Critics' Picks: The 15 Best TV Episodes of 2016

6:40 AM 12/21/2016

by Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg

From great episodes of great shows ('The Americans,' 'Atlanta') to great episodes of good shows ('Bates Motel') to (shockingly) great episodes of bad shows ('Dice'), THR's TV critics single out their favorite episodes of the year (in alphabetical order, by show title).

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Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of FX

These were great television episodes of 2016. They may not, however, be THE greatest TV episodes of 2016.

Sometimes it's easier to point to great episodes of a good show than great episodes of a great show. Sometimes you feel that in the process of going through Best Shows and Best Performances and Best Episodes, that you're writing about the same things over and over, because the best shows probably have the best performances and the best episodes. But you crave the chance to shine a light on some special things from shows that haven't been discussed quite as much, or even to isolate that rarity of a bad show that somehow managed to muster one great episode.

Make no mistake: Even if we don't list an individual episode of Veep or Rectify here, we're not saying all of these episodes below are better than every episode of those shows, or of Happy Valley or a bunch of other shows.

But we're definitely saying these are great episodes of television.

  • The Americans

    The finale to another (maybe the best?) great season of The Americans was like bricks falling from the sky: Nobody could hide from what seemed like impending doom, the emotional and physical toll of the spy game laying everyone low. It perfectly encapsulated the stakes of this season while also deftly setting up what ought to be two tense remaining seasons. — Tim Goodman 

  • Atlanta

    Purists might say that it was the subtle everyday Atlanta-isms that fueled the series' inaugural season, and that the stunning tonal shift of this particular half-hour wasn't representative. But it's FX's no-rules, medium-expanding approach to TV that makes the satirical show-within-a-show episode so hilarious and off-kilter. No rules. Just creativity — including even an animated cereal commercial featuring police brutality. — T.G.

  • Bates Motel

    I'm not sure any show this year faced a more difficult task than Bates Motel in the penultimate episode of the fourth season. Fans of Psycho knew going in that at some point, Norman Bates and Momma Norma were going to have, ummm, a parting of ways, but with Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin writing, the formative moment of Norman Bates' life — and the last moment of Norma Bates' life — became something crushingly sad rather than just crushingly inevitable. The emotional beats that led to the series' pivotal scene were meticulous and as well considered as I ever could have hoped for, given my early doubts about the series, and director Tim Southam's direction of the episode's closing moment was eerie and beautiful.

    Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga have only been denied recent awards recognition because of our Peak TV saturation, but that doesn't mean they're both unworthy of kudos, as they've never been better. The fourth season finale, written by Ehrin and directed by Tucker Gates, was every bit as good, albeit without the expectations and degree of difficulty of "Forever." Since the fifth and final season looks to dovetail entirely with Psycho, Bates Motel is going to face high expectations again, but my confidence in the show is now high, too. — Daniel Fienberg

  • Better Things

    I spoke with the biggest Better Things fans I know — that would be my parents — about their favorite episodes in the first season of Pamela Adlon's FX comedy. They suggested "Forever Fever," the episode focusing on Mikey Madison's Max, and "the episode with Lenny Kravitz," which were both great half-hours. I think my own personal favorite, though, is "Woman Is the Something of the Something," which smartly examined the challenges for a 50-year-old actress still waiting to get her big break and paralleled them with the challenges for a mother of three trying to be there when her daughters need her. The result was a beautiful O. Henry story in which a seemingly inattentive agent turned out to be the agent who knew best, opting not to get Sam Fox's (Adlon) hopes up about a part that Hollywood's institutional sexism and ageism were going to deny her anyway. But "Forever Fever" and "the episode with Lenny Kravitz" were also great. — D.F.

  • Black Mirror

    Perhaps because it's a bit of an outlier in the Black Mirror pantheon – it's sad but not completely gutting and bleak, if that makes sense – this unique take on a life not left, with a second layer of twists that add to the emotional investment, really stood out, as did the performances of Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as two young women in love. Is there such thing as a good cry with Black Mirror? — T.G.

  • BoJack Horseman

    I could get fancy and try telling you that "The BoJack Horseman Show," with its detailed 2007 setting and Jessica Biel cameo, was the best episode of the third season of Netflix's BoJack Horseman. I could do the same with "That's Too Much, Man!," built around the blackouts in BoJack and Sarah Lynn's latest relapse. I could even argue that the season's funniest episode was "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew," in which teen pop star Sextina Aquafina uses an abortion to become a sensation. But why bother being fancy? "Fish Out of Water," set at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, was the show's most innovative installment yet, a nearly dialogue-free episode in which BoJack simultaneously tries to reconcile with an alienated colleague and reunite an adorable seahorse with its father. It's part film festival parody, part loving tribute to silent cinema, and it's all driven, as ever, by Lisa Hanawalt's adorably strange, chaotically whimsical art. It's probably the best episode of TV I watched all year. — D.F.

  • The Carmichael Show

    Jerrod Carmichael's NBC multi-cam got more hype for issue-centric episodes examining the African-American community's relationship with Bill Cosby and the drama of a family member supporting Donald Trump, but the second season's best episode found David Alan Grier's Joe struggling to eulogize his late father, a man he largely hated. Featuring a guest appearance by Marla Gibbs, "The Funeral" showed the precision with which The Carmichael Show can shift from comedy to drama and showed its ongoing willingness to offer serious, and then abruptly hilarious, treatments of things few other comedies, and even fewer multi-cams, dare to try. The Carmichael Show has, against all odds, become NBC's longest-running comedy — though it nearly didn't get picked up for a second season because of behind-the-scenes wrangling — and even in a landscape of comedies that dabble in social commentary, this Norman Lear throwback routinely stakes out a terrain all its own. [Or if it isn't quite on its own, that's only because shows like Black-ish and Survivor's Remorse and a few others are also doing great callbacks to the Lear Legacy.] — D.F.

  • Dice

    Certainly the largest gap between overall series and individual episode quality of the year and possibly the largest such gap in television history, the "Ego" episode of Showtime's Dice is the Brady-Anderson-1996-season of half-hours:a hilariously crazed episode in which Adrien Brody, playing himself, spends a day mirroring Andrew Dice Clay, playing himself, and quickly becomes more Dice than the Diceman.

    Overall, Dice is a soft-but-not-dreadful bit of self-examination from the beloved/reviled standup star, but "Ego" was the first season's sharpest bit of introspection into the dangers of play-acting a character people come to associate you with forever and the immersive threat of Method acting. "Ego" is pretty savvy about the less appealing side of the Diceman's persona and Brody's one-off performance is impressively gung-ho. Clay, it should be noted, was also great in the Vinyl pilot and if Vinyl hadn't crashed and burned, he might have been in the running for a guest-acting Emmy nomination. — D.F.

  • Fleabag

    In addition to the outright hilarity and the wincing comedy of this wonderful freshman series, there's also the heartbreaking gulf between father and daughter — but in the season finale, the hammer drop about Boo's fate and the mascara-running mess of a broken Fleabag landed with unprecedented emotional force. — T.G.

  • Game of Thrones

    Thrones has at times played like an endurance test in which the good guys are beaten down like rag dolls, but the spectacularly rewarding season 6 finale felt like real justice. From Cersei finally having enough of everyone else's incompetence, to Arya's, ahem, stark revenge, to Jon Snow's full comeback and Daenerys' raging desire to bring the fight home, it was all there. Oh, and it also paved the way for a highly anticipated race to the end of the series itself. — T.G.

  • Halt and Catch Fire

    Written by Michael Saltzman and directed by Karyn Kusama, "The Threshold" isn't one of those great TV episodes that can be watched in isolation. It requires the context of the 26 episodes that preceded it, because the Mutiny board meeting with Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) begging her colleagues to hold off on launching the IPO, against Donna's (Kerry Bishé) wishes, as the two friends and partners try to sway Diane (Annabeth Gish), Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Bosworth (Toby Huss) to their side, may be the year's most breathlessly suspenseful scene. It's mostly just Kusama working with the show's remarkable ensemble in a room, a lot of close-ups and tight framings, but nearly every word and reaction is pregnant with inevitable betrayal. It's Julius Caesar with Cameron as Caesar, but which of her trusted confidantes will be Brutus? Each stab and twist of the knife hurts. — D.F.

  • The Night Of

    Richard Price and Steven Zaillian's HBO miniseries was never quite as satisfying once it became a fairly conventional and all-too-unrealistic procedural, but the 79-minute premiere stands as a near-perfect mini-movie about bad decisions, unfortunate accidents and questionable impulses. With the threat of inevitable doom looming at all times, the pilot introduces Riz Ahmed's Naz, a seeming innocent on the brink of murder charges and a swift eight-episode descent, and John Turturro's John Stone, a seeming ambulance chaser on the brink of scratching his feet, and establishes a legal system badly in need of repair. Zaillian's direction accentuates the strong performances while also weaving in a mystery, with Robert Elswitt's cinematography hiding clues on the edge of darkness. — D.F.

  • The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

    I did a panel show on USC TV talking The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story with a group of undergraduates, and the students seemed totally unaware that nearly 20 years of conventional wisdom had judged Marcia Clark as the woman who let O.J. Simpson get away with murder, which was the image perpetuated in the media of the day.

    The FX show's sixth episode, cheekily titled "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," exposed the hypocrisy behind that image and almost single-handedly resurrected Marcia Clark as a public figure worthy of respect — thanks in no small part to Sarah Paulson's glorious performance, which consistently probed beneath a surface we came to reductively view as brittle and needy. Instead, we saw Marcia coping with the push-and-pull of her divorce, flirting with Christopher Darden, dealing with the sexism of her well-meaning boss and getting the haircut that, like so many other innocuous gestures, made her a laughingstock.

    The scene with Marcia walking into the courtroom, newly shorn and confident, and getting an obsequiously slimy thumbs up from the Human Eyebrow Monster that was John Travolta's Robert Shapiro, was one of the year's best. It's no wonder that audiences who didn't live through the Trial of the Century can't imagine Marcia Clark as anything other than a flawed heroine. — D.F.

  • Underground

    I love a good throw-down-the-gauntlet pilot that immediately says, "You're in or you're out, but there" — in the words of Big Daddy Kane — "ain't no half-steppin'." Some 2016 pilots that I'd put in that category include Preacher, Search Party, Baskets, Horace and Pete and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Hey, they can't all be winners. Written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and directed by Anthony Hemingway, the opener for WGN America's Underground is a top-notch throw-down-the-gauntlet pilot.

    The pilot opens with a fleeing slave crashing through the woods as the soundtrack blares Kanye West's "Black Skinhead," the bass pulsing to match the hard-breathing of a man pursued by a dog. The next scene introduces 1857 Georgia plantation life with a swooping single shot beginning in the fields and following, or leading, Jurnee Smollett-Bell's Rosalee back through a shotgun mansion and through to the slave quarters. The Underground pilot is full of unmistakable energy, spurred along by an anachronistic soundtrack, and introduces a series that is far more visceral and exciting than staid and instructive. It's a robust action drama, not a history lesson. And it works. — D.F.

  • Westworld

    The fifth episode and halfway mark of Westworld — in which Shannon Woodward's Elsie realizes that someone is leaking information outside the park — confirmed, for me, that the time spent getting things right when production was shut down prior to launch was time well spent. This episode accelerated rampant fan theory speculation, and even if you weren't into that kind of thing the mystery deepened and there were shrewdly planted hints pointing to things getting a lot stranger. — T.G.