clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 39 best TV moments of 2016

From devastating surprises to hilarious lines, and everything in between.

Television boasts a unique quality that few other forms of media can claim: Its recurring format allows it to regularly come into your home, to become part of your everyday routines. You can follow its stories and characters for weeks, months, years.

But sometimes TV is less about the journey and more about those special moments that jog you awake, make you laugh, make you ache, make you think. Those instances that compel you to revisit a certain scene or episode over and over again — because of a sidesplitting line delivery, because you want to relive its incredible dramatic tension, because it’s just that good.

Like any other year in this age of Peak TV, 2016 gifted us with many such moments. Below, in alphabetical order, we’ve collected our 39 favorites.

Spoiler alert: If you see any shows mentioned that you’ve been meaning to catch up on, we suggest skipping past their entries.

12 Monkeys: the city is a time machine

Syfy’s oddly religious TV version of the 1995 cult film treats time itself as a kind of impetuous god, lording over everything. But its single best reveal this year had less to do with time itself and more to do with those who navigate it. The strange, hidden city of Titan often seemed like a mirage no one could reach. But when our heroes actually, finally found it, we realized there was a very good reason for its elusiveness: Titan itself was a time machine, floating along in the time stream, subject to the whims of mysterious cultists. Cool.

American Crime: a masterful single shot

ABC’s brilliant, underwatched second season of American Crime was a deeply ambitious attempt to knit together a story about sexual assault at a prep school with an examination of American class and prejudice. Its highlight came at the end of the season’s seventh episode, in which one character, bullied and isolated, brings a gun to school and then kills someone, seemingly as a spur-of-the-moment decision. The hour concludes with a masterful tracking shot that follows the shooter’s mother as she first hears of a shooting at the school, then slowly realizes her son pulled the trigger.

The Americans: a devastating final shot

The Americans
Nina (Annet Mahendru) finally ran out of options.

We know intellectually that no one is safe on The Americans, given that it’s about Cold War–era spies and the ruthless lengths they’ll go to in service of their respective countries. But it was still a shock when Nina, who had cheated certain death so many times before, finally reached a dead end in “Chloramphenicol.” Nina’s final moments in Soviet prison — brilliantly acted by Annet Mahendru and directed by Stefan Schwartz — offered a quick moment of hope before she was executed with a brutal shot to the head. The scene ended with an excruciatingly slow zoom out from her crumpled, bleeding body, a brilliant woman now just a discarded corpse on a Soviet prison floor.

Atlanta: Van’s drug test prep

There’s truly no show on television right now quite like Atlanta, Donald Glover’s deliberately strange and specific series about the interlocking lives of Atlantans trying to find success in the face of systemic obstacles. But even though Atlanta has plenty of surreal moments to choose from — people riding in an invisible car; the show reimagining Justin Bieber as a black man; an episode whose plot unfolds via a roundtable discussion on a talk show — the one we keep returning to happens in “Value,” when Earn’s erstwhile girlfriend tries to outsmart an impending drug test after (uncharacteristically) getting high. There’s no doing justice to the weird, desperate, hilarious montage in words, but know that it involves diaper wringing.

Bates Motel: a most beautiful death

Bates Motel

If there’s one thing Bates Motel fans know is coming, it’s that the young Norman Bates would someday kill his mother. What they likely didn’t expect was for him to do so in the penultimate episode of the show’s penultimate season, by flooding their home with poisonous gas in an attempt to kill both her and himself. As fans of the movie Psycho will know, Norman survives. But his mother dies, hauntingly and beautifully.

Better Call Saul: the light switch

Jimmy McGill — the man who will become Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman — doesn’t like being forced to play by the rules, something the series neatly underlined in its season two premiere. Jimmy, sitting in his big new office at the giant law firm that now employs him, sees a light switch he’s not supposed to touch, as declared by a label that reads “Always Leave ON!!! Do NOT turn OFF!” What does the switch do? Who knows! Jimmy always feels compelled to break out of whatever box he’s put in, so he flips it on and off. Nothing happens, at least that we can see, but the scene seems to confirm what we already suspect: He’s never going to last in this ill-fitting job.

Better Things: “Shit”

Better Things, an FX comedy about a single mother and her three daughters, is, on the surface, a series about women. Creator and star Pamela Adlon plays Sam, whose attempts to balance her career and family could feel old-hat. Adlon’s precise observations make this challenge feel revelatory, an accomplishment in and of itself. But they also seem to set the stage for a much larger story — as hinted in the season one finale, when Sam’s middle child, Frankie, is revealed to be struggling with her gender identity. She gets in trouble for using the boys’ bathroom and says she’s not trans, but her sister believes otherwise. It’s a terrific note to end a season so keenly attuned to the realities of parenting, and one that holds promise for the season to come.

Beyoncé steals the Super Bowl

Beyoncé would have had one hell of a 2016 even if her visual album Lemonade were the only thing she produced during it. But by the time Lemonade came out in April, she had already established herself as a dominant force in 2016 pop culture, via her Super Bowl halftime performance in February. Technically, Coldplay was the headliner, but the second Beyoncé stepped out onto the field flanked by a squadron of black women backup dancers in Black Panther–esque regalia, it was all over. Her blistering performance of “Formation” was simply one of the most impressive — not to mention political — televised performances in recent memory.

BoJack Horseman: a quiet moment in Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory

BoJack and Sarah Lynn take in a show.

Despite being an “animated comedy,” Netflix’s BoJack Horseman shirks any knee-jerk comparisons to other adult-oriented cartoons by marrying compassionate character development, quiet sadness, and some heavy subject matter with gorgeous animation. The show excels at taking sharp turns into full-on devastation, and its fantastic third season showcases this skill when BoJack (Will Arnett) and child star–turned–adult cautionary tale Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) are sitting beneath a starry projection in LA’s Griffith Observatory after a bender that leaves them both completely spent — and the seemingly indestructible Sarah Lynn dead.

Broad City: a hilarious side-by-side montage

Every season of Broad City has taken place during the summer, so the opening of season three — which featured a montage of best friends Abbi (Abbi Jacobsen) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) living through the rest of the year — was a special treat. Every scene in the split-screen sequence is a side-by-side pairing featuring Abbi and Ilana in their respective bathrooms, and as directed by Lucia Aniello, each frame is packed with detail and nuance, not to mention ridiculous jokes. While Broad City’s hyper-attention to detail often gets lost in the background of the show’s louder, more profane moments, this montage underscores how ignoring that part of the show’s chemistry means missing much of its brilliance.

Black-ish: Dre’s Obama speech

There aren’t many family sitcoms that would — or could — seriously address America’s ongoing struggles with police brutality against black citizens, but we’re lucky that Black-ish did exactly that in a series standout episode. “Hope” gathered the entire Johnson family in the living room, where they remained glued to the news as they discussed their conflicted ideas and fears. The climax came when Anthony Anderson’s Dre made a titanic plea to his wife to take his fears seriously, tracing the ecstatic hope they felt when Obama was elected president in 2008 to the current terror they feel in the face of 2016’s racist realities.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “BONE?!”

In every episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it seems as though the series is trying to get Andre Braugher to outdo himself with yet another perfect delivery of increasingly ridiculous lines for his stoic character, Captain Raymond Holt. In season four’s "Skyfire Cycle," a storyline involving a sexually frustrated Holt and some awkward advice from his co-workers led to Braugher unleashing the full power of his bass voice on a single word — and the results were glorious.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: “We Tapped That Ass”

The mere existence of a sharp and subversive musical comedy on broadcast television — much less one that churned out 50 original songs in just its first season — is pretty astonishing. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to settle on a singular example of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s greatness. But the most fitting display of the series’ talent for weaving jokes, character beats, and flawless sendups of specific musical genres into a single song is probably season two’s “Tap That Ass.” As performed by main love interests Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) and Greg (Santino Fontana), this tap number is packed with double entendres that are echoed in Kathryn Burns’s (literally) cheeky choreography. It’s impossible not to grin your way through it.

Fleabag: the one time she wouldn't look into the camera

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag

Throughout Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s incredibly intimate and very funny series, title character Fleabag (played by Waller-Bridge) makes snarky asides to the camera, assuming that we’re cheering her on and/or judging her questionable choices, just like a best friend might. None of her thoughts or experiences are too profane or shameful to share with us — until one devastating revelation in the season’s penultimate episode renders her unable to make eye contact. It’s a moment the entire series had been building to, and Waller-Bridge’s fantastic performance makes it exactly as crushing as it needs to be.

Game of Thrones: Cersei watches it all burn

A toast.

Game of Thrones built its reputation on the kind of epic moments that television previously could only dream of, like ruthless bloodbaths and CGI dragons sweeping over smoking cities. But in its sixth season, the series pulled off a scene that felt like both a complete surprise and a natural evolution. Cersei — Lena Headey’s grimly determined Lannister matriarch — finally achieved her ultimate revenge on all those who had doubted her, blowing up most of King’s Landing with wildfire and wiping out her most pressing enemies in one fell swoop. It was a horrifying, callously executed move, but it was hard not to feel a thrill of triumph along with Cersei as she surveyed the wreckage with a sip of wine and a smirk.

The Good Place: a cacti runner

A scene where the punchline is an endless array of cacti shouldn’t be as funny as this one is, but The Good Place is at its best when it embraces its surreal side. Janet, who functions as a sort of Clippy (as in the Microsoft Office paper clip) for the cosmos, has been rebooted, so she’s not up to full speed. Nevertheless, she tries to continue assisting the residents of the heavenly Good Place, where the show’s characters, who are all dead, reside. But instead of handing over what they actually want, she keeps handing them sharp, spiny desert plants. The scene just gets funnier and funnier the longer it goes. Who knew a cactus could be so hilarious?

Fresh Off the Boat: “More candy for Grimace”

Just try to convince us you’re not chuckling at this. Just TRY.

It’s tough for anyone on the ’90s-set family comedy Fresh Off the Boat to steal the spotlight from Constance Wu’s perfectly spiky performance as Jessica Huang. But this rare feat does happen occasionally, and Lucille Soong (who plays the Huangs’ snarky grandmother) managed it in the show’s charming Halloween episode with a single line reading from within a cocoon of purple fuzz (i.e., while in costume as McDonald’s Grimace).

Halt and Catch Fire: Nim

Joe and Cameron have always been Halt and Catch Fire’s most star-crossed couple. In the show’s first season, that notion felt forced, but by season three it had developed organically enough to warrant the pair’s fiery reconnection at an electronics trade show. Their flirtation begins when they play a game of Nim — a mathematical brainteaser where each player can remove as many objects from the same row of a pyramid as they want, and the last player to remove an object wins. Cameron dominates most of the game, but Joe is ultimately the victor. Then they dance to the Pixies and have sex.

Horace and Pete: Laurie Metcalf’s monologue

This scene is a perfect marriage of actor, script, and director. Louis C.K. gives Laurie Metcalf a nine-minute, tremendous monologue about the moment when she realized she was sexually attracted to her ex-husband’s father, then has the guts to film her in a single, simple locked-down shot as she speaks. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s amazing, thanks to how much it trusts in the power of the material and the woman delivering it.

Late Night With Seth Meyers: an emotional election response

Late-night comedians faced a unique challenge during this year’s presidential election, not least because once the votes were in, most (if not all) of them expected to be making jokes about a Hillary Clinton victory/Donald Trump loss. Instead, they had to turn on a dime and find humor in the opposite outcome, even though it was clear that said outcome challenged most (if not all) of their personal politics. Many offered insightful commentary on the night after Trump became the president-elect, but it was Seth Meyers who delivered the most memorable monologue, at turns introspective, grieving, forward-looking, and compassionate.

The Magicians: an unusual Taylor Swift cameo

The setup: Protagonist Quentin is trapped inside a magical hallucination. He also knows that his frenemy Penny (who can read minds) hates it when Quentin gets Taylor Swift stuck in his head. The punchline: To enlist Penny’s help in escaping his mind prison, Quentin leads everybody who’s part of the hallucination — all of whom are figments of his imagination — in an elaborate song-and-dance number to “Shake It Off.” Perfection.

The OA: one perfect line of dialogue

Netflix’s weirdo serialized drama full of goofball spiritualism is best summed up in a single line of dialogue, spoken by the series’ protagonist, who believes her biological father visited her in a dream to tell her where to meet him: “Twenty-one wax candles for my birthday. That's when we were to meet. The face of a giantess, surrounded by water. There's only one place that could be!” (It’s the Statue of Liberty, and she’s wrong. He doesn’t meet her there.)

The Olympics: Simone Biles’s gold medal floor routine

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 11
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

As expected, the American gymnastics dynamo outperformed everyone at Rio, but her sheer dominance was still breathtaking to behold. Her floor routine, which let Biles launch herself all over the Olympics floor in gravity-defying loops, was particularly stunning; there’s just no denying her power as an athlete or as the most magnetic star of the Rio Games.

Orange Is the New Black: a final, bittersweet look


Orange Is the New Black’s signature flashbacks to inmates’ pre-prison lives can be a revealing and devastating tool. And the show used this tool perfectly in its season four finale, focusing on Samira Wiley’s gentle-hearted Poussey. Intercut between the steadily increasing chaos at Litchfield Penitentiary in the present, the flashbacks to Poussey’s final meandering night as a free woman are beautiful, and achingly sad given what happens to her at the end of the episode. Her final smiling look toward the camera — the season’s final shot — is, quite simply, perfect.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story: “Ni**a please”

Much of O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial consisted of his defense team trying to establish that the systemic racism of the Los Angeles Police Department led officers to frame Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Thus, prosecutor Christopher Darden gave an impassioned speech about not allowing the defense to make such an argument, to avoid clouding Simpson’s guilt with accusations of racism. Defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran shamed him, arguing that racism was at the very heart of the trial, feigning surprise at the prosecution’s attempts to argue otherwise, before striding over to Darden and muttering the phrase above. And as reenacted by Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance on The People v. O.J. Simpson, it’s the perfect moment for this show — two great performances, combined with a frisson of “Can you believe that really happened?!”

Queen Sugar: the basketball court confrontation

Ava DuVernay’s lush, thoughtful portrait of a family consistently does right by its talented cast, letting each actor dig deep into their character’s grief over the death of the family patriarch, in moments both explosive and quiet. But one of the most dramatic and wrenching scenes comes in its very first episode, in a surprisingly public place. When Charley (the fantastic Dawn Lyen-Gardner) and an entire stadium full of basketball fans learns — via news that breaks online during the NBA game they’re attending — that her player husband was involved in a possible gang rape, she walks out onto the slippery court in her sky-high stilettos to confront him. Realistic? Maybe not. But such is the power of Lyen-Gardner’s performance and DuVernay’s direction that it never truly matters.

The Real O’Neals: prom kiss

Hollywood has made a lot of progress in increasing LGBTQ representation onscreen, but it’s still exceedingly rare for network television to let queer people break out of sidekick status. Not so with The Real O’Neals, which puts newly out teen Kenny (the great Noah Galvin) front and center. At the end of the show’s first season, it even let him go to prom, meet a boy, and share his first kiss on the dance floor. For Kenny, the moment wasn’t quite as magical as he was hoping it would be, but for the show, it was groundbreaking.

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 2: mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest drag queen of them all?

Coco Montrese, Tatianna, Ginger Minj, and Alyssa Edwards are not to be fucked with.

RuPaul’s Drag Race runs on outsize, ridiculous, jaw-dropping, and otherwise fantastic moments. But the one fans will be talking about for years came at the beginning of "Ruvenge" when, after a grueling elimination, the exhausted remaining drag queens walked back into the workroom and shit-talked their just-ousted peers. That’s when they were confronted by those exact peers, eyeing them imperiously from behind a double-sided mirror. The perfectly melodramatic reveal kicked off one of the show’s best episodes to date, fueled by the fire of fierce glares.

Saturday Night Live: Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins

Any questions?

Silicon Valley: into the click farm

Silicon Valley’s third season concludes with the launch of Pied Pier, the project its characters have been working on since the show began. And while the program really is as good as they think it is at compressing data, nobody can figure out how to use it — or understand why they would want to. After a flashy debut, the team’s daily active user number takes a turn toward the abysmal, but just when everything seems lost, the number ticks up slightly. Alas, both we and they know it’s too good to be true, a feeling that’s confirmed (to the audience, at least) when we learn where the activity boost is coming from: a massive click farm in Bangladesh, where “users” do just enough to register as people who check in to Pied Piper daily. The rise is illusory — and the fall is coming.

Steven Universe: Steven heals the cluster

Look how pretty!
Cartoon Network

Cartoon Network’s warm and weird series about a boy and his alien guardians, a.k.a. Gems, regularly features some of television’s most emotionally affecting storylines. One of this year’s most compelling followed Steven and the Gems as they tracked down “shards,” or other Gems who’d been tortured and manipulated into unnatural shapes. While an enormous “cluster” of these shards initially seems to be a powerful threat to Earth, Steven discovers they’re lashing out because they’re in terrible pain — so he teaches them to soothe themselves by working together. Having Steven Universe save the world by spreading love is a powerful example of how few shows, animated or otherwise, are quite as skilled at showcasing the importance of compassion.

Stranger Things: talking to Will

Winona Ryder sometimes seemed stranded on Stranger Things, forced into a one-note storyline that asked her to do a lot of yelling about her son Will’s disappearance. Still, she earned the first season’s greatest moment, when she realized that wherever her son was, he could talk to her via electrical impulse. Using Christmas lights, she set up a rudimentary system of communication, and the two interacted before some ... thing ... started to intrude. The scene was both thrilling (thanks to its wedding of analog technology and modern movie magic) and frightening.

Survivor: a rare tiebreaking gauntlet

Survivor's near foolproof formula has kept it around for 16 years and counting — which makes the instances when its castaways find a way to upend the show's norms all the more exciting. After this year's "Millennials vs. Gen X" season got off to a boring start, it compensated in a huge way with a fascinating power split between two unexpectedly strong contenders. Everything came to a head with a vote so stubbornly tied that when no one would budge after two separate votes, host Jeff Probst forced them all to randomly pick rocks from a bag, lottery-style, to determine who went home — for only the third time in the show's 33-season history.

Transparent: “I’m not your fucking story”

Transparent’s third season gifted us emotional flashbacks and Judith Light singing Alanis Morissette. But one of its best decisions was to devote more screen time to Trace Lysette’s Shea. In “The Open Road,” Shea and aimless Pfefferman son Josh set out on a road trip that inches toward romance, until Josh makes it clear that he’s only drawn to her for the “novelty” of hooking up with a transwoman. The second that Shea — who’s been helping Josh’s transitioning mother Maura since the beginning — recognizes as much, she recoils. “I’m not your fucking story,” she spits, abandoning him and leaving the show reeling to catch up.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: a rooftop sunset

Oh, Kimmy. You tried so hard.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season dug deeper into the trauma Kimmy (the wonderful Ellie Kemper) suffered due to being held captive in an underground bunker for years. She even started seeing a therapist: Andrea, an alcoholic mess played by Tina Fey, who turns out to need Kimmy as much as Kimmy needs her. Finally, Kimmy gets so fed up that she handcuffs herself to Andrea on a Manhattan rooftop, to force Andrea to stay sober for an entire night. As the sun comes up, Andrea hasn’t become a totally different person, as Kimmy might’ve hoped, but their marathon therapy session yields a breakthrough nonetheless.

Veep: Selina delivers her mother’s eulogy

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won five straight Emmys for her role as ruthlessly ambitious politician Selina Meyer, and every one of them is well-deserved. This is particularly evident in season five’s “Mother,” when Selina has to reckon with the death of both her mother and her chances of keeping the presidency — and she feels far more strongly about one than the other. Louis-Dreyfus is crushingly good when portraying Selina’s simultaneous rage and grief, most especially when she stands up to give the eulogy at her mother’s funeral and laments how unfair it is that her presidency mother is gone for good.

Westworld: Maeve sees the factory

The first season of HBO’s splashy sci-fi series was somewhat messy, but it frequently served up brilliant moments. Many belonged squarely to Thandie Newton’s Maeve, the theme park’s resident madam who spends the first season slowly coming to understand her true robotic nature. In “The Adversary,” it’s horrifying to bear witness as Maeve forces a lab technician to walk her around the factory floor where she and her fellow robots are fixed up each time they’re damaged or “killed” as part of a storyline — but it’s also incredibly moving. Newton turns in a wonderful performance as Maeve takes everything in and decides to use her new knowledge to fuel her awakening inner fire.

The World Series: Game 7’s rain delay

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
You couldn’t script it better.
Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

In a year fraught with change, political upheaval, and a general sense of foreboding, the fact that the Cubs were in a prime position to win the World Series seemed too perfectly hyperbolic to be true. Yet win they did, after seven hard-fought games against the Cleveland Indians and plenty of extraordinarily tense innings along the way. The seventh and final game was so eventful that it almost seemed to write the script for the inevitable movie that’s sure to be made someday. Fans of both teams were shocked when the Cubs gave up a three-run lead in the eighth inning and the Indians tied the score; then a rain delay held off the necessary overtime play. You can hardly ask for a more nail-biting moment than that seeming act of God — nor as cinematic a comeback as the Cubs managed once they returned to the field.

Zoo: “Where’s the sloth?”

Bless you for this gif(t), Uproxx.

The CBS summer series Zoo follows a group of renegade animal activists who want to save the world from a rapidly spreading virus that’s turning animals against humans. Season two went fully off the rails, shuttling around the world in an impossibly large jet to capture electric ants, ice-breathing Komodo dragons, and a sloth that could cause earthquakes with the vibrating frequency of its yawn. That last creature’s unrivaled power eventually led to James Wolk’s intrepid zoologist character slapping an Army general across the face and demanding to know, his voice husky with determination, “Where’s the sloth?” The moment was exactly as stupid as it sounds, just like the rest of the show, and a reminder that even embarrassingly bad TV can bring some joy to the world.