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The best sitcom episodes of the last 25 years: Orphans and outliers

Not all of our writers’ picks could make the final list of the best sitcom episodes of the last 25 years. Some failed to win a consensus; others were pet causes for a single writer. Sometimes, a writer just backed the wrong episode of the right show. Knowing full well that our curated catalog of the contemporary sitcom is not a comprehensive catalog, here are personal cases made for the episodes that nearly made it, couldn’t have made it, and just might make it the next time someone surveys this era of TV.

The Office (U.S.), “The Injury” (2006)

“Dinner Party” was always going to best “The Injury.” These are the two funniest episodes the American Office ever produced, and the laughs of “Dinner Party” hit harder. But that episode only contains trace amounts of the warmth that distinguishes this Office from its British predecessor, a warmth that acts as a secondary comic engine in “The Injury.” The schadenfreude generated by Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and his grilled foot puts this episode in the top tier, but it’s the good times that Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) could only have with a concussed Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) that make “The Injury” for me. Mindy Kaling’s script executes an immaculate slow burn, beginning with a minor car crash and firing up with a classic Fischer talking head (“Oh my God, Dwight’s kind of my friend.”) The employees of Dunder Mifflin would eventually put aside their petty differences—but until then, they’d always have memories of Dwight and “Pan.” [Erik Adams]

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Bob’s Burgers, “Art Crawl” (2011)

If this is Simpsons Week, then it’s worth celebrating one of the most successful successors to Matt Groening’s creation: Bob’s Burgers. It’s another animated show on Fox, sure, but it’s also the rare series that shows deep affection for its characters while constantly landing jokes, the way The Simpsons did in its prime. There are flashes of this throughout the first season of Bob’s Burgers, but it all came together in the series’ eighth episode, the delirious “Art Crawl.” Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux’s script mixes animal butts, manipulative children, and petty neighborhood feuds, and the talented voice actors make every bit (and every butt) shine. Bob’s Burgers has reached these heights repeatedly since, particularly with episodes like “Burgerboss” and “Mother Daughter Laser Razor,” but “Art Crawl” stands out for showing a newly great sitcom figuring itself out and setting new standards for itself. [Rowan Kaiser]

Extras, “David Bowie” (2007)

In our collective fit to crown The Office (U.K.) the king of television, I think we (as a species) were a little let down by Ricky Gervais’ follow-up, Extras. But there are a handful of Extras episodes that can stand as tall and proud as any David Brent moment. The most memorable of the series—just behind Patrick Stewart’s moment as a gleeful perv—is the episode that guest stars and takes its name from David Bowie. It’s from the second season, and Gervais’ character has had some mainstream success by becoming at least some of the things he hates: He’s beloved for catchphrases and general goofiness, but not what he believes is his true essence. When he happens upon Bowie at a bar, the Thin White Duke composes a brutal song about Gervais: “He sold his soul for a shot at fame / Catchphrase and wigs and the jokes are lame.” It’s the most brutal, hilarious moment in Gervais’ career, and that’s saying something. [Josh Modell]

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Happy Endings,The Butterfly Effect Effect” (2012)

Happy Endings was like a fast-forwarded Friends, with a fizzy cast chemistry amplified by a rapid-fire arsenal of punchlines and absurd plots. In “The Butterfly Effect Effect,” everyone fears that warm weather won’t arrive in ice-cold Chicago until Brad and Jane have their annual “spring smackdown” fight. So the couple stages a fake one (“Do you think we should switch to paperless billing!?!” “I don’t think I’m ready for that!!!”). Then Brad and Jane stumble into their usual fight anyway, against a background of slumber-party antics (bras in the freezer), flowy pants from the Bassett By Angela For Angela Bassett collection, and Max’s transformation into a bear, complete with hibernation, a unicycle, and eating honey with his hands. The episode spotlights Happy Endings’ group dynamics and characteristics (the Kerkovich sisters tormenting Penny, Max’s slovenliness) while confirming that the stability of Brad and Jane’s relationship is the group’s bedrock. Happy Endings regularly pulled off these high-degree-of-difficulty combos like few shows ever could. [Gwen Ihnat]

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The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse” (1994)

Like so many of the shows that made the final list, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air found critical and commercial success by balancing tried-and-true sitcom tropes with an emotional and often political depth that still resonates to this day. Several Fresh Prince episodes wind cultural critiques into their narratives: “Mistaken Identity” dealt with racial profiling, and “Bullets Over Bel-Air” movingly mused on issues of gun violence and fear mongering. Those are wonderful episodes, but the show’s finest half-hour is “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse.” While the episode is most widely (and deservedly) remembered for its final scene, in which Will (Will Smith) breaks down crying after being abandoned by his father once again and Uncle Phil (James Avery) embraces him, the entire episode is sharp and insightful. It’s filled with the emotionally generous and comedically broad performances that defined the show, while also developing the show’s most compelling, complex, and rewarding relationship: the one between Will and his surrogate father, Uncle Phil. [Kyle Fowle]

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Childrens Hospital, “End Of The Middle” (2010)

Childrens Hospital was great before “End Of The Middle,” and it was great after, but this episode defined the show. Starting as a webseries and then moving to Adult Swim, Childrens Hospital parodied hospital soaps. But then, halfway through the second season, Newsreaders host Louis La Fonda (Mather Zickel) walks out and invites us to sit back and enjoy this retrospective as the cast of Childrens Hospital prepares for its finale. It was like a wall had been knocked down and suddenly everything on the show had a whole new dimension. Like 30 Rock’s “Live From Studio 6H,” it’s a whirlwind of television history (the finale’s titled “Goodbye, Farewell, And Goodbye”) and tropes (“We’re the Boomtown Breakdance Troupe. We’re in town for a show and decided to stop by”), and it’s one of the funniest episodes of one of the funniest shows of the 2010s. [Brandon Nowalk]

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Parks And Recreation, “The Debate” (2012)

Nothing against the delightful “Fancy Party,” but for me the most perfect encapsulation of Parks And Recreation and its indomitable hero Leslie Knope is “The Debate,” where Amy Poehler’s Leslie squares off against city council opponent Bobby Newport (a gleefully oblivious Paul Rudd). It took a season for Parks And Rec to figure out that the key to Leslie’s character is her ultra-competent (if sometimes maniacal) idealism, and her final summation—coming after Bobby, the scion of Pawnee’s Mr. Burns-like plutocrat, drops the bomb that his dad’s company will leave the city if Bobby doesn’t win the election—is a stunner. All of season four functioned as some of the most hilariously insightful political satire in recent TV history, and the show’s goofiness never obscured the affectingly hopeful zeal of Team Knope. And when Leslie finally spells out her vision for what Pawnee (and, by extension, America) should be, it’s Parks And Rec’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington apotheosis. Plus, you get to see Chris Pratt’s Andy act out the plot of Road House and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson steal cable while singing “Wichita Lineman.” As Bobby guilelessly exclaims after Leslie’s speech, “Holy shit, Leslie—that was awesome.” Indeed. [Dennis Perkins]

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Everybody Loves Raymond, “Talk To Your Daughter” (2002)

Sitcom stalwart of the late ’90s and early ’00s, Everybody Loves Raymond wasn’t for everyone. But to those the show appealed to, it rarely hit higher highs than “Talk To Your Daughter.” After being called out by his wife about his immaturity, Ray (Ray Romano) decides to have “the talk” with curious daughter Ally (Madylin Sweeten), only to find out her questions have morphed into something decidedly more metaphysical, leaving him tongue-tied. What seems like rote sitcom fare is elevated into something decidedly more touching, as the show demonstrated that Romano played the involved parent as hilariously as he played a complete dick. For a show with a reputation for shrillness, “Talk To Your Daughter” is a sterling example of the care and empathy that sometimes got buried under a nagging facade. [Libby Hill]

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Living Single, “Woman To Woman” (1996)

Before Friends, another network sitcom looked at the professional and personal lives of six twentysomethings living, succeeding, failing, dating, and learning in New York City. Of all the brilliant black sitcoms of the ’90s, there was something particularly special about Living Single, which focused primarily on the experiences of its central roommates: three varying, magnetic black women. Living Single was equal parts workplace comedy and hangout show, exploring the office dynamics of Flavor, the fictional independent monthly run by Khadijah (Queen Latifah), but also grounding most of its narrative in the Brooklyn brownstone shared by Khadijah, Synclaire (Kim Coles), and Régine (Kim Fields). In “Woman To Woman,” Khadijah’s best friend—and frequent brownstone visitor—Max (Erika Alexander) is shocked to learn that her college roommate Shayla (Karen Malina White), in town for her wedding, is marrying a woman. Unlike a lot of sitcoms of the era—particularly Friends—which used queerness as a punchline, Living Single gives emotional depth to the reveal, as Shayla confesses to Max that the reason she never told her was because she had feelings for her. It’s a reminder that on top of being smart and funny, Living Single was also subtly subversive, folding nuanced commentary into its standard sitcom tropes. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

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The Middle, “The Cheerleader” (2009)

In the same fall season that ABC introduced the buzzy awards darling Modern Family, the network debuted another show that hits a lot of the same notes of sentiment and slapstick, with less of a sense of self-importance. The second episode of The Middle establishes what the show can do at its best: piling one calamity after another on top of the working-class Heck family while mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) tries to keep everybody’s spirits up and keep everyone pressing ahead—because what choice do they have, really? When a third-act tornado drives everyone into the basement, Frankie finally cracks, and admits that she really doesn’t know whether “everything’s going to be fine.” Like most of us non-wealthy people, the characters in The Middle idly bitch about nothing to mask their genuine worries about the future. “The Cheerleader” briefly drops that facade, and the look on the Hecks’ faces when their leader loses it puts all of the series’ jokes about delinquent bills and overdue home repairs into a bracingly realistic context. [Noel Murray]

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Sex And The City, “Ex And The City” (1999)

Sex And The City is one of those shows that has been hampered by its own legacy, especially after two godawful ventures into film. But it was a landmark, especially in its early going, in part because of its complex depiction of women’s desire and desire for love. And it was funny. That certainly helps. “Ex And The City” has it’s classic sexual and romantic shenanigans (Samantha discovering Mr. TooBig), but it’s known as one of many culminations of Mr. Big’s involvement in Carrie’s life. At first, she is incensed by Big’s proposal to the idiot stick figure with no soul. But, expertly playing off The Way We Were, Carrie figures out that her ire is misplaced. She is not one to be tamed. Rather than change herself for her ideal man, she instead finds that she is happier being her ideal woman. It’s a moment that hits home for any woman who has figured out that the man they have pined after may not deserve her as much as she thought he did. [Molly Eichel]

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Scrubs, “My Screw Up” (2004)

More than some of the shows that made it onto the main list, Scrubs feels like it’s actively engaging with The Simpsons’ impact on television comedy, pushing the limits of how far non-animated sitcoms can travel into the realm of fantasy. But as I’ve written about previously, “My Screw Up” is perhaps the sitcom’s finest half-hour for how well it finds pathos and meaning in a show that could theoretically—and, in later seasons, did eventually—devolve into wackiness and lose its sense of purpose. Structurally complex and emotionally devastating, the episode interrogates the series’ existing sitcom rhythms, gradually alerting the audience and Dr. Cox that this is not a normal day at Sacred Heart. While Scrubs’ most emotional episodes may be too far afield from the sitcom norm to end up on a list like this one, the series’ willingness to attempt to marry oddball comedy and dramatic storytelling is emblematic of the single-camera era it helped create, and one of the finest sitcom episodes of the past quarter-century. [Myles McNutt]

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Futurama, The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” (2003)

A couple of different Futurama episodes survived until the final round of voting, but neither of them were my pick for the show’s best. The series’ produced several worthy contenders, but while it lacks “Jurassic Bark”’s brutal closer and “Roswell That Ends Well”’s absurd pyrotechnics, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” remains my favorite. An ideal blend of comedy and sentiment, the episode was originally intended as a definitive finale after the show was canceled by Fox; while Futurama would ultimately find new life on a different network, the sense of closure in “Devil’s Hands” remains intact. Yet the episode doesn’t strain for profundity, and it leaves Fry and Leela, the series’ main on-again/off-again couple, in a state of blissful, bittersweet suspension. Later episodes would make their relationship more coherent, but the ambiguity here serves to capture one of the great joys of television storytelling—the sense of something just about to happen, but never quite resolved. The return of the Robot Devil and some fantastic singing jokes keep things from getting too sappy, and the end result deserves its place in any sensible hall of fame. Screw it, I’m building my own hall, with blackjack, and hookers. [Zack Handlen]

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Just Shoot Me!, “Slow Donnie” (1999)

Most of the episodes included on our official aggregate list are great parts of a greater whole. But even an unexceptional sitcom can have its stray moments of brilliance. Generally speaking, Just Shoot Me!, a seven-season NBC comedy about the staff of a fictional fashion magazine, wasn’t exactly must-see TV—even when it was an official part of Must See TV. But at least once, the show transcended its usual mediocrity, thanks largely to some inspired guest casting. In “Slow Donnie,” a fresh-from-Mr. Show (truly fresh: the episode premiered eight days after the sketch series’ finale) David Cross appears as the mentally challenged brother of photographer Elliot (Enrico Colantoni). What no one but Maya (Laura San Giacomo) knows is that Donnie isn’t challenged at all; he faked a debilitating head injury to get out of having to find a job or take care of himself. This taboo-teasing premise provides Just Shoot Me! with a shot in the arm, not to mention a perfect (if sadly temporary) foil: Slipping in and out of “character” from scene to scene, Cross drops sleazy innuendos into his simpleton routine, pokes fun at the show’s regular cast of characters, and does hilarious singsong shtick. The episode earned an Emmy nomination for its script; had it won, the only honest move would have been for the writers to share it with the ringer that raised their game. [A.A. Dowd]

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Home Movies, “Shore Leave” (2002)

Over the past few years, Bob’s Burgers has rightfully garnered critical praise and a dedicated fan base. So, naturally, I keep hoping more people check out Loren Bouchard’s pre-Bob’s projects and collaborations, especially the Brendon Small-co-created Home Movies. A series about three 8-year-old amateur filmmakers, it captures the small moments of being a kid that often get lost in the shuffle. “Shore Leave,” the series’ best episode, is a great example of this, as it details the horrors of an unwanted sleepover and a forced immersion into a corrupt, exploitative Girl Scouts-esque organization. “Shore Leave” demonstrates that children often see through the lies that parents and authority figures push onto them, and it’s the mere act of going through the motions and occasionally pushing back that produces the best stories of childhood. Plus, the episode features the beloved Coach McGuirk as both a drunken buffoon and an unlikely savior, proving that people easily transcend the labels society hands them. [Vikram Murthi]

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