As television has made greater leaps towards becoming the dominant creatively-driven screen format, individual standout episodes have become as significant in the cinematic cannon as the best feature films. And so, I have decided to count down my 100 favourite single episodes of the 21st century, from a wide variety of shows, in this comprehensive list. Some shows have far greater representation than others, and some of the “the greats” of the century will — you’ll notice — be absent entirely. I have not seen The Wire, and I apologise for that. Similarly, upon reflection, something like Game of Thrones just doesn’t meet the standards to appear on this list, in my opinion. So have a read through, let me know your thoughts, scold me for my boldness (there’s A LOT of The Newsroom on here) and share your own favourites! Let’s go!
The formal constraints of network TV are often underrated. It can be the most thrilling thing in the world when a writer has 42 minutes to tell a story that won’t be confusing to casual couch potatoes but will encourage them to tune in again next week. The pilot of ABC’s appalling political drama, which sees Kiefer Sutherland anointed President after a terrorist attack kills everyone above him on the government line of succession, is pure stupid joy; thrilling and irrational and probably pretty right-wing.
Although a guilty favourite of mine for many years, Family Guy lacks many stand-out ‘great episodes’. One exception, however, is this highly self-reflexive bottle ep that sticks the show’s two most interesting characters in a room together and lets them argue until they can’t anymore. It’s a baby and a dog, yet it’s oddly really profound.
John Carney’s Amazon anthology series gave some of our finest character actors the leading roles they deserve for one episode; the highlight was this oedipal tale starring Julia Garner and Shea Whigham as a young woman and the handsome boss she can’t decide if she wants as a lover or a father.
Danny Pudi’s Abed realises that documentary filmmakers are the closest thing to real-life gods as his attempt at capturing a week in Greendale develops into a spiritual revolution, and Yvette Nicole Brown’s devout Shirley finds her entire notion of religion challenged.
David Cross’ compulsive liar Todd begins his fatal pattern of fibs and is sent on a business trip to London where nothing but chaos greets him.
Modern Family is a terrific show as a whole but lacks distinctive episodes; its only appearance on this list is this, in which Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) discovers a child he never knew he’d fathered… until he realises something is amiss.
Don’t expect an intelligent defence of The Newsroom (a very special show to my development of an — admittedly, problematic — political conscience) here or anywhere else on this list. The Boston Marathon bombings episode features one of my all-time favourite lines: “He’s hiding in a boat in someone’s bag yard?? I’d like confirmation of that before I say it on TV”.
Kimmy never reached the heights of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s previous venture 30 Rock, but it could be excruciatingly funny at times: see this episode where Titus gets roped into the cult of Broadway’s Cats.
The sheer stinking cruelty of Larry David’s Curb persona is unleashed when he takes advantage of a new friend with a disability (Fred Armisen) to park wherever he likes, and tries to disrupt a surprise party so prevent Jeff from having a heart attack.
9–1–1 is a tricky show to praise — its glorification of the police certainly rubs me the wrong way these days — but it’s hard not to find gleeful pleasure in this episode, where an adaptation of the real-life American Dentist Who Shot A Safari Lion story takes a vengeful twist. A show that can be incredibly witty and political within the format of an emergency services procedural.
Noah Hawley uses different episodes of Fargo to homage different elements of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, and this Carrie Coon spotlight ep (a good start already) has major Barton Fink energy. Dusty motel rooms, unfinished screenplays and a strange, sad, Don Hertzfeldt-style animated framing device make this one of Fargo’s strongest efforts.
Russell T Davies’ near-future drama demonstrates the horrors that will unfold as the consequences of Brexit and Trump become clearer (it’s so topical it already feels dated a year after it broadcast). This episode pulls a genius trick: we follow our young white English protagonist (Russell Tovey) into a dingy crossing the sea and realise a second too late that we’re witnessing the daily horror faced by asylum seekers trying to enter the UK. It shouldn’t take a sympathetic white character to wake an audience up to this reality, but Davies realises his moral opportunity and grabs it with two hands.
The making of disaster is a series of poor choices by a small number of powerful men, as is demonstrated in the horrifying second part of HBO’s biographical drama. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard are the men tasked by the USSR to take control of the meltdown, but they soon discover that events are far more dire than they realised.
Silicon Valley never recovered in its later seasons from the loss of Erlich (played by the problematic T.J. Miller), its most ridiculous character, who — in this standout Season 1 episode — hires a a graffiti artist to create new company logo with… questionable results.
Apple’s first original series quickly developed a word-of-mouth reputation for being overblown, undercooked and not really about anything, but most people obviously clocked out before this excellent Steve Carell spotlight episode, where his character — a Matt Lauer-esque morning TV host — quietly grooms a young female staffer while maintaining an arrogance so firmly internalised that’s it’s hard to even identify. A surprising, nuanced performance by Carell, as well as fabulous work by Gugu Mbatha Raw and director Michelle McLaren, made this an appropriately timely piece of commentary that I hadn’t seen coming.
The bulk of Glee was broadcast in the 2010s, but it always felt rooted in the culture of the late 2000s. Its penultimate episode allowed the writers to have fun with that idea, restaging the events that would’ve happened ‘just before’ the pilot episode while sensitively working around the absence of star Cory Monteith, who died in 2013. A ton of fun, and an opportunity to bring Monteith and “Don’t Stop Believin” back to the show, to cap off a final season that was seriously underrated.
The dramatic arcs of Parenthood lent themselves to great, weepy season finales, and the climax of Season 3 — which sees Crosby and Jasmine reconcile after a period of separation to the uplifting, anthemic sound of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism” — is one of the best.
The Barry Sonnenfeld-directed pilot of the ABC fantasy comedy that was far too avant-garde for ABC is a delicious slice of whimsy elevated to brilliance by its production design and the perfect casting of Lee Pace as a man who can bring dead things back to life with one touch.
The magic of a show like Parks is in the steady establishment of familiar, fond background elements — like beloved mini horse Lil Sebastian — before one day pulling out the rug and killing the horse to facilitate the most sincere, heartwarming and epic episode of the show, as Entertainment720 are hired to organise his funeral and basically turn it into a music festival.
As you’d expect, a hunting trip brings out the worst in Succession’s scheming Roy family, but shows us an entirely new villainous side to patriarch Logan who forces his family and allies into a sadistic game of ‘Boar on the Floor’. So bizarre and upsetting it need be seen to be believed.
Our motley crew of performing arts students are recruited for a cheesy kids birthday performance, which prompts amateur puppeteer Robbie (Matt Bennett) to write an utterly hilarious song about the dangers of broken glass. A song I used to torture my parents by singing non-stop. A superior episode of an oft-underappreciated teen comedy that marked the last great Dan Schneider production before his reputation went to the dogs.
zPaolo Sorrentino’s lavish Vatican drama puts its weirder side (pet kangaroo, anyone?) to rest for a moment to tackle the topic of clerical abuse, as Cardinal Gutierrez is sent to New York to investigate a suspected perpetrator. The weirdness isn’t gone for long though.
Probably the most contentious episode on this list, Lost’s feature-length finale has its detractors, but ultimately manages to work past the stupidity of the show’s later seasons to pull together threads for the most beloved characters and provide a spiritually and narratively satisfying full-circle conclusion that, at 15, I found utterly devastating.
Big Mouth is primarily concerned with the struggles of adolescence, but this episode shows us that middle-aged men have got roughly the same sorts of problems. A vaguely tragic but sensitive depiction of the teenage insecurities that never leave, and why adult men can be so emotionally immature.
Allowing Jessa and and Adam to get together in Girls’ fifth season was a time-bomb of unpredictable personalities waiting to explode, and in this episode we get the mushroom cloud of romantic rage… and a trashed apartment. Meanwhile, Hannah tells a story at an open mic that’s one of her purest moments of true Lena pathos.
“What happened?”. Watchmen’s fifth episode gives us Damon Lindelof’s most disturbing cold open ever (and he’s got some good ones) as a young bible seller is stripped naked and abandoned in a carnival hall of mirrors… while the giant squid from the original Watchmen wrecks New York outside. Tim Blake Nelson is exceptional in a very classically Lindelofian spotlighter.
Michael McKean’s Chuck was the most interesting character on Better Call Saul until (SPOILER ALERT) he died and Kim became the most interesting character. His mysterious fear of electronics gets tested in this courtroom hour that’s as close to scripting perfection as the show has ever been.
Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper’s ‘Zoot Suit’ performance earns this episode of the 2015 Netflix Wet Hot revival a place on the list. It’s also just an incredibly funny half-hour of television.
On the verge of becoming insufferably overwrought, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’ most bombastic attempt at modern-day Conan Doyle is so deeply silly, it really should’ve been the end of the show. Sherlock’s first two seasons were good fun, though, and there’s enough outlandish mystery-solving here for a really entertaining adventure with an operatic climax.
There are few things as hilarious as Bryan Tyree Henry getting more and more exasperated dealing with the impossible unprofessionalism of his barber. In a season of TV that was often deeply dark, “Barbershop” provides nothing but awkward laughs.
Big Mouth tackles that moment when you’re 13, you haven’t quite hit puberty yet, and you wonder if your interest in camp and feminine cultural figures is telling you something about your sexuality. Nobody else have that experience? Really?
In 30 marvellously entertaining minutes, we’re introduced to Lena Dunham’s Manhattan of misfits: from her own spoilt twentysomething Hannah to sorta-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) and her friends Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa. A rare comedy pilot that’s as funny as any of the show’s later, best episodes.
Michael Emerson’s Ben Linus is secretly the most compelling character on Lost, and he’s given seriously moving backstory in his first flashback episode. Emerson shines.
Aziz Ansari kicks of Master of None’s superb second season with a serious statement of intent: a slightly too-cute but nonetheless delightful homage to Fellini, Bicycle Thieves and the great black and white Italian cinema.
Tina Fey brilliantly used the Tracy Jordan character (Tracy Morgan) to frequently challenge the ‘politically incorrect’ branch of American comedy. In this episode Tracy insists that women can’r be funny, and Liz (Fey) sets out to prove him wrong. A monkey named Professor Wigglebottom is involved.
Hulu’s moving John Green adaptation sets out its strongest episode, as lovesick teen Miles (Charlie Plummer) gets the opportunity to spend the Thanksgiving break alone with muse Alaska (Kristine Froseth) and a unique dynamic develops between the two friends. Features one of the best uses ever of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”.
Spongebob gets trapped in a grimy middle-of-nowhere town and can’t catch a bus home for hours. A brilliant little horror about being stuck in a place where you don’t understand the rules.
Barney discovers a second of Robin’s mall-pop hits, a surprisingly good(?) track called “Sandcastles in the Sand”, and the pair proceed to fall for each other, in one of Mother’s most sincere episodes.
This one comes with a story. I moved away to college the week this season of Bojack dropped, and I got very homesick and depressed. When I came home for the weekend, our neighbour asked me for help building a shed. Then I watched this episode, where Bojack distracts himself from misery by renovating an old house with a fruit fly called Eddie. That’s what a connection feels like.
Nora (Carrie Coon)’s new job as a departure fraud investigator takes her to St. Louis where Perfect Strangers actor Mark Lynn Baker pitches her a new scientific discovery that’ll allow her to see her kids again. Then she gets a Wu-Tang Clan tattoo and jumps on a trampoline with Regina King. Lindelof embraces the comedic potential of The Leftovers’ dark alternate world to really terrific results.
“Amarsi Un Po”, Master of None’s only hour-long episode, falls somewhere between Aziz Does When Harry Met Sally… and Aziz Does Before Sunset. It’s a sensuous, sad emotional plateau for his character Dev as his Italian muse visits him in New York and they must navigate their mutual feelings and the fact that she has a boyfriend.
Sometimes The Leftovers would just decide to make Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston) the most interesting man in the world, and all we could do is sit and watch. Did he rape and impregnate his comatose, paralysed wife (Janel Moloney)? Or is his daily ritual of playing “Let Your Love Flow” and caring for her as pure an act of love as we’ve come to expect from Matt? “No Room at the Inn” is a beautiful parable about moral grey areas and the desperate ends some people will go to for the people they love.
Toby (Richard Schiff), The West Wing’s best character by a mile, got short-changed bu the show’s later seasons, but his final appearance — in a sad but deeply loving interaction with CJ (Allison Janney) is worthy of his exceptional warmth. We’re watching two co-workers who would go to the ends of the earth for each other. CJ’s subsequent conversation with Danny (Timothy Busfield) about their relationship is the icing on the cake that is her character’s supremely unique interactions with the men in her life.
The origin of Spongebob’s single funniest joke ever. Squidward produces an abstract self-portrait he titles “Bold and Brash”. Seconds later, a haughty art dealer arrives and declares it “more like… belongs in the trash!”. Ingenious send-up of the art scene that spotlights the show’s best character, depressed octopus Squidward.
The Nickelodeon comedy that explored platform culture before it was a thing, this episode sees Carly (Miranda Cosgrove)’s older brother Spencer (Jerry Trainor) forced to prove himself a worthy guardian to their grandfather. Their relationship is probably the emotional highlight of the show and it’s put centre stage as he attempts to stage a variety of impressive scenarios.
Girls finally sets Adam up with one of the other girls, and it goes incredibly well: his and Jessa’s day out together is as charming as any of his adventures with Hannah. Hannah, meanwhile, is dealing with the uncomfortable aftermath of her dad’s first gay hookup. Unusual dynamics make for the best drama.
Spongebob and Patrick come face to face with the manufactured horror of the film industry when a studio greenlights a Mermaidman movie starring (whispers)… ACTORS. The boys decide to shoot their own amateur film with the real heroes playing themselves. Hilarity ensues.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) goes into hiding in a snowy log cabin, armed with two DVD copies of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, and Robert Forster checks in on him. It’s the kind of character study Vince Villigan does so rarely but so well, and allows us to examine how criminality has changed Walter without the distracting fuss of the supporting cast.
Urban myths are deconstructed in Atlanta’s season 2 premiere, as we witness the story of Florida Man before visiting the great Katt Williams, as Earn (Donald Glover)’s uncle who happens to have a magnificent alligator in the house. The alligator turns out to be, to put it lightly, the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen.
Parenthood’s penultimate episode ramps up the tearjerking as the next generation of Braverman is born, and Sarah and Amber (Lauren Graham, Mae Whitman) sit on the bed and sing Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” in possibly the greatest mother-daughter moment committed to television.
Phoebe Waller Bridge sets out the premise of her stubbornly individual black comedy with an episode packed with asides to camera that are 1% short of being unbearable but are somehow the most charming thing ever. Fleabag’s anonymity is preserved in her namelessness and in the casualness of her sex life, into which we get an amusing peek in this pilot.
Dan Schneider’s Nickelodeon masterpiece was stepbrother sitcom Drake and Josh. This episode goes full Weekend at Bernie’s as the mismatched teens have to maintain the illusion that a young actress visiting their local cinema is conscious after she gets knocked out. Slapstick nonsense brilliance.
Kevin Garvey returns from the land of the dead (or wherever we visit in “International Assassin”) with a vengeance, but is quickly plunged back into a fantastical hotel bar where he must sing “Homeward Bound” at karaoke. Heartbreaking in ways it’s hard to identify.
The Krusty Krab becomes a 24-hour restaurant, but Spongebob is quickly terrorised with tales of a nighttime serial killer called the Hash Slinging Slasher. Spooky and spectacularly witty, with a cameo by Max Schreck’s Nosferatu.
Broadway and Frances Ha actor Michael Esper proves himself the standout (amongst a cast that includes Donald Sutherland and Hilary Swank) of FX’s Getty kidnapping series, in a flashback-driven episode that examines addiction, grief and privilege while employing the most haunting use of “Comin Back To Me” by Jefferson Airplane since A Serious Man.
Rian Johnson elevates the cinematic ceiling set for Breaking Bad with an epic, terrifying pre-climax that pits Walter and Jessie against Hank against nazis in a fight where nobody comes out unharmed.
A note-perfect send-up of Tyler Perry’s film output, Tracy’s Aunt Phatso movies base a new villain off of Jack (Alec Baldwin) who wants to sue for defamation but gets caught in an uncharitable loop by Tracy. Meanwhile, Liz deals with a foot injury that allows Hazel (Kristen Schaal) to take control.
Slightly edging out “Ozymandias” for my favourite piece of Saul-verse output, “Bagman” strips Better Call Saul to its most basic elements: Saul and Mike (Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks) alone in the desert, trying not to get killed. Ridiculous and funny and masterful in its tension; a reminder that when the show’s usually-separated male leads come together for an hour, magic happens.
A bottle (or maybe a fountain?) episode so well-executed it even manages good use of an Ellie Goulding song, this sees Marnie (Allison Williams) run into her ex (Christopher Abbott) on a street corner and pursue a one-night dalliance into the mystery of what could’ve been. It’s Girls at its most melancholy (well, almost) as Marnie faces two strands of potential lives in direct contrast to one another, and the potential for adventure when you’re single for a day in New York City.
It needs to be said that while Arrested Development is one of the century’s best comedies, its approach to continuity and serialisation has resulted in a critical lack of episodes that jump out as ‘great’. So for the sake of including the show, I’m putting “For British Eyes Only” in here, the home of the show’s best gag: a flying Mary Poppins doll knocks over Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) in ‘Little England’ and a news report blames the assault on the “Itsy-Bitsy IRA”. Chaotic genius.
Throughout the first two season of The Leftovers, it felt as though Scott Glenn’s Kevin Snr. had more to offer than he was letting on. This episode, shot in eye-watering high contrast and directed by director Mimi Leder, lets him take centre stage as he pursues an Aboriginal song in the Australian outback. A labyrinth of colourful imagery and characters to get lost in.
More like… no pilot. The aftermath of Flight 815’s crash landing sees our central characters form allegiances and dip their toes into the mysteries of the island. It’s a perfect, utterly thrilling set-up for what’s to come; the strongest directorial work of one J.J. Abrams and walks a fine line between silliness and melodrama that allowed the show to work going forward.
More or less detached from the rest of the series, The New Pope’s opener pulls us back into Paolo Sorrentino’s crazy world of Vatican politicking with a standalone drama about a mad but brilliant Socialist who gets elected Pope, briefly tries to overthrow the power structures of the church, and is rapidly ‘taken care of’. Sums up all the brilliance of the Pope shows without featuring any of their stars Jude Law or John Malkovich.
Jean Smart dominates in the third episode of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen reimagining, bringing elements of the comic-book world into our down-to-earth crime fighting environment, and terrifically employing the ‘Woman On A Mission’ trope Lindelof has used unsparingly on his other shows. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score provides 50% of what’s so great about this strange, suspenseful episode.
Parenthood, a show built on big emotional climaxes, was never going to have a bad finale, but this is really something else. Never in my life have I sobbed so hard I became critically dehydrated and needed to lie down for the day. Just an absolute gut-punch on every conceivable level.
Josh and Toby (Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff) get to perform in a little Preston Sturges comedy as they’re dumped, along with Donna (Janel Moloney) and a young Amy Adams, in the midwestern countryside after a presidential rally and forced to deal with… the normality of middle America. One of West Wing’s most purely pleasurable episodes, and a joyful reminder that a show about governing and legislature should never be afraid to be really, really funny.
Alan Ball introduces the Fisher family on the day their father (Richard Jenkins) dies, establishing this show’s distinctly dark prism of life after (witnessing) death. Jenkins is a virtuous presence who should’ve stuck around, but stars Michael C Hall, Lauren Ambrose and Peter Krause do tremendous work establishing their roles instantly.
When Marcia Gay Harden shows up, you know nobody’s fucking around. The Newsroom’s second season kicks off with fireworks as the Newsnight team attempt to recount the events that lead to a major breach of journalistic standards. Sorkin throws in a little story about The Who as a treat. Gloriously cheesy Smart People Being Smart drama.
Hannah heads home for a few days and stumbles into a sexual encounter with a local dullard pharmacist. She ends up getting sad and ringing Adam back in New York. Demonstrates the sad fact that, no matter what you tell yourself, your rural home will always be worse than your life in the city.
After a spontaneous encounter filled with so many unanswered questions it’s unsurprising it ends mysteriously. young Muslim-American Naz (Riz Ahmed) finds himself accused of murdering a young woman he just met. The only man available to defend him? Eczema-riddled gumshoe John Stone (John Turturro). It’s one of the best pilots ever, reworked following the death of original star James Gandolfini, but it’s Ahmed who truly shines as a young man thrown rapidly in the deep end of the justice system, with only Turturro and his rashy feet on his side.
Remember when I said “The Panic in Central Park” was almost the most melancholy Girls episode? “What Will We Do….” lets us have one last dose of Hannah and Adam, trying to make something work, but it’s a something that belongs in the past as they soon realise when trying to plan for raising Hannah’s baby. Maybe the most upsetting episode of the show, but hopeful in its own curious way. Dunham and Driver are exceptional.
Matthew Morrison isn’t exactly an amazing leading man, but the first episode of Glee is so good, so totally out-of-the-gate whimsically terrific, that it doesn’t matter. Ryan Murphy throws everything he has at the screen to see what sticks, and sets the stage for a shameless, starlit musical soap.
The duality of Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is one of 30 Rock’s most brilliant endeavours: the psychotic surrealism of his being is mined for comedic gold in this episode, when he loses his wallet and, thus, his Donkey Spell medication.
It has become an overly reproduced, probably overrated example of Aaron Sorkin’s work, but the “America is not the greatest country in the world” speech is still pretty brilliant. Jeff Daniels’s powerhouse presence makes The Newsroom’s pilot a tantalising introduction to a new world of sexy smart people being sexy and smart. I’m not debating it; I just love this show.
Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) always seems like a man on the edge of a meltdown, and it comes true in this mockumentary episode of Community as he attempts to produce a TV commercial for Greendale and ends up consumed by deranged directorial obsession. The sight gag of Joel McHale impersonating Ken Jeong impersonating Jim Rash is possibly the show’s single best.
Freaks and Geeks’ best episode is driven by Lindsay’s discovery of The Who, and a terrific use of their music throughout, while Bill (Martin Starr)’s loneliness is compounded by his mother’s decision to date his gym teacher. A uniquely insightful catalogue of how music can provide the soundtrack to a solitary adolescence.
Studio 60 has a few great bottle episodes, but none that broach as much of the inherent Hollywood dysfunction as “The Wrap Party”, where Simon (D.L. Hughley) makes his case for a more racially diverse writers’ room, and Cal (Timothy Busfield) befriends an industry veteran with dementia (Eli Wallach) he finds wandering around the theatre.
Our introduction to Reverend Matt presents us with a man who will do anything for his church and almost nothing for himself. In what can be crudely described as Damon Lindelof’s answer to A Serious Man, Matt is put through the ringer in every conceivable way without losing sight of his misguided hope. And there’s a Hozier track over the credits.
Curb doesn’t typically offer excuses for how Larry… is. But this episode gives us a flashback to the childhood humiliation that triggers a major fear of ice cream men.
It required overcoming a few hurdles but Community eventually got the final episode we knew it was going to do incredibly well, taking full advantage of its meta We Know How Sitcoms Work spine to find equal parts sentimentality and cynicism in the opportunity of conclusion.
Fargo was never better than its fabulous first hour, in which Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton are introduced as slightly modernised iterations of characters from the original Coen Bros. feature, along with a metatextual, highly cineliterate script by Noah Hawley that establishes a new world of snow-drenched monsters and men.
Have you ever gotten lost in another person’s life for a weekend and realised what, for better or worse, you’re missing out on by spending so much time in your own? Hannah has a spontaneous fling with a handsome doctor (Patrick Wilson) in a beautiful brownstone, and then it ends. One of Girls’ most enduring insights into the minor notes of being a young adult.
On some level, Aaron Sorkin was born to write a scathing character for Jane Fonda to play in the latter part of her career, and Leona Lansing goes H.A.M on two corporate millennials (herself, admittedly, being a corporate boomer) in this terrifically exciting final season episode. Her “The word ‘literally’ now means both ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’” speech is an all-timer.
“What year is is?” yells Agent Dale Cooper as the sheer insanity of the previous 17 hours of Lynchian epic comes colliding in, in the final scene of the miniseries. Almost nothing in the Twin Peaks revival made sense beyond the level of Not Making Sense, but the finale somehow pulls it all together into a — somehow — very satisfying tonal package.
The only thing keeping Tom and Cousin Greg (Matthew McFadyen, Nicholas Braun)’s semi-sexual tension from exploding was space, so when they’re trapped in a panic room after an office suicide triggers the alarms at RoyCo, all hell breaks loose. “A small person could fit through that window, an attack child!” bellows a panicked Greg. Meanwhile, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) considers the purpose of his existence and opens up to sister Shiv (Sarah Snook). A perfectly pitched example of all that makes Succession so great.
The best David Fincher film since The Social Network was directed by Sam Esmail. The feature length pilot for his abrasively intelligent tech-gothic thriller set the critical world alight in summer 2015, establishing a brave new direction for the USA Network and finding a bona fide star in Rami Malek as a young hacker radicalised by the cynical cyber-corporatism of Obama’s America. The Matrix for a new generation, a marvellous start to a good show that was never quite able to maintain this level of quality.
Community’s most high concept half-hour takes us to a dinner party where a dice is rolled to decide who runs downstairs to collect the pizza. It’s an ingenious, science fiction-influenced exploration of how friend groups operate when one person is removed, set to the haunting sounds of “Roxanne” by The Police and under the watchful eye of a terrifying Norwiegan troll ornament.
At its best (as you’ll see again with the #2 episode on this list), The West Wing used the landscape of high-ranking politicos to explore how the most devastatingly common human experiences can penetrate even the most powerful circles. Months after being shot and surviving, Josh (Bradley Whitford)’s PTSD is triggered by a Yo-Yo Ma performance and he seeks help from a psychiatrist (Adam Arkin) and old friend Leo (John Spencer), who’s “down in a hole” speech is the late actor’s single most poignant moment from the show.
The majesty of the 2017 Twin Peaks revival is a result of how it juxtaposes intense surreality with the smallest and simplest of human moments. In its most moving instalment, an old musician played — in his final performance — by Harry Dean Stanton saves a child from a tragic accident, while Dougie (Kyle Maclachlan) has his Se7en moment with a box of cherry pie in the desert. Impossible to explain out of context, but truly brilliant.
After three episodes of establishing the tensions and dangers of The Island, Lost gives us a glimpse at the transformative magic contained within the microcosm of human experience: Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke is given a backstory as a paraplegic denied a walkabout in the outback, suddenly able to walk. It’s melodramatic in the most affecting way, and O’Quinn instantly becomes the show’s most compelling player.
A lot of episodes on this list involve broken men having profound misadventures, but only one involves a trip to an underwater Film Festival and the rescue of a baby seahorse. “Fish Out of Water” fights against the potential to merely be a Spongebob knock-off, creating its own unique world of anthropomorphised sea creatures and showing Bojack the other side of hope.
Enjoying the unashamedly cheesy Studio 60 requires one to accept that it’s basically live-action The Muppet Show (in as much as 30 Rock also is), and its first hour is the ultimate, uplifting “let’s get the band back together” treat, as Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford’s writer — director duo are recruited to reinvigorate a tired SNL type comedy show after its crusty old Lorne Michaels type (Judd Hirsch) goes on a Howard Beale rant live on TV.
Liz and Cris prepare to meet their adopted children while Jack holds a Willy Wonka style contest to hand over the keys to NBC to one worthy young man. It’s not exceptionally superior to the rest of the show, but it’s a great encapsulation of all that’s so joyous about 30 Rock.
A sharper, richer creation than Jordan Peele’s Get Out from the year earlier, this terrifying episode sees Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) collect a piano from one Mister Teddy Perkins, a Michael Jacksonian figure played by Donald Glover in nightmare-inducing whiteface, possibly the most terrifying character to appear on television this century. A subtle game of cat and mouse emerges between Darius and Teddy, climaxing in brutal violence, that highlights issues of black creativity and subtly explores the complex mythos of Michael Jackson.
The best kind of bottle episode, as Hannah visits an author accused of sexual misconduct (Matthew Rhys) and they debate the merits of cancel culture in an expertly pitched moral back-and-forth only a creator like Dunham has the compassion of authorship to script this sharply. The climactic scene of an amateur flute performance of Rihanna’s “Desperado” playing as a stream of young women enter Rhys’ apartment building is unforgettable stuff, and this remains the magnum opus of narrative conversations about #MeToo.
Something like a more accessible interpretation of the spirit of David Lynch, The Leftovers switched into a new gear of imaginative storytelling with this Craig Zobel-directed “through the looking glass” adventure. After Kevin (Justin Theroux) is effectively murdered, he enters a limbo of familiar faces and global espionage where his depression demon Patti (Ann Dowd) is a political candidate and he is assigned to assassinate her. Rarely have so many ideas been compressed in one hour of TV and executed with such panache by Zobel, Lindelof and Theroux.
A flawless slice of physical comedy, this standout episode of the century’s best cartoon sees SpongeBob wait impatiently for a package to arrive, only to have his dreams crushed when it eventually does. It’s an education in resilience in the face of postal anxiety (a dominant experience in my life), but also just terribly funny and a great showcase for the SpongeBob/Patrick/Squidward trifecta that makes this show so special and timeless.
While the study group helps Annie move into Troy and Abed’s bachelor pad, Jeff skips off to the mall but runs into an aggressively eager Dean Pelton who blackmails him into performing “Kiss From A Rose” at karaoke. A strange, pretty sad episode of Community that depicts the aimlessness of Saturday afternoons in a way that deeply spoke to my teenage self, this is special to me in ways it’s hard to explain but is nonetheless a calcification of what makes Community such a comforting rewatch 11 years after it premiered.
Modern television’s answer to The Godfather Part II, Aaron Sorkin enters a new level of visceral narrative gymnastics as the death of Mrs Landingham provokes President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to consider their enduring friendship and his own need to share his MS diagnosis with America. Theatrical and epic to a Shakespearean degree, it’s a grandstanding showcase for Sheen, the show’s ensemble and Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms”, that introduces fresh spiritual and moral arguments to the stage of the Washington executive.
The most disturbing, inspiring studio-funded experimental film ever made wasn’t screened in art galleries, or even cinemas, but on Showtime one Sunday night in 2017. David Lynch’s “Episode 8” is a haunting piece of post-nuclear horror, a distracted tangent in the 18-hour narrative of the Twin Peaks revival that fuses the series’ themes and lets them play out in the most cerebrally uncomfortable sequences conceivable. Nine Inch Nails show up to play a song. Beetles crawl out of children’s mouths. It’s Kafka and Murnau and Tolkien rolled into one, and it’s hard to imagine anything like it will ever be screened on American television again.