Hollywood Reporter TV Critics Pick the Best Episodes of 2018

7:00 AM 12/18/2018

by Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg

A vigorous debate about race relations in America, an interpretive coming-out dance, a richly satisfying wrapup after six seasons of one of the all-time great TV dramas, a brilliant absurdist take on contemporary celebrity culture and an exhilarating jolt of silliness featuring a killer unicorn — these are some of the episodes that blew our critics’ minds.

From left: 'The Good Place,' 'The Americans,' 'Atlanta'
From left: 'The Good Place,' 'The Americans,' 'Atlanta'
Photofest (2); FX

If you read a lot of Best TV Episodes of 2018 lists, you'll start seeing many of the same heirloom episodes popping up over and over, episodes like "Teddy Perkins" (Atlanta), "Love Is the Message" (Pose), "Free Churro" (Bojack Horseman), "The Queen" (Castle Rock), "START" (The Americans) and, if people waited late enough, "Janet(s)" (The Good Place). All are excellent episodes.

We'll write about a few of those, but hopefully also several great episodes you haven't seen celebrated elsewhere. With 495 scripted shows, that's a lot of potentially outstanding episodes to choose from.

  • "Chapter VIII," 'Dear White People'

    Adam Rose/Netflix

    The problem with a lot of these "Best Episode" lists is that we valorize stand-alone showcase episodes over great organically integrated episodes of TV. Here's another of those! Written by Jack Moore and directed by creator Justin Simien, "Chapter VIII" is a bottle episode and focuses on Logan Browning's Sam and John Patrick Amedori's Gabe as they hash out nothing less than the state of race relations in America, while also breaking down the highs and lows of their romantic relationship. It's a pause in the second season's ongoing narrative and features the smallest segment of the show's superb ensemble. It's really just a one-act play — like "Free Churro" from Bojack Horseman is really just a splendid monologue — a breathless pause within a fast-moving season. And by "just a one-act play," I mean it's smart and perceptive and Browning and Amedori spar like seasoned pros, with Simien preventing their conversation from ever feeling claustrophobic. — Daniel Fienberg

  • “The Crossing,” 'Counterpart'

    Nicole Wilder/Starz

    There are so many fantastically creative episodes in this series, but the pilot set the bar high on how to reveal things without explanation and drop even more clues while answering enough questions not to be annoying, nonchalantly embracing its premise that's basically three-quarters espionage thriller and — wait, what? — one-quarter sci-fi with a parallel universe. But the best magic was watching J.K. Simmons play the same person with two different personalities, nailing so many subtleties in the process. An exceptional hour of television that truly set the hook. — Tim Goodman

  • "Dissolving Margins," 'My Brilliant Friend'

    Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

    I wanted to write about at least one episode that's just a great episode of TV within the context of a show, rather than a Very Special Stunt Episode of a Show. The fourth episode of HBO's marvelous Elena Ferrante adaptation, satisfying like a rich bone broth, culminates with a miraculous battle of fireworks and it is, throughout, perhaps the series' best illustration of where these characters fit within the wider world of Naples and Italy itself. As the title suggests, it's about how these characters are separate — Elena from Lila, men from women, rich from poor, suburban from urban — and the elements that can still bring them together, that can blur or even erase all of their boundaries. I'm not sure if "Dissolving Margins" is better than the Elena stand-alone "The Island," the peak of Margherita Mazzucco's show-anchoring performance, but I love how it functions within the show's flow, rather than attracting attention to itself. — Daniel Fienberg

  • “Fuck John Wayne,” 'Patriot'

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    The secret to this sublimely perfect existential spy series is that Michael Dorman, who plays our depressed hero John, is so incredible about looking down (but functioning) and just carrying that weight, man. In this episode, his brother's bachelor party, he's as happy as we've ever seen him, maybe as happy as he'll ever be, but we know it's only going to be temporary. Still, Dorman is perfect. His happiness makes the viewer happy. His happiness makes the bleak existential stuff all that much bleaker. A wonderfully soul-satisfying episode that is nonetheless utterly heartbreaking. — Tim Goodman

  • "Janet(s)," 'The Good Place'

    Colleen Hayes/NBC

    If the first season of NBC's The Good Place was dedicated to proving the excellence of Kristen Bell and Ted Danson and the second season was all about making you realize that William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto are every bit as good, much of the third season has been an extended love letter to D'Arcy Carden and the glories of Janet. That culminated in the fall finale, in which all of our heroes are sucked into Janet's Void for protection and take the form of Janet, allowing Carden to spend 22 minutes doing her best Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and, best of all, Manny Jacinto impressions. It's just a remarkable episode for Carden, the sort of thing that ought to set her up for Emmy consideration in the fall, but as is always the case with The Good Place, the form of a stunt episode is used to push the series forward and confront several key emotional beats, somehow accomplishing those feats while barely using most of the regular cast. — Daniel Fienberg

  • "Legends of To-Meow-Meow," 'Legends of Tomorrow'

    Robert Falconer/The CW

    Anybody can praise a show that excels in moments of tension or dramatic grandeur or Emmy-worthy character exploration. but I think it's wrong to entirely ignore the sheer pleasure that can come from the embrace of silliness. No show embraces its own silliness as aggressively as Legends of Tomorrow. This episode, the season four midseason finale, is a small snapshot of how wonderfully silly this show has become. Amidst constant resetting of the season's timeline, writers James Eagan and Ray Utarnachitt dig deep into the series' bag of tricks and utilize puppets, genre TV parody, a killer unicorn and more to craft an episode that's goofy, but deliriously so, all without resorting to abusive over-reliance on last season's breakout star, that blur of furry blue divinity known as Beebo. Look, Legends of Tomorrow wasn't making my Top 10 (or Top 20) and we weren't going to single out any of its performances, but I wanted to mention it somewhere. — Daniel Fienberg

  • “Mac Finds His Pride,” 'It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia'

    Courtesy of FXX

    Yes, Season 13 — stunning enough. But in this episode, a series known for boundary-pushing and big surprises tackled something bold and unexpected: an interpretive dance scene played not for laughs but for emotional relevance without an ounce of comic cheating to cover its ass. In the totally unexpected scene, executed with jaw-dropping precision by Rob McElhenney (alongside ballerina Kylie Shea, whose lovely work was, of course, less surprising), Mac was performing in a prison, trying to come out as gay to his father (who walked out midway). The audience, of course, is half expecting something funny to happen and half hoping it doesn't because of the level of commitment in the rain-soaked dance scene. It's hard to be surprised on this level, but wow. McElhenney's commitment to the series (remember when he gained, like, 50 pounds to become "Fat Mac"?) is unquestioned — but in the 143rd episode and the 13th season? A truly standout performance in an entire episode that was really something. — Tim Goodman

  • “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” 'Succession'

    Colin Hutton/HBO

    A series that shape-shifted with beguiling agility between drama and comedy, mining the shallow depths of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) as he went from wannabe business heir to tech bro, failing husband and unfavored son, to the inner niceness that flickered and the harrowing drug addiction (and what fueled it). This was a roller coaster season that ended with three successive shots to the body and head and then the knockout chin-shot that closed it out, leaving viewers with their mouths agape, in wonder at the scene and at writer-creator Jesse Armstrong's deft storytelling. — Tim Goodman

  • “START,” 'The Americans'

    Patrick Harbron/FX

    On the one hand, not sticking the landing with a brilliant finale after six seasons wouldn't have completely stripped the shine from this drama, which is an easy pick as one of the top five best dramas ever. Then again, that's all some people would have been able to focus on. Thankfully, what viewers got — no spoilers here, of course — was an emotionally devastating end, with a balance of necessary toll-taking so as not to undercut the stakes, along with hope, despair, many closed storytelling loops and just the right amount of ambiguity sprinkled in, plus a carefully considered take on pretty much all the characters. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields should be applauded for navigating this enormous task and skillfully doing right by both the dramatic needs and those of the show's loyal audience. — Tim Goodman

  • "Teddy Perkins,” 'Atlanta'

    Guy D'Alema/FX

    The second "Teddy Perkins" ended its first commercial-free airing on FX in April, I immediately restarted the episode and watched it again, a step I repeated the next morning and once the following weekend. While it might be edgy to write about the glories of some other Atlanta episode from its terrific second season, "Teddy Perkins" is just where it’s at. Hiro Murai's direction of what is, at times, practically a haunted house drama — Mike Flanagan's work on the "Two Storms" episode of Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House could surely have made this list — is unsettling from frame one, and yet it's also incredibly funny as an absurdist take on the price of fame. Even behind layers of makeup, Donald Glover, who also wrote the episode, makes Teddy a marvelously otherworldly creature, a product of warped nurture and also contemporary celebrity culture. He's matched by Lakeith Stanfield's expert slow-burn reactions. Whether it's the details in Murai's precise framings or the grotesque treat of the sound design work on that giant ostrich egg and its gooey middle, "Teddy Perkins" is ever revealing new surprises. — Daniel Fienberg