Friday, December 16, 2016

Best TV Episodes of 2016

I didn't feel like writing a big intro of any kind to this year's list, both because I've been busy with work and just because, well . . . 2016. You get it.

Anyhow, different year, same old rules. Two episodes are allowed per show (because otherwise I'd probably just list five each from Steven Universe, BoJack, The Americans and Rectify), and in general I try to keep it to one for the majority of them, simply because that allows for more variety.

As always, here's my way-too-extensive list of all the other episodes I thought were amazing this year.

Adventure Time, "Crossover," "Lady Rainicorn of the Crystal Dimension," "I Am a Sword," "Bun Bun," "Normal Man"
Atlanta, "Value," "The Club," "Juneteenth"
The Americans, "Pastor Tim," "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow," "Chloramphenicol," "Clark's Place," "The Rat," "Travel Agents," "Munchkins," "Dinner for Seven"
Archer, "The Handoff," "Double Indecency"
Better Call Saul, "Cobbler," "Rebecca," "Bali Ha'i," "Inflatable," "Fifi, "Klick"
Black Mirror, "Hated in the Nation"
Bob's Burgers, "The Cook, the Steve, the Gayle, & Her Lover," "The Gene and Courtney Show," "Glued: Where's My Bob?" "Flu-ouise," "Sea Me Now," "The Quirkducers," "The Last Gingerbread House on the Left"
BoJack Horseman, "The BoJack Horseman Show," "Love And/Or Marriage," "Stop the Presses," "Best Thing That Ever Happened," "That's Too Much, Man!"
Broad City, "Two Chainz"
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "Cheddar," "Bureau"
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, "Josh is Going to Hawaii!" Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!" "Josh's Sister is Getting Married!" "Where is Josh's Friend?" "When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?"
Easy, "Vegan Cinderella"
Faking It, "Karmygeddon"
The Good Place, "The Eternal Shriek"
Halt and Catch Fire, "Flipping the Switch," "Yerba Buena," "And She Was," "The Threshold," "NIM," "NeXT"
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Frank Falls Out the Window," "Mac & Dennis Move to the Suburbs," "McPoyle vs. Ponderosa: The Trial of the Century"
iZombie, "Physician, Heal Thy Selfie," "He Blinded Me... with Science," "Reflections of the Way Liv Used to Be," "Dead Beat"
Jane the Virgin, Chapter Thirty-Three," "Chapter Thirty-Four, "Chapter Thirty-Six," "Chapter Thirty-Eight," "Chapter Forty-Three"
My Mad Fat Diary, "Big Wide World," "Touched," "Don't Ever Tell Anyone Anything," "It's a Wonderful Rae" (Parts One and Two), "Alarm," "Friday"
Person of Interest, "SNAFU," "6,471," ".exe"
Rectify, "A House Divided," "Yolk," "Physics"
Steven Universe, "Message Received," "Log Date 7 15 2," "Same Old World," "Barn Mates," "Alone at Sea," "Crack the Whip," "Steven vs. Amethyst," "Beta," "Earthlings, "Bubbled," "Kindergarten Kid," "Last One Out of Beach City"
Sweet/Vicious, "All Eyez on Me"
You're the Worst, "Twenty-Two," "The Last Sunday Funday," "The Only Thing That Helps," "The Seventh Layer," "The Inherit, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything," "You Knew It Was a Snake"

20. The Good Place, "Most Improved Player"
19. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "Halloween IV"
18. Fleabag, "Episode 4" (Note: I despised this show, but this episode was a triumph.)
17. My Mad Fat Diary, "Ladies and Gentlemen"
16. Rectify, "Pineapples in Paris"
15. BoJack Horseman, "Fish Out of Water"
14. Halt and Catch Fire, "You Are Not Safe"
13. Better Call Saul, "Nailed"
12. Person of Interest, "return 0"
11. The Americans, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears"

Some major spoilers ahead!

10. Adventure Time, "Broke His Crown"

After its magical run from the middle of season three to mid-season five, Adventure Time has been seemingly running away from its strengths for the better part of the last couple of years. Sometimes that's allowed it to discover brand-new strengths (the Finn/Martin material was exemplary), but it was hard not to be irritated with how much season six, in particular, sidelined a number of the show's best recurring characters. Season seven was largely a superb course correction in that regard, and in "Broke His Crown" it gave us an instant classic episode—one that combines so many of the show's best long-running elements, story arcs, and character banter into a funny, moving 11-minute package. It's first of all a great Simon and Betty episode, in which the two tragic lovers are finally allowed to discover some measure of happiness inside the crown that has robbed the former of his sanity. And it's also a great Marceline and Bubblegum episode, showcasing plenty of their snappy, flirtatious back-and-forth repartee. The beauty of Adventure Time's expansiveness is that people can gravitate toward so many different things, but for me, these four characters have consistently been its heart and soul. Is it any wonder that an episode featuring all of them—let alone one that's this stacked with great one-liners and moving moments—would end up being the show's best in years?

9. Person of Interest, "The Day the World Went Away"

In probably its most riveting hour (sorry, "If-Then-Else"), Person of Interest said goodbye to two longtime favorites, jump-starting a riveting endgame that would carry us through to the almost-as-fantastic "return 0." No offense to Elias, whose exit is well handled in its own right, but the episode is ultimately a flawless tribute to the tangible presence of Amy Acker's Root right before she steers herself into harm's way in order to protect Harold. It's a devastating episode in some respects, particularly as it gifts us with a number of scenes of Root's sheer awesomeness—from her byplay with Shaw to her steering a car with her foot—before brutally pulling the rug out from under us. Yet, the episode softens the blow by also reminding us of exactly who Root was—someone who believed in The Machine's capability for true consciousness. In her last scene with Shaw, she refers to the possibility that they're both merely information in a system, raising the possibility of a sort-of technological reincarnation. "The Day the World Went Away" then delivers on this promise with the revelation that The Machine has adopted not just her voice, but also her manner of speaking and interacting with people. Is it Root? Not completely (99.6 percent, as we find out in the following episode), and so it's undoubtedly still bittersweet. But it means the show's best character endures, in a way her previous human-bodied form would see as proof that everything she's been fighting for is worthwhile.

8. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Charlie Catches a Leprechaun"

The title kind of says it all. On second thought . . . no, it doesn't. This is It's Always Sunny, after all, which means things are likely to get way more twisted than even one of the show's most outrageous titles ever would suggest. And indeed, "Charlie Catches a Leprechaun" is Sunny at its absolute zenith in that regard, featuring a pair of plots that would both feel like mini-horror movies if they weren't so darn funny. Charlie gets high on paint in front of a horrified Mac and traps a little person he believes to be a leprechaun, fully intending to give him the full Reservoir Dogs treatment. Meanwhile, Dennis comes up with a new scheme to bring the Patty's Pub experience to to the people courtesy of a van, enlisting the rest of the Gang in an ill-advised endeavor that quickly turns into repeated acts of kidnapping, among many other things. Such a summary doesn't do an episode like this justice, of course, because Sunny lives in the way it packs its best installments with jokes no other show would dare go for—though it's typically careful to ensure the joke is ultimately on its morally bankrupt protagonists—and a sense of comic anarchy that's still thrilling even over a decade into its run. This episode has all that in spades, and it may well be the show's single funniest episode.

7. Steven Universe, "Mr. Greg"

So, first things first: Steven Universe gave Pearl a musical number that feels like some sort of great lost Sondheim song, both in terms of its raw emotional power and its graceful, unexpected turns of phrase. That's the biggest takeaway from "Mr. Greg," and it's the scene that primarily earns the episode a spot this high. It's both the greatest song and the greatest Pearl moment in the history of the show, which is high praise on both counts. But let's not sell the rest of this musical showcase short. It builds to that moment wonderfully, setting it up with Steven's seemingly off-the-cuff insistence that Pearl join Greg and him in Empire City and a terrific, upbeat song-and-dance sequence that's cut short when Pearl backs away from Greg in horror. Then it's time for the stunner—two and a half minutes of breathtaking animated and sonic beauty, speaking to everything we've come to learn about this character and her struggle to leave her past, forever unrequited love for Rose Quartz behind. "Why can't I move on?" she asks in the song, in a moment that—especially factoring in the later events of "Last One Out of Beach City"—feels like an important epiphany for her. Most likely Pearl will never be fully over this, but with the help of Steven and his equally tear-jerking final number, she's able to finally carry on an honest conversation with Greg after years of doing her best to ignore him and what he represents. If that's not progress, I don't know what is.

6. Rectify, "All I'm Sayin'"

Midway through "All I'm Sayin'," Daniel delivers a small speech—in the traditionally brilliant Aden Young style, where he gives every word a sense of carefully-chosen weight—in which he talks about how he's fought for himself, even in spite of not fully grasping why. I've never really thought of Rectify as a show about fighting, but when you stop and think about it for a second, this is on some level what the story of the Holdens and Talbots boils down to—fighting like hell to carve out some sort of peace in the present (and hope for the coming days) in a world that seems almost hopelessly cruel, unjust, and indifferent at every turn. Along those same lines, one of the other key acknowledgments in this wonderful finale comes when Amantha says to Jon that "nothing will rectify" what's been done to her brother and her family. This is the kind of clever little name-drop in a series finale that could come off as a little too cute, were it not delivered with the utmost sincerity, and were the sentiment behind the words not so powerfully echoed in almost every moment—the heartbreaking and the joyous alike—of these four seasons. Indeed, nothing ever will fix what's been done. All you can do, the show implies, is make that awareness a part of you and keep fighting for a future that may or may not ever come. That's a far cry from the simplistic message of triumph too many stories of struggle try to sell you, but it's about eight hundred times more true. And as a conclusion for one of the best TV dramas of all time, it's hard to imagine a more fitting one than each of these finely-drawn characters arriving at that truth.

5. The Americans, "A Roy Rogers in Franconia"

The Americans is telling so many amazing stories right now, but none are more amazing—or more emotionally complicated—than that of Paige Jennings and her relationship with her parents. Airing a week prior to a finale that mostly felt (in a good way) like a prologue for season five, "A Roy Rogers in Franconia" could be seen as the more traditional final dramatic crescendo expected as the season draws to a close. Following the burst of frightening action at the close of "Dinner for Seven," The Americans once again proves that, despite its command of said action, it is consistently at its best when it's functioning as a series of fraught conversations laced with subtext. In the case of Paige, what's made this so riveting is watching her learn to see through the various nonverbal cues her parents are sending out, picking up on the fact that they're always holding something back. It's what made "Stingers" such a gripping episode, and it's what drives the action in this episode to another moment of sudden revelation that's simultaneously thrilling as storytelling and horrifying in every other way. "Great," Paige says, after her parents, worn down by her refusal to simply accept the tales they've told her, explain that part of their job involves gathering information for weapons. It's an all-time classic line reading by Holly Taylor—bemused, angry, and about a dozen other emotions boiling beneath the surface of just a single word. Given how poorly her parents are able to express themselves verbally, Paige's terse response to their latest distressing news may be the most eloquent summation of how deeply their problems are already weighing on her psyche.

4. Steven Universe, "The Answer"

After all my rhapsodizing about Pearl, it might come as a surprise that my favorite episode of Steven Universe is one that features her only in a cameo appearance (in flashback, no less). But "The Answer" is simply that good—giving one of the best love stories on TV an episode filled with dazzling animated beauty and positively aglow with romanticism. And while Pearl's big turn in "Mr. Greg" may be the show's greatest musical composition, the song we get here—"Something Entirely New"—is also a top-five Steven musical moment that perfectly captures the hesitation Ruby and Sapphire express as they navigate the newfound feelings they're experiencing. This is an episode of TV that's just meant to leave you completely happy, which might make it sound a tad too insubstantial to be ranked this high. But beyond the obvious importance (perhaps now more than ever) such a message sends to any queer kids watching, the episode is an utter feast for the eyes and ears that captures a specific falling-in-love vibe with incredible beauty. Emotional weight doesn't always have to come from pain or turmoil. Sometimes it can come from bliss.

3. My Mad Fat Diary, "Not I"

Note: Not technically a 2016 episode, as certain Brits I know may remind me. But I elected to count it, mostly because I love it and wanted to write something about it. So y'all can just deal. :)

The obvious point of reference for "Not I" would seem to be Enlightened's marvelous trio of perspective-shifting episodes, in which the show took time away from its central character to focus on one of its many superb supporting players. It's accurate to a certain degree; this episode in some ways does for Chloe what "The Ghost is Seen" did for Tyler or "Consider Helen" did for Helen, granting us access to her diary instead of Rae's and revealing layers to the character that had only been glimpsed before. (Full disclosure: She's my favorite My Mad Fat Diary character, so there might be some bias here.) But "Not I" actually surpasses those Enlightened episodes—no easy feat—for a few reasons. Most notably, keeping Rae in the picture as it revisits certain key scenes from Chloe's perspective allows the episode to explore our tendency to paint ourselves in the best possible light, even when simply conversing with ourselves. There's a wonderful ambiguity to many of the scenes—who is telling the truth about that night in "Ladies and Gentlemen" when Chloe left Rae? Both versions feel plausible, given what we know about the characters. Of course, in the end it doesn't really matter. We'll never know. What we do get, however, is an even fuller portrait of one of the most beautifully drawn friendships in television history, as well as a genuinely insightful hour of TV that dares us to question the pitfalls of our own self-filtered perspectives.

2. BoJack Horseman, "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew"

For most of the shows that have depicted abortion over the years, the great concern has always been with affirming it as both a right—one that's infuriatingly about to come under even greater attack in the coming years than it already has—and a necessity. The question of the right to feel however one wishes to has rarely come up—that is, until "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew," BoJack Horseman's fearless, hysterical take on the subject this past summer. I've already written quite a bit about this episode, so I'm not going to go on about it at length again here. But suffice to say, it's an achievement that nails so many different things that have frustrated me about some of the well-intentioned portrayals on other shows—chief among them the idea that there's only one correct way to react to having an abortion. It's unapologetic. It's intelligent. It's incredibly funny. And really, its sole misfortune is existing in the same year as . . .

1. Black Mirror, "San Junipero"

I've also written a fair amount about this episode—an absolutely gorgeous piece of work that functions beautifully as a less-soul-crushing companion piece to Black Mirror's equally masterful "Be Right Back." They're quite possibly my two favorite works of televised art to air this decade, with each using its respective technological lens to examine human emotions and the nature of consciousness in an astoundingly powerful manner. Most of the reasons I love "San Junipero" so much—its extraordinary eloquence of construction, its captivating central romance, and its depth of thematic commentary on the joys and sorrows of existence—can be found in that piece. But I'd be remiss not to mention how it's also an episode that rewards rewatch in numerous ways—from the care and subtle detail of the world-building to the beauty of its intoxicating visual palette. (And of course, some of the best, most perfectly-placed music cues to be found anywhere.) I just want to watch it again and again, drinking in every detail and discovering new things to love. A Black Mirror episode that can function as a temporary balm in this messed-up world is a bizarre thing, but for my money it's also a beautiful one.

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