TV shows are often looking for ways to shake up the storytelling and to generate excitement for new episodes. There are different ways to think outside of the box, plot wise. One thing shows often do is give us an episode that takes place in the future.
This list highlights those instances when a show, for an episode, would leave behind their world as it was to give us a glimpse at what the future holds. Jokes about how different and crazy things are in “the future” usually abound, and sometimes we’d get a sense of what our favorite characters are like when their older. These installments also allowed the writers and creative teams to get a bit more inventive and loose with things—some of the strongest episodes of a series were produced as a result.
Here are 20 of our favorite television episodes (not ranked) set in the future.
The Simpsons has been on for decades, and as a cartoon, perhaps it’s not surprising that the’ve dedicated five episodes to visions of the future. Unfortunately, they only managed to create one strong episode based on this premise (in fact, “Bart to the Future” is one of the worst episodes the show has ever done), and it was the first one—“Lisa’s Wedding.” This one works so well because all of the “Hey, it’s the future!” jokes are kept to a minimum. It really just feels like an episode about Homer and Lisa, although it’s built around Lisa’s British fiancé. The episode, which featured guest stars and Phil Hartman , would go on to win the 1995 Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.—Chris Morgan
One can certainly argue that probably more than 80 percent of Doctor Who stories over the past 50 years have been some form of “future” stories (some set on other planets, others in alternative dimensions and universes, etc.). For the sake of whittling it down to manageable number, however, we here look to stories set on a future version of Earth. With that qualification in mind, one immediate arc that comes to mind is the Jon Pertwee-era, “Day of the Daleks.” After a time vortex brings ape-like creatures called Ogrons to the present day, The Doctor soon discovers that the beasts have been sent back in time from 22nd Century Earth, a period in which the Daleks have apparently seized control of the planet. When Jo Grant is captured and taken to the future, it falls on The Doctor to both rescue his companion and discover how to prevent this apocalypse from coming to pass. Though severely hampered at the time by budgetary restrictions, especially when it comes to the final climatic battle scene (the eventual DVD release was given CGI touchups), “Day of the Daleks” stands as one of the series’ most memorable Dalek-centric stories and the kind of rollicking sci-fi romp that would define Petwee’s era.—Mark Rozeman
It’s true that the entire final season of Parks and Recreation takes place in 2017, but the series finale “One Last Ride,” is a different story. In this fantastic episode, we see what the future holds for our beloved denizens of Pawnee, and also Jean-Ralphio. When shows come to an end, many fans are often left wondering what became of the characters they watched for so long. Parks and Rec gave us that closure, and they did a wonderful job of it.—Chris Morgan
While most of Dollhouse is set in the present (2009 and 2010, when it was being filmed), the finale of each of its two seasons jumps ten years into the future to tell us what becomes of the Dollhouse project and the people who made it. With this, the show’s slick science-fiction transitions into a grungy post-apocalyptic world, one in which the good intentions from before are revealed to be disastrous. The Epitaph episodes end up absolutely vital to the show’s overall story, imbuing what came before with new meaning and altering the second season’s tone accordingly. They’re not just the best episodes of the show, they’re largely the reason Dollhouse is good, period, as they radically adjust a program that, until then, struggled to find a real identity. —Sean Gandert
Laverne and Shirley were often unlucky in love, mainly because they were single women characters on a sitcom. In this particular episode, Laverne dreams that she and Shirley are in their 80s and still single. For some reason, they look basically, exactly the same. They just deck out Penny Marshall in a fat suit, and Cindy Williams gets a grey wig and some glasses. Also, Lenny and Squiggy almost marry Laverne and Shirley. It’s a pretty broad, and mostly just an excuse for fat jokes and references to bad eyesight—but it was still entertaining.—Chris Morgan
This episode has a couple of good gimmicks going for it. First, it’s a riff, obviously, on the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. Eric wises he never kissed Donna, and Wayne Knight shows up as an angel to show him what life would be like. This includes a trip into the future—as in, the ‘80s. The jokes about the ‘80s are pretty much what you would expect them to be (i.e. lots of bad hair), especially if you saw the flop series, That ‘80’s Show.—Chris Morgan
In the wake of the much-maligned Heroes’ inexplicable return to NBC, it becomes all the more tempting to reflect on that time long ago when creator Tim Kring’s superhero saga was considered must-see TV. Surprisingly, even divorced from the time in which it was produced, the show’s first season still stands as a fun, addictive bit of harmless comic-book-inspired fluff. A big part of its appeal lies in episodes like “Five Years Gone.” This late Season One entry finds Hiro and Ando pulling a “Days of Future Past” and traveling five years into the future. They subsequently find themselves in a desolated wasteland—a direct result of the good guys’ inability to prevent an explosion that will demolish New York. Some allies are dead, others have switched allegiances and the country is now ruled by a murderous villain who wears the face of Nathan Petrelli. In offering up a stark visual of the devastation to come if our crew is unsuccessful in their mission, the Heroes creative team truly upped the ante for the upcoming finale. Unfortunately, it would all be downhill from here.—Mark Rozeman
In the past decade, Family Guy has slowly transformed from beloved cult sensation, to an effective shorthand for a certain breed of lazy, sophomoric humor. And while a good portion of the criticism is certainly warranted, it’s also important to note that the show once boasted some genuinely funny and creative installments. “Stu and Stewie’s Excellent Adventure” would prove to be one of the final entries in the show’s initial gold period. Packaged as the final third of Family Guys’ straight-to-DVD film, Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, the episode finds the titular character traveling to San Francisco to locate the man he believes to be his true biological father. As it turns out, the man in question is actually a 35-year-old Stewie—now called “Stu”—who has traveled back in time as part of a vacation (in the near future, people take vacations to periods in time, rather than locations). Upon returning to the future with his older counterpart, Stewie is horrified to discover that, rather than achieving his goal of becoming a powerful overlord, he has become a neurotic milquetoast with an extensive Parade magazine collection and no sexual experience. The remainder of the episode finds Stewie traveling back in time to correct the moment that derailed his life. Family Guy was often at its best when it choose to play with the time-travel subgenre and this episode was certainly no exception. —Mark Rozeman
Fringewas a show that often defied expectation, bended the mind and scratched viewers’ need for mystery in a post-Lost television landscape. The drama’s five seasons ran the gamut in terms of science-fiction goodies, including parallel universes, shapeshifters and, of course, a trip to the future. The nineteenth episode of Season Four, “Letters of Transit,” came to us as a brief respite from that season’s larger storyline, which would have been maddening if the content weren’t so exhilarating. The hour jumped Fringe to the year 2036, and a world overrun by Observers (the pale, watchful creatures that had been mostly allies to our heroes), who had a vice grip on humanity. It was all strange and frightening, turning much of what we had believe or theorized the future in Fringe’s world would be like on its head. It laid the groundwork for the show’s fifth and final season, which spent 13 episodes in 2036 and was, by many accounts, its weakest. But, the first trip was nothing short of extraordinary.—Eric Walters
A banana was found in a refrigerator. This is what drives the action of “Future Schlock,” one of the last stories Rocko’s Modern Life ever told. The episode takes place 17 years in the future, where Filburt tells his children about the time, many years prior, when he found a banana in the driveway and put it in Rocko’s fridge. Alas, this was also around the time Rocko and Heffer disappeared into space. Fortunately, they are reunited at the end of the episode, and head back to the present for the big series finale.—Chris Morgan
You never know when a show is going to canceled, so in Comedy Bang! Bang!’s third season, they decided to jump ahead in time and give us the final episode of the show. In “Zach Galifianakis Wears a One-Armed Jacket,” we’re given a dystopian view of where the series will conclude, with Galifianakis seemingly having lost his arm and Jenny Lewis as the new bandleader. While it’s clearly a great gag, “Zach Galifianakis” takes this idea about it being the final episode and plays it pretty straight, even getting host Scott Aukerman’s “parents” to make an appearance, as well as some of the show’s favorite guests, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Chef Luigi Lugosi. When CBB does eventually end, it’ll be hard to produce a better finale than this.—Ross Bonaime
Family Matters was a ridiculous, entertaining show. Steve Urkel did all sort of nuts stuff, including that one time when he and Carl went back in time with his time machine was pretty epic. As such, it’s kind of surprising that when they finally went into the future, it was in Carl’s dream. Or rather, Carl’s nightmare—as he sees a vision of Steve and Laura falling in love and having children. It may have just been a dream then, but the episode works as a bit of foreshadowing, because by the end of the show Urkel and Laura actually get engaged to be married.—Chris Morgan
Much of this list is comprised of episodes where we, the viewer, know the episode is set in the future. But in this third season finale of Lost, executive producers Damon Linedlof and Carlton Cuse pulled off one of TV’s greatest bait and switches. For three season, we had watched the show flashback to the characters’ lives before the plane crash. This two-hour episode seemed to be more the same, as we watched a depressed Jack (Matthew Fox) struggle with his addiction to pain killers. But in the episode’s final jaw-dropping moments, Jack goes to the airport and sees, to the surprise of viewers everywhere, Kate (Evangeline Lilly). We hadn’t been watching a flashback. We had been watching a flash forward. Is there a more chilling TV moment than when Jack plaintively says, “We have to go back Kate”? It was a game-changer for the series, that set the course for the iconic drama’s final three seasons.—Amy Amatangelo
Futurama is already set in the future, but “The Late Philip J. Fry” is a particularly ambitious episode that takes the concept of traveling into the future to its limits. The Professor builds a time machine that, in order to avoid paradoxes, can only travel into the future. They intend to only go briefly into the future, but, unsurprisingly, end up going much too far. Eventually, they witness the death, and rebirth, of the universe, which they watch while cracking a few beers. The status quo is sort of returned to by the end of the episode, but the exciting detour is well worth it.—Chris Morgan
On a few different occasions, we saw brief little glimpses into the future on Full House, but “Those Better Not Be the Days” is the most notable of these episodes. As is typically the case, the guys are trying to teach the kids a lesson—which involves switching places with the girls—and it all backfires for some time before the lesson is learned. At a particularly harrowing moment, there’s a collective vision of the future that Danny, Jesse and Joey have, where they are forever taken for granted. The real takeaway? In the future, Kimmy Gibbler is a stone cold fox.—Chris Morgan
This classic Deep Space Nine episode immediately catches viewers off-guard by opening not on the titular space station, but inside the abode of an old, dying novelist. When a young, aspiring writer knocks on his door and begs to know why the author gave up writing, we quickly learn two alarming bits of information—one, the old man is Jake Sisko, the character viewers recognize as Captain Benjamin Sisko’s rebellious teenage son; two, his turmoil is a direct result of losing his father in a freak accident. Jake soon takes his visitor through a series of flashbacks detailing how he came to be the man he is today. Apparently, the course of his life changed when, while working maintenance on the station’s warp drive, a bolt of energy struck Benjamin Sisko, sending him into subspace. Believing their leader to be dead, the Deep Space Nine crew all mourn his loss. However, to Jake’s shock, images of his father begin appearing to him every few years. Soon, Jake makes it his singular obsession in life to bring his father back into our dimension.
While the Star Trek universe is generally characterized by its egghead tech and highly metaphorical conflicts, “The Visitor” represents a softer, more emotional side to the series. What’s more, given the episode’s “alt-world” status, one can never entirely predict the twists and turns that the decades-spanning plotline will take. Featuring a beautifully emotive performance from Tony Todd as the elder Jake, “The Visitor” has rightfully taken its place as not only one of Deep Space Nine’s best entries but as one of the best, most moving hours of television in Trek’s extensive history.—Mark Rozeman
Part sci-fi, part social commentary and part horror, the British anthology series Black Mirror excels at taking the mundane technological elements of everyday existence and building a world in which the things once designed to make life simpler have, in effect, subverted and compromised our collective humanity. Perhaps the most emotionally gut-wrenching example of the show’s formula can be seen in its third episode, “The Entire History of You.” Set in a near future in which every person’s experiences are categorically recorded and organized for instant reference, the episode centers on a jittery married man who suspects that his wife is not telling him the whole truth about her romantic past. His suspicions soon spiral into a brutal domestic drama that gives life to the age-old question: is it better to potentially live a lie and be happy, or risk destroying everything to uncover to real truth? Above all else, the episode’s inherent eeriness comes from the fact that, save for a few bits of technology here and there, the futuristic setting does not look too distant from our own current existence. —Mark Rozeman
ABC’s TGIF lineup loved delving into the future. Boy Meets World was actually one of the later shows to get to it, when they aired “Seven the Hard Way” in 2000. As is often the case, there’s a problem in the present, and the characters get a glimpse at what will happen in the future if these problems aren’t resolved. In this episode, they go seven years into the future, and Eric is a mountain man named Plays with Squirrels. Of course, when they return to the present, they do solve all their problems, hugging and loving each other like a good TV family. It’s all a little sweaty in execution, but its heart is in the right place.—Chris Morgan
We’ve come to expect time jumps in series. But they always happen between episodes and, more often than not, between seasons. But in its first season, Fargo did something completely unexpected, jumping to the future smack-dab in the middle of the episode. Right when we all thought Gus (Colin Hanks) was most certainly doomed to be killed by Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), the action skips a year ahead to show us Gus happily married to a very pregnant Molly (Allison Tolman). It was a shocking moment, and it also propelled the action forward and gave the series some much-needed breathing room from Malvo’s nefarious actions.—Amy Amatangelo
“The Lonely” marked the first Twilight Zone episode to go into production following the pilot; moreover, it served as the show’s first overt dalliance with science fiction. Set in the year 2046, the episode stars Jack Warden as an inmate sentenced to solitary confinement aboard a floating asteroid. In an attempt to alleviate the man’s punishing isolation and loneliness, a supply ship captain leaves him with a feminine android named Alicia as company. Though at first the man rejects his new companion, he soon grows to love her. Though variations on this tale existed long before this installment aired and would be returned to in countless iterations thereafter (see this year’s Ex Machina), the half-hour episode still holds true 50 years later, due in large part to Serling’s stellar script as well as Warden and Jean Marsh’s phenomenal central performances. And while our society has yet to master the kind of space-travel as demonstrated here, a story in which a man finds connection with a machine can’t help but carry resonance in a world where many people spend more time with their computers than amongst other people. It’s speculative fiction such as this that illustrates why The Twilight Zone remains one of the greatest television shows of all time.—Mark Rozeman