Actual spookiness is off the menu for the third season of Ryan Murphy’s gloriously gruesome genre experiment. Instead, in New Orleans, we’ve gotten to binge on camp, cattiness, and heady riffs on the cruelty in America’s history. The fifth episode offered all of these elements, but also with a dose of action-movie glee when the voodoo queen’s corpse army lays siege to the titular coven’s manor. Kathy Bates’s seemingly callous, immortal governess heartbreakingly encounters the zombie of the daughter she’d abused more than a century earlier; the demure young sorceress Zoe goes Resident Evil by taking up a chainsaw.
In the aftermath, the coven’s overseeing council tries to prosecute Jessica Lange’s fabulously self-centered headmistress for crimes against witchkind, but decades-old secret loyalties upend the trial, and the wrong woman ends up burnt at the stake. A twist in the final shot offers yet another entertaining reminder that injustice never stays buried.
Watching the Netflix revival of Mitchell Hurwitz’s beloved sitcom was, at first, disheartening: Is this ever going to get good? Happily, the answer turned out to be “yes.” Episode Seven, the first one centered around Gob, triggers nearly as many laughs and quotables as anything in the original three seasons.
You’ll remember it as the one with ridiculous set piece after ridiculous set piece—the Entourage sendup, the “Getaway” earworm, the Jesus illusion, the bee swarm, Gob’s morning-after meal/marriage proposal to Egg, er, Ann. Unlike so much else with Season Four, it works as a standalone, mixing absurdity and dark satire—anyone else gasp at the blasphemy on display at the Veal-Bluth wedding?
Boardwalk Empire is many things, but it isn't slow. For all of its style and focus on setting a mood, Boardwalk Empire is more like deliberate: Every event matters and will come back to affect someone's schemes down the road.
The show’s fourth season was perhaps even more deliberate than its predecessors, so in true Boardwalk fashion, the finale wasn't a neat wrap-up of the season's plots. Rather, it was a forward-looking episode that established long-term divisions and motivations for the future.
At the heart of “Farewell Daddy Blues” is the conflict between Michael K. Williams’s Chalky White and Jeffrey Wright’s Doctor Narcisse. The two are electric together, and it’s terrifying and exciting when their power struggle comes to a head. Shots are fired, one innocent gets killed, and most intriguingly, their battle for control over Atlantic City’s north side remains unresolved. And then there's Jack Huston as the noble, disfigured assassin Richard Harrow, who manages to be a romantic and tragic hero as everyone's world collapses in the episode. His death is perhaps the biggest shock of the episode, and the season, but a fitting end for a moral character in an immoral world.
The end of Breaking Bad bothers me. I didn't like it when it aired in September, and I really don't like it now. It's an artful, thrilling conclusion to Walter White's perverse story, but it just wasn't for me. That's why I prefer to believe "Ozymandias" is the true finale to one of the greatest shows ever. (Those next two episodes? Just an extended epilogue I choose to ignore.)
Think about it. Walter is banished to New Hampshire, unable to "save" his family with the drug money he squirreled away. Jesse, forever the victim, lives out his last days as a meth-cooking slave for the neo-Nazis. Nobody is saved and everybody suffers. That's the ending Breaking Bad needed. Bleak, merciless, and tragic.
At its best, Doctor Who can provide complex science-fiction concepts, comedy, drama, existential discussion, adventure, and a bit of horror, all in one episode. “The Night of the Doctor,” the webisode prequel to Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special, not only did that, but it did it in seven minutes.
The actual special, “The Day of the Doctor,” was a fun (and flawed) adventure and tribute to the show, but it failed to follow up on the excellent setup provided in “Night.” The webisode managed to bring back almost 40-year-old plotlines and created one of the best conflicts of morality the show has seen: The Doctor has to decide whether or not to become a killer in order to save the universe. But what truly makes “Night” work is Paul McGann who returns to reprise his role as the Eighth Doctor. McGann turns in a masterful performance as the Doctor, encompassing the character’s many aspects—clever, determined, and tragic—all in less than 10 minutes, and ultimately showcasing what makes the Doctor one of the most iconic characters in fiction.
It’s tough to say goodbye to any beloved TV show, especially one as criminally underrated—or at least as under-watched—as Enlightened. But with the axe looming over the ratings-challenged second season, creator Mike White made parting with Amy Jellicoe as painless as possible.
The episode begins with another reflective and ominous monologue as corporate whistleblower Amy (Laura Dern) wonders whether she’s an agent of change or a creator of chaos. Funny—viewers have been asking the same question all season. Has Amy really become a noble do-gooder, or is she just a lost soul acting on vendettas and insecurities post-breakdown? The episode’s early scenes suggest the latter could be true: When Amy alerts her mom to the Los Angeles Times’ investigation she aided, her mother asks her to move out, appalled at her selfish behavior. When Amy storms into frenemy Krista’s hospital room to falsely accuse her of betrayal, it’s like watching Carrie Mathison stubbornly storm into danger.
But when the story leaks and Amy comes face to face with her CEO, the supposed embodiment of corporate evil, her metamorphosis completes. Her new-age idealism is no front. Amy digs her heels into her beliefs, delivering some of the show’s best dialogue that’s both thrillingly climactic and hilariously GIF-able.
“Am I crazy?” Amy later asks her ex-husband (Luke Wilson) now that she has no job and nowhere to go. “You’re full of hope,” he tells her. And for two seasons, she had enough for everyone.
For the two-part finale of Elementary's first season, CBS’s fascinating examination of Sherlock Holmes and the characters in his world fully moved away from its procedural trappings to embrace its more serial plots. After half a season of building up a confrontation with Holmes's classic nemesis Moriarty, Elementary doesn't disappoint with “The Woman”/“Heroine”: Irene Adler, the woman who has driven Holmes into an out-of-control drug addiction, returns after apparently dying, and is revealed to be the true Moriarty. Holmes not only has to stop Moriarty’s criminal plot, but he also must deal with residual feelings of betrayal and love, plus the urge to relapse.
But the real treat is seeing Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes and Lucy Liu's Watson show how far they've grown as characters, and as friends, since the show started. Their chemistry is superb, and because their relationship has both grown and served as a way to get to know both characters, their confrontation with Moriarty works on a dramatic level: Irene is the catalyst for Holmes’s addiction and problems, and therefore the natural enemy to Watson, Holmes’s sober companion. Elementary has always been a show interested in exploring self-destruction, recovery, and trust. The return of Irene in the form of Moriarty, then, wasn't just clever use of a fan-service opportunity, but a test of the show's themes.
Killing off a handful of major characters in a bloody ambush is one way to create what TV execs might call “buzz”—a.k.a. a nationwide conniption on social media and in living rooms.
But killing them off in a cinematically stunning scene at the end of an hour centering on how other characters use their savvy and luck to escape death? Killing them after subtly, slowly showing the ways that the doomed protagonists have chosen to live by honor, in defiance of the fact that their world is ruled by brutal pragmatism? To kill the very people avenging the similarly ignoble death of the figure who had initially seemed like the hero of the show? To do it with a raft of perfectly anguished performances—a hopeless scream, a resigned goodbye to a parent, a callous kiss-off to a sacrificed hostage? That’s a landmark feat of storytelling, an example of how to illuminate the human condition by shocking the conscience.
One way to rate a Girls episode is by the share of meme-ready moments it provides, and Season Two’s third installment offered a few great ones: Hannah in see-through yellow mesh, coked up, jumping around to Icona Pop’s “I Love It”; Marnie trapped in Booth Jonathan’s TV tower of terror; Hannah, Elijah, and grizzled guardian Laird confusedly wandering the aisles of a drug store.
But the gut-punching climax of the half hour comes toward the end when Hannah confronts Marnie about getting with her (gay) ex-boyfriend. For all the hilarity and craziness we’ve seen thus far, that exchange feels all too real: Hannah’s hurt, but she uses that hurt as a weapon, insisting that Marnie admit not her specific betrayal but to the larger fact that she, supposedly, is a “bad friend.” It’s classic Lena Dunham: Even with her nipples exposed while twisting the English language to self-parodying extremes—"you looked me in the eyes, again and again, and you lied to me with your eyes, and you said to me, by not saying anything, that you’d done nothing!"—she manages to make a point about the power dynamics of young-adult relationships.
I still don't entirely believe this happened. The League, a goofy sitcom about man-children who play fantasy football, took a hard turn toward the surreal with "Rafi and Dirty Randy," the most bizarre, raunchy, ludicrous half-hour of television I watched in 2013. The episode ditches any sort of sensible plot, instead sending its two most psychotic inventions, played by co-writers Jason Mantzoukas and Seth Rogen, on a road trip for vigilante justice. It's like a live-action adaptation of Grand Theft Auto, but with penis gags. "Rafi and Dirty Randy" is downright filthy, ripping jokes that should never, ever be repeated in polite company. You will either hate it, or adore it.
The biggest reveal of the Season 6 Mad Men premiere is that Don is cheating on his wife with a downstairs neighbor. The affair is the season's proverbial rifle on the wall. We know Don is going to get caught eventually, but how? And what will the consequences be?
The rifle goes off in "Favors" when Don's beloved daughter Sally walks in on them. It's a wrenching scene, as Sally, Don, and Sylvia all recoil in horror. Terrible as the scene is, it's a masterful reminder that the most significant relationship in Don's life is with Sally, not any of his wives or past lovers. Megan never seems to find out about the affair—all that matters is that Sally knows. This moment ends up driving the final two episodes of the season: Sally recoils from Don, insisting on going to boarding school, while Don plunges into yet another depression. The end of the season offers hope—and confirms the centrality of the Don-Sally relationship. The finale's last scene shows Sally beginning to forgive her father... while Megan's not even in the picture.
Much of Masters of Sex’s stellar first season explores the question of whether sex and romance always have to be a pair. Often, it concludes that sex never truly exists without some degree of love; emotional attachments form, whether voluntary or not. But in the show’s sixth episode, its examination reverses course: With two standout supporting performances from Caitlin Fitzgerald and Allison Janney, “Brave New World” questions whether love can survive without sex.
After suffering a miscarriage, Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen) and his wife Libby (Fitzgerald) take a vacation; back in St. Louis, research assistant Virginia Johnson sets out to test Freud’s theory that women’s clitoral orgasms are “immature” orgasms. The Masters’ vacation, however, goes awry when the usually meek Libby realizes the extent to which her husband’s academic interest in sex outsizes his sexual interest in sex. “This isn’t working,” she announces, and sends him home. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that Barton Scully, the conservative (and closeted) university provost whose disapproval looms over Masters and Johnson’s sex study, is in a sexless marriage. His wife Margaret (Janney) grows restless when she begins to suspect their polite union might be missing something, and Janney turns in a haunting portrayal of barely concealed devastation when Margaret volunteers for Masters and Johnson’s study—only to be turned away because she’s never had an orgasm.
“Where they love, they have no desire; where they desire, they cannot love,” hospital secretary Jane quotes from Freud, and it seems appropriate that an episode predicated on debunking the Austrian psychologist should test whether love and desire can or should coexist. And, of course, there’s that eye-popping teaser at the end—signaling that Masters and Johnson are about to approach that question in a whole new way.
This episode of The Mindy Project finds Mindy Kaling doing what she does best: subverting and reinvigorating rom-com clichés. There’s the “crazy” ex-girlfriend—Amy, who Danny used to date. There’s “fake relationship becomes real”—Mindy, who is staying at Danny’s because she lost her purse, pretends to be his pregnant fiancée, “Chloe Silverado,” when they run into Amy.
And there’s also “the letter that didn’t come from who you thought,” à la Cyrano de Bergerac or You’ve Got Mail. At the office, gynecologist-bro Peter and spectacularly unhinged nurse Morgan find Mindy’s phone and end up trading escalating texts with Cliff, the lawyer from upstairs. “Your competence is a double-edged sword,” Cliff texts Mindy, at which Peter cackles, “This nerd is HORNED UP.” Morgan also makes the observation that the winky face is “like emoji porn,” which is 100 percent true. They get caught, of course, but not before Cliff confesses to a bathroom he doesn’t know does not contain Mindy that “the most exciting text I got from you was the first one.”
At Danny’s place, it turns out that “there is a sociopath here, and it’s not Amy,” as Mindy says. Danny has been leading Amy on because he’s lonely and Mindy lets him have it. Still, they’ve committed to the charade and have to see it through, so when Amy suspects they’re not really dating, the two quickly start cuddling. “Danny never looked at me like that,” Amy says, resigned. And so it begins.
I had been resisting this. Not even the supreme handsomeness of Chris Messina’s face could make me want Mindy and Danny to be anything more than bickering work friends. It was an obvious pairing and I wanted none of it. But when Danny gives Mindy that Look and adorably kisses her on the forehead to convince his ex they’re really together, he convinced me too. I’m in, damn it. Mindy knows best.
Midway through its second season, The Newsroom abruptly abandoned much of what it’s become known for—like the famous sermonizing and the mawkish concern for its characters’ personal lives. And something astonishing happened: It became an absolutely riveting workplace drama.
In “Red Team III,” the seventh and best episode of the season, ACN News Night finally airs its controversial Operation Genoa report—a story 11 months in the making, which claims that U.S. soldiers used chemical weapons in a covert operation in Pakistan. In the next 48 hours, the entire story unravels; witnesses recant, reporters are discovered to have doctored evidence, and sources reveal themselves to have planted false proof to blackmail network executives. And as the whole cast suddenly puts away its cutesy squabbling and faces the sobering reality of a massive, everyone’s-fault institutional failure, their problem-solving process becomes not just watchable but enthralling. Real ethical questions are raised: Whose fault is it when reporters get duped? To what extent should anonymous sources be trusted? Do American military heroes deserve a moral “benefit of the doubt?” When should uncertain gut feelings be taken seriously, especially ones that go against the findings of meticulous research?
Of course, after momentarily living up to its potential as a sort of West Wing for the journalism set, The Newsroom returned to mediocrity just in time for a head-scratcher of a finale, complete with a marriage proposal nobody asked for. But for a second there, The Newsroom was some of the finest TV the summer season had to offer.
The Office is the archetype of the modern sitcom. If you watch comedy on network television tonight—any channel, any time—you'll see hallmarks of Dunder Mifflin: the mockumentary style, the comedic timing that breaks jokes with awkward pauses, and that downright wonderful empathy for ordinary lives. The show lost its way as it aged, meandering through retread storylines and frustrating mistakes, yet the finale is a lovely throwback to its glory days. It's filled with sweet moments that smooth over the season's roughest edges, give each character a chance to take a bow, and remind us how The Office shaped pop culture for the better part of a decade.
Does it get any better than Michael Scott surprising Dwight with the world's greatest "that's what she said" joke? Or a teary-eyed Phyllis watching Erin reunite with her parents? Or Jim and Pam, America's sweethearts, finally escaping the Scranton doldrums that threatened their marriage? No, it does not.
Jenji Kohan, the creator of Netflix’s breakout drama Orange Is the New Black, has called the show’s protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) a Trojan horse. A self-centered, college-educated yuppie who lands in prison for a decade-old drug crime is an enticing pitch, but her story is just a back entrance to the stories of other incarcerated women—black women, Latina women, transgender women, older women—who don’t get TV shows made about them.
“Tall Men with Feelings” has plenty of Piper-centric drama, but the episode is a prime example of Kohan’s philosophy at work. Piper’s fiancé Larry goes on a This American Life-esque radio show (complete with Ira Glass lookalike) to talk about Piper’s life in prison, and the fallout is heartbreaking: Miss Claudette feels humiliated by the way Piper reduced her identity to the crime she committed, while Suzanne, usually one of the series’ most reliable sources of comic relief, sobs as she finally learns why everyone calls her “Crazy Eyes.”
Elsewhere in the episode, two storylines—the arrangement of a fallen inmate's memorial and a risky, ethically ambiguous scheme to cover up a pregnancy–highlight the worst parts of America’s prison industrial complex without needing any exposition. If a show can pack this many compelling plots into one hour, it’s a shame it needs a Trojan horse.
What do you do when your web series’ Kickstarter campaign is so successful that backers pledge nearly three times your original funding goal? Why, you make a bonus holiday episode—that happens to be the best episode of the entire series.
The Outs was originally a six-episode project about gay, Brooklyn-dwelling 20-somethings coping with a breakup, and, like a certain other show about young New Yorkers, The Outs was criticized for its lack of diversity despite its attempts to depict the gay characters not usually found on TV. But The Outs, like Girls, wasn’t setting out to make a big statement about millennials or gay communities or young women or whoever—it was capturing the minutiae of modern relationships: between friends, between exes, and between significant others of varying significance. The character best at doing so wasn’t even one of the series’ two male leads, but rather the feisty Oona (Sasha Winters), who turns the episode’s bizarre Alan Cumming cameo into a showcase of her caustic wit, and whose monologue about failed friendships nails the episode’s best one-liners: “Nobody wants to date someone going to grad school. It’s something that some people have to put up with, like HPV or circumcised men.”
At 43 minutes, the Chanukah Special is the series’ longest episode by far, but the extended run time helps build to the satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion missing from the first finale. Plus, it teases what the show might look like if it finds new life outside of Vimeo.
The 13th episode of Parenthood’s gut-wrenching fourth season is arguably its most challenging one—raising (and gracefully exploring) tough, off-the-beaten-family-sitcom-path questions like How do you explain puberty and sex to your special-needs teenager? What happens when you adopt a child and find you don’t love him? and Is it OK for a boyfriend to ask his girlfriend not to have an abortion? But it’s a testament to the NBC series’ warmth and versatility that the episode is also one of its funniest.
In “Small Victories,” Adam and Kristina realize it’s time to talk to Max, their gruff 14-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, about why he suddenly smells different; Julia and Joel find that adopting a school-age son isn’t as seamless a transaction as they expected. And introverted high-school senior Drew gets news he doesn’t know how to handle: His girlfriend, Amy, is pregnant.
A more conventional show might scale back the jokes in an episode like this, to let these various private tragedies play out tastefully. But while this installment of Jason Katims’s expansive family series certainly approaches each storyline with frankness and compassion, it turns up the comic relief in the form of the never-joking Max. “Grandpa, do you ejaculate?” Max inquires meditatively (to his mom’s horror) when his grandparents arrive for dinner.
“Oh, do I ever,” Grandpa Zeek deadpans back, and Max’s grandmother chimes in merrily with, “Whenever he possibly can!”
It’s a high-risk move, cutting to this exchange just after a quietly excruciating scene in which Drew decides his concerned mom doesn’t need to know about Amy’s pregnancy. But for mysterious, miraculous reasons I don’t understand, it works beautifully.
Parks and Rec’s wedding episode is a celebration of just how far the show has come since its pilot almost five years ago. Leslie’s romance with Ben, who entered at the climax of season two, was not a long-brewing, tortured part of the show’s original architecture a la The Office’s Jim and Pam, but that just makes their marital bliss sweeter—the cherry on top of a show that humanized its heroine instead of making her the female Michael Scott. Ron Swanson was the Libertarian foil to Leslie’s overeager bureaucrat, but his kind words before walking her down the aisle are the most touching thing the stoic tough-guy has ever uttered. Chris and Ben’s best-man heart-to-heart solidified their status as one of television’s best bromances, and while Ann may be more of a sidekick to Leslie than a partner, she handled maid of honor duties with such aplomb it’s easy to forget they weren’t instant BFFs. It seems equally odd that Ann once dated Andy, whose doofus routine only gets more adorable when played off Andy’s now-wife April’s trademark deadpan.
Parks co-creator Michael Schur originally wrote "Leslie and Ben" as a series finale, unsure of whether NBC would order more installments given the show’s unimpressive ratings. It’s a relief they did, but it’s hard to imagine a better send-off to Pawnee than this episode would have been. “Leslie and Ben” is a love letter to a small-town government with a big heart, a 21-minute reminder that eventually choosing sincerity and optimism over cynicism can make for truly rewarding comedy.
Australian import Please Like Me earned plenty of praise for featuring gay characters whose storylines didn’t revolve entirely around their sexuality, but what’s the point of applauding nonchalant portrayals of LGBT people if you’re not going to applaud anything else? Please Like Me is a coming-out story, yes, but more importantly, it’s a coming-of-age story.
The first-season finale finds Josh (played by the show’s creator, 26-year-old comedian Josh Thomas) going through a particularly rough time. His 21st birthday is the same day as a family member’s funeral, and Josh isn’t sure how to process his grief. He complains that real life isn’t like the movies—no sad music or convenient narratives to tell you how to feel—and the rest of the episode (spoiler alert!) doesn’t make it any easier. When Josh tries to get back together with on-again, off-again flame Geoffrey, he gets friend-zoned—a blunt reality check. When Josh returns home, he walks in on his mom’s second suicide attempt.
Once again, there are no cinematic cues to help him pick up the pieces, no rock-bottom bursts of clarity and purpose. But watching Josh make sense of his life falling apart just when it should be coming together has always been the show’s most rewarding premise, and its poignant writing, which never strays far from Thomas’s comedy, makes Please Like Me one of this year’s best breakouts.
Scandal fans are a factional bunch, with each viewer holding a complex set of rooting and booing interests toward secondary characters. I, for example, am anti-Fitz, pro-Jake, pro-Abby, indifferent to Harrison, anti-Huck, anti-Quinn, pro-Cyrus, and, most passionately, pro-Mellie. The First Lady has been a chatterboxing schemer for the entire series, but played by Bellamy Young, she’s also magnetic, hilarious, and secretly the show’s most sympathetic figure.
“Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” made that less of a secret: Cutting between flashbacks from 20 years earlier and a present-day fluff interview she’s forced to do with a news crew, the episode fleshes out just how deeply Mellie has sacrificed for her husband’s sake. One hard-to-watch revelation from the past hits like a bomb blast; in the musical score, a bell tolls, signaling the death of a woman’s innocence and the start of her desperate, tragic need to overcome by any means necessary.
Sundance miniseries Top of the Lake felt like the Southern Hemisphere’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: beautiful accents, breathtaking scenery, and a gruesome small-town mystery where just about anybody could turn out to be a secret rapist.
In the series’ sixth episode, the quest for the missing, pregnant 12-year-old Tui escalates as Matt Mitcham sends his motorcycle gang to hunt down and retrieve his runaway daughter. Meanwhile, officer Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) hopes to beat him to it as she investigates his drug empire that’s seeped into every corner of the economically depressed Laketop.
In one of the episode’s most riveting scenes, Mitcham’s men chase someone they think to be Tui through gorgeous mountain peaks until she slips and falls to her death—only for Robin to discover down below that the body is actually that of Tui’s friend Jamie, dressed in her coat as a diversion. The chase is an unexpected adrenaline shot, but what makes the episode even more memorable is the scene that follows: In what is surely the best song placement of the year, Australian musician Georgi Kay performs her cover of Björk’s “Jóga” at Jamie’s memorial. The lyrics about emotional landscapes, states of emergency, and solving riddles couldn’t be more fitting for what just transpired, and her haunting, minimalist interpretation is the perfect soundtrack to shots of Jamie’s grieving mother, begging to be out of her misery—a scene as gripping as the series’ conclusion itself.
Veep’s second season is best remembered as the one that depicted a government shutdown months before the real federal government actually did shut down. But while the HBO series is full of highbrow, Washington-insider jokes that skewer the capitol’s elite, its excursion to Finland in “Helsinki” stood out for its simplicity.
The episode features several Veep characters doing what they do best (and funniest): Selina firing off acerbic insults left and right; Gary being a bumbling idiot; Jonah singlehandedly raising the country’s D-bag quotient; and Sue not putting up with any of it a continent away as TV’s funniest secretary. But it’s undeniably Sally Phillips, guest-starring as Finland’s Prime Minister, and her deadpan delivery that makes the episode what it is. “We hope you will go fishing in our country,” Selina says while presenting her with a book about the topic, the first of many diplomatic faux pas.
“Because no one will feed me?” Phillips answers back—maybe joking, maybe not.
Later, as Selina trips over herself trying to be a gracious guest while clumsily plugging her own policy agenda, Finland’s head of state quips, “We should keep this causing-offense-and-then-apology cycle going. You could step on my dress, I could sneeze in your drink.” Veep is one of the smartest shows around, but sometimes it’s the simplest jokes—classic misunderstandings, lost-in-translation gags, and, well, funny accents—that do the trick.