One of the best reasons to love television is that its bounty comes in quantities both large and small.
Great television can take the form of a series hundreds of hours long or a single episode of just 22 minutes (or even less). We’ve already covered the best TV shows of 2016, and now it’s time to turn our gaze toward the year’s best episodes.
They took us under the sea, into the heart of the country’s most pressing political debates, and through some of the biggest plot twists of the year.
They featured explosions, murders, jokes, were-monsters, and two different stories about women stuck in computer simulations trying desperately to find their lover. And also Beyoncé, because damned if we were going to leave Lemonade out of the fun.
All told, dozens of notable TV episodes aired in 2016 — but here is our ranking of the 33 best.
33) Baskets, “Easter in Bakersfield”
Baskets is a strange gem, and a reason to appreciate the explosion of niche programming inherent to Peak TV. In the show’s best episode, Zach Galifianakis’s character, a frustrated semi-professional clown, gets fed up with his overbearing mother — played without a trace of irony by Louie Anderson — during their traditional Easter buffet. (If you haven’t sampled Baskets, the show is absolutely worth getting over your confusion at everything you just read.)
32) Lady Dynamite, “Jack and Diane”
We also have Peak TV to thank for Lady Dynamite, Netflix’s comedy starring Maria Bamford as a lightly fictionalized version of herself. The show chronicles Bamford’s struggles with mental illness through three periods of her life, and it can get brutal at times. But in “Jack and Diane,” Bamford playing up her sexy “Diane” voice opposite Brandon Routh makes the episode a hilarious treat.
31) Game of Thrones, “The Winds of Winter”
“I killed your High Sparrow and all his little sparrows, all his septons, all his septas, all his filthy soldiers, because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy.” So sayeth Cersei Lannister. So sayeth we all.
30) Jane the Virgin, “Chapter Forty-Seven”
The point of Jane the Virgin was never that Gina Rodriguez’s effervescent heroine Jane would always be a virgin. But when the time did come in season three for her to lose her virginity, the show delivered an earnest, joyful hour that was never condescending about her experience.
29) Superstore, “Labor”
Few shows are as tuned in to the state of the world today as this NBC comedy about the staff of a big-box department store. In “Labor,” its season one finale, the show explores how employees in a service industry can stand up for themselves — and tell solid jokes.
28) Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, “President Elect Trump”
“Bubble” was a major watchword in 2016, especially after Donald Trump won the presidency in a shocking upset. Late-night host John Oliver confronted his own role as a mainstay of the progressive media diet — and thus his contribution to the liberal news bubble — the only way he knew how: with great jokes and a nod toward taking action.
27) Person of Interest, “6,741”
The year’s other big episode where a character is living in a computer simulation and the show slowly reveals as much while offering a beautiful tribute to two women in love (see also: Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” elsewhere on this list). Person of Interest turned that premise into a never-ending nightmare, averted only through the power of said love.
26) American Crime, “Season Two, Episode Eight”
The aftermath of the series’ school shooting episode is even more unsparing than the hour that preceded it, as the characters’ slow processing of their grief is interspersed with interviews from people who have survived or lost loved ones in other mass shootings. Gut-wrenching TV.
25) Queen Sugar, “Pilot”
Ava DuVernay’s new OWN series is rich with detail in everything from her direction to the production design of Los Angeles mansions versus Louisiana sugar plantations to the stellar cast’s deeply felt performances. All of these strengths were on display starting with Queen Sugar’s very first episode.
24) Steven Universe, “Bismuth”
Cartoon Network’s heartfelt show about a young boy and his alien protectors always manages to pack incredible emotional power into tiny packages. But its 100th episode — featuring Uzo Aduba voicing complex warrior Bismuth — was a standout, forcing Steven to make a devastating choice he’ll never forget.
23) Search Party, “The House of Uncanny Truths”
Throughout the first season of this mystery-comedy, viewers had one nagging thought: What if the conclusions that protagonist Dory (Alia Shawkat) has drawn about the disappearance of her friend are incorrect? This finale explores that idea in starkly, darkly funny detail — and features a surprising burst of blood.
22) Veep, “Mother”
Veep’s biting combination of overt disdain and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s precise, spiky delivery has made for glorious television. But the show has rarely been as superlative as it was in “Mother,” in which Selina Meyer had to simultaneously say goodbye to her dying mother and, more disappointingly, the presidency.
21) You’re the Worst, “Twenty-Two”
In season three, FXX’s acerbic romantic comedy turned over an entire half-hour to its most put-upon character, veteran Edgar (Desmin Borges), who suffers from PTSD — not that his friends noticed or cared. The episode tags along as he guts out another day in his life, where mere survival is a big victory.
20) RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2, “Ruvenge of the Queens”
No episode better exemplifies Drag Race’s twisted wit than this one, in which previously eliminated contestants fought to get back in the game. It has everything: a melodramatic two-way mirror reveal (err, "Ruveal"), insatiable thirst for revenge, and a Rihanna lip sync for the ages.
19) Silicon Valley, "Bachmanity Insanity"
Silicon Valley is never better than when it contrasts technology’s potential to change our lives with the reality of human beings almost always squandering that potential. In “Bachmanity Insanity,” two guys with tons of cash on hand blow through almost all of it in about 30 minutes. Sounds about right.
18) Orange Is the New Black, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”
Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season plunged deeper into its characters’ lives by digging into the shadowed corners of systemic injustice and prejudice. The season built to a gut punch of a climax in its penultimate episode, but the finale explored its implications in both the excruciating present and the lovely, if jarring, past.
17) Better Call Saul, “Klick”
Better Call Saul beautifully examines its most troubled relationship in this season two finale. Brothers Chuck and Jimmy McGill, at loggerheads, finally reach a point of no return. Meanwhile, gruff former cop Mike receives a note from a mysterious benefactor, teasing the return of a beloved Breaking Bad character.
16) Rectify, “Pineapples in Paris”
“I'm just asking you what dreams, what dumb, silly, fantastical dreams you might have had before or during the life you settled for, the life you actually have,” asks one character of her husband, in a particularly ruminative hour of an incredibly ruminative show. Who would you be if you weren’t you? Would any show other than Rectify ask that question?
15) Bates Motel, “Forever”
The first beauty of this episode lies in its relatively early placement in the overall series — with just over an entire season left to play out. The other beauty of it lies in Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga’s exquisite performances as Norman Bates and his mother, Norma. She’s spent the series first trying to deny that her son has psychopathic tendencies. He’s spent the series slowly descending into them. Together, they’re a tribute to the horrors of co-dependency, which reaches its dark, poisonous climax as “Forever” winds toward its retrospectively inevitable conclusion.
14) Halt and Catch Fire, “The Threshold”
Everything comes down to one board meeting in Halt and Catch Fire’s exemplary third season; “The Threshold” is remarkable not just for that scene but for how it returns to the idea of lines that can be crossed — and lines that shouldn’t be crossed — throughout the hour. The series’ rise in quality in its second and third seasons was tied to its shift in focus to Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé), and this episode examines what happens when the two realize they want very different things and may not be able to bridge the divide.
13) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “That Text Wasn’t Meant for Josh!”
Few shows straddle multiple genres as often or as well as The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. When the musical comedy’s well-meaning antiheroine Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) hits her breaking point in this highlight episode, the show struts its hilarious smarts with the ’80s anthem “Textmergency” before swerving into “You Stupid Bitch,” a vicious, show-stopping ballad aimed squarely at Rebecca’s insecurities. Though the delightfully weird “Textmergency” — featuring ghost Steve Jobs, naturally — is perhaps more representative of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s screwball strengths, Bloom’s titanic performance on “You Stupid Bitch” cemented the show’s deserved reputation for being truly fearless.
12) The Carmichael Show, “Fallen Heroes”
Watching The Carmichael Show — a deliberate throwback to family sitcoms like All in the Family — feels like gathering around a dinner table where you know that not everyone will agree on everything, but also that no one will leave until everyone’s had a say. One of the series’ best, and riskiest, episodes is this examination of Bill Cosby’s legacy. The tension steadily mounts between Jerrod (creator Jerrod Carmichael) arguing for separating artists from their personal lives and his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) writing off Cosby forever. When the episode ends, nothing has quite been resolved — a pretty realistic scenario. Leaving the debate open is a bold move for a sitcom to make, but one that pays off.
11) The X-Files: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
This funny, haunting highlight of The X-Files’ recent revival was written by Darin Morgan, one of the best TV writers in history. A lizard creature is bitten by a man and begins morphing into a human every full moon, and it finds itself overwhelmed with concerns both prosaic and deeply existential. “I was human again,” muses the lizard. “I went back to work. But now that I had a job, all I could think about was how much I hated my job. But I was too overcome with human fear to quit. How would I pay my bills?” A baffled Mulder has to admit the creature has a point.
10) Transparent, “If I Were a Bell”
Transparent’s third season was its most scattered yet, but it still contained incredibly powerful moments. “If I Were a Bell” — featuring Gaby Hoffmann and Michaela Watkins reprising their roles as Maura’s mother and grandmother — brims with them. A compassionate script by Our Lady J goes back to Maura’s childhood, when she (played by a remarkable Sophia Grace Gianna) would escape to the family’s bomb shelter, try on her mother’s nightgowns, and feel a little bit like herself. It’s just as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
9) Atlanta, “Juneteenth”
Atlanta’s fearless first season was one of the strongest debut TV seasons in recent memory, exploring its characters’ lives and experiences in a way that made it hard to pick one chapter to highlight. But this penultimate episode earned the right to represent Atlanta on this list with its surreal, devastating portrayal of a pretentious Juneteenth party that’s ostensibly meant to celebrate emancipation. As Earn (creator Donald Glover) and his erstwhile girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) unravel in tandem after struggling all evening to keep their shit together, you realize with a jolt that you have no idea what’s coming — and how exciting is that?
8) Horace and Pete, “Episode 10”
What was Horace and Pete? A drama? A miniseries? A comedy? The future of television? This dark, impressive season finale argued for all four simultaneously. It flashed back to the sins of the past, to the ways the titular characters had been warped by their parents, then jumped to the present to fill in how they’ve been unable to escape the people they once were. It ended, hauntingly, with violence and then Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.” This, it suggested, was the true legacy of our nation — blood and tears.
7) Girls, “The Panic in Central Park”
Girls is often best when it acknowledges that its characters are irritating but allows that their pain is valid too. It did both in this episode, perhaps its best one yet. Creator Lena Dunham’s script follows the horribly shallow, deeply self-involved Marnie (Allison Williams) as a chance encounter with a former boyfriend (Christopher Abbott, returning to the series after years away) sends the two on an all-night stroll around New York City, in search of answers and purpose. It’s beautiful, bittersweet, and aching.
6) The Americans, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”
The Americans is all about the slow and steady build of tension, with very little release to make up for it; it doesn’t trade in “big” episodes so much as momentary respites. That’s what made this hour — in which the show closed off one storyline in a nearly silent opening, brought every other storyline to a near boiling point, and then brazenly jumped several months into the future — so brilliant. It was reminiscent of a season finale, but one that aired as the season’s eighth episode, making it also the start of something entirely new. It was the best the show has ever been.
No one but Beyoncé saw Lemonade coming. The HBO special unfolded in gorgeous, wrenching waves, an entire hour of new songs set to beautifully directed videos, interspersed with Beyoncé reciting Warsan Shire’s bruising poetry. Watching it unfold in real time was the kind of singular television event so many try to pull off but never achieve, so of course Beyoncé made it look easy. Lemonade defies categorization — movie? TV? TV movie? — but we’d be remiss to ignore this powerful work completely.
4) BoJack Horseman, “Fish Out of Water”
Sometimes an episode stands out for sheer conceptual brilliance. Such was the case with this nearly dialogue-free, scrumptiously drawn and designed half-hour, in which BoJack Horseman, in pursuit of an Oscar nomination, travels to an undersea film festival to rep his film Secretariat. While there, he tries to make amends with a friend turned rival, takes a baby seahorse under his wing, and confronts his existential despair. The episode ends first with profundity — “In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make,” BoJack scrawls in an apology note — and then with a great closing gag.
3) Black Mirror, “San Junipero”
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has a reputation for exposing humanity’s worst instincts through its relationship with technology and then grinning as it shocks you with electric frissons of panic. But its third season’s best episode by a long shot completely abandoned that formula. “San Junipero” tells a beautiful love story, as two women who meet in their potential afterlife must then decide what falling in love there might mean. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis give fierce and vulnerable performances, and the episode is easily one of 2016’s most purely stunning hours of television.
2) The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, had long ago become a punchline. That’s what made her portrayal by Sarah Paulson in this FX limited series so riveting. Yes, Clark might have lost a seemingly can’t-lose case, but Paulson dug into the sheer terror and desperation that became evident as Clark slowly watched a guilty verdict slip away from her. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” marks the zenith of Clark realizing her efforts were futile, as she tries anything to change the media narrative surrounding her and finds society’s entrenched sexism pushing back at every turn.
1) Black-ish, “Hope”
The best TV episode of 2016 was confined almost entirely to one location, as the Johnson family confronted, head on, the realities of being black in America at this moment in time. A black man might be the president, yes, but any hopes of America moving past its racial legacy were, to put it mildly, premature. The Johnsons discuss all that and more from the confines of their living room, and the episode concludes with a deeply moving monologue about the perils, anxieties, and, yes, hopes of progress. The best sitcom episodes tackle big topics in tiny, intimate ways. This is one for the pantheon.