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.]
25. “The Deuce”
Season 1, Episode 8, “My Name Is Ruby”
- directed by Michelle MacLaren
- written by David Simon and George Pellecanos
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.
24. “Big Little Lies”
Season 1, Episode 5, “Once Bitten”
- directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
- written by David E. Kelley
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.
23. “You’re the Worst”
Season 4, Episode 5, “Fog of War, Bro”
- directed by Stephen Falk
- written by Eva Anderson
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.
22. “Broad City”
Season 4, Episode 6, “Witches”
- directed by Abbi Jacobson
- written by Gabe Liedman
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.
21. “Star Trek: Discovery”
Season 1, Episode 7, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’
- directed by David M. Barrett
- written by Aron Eli Coleite and Jesse Alexander
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.
20. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
Season 12, Episode 3, “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy”
- directed by Maurice Marable
- written by Dannah Feinglass Phirman and Danielle Schneider
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”
- directed by Dale Stern
- written by Rachel Axler
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.