This year provided TV fans with one of the most promising pilots in years (“Barry”) and an all-time-great series finale (that of “The Americans”), but there was plenty in between, too. The following are 20 of Variety’s critics’ favorite episodes to have aired all year, across genres. Of note: while episodes of “Atlanta,” “Barry,” “BoJack Horseman,” and “GLOW” exist on generic boundary lines — technically comedies that are, at many moments in these episodes, sadder than they are funny — there are still plenty of straight-up laughs represented, either as tonic for a dark year outside the tube or just acknowledgment that the best of TV comedy is as good as ever even as dramedies and traumedies seem to have taken over the medium. The mix that follows has, perhaps, something for every viewer to catch up on over the holidays.
(This list is compiled alphabetically, and yes, there will be spoilers!)
“START” (“The Americans,” FX)
Of course the Jenningses could not withstand the battering forces of history. In the series finale of one of the decade’s marquee dramas, a family that had just barely held together through the conclusion of the Cold War is splintered when daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) sees just how ruthless her parents are willing to be, and makes a ruthless choice of her own — to walk away. The final sequence, in which the two spies we’ve followed for so long (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), having finally come home to the U.S.S.R., contemplate just how much pain lies ahead of them and how foreign the future seems, is an all-timer. –D.D.
“House by the Lake” (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” FX)
This season of “American Crime Story” was, by design, hard to watch. At times cold and unrelenting, FX’s probing examination of Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez), serial killer Andrew Cunanan (a showstopping Darren Criss), and the catastrophic consequences of homophobia was one of the most unsettling series of the year. Its best moments, however, were equally humanizing and horrifying. In this respect, “House by the Lake,” in which Cunanan kidnaps and kills shy David Madson (a wonderful Cody Fern), is the clear standout. —C.F.
“Teddy Perkins” (“Atlanta,” FX)
This episode was a pop-culture phenomenon for the post-Jacksonian strangeness of the makeup used to transform Donald Glover’s visage into that of broken former child star Teddy Perkins. It’s also a remarkably effective meditation on the warping powers of fame, carried out by a star who’s so close to the epicenter of culture at the moment that his ability to reflect approaches superhuman. And, finally, it’s a piece of real and unshowy humanity, as Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds compassion for the broken title star of this episode even at his least comprehensible. –D.D.
“Chapter One: Make Your Mark” (“Barry,” HBO)
As startling and assertive a pilot as any in recent memory, this first episode elegantly put forward its staggeringly odd premise — that of a weary hitman who suddenly discovers acting class as an alternative to contract murder. It’s a finely wrought showcase for Bill Hader’s performance, vacillating here as throughout the series between mechanistic violence and quietly desperate yearning for escape. And it makes for a brilliant introduction to Henry Winkler’s charlatan acting teacher Gene Cousineau, one of the great comic creations of the year. –D.D.
“Free Churro” (“BoJack Horseman,” Netflix)
“BoJack” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg freely admits that this episode, almost entirely made up of a single monologue, began from a place of wondering if he and his team could pull it off — and the result speaks for itself. Anchored by an astonishing vocal performance from Will Arnett, BoJack’s eulogy for his once formidable mother is a winding, surprising road that never once loses sight of where it’s headed. In clumsier hands, a 20 minute monologue could have been a disaster; in “BoJack’s,” it was a triumph. —C.F.
“Game Night” (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Fox)
One of TV’s most reliable comedies, “Brooklyn Nine Nine” didn’t feel the need to pull out any elaborate stops for its 100th(!) episode. Instead, it let surly detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) take center stage in a surprisingly compassionate story about her coming out as bisexual to her wary parents (Danny Trejo and Olga Merediz). Not everything is resolved by the end of the day, but her friends and coworkers throw her a “family game night” to show her that they’ve got her back, and her gay boss (Andre Braugher) reassures her that “every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.” It’s not the splashiest episode, but as far as proving the power of “Brooklyn Nine Nine’s” empathy, there’s no beating it. –C.F.
“Mother of All Matches” (“GLOW,” Netflix)
With all of the series’s typical sensitivity and care, this episode amplifies the contrast between Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and less heralded ensemble player Tammé (Kia Stevens), whose “Welfare Queen” wrestling character is a crude stereotype from which she still manages to wring joy. As perfectionist Debbie loses her balance, her opponent in the ring finds an uneasy equilibrium, even managing to convince her son that, though her work in the ring is degrading, there’s joy in it too. We need no such convincing — the power of putting on a show glimmers through each scene. –D.D.
“Best Self” (“The Good Place,” NBC)
There is quite simply no other show on TV like “The Good Place,” let alone on a broadcast network. Every week, the surreal afterlife comedy finds a new way to change its own game completely, with bonus philosophical lessons inching their way in around the margins. So in that respect, “Best Self” is a relatively lowkey episode that represents a radical departure from the show’s typical (as much as this show can be “typical”) approach. After reforming demon Michael (Ted Danson) confesses that he has no idea what to do next or how to get to the actual Good Place, the characters believe they’ve finally hit a wall they can’t break through and throw themselves one last pity party. Jokes are cracked, revelations are made, and all the while, the infinite charisma and smarts of “The Good Place” shine through. –C.F.
“The Bent-Neck Lady” (“The Haunting of Hill House,” Netflix)
With the power and meticulous construction of a novella, this installment moves through the life of Nell (Victoria Pedretti), haunted through life by a horrific apparition and never able to move beyond the traumas of youth. The revelation of the ghost’s true identity makes for a painful and jarring statement, one that converts Nell’s story from spooky yarn to a chilly insight about the way grief chases us through decades. –D.D.
“Globo” (“High Maintenance,” HBO)
On paper, “Globo” sounds like a terrible idea. In actuality, it’s stunning. The episode details the personal aftermath of some shocking event that the show never specifies, but by implication could be anything from the 2016 election to a mass shooting to a natural disaster. Though the episode loosely keeps the typical structure of following The Guy (Ben Sinclair) around as he delivers weed to a smorgasbord of New Yorkers, it more so is interested in the range of responses to a catastrophic event. In a series of sharp vignettes, “Globo” portrays grief, disbelief, despair, nihilism, and eventually, something like hope. –C.F.
“Fresh-Like” (“Insecure,” HBO)
Bursting with all the potential, excitement, and loopy insecurity of the beginnings of a love affair, this episode stood out from an uneven season. Following Issa (Issa Rae) and Nathan (Kendrick Sampson) on an afternoon-long impromptu date, the episode thrums, as all “Insecure’s” best do, with a deep appreciation of its south Los Angeles setting; it also intuitively gets and communicates with whisper-light subtlety the sense each nascent relationship brings with it of a potential reinvention, a real new beginning. A character often stuck in familiar and painful ruts, Issa showed a new, optimistic side here — and moved her story starkly forward with a climactic decision to quit her job, one that was both a shock and a deeply logical consequence of what we’d seen. –D.D.
“Chapter Seventy-Four” (“Jane the Virgin,” The CW)
Few shows maintain high quality four seasons in; fewer still achieve what “Jane the Virgin” has in four seasons, period. The empathetic comedy with TV’s biggest heart delivered one of its best episodes to date this year (and just so happens to be star Gina Rodriguez’s directorial debut). The sprawling cast of characters frankly and considerately confront their own feelings and desires, with Jane (Rodriguez) and longtime flirtation Rafael (Justin Baldoni) consummating their relationship, Petra (secret weapon Yael Grobglas) realizing she has feelings for her (female) lawyer, and Jane’s grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) opening her mind back up to the idea of being intimate with someone again. Rodriguez directs the hour with a deft and compassionate hand, bringing the best out of herself and her castmates with charm to spare. –C.F.
“Furs by Sebastian” (“Maniac,” Netflix)
Emma Stone’s performance — among the year’s best, and part of a vanguard of terrific limited-series acting this year — clicks into focus in this episode. Deep in a pharmaceutical-induced dreamstate, Stone’s Annie imagines herself as a Long Island housewife caught up in a harebrained crime. But tremulous soul shines through the fantasy’s loopy costuming and accent, as Annie is finally able to admit the fears she can’t while awake. Both wildly creative and rueful, this episode is “Maniac” at its best. –D.D.
“Not Yet” (“One Day at a Time,” Netflix)
“One Day at a Time” has shown every multicam naysayer over and over again how the genre can be used to tell relatable stories with a familiarity many other formats lack. But its season two finale, which throws the Alvarez family into crisis when Gloria (Rita Moreno) has to be in a medically-induced coma, also proved just how skilled the performers have to be in order to pull off what’s essentially live theater with such panache. “Not Yet” lets each character have a standout moment, showing all the cast members at their best, but none so formidable as Moreno and Justina Machado, who command the stage with ease. –C.F.
“Love Is the Message” (“Pose,” FX)
The emotional high point of a season that perpetually wore its heart on its sleeve, “Love is the Message” featured astounding work by Billy Porter, newly forced to face down his mortality after learning he is HIV-positive. His duet with Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) at an AIDS-ward cabaret performance was shatteringly informed by fear and yet leavened with the sense of possibility that only the greatest art can provide. –D.D.
“Ship Happens” (“The Real Housewives of New York City,” Bravo)
Part of the pleasures of a reality show that’s aged into itself, as has this cable staple now in its tenth season, is the degree to which the fights come freighted with meaningful history. On this installment, set on vacation in Colombia, vitriol flows as freely as on any made-for-TV drama out there, but it’s fueled by recognizably human hurts and comes with real stakes. These women, unlike so many scrapping reality-show protagonists, really are better as friends, even if they can’t see their way there. The second half of the episode is devoted to a chaotic near-shipwreck on a tourist cruise that casts all that’s come before into relief. The cast seems, fleetingly enough, united — a reconciliation that’s gracefully depicted even as it could never have been scripted. –D.D.
“Episode 3” (“Sally4Ever,” HBO)
Almost inconceivably funny, this installment of HBO’s cruel comedy of manners ratcheted its story up to a new level. Emma (British comedy star Julia Davis) had been shown, thus far, to be an oddly compelling individual suffused with both glamour and quirk, and had taken over the life of new girlfriend Sally (Catherine Shepherd) before more of her personality shone through. Taken to a dinner party, though, Emma reveals herself to be an utterly original sociopath, bulldozing one of her married hosts with scorn and the other with a charm offensive, or outright offensive attempts at charm. It’s a finely-wrought and carefully performed character study, one that brings its star methodically into focus, even as it’s uproarious comedy, too. –D.D.
“Open Mic Night” (“Schitt’s Creek,” Pop)
“Schitt’s Creek,” created by father and son Eugene and Dan Levy, began as a story about a spoiled family having to start over and face reality in a podunk rural town called, yes, “Schitt’s Creek.” But soon enough, the show became far more than a basic riches to rags story as everyone in the Rose family — including both Levys, the indelible Annie Murphy as ex-socialite Alexis, and the incomparable Catherine O’Hara as a theatrical matriarch — learned to become better, more enriched versions of themselves. The entire fourth season is a treat, but “Open Mic Night” spotlights the blooming relationship between David (Dan Levy) and Patrick (Noah Reid) with an unforgettable performance of “Simply the Best” that is, well, simply the best. —C.F.
“Reunited” (“Steven Universe,” Cartoon Network)
One of the most quietly ambitious shows on TV is a kid’s cartoon bursting with heart and steeped in complex mythology. “Steven Universe” has been preaching the virtues of love and teamwork, acceptance and loyalty for years now (without ever being preachy), but in its latest season, its many sprawling side plots came crashing back together with impressive verve in “Reunited.” Plus, it features a wonderful musical number about the value of finding happiness even in the darkest of times — a relevant reminder no matter how old you are. –C.F.
“Akane No Mai” (“Westworld,” HBO)
This episode pushed the show’s geography wildly further, finally showing us the Shogun World that exists beyond our familiar park boundaries. There — in a statement on the Delos programmers’ laziness or, perhaps, humanity’s tendency to follow familiar scripts — Maeve (Thandie Newton) finds feudal Japanese characters playing out the same script she’s already lived out so many times. That she goes on to discover within herself powers that transcend the script breaks the episode wide open and provides Newton a dazzling showcase to prove just what her character’s nimble mind, and her own, can do. –D.D.