25 episodes that changed television episodes that changed television

From a pregnancy on I Love Lucy to a beheading on Game of Thrones.

That episode might elevate TV storytelling. It might change how shows are produced. It might set a new standard for diversity. And together, these watershed moments present a sort of quick-and-dirty history of TV’s evolution over the past 75 years.

Enter the 25 episodes below: If you were to sit down and watch them all, you’d catch major shifts in production, groundbreaking hallmarks of diversity, and the emergence of new storytelling styles — at least from the history of American television. And you’d get to see some great episodes of TV, some just okay episodes of TV, and some pretty bad episodes, too.

But they’re all episodes that changed TV — usually for the better but sometimes for the worse.


The Texaco Star Theatre


When The Texaco Star Theatre debuted in 1948, around 500,000 TV sets were sold every year. When it left the air in 1956, 30 million were sold annually. The idea that Texaco Star was directly responsible for the increase is slightly dubious — there were other big shows! — but the comedy series was TV’s first megahit, and host Milton Berle was its first megastar. The show’s very broad, vaudevillian gags (most famously, Berle would occasionally appear in a dress, to peals of laughter) established that TV would draw heavily from very old American stage traditions. But the show’s hit status was an even bigger deal. During the 1950-’51 TV season, the first season Nielsen ever measured, more than 60 percent of the TVs in America were tuned to Texaco and Berle’s buffoonery. Watch Now



“The Human Bomb”

For the first few years of television’s existence, it was more common to make shows in New York than in Los Angeles. In 2019, the opposite is true. While lots of cities are home to plenty of TV production — including New York — LA is still the medium’s dominant hub, and we largely have Dragnet, whose first episode was this one, to thank for that. The cop show, drawn from real-life LAPD cases, wasn’t just filmed in LA. It was filmed using a quick-and-dirty production process that mimicked the movies but on a smaller, speedier scale. This gave Dragnet the freedom to film on location if necessary, away from the soundstage. And thanks to LA’s centrality to the film industry, the process could be easily replicated by other shows using the resources of Hollywood film studios and their backlots. Watch Now


I Love Lucy

“Lucy Is Enceinte”

That I Love Lucy had to use the French word for “pregnant” in the title of “Lucy Is Enceinte” reveals the episode’s influence in microcosm. CBS didn’t want Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to write Ball’s real-life pregnancy into the show, believing it would offend viewers. (Even a decade later, TV was still regularly refusing to depict married couples sharing a bed. The networks believed audiences would find the merest hint of sex just that scandalous!) But Ball and Arnaz — a married couple both onscreen and off — wanted the show to reflect all of their life, which meant an onscreen pregnancy. The network balked, not wanting to alienate its most valuable stars, while forbidding them from using the word “pregnant”; “expecting” became the euphemism of choice. Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy and the eventual birth of her child (which aired the same night Ball gave birth) were so hugely successful that they kicked off TV’s slow trudge toward reflecting American lives as they were actually lived, not just as they were idealized.


East Side/West Side

“Who Do You Kill?”

One of the earliest shows to earn the label of “brilliant but canceled,” East Side/West Side starred George C. Scott as a New York social worker, alongside Cicely Tyson — the first black woman to star as a regular in a primetime drama — as his secretary. East Side/West Side also took on the issues of its day, never more forthrightly than in this Emmy-winning episode, featuring a working-class black couple whose young child dies, tragically and unexpectedly. It’s a dark gut punch of a story that takes on American racism and classism without blinking. But it led to protests from local stations, sponsors, and viewers, particularly in the Deep South. This response had a chilling effect, as many programs avoided tackling social issues for the rest of the decade. (You can read much more about the response to this episode at the website of TV historian Stephen Bowie.)


The Beverly Hillbillies

“The Giant Jackrabbit”

If you want to see how hard American television dove into escapism in the immediate wake of JFK’s assassination, you could check out the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show (an episode that changed pop culture, but not really television). Or you could watch this episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, still the highest-rated episode of a sitcom that isn’t a series finale. Granny Clampett goes to battle with a giant jackrabbit — which turns out to be a kangaroo — and the whole encounter is extremely silly. But it presages the blithely goofy tone that came to define most of the successful shows of the late ’60s, even as the country grew more and more polarized. Watch Now


The Fugitive

“The Judgment, Part 2”

Believe it or not, there was a long period of time when TV shows just stopped. They would be canceled, or the actors would decide to go do something else, and that would be that. What changed that norm — almost single-handedly — was the final episode of The Fugitive, in which Richard Kimble, accused of killing his wife, finally caught up to the one-armed man who actually did the deed. It’s still a thrilling hour of television, and its massive ratings success cemented the notion that TV shows need definitive endings, not just beginnings and middles.


Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

season two premiere

Politicians had made self-mocking appearances on TV before, but until this moment, a presidential candidate had never done anything as risky as Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon showing up on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In — the Saturday Night Live of its era — to say, “Sock it to me?” He got the inflection all wrong; that phrase should end with an exclamation mark, not the question mark Nixon appended. But his willingness to look silly on the nation’s No. 1 TV show helped him win a grueling election. The episode marked the beginning of presidential candidates appearing on TV to seem like they can laugh at themselves, and TV taking ample advantage. Watch Now


Star Trek

“Plato’s Stepchildren”

The question of which TV show aired American TV’s first interracial kiss is a fraught one. (For example: Back when I Love Lucy was on the air, Desi and Lucy’s marriage wouldn’t have been considered “interracial,” but if it were airing today, it would.) Still, everyone can agree that the kiss in this episode of Star Trek, between white actor William Shatner and black actress Nichelle Nichols, was a landmark for TV pushing against the artificial barriers that society had constructed around racial issues. Yes, they’re only kissing because an alien being is forcing them to do so. But simply seeing a white man and a black woman kiss on TV in 1968 was revolutionary, and programs like Star Trek probing the question of what sorts of stories could be told around political and social issues ushered in the more forthright social storytelling of the 1970s. Watch Now


All in the Family

“Sammy’s Visit”

All in the Family radically expanded the types of stories that TV could tell. It reflected the political arguments happening in American living rooms back to viewers, rather than trying to run away from those arguments. And it was a sensation. This episode, which came midway through All in the Family’s second season, aired at the height of the show’s popularity and has come to stand for everything it did well. Racist Archie Bunker gives a cab ride to Sammy Davis Jr., who leaves a briefcase in Archie’s cab. The Bunkers eagerly await Sammy’s visit to their house to retrieve his property, and all the while, the show interrogates both Archie’s racism and his fascination with celebrity. The episode opened the door for more mature storytelling … but also for lots and lots of big-name celebrity guest appearances on hit sitcoms. Watch Now



“Abyssinia, Henry”

Historically, TV shows simply didn’t kill off major characters, unless they were backed into a corner by real-life events. (If an actor died offscreen, their character might also die onscreen.) That was especially true for beloved characters. But M*A*S*H’s season three finale changed all that. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), honorably discharged from the Army, leaves behind the jokers of the M*A*S*H unit to head home for the US. And then, in the justifiably famous final scene, the characters learn that Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. There were no survivors. It was perhaps inevitable for a show set during war. But its boldness also changed TV’s relationship to death. Watch Now

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show

“The Last Show”

This episode is the sitcom version of the Fugitive finale. Before the WJM newsroom gang shuffled off the programming grid, wrapped in one big group hug, it was unusual for sitcoms to do big concluding episodes that wrapped up the story in a big red bow. But most long-running sitcoms still use the basic structure of “The Last Show” in their series finales: Something happens that tears the characters apart, but we’re assured their relationships will withstand the turmoil and they will all ultimately be okay. Cue a sing-along of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and Mary Richards turning out the lights. And maybe a few tears. Watch Now



“A House Divided”

TV had done cliffhangers before “A House Divided.” Hell, Dallas had done cliffhangers before “A House Divided.” But there had never been a cliffhanger that gripped the nation quite like “Who Shot J.R.?” The rapacious asshole J.R. Ewing had more enemies than friends, and when this episode ended with a shadowy assailant gunning him down, it kicked off a national guessing game that culminated in “Who Done It?” later that year, which revealed the identity of the culprit (his ex-mistress and sister-in-law Kristin). The reveal fizzled a bit; the guessing game was much more fun. And hundreds of other TV shows mounted their own gigantic cliffhangers in the years to come. Watch Now


Hill Street Blues

“Hill Street Station”

Before The Sopranos or Game of Thrones gave TV a reputation as a medium that could support sophisticated storytelling for adults, there was Hill Street Blues. The cop drama’s pilot was a stunning breakthrough for the hour-long TV drama, weaving together a bunch of different ideas — documentary-style filmmaking, serialized character arcs, serious consideration of social issues — to create something incredibly different from anything else on the air. Other shows had experimented with one or another of these storytelling innovations, but only Hill Street Blues wedded all of them together at once. Critics and the Emmys took notice right away; viewers did eventually. The birth of modern TV drama is right here: Hill Street Blues dared to suggest that stories that didn’t end when the closing credits rolled needn’t be the sole provenance of primetime soaps, and that such stories could better reflect real life. Watch Now



“Showdown, Part 2”

Cliffhangers met the will-they/won’t-they construct — in which two would-be lovers never quite get it together enough to seal the deal — in the season one finale of Cheers. Before the courtship of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers, many other TV shows had implicit will-they/won’t-theys. But Sam and Diane made the trope explicit, and “Showdown” finally sent them on a collision course that could end in only one place: a kiss. The ending of this episode — a beautifully staged and choreographed argument, one that includes actual slaps that somehow never feel so violent they break the mood — changed the shape of TV romances and brought cliffhangers to the sitcom. It also set up Cheers’ best season, in which Sam and Diane’s romance flies, then fades, then fizzles, complete with a finale that is the funhouse mirror image of this one. Watch Now


Miami Vice

“Brother’s Keeper”

Before the ’80s, it was rare for a TV show to look markedly different from other TV shows on the air. The production process was so compressed that everything had a similar look and feel, and the few shows that stood out often went for broke on production design or costumes more than cinematography. Miami Vice was one of the first programs to really change what TV could do cinematically, putting as much effort into music and mood as it did into character or plot. The two-hour pilot episode culminates in an eerie, lonely nighttime ride set to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” that practically bottles the feeling of desperate cool. Not every episode would be this stylish, but not every episode had to be. A few carefully chosen bursts of cinematic style could account for a lot, something many other TV shows copied going forward. Watch Now


The Cosby Show

“Goodbye, Mr. Fish”

There were good sitcoms being made in the early ’80s — just look at Cheers, above — but they weren’t being watched. (Cheers only became a hit in its third season, because it had the good fortune of airing in a time slot following Cosby.) Cosby changed that, by getting back to the core of the sitcom: a funny family full of love and laughter. This second episode features Cliff Huxtable staging a funeral for his daughter’s dead goldfish, and its willingness to forsake plot in favor of the family just hanging out and doing funny things together has proved hugely influential. Cosby was also a watershed moment for TV diversity, as audiences of every demographic propelled the show to the top of the Nielsen charts, and TV followed with lots and lots of shows centered on black families. Unfortunately, the show is hard to watch now due to Bill Cosby’s considerable crimes. But in 1984, it really did change everything. Watch Now


St. Elsewhere

“The Last One”

So many of the TV storytelling tropes we’re still working with today were codified in the 1980s — and that includes the slightly mystifying series finale that takes a big swing and alienates at least some portion of the audience. This low-rated but much-loved medical drama ended its run with a finale that mostly wrapped up long-running storylines. But the very last scene pulled out of the show’s reality altogether, to some other world where the entirety of the series had been the daydream of one character’s autistic son as he stared at a snow globe. Not only was St. Eligius Hospital not real, but the characters we’d come to know and love weren’t even doctors. Breaking the reality of the show like this underlined the malleability of fiction … but it also made plenty of viewers incredibly mad. And that dynamic has repeated itself with many series finales ever since. Watch Now


Twin Peaks

“Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”

Intentionally inscrutable and pumped full of dream logic, but also simultaneously a weird and maybe satirical small-town soap opera, Twin Peaks was briefly a fascination of the viewing public, before said viewing public decided it would rather watch anything else. This third episode — with a famous dream sequence set in the Red Room with the zigzagging black-and-white floor and the backward-talking man — is a heady example of why the show caught on briefly, and then just as quickly lost its viewership. But many of the people who did keep watching Twin Peaks went on to make TV shows of their own, and the show’s dreamy, disconnected atmosphere has since influenced everything from The X-Files to The Sopranos to Atlanta. Watch Now



“The Puppy Episode”

Television hadn’t ignored LGBTQ characters before Ellen, but it had a spotty history with them. Mostly, they were guest characters, entering for one episode and exiting the next. Occasionally, they were supporting players. But Ellen, already an established sitcom, made its lead character — the star of the show, the woman it was named for — an out and proud lesbian in an episode where Ellen realizes she has a crush on a woman played by Laura Dern. And just like that, a TV show had a lesbian protagonist, and in the years to come, the medium would start digging into the stories of LGBTQ Americans in earnest. (Ellen would last only one more season, with many blaming its cancellation on the coming-out thing. Baby steps, TV. Baby steps.) Watch Now


The Sopranos


Before “College,” The Sopranos was a uniquely stylish and entertaining show about a mobster whose panic attacks lead him to visit a psychiatrist. After “College,” The Sopranos became the show that kicked off a whole new era of TV drama — the age of the antihero. Yes, Tony Soprano was a mobster, and yes, that probably meant he had killed some people; “College,” the series’ fifth episode, was the first time the show forced viewers to deal with Tony’s crimes by directly depicting them. While accompanying his teen daughter on a college visit, Tony spots a man who he thinks informed on the family to the government. He trails the man, confirming that his suspicions are correct. And then he kills the man. Creator David Chase has said he had to fight HBO to be allowed to show Tony killing someone. His winning argument: Nobody would buy the character if he didn’t commit this murder. And so TV headed down the antihero road. Watch Now



“The Final Four”

The first season of Survivor is littered with moments that changed television, but perhaps none had so radical an effect as this finale, in which the contestants decided it was better to vote for somebody who was gleeful and open in their backstabbing than someone who was duplicitous and two-faced. Richard Hatch, the first season’s villain, went on to win, and the show’s executive producer, Mark Burnett, learned a little something about finding ways to make reality TV more compelling than reality: Among Burnett’s later projects was The Apprentice, which burnished the image of one Donald Trump, a figure who has plenty in common with Richard Hatch. Watch Now


Game of Thrones


TV killed characters off with increasing frequency in the wake of M*A*S*H’s “Abyssinia, Henry” (see above), first a few here and there, then more and more, and then a big spate of them in the 2000s. But killing off your protagonist? The guy who’s on the posters for your show? The most recognizable face in the cast? Unheard of. Game of Thrones had the backing of wildly popular fantasy novels when it beheaded poor misguided Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in the ninth episode of its first season. But there’s a difference between reading about it and seeing it. “Baelor” elevated an already promising show to sensation status, and it sent the rest of television scrambling to come up with ways to top it for shock value. Watch Now


American Horror Story

“Welcome to Briarcliff”

For most of the history of television, the only way out of a dead-end storyline was to grit your teeth, find a way to wrap things up, and hope the audience would forgive you. It was a predicament that Ryan Murphy, of Nip/Tuck and Glee fame, had found himself in more than once. His solution: Each season of American Horror Story would simply become an entirely different show, taking the anthology drama form popular in the 1950s and stretching it out. This season two premiere wiped the show’s slate clean while transporting a few cast members and a general sense of Grand Guignol to a 1950s mental institution. American Horror Story: Asylum was the show’s best season — but even more significant was the way it began pushing TV dramas toward telling shorter and shorter stories by offering a big, friendly reset button to press should ever you need it. Watch Now


Orange Is the New Black

“Looks Blue, Tastes Red”

Orange Is the New Black wasn’t Netflix’s first original series — that distinction belongs either to the 2012 series Lilyhammer (which it acquired from Norway) or 2013’s House of Cards (Netflix’s first original production and the show it considers its first original). But Orange was the first show to truly demonstrate just how much more daring streaming TV could be. “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” the second episode of the second season, is a perfect showcase for why. Where the show’s first season was built around Piper, an upper-class white woman sent to prison, many of the show’s breakout characters were part of its supporting cast, which was almost casually diverse in everything from race to sexuality to body type. In “Looks Blue,” Orange ditched Piper for an hour and turned the story over to the supporting players. It marked territory that both the show — and streaming television more generally — would come to explore thoroughly. Watch Now


The Good Place

“Michael’s Gambit”

The closer you get to the present, the harder it is to tell which shows will turn out to be influential. TV changes more rapidly than film (which can take decades or more to shift), but it still needs a few years for new ideas to effectively permeate — so consider the inclusion of this episode an educated guess. In the season one finale of The Good Place, a delightful comedy set in the afterlife, the show unleashed a magnificent twist that upended the entire series and sent it jetting off in a new direction entirely. It’s the kind of plot twist usually reserved for dramas, but also the kind that tends to play really well on streaming services. And even though The Good Place airs on NBC, it has amassed many fans after streaming on Netflix. If TV comedies start to become plottier, it feels like a safe bet to say that movement started here. Watch Now

Primetime is a show about the power of television, and how it affects and reflects our culture

To understand American culture — to really get what makes us tick — you have to understand television. Vox’s new podcast, Primetime, is a show about the power of television. Each week, we’ll examine how TV reflects and shapes American culture and attitudes. In season one, we’ll dive deep into the ways television uses the presidency for storytelling fodder and ratings — and the ways presidents use TV to further their political goals. Listen here

How to stream the episodes

The Texaco Star Theatre, premiere:
Google Play or YouTube

Dragnet, “The Human Bomb”:
Prime Video or YouTube

The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Giant Jackrabbit”:
Apple TV, Hulu, or Prime Video

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, season two premiere:
Apple TV or Prime Video

Star Trek, “Plato’s Stepchildren”:
Apple TV, CBS All Access, Hulu, or Netflix

All in the Family, “Sammy’s Visit”:
Apple TV or iTunes

M*A*S*H, “Abyssinia, Henry”:
Apple TV, Hulu, Prime Video, or YouTube

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Last Show”:
Apple TV, Hulu, iTunes, Prime Video, or Vudu

Dallas, “A House Divided”:
Apple TV, Google Play, iTunes, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

Hill Street Blues, “Hill Street Station”:
Apple TV, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

Cheers, “Showdown, Part 2”:
Apple TV, CBS All Access, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

Miami Vice, “Brother’s Keeper”:
Apple TV, iTunes, NBC, or Starz

The Cosby Show, “Goodbye, Mr. Fish”:
Apple TV or Prime Video

St. Elsewhere, “The Last One”:
Apple TV or Hulu

Twin Peaks, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”:
Apple TV, CBS All Access, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

Ellen, “The Puppy Episode”:
Apple TV, iTunes, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

The Sopranos, “College”:
Apple TV, DirecTV, HBO Go, or Prime Video

Survivor, “The Final Four”:
Apple TV, CBS All Access, Hulu, or Prime Video

Game of Thrones, “Baelor”:
Apple TV, HBO Now, iTunes, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

American Horror Story, “Welcome to Briarcliff”:
Apple TV, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

Orange Is the New Black, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”:
Apple TV, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

The Good Place, “Michael’s Gambit”:
Apple TV, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Prime Video, Vudu, or YouTube

(Note: I Love Lucy, The Fugitive, and East Side/West Side episodes are not currently available to stream.)


The Texaco Star Theatre, Bettmann/Getty Images

Dragnet, NBC

I Love Lucy, Bettmann/Getty Images

East Side/West Side, CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The Beverly Hillbillies, CBS

The Fugitive, ABC

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, NBC

Star Trek, NBC

All in the Family, CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images


The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Dallas, CBS

Hill Street Blues, NBC

Cheers, NBC

Miami Vice, NBC

The Cosby Show, NBC

St. Elsewhere, NBC

Twin Peaks, ABC

Ellen, ABC

The Sopranos, HBO

Survivor, CBS

Game of Thrones, HBO

American Horror Story, FX Network

Orange Is the New Black, Netflix

The Good Place, NBC


Editors: Jen Trolio and Eleanor Barkhorn

Visuals editor: Kainaz Amaria

Additional design by: Zac Freeland and Estelle Caswell

Project manager: Susannah Locke

Copy editors: Tanya Pai and Tim Ryan Williams

Web developer: Ryan Mark

Special thanks to Stephen Bowie, Fareehan Elgakhlab, Jason Mittell, Noel Murray, and Brandon Nowalk