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There is, as you may have heard, too much good TV. In the interest of spreading the wealth a little, we decided that this list of great TV episodes from 2021 wouldn’t include installments from any of the shows in our respective Top 10 lists (see Daniel Fienberg’s Top 10 and Angie Han’s Top 10.) Otherwise, our top episodes list would likely include at least three Succession hours — “Retired Janitors of Idaho,” “Too Much Birthday” and “All the Bells Say,” probably — and multiple installments from Reservation Dogs. Make no mistake, the ninth episode of The Underground Railroad and the For All Mankind finale were among the best of the year, but you already know that. Here are 10 (ok, fine, 12) other episodes we thought needed a moment in the spotlight.
“Beaches Be Trippin’,” Blindspotting (Starz)
Blindspotting deserves credit for sheer boldness: Even if its combination of grounded realism and fantastical flourishes occasionally felt out of balance, you could never fault this show for lack of imagination. Its strange mixture of elements comes together most potently in “Beaches Be Trippin’,” which combines an intense, and intensely funny, drug trip with salient commentary about the difficulty of life after prison. Earl’s mad dash through Oakland meshes with the girls’ journey into their own minds, culminating in a much-needed win for the former, and a long-overdue moment of catharsis for the latter. — ANGIE HAN
“The Boy From 6B,” Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) / “S Is for Silence,” Evil (Paramount+) / “Echos,” Hawkeye (Disney+)
Yes, Evil was in my Top 10, which makes this entry a double-cheat, but I couldn’t ignore how three of this year’s standout episodes focused on the potency of silence. The Only Murders in the Building episode, which unfolds without spoken dialogue, and the Hawkeye episode, giving poignant backstory to apparent villain Maya “Echo” Lopez, are tremendous showcases for James Caverly and Alaqua Cox, both deaf actors: They’re examples of clever and organic storytelling and boundary-pushing depictions of disability. The Evil episode explores the spiritual uses of silence in its monastic setting and proves that even with reduced spoken conversation, the CBS transplant is able to be terrifying and hilarious. — DANIEL FIENBERG
“Don’t Touch That Dial,” WandaVision (Disney+)
In typical Marvel form, WandaVision‘s bracing weirdness eventually gave way to the usual superhero business of saving the world by shooting magical lasers from the sky. But on the way, the series doubled as a loving tour through half a century of sitcom history. “Don’t Touch That Dial” feels like WandaVision at its most balanced: It’s a note-perfect homage to ’60s shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, shaded with just the hints of something more sinister underneath. Plus, it gave us the irresistible physical comedy of Paul Bettany acting absolutely wasted as Vision, as a stray glob of chewing gum worked its way through his robot innards. — A.H.
“Falling,” Hacks (HBO Max)
HBO Max’s Emmy-winning comedy probably had funnier episodes, but “Falling,” written by Andrew Law and directed by Paul W. Downs, stands out for me. The episode, primarily Ava’s (Hannah Einbinder) drug-fueled odyssey around Las Vegas with a mysterious stranger, proved that Hacks was more than just a Jean Smart Worship Vehicle (not that there would have been anything wrong with that). The installment is full of star-making moments for Einbinder; it’s the show’s most effective use of Sin City as a setting; and the shocking ending plays as astonishingly well-earned. — D.F.
“Finale,” Pose (FX)
The first three episodes of the final season of Steven Canals’ landmark FX drama felt rushed, but from “Take Me To Church” on, Pose charged to its end with purpose and trademark emotional crescendos. The two-part finale — written by the show’s core creative team and directed by Canals — was particularly astonishing, spanning many years but keeping its focus on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez’s Blanca and generating one outburst of tears after another. From Rodriguez and Billy Porter’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” performance to devastating work by the Gay Men’s Choir to Blanca’s valedictory ball, Pose ended with just the right mixture of sadness and joy. — D.F.
“Gganbu,” Squid Game (Netflix)
In a series full of horrifying surprises, perhaps none was more devastating than the one embedded at the start of “Gganbu.” It’s in this episode that Squid Game‘s commentary on the cruelty of capitalism feels most personal, and it’s in this episode that five previous episodes’ worth of character development pay off in the most heartbreaking way imaginable. As the players discover the only way to survive is to screw over their closest allies, each reveals what they’re really made of: Some, like Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), resort to cold manipulation, while others, like Jie-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi), steel themselves for self-sacrifice. Squid Game‘s initial draw may have been its wild premise — but “Gganbu” is a reminder that its characters were what made it unforgettable. — A.H.
“Goodbye My Damaged Home,” Station Eleven (HBO Max)
Showrunner Patrick Somerville, who led the team adapting Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed novel, cut his TV teeth on The Leftovers, which may explain why Station Eleven is at its best in relatively self-contained episodes. The season’s seventh episode (which airs Dec. 30), written by Kim Steele and directed by Lucy Tcherniak, is very nearly a bottle episode focusing on how young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) and unlikely guardians Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) spent the first 100 days after the show’s central global pandemic. Like so much of the series, it’s haunting, a little terrifying and deeply engaged with the role art plays in maintaining our humanity. Plus, it’s structured so that Lawler, the series’ true acting revelation, and Mackenzie Davis, not a revelation because she’s been awesome in things before, get to share scenes despite playing the same character. — D.F.
“Pilot,” Yellowjackets (Showtime)
There’s so much going on in the first episode of Yellowjackets: The hour encompasses roughly a dozen different characters (including four leads played by pairs of actors) across three different timelines, mapping out both the larger world and the shifting interpersonal dynamics within it while also laying the groundwork for seasons’ worth of mysteries and twists to come. Yet the episode itself, directed by Karyn Kusama, feels as fleet-footed as a varsity soccer player and as juicy as a hunk of meat roasted over an open flame. Propulsive and unnerving, with a dark, dark sense of humor, the Yellowjackets pilot is easily one of the best from an entire year in television. Wherever the series goes next, the episode ensures there is no denying the queasy allure of its premise. — A.H.
“Somebody Date Me,” Dave (FXX)
It would be easy to single out either the second season finale or “Bar Mitzvah,” but I saluted the similarly GaTa-centric “Hype Man” in the first season. Instead, let’s talk a little about how hilarious “Somebody Date Me,” written by Tayarisha Poe and directed by Alex Russell, is and how well it utilizes Doja Cat, an artist I had no previous opinion on. Dave’s travails on a dating app for celebrities make for some of the season’s most cringe-worthy moments and, through potential match Doja Cat, the episode offers a different and interestingly empathetic glimpse at the work necessary to maintain stardom. Note that I could have included “Ad Man,” “The Burds” or “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” in this list, suggesting how close Dave came to making my Top 10 for a second straight year. — D.F.
“The Wellness Center,” What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
The curse of What We Do in the Shadows‘ consistent delightfulness is that picking just one episode for this list felt like a near impossibility. But “The Wellness Center” gets the edge for the indelible sight of Nandor trading his medieval warlord togs for ’80s-style workout gear, having joined a fitness cult that promises to turn him human again. Vampires bemoaning the drudgery of eternal life is nothing new; it’s practically a staple of their mythology. But vampires dealing with their ennui by throwing themselves wholeheartedly into aerobics classes led by a literal bloodsucking grifter — now that’s a new spin. — A.H.
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