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28 Reasons We Miss the Golden Age of February Sweeps

From ER to American Idol, remembering the best February Sweeps episodes of the last 30 years.
  • Photos: FOX, The CW, ABC, NBC
    Photos: FOX, The CW, ABC, NBC

    The streaming age has given us so much in terms of broadening the landscape of television, but one thing it's taken away is the mystique of sweeps months. Traditionally the months of November, February, and May have been used by networks and advertisers to set the ad rates for the coming year. That meant that it was in the networks' best interest to put their best, most audience-grabbing episodes out during these periods, which meant tons of stunts — everything from crossovers and big-name guest stars to big character deaths. Sweeps months were when your favorite TV shows pulled out the big guns.

    Premium cable networks were always immune to sweeps, but it wasn't until streaming took hold that the luster of sweeps really began to fade. Between falling ratings and the erosion of the television calendar, sweeps just isn't what it used to be, a loss that's acutely felt in the month of February. But we remember! To commemorate the sweeps months that once were, we've gathered 28 great February sweeps episodes from the last three decades to remember when this month guaranteed event TV.

    1. The Simpsons: "Homer at the Bat"
    Aired: February 20, 1992

    Celebrity voice casting would eventually become standard for any Simpsons episode no matter where it fell on the calendar, but this sweeps episode — where Homer joined the company softball team, only for Mr. Burns to pack it with professional ringers — was one of the show's earlier star-studded affairs, with cameos from real-life baseball legends like Don Mattingly and his ever-vexing sideburns, Wade Boggs ("Lord Palmerston!"), and Ozzie Smith, forever relegated to the Springfield Mystery Spot.

    2. Beverly Hills, 90210: "Dead End"
    Aired:February 10, 1993

    Sweeps stunts aren't always about guest stars. Sometimes they're about big shocking deaths, like this season 3 episode of 90210 where Dylan McKay saw his father exploded on his boat in the broad light of day.

    3. Frasier: "The Show Where Lilith Comes Back"
    Aired: February 3, 1994

    One of the earliest stunts in Frasier's first season was the one everybody was hoping for: the return of Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith, Frasier's stern but endlessly alluring ex-wife.

    4. Seinfeld: "The Beard"
    Aired: February 9, 1995

    This one wasn't so much a stunt episode as it was simply one of Seinfeld's best, but what made it special was that its subplot about Jerry watching Melrose Place brought together the two buzziest shows of their era.

    5. Friends: "The One with the Prom Video"
    Aired: February 1, 1996

    This was the episode where the six friends unearthed Monica and Rachel's old prom video, which revealed how long Ross had been pining for Rachel. It ended with Rachel finally kissing Ross, marking the first time they got back together (of many). He's her lobster!

    6. Law & Order: "Charm City"
    Aired: February 7, 1996

    NBC was particularly fond of employing crossovers for its sweeps events, including a famous blackout that was shared by its Thursday night comedies one November sweeps. In February of 1996, NBC decided to cross-pollinate its two great crime dramas, with one case that bridged the two, starting on Wednesday night on the streets of Law & Order's New York City...

    7. Homicide: Life on the Street: "For God and Country"
    Aired: February 9, 1996

    …and wrapping up on two nights later in the Baltimore environs of Homicide.

    8. The X-Files: "Two Fathers" and "One Son"
    Aired: February 7, 1999 and February 14, 1999

    Another two-part episode, this one spanned consecutive weeks in February of 1999 and promised to be — at long last — the X-Files episode that revealed all about its ever-winding alien conspiracy. Of course, this episode's answers only led to further questions, but it did serve to reboot the conspiracy mythology, wiping out the old Syndicate and clearing the deck for whatever came next (...bees?).

    10. Friends: "The One Where Everybody Finds Out"
    Aired: February 11, 1999

    Another Friends entry, yes, but it's impossible not to include this all-time great episode where the rest of the gang finally discovers that Chandler and Monica are sleeping together, leading to an epic Chandler v. Phoebe game of chicken, and Chandler finally revealing he's in love with Monica.

    11. ER: "Be Still My Heart" and "All in the Family"
    Aired: February 10, 2000 and February 17, 2000

    This two-part episode (set on Valentine's Day!) is seared into the brains of ER fans due to its heart-stopping cliffhanger, where a deranged patient stabs Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) and he falls to the floor … where he sees Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) has already been attacked and left for dead. One of the most memorable ER moments ever, and a harrowing escalation for sweeps.

    13. West Wing: "20 Hours in L.A."
    Aired: February 23, 2000

    The West Wing didn't usually celebrity cameos, certainly not in its earliest seasons. This season 1 sweeps episode was an exception, as the Bartlet administration traveled to Los Angeles to take some key meetings and attend at least one glitzy Hollywood fundraiser that featured cameos from Jay Leno and David Hasselhoff.

    14. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "The Body"
    Aired: February 27, 2001

    Ask any Buffy fan to name five standout episodes, and no matter who responds this will be one of them. The tragic, unexpected, and deeply human death of Joyce Summers was a shattering episode of television, told with no musical score and an almost dreamlike sense of unreality, even if the events were all too real for Buffy herself.

    15. Will & Grace: "A Chorus Lie"
    Aired: February 7, 2002

    Will & Grace became notorious for its celebrity cameos, but Matt Damon starring as a secretly straight man posing as gay in order to make it into the Gay Men's Chorus was one of the show's finest hours.

    16. Alias: "The Box, Part 2"
    Aired: February 10, 2002

    The first half of this epic two-parter — which featured Quentin Tarantino leading an armed intrusion into Sydney Bristow's (Jennifer Garner) secret spy headquarters — aired three weeks prior, meaning that fans were really on the edge of their seats to see how Sydney would get out of this one.

    17. American Idol: "Top 32, Group 2"
    Aired: February 11, 2003

    American Idol was, for years, the king of February sweeps, which usually coincided with the earliest rounds of voting. Season 2's semifinal rounds featured this particularly epic episode where each of the season's eventual top three finalists — Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, and Kimberly Locke — all performed on the same night, including Ruben's dynamic performance of "Superstar."

    18. Smallville: "Rosetta"
    Aired: February 25, 2003

    This sweeps episode during Smallville's second season featured cinematic Superman Christopher Reeve guest-starring as Dr. Virgil Swann, who helps Clark (Tom Welling) learn more about his home planet of Krypton.

    19. Survivor: "They're Back!"
    Aired: February 1, 2004

    Once the Super Bowl began getting pushed back into February, the lead-out episodes became ratings bonanzas for sweeps (provided they weren't pushed too far into the late-night daypart). The much-anticipated first episode of Survivor: All-Stars got a plum post-Super Bowl berth and kicked off with eighteen of the show's biggest characters returning for a second shot at the million.

    20. Gilmore Girls: "Wedding Bell Blues"
    Aired: February 8, 2005

    There's nothing like a wedding to make a February sweeps episode (one that happens to be the show's 100th episode overall) feel special, but if you can't gin up a wedding, how about a vow renewal ceremony between two of the show's best loved characters Richard and Emily Gilmore (Edward Hermann and Kelly Bishop)?

    21. The O.C.: "The Rainy Day Women"
    Aired: February 24, 2005

    If you're not sure why this episode of The O.C. makes the list of great February sweeps episodes, just know that it's the one where Summer and Seth get to reenact the great Spider-Man upside-down kiss in a moment of geeky wish-fulfillment.

    22. Grey's Anatomy: "It's the End of the World" and "As We Know It"
    Aired: February 5, 2006 and February 12, 2006

    Beginning with a post-Super Bowl lead-out and concluding the following Sunday, this two-part episode was Grey's Anatomy at its most action blockbuster, with Christina Ricci playing a paramedic who must keep her hand on a live explosive inside a man's chest or everyone will explode and die. High sweeps drama at its finest.

    24. Desperate Housewives: "The Little Things You Do Together"
    Aired: February 18, 2007

    With Marcia Cross needing to go on maternity leave, Desperate Housewives had to wrap up Season 3's big mystery arc early, so this February sweeps episode featured all the major developments of a season finale, including the resolution of the storyline involving Bree's husband Orson (Kyle McLachlan) and his murderous mother (Dixie Carter).

    25. Friday Night Lights: "I Think We Should Have Sex"
    Aired: February 21, 2007

    Mostly this is just a standout episode of a great TV series, but the fact that it's about Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and Matt (Zach Gilford) wanting to have sex for the first time, and Julie's parents (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) grappling with that call to mind the great Very Special Episodes that once dominated sweeps.

    26. Lost: "The Constant"
    Aired: February 28, 2008

    One of the most beloved Lost episodes of all time aired at the tail end of February sweeps in 2008, with an episode that bent some brains in half with its time-travel pretzel logic, then sent hearts soaring with its Desmond-and-Penny conclusion.

    27. 30 Rock: "Double-Edged Sword"
    Aired: February 10, 2011

    Matt Damon deployed as a sweeps week guest star again? Damon was in the midst of a guest arc on 30 Rock as Liz Lemon's pilot boyfriend when this episode aired, stranding the two of them on a grounded flight and engaging in an escalating arms race of mistrust and accusations. It's a great episode that also features Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks) giving birth to their daughter in (gasp) Canada.

    28. The Office: "Threat Level Midnight"
    Aired: February 17, 2011

    Last but not least, sometimes a sweeps weeks stunt is as simple as giving viewers something they've been waiting for a long time, and in this case it was to see Michael Scott's action thriller script for "Threat Level Midnight" turned into an actual movie. Such as it was.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Friends, 30 Rock, Alias, American Idol, Beverly Hills, 90210, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Desperate Housewives, E.R., Frasier, Friday Night Lights, Gilmore Girls, Grey's Anatomy, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Lost, The O.C., The Office (US), Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Smallville, Survivor, The West Wing, Will & Grace, The X-Files