While there have been many weird TV shows over the years, the shows that have the strangest episodes are often those that start relatively normal. It’s easy to be weird from the start, but these aren’t always the shows we remember. The weirdest episodes are those that seem at odds with the episodes around them, shows that seem to be regular dramas, comedies, and thrillers that suddenly throw crazy curveballs at their audience.
Weird episodes happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, a show’s success means that showrunners and writers are granted more leeway to experiment with the format. Other times, the writers are running out of ideas and throw in some strange episodes to keep things interesting. And some episodes are simply weird by accident, often when an attempt to do something interesting goes hilariously wrong.
However, with the rise of streaming services and increased competition for audience attention, showrunners have more freedom than they used to. Many modern shows are ambitious in a way they weren’t two decades ago. A show like the original run of Twin Peaks, which seemed so radical at the time, no longer seems that strange. When something like the recent interactive Black Mirror movie Bandersnatch is seen as mainstream entertainment, it’s clear that the definition of what is considered “weird” has shifted. As the upcoming list shows, it still takes a groundbreaking maverick like David Lynch to truly push the boundaries of modern TV.
So here are 12 of the weirdest TV episodes ever screened. All of these seemed like complete oddities when first broadcast, and in many cases leave us wondering how they ever ended up on TV in the first place. And don’t forget to let us know your favourite weird TV episodes in the comments afterwards!
12. Boy Meets World, ‘Psychotic Episode’ (1999)
Dreams are a big part of many strange TV episodes, as they provide writers with an excuse to indulge in some pretty wild stuff without actually messing with a show’s overall plot or characters. ‘Psychotic Episode’ appeared in Season 6 of the long-running ’90s sitcom Boy Meets World. The episode is essentially a series of dream sequences, in which main character Cory (Ben Savage) murders his friends and family one-by-one in a variety of ways that involve lift shafts, strangulation, baseball bats, and so on. Boringly, it’s all explained at the end to be part of Cory’s worries about his impending wedding, but it does still add up to what must be the biggest body count in any mainstream ’90s sitcom.
11. Charmed, ‘She’s a Man, Baby, a Man!’ (1999)
As a show about three powerful witches, Charmed had plenty of weird moments over its eight-year run. But as entire episodes go, Season 2’s ‘She’s a Man, Baby, a Man!’ takes the prize. This is the one where Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) is consumed by erotic dreams and Prue (Shannen Doherty) is transformed into a man by a lusty, murderous sex demon. From Phoebe’s soft-porn visions to Prue’s spectacularly unconvincing male make-up, this is one strange episode. And the less said about its ham-fisted attempts to address issues of gender politics the better.
10. The X-Files, ‘First Person Shooter’ (2000)
Weird episodes of TV shows often occur towards the end of a show’s run, when writers are coming up short with new ideas. By 2000, the groundbreaking sci-fi mystery The X-Files was on its seventh season, and wheels were starting to come off. The most bizarre episode is ‘First Person Shooter,’ which was written by acclaimed cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. In this oddity, Mulder and Scully enter a horrendously dated virtual reality game, in which a Lara Croft-esque character has started killing anyone who plays it. The whole episode has a strange, cartoonish tone, marked by the return of comedy hackers The Lone Gunmen and the sight of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson running around in a series of ridiculous costumes as they make their way through the game. If you want to see Mulder as a sci-fi samurai or Scully as a gun-toting, armour-wearing warrior, this is your chance.
9. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Black Market’ (2006)
Roland D. Moore’s BSG reboot was one of the best sci-fi shows of the decade. For the most part it deftly juggled space action, political intrigue, and powerful character drama, but although it got plenty weird towards the end, the single strangest episode occurred earlier on. ‘Black Market,’ which was the 14th episode of Season 2, is not weird in the intriguing way that the more mystical later seasons were. It’s weird because it’s so at odds with what had become before. Why Moore and his writers thought an episode styled like a hardboiled detective story featuring intergalactic gangsters and prostitutes was a good idea we may never know, but that’s what we got. It’s an incomprehensible episode filled with plot holes, bizarre behaviour, some very creepy stuff involving kidnapped children, and an absolutely terrible performance from Jamie Bamber as Apollo, transformed (for one episode only) into a vengeful, gun-toting badass. There’s good weird and bad weird, and this is definitely the latter.
8. Community, ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ (2011)
Community frequently played around with strange storytelling concepts, and Season 3’s ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ is the show’s most ambitious episode. Much of the episode is split into alternate timelines, all of which are possible outcomes from a single dice roll that Jeff (Joel McHale) uses to decide who should collect pizza for the group. Across seven timelines, characters find themselves in increasingly bizarre variations of the same situation, with recurring jokes and dialogue. Each timeline is funnier than the last, as we start to anticipate certain things, which inevitably pay off in hilariously unexpected ways. Ironically the complexity of the episode meant that it wasn’t finished until after the episode intended to follow it, which actually affected the timeline of the whole season, with the episodes switching and jokes intended to follow it now occurring beforehand.
7. Star Trek: The Original Series, ‘The Way to Eden’ (1969)
Star Trek has long addressed topical issues and has frequently been a highly progressive show in terms of its portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality. But unfortunately it didn’t always get everything right, as this hilariously odd episode proved. It screened in 1969 and was an attempt to comment on the rise of the youth counterculture in the US by having the Enterprise taken over by–yes!–interstellar hippies, led by shirtless hunk Sevrin (played by B-movie veteran Charles Napier). These spaced-out humanoid aliens use the pretext of a musical concert to commandeer the Enterprise and use it to find the mythical planet Eden. Given much of Star Trek’s audience was presumably young people, it’s very strange to see the hippie movement portrayed in such a mocking, negative light. Even stranger are the musical sequences, as Sevrin twangs his space lute and dances around the Enterprise with his wacky followers.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Once More With Feeling’ (2001)
The now-legendary musical episode of Buffy, ‘Once More With Feeling’ was the seventh episode of Season 6, and was written and directed by Buffy creator Joss Whedon. The episode’s mad concept revolves around a demon which compels the residents of Sunnydale to break into song at random moments, in order to reveal what they are thinking. Whedon spent many months writing the songs, and the result is a dazzling mix of styles–from classic showtunes to rock opera–entirely performed by the cast. Some are better singers and dancers than others, but like the hit Abba musical Mamma Mia, it doesn’t matter–the joy and energy of the episode is infectious. And Whedon’s masterstroke is making the musical concept much more than just a gimmick–it’s entirely in keeping with the plot and themes of the show, as the characters hear some hard truths about about themselves, and learn to move on in their relationships.
5. Breaking Bad, ‘Fly’ (2010)
Before he was dividing Star Wars fans with The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson was doing much the same amongst fans of Breaking Bad. Johnson directed several key episodes of the show, but there are none as weird as ‘Fly.’ In this episode, Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) are tormented by a fly that has got into the supposedly ultra-hygienic environment of the super meth-lab in which they work for friendly restauranter/ruthless drug dealer Gus Fring. And that’s pretty much it. We never leave the confines of the lab, there are no other characters, and on the face of it, it doesn’t advance the plot much. But of course, there’s more to it than that. An hour spent with Walt and Jesse allows the writers (including Preacher showrunner Sam Catlin) to really dig deep into their relationship, and use the idea of insect contamination as a metaphor for the conflicted nature of Walt’s conscience. A brave and brilliant hour of TV.
4. The Sopranos, ‘The Test Dream’ (2004)
As previously mentioned, dreams are a good excuse for TV show writers to get weird–but let’s face it, few television dreams bear much resemblance to what most of us experience at night. One exception is ‘The Test Dream’, by the far the strangest episode of The Sopranos, which took place in Season 5. This episode dives deep into the tortured psyche of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), and presents us with an extended dream sequence in which Tony wrestles with his demons. It’s a highly unusual episode, but while the dream itself is weird, it’s not self-consciously strange in that way that many TV and movie dreams are. Writer Matthew Weiner (who went on to create Mad Men) totally nails the way that dreams often feel, with false wake-ups, figures from the past, scenes merging into other scenes, and tons of symbolism that merits multiple viewings. Like many weird episodes, ‘The Test Dream’ divided fans, but the Sopranos was always an ambitious show, and it proved how far showrunner David Chase was willing to push things.
3. Twin Peaks, ‘Beyond Life and Death’ (1991)
If there’s any show that defines “weird,” it’s Twin Peaks. Let’s face it–every episode contains a ton of strangeness, and its influence across nearly three decades of TV storytelling is still being felt. But there were some episodes that were totally wild, even by the standards set by creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. Season 2 ended with one of the darkest, strangest, and most memorable hours of TV ever broadcast. Lynch had been absent from the production of much of Season 2, but returned for the final two episodes–and although this wasn’t intended to be the end of the entire show, it remained that way for 25 years. It’s pure Lynch–terrifying, disturbing, beautiful, and moving, as Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) enters the Black Lodge. In the unforgettable final scene, Cooper emerges as an evil doppelganger, the real Dale trapped with Laura, Leyland, and the Man from Another Place in the Lodge. This incredible episode laid the groundwork for the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me two years later, and finally, the third season in 2017.
2. BoJack Horseman, ‘Fish out of Water’ (2016)
The episode widely considered to be one of BoJack Horseman’s finest is also its weirdest. In this mad, sad masterpiece, BoJack attends an underwater film festival, for which he must wear a diving helmet. Unfortunately our poor horse hero can barely hear anything through the helmet, resulting in an episode almost entirely without dialogue, which for a show as rapid-fire and darkly funny as BoJack, was a radical storytelling decision. But it works brilliantly, as the writers find new ways to make us laugh and cry, while using the mute underwater concept to truly emphasis BoJack’s feelings of isolation.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return, ‘Part 8’ (2017)
The level of secrecy surrounding the long-awaited return of Twin Peaks meant that no one really knew what to expect. But not even the most devoted fans of the show anticipated something like the eighth episode. Almost certainly the most surreal hour of television ever broadcast on a major channel, this is a highly experimental, black-and-white mind-f*** that works as a weird origin story for both Laura Palmer and the evil Bob and contains some truly unforgettable imagery. From the thunderous shots of atomic testing and scenes in which Laura is dispatched to the Earth in a glowing golden ball, to the terrifying, skull-crushing Woodsman (“Got a light?”) and the final shot of a frog-bug creature crawling into a teenage girl’s mouth, it’s difficult to describe how utterly bizarre the whole thing is. It’s an incredible technical achievement too, with stunning photography and sound design. The whole episode could be Lynch and Frost’s comment on the nature of evil. Or it might simply be what happens when you let two creative geniuses loose with absolutely no restraints. Either way, it’s as weird and wonderful as TV gets.