It’s become muddier thanks to the advent of prestige cable drama and VOD, but in general, the TV season begins after each September’s Emmys, and as such, we pick out our best shows of the ‘year’ in the summer —you can find our last list, which was topped by “True Detective,” right here.
But with the lines between the big and small screens becoming ever more blurry, we didn’t want to completely exclude television from our year-end extravaganza (catch up on everything here), and we’ve included shout-outs throughout our Best of 2014 coverage. But we also wanted to do something more TV-centric.
So, as we did last year, we’ve picked out the finest individual TV episodes of 2014. Some are from shows that made our Best Shows list, others are from ones that didn’t or that have debuted since —otherwise, the only firm rule is that we’d go with one episode per show. So with no further ado, to take you into the Christmas break, here are the Playlist’s pick of the best TV episodes of the year —let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
It should hopefully go without saying, but MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead.
15. “Broad City” – Season 1, Episode 8, “Destination Wedding”
“Maybe this is one of those really romantic New York City stories where you meet someone amazing and then —pow!— tragedy happens, and they’re gone and you never see them again” says a character early on in this episode. Then again, this is “Broad City” and maybe this is one of those really stupid, funny New York stories where promising relationships end over the “dealbreaker” of having to go to Penn Station. It’s a mark of how immediately assured the show was (it had a previous life as a web show which clearly knocked off any rough edges before its Comedy Central debut) that already in its first season it attempted something like “Destination Wedding,” a kind of storyline that most shows don’t get to play with till two or three seasons in. There’s no subplot to speak of, the characters are not in any of their familiar haunts, and they are shown in a slightly different configuration than usual —it takes huge confidence in your ensemble to carry this off, but also confidence that your audience are already comfortable enough with the show’s format to be able to take a complete shake-up. Of course it helps that stars and writers Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer pack the episode with so many running jokes (literally: the whole show, everyone’s hoofing it on the streets, bikes, and in the cabs, vans, buses and train stations of New York), callback gags and gorgeous moments of deeply insightful character development. That the gang are trying to get to a Connecticut wedding and are thwarted is essentially the plot line, but there is so much more going on than the “Planes Trains and Automobiles” stuff, as the interpersonal relationships between all of them are scratched away at under the pressure of the ticking clock. It’s so cleverly done that the reunion of the film’s central relationship, between Abbi and Ilana themselves, feels well-earned and satisfying —it may be a classic sitcom set-up, but the writing and characterization is fresh and invested with real stakes. And how can we but love characters who end what should be a day at a fancy wedding party by going together into “Thrusts” Gentleman’s Club?
14. “Girls” – Season 3, Episode 9, “Flo”
There’s rarely a bad episode of “Girls,” but many of the show’s finest half-hours feel like little self-contained playlets, often removing the characters from their usual environments —think Hannah’s return to her parents in season one’s “The Return,” or second season episodes “One Man’s Trash” with Patrick Wilson, or the visit to Jessa’s father in “Video Games.” The third season, arguably the show’s most consistent, had a few of these, but while the fight-fuelled “Beach House” was terrific, we preferred episode nine, “Flo.” Penned by cartoonist and “Seinfeld” writer Bruce Eric Kaplan, and directed by “Dom Hemingway” helmer Richard Shepard, “Flo” serves as something of a sequel to “The Return,” as Hannah rushes upstate to see her Grandma (“Nebraska” Oscar nominee June Squibb), who’s seemingly dying of pneumonia. The rest of that branch of the family are gathered too, with her mom (Becky Ann Baker) pushing Hannah to tell Flo that she’s engaged to Adam (Adam Driver) so she can die happy, even as she bickers with her siblings (Deirdre Lovejoy and Amy Morton), while Hannah herself fails to bond with her cousin (the always-welcome Sarah Steele). For a show nominally centered on four friends, “Girls” has always been great at capturing family dynamics, and this episode almost ends up feeling like it could be a pilot for a spin-off focused on Baker and her siblings, with Steele and Squibb also delivering top-notch performances, and Lena Dunham happy to take the back seat and let the excellent women around her steal the show. It also moves Hannah and Adam’s relationship forward in a very smart, precipitous way, and includes a painful gut-punch of a stinger that lingered longer than the end of a comedy show normally would.
13. “The Leftovers” Season 1, Episode 6, “Guest”
When we first heard about casting changes for the second season of “The Leftovers,” we were in full panic mode —until we saw that Carrie Coon would be returning. She was the biggest surprise of the freshman season; her character Nora is the epicenter of grief for those left behind. And “Guest” focuses solely on her, spending time in Mapleton before she leaves for a conference in Manhattan. Her pre-trip errands aren’t typical: buying food for her absent family, getting a divorce from her philandering, disappeared husband; and hiring a prostitute to shoot her while she’s wearing Kevlar —she makes jokes when she runs into Kevin (Justin Theroux) at the courthouse, but only the physical pain of being shot in the chest matches her sadness. She lets loose at the conference after discovering someone has stolen her badge, letting her temporarily abandon her celebrity status and public grief. But the episode is at its most interesting when a man asks her “do you want to feel this way?” and leads her to Wayne (Paterson Joseph). The leader has seemed like a sham, but the normally cynical Nora collapses immediately, and experiences her first feelings of relief. With its air of almost uninterrupted melancholy, “The Leftovers” is too much for some viewers, but the “Guest” provides a brief respite for the audience, and even occasionally dares to be funny.
12. “You’re The Worst” – Episode 8, “Finish Your Milk”
One of the more unsung exponents of this year’s exemplary television season was “You’re the Worst,” a brittle little sitcom on FX that focused on the blossoming romance between two Los Angeles-based commitment-phobes: hot mess publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash) and equally hot-messy British novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere). In this episode, their relationship, already built on unsteady foundations, reaches its low point —Jimmy uncomfortably yells at Gretchen’s WASP-y parents and Gretchen finds an engagement ring in Jimmy’s drawer not intended for her. The couple (if that’s the right word) even breaks up (again: not sure that’s the right term). But all that makes it seem like a trite relationship sitcom when it’s much more complicated and emotionally three dimensional, thanks largely to a wonderful script by Eva Anderson and ace direction by Matt Shakman. These characters are damaged goods, and their vulnerability is what makes “You’re the Worst” so compelling and what also what makes episodes transcend the time-tested formula of similar comedies. The pain enhances the comedy and vice versa, and the actors pull it off spectacularly.
11. “Gravity Falls” – Season 2, Episode 2, “Into The Bunker”
For those not prone to watching animated series on Disney XD: “Gravity Falls” is the greatest, weirdest, most ambitious animated series currently on television. Yes, the comparisons to “The X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” are totally justified, but it’s golden age “The Simpsons” that feels like the more immediate touchstone, particularly during the show’s second season, which has become stranger and more complex mythologically. Its singular status is typified by the episode “Into the Bunker,” which nestles awkward pre-teen interaction inside a vast conspiracy (and a handful of excellent John Carpenter references). This is the moment when the show’s limitless imagination makes you identify squeamishly with your own youth. The show follows twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) who spend a summer away from home with their oddball great uncle Stan (series creator Alex Hirsch), who operates a phony museum of the weird while all sorts of actual fantastical business unwittingly happens around him. In “Into the Bunker,” Dipper and Mabel search for the author of a mysterious journal detailing the town’s oddness, while trying to look cool in front of Dipper’s eternal crush Wendy (Linda Cardellini, one of a number of reasons the show also feels reminiscent of “Freaks and Geeks“). They descend into an old bomb shelter (“Was this place built in the past or the future?”), looking for the author, but instead encounter a shape-shifting beast… all while Dipper’s affection is revealed in a super-embarrassing way. This episode encapsulates what makes “Gravity Falls” so wildly underseen, and certainly not just for kids —it’s scary and funny and relatable. It’s the rare series that, as its mythology continues to deepen, never loses sight of what’s really important.
10. “Game Of Thrones” – Season 4, Episode 10, “The Children”
Though fans of the books were left wondering why a certain character never made an appearance (click here only if you don’t care about spoilers from the book that haven’t happened in the show), the finale of the fourth season of the still consistently superb “Game Of Thrones” was still one of the richest hours that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have presented to date. Several major character arcs conclude, others reach major turning points, and the action is thrilling, particularly that final fight between The Hound (Rory McCann, who’ll be much missed if this is the last we’ve seen of him) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Director Alex Graves had the challenge of following up another battle-heavy penultimate episode from Neil Marshall, whose “Watchers on the Wall” could be on this list as well (that episode out-Peter Jacksons the third ‘Hobbit’ movie in some respects). But it’s a great episode because it does what the show does best: kill off major characters (Charles Dance going out as he came in, sneeringly and gloriously contemptuous), thrilling tête-à-tête dialogue scenes, and just enough supernatural/magical cool shit, all couched in gorgeous production design and cinematography. In many ways, season 4 acted as “The Empire Strikes Back” of this series, with each thread reaching a clean break, yet still setting up what’s to come. Season 5 can’t get here soon enough.
9. “Rectify” – Season 2, Episode 7, “Weird as You”
Sundance’s soulful gem “Rectify” may be based around the mystery of whether or not Daniel Holden (Aden Young) killed his girlfriend, Hanna —and if not, who did— but it doesn’t have any of the trappings of the standard procedural. That said, second season highlight “Weird as You” hums with as much tension and discomfort as any thriller. Daniel’s interactions with Trey (Sean Bridgers) while drinking and getting high in George’s trailer had us itching in our seats. The episode’s hallucinatory first scene establishes the feeling of dread, with both Trey and George (Michael Traynor) appearing in Daniel’s dream, though we know George is dead. As substances take them further from reality, Trey reveals more about the night Hanna died, and the camera goes in and out of focus, reflecting their mental state and making everyone unsure of what is real. The scenes tell us a bit more about that night, but we were more immediately concerned with Trey’s intentions toward the far-too-trusting Daniel. The side stories of “Weird as You” —Amantha (Abigail Spencer) getting high with a coworker and a bit of redemption for Teddy Jr. (Clayne Crawford)— provide balance and breaks from the unease of Daniel’s main plotline, making this an episode that is quintessentially “Rectify”: impressionistic, intriguing, gently devastating and like nothing else on television.
8. “Orange Is The New Black” – Season 2, Episode 12, “It Was The Change”
Even considering its stellar first run, Netflix’s prison drama “Orange Is The New Black” came roaring back with a second season that was even stronger, expanding and exploring its incredible ensemble of characters further with the same blend of humor and pathos that defined the show initially, while also giving a stronger narrative backbone thanks to the top-notch villainy of Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee. All the show’s strengths were on display in the penultimate episode of the season, “It Was The Change” (directed by “Junebug” helmer Phil Abraham), set during a storm that’s cut the power to the jail and forced the inmates to sleep in the mess hall. Jenji Kohan and her writers expertly start to bring the series’ various threads to a head, as Piper (Taylor Schilling) investigates the governor’s corruption, Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat)’s life ebbs away, and, on a lighter note, Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) attempts to become a lesbian. But the heart of the episode is the rivalry between Vee and Red (Kate Mulgrew), which boils over into two brutal fights, even as a truth is struck. But most fascinating of all are Vee’s flashbacks, showcasing Toussaint’s titanic performance and showing the depths of her character’s sociopathy and manipulation even before she landed back in the joint. It’s an episode that comes close to being flawless: another few like this, and “Orange Is The New Black” will have cemented its place among the all-time greats.
7. “Review” – Season 1, Episode 3, “Pancake, Divorce, Pancakes”
One of the most disappointingly underseen comedies of 2014 was also one of the most original (even if the show is technically a remake of an Australian series). So if you’re looking for a way to get hooked on “Review,” “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” the funniest half-hour of TV this year, is the way to do it. The show sees Andy Daly play Forrest MacNeil, who hosts a show in which he reviews life experiences requested by his viewers, which take on increasingly destructive effects. MacNeil’s tasks range from Stealing and Making A Sex Tape to Being Batman and Marrying A Stranger, but as you might imagine, episode three begins with what would seem to be a relatively simple one: eating fifteen pancakes. It’s a feat of gastronomic endurance that proves harder than it seems, leaving Forrest vomiting in the parking lot, but a viewer wants to know what it’s like to get divorced, and our hero, forbidden to back out by his producer (a devilish James Urbaniak), separates from his beloved wife Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair). And just when you think things can’t get worse: he’s challenged to eat a further thirty pancakes, a development that left us gasp-laughing for about two minutes after. The writing of the show is phenomenal throughout, but it becomes transcendent thanks to Daly’s performance, which goes from cheerful can-do to crushed in the space of twenty minutes.
6 .”Hannibal” – Episode 13, “Mizumono”
The second season of Bryan Fuller‘s “Hannibal” was masterful television, a rococo nightmare soap opera brought to life with buckets of blood and plenty of brains. The show reached its peak in its final episode, a gore-soaked dénouement that still has us wondering who (if anybody) got out alive. The season had been positioned around FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who was first seduced and then ultimately deceived by cunning psychiatrist/serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). In the final episode, all of Will’s double-dealings (he had been implicated in at least one killing himself) and attempts to oust Hannibal came to a bloody head within Hannibal’s home. It’s a fitting location for a climax, with the different rooms and reversals symbolizing the different compartments of Lecter’s mind, and the relationship between Hannibal and Will had become so twisted this seems like the only possible outcome. By the end of the insanely tense hour, it looks like just about everyone could have been killed —Lecter’s conquest Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) is splayed out on the sidewalk after being pushed out a window, Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) have been stabbed, and Abigail (Kacey Rohl) has had her throat slit. The episode was an impossibly tense full-bodied meal, one that Hannibal himself would have appreciated, and it came complete with a wonderful dessert: a shot, after the closing credits, of Hannibal on a plane with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson). Wherever they’re headed (and by the looks of the names of next season’s episodes, it’s Italy), mayhem will surely follow. Let’s just hope it’s as beautiful and brilliantly orchestrated as the season two finale (co-written by Fuller and directed by “Hard Candy” filmmaker David Slade).
5. “The Good Wife” – Season 5, Episode 16, “The Last Call”
Some shows might have buckled after learning that one of their main actors wanted to leave. But Josh Charles’ decision to depart “The Good Wife” (for which he helpfully gave a year’s notice) proved to be the thing that tipped the series from being a reliably terrific procedural to one of the very best dramas on TV, giving the writers an excuse to rip up the status quo and build towards the death of Will Gardner (Charles) at the hands of one of his clients. It could have been the kind of soapy move that happens every other week on some shows, but that “The Good Wife” rarely went to that well made it all the more powerful. However, it was what the series did immediately after that proved to be the high watermark to date. “The Last Call” deals with the aftermath of the killing and its impact on the various characters, from the impotent rage of Cary (Matt Czuchry, who’s come into his own the last couple of seasons), to the survivor’s guilt of the newly introduced Finn Polmar (Matthew Goode). But the core, as the title suggests, was a final, interrupted voicemail left by Will for his ex-lover and estranged business partner Alicia (Julianna Marguiles). She desperately spends the hour imagining and trying to find out what he could have been trying to say —something furious? Something passionate? Something mundane? But the answer, as is so often the case when someone’s taken away abruptly, is unknowable. The episode’s refusal to shy away from that —and from the moments of humor that come along with the pain— make it one of the the most truthful and haunting explorations of grief on network TV since the famous “The Body” episode of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”
4. “Southcliffe” – Episode 1, “The Hollow Shore”
If you haven’t heard of “Southcliffe” yet, we understand (even though we championed it months ago). “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Sean Durkin‘s powerful miniseries about a small-town mass shooting, penned by “Red Riding” scribe and Terry Gilliam collaborator Tony Grisoni, was picked up by Netflix after first airing on the UK’s Channel 4 (and a few film festivals) last year. Though we’re hard pressed to pick just one piece of this emotionally devastating, synergistic puzzle —the whole is definitely greater— why not start at the beginning: Less than two minutes into its first episode, after a cold open in which an elderly woman going about her day is shot by an undefined but purposeful killer, “Southcliffe” grips hard and never lets go. The first of four 45-minute episodes sets the pieces and players in motion, ending on as much a downer as it started (shout out to the brilliant use of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” at the end credits). It’s as cinematic as anything we saw this year, with Durkin’s intrinsically unsettling and singular feel for editing blasting us back and forth in time to haunting effect. The performances (including a BAFTA-winning Sean Harris and excellent turns from Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson, Joe Dempsie and particularly Anatol Yusef) are consistently vivid, the violence, focus and style intense and elevated by a perfect balance of near-journalistic remove, filmic impressionism (mood, tone, atmosphere), and fully-earned emotional heft. Trust us: it’s worth your time.
3. “True Detective” Episode 5, “The Secret Fate Of All Life”
Episode 4 had that astonishing one-take shootout, certainly the most memorable sequence of this utterly engrossing HBO series’ first season and one that we’ve talked about at some length before. But after taking a hard look at all eight episodes as whole chapters —each with their own macro crescendos and arcs— the follow-up episode, when we learn that our heroes are completely unreliable narrators, was the real standout. Director Cary Fukunaga and his editor on this episode (Alex Hall) give a masterclass on how audio and visuals can play off each other so well, overlaying the present-day interview dialogue on the images of the past to show the clear contradiction between the two. When Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson) are going into a relatively serene environment but describing it as if they walked into a war zone, one reconsiders everything we thought we knew up to that point, and moves the series toward its more traditional, but still satisfying conclusion. “True Detective” was accused (by some) of flubbing the ending, plagiarizing, and walking in countless cliches, but it’s hard to deny the power of this sequence and the entire episode in which it appears.
2. “The Knick” – Season 1, Episode 7, “Get The Rope”
Despite its setting at the turn of the last century, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” feels modern and electric, and the series’ seventh episode, “Get the Rope,” is its most urgent and timely. After a black man stabs an Irish cop, New York erupts into riots, with black men and women being attacked as they walk down the street and an angry mob attempts to break into the Knick when the doctors begin treating the victims. The episode starts off quietly, with a flashback to a put-together, presumably pre-cocaine addiction Thackeray (Clive Owen), and then jumps to him having to be woken up in a brothel. After that moment, “Get the Rope” doesn’t let its audience breathe. After the mob breaks down the doors and smashes up the Knick, tension reaches a peak when the doctors try to move their operations to a black infirmary across town, walking boldly through the still roiling streets, wheeling their patients along with black surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) hiding under a sheet on a gurney. Lesser directors might have cut to Lucy (Eve Hewson) outsmarting the bloodthirsty mob, but Soderbergh keeps the focus on Edwards, letting us live through his fear and ultimate relief upon arrival at safer ground. The final scene is a respite from the chaos, with Lucy (and the audience) finally getting the chance to take a breath. It’s one of the most beautifully crafted and exciting Soderbergh creations and a perfect episode of television.
1. “Transparent” Season 1, Episode 7, “Symbolic Exemplar”
Every episode of season one of “Transparent” was near-faultless, packing heart, humor, pathos and compassion into finely wrought 30 minute gems. But episode 7, “Symbolic Exemplar” perfectly exemplified this approach, and creator Jill Soloway’s remarkable ability to craft moments that switch between melancholy and absurd humor without sacrificing either emotion. The episode (scripted by Soloway’s sister Faith) primarily revolves around the Trans Got Talent show Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) is performing in with Davina (Alexandra Billings) and to which the kids have promised to show up. Sarah (Amy Landecker) arrives stoned, with her newly minted weed card and new lover Tammy (Melora Hardin). Josh (Jay Duplass) is freaked out in general, but especially by his deep connection with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). Ali also has a new love prospect, Dale (Ian Harvie), the TA in her Women’s Studies class who happens to be a trans man and about whom Ali has conjured up an intense masculine fantasy. During Maura and Davina’s rendition of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the kids get the giggles and ditch the performance, profoundly disappointing Maura, which registers to worsening degrees on her face as she glances at their empty chairs during the song. The lyric is perfectly pitched, echoing Davina’s warning about losing one’s family during the transition process. Maura truly thought she had kept her tight-knit clan together, trusting in them during this vulnerable time. But they let her down at the last minute, because they are simply selfish, a fact that finally dawns on Maura. It’s devastatingly sad, but also shot through with hilarious and absurd moments and studded with throwaway jokes. A perfect example of the tonal blend and emotional depths that makes this show so unique and so moving.
Honorable Mentions: Aside from all the other episodes that could have made the cut from the shows featured above, there were plenty of other worthy half-hours or hours that could have made the list on a different day. Something that inspired a certain amount of debate was Lisa Chodolenko‘s excellent “Olive Kitteridge,” which we raved about in our review from Venice. It’s a slightly grey area, but we ultimately decided that the four-parter, like “Mildred Pierce” before it, ultimately needed to be considered as a whole, whereas shows like “Southcliffe” and “True Detective” were more easily split into episodes.
Elsewhere, we were very close to including an episode of “Fargo,” with the pilot and “Buridan’s Heap” being the closest to making it. “The Americans” had one of the most consistent seasons of drama this year, so much so that we struggled to separate a single episode from the pack. “Veep” and “Louie” were also great this year —we’d probably favor “Debate” or the two-part finale from the former, and the “In The Woods” flashback ep from the latter. Not to forget “Silicon Valley” and its eighth episode, “Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency.” “Brooklyn Nine Nine“‘s been on good form (season 1’s “The Bet” probably remains the highlight), while “Parks & Recreation” had a strong year, exemplified by final episodes “Moving Up,” and though the season wasn’t back to its full heights even after Dan Harmon‘s return, “Community” episode “Cooperative Polygraphy” was one of its best ever (while Harmon’s other show “Rick & Morty,” had multiple contenders too, perhaps most notably “Meeseeks & Destroy” and “Ricksy Business“).
“Mad Men” got off to a slow start in 2014, but final two episodes “The Strategy” and “Waterloo” were as good as it gets, while we got behind on “Masters Of Sex” but heard there were some good ones early in the season. “Justified” had an off year, but episode five “Shot All To Hell” was a good’un, and all of Sundance‘s “The Honorable Woman” was great (though, like “Olive Kitteridge,” it proved hard to pick out just one). “Penny Dreadful” had a few very good eps too, most notably the penultimate “Possession,” and “Sherlock” had three good ones, our favorite being the middle, “The Sign Of Three.” Across the pond, “Doctor Who” had an excellent season, with “Listen” probably proving the highlight, and both “Glue” and “Inside No. 9” might have made the list if they’d crossed the Atlantic yet —keep your fingers crossed they follow “Southcliffe” to the US in 2015.
There were a ton of comedies also in contention, including “Bob’s Burgers,” “Comedy Bang Bang,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Key & Peele,” “Last Night With John Oliver,” “Jane The Virgin,” “Bojack Horseman,” and the end of an era with the last “Colbert Report,” while we either got behind on dramas like “Happy Valley,” “Peaky Blinders,” “The Fall,” or with “Boardwalk Empire,” “Peaky Blinders” and “The Walking Dead,” couldn’t find one strong enough to make the cut. And a special mention to the little-seen, but excellent “Manhattan” —we’re halfway through the season, and if we’d finished it in time, we might well have found space for it too. Anything else we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Kimber Myers, Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor, Erik McLanahan