clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Ranking of the Most Definitive Post–Super Bowl TV Episodes

The spot after the big game is prime real estate. Some series capitalize on it; others wilt in the spotlight.

Eli Chalikopoulou

This Super Bowl anecdote revolves around a fictional Rough Collie named Lassie. An adventurous and spirited dog that had a way with barking, Lassie starred in seven movies from 1943 to 1951. Then in 1954—I swear I’m going somewhere with this—she became the star of her own wholesome Depression-era TV series on CBS. People just loved that dog. In fact, after the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the very first NFL championship game in 1967, about 33 percent of the audience (who also had the option of watching the game on NBC that year) tuned in to the episode “Lassie’s Litter Bit” in its regular 7 p.m. ET slot. Lassie also aired as scheduled after the 1968 game. And in an upholding of tradition, Lassie stayed home in 1970, too.

Please keep this history in mind during the waning moments of the Super Bowl LV post-show this year, when you’re deciding whether to tune in to the series premiere of the latest reboot of The Equalizer on CBS. The episode may not be great, but at least we’re no longer in the post–Super Bowl doghouse. With nearly 100 million people watching the last game of the NFL season every winter, the powers that be now make it a top-priority mission to harness that massive audience and deliver a unique, must-see offering that showcases its respective network. (The game rotates among CBS, NBC, and Fox every year; ABC peaced out in 2006.) On average, about 25 percent of the Super Bowl audience stays on to watch the show that follows—or just forgets to turn off the TV; those count too. Some series capitalize on this gift; others wilt in the spotlight. All have become a part of TV lore.

A confluence of small but important events helped change this concept. Until 1978, the championship aired in the late afternoon on the East Coast. When the kickoff time shifted to around 6 p.m., network executives realized that there was still time for one marquee program on that special Sunday night. (Even better, viewers were likely still feeling the effects of chicken wings, chips, and beer, and too tired to change the channel.) At first, the options were relatively stale and safe: a 60 Minutes here, a CHiPs episode there. But in 1983, NBC took a risk by airing the second-ever episode of a new action series titled The A-Team. It retained nearly 40 percent of the Super Bowl audience, and now everyone but your Gen Z cousin knows who Mr. T is. The A-Team’s success signaled the lead-out potential to network programmers, and five years later, the breakout buzz of The Wonder Years premiere cemented it.

The Big Game now serves as the ultimate TV launching pad. We’ve witnessed pilots for series both classic (Homicide: Life on the Street) and horrific (Grand Slam). Lower-profile acclaimed shows (Alias) have received some much-needed exposure, while bona fide hits upped the ante with A-list guest stars (Prince! Tom Brady! Julia Roberts!). The dramatic sports extravaganza has also given way to a handful of intriguing unscripted TV premieres. Heck, even 60 Minutes produced one of its most salacious segments ever. But among the eclectic mix of Super Bowl lead-ins, which was the most definitive in the modern era? Get out that bag of chips, because I’m digging in.

33. Extreme (ABC, 1995)

The elevator pitch: “Take the thrilling adrenaline of the movie Cliffhanger and the sudsy melodrama of Melrose Place and boom-chicka-boom!” The actual result: a laughable mess of a pilot in which an ultra-attractive search and rescue team in the Rocky Mountains attempts to work hard and play! harder! James Brolin is top-billed, attempting to grit his teeth through lines like, “Picking up a snowboarder is not exactly what I trained this team to do!” He’s joined by future Melrose resident Brooke Langton, future Donna Martin love interest Cameron Bancroft, and future two-time Emmy winner Julie Bowen. Despite the plum perch, the series lasts seven episodes and is canceled by April.

32. Grand Slam (CBS, 1990)

I actually had to Google this one and all I got was “An American action drama television series that aired from January 28 to March 14, 1990.” IMDb was more helpful, sharing that this pilot chronicled two San Diego bounty hunters and starred John Schneider—yup, Dukes of Hazzard John Schneider—as Dennis “Hardball” Bakelenekoff and Paul Rodriguez as Pedro Gomez. Together, they join forces and shake things up. I’m guessing.

31. 24: Legacy (Fox, 2017)

Want to hear something shameful? (Er, relatively speaking.) Fox execs never scheduled the original classic 24 in this spot. Hellooooo? If you’re going to air a highly serialized action thriller in which each of the 24 episodes needs to be seen to fit all the pieces together, why not ensure that as many eyeballs as possible watch Hour 1?! Instead, we were forced to make due with the first episode of a forgettable Kiefer Sutherland–less spinoff starring Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton. Too little, too late.

30. Brotherhood of the Rose (NBC, 1989)

Behold the one and only TV miniseries on the list. Based on a 1984 bestseller, it stars Peter Strauss, David Morse, and Robert Mitchum in a story of two Philadelphia orphans adopted and raised to become assassins. When a mission goes afoul, the guys start to reconsider the man they call dad. I know what you’re thinking, but, per Wikipedia, its initial two-part, two-night broadcast was the highest-rated TV movie of the 1988-89 season.

29. The Blacklist (NBC, 2015)

I’ll give you a million bucks if you can tell me what happened in this second-season installment of the meh James Spader drama. Hint: It ends with a cliff-hanger, and not in the Stallone movie/Extreme sense.

28. The Good Life/The John Larroquette Show (NBC, 1994)

Here’s a fascinating twofer semi-fail. First, Drew Carey stars in a prototypical, cute family sitcom pilot that’s dead on arrival—and yet he’s charismatic enough in his goofy man-boy part for ABC executives to hand him the keys to his own show nearly two years later. The real star on this night is Larroquette, one of the premiere comic actors of the late ’80s and early ’90s thanks to his Emmy-winning performance as a smarmy attorney on Night Court. He goes darker in his follow-up, playing a recovering alcoholic mixing it up with eclectic characters while working as a manager of a seedy bus terminal. But audiences don’t cotton to it, prompting NBC to give it a boost midway through its first season. Although the series lasts three years in all, it’s ahead of its time in terms of the arch punch lines. Take away the laugh track, fast-forward 25 years, and you’ve got a perfect companion for Superstore.

27. The World’s Best (CBS, 2019)

Otherwise known as the nadir of the earnest-celebrities-attempt-to-judge-aspiring-entertainers reality TV genre. Here we have Drew Barrymore, Faith Hill, and RuPaul sitting at a shiny table to watch a series of international performers compete for a grand prize of $1 million. The reason why this show isn’t titled Universe’s Got Talent is because a “wall of world” panel consisting of 50 entertainment experts also contribute to give a score ranging from 1 to 50, which, combined with the judges’ scores equals ... oh my god, stop making us do math! This was canceled after 12 episodes.

26. Elementary (CBS, 2013)

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu were probably psyched when they learned that an episode of their Sherlock-inspired procedural had landed the primo slot during its first season. Alas, because of the power-outage delay after Beyoncé’s sizzling half-time performance, the start time is pushed back past 11 p.m. and only 20.8 million people stick around.

25. Davis Rules (ABC, 1991)

It’s like everywhere you look and everywhere you go in the 1990s, there’s a Full House rip-off. Here, a widower (Randy Quaid) trying to raise his three kids asks his irascible dad (Jonathan Winters) to move in with him to help. Though Winters wins an Emmy for the role, the only Davis who truly rules during this era is the tall redhead whose character somehow drops the ball at the end of A League of Their Own.

24. House (Fox, 2008)

What a nothing-burger episode of a medical procedural that legit had its share of quirky, fun, dramatic moments during its eight-year run. In this mid-series installment, Mira Sorvino is a doctor in Antarctica who mysteriously falls ill. Hugh Laurie’s acidic, smarty-pants House diagnoses her remotely via webcam—a de rigueur medical activity 13 years later, but I digress. After she lapses into a coma, House has her boyfriend taste her urine to see if it’s kidney disease (nope), brain swelling (nope), or lupus (duh, it’s never lupus). Turns out she just broke her big toe. Ouch?

23. The Masked Singer (Fox, 2020)

The Season 3 premiere of this absolutely bonkers hit show. I’ll spare you all the ridiculous guesses from Robin Thicke, Nicole Scherzinger, Jenny McCarthy, and Ken Jeong and just tell you that the Night Angel was former Xscape singer and current Real Housewife of Atlanta Kandi Burruss. All I can think about is the 55-year-old guy from Kansas City who probably thought he accidentally did acid while celebrating the Super Bowl win.

22. Criminal Minds (CBS, 2007)

James Van Der Beek plays a killer with multiple personalities. You’ve got to respect that.

21. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (CBS, 2016)

In theory, this is a shrewd move: Ditch the random episode of a procedural that mainly appeals to an older demographic in favor of Stephen Colbert and his new late-night gig. But the show fumbles its prime-time promotion. Tina Fey and Margot Robbie plug their totally average movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Will Ferrell does his loopy Will Ferrell thing; and then-in-demand Megyn Kelly talks about the upcoming presidential election. (Please do note the year.) The whole thing would be a wash if not for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Already masters of the football spoof, the comedy partners use the occasion to revive one of Key & Peele’s most beloved sketches, “McCringleberry’s Excessive Celebration.”

20. 3rd Rock From the Sun (NBC, 1998)

NBC broke ratings records with a goofy and guest-star-heavy Friends in 1996 (more on that way below). In a blatant attempt to recapture the magic, the suits programmed a supersized episode of this broad sitcom about aliens on Earth starring the collectively great John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jane Curtin, and that guy who always squinted his eyes. Evil Venusians show up in the form of beautiful women to attach themselves to all the available men. Their secret weapon is to air the world’s most powerful beer commercial during the Super Bowl (“When you Earth men are bombarded with images of hops, barley, breasts, and fun, you become weak and suggestible”). The convoluted and amusing setup is really just an excuse to let supermodels Cindy Crawford, Angie Everhart, Irina Pantaeva, and Beverly Johnson (as their leader!) strut their stuff.

19. Malcolm in the Middle (Fox, 2002)

Doesn’t it seem like this manic comedy is more appreciated and interesting in hindsight because of the Bryan Cranston factor? Anyway, young Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) and his fam go to a company picnic where lunacy ensues. Please welcome Susan Sarandon, Patrick Warburton, Christina Ricci, Heidi Klum, Stephen Root, Magic Johnson, Fox NFL announcers Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long, and matriarch Jane Kaczmarek’s then-husband Bradley Whitford to the parade of post–Super Bowl celebrity cameos. (Bonus points for casting Root and Whitford in a socially strange outdoor setting a full 15 years before Get Out.)

18. The Simpsons/American Dad (Fox, 2005)

It’s generally accepted that The Simpsons hasn’t been excellent in many years, especially in comparison to the Sam Simon–Conan O’Brien golden era of the ’90s. That still doesn’t excuse this peculiar installment, in which Ned makes a film called Tales of the Old Testament that’s supposed to double as a barbed commentary on the controversial 2004 Mel Gibson project The Passion of the Christ. (Your voice-cameo lineup: Tom Brady, LeBron James, Michelle Kwan, Yao Ming, and Warren Sapp.) It leads into the pilot of American Dad, which, um, sorry, I’ve got nothing. I repeat: Why didn’t Fox schedule the season premiere of 24 here?! WHY?!

17. Glee (Fox, 2011)

Given that this Ryan Murphy confection was a weekly pit stop for celebrities, what a relief that Katie Couric is the only extra name on hand. Maybe that’s because the producers wanted to focus on the elaborate musical numbers in this loosely football-themed episode. The centerpiece is a mashup of “Thriller” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll.” Though only 168 seconds long, it contributes to what would be the most expensive Glee episode and post–Super Bowl episode in history.

16. The Voice (NBC, 2012)

This second-season premiere represents that speck of time when those swiveling red chairs still seemed cool. Plus, OGs Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, and CeeLo were still sitting in them.

15. Undercover Boss (CBS, 2010)

The premise—an out-of-touch CEO slums it in a ridiculous disguise and is aghast to learn what his regular-folk employees do for a living!—is perversely genius. (Even Kylo Ren learns a thing or two from his experience.) This premiere encapsulates its appeal, as the honcho of Waste Management Inc. is sent to clean up port-a-potties. Maybe not the most appetizing TV after inhaling those fried mozzarella sticks, but it’s the third-best-rated post–Super Bowl show ever and more than 120 episodes later, the show is still chugging.

14. The Practice (ABC, 2000)

The other late-’90s David E. Kelley hit about a Boston firm full of scrappy legal eagles enjoyed a solid run as water-cooler television back when offices still had water coolers and people still worked in offices. This Season 4 episode is the first of a two-parter, as Lindsay (Kelli Williams) takes the firm to L.A. to defend an acquaintance on trial for murdering his online girlfriend. No creepy serial killers dressed as nuns are part of the proceedings, for better or for worse.

13. Family Guy/The Simpsons (Fox, 1999)

The Simpsons was already on the air in some form for more than a decade by the end of the last century—or longer than the 10-year-old Bart Simpson had ostensibly been alive. No matter! Viewers are still supplied with a thematic episode about Homer and his fellow Springfieldians following a sleazeball tour guide (Fred Willard) on a faux trip to the Super Bowl. (Subplot: Marge and Lisa stay home to decorate eggs with a Vincent Price–branded kit.) More significantly, viewers catch a surprisingly mature debut of a future animated behemoth. Titled “Death Has a Shadow,” the Family Guy episode touches on the pitfalls of heavy drinking after a football game. If Seth MacFarlane wants to sober up viewers in a hurry, it works.

12. Survivor: The Australian Outback (CBS, 2001)

After the phenomenon that was the first season of Survivor during the summer of 2000, CBS executives didn’t have to think too hard as to when to launch its follow-up. And while this highly rated episode doesn’t possess a standout moment per se, it still introduces a slew of memorable players—proving that you don’t need a Machiavellian schemer like Richard Hatch to yield juicy TV. Seriously, if the names Colby Donaldson, Elisabeth Filarski, Tina Wesson, Jerri Manthey, Alicia Calaway, and Kimmi Kappenberg mean nothing to you, I suggest you stop reading this story right now and queue up CBS All Access to devour every episode.

11. New Girl/Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, 2014)

One word, all caps: PRINCE. Not only did His Royal Purpleness rock the Super Bowl halftime show seven years earlier, he creamed the post-show celeb competition by unexpectedly showing up on New Girl. (Apparently, he was a fan.) And this is no hi-and-bye pop-up: Prince helps Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) say their “I love yous” and also plays Ping-Pong with Cece (Hannah Simone). Prince died two years after this episode—titled “Prince,” obviously—which makes it all the more special. His appearance does overshadow a cameo from Clayton Kershaw, not to mention a perfectly fine episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine featuring Adam Sandler and Joe Theismann.

10. This Is Us (NBC, 2018)

Granted, “How did Jack die?” is no “Who killed J.R.?” It’s not even “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” But judging from the way all the This Is Us characters had cryptically talked about the tragic passing of Milo Ventimiglia’s earnest patriarch up until this point, you would have thought that the man self-combusted after his Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006. This hyped-up episode finally reveals all, and wow, is it a humdinger. Stay with me here: Jack accidentally leaves the Crock-Pot in the kitchen on overnight. The heat causes a massive house fire. Jack runs out of the house to safety, yet rushes back in to save his daughter or a cat or something. Jack survives that, but goes to the hospital anyway just to be safe. Then he dies because his lungs can’t take the prolonged smoke inhalation. To Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore’s credit, they totally sell it.

9. 60 Minutes (CBS, 1992)

Though this edition of the CBS news stalwart lasts only 20 minutes, it’s plenty of time for then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton—who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination—and his wife, Hillary, to address rumors of an affair with a singer named Gennifer Flowers. He denies it, and then the future FLOTUS/U.S. senator/secretary of state/presidential candidate retorts with a dream of a sound bite: “I’m not sittin’ here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Later, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wisely opines, “Hillary Clinton appeared impressively impervious, suggesting perhaps that the wrong Clinton is running for office.”

8. The X-Files (Fox, 1997)

Peak Mulder and Scully. While the “Leonard Betts” episode refuses to delve into the series’ dense alien mythology, it does unfold as an effectively creepy monster story. If you recall, Paul McCrane is an EMT who eats cancer, enabling his whole body to regenerate. The shocker of a twist? Gillian Anderson’s Scully has the cancer. Later that year, McCrane starts his run as the deliciously uncouth Dr. Romano on ER.

7. The Wonder Years (ABC, 1988)

OK, sure, The A-Team hit pay dirt in 1983. But in the subsequent years, networks don’t exactly keep the good times rolling. (May I present MacGruder and Loud, The Last Precinct, Airwolf, and Hard Copy.) (No, not that Hard Copy.) Then, a good-hearted preteen named Kevin Arnold changed everything. The Wonder Years is everything Airwolf is not—a sweet and sentimental comedy about the delightful challenges of growing up in 1969. Critics were awestruck by this brilliant pilot starring that kid from The Princess Bride: It received an A+ from People magazine, with its critic raving that it was “fresh, imaginative and intelligent,” and The L.A. Times marveled that “It’s a refreshingly gutsy half-hour.” Following that sterling pilot, the Emmy-winning series ran through 1993. And the post–Super Bowl game changed forever.

6. Survivor: All Stars (CBS, 2004)

If the emergence of Colby Donaldson in Australia three years earlier wasn’’t satisfying enough, he’s now joined by Hatch, Manthey, Rudy Boesch, Sue Hawk, Ethan Zohn, Rupert Boneham, and more favorites in Survivor’s very first “returnees” edition. This ranks better than Australia because well-established characters bring instantly compelling drama, which culminates in the ouster of a popular former winner whose name rhymes with Shmina Messon. And, wait! Tribemates and relative strangers “Boston” Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich also meet and decide to form a tentative alliance. They’d go on to steal kisses on the beach, make the season’s final two, get married, welcome four daughters, and compete 15 years later on Survivor: Winners at War. In retrospect, they really should have named one of their girls after the producer who decided to pair them on the same tribe.

5. Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993)

Good for NBC for having the stones to unveil a gritty and unconventional cop drama with flawed characters played by unknowns Andre Braugher, Melissa Leo, and Kyle Secor. (Ned Beatty is the most recognizable face.) The Baltimore-based crime series was groundbreaking TV at the time—Steven Bochco’s NYPD Blue didn’t premiere until that fall—and its pilot episode led to awards galore for director Barry Levinson. The crime series, which went on to a healthy seven-year run, also launches the TV career of journalist David Simon. In other words? No Homicide, no Stringer Bell takedown.

4. The Office (NBC, 2009)

Though the sublime comedy had already been on for five seasons, it rises to the occasion on Super Bowl Sunday with one of its most quintessential episodes. The fun begins when Dwight Schrute starts a fire in the hallway at Dunder Mifflin, giving poor Stanley a heart attack. In the second half, Michael Scott holds a company roast for himself, which of course he can’t tolerate. The staff also holds a CPR class, doing chest compressions to “Staying Alive.” And despite superfluous cameos from Jack Black, Jessica Alba, and Cloris Leachman (RIP), every actor in the stacked cast gets an opportunity to shine.

3. Alias (ABC, 2003)

Oh, so you’ve never seen this slick spy series? Well, here’s star Jennifer Garner trying on skimpy black and red lingerie in the opening sequence so she can seduce and outmaneuver a bad guy on an airplane just before blowing out the door! That’s how creator J.J. Abrams and Co. shamelessly lured curious new viewers to their honeypot. Gimmick aside, the episode kills because it’s both an excellent entry point and an absolute fan-service-y stunner. For the uninitiated, the episode incorporates disguises, secret identities, slick fight sequences, heartache, and a fresh-faced Bradley Cooper. And for its final act, Garner’s Sydney Bristow and the CIA take down rogue cell SD-6, revealing her double-agency to the enemy. Unfortunately, this episode ranks as one of the lowest-rated post–Super Bowl episodes—but I choose to think that’s because ABC decided to slap a Bon Jovi concert onto the end of an already long game. Garner didn’t go undercover until after 11 p.m., as only those who sat through “Livin’ on a Prayer” found out.

2. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, 2006)

While this series is somehow still going strong, I can’t overemphasize its set-the-TiVo! status way back in Season 2. No doubt the highlight is this tense two-parter that, just saying, starts out with a steamy shower dream sequence. Back at the hospital, there’s unexploded ammunition inside the chest cavity of a patient, and the only thing keeping it from going kablooey is the shaky hand of a newbie paramedic (Christina Ricci, somehow making a habit of guest starring in post–Super Bowl TV episodes). This crisis sets Seattle Grace into Code Black, and the interns all react differently under the life-or-death stress. (Viewers are kept in suspense until the following Sunday.) It’s a laughably preposterous story line set to emo-pop music, but Grey’s has never presented itself as a medical documentary. If anything, we should all be thankful for the histrionics because it’s an excuse for a dashing Kyle Chandler—post-Early Edition, pre-Coach Taylor—to show up as the bomb expert.

1. Friends (NBC, 1996)

There’s a reason this two-part, second-season episode is titled “The One After the Super Bowl” and not, say, “The One Where Monica and Rachel Fight Over Jean-Claude Van Damme” or “The One Where a Crazed Fan Licks Joey’s Fingers.” Friends producers sensed this outlier installment—which touched down just as Friends was shooting into the cultural stratosphere—would be remembered solely as a funny, starry, low-stakes hour of television that aired on the same night as you-know-what. And boy do they deliver on the promise.

The first half is buoyed by Phoebe singing truth-telling ditties to kids at a library while Joey, the Days of Our Lives hunk, dates a beautiful stalker. Then Monica and Rachel both vie for Jean-Claude Van Damme (who’s filming the retroactively foreboding Outbreak 2: The Virus Takes Manhattam), Chandler goes out with a former classmate who secretly despises him, and Ross reunites with his pet monkey, Marcel. They’re all inspired setups, and only now am I mentioning that Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, Chris Isaak, and Dan Castellaneta appear in key spot roles along with Van Damme. What’s more impressive, these guests seamlessly blend into their respective story lines without diffusing the charms of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. Dare I say that the most hilarious scenes—Monica and Rachel tussle in the kitchen; Ross catches Joey and Chandler in a compromising position in a restaurant bathroom—are cameo-free.

More than 52 million viewers stayed put to get their fill of the effective laughs, making Friends the most-watched post–Super Bowl lead-out in history. But the fact that “The One After the Super Bowl” still holds up as classic TV 25 years later (and fits in among Friends’ other 235 episodes) is why this super episode shines above all.

Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.