Buckle your seatbelts because this sh*t is about to get serious. I’m talking Best Episodes of TV people!
Let’s bitch it out…
Once again we’re sticking to an alphabetical list (it would be unscrupulous to compare one great episode of TV against another. Let’s wait for the next two posts on Best New Series and Best Returning Series to start the bloodshed, shall we?)
As always, I didn’t watch every episode of TV, so it’s possible I missed your favourite. Here’s the first half of the list from series A-H. Spoilers ahead!
American Crime 2×07 “Season 2, Episode 7”
Without watching S1, I wasn’t certain what to expect from American Crime. The series ultimately delved into sexual orientation, class and keeping up appearances under crisis in really interesting ways, but at its core this is a series that values its acting talent above all else. The stand-out from a cast that includes Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton and Lily Taylor surprisingly ended up being…Connor Jessup (also seen in one of this year’s best films, Closet Monster). In episode seven, Jessup’s character Taylor – a young man accusing a more popular, more affluent boy of rape at a fraternity party – finally hits rock bottom and the results are terrifying and sad. It’s a tour de force performance that culminates in a shocking moment that audiences were dreading, but it is executed so beautifully that the real tragedy is how few people watched this exceptional series.
American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson 1×06 “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Also known as the episode that (deservedly) wins Sarah Paulson every possible TV award. History has not looked kindly on Marcia Clarke’s efforts to try OJ Simpson, so it’s a testament to Paulson, writer D.V. DeVincentis and director Ryan Murphy that “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” somehow manages to transform our opinions of the woman who bungled the case and recast her as a fullly-fleshed out single mother struggling to stay afloat personally and professionally under the brightest media scrutiny in criminal history. Paulson has always been a star of Murphy’s repertory of character actors and with this episode she confirms her immeasurable talent simply with a monologue, an atrocious permed wig and a pair of salt shakers.
Atlanta 1×06 “Value”
I ultimately appreciated Atlanta more for its experimental narrative and stylistic choices than for its characters – they felt emotionally held at a distance by the series so that explorations of themes of race, class and poverty were front and centre. My uncertainty about the series, however, was undone with “Value”, an episode which eschewed traditional TV comedy narrative structures to offer up an episode entirely focused on the series’ lone female character. In my notes I nicknamed this episode “A day in the life of Van (Zazie Beetz)”, the series’ most put upon and misunderstood character. Up to this point Van is presented as a thorn in Earn (Donald Glover)’s side – the bitch who holds him accountable for money and nags him about his responsibilities. It’s not until “Value”, which flips the script to present Van’s perspective (and recasts Earn as a mere supportive player in the drama) that Atlanta proves that it not only understands how it is presenting its characters, but that it knows exactly how and when to use them for maximum impact.
Better Things 1×05 “Future Fever”
Better Things is one of several shows that is heavily indebted to Louie C.K.’s groundbreaking Louie (for good reason; C.K. helped to co-create it with star Pamela Adlon). “Future Fever” is assembled like a collage of sequences in which Adlon’s Sam struggles to connect with her eldest daughter Max (Mikey Madison). At times throughout the show’s first season, Max seems like a caricature of an emotionally-fraught teenage girl, but this episode goes to great lengths to show us Max through Sam’s eyes. Two scenes stand out: one features Max in ballet class that is eventually revealed to be from Sam’s perspective in the mirror; the other is a party at the family house where Max expresses fears to the adult audience that she’s already messed up her life. Both are slice of life moments that are familiar enough to resonate with everyone, which is a major reason why the show is so successful.
Black Mirror 3×04 “San Junipero”
There’s no such thing as an uncomplicated episode of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s 5 minutes in the future dystopian satire/drama. The series loves to pull the rug out – narratively and emotionally – on its viewers. So it’s reasonable for fans to be wary watching this unlikely story of two women who meet and fall in love in the beach resort town of San Junipero in the 1980s. While there is more to the eye than what we initially see, part of the pleasure of the episode is the fact that it is hopeful and, dare I say it, even romantic. Leads Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis have a delightful, playful chemistry, the period time setting is spot-on and the emotional highs and lows are well earned. It’s a completely different, unexpected Black Mirror than we’re used to…and that’s what makes it great.
Bojack Horseman 3×04 “Fish Out of Water”
It’s no surprise that this nearly silent episode of the Netflix comedy has ended up on nearly all of the “Best Episode” lists: it’s a minor miracle. “Fish Out of Water” is a callback to the power of visual story-telling as Bojack is invited to an underwater film festival that requires him to wear a waterproof helmet that restricts his ability to speak. What follows is a masterful exercise in communicating story without relying on dialogue and banter (the episode features arguably the best sight gags of any episode this year). Regardless of whether or not you know the show, this is an episode that everyone can watch and enjoy.
One of Catastrophe‘s best features is its ability to realistically convey (and satirize) the mundane realities of love and marriage. In the show’s excellent second series, we jump forward in time to discover Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) have a second child and even more problems than before. In an attempt to retain their sanity, the pair jaunt off to Paris for a romantic weekend and, in true Catastrophe fashion, the weekend is a complete disaster. Weed and breast pump drama ensues in moments that ping-pong between hilarity and pathos. This is a show that unfortunately flies under most people’s radar, but deserves a much larger audience for mining comedy from far too relatable subject matter.
Fleabag is one of the most surprising series of the year and the fourth episode, which finds the sisters attending a weekend retreat where speaking is forbidden, is the moment that the series confirms that it is far more than a witty, dirty-mouthed comedy. The darkness is evident in the pilot, but “Episode 4” double downs on it while confirming Fleabag‘s pervasive streak of sadness. I maintain that the heart of the series is the relationship between our unnamed protagonist and her older sister (who has major control issues). By focusing on what Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Claire (Sian Clifford) do and don’t say to each other, “Episode 4” foreshadows the monumental betrayal that occurs in the season finale (see the Best Scenes/Sequences list). This is where the drama gets real, but thankfully without compromising the funny.
High Maintenance 1×03 “Grandpa”
High Maintenance excels at telling specific, character-focused stories in short amounts of time. The webseries-turned-HBO comedy has never attempted something as audacious as this: an episode filmed from the perspective of a dog. “Grandpa” is the charming story of a dog that falls in love with his human dog-walker. It’s sweet, it’s smart and it affirms the show creators’ ridiculously high technical standards (check out the accompanying Vulture podcast with the director of this particular episode for a sense of how meticulously plotted and prepared the series is. These people take their craft very seriously). High Maintainenace is one of the most consistently well-produced series on TV and “Grandpa” is the crowning glory of S1.
That’s it for the first half of the list. I’ll be back mid-next week with the second half of the list, as well as the lists for Best New Series and Best Returning Series. Have a safe and happy holidays!