As we all prepare for a presidential administration run by a man who brags about being "like, a smart person," there have been a lot of things I've found enraging. One of those things is hearing people say something along the lines of, "Well, at least living under an oppressive autocratic regime will be good for art." This annoys me on many levels, the most profound of which is probably that good art is not a worthy trade-off for the systematic denial of civil rights. But another way in which this annoys me is that it is simply untrue; there is no exact correlation between living under a tyrant and artistic fertility. And besides, many art forms are currently flourishing in America already. It has, for example, been an amazing year for books, and, likewise, it has also been an incredible time for television. (Side note: Is there anything that can't be connected to this dystopic reality within which we all now live? No. No, there isn't.)
That we are—and have been—living in a golden age of television is old news at this point. For well over a decade now, television has been a place of innovative storytelling; it is often unexpectedly experimental in its form, while never being less than incredibly accessible. There is no greater cultural flashpoint than TV; it's what drives conversations online and in real life. Perhaps it's the inherently intimate nature of TV that makes it so powerful; this is art consumed in our own homes, after all; these are the things we watch in bed, late at night; these are the things that stay with us, long after the lights are out and all we're left with are our thoughts.
Here, then, in no particular order, are the 12 episodes that we're most happy we let into our homes this year, and that will stay with us, we're sure, for years to come.
High Maintenance, “Grandpa”
We've long been fans of High Maintenance; ever since we first caught its brief web episodes, we were in thrall with the vignettes of New York City life which creators, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, so perfectly captured. Theoretically, the show's transfer to a half-hour format on HBO could have compromised the show's intrinsic charm, which is premised on the kind of brief yet meaningful interactions residents of the country's most populous city have with one another all the time. Instead, though, Sinclair and Blichfeld were able to soar thanks to their new home, offering extended looks into the complicated, hilarious, quietly tragic, beautifully hopeful lives of numerous New Yorkers. And while many episodes this season were remarkable, "Grandpa," stood out from the rest; it takes place completely from the perspective of a dog, Gatsby, who has relocated with his schlubby owner from Indiana to New York City. Once in New York, Gatsby falls hard for his new dog walker, and we get to see inside the mind of a dog in love. Which, you know, is pretty trippy. It involves slow-motion water fountain drinking and interpretative dance and it's all very beautiful and psychedelic and, well, watch the episode for yourself. This canine-human romance ends in heartbreak, naturally, but that's okay; it definitely doesn't end as tragically as any other fictional romance involving someone named Gatsby, so it's not all that sad, just bittersweet, like most love and much of life are anyway.
Westworld, “Bicameral Mind”
We wrote pretty extensively about the Westworld season finale already, but it bears repeating that this is episode is one of the most powerful hours (well hour-and-a-halfs... it's long!) of television of the year. Westworld had an explosive first season in general, but its climax took the show to another level not simply because it built on what had been happening for the previous nine episodes, but because it dismantled much of what viewers thought they knew. Rather than participate in the classic narrative (both of Westerns and most Hollywood fare), wherein women are rescued in one way or another by men, Westworld's season finale blew up this well-trod story line and the women rescued themselves from the men—including those who were trying to be their heroes. Whether or not this will ultimately be successful (taking down the patriarchy is hard work, even if you are an incredibly high-functioning robot) remains to be seen. But let's just say this makes us more ready than ever for season two to start.
Game of Thrones, “The Winds of Winter”
There were plenty of amazing moments in Game of Thrones' sixth season, which was the first full season to trod ground completely apart from the books' story line. Potentially, this could have led GoT off the rails, but what happened instead was that the narrative got tighter than ever and moved at a speed that was fast-paced enough to keep the viewer constantly on edge, and yet never felt like it was skimming the surface of any one of the (at this point) seemingly infinite characters' lives. And while there were several stunning episodes (it's hard to even think of the words "hold the door" without tearing up), it was the season finale, with its epic, apocalyptic opening which stands alone. The complete devastation which Cersei has wrought upon her enemies and loved ones (well, really, just loved one... bye, Tommen) alike was breathtaking, but just as stunning—in an entirely different, life-affirming way—was the episode's climax, in which we see Daenerys and her allies—and her motherfucking dragons—sailing across the sea toward Westeros, toward Cersei, and toward winter, which has, well, come.
Black Mirror, "San Junipero"
There's an inevitability that accompanies watching an episode of Black Mirror, namely, that eventually, you're going to feel really bad about the world and humanity and probably yourself and everyone you know. It's not dissimilar from going on Twitter these days, come to think of it. No matter, though, because these jaunts into dystopia are why we watch Black Mirror, really; sometimes it's important to see the worst of society so that you can work to prevent it from happening. But then also, it can fill a viewer with a sense of real despair, which isn't the greatest of feelings. All of which is to say, the fact that "San Junipero" is a full-on departure from Black Mirror's usual soul-sucking narrative, and actually gives viewers a sense of hope about the future and a vision of people who are imbued with actual humanity and love and empathy makes it one of the most remarkable episodes of television this year.
BoJack Horseman, “Fish Out of Water”
Watching BoJack Horseman is an inherently bizarre and surreal experience; it exists in a world in which humans and animals are all sentient beings who communicate with one another naturally with few acknowledgments about their specious differences. Utopic as that potentially sounds, BoJack is anything but an idealized world; rather it is a world in which the idealists, like the eternally peppy Golden Lab (of course), Mr. Peanutbutter, are understood as being out of touch and, well, stupid. (Although even Mr. Peanutbutter has a dark side and an awareness of the "uncaring void" which is the universe.) In short, BoJack is about accepting the fact that no matter how beautiful and amazing the world can sometimes seem, and how well it can treat some of its transitory residents, it's still an awful place devoid of meaning. And then you die. But so! Even knowing all that, this episode of BoJack, which takes place almost entirely underwater, and thus is devoid of dialogue (because even anthropomorphic animals can't speak underwater) is a bizarre and surreal masterpiece which subverts BoJack's usual cynicism and world-weariness with a sense of wonder and awe. It is still never less than profoundly sad, but it is also infused with beauty and even, at times, a sense of hope. Plus, there's a male seahorse who gives birth. Which, you know, if that isn't a sort of utopia, then we don't know what is.
Girls, “The Panic in Central Park”
While it's true that Girls has shed some of the cultural urgency that it possessed in its first two seasons, we appreciate the quiet beauty evident in several of the episodes in its fifth season. There was the plaintively beautiful scene in "Hello Kitty" in which Hannah watches Jessa watch Adam with the type of pure adoration that only stems from deeply rooted feelings; there was the overhead shot of Adam and Jessa, following a knockdown, drag-out fight, lying amidst the chaos they've created, unsure of whether to move forward or backward; and there was this episode, in which eternal good girl, unhappily married Marnie departs from the path which she so carefully laid for herself and goes on a spontaneous adventure with a prior love. The stand-alone capsule episodes of Girls, in which only one of the four main characters is primarily seen on-screen, number among the show's strongest, and this is no exception. Marnie is an oft-reviled character, thanks to her lack of empathy for, oh, just about anyone else she's ever met, but this episode reveals a different side of her, one which is unsure of how to move forward when all she wants to do is fall back into an idealized past that has turned out to be nothing more than an illusion. It is in this episode that Marnie realizes she must shatter not just her illusions, but the painstakingly crafted life she has created for herself, a prison of her own making. Whether or not Marnie will be successful in doing so or in truly moving forward is still an open-ended question, but "The Panic in Needle Park" demonstrates who Marnie is beneath the surface—a fragile, wounded, but ultimately resilient young woman—in a way that had not been apparent before.
Easily one of the most talked about new shows of the year, Donald Glover's Atlanta works on several different levels including as incisive social satire and broad cultural commentary. No episode better exemplifies this than "Juneteenth," in which Glover's Earn accompanies his former girlfriend Van to a party hosted by Atlanta's haute bourgeoisie in the form of Monique, who is black, and her husband, Craig, who is the kind of white man who would most definitely (and frequently) describe himself as being woke. (Craig, um, once pledged a black fraternity.) Watching Earn and Van navigate this party and social set is like watching a master class in code-switching as they try and say and be who Monique and her ilk want (this is all so Van can get a new job) them to be. It all falls apart, of course, but it does so in a way which perfectly demonstrates how difficult it can be to simply exist in a world which has seemingly infinite preconceived notions about who you are and what you're supposed to be and want to be, all premised on the color of your skin.
The Americans, “The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears”
Is there a better time to be watching a show all about Russian espionage within the United States? We have to say, no. There is no better time. But such a topic could be handled terribly, which is why we're so lucky to have a show like The Americans to watch and creep us the fuck out about what all is happening in the world of geopolitics. All of The Americans fourth season was exemplary (don't even say the word "glanders" around us, because we immediately start thinking we have a fever), but this episode is noteworthy because of the way in which the show admirably pulls off a potentially tricky time jump, in which the action moves forward by seven months, giving The Americans a de facto reboot. The episode deals mostly with issues of control and maintaining, if not power, at least the illusion of it; these qualities are clearly a key part of being an international undercover spy, but they're also a key dynamic in relationships—romantic, familial, and professional. In fact, what this episode reveals—and is reflected by its illusion-referencing title—is just how fragile our version of reality is and how subject to manipulation by external forces. It's a powerful message delivered by masterful acting and directing, and, well, we've never been so unsettled by watching people play mini golf as we have after watching this.
Transparent, “If I Were a Bell”
Although our personal favorite moment of Transparent's season three came at the very end, when Judith Light's Shelly Pfefferman sang Alanis Morissette's "One Hand in My Pocket" on a cruise ship, it's this episode which truly stands out as one of the show's—and the year's—best. In it, we're taken back to the childhoods of both Shelly and Maura (then Mort) and allowed to see what the effect is of sublimating who a person really is in order to maintain a veneer of social respectability. In young Mort's case, this leads to lashing out in anger at his sister and adopting a type of posturing that allows him to be defensive by being on the offense. For Shelly, the sexual abuse she suffered and her refusal to talk about it because "it's not the Holocaust" is all part of the reason why she grew up into the kind of woman who would choose to ignore the painful, damaging things she and those around her experienced. Transparent constantly comments on the ways in which our past doesn't just inform our present but is actually indistinguishable from our present, and this episode is the best example of this that the series has presented yet.
Stranger Things, “The Vanishing of Will Byers”
Okay, so we don't necessarily think this is one of the best episodes of television this year in a critical sense; there are many better shows on television than Stranger Things. But we do think that the way this premiere became a cultural flashpoint and seemed to draw in literally every single person we know into its web is truly notable. Plus, it gave us the resurgence of Winona Ryder. And it gave us Barb, and all the memes that followed. RIP, Barb. RIP.
People v. O.J. Simpson, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Like just about everybody else, we were totally obsessed with this sometimes campy, always compelling retelling of the trial that rocked the '90s. At only 10 episodes long, we can't recommend highly enough that you watch the whole thing, but even if you come for the Kardashian references, what you should stay for is the profound look at the racial and gender dynamics which influenced the way O.J was tried in both the court of public opinion and, you know, the actual court. This episode highlights the incredibly sexist treatment of lead prosecutor, Marcia Clark, who was reviled in the press and mocked for her hairstyle and skirt length; Sarah Paulson justly won the Emmy earlier this year for her remarkable and brave performance, which never seeks to do anything but humanize Clark and portray her as a woman with flaws, yes, but one whose intelligence and perseverance were never celebrated since it was so much more fun to talk about her ur-'90s beauty looks.
Saturday Night Live, hosted by Dave Chappelle
This show came on the heels of the world-shattering presidential election, and while we're not the type of people to think that scripted television can be a balm for real-life events, we're also the type of people who couldn't wait to hear what Dave Chappelle had to say about the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump. Chappelle didn't disappoint (the fact that the musical guest was A Tribe Called Quest also helped secure this as one of the year's best episodes), and while the cold opener featuring Kate McKinnon dressed as Hillary Clinton and singing the just-deceased Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" brought up lots of often conflicting feelings, the episode, on the whole, proved the power that television has to comment on the world events that are unfolding in real time.
While this is definitely not an episode of anything, and is rather a mere few minutes of Tom Hanks being the best Halloween mascot ever (any questions?), it is undoubtedly one of 2016 television's highlights, one that takes us all back to a simpler time, before the disaster that was the presidential election, when it was possible to just sit back and enjoy a sublimely silly sketch that only the most devoid of joy among us can't appreciate. In other words, Donald Trump probably hates this. So that just makes us love it more.