Nine “Experimental” Episodes of Famous TV Shows

Moonlighting: “Atomic Shakespeare”

You may have heard the term "Very Special Episode" – it's when a TV series gets serious and breaks from its normal lighthearted tone to handle a controversial issue (suicide, drug abuse, kidnapping, etc.). Sitcoms like Diff'rent Strokes practically aired nothing but "very special episodes" in their later seasons. But that's not what I'm talking about here. No, this list honors those singularly weird episodes of notable TV shows where the very format of the program was reimagined, if only for an evening. These are among the most memorable:

  1. X-Files: "X-Cops". The FOX network was home to both The X-Files and the nonfiction Cops, so one night the two series were cleverly melded together in this X-Files episode, shot on handheld video like a typical Cops program.
  2. Law & Order: "Aftershock". The long-running series took a break from its regular format after the death penalty was reinstated in New York. This episode begins with most of the characters of the show witnessing a prisoner being put to death. The rest of the hour follows them as they each, in their own way, lose a bit of their sanity (and one loses a life) in the aftermath. This may have been the only Law & Order in which there was no crime to solve.
  3. Family Ties: "A, My Name Is Alex". This hour-long episode of the hit '80s sitcom was a big success, though it was fundamentally bizarre: shot entirely on a black stage, Our Town-style, it's about Michael J. Fox's character dealing with a friend's suicide. As I remember it, they only had one commercial break as well – an intermission, if you will, for it was very much like watching live theatre.
  4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Once More, With Feeling". This wasn't the first series to have a musical episode: Xena did it earlier, and of course there's that nauseating Happy Days "Gigi" episode. But the Buffy fans would kill me if I didn't mention it.
  5. ER: "Ambush". This documentary-style episode was shot live with two video cameras. The idea partly came from the show's then-star George Clooney, whose obsession with live TV continued with a live production of Fail-Safe, which Clooney produced for network TV in 2000, as well as with his theatrical feature Good Night and Good Luck, with live television as its central topic /9and shot, like Fail-Safe, in black and white).
  6. Moonlighting: "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice", "Big Man on Mulberry Street", and "Atomic Shakespeare". Moonlighting was one of the 1980s' most creative TV series, and routinely broke the rules with its cast addressing the camera, speaking out of character, sometimes even walking off the set and onto the soundstage. It was all part of the fun. So it's no surprise that the show had an extra-large array of experimental episodes. The three examples listed here were, respectively, a black and white '40s-style noir episode (introduced by Orson Welles, shortly before his death), a musical fantasia set to a Billy Joel song, and, most uniquely, a period episode with the cast wearing Elizabethan garb and speaking in iambic pentameter while sending up Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.
  7. Star Trek Voyager: "Bride of Chaotica!". All the Star Trek shows offered plenty of reality-bending storylines. But a fan favorite from the otherwise weak Voyager period was this one, shot like a cheesy 1930s sci fi serial, complete with hammy acting, black and white cinematography, and corny music.
  8. Felicity: "Help for the Lovelorn". J.J. Abrams' first TV hit was the fluffy Felicity, which had a bit of fun with this episode styled after a typical Twilight Zone storyline, complete with b&w cinematography, 1950s costumes, and a spooky atmosphere.
  9. M*A*S*H. Whatever these other shows did, the groundbreaking M*A*S*H did it first. There are almost too many unusual episodes in this long-running war dramedy to list, but chief among them are "The Interview", a collection of newsreel-style interviews with the characters (shot in, you guessed it, black and white); "Point of View", shot entirely from the POV of a wounded soldier; "Life Time", unfolding in real time during the show's 22 minutes (predating 24's shtick); and "Dreams", consisting almost solely of the main characters' disturbing dream sequences.