show even started, when Jerry first meets Kramer, thus setting off the whole messy series of events that includes a wedding, a trip to India, a pair of boots, and a plot involving FDR (not the president, the other one) wanting to kill Kramer. The episode’s title, “The Betrayal,” references a Harold Pinter play with the same backwards-narrative conceit. The forward version has never been broadcast, but is available on the Season 9 DVD. It’s a long, strange trip of an episode.
Moonlighting – The Shakespeare Episode
This Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd comedy detective series was fantastically popular in the late 1980s. So when “Atomic Shakespeare” premiered, it was totally in keeping with the show’s theme and direction. In this meta-episode, a boy is watching TV when he is interrupted by homework requirements: he must read Shakespeare’s “The Taming of The Shrew.” But the play comes to life in his mind as he recasts it to star the characters from the “Moonlighting” show. Watching Bruce Willis perform Shakespeare is a mind-bending delight.
X-Files – The Reality Show Crossover Episode
In a series with aliens, conspiracies, and alien conspiracies, it’s hard to think of a gimmick that would work in this scenario, but X-Files did in the seventh season when the show started not with its iconic theme music, but with the “Bad Boys” song that is the introduction to the long-running reality show Cops. What seemed to be a scheduling mixup quickly becomes eerie when the police, followed on camera during an investigation, run into Scully and Mulder investigating the same incident. Shot with a shaky cam video effect, this episode felt just a little too real for words.
Late Night With David Letterman – The 360° Rotation Episode
During his decades-long tenure David Letterman had one of the most bizarre gimmick shows in gimmick history, mostly because it had nothing to do with anything and yet still fit right in with the show’s atmosphere. On December 9, 1986, what started as a normal episode with a monologue followed by lists and guests and so forth quickly became literally topsy-turvy as the cameras started to rotate slowly. Dave goes along with it, acting like the tilt is affecting him being able to walk across the stage, etc. But it does not stop. He had regular guests like actor Peter Ustinov, but during the entire night the camera did not stop its slow revolution until it had completed a full 360° spin over the course of the show.
The West Wing – The Live Debate Episode
This powerhouse political drama pulled off a fantastic conceit during its seventh and last season, when the cast was about to be term-limited out of their jobs. Pitting Democratic candidate Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) against his Republican opponent Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda), the episode was formatted and broadcast live like an actual political debate. The West Wing cast even performed two live shows back-to-back (once for Eastern Time and once for Pacific Time) but only the first one is available on DVD.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – The Smell-o-Vision Episode
No, we are not making this up. The scratch-and-sniff card gimmick had been done, most notably in John Waters’ film “Polyester,” and the reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — which followed a family in their quest to support their young daughter’s beauty pageant goals — took the idea and ran with it. For the 2013 premiere, preprinted cards with numbers were available in People Magazine and you were invited to “Watch ‘N’ Sniff” along. Yes, it’s as horrifically hilarious as it sounds. Needless to say it will take a long time to get the odor of that show out of our televisions.
The Drew Carey Show and NewsRadio – April Fools’ Day Episodes
April Fools’ Day in 1998 was a great time to own a VCR, because two great jokes aired at the same time. On The Drew Carey Show, the gag of the day was a “how many mistakes can you spot?” scenario, with prizes awarded to the audience members who found the most errors. Meanwhile, NewsRadio had advertised a rerun of the previous season’s “fiftieth episode” except that it was full of trivia, commentary, and other facts, served up in a VH1-style “pop-up video” format. Jon Lovitz was a guest on the show and a lot of the trivia poked fun at him (like saying that he and co-star Phil Hartman once slept together… napping in the office between takes, that is). It hasn’t been rebroadcast and is not on the DVD for the season, but it can be found online.