If you watch TV for as long as I have, you start to notice that a lot of episodes have the same overall plot structure. You probably know about ‘bottle episodes’, but I’m talking about the episodes of TV where you already know how everything’s going to play out before the opening credits are done. I’m talking about episodes like….
Every Will They/Won’t They Couple Relationship Episode
We’ve been following our main guy and main girl for seasons now, wondering when their palpable sexual tension is finally going to win out and get them to bump uglies with each other. But as we all know, any good will they/won’t they needs to break up eventually, otherwise they’re just a boring TV couple, and we don’t want that! Couples like Sam/Diane, Ted/Robin, Ross/Rachel, Jim/Pam each had episodes where they finally got together, ones where they broke up, ones where they had secret sex, etc… These are boring episodes because we know that the show is going to find some way to cheapen their relationship with the next relationship episode.
The Exception: Scrubs
While eventually the relationship between main character JD and Elliot would play into the generic episode types mentioned above, the Season One episode ‘My Bed, Banter, and Beyond’ manages to deftly weave all of these tropes into a single episode. Despite us going in thinking JD/Elliot will be working on their relationship for the rest of the season, we instead get their first-day bliss, trying to hide their relationship from the rest of the staff, the cracks forming, and their breakup all in one episode over a multi-week period. The writers knew the important beats to hit, but didn’t make us sit through an entire season of them.
The Wedding Episode
For years, we’ve watched our favorite couple grow closer until they want to take that plunge into holy matrimony. But since no episode can be without conflict, their wedding day will be plagued with problems that only happen on TV. Lily/Marshall’s wedding on How I Met Your Mother had an impromptu haircut for the groom, Modern Family had a wildfire mess up Cam/Mitchell’s wedding, and even Leslie/Ben had to deal with a drunken Councilman Jamm ruining theirs. But, ultimately, we know that despite our protagonist attempts to make their wedding perfect, things will be ruined, but not so much that they won’t profess their undying love for each other and get married all the same.
The Exception: 30 Rock
While probably not as viscerally thrilling as any Game of Thrones wedding, Liz Lemon’s wedding is perfect for her character. Eschewing a big fancy affair since she doesn’t believe in marriage, Liz wants to get married at the court house simply to better the chance she and hunky James Marsden can adopt a kid. She doesn’t want to take it seriously or make a big deal out of it, but eventually she realizes even she isn’t above the inherent specialness of such a day. What makes this episode stand out is how the build-up to the wedding barely exists, there’s no frivolous disasters ruining it, and yet Liz realizes that getting married can still be an important day, even if it’s not your most important day. Getting married at the court isn’t a lame way to get married, and it doesn’t cheapen yourself to admit you want to be with someone forever.
The Baby Episode
We find our characters in the hospital awaiting the birth of their new child, yet we already know we’re going to see a woman screaming at a doctor from labor contractions, the father almost not making it to see the birth of his child, and a friend wondering if it’s time for he/she to change their life in a dramatic way. Friends had four(!) of these episodes during its run, Marshall was stranded in Atlantic City while his wife went into labor on HIMYM, and Frasier’s baby was almost born in a bar like Winston Churchill. But, much like the wedding episode, we know that all the hardships will be overcome when a healthy baby is born to the proud parents.
The Exception: Boy Meets World
Boy Meets World managed to work some sort of serious message into most of its episodes, even if they ended up proving more of a distraction than a progression of the plot. A two-episode arc, though, reminded viewers that sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Cory Matthew’s baby brother is born early, and is sadly on the cusp of dying because of an infection in his lung. There’s no revelry in the birth of this new child, but a sobering reminder that stupid little fights don’t mean anything to the scared parent who doesn’t get that happy ending TV always shows.
The Clip Show
Whether it’s because of budget or lack of ideas, the clip show episode always seems like a lazy way to not have to pay your actors to come film new scenes. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air combined their clip show with a bottle episode where Carlton and Will are trapped in an elevator, Friends had one to remind us about fun stuff that happened in the apartment when Chandler and Monica were moving out, and even The Simpsons had to resort to one in only their fourth season on the air.
The Exception: Community
Community finally found it’s footingwhen they switched from being a simple comedy with one or two characters with odd quirks to basically being a live-action cartoon, and episodes like ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’ showcase that identity. Set up as an episode where the study group reflects on their past year, we are then witnesses to all the crazy adventures they had that we never got to see, like going to a wild west town or going on a white-water rafting expedition. Even though it’s all new footage, we still get the idea that most clip shows are meant to convey: sometimes we have bad experiences, but the good times can often make up for it. It also shows it’s not that difficult to make a clip show interesting, and you don’t even have to write the full episode to get the necessary clips to make it funny and moving.
The Recap Episode
An offshoot of the Clip Show, this episode airs right before we get to the big series finale, and while it might be useful to catch us up on what’s happened in the preceding seasons, it’s still another excuse to simply push off your big finale for another week. What’s worse, is that a lot of these shows don’t even air a real episode, often times just doing a one-off “special” like LOST, Desperate Housewives, and MST3K. This episode type has honestly only gotten worse, and now Chris Hardwick now has a whole career based on AMC’s decision for every single episode of their TV shows to need its own recap episode.
The Exception: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar has a lot of story conveyed in its three seasons, but they created a cool idea to recap all the important ideas to their audience: the characters go see a play about their quest. While it does turn out to be propaganda made by their enemies, the audience still get a chance to be reminded of important moments from the journey to defeat the Fire Nation and restore balance to the world. What’s better is that the episode also provides plenty of meta commentary that the fans had been discussing at the time, such as the much-maligned ‘The Great Divide’ episode and the Zuko/Katara shipping. This is a fun example of how recapping a series can work within the continuity of a show without sacrificing an episode on nothing.
The Death Episode
Excluding deaths that need to be written into a show to explain the real-life actor’s passing, most TV shows handle deaths in roughly the same way. Not that they’re inherently bad, just rather generic when it comes to killing off an important character. They’ll get their big, crowd-pleasing moment or heart-to-heart with the lead, then die (bonus points if the following funeral allows your cast to remember happier times with the deceased). Action shows like The Walking Dead and LOST are no strangers to these moments, nor are more lighthearted shows like Friends or Glee above the good drama a death brings. (Note: for Glee, I refer to the death of Sue’s sister, not Corey Monteith’s untimely death)
The Exception: How I Met Your Mother
Despite ending with one of the most hated finales in TV history, there was a while there where How I Met Your Mother could do no wrong. Yet even when it started to extend story lines far beyond a reasonable time, fans of the show were still treated to a gut-punch when Marshall’s father died. While he had never been an incredibly huge presence on the show, it was always made clear that he was a huge influence on Marshall’s life, and hiding his death in an episode that was hinted to end with something about his and Lily’s fertility was shocking. Throughout the episode, a countdown to 0 was shown in random numbers appearing on-set in various locations, (all while the gang has weird run-ins with a Barney doppelganger) so to instead have that countdown end with Marshall learning about his father’s heart attack reminds the audience that death can just happen, and there’s not always time to be ready for it.
The Christmas Carol Episode
A Christmas Carol is one of the most well-known stories of all time, so it’s no wonder that half of your favorite TV shows try to incorporate the overall framework of it into one of their Christmastime episodes. Even when you exclude TV movie adaptations of the story like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol or A Flintstones Christmas Carol, shows like Family Ties, and The Jetsons all have an episode centered around having a miserly character visited by spirits meant to teach them a lesson and to change their ways. Heck, some shows, like Arthur and Roseanne, don’t even need a Christmas setting to play this story out. Unfortunately, thanks to its status in winter tradition, the audience is never surprised by any revelations made in the course of a 22-minute runtime.
The Exception: The Real Ghostbusters
Putting the Ghostbusters in a Christmas Carol-type story seems like a no-brainer, but in the hands of future [i]Babylon 5[/i] creator J. Michael Straczynski, it became a celebration of the importance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ itself. After the Ghostbusters go back in time and capture the Ghost of Past, Present, and Future, they return to a New York that has all but adopted Scrooge’s attitudes towards the holiday. This additional context to this retelling reminds viewers that the book was written at a time when Christmas was in danger of being forgotten and dismissed, and its’ incredibly popularity revitalized the traditions surrounding the season and started Christmas’s path towards holiday domination. It’s a meta commentary on the importance of the book itself, and doesn’t rely on simple narrative accomplishments to make it stand out from every other interpretation.