The Memorable TV Episodes of 2017
Posted December 19, 2017 8:02 p.m. EST
BestTV has never been broader, more varied or more accessible. Some import shows clock in at six scanty installments; some network shows pump out more than 20 episodes a season. Some shows air weekly, some drop at all once, some play batches twice a year, some disappear for what seems like forever only to return with new episodes when one least expects.
It’s a wild ride being a TV fan in 2017. Here, then, a look at some of the most spectacular single episodes of the year. These are presented alphabetically by show and with a slight preference for shows that did not otherwise make our critics’ top-10 lists. (We’re trying to share the wealth.)
‘American Vandal’ (Netflix)
Best episode: ‘A Limp Alibi’
This true-crime mockumentary, about a high-school student accused of spray-panting penises on cars, is easily the smartest dumb show in living memory. Its second episode focused on the integrity of the case’s only eyewitness, the slimy Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), and his dubious claims about summer romances. Essential evidence: A text from a girl that says “heyy,” with two Ys.
‘BoJack Horseman’ (Netflix)
Best episode: ‘Ruthie’
Princess Carolyn: “You know what I do when I have a really bad, awful, terrible day? I imagine my great-great-great-granddaughter in the future talking to her class about me. She’s poised and funny and tells people about me and how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that? I think about how everything’s going to work out. Because how else could she tell people?”
BoJack: “But it’s fake.”
Princess Carolyn: “Yeah, well, it makes me feel better.”
‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ (Hulu)
Best episode: ‘Moo Moo’
Is idealistic, goofy comedy the best format for exploring systemic racism in policing? And how policing can put black officers in particularly challenging circumstances, both professionally and psychologically? Actually, yeah. When Terry (Terry Crews) is harassed while he is off-duty by a white cop, he struggles with whether to report the incident and gets some conflicting advice. But, you know ... funny.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Hulu)
Best episode: ‘Offred’
The show lost some juice as the season wore on, but the first episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a largely faithful adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, was gripping and absolute, a fully formed aesthetic specimen whose horror-parade of the poisons of misogyny could not have seemed more timely. The red cloaks and anonymizing bonnets became instant icons, but Elisabeth Moss’ quivering performance and haunting narration made the episode a story and not just a symbol.
Best episode: Season 34, Episode 16
Watching Austin Rogers dominate on “Jeopardy!” for 12 games was a dorky joy. During this game in particular, he absolutely smoked, winning $65,000 — including a baller $15,700 Daily Double wager. (What is glockenspiel?)
‘Last Chance U’ (Netflix)
Best episode: ‘Ain’t It a Sin’
This documentary series, about a community-college football team, lives comfortably amid conflict: the conflicts between coach and players, between the future and the present — racist conflict, the conflicts of hypocrisy. The fourth episode of Season 2 centers on players’ and coaches’ professed Christian faith, and it includes one player’s being baptized. It’s a beautiful episode, and one that captures both the alluring promise and the seeming impossibility of true redemption.
‘One Mississippi’ (Amazon)
Best episode: ‘I’m Alive’
Tig Notaro’s disarming, quietly steady frankness is the backbone of “One Mississippi,” the show she created and stars in that is inspired by her own life. The show has always spoken openly about surviving childhood sex abuse, and this Season 2 finale includes a beautiful, devastating monologue. But it doesn’t only include that, it also includes three quite charming love stories, each a testament to the fact that no one has to be doomed by the pain of the past.
Note: I left out episodes from any series that I had on my top-ten list, for variety’s sake. So no “Twin Peaks: The Return” Episode 8 or episodes of “The Leftovers.”
‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)
Best episode: ‘The Spoils of War’
When Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons and Dothraki crushed the despised Lannister army, it was not surprising that the producers and special-effects pyromancers of “Game of Thrones” made the long-awaited event spectacular. The real accomplishment was that they also made it horrible: an asymmetrical, merciless, apocalyptic rout. The short seventh season often seemed preoccupied with gratifying fans’ wishes, but its finest moment came from having the audience confront the ghastly results of getting what it wished for.
Best episode: ‘American Bitch’
When it aired a million years ago, which is to say last spring, a story that built to a renowned writer (Matthew Rhys) taking out his penis in front of a young admirer (Lena Dunham) was the stuff of a daring TV half-hour, rather than the daily news. But this self-contained episode in the final “Girls” season is valuable for much more than its prescient topicality: It remains a nuanced exploration of the power dynamics between a powerful man and a young woman, and of the use of art as an alibi.
‘I Love Dick’ (Amazon)
Best episode: ‘A Short History of Weird Girls’
The fifth episode of this art-world romantic triangle is itself a mesmerizing work of video art, built around a series of monologues in which the series’ female characters describe their childhood sexual awakenings. The director Jill Soloway’s use of light effects accents the idea of eros as a luminous force. It reconceives the usual presentation of sex on TV from something you do into something you are.
‘Master of None’ (Netflix)
Best episode: ‘Thanksgiving’ Aziz Ansari’s series is passionate about identity and about food, so it’s fitting that it would tell a richly human story about a holiday when the two come together. Lena Waithe wrote this episode with Ansari, in which her character, Denise, comes into consciousness as a gay woman over decades. It’s partly a coming-out story, involving Denise’s difficult opening up to her mother (Angela Bassett). But it’s also a being-out story, continuing forward to the present, when Denise is able to comfortably be herself with her relatives. You can only really come home, the episode says, when you can bring all of yourself.
‘Nathan for You’ (Comedy Central)
Best episode: ‘Finding Frances’
In a typical episode of “Nathan for You,” Nathan Fielder shows up to help a company execute an outlandish business scheme. This feature-length season finale involves a different enterprise, as Fielder helps an elderly collaborator from a past episode track down his childhood crush. The elaborate chase — which involves hiring an actor and staging a fake high-school reunion — calls into question whether the man’s quest is romantic or disturbing, and it’s not entirely clear what’s authentic and what’s performance. But it resolves into a sweet, profound reflection on the way love itself may be a performance and on our willingness to believe in it anyway.
‘Room 104’ (HBO)
Best episode: ‘Voyeurs’
The conceit of Mark and Jay Duplass’ anthology series is that a motel room, the setting for its stories, can be anything — including, in this remarkable half-hour, the stage for a dance. The episode’s director, writer and choreographer, Dayna Hanson, tells a story entirely through movement: An older female housekeeper and a young woman guest weave around the space, the cleaner picking up the residue of the young woman’s stay, until they end up in the bed next to each other, revealing that the maid is the young woman grown older. It’s a striking use of visual storytelling to show how time can render us strangers to ourselves.
‘This Is Us’ (Hulu)
Best episode: ‘Memphis’
TV series often get special attention for killing off characters. But “Memphis” wasn’t a death episode so much as it was a life episode. As Randall (Sterling K. Brown) took his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), on one last road trip, the episode artfully intercut present and past, tracing William’s time on earth from his first moments in his mother’s arms to his last moments with Randall cradling his head. Here, the time-jumping narrative of “This Is Us” added up to a larger point: that events in your life don’t just follow one on the other, they collect and add up to a whole.
Best episode: ‘Minty’
This too-short-lived drama stood apart from past TV treatments of slavery by casting the struggle for freedom as a fast-paced action story. This remarkable episode broke the series’s own form by giving Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) the entire hour to recast that struggle as a war. Hinds’s steely, sonorous monologue traced her character’s journey from being a slave girl, who once rebelled by stealing a sugar cube, to becoming an abolitionist general, unwilling to sacrifice equality for peace.
Best episode: Season 3, Episode 1
The signature of this British mystery was the pointed, often cynical banter between the detectives played (perfectly) by Olivia Colman and David Tennant. For the final season premiere, the show did something very different. The episode began with a slow, hushed, 14-minute scene of a woman’s being examined and questioned at a sexual-assault center. It was detailed and devastating, and delicate rather than grim. When the victim, beautifully portrayed by Julie Hesmondhalgh, asked, “Do you believe me?” we held our breath along with her until Tennant’s Alec Hardy replied, simply, “Yes.”
‘Bob’s Burgers’ (Hulu)
Best episode: ‘The Bleakening’
In the spirit of the holiday season, here’s an hourlong musical Christmas episode from television’s best animated-family comedy. Linda Belcher (John Roberts), with her great comic combination of dizziness, touchiness and extreme generosity, investigates the theft of her Christmas tree while her children, fearing their presents will be stolen, set off to find the mythical, antlered holiday beast, the Bleaken. Everything converges at a Christmas rave where the entertainment is provided by a drag queen named Cleavage the Beaver. The frightening mood of today’s America hangs lightly in the background, but no actual people or events are mentioned, although a woman suspected of being a tree thief is referred to as Miss Grabbypuss.
Bestepisode: ‘Hella Perspective’
Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore’s Los Angeles-set comedy is sweet, melancholy and completely real. It’s also hilarious, though Rae doesn’t write jokes — she just has her vivid, spiky characters say really funny things. In the Season 2 finale (directed by Melina Matsoukas) Rae is completely in command of her collagelike style, rerunning events from multiple points of view, using juxtaposition rather than exposition to locate us in the story and making seamless, surprising use of her main character’s fantasies to show us what life could be like if she were an easier, more adaptable, more forgiving person. Which, we hope, she’ll never be.
Best episode: ‘Chapter 4’
The first eight episodes of this Marvel comic-book adaptation, created by Noah Hawley (“Fargo”), were a season-long origin story told in a fragmented, puzzle-box style that mirrored the shattered psyche of its hero, the mild-mannered but monstrously powerful mutant telepath, David Haller (Dan Stevens). The pilot was a flashy tour de force, but this midseason episode (written by Nathaniel Halpern and directed by Larysa Kondracki) is both more complex and more straightforward, as the secrets of David’s past and his abilities begin to slide into view. Jumping between the material world, various characters’ memories and the astral plane David creates — where other people can find themselves trapped, or dead — it’s a joy ride. Bonus: Jemaine Clement in a deep-sea diving suit.