It’s so, so very difficult to determine how long to stick with a series. Some shows get off to a bad start and later find their voice. Others start bad and get worse. Still others are sporadic in quality, for whatever creative reason.
But the list below is meant to help. Whether you’re looking for a new binge and want to know when a season will hit its peak, or you want to sample shows by seeing the best episode first, check out IndieWire’s ranking of the best TV episodes of 2017.
We don’t necessarily endorse starting with the best episodes — especially if it happens to be the season finale — but in a world of “too much TV,” there’s no wrong way to find the next great show. Ranked by episodic quality, these are the 25 best individual half-hours and hour-long entries of the 2017 season.
[Editor’s Note: The following analyses may contain minor spoilers for each selected episode. If you have not seen an episode, you’re likely safe to read about it, but those ultra-sensitive to spoilers should skip ahead.]
Season 1, Episode 8, “My Name Is Ruby”
Sometimes an episode title says it all. The Season 1 finale of “The Deuce” wasn’t a solo hour dedicated to Ruby (Pernell Walker), a prostitute who calls herself “Thunder Thighs” and had been struggling to compete with the new police-protected, mob-built brothels. Vincent (James Franco) and Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) played as big a role as ever, as did the rest of David Simon and George Pellecanos’ stellar ensemble.
But the ending brought it all together, and not just the episode arc about realities separated by class, but the season as a whole. “The Deuce” features quite a few graphic scenes of women being abused or taken advantage of, and it consistently drives home both why this keeps happening and how America institutionalizes discrimination. “My Name Is Ruby” forces the mirror back on its audience in compelling fashion. For a period piece with plenty of modern parallels, it’s easy to get caught up in the series’ relevance. The finale puts a human face on the issues. It gives them a name. And it’s a name that won’t soon be forgotten.
Season 1, Episode 5, “Once Bitten”
Though the identity of the dead body at the end of the series was the engine that fueled much of “Big Little Lies,” “Once Bitten” is an hour that proves there was far more to this series than a single mystery. Beginning with Jane and slowly extending to Madeline and Celeste, the iconic beach running sequence became another step in these women seizing the trajectory of their lives and shaping it themselves. A traumatic parking lot sequence, a gripping therapy session reveal, and one of the most stunning endings of any TV installment this year all combined to cement “Big Little Lies” as attention-worthy television. All tied together by the pulsating, haunting sounds of The Flaming Lips’ “Silver Trembling Hands,” this episode was the turn in the tide, the break in the fever, complete with a literal leap without looking.
Season 4, Episode 5, “Fog of War, Bro”
Considering how the Season 3 finale breakup split up not only Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), but the core four as well, it’s no surprise that many episodes of “You’re the Worst” Season 4 isolated characters for solo adventures or kept the series regulars separated enough to make you yearn for a reunion. Those episodes worked out just fine (Episode 7 is great), but nearly midway through the season, audiences got quite a treat. Gretchen actively inserts herself into Jimmy’s home, turning dormant anger into tense chaos.
Plus, it brings everyone back under one roof, or at least fretting over what’s happening under said roof. As Jimmy tries to shoot an interview for his new book in the living room, Gretchen lurks in the basement like a monster under the stairs, waiting to ruin his moment. Edgar and Lindsay try to intervene and save their friends from disaster, but the situation slowly turns into a gleefully comic horror show. Gretchen is unleashed, and it’s magnificent to watch Cash go for the jugular as Geere squirms in dread. The whole episode is electric, with sharp directorial touches by Stephen Falk, and it sets a brutal tone for what’s to come.
Season 4, Episode 6, “Witches”
Due to production cycles, we’re only just beginning to see TV creators take on what the recent presidential election has done to our culture, and “Witches” is so far one of the most fascinating approaches to this topic. Entirely devoted to female rage post-T***p — while shrewdly tying in the all-too-human fear of aging — Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer not only spoke from their hearts, but chose to celebrate great women of today in the process. It’s a primal scream of an episode, but one with an ultimately positive energy that gives you hope for the future.
Season 1, Episode 7, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’
With this episode, “Discovery” proves itself worthy of being the newest series of this hallowed franchise. While the concept of a “Groundhog Day” time loop has been done before (specifically in “Star Trek: TNG’s” “Cause and Effect”), this episode utilizes it in the most logical and organic way possible. Scoundrel Harry Mudd (Rain Wilson embodying the role with such balefulness that he eliminates all Dwight Schrute-ness) is deliberately causing the time loop in order to learn vital information about the Discovery that he can sell to the Klingons. He needs each iteration of the loop to build on his information from the last, but of course, this means that once the crew figures out what’s going on, they have the same opportunity. What sets this episode apart from previous time loop narratives is how brilliantly it dispenses with the conventional repetition of events fairly early on and allows the characters to figure out ingenious ways to pick up the thread each time the sequence resets. Add a burgeoning romance that moves a couple of characters forward in the season, and you have a taut, emotional, and highly entertaining installment of TV.
Season 12, Episode 3, “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy”
The gang set its sights on sitcoms in “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy,” using the third episode of a stellar Season 12 to educate audiences on the manipulative trickery of seemingly innocent comedies. After all, “It’s Always Sunny” doesn’t use laugh tracks; it doesn’t use disposable romances to create empathy; in general, it doesn’t manipulate the audience to feel for its characters. If anything, “Sunny” steals laughs from an unwilling audience, rather than milking chuckles from viewers who are so desperate to laugh, they’ll laugh simply because they hear other people laughing.
That being said, “Old Lady House” doesn’t unfairly judge the artistry involved in creating many multi-cam sitcoms. It shows how easy and hard it can be to get it just right while illustrating the difference between what those shows do and what “Sunny” does. It doesn’t want you to stop watching other shows; it wants you to remember who’s controlling your TV shows and to be mindful of how they do so. “Sunny” makes it clear what’s funny and what’s not by keeping their main characters from learning the same lesson. It refuses to let its audience be duped by cheap tricks as easily as Mac and Charlie are manipulated by Dennis the puppet master.
Season 6, Episode 4, “Justice”
Tony Hale gets to take over “Justice,” a dream episode for both the Emmy-winning actor and his character, Gary Walsh. There’s the awkward, $5 million back massage he gives Sherman Tanz (Jonathan Hadary), a potential donor to Selina’s library. There’s the hysterical heart attack he suffers in the background of a shot, falling over at the very mention that Selina might suffer the same fate. And then there’s his unfiltered state in the hospital, allowing him to say whatever comes to mind thanks to the painkillers he’s on post-heart attack. He’s funny when he’s big, funny when he’s barely seen, and funny when he’s center-frame, precisely poking at the back of another actor. As for Gary, he gets to live out his ultimate fantasy: sleeping with Selina Meyer. No, no, the two aren’t a couple, but Gary would suffer a million heart attacks if it meant waking up next to Selina one more time — and he might. He’s had three already before turning 40. Long live Gary, and long let Tony Hale reign.
Season 1, Episode 9, “I Survived Jessi’s Bat Mitzvah”
There’s a lot of “Big Mouth” that focuses on new beginnings. But this episode showed that puberty is just as much about endings, too. Andrew and Missy’s breakup, Jessi watching her parents’ marriage dissolve even further, and Nick slowly moving away from his mother: going through changes, indeed. Compressing all of these ideas into a single episode would be impossible without the show’s breakneck joke pace (so much happens before we even get to talking shellfish). Tack on an actual appearance of the oft-discussed Guy Bilzarian law commercial and a great showcase for the pair of Hormone Monsters and you have a standout installment of one of the year’s best new shows. After all, what is 2017 if not a chorus of people singing “Life is a Fucked Up Mess” in perfect harmony?
Season 3, Episode 7, “Bagel”
Proposal episodes present many of the same problems for TV shows that real-life couples face. There’s the danger of being too saccharine, too simple, too extravagant, or too far from the spirit of the relationship itself. But leave it to a show that saw its share of surrealness to ensure that the potential start of Josh and Lucy’s engagement would be anything but normal. A riff on Comic-Con, a markedly different take on asking for parents’ permission, and a spinoff-worthy pair of segments with Lucy as Sherlock Holmes made for a rocky, emotional road to “Will you marry me?” that felt completely in line with the heart of the series. There’s true storytelling magic in that closing montage, as simple and pure a representation of love as you’ll see anywhere else. Like much of the series-best Season 3, it was unconventional, but perfect in its own way.
Season 4, Episode 8, “Goodwill”
Mourning is an extremely personal process. While occasionally used as an excuse for bad or odd behavior, everyone really does enter and exit the state of grief differently. That can make it tricky for TV writers to authentically capture characters going through it, as they’re often tempted toward extremes in order to make their series unique.
“Halt and Catch Fire” finds a special place in the discussion by honing in on individuals, not eccentricities. “Goodwill” examines a family who’s just begun to cope with a major and unexpected loss. Tasked with packing up the departed’s belongings, young and old, friends and family, all gather to fight, cry, talk, and stay silent as they attempt to do the impossible. You’ll never look at a Goodwill the same way again — or a bowl of soup, for that matter. That’s just how powerful these personal processes come across: You’re one of the mourners.
Season 4, Episode 2, “USS Calister”
Technically, we should apologize for including this on the list. Because spoilers are bad and “USS Calister” doesn’t premiere until December 29, we can’t tell you much about it. But just know that while the Netflix anthology series might appear to be having some fun with “Star Trek” fan service, what’s actually going on under the surface in “USS Callister” is incisive cultural commentary with a side order of timely horror. Add in the fantastic ensemble — including Jesse Plemons, Crisitin Milioti, and Jimmi Simpson — and the end result is perhaps one of the strongest “Black Mirror” episodes to date.
Season 1, Episode 5, “A Short History of Weird Girls”
“I Love Dick,” as a series, had its fascinating moments, but Episode 5, “A Short History of Weird Girls,” was perhaps the most impactful installment overall. A series of vignettes spotlighting the show’s female energy serves as a complete breakout from the main series, but invokes the show’s fascination with legendary female artists. It pays tribute to creators who had come before while also developing the women of the series beyond (the always awesome) Kathryn Hahn. “A Short History of Weird Girls,” on its own, is a fascinating experiment. But it’s also a vital part of one of 2017’s most intriguing series.
Season 1, Episode 6, “Chapter 6”
Trust FX and Noah Hawley to bring together a superhero story unlike anything that’s ever been seen on TV. While the mind of the (mutant? schizophrenic?) David Haller proves to be a rich playground for some of the most trippy and frisky scenes imaginable – the Bollywood dance and “Bolero” fight scene particularly come to mind – “Chapter 6” brings all of that combined with vital storytelling in the space of one episode. While the shared hallucination places each of David’s team in the hot seat as their psyches are laid bare, the puzzle begins to unravel, which lays the groundwork for a big revelation: the frightening Devil With Yellow Eyes is far more insidious than expected. David’s mind has been too fertile, too convoluted, which has allowed someone with the face of his friend Lenny to hide out. This culminates in the episode’s highlight: an exuberant dance set to “Feelin’ Good,” which is the psychic equivalent to sinister schadenfreude. On “Legion,” the battle of good versus evil is still happening, but instead of punches and laser blasts, it weaponizes trickery and style.
It’s easy to pick finales for a best episodes list. So much of the season’s narrative is either building to them or being saved for them, finales are typically a safe bet for relevance, action, and conclusions. “The Leftovers” finale delivered all three and more, but it should also be admired as an entity unto itself.
A woman, heartbroken over the loss of her children, risks her life to see them again. Next thing we know, it’s decades into the future. The same woman is now living alone, in Australia, when she’s visited by the former love of her life. They talk. They dance. There are doves, goats, and bike rides. But in the end, it’s all about that first scene: Did the risk pay off? Did the woman see her children again?
The belief she craves so much that she fears even asking for it can be felt in every frame of Mimi Leder’s ambitious, beautiful ending. Each word written by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta carries meaning built up by the 27 episodes preceding this, but never do they have to betray the immediacy of this hour-long episode. It’s a love story, and an impeccable one at that. To say that it’s just a good ending lessens the creative gamble taken by all involved. It’s a damn fine episode of television.
Season 3, Episode 7, “The Ricklantis Mixup”
Pressing pause on the adventures of the Rick and Morty audiences have come to know and love (and be slightly skeptical of at times), the show took a diversion through The Citadel. “Rick and Morty” has always used the flexible rules of the multiverse to its full potential, but diving into the day-to-day life of the divergent Ricks and Mortys in a walled-off environment was transformative in a way that not even a sentient cucumber could be. Some of the series’ best episodes have been its densest (just remember how many brand new characters cycled through “Total Rickall”), but doing it on a city-wide scale, bringing in stories of police violence, workplace exploitation, and teenage angst is a complex web worth parsing out. (When a Steve Jobs version of Rick is the 1,843rd most jarring thing about the episode, you know it’s done its job.) It’s a profound, bold gamble of an episode, one that manages to speak volumes about commercialism and corruption on every level.
Season 4, Episode 7, “Finding Frances”
This feature-length finale preserved some of the trademark touches that ran through much of the four seasons of “Nathan for You”: awkward auditions, neverending quests for love, unnecessarily convoluted routes to simple solutions. Somehow, Fielder and Co. manage to tell the story of one man’s search for a bygone sweetheart without betraying all the reasons why it might not be the best idea in the first place. By capturing all the messy emotions that come with dredging up the past, it embraces every bit of what some parts of people’s minds would rather keep hidden. Across pop-up high school reunions and through the contents of long-neglected microfiche, “Finding Frances” is the natural evolution of every metafictional aspect the show has woven into its fabric from the outset. (Oh, and there’s a running gag about a nonexistent sequel and its matching merchandise that might be the best joke of the year.) “Nathan for You” has always taken up residence right in the heart of “too good to be true.” Pulling back the facade just enough, it arrived at a story so poignant that it almost doesn’t matter whether it is or not.
Season 1, Episode 5, “Chapter V”
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.
Season 4, Episode 11, “Time’s Arrow”
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.
Season 3, Episode 1, “Yes Means Yes”
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.
Season 2, Episode 3, “Dance Dance Resolution”
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.
Season 2, Episode 9, “White Rock”
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.
Season 2, Episode 8, “Thanksgiving”
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.
Season 3, Episode 2, “Don’t Be Ridiculous”
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.
Season 1, Episode 3, “Late”
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.
Season 3, Episode 8, “Part 8”
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.
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