Though I managed a fairly high number of film views in 2016, a lot of my time was taken up by watching a great deal of serialised television: those that were brand new, as well as personal favourite stories, both returning and concluding. While some of the shows below didn’t make my Top 10, their isolated episodes were such high quality that they surpassed those shows that I loved the most, whether they were incredibly strong stand-alone episodes that can be watched without prior viewing, or played a part of a greater whole.
Of course, these will all be impossible to talk about without delving into specifics of plot, so skip those that you’ve not seen.
10. Stranger Things – ‘Holly Jolly’ (S01E03)
In addition to one of the finest cast of youngsters to grace television in years, the most acclaimed new series of 2016 – Stranger Things – was notable for its deft blend of homage and technological advancements, finely balancing its influences – from The Goonies to Firestarter – while keeping audiences on their toes with its mysterious otherworldly horrors. But it was chapter three – ‘Holly Jolly’ – that brought these horrors crashing back to the real world with the very tangible threat of death. In this chapter, there’s a healthy smattering of The Upside Down; more revelations of Eleven’s puzzling history; and the now iconic string of alphabetised fairy lights that has become synonymous with the show’s enigma. But above all this, it’s the last few minutes that the body of William Byers (Noah Schnapp) is discovered in a quarry while his best friends watch on that elevates the show from simple, entertaining sci-fi, to a heartfelt story of loss. The kids, displaying grief, denial, and anger with immediacy is as powerful as any wholesale drama this year. As the episode closes with Peter Gabriel’s cover of Heroes swelling over Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) understanding of his friend’s death, and Joyce and Jonathan’s embrace lit in the fog lights of a rusty car, the emotions sting, and even the next episode’s revelation do little to diminish its power.
9. High Maintenance – ‘Grandpa’ (S01E03)
High Maintenance began as a web series in which The Guy (played by creator and star Ben Sinclair) makes his way from client to client, couriering weed to all types of people throughout New York City. 19 episodes later and the high-concept show found a new platform through HBO to tell its interconnected stories of stressed suburbanites and sub-cultures seeking a means to escape reality or to indulge their addiction. These clients range from an agoraphobic Helen Hunt obsessive, a cross-dressing author with writer’s block, and a swingers party with a secret amongst its ranks. Grandpa follows this web series and two excellent opening episodes but becomes a true highlight with a fascinating concept: a dog’s eye-view of dealers and their consumers. Gatsby (the dog) falls in love with Beth (Orange is the New Black‘s Yael Stone), a free-spirited dog-walker who claims one of her past lives was that of a dog. Up until her introduction, the episode never shows anything above waist-height. Gatsby’s owners and the humans he interacts with, come second to the stench of other dogs and the brief minutes of outdoors time that his owner can afford. The narrow focus superbly invites us into Gatsby’s world without pageantry, only leaping from drab inner-city life to vivid colour with Beth’s 1980s vintage dancewear. It’s a hilarious episode in a brilliant season that stands out for the way it packs a wonderful emotional punch, making a story led by a dog much more human than the vast majority of this years’ TV.
8. Mr. Robot – ‘h1dden-pr0cess.axx’ (S02E10)
There was far less talk about Mr. Robot‘s second season, but for my money, the show really began to find its stride once it was able to eschew the parallels to other dual-personality shows and films. Season 2 was everything its predecessor was: confounding, engaging and electrifying, yet it was even more experimental than before. Episodes included twisted versions of 1980s sitcoms (Episode 6 ‘m4ster-s1ave.aes’), Adderall-induced montages set to Holy Fuck’s ‘Lovely Allen’ (Episode 3 ‘k3rnel-pan1c.ksd’) and a full-on mind shattering illusion at its mid-point (Episode 7 ‘h4ndshake.sme’) but the season-defining moment came at the tail-end, where Dom (Grace Gummer) tracks Darlene and Cisco to a cafe: a continuous, nerve-shredding static shot that glacially develops with sounds of traffic and chatter and actions that pierce as strong as the bullets fired from the Dark Army hitman. The show has slowly been tightening its grip on its protagonists, putting them at the whim of assassination attempts and corporate destruction, but it was never as nail biting as this episode’s threat to three of its major players.
7. Documentary Now! – ‘Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything’ (S02E03)
If you haven’t heard much about Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s mockumentary spoof Documentary Now!, that’s because IFC revels in the quirky, covert nature of their original programming. Taking a different documentary as its target for each episode and parodying them with fictitious-but-believable stories, Season 2 hit a high mark with its third episode: so far we’ve had spoofs of The Thin Red Line, Stop Making Sense and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but ‘Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything’ takes aim at Spalding Grey’s performative monologue Swimming to Cambodia. Having not seen Jonathan Demme’s film, it’d be a lie to say that I was immediately familiar with this ‘theatrical story show’, but that makes little difference when the pastiche of it is so fantastic. Our unreliable narrator – Bill Hader as Parker Gail – recounts the very troubling tale of being kicked out of his New York apartment, his stream-of-consciousness story favouring his plight in lieu of telling the truth: the full, truthful story is developed with accounts from those he romanticises: a landlord, an ex-girlfriend, and even a subway attendant. It gradually becomes more absurd as the story stretches further from the truth, but it’s all staged as a one-man show: with minimal props used to set the scene, and plenty of overdramatic pantomime from Parker to convey his (often embellished) story. Finishing on a sublime curtain-pull that adds another layer to its already charming quality, Documentary Now!‘s best episode is an incredibly smart deconstruction of the source material, and also one of the best stand-alone episodes of TV in 2016.
6. Westworld – ‘Trompe L’Oeil’ (S01E07)
Westworld wasn’t perfect. It often dragged out moments of revelation to heighten its atmosphere, and included a needless amount of padding in order to keep the audience guessing, but while this was slightly detrimental to the overall quality of the show, when it hit with reveal like the one at the end of the seventh episode – ‘Trompe L’Oeil’. – it felt very well and truly satisfying. One of the most momentous episodes of the season, we’re first treated to a macabre scene of Theresa (Babette Knudsen) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) demonstrating Dr. Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) hosts have learnt the capacity for extreme violence, as well as Maeve’s gradual progression towards full sentience, but it’s the “‘What door?” epiphany – one that was teased for seven full hours before – that gives the season its most gratifying, exciting cliffhanger. What was discovered wasn’t entirely a surprise, but it’s the way in which we’re repeatedly blinded with fake-outs and red herrings, only for those theories to be proven correct with a legitimately terrifying conclusion. Wiser still: in the remaining three episodes, the show makers refused to reverse this event, and by not retreating on its morbid finality, we were left wondering what the hell would happen next as the show headed toward its destructive end.
5. BoJack Horseman – ‘Fish Out of Water’ (S03E04)
The first season of Netflix’s animated show Bojack Horseman took me more than one attempt to finish: sporadically amusing, infrequently smart, and a little boring, it didn’t do much to win me over. Surprisingly, once I passed the first season (after my second or third attempt) it became something I actually looked forward to watching. As with a lot of episodes on this list, ‘Fish Out of Water’ defies convention: a near-silent episode filled with slapstick humour and superb references to the Hollywood elite, we follow BoJack as he forcibly attends an award ceremony, under water, and with no means of verbal communication thanks to the cumbersome scuba gear he has to wear the entire time. Being a land-mammal, Bojack has no real business in going into the ocean depths, but he agrees to do so as it would benefit his Oscar campaign back on his home turf. At this point in BoJack’s latest downward spiral, he’s forced to not only forego his flippant comments and petty insults, but his smoking and alcohol addictions are completely at the mercy of the Pacific Ocean, rendering him totally out of his depth. It’s an utterly fantastic half hour of television, with a typically acerbic coda that plays right into the show’s darkest humour. BoJack certainly gets gloomier and weirder as Season 3 progresses, but it’s this explosion of colour and humourous sight-gags mixed with the very real depiction of depression that makes it the greatest episode of the show to date, and the finest animated show of the year.
4. Better Call Saul – ‘Nailed’ (S02E09)
Confidently escaping the shadow of the other Vince Gilligan show, Better Call Saul continued its reign over scripted TV this year, culminating in one of the most intensely brilliant episodes of its run. Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) – after being warned for covering his tracks from co-business partner and on-off partner-partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) – returns to the copy shop where he altered documents that humiliated his brother, Chuck (Michael McKeen), at an important hearing. It’s a hugely important episode in the grand scheme of Jimmy and Chuck’s universe: the latter succumbing to his electromagnetic hypersensitivity, an illness that seemed idiosyncratic at first (even by Gilligan’s standards) but came into full swing this season, written smartly, without ridicule. As Jimmy watches Chuck argue with the copy store clerk, things take a very dark turn – think Walt looming over Jane in Breaking Bad‘s second season – but this feels even more risky for everyone orbiting Jimmy’s unstable world. Gilligan and co’s ability to keep the audience guessing (certainly more adeptly than Nolan and Joy’s Westworld rug-pulling) was never more on display than in this episodes’ final, shocking seconds.
3. Rectify – ‘Pineapples in Paris’ (S04E05)
Rectify – a show that has been in my Top 3 for 4 years running – had an impressive run of episodes in its fourth and final season, starting with ‘Pineapples in Paris’ through to the sensational, touching finale. It was a momentous episode for the southern gothic drama, with multiple stories – both the high-stakes and the low – converging together in a truly satisfying hour of television that gave all of our residents of Paulie, Georgia (and those newcomers in New Canaan) a chance to unburden their past. Even though there were steps taken backwards, it was an episode of momentum: all of the arcs and manifestations of character falling into place for the following three episode, such as Teddy’s request for divorce from Tawney, or Ted Snr. revealing his heart-wrenching resentment for Janet. In any other show, these might’ve been treated as a bridge between events, but with Rectify, these are the events: understated, soft, and with immense pathos for every character. These are milestones in their quiet lifestyle, and though the season continued this unburdening for another three episodes until its end, it was ‘Pineapples in Paris” melding of these stories that have been with us for three-and-a-half seasons that really stunned. A perfect episode of television if there ever was one, and yet, still only at #3.
2. Black Mirror – ‘San Junipero’ (S03E04)
Tonally different in every way to what came before and since, San Junipero, written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Owen Harris, isn’t just the best episode of Black Mirror, but it’s also one of the best pieces of self-contained science-fiction to ever exist on television. Black Mirror is often content with bringing us grim, downbeat stories as a tale of caution against the over-reliance on technology, but with this flawlessly executed script, we’re treated to a story of hope and beauty in a digital world that’s devoid of the show’s usual cynicism. Starring Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as two very different souls inhabiting an idyllic seaside town in the 1980s, we’re drawn to them as they’re drawn to each other, connecting with their flourishing love but also apprehensive with the expectation of another Very Important Message that is often hammered home in the worst entries of the series. Brooker’s script neatly drops hints throughout that something about their lives isn’t what it seems, but it’s not until a final act reveal that we’re informed of the real story, and by then, the audiences hearts have been broken. It’s full of stunning performances, beautiful cinematography, and a poignant, but hopeful end that suggests even in Black Mirror‘s bleak universe, heaven is place on earth.
1.You’re the Worst – ‘Twenty-Two’ (S03E05)
When ‘Twenty-Two’ aired at the very end of September, I knew that nothing would be able to top it. You’re the Worst has always tackled serious subjects with awareness and sensitivity, and after Season 2’s impeccable Gretchen-(Aya Cash)centric episode ‘LCD Soundsystem’, Stephen Falk’s ostensible rom-com further distanced itself from its generic genre peers with this absolutely remarkable episode of television. This episode follows Edgar (Desmin Borges) the kindest and least self-centered character on the show (easily the only one who doesn’t count as ‘the Worst’) as he struggles with the realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Throughout the episode, we see Edgar get trampled on by those around him, have a distressing but justifiable outburst in the Veteran’s Health clinic, and contemplate jumping into traffic to end it all. This is a character we’ve grown with for 27 episodes: one we’ve seen to be the butt of everyone’s jokes, and one whose disorder we’ve seen affect his everyday life and his relationships, so to see him consider death an option after a particularly shitty day was something I wasn’t prepared for. It’s an episode imbued with paranoia, flights of fancy and ‘what-if’s, but with an underlying core of encouragement for Edgar’s progression as well as the show’s. You’re the Worst is a show that consistently surprises with its even-handed clarity, sincerity, and emotional depth, all suffused with a sharp-tongued humour, so when episodes like this come along – ones where the comedy is there, but harder to find – it really sets the show apart from just about everything else.
Again, as with my other article, sticking to just 10 episodes was a bit of a task, so the following are terrific episodes in shows that just missed out on being in the Top 10. Preacher – ‘Sundowner’ (S01E05) (energetically sustained action set-pieces and one of the most shocking cliffhangers in 2016 TV); Horace and Pete – ‘Episode 3’ (S01E03) (included for the nine-minute, unwavering monologue from Laurie Metcalf); The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story – ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ (S01E06) (the risk of unwanted celebrity are on show in a breathless Marcia led episode); The Last Man on Earth – ’30 Years of Science Down the Tubes’ (S02E18) (Fox’s sitcom brings big laughs and moving sentimentality to its season finale); Atlanta – ‘B. A. N.’ (S01E07) (a Tim & Eric-style stand-alone episode is as ludicrously odd as it is tonally different to the rest of the season); Game of Thrones – Battle of the Bastards (S06E09) (narratively saggy but visually stunning, the battle of Winterfell is a riveting piece of action TV); and Man Seeking Woman – ‘Tinsel’ (S02E04) (ditching the main characters to focus on Liz’s affair with Santa was inspired).
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
Follow him on Instagram.