1. Seinfeld on Curb Your Enthusiasm (2009)
Used to be, TV cast reunions were the province of prime-time specials like Return To Mayberry or The Brady Girls Get Married, much-touted and -watched telemovies that rarely managed to recapture the original series’ magic along with their casts. But over time, there’s emerged a smaller, less-flashy form of TV reunion that’s frequently more satisfying than those exhumed dinosaurs: the de facto reunion, when most or all of a departed series’ cast appears in an episode of a different, currently airing series. Such reunions can be overt or implicit, but they almost always occur with a wink and a nod to the original series—or, in the case of the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a multi-episode arc about the occasion. The Seinfeld reunion plotline made up a solid chunk of the seventh season of Larry David’s semi-autobiographical HBO series, which saw barely fictionalized versions of David and Jerry Seinfeld scheming to write and stage a reunion special of their beloved ’90s sitcom. One by one, the series’ primary cast members (plus Wayne Knight, Estelle Harris, and Steve “Kenny Bania” Hynter) appear as slightly inflated versions of themselves to butt heads with David’s character—who, in a brilliant, mind-bending bit of meta, ends up trying to take over for Jason Alexander in the role of George, the Seinfeld role David himself inspired. Though the audience only gets glimpses of the actual Seinfeld special—which concerns George losing all the money from his toilet-locating iPhone app to Bernie Madoff—there’s no way it could be as satisfying as Curb’s sideways approach.
2-3. Gilligan’s Island on ALF (1987) and Roseanne (1995)
Gilligan’s Island was one seriously critically unloved show in its day, and was said to be a source of embarrassment even to its network, CBS. But by the late ’80s, people who’d grown up watching the series in reruns were starting to make TV shows of their own and were ready to testify. In “Somewhere Over The Rerun,” a second-season episode of ALF, the titular puppet/extraterrestrial complains about how boring life is with his human foster family, falls asleep while mulling over his favorite TV show, and dreams himself to the uncharted desert isle. There, he meets actual Gilligan’s Island characters, played by actual Gilligan’s Island cast members Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr., Russell Johnson, and Dawn Wells, who teach him just how sweet he really has it. Eight years later, the number of living Gilligan’s Island cast members was down to four—Denver, Johnson, Wells, and Tina Louise—and they all turned up on the seventh-season finale of Roseanne, bluntly titled “Sherwood Schwartz—A Loving Tribute.” The bulk of the episode is taken up with a fantasy sequence in which the Roseanne cast impersonates the Gilligan cast, but in the closing-credits sequence, the Gilligan gang have a go at playing the Connor family, and even call Schwartz in front of the camera so that the studio audience can treat him to some of the love he and the shows he created never got on Emmy night.
4. Party Down on Childrens Hospital (2011)
Since Childrens Hospital already shared some cast members with the beloved, short-lived Party Down (Ken Marino and Megan Mullally, to be exact), talk of an impromptu reunion for the cater-waiter comedy on the surreal Adult Swim hospital show almost seemed like a given. But where any other sitcom (including several on this list) would have made a big to-do about the whole thing, Childrens Hospital lives to subvert expectations. So even though the episode is titled “Party Down” and features a Bar Mitzvah, the audience doesn’t glimpse the bowtie-clad staff (now in blue rather than pink) until the post-credits tag. While an episode that just features the Party Down workers milling around in the background would have also been a brilliant meta-joke, scheduling probably forced everything into one scene. And since Adam Scott, busy with Parks And Recreation, was missing maybe they can do it all again one day.
5. Happy Days on Arrested Development (2003-2006)
Since the first appearance of Henry Winkler as Bluth family attorney Barry Zuckerkorn, Arrested Development had a Richie-Fonzie Happy Days reunion going on, with Ron Howard’s dulcet tones narrating every episode. But, as with many a joke on the show, things got more and more elaborate, with winks and nods to the audience sprinkled in, such as Winkler making a Fonz pose in the mirror or hopping over a dead shark. In the third season, with Winkler off making another show, Scott Baio was brought in as new attorney Bob Loblaw, remarking, “this isn’t the first time I’ve been brought in to replace Barry Zuckerkorn,” a wink to his days as Chachi. Now, with a fourth season coming up on Netflix, rumor has it that even more Happy Days cast members will reunite, if Ron Howard is to be believed. (And who doesn’t believe Ron Howard?)
6. Miami Vice on Nash Bridges (1997)
When Detectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) went their separate ways after five seasons of Miami Vice, Johnson made a valiant effort at turning his small-screen fame into a big-screen career. But after vehicles like Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man, Born Yesterday, and Guilty As Sin, it’s no wonder that he quickly retreated to the comfort of a weekly TV series. After Nash Bridges secured a second-season pickup, Johnson seemingly felt comfortable enough with his new character to offer viewers a wink at his previous role, re-teaming with Thomas—whose attempt at a movie career had gone even less swimmingly than Johnson’s—for an episode entitled “Wild Card,” which also served as a reunion between Johnson’s current co-star, Cheech Marin, and his old dope-humor buddy, Tommy Chong. Although undoubtedly enjoyable for viewers, seeing Johnson and Thomas together again ultimately proved fairly awkward. (Check out A Very Special Episode for more details.) The pairing nonetheless took place once more before Nash Bridges left the airwaves, but the level of desperation involved in bringing them together for a second and final time shows in the title of the episode: “Out Of Miami.”
7. I Spy on The Cosby Show (1987)
It might seem a stretch to slap two actors together and call it a “cast reunion,” except that, to a degree unusual for a successful series, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were the cast of I Spy. They were the only series regulars for the show’s three-year run, and their semi-improvised banter and buddy chemistry formed the core of the show’s appeal. I Spy was originally conceived as a straightforward action travelogue with Culp’s character, Kelly Robinson, as the leading man and Cosby’s Alexander Scott as his sidekick. But Cosby immediately rose to co-star status by sheer force of talent, and the two leads’ looseness and charm turned the show into more of a lark. The first time they worked together again, it was on Culp’s turf: When he directed the gritty 1972 private-eye movie Hickey And Boggs, he cast himself and Cosby in the title roles. But 15 years later, Cosby’s domestic sitcom had made him the bigger star. Culp’s guest shot honors the memory of how he and his host started out together, in ways that are direct—he plays Cliff Huxtable’s “old Navy buddy,” one Scott Kelly—and indirect, mostly by keeping things casual. Rather then bothering with a plot, the show sends the two men and their wives on a dinner date so they can just hang out and talk about their kids, their health, and other indicators that they aren’t getting any younger. When, seven years later, Cosby and Culp reprised their roles in the inevitable reunion TV-movie, I Spy Returns—in which their retired characters have to snap into action to rescue their grown kids, who have followed them into the family business—it felt like a sequel to this episode. (Culp also played Kelly Robinson in a 1999 dream-sequence episode of Cosby’s later sitcom, Cosby, called “My Spy.”)
8. Battlestar Galactica on Portlandia (2012)
Stealth reunions are for fans by definition—who else would notice the confluence of two actors from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose on an unrelated project? So it’s fitting that the Battlestar Galactica confab on Portlandia is engineered by fans who can’t handle the fact that the show is over. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen don’t seem to be bothered by the substance of BSG’s controversial finale so much as the fact that there’s no more to watch. In the throes of withdrawal, they cobble together a new script, and inexplicably rope in Edward James Olmos and James Callis to reprise their roles for a table read in their kitchen. For true fans, there’s an even better joke. Although Brownstein and Armisen’s characters fail to track down series creator Ronald D. Moore, mistakenly roping in a local man with the same name, the real Moore makes a cameo as “Ken Reynolds, local actor,” who’s so unfamiliar with the show he pronounces “frak” as “freak.” Sending up the obsessive, demanding quality of modern fandom and giving BSG fans a tiny taste of a full-fledged reunion, it perfectly bridges the chasm between insatiable desire and hard-nosed reality.
9. Night Court on 30 Rock (2008)
In the world of 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) has a lot of pull. But in the third-season episode “The One With The Cast Of Night Court,” Tracy shows just how much pull he really has. When his lackey/buddy Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) gets depressed over a change in the NBC page uniform, Tracy tries to cheer him up by assembling Night Court’s Charlie Robinson, Markie Post, and Harry Anderson to stage the wedding between Post’s and Anderson’s characters that never happened during the show’s run.
10. Cheers on The Simpsons (1994)
While it rarely pops up on lists of the show’s all-time best episodes, the sixth-season Simpsons episode “Fear Of Flying” is packed with great gags, including a brief Cheers mini-reunion. The episode opens with Homer being barred from Moe’s Tavern, prompting him to take a tour of Springfield’s other bars, which includes a friendly little hangout where everybody knows your name. The sequence is short—less than a minute—but it brings in much of the cast of Cheers, including Ted Danson as Sam, George Wendt as Norm, Rhea Perlman as Carla, John Ratzenberger as Cliff, and Woody Harrelson as Woody. The joke is mostly just about how Norm wants to kill Woody when he denies the barfly a beer, but it quickly shifts to a solid laugh about how easily that series patched over any barroom dispute. The best joke? Frasier Crane appears physically but doesn’t do any voice work, since it might be just a bit odd to hear Kelsey Grammer, the voice of Sideshow Bob, in another context.
11. Frasier on The Simpsons (2007)
Kelsey Grammer’s voicing of frequent Simpsons foil Sideshow Bob greatly informed the character. Like Frasier Crane, whom Grammer played for two decades on two series, Bob Terwilliger was a booming-voiced culture vulture and self-styled aesthete. (Of course, Bob was also a villainous criminal, whereas Frasier’s balloon-headed narcissism always teetered just on the edge of actual psychopathy.) Over the course of Bob’s Simpsons appearances, the writers began playing up these connections, first bringing in David Hyde Pierce to voice Bob’s brother Cecil in the season-eight episode “Brother From Another Series” (which made several open references to Frasier), and later expanding the Terwilliger clan to include John Mahoney as their patriarch. Airing three years after Frasier took its final call, the 19th-season Simpsons episode “Funeral For A Fiend” unofficially reunites the Crane boys, with Grammer, Pierce, and Mahoney appearing together as the Terwilliger family. Given the episode’s placement well outside the Simpsons’ peak era, “Funeral For A Fiend” coasts on its expanded in-joke casting. Nonetheless, there’s something in the overlapping quarreling of Mahoney, Pierce, and Grammer that just feels comfortable, no matter the context.
12. Cheers on Frasier (2002)
By the ninth season of Frasier, a fair number of Frasier Crane’s cronies from Cheers had stopped by the Elliott Bay Towers: He had closure with Diane, found out he slept with Sam’s new wife, and got bored by Woody. And Lilith, of course, was a frequent visitor. But in “Cheerful Goodbyes,” Frasier has to go all the way back to Boston to reunite with the bar’s more salt-of-the-earth characters, joining Carla, Norm, Cliff, and Paul at Cliff’s retirement party, which he didn’t know about but gets dragged to after running into Cliff at the airport. During the party—not held at Cheers, though Norm still sits at his familiar spot at the end of the bar—he has to dispense his usual barroom psychology, as Cliff decides to rethink retirement after finding out that his fellow postal workers and buddies really don’t like him that much. Frasier then convinces everyone at the party to pretend to be happy for Cliff, even if they aren’t. He leaves Boston knowing that at least he got a chance to hang out with the Cheers gang one last time—unless Rebecca came a-callin’, which she never did.
13. Star Trek on Futurama (2002)
The cast of the original Star Trek series has never been that far apart. The show’s cult success and place at the center of 20th-century fan culture has meant that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and the rest of the U.S.S. Enterprise gang have encountered one another many times since the show’s cancellation, reuniting for six feature films and at all kinds of fan conventions. But Futurama’s staged reunion of the original-series cast for the fourth-season episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” was special. First of all, the cast was animated. Second, they got to riff on the obsessions of the Trekkers who have sustained their popularity since the ’60s. In the episode, Fry learns that Star Trek has been banned in the future, and all the tapes of the original series (and movies) were banished to a forbidden planet. With Leonard Nimoy’s head in tow, Fry, Leela, and Bender head to this far-off world, where a being of pure energy has become obsessed with Star Trek after obsessively rewatching the tapes, and has kept the original cast—with the exception of James Doohan’s Scotty, who refused to participate—trapped for eternity. Fitting for a show as nerdy as Futurama, “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” is at once a tender and critical portrait of fandom, poking at the pathetic neediness of ultra-geeky fans while also littering the episode with exacting references that reveal that same ultra-geekiness.
14-15. Star Trek: The Next Generation on Family Guy (2009) and Gargoyles (1994-1997)
The Next Generation cast’s appearance on Family Guy marked the rare instance in which a reunion is relegated to the B-plot. In the seventh-season episode “Not All Dogs Go To Heaven,” baby genius Stewie Griffin beams nine of the show’s primary actors into his room with a homemade Trek-style transporter. A mildly amusing adventure ensues, with Stewie rapidly becoming disappointed by his idols, but the main focus of the episode is the A-plot in which shrill big sister Meg exposes family dog Brian as an atheist. An even rarer series-long reunion was a running theme in the ’90s animated Disney series Gargoyles, a sophisticated fantasy-adventure that launched with Next Generation vets Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis playing the series’ primary villains. Over the course of its three-season run, Gargoyles gradually pulled in more TNG alumni as guests or recurring characters, including LeVar Burton, Colm Meaney, and David Warner. The reunion extended to far-flung family from other iterations of Star Trek as well, including Kate Mulgrew from Voyager, Avery Brooks from Deep Space Nine, Nichelle Nichols from the original ’60s series, and even Paul Winfield, who appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Because the show’s cast was so large, and the plots tended to circle around one guest at a time, it was rare for more than a couple of Trek vets to appear in the same episode. Still, once TNG’s Brent Spiner took a regular role, episodes like “The Mirror” and “Future Tense” brought him back together with Frakes and Sirtis, and “Possession” added their co-star Michael Dorn into the mix as well.
16. Twin Peaks on Psych (2010)
Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch never intended to answer the question of who killed Laura Palmer, but when ABC forced his hand midway through the second season, the director turned in one of the series’ strongest episodes. Twenty years to the day after that episode aired, Psych delivered one of its strongest episodes, “Dual Spires,” a Peaks-inspired story that functions as part reunion and part ridiculously obsessive homage. The episode finds James Roday and Dulé Hill traveling to the titular town to investigate the death of Paula Merral. (Yes, it’s an anagram.) A handful of Peaks actors eventually make an appearance, albeit in slightly skewed forms. Sheryl Lee trades Laura Palmer’s plastic sheets for the many hats (psychiatrist, pediatrician, gastrologist, accountant, etc.) of Dr. Donna Gooden. Dana Ashbrook loses the Bobby Briggs tough-guy act and shows up as bereaved Sawmill Diner owner Robert “Bob” Barker. And Sherilyn Fenn swaps Audrey Horne’s twisted cherry stem for Maudette Hornsby’s Cherry Coke. Toss in even more cameos (Ray Wise reprises his previous Psych role as Father Peter Westley), a sly nod to Peaks every 10 seconds (the episode opens with Roday musing on silent window shades), and a Julee Cruise version of the Psych theme song, and the result is a dream-hour for basic-cable-watching Peaks obsessives. Pity the Psych viewers who weren’t hip to the inspiration behind the episode—say, what was up with the dude in the red coat and eye patch dancing backwards in the diner?
17. Scrubs on Cougar Town (2012)
Bill Lawrence pretty much reached the tipping point of melding his two shows, Scrubs and Cougar Town, after teasing it for most of the show’s first two seasons. In the third-season episode “A One Story Town,” the Scrubs reunion is triggered when Sam Lloyd arrives in Gulfhaven, Florida, as his sweaty Scrubs character Ted Buckland, with his a capella group in tow. There, he encounters Cougar Town series regular Christa Miller and guest star Sarah Chalke, who look an awful lot like folks he knew back at Sacred Heart. Then, in the episode’s credit tag, Ted’s brain nearly shorts out when he sees Ken Jenkins (as the dad of Courteney Cox’s character), Bob Clendenin (needy neighbor Tom), Robert Maschio (as a random pool boy), and finally Zach Braff (as a pizza-delivery guy), all of whom happen to look exactly like people he knew back at the hospital…