Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“You either have a wedding or you burn something down”: 24-plus TV episodes featuring ratings-grabbing stunts

Illustration for article titled “You either have a wedding or you burn something down”: 24-plus TV episodes featuring ratings-grabbing stunts

1. I Love Lucy, “Lucy Goes To The Hospital” (1953)
In the modern television landscape, transparent attempts to increase ratings are largely relegated to the so-called “sweeps” periods of November, February, May, and July—the months where viewership numbers help set the advertising rates that keep your TV brimming with new content. The most successful ratings stunt in the early years of television, however, was born of necessity, when the star of the biggest show on earth, Lucille Ball, became pregnant by her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz. At a time when married couples weren’t even allowed to share a bed on TV—even if, like Ball and Arnaz, they were married in real life—it was a gutsy move to keep I Love Lucy going by writing the pregnancy into the show. What neither the expectant parents nor CBS could have foreseen was the perfect storm of hype created by the public’s affection for the real, pregnant Ball and its enjoyment at seeing the characters she and Arnaz played looking forward to becoming parents. The birth of Little Ricky in “Lucy Goes To The Hospital” landed Desi Arnaz Jr. on the cover of the first nationally distributed issue of TV Guide and resulted in ratings that overshadowed those for the week’s other big TV event: the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Little Desi was born 12 hours before the broadcast of the episode in which his TV counterpart took his first bow.) For decades afterward, whenever the characters on a show—be it Get Smart, All In The Family, or Mad About You—announced they were spending the coming season expecting a baby, there was a sense they were looking over their shoulder at Lucy’s ratings, hoping that lightning might strike twice.

2. Rhoda, “Rhoda’s Wedding” (1974)
For four years, America loved tuning in to The Mary Tyler Moore Show to listen to Mary’s sassy friend from New York, Rhoda Morgenstern, bitch about her love life. In 1974, the character was spun off into her own show, where she moved back to the Big Apple, reconnected with her family, and, with what in retrospect might strike some as unseemly haste, married wrecking-company proprietor Joe Gerard. (They’d met in the pilot and were wed eight weeks later.) Viewers went nuts, holding wedding parties and sending gifts to the network, and CBS promoted the two-part episode so relentlessly (including having characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show talk about how they were looking forward to it) that it ended up being the second-most-watched TV event up to that time, right after the birth of Lucy and Ricky’s baby. It turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, though. The show continued to be a ratings hit, riding on sheer momentum, but a happily married Rhoda turned out to be a not very funny Rhoda, and by the start of the third season, the writers had broken up the marriage just to give themselves some breathing room.

3. Happy Days, “Hot Stuff” (1980)
Happy Days creator Garry Marshall once succinctly described the period sitcom’s strategy for drumming up additional viewers thusly: “You either have a wedding or you burn something down.” He forgot to mention “or have your breakout character jump over a shark on water skis,” but we digress—Happy Days was the king of eyeball-baiting stunts. Faced with the fact that the series had long outlived the 1950s nostalgia boom that originally made it a hit, Marshall and his writers set out to destroy the series’ most indelible tie to the years of sock hops and soda jerks with “Hot Stuff.” And so Chachi inadvertently burned down Arnold’s drive-in during this seventh-season episode, nearly killing The Fonz, Ralph, and Potsie in the process—and bringing the show into a time with which its increasingly younger viewer base could better relate: the 1960s. 

4-5. Dallas, “A House Divided”/“Who Done It?” (1980)
These days, season-ending cliffhangers are standard-issue, thanks to the plucky pioneer Dallas. Back in the heady, innocent early days of the 1980s, the primetime soap made TV history by making viewers wait all summer (and a couple of extra months into the fall, thanks to a SAG strike) for the answer to a couple of simple questions. In the final episode of Dallas’ third season, which aired in March of 1980, an unseen attacker shot the show’s villain and star, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman); it was not only unclear who shot him, but whether the wound was fatal. Over the summer, “Who shot J.R.?” became a national catchphrase and an inescapable media phenomenon, referenced by everything from the cover of Time to a popular novelty song to a gag from then-President Jimmy Carter, who joked while visiting the real Dallas that he’d come to town to find the answer himself. A number of plausible suspects were established, and the producers scripted and shot a series of possible reveals—so even the show’s stars didn’t know which of them had done it. And Dallas made the most of the media buzz: The fourth-season opener revealed that J.R. survived the shooting, but the show kept the assailant’s identity under wraps for another few weeks. When the episode “Who Done It?” finally answered the question bugging the nation, it became the highest-rated single TV episode in American history. And to this day, it’s the No. 2 on the most-watched prime-time broadcasts, trailing only the M*A*S*H finale.

6-7. The Simpsons, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” (1995)
Fox and The Simpsons went all out for this cliffhanger, which made up the animated series’ sixth-season finale and its seventh-season première. In an homage to (and parody of) the “Who Shot J.R.?” stunt, Springfield’s evil billionaire Mr. Burns is shot after he steals oil found underneath Springfield Elementary and successfully builds a giant disc to block out the sun in Springfield, increasing dependency on his power plant. Besides being the only two-part episode arc in the long history of the show, it also featured a tie-in contest allowing viewers to call an 800 number or post to a website with their guesses as to who shot Burns (according to the network, no one guessed correctly). The arc featured plenty of clues and red herrings—just about every resident of Springfield had a motive for shooting Burns—as well as a slew of pop-culture references (include allusions to JFK, Basic Instinct, and Twin Peaks) and even a guest star: Tito Puente. In part two of the arc, it’s revealed that Maggie Simpson was the culprit, having shot Burns when he tried to take candy from her, a somewhat ridiculous conclusion that even the series eventual mocked during its “138th Episode Spectacular.”

8. L.A. Law, “He’s A Crowd” (1991)
A shared moment of intimacy between two female characters is a classic ratings ploy—one so commonplace and overused it has its own Wikipedia entry. Roseanne did it, The O.C. did it, even Community had Brita and her cool, newfound friend Page share a Sapphic smooch, each under the assumption that the other was a lesbian. But before any of these shows courted controversy and the oft-promised, rarely delivered wrath of the American Family Association, L.A. Law did so first. The episode “He’s A Crowd” prompted the easily riled AFA to call for a boycott of the Steven Bochco legal drama based on what, in 2011, seems like a quick, relatively chaste kiss between sexually “flexible” attorney C.J. Lamb and her heterosexual colleague, Abby Perkins. In the grand tradition of future “lesbian kiss” episodes to come, the incident is explained away as nothing more than C.J. and Abby getting swept up in the moment, but the ratings (14.6 million households) and the copycats indicate the moment had a much greater impact. As for Bochco and the AFA, “He’s A Crowd” prefaced many of their future clashes over the envelope-pushing (and occasionally ratings-courting) content of NYPD Blue.


9. All-American Girl, “Pulp Sitcom” (1995)
Sometimes ratings grabs just don’t work. By the time Quentin Tarantino was called upon to lend some of Pulp Fiction’s cultural heat to Margaret Cho’s faltering sitcom All-American Girl, the die was more or less cast against the series. Tarantino couldn’t work a Winston Wolf-style fix on All-American Girl’s ratings problems, but his presence did manage to make “Pulp Sitcom” a singularly bizarre reflection of its guest star’s fascination with kitschy pop culture. Amid allusions to breakfast cereals and bygone sitcoms, the episode also works in a few specific callbacks to Tarantino’s star-making vehicle. But a glowing briefcase, a riff on Christopher Walken’s “gold watch” monologue, and Amy Hill with a samurai sword didn’t deliver show-saving numbers, and All-American Girl was unceremoniously shelved after one more episode.


10-11. Law & Order, “Charm City”/Homicide: Life On The Street, “For God And Country” (1996)
Crossover episodes between different series must be a pain in the ass for the people who have to organize them, and a nightmare for the creative teams who have to try to make the stylistic tone and atmosphere of two different shows mesh (or fail to mesh in a way that counts for something). Nonetheless, networks must imagine that if they can lure the fans of a high-rated show over to a low-rated companion for one night, maybe some will stick around for next week’s episode. NBC’s Law & Order juggernaut first reached out to its ratings-challenged little brother Homicide: Life On The Street in 1995 with a cameo by Chris Noth, who, in character as Mike Logan, appeared in a pre-credits sequence on Homicide, handing off a prisoner played by Baltimore fixture John Waters. In the first, and best, of their full-length crossover adventures—three were eventually produced—the New York cops and lawyers and their Balmer counterparts team up to collar a racist militia leader. The characters wound up getting along with each other as well as they ever got along with anybody—which is to say that few additions were made to anyone’s Christmas card list. Happily, the two resident kvetchers, Lennie Briscoe and John Munch, managed to develop a weary camaraderie after Munch finally digested the news that Lennie had slept with one of Munch’s ex-wives.

12. South Park, “Terrance And Phillip In Not Without My Anus” (1998)
South Park’s first-season finale, “Cartman’s Mom Is A Dirty Slut,” was a cliffhanger promising that, when the show returned from hiatus, viewers would learn the true identity of Eric Cartman’s father. Comedy Central kept up the ruse as the air date of the new season approached, but viewers who tuned in on April 1, 1998 instead got a very special foray into juvenile scatology starring Terrance and Phillip, South Park’s self-reflexive response to its own image as a poorly animated excuse for fart jokes. It was, of course, an April Fool’s prank in addition to a joke about ratings stunts, but it happened to be a joke that doubled as the real thing. A hell of a lot of people, wound up by the network publicity—which in turn had been fanned by talk radio shows and the Internet—tuned in, and enough of them were so furious about not getting what Comedy Central promised that the network freaked out and ran the episode in which the “truth” about Cartman’s provenance was revealed weeks before it had originally been scheduled. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who reached out to fans with the touching observation that “If you get that pissed off because you don’t know who a little construction paper kid’s father is, then there’s really something wrong with you”) may have been guilty of having their cake and eating it too, but in retrospect, they seem a lot less silly than all the people who declared that they’d killed the golden goose and no one would ever watch their show again.

13. Roc, “The Hand That Rocs The Cradle” (1992)
In the post-Golden Age of Television era, live episodes of scripted shows are like NASCAR: If people tune in, it’s probably in the hopes of seeing somebody flame out. When the Fox sitcom Roc did a live episode halfway through its three-year run, it made a little more sense than when, say, ER, did so. The main thing the critically respected but low-rated Roc had going for it was its cast, which was largely made up of stage veterans: three of the four regulars (Charles S. Dutton, Carl Gordon, and Rocky Carroll) had appeared together in the Broadway production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson a year before the series began. The stunt got the show enough attention to persuade the network to renew it for a second season in which every episode was broadcast live, but that wasn’t enough to shore up the ratings, and Roc returned to a pre-taped format for its third and final season. (Incidentally, that season gave viewers the chance to pick the name of the main characters’ newborn son via 900 number.)

14. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Trials And Tribble-ations” (1996) 
Although Star Trek fans have spent 45 years proving their dedication to the franchise—What else explains seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager?—the various Trek series have regularly sought the occasional infusion of new fans or, alternatively, the return of old fans to their viewership. To achieve the latter, it has rarely required the shows’ writers to do more than venture back into the original Star Trek and see which character or concept they can incorporate into their existing series, like the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter that found Leonard Nimoy reprising his role as Spock. The best of these cross-generational efforts, however, remains the one delivered by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. “Trials And Tribble-ations” opens with Captain Benjamin Sisko being taken to task by the Department of Temporal Investigations—and it’s a fair cop, as he and the crew of the U.S.S. Defiant have just taken a trip back in time and managed to work themselves into the proceedings of the Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Using a blend of footage from the original episode and immaculately recreated sets, Julian Bashir and Miles O’Brien participate in the brawl on Deep Space Station K-7, Trill symbiont Jadzia Dax muses lustily on her previous host’s encounters with a young Dr. McCoy, and Sisko, ever the rebel, can’t resist having a brief conversation with his counterpart Captain James T. Kirk. Although there’s little question that the episode was designed to bring as many eyes to DS9 as possible, it proved to be an incredibly fun romp which successfully manipulated a number of old-school Trek fans into giving a chance to a series that many previously deemed too dark for their tastes.

15-16. Ellen, “The Puppy Episode” (1997)
If you want to know when Ellen DeGeneres went from inoffensive stand-up comedian to A-list crusader destined to become a feel-good, dancing talk-show host, look no further than “The Puppy Episode,” otherwise known as “the episode of Ellen where she comes out.” DeGeneres hadn’t really discussed her sexuality publicly to that point, but felt it was time for both her and her character, Ellen Morgan, to come out at the same time. It was a controversial decision in the more innocent days of the late 1990s; how would audiences and—most significantly to ABC—advertisers react if the main character on a hit sitcom said she was gay? The two-part episode is chock full of guests, including Oprah Winfrey as Ellen’s therapist. The moment where Ellen accidentally tells an entire airport she’s gay in order to tell her friend Susan (played by Winfrey’s fellow guest Laura Dern) she wanted to be more than friends is still a cultural touchstone 15 years later; the episode was a ratings smash but ultimately cost the show—and DeGeneres—in the long run. Viewers left it in droves after Ellen decided to comically explore how its titular character dealt with her newly out status. The show lasted one more season and DeGeneres’s career took a hit that required a few years (and her hosting gig at the 2001 Emmys) to recover.

17-18. The Kids In The Hall, “Season Two, Episode Three”/“Season Four, Episode 14”


In Canada, where the bulk of broadcast television is made up of American series beamed across the border (and the tacit understanding that nobody really watches Canadian TV shows), U.S. sweeps periods are generally enjoyed at a comfortable, sniggering distance. There are a few rare cases when Canadian series will pull off some ratings-baiting stunts, though. During the season-two run of their sketch show on CBC, The Kids In The Hall were asked to host a contest in order to discern its viewership demographics. In a contemptuous, surrealist stunt befitting the troupe, it put together a contest affording viewers the chance to touch Paul Bellini—KITH writer and de facto, be-toweled mascot—in any manner of their choosing. It was such a success that the Kids later put together a similar contest, where a winner would enjoy breakfast with Bellini at his or her local airport, where Bellini would order fish—because that’s all he eats.

19. Smallville, “Rosetta” (2003)
Smallville spent a lot of time teasing viewers with the rich mythology of Superman. Unfortunately, it suffered from myriad missteps, Lex Luthor head injuries, and all… that… Lana… Lang. However, the episode that best exemplified the promise inherent in the show was “Rosetta,” an hour that pulled off the mother of all Smallville stunt-castings by inserting none other than big-screen Superman Christopher Reeve into the show. Reeve played Dr. Virgil Swann, a reclusive physicist who ends up holding a key to helping Clark discover his true origins. Seeing the actor most people associate with Superman in a wheelchair opposite Tom Welling’s Clark Kent had the potential to seem exploitative. But Reeve’s presence ennobled the show in ways Smallville rarely replicated, doing honor to the history of the character in addition to Reeve’s immense contributions to its legacy. Smallville may have long held a “no tights, no flights” rule, but Reeve’s presence made the show temporarily soar.

20-23. The Drew Carey Show, “What’s Wrong With This Episode?” (1998-2001)

The Drew Carey Show was no stranger to gimmicky episodes over its nine seasons. It filmed in China, aired not one but two live episodes featuring cast members from Whose Line Is It Anyway? and had all manner of moderately familiar faces cameo, including Jenny McCarthy and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Still, season three’s April Fool’s show, “What’s Wrong With This Episode?,” stands out among all the hijinks because of just how far its gag went—and how it became a tradition for the show that lasted four seasons. Billed as a contest for the show’s fans—and, presumably, Highlights magazine aficionados—“What’s Wrong With This Episode?” featured hundreds of little gaffes throughout, from the immediately evident (the cast wearing gladiator costumes) to the incredibly minute (the color of Mimi’s iMac being different than normal). Fans were supposed to find them all, then send in a list to ABC. Whoever got the most won a monetary prize, and a “key” aired some time later with all the gags enumerated, Pop-Up Video style. The whole thing was a little hokey, but for a show made up of beer jokes, clown faces, and a male character who would later get breast implants to make money, it didn’t feel out of place.

24-plus. NBC Crossover nights
Especially during the reign of president/tyrant Jeff Zucker, the Peacock had a penchant for forcing the writers of its shows to write toward a theme that all the shows airing on a certain night had to follow. Which shows followed the theme usually showed their placement on the network food chain. For instance, there was 1994’s “Blackout Thursday,” where three of NBC’s four Thursday sitcoms—Mad About You, Friends, and Madman Of The People—dealt with a New York blackout supposedly caused by the first show’s Paul Buchman. Friends was a rookie at the time, so it had to play along, but the fourth show in that Must See TV bloc, Seinfeld, was king of the heap and its creative braintrust refused to do so—even though the show also took place in New York. Other NBC gimmicks included 1991’s “Hurricane Saturday”—where The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and Nurses all dealt with the same massive storm—and “Green Is Universal Week,” a recurring initiative where many of the shows on the network’s schedule featured an environmentally conscious plot (and thus was born 30 Rock’s Greenzo). Another notable stunt was “Three Funerals and a Wedding,” where NBC riffed on its upcoming debut of the hit movie Four Weddings And A Funeral. Wings, Frasier, and The Pursuit Of Happiness (the last of which NBC granted the wedding plot—it only lasted seven episodes) complied to the letter, but NewsRadio responded to the orders by holding its funeral for a rat that invaded the WNYX offices. Is it any wonder why NBC treated the show so poorly?