For a brief period of time in the 1990s, some of the most innovative and groundbreaking television being made was airing in syndication on weekday afternoons.
Disney's Gargoyles, an animated series about a clan of winged heroes from the Middle Ages who find themselves transported to modern-day Manhattan, took an already basic premise and turned it into an epic: The show added laser blasters, magic, characters from multiple Shakespearean plays, at least nine actors from various Star Trek series, and an impressive commitment to evolving serialized storytelling for a young audience.
That, plus a keen sophistication and deeply felt compassion for all its characters, human and mythical creature alike, made the series one of the boldest of its era. Limiting this list of the most groundbreaking episodes to just 10 is barely a dent in its rich legacy, which can be appreciated now thanks to Disney+. But these episodes represent many of the series' greatest strengths, from its mature storytelling to its cheeky tweaks on the classics to one of the most interesting will-they-won't-they relationships in TV history.
'The Thrill of the Hunt'
As Gargoyles was ostensibly a show for children (albeit one packed with Shakespeare references), many episodes did contain a moral, and the very first stand-alone episode delivered an important yet unusual message for its audience.
Lexington is fascinated by The Pack, a TV show featuring a band of martial arts experts who he sees as warriors "like us" — however, when he tries to befriend them in real life, he learns that you should never meet your heroes, because the actual Pack turn out to be not great people who want to hunt the gargoyles for sport.
"Maybe we shouldn't believe everything we see on television" is already a fascinating message for a TV show to espouse, but add to the mix the fact that this was the sixth episode ever, and it's doubly entertaining.
One of the most controversial episodes of the series (and often censored during its re-airing), "Deadly Force" took on the question of gun safety with a worst-case-scenario approach: Elisa Maza comes home one night and leaves her firearm out on the counter — when Broadway comes by her apartment to say hello, he's inspired by the western movie he'd just seen and begins playing with it... accidentally shooting her.
Ashamed, Broadway tries to hide what he's done, leading Goliath on a wild goose chase to track down her supposed assailant, but eventually he admits the truth. The key twist to the episode is that Elisa takes responsibility for not properly storing her weapon (and future episodes would showcase her being careful about locking up her gun), a truly mature take on the issue.
'A Lighthouse in the Sea of Time'
Beyond having an amazing title, this episode took on the topic of adult literacy through Hudson, who is revealed as never having learned to read. The shame he admits to feeling about this is a very real issue faced by those who struggle with illiteracy, and the ending, in which he agrees to start learning with the help a blind author who has become a friend, is inspiring without being saccharine.
Nothing says mainstream family entertainment like the appearance of classic Shakespearean characters! "The Mirror" deserves a lot of credit for its plotline, in which Demona attempts to use Puck's magic powers to eliminate Elisa, only to discover that Puck is, well, puck-ish when it comes to the demands of mortals.
First turning all humans into gargoyles, then transforming the real gargoyles into humans, it's a fun romp enhanced by a brilliant voice performance by Brent Spiner. But its real selling point is the way in which Puck's antics affect Elisa and Goliath, who by now have become the show's central will-they-or-won't-they romance, despite the very real obstacle of their differences.
The melancholy ending, in which Elisa walks away from a frozen Goliath just as he was about to try to acknowledge their complicated relationship, is a far more mature moment than you might expect from a show that originally aired in the same block as Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop. (No offense meant to either of those fine shows.)
Gargoyles was always quite clever about its use of time travel, and "Vows" is one of the best examples of this.
Taking a Terminator-esque "the future is unchangeable" approach, the episode tracks the events of Fox and Xanatos' wedding day, which — thanks to Demona — ends up bringing them back to the 990s, just before the destruction of Goliath's clan.
Demona's goal in returning to the past is to convince her younger self to change history; she's unsuccessful, though Goliath is equally unsuccessful at trying to change the younger Demona's mind about the whole becoming-a-supervillain thing. But the real purpose of the trip to the past is for Xanatos to send himself a rare coin that would later become the key to his ultimate fortune, allowing him to prove to his disapproving father that he is technically a self-made man. It's a knotty bit of time travel, and a sophisticated narrative by any standard.
'The New Olympians'
The entire Avalon saga, in which Goliath, Elisa and Goliath's daughter Angela find themselves traveling to no shortage of exotic locations across the globe, led to some wild and imaginative stories, but this was probably one of the most wild and imaginative.
The trio arrives on an island populated by the mythical creatures from Greek tales, which has evolved into an isolated society heavily prejudiced against humans, which is bad news for Elisa. She is immediately subjected to intense bigotry and unjust treatment (deliberately drawing upon real-life issues of racism), without taking any significant short cuts.
There are several elements which make "Sentinel" so groundbreaking, most notably the surprisingly melancholy story, which focuses on Nokkar, an alien who has been stationed on Easter Island for centuries, protecting the Earth from an interstellar war that may or may not be happening anymore. But what makes the episode especially entertaining is when Nokkar blasts Elisa with temporary amnesia, and Goliath is basically forced to explain the entire premise of the series to her — a fun acknowledgment on the part of the creators of just how bonkers this show ended up being.
Easily one of the series' darkest episodes, "Future Tense" delivers some haunting twists, beginning with the mists of Avalon bringing Goliath, Elisa, and Angela back to New York at last — or so they think, until they realize that it's New York 40 years in the future, and things have become quite bleak and dystopian for everyone who was left behind, thanks to a power-mad Xanatos.
The reveals that follow become more emotionally devastating by the moment, up until the twist ending that manages to avoid being a cop-out — the bleak future Goliath sees might have been an illusion, but as he acknowledges, it's one that could still very well come true.
Very ahead of its time in terms of its structure, this late season two episode tells the story of Vinnie, a schlubby guy who has been making semi-regular cameos since the very beginning of the series — while initially just an unnamed extra, we learn via flashbacks that Vinnie's brief engagements with the gargoyles have, in his eyes, ruined his life (mostly by costing him jobs).
So, he's out for revenge, chasing Goliath through the streets of New York with a massive custom-made bazooka... that delivers a most unexpected form of vengeance. One of the show's most enduring themes has always been that hatred warps the soul, but at least in Vinnie's case, things end up working out okay.
'Hunter's Moon, Part 3'
Speaking of vengeance... Season 2 of the series ended with a three-part story focused on the Hunters, a revenge-obsessed family which has been tracking Demona and other gargoyles for centuries.
The three siblings who arrive in New York, determined to make good on their family's destiny, find themselves torn apart by shifting loyalties, including the eldest brother, Jason, forming a connection with Elisa — one she's tempted to take further, except for the fact that she's in love with Goliath. Jason eventually realizes that the cycle of vengeance is doing no one any good, and tries to put aside generations of hatred, but in the final confrontation, he gets accidentally wounded and is left paralyzed from the waist down.
It's a tragic moment that the show doesn't sugarcoat, but it is then followed by a moment of true joy — Elisa and Goliath finally acknowledge their feelings for each other, and Elisa kisses him just before sunrise. It's a roller coaster ride of emotion, the sort of storytelling that Gargoyles was able to achieve nimbly, over and over, during its short run.