15. “Daredevil” – Nelson v. Murdock (Episode 10)
It’s character relationships which are the soul of any TV series, and the friendship between besties/law partners Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) might be the most essential to Netflix’s take on the blind vigilante of Hell’s Kitchen. Which is why it’s fascinating, in Episode 10, when the show decides to blow it up. The flashbacks to Matt and Foggy’s college days are fun, but what makes the episode unforgettable is Foggy’s present-day anger and hurt over discovering what his friend has been up to behind his back. Much of “Nelson vs. Murdock” functions as a two-hander — brother against brother — and not only is its placement within the season structurally great, but seeing Henson cope with the reveals before him is his strongest acting work on the series to date.
14. “Parks and Recreation” – Leslie and Ron (Episode 4)
“Parks and Recreation” took plenty of daring turns in its goodbye season, but even those it didn’t entirely charm would have to admit to the quality of “Leslie and Ron.” By putting its two best characters in a room with nowhere to go and no one else to talk to, executive producer and co-creator Michael Schur gave fans one last royal rumble for the ages between these two clashing ideologies. It was bigger and badder than ever, as both parties were hammering away at personal rather than political problems, and the twist at the bottom of it all paid off big. I’d wager even the driest eyes — like Ron Swanson’s — felt a few tears well up within.
13. “Parenthood” – May God Bless You and Keep You (Episode 13)
Very few people can pull of a series finale quite like Jason Katims. Fewer still can produce as many “happy tears” as his shows do, be it in the pilot or the last few seconds of the ending. “May God Bless You and Keep You” served as a fitting example of how to end a series the right way: closure was given, progress was made, but characters were prioritized over all else. You can flash forward as far as you want into the future, but it’s the small moments that really matter. “Parenthood” had more than its fair share, and still never lost its balance.
12. “Louie” – A La Carte (Episode 2)
The early (and arguably best) episodes of “Louie” Season 5 focused on Louis CK’s relationship with tempestuous love interest Pam, as the pair attempted to establish adult boundaries for their very adult relationship. Those power struggles, those fumbling attempts at happiness, immediately follow Louie crapping himself on the street. It’s the perfect example of the show’s talent for crude humor and grand ideas.
11. “Togetherness” – Kick the Can (Episode 5)
One of the best things about the Duplass brothers’ transition to television is how well their style is already suited for the small screen. So many of their characters are built to last, and the writers/directors of films like “Cyrus” and “The Do-Deca Pentathalon” are experts at illuminating the pleasure and pain of day-to-day life, sans extremes. In short, these traits make it hard to choose just one episode from their superb debut season of “Togetherness.” But considering that the season functioned — in the end — as a slow but steady deconstruction of a failing but loving marriage, the fifth episode, “Kick the Can,” serves as a joyful and heartbreaking turning point. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Melanie Lynskey rocks it, either.
10. “Grace and Frankie” – The Elevator (Episode 10)
The Netflix original, upon launch, was not met with universal critical acclaim; despite the talents of its cast, there were concerns that the show’s writing was too mired in co-creator Marta Kauffman’s roots as the producer of multi-camera sitcoms. Thus, when “The Elevator” begins with one of sitcom-land’s most cliche tropes — oh no! all of our main characters are stuck in an elevator together! — there was reason to be concerned. Instead, though, this proved to be the kickoff for an episode-long flashback to a pivotal weekend in the lives of these families, one that proved truly revelatory about a number of issues, especially the question of how Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) had kept their secret for so long. “The Elevator” kept us trapped without the need for actual physical limits, unlike…
9. “Archer” – Vision Quest (Episode 5)
In a season that got back to basics in the best way imaginable, “Archer” found its peak in a perfectly staged bottle episode. Rather than try to encapsulate its beauty in a few choice words, I’m going to let Archer speak for himself (just look at this phrasing(!)):
8. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” – Government Surveillance (Episode 8)
“Last Week Tonight” has been killing it since its earliest days on HBO, and one of the ways the show has truly triumphed is the way it eschews any concept of limits. John Oliver, it seems, will literally go anywhere or talk to anyone for a good story, which is why, last April, he found himself in Russia interviewing Edward Snowden, the bad boy “Citizenfour” whistleblower who became an international outlaw after he leaked classified NSA information. In their one-on-one sit-down, Snowden schooled Oliver hard on the reality of government surveillance with his established nerdy wit and charm. The episode was a seminal one for both the show and anyone who was unaware of the depths to which our government has access to our data.
7. “The Comedians” – The Red Carpet (Episode 3)
For those who were on the fence about the Billy Crystal/Josh Gad comedy, “The Red Carpet” was a make-it-or-break-it moment, due largely to its major comedy set piece: Crystal and Gad, who are supposed to be going to an awards show together, instead get high and make a trip to a grocery store. It’s a pivotal scene not just for the show, but for the series; watching Crystal and Gad improv their way through the aisles cements their legitimate creative chemistry as well as the show’s capacity for greatness. Plus, there are some amazing “Blackfish” jokes. After “The Red Carpet,” “Comedians” became something must-see.
6. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” – Kimmy Rides a Bike!” (Episode 11)
After devoting the bulk of “Kimmy Schmidt’s” first season to Kimmy’s efforts to fit back into normal society (as normal as New York City seen through the eyes of Tina Fey can ever be, anyway), Episode 11 brought the show back to the core drama of its premise, while kicking off the season’s final plotlines. It’s a pretty star-studded episode. For one thing, it introduces Jon Hamm as the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who once again proved that, against all sense of rationality or fairness, he’s both really, really good-looking and really, really funny. In addition, Fey, Nick Kroll and Jerry Minor are also featured in minor roles. But here’s why it matters: For just one episode, there are a lot of big ideas to be found here, including a pretty heartfelt questioning of why women find themselves willingly giving up their power to men. It’s all part of why this show has proven to be much more memorable than the average comedy fare. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” knew how dark life could be and was oftentimes funnier for it.
5. “Better Call Saul” – Five-0 (Episode 6)
“Five-O” will hopefully soon be known as the episode for which Jonathan Banks won his first Primetime Emmy Award. A two-time prior nominee, Banks poured his heart and soul into an eye-opening hour for his character, Mike Ehrmantraut, who has been a fan favorite since he was first introduced on “Breaking Bad.” “Five-O” also depicted an important shift-change for “Better Call Saul,” as the prequel series shifted from its linear path to travel even further back in time and give a crucial supporting player his requisite backstory. Never has flashing back felt like such a leap forward — for both Mike and “Better Call Saul.”
4. “The Americans” – Stingers (Episode 10)
Season 3 of “The Americans” — if not the entire series — was building up to this: Paige, her curiosity peaked by the suspicious behavior of her parents, forced them to sit down and tell her their secret. Rather than duck the question or force the scenario via surprise (think about if Paige had discovered a dead body or walked in on her parents wearing wigs), Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg did what any good parents would do: they had the hard talk and absolutely nailed it. Paige, Philip and Elizabeth’s dinner table discussion was a game-changing moment for the series and the spy genre in general, even though not one bullet was fired. “The Americans” has always illustrated the power of human emotion over typical tradecraft, and never has it been more effective than this.
3. “Inside Amy Schumer” – 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer (Episode 3)
This bold third season experiment for the critically-acclaimed sketch comedy series might, on the surface, have had limited appeal: How many people, after all, get excited about the idea of a detail-rich remake of a 1950s black and white classic, with dildo jokes? But anyone who gave it a shot was treated to one of the year’s most savage and hilarious comedic treats, featuring an incredible cast and some of the show’s sharpest writing yet when it comes to how women are judged based on their personal appearance. Something as special as this episode belongs in a museum. But for now, this list will have to do.
2. “Veep” – Testimony (Episode 9)
In a season packed with A-grade episodes, “Testimony” stood out because of key formal and informal decisions. First, creator and showrunner Armando Iannucci decided to depict the entire episode via “found footage.” Thankfully, that didn’t lead to a cinema verite-esque episode — “Testimony” only showed characters from (fake) C-SPAN footage or recorded depositions — instead, it inventively explored D.C. politics from the most typical POV: an outsider’s. What else separated the episode from an exceptional pack? Oh, just a little something called The Jonad Files. That’s a gift you just can’t say “thank you” for enough.
1. “Mad Men” – “Lost Horizon” (Episode 12)
While we were big fans of the finale — as well as “Mad Men’s” entire final (half-)season — “Lost Horizon” featured the poetic beauty of many touching small moments perfectly blended with three major shake-ups. Don left his job for an ill-conceived but life-changing road trip (it took a tongue-lashing from Diana’s ex to get him to forget about that woman — or any woman — saving him); Peggy spent the day as Roger’s audience, bidding a touching and hilarious farewell to their offices before walking into McCann with the most badass hangover of all time.
Meanwhile, poor Joan was met with the sexist anger of her new bosses and forced to leave the post she fought harder to obtain than any other partner. Matthew Weiner knew how to pair the highs of “Mad Men” with its lows, especially when seeking to make an impact. “Lost Horizon” was an ideal illustration of getting every last detail just right.