25. “Game of Thrones,” “The Winds of Winter”
This was a crucial season for “Game of Thrones” co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who, in their sixth year nurturing this beast into life, had to go off-book for the first time since author George R.R. Martin had been outstripped by the TV series. Although the pair pulled off an epic ninth episode — the signature stunner in seasons past — it was the finale that came together the best this year. The opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission because it certainly brings words like “cinematic” to mind. Set to a gorgeous score by Ramin Djawadi, the scene was deftly shepherded by director Miguel Sapochnik to create an almost sadistic amount of tension as we waited for Cersei’s green revenge to be unleashed. Once the catastrophic event occurred though, that was not the end of the dragon ride for us viewers. We swooped up high with Jon Snow being declared “King in the North!” The bottoms of our stomachs fell out when Tommen took his quiet dive out the window. “Game of Thrones” packed all that in and more, and this is when we truly felt that the end game was coming. Seven. Hells.
24. “The X-Files,” “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
As much as we missed Mulder and Scully looking for monsters in primetime, we might have missed Darin Morgan just a little bit more. History will be the true judge of “The X-Files” Season 10, but from the first moment we heard that Morgan (who won an Emmy for his writing work on the show during Season 3) was writing and directing an episode called “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-monster,” we were pretty sure it’d be one of the best things we saw all year long. And in fact, this funny alternate look at human nature, rich with in-jokes for superfans and solid comedy for newcomers, was a delight. Negative points, to be sure, for its cliched and dated take on a trans character, but it was great to see a glimpse of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny flexing their not inconsiderable comedy muscles, in the name of exploring the unknown. It’s always thrilling to hear those words: “It has a monster in it.”
23. “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” “Step in the Arena”
In the episode “Step in the Arena,” Luke Cage is trapped underneath the rubble of the recently decimated Genghis Connie’s and keeping the proprietor from getting crushed. As this drama plays out, we learn through a series of flashback sequences just how Luke acquired his powers through a prison experiment gone wrong. Origin stories are one of the best parts of the superhero mystique, and waiting until the fourth episode only made the revelation more satisfying, even for fans who already knew what went down. The episode took its time to unspool the moment of truth, but never lagged or faltered, even giving us one of the series’ best Easter eggs when it dresses Luke in an outfit reminiscent of his blaxploitation days, complete with tiara. Differing in subject, tone and palette, “Luke Cage” set itself apart from the other Netflix Marvel properties early on, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Sweet Christmas indeed!
22. “The Crown,” “Assassins”
Alex Bailey/Courtesy of Netflix
Peter Morgan’s pristine Netflix drama worked better on an episode-by-episode basis than it did as a whole, and never was that more apparent than in the penultimate episode, “Assassins.” One of the more personally revealing and emotionally honest hours, Episode 9 finds Elizabeth finding resolve within herself as a queen, a woman, and a wife and features perhaps the most powerful moment shared between the royal couple. Furthermore, the B-story is arguably even more memorable, as a telling and turbulent back and forth between Winston Churchill and the artist painting his portrait drives the great politician to a life- (and country) altering decision. Morgan ties together historical decisions and personal discovery without stretching for a connection. Like the series, it flows easily and cleanly, even if it clearly took painstaking effort to make it appear so perfect.
21. “Maya & Marty,” The Combination of Jiminy Glick Bits to Form One New Episode
OK, so technically this isn’t an episode. It’s a compilation of the best parts of “Maya and Marty,” Maya Rudolph and Martin Short’s NBC sketch series that aired over the summer. But they’re all tied together by the same theme, and that connection stems from an old, retired program: “Primetime Glick” (which itself came from “The Martin Short Show.”). Nevertheless, Short revisiting Jiminy Glick proved to be as biting, surprising, and roll-around-funny as ever before. His interviews with Drake and Larry David illustrate how well the character can stir life from a variety of subjects, no matter how passive or antagonistic, but it’s his time with Jerry Seinfeld — perhaps because Short is so close with the fellow comedian — that reaches peak Glick: He can’t get over the “dullness” surrounding Jerry and even falls asleep mid-interview. But it’s his love of Julia Louis-Dreyfus that pushes the segment over the top: “Who was in it?’ Glick asks about “Seinfeld.” “Oh, the woman from ‘Veep’! I love ‘Veep’! Do you ever wish you’d done a show like ‘Veep’?” Jiminy, you had us at “dullness.”
20. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs”
Yes, the idea of Mac and Dennis satirizing suburban married couples is fantastic by itself, but it’s really the demented extremes to which this story goes that makes “Mac & Dennis Move to the Suburbs” a maniacal delight. By streamlining the episode to just the A-story, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” amps up the intensity notch by notch until it explodes in a hysterical crescendo. Howerton is in particularly fine form, venting his repressed rage for maximum laughs, but the whole cast plays key parts throughout the dissection of how a place can define a person. “Sunny” is often forgotten by year’s end, what with its January premieres, but this episode simply could not be overlooked.
19. “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Jessica Place”
Jessica Huang was despondent when her favorite show “Melrose Place” ended the season on a cliffhanger, leaving her to exist “Melrose”-less for the summer…or so she thought. Suddenly, her life became a colorful soap in itself, full of neighborhood intrigue, deception and double-crosses, all set to the “Melrose” soundtrack. In its second year, the ABC comedy ratcheted up its commitment to fun with this high-concept homage that gave Constance Wu a showcase for her slapstick talents and a chance to exercise her signature glint and glower. We also got to learn about Emery’s dark side, which showed that he shares more than just DNA with his mom, and gave Randall Park a chance to do what he does best on the series: Preen while looking absolutely ridiculous, this time in a garish vest from Structure. Oh ‘90s, no wonder we love you. We’re no longer in you.
18. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?”
In the show’s critically acclaimed second season, we finally got to explore the characters who had orbited Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) and their pursuit of the ever-elusive happiness. Not only had Greg accepted that he’s an alcoholic, but in this episode he made an even bigger leap — to seek life elsewhere, away from the toxic chemistry between him and Rebecca. “Crazy Ex” captured this co-dependency in the song “Shitshow,” and the follow-up tap number appropriately and cheekily accompanied the song “We Tapped That Ass.” Side stories about Rebecca’s 911 call viral video and Heather becoming a douche spokeswoman took the episode to the next joyous level.
The episode not only encapsulated the show’s strengths — fearless emotion balanced by irreverence and showmanship — but also how the series has evolved and matured. The romantic comedy demolished its love triangle with Greg’s departure and poised itself for even more upsets to come. We can’t wait, and can never predict, what’s next.
17. “The Girlfriend Experience,” “Home”
Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s TV adaptation of Steven Soderbergh’s film features a number of episodes that stand out for different reasons: “A Friend,” Episode 2, starts Christine’s journey in notable fashion, while the finale marks the most sexualized existential evaluation I’ve ever seen. But the penultimate half-hour addressed questions swirling around the very idea of modern, elective prostitution in a heart-wrenchingly blunt manner. How would you tell your family? Your sister? Your father? Your mother? And how would they react? More important than their specific reactions was the motivation behind them, as well as the motivation behind Christine’s mounted defense. It’s a fittingly complex undertaking for a show that never skirted the issues at hand.
16. “Idiotsitter,” “Hos Before Bros”
Now, we’re not ones to be swayed by a celebrity cameo, so our inclusion of “Idiotsitter’s” Channing Tatum episode is in no way shape or form motivated by the bonus star power. That being said, it did bring us this. And this. And, of course, this verbal masterpiece. But the first season of Jillian Bell and Charlotte Newhouse’s excellent Comedy Central series thrived on the combative nature of its housebound duo, and competing for the affection of a hunky pro football player brought out the best in them both. Plus, you know, it’s Channing Tatum. The guy isn’t just hot. He’s the definition of hot. So you can imagine how much these two comedians upped their game to get at him. Well, you don’t have to imagine. Just watch.
15. “Better Things,” “Future Fever”
To be clear, every episode of Pamela Adlon’s new series is an absolute delight and hilarious in its fierce honesty. This is true of its fifth episode in which 16-year-old Max (Mikey Madison) had an eighth-life crisis when she realized that getting into a good college may not be in the cards for her, killing her dreams of future happiness. Her freak-out distressed her mom Sam (Adlon), who arranged a trip to the mall to make Max wear a suit and show her that she can look and be as successful as anyone.
The episode is an achievement in television for its deceptively simple beauty and ability to go straight to the heart of what we are feeling, even if we don’t know ourselves. Adlon’s particular sensibility is loud and loving throughout, and Madison’s performance in the episode is heartbreakingly gorgeous. What she, Max, and perhaps even Madison, don’t realize is what the adults on the show are all trying to tell her: She is all of us, fears and all. Sam summed it up best: “if you just get a job, you’re still going to love your life because life is good, even at its worst,” she told her daughter. Sneak attack. Cue the waterworks.
14. “High Maintenance,” “Grandpa”
One of the best performances of the year might have been delivered by a dog. Specifically, dog actor Bowdie, the pooch at the center of a truly wonderful episode of HBO’s pot, um, adjacent anthology series. “Grandpa” is told almost entirely from the point of view of Gatsby (Bowdie), who moves from Indiana to Queens with his owner and finds city life to be difficult. Between Bowdie’s expressive face and some brilliant cinematography and direction choices, “Grandpa” transports the viewer into this dog’s world in a way that proves engrossing and at times heartbreaking; it’s a real filmmaking achievement, with the added bonus of featuring a real cute pup.
13. “Better Call Saul,” “Fifi”
Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures Television/AMC
Selecting just one episode from Season 2 is a tough call, because the story woven over 10 episodes was a master class in patient storytelling that somehow never lost a minute of momentum. But “Fifi” was rich with incredible moments for its supporting players — Rhea Seehorn especially shone as she struck out for herself and went hard after the client she knew she deserved. Plus, there’s one of those great “Saul” sequences where we’re forced to sit and watch Jimmy do something we know will ruin everything, one which proves impossible not to watch. And yes, there’s that staggering single-take cold open — we’re still obsessed with it, not because it was doing something beyond revolutionary, but because it did it so well, with a seamless flow. It’s at times hard to explain just what makes “Better Call Saul” so incredibly good. We just know that when we watch this episode, we know why it’s one of the best shows on television.
12. “You’re the Worst,” “Twenty-Two”
The FXX comedy has never shied away from difficult human experiences, so it was just a matter of time before the show delved into Edgar’s PTSD with a full episode focused on the jokey but flailing war vet, portrayed sensitively by Desmin Borges. In a brief period of time, the show was able to convey the ever-changing complexity of Edgar’s everyday ordeal: how those closest to him could be the most tone-deaf to his pain, how much of his senses are muffled under the constant paranoia, the derailing triggers, the suicidal thoughts, the occasional kindred spirit and the little bits of beauty that burst through all too rarely. “You’re the Worst” doesn’t offer up any easy or glib answers, but it was able to humanize PTSD in a way that truly brought it home.
11. “Mr. Robot,” “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes”
Much of this list is devoted to celebrating episodes that really took chances, and there’s a reason for that — when those chances pay off, the results often leave us breathless. The magic of “Mr. Robot’s” descent into multi-camera madness was just such a moment; for its original broadcast airing, USA let Sam Esmail turn the first 20 minutes of the show into a complete retreat into the early 1990s, and the hypercolor sitcom that represented Elliot’s (Rami Malek) state of mind was crazy enough to make us think we were going mad as well. And it wasn’t a gimmick — instead, these scenes were integral to the ongoing battle between Elliot and alter ego Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), a battle which the episode eventually resolved with a poignant denouement that pushed “Mr. Robot” closer to its biggest reveals. All thanks to Alf. God bless you, Alf.
10. “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Not Yet Titled”
Even if you’ve never really seen the appeal of the Golden Globe-winning “comedy” about the eclectic characters surrounding a New York symphony orchestra, this breakout installment might change your mind. Beautifully written and directed by Roman Coppola (and notably shot on color 16mm film), “Not Yet Titled” is presented as a documentary made by somewhat pretentious music journalist Bradford Sharpe (Jason Schwartzman), and chronicles the orchestra traveling to Rikers Island to perform a concert for the men in prison there. To blur the line between reality and fiction beyond the documentary format itself, “Mozart” actually shot the episode on location, and played a concert for real inmates, who speak to the power of getting to see a live symphony for the first time. It’s the biggest creative risk the show has taken to date, but the result is something truly special, bringing together the show’s populist message that music is a vital nutrient for the human soul.
9. “The Get Down,” “Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope For a Treasure”
With a little help from a generous budget, Baz Luhrmann’s first directorial effort for the small screen felt every bit as vibrant as the best of his work on the big screen. Alive with youthful vigor, “The Get Down” premiere set a distinct tone for the season, but the feature-length edit wooed us with its immediately identifiable romantic pairing, sweeping visuals, and music that drove the beats of the story. This was a world we’d never seen before — not like this — and its presentation was so boisterously entertaining, engrossing, and enlivening it further drove home the powerful emotions of ambitious young ‘uns in love. “Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope For a Treasure” marked a tremendous start for a series we can’t wait to see more of, and ain’t that the best a pilot can do?
8. “Rectify,” “Happy Unburdening”
James Minchin/Sundance TV
Without giving anything away from the moving final hour of “Rectify,” we can safely assure fans the ultimate ending is melodically in sync with the existential beauty that preceded it. Wrapping up such a meditative, introspective story is a challenge unto itself, and creator Ray McKinnon wisely shed much of the ongoing plot before reaching his final moments within this extended episode. Featuring touching moments big and small brought to life through commanding performances that deserve every award available, “Happy Unburdening” brings one of TV’s great dramas to a mindfully sincere close.
7. “Black Mirror,” “San Junipero”
Featuring an anthology series installment on this list could be considered a bit of a cheat, because they’re by design so stand-alone, but this one was so good, you guys. The future-obsessed British drama threw us for a loop from its very first moments, beginning with a young woman (Mackenzie Davis) wandering around a small resort town in the year 1987. 60 minutes later, we understood everything, and the knowledge was heartbreaking but also inspiring, in a way that “Black Mirror,” typically bleak in its outlook, had never really tried before. For the first time, Charlie Brooker gave us a love story, and the dedicated performances of the wonderful Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw sold us on it to an unexpected degree. From the acting to the production design to the soundtrack, we’re still staggered by everything “San Junipero” made us feel.
6. “Atlanta,” “Nobody Beats the Biebs”
Quantrell D. Colbert/FX
“Atlanta” had already established itself as an intriguing show that occasionally wandered into surreal territory, but in its fifth episode, the show took a hard left turn into a world that had us questioning our own eyes and sanity. In an inspired bit of creativity, the show cast black actor-singer Austin Crute to play white Canadian pop star Justin Bieber. While the casting flummoxed viewers (“Is Bieber behind the black guy?” “Maybe they said Beaver?”), ultimately it shone a light on our perceptions and the double standards at play when it comes to race and the culture of celebrity. How willing were we to give a pass to Bieber for his bad boy antics when similar behavior would land a black star in jail?
B storylines with Earn (Donald Glover) attending a bizarre publicists party and Darius’ (Keith Stansfield) controversial choice of paper target at a shooting range further highlighted “Atlanta’s” ability to upset our expectations and quietly inject menace into any situation. Through it all, this bittersweet comedy maintained a lighthearted humor that offered a note of hope despite the apparently crazy world we live in.
5. “The Night Of,” “The Beach”
It was supposed to be college student Nasir “Naz” Khan’s lucky night. After all, he had met and scored with a really cool girl. Unfortunately, when she ended up brutally murdered, all signs pointed to Naz as the culprit. Although this premise was made clear from the trailers, that in no way took away from the powerful viewing experience of that pilot.
In fact, knowing what lay ahead for Naz contributed to the dramatic tension, which was masterfully crafted through pacing, atmosphere, Riz Ahmed’s performance as the out-of-his-depth Naz. and John Turturro as the seen-it-all defense attorney. Every minute, every move worked to the inexorable conclusion of landing Naz in the worst possible position (and to give the viewers at home ulcers). By the end of those 81 minutes, we were hooked.
4. “BoJack Horseman,” “Fish Out of Water”
For a show which features some hilarious wordplay, the decision to do a largely dialogue-free installment could be seen as a massive risk. In fact, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg recently revealed on Twitter the email he sent to the people he needed to convince, in order to make “Fish Out of Water” happen. In it, he cites the many other shows and films that became critical favorites for their choice to tell wordless stories, but it’s not “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “The Artist” that this episode reminds us of. Instead, it’s Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” as our favorite horse from the sitcom “Horsin’ Around” finds himself a stranger in a strange land, forced to confront his own self along the way.
“Fish Out of Water” is still as funny as any other “BoJack” installment, but also brings with it a new flavor of pathos, which proves to be a beautiful surprise, given how we thought we knew all the different ways in which this show could make us feel things. Season 3 was full of incredible episodes — we didn’t name it our best show of 2017 for nothing — but yeah, this one deserves special consideration.
3. “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
The deconstruction of Marcia Clark is one of “American Crime Story’s” most brutal storylines, but “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is where we the viewers come to really understand the sexism which underpinned the media scrutiny the humble prosecutor faced. Sarah Paulson absolutely dominates this episode, showcasing both Clark’s kickass prosecutorial skills as well as her innate humanity. It’s also a wonderful showcase for the delicate partnership that was “American Crime Story’s” beating heart — no matter what happened in real life, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden were one of our favorite on-screen romances in 2016. We’ll always love Sterling K. Brown, picking up the phone to proudly say to a radio poll: “I vote babe.”
2. “The Americans,” “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”
So many moments from “The Magic of David Copperfield” are forever sealed in our brain, and that alone is a testament to the episode’s stature. But it’s only when remembering what the span of these moments covers that one can fully appreciate the individual achievement within Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ magnificent season. Starting with a silent pre-credits scene that could function as a powerful standalone short film (Martha, we miss you every week), moving swiftly into back-to-back verbal battles between Phillip and Elizabeth followed by Elizabeth and Paige (the anger in Elizabeth’s eyes still haunts us), and concluding with a revealing time jump we didn’t know we needed, the hour truly captured the emotional weight of an entire season. Magic may be the only word to describe it.
1. “Veep,” “Kissing Your Sister”
One could argue the entire fifth season of “Veep” was working toward naming a president. Be it Selina Meyer, Bill O’Brien, Tom James, or Laura Montez, the first season under new showrunner David Mandel was consumed with the question to a fascinating and scathiningly perceptive degree. But as it so often is with “Veep” — a series built on finding new uses for language so appalling most people would stop short at the thought of them — the devil’s in the details. “Kissing Your Sister” unveiled a documentary long in the works, often ignored, and always cast aside for more pertinent matters. Yet Catherine’s film project proved to be a key turning point for the Meyer administration as well as the real filmmakers behind it. Mandel and the rest of his writers were so in touch with Catherine they were able to craft a film specific to her view of the world without hiding its subjects’ differing mentalities. Most importantly, it felt exactly like “Veep” has always felt, while being presented in an entirely different fashion. The season was building to this, and not one frame of “Kissing Your Sister” was out of place.