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A Taxonomy of TV Stunt Programming

Six common ways networks and streamers get us to tune in
  • Photos: ABC, Fox Entertainment, Netflix, The WB
    Photos: ABC, Fox Entertainment, Netflix, The WB

    With over 500 scripted shows airing new episodes each year, it's challenging to stand out in the crowd. That's likely one of the reasons we've seen an increasing number of "stunt" episodes of late — one-off episodes of shows that employ a gimmick or break format.

    Tonight's live episode of The Conners is great example. Not only does it give the show and its stellar cast a chance to flex their creative muscles, it also gets critics and viewers talking, and — ABC certainly hopes — tuning in.

    But the live episode isn't the only animal in this genus. Here are six of the most common stunts being being employed by tv producers, networks and streamers to suck us in:

    The Live Episode

    The Conners is the latest TV series to go live, but they're by no means the first. Of course, TV used to be more live than not live in its earliest days, when all but a handful of shows broadcast live, a carry-over from the radio days. In the modern era, quite a few shows have attempted the live TV gambit. In 1993, the FOX sitcom Roc, starring Charles S. Dutton, famously aired an entire season of live episodes, dubbed Roc Live. Sitcoms, particularly multicam sitcoms, have a pretty easy transition to live TV, since many of them are taped in front of a live studio audience anyway. Such was the case with The Drew Carey Show and Will & Grace, which each aired multiple live episodes. 30 Rock saw great success with both of its live episodes, owing in no small part to Tina Fey and others on the show's creative team having their comedy roots in Saturday Night Live.

    Dramas have attempted live episodes less frequently, and one can imagine why, given the challenges of translating shows with intricate sets, camera setups, and editing techniques into a live format. Most that have tried have switched up their format to cheat the system, like ER did with its 1997 episode that used the conceit of a documentary crew filming the County General doctors. The West Wing did an episode in its 7th and final season depicting a debate between Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda's characters that played out pretty much exactly the way a live televised debate would on NBC News.

    Far more daring was the 2016 Simpsons episode "Simprovised," which featured a three-minute segment which aired live, which is especially funny if you remember that "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" episode included a joke about animated shows very rarely being broadcast live ("it's a terrible strain on the animators' wrists").

    The Musical

    Just as daring as the live episode in an entirely different way is the musical episode. It's definitely a flex if your cast is up to the challenge, but not all of them are. Perhaps the most celebrated musical episode of its generation was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode "Once More, With Feeling," which saw Buffy and her pals battling a supernatural demon that had the entire town breaking into song and dance. The episode was rightly acclaimed and ranks among the show's most beloved episodes, even if not all cast members (ahem, Alyson Hannigan) were all that capable of belting to the back row.

    Other shows followed suit, including Scrubs, Psych, and Once Upon a Time. Community, never a show to shy away from a stunt episode, tailored their musical around a spoof of the popular FOX series Glee. Often a series will opt for a musical episode to show off the musical bona fides of its cast, as The Flash and Supergirl's musical crossover episode did with Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist, who both happened to be Glee alums.

    Perhaps the most unhinged musical episode was the Grey's Anatomy musical, which was explained in-story as being a hallucination of the injured and possibly dying Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and had its cast of world-class surgeons singing songs that Grey's had helped make famous like "How to Save a Life." As a showcase for the Tony-winning Ramirez, it was a bold gambit. As for everybody else … well, they tried.

    The Crossover

    Networks like to leverage their popular shows, and crossovers are a good way to nudge the audience of one show towards another. George Clooney and Noah Wyle, both then starring on ER, showed up on Friends in its first season. Other times, crossovers can be turned into television events, especially when the shows are all under the same production umbrella. ABC currently can't get enough of crossing over its Seattle-set shows Grey's Anatomy and Station 19, NBC did a crossover of its three Chicago-based dramas in 2019 and CBS, which did an FBI-FBI: Most Wanted crossover, used those two shows in a mega-crossover to launch the FBI: International spinoff just last night.

    The superhero genre is of course rife with possibilities for crossovers, and the Arrowverse took advantage of those possibilities often, with Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl frequently crossing over for multi-part events. The Marvel shows on Netflix made an entire series — The Defenders — out of crossing over their superhero series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

    Sometimes, if the producer is powerful enough, shows from different networks can cross over. At the height of his powers, David E. Kelley had two hit shows set in Boston — The Practice on ABC and Ally McBeal on FOX. Nevermind that one was a drama, and the other a comedy. Kelley crossed over the shows in a two-part special.

    The Dream Episode

    On any long-running show, the writers and producers eventually start to feel boxed in by the parameters they've created for their characters. Writing faithfully to them is important to keep the show successful, but it would also be a lot of fun to let loose and write the characters into bizarre and strange situations. Enter the dream episode, which allows the writers to get surreal, to comment on the show while they're making it, and lets the actors branch out and do new things. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did this to great effect in its Season 4 finale, "Restless," which saw Buffy and her friends plagued with nightmares that zeroed in on their insecurities and fears, all while being stalked by a primal nemesis.

    The Sopranos famously and frequently got a lot of mileage out of Tony Soprano's dream sequences. The second season finale saw Tony plagued with food poisoning and subject to unsettling dreams (one of which ends up being quite influential on the season's plot). There's also the Season 5 episode "The Test Dream," in which Tony is ravaged by nightmares while staying at a fancy hotel. And of course when Tony is shot by Uncle Junior and clinging to life in the hospital, he's subject to elaborate dream sequences about the ways in which his life might've gone.

    The Genre Parody

    A kind of kissing cousin to the Dream Episode is the Genre Parody, which again allows a show's writers to stretch beyond the boundaries of their established characters and concepts. And indeed, many Genre Parody episodes take the form of dreams one character or another is having. Sometimes a sitcom will pay homage to an older show, as Roseanne did with its Gilligan's Island parody. Community's whole thing was doing genre parodies on everything from Goodfellas to Doctor Who. The Goldbergs, similarly, opens each season with a parody of a different '80s movie. The Simpsons got creative and did a Behind the Music parody.

    Ryan Murphy's first show, Popular, had one of its most outrageous episodes (and that's saying something) by re-imagining its high-school show as a parody of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, an early indicator that Murphy's shows had an eye for camp that the rest of TV didn't.

    One of the best examples of a TV show doing a genre parody was Felicity, which did a parody of The Twilight Zone in its episode "Help for the Lovelorn."

    The Animated Episode

    This is a stunt we've seen quite a bit recently, with shows like One Day at a Time, Blacklist, Pen15 and Lucifer all producing animated episodes during the pandemic. The Paramount+ series No Activity went animated for its entire fourth season for the same reason. Even before the pandemic, our old friend Community delivered one of its most popular episodes with "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," which managed to be both a genre parody AND an animated episode, as it mimicked the style of stop-motion animated holiday specials of the 1960s.

    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: The Conners, Arrow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Community, Felicity, The Flash, Grey's Anatomy, The Simpsons, The Sopranos