The year is rapidly approaching its end, and television fans have some tough choices to make. There are roughly 455 scripted shows from 2016 that you could choose to catch up on in the year’s final days, and at least 100 of those are probably worth your time.
The struggle of Peak TV is real, and so if you only have time to watch a single episode from each of 2016’s greatest TV shows, feel no shame. Here are the 20 standout episodes of television from this year.
1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Season 1, Episode 6: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Sarah Paulson’s performance as lead prosecutor Marcia Clark was the standout in FX’s riveting reconstruction of the O.J. Simpson case, and the season pivots on what is essentially a character study for her, as Clark’s own trial in the court of public opinion comes to an infuriating and deeply sexist head. In contrast to the showboating lawyers on O.J.’s defense team, Clark is simply a very, very hard-working and earnest attorney, unprepared for the media spotlight to be turned on her, her divorce, her life as a single mother, and her haircut.
At the beginning of 2016, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” was a bleak episode of television, sweetened only by the tender relationship between Marcia and her colleague Chris Darden (Sterling K Brown). At the end of 2016, it’s close to unbearable, yet more essential than ever. No matter how prepared, how smart, and how thoroughly in the right she was, this woman failed because the jury did not like her—and because she couldn’t compete with the hollow charisma of a famous man.
Season 5, Episode 6: “The Panic in Central Park”
There’s no earthly reason why an episode focused solely on Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams) should be Girls‘ most potent, perceptive piece of storytelling all year. For some time, Marnie has consistently been the least self-aware character on a show where that’s a genuine accomplishment. But maybe that’s why seeing her reach a moment of clarity felt so deeply satisfying.
After a chance encounter with her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott), whose life has taken a turn for the bleak, Marnie joins him in a surreal, stream-of-consciousness evening that starts out as a respite from reality and ends up as a much-needed reality check. “The Panic in Central Park” is a lovely, wistful vignette that gently shatters the fantasy of “the one who got away.”
3. Better Call Saul
Season 2, Episode 9: “Nailed”
It didn’t take long for the Breaking Bad spinoff that once sounded like a joke to earn its place in the Golden Age of TV landscape last year, and Better Call Saul gets deeper into the psyche of Bob Odenkirk’s lovable lapsed conman Jimmy in its second season, its slow-paced and often whimsical rhythms allowing for some of the richest character-driven storytelling anywhere on television.
This penultimate episode sees the simmering tension between Jimmy and his morally rigid brother Chuck (Michael McKean) finally boil over, as their mutual attempts to sabotage one another take a dramatic turn. With Rhea Seehorn’s Kim also drawn into their climactic confrontation, “Nailed” is an acting powerhouse for all three, and the overall restraint of the show makes the episode’s unusual cliffhanger ending all the more effective.
4. The Americans
Season 4, Episode 8: “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”
It’s become close to self-parody for critics that declare each new episode of The Americans is “the best episode of the show yet,” simply because the show so consistently exceeds its own high watermark. Matthew Rhys made his debut as director on this nightmarish gem, which details the fallout from Martha (Alison Wright) discovering the truth about her husband “Clark”—AKA Philip (Rhys).
Everything about “The Statue of Liberty Disappears” disorients, from the cold open’s near-silent farewell to Martha, to the time-jump that barrels forward to October of 1983, where the landscape has shifted dramatically. Paige (Holly Taylor) is now spying on Pastor Tim and Alice on behalf of her parents, who are furloughed and furious, looking for structure in all the wrong places while living life as a “real” American family. This felt like a season finale, but was even more powerful as a midpoint episode.
5. Silicon Valley
Season 3, Episode 9: “Daily Active Users”
Though Pied Paper’s corporate shakeup forced Richard & co out of their familiar incubator dynamic, the third season of Silicon Valley saw the gang largely battling the same issues they always have: bad leadership (this time in the form of Stephen Tobolowsky), bad press, and their own bad decisions. But “Daily Active Users” does something different with its twist ending, which sees the company saved at the last minute, and a moral line being crossed by the character you least expect.
Jared (Zach Woods), always the tragicomic heart of the show, doesn’t seem like the type to buy clicks—but as fanatically devoted as he is to Richard and Pied Piper, it’s a turn that makes complete sense once it happens. And let’s not forget the horrifying genius of “Pipey,” the Microsoft Office paperclip rip-off dreamed up by an ad agency to make Pied Piper more user-friendly. It’s enough to make anyone break bad.
6. The Night Of
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Beach”
The power of HBO’s novel-like miniseries The Night Of is summed up by the confident, atmospheric precision of its first hour. Shy college student Naz (Riz Ahmed) borrows his father’s cab for the night to attend a house party in Manhattan. He gets lost, gets harassed, and finally picks up a beautiful stranger who demands he drive her to the beach. By the end of the night, he’s been arrested for her brutal murder, and though he appears to us to be innocent, the evidence against him is almost cartoonishly overwhelming.
A creeping sense of “there but for the grace of God” dread underlies every frame of the episode—who can’t relate to the feeling of an ordinary evening surreally spinning out of control, and going along for the ride against your better judgement? Watching the noose tighten around Naz with every incriminating mistake and awful coincidence is grimly mesmerizing.
7. Game of Thrones
Season 6, Episode 10: “The Winds of Winter”
Yup, it was a wrench not to put “Battle of the Bastards” in this spot. It seemed impossible that anything could match the jaw-dropping scale and ambition with which the war for Winterfell was brought to the screen—until this finale came along just one week later.
“The Winds of Winter” is almost perfect, breaking with the show’s tradition of low-key finales to deliver one payoff after another—Cersei’s explosive revenge and seizure of power at King’s Landing being the highlight. That final, unsettling shot of her on the Iron Throne suggests that her reign will make the Mad King’s look moderate by comparison, and it lays the groundwork for the climactic clash between Cersei and Daenerys, who was last seen sailing for Westeros. The one-two punch of “Battle” and “Winds” cemented Season Six as not only a return to form, but as the show’s best run to date.
Season 5, Episode 9: “Kissing Your Sister”
The season-long running joke that was Catherine’s (Sarah Sutherland) documentary finally pays off, in an episode that sees the whole overly earnest, yet insightful, film play out from beginning to end. It’s a great showcase for the Veep ensemble: We generally see these people behind the scenes at their most craven and uncensored, whereas in the documentary they’re all putting on a face for the camera.
The results are very, very funny, and in the case of Selina surprisingly revealing, injecting some emotional stakes back into her political ambition—just in time for the finale to pull the rug out from under her a week later. Though reality is threatening to make political satire redundant, we’ll need Veep more than ever in 2017.
9. Orange Is the New Black
Season 4, Episode 13: ”Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”
More than six months on, it’s still hard to talk about how the startlingly dark fourth season of Orange Is the New Black ended. This is not a show that kills characters often, certainly not those as universally beloved as Samira Wiley’s Poussey, who was crushed to death during a riot—the culmination of the guards’ season-long reign of terror under Litchfield’s new privatized regime.
“Toast” deals deftly with the numb aftermath of Poussey’s death, with devastating turns from her best friend Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and girlfriend Soso (Kimiko Glenn), and infuriating scenes as bureaucrats debate how best to spin her death in the media. But the real kick in the gut is the flashbacks interspersed throughout, in which we follow a starry-eyed Poussey through her chaotic, beautiful first night in New York. (That. Final. Shot.)
10. Stranger Things
Season 1, Episode 8: “The Upside Down”
Netflix’s breakout hit wrapped up its first season just how it began, tapping deep into our collective nostalgia to produce something that was entirely familiar yet unlike anything else on television—a 1980s sci-fi/monster movie delivered over the course of eight hours.
The finale is the season’s most satisfying and cathartic episode, as the gang’s relief at the reappearance of Will (Noah Schnapp) is tempered by their grief over Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who seemingly sacrificed herself to destroy the monster. Despite the many loose ends left hanging for Season Two—the government conspiracy, Eleven’s real fate, whatever it was that slivered from Will’s mouth—”The Upside Down” was a skillful and imaginative ending in its own right.
11. BoJack Horseman
Season 3, Episode 4: “Fish Out of Water”
A lot of the episodes singled out on this list are the ones that defy convention—not only because they’re the ones that tend to be memorable, but because, when they’re well executed, they’re often the episodes that crystallize what we really love about a show. So it was with BoJack Horseman‘s silent underwater episode, which you can and should watch even if you’ve never seen a single frame of the show.
With the show’s depressive protagonist in a particularly bleak downward spiral, “Fish Out of Water” wrings huge pathos from its absurdist premise: As part of his Oscar campaign, BoJack is forced to attend a film festival that takes place inside the Pacific Ocean, wearing a scuba helmet that makes speech impossible. The resulting Lost in Translation-esque scenario, in which he’s surrounded by people but unable to communicate, is a potent metaphor for depression.
Season 1, Episode 4
Blackly comic BBC import Fleabag is the brightest hidden gem of the year—”hidden” being a relative term (it’s on Amazon, but also…it’s on Amazon). Magnetic star/creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays the eponymous Fleabag, a sardonic Londoner who approaches her world with a kind of upbeat nihilism, her twisted wit concealing a pain too large to process.
Episode Four, which takes the show outside of London for the first time, is the point where it goes from an intriguing discovery to a devastating must-see. But that description also undermines just how funny the show is—if nothing else, Fleabag‘s proclivity for masturbating to Barack Obama speeches makes her the heroine we all need at the end of 2016.
13. Mr. Robot
Season 2, Episode 6: ”eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes”
Where season one of Mr. Robot was essentially a character study that took place largely inside Elliot’s (Rami Malek) head, season two spent a lot more time outside of his POV, going so far as to include an episode with no Elliot at all. While the expanded focus paid off in many respects, it also made the show’s labyrinthine narrative feel more frustrating, and made Elliot’s role within that narrative feel less and less clear.
Kicking off with a delightfully batshit sequence that reimagines Mr. Robot as a wacky 1990s-style family sitcom, “Master/Slave” grounds itself firmly back in Elliot’s psyche and in his twisted father/son dynamic with Mr. Robot. The revelation that Mr. Robot is using the sitcom world to protect Elliot, who’s recovering from a horrific beating, is startlingly sad and tender. This is also the episode that makes the best use of Angela all season long; her E-Corp heist is a thrilling, insanely suspenseful sequence, ambitious in a wholly different way than the TGIF riff.
Season 3, Episode 8: “If I Were a Bell”
Transparent has always known how to do flashbacks right, weaving in the Pfeffermans’ past to inform their present without drawing any heavy-handed conclusions about cause and effect. Picking up a couple of years after Season Two’s flashbacks, the often gut-wrenching “If I Were a Bell” explores Maura’s unhappy 1950s upbringing with her sister Bryna and the painful moment when her gender identity first became a source of conflict in her family.
Twelve-year-old Maura (played by young trans actress Sophia Grace Gianna) escapes to her grandfather’s nuclear fallout bunker to dress up in her mother’s nightgown and imagine a world where she doesn’t have to live as a boy. The execution is poignant and the fallout is ugly in all the ways Transparent does best.
15. You’re the Worst
Season 3, Episode 5: “Twenty-Two”
Following an extraordinarily powerful depression storyline in its second season, FX’s impeccable You’re the Worst had already established itself as something much more complex than an acid-tongued anti-rom-com—though it is that too, and brilliantly so. Season Three doubled down on that promise with arcs about grief, therapy, and, in the remarkable “Twenty-Two,” the reality of life with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sweet, shy veteran Edgar (Desmin Borges) is the only character who doesn’t qualify as “the worst,” and his role in the show is largely to be trampled on by everyone around him. It’s a funny, mean-spirited running joke that makes for huge impact when the tables are turned. “Twenty-Two” revisits previous scenes from Edgar’s perspective, his friends oblivious as he struggles to make it through the day, with his own paranoia always simmering close to the surface.
16. High Maintenance
Season 1, Episode 3: “Grandpa”
Following an unnamed weed dealer as he makes his rounds in NYC, High Maintenance pretty much has carte blanche to reinvent itself week by week, each episode focusing on a new set of characters. Its third episode on HBO made it clear just how far the premise could be stretched.
An episode filmed entirely from the perspective of a dog sounds like the definition of a gimmick, but “Grandpa” is a surprisingly poignant pleasure. Gatsby is a giant dog, the right size for his former home in the Indiana suburbs, but really too big for his owner’s new life in New York. Through a low-to-the-ground dog’s-eye-view camera, we see Gatsby dealing with his depressed and not very attentive owner, falling hopelessly in love with his dog walker (Yael Stone), and eventually finding his place in the city.
Season 1, Episode 7: “B.A.N.”
Donald Glover’s first season of television as an auteur is so ludicrously accomplished that singling out just one episode for praise is tough—Atlanta is probably the best new show of the year. But the unusual structure and provocative beats of “B.A.N.” (which stands for the fictional Black American Network) made it the most discussed episode of the season, moving away from the show’s usual slice-of-life rhythm to tell a more overtly political story.
“B.A.N.” centers on a show-within-a-show named Montague, a lo-fi panel show aiming to examine “the growing outlook on accepted sexuality, and its effects on black youth and culture.” Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) takes part in the roundtable conversation, a supposedly open-minded and liberal discussion which ends up being packed with wild generalizations about how “black men” view the trans community. That’s just the beginning of what becomes a very funny, very timely takedown of hypocritical liberalism and knee-jerk outrage culture. The icing on the cake is the ingenious faux B.A.N. commercials, like this cereal ad, which doubles as a commentary on police brutality.
18. Black Mirror
Season 3, Episode 4: “San Junipero”
It almost feels like cheating to call this the best episode of Black Mirror this year, because it’s so tonally different from the rest of the show’s three-season run. Whereas Charlie Brooker generally writes technological horror stories, the bittersweet “San Junipero” is all about hope, heartache, and the redemptive possibility of digital life after death.
In an idyllic 1980s seaside town, two young women (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis) fall in love, before it gradually becomes clear that their romance is part of a much more complex picture. The town in which they exist is a virtual, computer-generated afterlife, to which people can upload their consciousness—temporarily during life, and permanently after death. What unfolds from there is a gorgeous, bittersweet modern fairy tale.
Season 1, Episode 7: “Real as Fuck”
Issa Rae’s new HBO comedy had one of the year’s freshest and sharpest debut seasons. Partially based on her web series Awkward Black Girl, Insecure stars Rae as a 29-year-old woman figuring out life in Los Angeles, and explores the black female experience largely through the lens of the complex, intimate friendship between Rae’s Issa and Yvonne Orji’s Molly.
In the season’s aptly named penultimate episode “Real as Fuck,” several long-percolating tensions collide at once during Issa’s work party. As is so often the case in Girls—a show to which Insecure has inevitably been compared—it’s the painfully raw confrontation between the women that really stings.
Season 1, Episode 10: “The Bicameral Mind”
It’s difficult to pull out a single episode of Westworld for praise, because each installment’s greatest strengths rely heavily on what has come before; the hosts’ burdening consciousness, the queasy blurring of timelines, and the show’s tricky puzzle-box structure are all slow-burn reveals with little episodic meaning.
Given all that buildup, and all of the Internet’s feverish theorizing, the finale was either going to be the standout episode of the season or a colossal letdown. “The Bicameral Mind” delivered on every conceivable level: long-awaited payoffs for Dolores, the Man in Black, and Maeve dovetailing with twists that fewer fans saw coming—most notably the fact that it has been Anthony Hopkins’ seemingly villainous Ford nudging the hosts towards rebellion all along, adopting the mission left unfinished by his late partner Arnold (Jeffrey Wright). It’s unclear whether Westworld can maintain its narrative high-wire act going into season two, but this was a spectacularly elegant bow to an ambitious first run.
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