Monday, March 9, 2015

Classic TV Two-Part Episodes: Hits and Misses

Theoretically the two-part episode is an option that should be utilized only in conjunction with a major milestone in a series (births, deaths, new character introductions, weddings, big name guest star) or when a writer comes up with an idea that is so good, it deserves a little extra breathing room to be fully explored.

But think back over the hundreds of two-parters presented in the Comfort TV era – how many of them really needed more time to tell their stories?

Having conducted my own informal study, I would say the results are about 50/50. Too often, these shows were a marketing ploy to leverage the built-in ‘event’ status afforded to super-sized episodes. That’s why they were used so often to open or close a season.

When there is legitimate reason for a “continued next week” freeze-frame, the result is often one of the most memorable moments in a series – think “The Menagerie” on Star Trek, “Fearless Fonzarelli” on Happy Days or “Carnival of Thrills” on The Dukes of Hazzard.

And when there is not enough content to justify a second episode, we’re left with a story that might have worked as a single show, padded and stretched to fill out a longer running time.

This is a big topic and one that may be revisited in a future blog, but for now here are five examples of when TV got it right – and five underwhelming misses.

Good: Family Ties: “The Real Thing”
Alex Keaton had no shortage of girlfriends in the first three seasons of Family Ties, but when he meets Ellen Reed early in season four, the show wanted to make sure we knew this was going to be different. Their opposites-attract romance, bolstered by the strains of Billy Vera’s “At This Moment,” was a major turning point for Alex and for Michael J. Fox, who is still married to the girl that played Ellen, Tracy Pollan. 

Bad: Charlie’s Angels: “Terror on Skis”
A typical Angels plot – protect a government agent from foreign radicals – is hampered by scene after scene of monotonous stock footage of people skiing during the day, at night, and in freestyle competitions. I had a little inside information on this one, having interviewed the episode’s writer, Ed Lakso, for my Charlie’s Angels book. He readily confessed to padding out the story to justify a location shoot in Vail, Colorado, because his wife wanted to go skiing. 

Good: The Dick Van Dyke Show: “I Am My Brother’s Keeper/The Sleeping Brother”
These episodes introduced Dick Van Dyke’s brother Jerry, playing Rob Petrie’s brother, Stacy. The bizarre plot has Stacy trying to break into show business but only being able to perform while he’s asleep (due to a rare, advanced form of sleepwalking). Despite that contrivance the shows are smart and funny, particularly during the cast performances at those Bonnie Meadow Rd. house parties that always made the suburbs looks so cool and sophisticated. 

Bad: Eight is Enough: “And Baby Makes Nine”
Flashbacks are a convenient way to stretch a story, but no two episodes abused that privilege more than the Season 5 opener of Eight is Enough. The saga of Susan’s difficult delivery of her baby not only offers numerous looks back at her romance with and marriage to Merle, it also reprises scenes that aired just ten minutes earlier in the same episode. Why not just play the theme song again while you’re at it?

Good: Get Smart: “A Man Called Smart”
The only thing tougher to pull off than a great two-part episode? A great three-part episode. But the laughs never fizzle in “A Man Called Smart,” an adventure originally conceived for theatrical release but re-cut for the series. One physical comedy sequence with a stretcher and a revolving door is as funny as anything that’s ever been on television. 

Bad: Mission: Impossible: “The Contender”
For all its many outstanding qualities, M:I never got a two-part episode right. I chose “The Contender” because the plot was particularly weak – capturing a guy who fixes prize fights seems beneath the IMF – but I also could have gone with “The Slave” or “The Council” or “The Controllers.” Viewers were accustomed to seeing the team solve any problem in an hour, and writers could never dream up any good reason for some missions to take longer.

Good: The Bionic Woman: “Doomsday is Tomorrow”
Where Mission: Impossible struggled with the two-part format, The Bionic Woman flourished. From the irresistible “Fembots in Las Vegas” to “Deadly Ringer,” the shows that earned Lindsay Wagner an Emmy, the series was always at its best with multi-episode storylines. My favorite is “Doomsday is Tomorrow,” in which Jaime must figure out how to shut off a computerized weapon (with a HAL 9000 voice) capable of destroying all life on earth. 

Bad: The Facts of Life: “Teenage Marriage”
So many shows have built two-part episodes around potential crises that cannot possibly come to pass, lest it mean the end of the series. Here, Mrs. Garrett and the Eastland girls try to prevent Jo from marrying her boyfriend. Had Nancy McKeon announced she was leaving the show, we might have bought into the conflict; but this was her first season, and we all knew she wasn’t going anywhere, extra episode or not.

Good: Little House on the Prairie: “I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away”
The Ingalls family face their darkest hour when Mary loses her sight after a bout with scarlet fever. The scene where Charles must tell his daughter the diagnosis, while barely able to control his own heartbreak, is devastating. Mary attends a school for the blind, where she gradually comes to terms with her fate in a hopeful finale.  

Bad: Laverne & Shirley: “The Festival”
When a two-part episode is inspired by a road trip, it helps if we actually see the characters go somewhere. Here, Laverne, Shirley, Lenny, Squiggy, Frank and Edna all “travel” from Milwaukee to New York, but all they really do is visit a different part of the studio backlot. Not much fun to be had, unless you enjoy watching Penny Marshall climb a greased metal pole.


  1. Mr. Hofstede, do you think "The Six Million Dollar Man" had too many two-part episodes in its final season (1977-78)? If you have seen the two-part episode "Sharks," do you remember seeing a pre-"Matt Houston" Pamela Hensley in a red wetsuit? :D

    Concerning the "Charlie's Angels" situation, you don't think utilizing stock footage is INHERENTLY bad, do you?

    1. Not inherently bad, but certainly a privilege that can be abused.

  2. Good call, David, particularly on "Mission: Impossible." The missus and I were watching that very episode a few weeks ago and she made a similar comment - "You can really tell that this is being padded out to fit two hours." We've seen two-parters from other shows of the era, such as "The FBI," with the same thought.

    I think with all the serialization we have today, it's easy to forget just how difficult it is to write a compelling two-part episode. In fact, I appreciated your mention of the ones that you thought worked - it's hard enough to come up with them off the top of one's head!

    1. As far as the original "Misson: Impossible" was concerned, there were no two-part episodes during Lynda Day George's tenure. BTW, Mr. Hadley, did you watch any episodes of the daytime serial "Santa Barbara"? I admit to having a big crush on Marcy Walker, the beautiful blonde actress who played Eden Capwell on that show!

    2. Thanks, Mitch- this was an enjoyable piece to put together and I can certainly see revisiting the topic in the future. If for no other reason than to sing the praises of "Angels in Paradise," which proved that 'Charlie's Angels' could craft a memorable two-parter.

  3. Bad: Eight is Enough: “And Baby Makes Nine”
    ?Why not just play the theme song again while you’re at it?"

    Actually, that's exactly what they did! The instrumental version at full volume as the family greets the new baby.

    1. LOL - good catch, Chuck. Just watched it again last night - don't ask me why.

  4. One of my favorite "so bad it's good" two parters was on AMOS BURKE: SECRET AGENT (the truncated third and final season of what had been BURKE'S LAW): "Terror in a Tiny Town". Let's just say it's Stepford-like, only with all of the citizens behaving robotically, and strangers aren't welcome. It isn't better known because this edition of the series wasn't well liked at all, but it is worth seeking out.

    Paul Henning seemed to be a pioneer of two-parters/multi-episode story arcs for sitcoms, as LOVE THAT BOB! had several and he continued the practice on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES.

    1. Have to agree THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES had a lot of story arcs. I believe one of the first I can remember that actually had continuing stories and returning characters.

      What I notice a lot on 60's and 70's series is twins mostly evil but some friendly. Almost every series had main characters playing twins F-Troop, McHale's Navy, I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island just off the top of my head.

    2. Yes - that's a pretty common story theme - and one I've already covered -