Even the best TV shows make mistakes. Whether due to a lack of creativity, budgetary concerns, or a tight production schedule, almost every television show has released an episode that stands out from the rest for an exceptional lack of quality. But of all these mistakes, which ones are the worst? Let’s look back at some of television’s most memorably bad episodes.
1. Happy Days: “Hollywood (Part 3)”
Happy Days began as a series that took a realistic look at small town life in the 1950s, mostly eschewing nostalgia in favor of down-to-earth characters tackling familiar issues of race, sex, and money. But, as often happens with sitcoms, it eventually turned into a caricature of its former self, spawning cheap catch phrases and putting its characters in increasingly ridiculous situations.
The stupidity of these off-the-wall storylines reached its height in this Season 5 episode that sees Henry Winkler’s Fonzie literally jump the shark on water skis — a plot so ridiculous it became our cultural shorthand for a once-great TV show doing something so dumb there’s no going back.
2. The Simpsons: “The Principal and the Pauper”
The Simpsons have always had a playfully combative relationship with its fans (see: Comic Book Guy), but its reviled Season 9 episode, “The Principal and the Pauper” is probably the only time the writers seemed to outright antagonize the fans.
The episode, which aired around the time many fans believe the series started going downhill, reveals that Principal Skinner is an impostor that took the place of his military superior, who returns to Springfield and reveals the truth. In an ending that’s both clever and infuriating for the way it satirizes the lack of change viewers demand from their sitcoms, animated or otherwise, the entire town of Springfield exiles the real Skinner and embraces the fake one, agreeing to never mention the incident again.
3. Dallas: “Return to Camelot, Part I”
At least The Simpsons made a joke of pissing off its fans — long-running primetime soap opera Dallas, did it with a straight face in its infamous Season 10 premiere, which reveals that all the events of the previous season, including the death of a major character, were just part of Pam’s dream. For a series that’s predicated on plot intrigue, such lazy disregard for story and for the viewers’ time still feels like a slap in the face.
4. Dexter: “Remember the Monsters?”
Showtime’s popular series about a conflicted serial killer who works in Miami’s CSI department went off the rails in a big way starting with its fifth season. Things only got worse and more outlandish from there, leading up to a maddening finale that forgives its title character and lets him completely avoid his comeuppance. Fans had been waiting for years to see what happened when Dexter finally paid for his crimes, but instead they got to see him escape unscathed to live a quiet life as … a lumberjack? Really?
5. How I Met Your Mother: “Last Forever”
How I Met Your Mother was for the most part another fun hang out sitcom, but it was predicated on one central question: who did Ted end up with, who then became the mother referred to in the show’s title? Instead of a sweet sendoff, “Last Forever” is a depressing misfire that sees Ted running back to an ex, who becomes the mother of his children before dying off-screen and allowing Ted to finally admit his love for Robin. It’s a depressing, oddly mean-spirited way to end a series that was otherwise so lighthearted.
6. Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Shades of Gray”
A clip show is always an unwelcome surprise, giving viewers a large amount of material they’ve already seen instead of an actual, original episode usually due to budget concerns. Thankfully, the practice has mostly died away by now, but even the best shows of yesteryear, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, are guilty of cutting corners with these painfully unoriginal episodes.
“Shades of Gray,” is about Commander Riker undergoing a procedure that forces him to relive earlier events. It contains so little new material it almost shouldn’t count as its own episode.
7. The Office: “The Farm”
The Office declined in a major way after the departure of Steve Carell, whose lovable but cringe-inducing Michael Scott was the heart and soul of the show for the first seven seasons. The ninth season reached a new low with this cartoonish episode about Rainn Wilson’s Dwight inheriting his aunt’s farm.
The problem is that the ridiculous Dwight isn’t funny outside of the mundane office setting. “The Farm” is hardly even an Office episode, as it was intended as a backdoor pilot for a spinoff about Dwight that never came to be, thank God.
8. Lost: “Stranger in a Strange Land”
It’s a testament to how compelling the central mystery of Lost was that viewers were able to put up with episodes like Season 3’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It’s a flashback episode that contains nothing but filler, putting the overarching story on pause so the writers can focus on fascinating new details like how Jack got his tattoos. Thrilling!
9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Beer Bad”
This is another case of a good show succumbing to a disappointing trend in television. This time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a “very special episode” about the dangers of drinking and drug use, made exclusively to help the show score funds from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The plot sees Buffy transformed into a cavewoman after drinking a supernatural ale in service of a dumbed-down, hamfisted message about drinking responsibly.
10. Any episode of Cop Rock
Most of the episodes listed are from good shows that soured after time, or simply misfired, but let’s take a moment to focus on the series that offered nothing but terrible episode after terrible episode — namely, Cop Rock, a show from the creator of Hill Street Blues that kept the police procedural format but then added elements of musical theater. It’s a hilarious curiosity, but a horrible show nonetheless.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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