9. “Dear White People”
Season 1, Episode 5, “Chapter V”
- directed by Barry Jenkins
- written by Chuck Hayward and Jack Moore
Even without knowing that Barry Jenkins had directed the episode (his name only appears when the end credits roll), “Chapter V” takes us on an intimate, emotional journey that could live in the world of “Moonlight.” As a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare, Reggie (Marque Richardson) is almost too brilliant, too passionate to be contained, and living in a world of societal inequities is his greatest burden. As the episode follows him from the angst of unrequited love to the highs of intellectual peacocking, the viewer is invested with Reggie’s earnest yet frustrated desires. The climax is so sudden and brutal in its stark reality that the audience is left reeling just as Reggie is traumatized. The final, brilliant shot is the haunting note that brings the events of the episode from the brink of shock and back to humanity.
8. “BoJack Horseman”
Season 4, Episode 11, “Time’s Arrow”
- directed by Aaron Long
- written by Kate Purdy
The past has always been a ghost that’s haunted the halls of “BoJack,” but few episodes have captured the cycle of neglect and apathy that can trickle down through generations quite as succinctly and artfully as this does. Looking at the BoJack’s origins through the prism of his parents’ whirlwind courtship and dashed dreams, it helps explain his fraught relationship with mother Beatrice and provides an answer to a season-long question about one particular Hollywoo newcomer. There’s pain and bitterness, but there’s also the kind of catharsis that this show occasionally affords its central characters: In a roundabout way, there’s something comforting about knowing that you’re not messed up for no reason. It might not make things better in the present, but it at least offers a future path to avoid making the same mistakes of bygone generations.
7. “The Carmichael Show”
Season 3, Episode 1, “Yes Means Yes”
- directed by Gerry Cohen
- written by Kevin Barnett and Josh Rabinowitz
We’ll look back on “The Carmichael Show” in the years to come and mourn what slipped away. One of TV’s best ensembles in recent memory, the third season of Jerrod Carmichael’s issue-obsessed family comedy had some incredible moments of comedy, but this episode has a special impact in the latter half of 2017, as it tackles the question of consent through an incident involving Bobby (Lil Rel Howery). Lakeisha (Tiffany Haddish) explaining her safe word is just the cherry on the sundae, as the Carmichael family tries to understand an issue that on the one hand is incredibly complex and on the other hand breathtakingly simple.
6. “The Good Place”
Season 2, Episode 3, “Dance Dance Resolution”
- directed by Drew Goddard
- written by Megan Amram
While NBC’s high-concept comedy about the colorful world of the afterlife stunned critics by its massive twist at the conclusion of Season 1, this year it managed to capitalize on the fact that now the audience is in on the bizarre yet endlessly fun premise. Although not set up like a typical time loop story, this episode nevertheless creates the same structural beats in which events are repeated until the point at which a mistake is made. What this accomplishes on “The Good Place” is a fertile field for fantastical set pieces, jokes, gags, and puns. So. Many. Puns. We must have done something very good to deserve this.
5. “Better Things”
Season 2, Episode 9, “White Rock”
- directed by Pamela Adlon
- written by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.
On a strictly emotional level, there are episodes of “Better Things” that surpass “White Rock.” “Eulogy” is so chock-full of moving family moments you’d literally have to be dead not to feel something. “Robin” is such an honest look at unexpected crushes you want to give yourself up entirely to ‘shipping Sam (Pamela Adlon) and her new beau.
But “White Rock” sticks with you, and it does so by blending elements of the past, present, and even the supernatural to create an absorbing look at the legacy of family. “How can you forget someone you never knew?” Sam asks, not expecting an answer. There are secrets and answers, confrontations and acceptance, pain and laughter, all of which come in waves like the ones Duke (Olivia Edward) and Frankie (Hannah Alligood) play in just off-shore. They’re soft, smooth, and ever-moving. You feel them when you pay attention, but they drift off when you’re not looking.
That’s family. It requires a special kind of recognition, and “White Rock” creates a compelling case for self-selection and understanding. Even though the now notorious liar Louis C.K. co-wrote the episode, there’s nothing false about it. Perhaps it’s the pain and penance shared by Sam’s extended family, or maybe it’s just that Adlon’s frank truths permeate every inch of this episode, as they do the series. Like her rhetorical question, the episode is a bit of a paradox, but that’s what gives it such power.
4. “Master of None”
Season 2, Episode 8, “Thanksgiving”
- directed by Melina Matsoukas
- written by Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari
This beautifully told Emmy-winning tale takes place over the course of 22 years, regularly checking in on the Watkins family with their Indian friend Dev on Thanksgiving Day each time. The narrative weaves together conversations about what it means to be a minority in America (“It’s a group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to get half as far”) and for Denise, that’s multiplied by being gay in a black family. The conversation never falls into the trap of becoming preachy, rather it stays emotionally true, warm, and often snort-inducingly funny. It’s a story that is so important for its specificity and yet is still sweeping in its larger themes of identity, acceptance, gratitude, and family. It’s an episode that should be a must-watch tradition every year.
3. “The Leftovers”
Season 3, Episode 2, “Don’t Be Ridiculous”
- directed by Keith Gordon
- written by Tha Lonely Donkey Kong and Specialist Contagious
Celebrating “The Leftovers” is so much fun because, even with only eight episodes, the territory they managed to cross and the references they were able to invoke were so beautifully random that they served as a perfect reminder of life’s best moments; the moments which drag us out of mundane routine and make us marvel at just how weirdly amazing the world can be.
“Don’t Be Ridiculous” is a Nora story, but it’s also about Mark Linn-Baker and technology being stupid and the Wu-Tang Clan and trampolines. It’s about grief and pain and loss and hope. It’s about finding joy where you might least expect to do so. And that makes it bold television on a level other shows can only dream of achieving.
2. “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Season 1, Episode 3, “Late”
- directed by Reed Morano
- written by Bruce Miller
As a complete narrative, “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1 was a remarkable feat. But so many elements of what made the series fascinating came together in “Late,” the third episode, and the last directed by Reed Morano, whose artful eye for beauty and horror were essential to establishing the aesthetic of the series. The episode does so much to connect the dots between what we think of as today and the nightmare near-future that is the show’s present, making the terror of these scenes visceral in an essential way, all capped off by an ending so brutal that it haunts us to this day. “The Handmaid’s Tale” pilot is brilliant, but “Late” is where the show makes its full impact truly known.
1. “Twin Peaks”
Season 3, Episode 8, “Part 8”
- directed by David Lynch
- written by David Lynch and Mark Frost
If David Lynch had only wanted to return to television to make “Part 8” of the “Twin Peaks” revival, it would’ve been worth it because it is quite simply a masterpiece. The hour of bravura filmmaking initially lulls the viewer into complacency by picking up with its episodic storytelling before breaking ground on new television territory with the visually stunning and stirring poetry of chaos, conflict, and ultimately, corruption.
After leaving “The” Nine Inch Nails behind at the Roadhouse, the episode presents a series of beautifully disturbing images over the dissonant “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” that amounts to the birth of evil devised by mankind. That in itself is a rumination on our own world, but also reflects on the constant malevolence that has been present in “Twin Peaks” from its inception. It’s both frightening and yet stimulating in its horror.
While the technical and artistic merits of this surreal sequence makes “Part 8” an excellent standalone experience, what elevates this even higher is how it also moves forward the narrative, tying everything here with the series’ central character Laura Palmer, launching a thousand theories, and countering the bleakness with “so much love” and hope. All this, and it’s only an hour. It’s most exciting episode of television this year and will be for many years to come.