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How cool! Gimmick episodes of TV shows

"Moonlighting" does Shakespeare, "Buffy" goes silent, "Friends" explores alternative realities and much more.
/ Source: contributor

“Atomic Shakespeare”

After elaborately staged dance numbers, dueling film-noir dream sequences and countless examples of fourth-wall breaking, why wouldn’t “Moonlighting” do Shakespeare? That there was no earthly reason to do it made it all the more brilliant, and the result was pretty much what an entire generation now thinks of when it encounters “The Taming Of The Shrew.” Casting David Addison and Maddie Hayes (rather than Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, a subtle but crucial difference) as combative lovers Petruchio and Katherine, “Atomic Shakespeare” was a perfect match of classic source material with its modern counterpart. It included such classic Shakespearean lines as “Zounds! What mounds!,” “The lights were against me” and Katherine’s incomparable shriek “Goest thou to HELL!” As for the wedding scene, where Katherine is bound and gagged and Petruchio breaks into a rousing version of the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” well, you know that Shakespeare would’ve done the same if he’d thought of it first.

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer”

“Buffy” regularly used its main conceit of supernatural activity threatening the world (or at least Sunnydale) as a way to make a number of wildly risky narrative gambits, like its multiple visits to alternate realities to the justly celebrated “Once More, With Feeling.” But while musicals were common, if not on episodic television, an hour-long show mostly free of dialogue (and which didn’t ape the necessarily broad storytelling and acting style of silent film) tipped over into Are-you-crazy?-ville. Per the show’s usual, the gimmick didn’t just affect the storytelling, it fueled the story itself: a group of voice-averse demons silenced the town, the better to cut the hearts out of their victims without incident.  Writer/director Joss Whedon even took things one step further, giving each of the show’s principals subplots built around some variation of the theme of communication and failure of communication. And it’s all wrapped up with a fabulously ironic ending.

“The One That Could Have Been,” parts one and two

As one of the very few non-sci-fi/fantasy series to do an alternate-universe episode, “Friends” took a different approach. Rather than present it as a problem to be solved so that normality could be restored by hour’s end, the writers went all-out in simply coming up with a straight-up episode based in the different reality, like the television equivalent of Marvel Comics’ “What If?” series. What if Ross had stayed married to Carol? What if Monica never became stick-thin? What if Chandler pursued a comedy writing career instead of whatever it was that he did? The situations may have changed, but much to the show’s credit, the fundamental core of all the characters remained exactly the same. Chandler in particular remained sarcastic (his reaction to getting yet another rejection letter — “They said my writing was funny, just not ‘Archie Comics’ funny” — is one of his funniest lines ever, imaginary or not) and, in a sweet coda, still fell in love with plus-sized Monica.

“China Beach”
“Holly’s Choice”

The central storytelling gimmick of this episode was so strong that it was used to structure the breakthrough by a young director named Christopher Nolan, who you may have heard of since you’ve seen his most recent movie about a hundred times. But well before the “Dark Knight” director made his name with “Memento,” there was “Holly’s Choice,” in which Ricki Lake’s character tearfully leaves China Beach in a story that unfolds chronologically backward. Rather than set up a delirious mindfreak puzzle like Nolan’s film, the reverse order of the scenes slowly revealed the circumstances of her departure: after getting pregnant, the Red Cross volunteer turned to prostitute K.C. to obtain the abortion with which the pro-life McMurphy and Dr. Richard refused to help. And with each turning back of the clock, Holly’s situation grew sadder and sadder until the audience finally saw the beginning of a story that it already knew would end in heartbreak.

“Our Fiftieth Episode” (Pop-Up Video version)

On April 1, 1998, “The Drew Carey Show” aired a much-hyped mistake-filled episode where the audience was invited to identify all the goofs in order to win valuable cash and prizes. Meanwhile, over on NBC, “Newsradio” was a simple rerun of the self-explanatory “Our Fiftieth Episode.” Or so it appeared at first. Those for whom reheated “Newsradio” was more appetizing than fresh “Drew Carey” were rewarded with a splendid April Fool’s joke of an episode given the VH1 “Pop-Up Video” treatment. There were the standard-issue snarky factoids, of course, like the fact that Phil Hartman and guest Jon Lovitz used to sleep together (in the same office during breaks fromSaturday Night Live,” that is) but the pop-ups also revealed network battles, writer pranks and the cold, hard business of running a sitcom; the moment when a roomful of extras begin speaking, triggering cash-register sounds and balloons containing “$559” (the pay for speaking roles), is a gem as witty and bitterly self-deprecating as anything on the show proper. It aired only once and it’s not on DVD. Happy April Fool’s Day.