TV is a beautiful medium because it can entrance you for one scene, one episode, one season, or one series at a time. Adding all those pieces together often results in blanket adoration — “the best show of the year,” “the best series of all-time” — but there should also be room to praise each part of the machine. It’s just one more reason end-of-year assessments can be so valuable. IndieWire’s Best Episodes of 2021 list helps identify moments in miniature, scattered over the last 12 months, that made an impact on their respective series, on TV overall, or on each of us individually (if not all three). These episodes stood on their own, executing ideas introduced over the course of a longer timeline or introducing new ones to examine over 15 minutes, half-an-hour, or twice that length.
Episodes are great. There’s a reason viewers revisit “Friends” Thanksgiving episodes each November, British holiday specials over Christmas, and personal favorites whenever the mood strikes. So many of these stories find moments with characters we’ve come to love, who press our buttons, who fascinate us, who say or do things that seem directed to an audience of one. Maybe the series is loved by millions, but that episode, that, scene, that line, it’s just for me.
Television bridges years, even decades, of our lives. Shows stay with us while everything else shifts. That time is additive, sure; all those hours build an attachment that’s often unbreakable. But it’s also exclusive. An episode may have aired at just the right moment, or it could’ve served as your gateway into the rest of the series, more shows like it, or even specific creators who made it work so well. We think the episodes gathered below, in our Best TV Episodes of 2021 list, do that. They’re special. And if they’re special to us, odds are they’ll be special to some of you, too. So give them a shot — or just remember along with us. TV is a beautiful medium. Let’s appreciate each part.
Libby Hill, Kristen Lopez, and Tambay Obenson also contributed to this list.
“All Creatures Great and Small” Season 1, Episode 5 – “All’s Fair”
“All Creatures Great and Small” could have stayed inside Skeldale House for six episodes (plus a Christmas special) and still been one of the year’s most delightful surprises. This chapter in particular, though, takes all the magic of James (Nicholas Ralph), Siegfried (Samuel West), Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), and Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) and sprinkles it out into the town of Darrowby. With the village fair taking center stage, it’s a chance for the show to branch out even further in displaying the many different ways this group cares for each other. All the stubborn pride, surreptitious flirting, unspoken personal history, and everyday integrity that feeds the show’s greatest moments are all on display here, wrapped in a package with the same sincere affection that makes the rest of the season an absolute treat. (Oh, and of course, this episode also has Leopold the ferret.) – Steve Greene
“The Baby-Sitters Club” Season 2, Episode 8 – “Kristy and the Baby Parade”
“The Baby-Sitters Club” focuses on a group of tween girls running a small business, but they touch on some serious topics with such nuance that I can’t get enough. “Kristy and the Baby Parade” marked the finale of the show’s sophomore season, and there was no slump to be had. Kristy (Sophie Grace) discovers that her father, newly remarried with a baby, is coming to town and wants to see her. This coincides with the annual Stoneybrook baby parade, which Kristy and her stepfather Watson (Mark Feuerstein) are supposed to be running. Meanwhile, the Club is working on a float, which goes about as well as you can expect when you’re young kids designing on a budget. Unfortunately, Kristy’s father ends up flaking on her, leaving Watson and Kristy’s friends to tell her that she deserves better than an absentee dad. Mark Feuerstein has done great work on the show as a stepfather who genuinely wants to connect with his new stepkids, and Season 2 rewardingly furthers that relationship.
As if we aren’t already crying, the finale ended by playing a new version of “Say Hello to Your Friends,” the theme from the original “Baby-Sitters Club” series. A perfect blend of nostalgia and wish fulfillment. – Kristen Lopez
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 11, Episode 5 – “The Watermelon”
Sometimes all it takes for an episode of television to ascend into greatness is hearing Larry David recite lyrics from “Fiddler on the Roof” to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Technically, “The Watermelon” has much more to offer — Woody Harrelson doing an extended Joaquin Phoenix riff, the term “cream-shaming,” and more mentions of “Pirate’s Booty” than every iteration of “Peter Pan” combined — but the central confrontation between Larry and a Klansman he spilled coffee on demands and earns its spotlight. “Curb” has really gone after the comedy this year, especially in the first half of the season, and the jokes in “The Watermelon” are as clever and prickly as they are deeply, deeply funny. – Ben Travers
“Dave” Season 2, Episode 9 – “Enlightened Dave”
It’s easy to point at all the pieces of passing, fragmented creativity caught up in the fascinating tornado that is “Dave” Season 2. (Kareem! Doja Cat! The VMAs!) You can do the same for this episode all by itself. (Bald Dave! Lieutenant Crashmore! Rick Rubin as Godot!) But nothing sums up what this show is capable of better than Dave’s restaurant dream, a metaphor with just enough seasoning to escape the obvious and just enough absurdity to escape the expected. Locked in a sensory deprivation chamber, Dave conjures up a vision of himself as a bathrobed chef, serving a hungry audience his signature work. As Dave looks at an empty plate, his dear friend GaTa offers himself up as the main course. For a show that often has a hazy relationship to reality in the first place, it’s the perfect mix of real-life creative anxiety with the acknowledgment that the audience is trapped inside the head of someone who burdens himself with grandeur. By the time Dave literally confronts himself minutes later, the show has already made good on turning the show’s biggest frustration into its greatest, surprisingly emotional strength. – SG
“Dickinson” Season 3, Episode 4 – “This Is My Letter to the World”
This is my favorite episode of television this year, period. It’s also one of the best episodes of “Dickinson.” Season 3 sees the Civil War rage on, with people divided by political lines and desperate to find a way to live in the “new normal.” Sound familiar? Emily, after acquiring a new copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” retires to read it and a bizarre phantasmagoria of amazingness unfolds. It’s unclear if any of the events in this episode actually are happening or if they’re constructs of Emily’s mind. She goes to visit a Civil War hospital, running into Whitman himself (hilariously played by Billy Eichner) and Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet). Emily believes the authors are there for altruistic reasons, but really Alcott is using the death as grist for a novel while Whitman is there to Method act with every soldier he encounters. It’s a moment that saddens Emily. She’s desperate to write a poem to change the world, but every writer she meets seems to be out for themselves. Eventually, her and Whitman retire to a speakeasy where Emily can finally confess her love for Sue (Ella Hunt). Not only is the writing here crackling, but the episode ends with easily one of the best party sequences. As Emily, Walt, and everyone in the bar dance to Alida, Robin Schulz, and Feliz Jaehn’s “One More Time,” it leaves one feeling that Emily might not have written a poem to change the world, but her letter is one where she isn’t content to hide who she is. It’s joyous and life-affirming. – KL
“Evil” Season 2, Episode 7 – “S Is For Silence”
Series heroes David (Mike Colter), Kristen (Katja Herbers), and Ben (Aasif Mandvi) are assigned a case involving a corpse that hasn’t decayed after a year entombed. A miracle? It sends the trio to a monastery where the monks have adopted a strict vow of silence for fear of freeing a demon believed to exist on the premises. Naturally, the silence is eventually broken, but what follows isn’t as predictable. This might genuinely be one of “Evil’s” funniest episodes, exemplifying how its writers adroitly interweave breezy humor with its horror/thriller foundation, cutting tension at just the right moments. To be sure, the comedy doesn’t detract, but “S Is for Silence” mines (or rather mimes) some funny scenarios out of its main characters, who must rely on theatrical emoting (Kristen’s “WTF” gesture is especially amusing) and plenty of scribbling to communicate. While David and Ben investigate, Kristen bonds over whiskey with a nun named Fenna (Alexandra Socha), sidelined because she’s a woman. Several stigmatic occurrences, demonic sigils, a potentially haunted crypt, monks writhing in pain from gross skin lesions, and a botfly infestation later, the episode climaxes with some ghastly body horror sequences. Of course, in the end, there’s a scientific explanation for every mystery, even as the possibility of supernatural interference constantly looms. There’s always that foreboding creep factor that deliciously spooks “Evil.” The silence is indeed deafening in this episode, and the end result is a successful amalgamation of the sinister, gross, and funny. And save for a couple of instances of dialogue, most of its runtime unfolds completely absent of speech, which is an impressive feat for any contemporary TV series. – Tambay Obenson
“Feel Good” Season 2, Episode 4 – “2.4”
After investing heavily in Mae (Mae Martin) and George (Charlotte Ritchie) coming together in Season 1, “Feel Good” makes a strong pivot in its second season to examine each individual that makes up the series’ primary relationship. George, confronted with her absent father, is forced to think about what she wants out of life, rather than building her identity around the people she’s with (or without). Mae, after seeing an old “friend” in rehab, has to deal with repressed trauma while trying to enjoy the first real success she’s seen as a stand-up comedian. How Episode 4 balances both stories as Mae preps for a coveted guest stint on a TV game show is remarkable, and the build up to her live appearance pays off in ways both immediately gripping and worth considering long after the credits roll. “Feel Good” examines the modern outlets available for talking about trauma, as well as who benefits from them, who can get hurt, and why being uninformed about either is no longer an option. In doing so, Martin addresses far more than the fake TV show her character visits, but what she’s doing with her own very real TV show on Netflix. – BT
“For All Mankind” Season 2, Episode 10 – “The Grey”
Finales are often all too tempting when putting together a Best Episodes list. Typically, they offer long held resolutions, significant change, and enough memorable scenes to stick in people’s minds until the next season rolls around — in other words, they’re easy to point to and say, “Look what went down that episode!” “The Grey” goes beyond all that, not only by wrapping up many (many) Season 2 storylines and building to a climax both thrilling and emotionally wrought, but also by teasing an unmissable next season (finales need to tee up what’s next, too) and putting an exclamation point on “For All Mankind’s” comeback. Some may disagree, but the first few episodes of Ronald D. Moore’s Apple TV+ alternate-history series struggle to find their feet (if not the whole first season). An ambitious premise, which sees Russia beat the United States to the moon, was never going to be a cakewalk from the start, but Season 2 sees the cylinders starting to fire in a propulsive rhythm. Events build in convincing fashion and with curious developments. Characters start to break from expectations and take command of their own stories. Guns are on the moon. “The Grey” maximizes these ideas in a barnburner of an ending that has to be seen to be believed. Many finales may seem like strong individual episodes, but the ones that really are? Well, they’re among the best. – BT
“Gentefied” Season 2, Episode 3 – “Daddy”
The first season of “Gentefied” is all about bringing the Morales cousins together. This season, we see them going their own separate ways, seeking individual autonomy. The biggest change is for Erik (Joseph Julian Soria), who moves to the suburbs with his girlfriend, Lidia (Annie Gonzalez). “Daddy” is an episode all about how the pair navigate parenthood, especially with Lidia returning to her job and Erik becoming a stay-at-home dad. Gonzalez is the predominant star of this episode, trying to deal with her new position while hiring an assistant who doesn’t exactly have the attention span for the job. At one point, Lidia needs help from her assistant and, instead, is left to give a speech with leaking breasts, comparing herself to a cow. Lidia’s colleague sympathizes, while emphasizing that, as a white woman, she could afford to have more help than Lidia does. Meanwhile, Erik himself is trying to be a good dad but can’t help making mistakes, like being locked out of his house and branded a burglar by a passing policeman. “Gentefied” has always been adept at blending humor with authentic situations, but “Daddy” is on a whole other level. – KL
“The Good Fight” Season 5, Episode 1 – “Previously On…”
The episode could have been titled “Under Siege,” as chaos reigns at Chicago law firm Reddick, Boseman & Kolstad HQ. Bypassing the usual procedural mayhem, “Previously On…” instead catches up on the madness that was 2020, from the beginnings of the pandemic to Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd, to fallout from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump, the insurrection that followed, and more. It’s an episode stuffed to the gills. Drilling down to its specific plotlines: Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) is exiting the firm to enter the political arena; there are hints of an upcoming revolt by Black associates who reject the idea of a white partner (Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart) usurping him; Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) is leaving the firm for greener pastures; a 20 percent staff cut looms; Diane and hubby Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole) continue to navigate their “mixed marriage” (Democrat vs Trumper), their repartee always delightful; Jay DiPersia (Nyambi Nyambi) gets COVID, and while hospitalized, is visited by ghosts of race relations past, including Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, as Karl Marx and Jesus Christ tag along with beatific offerings of their own, in an effort to relieve Jay of his George Floyd dilemma; stakes are upped in the trial of Julius Cain, the firm’s only out-and-proud Republican member; and there’s more, including Zoom jokes as COVID protocols take hold. Each difficult circumstance could have served as single episode issues. There’s so much to dig into that “Previously On…” comes without the series’ exuberant opening credit sequence. It closes with it however, amusingly implying that the season actually starts with the next episode, when it will be returning to business as usual. – TO
“Hacks” Season 1, Episode 6 – “New Eyes”
There are, perhaps, more subtle metaphors one could use for an episode where two characters at long last begin to see each other clearly than eye surgery, but “Hacks” still managed to knock “New Eyes” out of the park. In it, comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) is getting a wee bit of plastic surgery to maintain a youthful appearance, and her up-and-coming stand up comedian/employee Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) is on hand to assist with aftercare. Up to that point, the season had focused on the ways that Deborah and Ava clashed, driven primarily by what seemed like an insurmountable generation gap. But fueled by anesthesia and weed, Deborah’s recovery provides a space where the two women could meet in the middle, acknowledging the sacrifices that must be made to succeed, as well as the ways in which the future is tearing down some of the artifice of the past. It’s a deeply humane moment in a series that could have made every moment a punchline — a testament to the care and craft dedicated to building a connection audiences could relate to. – Libby Hill
“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” Season 2, Episode 1 – “They said that to me at a dinner.”
I’m sorry, but there is simply no better narrative construction this year — and perhaps ever — than the debut episode of “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.” Just think about it:
1. “Is that a hot dog in your sleeve?”
(solid opening, speaks to Tim’s love of hot dogs, sets the stage for the greatest sketch of all time)
2. “They’re saying ‘Coffin Flop’s’ not a show.”
(counterpoint: it’s the greatest show of all time)
3. “The prank is that there’s a real guy in here. That’s the new prank.”
(there is a little girl watching Carl Havoc from the elevator window)
4. “What a crop! That’s a crop! They’ve been working on these bodies all year long.”
(Sam Richardson is a genius.)
5. “You’re saying, ‘We’re allowed to swear,’ and I’m saying ‘big fat load of cum’ and ‘horse cock,’ and you’re getting mad.”
(Tim is crying when he says this line! He’s crying! Unbelievable. What a closer.) – BT
“Losing Alice” Episode 7 – “The Scene”
By the time Sigal Avin’s thorny psychological drama arrives at its penultimate episode, there’s already been a significant equilibrium shift. Alice (Ayelet Zurer) — in the midst of a film shoot that’s already threatening to go over budget, not to mention destroy the interpersonal fabric of the main people making it — is looking for some sign that what she’s capturing on screen is getting at the truth of the story she wants to tell. The problem is that she’s already been baked into the middle of a layer cake of stacking realities, as she’s starting to question everything she knows about her actor husband (Gal Toren) and the mysterious young writer (Lihi Kornowski) who’s lodged herself at the heart of the film. It all crests with an uninterrupted centerpiece that not only reframes how we see these characters, but places the audience right along with every dilemma that Alice herself is facing. It’s a logistical highwire act for Avin, complimented by a trio of incredible performances, capped off by an exhilarating final showcase scene for Zurer. – SG
“Mare of Easttown” Episode 5 – “Illusions”
Crime stories that start with tragedy tend to breed even more heartbreak. But it’s how “Mare of Easttown” spins its way to the season’s most memorable episode ending that makes it more than just a big surprise. Zabel (a never-better Evan Peters), having finally convinced Mare (Kate Winslet) to join him for a date, sprinkles in a dose of humility for good measure. For a brief moment, it seems like their capable professional partnership might end up becoming something more. In a cruel twist of fate, though, it’s the fact that they’re able to find a major breakthrough in their investigation that ends up dooming them both. In a textbook bit of tension-building and spatial awareness, director Craig Zobel delivers a masterful ending sequence that culminates in both rescue and bloodshed. Winslet gives the final seconds of the episode a tragic mixture of relief and horror, anger and soul-crushing sadness. The series itself still had more road to travel, but nothing else proved to be quite as potent as that particular farewell shock. – SG
“Midnight Mass” Episode 5 – “Book V: Gospel”
Oh boy, if you have no idea what “Midnight Mass” is about you’re in for a roller coaster. Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix limited series is set on an extremely remote island that is slowly disappearing, thanks to climate change and overfishing. There is, however, a church on the island and a mysterious new priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) in town. When miracles begin happening in his wake, people start getting a lot more interested in buying what he’s selling. It turns out what he’s selling is eternal life via decidedly unconventional methods.
In “Book V: Gospel,” the show’s protagonist Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) learns what’s really going on, as does the audience. It wouldn’t do to tell you the events that unfold and spoil the series, but suffice it to say it quickly pulls together a number of the show’s outstanding mysteries into a tidy little package, including the disappearance of the parish’s old priest, the dead cat epidemic, and the unlikely string of miracles, to name a few. But the climax of the episode turns something sinister into something exquisite and catapults viewers into the show’s final two episodes. “Midnight Mass” is an underrated gem and “Book V: Gospel” is as good as it gets. – LH
“The Mosquito Coast” Season 1, Episode 1 – “Light Out”
There is a flicker in Justin Theroux’s eyes that cannot be stopped. Initially glimpsed in the final moments of “Light Out,” the first episode of Neil Cross’ Apple TV+ adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel, that fire doesn’t just feed his character’s curiosity; it fuels audiences to keep watching, hoping to eventually sort Allie Fox’s brilliance from his madness, his obsession from his enthusiasm, and his love for his family with his need to control them. There’s a duality to this well-meaning father figure that shifts any lines used to define him. The premiere, like most, features a lot of set-up: We see Allie’s skills as an inventor. We come to understand his frustrations with the bureaucracy of American government. We meet his kids and wife, Margot (Melissa George), their isolated, sustainable home, and note the tension of a family who’s been moving far more often than any teenager could tolerate. So by the time Allie is negotiating with his runaway daughter Dina (Logan Polish) to run away with them, instead of by herself, the stakes are clear: The family could fracture, and with it, Allie’s world could shatter. Then the light comes on, and a new facet comes into the fold: What if Allie’s kids turn out just like him? Similar surprises adding further layers keep popping up throughout a satisfying first season of “The Mosquito Coast,” but it’s the flicker in Theroux’s eyes that keeps you hooked. Whateveer spikes his fascination, certainly has ours as well. – BT
“Only Murders in the Building” Season 1, Episode 7 – “The Boy From 6B”
Expertly directed by Cherien Dabis, with a dry wit from writers Stephen Markley and Ben Phillippe, and featuring a moving, thoughtful turn from James Caverly, “The Boy From 6B” hones in on two suspects right when our interest is piqued, yet does so in a way that expands our compassion for them both. Teddy (Nathan Lane) and Theo Dimas (Caverly) have been targeted by our trio of true crime podcasters, Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short), and Mabel (Selena Gomez), and their sneaky ensuing investigation doesn’t go unobseved. Theo is watching, as he has been for years, and his opening comment — “People talk way too fucking much in this city” — isn’t just a cheeky tease of an episode absent any vocal dialogue (it’s all sign language, text messages, and more visual communication), but an ethos he’s lived by, mostly to his advantage. By the end of Episode 7, viewers are far more informed about the characters’ pasts and the crime in the present, but they’re also doubly invested in how both will affect the future of everyone tied to this twisty mystery. – BT
“The Shrink Next Door” Episode 5 – “The Family Tree”
The fifth episode of “The Shrink Next Door” sets itself apart right from the jump. During one of their now-regular pick-up basketball games, Dr. Ike (Paul Rudd) takes a break for a quick phone call, hangs up, and, as Marty (Will Ferrell) watches in disbelief, calmly tears a chunk out of his turquoise tank top. When asked what happened, Ike reassures his patient that he’s fine. “My dad just died.”
While clearly a lot is going on in the repressed areas of Ike’s brain, one thing cannot be ignored: This isn’t a guy who should be treating people’s minds. Developed by Georgia Pritchett from the true story (and podcast that inspired it), “The Shrink Next Door” makes that argument again and again prior to Episode 5, but this single entry arguably does the work of those past four hours in one, laying out Ike’s hang-ups in painful, if entertaining, detail — his father issues, status obsession, and unchecked ego chief among them — while succinctly illustrating what Ike’s work has done to Marty: After telling his doctor why a tree in the backyard is so meaningful to him — his parents planted it, his mom talked to it, and, you know, it’s a lovely tree — Ike nevertheless convinces Marty to chop it down. Watching the tortured man voluntarily pick up the axe and start swinging is the last straw, and the series soon pivots into the doctor-patient break-up. Some may argue it needed to come sooner, but the lasting damage of this particular heartbreak is as clear as the hole in Ike’s shirt. – BT
“South Side” Season 2, Episode 5 – “Life of an Ottoman”
The episodes on either side of this one — a joyous “Ferris Bueller” riff or a truly unhinged sendoff for a Chicago-area party promoter — could just have easily made this list. But what might be “South Side’s” best half-hour yet follows a single piece of furniture through a very eventful life as part of the Rent-T-Own inventory. Beginning in 1994 and hopping around between plenty of other stops in the quarter century afterward, this episode shows the various renters of a ottoman and the string of outrageous events it’s “witnessed” throughout its time in homes and businesses and other unexpected stops along the way. “South Side” is often at its best when it feels like a collection of sketches with the show’s main cast effortlessly floating through them, taking the idea that this show can be anything at any time — portrait sessions, fashion shows, wedding dress shopping, and one unforgettable after-hours store closing — and still finding a steady stream of incredible jokes helping it along. – SG
“Succession” Season 3, Episode 5 – “Retired Janitors From Idaho”
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of anxiety-inducing, misery-provoking moments in the fifth episode of “Succession,” Season 3. But “Retired of Janitors of Idaho” provides a lot more moments of lightness than other episodes of the season, so much so that it reads as a gosh-darn comedy for most of it. It’s set at the Waystar Royco annual shareholder’s meeting, stage for the final showdown for the proxy battle that will determine whether or not Logan Roy and kin will retain control of the company he built. If a deal isn’t made within a matter of hours, after weeks and months of failed negotiations, then the matter will be turned over to a shareholder vote and projections reveal that the results would be too close to call. It’s crunch time, the moment when Logan typically dominates but, it’s revealed, he’s suffering from a bladder infection, the pain of which leaves him something of a hallucinating wreck. Who will step up to save the company? Things devolve into hilarious behind-the-scenes chaos, with Logan out of his gourd and Shiv scrambling to make a deal and Roman worried about his daddy and Kendall showing up to scream at everyone. Meanwhile, the shareholder meeting is proceeding apace with Logan’s right hand men and women having to vamp for time in the least vampable setting imaginable. Like so many things about “Succession,” it’s impossible to truly capture the madcap energy of the episode. It must be seen to be believed. Except for the imaginary cat. – LH
For more on “Retired Janitors from Idaho,” read IndieWire’s full review.
“Ted Lasso” Season 2, Episode 4 – “Carol of the Bells”
So many holiday stories rest on “saving Christmas.” Someone is sad, Christmas is supposed to be happy, so friends and/or family (usually family) must raise everyone’s spirits in order to keep the happiest time of year exactly that.
“Ted Lasso” is a show about belief. Its titular lead is relentlessly positive. He is a prime candidate to embark on a mission to “save Christmas.” That he’s not the savior but the saved is just the first of many savvy notes struck by Joe Kelly’s sneaky little script, where a down-and-drinking Ted (Jason Sudeikis) is pulled out of his divorced dad doldrums by his gift-giving boss (Hannah Waddingham). Santa hats are worn, songs are sung, and cheer is, indeed, restored.
But “Carol of the Bells” is careful to respect the reasons Ted is sad. Being away from your son isn’t easy, nor is losing the woman you love. That those things happen to be magnfieid by the holiday is one thing, but ignoring those blues entirely is even more damaging than a less-than-jolly Christmas. Episode 4 doesn’t relieve Ted of his burdens; it merely keeps him from wallowing in them for this one cheerful day. Now that’s a smart holiday story, and one I’ll be watching for many seasons to come. – BT
For more on “Carol of the Bells,” read IndieWire’s full review.
“Tuca and Bertie” Season 2, Episode 4 – “Nighttime Friend”
It should come as no surprise the always-energetic Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) can struggle with bouts of insomnia (or, as she calls it, “tired but still banging!”). But what is surprising, in the most wonderful way, is how creator Lisa Hanawalt and her team paint the nighttime world of Birdtown. Deep, dark hues of blue cover a city that’s gone to sleep — except for Tuca, who wanders the empty sidewalks under yellow streetlamps, admiring never-ending dates in the park, and visiting neon-pink diners pulsing with enough color to fight off the night. She also checks in on her manipulative auntie in the hospital, where she starts flirting with Kara (Sasheer Zamata), a nurse who joins her on another nocturnal excursion, before helping her put an end to her restless evenings. With Bertie (Ali Wong) unable to stay awake and Speckle (Steven Yeun) unconsciously powered by his step tracker, the episode makes room for Tuca to explore — the night, its occupants, and herself. Watching the super-positive toucan find what she’s looking for (and what she needs) in a vivid, visually inventive fashion makes each discovery all the more fulfilling — a waking dream you’ll never want to leave. – BT
“The Underground Railroad” Episode 7 – “Fanny Briggs”
An episode this brief might exist almost entirely to serve as a moment of respite from the series’ brutality and inescapably challenging themes. But, sharply diverging from Colson Whitehead’s source novel, it’s more of an interlude that temporarily sidelines Cora (Thuso Mbedu), broadening the narrative’s scope. A notable aspect of the series is that supporting characters are thoughtfully rendered, further complicating the world that Barry Jenkins built. The audience is reintroduced to Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), the young girl hidden away in the attic, in the house owned by Martin (Damon Herriman), where she’s trapped as the building, and those around it, feverishly burn. Grace doesn’t perish in the enveloping blaze after all. (Jenkins’ body of work should’ve hinted that the craftsman isn’t so fatalistic.) On the contrary, the suitably named Grace rises stately, like a phoenix, immortal, as she escapes the fire and makes her way through a foreboding landscape in search of the sanctuary provided by the titular railroad. Eventually locating the ramshackled station, a train, which appears to be there for her and her only, waits. Onboard, she is met by a conductor (Denitra Isler) to whom she reveals her real name; not Grace (given to her by Martin), but Fanny Briggs (gifted by her mother). It’s a crucial act of self-affirmation that reclaims a legacy. The episode, which ends with its title character delivering her life’s testimony, packs as much thematic messaging as others, even though it doesn’t necessarily advance the main narrative. What Fanny Briggs’ triumph does is offer hope amid the frank bleakness that pervades the series. And both scenarios are true. In summary, Cora is not the only one on this treacherous journey to freedom. – TO
For more, read IndieWire’s appreciation of “Fanny Briggs.”
“Wandavision” Episode 8 – “Previously On”
Kathryn Hahn makes everything better. No one needed an episode where she guides Elizabeth Olsen, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, through her past memories to recognize just how valuable the versatile performer can be, but few are complaining we got one either. “Previously On” is known for many things: For glimpsing Wanda’s past, for dubbing her the Scarlet Witch, and, most notably, for the line, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” But it’s also a showcase for Hahn’s unheralded supporting talents. This isn’t her episode, it’s Olsen’s. But every line she gets, every note she hits (even without the song), adds a punctuation to the episode that better establishes its pace and maximizes its staying power. Kathryn Hahn, people. She’s a good one. – BT
For more on “Previously On,” read IndieWire’s full review.
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