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The top 5 post-Super Bowl TV shows of all time

The best episode to air after the Super Bowl is one you might not know did.

ABC

Twenty years ago, NBC aired a special one-hour episode of Friends after the Super Bowl. From both a ratings and watercooler standpoint, it remains the gold standard of post-Super Bowl episodes.

Already a massive hit in its second season, Friends airing a two-part episode at 10 p.m. on a Sunday felt undeniably thrilling -- before the days when you could watch any show at any time of day. The Super Bowl was the event. Friends was the event after the event.

It pulled in 53 million viewers, still the most watched episode to ever air following the Super Bowl.

That also started a trend where networks would often hand the post-Super Bowl episode to a show that had already found its way into the mainstream. CBS was the first really to do it in 1978 when it broadcast a Super Bowl-themed episode of All in the Family after the big game, but until Friends, the time slot was mostly used to launch new series.

Since then, post-Super Bowl programming has alternated between popular shows, ones in need of a ratings boost and series premieres. This year, CBS tried something new and gave the slot to a late night talk show.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is still in its infancy, but Colbert is a well-known, sharp-witted entertainer whose list of achievements included Emmys, a Peabody and creating one of the greatest TV spinoffs ever (The Colbert Report). Despite Colbert's talents, and guests ranging from Super Bowl MVP Von Miller to Tina Fey to the president of the United States, The Late Show is, well, just a talk show. And that's all the episode was, almost like a nail in the coffin of the post-Super Bowl program being an experience.

Nothing may ever match the hype for Friends' turn on TV's biggest stage, but it'd be sad to see the networks abandon the idea of making the time slot "appointment TV," because several shows have given us compelling TV on Super Bowl night.

Funnily enough, "The One After the Superbowl" isn't even the best episode to air after the Super Bowl. It's mostly just an OK episode -- not even close to the top that Friends had to offer, nor is it the worst episode in the show's 10-year run. For established shows, it's hard to create an episode that lives up to fans' expectations and can also reel in new viewers. For new shows, it's about figuring out a way to hook an audience right away after they just spent hours watching the biggest game of the season.

But some have successfully figured out the formula. These are the five best episodes to air after the Super Bowl.

5) The X-Files, Leonard Betts - Jan. 26, 1997

Even if you didn't regularly watch The X-Files, you knew the basics of the show, or at least you had heard the tagline: "The Truth is Out There." Two FBI agents -- Fox Mulder, the believer, and Dana Scully, the skeptic -- investigated unsolved cases dealing with the weird and paranormal.

You didn't even have to be that familiar with the show, because it spelled out the main points more than once after Super Bowl XXXI. "Leonard Betts" is mostly a standalone episode, but it's tightly paced and absorbing, as one would expect from Vince Gilligan, who would create Breaking Bad a decade later.

It also featured that signature grossness factor that The X-Files was known for. Leonard Betts was a character who could regenerate after he takes away other people's cancer -- by eating them.

LeonardBetts

(via Fox)

Betts was a monster, but he was also devoted to his mother and was clearly conflicted about who he was and what he was doing. In the episode's most stunning and emotional moment, he revealed to us, and to Scully herself, that our heroine had cancer. That would set up a pivotal story arc for Scully that would last through the season and next. It would also lead to Gillian Anderson winning an Emmy.

The episode encapsulated so much of what The X-Files was about. It made you think, it made you feel, it kind of made you want to throw up. And it reminded us that there might be monsters that lurk in the shadows, but sometimes the scariest ones are those that lie within.

4) Homicide: Life on the Street, "Gone for Goode" - Jan. 31, 1993

Without Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire may have never existed.

David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, wrote a book after spending a year embedded with a homicide unit. Two years later, that book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was adapted for the small screen. Simon would eventually become a staff writer on the show and would more famously go on to create The Wire in 2002.

The Wire is arguably the best TV drama ever made, but that shouldn't take away from the brilliance of Homicide.

The show debuted after Super Bowl XXVII, which the Cowboys won handily over the Bills, 52-17. Earlier that night, O.J. Simpson handled the coin toss, Garth Brooks sang the national anthem and Michael Jackson headlined the halftime show. Everything about that night screamed "1993," except for Homicide's pilot episode.

"Gone for Goode" wouldn't feel out of place on TV today. All that gives away its age are the frequent onscreen smoking and the use of landlines. The show doesn't hold your hand when it comes to setting the stage and unveiling the characters, either. You immediately get a sense of who these detectives are -- mostly veteran, world-weary and cynical, except for Kyle Secor's Tim Bayliss, who was the requisite "first day on the job" idealist.

Richard Belzer first introduced audiences to Detective John Munch, who appeared on more shows than any other character in TV history. Munch had the funniest moments in the pilot -- a recurring joke about Montel Williams -- but the episode, and the show itself, belonged to Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton.

Pembleton is the kind of cocky detective who plays by his own rules and who gets the job done by any means necessary. As cliched as that sounds, the writing and Braugher's portrayal make him feel like a wholly unique character.

He's off-putting to those around him, yet he's fascinating to watch. Several years later, Braugher won an Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy for the role, but the show was mostly an overlooked gem during its seven-season run.

Even now, Homicide might not be appreciated as much as it deserved, but it's still the smartest show that has ever aired after the Super Bowl.

3) The Office, "Stress Relief" - Feb. 1, 2009

The opening scene alone is enough to include this episode of The Office on any "best of" list. By-the-books stickler Dwight Schrute, determined to prove a point about safety, engineered a fire drill that sent all the Dunder Mifflin employees into a panicked frenzy. It was five minutes of pure, unadulterated physical comedy:

Creed

Secretly, though, the concluding moments of the hourlong episode are The Office at its peak form. Clueless boss Michael Scott decided that to help the office unwind, he'd let his employees hold a comedy roast in his "honor." Unsurprisingly, a thin-skinned character like Michael Scott did not end up taking any of the jokes well. And yet, you still kind of sympathized with him because Steve Carell made the character so human.

In the episode's climax, Michael gets his revenge by roasting the rest of the office with barbs that are equal parts mean, lame and strangely amusing. In the end, Michael gets what he wanted all along -- for everyone to laugh together, just not at him.

There are filler moments that don't work as well -- most notably, a bizarre movie-within-the-show starring Jack Black, Jessica Alba and Cloris Leachman. Overall, though, this is an episode that hits all the right notes, including an aw-worthy scene between Jim and Pam to show how deeply The Office's sweethearts loved each other, and an expression that lives on today: "Boom. Roasted."

2) Alias, "Phase One" - Jan. 26, 2003

So how do you get a bunch of football fans to tune in to a complicated spy show that, despite what ABC promos suggested, was less about sexy espionage and more about family, love, loyalty and betrayal?

Easy: Put star Jennifer Garner in not one, but two different lingerie outfits and blast some AC/DC.

Creator J.J. Abrams, who wrote and directed the Super Bowl episode, blatantly pandered to the NFL crowd. Even the lingerie matched the colors for the two teams -- red for the Bucs, black for the Raiders -- that played in Super Bowl XXXVII.

But that was all just a Trojan horse to lure viewers into watching a show about the tough, resourceful, strong-willed Sydney Bristow, who was just trying to navigate through life as a double agent for the CIA. The barely there threads were just part of Syd's disguise while she was undercover on a critical mission (on an airplane!), and she was clearly just counting the seconds until she could kick the bad guy's ass (spoiler alert: she did -- with authority).

SydneyBristow

(via ABC)

Alias was never a ratings smash. With the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot, Abrams was tasked with trying to catch everyone up to speed on the show's intricate plotlines, which included but was not limited to:

  • Sydney worked for SD-6, which she thought was a secret branch of the CIA. It was actually part of the Alliance, the enemy of the CIA. She found this out after SD-6 director Arvin Sloane had her fiance killed.
  • Sydney then become a double agent for the CIA and discovered her father was already a double agent working for the CIA.
  • Her partner at SD-6, Dixon, thought he was working for the CIA, as did most of the people who worked at SD-6.
  • Sydney and her CIA handler, Vaughn, couldn't act on their feelings for each other because, y'know, they could be killed if seen together.
  • Sydney's best friends were Francie and Bradley Cooper.

Even though there was a lot of exposition to get through, the show handled it as organically as possible.

Then, much like the Starkiller Base attempted to do in his Star Wars reboot 12 years later, Abrams blew up the whole dang Alias universe.

A season and half after the series premiere, the premise of the show was completely altered in one 60-minute episode. The evil, shadowy syndicate was toppled. Sydney was no longer a double agent and was free to be with the man she loved. Sloane was out there on a new nefarious pursuit. Oh, and best friend Francie was murdered by a clone.

If you were a first-time viewer, it would have been hard to grasp just how many risks Abrams was taking by revamping the show. But the action-packed, if confusing, ride and the introduction to a Alias: 2.0 was supposed to get you to watch the following week to find out what's next for Sydney and the gang.

If you were a religious Alias watcher, your reaction to the episode was mostly gibberish but roughly translated to: "OMG, Dixon knows. The Alliance and SD-6 are gone and Sloane was the one behind it all. OMG OMG. Syd and Vaughn totally just made out in front of everyone. OMG. FRANCIE IS DEAD?! AND SHE WAS KILLED BY ... EVIL FRANCIE?! OH. MY. GOD."

Unfortunately for Alias, the show could never really live up to the promise of "Phase One." Season two finished strong, and then the wheels fell off and it devolved into a show eaten alive by its own mythology. But it will always have the distinction of pulling off the most ambitious post-Super Bowl episode.

1) The Wonder Years, Pilot - Jan. 31, 1988

Nearly 30 years old and set 20 years before that, The Wonder Years pilot is still a perfect episode of TV even today. It doesn't matter if you weren't alive during the 1960s: The sense of nostalgia is immediate and powerful, and we're instantly transported back to a place and time that feels so familiar, even if it isn't.

Daniel Stern, as an adult Kevin Arnold, guides us into a fully formed universe where the characters are completely recognizable. The grouchy dad. The peacekeeper mom. The rebel sister. The obnoxious older brother. The nerdy best friend. The girl/boy next door.

The show wouldn't have worked as well as it did if young Kevin Arnold hadn't been played by Fred Savage. Like any adolescent, Kevin could be a major brat, but Savage played him with such preternatural maturity that we would still sympathize with him and root for him even if he was inexplicably acting like a jerk to his first love, Winnie Cooper.

And like any adolescent, Kevin could also be kind and unexpectedly intuitive. When he finds out that Winnie's older brother was killed in Vietnam, he goes to comfort her, draping his New York Jets jacket around her shivering arms. In the show's most iconic scene, the two share their first kiss as Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" plays in the background. Stern's narration to close out the episode sends one last chill down our spines:

"There were moments that made us cry with laughter. And there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder."

Many people don't remember that The Wonder Years debuted after the Super Bowl. But it's pretty fitting that it did. Because above all else, The Wonder Years is a love letter -- with all the fireworks and pain that real love can entail -- to growing up, to the bonds we forge, to our own memories, and to America.