Over 400 original TV series were produced in 2015, and 2016 is on track to beat that number. In such a saturated market, it can be hard to remember all the TV shows you watched last month, let alone over the course of an entire year. But when certain episodes linger in your mind long after a series has aired its finale, that’s some special Peak TV magic.
That’s basically how I chose these ten episodes — they’re the ones that have stayed with me, in some cases many months after they aired. They’re the ones that perfectly married form to content, that exemplified what their respective shows do best, and that most effectively reflected our complicated, beautiful, messed-up world. Here they are, in no particular order: The ten best TV episodes of 2016.
Broad City, “Co-Op” (Season 3, Episode 2)
The one where Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) swap personas so Abbi can cover Ilana’s shift at the local food co-op. “Co-Op” takes glorious advantage of Broad City’s established popularity and our familiarity with the characters — a great example of a show giving the fans exactly what we didn’t know we wanted. The episode emphasizes the bond not just between these two characters and the actors who play them, but between a show’s devoted fans and the characters we know so well they start to feel like family.
The Americans, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (Season 4, Episode 8)
In this late-season episode, Martha (Alison Wright) leaves on a jet plane — and the action suddenly jumps forward seven months. “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” the first Americans episode directed by co-star Matthew Rhys. It’s also the first time we really see stalwart spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Rhys) showing the strain of their job — just in time for their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), to step in and reluctantly fill their shoes. Rhys demonstrates an extraordinary grasp of the show’s tone in an episode filled with even more tension than usual, which for The Americans is really saying something.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (Season 1, Episode 6)
I just about died when Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) swaggered into the courtroom in her new ’do in this episode, feeling nothing but confidence after a horrible barber talks her into a short perm — only to encounter snickers and stares. And that’s before her ex-husband’s mother leaks nude photos of Clark to the press. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” revisits the drubbing that Clark, the prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, received from the press for the crime of being a professional woman. “I’m not a public personality,” she protests, but in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, we all are.
Orange is the New Black, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” (Season 4, Episode 13)
In retrospect, this entire season of Orange is the New Black was prescient as hell, particularly in Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) plot to maintain control over her panty-smuggling business by forming a “security” group that quickly spirals into a white-power movement. But it’s the final episode that I can’t stop thinking about in the wake of the election, and in particular the utopian flashback scene that shows Poussey (Samira Wiley) — who is killed by a prison guard in the previous episode during a riot in the mess hall — in a moment of shared harmony on a subway car in New York City. Rather than traffic in blind, if satisfying, fantasy, OITNB is brave enough to admit that this vision of a diverse society held together by generosity and good humor can only last in the moment.
Veep, “Mother” (Season 5, Episode 4)
Veep has never been a warm and fuzzy kind of comedy, but the show really outdoes itself in the cynicism department with “Mother.” In this episode, Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is called to her mother’s deathbed just as she’s awaiting the results of a recount in Nevada that could help her secure the presidency. “Mother” is a showcase for the outstanding Louis-Dreyfus, who manages to wring pathos from Selina’s situation without sacrificing the show’s biting humor.
Atlanta, “Value” (Season 1, Episode 6)
In a rookie season full of memorable episodes, “Value” stands out. The episode gives us a glimpse at a character, Van (Zazie Beetz), in a context we haven’t seen before, demonstrating Atlanta’s willingness to explore every corner of its world. As I wrote when the episode aired in October, “Value” reveals the shocking secret that women have lives independent of their husbands and boyfriends, and it does so by showing rather than telling: When the show’s protagonist, Earn (series creator Donald Glover), shows up midway through the episode, he’s in the background, out of focus, while the camera stays close to his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. The episode is also structurally clever and devastatingly funny, two qualities that have come to define this series in its terrific first season.
Better Call Saul, “Bali Ha’i” (Season 2, Episode 6)
“Bali Ha’i” is another episode that focuses on a woman outside the context of her relationship to the man who is the show’s protagonist. (I swear I didn’t do this on purpose. Don’t let anyone tell you criticism is objective.) In this episode, we get a closer look at Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and a better understanding of her attraction to Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk). Better Call Saul does some of its best work with wordless scenes, and there’s a great one in “Bali Ha’i” in which the camera stays on Kim’s face while she listens to a message from Jimmy on her answering machine, as she gets ready for another day at the soulless corporate law firm where she works. Later, we see Kim walking side by side with her icy boss, in many ways the antithesis of the flaky but charismatic Jimmy; neither of them says a word, and they don’t have to.
Better Things, “Alarms” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Better Things is another series that does excellent work showing, and not telling, its audience what its characters are going through. In a brilliant sequence of scenes, “Alarms” demonstrates exactly how much bullshit a single working mother puts up with on a day-to-day basis. First, Sam (series co-creator Pamela Adlon) is hit on by an older man at a bar, who it turns out is there with another, much younger woman; then, the actor playing her teenage son on a sitcom pilot whips out his dick while she’s giving him a ride home; then, she has dinner with her ex-husband, who informs her he’ll be spending the summer near the house where she lives with their three daughters — but he won’t have much time to see the kids. The scene leads to one of my favorite TV exchanges of the year: “You’re so superior,” her ex (Matthew Glave) spits out. “Thank you,” Sam replies.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “Why is Josh in a Bad Mood?” (Season 1, Episode 17)
As the show that has brought me the most unalloyed joy in 2016, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had to take one of these spots. I chose the penultimate episode of the first season, in which Rebecca (series co-creator Rachel Bloom) and Greg (Santino Fontana) bask in their newfound lust. The chemistry between these two is off the charts, and the episode demonstrates how Rebecca could live the happy life she so desperately wants — if only she’s willing to let go of her unrealistic princess fantasies. All three songs in this episode are also great, particularly Greg’s gloating “I Gave You a UTI” and Josh’s (Vincent Rodriguez III) karate-inspired, Kevin-Bacon-dancing-in-a-warehouse-in-Footloose-style number, “Angry Mad.”
Black-ish, “Hope” (Season 2, Episode 16)
Along with NBC’s The Carmichael Show, Black-ish is one of few network sitcoms that not only feels socially and politically relevant, but that’s reliably funny. “Hope,” which aired in May, is lighter on the laughs than most Black-ish episodes, and for good reason: In it, the Johnson family gathers around the living room TV set to find out whether a grand jury will indict a police officer who killed an unarmed black man. His crime? Selling bootleg DVDs. Unlike most episodes, “Hope” takes place almost entirely in the family’s living room, Norman Lear-style, as the family members debate police brutality. It all builds to an emotional climax in which the usually wise-cracking patriarch, Dre (Anthony Anderson), chokes up as he recalls the fear he felt watching Barack and Michelle Obama exit their limousine on Obama’s inauguration day. Like Orange is the New Black, Black-ish understands that there are emotions even the best episode of television can’t quell.