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The Gimmick Episode

February 15, 2012

Every once in a while, some shows see fit to try something different. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Castle, "The Blue Butterfly," photo:IMDB

Katic & Fillion in "The Blue Butterfly"

Mrs. TheGeek and I watched a recent episode of the Fillion-tastic Castle last night. In this particular episode of the amusing police-procedural, the story kept bouncing back and forth between present-day and a parallel story set in the 1940’s wherein the characters were played by the regular actors of the show. Nathan Fillion’s Rick Castle became a hard-boiled private eye. Castle’s partner, NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), became a mob boss’s girlfriend and love interest to the aforementioned private eye. Medical examiner Dr. Laney Parish (Tamala Jones) became a sultry jazz singer. And Detectives Esposito and Ryan (Jon Huertas & Seamus Dever) became the mob boss’s thugs.

I enjoy the show in general; it is well paced and comes up with some pretty good season arcs. Katic is brain-scramblingly hot and holds her own against the ever-charming Fillion. (I also admit to a dirty-old-man crush on the barely-legal actress who plays Castle’s daughter.) But this just seemed like an unnecessary gimmick. Just a little red meat for the fanboys. Sure it gave Fillion and the rest of the cast an opportunity to flex their acting chops a little, playing these melodramatic mystery tropes. And they did a fine job. But I must say it was eye-rolly at best.

Castle is not alone in the use of an occasional “gimmick episode.” The one that immediately comes to my mind is Seinfeld‘s backwards episode, “The Betrayal,” which involved a trip to India for a wedding. Some shows have done “live” episodes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer famously did a silent episode. Friends did a “what if” episode. I don’t even want to count how many shows tried their hand at a musical. Then there are the episodes that are sort of gimmicks, but not really; namely the boxing episode of Battlestar Galactica. And episodes that swap to a non sequitur briefly for comedic effect (Barney’s dance routines on How I Met Your Mother, and the “Brad goes to the dentist” sequence in a recent episode of Happy Endings.)

Some shows have done multiple gimmick episodes and managed to hit the bulls eye with every one. Community stands out for having done so many gimmick episodes it has kind of become their thing. They did the first paintball episode, brilliantly turning a simple game into a post-apocalyptic story of survival. Later they revisited paintball with the excellent western/Star Wars two-parter. There was the zombie Halloween episode, the animated Christmas episode, the Glee Club episode, and the hilarious Dungeons & Dragons episode.

I’m not one to complain every time a show tries something new, or even does a one-off thing “just for fun.” Even a gimmick episode can be great, but not every show nails it. The episode will sink or swim on the strength of the writing, and in the case of shows with strong arcs, how much the episode contributes to that arc. Thus, in my opinion, Seinfeld‘s backwards episode was one of their best and BSG‘s boxing episode was one of their worst. What do you think, dear reader? Have I missed any significant gimmick episodes? What’s your favorite (or least favorite) and why?

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