Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best sitcom episodes of the last 25 years (part 1)

Illustration: Tiffany Adams

The television sitcom underwent a renaissance in the mid-to-late 1980s, shocked back to life by the likes of Cheers, The Cosby Show, Murphy Brown, and Newhart. While those series worked within the multi-camera confines of ’70s success stories from MTM Enterprises and the Norman Lear factory, other, woolier programs found devoted cults (if not boffo ratings) pushing at the boundaries of what a sitcom was supposed to be: Square Pegs brought new-wave cool and a Saturday Night Live pedigree to stories of high-school blues. Police Squad! and Sledge Hammer! did over-the-top law-enforcement parodies that earned their exclamation points. On pay cable, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show gained sentience and knocked down the fourth wall. The upstart Fox Broadcasting Company gave Garry Shandling’s Show a second life on the broadcast dial, furthering a commitment to boundary-pushing exemplified by the first primetime show ever aired on the network: The proudly crass multi-cam Married… With Children.

And then, at the dawn of the ’90s, Fox made its biggest play yet: A half-hour series starring animated bit players from The Tracey Ullman Show, a nuclear family the color of fallout-shelter signage. It’s an oversimplification to say The Simpsons changed everything about television comedy, but the first animated network sitcom in prime time since The Flintstones made a significant mark. The Simpsons were name-checked in a speech by then-President George H.W. Bush. Bart Simpson showed up on magazine covers, T-shirts, and the U.K. music charts. Fox scheduled season two of The Simpsons opposite The Cosby Show, TV’s number one series; in season three, it managed to best Cosby in the ratings. The show was a culmination of the sitcom’s 1980s revival and experimentation, run by people who’d taken part in all that activity.

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To mark the 25th anniversary of “Bart The Genius”—The Simpsons’ debut as a weekly series—The A.V. Club has put together this list of the 25 best sitcom episodes to follow that momentous occasion. It’s a quarter century of honoring TV tradition while moving toward the genre’s future—with or without a live studio audience. Consider what follows a celebration of The Sitcom, A.D. (Anno D’oh, “In the year of our (annoyed grunt)”).

A quick word on how the list came together: TV Club reviewers and A.V. Club staffers were informally polled for their favorite sitcom episodes, with all eligible selections premiering on or after January 14, 1990. Those nominees were then whittled down to a shortlist of 30-plus episodes, from which each contributing writer made a ballot of four episodes—three chosen from the shortlist, plus one “wild card” pick from off the list. From there, the top vote-getters were ranked by senior A.V. Club staff; no single show could be represented by more than one episode. After much gnashing of teeth and debate about what constitutes a situation comedy—a narrative television series, primarily comedic in nature; live-action or animated, multi-cam as well as single-cam—we present the following countdown of the funniest, most incisive, sometimes poignant, always entertaining sitcom episodes of the last 25 years.

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25. Modern Family, “Fizbo” (2009)

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Modern Family started as a massive ratings hit and a commercial darling, but these days it’s the toilet plunger of sitcoms: It works just fine, and it’s there in case someone needs it—but ideally, no one does. Pick the right episode, though, and it becomes clear why Modern Family was once considered essential television. “Fizbo” is the show’s first time trying something completely out-of-the-box, opening in an emergency room and flashing back to an elaborate birthday party for Luke to unravel the mystery of who wound up in the hospital and why. It was also the first time Modern Family fully used its reliable ensemble, tossing them all together at the birthday party rather than relegating the families to their own standalone stories. The result is an episode worthy of the high esteem the show once commanded, then frittered away. [Joshua Alston]

24. Everybody Hates Chris, “Everybody Hates Food Stamps” (2005)

The best episodes of the best sitcoms often serve as perfect encapsulations of those shows. So it goes with “Everybody Hates Food Stamps.” The brilliance of Everybody Hates Chris—the brainchild of Ali LeRoi and Chris Rock and based on Rock’s Brooklyn youth—was how it subverted the sitcom norms we’ve come to expect from the modern version of the form (which focuses largely on the casual problems of affluent whites) by detailing the issues faced by a black family whose 1980s look much different than the Huxtables’. The episode in question centers around penny-pinching Julius (Terry Crews) finding $200 in food stamps and Rochelle’s reluctance to use them. At one point Tichina Arnold’s character explains to her husband that she doesn’t like using food stamps because she doesn’t like cursing people out. When she uses food stamps, people treat her like she doesn’t have a husband, sense, or class, and when people treat her like that she has to curse them out. These are the experiences too rarely exposed in pop culture; that a sitcom episode managed to deal with it and make it winningly funny makes it all the more a marvel. [Libby Hill]

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23. Girls, “Beach House” (2014)

Lena Dunham’s Girls has absorbed so much criticism for its depiction of twentysomethings who romanticize their own aimlessness, it’s often as though no one notices the show is actually its characters’ own worst critic. That self-absorption and self-aggrandizement that fuels Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and friends also feeds their misery, after all, and Girls mines most of its comedy from the chasm between their egos and their abilities. Nowhere is this point made more directly—or more cuttingly—than in “Beach House,” the season-three midpoint where the facades that have kept the girls so sure of themselves and each other are obliterated in a single drunken fight. In a single rapid-fire monologue, a lit Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) lays into Hannah for her navel-gazing narcissism, Marnie (Allison Williams) for her tedious love life woes, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) for her rehab-bred platitudes, and all of them for being “a bunch of fucking whiny nothings” she’s not even sure she wants to be around anymore. It’s an exciting catharsis that comes close to breaking the fourth wall in its excoriation of Girls itself, even as the show’s often-surprising emotional bluntness—and the fun diversions involving Hannah’s catty gay friends, a choreographed dance routine, and a ruined duck—remind the audience why it’s still worth hanging out with. [Sean O’Neal]

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22. Louie, “Late Show (Part 3)” (2012)

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So regularly does Louie function as a study of failure—romantic, professional, or otherwise—that it’s a little peculiar to single out the show’s most triumphant moment as its finest. But much of the power and poignancy of “Late Show (Part 3)” comes from seeing the eponymous comedian finally grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, and in a way that doesn’t betray the born-loser ethos of the series. The concluding chapter of a multi-week arc, “Late Show (Part 3)” finds Louie rising to the occasion, and to his own potential, in pursuit of a plum gig he’s not even sure he wants—the chance to fill David Letterman’s shoes five days a week. Paying off this dream scenario with a gloriously bittersweet coda, the episode also neatly encapsulates the merits of television’s most auteurist sitcom: its interrogation of fatherhood, its inspired use of guest stars (including, in this case, David frickin’ Lynch), and its graceful teetering between absurdist comedy and earnest drama. Extra points for demonstrating, in a couple of wish-fulfillment minutes, that the Late Show With Louis C.K. isn’t such a crazy idea after all. [A.A. Dowd]

21. Spaced, “Gone” (2001)

A lo-fi series with hi-fi ambition, Spaced was never content with being just a hangout sitcom. Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ story of two slackers who view the world through the lens of pop culture was elevated to surreal heights by Edgar Wright’s stylized direction, allowing the series to move far beyond the trappings of its modest premise. “Gone” captures Spaced’s sensibilities at its best: A simple story of two friends going out to the pub is heightened by the ominous presence of a youth street gang desperate for the pair’s bag of marijuana. Structurally complex and visually engaging, “Gone” remarkably still retains the shaggy rhythms of a night out on the town, even though it’s punctuated with mimed gun battles set to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings.” Most importantly, “Gone” showcases Spaced’s ability to deftly move between tones, with muted moments sitting comfortably next to silly, action-packed ones all strung together by Wright’s visual signatures—quick cuts, whip pans, and frequent close-ups. It’s how Spaced can open an episode with a showdown on a dark, empty street, and close it with a group of friends, stoned out of their heads, watching the television. [Vikram Murthi]

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20. How I Met Your Mother, “Slap Bet” (2006)

Here’s the salve that soothes every last burn left by How I Met Your Mother’s disappointing finale: While giving the sitcoms of the ’00s their very own answer to Lost, HIMYM turned out some immaculate standalone stories. The implications of “Slap Bet” reverberate throughout the show’s too-long run, but they still amuse in isolation, propelled by the tension of the titular wager and the climactic reveal involving Robin (Cobie Smulders) and the shameful, bedazzled skeleton in her closet. “Slap Bet” allows viewers to throw away every last care they have about HIMYM’s ending, enjoying instead a slapstick farce about trust and friendship that culminates in the greatest Tiffany parody in TV history. [Erik Adams]

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19. Flight Of The Conchords, “Yoko” (2007)

Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement’s Flight Of The Conchords did more than introduce American viewers to New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo-a-cappella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo—it was a harbinger of the understated irony and meta humor that would flourish in TV and the Internet in the years to come. Season one’s “Yoko” is a rom-com in miniature form: A new relationship, heartbreak, and reconciliation are played out when Bret’s girlfriend, Coco (Sutton Foster), upsets the band’s dynamics—but mostly just makes Jemaine feel left out. On one date Jemaine accompanies them on, Bret sings “If You’re Into It” to Coco, with newly altered lyrics changing the things he would do for her (climbing a mountain, swallowing a sword) into a more realistic list including hanging out, taking off his clothes, and getting hot by the refrigerator. On display is the stars’ ability to combine spot-on reconstructions of clichéd conventions with catchy, very specific songs. That’s especially true as the episode comes to an emotional finish with “Sello Tape,” in which the duo compares their love and togetherness to the power of a household adhesive. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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18. New Girl, “Cooler” (2013)

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No doubt most of the shows on this list had a will-they/won’t-they couple. It’s a trope so deeply ingrained in sitcoms that it’d be a difficult task to make it innovative, so most successful will-they/won’t-theys strive for not subversion but emotional resonance. The relationship between New Girl’s Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) certainly pulls this off, and “Cooler” is the culmination of a season and a half of chemistry and evolving relationship dynamics. After so much waiting, it would be cheap for Nick and Jess’ first kiss to take place just for the sake of a game. The writers know this, and so does Nick: “No. Not like this,” he says, leading him to panic and literally jumping out of a window. The kiss comes later, at episode’s end, surprising Jess along with the viewer. But the kiss isn’t all that’s memorable about “Cooler,” which also focuses on one of the show’s greatest strengths: the friendships within the loft and the mythology that surrounds them, like the now-iconic drinking game True American, this time played with Clinton rules (“Everyone choose an intern!”). Plus, there’s the perfectly weird comedy about Nick Miller’s love for a particular women’s trench coat. Jake Johnson deserves all the awards he’s never gotten. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

17. Roseanne, “A Stash From The Past” (1993)

Roseanne’s take on the anti-drug episode was very much in the vein of the show as a whole, in that it was never really anti-drug. It was against looking back at the past through a, ahem, rosy lens. Roseanne finds pot in David’s room and assumes that it belongs to her adopted son, until she learns that it was actually hers. So, she, Dan, and Jackie decide to take a trip back to a time when they didn’t have to worry about firing employees, fixing carpets, or disciplining children. (To paraphrase Roseanne, to a time when there was a war going and everything was a just a lot more fun.) Through weed, Roseanne and Dan figure out that they can’t look back anymore; they’ve evolved as people, and that means life gets harder, and that’s okay. Yeah, it’s not as much fun, but it’s fuller and richer than it was. Dotted with stoner humor, the episode’s anti-anti-drug status is perhaps best encapsulated by Jackie, sitting in a bathtub (to hide Laurie Metcalf’s growing pregnancy) after everyone goes through their stoned freak out. (“Is this a sink? I am shrinking?”) She declares, to no one in particular, “Hey, guys. I don’t think this stuff is working.” The stuff did work—just not in the way they intended. [Molly Eichel]

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16. Archer, “Placebo Effect” (2011)

FX’s animated spy sitcom Archer gets much of its power from its wild tonal swings, moving from relatively lighthearted office shenanigans to satirical discussions of language and race to cartoonishly over-the-top violence to surprisingly dark moments of serialization. Balancing all those elements is extraordinarily difficult, but when it works, it’s dazzling. The second season’s “Placebo Effect” may be the best of example of this combination at work, as almost every aspect of the show is heightened. Archer’s cancer, and his friendship with fellow patient Ruth, serve as initially genuine anchors of emotion to the H. Jon Benjamin-voiced superspy’s bullet-and-joke-riddled rampage against the mobsters who stole their cancer drugs. His relationship with his foil, Lana (Aisha Tyler), and their incessant wordplay and worry over what’s offensive (even in the midst of the rampage) is never better. The office crew is only in the episode a tiny bit, but that’s enough for each and every member of the staff to have a great, character-defining moment. And then the show punctures its own bubble in a fantastic, absurdist ending worthy of its Adult Swim ancestors. [Rowan Kaiser]

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15. Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Doll” (2001)

Curb Your Enthusiasm’s 80 episodes have been remarkably consistent: The show started off strong (with “The Pants Tent”) and has managed to remain weird and wonderful through digressions that would cripple a lesser comedy. “The Doll,” from season two, perfectly encapsulates the formula that Larry David created: Viewers can see a lot of the jokes coming from a mile away (like a bathroom door that won’t lock causing multiple problems), but their delivery makes them sing. It’s also a prime example of David doing something that anybody might—in this case cutting off a doll’s hair when a TV exec’s daughter asks him to—then dealing with the sort of intense overreactions that only he seems to inspire in people. It’s also a great episode for Curb secret weapon Susie Essman, who’s always there to call bullshit on Larry and Jeff’s schemes: In what may be the best line in the episode, she mouths, “I know what you two did!” Though that honor might also go to her greeting from earlier: “You four-eyed fuck, and you fat piece of shit!” [Josh Modell]

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14. The Larry Sanders Show, “Flip” (1998)

Narrowing down Garry Shandling’s showbiz satire to just one representative episode is every bit as difficult as his self-centered talk show hosts’ perpetual search for supporting players who won’t upstage him, and as fraught with combativeness as any combination of real-life guest stars in his green room. But for all the cringe-inducing joys of “The Hankerciser 200” or the dark detours of “Arthur After Hours,” the series finale “Flip” best captures all the things that makes The Larry Sanders Show one of the greats. Structured like the typically cameo-packed sign-off you’d expect from an actual late-night chat-fest, “Flip” doesn’t skimp on the comedy of seeing celebrities playing slightly fictionalized, wholly asshole versions of themselves, from Clint Black arguing with Tom Petty over who’s going to sing Larry off, to Jim Carrey grandstanding his farewell while also ungraciously telling Larry to kiss his ass. But more importantly, “Flip” offers a satisfying emotional conclusion for all the show’s deeply flawed characters that evokes a genuine sadness at bidding them farewell, even while remaining bitterly funny—and rare for a series finale, true to the show to its very end. [Sean O’Neal]

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13. South Park, “Scott Tenorman Must Die” (2001)

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While the longevity of South Park can largely be attributed to the way the show keeps itself relevant with timely cultural critiques and satire, the show has always managed to balance its more scathing moments with foul-mouthed juvenilia. It keeps the show from feeling too heavy, and also serves to make the episodes that aren’t tied to a specific cultural moment all the more compelling. The show’s finest half-hour of depravity is the season-five gem “Scott Tenorman Must Die.” It’s an episode that showcases what South Park does best, which is taking a disgusting premise and pushing it as far as it will go. The setup of the episode is simple: Cartman wants revenge on Scott Tenorman, a ninth-grader who sold him pubic hair for $10. A typical revenge plot would be easy (and funny) enough, but that’s not how South Park operates. Instead, Cartman concocts a twisted, Machiavellian plan, the true nature of which is only revealed in the final moments, as Scott Tenorman dines on a bowl of chili (with a few special ingredients) while Cartman licks up his tears. It’s so sick and ludicrous that there’s no real punchline, which is what makes the episode so iconic. [Kyle Fowle]

12. Better Off Ted, “Racial Sensitivity” (2009)

“Diversity,” begins the weekly ad for Veridian Dynamics, composed of stock footage and a soothing voice-over. “Just the thought of it makes these white people smile.” With Veridian Dynamics, the tone-deaf mega-corporation that lords over/employs the characters of Better Off Ted, creator Victor Fresco built one of the great modern TV villains, an exaggerated but recognizable corporate dystopia. The best of its cost-saving measures comes in “Racial Sensitivity,” when the company installs new motion detectors that, unfortunately, can’t see black people. As Portia De Rossi’s all-business boss Veronica says, “The company’s position is that it’s actually the opposite of racist, because it’s not targeting black people. It’s just ignoring them.” From there it’s a front-to-back hilarious satire of institutional racism grounded in the burgeoning characterizations of spineless Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and faceless, clueless Veridian. The developing relationships are what keep “Racial Sensitivity” from being a very special episode. Instead it fits right in, the main course in Better Off Ted’s decadent Soylent feast. As Veronica explains, “This isn’t about race. It’s about money. It’s always about money. Money before people—that’s the company motto.” [Brandon Nowalk]

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11. Parks And Recreation, “Fancy Party” (2011)

The most important moment in the best episode of Parks And Recreation’s best season is the moment that doesn’t happen. For the first 10 minutes or so of its running time, “Fancy Party” pretends like it has a plot: April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) throw a party, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) learns that the party is actually a cover for their surprise wedding, and Leslie decides she has to do everything in her power to stop it. That’s a clear premise, one that cleverly pits characters we like against each other for reasons that are entirely consistent with what we know about them.

But there’s no actual conflict. Leslie gets worried, Leslie tries to recruit others to help her, the wedding happens anyway, and Leslie realizes that sometimes love is worth the risk. It doesn’t sound like much, but the basic kindness and generosity of the episode’s non-plot is one of Parks And Recreation’s greatest strengths; the humor comes from oddballs bouncing off each other in the world’s most perfect small town, and “Fancy Party” offers the opportunities for every oddball to shine. Even Ann (Rashida Jones), who the writers sometimes struggled to find stories for, gets a fun B-plot with Donna (Retta), trying out the dating scene. The key is the unexpectedly graceful story resolution: Leslie learns something, but without the humiliation and histrionics a lifetime of sitcom watching has taught us to expect. Those histrionics can be hilarious, but there’s something powerful about seeing things just work out for once, without having to strain. [Zack Handlen]

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Tomorrow: Trivia questions are asked, trivial complaints are lodged, fates are decided by the roll of the die, and small towns are put on the map as we count down the top 10 sitcom episodes of the last 25 years. Also: Our writers speak up for their favorites that didn’t make the final cut.

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