Advertisers looking to make the biggest splash possible use the Super Bowl’s massive audience as the platform. And they do so at a hefty cost—NBC commanded $4.5 million for each half-minute of commercial time during Sunday’s upcoming Patriots-Seahawks showdown. Just as advertisers have to decide whether a Super Bowl commercial is worth the investment, the network carrying the big game has to decide which of its shows to air immediately afterward. For Sunday, NBC tapped The Blacklist, its biggest unqualified scripted success in years. But with a potential audience in the tens of millions, the major networks have also been bold enough to debut a series or give the exposure to a critically beloved series in need of a viewership boost. When a Super Bowl lead-out is chosen strategically and well crafted—as these 10 episodes were—it can change a show’s cultural trajectory.
1. Alias, “Phase One” (Super Bowl XXXVII, 2003, 17.4 million viewers)
Men like women in skimpy lingerie, right? That was the major thrust of ABC’s marketing strategy for Alias’ post-Super Bowl episode, which focused on the sex appeal of star Jennifer Garner by showing snippets of the opening seduction scene. After the post-game premiere episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a scantily clad Sydney Bristow set out to seduce viewers, although the delay helps explain why the Alias episode has such low ratings for a post-SB shot. There’s a reason why “Phase One” writer J.J. Abrams begins the story with sex: Testosterone is pumping after the big game, and a quick way to grab the attention of a bunch of already excited men is by giving them something to ogle. Like the man being seduced by Sydney Bristow, the male audience unfamiliar with this series expects something much different than what the show delivers. Instead of pushing the sex any further, the introduction quickly transitions into a tense spy thriller, continuing to ride that testosterone high but replacing sex with violence and suspense. “Phase One” feels like both a season premiere and finale, providing hefty amounts of exposition for new viewers while resolving major plotlines and dropping shocking bombshells that dramatically change the course of the show moving forward. It’s a new beginning that highlights all the things the show does well—action, intrigue, Garner crying—baiting Super Bowl viewers with T&A before throwing them into an incredible secret-agent story.
MVP: Michael Giacchino, who composes an intense musical score that sets the tone perfectly for each scene, heightens the emotional beats of the script, and propels the action forward. His music provides a cinematic grandiosity that elevates Abrams’ script and Jack Bender’s direction. [Oliver Sava]
2. The A-Team, “Children Of Jamestown” (Super Bowl XVII, 1983, 21.9 million viewers)
Over the years, many shows have run their premiere episode after the Super Bowl, as networks hope that at least some of their biggest audience of the year will be hooked on its latest offering. And while shows like Grand Slam and The Good Life were quickly forgotten after Super Sunday, the strategy worked like gangbusters when NBC debuted a much-hyped action-adventure show about four disgraced Vietnam-vets-turned-soldiers-of-fortune. In fact, The A-Team probably owes most of its success to that Super Bowl, as the show was a huge hit in its early seasons, but quickly ran out of steam. Had the show debuted to mild numbers, it may have worn out its welcome as soon as it became apparent that there were a very limited number of prison-cell accoutrements Mr. T. could fashion into a weapon from one week to the next. Instead, it rode Super Bowl momentum through five seasons.
MVP: Fresh off his role as Clubber Lang in Rocky III, Mr. T was toughness personified, and his iconic mohawk and gold chains immediately made him the public face of the show. But T’s most winning characteristic was his willingness to be comic relief, as the show undercut his toughness with silliness as often as it built him up as a fool-pitying force of nature. [Mike Vago]
3. Glee, “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” (Super Bowl XLV, 2011, 26.8 million viewers)
Glee earned a reputation for being goofy and inconsistent, when it was actually goofy, inconsistent, and elaborately plotted. The show’s heavy serialization put it in an awkward position when Fox executives chose it for the post-Super Bowl slot at the height of its popularity in its second season. Instead of going about stage business as usual, Glee‘s producers went as broad as possible in a bid to convert those slow on the remote-control draw into loyal Gleeks. The polarizing result demonstrates why the slot can be a blessing and a curse. It was Glee’s most ambitious production yet, culminating with an elaborate, zombie-themed halftime show at a high school football game. Fox spared no expense, reportedly spending as much as $5 million on the episode, more cash than goes into many drama pilots. But the same story choices that made “Shuffle” a good primer for newbies also made it alienating to existing fans, rehashing the “everybody hates glee club” plots the show had begun to grow out of. Though it proved polarizing, the episode took full advantage of its coveted position, especially in a meta-story featuring cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) lobbying to fire a student out of a cannon during a routine, potential decapitation be damned. It’s all about the spectacle, after all.
MVP: Katie Couric, appearing as herself to interview Sue after the cannon scheme, which gets her voted Loser Of The Year “behind Brett Favre’s cell phone, 9 percent unemployment, and Sparky Lohan, who is Dina Lohan’s dog and, apparently, also a loser.” [Joshua Alston]
4. The X-Files, “Leonard Betts” (Super Bowl XXXI, 1997, 29.1 million viewers)
By its fourth season, The X-Files had grown from the little cult show that could to a ratings giant, frequently landing in the top 20 on the Nielsen charts. The culmination of its success story occurred just a few weeks after the series switched from Fridays to Sundays, when Fox offered it the coveted post-Super Bowl slot. Rather than bewilder the uninitiated with a continuation of the ongoing government-conspiracy storyline, Chris Carter and company pulled a standalone gem out of production order. Opening with a headless man stumbling out of a morgue—surely one of the more bizarre images to ever grace a Super Bowl lead-out—“Leonard Betts” is a terrific monster-of-the-week episode, featuring a vintage X-Files villain in the titular character, a tumor-eating mutant played by ER’s Paul McCrane. Thanks to its primo timeslot, the episode turned out to be the most-watched of the entire series. For diehards, it’s the beginning of the Scully-has-cancer arc. For casual viewers who forgot to change the channel after the Packers trounced the Patriots, it’s probably remembered as that time the kids couldn’t sleep after the Super Bowl because they saw some guy rip off his own thumb.
MVP: The stellar makeup department, which really outdid itself with this gross-out smorgasbord of discarded human husks and regenerating limbs. [A.A. Dowd]
5. The Wonder Years, “Pilot” (Super Bowl XXII, 1988, 29.0 million viewers)
The Wonder Years almost certainly would have been a beloved series even if it hadn’t debuted after the Super Bowl, as the show’s mix of warmth, humor, nostalgia, and the one-two punch of Fred Savage’s endearing cuteness and Daniel Stern’s wry narration caught lightning in a bottle. But with an audience of 29 million staying tuned after Washington blew out Denver, the show hit the ground running, winning an Emmy after only six episodes, and being nominated for a Peabody Award in its second season. But more important than critical acclaim, the show’s high-profile debut insured that it was part of the cultural conversation from day one.
MVP: The Wonder Years had a can’t-miss premise and a winning ensemble, but none of it would have worked had the producers not found Savage, who at age 12 had both undeniable charisma and the acting chops to handle the show’s mix of comedy and drama. [Mike Vago]
6. Grey’s Anatomy, “It’s The End Of The World” (Super Bowl XL, 2006, 37.9 million viewers)
Grey’s Anatomy has made a habit of sweeps-month two-parters in which some disaster befalls Seattle Grace and its staff; while those episodes feel more perfunctory with each new season, “It’s The End Of The World” is an explosive reminder of how the tradition began. Life-and-death stakes are business-as-usual for a medical drama, but in “End Of The World,” the bizarre malady du jour has wider ramifications. A war reenactor gets wheeled into the ER with a bazooka shell lodged in his chest, along with the hand of nervous paramedic (Christina Ricci), whose trembling fingers are stemming the man’s bleeding, and quite possibly preventing the shell from exploding. “End Of The World” places the show’s entire ensemble in the blast radius without excessive contrivance, and by its end, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has her hand shoved inside that body cavity. In addition to ranking among the best Grey’s episodes ever, its clever cliffhanger and bisected title made it nearly impossible to part with the show without seeing the resolution. Unsurprisingly, the following week’s episode, “As We Know It,” ranks just below its first half among the show’s most-watched episodes.
MVP: Kyle Chandler, whose guest appearance as a bomb-squad captain was so confident and authoritative, it snagged him an Emmy nomination and helped him land the lead in Friday Night Lights. [Joshua Alston]
7. Friends, “The One After The Superbowl” (Super Bowl XXX, 1996, 52.9 million viewers)
In a two-parter, Friends both plays lip-service to its young fan base and lays the groundwork for viewers new to the show, then only in its second season (Phoebe is a kooky singer, Joey is a womanizing soap actor, Chandler is terrible with women). At this point in Friends’ trajectory, the show had amassed a decent amount of momentum based on the drawn-out process of getting Rachel and Ross together. “The One After The Superbowl” put the Ross-Rachel hookup on hold (which is especially jarring in hindsight, since “The One With The Prom Video” is on deck). To take full advantage of this cushy time slot, Friends gathered guest stars in all varieties: Brooke Shields camps out as Joey’s stalker, Julia Roberts plays it cool as a makeup artist with a grudge, and Jean-Claude Van Damme is at the center of a Rachel-Monica love triangle, just in case you forgot this episode aired in 1996.
MVP: While Shields landed Suddenly Susan for her rather bold turn, this one goes out to Van Damme, who has the best line of the episode. When Monica asks why he would dump Rachel for her, he responds, “Rachel told me you were dying to have a threesome with me and Drew Barrymore. Oh, by the way, Drew has some ground rules.” [Molly Eichel]
8. The Office (U.S.), “Stress Relief” (Super Bowl XLIII, 2009, 22.9 million viewers)
The state of Pennsylvania secured a pair of victories on February 1, 2009: The Pittsburgh Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl, which the Scranton-set American version of The Office followed up with a daring cold open. When corporate second-banana Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) tries to teach his coworkers a lesson in fire safety, he instead induces a herd-mentality panic that leads to several pieces of damaged office equipment, three busted ceiling tiles (two broken by a human, one broken by a contraband cat), and a heart attack. The double-sized “Stress Relief” isn’t immune to the stretched-thin quality of most hour-long Offices—excerpts from a movie-within-the-show pad the runtime—but the episode is redeemed by Dwight’s folly and the two “roasts” that Michael Scott (Steve Carell) stages to help his employees blow off steam. (Fittingly, an episode that begins with a controlled burn ends with an enduring Office refrain: “Boom! Roasted.”) One of the least-watched Super Bowl lead-outs of the ’00s—only Alias’ “Phase One” held on to a smaller chunk of the game’s audience—“Stress Relief” nonetheless established a ratings foothold for The Office, which returned the following year as the anchor for an all-star Thursday-night lineup: Community at 8, followed by Parks And Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock.
MVP: Thematically named director Jeffrey Blitz. The shaky-cam urgency and impressive traffic management of “Stress Relief”’s opening scene would net Blitz a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series. [Erik Adams]
“Prince” had the misfortune of following one of the most lopsided games in Super Bowl history: the Seattle Seahawks 43-8 drubbing of the Denver Broncos. But the total implosion of the Denver offense was reversed by one of the strongest forces in the natural world: Prince Rogers Nelson. A self-professed New Girl fan, The Purple One approached the show’s producers about appearing in an episode, even suggesting that he get involved in the onscreen relationship between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson). Starting from an old sitcom chestnut—one character says “I love you” before the other is ready to say it back—“Prince” temporarily transplants New Girl from the Los Angeles Arts District to Paisley Park, as an invitation to attend a swanky party gives Prince the chance to play romantic guru to the suddenly flustered couple. The guest of honor’s first appearance—“How rude of me, I haven’t given you enough time to freak out yet”—leads to some inspired reaction work from Deschanel and Johnson, but the episode truly earns its plum timeslot later in the episode, when Prince supplies Jess with some Princely pointers on confidence and romance. (It doesn’t hurt that the sequence also smuggles a little bit of Dirty Mind onto the soundtrack.)
MVP: Prince himself, who atoned for unintentionally comedic performances in Purple Rain, Under The Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge by presenting a fictionalized version of himself that viewers could laugh with, rather than at. [Erik Adams]
10. Family Guy, “Death Has A Shadow” (Super Bowl XXXIII, 1999, 22 million viewers)
As Family Guy became more self-conscious about its own absurdity—and became a mainstream hit rather than a renegade outsider—the series lost some of its ability to offend. The series’ post-Super Bowl premiere episode, “Death Has A Shadow,” didn’t have that problem. With nothing to lose (after all, the show was a mid-season add), Seth MacFarlane and crew incorporated joking asides about the Diff’rent Strokes molestation episode, Peter getting drunk on Communion wine, a reference to a soldier-type toy named “G.I. Jew” (catch phrase: “You call these bagels?” Boss’ response: “Whoa! I’m glad he’s on our side!”) and the presence of a porn flick titled Assablanca. The ridiculous vibe extended to the episode’s plot. Peter gets drunk at a bachelor party (despite Lois warning him not to) and loses his job. Instead of confessing, he signs up for welfare—and when his check shows up, it’s for $150,000. Rather than admitting that error, he does things such as renting the statue of David and getting Meg lip injections. Peter’s solution to the fraud problem is flying a blimp over the Super Bowl and releasing cash money over the crowd, which (naturally) lands him in court, where he’s only saved from prison by Stewie using his mind-control device on the judge. “Death Has A Shadow” ended up feeling like a juvenile sitcom episode created by plenty of smart people who were in on the joke—but committed to not dumbing-down the pop culture skewering for the masses.
MVP: Baby Stewie, whose murderous, tyrannical toddler persona felt unexpected and fresh. [Annie Zaleski]