25 TV Episodes From This Decade We’ll Never Forget
Narrowing down the 25 best TV episodes from the past 10 years is maybe a silly thing to do. But we tried it anyway.
Conservatively speaking, there have been approximately 84 quadrillion episodes of television this decade, so narrowing down the 25 best over the last 10 years is on its face a silly thing to do. But we tried it anyway, because, simply put, there was never a better time to be a fan of TV than in the 2010s. The term “peak TV” was coined to define the explosion in content largely thanks to the ascendancy of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, but it’s also come to reflect the spike in quality television as well. So to cast as wide a net as possible, we only allowed one episode per show on our list, and even then, there is every chance we didn’t include at least one of your favorites. This is what comment sections are for, so please reflect with us, in chronological order, on some of the best TV had to offer since 2010, and then share your personal favorites as well.
Grey’s Anatomy: "Sanctuary" and "Death and All His Friends" (Season 6, Episodes 23 and 24)
First aired: May 20, 2010
Seattle Grace Hospital had seen its fair share of chaos before this episode, but nothing was the same after this two-parter.
Disgruntled widower Gary Clark (Michael O'Neill), who blames Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) for his wife’s death, comes back to the hospital with a loaded gun seeking revenge.
It becomes clear that everyone's in danger after he shoots and kills resident Reed Adamson (Nora Zehetner) when she doesn’t help him find Derek. Then he shoots and critically injures day one character Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) within the first half of the episode.
A hospital lockdown takes place after Gary shoots more hospital personnel — including Derek.
Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), who spent the episode looking for Derek to tell him the good news that Meredith is pregnant, wind up witnessing the whole thing, and the episode ends with Meredith screaming as Cristina restrains her.
In part two, Meredith and Cristina manage to get Derek to an OR where Cristina ends up having to operate on him.
But Gary finds them and holds them at gunpoint demanding they stop operating or he’ll shoot them all. Owen (Kevin McKidd) attempts to tackle Gary to protect Cristina who refuses to stop operating but gets shot. Finally, Jackson (Jesse Williams) cleverly de-escalates the standoff by unplugging the heart monitor, convincing Gary that Derek is dead. They resume operating on Derek while Meredith goes to operate on Owen.
Just when you think things can’t get any more dramatic, Meredith has a miscarriage while operating on Owen, but refuses to stop. She saves Cristina’s man while Cristina saves hers — your best friend could never.
The episode ends with Gary shooting himself, and everyone else escaping safely.
The twisted thing about Grey’s is that it’s at its best when things are at their worst. These episodes proved there is no storyline, or character death, Shonda Rhimes is afraid to risk on the road to television gold. The show, its characters, and fans were never the same.
Other great episodes of this show: “Losing My Religion” (the one where Izzie cuts Denny’s LVAD wire), “Now or Never” (the one where George dies), “Flight” (the plane crash episode).
Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: “The Dinner Party From Hell” (Season 1, Episode 9)
First aired: Dec. 16, 2010
Was there a time before the Real Housewives franchise? It’s hard to remember, but it’s also a version of the world that I am utterly disinterested in. And while some fans think that New York or Orange County is the best iteration, I know for a fact that Beverly Hills was truly the crown jewel of the last decade. There are so many classic reality show episodes to pick from, but little has affected me quite like “The Dinner Party From Hell.”
Camille Grammer-Meyer, then-wife of Frasier himself and Season 1 villain, hosts a dinner party including all the housewives, in addition to Faye Resnick, a friend of Kyle Richards and of the late Nicole Brown Simpson, and Camille’s friend Allison DuBois, the inspiration behind the NBC psychic-who-solves-mysteries series Medium and an absolute lunatic.
I’m just not sure it’s worth making any television after watching Camille look at the camera in a confessional and say the words, “The morally corrupt Faye Resnick.” There are a thousand different podcasts and documentaries about the O.J. Simpson trial and yet, this is the most concise and necessary recap of it all.
The dinner is a disaster and ends with a big fight: just a bunch of hair extensions and lashes flying about while everyone gets drunker and drunker. The party winds down with Faye and Camille arguing about who did or didn’t “spread” in Playboy, while the medium tells Kyle that her marriage is doomed. You can keep Game of Thrones — this is what real prestige television looks like. —Scaachi Koul
Other great episodes: “Let the Games Begin” (the Richards sisters hide Brandi’s crutches), “Amster-Damn!” (when Kim calls Eileen a beast and she whispers “how dare you,” and Lisa Rinna smashes a glass while Kyle just...runs away).
Game of Thrones: “Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9)
First aired: June 12, 2011
No dragons. No White Walkers. And the two battles in it both happen offscreen. And yet no episode of Game of Thrones had a larger impact, on the show, and on television itself. A great deal of major consequence happens in this episode, from Robb Stark (Richard Madden) pledging to Walder Frey (David Bradley) that he’ll marry one of his daughters (whoops!) to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) learning that Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) is really a Targaryen (👀).
Really, though, “Baelor” is all about poor Ned Stark (Sean Bean) losing his head, as his daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) watch helplessly. Yes, King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) orders Ned’s execution in George R.R. Martin’s gargantuan book series that served as Game of Thrones blueprint (until it couldn’t). But just imagine the first season of Succession ending with Logan Roy keeling over with a heart attack, or Veep continuing after Selena Meyer gets assassinated. The brutal honesty of Ned’s death — of course this is how this would and should have gone down, no matter how attached viewers had grown to Ned as the show’s putative hero — catalyzed Game of Thrones’ transformation from a medieval pay-cable soap opera into the all-consuming global obsession that most defined this decade, for good and for ill. —Adam B. Vary
Other great episodes: “The Rains of Castamere” (the Red Wedding), “Hardhome” (the one where the Night King is all “come at me bro” to Jon Snow), “The Winds of Winter” (Cersei kills everyone and gets the Iron Throne, and Dany finally leaves for Westeros, and both those things went great, no need to keep watching!).
Parks and Recreation: “The Comeback Kid” (Season 4, Episode 11)
First aired: Jan. 12, 2012
After a forgettable first season, Parks and Recreation soon found its footing as a delightful, joke-packed show about optimism and friendship. There are many episodes of this endlessly joyful series that deserve a spot on this list, but it’s hard to go past the sheer slapstick value of Season 4’s “The Comeback Kid.”
Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) appoints her best friend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) to be her campaign manager as she vies for a spot on Pawnee City Council running against Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). But the help of Leslie’s Parks and Rec department colleagues — and hometown basketball hero “Pistol” Pete (Tuc Watkins) — proves disastrous. The episode culminates in the relaunch of Leslie’s floundering campaign as she, her friends, and a three-legged dog fall all over one another to the music of Gloria Estefan — peak TV slapstick. Meanwhile, Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) checks in on an unemployed Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) who is fighting depression by experimenting with calzones and claymation. (“Requiem for a Tuesday,” anyone?)
The episode exemplifies the ideal behind Margaret Mead’s most famous quote: that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world — even if they are a band of bumbling misfits. —David Mack
Other great episodes: “Telethon” (where the gang stays up all night to host a televised diabetes fundraiser), “Li'l Sebastian” (Who could forget “5,000 Candles in the Wind”?), “The Debate” (the one with the political debate featuring porn star/Leslie doppelgänger Brandi Maxxxx).
Bob’s Burgers: “Bad Tina,” Season 2, Episode 8
First aired: May 13, 2012
Since it premiered in 2011, Bob’s Burgers, created by Loren Bouchard, has been a very weird but ultimately very heartening piece of counterintuitive programming amid general 2010s darkness. And Tina, the oldest daughter voiced by a deadpan Dan Mintz, is the show’s most original character. A hopelessly awkward, relentlessly horny preteen who loves horses and likes to write “erotic friend fiction,” she’s painfully, endearingly earnest.
That’s what makes “Bad Tina” so hilarious. When new classmate Tammy (the always-excellent Jenny Slate) shows up and starts encouraging Tina to act out — we’re talking getting drunk on margarita mix and temporary tattoos — she’s blackmailed by both her conniving younger siblings Louise (Kristen Schaal) and Gene (Eugene Mirman), and Tammy, who threatens to show Tina’s fiction to her longtime crush, Jimmy Jr. (H. Jon Benjamin, who also plays Bob). When Louise and Gene find out about Tammy, the siblings conspire to help Tina. The episode ends with Tina reading her erotica out loud to the whole school; as the students laugh at her, Tammy accidentally goes on a farting frenzy and Tina emerges unscathed. Fart jokes, a pitch-perfect Stomp parody, and some unexpected family bonding — what more do you want from an episode of TV? —Tomi Obaro
Other great episodes: “Boyz 4 Now” (Louise develops a crush on a boy band member), “Mazel-Tina” (the Belchers cater a bat mitzvah), “World Wharf II: The Wharfening (or How Bob Saves/Destroys the Town, Part 2)” (the Belchers almost die!).
The Good Wife: “Hitting the Fan” (Season 5, Episode 5)
First aired: Oct. 27, 2013
One of the biggest stories about television in the 2010s has been the inexorable diminishment of the TV drama. I mean that literally: The 22-episode season for an hourlong TV series is a dinosaur of the 20th century, largely forsaken for seasons that span 13, 10, even 6 episodes. Only one drama this decade, in fact, managed to pull off old-school, longform seasons of TV with the same consistent finesse and virtuosity as similar shows with much smaller seasons: The Good Wife.
And with so many more episodes to play with, this CBS legal drama from executive producers Michelle and Robert King took glorious advantage of the extensive time its viewers got to spend with its characters. I can’t think of a better example of that than “Hitting the Fan,” when the plan hatched by Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) to leave their law firm to start their own was discovered by senior partners Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). There have been other Good Wife episodes that were more shocking or timely (see below). But the deep, lasting pleasure provided in this episode of watching these old friends, colleagues, and (in at least one case) lovers go at each other was informed by the years of history between them — and the roughly 94 hours of screentime audiences had spent with them up to that point. It’s an experience as rare today as a network TV drama that’s won multiple Emmys. Like The Good Wife! —A.B.V.
Other great episodes: “Nine Hours” (Alicia and her colleagues scramble to keep a death row inmate from execution), “What’s in the Box?” (Alicia and the gang investigate possible voter fraud on the night of her husband’s gubernatorial election), “Dramatics, Your Honor” (Will is shot and killed, and literally nobody saw it coming).
Vanderpump Rules: “Bitch Slap” (Season 2, Episode 13)
First aired: Jan. 27, 2014
After nearly an entire season of speculation that Jax (who’s dating Stassi) slept with Stassi’s best friend, Kristin (who’s dating Jax’s best friend, Tom), it comes to a head in “Bitch Slap.” They’re all getting progressively drunker at a bar, when Stassi screams at Kristin, “You banged him!” Kristin continues to deny it while Jax gives up all the details — namely that they had sex while Tom was in the next room.
“You’re a dirty fucking whore,” Stassi says. Then she slaps Kristin in the face so hard you can almost hear her bones crunch. And then she dunks a drink on her head. This happens a mere 20 minutes into the 43-minute episode.
I don’t know if there’s another episode of television in the history of telecom that uses the word “banging” so frequently. I also didn’t know this was an honor I wanted to bestow on a show until I watched it happen. —Scaachi Koul
Other great episodes: “Vegas With a Vengeance” (Frank whips off his button-up and Jax takes off his tasteful cable-knit sweater and they start fighting in a parking lot), “It’s Not About the Pasta” (Lala and James argue over whether it is, indeed, about the pasta), “Masquerade” (it’s revealed that Jax cheated on Brittany while an elderly woman slept right next to him — long story, Jesus Christ).
Mad Men: “The Strategy” (Season 7, Episode 6)
First aired: May 18, 2014
Few shows have ended up as meaningful to me as Mad Men, and while many people point to the early seasons, still glossed in ’50s afterglow, as the peak of the series, I loved the mustard and olive green ugliness of the late seasons. It’s like the fruit salad went bad, or maybe just outlived its time. That was always the question about Don (Jon Hamm): Was he washed up? Too old? The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit trying to prove he could hang out with Megan’s (Jessica Pare) cool Hollywood Hills friends?
“The Strategy” rehearses these same questions, but like all of the best Mad Men episodes, understands that the best interesting thing about Don is actually Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and their relationship that feels too unique and precious to be called anything as generic as “platonic.” Frustrated with a pitch she knows is just fine, Peggy’s delightfully petulant for much of the episode; when Don, recognizing that exact mode of frustration, comes into the office on the weekend to help her, her one request is for him to show her how to think like he does. But for all their similarities, what Don’s actually taught Peggy isn’t how to be him — but, as cheesy as it sounds, how to actually, truly, be herself. The slow dance to “My Way” near the end of the episode arrives at something close to sublime — same for the exquisite shot of Peggy, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and Don at Burger Chef. One of the enduring lessons of Mad Men is that you can’t force intimacy, or love, or genuine care. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in the most unexpected moments.—Anne Helen Petersen
Bonus moments: Joan (Christina Hendricks) rebuking Bob Benson’s (James Wolk) proposal; Peggy’s reaction shot when Pete yells, “She’s just as good as any woman in this industry!”
Other great episodes of this show: “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” (the one with the John Deere), “The Better Half” (Betty takes Bobby to camp), “The Suitcase” (another Peak Don and Peggy episode).
Steven Universe: “Jail Break” (Season 1, Episode 49)
First aired: March 12, 2015
“Jail Break” sums up almost everything that was amazing about this groundbreaking Cartoon Network animated series — a sci-fi epic starring magical lesbian space rocks set in an East Coast beach town and created by Rebecca Sugar.
The episode provides the first of many big reveals that Sugar laid the groundwork for: Garnet (Estelle), the wisest and strongest of Steven’s adopted mom/friend/sisters, is actually a fusion of Ruby and Sapphire. Their reunion is very sweet and EXTREMELY GAY to the point of being censored overseas. And knowing the twist makes going back through the first season for clues (of which there are many) so fun. We also get to watch Garnet beat the snot out of Jasper, while she belts out that she’s “made of love” in the song “Stronger Than You,” a standout in a show that has delivered a ton of amazing songs. And when Jasper and Lapis fuse themselves, they set up an amazing story arc on toxic relationships and recovery.
Steven Universe is good. I don’t just mean his eponymous show; I mean that’s the central conceit of the character that is Steven. He’s good — and even when he fails at that, he’s at least trying. And even more important, he encourages others to come up to his level. With the show’s lessons on understanding, open communication, trust, forgiveness, trauma, acceptance, love, and healing, it’s a welcome balm. —Hayes Brown
Other great episodes of this show: “Sworn to the Sword” (Pearl teaches Connie how to sword fight and starts to deal with her own traumas), “Mindful Education,” (when Steven and Connie can’t stay fused, Garnet helps them process), “Last One Out of Beach City,” (Steven, Pearl, and Amethyst go to a rock show and it’s awesome).
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: “Josh Just Happens to Live Here!” (Season 1, Episode 1)
First aired: Oct. 12, 2015
It’s highly unlikely that there will ever be a show quite like Crazy-Ex Girlfriend on TV again — its dead-last ratings performance perhaps ensures that — but what a run it had! And there’s really no episode that captures the singular magic of this hourlong comedy/musical/drama/rom-com/mental health PSA better than the pilot. Creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna knew what tones they wanted to hit right from the opening scene at Camp Canyon Grove, where we first meet a 16-year-old Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) so suffocatingly in love with hunk Josh Chan (played with such convincing dumbness by Vincent Rodriguez III) that, as an adult, she abruptly abandons her life to follow him across the country. In the pilot, we get both the dark, acerbic humor that has always secretly been this show’s calling card, and the corny, unabashed musical spectacle that made Crazy a niche hit. (There’s even a great cameo from the late Nipsey Hussle.) It’s now impossible for me to hear West Covina without singing “Californiaaaaaaa” in my head. —T.O.
Other great episodes: “Josh’s Sister Is Getting Married!” (the episode with the best Greg song; plus Rebecca and Greg finally get together), “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?” (for the Emmy-nominated “We Tapped That Ass” alone), “I Never Want to See Josh Again” (for really leaning into the darkness), “Josh Is Irrelevant” (Rebecca finally gets her diagnosis).
Broad City: “Burning Bridges” (Season 3, Episode 8)
First aired on TV: April 6, 2016
Usually Abbi (co-creator Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (co-creator Ilana Glazer), the titular broads of this zany series, get in some hijinks with very little actually at stake — merely the end of a neighborhood infatuation courtesy of a melted dildo, perhaps, or a lifetime ban from the local co-op. But in “Burning Bridges,” the girls have to grapple with Real Adult feelings of disappointment and, for the first time, a possible breach in their friendship. Abbi has been secretly hooking up with Trey (Paul W. Downs), her guileless coworker, and keeping it from Ilana. Meanwhile, Lincoln “the al dente dentist” (Hannibal Buress) gracefully breaks up with Ilana, who has to contend with feeling heartbroken even though she’s a polyamorous queen.
Everything comes to a head when Abbi and Ilana end up at the same fancy restaurant: Abbi on a surreptitious date with Trey; Ilana celebrating her parents’ 35th anniversary while trying to hook up with randos to show that she’s totally over Lincoln. What ensues is a loving send-up of the dinner scene in Mrs. Doubtfire that ends with the girls smoking a joint in the bathtub, confiding their secrets to each other. Complete with a makeover sequence aided by Bevers and an appearance of the Iconic Blue Dress — this episode really captures what made Broad City such a goofy delight. —T.O.
Other great episodes: “Hurricane Wanda” (“Can’t flush. Wanna die.”), “Knockoffs” (Abbi pegs Jeremy!), “Citizenship” (the crew on a boat), “Stories” (the girls travel from the top to the bottom of Manhattan for Abbi’s 30th bday).
The Americans: “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (Season 4, Episode 8)
First aired: May 4, 2016
In truth, this is just a stand-in for a string of four episodes in the middle of The Americans Season 4 as Martha (Alison Wright) realizes that “Clark,” (really Philip, played by Matthew Rhys) the man she married, is actually a KGB spy — and that to live, she’ll have to flee to Russia, leaving everything behind. The Americans is a slow burn of a show, the sort that takes a bit, or a season, to warm to, but leaves you deeply invested. That’s how it felt, watching Martha’s revelations: How did this deeply annoying, easily manipulated character come to feel so essential? How did we get to the point where her stepping on a plane to Russia feel like a drawing and quartering of the heart? The central premise of The Americans is just how easy it is to play at any identity, any ideology, including the supposedly unique, and innate, identity of an American. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences: for Martha, whose bleak Russian fate we’re left to imagine, and for Philip, whose ability to sequester the effects of his actions from himself continues to disintegrate. —A.H.P.
Other great episodes of this show: The Martha revelation arc, starting with “Clark’s Place,” continuing through “Travel Agents” and “The Rat.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars: “Revenge of the Queens” (Season 2, Episode 5)
First aired: Sept. 22, 2016
What started as a poorly lit, vaseline-lensed, Ryan Trecartin–inspired outsider art project filmed in a basement for Logo has become a multimillion-dollar cultural movement with nine Emmys. With such wild success, a spinoff version of the show featuring the fiercest queens from season’s past was inevitable, but when the first All Stars premiered in 2012, it was, let’s say...disappointing.
When All Stars was RU-surrected four years later, we were gifted with a season — and an episode — that changed the course of culture, stunts, gags, buffoonery, charcuterie, and the padge, forever.
As the title suggests, “Revenge of the Queens” picks up after the four eliminated queens so far are revealed to be standing behind the two way mirror in the show’s werk room. They’ve all heard Phi Phi O’Hara’s critique of Alyssa Edwards’ runway and performance, and Alyssa calls her out. From there, the world was divided into two teams: one where all of America took out their torches to burn Phi Phi at the stake…and then me on a team alone. I felt like Piggy from Lord of the Flies — my conch gently reminding me that Drag Race fans hated Phi Phi after the legendary showgirl fight with Sharon Needles in Drag Race’s fourth season, but Sharon deadass started it.
It was also a challenge with one of the toughest decisions for the audience, as each pair did great (including Roxxxy Andrews, because even though she tripped over the word “gloryhole” — same, gurl — she did fine). We were then treated to one of Drag Race’s most celebrated and referenced lip syncs: Tatianna and Alyssa’s performance for their lives to Rihanna’s “Shut up and Drive.” In the end, with yet another plot twist, Ru chose to bring both Tati and Alyssa back, letting them each reveal their lipsticks to send a selected queen home.
Whelp, spoiler, but they both picked Miss O’Hara and in a moment of extreme awkwardness and uncomfortably, Phi Phi snubbed Alyssa coming in for a hug as she sashayed away. My fear of Phi Phi being “that girl” had come to a reality, and frankly I had to leave her in God’s hands.
Anyway, it was a great episode, y’all fully gagged, and there will never be another All Stars moment — or Drag Race moment, period! — that even approaches it. —Zachary Ares, aka Syzygy
Other great episodes of Drag Race: Basically each of the reunions! “Season 9 Reunion” (the one where Shea and Farrah came for Valentina), “Season 10 Reunion” (when Vixen called out RuPaul’s double standards for POC queens versus white queens and walked off-set), and “Season 11 Reunion” (when Kahanna was reaching for airtime).
Black Mirror: “Nosedive” (Season 3, Episode 1)
First available: Oct. 21, 2016
Black Mirror has been either hailed as a chilling indictment of our tech-addled times or mocked as a deeply silly, weirdly Luddite melodrama masquerading as prescient prestige TV. Here’s the truth: Black Mirror is actually both of these things, occasionally at the same time!
The episode that most successfully captures the show’s dueling spirit is Season 3’s “Nosedive,” written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur based on a story by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie, a young woman living in a pastel-colored hellscape in which everyone has their own personal, constantly updating social media rating, which affects every aspect of their daily life, from the kind of cars they can rent to the neighborhoods they can live in. It’s a world in which people are constantly on edge, unable to say what they really mean, doomed to bite into cookies so they’re perfectly shaped half-moons they can photograph and share on their social media feeds to gin up their rankings. Sound familiar?
At the beginning of the episode, Lacie is a respectable 4.2 (out of 5), but she’s convinced that by attending an old friend’s wedding — filled with gorgeous, influencer-y 4.8s and above — she will be able to get herself to a coveted 4.5. But this is Black Mirror, so Lacie’s struggle to get to the wedding goes hilariously, devastatingly awry — resulting in an uncomfortably close-to-home satire of our all-consuming obsession with social media clout. —T.O.
Other great episodes: “The Entire History of You” (old-fashioned adultery melodrama), “White Christmas” (Jon Hamm!); “San Junipero” (the slightly overrated happy lesbian love story), “USS Callister” (Star Trek, Black Mirror–style!)
BoJack Horseman: “Fish Out of Water” (Season 3, Episode 4)
First available: July 22, 2016
Listen, BoJack Horseman is a perfect show, and if I could put every episode on this list, I would have. But I went with “Fish Out of Water” because it’s the moment I first realized I wasn’t just watching a really good animated series about an anthropomorphized horse named BoJack (Will Arnett) who starred on a hit TGIF-y sitcom in the 1990s and has become an embittered and depressive alcoholic but is also funny. As BoJack arrives at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival — where (he thinks) communication is impossible because everyone’s underwater — I watched the nearly wordless episode unfold with a level of visual invention and wonder that honestly brought me to tears. BoJack is unquantifiable — it’s comedy, tragedy, satire, farce, absurdism, realism, magical, and devastating. “Fish Out of Water” is all of those things at once. —A.B.V.
Other great episodes: “Hank After Dark” (BoJack’s friend Diane accuses beloved TV personality Hank Hippopopalous of sexual misconduct, two years before #MeToo exploded), “That’s Too Much, Man!” (BoJack goes on a massive bender with his old costar with shocking consequences), “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” (BoJack’s mother moves in with him, plunging him into a spiral of self-doubt), “Free Churro” (BoJack eulogizes his mother in a single, unbroken scene).
Jane the Virgin: “Chapter Fifty-Four” (Season 3, Episode 10)
First aired: Oct. 31, 2016
Jane the Virgin was always very good at genuine plot twists and perhaps none were more devastating than this Season 3 episode.
At the beginning of the season, Michael (Brett Dier), Jane (Gina Rodriguez)’s first love and now-husband, was hospitalized and fighting for his life after he was shot on their wedding night by the evil villain Sin Rostro. But he had since recovered, reluctantly resigning from the police force and planning on attending law school.
In “Chapter Fifty-Four,” which is interspersed with flashbacks of the origins of Jane and Michael’s love story, we see the characters get back into the swing of things as Michael prepares for the LSAT and Jane tries to win over her mean boss at her publishing job. But then, at the very end of the episode, Michael falls to the floor while taking the test and dies. It’s a shocking turn of events, especially since it happens in the middle of the season.
Jane the Virgin has always excelled at mining ordinary human pathos from extraordinary events and Gina Rodriguez is an acting tour de force in the episode. Michael’s death was a risky gambit on showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman’s part, but it paid off. Even when Michael, in another shocking plot twist, returns to Jane’s life with his memory erased, it was his initial death that uprooted Jane’s life forever. —Krystie Lee Yandoli
Other great episodes of this show: “Chapter Forty-Seven” (Jane finally has sex for the first time), "Chapter Eighty-One" (Jane discovers her husband Michael isn’t actually dead), “Chapter One Hundred” (a very satisfying series finale, “straight out of a telenovela”).
The Good Place: “Michael’s Gambit” (Season 1, Episode 13)
First aired: Jan. 19, 2017
I don’t believe in preserving spoilers for shows or movies that came out years ago — unless, I guess, I have not seen said show or movie, in which case I become irate if it’s ruined for me — but The Good Place is one where I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. The concept of the show is so smart and so brilliantly plotted, that the Season 1 finale hit me so hard I audibly screamed.
After Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) dies and spends Season 1 in the Good Place worrying that her heavenly neighborhood’s architect Michael (Ted Danson) will find out she doesn’t belong, she winds up with a few others who also feel like maybe there’s something amiss: Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a stressed-out, overthinking ethicist, Jason (Manny Jacinto), a Jacksonville dirtbag who loves to dance, and Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a British socialite caught up in one-upping everyone, even in the afterlife. By the finale, Eleanor realizes what’s happening, and it’s one of the most satisfying twists in television history. Nothing better than a show that’s so good, it makes you feel a little bit dumb. —Scaachi Koul
Other great episodes: “Everything Is Fine” (maybe the best, most-well-contained pilot in recent history), “Jeremy Bearimy” (Chidi’s greatest work), “Somewhere Else” (the gang gets a second chance on Earth).
The Leftovers: “The Book of Nora” (Season 3, Episode 8)
First aired: June 4, 2017
It seemed, at least to me, pretty much impossible that this gorgeous show could possibly deliver on its premise — a bunch of people on the planet randomly disappearing into thin air — in a truly satisfying way. No season finale for a show involving fantastical mysteries could ever be worse than Lost’s, and I had faith in these showrunners, but still. How would The Leftovers come to an end?
But the three acts of “The Book of Nora” ended up embodying the spirit of this show in moving and remarkable ways. Nora (Carrie Coon) decides that she’d rather clamber into a mysterious person-zapping machine in case it might be able to deliver her to her missing children — rather than living another moment without them. At the episode’s start, Matt (Christopher Eccleston) and Nora mad-lib Nora’s obituary, and it’s so lovely and funny and so, so sad. The episode’s middle chunk, meanwhile, is very ??? in a classic Leftovers way: Does Kevin (Justin Theroux) really not remember his and Nora’s relationship? What the hell is this rural Australian wedding? ARE YOU NOT GOING TO TELL US WHAT HAPPENED TO NORA WHEN SHE WENT INTO THE MACHINE????
By the third act, we do learn what happened to Nora; or we learn what she tells us happened to her. It’s up to us to determine whether we believe her: that, in another world, the departed had lost everyone who remained in Kevin and Nora’s world. When Kevin, teary-faced, tells Nora he believes her, and the score starts up — ugh! Extraordinary. —Shannon Keating
Other great episodes: “I Live Here Now” (the Season 2 finale, in which Kevin sings karaoke to get back home), “International Assassin” (because it’s completely batshit wild), “No Room at the Inn” (when Matt and Mary are locked out of Jarden), hell, even the pilot. All of it, really.
Halt and Catch Fire: “Goodwill” (Season 4, Episode 8)
First aired: Oct. 7, 2017
I spent most of the final three episodes of Halt and Catch Fire in snotty, uncontrollable tears. Partly I was crying over the end of my favorite (criminally under-viewed) TV show. Mostly I was crying for Donna (Kerry Bishé), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Gordon (Scoot McNairy), and Joe (Lee Pace), these fictional people I cared about more deeply than I’d realized after four years in real time and a decade onscreen.
“Goodwill,” written by series co-creator Christopher Cantwell and Zack Whedon, acts as an elegy not just for Gordon (who pulls a Six Feet Under by dying suddenly at the end of the previous episode) but for the whole series. It’s a quiet, deliberate pause in the season’s action that unfolds like a stage play, tracking the shell-shocked characters in different pairings through one day, almost entirely in one house, as they pack up Gordon’s things. Sad as it is, there are also some surprisingly funny moments — Joe’s thrift store heist, Cameron’s quippy comebacks — that speak to the delicacy of the writing on a show that never settled for playing only the power chords.
At this point, it borders on cliché that exploring the messy reality of grief often makes for memorable television, but the emotional gut-punch of “Goodwill” still feels fully earned. Halt and Catch Fire was never really “about” the tech industry of the ’80s and ’90s, or anything other than the lives and relationships of its central characters, which meant the writers never treated anyone as disposable or cashed in emotional chips casually. When Gordon’s gone, you feel his absence in a truly visceral way. “Goodwill” is the pivotal, bittersweet moment when years of narrative tension start to dissolve and Donna, Cameron, and Joe begin to face not only Gordon’s death but all of the ways they’ve hurt each other — and how much they still care. Watching them, how can you not care, too?
Other great episodes: “Up Helly Aa” (Comdex round 1: Who’s going to eat all those shrimp?), “Heaven Is a Place” (the now-leading ladies head for Silicon Valley), “NIM” and “NeXT” (Comdex round 2; the gang reunites), and “Ten of Swords” (the gang faces the future).
Atlanta: “Barbershop” (Season 2, Episode 5)
First aired: March 29, 2018
The beauty of Atlanta is it tells stories and inside jokes about black men in the US in a way that feels unprecedented, and “Barbershop” is the proof in the banana pudding.
In this stand-alone episode, Al (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s become a bit of a hometown hero for his hit rap single “Paper Boi,” tries to get his hair cut before a photo shoot. When Al arrives at the shop, his barber Bibby (Robert S. Powell) tells Al he has to run across town to do something “real quick” and invites Al to join. Real ones know that no one in the history of black people who has uttered that phrase means it, and Bibby is no exception.
The brilliance of this episode is that it hones in on such a specific experience that is as hilarious as it is true. It’s often joked about that when a black man leaves to get his hair cut, there’s no telling what time he’ll be back. And while the obstacles Al had to face for this particular haircut were outlandish, they were not completely unfathomable. I promise you not one black man wondered why he didn’t just let someone else at the shop take care of him. —S.O.
Other great episodes of this show: “Teddy Perkins” (the strangely brilliant one where Donald Glover does whiteface); “B.A.N.” (the news program one featuring a young man who is “transracial”), “The Club” (the one about going to the club).
Insecure: “High-Like” (Season 3, Episode 5)
First aired: Sept. 9, 2018
The magic of Insecure has always lied in its genuine understanding of black millennial culture. In “High-Like,” we see this firsthand as the girls — Issa (Issa Rae), Molly (Yvonne Orji), Kelli (Natasha Rothwell), and Tiffany (Amanda Seales) — go to Coachella to see Beyoncé.
Before the show that night though, Issa takes the gang on a hoe-mission to meet up with her current bae Nathan (Kendrick Sampson) at a pool party. There the group takes molly and delicious chaos ensues.
Issa and Nathan have sex on the infamous Coachella Ferris wheel — one of the most electric scenes everrrr. Down below, the rest of the gang end up “battling the whites in the field” after Kelli decides to fight a white woman who unapologetically blocks her view of the concert stage because she’s on a man’s shoulders, ultimately getting them kicked out.
In a desperate last-minute attempt to see Bey, Kelli risks it all trying to bum-rush the gate, only to get tased by a security guard. She falls facedown to the ground, pees on herself, and, as her friends run to her, cries out, “Remember me different!”
The next day, Issa runs into her ex-boyfriend Lawrence (for the first time all season!) at the convenience store.
This episode is Insecure at its best — hilarious, relatable, shocking, and black AF. What other show could take something as triggering as being tased and make us laugh about it? Where else on TV do you get to see black women partake in the stoner comedy antics normally reserved for white men? Who else is clever enough to center a plot around Beyoncé without us ever actually seeing Beyoncé? What other fanbase is as hilariously annoying as the #LawrenceHive? (Look it up and thank me later.) —S.O.
Other great episodes of this show: “Hella LA” (the one where Kelli gets fingered at the diner after the Kiss ‘n’ Grind party), “Hella Perspective” (the one where Issa and Lawrence finally get closure), “Obsessed-Like” (the case study on ghosting we all deserve).
Fleabag: Series Finale (Season 2, Episode 6)
First aired: April 8, 2019
This season, it was surprisingly lovely to see that Fleabag (creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) — she of the endless bad hookups and other horrible decisions — actually has her shit together. Her family is still a mess though. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) has had a miscarriage and is still married to a gigantic douche of a man; her father and his clueless fiancé (Olivia Colman) don’t quite seem to believe that Fleabag’s not about to spiral back into her days of chronic stealing and other various fuckups.
In the finale, during Claire and Fleabag’s father’s wedding, Fleabag empowers her sister to go after what she really wants: a Finnish dude also named Klare. The sisters, with their at-odds personalities, have struggled to really connect, but the end of the show brings them closer in a way that feels truly earned, marked by one of Fleabag’s sweetest and most memorable lines: “The only person I’d run through an airport for is you.”
When Fleabag tells the hot (!) priest (Andrew Scott) she loves him, after his adorably unhinged speech about how terrible but great love is at the wedding, he tells her, heartbreakingly, that it’ll pass — but also that he loves her too. I choose to believe the theory that the fox at the very end of the episode signifies that the priest will eventually choose Fleabag over God. But even if the show doesn’t have a romantically happy ending, what’s so freaking good about Fleabag’s conclusion is that by loving someone else — someone who, throughout the season, saw through Fleabag’s fourth-wall-breaking disassociation from the present-day realities of her life — she was able to leave the last of her trauma coping mechanisms behind for good. —Shannon Keating
Other great episodes: Season 2, Episode 4 (when Hot Priest tells Fleabag to kneel!!!); Season 2, Episode 1 (The jumpsuit! “This is a love story”! “Well fuck you, then!”), Season 2, Episode 3 (when Fleabag “helps” Claire with a fancy meeting) — the whole second season is perfect. In the darker first season, there are still some moments of levity, like Episode 4, when Claire and Fleabag’s trip to a silent retreat involves a woman getting wordlessly attacked by bees.
Veep: “Veep” (Season 7, Episode 7)
First aired: May 12, 2019
In the 2010s, television alternated between depicting politics as an aspirational realm that rewards hope and brilliance (Parks and Recreation, Madam Secretary) or as Machiavellian drama rich in conspiracy and murder (House of Cards, Scandal). But it was Veep that truly nailed the ugly, absurd, self-serving, desperate, conniving, and hilariously incompetent truth of political life in America.
Look no further than the perfect series finale. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) attempts to outmaneuver rivals at a deadlocked 2020 convention where she hopes to win her party’s nomination for the White House. After inadvertently becoming an advocate for trans rights by using a conveniently located men’s restroom in conservative North Carolina, she cravenly offers to outlaw same-sex marriage in a bid to win the support of a religious governor. But in order to finally achieve her dream, she has to sacrifice devoted aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) and offer the unhinged Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) the promotion of a lifetime.
Louis-Dreyfus’s seven seasons of brilliance (she won the Emmy for almost every season) culminated in this tour-de-force farewell for a foul-mouthed, monstrous, sociopathic character who had rarely sunk lower. Its coda — Meyer alone at a desk, then many years later as her funeral coverage is interrupted by the death of Tom Hanks — is both haunting and hilarious. —D.M.
Other great episodes: “Helsinki” (where we first meet Sally Phillips’ brilliant Finnish prime minister Minna Häkkinen), “Debate” (the one where Selina gets that haircut).
Orange Is the New Black: “Minority Deport” (Season 7, Episode 5)
First available: July 26, 2019
This groundbreaking Netflix series was always most moving when it used ripped-from-the-headlines news stories to inform its increasingly dark storylines — from Litchfield’s transition from state-owned penitentiary to grimly bureaucratic private prison in Season 3 to the forced solitary confinement for trans hairdresser Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) supposedly for her “own protection.” But Season 4’s frustrating, All Lives Mattering of Poussey (Samira Wiley) temporarily torpedoed the show’s momentum, and seasons 5 and 6 became bogged down with too many new characters.
The show’s final season righted the ship, bringing us back to the core characters we’ve grown to love while refusing to sugarcoat the effects of systemic poverty and discrimination on these mostly poor black and brown women. “Minority Deport” is a particularly gutting episode that captures the essence of the show in all its funny, heartbreaking glory.
Piper (Taylor Schilling), newly freed, chafes under parole. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is still grappling with her life sentence. Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tries to stop her eighth-grade daughter from ending up in prison like her older sister Daya (Dascha Polanco) — only to wind up getting arrested (again). But arguably the most devastating storyline goes to the ditzy but lovable Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero). After believing she was a US citizen for most of her life, she’s been detained by ICE and, in this episode, is unceremoniously deported. The episode’s final scene shows a group of 11 women about to be deported sitting in an airplane, in chains, an ICE guard with a gun standing watch. One by one, each woman slowly fades out. Maritza is the last one remaining, until she too is gone. It’s an incredibly powerful moment that showcases what OITNB did best — keeping it real, even if it breaks your heart. —T.O.
Other great episodes: “Can’t Fix Crazy” (the one where Piper finally loses her shit and beats Pennsatucky to a bloody pulp), “We Have Manners. We’re Polite.” (Rosa goes out with a bang!), “Trust No Bitch” (the women find a lake).
Succession: “Safe Room” (Season 2, Episode 5)
First aired: Sept. 1, 2019
Yet another prestige HBO program devoted to the lives of horrible rich white people doesn’t have any right to occupy nearly as much of my brain as Succession has in 2019. And yet I can’t help but dearly love it. It’s somehow possible to feel for these characters, despite how much bad shit they’re doing to society — especially Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who opens “Safe Room” on the roof of the Fox-like ATN, idly strolling by the low railings separating him from oblivion.
The best thing about the second season of Succession is that the show starts to really grapple with ATN’s political evils. Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is tasked with interviewing an anchor who’s gotten himself in some PR trouble for having fascist friends and naming his dog after Hitler’s dog (“different spelling” though, the anchor assures him). Greg (Nicholas Braun) telling Tom that Nazis are, indeed, “the worst” paints a horribly comical picture of these people’s lack of any sort of moral integrity. The Greg and Tom dynamic is a highlight of this episode, especially when, after Greg tries to quit, Tom pelts him with water bottles while they shelter in a conference room from a potential shooter — and when Tom is positively tickled that Greg has the balls to blackmail him later.
But what makes “Safe Room” a standout for me is that, halfway through the season, we’re all left uneasily uncertain of whether Kendall’s dad is planning to fuck him over in the end. Is Logan (Brian Cox) really worried about Kendall during the shooting, or is he only worried because Kendall has his pills? And, most breathtakingly, when at the end of the episode Kendall finds his rooftop escape has been fitted with giant glass walls — preventing him from, someday, tumbling to his death — we have to wonder whether his dad is genuinely concerned for his safety or if Kendall is just another pricey asset to be hoarded.
Throw in the sexual beginnings of Gerri and Roman (J. Smith-Cameron and Kieran Culkin) (he masturbates to her calling him a “revolting little pig”), Connor’s (Alan Ruck) absurd eulogy for family friend “Mo” Lester, and Kendall tragically crying into Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) shoulder in a moment where, were this another family, they could finally support each other in an actual human way, and this is Succession at its best. —Shannon Keating
Other great episodes: Obviously the Season 2 finale, where we see Kendall’s triumphant rise. The Season 1 finale where we see Kendall forced to surrender to his father’s mercy in a Chappaquiddick-style tragedy, is a gut punch too. ●