Warning: Spoilers below for the listed shows.
“The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (Episode 8)
Time jumps are a tricky business, especially for a show where every moment matters. And on “The Americans,” you better believe the devil is in the details. So Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ choice to jump forward seven months after a particularly tough stretch for everyone’s favorite secret agents was a damn ballsy move — that paid off big time. That being said, the opening of Episode 8 was just as important as its ending, and just as tricky. Told in nearly absolute silence, Phillip’s ride to the airfield with Martha set a stark tone for what was coming, making it all the more believable the Jennings would need a seven-month vacation soon after. A beautiful story told in thrilling, variant rhythms, “The Americans” knows itself so well it’s proven capable of telling its story any way it wants, and doing so very, very well.
“Ferret Royale” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Ferrets. Poker. Ferrets lead to poker. Illegal pet ferrets are finding their way into California, so Tribeca (Rashida Jones) and Geils (Hayes MacArthur) track the leak all the way to a high stakes poker game a la “Casino Royale.” These are the kind of preposterous premises “Angie Tribeca” specializes in, and “Ferret Royale” may be the topper. It’s also brilliant in its send-ups of cop shows, spy movies and filmed poker in general; not because it manages to be its most absurdist self, but because of the specificity and relentless speed of the jokes that build that absurdity. What a world “Angie Tribeca” has created in Season 1 — one we all want to stay in a little longer.
“Liquid Lunch” (Episode 8)
As successful as Adam Reed’s FX comedy has been in exploring fresh dynamics these past few seasons, “Archer” often thrives on an individual basis when it calls back old characters, returns to traditional premises or in any way harkens back to the roots of the spy series. “Liquid Lunch” — the last episode of Season 7 before the two-part finale wrapped up the season-long storyline — brought back Slater (Christian Slater), quickly reestablishing the entertaining animosity between the CIA spook and our former spy. He hired Lana and Archer to help track down a former spy, now lab rat, who was threatening to expose state secrets, but none of that really mattered, as Episode 8 was all about bringing the funny. From a hysterical waterboarding scene to the office crew undergoing thorough hypnosis, “Liquid Lunch” held a delightful balance between serialized and episodic, old and new — but it was always exceptionally witty.
“Better Call Saul”
“Fifi” (Episode 8)
“Better Call Saul,” week after week, kept us captivated with its subtle yet explosive storytelling, but something about “Fifi” was particularly brilliant. Not just because of that stunning four-minute-long, one-shot tribute to “Touch of Evil” (though holy smokes that was a great opening sequence) but because it represented what “Saul” does best: building conflict out of character and making the long wait for resolution a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Both Mike and Jimmy laid the groundwork for their biggest schemes of the season, and watching them plan was honestly more satisfying than the results.
“Nine Days” (Episode 12)
The combative chemistry between Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is always a joy, but even more delightful is a rare period of amity when they’re working a case side by side. Getting quarantined for nine days with the mumps literally brings them together, but they also appear to have caught the same irreverent sense of gross humor — naming their swollen neck glands (you get one guess whose is named Balthazar) and making bizarre fevered breakthroughs. As for the rest of the 99, there’s nothing better than watching Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) get uncharacteristically mushy over a puppy and then hearing Scully sing “Ave Maria” at a funeral for Boyle’s humping dog.
“Episode #2.1” (Episode 1)
Once we got over the shock of that sneaky time jump, “Catastrophe” quickly and effortlessly reestablished itself as the most ballsy and goddamn honest relationship comedy out there. Killing the family dog, setting up a parent’s dementia, being asked to scratch inside your kid’s butt — none of it should have worked within the space of an episode, and yet it did and made us snort-laugh despite ourselves. There’s something so sacred about Rob and Sharon’s curious chemistry that allowed them to bitch at each other one minute and have hot pregnancy sex the next. The season may only be six episodes, but the show wasted no time in playing us like the grateful violins that we are.
“Geronimo” (Episode 5)
USA’s unique drama about life in Los Angeles under occupied rule built its appeal not on the promise of alien hijinks, but on its grounded examination of humanity at its worst and its best. Halfway through the season, “Geronimo” took a dark turn as idealism smashed against brutal reality, and the show’s themes became crystal clear: In the battle between a desire for freedom and the need for survival, survival wins an awful lot of the time.
“Fresh Off the Boat”
“Jessica Place” (Episode 19)
This episode not only highlighted Constance Wu’s excellently controlling yet goofy Jessica, but also used quite a bit of “Melrose Place” hallmarks — from the music, opening sequence photography, its unnecessary flashbacks and dramatic close-ups — to ramp up the neighborhood’s HOA melodrama. We also love that “Melrose Place” was clearly on board with the homage, evidenced by the real clips used and that cameo at the end. This also demonstrates just how far the show has come from being just “that Asian show.”
“Game of Thrones”
“The Winds of Winter” (Episode 10)
“The Door” may have made you cry and “Battle of the Bastards” may have made a big bloody splash, but it was the season finale that delivered from start to finish. For a show with a very, very long game, we got satisfying movement on many fronts: Jon Snow’s mother was revealed, Arya avenged her family for the Red Wedding, Daenerys finally set sail to Westeros, Sam started at Hogwarts The Citadel, and Cersei’s diabolical plan simultaneously wiped out her enemies and won her a seat on the Iron Throne. In fact, the entire sequence leading up to and through the wildfire conflagration was one of the most stunning in the series, visually and musically. As the show sets us up for the inevitable end, there has been a bit of loss — less scenes that allow characters to develop or viewers to breathe — but the time and precision taken to produce this gorgeous scene is a promise of that the show isn’t necessarily slipping without George R.R. Martin’s words as a guide.
“The Girlfriend Experience”
“Separation” (Episode 13)
Things had been building to this all season long: Christine finally making a choice between her two lives. But the final installment of the Starz limited series wasn’t notable for the choice she made. Rather, it stood out because of how bluntly she came to the decision. To quote IndieWire’s Zack Sharf, “Separation” was “one of the most daring episodes of TV I’ve seen in such a long time,” bringing Christine’s story to an end without ever compromising or pulling punches.
“Grace and Frankie”
“The Party” (Episode 12)
Few shows are as artfully deep as “Grace and Frankie,” Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris’ Netflix comedy that keeps finding new ways to explore life, love and friendship all through the lens of those who’ve lived long enough to best understand it. Never has the series gone further in its quest for truth than when Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) helped a dear friend throw a living funeral for herself, except the guests didn’t know it. Grace’s struggle with accepting Babe’s (Estelle Parsons) choice brought to light very real issues with death and who decides when it comes, while Frankie’s devotion spoke volumes to respecting others without forgetting who you are. It’s a tough half-hour of television, especially for something thrust into the comedy category, but few other episodes this year have dug so deep.
“The Collapse of Nature” (Episode 1)
After a convoluted third season, “Orphan Black” stomped back this spring with an episode that let us get to know Beth, the clone we only met briefly in Season 1, while also returning the show to its early and crazy roots. Tatiana Maslany continued to kill it in so many fascinating ways, and Season 4 in general got a kick in the ass that made us genuinely disappointed Season 5 will be the last.
“O.J. Made in America”
“Part One” (Episode 1)
Long-form non-fiction at its best, this miniseries under ESPN’s “30 for 30” banner is nothing short of magnificent. The first installment hits the ground like its famous running back subject, starting in the late 1960s with O.J. Simpson as a young college athlete with so much skill and potential for greatness that he couldn’t be ignored by the media. The rosy depiction of the American Dream was quickly placed in the backdrop of Los Angeles racism, which rivaled the racism in the Jim Crow South. It’s at this point where viewers come to understand what Simpson meant in the bigger picture as a non-threatening, smiling black man in America who sought and found acceptance across color lines. That we know this ends in tragedy after tragedy makes this build-up all the more powerful.
“Orange is the New Black”
“Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” (Episode 13)
“Orange Is the New Black’s” fourth season was tough viewing even before its final installment, which dealt with the repercussions of a major character death and slowly blossomed into full-on chaos. Recently, media critics have been raising the very fair question of whether we need even more stories about the brutality faced by black people, as it’s a disturbingly common theme of late. But “Toast” still packed an emotional punch on a level above anything else we’ve seen this year, especially thanks to powerhouse performances by Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba and the rest of the ensemble.
“The Shore” (Episode 8)
Jessica Goldberg’s exploration of the dangers of faith wasn’t afraid to approach the other side, and while they didn’t go as far as, say, “The Leftovers,” the Hulu series’ grounded take on belief worked perfectly for its purposes. Eddie’s visions were a source of fascination in Season 1, as our doubting hero saw everything from snakes to his brother, the latter of which became a powerful experience in “The Shore.” After Eddie (Aaron Paul) and Hawk (Kyle Allen) went on a walk to find spiritual enlightenment, Episode 8 also found Cal (Hugh Dancy) and Sarah’s (Michelle Monaghan) relationship go to the next level. But it may stand out in the end because of the first season’s unsung hero: the more Kyle Allen, the better.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (Episode 6)
“American Crime Story” kept us captivated by the way it introduced new depths to its iconic characters every week, and “Marcia Marcia Marcia” was perhaps the pinnacle of this. Putting the spotlight on Sarah Paulson’s fierce and vulnerable portrayal of Marcia Clark, the episode made us confront the virulent sexism that surrounded the media’s treatment of a woman who was just trying to do her job. For those who followed the trial, “Marcia Marcia Marcia” changed the way we thought about not just Marcia Clark, but whether or not things have changed since 1995.
“Bachmanity Insanity” (Episode 6)
This might have been the show’s best season ever, so it was difficult to just pick one best episode, but “Bachmanity Insanity” gave us a very tech-light episode in exchange for some awesomely cringeworthy character moments. Leading the charge in bad ideas is Erlich Bachman of course, whose Hawaiian-themed Bachmanity launch party immediately beggars his joint venture with Nelson Bigetti. Then again, Richard losing a cute and smart Facebook coder to his preference for tabs versus spaces could also have been avoided. Poor Dinesh was even less successful in hoodwinking the Estonian outsourcing hottie into thinking he was the “Pakistani Denzel,” which unfortunately gave Guilfoyle more opportunities for deliciously creative burns. There was one light in all of this tragedy, and that was the discovery that Jared well and truly fucks, and somehow remains really sweet in the process. We wouldn’t have expected anything less.
“Advanced Pretend” (Episode 3)
A couple of key ingredients help “Advanced Pretend” stand out from not just the rest of the Duplass brothers’ remarkable second season, but the rest of TV: First, the choice to send Brett (Mark Duplass) and Alex (Steve Zissis) on a spontaneous retreat to Detroit, their hometown, finds the heart in a random trip by finding specifics — the price of the plane tickets; the mystery burial; the nostalgic past we, the audience, learn about through these two best friends. It all creates a living history you can’t help but fall into. But the second ingredient is two-fold, and it’s what elevated “Togetherness” week in and week out: Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet aren’t shorted in favor of their co-stars’ wild trip. They’re home. They’re still living in the moment, creating history instead of reliving it. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
“Kimmy Goes to Her Happy Place!” (Episode 10)
Oh joy! You know it’s going to be a good episode when show creator Tina Fey deigns to guest star. She was excellent as Andrea, a proper therapist by day and pass-out drunk by night who taught Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) how to fully and healthily express her anger using funny stickers as incentives. A Disneyfied animated sequence felt out of place at first until it turned a corner and became a goretastic mess of bloody vengeance. Although Tituss didn’t get a big part in this episode, he made the most of it with a long overdue coming out performance piece that found a rhyme for “tolerance.” This episode was “grape”!
“Kissing Your Sister” (Episode 9)
There is both nothing and everything left to say about “Kissing Your Sister,” Catherine Meyer’s documentary on her mother’s historic bid for the presidency. So much has been appreciated since its premiere — including a website designed exclusively for the film — and yet there are so many undiscovered nuggets still floating around the densely packed episode. So, let’s just watch the trailer and enjoy.
“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” (Episode 3)
From the moment we learned what the title of this episode was, we couldn’t wait to watch it; especially because we knew that it would written and directed by Darin Morgan, a fan favorite from his work on the original series. Featuring hilarious guest work by Rhys Darby and Kumail Nanjiani, “Were-Monster” represented a welcome return to the show’s original humor and heart that also put the spotlight on David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s indelible chemistry. It wasn’t a perfect episode, but at least it had a monster in it.