Plot, structure, characterization, allusions, foreshadowing… all of the things we work to teach our students are found in many different mediums. We’re in a Golden Age of quality television, and the English classroom is a great place to introduce students to television with real depth and literary value. Here are 15 TV episodes to use in ELA.
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15 TV Episodes to Use in ELA
1. “The Blind Bandit” from Avatar, the Last Airbender (25 min)
(middle and high school)
We’re going to jump right in with hands-down the best animated show ever, Avatar, The Last Airbender. No, this isn’t the one with the blue people, but this is the one you might know from a terrible M Night Shyamalan remake. Fortunately for you and your students, the animated show from Nickelodeon is way better than both of those things.
Young Aang, an Airbender, wakes up in an iceberg after a hundred years. We comes to learn that he’s the Avatar, the only one who can master all four elements and restore peace to his world. In “The Blind Bandit”, we join Aang and his friends, Katara and Sokka, as he tries to find an Earthbending teacher. He goes to an Earthbending match and sees all of these big, hulking guys defeated by a petite girl who is blind. Aang decides he wants to learn from her because she is patient and “listens to the earth”.
Whereas any episode of Avatar is going to find a home in your classroom, “The Blind Bandit” is great for its dismantling of stereotypes, diversity of cast, and amazing animation. You can also talk about animated characters based off of real people, since some of the pro Benders look awfully familiar. 🙂 This episode is not currently available on Hulu or Netflix, but you can buy it on Amazon Video or purchase the whole series here.
2. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” from The Twilight Zone (25 min)
(middle and high school)
The Twilight Zone is famous for packing a punch at the end of its episodes, and this one is no different. This episode begins on the tranquil, all-American Maple Street right before a power outage. The neighbors seem friendly and helpful, until the lights go out and mysterious things start happening. In the residents’ race to find the monster, it’s revealed that the only monster haunting them is themselves.
One of my favorite TV episodes to use in ELA, “Monsters” is great for both middle and high school, particularly to accompany a dystopian unit. Given the historical context of the McCarthy era for this episode, this can be an excellent opportunity to introduce students to allegory. You can also find clear examples of foreshadowing and a strong theme. This episode is currently available on Netflix.
3. “Measure of a Man” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (45 min)
(middle and high school)
Widely regarded as one of the best episodes of the series, in “The Measure of a Man,” a scientist comes aboard the Enterprise with a plan to disassemble Data, an android, in order to learn more about him. Believing the procedure to be too risky, Data declines. This leads to a court case in which Captain Picard must defend Data as a sentient being with his own right to choose. It’s a great opportunity for debate in the classroom, with the core of the episode revolving around artificial intelligence. Its narrative structure is fairly simple, but there is a lot of potential for a discussion of loyalty and a very light introduction to a courtroom setting. This episode is currently available on Netflix.
Here’s a great Sub Plan using TV. 🙂
4. “Blink” from Doctor Who (45 min.)
(middle and high school)
“Blink” finds the Doctor and Martha trapped in the past and focuses instead on our protagonist for the episode, Sally Sparrow. She encounters a terrible creature, the Weeping Angels, who transport people into the past and steal their years to assure their own immortality. She must figure out how to communicate with the Doctor and stop the Weeping Angels from stealing the TARDIS (the Doctor’s time machine).
This is one of the best episodes of Doctor Who and won armfuls of awards. It’s also stand-alone, which means that students don’t have to have any understanding of the show before watching it. You’ll be able to discuss time travel and split narratives, along with some amazing themes of friendship and love. Doctor Who fans agree that the Weeping Angels are a terrifying lot, so the episode does have some major suspense and a couple of jump scares. Still, Common Sense Media says the show is ages 10+.
5. “33” from Battlestar Galactica (43 min)
This 2003 SyFy show tells the story of a group of humans fleeing genocide at the hands of the cylons, their own robotic creations. It’s a high-concept drama that delves deep into the concepts of what it means to be human, shades of gray in decision making, and the values and weaknesses of democracy. In this first episode of the series (not including the two-part miniseries that kicked off the show) the humans a fleeing the cylons, who manage to track them down and attack every 33 minutes.
Teachers can use this episode to discuss framing devices with the attack. It’s also a good look at how characters react in different circumstances–much of the crew is exhibiting serious symptoms of sleep-deprivation, and this affects how well they perform and interact. It has some sexually suggestive moments and might be confusing for some students to keep track of what’s real and what’s happening in a hallucination, but overall it’s a strong opening to what was one of the early shows in TV’s “golden age.” This episode is currently available on Hulu.
6. “Jaynestown” from Firefly (44 min)
Firefly is essentially a space western, as our heroes are a rag-tag crew of a spaceship on the frontier of the system. Led by Malcolm Reynolds, commander for the rebels, they are in constant scuffles with the ruling government, The Alliance. Okay, so I’ll tell you off the bat that Firefly is one of my favorite shows ever, and I’m pretty sure I could teach a whole literature course around it. Still, I narrowed it down to one amazing episode called “Jaynestown”.
In “Jaynestown”, the crew gets hired for a smuggling job in Canton. It turns out that one of them, Jayne, had had a run-in with the law enforcement years earlier when he tried to steal a bunch of gold from the magistrate. In order to get away with his life, he’d had to ditch the gold and his partner. It’s a surprise to him, then, that the crew arrives in Canton to a huge statue of him, and townfolk who are singing his praises.
This episode offers two perspectives on the same event and begins very light-hearted in tone. Eventually, the story becomes more complex and you can explore ideas of history vs. mythology and even the cult of a hero. Heads up for sensuality in the beginning (Totally skippable – just preview the episode and decide where you’ll start). With a huge emotional payoff in the end, your students will be talking about this episode for weeks to come. This episode is currently available on Hulu, but do yourself a favor and buy the whole series. 🙂
7. “Mystery Spot” from Supernatural (42 min)
Supernatural is a show about two brothers who team up to fight demons in the “family business”. They are also incredibly codependent. That’s really all the background you need to see “Mystery Spot,” a Groundhog Day remake in which one brother, Sam, is trapped in a time loop where Dean is killed every day. Parts of the episode are violent, but for the most part it is stylized and cartoonish, rather than brutal. The second half of the episode is more violent than the first.
Good things to discuss here include the use of dramatic irony. Dean is unaware of what’s going on, so Sam is forced to convince his brother of what’s happening and save his life with increasingly desperate tactics. It’s a good chance to discuss different “tropes” in storytelling, bringing up the Groundhog Day trope. It’s also worth asking whether students think the ending is satisfying, or whether they were hoping for another outcome. This episode is currently available on Netflix.
8. “Hush” from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (42 min)
In this episode of Buffy, monsters come to town and steal everyone’s voices. It’s a straightforward plot–the monsters are in town to steal hearts, but a scream is fatal to them. The execution is where this episode really shines. Since the second half of the episode is almost entirely without dialogue, different means of storytelling are employed. It winds up being an episode with a lot of character development, and that’s a great conversation starter about how characterization happens in fiction. You can talk about how the Xander/Anya relationship is developed in particular, as well as how Buffy and Riley’s relationship is almost easier when they can’t speak.
This episode does have some quite intense moments, as the monsters are some of the scariest shown in Buffy. There are also some visual jokes that are sexual in nature, and Anya says the word “orgasm” several times early in the episode. While that may make it more difficult to work into a classroom, the examples of non-dialogue storytelling are strong enough that it’s still worth including. This episode is currently available on Hulu.
Need something else? You can find ALL my recommendation lists for inclusive classroom materials here. Poems, novels, TED talks, short stories, and so much more!
9. “The Rashomon Job” from Leverage (43 min.)
Leverage is a funny, Robin Hood-esque heist show about a band of criminals who rob from the corrupt and give back to the people wronged by the corruption. In this episode, the group members recount their attempts to each steal the Dagger of Aqu’abi five years before. By the end of the episode, we realize that all of the group members interacted that night, even though they were strangers at the time.
This is an episode that you can use to analyze the effect of Rashomon-style storytelling, genre particularities of a heist tale (disguises, bait-and-switches), and various types of characterization. This episode is currently available on Netflix.
10. “Halloween II” from Brooklyn Nine-Nine (21 min)
Although Brooklyn Nine-Nine normally follows the structure of a comedy procedural, the Halloween episodes are an annual tradition where the show turns into a heist. In “Halloween II,” one of the detectives makes a bet that he will steal the captain’s watch by the end of the night.
It’s a great example of a heist gone wrong–at least, from the detective’s perspective. It’s a fun chance to see how the same actions can be serving two different purposes, as well as having excellent characterization and dialogue. In terms of potentially objectionable content, there is reference to a dance troop called “Floorgasm.” This episode is currently available on Hulu.
11. “Greg Pikitis” from Parks and Recreation (22 min)
Parks and Recreation is a mockumentary-style show about life inside of local government. In this episode, our hero Leslie Knope takes on her nemesis, Greg Pikitis. Every year at Halloween, young Pikitis vandalizes a statue in one of the parks. This year, Leslie is determined to catch him.
This episode is a fun one because of Leslie’s extreme vendetta, tempered by her cop boyfriend Dave (played by Louis CK). Also, Chris Pratt gives an amazing first performance of his FBI persona, Burt Macklin. One of the most interesting aspects of Parks and Rec, though, is how the characters interact with the camera. The characters seem to share jokes with the audience, and this is a great narrative tool to help us know what they’re thinking.
Do you love lists?
Check out 15 Songs to Use in ELA!
12. “Contemporary American Poultry” from Community (22 min)
Community is an excellent ensemble show that is constantly genre-bending, -blending, and -bouncing, and “Contemporary American Poultry” is a riff on old mafia movies. Abed provides a voiceover for this episode, narrating how the Study Group created a distribution ring for fried chicken.
This is a fun episode that has excellent characterization, exploitation of tropes, and a nice wrap-up. You can use it to discuss the difference between tone and mood, too, since it has a serious tone and a lighthearted mood. This episode is currently available on Hulu.
13. “The Pitch” from Seinfeld (22 min)
Seinfeld is…come on, you know what Seinfeld is. It’s the show about nothing. And this episode is the pitch for the show about nothing. It’s a great chance for students to consider and deconstruct the whole idea of a story–who says a story needs a plot? The chance to pick this apart, and give kids a chance to see a TV lean on the fourth wall, makes this a worthy episode to discuss.
Although this episode is pretty tame for Seinfeld, the slur “gypped” is used, and “queer” is used in the dated sense (thus in a non-derogatory way). This episode is currently available on Hulu.
14. “Top Banana” from Arrested Development (22 min)
Pretty much a show constructed to showcase ironies great and small, Arrested Development follows a rich family whose patriarch is in jail for corruption. The family must pull together to stay afloat. In this second episode of the series, Michael tries to convince his family members to seek gainful employment. Over the course of 25 minutes, they succeed, celebrate too early, and fail before they can get the job done.
You’ll find great fodder here for discussing characterization, the impact of an omniscient narrator, the effect of camera cut-aways and montages (Gob trying in vain to throw the letter into the ocean), and all types of irony. AD started its life as a network show, so it’s got nothing more objectionable than some very light innuendo at the beginning (between Michael and Maeby) and one instance of ‘S-O-B’. All around, this episode is a win. This episode is currently available on Netflix.
15. “My First Day” from Scrubs (25 min)
This is the pilot episode for Scrubs, a medical dramedy that follows a group of interns. Scrubs is just generally good TV, since it continually strikes the perfect balance between a laugh-out-loud sitcom and a heart-warming medical drama. In this episode, we meet our narrator JD and the cast of characters in his life at the hospital. We see JD’s first impressions (he’s convinced that the chief of medicine is a great guy who’ll always have his back and that Dr. Cox is a jaded jerk) slowly subverted over the course of the episode, setting the tone for the rest of the show.
The main drive of this show is the collision between JD’s fantasy world (in this episode, he imagines he’s in an 80’s sitcom on live TV at one point) and reality. You can definitely discuss JD’s unreliability as a narrator and what his fantasies add to the show. Heads up that “My First Day” does contain a quick shot of Elliot in her bra, but it’s played for a laugh and moves on. This is also an excellent show for characterization and has an amazing cast. This episode is available on Hulu.
What are your favorite TV episodes to use in ELA? Let me know in comments!