When a show’s been running for a while, it can fall into a routine. The main characters face a monster. Someone close to them dies, but they manage to escape every time. They get into a fight over why they fight monsters. A few episodes later, they make up and fight a new one. Sounds boring, right?
Well, yeah, but it’s also what’s kept CW’s “Supernatural” on the air for 13 seasons. The fantasy-horror series has managed to keep a wide audience long after its originally planned five-season arc, mainly through fan dedication and the show’s knack for strange, genre-swapping episodes, like this most recent episode.
This week, the Winchesters ended up in the “Scooby-Doo” universe: Switching the usual drama for animated hijinks, the episode was highly anticipated because of how unusual it was and has since received positive receptive from fans and critics for the change of pace.
It’s not the first one to cross the genre line. It is, however, a good reminder of how one weird episode can really shake a series up. In the spirit of that, we assembled a few other shows that either swapped genres or changed tones for an episode.
“Pretty Little Liars”
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Season 4, Episode 19, “Shadow Play”
Available on: Netflix
Sometimes a show just needs to fully commit to one theme. “Pretty Little Liars” constantly walks the line between teen drama and genuine thriller. In this episode, it goes full noir as Spencer tries to figure out if Ezra is “A”.
What’s great about the episode is that it commits wholeheartedly to the genre’s tropes: it’s mostly in black and white, the characters and setting receive a 1940s upgrade, and the lines — including ones like “no woman has ever been able to warn another woman about a man” — are delivered with that iconic noir drawl. Even when all the events turn out to be a result of Spencer’s Adderall-addled imagination, the departure from the usual melodrama of the series still leaves the episode worthy of audience attention.
Season 3, Episode 4, “San Junipero”
Available on: Netflix
When fans of this anthology sci-fi series got comfortable with its bleak themes, writer Charlie Brooker made a bold choice: he wrote a happy episode. “San Junipero” is definitely “a nice trap,” as Brooker mentioned in an interview, to be found in the otherwise dour “Black Mirror” universe. It completely diverges from what the series is known for. It’s not bleak. It’s not futuristic. It’s a queer 80s romantic drama set to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”
Yes, technology and its probable impact on humanity still plays a role, but it falls largely to the wayside in favor of exploring its two characters, Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Unlike other episodes of the series — where you’re waiting for something to inevitably go wrong — you spend all of “San Junipero” hoping that things will go right.
Season 4, Episode 21, “Do You See What I See”
Available on: Amazon Video
Every show has a handful of Christmas episodes; few do it quite like this. Featuring four different kinds of traditional and contemporary animation styles, “Eureka” surprised audiences with the simple premise of a Christmas gone wrong in the weirdest way possible. A “mysterious kaleidoscopic wave of color” washes over the eponymous town, leaving everyone animated. To make things worse (or better?), the adults know that they’re animated and their children draw up a ninja-snowman to be the episode’s monster.
Now, sci-fi shows can take certain liberties because of their genre. This episode, however, borders almost on surreal and definitely steers the show into comedy territory as the town’s inhabitants try to make their world a live-action one again.
Season 7, Episode 12, “X-Cops”
Available on: Hulu
Because almost everybody believed this season of the now-iconic series to be its final one, writer Vince Gilligan (of “Breaking Bad” fame) was given this golden opportunity to mix reality television with the supernatural. Mulder and Scully are investigating a potential werewolf when the “Cops” crew gets involved. As usual, Mulder sees it as an opportunity to make more paranormal believers. Scully sees it as a nuisance.
“X-Cops” is filmed like an episode of the reality television show “Cops,” but is actually a fictional crossover with the series. The entire episode was shot on videotape and in real time, not only completely forgoing the usual practices of television filming, but also presenting viewers with one of the most paranormal episodes of the series to date.
Season 1, Episode 23, “Modern Warfare”
Available on: Hulu
This comedy series is no stranger to swerving out of its established slice-of-life narrative. It’s parodied zombie films, “The Godfather,” and even once dedicated an entire episode to spoofing Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” as well as the lesser-known comedy-drama, “My Dinner with Andre.”
But unlike the others,”Modern Warfare” still focuses on moving the show’s plot and character development forward even as it plays outside of its genre. Shot and stylized as an action film, the episode puts the Greendale Community College cast in the middle of a paintball war. Everyone takes it as seriously as a “Terminator” film. The winner gets priority registration for their classes. Throw in the finally resolved sexual tension between Jeff (Joel McHale) and Brita (Gillian Jacobs) and you get an episode that, despite how different it is from the usual narrative, is still essential to the central storyline of “Community.”