Invader Zim is back! This time in the form of a TV movie with Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus!. So what better time to do a fat, stupid list of the best episodes the TV show ever done did? No, better time, that’s when! You love lists after all, don’t you, internet? Yes, you do. Who’s a good internet?
Why a top 20 list?
Because, though there are technically 27 episodes of Zim, the majority are divided into two 11-minute episodes apiece and, if I went with the original plan of doing a top 10, that really would’ve only covered like two hours, which is such a tiny fraction of the overall series I would’ve been forced to overlook some of the silliest, weirdest, and most disturbing moments in episodes that aren’t quite as strong throughout as others, but are still definitely noteworthy.
Furthermore, I wouldn’t have even had a Gaz episode in here and the internet would’ve revolted in response. Wouldn’t you have? Who’s a revolting internet?
20. Invasion of the Idiot Dog Brain
Re-watching this one, I decided it wasn’t as great as I remembered. Invader Zim is a noisy, abrasive show, always teetering on the precipice of total annoyance. Sometimes, it tips over. Or, in an episode like this, which is about Gir—the show’s primary source of inane, obnoxious loudness—increasing in volume and growing in obnoxious power, the show throws itself headlong into the abyss.
Mostly, this one just has a great concept in having Gir’s brain accidentally swapped with the Zim’s house’s brain, but the plot is too simplistic overall. There are some brilliant bits though, like Gir singing along with the elevator music playing in the house elevator. And Zim’s giant house/robot dog hybrid galloping about, wreaking havoc in the streets feels like an iconic moment for the series.
19. Game Slave 2
I’m not sure why I don’t like Gaz episodes more. I recognize Zim fans love her and I agree she’s great. She’s a breath of fresh air from the show’s usual protagonists (well, really, the entire Zim universe) because instead of being a moronic failure, she’s actually competent and able to get what she wants. I guess I just don’t love the stuff surrounding Gaz in the Gaz-centric episodes and prefer it when she plays an integral role in a Dib and/or Zim plot.
A key aspect of Gaz’s personality is she’s a highly-skilled gamer, so “Game Slave 2” feels like the quintessential Gaz episode. It’s the one I enjoy most because my favorite thing this show occasionally does is transition away from being a comedy/horror/sci-fi/action hybrid by leaning more heavily into one of those genres and I like it best when it becomes a straight-up horror movie like it does here. Still, “Game Slave 2” goes overboard on the endless shrieking and it started to grate on me, so it’s number 19!
18. Rise of the Zitboy
One of the more unsettling and disgusting episodes, Zim has a giant pimple on his face that possesses the ability to hypnotize children. It’s pretty gross and distressing from the start. The music manages to make Gir hugging Zim and getting pizza grease all over him seem like a horrific event. And of course there’s the ending where Zim’s zit explodes, filling the school’s hallways with nasty… zit… juice.
In the end, it’s a pretty simple plot in which Zim just gets his way and Dib gets completely screwed. But it does have that really cool, creepy moment when Zim hypnotizes Dib and one of the best Zim/Gir exchanges:
Zim: “Why was there bacon in the soap?!”
Gir: “I made it myself!”
17. Hobo 13
This one is fun because it introduces a completely new location, a boot camp on the planet Hobo 13, complete with R. Lee Ermey playing an alien drill sergeant. The conceit that Zim is actually great at getting through the boot camp’s obstacle course because he’s a huge jerk, happy to sacrifice his teammates, is a really clever and funny one. Also, everyone loves Throbulator, the creature of pure headache.
I’m not really a fan of how this one ends though. Zim gets blasted into the sun? Yes, nearly every episode ends in dissolution and everything resets the next episode, but effectively killing off the show’s lead still seems a bit much and kind of comes out of nowhere.
16. The Girl Who Cried Gnome
Possibly the dumbest episode of the entire series. A girl scout gets her foot stuck in Zim’s lawn and her rescue attracts unwanted attention to his house as it quickly balloons into a ridiculous media circus. It’s usually not my favorite thing about Zim, but sometimes it’s fun when the show goes all-out with the stupid as it does here.
This episode introduces Zim’s amazing, weird human suit that has a nametag which reads “HUMAN,” plus a stuffed dog sewed into the side. The ineffectual rescue officers who come to the girl’s aid are all voiced by the same guy who does Gir, Rikki Simons, and all their stupid lines (“My goodness!”) make me laugh every time.
15. Dibship Rising
One of the ones near the end of the show’s run, Dib downloads his personality into the spaceship he’s commandeered in an effort to claim ownership of it. However, this goes awry as the spaceship now believes it is Dib and that the original Dib is an imposter.
This is a tried-and-true storyline—a clone believes itself to be the original—but that in this case Dib’s clone is a huge piece of machinery with Dib-like features is a wonderfully weird twist on the trope. I also like the sad, yet (unlike many episodes) not completely dire ending of Dib, Gir, and the Dibship stuck at the town cesspool listening to the ship rattle off all of Dib’s memories as it systematically deletes them.
14. Attack of the Saucer Morons
Another early one with a simplistic plot, this one just has to be included because it has so many classic moments. There’s Zim’s computer straining itself: “Processing… PROCESSING!!!” There’s the bee with the capability of inexplicably destroying Irken machinery. There’s a giant flying pig, which prompts the lines “The pig form perhaps represents mankind’s… pig-like affinity for… exploration,” as well as the guy who gets his head chomped by the pig and then cries “The pig accepts me!”
Last and most important, there’s that part where Zim just backhands a lady and sends her flying into a lake. I think everyone laughs in shock the first time they see this. I mean, this was a Nickelodeon show.
13. Future Dib
A real solid plot and a nice misdirect, as having a future-version of Dib come back to the past would hardly be out of the question for this series. However, it turns out it’s a robot controlled by Zim, who plans to sabotage a perpetual energy machine invented by Dib’s famous scientist father, Professor Membrane. Again, most Zim episodes end with everything going wrong, but some do it better than others. This one works because everyone gets screwed pretty evenly. Zim’s plan fails, Professor Membrane decides the world isn’t worthy of perpetual energy, and Dib gets trapped in a cage with an angry monkey.
Okay, I guess Dib still gets it the worst.
12. Bolognius Maximus
This happens to be one of creator Jhonen Vasquez’s favorite episodes and it is indeed the best of the episodes that fully commit to being totally dumb. Zim pranks Dib by fusing his DNA with bologna and Dib manages to do the same thing to Zim. It’s all basically an excuse for the (totally worth it) payoff of round, chubby versions of Dib and Zim running about all wobbly-like.
Apparently it annoys some people that this simply ends with the two main characters turning into giant sausages, but the whole episode builds up (down?) to it. This series often ends with everything going bad for no reason; in “Bolognius Maximus,” it’s a clear inevitability.
“Megadoomer” is another episode that gets its points mostly for having an ingenious premise. Zim goes rampaging through the city in a giant robot that has a cloaking device that, unbeknownst to Zim, cloaks everything except him. Adding to the absurdity is that the robot’s batteries are dead, so Zim has to plug the robot in. It makes for a beautifully silly (and perhaps budget-conscious) image of Zim floating in mid-air with a giant cable dragging behind him, destruction all around.
It’s great when Dib finally reveals to Zim that the robot is cloaked but Zim isn’t. Zim declares, “Oh, that’s stupid!”
10. Walk For Your Lives
This episode and “Megadoomer” strike me as kind of similar in that they both have clever premises about Zim using some technology that does him no good and then explodes.
I give this one the edge because I favor the concept of an explosion exploding in slow-motion over the partially-cloaking robot just a bit more. The moment where Dib is sent flying toward the explosion looks really cool and cinematic too (it even goes all letterboxed!).
9. Gir Goes Crazy and Stuff
Some fans quite dislike this one because it’s about Gir transforming from a cute idiot into an efficient, spooky, mean, death machine thingy, which is precisely what I love about it! Gir can be great in small doses, but his inane, noisy cuteness often dominates Invader Zim. It’s frankly a no-brainer to subvert the character for an episode. It’s awesome that Gir actually manages to be creepy here; the scene with him attached to a bunch of humans, sucking the knowledge from their heads is one of the times the show has come notably close to having imagery akin to stuff from Jhonen Vasquez’s (decidedly not for kids) comic work.
I also love the disturbing, gross, and absurd subplot (that, surprisingly, actually pays off) of the police officer who gets his brain swapped with a squid’s. In general, this episode ties up its loose ends more so than most Zim. It makes a point of reverting Gir back to normal and even gives the squid man a little coda at the end (he returns to the sea and, um, probably drowns).
8. Tak: The Hideous New Girl
You may notice, as we get closer to the top of this list, that my criteria is getting to be more about plot structure than anything else. Invader Zim is by and large an unapologetically goofy show, which is a big part of its appeal, but it can also make for episodes that are just a hodgepodge of cool imagery and stuff that makes no clear sense, capped off with a throwaway ending (two that come to mind immediately are “The Wettening” and “Germs”). My favorite Zim episodes are the ones that make more of an effort to have a coherent, satisfying plot and “Tak: The Hideous New Girl” is the pinnacle of this.
A full half-hour episode (more of which began showing up at the series’ tail end), “Tak,” far more than any other episode, feels like Invader Zim: The Movie. Another, much better Irken invader, Tak, comes to Earth to take it over and get revenge on Zim, who unwittingly screwed her over during Operation Impending Doom I. It’s a great movie plot because nearly every alien in the series is presented as colossally inept, so an actually capable one showing up really ups the stakes, requiring all the main characters to get involved in some way to combat her. It also may be the only episode that ends with a clear indication that developments in this episode will be carried over into future ones (i.e., Dib now has possession of Tak’s ship).
The drawback of the ambitious, film-like plot is that the dialogue occasionally has to dip into awkward, expository sci-fi hootenanny, which feels out of place in a series typically dedicated to stupidity. But I still respect “Tak” for being so darned ambitious.
Oh, and it also has the Zim line “I congratulate you for acknowledging my superiority and choosing me as your love pig.”
This is a cool episode because it’s a proper, gross-out monster movie. It’s consistently skin-crawling, as all the kids in school are infested with lice, which is depicted in a particularly grotesque manner: weird, grey veiny bits on the students’ heads and sound effects that make it sound like their scalps are sizzling. Plus, the ending bit where the bottom half of Zim’s body is effectively sheared off is gnarly.
It’s also got good character stuff for Dib as, for once, he’s the one who thinks someone else (one-off character Countess von Verminstrasser, played by Mindy Sterling)’s beliefs sound nuts and, at the end, he has to admit to being wrong. And I love the running gag of the poor braces kid who, for no good reason, gets stuck having to listen to all of Verminstrasser’s exposition.
6. Door to Door
Okay, this one isn’t structurally all that good. In fact, it’s wall-to-wall whacked out, packed with disturbing, surreal moments that happen for little reason. Children selling candy door-to-door are accompanied by lasers firing from nowhere. An old woman pukes up sawdust over Gir’s headless body. Two children shovel a pile of what appear to be roaches (they were roaches originally; Nickelodeon had them changed to roach-like sausages) into their mouths. Zim sells candy by showing people a post-apocalyptic version of the future featuring a mutant that eats doll heads. Oh, and there’s a guy in a dog costume named Poop Dawg. The color palette of the episode is really unique. It’s mostly oranges and reds, which adds to the surreality.
I just have to put this one up here for being such a relentless mindfudge. It’s really unsettling and therefore deserves our respect.
5. Planet Jackers
This is really the first episode to go for an epic, sci-fi, cool space battles kind of thing. This happened a lot more in the latter portion of the series, but this first outing did it best as it looked awesome and felt action-y without going too overboard by remembering to keep it all fundamentally silly. The core concept is already absurd: other aliens are about to destroy Earth but Zim has to save it because he’s the one that’s supposed to do that.
It’s a great-looking episode, too. Invader Zim was one of the early cartoons to embrace the incorporation of cel-shaded CG and, seeing as the art was already made up of lots of sharp geometric shapes, it actually enhanced the look rather than came off as a cheap shortcut (actually, the CG cost far more than the 2D art—not sure if that’s still how it works in animation these days). This episode has lots of cool 3D spaceship and planet shots that look awesome (and one part where Zim is 3D-rendered that looks less good, but that’s okay).
Finally, the ending is one of the series’ funniest: Zim saves the Earth but not without the moon accidentally smashing into it, creating a huge crater (the animation for this moment is gorgeous). You even hear a portion of the human population shrieking in unison as the moon slams into the earth. It’s genuinely amazing the stuff they got away with on this show.
4. Dib’s Wonderful Life of Doom
Apparently not directly inspired by that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” (because nobody mentions it in the commentary), in “Dib’s Wonderful Life of Doom” Dib finally stops Zim, proving to the world that aliens and various paranormal junk exist, and then goes on to live a fulfilling life of repeatedly saving and bettering the world. Of course, good things never actually happen to Dib and everything turns out to be a VR simulation engineered by Zim just to find out whether it was Dib who threw a muffin at him in the lunchroom.
It’s a fun and ambitious episode. It’s cool to see all these (fake) milestones in Dib’s life, including an incredible-looking space battle. This episode kind of feels like Invader Zim in a nutshell: loads of epic stuff all in service of something unabashedly stupid… and Dib always loses.
3. Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy
The opposite of “Dib’s Wonderful Life of Doom,” here Zim screws with Dib’s past rather than his future, and it’s for real this time. Zim keeps sending rubber piggies back to key points in Dib’s life, their sudden materializations invariably managing to cause him horrible physical injury each time. This is another truly shocking episode; it’s stunning how far Nickelodeon allowed the crew to go here as we watch gradually Zim destroy Dib’s body by way of time manipulation and pigs.
The fact that Zim’s meddling eventually causes Professor Membrane to create a robot suit to protect Dib from future calamity is truly inspired. Zim’s pigs begin to do the opposite of what he wants; each one gives Dib’s robot a cool add-on, making him more powerful with every pig. This one actually also ends with Dib overall better off than Zim, which is nice to see once in a while.
The first episode to demonstrate that Invader Zim could be an awesome sci-fi/action show when it wanted to be, “NanoZIM” is a real charmer. It’s got a fun plot about Zim shrinking himself down to pilot a tiny robot inside Dib’s body with the intent of making his brain “not smart… no more” and lots of nifty CG robot-fighting action when Dib starts piloting his own robot remotely. The idea that the robots control like your average fighting game is clever and it only makes sense that Gaz has to be the one to step in to defeat Zim.
It’s also a consistently funny episode. One of the best lines is when Gaz, not knowing Dib isn’t just playing a video game but controlling a robot inside his own body, asks, “When you die, can I play?” There’s also the exchange where Zim reveals he’s in Dib’s stomach, attached to his arm-control nerve.
Dib: “Humans don’t have arm-control nerves.”
Zim: “DO NOT QUESTION ME! I CONTROL YOUR ARMS!”
Plus, it all ends with a poop joke. This is important.
1. Dark Harvest
I’ve seen people say that “Dark Harvest,” an episode about Zim stealing the organs of the schoolchildren (and replacing them with… stuff) is the most disturbing Invader Zim ever got. Perhaps this is true! And it’s also why it’s the best episode in the series.
Again, I love it when a Zim episode builds its way up to just being a horror movie and “Dark Harvest” truly becomes frightening as Zim transforms into a “hideous blob of stolen organs.” The unsettling feeling ramps up throughout as more students end up in a truly bad way, their various organs replaced with such objects as an alarm clock, a carton of milk, and a cat. One of my favorite gags of the whole series that is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing is when Zim swaps a secretary’s brain with a can of food so that when she answers the phone, clumps of canned foodstuff come pouring out of her mouth.
Hilarious and disturbing sums up all of “Dark Harvest,” really. The ending chase, where Zim pursues Dib through a dark furnace room is genuinely heart-pounding stuff, but an element of comedy runs through the whole sequence as well because Zim happens to have a pigeon on his head for the whole episode so that everywhere he goes you hear it cooing. Special attention must also be paid to the fantastically disgusting moment Zim belches up a pilfered intestine and then slurps it back up like a noodle.
“Dark Harvest” isn’t exactly a typical Invader Zim episode, but it’s a great example of how the series could transform itself into a different kind of show when it wanted to, or perhaps more accurately, it could selectively amplify characteristics inherent to the series to astounding effect. It’s brilliant piece of unsettling, grotesque horror, with a heart (six of them) of goofiness.