With the spread of the coronavirus keeping us indoors, we’ll all be spending quite some time in front of the television for the foreseeable future. So what better time to look back on some of the most iconic television moments to give you some inspiration for your Netflix queue.
Of course, our TV hospital-centric favorites are included for their dramatic (and often tear-jerking) moments — think: Grey’s Anatomy and ER — but we haven’t forgotten about those lighter, yet equally iconic moments from our most-loved sitcoms. Because let’s be honest, is any great television list ever complete without the one and only Lucille Ball? Answer: no.
Other highlights include Johnny Carson’s final Tonight Show appearance — you might remember Bette Midler’s hauntingly beautiful farewell song to her friend —and the Beatles’ first American TV appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as the first-ever season of Survivor, which, we would argue, paved the way for all reality shows that would follow.
More recently, programs like Game of Thrones, The Wire and The Crown have added some incredibly memorable and transformative programs into the cultural zeitgeist. Proving, as you might imagine, that no genre is exempt from contributing well-acted, well-written and (most importantly) very well-received moments to TV history. And lucky for you, we’ve done the hard work of compiling them all.
Denny Duquette’s Death on Grey’s Anatomy
This is a controversial opinion, given that McDreamy himself also met an untimely end later in the series but hear us out: All you need are the opening chords to Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and you’ll be transported right back to that heart-breaking moment of Izzie Stevens grieving her fiancé’s sudden death in a pink ballgown.
The Sopranos Finale
Show us someone who wouldn’t point to the series’ final episode “Made in America” as one of the most important moments in TV history. Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it was — and still remains — a talking point. Will any of us ever know what really happened to Tony? Probably not.
How I Met Your Mother
Ted Finally Meets the Mother on How I Met Your Mother
Nine seasons were leading up to the moment when Ted Mosby would finally find the love of his life and (finally finally!) reveal to the audience the identity of the show’s title character. Did we want it to be Robin? Maybe. Still, no matter who you were rooting for, there’s denying that the series finale sure was a tear jerker.
Johnny Carson’s Final Episode of The Tonight Show
It was the end of an era! On May 21, 1992, the renowned comedian hosted his final live show with guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, who performed a gorgeous (and extremely emotional) rendition of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Iconic.
Sex And The City
When Carrie and Big (Finally!) Get Together on Sex and the City
Whether you loved them or hated them, when Mr. Big shows up in the City of Lights to tell Carrie that she’s the one, he won over basically every nay-sayer. Come on, who doesn’t want to live out their very own real-life Parisian love story?
Charles and Diana’s Royal Wedding
While not a TV show per se, there were very few people around the globe who didn’t tune in for the original (televised) Royal Wedding. On July 29, 1981, Lady Diana Spencer became Diana, Princess of Wales at St Paul’s Cathedral in London — and was watched by an estimated 750 million people around the world.
When 125 million people tune in to watch the final episode, there is no denying that you are in the midst of a major cultural moment. The two-hour episode (essentially a TV movie), entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” aired in February 1983 after 11 years on the air — which is far longer than the Korean War lasted, just for the record.
Ellen DeGeneres Comes Out on Ellen
In a groundbreaking TV moment, Ellen DeGeneres came out both in her real-life and as her namesake character on her sitcom during the series’ fourth season – making her the first gay lead character on television. Since then, Ellen has gone on to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood and a leading supporter of LGBTQ rights.
Survivor, Season One
While the reality genre is now one of the benchmarks of basically all TV networks, back in 2000, Survivor set the standard with its first, revolutionary season. And when Richard Hatch won $1 million, we all watched enraptured.
Buffy: The Musical on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
When a demon forces Buffy and her friends to share their feelings in song, the result is 30 minutes of original tunes and plenty of theater-inspired puns — and an episode that has gone on to live in infamy.
Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under Series Finale
Some call Six Feet Under’s final episode the best series finale of all time. Why? Well, instead of relying on traditional tear-jerking tactics, the showrunners opted for an uplifting end with the Fischer family finally really addressing their long-fought problems.
JR Ewing Gets Shot on Dallas
When you have an entire country — including magazine covers and former Presidents — asking, “Who shot JR?” you have a cultural phenomenon on your hands. The season three cliffhanger was the whole reason that the fourth season’s premiere became television’s most-watched program at the time (until it was dethroned by M*A*S*H a few years later).
Lucy at the Candy Factory on I Love Lucy
We challenge you not to laugh when the chocolates come flying fast and furious… enough said.
Matthew Crawley’s Car Accident on Downton Abbey
When Dan Stevens, who played the show’s romantic lead and heir, decided to leave the series, the showrunners definitely made the most of it. There’s no denying that this episode had all the necessary ingredients of a major TV moment — an incredible plot twist that aired on Christmas Day (in the UK), no less.
The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show
It was the group’s first live performance on U.S. television and it was absolute (and we do mean, absolute) insanity. With 73 million viewers, 45 percent of American households who owned TVs tuned in.
Ross and Rachel Have a Baby on Friends
Admittedly, it’s hard to choose just one iconic moment from the show’s run — Ross’s leather pants incident, for example, is another favorite — but we just have a soft spot for the Ross and Rachel saga. Sue us.
The Red Wedding on Game of Thrones
Evil prevailed during one of the show's most shocking and devastating episodes. Having been building up to this moment for several seasons, the showrunners put a lot of emphasis on ensuring that this episode set a new standard for TV. And, it did.
The Pilot Episode of Lost
In September 2004, Lost premiered on ABC to huge acclaim and went on to run for six successful seasons. And what kicked it all off? The first episode where we are introduced to 48 survivors of a plane crash who are stranded on an unknown island in the South Pacific, only to realize that they aren’t actually alone.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation on The Crown
When you think of one of the most incredibly over-the-top television moments, you can’t deny that the Queen’s Coronation on The Crown takes the cake. The hundreds of extras in Westminster Abbey, the elaborate jewel, and the ornate 1950s gowns make for one seriously impactful episode.
When Tyra Eliminates Tiffany Richardson on America’s Next Top Model
We would be hard-pressed to find a better reality TV show moment than when judge Tyra snaps on recently eliminated ANTM contestant, Tiffany. It’s, quite simply, the stuff that memes are made of.
Joey Chooses Pacey on Dawson’s Creek
Team Dawson? Team Pacey? It doesn’t really matter because when the latter asks Joey to spend the summer with him sailing around on his boat, True Love, there was only one couple you could possibly have been rooting for.
Dr. Mark Greene Leaves ER
When the terminally ill doctor leaves the E.R. for Hawaii — taking his estranged daughter along — in an effort to repair his family relationships in his final days, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Omar’s Death on The Wire
Many argue that Omar Little’s death was by far the most shocking moment of the David Simon’s Baltimore urban drama. Shot to death by a kid looking to take down a well-known criminal, the episode stunned audiences — and killed off one of our favorite characters
Hannah’s Dance Party on Girls
Few TV moments resonate more acutely to millennials than Hannah’s solo dance party to Robyn’s (aptly-named) hit “Dancing On My Own” in her Brooklyn apartment. Emotionally unavailable men, HPV… it’s all in an episode’s work for Girls, referred to by some as Sex and the City for the next generation.
The Dance Marathon (aka Rory and Dean’s Breakup) on Gilmore Girls
A 1940s-inspired 24-hour dance marathon in Stars Hollow? Sign us up. (Which is exactly what Rory and Lorelai do.) But, clearly, all that sleeplessness takes its toll, as this is also the moment that Rory and her first love end things once and for all — thus ushering in the Jess-Rory era.
Tom Cruise on The Oprah Winfrey Show
Oprah’s couch would never be the same again. Though he initially showed up to promote his new film, War of the Worlds, the interview quickly took a turn and resulted in Tom Cruise jumping on the couch while declaring his love for Katie Holmes. Not crazy at all.
The First Episode of The O.C.
Aside from introducing us to the phrase: “Welcome to the O.C., bitch,” the show also ushered in a new era of teen-centric television. Just think, without Sandy, Seth, and Kirsten (and Marisa and Ryan and Summer), we’d have no Gossip Girl, Laguna Beach, or The Hills.
“The Suitcase” Episode of Mad Men
The beloved series has had a lot of peak moments, but one that most people can agree on is this episode where Don and Peggy come to blows during a late night at the office. Nothing really gets resolved (or does it?), but the result was a riveting hour of television wherein two of our favorite characters dig deep on what they mean to each other.