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.