It’s been quite a year, and television has seen us through it all — sometimes offering an escape and other times capturing our fractured culture. This list of standout TV episodes highlights both approaches. (Add your favorites in the comments.)
Master of None: Thanksgiving
Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe added to TV’s memorable canon of Thanksgiving episodes with this funny, heartwarming installment that followed their characters, Dev and Denise, over holiday dinners with Denise’s mother (Angela Bassett), grandmother (Venida Evans) and aunt (Kym Whitley).
“Thanksgiving” shed light on the pair’s close bond and chronicled an important milestone in Denise’s life: coming out to her family. It’s a story that could only be told by Ansari and Waithe, who loosely based the episode on her own experience and became the first black woman to win an Emmy for best comedy series writing in the process.
Also consider: “Religion.”
Now in its fourth season, “Blackish” has tackled a number of serious topics — including police brutality and postpartum depression — without sacrificing its trademark brand of humor. So, it wasn’t surprising that the ABC sitcom would join the cascade of shows grappling with Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential victory.
The compassionate and entertaining “Lemons,” which aired a week before Trump’s inauguration, dealt with the elephant in the room by presenting multiple perspectives, including the powerful monologue Dre (Anthony Anderson) gives about loving America despite its racist legacy.
Also consider: “Juneteenth.”
This Is Us: Memphis
“Memphis” follows Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his cancer-stricken biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), on a trip to William’s home town. The drama bids William an inevitable and heart-wrenching goodbye, but the episode — and intimate portrait of a hard-won father-son relationship — prepares us for our grief with standout performances by Brown, Cephas Jones and Jermel Nakia, who plays William as a young man. “Atlanta’s” Brian Tyree Henry, who guests as William’s estranged cousin Ricky, also performs a soul-stirring musical number that necessitates nearby tissues.
Also consider: “A Father’s Advice”
Insecure: Hella L.A.
A few missteps aside, Issa Rae’s HBO comedy really came into its own in its second season. The fourth episode, “Hella L.A.,” is the show at its absolute best (not to mention rewatchable). Issa and her ex-boyfriend Lawrence are throwing themselves into the single life — or attempting to, anyway. Lawrence is racially fetishized during an impromptu threesome with two nonblack women he meets at a grocery store. The scene is as subtle as it is scathing.
Meanwhile, Issa and her friends mingle at a party dubbed Kiss-n-Grind, where she spots Daniel, the other point of the love triangle that upended her life in Season 1. The episode is a sharp representation of dating in your 20s. On the surface everyone is living their best single life. In reality, it’s all an awkward hot mess.
Also consider: “Hella Perspective”
BoJack Horseman: Ruthie
This animated Netflix comedy, about a depressed horse living among other anthropomorphic animals in a version of Hollywood, somehow explores the depth of human emotion in a way that few other shows do. This Season 4 episode takes the focus largely off BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) and puts the spotlight on his former lover/agent, Princess Carolyn (voiced by Amy Sedaris).
“Ruthie” refers to Princess Carolyn’s great-great-great-granddaughter who — in a futuristic time jump — details an awful day in her ancestor’s life during a presentation to her middle school classmates. There’s a twist at the end, and the reality hits like a poignant punch to the gut.
Also consider: “The Old Sugarman Place”
Dear White People: Chapter V
Justin Simien brilliantly adapted his film directorial debut into a Netflix series and tapped “Moonlight’s” Barry Jenkins to helm this emotional episode. It takes place amid increasingly strained race relations at the fictional Winchester University. Reggie (Marque Richardson) agrees to go to a frat party to take his mind off the tension but ends up getting into an altercation when a white friend repeatedly drops the n-word while rapping along to song lyrics.
When campus police arrive to investigate the disturbance, the incident plays out much differently for Reggie than it does for his white classmate. He is asked to show identification proving that he attends the school, despite the chorus of coeds vouching for him. Richardson is outstanding in the episode’s final minutes, as Reggie sits against the door of his dorm room, quietly sobbing.
Also consider: “Chapter IV”
The Handmaid’s Tale: Late
The third episode of Hulu’s Emmy-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel weaves several heartbreaking threads. In flashbacks, we see Gilead’s ominous beginnings as June (Elisabeth Moss), her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) and other women inexplicably lose their jobs and financial access, giving way to the patriarchal system that eventually enslaves them.
The real star of “Late” is Alexis Bledel, whose character Ofglen has been taken into custody by the regime. Bledel gives a powerful but largely silent performance since Ofglen spends much of the episode muzzled as she stands trial for her “crime” — a romantic relationship with another woman. Ofglen’s distraught screams punctuate the episode’s haunting final scene.
Also consider: “Offred”
Feud: Bette and Joan: You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?
This delectable eight-episode drama, which launched Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, focused on the notorious rivalry between screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis but never failed to show their humanity amid the catty remarks and backstabbing. The final episode perfectly encapsulates this balance, showing Bette and Joan’s decidedly less glamorous lives, a decade removed from the filming of their 1962 cult classic “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon bring their A-game as Crawford and Davis, respectively, in the episode’s most ambitious scene. A dying Crawford imagines attending a dinner party with gossip queen Hedda Hopper, studio exec Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and her longtime nemesis, with whom she finally makes peace. The reveal that it’s a complete figment is both cathartic and cruel.
Also consider: “And the Winner Is . . .”
Big Little Lies: You Get What You Need
It’s hard to pick just one episode from this consistently good miniseries starring (and produced by) Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. But I’m going with the finale, which brought the murder mystery to a thrilling and satisfying end. The episode takes place at a ritzy school fundraiser, where the major players are dressed up as various iterations of Elvis and Audrey Hepburn.
The ending is just open-ended enough to make us wonder what happens next, but, no, that doesn’t mean the show needs a second season.
Also consider: “Once Bitten”
The Good Place: Michael’s Gambit
Michael Schur’s afterlife comedy gave us one of the best plot twists of the year in its Season 1 finale, which we won’t spoil here. Instead, we’ll praise the show’s ensemble cast — led by Kristen Bell, who plays unlikely “Good Place” resident Eleanor Shellstrop, and Ted Danson, who plays immortal architect Michael.
“Michael’s Gambit” is charming, funny and daring. If you weren’t hooked on the series before, you will be after watching it.
Also consider: “Everything Is Great!”