For all that Netflix and some other outlets want to treat the season as the new unit of TV storytelling measurement, the individual episode still has tons of value. When you watch a show weekly, a particularly great episode can leave you elated over the seven days until the next installment, and when you binge, an episode that’s distinct from the ones before and after — like this season’s silent BoJack Horseman — stands out even more. A transcendent episode can make a special series even more so, and it can make a frustrating series feel worth it for the occasional rewards like it.
In assembling the below list of notable episodes from 2016, I specifically avoided ones from shows that wound up on either my overall top 20 or my list of the year’s best new shows. It’s not just that I alluded to some obvious candidates — “Fish Out of Water,” The Night Of premiere, the Game of Thrones finale — in those earlier lists, but that doing it this way allowed me to cast a light on some shows that either fell just short of a prior list, or were too uneven to qualify but capable of occasional genius.
(And even with these 13 choices, on top of the 40+ shows listed earlier in the week , I still haven’t mentioned all the series I enjoyed this year — I couldn’t, for instance, decide on my favorite Bob’s Burger episode — because even my Everybody Gets a Trophy year-end philosophy robs me of superlatives before I’m done.)
In alphabetical order, here are some individual episodes worthy of note before we say goodbye to 2016:
Black Mirror: “San Junipero”
On the whole, the first made-for-Netflix season of Black Mirror felt like a case of more being less, with nearly every story not having enough material to fill the time allotted, and/or miscalculating the twist. But one of the advantages of an anthology is that no one episode depends on any other, which meant Charlie Brooker and company were able to turn out one of their best stories ever — a time-hopping, metaphysical romance with knockout performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, plus a killer ’80s soundtrack — in the midst of a batch of stories that were otherwise not quite clicking.
“Hope” beautifully threaded the needle between comedy and drama, and between the eponymous feeling and despair, as Dre and Rainbow pondered how much to tell their younger kids about the recent spate of incidents of police officers hurting or killing unarmed black people. What could have felt like a clumsy sermon, or self-conscious Very Special Episode, was instead a frank talk about questions that the real-life version of the Johnson family would be facing in 2016, laced with the perfect amount of lower-stakes humor (much of it revolving around delivery menus) to lighten the mood without undermining it. And Dre’s monologue about President Obama was a stunning piece of both writing by Kenya Barris, and acting by Anthony Anderson.
Happy Valley: “Episode 6”
As a more purely serialized show, Happy Valley is a bit of an outlier on this list, but I wanted to mention its outstanding second season finale for a few reasons: 1) The show’s great, and I’m annoyed I couldn’t make space for it in my overall top 20; 2) Its shorter season length (six episodes apiece) puts greater weight on individual installments, and gets greater overall value from the story, than shows with a similar model that try to do 10 or 13 episodes a year; and 3) The climactic discussion between Catherine and Wadsworth was amazing in how understated it was, especially in contrast to the harrowing violence she dealt with in the first season’s biggest moments. Sometimes, a show keeps doing what it does because it worked in the past, while at others, it brilliantly subverts expectations.
High Maintenance: “Grandpa”
More evidence of the value of anthologies: A lot of the stories from this web series turned premium cable series, linked only by the nameless pot dealer servicing the characters of each episode, didn’t really click for me, which left me unprepared for the beauty and cleverness of this story told from the point of view of a dog who has fallen hopelessly in love with his dog walker.
The Last Man on Earth: “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths”
Last Man has more consistently embraced the darkness of its premise this season — and been far more consistent and satisfying as a result. Never was that approach more clear, or effective, than this road trip story where Tandy kidnaps Lewis to track down the husband that Lewis is sure died long ago and far away from them. What starts out as another goofy-bordering-on-insufferable stunt by Tandy soon turns into a poetic short story about the difficulty of finding closure in an empty post-apocalyptic world.
Man Seeking Woman: “Tinsel”
Because star Jay Baruchel has a relatively heavy workload for a sitcom lead, Man Seeking Woman tries to do at least one episode per season from the POV of another character. This Christmas-themed episode where Josh’s sister Liz carried on an affair with Santa Claus was, like most of the show’s best installments, a smart high-concept twist on a familiar device (lonely singleton has affair with married person) pushed to ever more absurd degrees. And, like the show’s best installments, it managed to find a core of emotional truth in what it would be like to help Santa cheat on Mrs. Claus.
Mr. Robot: “Successor”
In its first season, Rami Malek was so fundamental to everything that made Mr. Robot work that it would have been unthinkable for the show to do an episode without him. Not only did season 2 attempt it with this Darlene spotlight, but it turned out to be perhaps the strongest, and definitely the most consistent, installment of a wildly uneven season, which otherwise had many wild swings in mood and quality even within individual episodes, let alone from week to week. With Elliot — and his rich, complicated inner life — getting the week off for “Successor,” the show was free to tell a simpler, tense psychological thriller about the burdens his sister carries trying to lead the revolution without him.
Roadies: “The All-Night Bus Ride”
This was a bad year to be making a passion project about the glory days of rock ‘n roll, whether HBO’s clichéd Vinyl, FX’s bawdy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (which at least made it to a second year before cancellation), or this one-season disappointment from Cameron Crowe. Too much of Roadies felt insubstantial (the chemistry-free romance between the leads) at times, and downright headache-inducing (the show treating the drugging and sexual assault of a music blogger as a source of light comedy). But there were a few episodes — and particularly this Lynyrd Skynyrd biopic in miniature, told as a late night tale by grizzled road veteran Phil (Ron White) — where Crowe got his Almost Famous mojo back. It was frustrating that he couldn’t conjure up that magic every week, or even most of them, but that we got the Skynyrd story, or the rock ‘n roll funeral in the finale, were poignant reminders of what once was and could occasionally be again.
Silicon Valley: “To Build a Better Beta”
As the Bizarro Entourage, Silicon sometimes has to contort itself to ensure the guys’ latest plan somehow falls apart. (This was particularly cringe-inducing in the caper episode that concluded with Richard ruining the whole thing before they’d even begun to do any of it.) With “To Build a Better Beta,” though, the show tried the opposite approach: a half-hour where everything kept coming up Pied Piper, to the pleased astonishment of both Richard and us in the audience. The episode still offered plenty of laughs, but there was also a wistful quality to it that was striking, as our heroes tried to enjoy this taste of success while it lasted, because they all knew how quickly things could — and, later in the season, did — go awry again.
The Simpsons: “The Town”
When you’re nearing the end of your third decade in primetime like The Simpsons, coming up with new stories is early impossible, so the trick becomes figuring out interesting enough variations on ones you’ve told a half-dozen times before. I’ve lost track of the number of both “The Simpsons are going to…” episodes and ones where the family tries to reinvent their lifestyle, yet in its combination of the two — with the Simpsons all finding joy and contentment in Boston, other than Homer’s (justifiable) hatred of the local NFL franchise — “The Town” managed to make both feel fresh and specific again. In its advanced age, The Simpsons only periodically turns out the kind of classics the show once produced week after week, year after year, but “The Town” is one of those occasional reminders that, even if the show’s not as consistently amazing as it was in the days of “Marge vs. the Monorail,” the greatest TV show of all time also isn’t some drooling, stumbling shadow of its former self.
Survivor’s Remorse: “No Child Left Behind”
The Starz basketball comedy had a terrific third season with a lot of contenders for this list, including a dark finale that saw all the members of Cam’s extended family grappling with traumas from their pasts. But the series’ degree of difficulty is often highest when it’s eliciting laughs out of material that seemingly has no business being fodder for jokes, like this episode where Cassie’s interest in her Nigerian heritage gets the women invited to a female genital mutilation ceremony, while Cam and Reggie somehow become the only two black men in America who can’t get someone to take away their gun. A strong show whether it’s heavy or light, and impressive in how often it’s able to mix the two together.
Triumph: “The Primary Election Special 2016”
Hey, remember when this election cycle featured several dozen candidates and hadn’t turned into a full-blown nightmare of racism, xenophobia, and interference by foreign governments? We were so much more innocent then, which made it easier to laugh at this most insulting of election specials, where Robert Smigel and his favorite canine hand puppet hit the campaign trail to give a hard time to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chris Christie and — in a sequence that climaxed with Triumph flying on a drone — Ted Cruz.
The X-Files: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
The other five episodes of The X-Files revival — and particularly the three written by Chris Carter — were a mess, and a reminder of how hard it is to go home again. But the third installment — a Darin Morgan black comedy episode about a monster (Rhys Darby) cursed to periodically turn into a human, who has to get a job at a cell phone store just to survive — nearly justified the existence of the whole thing, even if its presence in the limited series was a bit of a cheat. (Morgan wrote the script a decade ago for the short-lived Night Stalker revival, which is why Darby’s character dresses like Darren McGavin as the original Kolchak.)
You’re the Worst: “Twenty-Two”
Our last entry’s another case of a show turning things over to a supporting character for an episode, with impressive results. Jimmy and Gretchen appear frequently in “Twenty-Two,” but they’re always seen from the perspective of Edgar while he’s in the grip of a particularly dire PTSD flare-up. The episode’s subjective not only in its choice of temporary protagonist, but the way the visual and aural style do so much work to give us a sense of how difficult and all-consuming this condition is for Edgar. It’s a tour de force from YTW creator Stephen Falk, who wrote and directed it, and from Desmin Borges getting to take a usually ridiculous character very seriously.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org