Every passing year brings more and more television, making year-end lists like this one increasingly difficult to compile. But the bright side of the Peak TV onslaught is that there’s more TV to love than ever.
And as too many shows indulge in long, drawn-out installments that don’t differentiate themselves enough from one another, 2017 brought with it a welcome return to the episode, to the singular standout installment that twists a story in a new direction, or pauses the action to check in on something important. Great episodes were everywhere, even in some of the year’s most serialized shows, like Twin Peaks.
In that spirit, we’ve put together a list of our top 35 episodes of the year — the individual chapters that wowed us the most with their daring, their thoughtfulness, their ingenuity, and their sheer excellence.
They represent the best that TV had to offer in 2017, and feature everything from sweeping romantic gestures to horrifying twists to animated tweens trying to outrun literal puberty monsters. Some you may have already seen; others, probably not.
But trust us: They’re all well worth your time.
35) Review: "Cryogenics; Lightning; Last Review"
The final season of Review ended just as it was picking up steam — though perhaps that was inevitable, considering it was only three episodes long. This ingenious series finale gained strength from how suddenly it capped off the brilliant, devastating comedy — especially since it wasn’t revealed to be the series finale until after it aired. The episode ensured that Review ended in out-of-nowhere, glorious uncertainty, a stunning commentary on what we want out of television and ourselves.
34) Outlander: “A. Malcolm”
If there’s one thing Outlander knows how to deliver, time and again, it’s a steamy sex scene. And if the show has a secret weapon in its arsenal beyond the chemistry between its two stars, it’s the understanding that connection is just as important to intimacy as looking great naked. “A. Malcolm,” which reunites the show’s central lovers after decades apart, showcases this by preceding its passionate lovemaking with lots and lots of (involving) conversation.
33) GLOW: “Money’s in the Chase”
Much like its spandex-clad stars, Netflix’s wrestling comedy tackled its first season with equal parts determination and spunk. But no episode best sells GLOW’s strengths than its season finale, in which all of the show’s the cast members — led by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin — throw themselves into the ring with abandon for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’s television debut.
32) This Is Us: “Memphis”
This Is Us struggles to tell good stories about characters other than Randall (Sterling K. Brown), the adopted black son of the otherwise white Pearson family, but this late season one episode, following Randall and his biological father’s journey to the titular city before said father’s death, is a heart-wrenching, understated hour that says as much through images as it does through words. It’s good enough to forgive the series’ many missteps.
31) The Carmichael Show: “Cynthia’s Birthday”
NBC’s late, lamented The Carmichael Show made its final season count with this terrific centerpiece. Jerrod takes his mother to a fancy restaurant, where one of his white friends uses the n-word in a way that suggests the friend uses it in jovial, familiar fashion quite a lot — and Jerrod isn’t terribly bothered by that. The argument the family has following the incident is one of the series’ best.
30) The Young Pope: “Episode 1”
It’s amazing how quickly The Young Pope transcended all the memes surrounding its promotional campaign (memes that assumed it would be the dumbest, most TV-friendly version of its title). Instead, right from the start of this debut episode, Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), the first American pope, begins using the papacy to build up the self, and the series begins its thrilling dissection of faith in the 21st century.
29) You’re the Worst: “Fog of War, Bro”
The first half of You’re the Worst’s fourth and penultimate season was a high point for the show to date. (The second half, though...) And its pinnacle was probably this fifth episode, in which the spurned Gretchen wages war against Jimmy, the man who left her on the side of the road after proposing to her, by derailing the publicity campaign for his new novel. It’s everything this series does well in one incredibly compact half-hour.
We initially hesitated to add a Big Little Lies episode to the list, given how well its seven episodes — part pulpy murder mystery, part wrenching family drama — hold together as a cohesive whole. But “Once Bitten” lets Big Little Lies’ incredible cast shine, especially Nicole Kidman’s Celeste as she finally admits to her therapist, while trembling with fear and defiance, that she is being abused by her husband.
27) Underground: “Minty”
There are lots of reasons to mourn WGN America’s cancellation of this smart historical drama, but a big one is that the show was willing to take risks like it did with “Minty.” The entire episode is essentially a single monologue, delivered with expert precision by Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman. In a lesser actor’s hands, it could have been a slog. In Hinds’s, it’s a stunning show of force.
26) Planet Earth II: “Cities”
One of just two non-scripted picks on our list, “Cities” is nothing short of an extraordinary achievement, not to mention a singular one for Planet Earth itself. The series’ most pointed episode yet turns an unflinching spotlight on humans’ huge impact on nature, focusing on the flora and fauna that exists in the nooks and crannies of our cities to beautiful, heartbreaking effect.
25) Insecure: “Hella Disrespectful”
In season two, Insecure grew increasingly comfortable in its own skin as its restless characters were crawling out of theirs. Its penultimate episode deftly throws the fragmented trio of Issa (co-creator Issa Rae), her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), and her ex-boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) into an unavoidable social situation that quickly and memorably blows up in their faces.
Five seasons in, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is still going strong; in fact, it may even be stronger than ever. “HalloVeen” is the perfect example of why, sending the officers of the 99th Precinct down their annual rabbit hole of a Halloween heist without letting the conceit go stale — all while adding a bonus twist that’s romantic as hell, besides.
23) Please Like Me: “Degustation”
We’d be even sadder that Please Like Me — Josh Thomas’s wry and deeply human comedy — is over if its last season hadn’t been so damn good. In its final six chapters, the Australian series went out with both humor and pathos, but no episode showcases how well it pulled off that tricky combination like “Degustation,” a masterful episode following Josh (Thomas) and his parents (Debra Lawrance and David Roberts) enjoying a single, increasingly ridiculous gourmet meal.
22) Dear White People: “Chapter V”
Every “chapter” of Justin Simien’s Netflix series — based on his 2014 movie of the same name — strikes a distinctive tone by focusing on a different character in almost every installment. But “Chapter V,” following Marque Richardson’s defiant Reggie, stands out. Directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), the episode makes for a carefully wrought and devastating fulcrum of the show’s first season.
21) Feud: “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”
Feud didn’t always balance its interest in old Hollywood gossip with its more incisive points about how sexism and misogyny are baked into show business. But in a year when the world seemed more interested in the latter, the finale of the series’ first season pointed toward some alternate, better path, as an ailing Joan Crawford hallucinates a scenario where she finally gets what she thinks she deserves.
The past and present reach out to each other, then begin to dance a strange and beautiful dream ballet, in this almost completely dialogue-free half-hour of HBO’s adventurous anthology drama, where every episode takes place entirely in the same hotel room. “Voyeurs” felt like TV waking up and realizing it could try new things.
19) Master of None: “Thanksgiving”
Master of None’s second season followed the example set by its first, turning out episodes that can almost stand as their own short films, independent of the show itself. But while we almost selected the structurally daring “New York, I Love You” for this list, “Thanksgiving” won the spot with its portrayal of an entire life — that of Denise, played by co-writer Lena Waithe — through a series of Thanksgivings in which she and her family (including the incomparable Angela Bassett as her mother) grappled with her sexuality.
18) Rick & Morty: “Pickle Rick”
Rick & Morty doesn’t deserve to be reduced to headlines about the exploits of its worst fans. However, it’s telling that said fans reduced this episode — a ridiculous, fun adventure in which genius scientist Rick Sanchez turns himself into a pickle and battles rodents — to a catchphrase. “I’m PICKLE RICK!” is a great catchphrase, to be sure, but the episode’s sneaky portrayal of talk therapy as a necessary way to confront our deepest fears and emotions pushes it over the top.
17) Better Things: “Graduation”
The second season of Better Things was a frequently brilliant 10-episode story about what it’s like to be a woman, or a mother, or a daughter, in a world that frequently hints that it doesn’t care about those perspectives. That made it all the more bitterly awful that much of it was written by Louis C.K., who has since admitted to committing sexual misconduct. Still, this moving finale, co-written and directed (as were the rest of season two’s episodes) by star Pamela Adlon, finds its way to cathartic grace, as men let women down (again) and it’s a mother’s job to pick up the pieces.
16) Bates Motel: “Marion”
The moment when Bates Motel finally caught up to Psycho, the movie that inspired it, with Rihanna popping in to guest star as the doomed Marion Crane, was simply the latest instance of the kind of movie-to-TV magic the series has casually managed in its most breathtaking moments. But most impressive was the way the series used Crane’s appearance in “Marion” to re-adapt Psycho, changing it just enough to fit this TV version’s themes of poisonous masculinity and fragile psyches.
15) The Magicians: “Plan B”
Did The Magicians need to pause its entire season to pull off an elaborate magical heist? Not really. But the fact that the series will do crazy things like dropping its characters into other genres and formats simply to have some fun is key to its appeal. And the show has never been more fun than when Quentin and his pals embarked on an elaborate, Ocean’s 11-style caper in order to help a friend.
14) The Americans: “Dyatkovo”
All of The Americans has been building to the moment when life finally becomes too much for Philip Jennings, the Soviet spy wearing his assumed American identity more and more like an ill-fitting suit. This episode brought him to that breaking point, with all its attendant catharsis, while also serving up an over-in-an-episode spy plot that broke up some of the (intentional) monotony of the show’s fifth and penultimate season.
13) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy”
This is the episode that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — The CW’s delightfully twisted, genre-defying musical dramedy — has been building toward since the very beginning. After teetering on the edge of a true breakdown for weeks, Rebecca (co-creator Rachel Bloom) finally falls right off the edge in “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy,” which manages to be both hilarious and downright harrowing. (Shout-outs to guest star Josh Groban and director Joseph Kahn, respectively.)
12) Better Call Saul: “Chicanery”
Yet another “episode this show has been building toward since the start” is this installment of Better Call Saul’s third season, in which ever-slippery Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his morally upstanding, self-righteous brother Chuck (Michael McKean) face off in a courtroom over questions of Jimmy’s legal misconduct. It’s just an episode about two brothers’ disappointment in each other, but the stakes couldn’t possibly feel higher, and the ending devastates.
11) Big Mouth: "Sleepover: A Harrowing Ordeal of Emotional Brutality"
We weren’t prepared for Netflix’s Big Mouth — a gleefully filthy animated comedy about the horror that is puberty — to be as sharp and sweet as it is, given its tricky conceit. But this episode about two parallel sleepovers shows how smart the show can be. At one overnight, tween girls show off their precise cruelty and sporadic generosity; at the other, tween boys try desperately to pretend they’ve matured more than they have. Both, as befits middle school tradition, are unforgettable disasters.
Movies and TV episodes that seem as if they’re filmed in one long take are often gimmicky, and considering that Mr. Robot loves gimmicks, this one should have been as well. Instead, it combined an airtight story (in which Elliot Alderson must stop a catastrophic hack while simultaneously trying to evade the security guards hoping to escort him from the building) with the sense that the episode depicted the grinding wheels of late capitalism in the US, and the result was a tense yet weirdly contemplative hour of television. An overhead shot of one character, typing away at a computer while protests rage outside, filmed so that one half of the frame is outside the skyscraper and the other within it, might have been the TV shot of the year.
9) Girls: “American Bitch”
HBO’s Girls died as it lived: at the center of fierce debates regarding its worth and/or accuracy in portraying the specific growing pains of Brooklyn’s privileged 20-somethings. But the series’ final season contained some real gems, and “American Bitch” was the best of them. Written by star and co-creator Lena Dunham and directed by Girls’ MVP director Richard Shepherd, “American Bitch” is essentially a two-hander between Hannah (Dunham) and a man named Chuck, a celebrated author who’s been accused of sexual assault. Guest star Matthew Rhys plays him with an ominous hint of a Cheshire Cat grin; the effect allows “American Bitch” to skillfully depict the inherent power imbalance between an established older man and an ambitious young woman around whom he can spin a convincing web. The last shot alone — in which Hannah leaves Chuck’s apartment after he reveals his true self, as a stream of symbolic anonymous women pour in — is a serious gut punch.
Making a decent first episode of a television series is hard; making a great one is a true rarity. But Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale opened with a perfectly stark, taut hour, adapting Margaret Atwood’s disturbing novel with heart-stopping tension and an elasticity that kept it from feeling too burdened by its weighty source material. Just about every component clicked together to create a brilliant, terrifying whole, hinting at the horrors to come with an admirable steadiness. And Elisabeth Moss made a meal of her introduction as a Handmaid gritting her teeth through a terrible reality, making every single close-up count. But the true revelation to come out of “Offred” — and really the series’ first three episodes altogether — was director Reed Morano, whose unflinching lens and eye for lush detail made for some of TV’s most memorable moments this year, period.
7) I Love Dick: “A Short History of Weird Girls”
Playwrights Annie Baker and Heidi Schreck, working with I Love Dick co-creator and director Jill Soloway, punctuated the first season of the show’s tricky, winking love triangle slash dissection of power imbalances between men and women with an entire episode of monologues delivered by the show’s many supporting characters. All of these characters are grappling with having experienced their formative sexual encounters in a society dominated by men (which is true even for the characters who aren’t attracted to men), and the result is the sort of brazenly experimental, thoughtful episode that has always typified Soloway’s work. Its theatricality — well earned by Baker and Schreck — only helps propel the already dreamy I Love Dick to new heights, and even better, you can pretty much watch it in isolation (though it will have more power if you watch the four episodes that precede it).
6) BoJack Horseman: “Time’s Arrow”
All hail the astonishing ambition of BoJack Horseman, which just might clinch the title of TV’s most indescribable show (even four seasons in, “an animated comedy slash existential drama about Hollywood frivolity and unrelenting misery” is about as good as we’ve got). “Time’s Arrow” dives deep, not just into the history of BoJack’s family but into the recesses of his mother’s decaying mind. As the equally acerbic and tragic Beatrice (Wendie Malick) tries to remember her past, the episode renders her flashbacks through the filter of her dementia. Images flicker and fade, warp and wither. As is usually true of BoJack Horseman’s best episodes, “Time’s Arrow” is smart, devastating, and breathtaking in its artistic scope.
With just three episodes left in Halt and Catch Fire’s run, a long-expected yet completely surprising death in the episode immediately preceding “Goodwill” leaves the characters of the ’90s-set tech drama reeling. The series has always loved its characters, maybe even to a fault, and that love shines through in this episode, as the survivors gather to mourn their lost friend and colleague, then slowly find ways to patch up their own differences.
The greatest TV dramas find ways to be incisive and thoughtful about their characters, to acknowledge their faults while also giving us ample evidence of their strengths; what sets Halt apart is the way it seems to want its characters to become better people, to circle back around in their next iteration to some other, more beautiful self. “Goodwill” is the ultimate expression of that ideal, and when it ends, they’ve all come so far, while still falling short.
4) Nathan for You: “Finding Frances”
Essentially a feature-length film, the season four finale of Nathan for You (and quite possibly the show’s final episode ever) is an intimate, intricate dissection of one man’s obsession. Host Nathan Fielder tries to help William Heath, whom he met in an earlier episode, track down a long-lost love — only to realize that, um, that long-lost love might not want to be found by this particular man. That’s already a tricky concept to build an episode around, but it’s even trickier when you consider that the series wants you to both empathize with Heath and understand why what he’s doing can only serve to make this poor woman uncomfortable. It digs deep, down to the very core of our collective need for connection, and it ends in a place of unexpected grace. No less than Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris loved the hell out of it.
David Lynch and Mark Frost hit pause at almost the exact midpoint of their triumphant 2017 revival of the early-’90s weird small-town soap, in order to dig back into American history and explore the roots of evil. Filmed largely in black and white, “Episode 8” travels back to the detonations of the early atomic bombs — to the awakening of man’s capacity for species-wide destruction — to explore every possible meaning of the phrase “nuclear family.” The hour’s deliberately avant-garde style and its use of dark, horrifying symbolism (to say nothing of frog-bug creatures crawling down throats) marked it as an instant classic. But its most potent element is its presentation of an America gone very wrong. “This is the water, and this is the well,” explains its eeriest nightmare monster. “Drink full and descend.” Maybe you didn’t want to descend. But Lynch and Frost made sure you did.
Television’s most unlikely network comedy is The Good Place, which threw Kristen Bell’s dirtbag Eleanor into heaven and meticulously set about untangling philosophy puzzles while spitting out increasingly surreal jokes. After the show’s (excellent) season one finale revealed that The Good Place is, in fact, taking place in “the Bad Place,” season two upended it completely, over and over again. “Dance Dance Resolution” — the season’s third episode, written by Megan Amram — is almost entirely a montage of Ted Danson’s frustrated demon making failed attempt after failed attempt to outsmart the humans he’s determined to trick into believing they made it to heaven, while simultaneously torturing them.
The episode is staggeringly ambitious, and an awesome showcase for The Good Place’s amazing cast, which has only gotten better with every bizarre curveball the show has thrown at them. We never know what we’re getting with The Good Place, which is about as exciting an endorsement we can give.
Our pick for the best TV episode of 2017 is the sixth episode of The Leftovers’ final season, one that attempted to summarize the entire, series-spanning journey of Laurie Garvey (the amazing Amy Brenneman) in just one hour of television. Laurie, a former therapist, found herself so rattled by the Great Departure (in which 2 percent of the world’s population simply disappeared) that she joined the Guilty Remnant, a silent cult designed to remind humanity of what it lost. As the series continued, she left the Guilty Remnant and gradually began to get in touch with her own grief; “Certified” features her final confrontation with the depths of despair as she shares long, thoughtful conversations about death and loss and understanding with The Leftovers’ other cast members.
The hour concludes with a beautiful moment of ambiguity, but even after the show undoes that moment a couple of episodes later, “Certified” remains an always unsteady examination of the chaos swirling beneath Laurie’s otherwise civilized exterior. Had The Leftovers somehow ended with it, we would have been just fine with that. Fortunately, it didn’t, and it made one of the year’s greatest shows all the greater.