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Going Off Formula: 5 Episodes That Changed Up Their Usual Format

I just read an article about Switched at Birth. Apparently, there’s an episode coming up that will feature no dialogue – only sign language. Now, I don’t actually watch this show and can’t really explain why I read the article, but it did get me thinking about other episodes of shows I like that went off formula.

Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush”

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Most people who’ve seen Buffy know the formula: one of the main characters is faced with a real life issue that rears its ugly head in the form of a metaphorical monster.

This usually follows a certain structure, as well. When Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and friends start out the episode, everything is hunky dory. Then, after whatever issue the character will be facing is brought up, some supernatural event is introduced that somehow parallels the drama.

This will take up a good two thirds of the episode, and usually involves some humorous sleuthing. Everything comes together in the final act and Buffy beats something up to save the day.

While the formula is still in place for “Hush”, one of Buffy’s most critically-acclaimed episodes, the way it goes about exploring its real life issue – in this case, communication – was pretty revolutionary. The entire town’s voices are stolen by demons and everyone must communicate through sign language, text, or other non-verbal options.

This idea was revolutionary mainly for the fact that almost the entire episode is silent. Rumor has it that Joss Whedon wanted to do a silent episode in order to prove that an episode of Buffy could still be funny without its trademark dialogue. With its mix of prop humor and misunderstanding, this episode succeeds tremendously.

The X-Files, “The Post-Modern Prometheus”

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The X-Files was famous for its use of classic movie tropes turned into hour-long TV episodes. On a weekly basis, FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) traveled the country battling aliens, mutants, ghosts, and even a vampire or two.

While the mostly serious show had delved into comedy in the past to glowing reviews, this was the first time that the writers mixed their trademark comedy with a straight-up homage to the classic Universal monsters.

The agents travel to a small town where they run across a Frankenstein’s Monster of sorts. The creature’s misunderstood though, and the agents must protect it from rampaging “villagers,” à la… well… Frankenstein

While the plot itself would have taken the show to new heights, what really puts it over the edge and cements it as a send-up of 1940s/50s horror was the fact that it was filmed in black and white.

Futurama, “Reincarnation”

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Futurama is a lot less formulaic than these other choices since it’s a comedy, but even so, this episode shook things up dramatically.

The episode takes place outside of regular continuity with each act taking form of a different cartoon style. You’ve got classic Disney “Steamboat Willie,” 8-bit video game, and anime, all rolled into one episode.

Each style was spoofed accordingly and various themes such as Fry (Billy West) and Leela’s (Katey’s Sagal) love for one another kept the episode grounded.

Of course, it’s all book-ended by Futurama’s version of God, which always makes for a good time (I love it when Futurama gets philosophical).

Fringe, “Northwest Passage”

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A typical episode of Fringe would have the agents investigating a crime while dealing with personal issues that are bubbling just underneath the surface.

This episode was unique in that it dropped the typical setting and most of the characters. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) is the only regular with a substantial role in the episode and he spends most of it trying to finding a science fiction-type answer to a human problem.

Peter is in a small Washington state town when a serial killer goes active. After a brief period where the sheriff – played wonderfully by Martha Plimpton – thinks he’s the culprit, Peter teams up with her to catch the killer.

Along with his two years of experience with mad scientists and alternate universes, Peter’s on the run – which makes him slightly paranoid and leads him to assume something not-so down-to-earth is going on.

I’m a sucker for self-aware plots like this – where the main characters are faced with just how ridiculous their lives have become – and this episode pulls it off well.

Firefly, “Objects in Space”

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This episode actually does stick pretty close to formula. It’s basically the crew fighting back against a bounty hunter who has broken into the ship to kidnap poor River (Summer Glau), a human science experiment.

While the episode is relatively average, the interactions between the characters, mainly River and the bounty hunter, are superb.

The episode opens with a long sequence in which River wanders the ship and sees various things not as they are, but as how she imagines them to be. This culminates in a scene where she picks up a tree branch, which turns out to be a gun in real life.

The episode is filled with stuff like this: little existential touches that make the whole thing feel unique.

This happens mostly through River, but also with the villain, who was uncharacteristically philosophical for your typical bounty hunter.