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As with the list of our favorite TV performances of 2020, this celebration of the year’s standout episodes is, at best, a fool’s errand, and we’re aiming to cover as much ground as possible. That means that we tried to steer away from anything in our respective Best Shows of 2020 selections — not completely, but we tried — on the grounds that episodes like “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” (How To With John Wilson), “Bagman” (Better Call Saul), “The Balmoral Test” (The Crown) and “Batceañera” (Better Things) have been sufficiently honored elsewhere. (But seriously, “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” is the year’s best half-hour of TV.)
Other contenders surely worthy of recognition include “Ransom” (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), “Parallel” (Tales From the Loop), “Union Negotiation” (Brockmire), “The Jonathan Gold Standard” (Top Chef), “Discoid Cockroaches” (Everything’s Gonna Be Okay), “Nice While It Lasted” (BoJack Horseman), “Horrority House” (Big Mouth) and “Never Ricking Morty” (Rick and Morty).
“East/West,” Fargo (FX)
It was an uneven fourth season for Noah Hawley’s FX anthology: The show was still driven by an unequaled ensemble, exemplary period production values and clever dialogue, but struggled to bring its two-dozen main characters and myriad thematic swings together in its tale of organized crime in 1950s Kansas City. But for one episode, written by Hawley and Lee Edward Colston II and directed by Michael Uppendahl, Fargo was in absolute top form. “East/West” did away with the sprawling cast other than Rodney L. Jones III’s Satchel and Ben Whishaw’s Rabbi to tell a quirky black-and-white road trip that touched on The Wizard of Oz, A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn’t There and more. Strange, heartfelt and imbued with a folkloric love for Midwestern storytelling, the episode stepped away from the chaos — intentional and otherwise — of the season in magical fashion. — DANIEL FIENBERG
“The Grapevine,” Gentefied (Netflix)
Set amid Los Angeles’ acute housing and gentrification crises, Gentefied is centered on a family-owned taqueria in danger of going out of business — or selling out by catering to hipster trash. But the debut season’s best episode followed one of the restaurant’s customers: Javier (Jaime Alvarez), a mariachi singer who can’t support his young son (Jordan Galindo) or bring over his wife from Mexico on a musician’s wages. An indelible portrait of the city, the Marta Cunningham-directed episode delicately suggests the familial breakups and cultural losses that gentrification engenders, while Alvarez swerves smoothly between the show’s broad humor and his character’s pained restraint as Javier searches for a way to serve both his calling and his family. — INKOO KANG
“Hype Man,” Dave (FXX)
Told in an economic 24 minutes with spare flashbacks, this installment dedicated to the mental-health struggles of rapper Dave’s (Lil Dicky) hype man GaTa (GaTa) made for one of the most poignant experiences on TV this year. “Hype Man” explored, without ever losing its irreverent sense of humor, the shame of mental illness, as well as the difficulty of sharing those struggles in an industry often built on fickle friendships and unforgiving judgments. The episode was also the first to hint at Dave’s tremendous characterizations, as well as the blurry lines between the kind of self-grandiosity necessary to succeed in any artistic field and the unhealthy kinds that can so easily follow. — I.K.
“Kids Menu,” Ugly Delicious (Netflix)
The premise of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious is clean, simple and familiar: Host David Chang picks a food-related topic and travels the world, usually with famous and semi-famous friends, exploring connections between culinary cultures. In “Kids Menu,” the premiere of the second season, Chang turned inward, using the news of his wife’s pregnancy to contemplate his own insecurities about fatherhood. Yes, Chang goes abroad to experience how the Japanese tackle school lunches and he interviews colleagues about how they’ve balanced work and being new parents. But the episode is, above all, an unexpectedly sweet piece of filmed therapy that triggers emotional responses in our host that are foreign to his usual brand of smart-aleck globe-trotting. — D.F.
“Lovers Rock,” Small Axe (Amazon)
Named after a romantic subgenre of reggae, the second of Steve McQueen’s five explorations of Black British history (the question of whether they are films or TV episodes remains unresolved) is a celebration of joy, pleasure, sensuality and the first flutters of love. Spanning the length of a house party, the installment gleams and glows with the promise of the night, with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner capturing the dancers in all their enraptured radiance — never more so than in a spontaneous chorus of Janet Key’s “Silly Games” that feels like the party-goers casting a spell on themselves to lengthen the night’s communitarian bliss. Immersive and intimate with a near-boundless sense of the possibilities of the body, the experience was like no other all year. — I.K.
“The Son,” Little America (Apple TV+)
Inspired by the true story of a Syrian refugee, “The Son” was the anthology series’ strongest case that its feel-good ethos — so desperately needed this year — wasn’t just chicken soup for the soul, but an optimism grounded in human experience. Haaz Sleiman stars as Rafiq, a young man whose homosexuality forces him on the run from his family and eventually lands him in his version of heaven: a gay club in Boise, Idaho. Rafiq’s efforts to reconcile his family’s genuine love for him with their intolerance of his sexuality is TV at its most humanistic, while the episode’s twists and turns — and Kelly Clarkson anthems — make for a rivetingly original tale of liberation. — I.K.
“Strange Case,” Lovecraft Country (HBO)
The fun and disorienting thing about HBO’s ambitious racial allegory/horror pastiche is that nearly every episode was something different. The events of “Strange Case” — somewhere between a body-swap satire and an American Werewolf in London-style transformation story — were the piece of Matt Ruff’s book that I was most curious to see Misha Green and company tackle. And in the hands of indie director Cheryl Dunye, the episode proved to be audaciously gross, full of skin-sloughing viscera, and an appropriately probing examination of racial identity and gender fluidity in America in the 1950s and today. Kudos to Dunye for never flinching and to Wunmi Mosaku and Jamie Neumann for their episode-anchoring performances. — D.F.
“Uncle Naseem,” Ramy (Hulu)
Some of the best episodes of Ramy haven’t been about the title character at all, but the secret lives of his family members, of which the self-absorbed protagonist (Ramy Youssef) knows practically nothing. Even by those standards, “Uncle Naseem,” helmed by indie director Desiree Akhavan, is a standout — practically a short film onto itself, about a middle-aged and still-closeted Egyptian immigrant who so desperately needs to dominate those around him that he can’t receive or give love. Episode star Laith Nakli has always given his character’s rancid misogyny and anti-Semitism a recognizable familiarity — you may have an Uncle Naseem in your life — to which he adds invaluable layers here, exposing the loneliness and self-hatred of a gay man who can’t help repaying tenderness with punches. — I.K.
“Vendi Wiccany,” Pen15 (Hulu)
Sometimes Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman’s Hulu comedy captures, in the most literal of ways, the anxious realities of adolescence; I’d point to the spectacularly cringe-y “Sleepover” and the all-too-relatable school theater arcs as season two standouts in that category. The thing that “Vendi Wiccany,” written by Konkle and directed by Zvibleman and featuring a performance of almost terrifying intensity from Erskine, does is evoke the nightmarishness of junior high on a deep and psychological level. The episode finds Maya and Anna becoming convinced they’re practicing witchcraft — and using it to solve their problems, including Anna’s parents’ pending divorce. In a show that blends laughter and anxiety like no other, it raised the stakes on each. — D.F.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (NBC)
For much of its first season, the premise of NBC’s midseason musical sleeper was that Jane Levy’s Zoey was hearing other people’s feelings in the form of musical numbers. But for one ambitious episode, a “glitch” caused Zoey to express her own inner torment through song. It was an ambitious installment that asked Levy to do six songs in 42 minutes — songs as disparate as Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and, naturally, Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” It’s a bravura piece of television (written by Samantha McIntyre and directed by Jon Turteltaub) that lets me make up for not including Levy — who’s at times achingly vulnerable, at times exuberantly joyful — in our Best Performances list. — D.F.
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