The Atlantic’s editors and writers pick their favorite 2016 moments from Fleabag, You’re the Worst, High Maintenance, The Good Place, and more. (Just to be clear, spoilers abound.)
One of the best things to happen in the world of Peak TV has been shows going out of their way to emphasize the characters who are not the stars. “Value,” in a series in which every episode is a legitimate contender for “best,” stands out, in particular, in regards to that intentional empathy. The episode belongs to Van; here, the woman who had thus far been defined in relation to Earn—as his on-again, off-again girlfriend, patient and long-suffering, and also as the mother of his young daughter—gets her due. And, powerfully, as herself. Things start out simply: Van has an obnoxiously fancy dinner with an obnoxiously fancy friend; the friend talks her into some post-dinner weed; only afterward will Van find out that the school where she works has selected the following day for employee drug-testing. The remainder of “Value” finds Van trying, with equal parts desperation and entrepreneurialism, to pass the test. It’s an effort that affords “Value” not just impressively quiet comedy, but that also works as a metaphor—for the arbitrariness of rules, and for the difficulty of staying afloat in a world that can be so determined to weigh people down.
Bojack Horseman, “Fish Out of Water”
“Fish Out of Water” (better known as “the underwater episode”) is the rare Bojack installment that’s easy to appreciate as a standalone. It features a single arc: The equine protagonist must make his way to the premiere of his new film, a Secretariat biopic, at a prestigious undersea festival. The episode starts out fairly normally, but after around minute three there’s a dramatic, yet nearly imperceptible, shift: The dialogue disappears. What follows is a gentle, beautifully animated watercolor fantasia that channels Charlie Chaplin and Lost in Translation to explore the ways people try, and often miserably fail, to connect with one another. There are enough visual gags to make up for the lack of verbal ones, and the score does a muscular job of modulating the pace and mood. It’s a testament to the show’s creative team that, for a series that derives so much power from an obsession with language, the best episode doesn’t need many words at all.
Broad City, “Co-Op”
In “Co-op,” Abbi and Ilana, the best friends-and-odd couple-and-also-platonic life partners of Broad City, finally do the inevitable: They switch places. Ilana has to complete a shift at her Brooklyn co-op (it’s her final day to do so before, yep, the current moon cycle ends); she has a doctor’s appointment, though, that conflicts with the shift. Abbi agrees to fill in for her friend—but, the co-op rules being uncooperatively strident, she ends up having to fill in not just for Ilana, but as her. And Ilana, meanwhile, will end up impersonating Abbi. Abbi’s Ilana is better than Ilana’s Abbi—Abbi, as her friend, wears a mesh crop top and fondles produce and merrily yas queens her way around the co-op—but the quality of the impersonations doesn’t, in the end, much matter. The point of this particular Freaky Friday is the friendship it involves—one so fierce that it overcomes even the comically massive differences between the two women who make it what it is.
The Chris Gethard Show, “One Man’s Trash”
A green dumpster sits in the middle of The Chris Gethard Show’s stage. Inside it, Gethard tells us, is something special—and if viewers calling in can guess, he’ll open the dumpster and reveal what it is. For the first half of “One Man’s Trash,” guests Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas gleefully try to disrupt proceedings, cackling at Gethard’s obvious discomfort. Then, he lets them look inside the dumpster, and without hyperbole, the expression on their faces after peeking is one of the TV highlights of the year. “One Man’s Trash” shows off everything that’s special about Gethard’s anarchic talk show, now in its second season on Fusion: It turns a freewheeling late-night comedy hour into a thrilling race against time. What’s in the dumpster? You’ll have to watch to find out.
Documentary Now, “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken”
Each of Documentary Now’s spoof mini-movies is its own little masterpiece, but there was no half-hour of television as emotionally fulfilling, as perfectly plotted, and as simply told as “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” a spoof of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Written by Seth Meyers, the episode lovingly mocks every food-porn trope while digging into the human drama of a son (Fred Armisen) desperately trying to live up to the example of his father (Hector Elias), an acclaimed, though very rustic, chef. It’s wry and funny throughout, but the episode’s final five minutes transcend parody; ridiculous as it sounds, Juan Likes Rice and Chicken is a genuinely powerful, moving little tale of fathers and sons.
Fleabag, “Episode Four”
Fleabag is about the best argument you’ll find for brevity in a TV miniseries: You can watch the whole thing in under three hours, but somehow within that space the show houses the narrative arc and measured character development of a much longer work. In the fourth episode (no official title), Fleabag and her sister head off to a women’s retreat in the countryside. There’s no wi-fi, only spartan accommodations, and the “mindfulness” activities consist of doing menial labor in complete silence. Meanwhile, a group of men staying at the same hotel scream obscenities at sex dolls dressed up as professional women. The episode’s insight into how society conditions men and women to behave is sneakily acute, and a scene at the end where a bank manager (Hugh Dennis) opens up to Fleabag about his state of despair is one of the most poignant moments I’ve seen on TV this year.
Game of Thrones, “The Winds of Winter”
With the season-seven finale, the Stark house words have been robbed of their ominous power: Winter isn’t coming, winter is here. Game of Thrones’s season finales always deliver, and this year was no different, with an especially epic episode that saw the (literal) fall of a king, the rise of a new queen, a shaky peace in the North, a series-defining revelation about a bastard’s birth, the poetic murder of a mass murderer, and a sea crossing that viewers waited seven years for. And, of course, it saw the arrival of the actual apocalypse in the form of ice zombies. But even apart from all the satisfying plot movement, “The Winds of Winter” made for breathtaking television, thanks to the magic of the director Miguel Sapochnik and the composer Ramin Djawadi, whose work on the opening sequence was nothing short of virtuosic.
Gilmore Girls, “Fall”
The first three episodes of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life were distinctly patchy, with dropped plot threads, interminable musical moments, and characters who seem hell-bent on proving they’d never been all that sympathetic to begin with. But “Fall” made me forgive everything, mostly because it crystallized everything that made the show great. Exhibit A: Lorelai and Luke, finally getting their (official, legal) happy ending. Exhibit B: Stars Hollow, made even more of an unrealistic fairyland than usual thanks to Kirk’s skills with Christmas lights. Exhibit C: a moment of emotional catharsis for Lorelai after losing her father, prompted by a wackadoo plot that made fun of every woman who was ever in a book club. Exhibit D: Emily Gilmore, independent woman, whale whisperer. Exhibit E: Sookie. Altogether, despite Logan’s best efforts to ruin everything with his costume club for Scott Disick wannabes, it was more than enough.
The Girlfriend Experience, “Blindsided”
There is something about watching The Girlfriend Experience that feels intensely claustrophobic, never more so than in the ninth episode when Christine realizes a tape of her having sex with Jack has been sent from her own email account to all of her contacts. As it rebounds around the office, and Christine is forced to listen to her coworker’s whispered reactions while fielding a series of increasingly menacing phone calls, “Blindsided” adopts the trappings of classic horror, with Christine being attacked from all sides by an intangible enemy. What makes it fascinating, though, is how untrustworthy her responses are. Her initial tears in David’s office give way to frustration and anger; her eventual panic attack feels like a convenient escape route. Throughout the episode, she maintains enough composure to record interactions with her phone, a reminder of the show’s theme of the currency of private moments.
Girls, “The Panic in Central Park”
The best episodes of Girls are usually ones that break the show’s conventions, either by zooming out of Brooklyn (all the way out to Tokyo, in Shoshanna’s case) or by examining individual characters more closely. “The Panic in Central Park,” inspired by the 1971 Al Pacino movie The Panic in Needle Park, focuses entirely on Marnie. Although she’s never been the show’s most sympathetic character, the episode’s unusual structure allows audiences to appreciate her vulnerability for the first time, as well as her toughness. Encountering her ex-boyfriend Charlie on the street, Marnie gets swept up in a charade that involves dressing up in a shiny red gown, masquerading as a prostitute, stealing a rowboat, running out on Charlie after finding evidence of his drug addiction, and realizing her marriage is over. The episode has moments of remarkable beauty (Marnie’s face underwater) and surreal humor (the scene in the communal showers at Charlie’s squat), but its unusual format allows both Lena Dunham and Allison Williams to showcase their strengths.
The Good Place, “Someone Like Me as a Member”
The Good Place may be one of the more high-concept network sitcoms currently on air. It centers on Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a morally shady person who dies and, due to a bit of bad cosmic filing, ends up in a non-denominational heaven. “Someone Like Me as a Member,” in particular, showcases the show’s weirdly specific humor and near-philosophical commitment to world-building. Though the regular “good place” cast is incredible, the representatives from “the bad place” steal this midseason finale. There’s a delightfully douchey demon-in-charge played by Adam Scott, who calls Eleanor “sweetheart” while telling her to smile and who says things like “Swear to Bieber.” There’s his hell posse, who snort time instead of cocaine and who, in perhaps one of my favorite comedic moments of 2016, do karaoke to hate speech (“Let’s do the Nixon tapes, that’s my jam!”). There’s even mention of a divine being who oversees both realms, further teasing the mystery of what January will bring. For those who haven’t seen The Good Place yet, the winter hiatus is as ideal a time as any to catch up.
High Maintenance, “Grandpa”
In the jump from web series to HBO comedy, High Maintenance extended its radical empathy beyond the typical humans of New York to a shaggy dog and—perhaps even more surprisingly—his Republican owner relocated from the Midwest. A short film shot largely from behind the ears of a slobbery half-poodle named Gatsby, the effervescent and surprisingly moving “Grandpa” celebrates the emotional intelligence of Man’s Best Friend without wandering too close to talking-pets territory. After falling in puppy-love with Yael Stone’s free-spirited dog walker, Gatsby meets with heartbreak that feels as devastating as any human being’s. But in the end, all dogs go to heaven, and this dog’s is in the urban social tapestry that High Maintenance so loves.
Horace and Pete, “Episode 3”
Horace and Pete, the stagey, independent drama that the comedian Louis C.K. funded out of his own pocket and dropped online with no hint or warning, contained a handful of the best TV performances of the year. But none were more arresting than those in “Episode 3,” which centers on a conversation between Horace (C.K.) and his ex-wife Sarah (Laurie Metcalf), in which she tells him that she’s having an affair with her new husband’s father. Told almost entirely in monologue, the 43-minute episode rarely breaks from Metcalf’s face as she essays her guilt, while simultaneously confessing that she cannot end the dalliance. Metcalf’s work in the episode is extraordinary—and its unusual formatting foreshadowed just how often C.K.’s new show would break traditional TV storytelling modes.
The Night Of, “The Beach”
Appreciating the beauty of HBO’s methodical deconstruction of the justice system means embracing the frustrating fact that smart people often make very bad decisions. So it is for Nazir (Riz Ahmed), the otherwise sympathetic college student whose wrong-place, wrong-time circumstances in the show’s first installment are made much worse by his own actions. You’d be forgiven for yelling at the guy through the screen; the super-tense first act of the premiere feels a lot like a horror film anyways. But the real thrill of the episode—and of the show—comes after the inevitable bloodshed. As the bureaucratic machinery of law and order begin to clamp down on Naz, it slowly becomes clear how an inhuman system can result from the sum efforts of many humans—each of them, of course, able to make mistakes.
Orange Is The New Black, “The Animals”
“This place crushes anything good,” Caputo tells Bayley in “The Animals,” warning him to leave Litchfield before he becomes a monster. His words manifest in awful, literal form at the end of the episode when Bayley inadvertently crushes Poussey to death in the midst of a protest in the cafeteria. It’s the ultimate distillation of the prison’s increased cruelty toward the inmates: Just as the women have made (loaded) peace with each other in their mission to bring down Piscatella and MCC, they’re reminded of how powerless they actually are. Orange Is the New Black juggles humor and darkness throughout its fourth season, but “The Animals” is a work of profound tragedy, asserting the vulnerability and humanity of the inmates in the face of heartbreaking loss.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
It’s fair to say that The People v. O.J. Simpson played a meaningful role in rehabilitating the public image of Marcia Clark, the attorney who prosecuted—and lost—the biggest murder trial of the 20th century. Clark’s list of perceived sins ran long: Her incompetence. Her naivete. Her unlikeability. Her hair. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” does a masterful, albeit condensed, job of showing just how much sexism shaped the way Clark was seen in the ’90s, and went on to be remembered today. In depicting the ruthless media scrutiny of her appearance, her guilt over balancing career with a family, and the casual courtroom mockery she faced, the Marcia-centric episode humanizes its subject in a way that makes Clark’s treatment seem both appalling and completely familiar, especially to female viewers. Sarah Paulson’s terrific performance rendered Clark not as a saint, but as a determined, intelligent lawyer whose flaws came to overshadow her strengths in large part because of her gender. Though the series didn’t have a single weak episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is arguably the most memorable.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, “RuPaul’s Book Ball”
RuPaul’s Drag Race is all about the fun of inventing a new identity, but as the contestant pool winnows down at the end of each season, the show’s deeper greatness reveals itself because the actual people behind the costumes and bitchery also do. This time out, the crucial final-five round provided so many moments of realness—both confrontational and joyful realness—that the producers had no choice but to let the episode run long. A simmering feud between a would-be Vogue model and a Britney Spears lookalike, centered on the issue of gluing down one’s eyebrows (who can’t relate, right?), questioned the nature of drag itself. Guest judges David and Amy Sedaris bought smart humor to an unusually literary final challenge. And the constants, asked to render their life stories in fashion, poignantly and playfully paid tribute to their first female role models: their mothers.
Saturday Night Live, “Tom Hanks/Lady Gaga”
Sometimes, Saturday Night Live airs the kind of instant-classic sketch you know you’ll want to watch over and over again for years to come, making the whole 90 minutes of (often uneven) comedy worth it. SNL’s Tom Hanks episode, which aired October 22, had two such sketches back-to-back. First, there was a Trump voter-themed edition of “Black Jeopardy,” a surprisingly searing subversion of the sketch’s traditional formula that only seems more meaningful post-election. Then, there’s David S. Pumpkins, the mysteriously confident halloween showman about whom much ink has already been spilled. It was an altogether terrific night—Hanks’s monologue (where he took on the role of “America’s Dad” and addressed the nation in a father-son heart-to-heart) was great, Leslie Jones’s Weekend Update segment about getting hacked was extraordinary—but let’s be honest. We’re still in the weeds with David Pumpkins.
Silicon Valley, “Meinertzhagen's Haversack”
Like Veep, Silicon Valley is a special comedy that has mastered the art of the pivot: Just when you think the plot has hit a dead end, the dramatic potential of a situation depleted, the writers surprise you by going in an even more fascinating direction. As of season three, the series protagonist Richard and his tech start-up, Pied Piper, had hit almost every conceivable high and low—and “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack” takes that narrative whiplash and uses it to drive a mini heist thriller. The episode is classic Silicon Valley: brutally, often obscenely funny, as its characters fumble their way around a high-stakes corporate landscape. There are invocations of British military history and strategy, plans to devise an illegal skunkworks, political backstabbing, and, yes, dramatic reversals of fate. Topping off the intrigue are some of the most inspired jokes of the season (like one inspirational speech that begins, “When George Washington founded a little startup we’ve come to know as these United States of America, and he was tired of getting shit from his CEO, the King of England…”).
Stranger Things, “The Weirdo on Maple Street”
In its second episode, Stranger Things secured its status as the TV delight of the summer by making clear its ’80s kitsch buffet really was going to get strange—and scary. In “The Weirdo on Maple Street,” the mysterious girl known as Eleven reveals her powers of telepathy and, more strikingly, its side effect: a bloody nose. A teenage pool party, documented by a creepy/compelling cameraman, seems to be going the way of any other teen comedy’s until a monster brings about what might be the most iconic TV tragedy of 2016. Most terrifyingly, Winona Ryder’s at-wits-end character communes with her missing son over a scratchy telephone connection—until the walls start to move. The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” provides a nicely incongruous soundtrack to that scene; the freakiest twist of all is how Joyce Byers answers Mick Jones’s question.
This Is Us, “Pilgrim Rick”
This Is Us is a wonderfully cheesy drama—I mean that entirely as a compliment—and “Pilgrim Rick” finds the NBC show at both its most dramatic and its most cheesy. The episode, as the rest of the series does, doubles through time: One of its stories is set in the late ’70s, as the Pearson family is preparing to go to the grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving; the other takes place in the present day, as the family is meeting up, once again, for holiday celebrations. The 2016 version shows the Pearsons’ unique Thanksgiving traditions (involving, among other things, the consuming of hot dogs and the unspooling of a ball of yarn and the ceremonial viewing of Police Academy 3); the ’70s-set storyline explains where all those traditions came from. It’s an elegant arrangement that gives every member of This Is Us’s excellent ensemble cast time to shine, and that embodies the best of the show’s animating idea: While family may not be the people we have chosen for ourselves, they are the ones we can choose, again and again, to come back to.
Transparent, “Exciting and New”
The supposedly fun thing David Foster Wallace said he’d never do again makes for the setting of a very fun—and typically moving—Transparent episode definitely worth watching again. On a tropical cruise, the original Pfefferman matriarch, Shelly, snaps at her family’s indifference to her and spends her vacation being pampered by her butler—or as she calls him, “the gay who comes with the room.” The others have their own existential misadventures at sea, with Maura reaching a new level of self-acceptance and deciding to hurl her body padding overboard—but then opting for a trash can so as not to pollute. And though the family’s effort at ceremonial spiritual healing fails, in the season’s delirious final moments Shelly emerges from her cocoon with a performance of a ’90s pop cover that delivers the much-needed message that everything is going to be fine, fine, fine.
Veep is impressively cynical—about Washington, about its institutions, about the people who make it what it is—and “Inauguration” might be its most cynical episode yet. But that is, sort of, a good thing! Selina Meyer has now become, after a bit of good fortune, the president of the United States; she is also, like most of the characters who populate the HBO show, not very good at her job. She made a big decision about a bank bailout based, too much, on her banker boyfriend; she sent a sext from the presidential Twitter account; she tried to blame the whole thing on Chinese hackers. The question that animated Veep’s fantastically acerbic fifth season was whether Meyer, the politician who had been successful in large part because she had been lucky, could be re-elected president on her own terms. And “Inauguration” offers, finally, an answer—and a high degree of comeuppance. It’s not at all a happy ending, but it’s a just one; and in Veep, as in the city whose story it tells, “just endings” are as remarkable as they are rare.
The X-Files, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
Like so many recent revivals of TV classics, The X-Files had a lot on its shoulders. Coming back for just six episodes after 14 years, could it erase the many painful memories of the dreary later seasons of the sci-fi classic? Of course not—almost every new episode was riddled with flaws, and in typical fashion, it ended up asking more questions than it answered. But for one exceptional hour, The X-Files recaptured the magic, in a monster-of-the-week special that spoke to the show’s humor, its penchant for breaking the fourth wall, and, of course, the undeniable chemistry between its two leads. In all, The X-Files season 10 was a letdown. But “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” may have been special enough to justify the whole thing.
You’re the Worst, “Twenty-Two”
Traditionally, it was when a sitcom was running out of other ideas that it resorted to the multi-perspective episode. The episode would go, usually, like this: A thing happens; one character remembers it one way; the other character remembers it another way; Rashomonic lols ensue. “Twenty-Two” is one such episode. But since You’re the Worst is a traditional sitcom only in the most superficial sense, it’s fitting that its take on the cliche would be sensitively told, beautifully rendered, and emotionally revelatory. “Twenty-Two” grafts the point of view of Edgar, the best friend of the comically self-absorbed Jimmy, onto the action of the show’s previous episode—and, in that, it lays bare how cruel Jimmy and his fellow narcissists can be when it comes to their treatment of the people who have the misfortune not to be them. The episode follows Edgar as he struggles and suffers and reaches a literal rock bottom—and, then, in a Hollywood twist, finds a small but richly deserved redemption. I won’t spoil the episode’s ending for you, but I will say that the final, magical scene of “Twenty-Two” has done something a sitcom has rarely been able to: It has haunted me, in the best of ways, long after I turned off the television.