Of all the lists Paste publishes to mark the end of the year in television—including our ranking of the 25 best TV shows—this one may be the most exciting. After all, an uneven series, or one still finding its voice, or one already on the wane, can still produce 22 to 60 minutes or so of extraordinary storytelling. If you need further proof, you need look no further than the titles below, which embrace pilot episodes and series finales, artful expanses and perfect shorts, ranging over forms and genres as varied as the broadcast sitcom, the fantasy epic, the spy drama; the telenovela, the spin-off, the docu-sketch, and more. The episode is truly the atom of the medium, the foundation, the building block, and Paste’s selection of the 25 Best TV Episodes of 2017 reflects the fundamental strength of the art form.
Writer: Alex Herschlag, David Kohan, Max Mutchnick
Director: James Burrows
There’s something simultaneously throwback and progressive about the Will & Grace revival. Once groundbreaking, the series returned to a television climate that regularly features diverse gay characters and a political climate that grows more closed-minded and bigoted by the minute. In “Grandpa Jack,” Jack (Sean Hayes) reunites with his estranged son, Elliot (Michael Angarano), and meets his grandson, Skip (Jet Jurgensmeyer). Elliot is sending Skip to Camp Straighten Arrow, which is as bad as it sounds. The episode features hilarious turns from guest stars Jane Lynch and Andrew Rannellis as a married couple trying very hard to convince themselves they are straight, the requisite pop-culture shout outs (“Jesse Tyler Ferguson! She is fabulous!”) and delightfully quippy dialogue (Jack explaining the “pajama party position.”) But what makes the episode so poignant and beautiful is the usually larger-than-life Jack quieting down and lovingly telling his grandson, “You are exactly who you are supposed to be.” The moment was so authentically moving that I choose to forget about the episode’s ridiculous Grace B-plot. Who could have predicted that in 2017 we would need Will & Grace more than ever? —Amy Amatangelo
Writer: Phil A. Jackson
Director: Maggie Carey
As I wrote when I ranked it No. 1 on my list of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s best, “Moo Moo,” which focuses both its A- and B-stories on Sgt. Jeffords (Terry Crews) getting stopped and frisked (while holding a child’s toy!)(in his own neighborhood!) by an overzealous and ultimately unapologetic white beat cop, is an episode that a workplace sitcom about an uncompromisingly moral squad in the NYPD in the 2010s couldn’t get away with not doing—at least, not if it wanted to avoid becoming a toothless cartoon. And while Brooklyn Nine-Nine is often more than happy to be a kind of cartoon (hello, Turkey Boyle!), it is never toothless, always careful to separate the 9-9’s goofily-costumed workplace antics from the genuine problems of injustice and corruption in both the NYPD and American society at large. Traditionally, the show’s lens into these structural injustices has been the one-two punch of Captain Holt’s (Andre Braugher) race and sexuality as serious obstacles he has had to overcome, but with “Moo Moo,” the show finally manages to shift its lens into the present and onto the acute problems of brutality and racial profiling endemic to American law enforcement today.
By using its two most senior officers—who are, not incidentally, two black men—as the pivot between two impossibly inadequate paths of reaction to such a serious incident (Holt’s non-reporting long game versus Terry’s immediate filing of grievance), and shifting the tension-breaking comedic relief almost fully to the shoulders of Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero babysitting Terry’s twins in the meanwhile, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is able to compassionately and hilariously crack open a new door into a difficult, nuanced conversation that America, in 2017, is still only barely starting to consider with any kind of gravity. —Alexis Gunderson
Writer: Ryan Murphy
Director: Ryan Murphy
It’s the sort of showy, self-assured gesture that one often finds in Ryan Murphy’s direction, from the brilliant to the baffling, but the first time I saw the long, hectic climax of “And the Winner Is… (The Oscars of 1963),” I straightened in my seat. You know the one I’m talking about: The fifth episode of FX’s dual portrait of Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) culminates in Crawford’s circumnavigation of the theater’s bowels, depositing David Lean (Best Director, Lawrence of Arabia) with victors and well-wishers before circling back to the stage. If the passage through corridors and dressing rooms creates the sequence’s tension, though, it’s another pair of images that set it alight. As the famous phrase leaves Max Schell’s lips, the camera sweeps toward the two combatants in Murphy’s feud, reprising the expectant style that met their earlier confrontation—as if the director, and his audience, were spoiling for a fight. Of course, by the time Feud: Bette and Joan reaches its stirring conclusion, returning to the Oscars 15 years later, Murphy’s backstage stemwinder seems central to his critique of our culture’s merciless treatment of women: In retrospect, when Hopper says in the opening stages of “And the Winner Is…” that “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice must pay to virtue,” it rings as a rebuke, or perhaps a warning. You want rancor? Murphy asks. I’ll give you rancor. —Matt Brennan
Writers: Dan Guterman, Ryan Ridley
Director: Dominic Polcino
At this point, the motivations of and dynamic between Rick C-137 and his Morty have been thoroughly explored. Fortunately, there’s a Rick and Morty for every conceivable dimension, and the remnants of the Citadel provide a relationship dynamic that’s entirely familiar, entirely foreign and entirely rejuvenating. The Rick and Morty we know exit; Joe Walsh’s voice enters; suddenly, we’re in a world of class struggle, scathing political satire and ‘80s-style grit. “The Ricklantis Mixup” is like no other Rick and Morty episode that’s ever aired—it’s more like a peak-level episode of an HBO prestige drama with a strong lean into the absurd and a chilling reveal—and that’s an amazing thing. —Zach Blumenfeld
Writers: Michael Green, Bryan Fuller
Director: Craig Zobel
In “Git Gone,” American Gods pauses the overarching narrative to give us a good, long look at the human women in its world. In form and structure, the episode doesn’t match the previous three episodes—which is fitting, because the death at its center doesn’t match the process of those who came before her, either. There is no opening scene that tells a coming-to-America story; there is only the story of Laura Moon (the terrific Emily Browning), the wife of our protagonist, Shadow (Ricky Whittle). Indeed, though the episode is a flashback in the grander scheme of things, it tells Laura’s story linearly, how she experienced it, from before she met Shadow until she ended up dead-but-alive on his bed: There are no other gods or people interrupting her, no time spent in someone else’s head. The result, in concert with the friend she betrayed, Audrey (Betty Gilpin), is wonderfully human, even amid fantastical events: Their relationship feels lived in and familiar, even though it’s drenched in fear and grief. If the entire series were just Laura and Audrey taking a road trip and crafting, I would still tune in every week. —Rae Nudson
Writer: Lena Dunham
Director: Richard Shepard
While we’re all out here freaking out and arguing about how we should treat the products made by successful male artists who have also just been exposed as serial harassers and assaulters, Girls is waving back at us from February, when it dangled one of TV’s best-made bottle episodes and said, “Dude, this is most definitely a thing.”
The Internet reaction to the episode’s climactic scene, in which a literary god (guest star Matthew Rhys) suddenly exposes himself to Dunham’s lead, Hannah, was certainly swift, starting an argument about consent. Should she should have seen it coming when he invited her to his apartment? When they argued about whether it’s wrong of him to sleep with the nubile young co-eds who flock to him on his book tours? What about when she wound up on his bed? But it’s the final moments of the episode that truly resonate: Hannah walks away from the apartment, rightly shaken and presumably not planning to report the incident, as a parade of other unnamed women enter after her. Maybe Dunham is the voice of her generation after all. —Whitney Friedlander
Writers: Robert and Michelle King, Phil Alden Robinson
Director: Brooke Kennedy
I can’t stress enough how worried I was about The Good Fight. I adored The Good Wife and, as we all know, for every Frasier there is a Joey. So even with the Kings, the genius pair behind The Good Wife, at the helm, I still feel like this spin-off could have gone either way. The pilot had to do everything just right, paying homage to the mother ship while successfully setting up a whole new world for Diane (the incomparable Christine Baranski), Lucca (Cush Jumbo) and Marissa (Sarah Steele) to inhabit and introducing us to new characters, including Diane’s niece, Maia (Rose Leslie), and new law partner, Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo). The hour turned out to be a master class in how to give good spin-off: By the episode’s end, we knew we were all going to be OK without Alicia. —Amy Amatangelo
Writers: Chuck Hayward, Jack Moore
Director: Barry Jenkins
“Those are our choices,” Winchester University student Reggie Green (Marque Anderson) laments after a Saturday night at the movies. “Cheap urban drama or tragedy porn.” Not so with Dear White People, Justin Simien’s serial adaptation of his 2014 Sundance standout: In “Chapter V,” directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), the drama is earned because the potential for tragedy is all too real. In 25 or so cunning, potent minutes, Netflix’s debut series transforms a slew of mundane occurrences—a football tailgate, supper in the dining hall, a run-of-the-mill party—into a blister of tension and terror, as Reggie first fights with a classmate who sings the n-word aloud and then faces a campus security officer. When the latter draws his gun, and Jenkins’ camera along down the barrel toward Reggie’s staggered expression, Dear White People manages to depict the shameful stain of this nation’s racist policing exactly as it actually is: agonizing, and alarmingly ordinary. —Matt Brennan
Writers: George Pelecanos, David Simon
Director: Michelle MacLaren
The team of Pelecanos/Simon have been writing together since the first season of The Wire. Here, they deliver a fully realized pilot, introducing us to the immediately gripping world of Times Square in 1971. Characters like bartender Vinnie Martino (James Franco), prostitutes Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Lori (Emily Meade), pimps C.C. (Gary Carr) and Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and beat cop Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) are reminiscent of the flawed, sympathetic drug dealers and detectives we fell in love with back on the streets of 1990s Baltimore. And the direction of Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The X-Files) makes the 84-minute episode feel like you should be watching this in a movie theater. —Josh Jackson
Writer: Nick Adams
Director: Amy Winfrey
Lenny Turteltaub (J.K. Simmons) is upset—not because he’s just been told there was a shooting in a Florida shopping mall, but because that shooting threatens to derail the impending premiere of his Courtney Portnoy-starring shoot-‘em-up Ms. Taken (which he later describes as “Bridget Jones with just slightly more bloody murdering”). “I am sick and tired of real-life gun violence getting in the way of us telling stories that glamorize gun violence,” he grouses, the opening salvo in a blistering BoJack Horseman episode that takes dead aim at Hollywood’s endless hypocrisy when it comes to guns. Turteltaub and the rest of his movie-industry associates pay perfunctory lip service to caring about mass shootings throughout the episode, all the while worrying far more about their gun-glorifying movie than anyone who was actually shot; “thoughts and prayers,” they repeat mechanically after each new shooting, until it’s barely a thought, let alone a prayer.
Of course, “Thoughts and Prayers” also balances that eponymous subplot with BoJack (Will Arnett) visiting his ailing mother in a nursing home alongside his own daughter, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), which proves to be BoJack’s fourth season’s key through line. But the episode’s true power lies in its scathing, darkly comic illustration of how contradictory our country’s stance on guns is—how little we mind gun deaths, as long as they occur on the silver screen—and how numb we are to the results of our continued inaction. It’s yet another testament to BoJack’s status as the defining TV series of our time. —Scott Russell
Writers: David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Director: Jeremy Podeswa
This was not the best season for Game of Thrones. Then came the finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” The whole episode is full of the kinds of meaningful interactions between beloved characters that made me fall in love with this show in the first place, along with a delicious and surprising twist in the Stark sisters’ saga that I didn’t see coming and a BADASS ZOMBIE DRAGON. Most importantly, the episode is allowed to breathe. The long walk to the dragon pit is the kind of scene mostly missing from the season. The reunions are understated but perfect: Brienne and the Hound. Podric and Tyrion. And the best: Tyrion and Bronn. Theon finally has a true moment of redemption, thanks to one of Jon Snow’s better speeches. And that moment isn’t just standing beside his sister saying the words. Sometimes redemption means taking some licks and getting back up. No one has paid more for his sins than Theon Greyjoy, and it’s satisfying to see him find his fight again. This was the kind of writing we’d been missing from the show all season. —Josh Jackson
Writer: Andy Daly
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Comedy Central’s Review was an indelible work of dark comedy that deserves to go down in TV history. As life reviewer Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) put it at one point, it was “television’s only show,” and it ended unexpectedly with “Cryogenics / Lightning / Last Review,” the third and final episode of its third and final season. The title of the episode tipped Comedy Central’s hand as to their plans for the show’s end, despite Daly and company’s commendable (and overwhelmingly successful) efforts to subvert viewer expectations throughout Review’s abbreviated last season. As for the episode itself, I have never seen a comedy series cram so much brilliantly twisted humor, legitimately gripping suspense and absolute emotional devastation into 30 minutes. Given one final chance to free himself from the yoke of his television show—in which he critiques life experiences, from divorce to partaking in an orgy, with no regard for the often-disastrous personal consequences—Forrest is ultimately unable to change his ways, undone by the all-consuming dedication to his show that defined him from the series’ very start. It’s devastating, a moment as stomach-turning as anything on a prestige shock drama like Game of Thrones. Forrest’s fictional show within a show is cancelled in the midst of him reviewing “Being Pranked,” leading him to believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that its cancellation is the prank. Review ends with Forrest standing on an empty stage, surrounded by everyone who cares about his show as much as he does—alone with his own worst enemy. He gives “Being Pranked” five stars. —Scott Russell
Writer: Bruce Miller
Director: Kari Skogland
One of the conundrums of a television show, particularly one based on source material as well-read and adored as Margaret Atwood’s novel, is that the audience usually knows by the season finale if the show is coming back, while the writers still need to offer enough enticing and perilous situations to make them think that not every character will be coming with it. The Season One finale of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which aired in June, was the perfect precursor to the #MeToo moment that would emerge this autumn. It not only gave us one heroine to root for; it gave us a battalion of nameless, wordless, fed-up women who were sick of this crap. As Offred (Elisabeth Moss) says at episode’s end, as the handmaids gather for their red-cloaked rebellion, “they should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” —Whitney Friedlander
Writer: Jennie Snyder Urman, Micah Schraft
Director: Melanie Mayron
One of the downsides of watching television like it’s your job is that, over time, exponentially fewer moments manage to be as BIG or as SHOCKING as a show clearly intends them to be—twists are predictable, betrayals inevitable, and major deaths too often telegraphed (or reneged) to make a significant impression. It was all the more impressive, then, when Jane the Virgin—already a show so brimming with twists, betrayals, and chronically-reneged deaths that each top-of-the-episode recap ends with the audibly gleeful narrator (Anthony Mendez) exclaiming, “I know, right? Straight out of a telenovela!!!”—managed to, in the middle of what would otherwise have been just a midseason filler of an episode, slide in a death so major, so game-changing, and so unexpectedly gut-wrenching that I literally stopped breathing, frozen halfway to my couch like some prey animal caught in Jennie Snyder Urman’s storytelling headlights.
More remarkable still was the fact that this major death was one of the most brazenly telegraphed on any show I’ve seen, a Chekhov’s Death Gun that had been waiting to go off since the aforementioned narrator dropped some major foreshadowing all the way back in Season One, and with “Chapter Fifty-Four” itself hinging on “flashbulb memories” that could, in retrospect, have only ever led to the one final, heartrending conclusion. While the fallout of this death in “Chapter Fifty-Five” proved a more compelling hour filled with more affecting performances, “Chapter Fifty-Four” stands out as the more notable episode, and one that I, like the rest of the characters in Jane’s world, will be unlikely to forget. —Alexis Gunderson
Writers: Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.
Director: Pamela Adlon
“Sam demands satisfaction” is the entire logline for “Eulogy; and from that declarative sentence it plunges into her life—the high diver leaping off the edge of the platform, performing remarkable feats with apparent ease. It is autobiographical, like Better Things as a whole: As with her character, Sam Fox, series creator, director, co-writer and star Pamela Adlon has spent her life acting, making things, putting herself out there, accomplishing some things, too. It is at once naturalistic—defying the rhythms of fiction—and fantastical—embracing them tighter: In one sequence, Sam cuts short the story of the worst job she’s had to return to an anodyne car commercial; in another, her children and her closest friends hold a “funeral” for her, replete with old photographs and those cheap plastic “candles.” More than any of this, though, “Eulogy”—dedicated to the late Robert Michael Morris (The Comeback)—is a moving, keenly observed appreciation of working actors, of their challenges and their craft. “Eulogize me,” Sam orders at one point, though her own satisfaction is only part of the purpose: Here, Better Things’ exceptional second season offers an audacious tribute to her tribe. —Matt Brennan
Writer: Zack Whedon
Director: Christopher Cantwell
Bookended by flashbacks to the young Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy)—with their sense of perspective, of range—most of “Goodwill,” at the heart of Halt and Catch Fire’s magnificent final act, is an ingenious, profoundly moving, often uproariously funny bottle episode, transforming one of death’s most familiar tasks into a metaphor for the work of grief. Packing up Gordon’s house after his sudden death, Donna (Kerry Bishé), her daughters, Joe (Lee Pace) and Cam (Mackenzie Davis) shuffle through flashbacks of their own, the Polaroids, records and electric knives we collect, the mementos mori. What we are doing, bagging clothes and boxing utensils, is sorting out meaning, assessing (sentimental) value, determining worth, and “Goodwill,” named for both the gesture of compassion and the place our cast-off things wash up, sums up much of what Halt and Catch Fire means to me.
In fact, the episode’s finest sequence is so full with the gut-work of living and dying I’m sort of incredulous it even exists: In its juxtaposition of Gordon’s grandmother’s china and Donna’s completion of Pilgrim, it underscores the series’ central thrust, which is to suggest that both analog and digital contain the same human purpose, the filaments from which a connection is made. Maybe generations of Clark women will pass down that box of plates unopened, but isn’t that still a way of tracing all the lives that touched it before? And isn’t that the same feeling Donna and Cam find in Pilgrim, reaching out into the ether and drawing in some comfort, some sustenance, from having known, however briefly, the life of someone else? When “Goodwill” cuts to Donna’s beatific face, Halt and Catch Fire brings me to pieces, because the work of grief is, in the end, a kind of sewing lesson—it rips us to shreds and then stitches us up. Through Gordon, through Gordon’s stuff, two people who truly mean something to each other rebuild their connection. “Yeah,” Cam says of her game (I’m crying as I type this), “I made it for people like you.” —Matt Brennan
Writers: Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna
Director: Joseph Kahn
Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s one-of-a-kind musical comedy has continued to push the genre’s boundaries in Season Three, from its delightfully cheeky numbers (the ABBA-inspired “The Very First Penis I Saw,” for one) to its balanced-on-a-knife’s-edge depiction of the jilted Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) confronting borderline personality disorder. It’s the almost non-musical “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy,” however—a Swimfan-inspired revenge comedy that draws on slasher films and Josh Groban alike to bring Rebecca to the (literal) edge of the abyss—that crystallizes the series’ remarkable maturation. With its play on the series’ title, the episode transforms the criticisms that trailed Season One—namely, the worrisome premise—into a wildly surprising, dark-hearted masterpiece, proof that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also counts among the medium’s most ambitious works of art. —Matt Brennan
Writer: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Director: Elodie Keene
On its face, it might seem like the most groundbreaking element of MTV’s unjustly canceled Sweet/Vicious would be its depiction of serious violence enacted against sexual predators at the hands of the series’ leading vigilante ladies—while sexual violation has no end of historical precedent as incitement for bloody revenge, it has, until the tail end of 2017, rarely been women allowed to do the bloodying (literal or figurative), let alone the women who have, themselves, been violated.
Over the course of Sweet/Vicious’ too-brief 10 episodes, however, it was not the thrilling, cathartic violence that ultimately made the most impact, but the dark origin story we’re given in “Heartbreaker,” smack in the middle of the season, which unspools an unblinking depiction of Jules’ (Eliza Bennett) own rape at the hands of her best friend’s boyfriend and the screamingly unjust fallout from it, which set her down the path of vigilanteism in the first place. (Keene’s use of on-screen text as Jules tremblingly starts, then aborts, a text to her rapist about what happened to her once she gets back to her sorority is a breathtaking use of a now-ubiquitous device.) Told through flashbacks as a shellshocked Jules joins Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) and Harris (Brandon Mychal Smith) in joyfully drinking their way through a friendship-celebrating Opharris Day, Jules’ rape becomes a tangible lodestone that simultaneously clarifies her motivations and trauma while proving that she is not defined by either, a clarification which in turn grounds the back half of the series as Jules and Ophelia ratchet up their mission and work their way to up to their final target. —Alexis Gunderson
Writers: Nathan Fielder, Leo Allen, Carrie Kemper, Michael Koman, Adam Locke-Norton, Eric Notarnicola
Director: Nathan Fielder
As ridiculous and sometimes cynical as Nathan For You could sometimes get, underlying all of Nathan Fielder’s interactions with struggling business owners and their customers was a feeling of empathy. Nathan’s ideas may go far afield from the norm, but there was never any malicious intent behind any of it. The strange compassion in the show was never more evident than in the movie length season finale that followed Nathan’s efforts to reunite a former guest on the show, Bill Heath, with a woman from his past. The two men take a convoluted and increasingly uncomfortable excursion into Bill’s former stomping grounds of Arkansas. The twisted logic of Nathan’s outside the box business ideas remain, like pretending to be scouting locations for a sequel to Mud at Bill’s old high school so they can get a hold of some yearbooks or flying out the age progressionist from season three to help age the photo of Frances they find in it, but it’s all the service of this inarguably sweet attempt to help an old man stave off his obvious loneliness. And as the episode carries on, it starts to become clear that part of Nathan’s urgency to reunite Bill and Frances is a reflection of his own isolation. It’s a tightrope walk between the comedy and the drama, but Fielder and his team navigate it with ease and plenty of the mordant wit that has made Nathan For You one of the highlights of Comedy Central’s current lineup. —Robert Ham
Writer: David Lynch
Director: David Lynch
Did the advent of nuclear weaponry give birth to the Black Lodge and the demonic BOB? Or has it always been there? Will the real Dale Cooper please stand up? David Lynch delivered a Killer BOB origin story and one of the most astonishing hours of television I have ever seen in my life with “Part VIII.” For a minute it seemed like Evil Cooper might have been killed, but Evil is of course deathless. There was an intermezzo performance by Nine Inch Nails. Then, 41-plus minutes of almost pure symbolism and mythography. We cut to White Sands, New Mexico, for the 1946 nuclear test. Primordial ooze, bubbling, flames and smoke and spiderwebs and stars; flickering white lights and electrical buzzing and “Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima” performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic. Evil steams toward the earth. We flash forward to 1956, something horrifying hatches out of an egg, and a demonoid creature known as “The Woodsman” stops a car and asks the terrified couple inside “Gotta light?” before heading into a radio station, committing two incredibly grisly murders (all the more gross set against The Platters version of “My Prayer”) and commandeers the mic. “This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, the dark within.” There’s not a frame in this episode that won’t make your hair stand on end. Lynch abandons narrative almost completely, letting symbol speak for itself, and it’s beautiful, and harrowing, and horrible, and amazing. One of the most astonishing treatises on the nature of violence ever to hit the small screen. —Amy Glynn
Writer: Michael Schur
Director: Michael Schur
With “Michael’s Gambit,” The Good Place’s Season One finale gifts us with the twist to end all twists in 2017. The show’s premise is that the afterlife exists, allowing Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) to wake up in The Good Place. The catch is that Eleanor and Jason actually belong in The Bad Place, leading to a season of elaborate charades and ethics lessons to keep their spots in paradise. But now the truth is out, and the episode opens as the characters are forced to choose which two of them will go to The Bad Place after all.
And then all Hell breaks loose.
Without spoiling the big reveal, we’ll just say that writer/director Michael Schur engineers an elegant twist that completely redirects the show while staying true to the original tone. The Good Place was a compelling and entertaining show throughout Season One, but “Michael’s Gambit” cements it as a brilliant, must-watch comedy. —Frannie Jackson
Writers: Story by Tom Spezialy and Damon Lindelof; teleplay by Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof
Director: Mimi Leder
After the strangers’ wedding, after her lover’s appearance and her brother’s death, after all the water that’s passed under the bridge in The Leftovers’ ark-like third season, “The Book of Nora” returns us to “The Book of Kevin,” as if to bring the cosmos back into alignment. As she climbs atop the roof in search of her birds, Nora Durst (the breathtaking Carrie Coon) recalls the lonesome woman of the earlier episode, pleading with God to whisk her away: the supplicant awaiting the signal, the proof, that her experience is the truth. For Nora, of course, the question is not whether a higher power exists. It’s whether we can indeed “come home”—from fifty miles distant, as the flock is trained to do; from the other side of the skein between this world and its negative, as she does with that frightful device. But in the pastoral quiet, the skyward glance, the absence that each tries to fill with prophetic visions and tearful prayers, “bulletproof vests, hugs from holy men, tattoos to cover up,” “The Book of Nora” intertwines their fates. From the series’ confrontation with the holes in our lives, it weaves a perfect whole.
With the birds’ homecoming, then, in its gorgeous final frame, “The Book of Nora” closes the circle on one of the decade’s best dramas: Run through with barbed humor (“I do not want to go to the fucking dance!”) and intense pain (“I refused to believe you were gone”), inexplicable images (the goat snared in the fence) and mysterious messages (I know you’re out there), the conclusion of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrota’s wildly inventive portrait of a world in extremis marshals the full complement of the series’ strengths—its strangeness, its precision, its force—in the service of its central conviction. To live at all, The Leftovers suggests, is a radical act, and “The Book of Nora” is a remarkable vision of what it might mean to choose life over complete annihilation. —Matt Brennan
Writers: Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang
Director: Alan Yang
There’s no Master of None episode quite like “New York, I Love You.” Series regulars Dev (Aziz Ansari), Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Denise (Lena Waithe) appear in it… for about 30 seconds. After that, the episode takes a wholly unexpected detour into a triptych of slice-of-life vignettes, looking in on a doorman, a deaf woman and a cab driver for a wonderfully generous and empathic half hour. Eddie the doorman (Frank Harts), recruited to cover for a resident who’s two-timing his wife, misses his cue while helping out another resident by administering her pet bird’s medicine. Maya (Treshelle Edmond, in a delightfully expressive performance) gets asked out at work, argues with a friend and boyfriend in ASL, and nearly steals an “ugly and stupid” scarf, all accompanied by no audio whatsoever. Samuel (Enock Ntekereze, a first-time actor), a Burundian immigrant cab driver, enjoys a long-awaited night out on the town after saving up his wages for months.
By the end of the episode, all of these characters sit in a theater watching the movie everyone in town has been talking about, the fictional Death Castle, united by cinema (and in Samuel’s case, vexed by spoilers). “New York, I Love You” showcases its eponymous city’s trademark diversity, presenting that abstract idea in utterly human form. It transcends stereotypes and shows us the New Yorkers you don’t often see on TV, peeling back the layers of characters who would otherwise fade into the background, and showing us the lovely, rich complexities of their lives. It’s an unforgettable half hour that somehow feels adventurous and obvious, special and mundane, universal and intimate, all at once. —Scott Russell
Writer: Stephen Schiff
Director: Sylvain White
There are, by my count, three dark rooms in “Darkroom”: The one described by an EST seminar leader, spliced to superb effect with Philip Jennings’ (Matthew Rhys) daylight run; the one in which he and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are married by a Russian Orthodox priest (Konstantin Lavysh); and the one in which their daughter, Paige, joins them in reading Pastor Tim’s (Kelly AuCoin) fretful scribblings. As with the finest entries in The Americans’ canon, then, from “Behind the Red Door,” to “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” “Darkroom” sutures together its disparate fragments through the elaboration of a single motif, emerging as a coded message from the far extremes of family life that nonetheless translates to our own. Rich with the raw materials of series’ greatness, the episode culminates in a stream of cuts and pans so ferocious that it highlights the terror of The Americans’ central truth: That the consequences of our lies, in love as in war, have a way of passing from generation to generation. It is an irrefutable, medical fact that blood is thicker than water, but in the crimson light of Season Five’s bleakest and most brilliant hour, the sentiment carries less comfort than caution. “So clear up what you are,” as Bauhaus urges:
Burn out these eyes
Rip up this place and scream
‘I am your slice of life.’ —Matt Brennan
Writer: Peter Saji
Director: Anton Cropper
Kenya Barris’ sitcom has always excelled at one of the genre’s most essential functions, which is to reflect our culture, and ourselves, in something resembling real time: See last season’s “Lemons,” set in the aftermath of the presidential election, or Season Two’s “Hope,” a bottle episode that manages to unpack the fraught subject of police brutality. With “Juneteenth,” though, black-ish reaches new heights, drawing inspiration from Schoolhouse Rock and Hamilton to offer the emancipation of enslaved persons as an alternative to Columbus Day. Anchored by Dre Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) attempt to give his white co-workers a history lesson, buoyed by an animated sequence, two boldly theatrical songs, and a poignant understanding that true freedom for black Americans remains an aspiration, not a fait accompli, the Season Four premiere approaches its subject in unflinching terms (“I am a slave / Yes, I’m only a slave / They’ll place my body in an unmarked grave”) without losing one ounce of black-ish’s trademark humor. In other words, as Very Special Episodes go, “Juneteenth” hits for the cycle: It’s historical, it’s political, it’s musical, and it’s comic, testing convention while working within it—a bona fide masterpiece of the form, and possibly the finest half hour of broadcast comedy I’ve seen since I started writing about television. Bravo. —Matt Brennan