Late-night TV hosts have cast 2016 as a downright apocalyptic year, but for television it was actually pretty great. Here are our picks for the best TV episodes of the year. It was a tall order to pick just 10 — if you have a favorite TV episode from 2016, let us know in the comments.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
In the years following O.J. Simpson’s 1995 trial for murder, Marcia Clark remained one of its most misunderstood figures. But the famed prosecutor found vindication in FX’s enthralling miniseries, which focused on what millions of viewers didn’t see in the ’90s: the sacrifices Clark (portrayed by Sarah Paulson) made as a single mother, the casual sexism she faced both from her male colleagues and the media, and how deeply she wanted to see justice for Nicole Brown Simpson. One aptly titled episode was told almost entirely from Clark’s perspective, offering an illuminating — and necessary — portrait.
Also consider: “The Run of his Life,” “A Jury in Jail,” “The Verdict”
Black Mirror: “San Junipero”
The episodes in this anthology series tend to be unsettling and take place in the future. “San Junipero,” on the other hand, is a love story that begins in the ’80s. The episode, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis as two women who form an intense connection after meeting at a club in a surreal town, is one of the series’ most optimistic. It’s also one of the most beautiful, cinematic episodes of television this year.
Also consider: “Nosedive,” “Playtest”
Donald Glover’s understated dramedy was full of surprises and this sort-of bottle episode (directed by creator and star Donald Glover) is one of its best. The show’s up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi appears as a panelist on a low-budget news show, where a conversation about transgender issues offers powerful, open-minded social commentary about race, gender identity and the dangers of dismissing entire communities as homophobic. The most brilliant parts of the episode are a hilarious segment about a black teenager convinced he’s an older white man and a Trix cereal spoof commercial that delivers a scathing verdict on excessive use of force by police.
Also consider: “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” “Juneteenth,” “The Jacket”
The Americans: “The Day After”
“The Americans” is one of the best shows on television, period. For all of its thrills and suspense, the Cold War-era espionage drama also gets to the heart of our humanity. This episode zeroes in on a November night in 1983 as the Jennings family gathers to watch ABC’s “The Day After.” The episode puts the fictional family’s secrets and fears into real-life context, especially if you remember watching the grim TV movie about nuclear war, which earned record ratings.
Also consider: “The Rat,” “Travel Agents,” “Persona Non Grata”
In its first season, the WGN America show put the Underground Railroad into thrilling context by subtly connecting slavery to current issues around race. Seven episodes in, “Underground” shifted its perspective to the children of the show. “Cradle” follows children grappling with dire circumstances beyond their control and explores how hate, mistrust and tragedy are handed down through generations. It’s a heartbreaking episode that showcases the immense talent of the show’s youngest actors.
Also consider: “The Macon 7,” “The White Whale”
BoJack Horseman: “Fish Out of Water”
“Fish Out of Water” is a good place to get a feel for what makes Netflix’s animated comedy about a washed-up ’90s sitcom actor (who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse) such an unexpectedly wonderful show: It’s tender, rich in detail and deeper than you might expect. The episode finds BoJack attending an underwater film festival, where he tries in vain to connect with a former collaborator and winds up playing surrogate father to a baby sea horse. There’s almost no dialogue for most of the episode, but there’s a really, really good reason for that. The payoff, which comes at the very end, is laugh-out-loud funny.
Also consider: “The BoJack Horseman Show,” “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” “Stop the Presses”
In February, the ABC family sitcom “Blackish” turned its attention to a heavy topic: police brutality. But the emotional episode still manages to be funny. In an interview with The Washington Post, creator Kenya Barris said he set out to explore the quandaries parents face while talking to their children about the serious issues they so often encounter in the news. Seen through the eyes of the Johnsons and their kids — 7-year-old twins and two teenagers — the discussion is full of nuance and varying perspectives.
Also consider: “Goodish Times,” “Who’s Afraid of the Big Black Man?”
The Night Of: “The Beach”
The pilot episode of “The Night Of” was riveting and well-paced, and established the HBO miniseries as essential viewing. The show follows Naz (Riz Ahmed), an unassuming Pakistani American college student charged with a horrific murder, though he has a huge memory gap from the night it occurred. The pilot takes its time introducing Naz and his family and also presents an eccentric lawyer (John Turturro) as an unlikely hero.
Also consider: “A Dark Crate,” “Samson and Delilah”
Girls: “The Panic in Central Park”
Lena Dunham’s HBO show took a refreshing and unexpected turn in Season 5, devoting an entire episode to Marnie (Allison Williams) as she confronts the imminent end of her months-long marriage. During an aimless walk around New York City, Marnie runs into her ex-boyfriend Charlie, who looks and sounds a lot different than he did in early seasons of the show, before actor Christopher Abbott left “Girls” under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Taking cues from romantic films (most notably “The Panic in Needle Park”), the episode is beautiful, sad and familiar — the kind of wistful reality check we tend to experience, one way or another, in our mid-20s.
Also consider: “Queen for Two Days,” “I Love You Baby”
Saturday Night Live: “Tom Hanks”
SNL had a standout year, buoyed by an unusual election cycle. It’s hard to pick just one favorite episode, but if we did it would be the October installment hosted by Tom Hanks. From the shrewd political commentary of “Black Jeopardy” to the irresistible David S. Pumpkins, the episode confirmed that SNL would have our backs when we needed it the most.
Also consider: “Dave Chappelle,” “Lin-Manuel Miranda”