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The 30 Best TV Episodes of 2018, Ranked

In a year which shattered our concept of reality, these episodes put the pieces together.

teddy perkins elizabeth barry

FX/HBO

10. “The First”

The First -- "Near and Far" - Episode 108 - The crew of Providence 2 prepares to launch. Laz and Denise get ready for a new chapter in their lives. Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)

Natascha McElhone in “The First”

Alan Markfield/Hulu

Season 1, Episode 5, “Two Portraits”

  • directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
  • written by Francesca Sloane

After bouncing from Sean Penn’s heroic veteran astronaut, Tom Hagerty, to his long-overlooked second-in-command (played by LisaGay Hamilton), to a young astronaut-in-training trying to make their first manned mission to Mars (Hannah Ware), Beau Willimon’s Hulu show takes another surprising shift in perspective. Suddenly, viewers see things through the eyes of Tom’s daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) as she paints two portraits of her mother. She thinks about her parents’ first meeting, then she remembers their marriage — all the pain and all the glory — and finally she remembers what happened to her and her dad after tragedy strikes. The magic of the episode is how seamlessly it moves through time, filling in gaps in the pre-established story while telling a profound individual tale all its own. “The First” often makes viewers feel like they can reach out and touch the stars; not the literal balls of light, but the ethereal wonder they represent. Never did it get closer than this episode, by forming unforgettable earthbound connections. – BT

9. “Succession”

Succession - Season 1 Kieran Culkin

Season 1, Episode 6, “Which Side Are You On?”

  • directed by Andrij Parekh
  • written by Susan Soon He Stanton

It was all. Leading. To this. Following Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) near-fatal stroke at the start of the series, “Succession” slowly puts the pieces in place for a coup — the once-great leader of an international media conglomerate is weak, his power-hungry sons are developing new business plans on their own, and someone is bound to break with the company’s future at stake. Credit to Jesse Armstrong for setting up a showdown where the evident victor seemed as likely to succeed as he was sure to fail, but even more for establishing characters who could believably swap sides when the right button is pressed. Susan Soon He Stanton then crafted an hour as heart-weakening as anything on TV all year, causing jolts of anxiety and anguish even when the viewer realized none of these guys are worth rooting for. Forcing people to pick sides is one thing. Making them care about who goes where is something else entirely. – BT

8. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA -- “Time’s Up For The Gang” – Season 13, Episode 4 (Airs September 26, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Kaitlin Olson as Dee, Charlie Day as Charlie, Glenn Howerton as Dennis, Rob McElhenney as Mac, Danny DeVito as Frank. CR: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Season 13, Episode 4, “Time’s Up for the Gang”

  • directed by Kat Coiro
  • written by Megan Ganz

Much more than a well-deserved evisceration of the sexually regressive gang, “It’s Always Sunny’s” “Time’s Up” episode deconstructs past violations so specifically, it feels like a mea culpa 13 years in the making — until the series’ most vile offender doubles down on his worst nature. Ostensibly, the premise is simple: Paddy’s Pub is put on a list of unsafe bars, and its owners are sent to an educational seminar so they can make their establishment more welcoming. Locking these five weirdos in a public space is always guaranteed hilarity, but the instructors divide and conquer: One by one, Frank, Mac, Charlie, and Dee realize just how offensive they’ve been, and a little ding can be heard as the timer goes off on the gang. Then, in a twist so brutal only master satirists could pull it off, Megan Ganz ends her escalating comedy of errors with a punch that reverses what’s come before — and one that will be felt by fans for the next 13 years. – BT

7. “The Handmaid’s Tale”

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "The Word" -- Episode 213 -- Serena and the other Wives strive to make change. Emily learns more about her new Commander. Offred faces a difficult decision. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Yvonne Strahovski, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Hulu

Season 2, Episode 9, “Smart Power”

  • directed by Jeremy Podeswa
  • written by Dorothy Fortenberry

The most valuable player of “Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 was definitely Yvonne Strahovski, as the seemingly cold but deeply human Serena Joy, a woman who fought and sacrificed to create a society which now holds her prisoner. No episode captures the paradox of Serena’s existence like “Smart Power,” while also making the show’s real-world political allegories feel all too real. The Waterfords’ trip to a free Canada came at exactly the right time in the season: The contrast between their societies serves as an important reminder about just what, exactly, Gilead is all about, while also bringing together characters who might not otherwise have ever confronted each other. Hanging in the balance is Serena, always embodying the role of the perfect wife, but presented, in a hotel bar, with a particularly alluring temptation from what remains of the United States of America. Her ultimate choice, and how it drives the rest of the season, remains haunting. – LSM

6. “Big Mouth”

Big Mouth

“Big Mouth.”

Netflix

Season 2, Episode 5, “The Planned Parenthood Show”

  • directed by Bryan Francis
  • written by Emily Altman

Nothing matches the ignorance and misconceptions of youth (except maybe Coach Steve) when it comes to matters of sexuality, and the raunchy animated series tackles one of the most misunderstood topics related to sexual health: Planned Parenthood. During sex ed class, the middle school girls instruct the boys (and Coach Steve) about all the services the organization provides beyond abortions, while the guys also share their rather skewed takes. The discussion takes the form of hilarious and innovative sketches, ranging from a “Star Trek”-inspired pap smear adventure to a “Bachelor”-style reality show in which a girl must choose her method of contraception. As a nod to the format, the episode signs off in “Saturday Night Live” style with Coach Steve thanking various contributors, even Slenderman. It’s creative, engaging, bizarre, progressive, and makes for one of the show’s boldest episodes yet, which is no mean feat when it comes to TV that includes unflinching looks at the physical side of maturation in all of its icky, sticky (yet completely relatable) glory. – HN

5. “Casual”

CASUAL -- "Polytropos" - Episode 406 - Following a day of misguided decisions, Alex, Valerie, and Laura begin their overdue pilgrimage to Dawn’s. But when their road trip takes an accidental turn, each faces an obstacle that tests their willpower in different ways. Alex Cole (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie Meyers (Michaela Watkins) shown. (Photo by: Greg Lewis/Hulu)

Tommy Dewey and Michaela Watkins in “Casual”

Greg Lewis / Hulu

Season 4, Episode 8, “Finale”

  • directed by Michael Weaver
  • written by Zander Lehmann

Picking one episode of the farewell season of “Casual” is a cruel task: Alex’s desert trip, a new spin on futuristic VR dating, and the celebrated demise of the NFL would all have been highlights on this or any other show. But it’s impossible to consider just how strong and affecting Season 4 was without making room for the final hour, an ending that somehow felt just as much like a new beginning. Balancing a send-off for each thread in the three-character braid that held “Casual” together, “Finale” put the show’s jump forward in time to its best possible use. No major twists, no fairy tale bow, no grand pronouncements or revelations. Just the fulfillment of years’ worth of time spent with Val, Alex, and Laura as they each learn how to take the same love they’ve learned to give each other and start sharing it with someone else. May all your karaoke-tinged final chapters do the same. – SG

4. “Castle Rock”

CASTLE ROCK -- "Local Color" - Episode 103 - The past catches up with Molly Strand. Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek) shown. (Photo by: Seacia Pavao/Hulu)

Sissy Spacek in “Castle Rock”

Seacia Pavao/Hulu

Season 1, Episode 7, “The Queen”

  • directed by Greg Yaitanes
  • written by Sam Shaw

The seventh episode of Hulu’s horror anthology is both a bottle episode and a standalone arc for Ruth (Sissy Spacek), a mother riddled with Alzheimer’s who tries to piece together her memories to stop a killer already within her home. Technically, all of the action takes place inside the aging hillside manor, even as Ruth’s scattered reality sends her jumping through time to a variety of local hot spots. And “The Queen” could work as a standalone arc, seeing as the audience is given all it needs to identify with Ruth’s dilemma and engage with her singular goal: Stop the killer, save her family. Yet Sam Shaw and co-EP Dustin Thomason build off scenes season-long viewers have seen before, adding to the overall story that will keep running for three hours after this arc ends, and creating new character details for those who live through it. All together, that makes “The Queen” a perfect episode of television: It’s vital to the ongoing plot, yet can stand on its own two legs just fine. More than that, the ways it breaks from established patterns in both bottle and standalone episodes makes it an innovative, exciting experience for all TV fans — whether they’re Stephen King die-hards or not. – BT

3. “The Americans”

THE AMERICANS -- "Start" -- Season 6, Episode 10 -- (Airs Wednesday, May 30, 10:00 pm/ep) Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: FX

Keri Russell in “The Americans.”

FX

Season 6, Episode 10, “START”

  • directed by Chris Long
  • written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg

“The Americans” isn’t built on surprises. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ period spy thriller is a family drama first and a shocking examination of Reagan-era bureaucratic rot second (plus, you know, with wigs). Over the years, the FX drama was described as a slow burn more than once, but each weekly visit to the Jennings’ house could light the match to a short fuse and set it off before the credits ran. Still, the finale — embodying one rush of a final season — moved quickly and thoroughly, even for this series, through an escape. Long-building confrontations are staged at the end of a loaded gun. A final meal is shared at a certain arched American institution. And those wigs come into play during a tense border crossing sequence designed to make you worry about who’s getting on the train instead of who’s getting off of it. The twists in “START” are stunning, but it’s still the heart of these spies that matters. – BT

2. “Barry

Barry Season 1 Episode 7 Bill Hader

BIll Hader in “Barry”

John P. Johnson/HBO

Season 1, Episode 7, “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going”

  • directed by Alec Berg
  • written by Liz Sarnoff

Part of the appeal of “Barry” is seeing the title character keep a tenuous hold on the new life he’s created for himself. Of course, the drama amidst the goofy “Glengarry Glen Ross” reimagining and delightful Gene Cousineau interactions is knowing that what gets slowly built up must come crashing down. The moment of recognition as Barry sits in the passenger seat of a car and is overcome with the inevitability of what’s about to come next might just be the moment that not only solidified the show on a number of watch queues and year-end best lists, but probably got Bill Hader a nice shiny gold statue back in September. And let’s not forget Sarah Goldberg’s stellar work in the series, whose Macbeth performance does plenty to make that “The Queen is dead” moment even more harrowing. It’s a pair of sequences so powerful in their build-up and devastating in their realization that it’s both difficult and thrilling to see what the show does for an encore. – SG

1. “Atlanta

Teddy Perkins as Himself, "Atlanta"

“Atlanta.”

Guy D'Alema/FX "

Season 2, Episode 6, “Teddy Perkins”

  • directed by Hiro Murai
  • written by Donald Glover

“Atlanta: Robbin Season” is a more-than-worthy follow-up to FX’s game-changing first season, with no shortage of stand-out episodes which consistently redefine the show. But while so many installments are captivating, there’s no debate over which entry reigns supreme: No other episode of television challenged viewers like “Teddy Perkins,” all year long. Rich, dense, emotional, unsettling, and at times even terrifying, this mind-altering “Get Out”-esque trip not only gives Lakeith Stanfield a well-deserved spotlight (everyone go see “Sorry to Bother You” ASAP), but lets Donald Glover sink into a new persona that became one of 2018’s most iconic images. (We’re still waiting to hear who played Teddy Perkins at this year’s Emmys ceremony.) It’s rare to see such a burst of pure creative voice on television, and “Teddy Perkins” delivered just that. – LSM

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