10. “The Good Place” – Season 1, Episode 13, “Michael’s Gambit”
With almost six months to process it, this episode remains nothing short of a minor miracle. The final payoff to a masterful bit of season-long misdirection, it’s also a perfect showcase for the talents of its cast. That devious Danson cackle, (Fake) Eleanor’s shocking moment of realization and a full-fledged reset that barely anyone saw coming — all of this combines to form a parting flourish that any slight-of-hand expert would applaud. Like all good magic tricks, this one holds up on repeated viewings, and the emotions of the core group we’d been following for 13 episodes of world-building still track, even in the midst of a show that’s giddy to hit the reset button. Thank whoever high up on The Good Place chain is responsible for a Season 2. (Let’s go with Janet. It’s probably a Janet.)
9. “I Love Dick” – Season 1, Episode 5, “A Short History of Weird Girls”
Like a break from the season surrounding it, “A Short History of Weird Girls” is distinct in both structure and story. And yet thematically, it ties the series together. Director Jill Soloway and writers Annie Baker and Heidi Schreck craft individual arcs for each of the show’s main female characters, and Chris (Kathryn Hahn), Devon (Roberta Colindrez), Paula (Lily Mojekwu), Toby (India Menuez), and more read letters straight to camera about their various desires. It’s passionate, confessional, and confidant, and it’s captured in punchy, effective segments binded together over their form and fashion. It’s an experimental episode that knows exactly what it’s doing, and does it very, very well.
8. “Twin Peaks” – “The Return,” Episode 8, “Part 8”
After getting one scene of fairly straightforward plot out of the way, David Lynch cracks his knuckles and delivers nearly 50 minutes of avant-garde spectacle that is as breathtaking as it is unconventional. Beginning with an A-bomb detonation that balloons into a fluffy mushroom cloud, image after image follows that implies combustion, agitation, mobilization, retaliation, and ultimately a spark of… something. Lynch has electrified pond scum to create life, but no sooner has that been accomplished than he moves on to the next scene and the next, veering from images of young love, the birth of hope, and malevolent evil. The episode leaves it up to the viewer to parse meaning, or one can just take IndieWire Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn’s advice and just appreciate Lynch’s masterpiece without trying to figure it out.
7. “Master of None” – Season 2, Episode 8, “Thanksgiving”
Ever since childhood, Dev (Aziz Ansari) has spent Thanksgiving with his pal Denise (Lena Waithe) and her family, since his own doesn’t celebrate the holiday. Through successive Thanksgivings over the course of 20-odd years, we see the evolution of their friendship and how Denise comes to the realization that she’s gay and all that entails, including eventually coming out to her family. And even though her story is only told one day of the year at a time, this construct serves to show just how change can happen, eventually. It’s an ingenious way to give a rich backstory to a character we’ve been wanting to know more about since the first season, but it’s also a meditation on acceptance, family, and how one forms identity through our relationships.
6. “Dear White People” – Season 1, Episode 5, “Chapter V”
It’s a tricky thing to incorporate drama into a comedy, let alone deadly serious social issues into a half-hour episode built on a love triangle. But Episode 5 of “Dear White People” does it cleverly — just like Justin Simien’s Netflix series manages throughout its stellar first season — this time by introducing the episode’s new lead character, Reggie (Marque Richardson), as a human rights advocate who’s about to live the issue he’d been protesting against. Then we forget about it. He (and thus we) get wrapped up in his broken heart and party distractions before things go horribly awry at episode’s end. Director Barry Jenkins manages the pacing well and brings an intense insight to each scene, especially a quick takedown of Quentin Tarantino that doubles to remind viewers of the edge these students constantly walk. There’s never a time when Reggie and his friends can completely forget their troubles (unlike their privileged classmates), and “Chapter V” illustrates this in a universally moving manner.
5. “The Carmichael Show” – Season 3, Episode 1, “Yes Means Yes”
In what we now know was its final season premiere, “The Carmichael Show” pulled off a dangerously impossible feat: an episode-long discussion of sexual assault that was as thoughtful and incisive as it was funny. It reinforced the idea that “The Carmichael Show” was so much more than a delivery device for sitcom stereotypes. It was a vital, accessible forum for giving Americans a chance to talk about some of society’s biggest taboos. Jerrod Carmichael was a steady anchor for the show that shared his name, but this episode also showed that Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish and David Alan Grier always had an equal chance to deliver some of the show’s greatest jokes. “The Carmichael Show” never purported to have definitive solutions to every issue it addressed, but each episode came with a way to give a voice to the people affected most.
4. “Better Call Saul” – Season 3, Episode 5, “Chicanery”
While this season of the “Breaking Bad” prequel nearly killed us, it isn’t this episode we might officially consider to be the knife. However, it does represent the show at its absolute best, featuring a performance by Michael McKean that defines just why “Better Call Saul” has had such an impact on us; cruel, human, and true, we came to fully understand Chuck McGill in his moments on the stand. No one made it out of that episode untarnished, but for reasons more complex than any simple description could encapsulate — reasons that make it some of the most unforgettable TV of the year so far.
3. “Big Little Lies” – Episode 8, “You Get What You Need”
David E. Kelley is the composer, and Jean-Marc Vallee is the conductor who orchestrated the symphony of suspicion, jealousy, and soul-deep agony that is the finale of “Big Little Lies.” But even as each of the characters circle each other like distrustful sharks adrift in a buoyant sea of booze, the glitz of the evening adds a layer of ridiculousness and irony into the mix. You see, the culmination of the season-long tease of who got murdered and by whom takes place during the ultimate theatrical event: an “Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn”-themed fundraiser turned bacchanal. But as the strains of karaoke crooning fade, and the police sirens wail in their place, what’s left is a disparate group of women united by the knowledge that only by supporting each other can they truly fight back against the patriarchy.
2. “The Leftovers” – Season 3, Episode 5, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”
Lion. Sex. Boat. Party. Why should we bother discussing this any more? Oh, only because Christopher Eccleston gives a magnificent performance amidst the most absurd of experiences; “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” features a narrative so beautifully plot-driven, so entirely consuming, that it’s impossible to look away. From the dazzling opening sequence, which totally reapproaches our understanding of what’s possible with something filmed on a submarine, to the central set piece which has us wanting to make custom T-shirts and take boat rides to Melbourne, “The Leftovers” gave us so many gifts this year, including this:
And we’ll always be thankful.
1. “The Handmaid’s Tale” – Season 1, Episode 3, “Late”
There’s so much about “The Handmaid’s Tale” that made it an unforgettable experience this spring, but the third episode of the season, packed with so much tragedy and horror, was the moment where we knew we were hooked forever. Beyond its shocking ending, “Late” was packed with so much detail about the rise of this new world, as well as what awful measures were in place to keep it in power. We’ll never quite get over those final few moments. And honestly, we never should.