“Bagman” — Better Call Saul (AMC)
I am not a complicated man. I like power and violence and simple things made well. This is why “Bagman,” the eighth episode of Better Call Saul’s fifth season, so appealed to me.
The plot isn’t all that complex: A man travels to the desert to pick up bags of cash. Other men ambush him. A hero intervenes. The man and the hero must make their way out of the desert on foot. The main character is powerless to stop what’s coming. Violence is nearly his undoing and also his saving grace.
It is an hour that doesn’t ask the viewer to think. It forces them to feel.
We can feel the desert heat because every frame shimmers. The travelers feel small because inconsequential things — a cactus, a fluttering piece of cash — occupy large spaces. Death feels imminent because skin peels and lips crack.
Smarter people than me can surely deconstruct this series in more nuanced ways. There are callbacks to Breaking Bad (the series from which it spun off); immense performances from Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler), Michael McKean (Chuck McGill), and Tony Dalton (Lalo Salamanca), who is a grade-A movie star if I’ve ever seen one; and a staggering amount of world-building.
But as someone seeking to understand power, or the lack thereof, violence and its many forms, and simple things made well, “Bagman” was the best hour of television in 2020. —Anthony Cormier
“Space for Everyone” — Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix)
The Challenger explosion of 1986 was a monumental event, but few details on how and why it happened are ingrained in public memory. The Netflix documentary Challenger: The Final Flight investigates the systemic failures that ultimately led to a national tragedy.
In Episode 1, creators Steven Leckart and Glen Zipper set up the human and political stakes of the shuttle program. They capture the elation of humans who are going to space for the first time, but also the precariousness of it. Realities of pressures applied by the Reagan administration are masterfully intertwined with the excitement Americans embraced when NASA announced that a teacher would be going to space so she could pass on what she learned to her students.
The series follows through on its promises and investigates a history some viewers will be unfamiliar with. It paints a clear picture of the Space Age trepidation and the collective trauma that followed, a theme that’s relatable to a world going through a collective trauma of its own 34 years later. —Jane Lytvynenko
"Whenever You're Ready" — The Good Place (NBC)
Knowing when to end a series beloved by its fans can be an agonizing decision for a show’s creative team. Ending that series with an episode about knowing when to end it all is an entirely different feat.
The finale of The Good Place saw the show’s four formerly human protagonists spend eternity after eternity living out their dreams. After successfully making it to heaven (the real one this time), they each achieve true serenity until, one by one, they quietly reach the realization that their bliss is absolute and it’s time to move on. This inherently means the end of friendships and relationships, which for Eleanor (Kristen Bell) proves most difficult. But she — and we — soon come to see the exquisite beauty in their natural conclusion.
The Good Place admittedly lost me a touch in its wandering third and fourth seasons, but this masterful finale erased any prior qualms I had about the show. The episode stayed with me for days after I watched it. It was so unexpectedly moving and thoughtful, so pitch-perfect in tone, and so profound — something I never thought I would say about a network comedy.
I often wondered whether The Good Place was one of the defining pieces of art of the Trump era. The idea that there are powerful people secretly pitting us against one another and gaslighting us felt particularly resonant these last few years. But in the end, the show was much more than that.
The Good Place was about how we navigate truth in imperfect worlds that are gradually falling apart. It was about the loneliness of waking up in a society you don’t recognize and in which you feel you may not belong, but then working with other lost souls to improve your standing in that world — or, failing that, fashioning your way together to new ones. It was about all lives having worth and all actions having meaning, about second chances and learning from your mistakes, about redemption. And, finally, it was about letting go. —David Mack
“The Beard” — The Great (Hulu)
I loved this series, which tracks the rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) as she plots to overthrow her useless emperor husband (Nicholas Hoult) from the get-go. This is the episode, though, where the palace intrigue and the complexity of the woman at the center of the show really start to unfold.
Fanning’s Catherine is sharp, ambitious, and self-possessed, and quickly begins to realize that she far outpaces her husband in every way.
“You’re not great, are you?” says Fanning in the opening scene, lying distractedly in bed as Emperor Peter III of Russia pumps away on top of her — a reference to both the title of his father, Peter the Great, and the current Peter’s general mediocrity.
This is also maybe the best thing I’ve seen Hoult do: the caricature of a privileged man-child with a total lack of self-awareness.
With opulent costumes and a droll sense of humor, this is the best satire I’ve seen in a long time, and exactly what I needed this year. Escapism with a dose of historical drama. This episode is where we get to see Catherine hit her stride and the fun begins. —Nidhi Prakash
“How to Put Up Scaffolding” — How To With John Wilson (HBO)
How To, produced by Nathan for You’s Nathan Fielder, explores a different facet of life in each episode, each seemingly dull topic unpacked to reveal a deeper kernel of truth about what it means to be human. This one, about city scaffolding and the massive, skeletal network of metal beams enveloping Manhattan's sidewalks, might be the most profound.
John Wilson’s narration has an unpretentious delivery: He stammers and leaves in his ums and uhs. He gets distracted and trails off when an unaccompanied dog trots by. He includes dozens of B-roll shots, rarely longer than a few seconds, of scaffolding around the city, underlining its ubiquity and mundanity. Its aesthetic is “aggressively neutral,” he says, politely calling it an eyesore.
“It’s really easy to settle for something that you don’t like, because if you don’t admit you’re unhappy with something, then you never have to change anything,” Wilson says. “You could end a relationship that offers you nothing, or you could just stay in it indefinitely because it’s too hard to move on.”
He draws a line from 1979, when a falling piece of masonry from a Manhattan building killed a college student named Grace Gold, to today, when local law mandates that every building’s facade needs regular inspection, and NYC scaffolding is an $8 billion-a-year industry.
He ends up at a scaffolding industry convention in New Orleans and walks around the city, where the scaffolding is designed as part of the architecture, gorgeous and built to last a lifetime.
“Would New York be better off if we had something permanent instead of this temporary stuff being erected and dismantled all the time?” Wilson asks. “Is this what it looks like when you finally commit to something?”
I did not expect to be so achingly moved, let alone be read for filth, by a television episode about construction — but then again, I didn’t anticipate a lot of the surprises from this year. —Emerson Malone
“Ego Death” — I May Destroy You (HBO)
From beginning to end, Michaela Coel’s series about a group of Black millennial Londoners and how they handle dating, consent, and trauma has been alternately heartbreaking, hilarious, and utterly unpredictable. The last episode was a master class in how to finish a series with restraint, care, and nuance.
Arabella (Coel) is a somewhat chaotic twentysomething writer on a deadline with a severe case of writer’s block. A night out with friends results in her waking up the next morning with a cut on her forehead and no memory of what happened the night before. Over the course of the series, she learns that she was roofied and raped at a bar. Her two best friends, Kwame, a queer fitness instructor, and Terry, a burgeoning actor, try to help her work through her trauma with varying degrees of success as they also grapple with their own personal demons.
In the final episode (spoilers), Arabella seemingly gets what she’s wanted. After staking out the bar where she was raped, she spots the men who raped her and has the opportunity to exact revenge. Three scenarios play out: two of them in vengeful thriller mode, the last scenario perhaps the most confounding of all — Arabella and her rapist go on a date and have loving, consensual sex.
But then we learn that these were just fantasies. Arabella doesn’t go back to the bar. She never finds the men who raped her. She writes her book. She heals. She moves forward.
It’s a devastating yet profoundly hopeful conclusion. So many victims of that particular kind of sexual assault never learn who the perpetrators are, and the series alludes to that without the story being incomplete. I finished the series in awe of Coel’s considerable powers. I can’t wait to see what she does next. —Tomi Obaro
“I Am” — Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Lovecraft Country, a sci-fi/horror series that premiered on HBO in August, oddly feels like an affirmation to Black people despite the gore, monsters, and ghosts. Its rich backstories are steeped in the tragedy and pain Black Americans faced throughout the country during the 1950s. Coupled with the nuance that shapes its characters, the show brings a fresh view of Black people in the horror genre. The characters of Lovecraft Country are more than the two-dimensional background characters that things happen to or in spite of — their lives, personalities, and interests are tightly interwoven into its episodes, making them fully formed people with emotions and lives who are to be seen and heard.
That’s what makes “I Am” one of the best episodes of the show — and the year. Most of the episode focuses on Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis), the wife of the late George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance). Hippolyta has spent the majority of her adulthood being a wife to George and a mother to their daughter Dee (Jada Harris), never fully exploring her interests in math and astronomy. After George’s death, Hippolyta follows clues to a multidimensional time machine through which she mistakenly transports herself to a new world where she’s told to name herself. The ensuing picturesque journey to find her name leads Hippolyta on a voyage of self-discovery — through 1920s Paris, where she performs onstage with Josephine Baker (Carra Patterson), encounters with an ancient warrior tribe where she learns to fight for herself, and becoming a space explorer where she fulfills the dreams she suppressed to care for her family.
The episode is a love letter to womanism and Afrofuturism that stylistically and thematically feels more like an art film pulled from the pages of Eve L. Ewing’s poetry or Solange’s When I Get Home, rather than a show centered around the torment of Black folks at the hands of both society and underground magical orders.
During a year that has felt particularly heavy for Black people, and Black women in particular, a TV show that fully sees Black women — their hopes, dreams, struggles, and triumphs — felt like a breath of fresh air. There are a handful of TV episodes I revisit often — nearly all of them are some form of Black people acting as an authentic version of themselves — and by the end of Hippolyta’s journey, I knew that I would be returning to ground myself. —Ryan Brooks
“Vendy Wiccany” — Pen15 (Hulu)
Pen15 somehow always manages to encapsulate how hilariously awkward being a preteen girl can be. But the show’s second season also showed just how unsettling and hard it can be.
“Vendy Wiccany” starts with Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) watching Are You Afraid of the Dark?, before encountering something even scarier: Anna’s parents — on the brink of divorce, still under the same roof — getting into their worst fight yet. The girls sprint from the house to the woods, where they discover something amazing — there’s magic afoot! They decide they are witches, and with their newfound powers, wish for the things they most want: blonde hair, white jeans, to not be “a problem.”
For girls who grew up in the 2000s, a witchcraft phase was practically a requirement. Who didn’t watch Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or read Harry Potter? And who didn’t then wonder if they too could cast spells or summon the dead?
Pen15 delivers on-point nostalgia for former teen witches, but it also hits on something more current. The pandemic has caused an uptick in superstitious beliefs, and business is booming for psychics. Similarly, Maya and Anna turn to witchcraft when they feel totally helpless in the face of so much change. We all just want a sense of control, and sometimes the only way to find it is a touch of magic. —Julia Reinstein
“Frank in the Future” — Ramy (Hulu)
There’s a scene in the eighth episode of Ramy’s second season in which Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) father, Farouk Hassan (Amr Waked), who goes by Frank at work and in coffee shops, consults with a veterinarian about his sick dog. The vet tells Farouk that the dog appears to be struggling with anxiety and depression.
“What does she have to be depressed about?” Farouk asks, before facetiously presenting a list of problems that reflect his own struggles: bills to pay, children to take care of, and a life that is seemingly falling apart. “Maybe she left her family and life behind in her homeland and came here to chase a dream that doesn’t exist,” he posits.
The episode juxtaposes Farouk’s current reality — as an out-of-work, middle-aged man lying to his wife about going to the office each day as he applies for jobs from a hipster coffee shop surrounded by young people — with his days of beaming optimism when he first immigrated to the US in hopes of creating a life in America after leaving Egypt.
The episode presents a version of the American dream that feels at once familiar and yet under-told on television. As a young immigrant from Egypt, Farouk worked as a waiter, putting himself through school to get a better job, and then in a twist equally American, lost that job and with it his identity as a hardworking father who could provide for his family. —Hamed Aleaziz
“Happy Ending” — Schitt’s Creek (CBC, Pop TV)
Like David Rose (Dan Levy), my wedding was also ruined this year. I spent weeks sulking over having to cancel due to COVID-19, so the opening scene of Schitt's Creek's series finale was beyond relatable, when David yells out, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," as he processes everything that’s gone wrong with his big day.
But a few scenes and multiple David freak-outs later, the happy couple is professing their endless love to each other. The wedding was beautiful, emotional, and funny — even if it wasn't what David planned. What ultimately mattered was that David was surrounded by his family — the one into which he was born, as well as his chosen one.
I watched the finale in the midst of throwing myself a massive pity party. By the end of it, the episode helped me learn to roll with the punches.
So if one day I get to throw the wedding party I wanted, and someone pulls an Alexis (Annie Murphy) and shows up wearing a literal wedding gown, I’ll be OK with it.
In a year where nothing has made sense, I leave you with this Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) quote from the episode: “It is all but impossible to explain why things happen the way they do. Our lives are like little baby crows carried upon a curious wind. And all we can wish, for our families, for those we love, is that the wind will eventually place us on solid ground.” —Mary Ann Georgantopoulos
“The Curse” — What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Look, if you told me last year I’d be imploring you to watch a mockumentary about vampires, I would have said you were crazy. But this is 2020 and everything is upside down.
Already in its second season, the FX show created by Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords and based on the 2014 film by the same name, is an absurdist comedy about four vampires living in an old Victorian in Staten Island. (Thor: Ragnorak’s Taika Waititi is one of the writers.) And I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in years. Nandor (Kayvan Novak) is a Dracula-like vampire from a country that no longer exists, husband and wife Lazlo (a hilarious Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) are European vampires who are at once #relationshipgoals and a disaster, and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is an energy vampire who drains your life force and whom you might find lurking in a cubicle in a medium-sized New Jersey firm. Rounding out the main cast is Nandor’s familiar — a human assistant/keeper — Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), whose side-eye glances to the camera crew while suffering endless indignities as a human desperate to be transformed into a vampire should win him an Emmy stat.
The episodes are hard to rank because they’re all absolutely brilliant, but a standout is Season 2’s “The Curse” in which the group receives a chain mail letter via email and completely lose their shit trying to break the curse of “Bloody Mary” by trying to find 10 people to forward it to. Nothing has made me laugh harder (REALLY LOL) than watching the Dadaist humor of these vampires struggling to simply live in suburban Staten Island while having to tangle with witches, ghosts, and other malignant forces trying to harsh their mellow. We’re likely all depressed, but I promise you What We Do in the Shadows is the perfect quarantine viewing to pull you out of your doldrums. —Karolina Waclawiak
"Zoey's Extraordinary Dad" — Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (NBC)
When I first started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, I assumed it would be a lighthearted way to pass some time in a stressful year. It is, after all, a musical comedy on network television during which people spontaneously burst into song.
But throughout the show’s first season, it combined those comedic outbursts with deeper looks at more substantial topics, like identity, illness, grief, and death.
All of that came together in the finale. The first half of the episode contains workplace hijinks and performances of songs written by artists such as John Legend and Nick Jonas. But the second half (spoiler alert) is completely different tonally, as it follows the death of Zoey’s (Jane Levy) father, Mitch (Peter Gallagher), from complications caused by progressive supranuclear palsy.
I sobbed the first time I listened to Gallagher sing Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” with his onscreen son and pregnant daughter-in-law. I cried for his son’s unborn child and my own, both of whom won’t meet their grandfathers.
But it was the final scene, Mitch’s wake, shot in a single take as the entire cast sings Don McLean’s “American Pie,” that made the episode so great. The scene is ethereal and poignant and what Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist does best: using music to express exactly what needs to be said. —John Templon