1. ‘Ego Death’ (‘I May Destroy You’)
The finale of Michaela Coel’s stunning HBO series, which draws on her own experience as a survivor of sexual assault, will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. As Arabella (Coel) recalls previously elusive details from the night she was attacked, she attempts to take control of her narrative — literally, for a book about her experience. The result is a surreal and bold exploration of trauma and recovery that doesn’t yield closure in the traditional sense but empowers our heroine to move forward.
2. ‘Fagan’ (‘The Crown’)
Much of the buzz around Season 4 of “The Crown” concerns the show’s treatment of Prince Charles’s marriage to Princess Diana (amid an entanglement with Camilla Parker Bowles) but this episode revolves around the unnerving moment in 1982 when an unemployed house painter named Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace. As depicted in “The Crown,” Fagan (Tom Brooke) spent several minutes talking to the queen in her bedroom. The episode, which features standout performances by Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth and Gillian Anderson as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, uses one of England’s most bizarre true-crime stories to explore the era’s growing opposition to Thatcher’s policies, including a 10-week war between Britain and Argentina.
3. ‘Episode 10’ (‘Normal People’)
TV creators are increasingly attuned to the importance of approaching mental health story lines with sensitivity and consideration for vulnerable viewers. Hulu’s excellent adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel offers a master class, balancing its central focus on Marianne and Connell’s evolving relationship with a thoughtful story line that finds Connell (Paul Mescal) seeking help after a childhood friend dies by suicide. The installment was praised for normalizing therapy — especially given the stigmas that can prevent men from seeking mental health treatment — and for showing that recovery is possible.
4. ‘The View From Halfway Down’ (‘BoJack Horseman’)
Netflix’s animated comedy, about a washed-up ’90s sitcom actor with comeback dreams who happens to be a horse, ended its six-season run this year. In the penultimate episode, the show’s rich universe jumps dimensions yet again as BoJack (in an obscure state of consciousness) reunites with several of his dead family members and friends — including his reproving mother, Beatrice, and his “Horsin’ Around” co-star, Sarah Lynn. Like the show itself, “The View From Halfway Down” is vivid and whimsical and also a little sad. It would have made for a daring, if divisive, finale, but as it stands it’s a great lead-in to the show’s final bow.
5. ‘Happy Ending’ (‘Schitt’s Creek’)
We couldn’t imagine a happier ending for Eugene and Daniel Levy’s delightful sitcom. In the show’s series finale, David (Daniel Levy) gets married with his mother Moira (Catherine O’Hara), father Johnny (Eugene Levy) and sister Alexis (Annie Murphy) by his side. There’s a time and place for fan service and this was it: David’s wedding featured a sweet callback to a fan-favorite musical moment from Season 4 and Moira officiating in a pope-inspired look. There was closure all around, with some Roses leaving Schitt’s Creek for new adventures and other members of the family staying in the town that brought them closer together.
6. ‘Part 1’ (‘Unorthodox’)
The best opener of the year goes to Netflix’s absorbing series, adapted from Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir about leaving the insular Hasidic community in which she grew up. “Part 1” follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) as she enters an arranged marriage at just 19, and struggles to navigate the strict rules of her new life. At an impasse with her husband Yanky and her intrusive in-laws, Esty flees Brooklyn for Berlin in a desperate and thrilling declaration of freedom. Haas is captivating as Esty, a role that required the Israeli actress to learn Yiddish.
7. ‘Middle Game’ (‘The Queen’s Gambit’)
“The Queen’s Gambit,” adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, builds to a gripping finale that would be on this list if not for the Netflix show’s enthralling fourth episode. “Middle Game” follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she heads to a esteemed tournament in Mexico City with her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller) by her side. The episode marks a crucial point for Beth’s chess career but the heart of the episode is Beth and Alma’s growing bond. The well-paced miniseries deftly balances the drama of the game with scenes exploring Beth and Alma’s relationship and, subtly, their collective pain.
8. ‘Father’s Day’ (‘Better Things’)
Few shows explore motherhood like Pamela Adlon’s acclaimed FX series. This fourth-season episode encapsulates the show’s raw and intimate treatment of the subject as Sam (Adlon) and several of her single girlfriends spend Father’s Day reflecting on what led to their divorces. (Tellingly, most of the children are upstairs.) After cocktails, the women gather around a fire pit and bare their complex emotions, giving each other the compassion they’ve often failed to give themselves. Sam darkly summarizes her anger surrounding her ex’s nonexistent presence in their kids’ lives, and the concessions she was forced to make during what was supposed to be their amicable divorce. And then she resolves to let it go.
9. ‘Forty’ (‘This Is Us’)
In an era in which streaming tends to overshadow network TV, it’s nice to see a prime-time drama as reliably tapped into the cultural zeitgeist as “This Is Us.” The NBC show’s fall premiere saw the Pearsons processing the pandemic and protests over racial injustice. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) commanded the episode as he reflected on his childhood in a White family that talked very little about race despite having adopted a Black son. A present-day conversation with his sister Kate (Chrissy Metz) further captured the complexities of our national discourse, and the burden Black people often bear when it comes to calling out racial disparities.
10. ‘The Gang Deals With an Alternate Reality’ (‘The Good Fight’)
This “Good Wife” spinoff, one of the most underrated shows on television right now, was sadly forced to truncate its fourth season because of the pandemic. Season 4 still got off to a strong start with an episode that imagines a reality in which Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, became the 45th president. Part of the show’s genius is its ability to tackle serious issues (like the state of our populace) while maintaining its wacky, occasionally dreamlike sense of humor. Though a Hillary win is a dream for Diane (Christine Baranski), she soon realizes there are trade-offs to this alternate reality.