Hollywood Reporter Critics' 10 Favorite TV Episodes of 2017

6:30 AM 12/21/2017

by Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg

A fresh perspective on a classic Hitchcock scene, a surreal California detour, a reckoning with God unlike any other, a nightmarish memory inside another memory, a confronting #MeToo moment and a wordless dance drama are among our picks.

From left, 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' 'Room 104,' 'Legion'
From left, 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' 'Room 104,' 'Legion'
Courtesy of CW; HBO; FX

Calling something a "best episode" can be a lot riskier than even "best performance" or "best quote," because an episode is part of a full story being told on television, and separating the parts from the whole seems dubious at best. So, instead, we're opting for "favorites" for a number of reasons, primarily because individual episodes hit people in different ways and, for critics, sometimes an episode fans loathe or are indifferent to is one that stands joyously apart. So, with that in mind, here we go. 

  • 'Bates Motel,' "Marion"

    A&E

    Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC

    It may not be the most aesthetically adventurous TV episode of the year, nor the most narratively important, but you don't get much more balls-to-the-wall audacious than when Bates Motel finally reached the events of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and said, "Yeah, we're gonna do this one our own way." Writers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin and director Phil Abraham subverted expectations at every turn, including the casting of Rihanna as Marion Crane and the staging of not one, but two shower scenes. These were harrowing sequences that paid homage to Hitchcock and also illustrated the different way Freddie Highmore and his Norman Bates had evolved compared to Tony Perkins’ version of the character in the original movie. There was nothing Bates Motel could possibly do to surpass the source material, so the creatives found a way to honor it and still position the series for its own unique closing stretch of episodes. — Daniel Fienberg

  • 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' "Josh's Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy"

    The CW

    Robert Voets/The CW

    Series creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna haven’t exactly "struggled" with how to depict the implications of mental illness in the show's title, but sometimes in the first two seasons they were maybe a little tentative. The third season has gone aggressively after Rachel's instability and it has yielded possibly the show's best, and certainly darkest, run of episodes. Directed by Joseph Kahn and written by Bloom and McKenna, this one was designed as a breaking point for both the show and its main character, pushing aggressively into almost musical slasher-film territory to put Rebecca and her relationship with her friends in a position from which they can't return. The episode is twisted, off-putting and commits wholly to its weird genre mix. It shows how much Bloom has progressed as an actress since her relative inexperience when the show premiered. And it features a great cameo from Josh Groban. — DF

  • 'Fargo,' "The Law of Non-Contradiction"

    FX

    Chris Large/FX

    This episode had more Coen Brothers echoes than maybe anything Noah Hawley has done so far, plus it's now famously self-contained, set in the hot sun of Los Angeles (but there are Santas) and not in the snowy Midwest. It's basically about nothing, but of course that's not true either — just as the Mike Yanagita scene from the movie was proven to be essential and essentially Coen-esque, and not just some visual non-sequitur. So Gloria (Carrie Coon) goes to Los Angeles on a hunch and a tidy little back-story emerges that includes the name "Ennis Stussy." A lovely single-episode detour, and anyone who says otherwise knows nothing about Fargo. There's also a frustrating box. Which is perfect and, separately, a metaphor. Did Gloria find what she was looking for in L.A.? "It's just a story. None of this has anything to do with it." Don't ever change, Fargo. — Tim Goodman 

  • 'The Leftovers,' "It's A Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World"

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    We are at a point in television where enough shows do weird episodes that it's impossible to compare (Twin Peaks, Legion, etc.). But there was something surreal, honest, hilarious and, yep, weird about this episode. For example, a naked French submarine officer fires a nuke at an island and yes it goes off; a man who believes he's God throws a man off a party boat in the middle of the ocean (the party is basically a lion-worshipping orgy); the event is witnessed by Matt (Christopher Eccleston) but nobody believes him when he tells everyone what happened and so he confronts "God," fights "God," and, downcast, asks "God" to cure him. It's actually a very sad scene. And then, once the boat docks, "God" is about to be arrested for murder (throwing that person overboard), but a splinter group among the orgy participants releases the captive lion from the boat and it races over, tackles and, shockingly, eats "God" in the parking lot. "That's the guy I was telling you about," Matt says. Even among Leftovers episodes, that stands out. — TG

  • 'Legion,' "Chapter 3"

    FX

    Michelle Faye/FX

    In a series that mixes mental illness with fugue states, genre-bending powers, the all-too-real possibility that interior nightmares are actually not nightmares, etc., this episode was a doozy. Characters are trapped in the brain and memories of David (Dan Stevens), and what appears beyond a raft of freakiness is the scary return of the Yellow Eyed Devil and the title character from The World's Angriest Boy In the World, who looks like Hitler. The scary duo of course chases people through a nightmare (inside David's brain) that might really be a fresh memory inside a recovered memory. That this was only the third episode of Legion and actually, by the end, made some kind of sense, solidified the trippy run this freshman series would go on, creatively untethered. — TG

  • 'Master of None,' "Religion"

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    My enthusiasm for the second season as a whole has slipped a little, but episode-for-episode, Master of None remained ambitious and frequently dazzling. "Thanksgiving" has been sufficiently and justifiably celebrated. I liked "New York, I Love You," but it's a conceit I've seen done as well or better elsewhere. "First Date" was a definitive portrait of romance for the Swipe-Right Generation. And sure, all of the Italian stuff was a glorious mixture of travelogue and food porn. But I just want to praise the simplicity and accessibility of "Religion," which captures the basic themes of Master of None so perfectly, namely the cultural differences that can separate generations, especially generations of immigrant families, and the effort to find ways to bridge those ideological and ritualized gaps. So much of the second season is so polished and planned and conceived that I love how loose "Religion" is. Its heavy reliance on inexperienced or non-actors hearkens back to the charms of a first season whose more DIY feel appealed to me. — DF

  • 'Mr. Robot,' "eps3.2_legacy.so"

    USA Network

    Courtesy of Peter Kramer/USA Network

    In a season that began by thrillingly and cleverly filling in lots of narrative blanks, the big backstory of sociopath Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) was seen as either unnecessary or extremely rewarding because he was finally fleshed out, and not just the douchey enigma of Season 1 (who goes missing for almost all of Season 2). I opt for the latter because it also signaled that Mr. Robot was a broader game than just Elliot constantly wondering where his mind was. This episode not only allowed Wallstrom to flex his acting muscles, it rather hilariously buffed him up, gave him a beard and let him chop the hell out of some wood before letting viewers know how twisted he was from the start (and how twisted the plot would get). Bonus: Wallace Shawn. Also, more Irving (Bobby Cannavale) and how Trump became president. So, yeah, it was different. — TG

  • 'One Mississippi,' "Can't Fight This Feeling"

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

    Before #MeToo became a movement, TV this year was already deeply invested in issues of consent and sexual manipulation through power. The fantastic Better Things episode "Blackout" ends with Sam rejecting a longtime friend's advances by saying "No" literally dozens of times. The exceptional Girls episode "American Bitch" spawned thinkpieces and Emmy nominations. The most raw and exposed consent-themed episode of the year, though, found Tig Notaro seemingly directly addressing accusations against one of her show's credited executive producers, Louis C.K. In "Can't Fight This Feeling," the horror and betrayal of Kate (Stephanie Allynne) at a boss masturbating in front of her and Tig's recollections of her childhood molestation are tied together to force nearly every character on the show into a reckoning or catharsis. It's honest and shattering and, as usually is the case on One Mississippi, weirdly funny. — DF 

  • 'Room 104,' "Voyeurs"

    HBO

    Courtesy of Jordin Althaus/ HBO

    Having 450-plus scripted TV shows often makes the job of TV critic into a Sisyphean morass of sitcoms that hit the same broad punchlines in the same way; of cable dramas that rely on the same heightened tropes to create suspense. But having 450-plus scripted TV shows sometimes means that HBO will give the Duplass brothers the freedom to do a boundary-pushing show about stories taking place in a single hotel room. And maybe the show won't air until 11 p.m., but people find good TV these days, no matter where or when it's airing. And having 450-plus scripted TV shows apparently means eventually you're going to be treated to a dialogue-free half-hour told entirely in interpretative modern dance. I'm still not completely sure what story is being told involving a nosey maid (Dendrie Taylor) and a passionate young woman (Sarah Hay), who's either a younger version of the maid or just one of the many sometimes tawdry stories that pass in and out of the eponymous Room 104. I'm totally sure that I've rarely seen anything quite like the way "Voyeurs" uses movement, physical space and these two wonderful dancer-actresses on TV. — DF

  • 'SMILF,' "Half A Sheet Cake & a Blue-Raspberry Slushie"

    Showtime

    The third episode of this freshman series provided all the necessary reasons to continue watching. Broke and broker, Bridgette (Frankie Shaw) needs a dream. She needs hope. Lack of job prospects takes her online where a stranger (Jeremy Shamos, who is fantastic) offers her $1,000 to have dinner. She declines but accepts his offer of $300 just to see her face. They meet in a public parking lot, rain pouring down. His shame and her sadness coalesce into a touching encounter (he offers her another $300 to get a soda and chat inside a market) that briefly becomes a musical set in a grocery store (the second dream of the episode, wonderfully directed by Leslye Headland). Then an actual touching encounter ruins it all. Dread and sadness were temporarily held at bay — until they weren't. Tense and thoughtful, the episode's originality bursts through and there's a lovely ending, as Bridgette thinks again about living a dream. — TG

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