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Our 21 Favorite TV Episodes of the Year

From ‘Thrones’ to ‘Transparent’ to the debate, these are our staffers’ favorite installments of 2016

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

"Winds of Winter"

Game of Thrones

Jason Concepcion: Truth be told, I thought the decision to title the Game of Thrones Season 6 finale "The Winds of Winter" seemed a bit of a trollish move. After all, fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have been waiting over half a decade for the (in theory) forthcoming sixth book in the series. After revealing — potentially spoiling, depending on your view of such things — various plot turns from the pages yet to come, this seemed a final greyscale-ridden finger in the eye. Then the episode actually aired, and, well, that concern was quickly forgotten as the scenes from within the Tower of Joy played out. A Game of Thrones was published in 1996; this was a reveal 20 years in the making.

I could barely believe it was actually happening. There was Eddard and Howland Reed’s battle with the Kingsguard; the bed of blood; "Promise me, Ned." And, as the camera drew ever closer on the newborn’s face, music swelling, smash cut to Jon Snow, present day, in Winterfell, and voila: the final, indisputable confirmation that Jon’s parents are Rhaegar Targaryen, the once-crown prince of Westeros, and Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister. After spending so much time with these characters and this story, over so much of my life, this was an important moment. And one I wasn’t sure I would ever see.

"From the Ashes of Tragedy"

The People v. O.J. Simpson

Kate Knibbs: I love true crime, melodrama, courtroom shows, David Schwimmer, the Kardashians, and the first seasons of most Ryan Murphy shows. The source material, Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life, was one of the best nonfiction books I’d read in 2015, and very little brings me more joy than watching famous people play other famous people.

"From the Ashes of Tragedy" isn’t actually even what I would consider the "best" episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (that goes to "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia"). But the most purely happy I felt watching a television show this entire year was during the pilot for People v. O.J. I have not anticipated a TV show more than this one, but I wasn’t sure it would actually be good; realizing it was excellent was a gleeful relief.

"Real As Fuck"

Insecure

Shea Serrano: In Insecure, Issa, the mostly nervous and anxious star of the show, wanders around in what she considers to be the lackluster glow of her own life. Her job is fine but not great; her boyfriend is fine but not great; her everything is fine but not great. That’s Insecure, her dealing with the soft reverb of those things. It’s a fun show and a smart show and a funny show, and after six episodes I thought I had a very good grasp on what the show was and what it was trying to accomplish. I was very wrong.

What I mean is, OK, think on it like this: There’s a scene in the first episode of the series where Issa ends up on a stage rapping a song she’d written called "Broken Pussy," and it was funny in an obvious way and funny in a smart way, which is how I would’ve described Insecure through those first six episodes. There were lots of things discussed during those episodes — the writers showed, almost instantly, a remarkable deftness for weaving non-ironic discussions of race, masculinity and femininity, youthful ambition tempered by the slog of actual life, and friendship into natural and charming conversations. It was all great and enjoyable and established what I thought was a very clear fence around what Insecure was and was going to allow itself to be. And then Episode 7 happened, and oh fuck.

In the final half of "Real As Fuck," Issa has a confrontation with a man she’d regretfully slept with, Daniel, played perfectly by Y’lan Noel, and it’s pulverizing; it ends with him foot-sweeping her feet out from underneath her. Then she gets into a big fight with her best friend, Molly, played perfectly by Yvonne Orji, and it’s pulverizing, the two of them lobbing insults at each other in that way that only best friends can. And then finally she gets into a fight with her boyfriend, Lawrence, played perfectly by Jay Ellis, and it’s pulverizing, poor Lawrence so distraught and upset after finding out that she cheated on him that it’s a wonder he didn’t burst into flames, and poor Issa, played perfectly by Issa Rae, eventually left all alone to reconcile everything that’s just happened to her.

It’s a remarkable and unexpected 15 minutes, and beyond being just expertly crafted, it revealed Insecure’s true intention: to be more than it’d shown itself to be early on, which is to say to potentially be a TV show that is truly special and meaningful. The final scene of that episode finds Issa, in the most elegant outfit she’d worn up to that point (she was coming home from a big fundraiser), crying, squatted up against the door, alone in her ugly apartment, her life in chaos. It was devastating, and I was not prepared for the emotions it pulled out of me. I watched a lot of TV in 2016. No moment was more surprising than that.

The First Presidential Debate

Justin Charity: I remember watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with my roommates and detecting an ominous dissonance between our shared distaste for Trump’s substance (grave concerns about ISIS and "Gy-nuh") and style (hectoring bully in a cheap collegiate suit), and the joy we all took in watching his demeanor and responses compared to Clinton’s studied, measured pronouncement about things that actually matter (her bully’s finances). By way of personal contrast, the debate was an efficient study of Donald Trump’s charisma. He’s not charismatic in the bright, swelling, orchestral way that Barack Obama captivated the American imagination eight years ago, but in the bizarro, totalitarian sense: Donald Trump was a deceptively hilarious specter of American pessimism. And in that first, pre-"Pussygate" debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump was in his element. He was rude. He was polarizing. He kept sniffling into his mic, which inspired internet liberals to take the greatest joy in pointlessly mocking him for some successfully distracting affect. Sniffles aside, Donald Trump was strong. And yet, no one who totally rejects the man’s politics could help but conclude that on-stage fact-checker Hillary Clinton had totally owned him with grace and truth. I said this debate was a study in charisma, but it’s also, more importantly, a study of how the language of American politics has splintered irreparably. Seriously, if we’re overdue for a second Civil War, and you want to know how we’ll have reached that brink, this debate is must-see TV. Trump’s winning performance was an astoundingly resilient exercise in ignorance, second only to his rambling convocation at the Republican National Convention. But that? That was unwatchable.

Episode 6

The Night Manager

David Shoemaker: When talking about a spy movie, the last word you would expect to write with any kind of reverence is "relaxed." But that was the first thing that grabbed me about The Night Manager — the ease with which Tom Hiddleston and (especially) Hugh Laurie inhabited their two roles. Pine and Roper, their two respective characters who circle one another in this cat-and-kitten story, seem so well-worn you would be just as happy to watch them if they shook hands and opened a hat shop in London. The hardest thing to achieve in bringing spy novels to the screen is that kind of reality, no matter (or precisely because of) how fact-steeped their source novels are. Too often it can feel like characters waving printer papers around to convince you of the real-world implications of the story.

Which is not to say that spy novels don’t make good movies — they do. Because of their simple framework, genre novels often make the best profound movies, but profound genre novels are a creature unto themselves. They relish alternatingly in neurotic detail and in their own ponderousness, for better and worse. With apologies to the recent Le Carré movies that have made the leap successfully — The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Most Wanted Man — and the myriad BBC minis that have come before, The Night Manager makes the case for the miniseries as the best conveyance of the thriller novel. (This year’s The Night Of and The Last Panthers make powerful cases, too, though neither was based on a novel.)

I’m picking the finale of The Night Manager because it had the satisfying rush of contraption and crescendo, but the whole series earned the thrill that the last episode gave us: Hiddleston recasting himself (both in the context of the story and in Hollywood terms) as a hero without being grating, and Laurie kicking back in an adirondack chair with a glass of scotch and extending a Bond villain cackle into a six-hour master class. Director Susanne Bier made what could have been a grainy PBS talkathon into a arch sort of oil painting, and when it came to the screw-winding of the last act, they (along with the fantastic Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander) had lulled you into a kind of subtle anxiety that made the reward that much sweeter — rote as it was. (This is a spy novel, after all.) The Night Manager isn’t perfect. But it was a near-perfect spy novel brought to the screen. Le Carré isn’t Dostoyevsky or William Gibson, but he can be every bit their equal. Sometimes a well-told contrivance is enough.

"Juneteenth"

Atlanta

Lindsay Zoladz: Atlanta is at its best when Earn is navigating social spaces in which he doesn’t quite belong: the club, the VIP lounge, the purgatory of a jail waiting room. But the most absurd spot he found himself in all season was inside the plush study of a well-heeled optometrist with an unfortunate penchant for black culture. "It accurately depicts the plight of the contemporary black man," the (very) white doctor tells Earn, taking in an unforgettably awful painting of a man gutting an eagle. "That’s why I painted it." Atlanta’s winning first season reached its peak in this dizzyingly brilliant penultimate episode, during which our central couple must navigate a stuffy Juneteenth party, full of such things as a signature cocktail called "Plantation-Master’s Poison" and an epically terrible spoken-word poem about Jim Crow. What really gave this episode its heart, though, was watching the evolution of the (very) complicated relationship between Vanessa and Earn. Even though the episode begins with him waking up beside another woman he doesn’t seem to know, he obligingly plays the part of doting "spouse" for Vanessa, who believes being accepted into this type of society would be beneficial to her and her daughter. Somewhere along the way, though, the line between what’s real and what’s pretend becomes blurred, and the episode ends with what may have been the show’s most tender moment between Earn and Van yet.

Finale

The Challenge: Rivals III

Julie Kliegman: It’s difficult for a show to execute a compelling twist in its 28th season, and Rivals III promised to be no different. Johnny Bananas and Sarah were always going to win, and their supposedly rekindled friendship following Sarah’s slick Battle of the Exes II betrayal was the corny, lackluster star of the season. (Well, that and Johnny and Vinny’s sexist antics.)

But then everything changed: For the first time in show history, the better-performing member of each finalist team could choose to keep the winnings all for themselves. It was an interesting wrinkle, but I still expected all three pairs to split the money after the obligatory hemming and hawing in confessional interviews.

Johnny proved me wrong, and I don’t care how scripted he was: "I need to look out for myself and invest in my future, so I’m gonna go ahead and take the money and run," was jaw-dropping. Sarah, who competed sick, immediately dropped down and cried. The move was gut-wrenching and gross and not at all equivalent to Sarah’s move, which was screwing over an opponent. It was $275,000 worth of reality show villainy for the ages.

"Houston"

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

Danny Chau: Just nine days before the election, Anthony Bourdain made his appeal: America is great and beautiful and prismatic in places you never would have imagined. He made his appeal in Houston, of all places. Bourdain’s been all over the planet, and he’s recorded over 200 hourlong food and travel documentaries across different shows and platforms, broaching the political and socioeconomic realities of a land with an open mind and an empty stomach. "Houston" stands as one of the very best he and his crew have ever produced, and certainly one of the best hours of television this year.

"Houston is a place where the minority is now the majority," Bourdain narrates as images of the city’s ethnically varied storefronts flash on the screen. The episode stitches together as best it can the disparate cultures that make up the sum of Houston: scenes of Bollywood dancing at an Indian grocer, of a Mexican American quinceañera, of its slow, low, and bangin’ car culture that bleeds into its hip-hop scene.

But the best moments on any Bourdain episode are the moments of production-free culture in action. I teared up watching a family eat lunch in their suburban backyard. It was the home of Jonathan Trinh, a Vietnamese American principal at Lee Senior High School, where more than 40 different languages are spoken among the student body of 1,700–80 percent of which speak a primary language other than English. There with him were his mom and sister, his Salvadoran-born wife and mother-in-law, and his white brother-in-law. On the table: a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boil, Salvadoran chicken tamales and pupusas, mì quảng (a Vietnamese turmeric noodle dish with shrimp and pork), and a variation of a Vietnamese chopped salad called gỏi. A typical American lunch, the kind I’ve shared with my own loved ones dozens of times over.

Growing up, Houston’s cultural tentpoles for me were Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming; little did I know how much that pairing would reflect the city’s true complexion. It’s a place where a Texas twang invariably seeps into a Vietnamese inflection to create a charming patois, where Congolese migrants work as urban farmers supplying resources to local restaurants, and will soon be providing Houston with a new wave of second-generation diversity. If we want to talk about Real America, let’s add "Houston" to the syllabus. Then we can talk.

"Scratched"

Pitch

Megan Schuster: Pitch spent its first eight episodes trying to find the center of the Venn diagram between baseball decision-making and the interpersonal relationships the sport both creates and destroys. In "Scratched," Season 1’s penultimate episode, the "to trade or not to trade" debate surrounding the face of the fictional Padres franchise, aligns those two sides perfectly. It’s the show’s best episode to date.

Over the last few weeks, Pitch has started stripping episodes down to the events of a single day. In "Scratched," that day includes a baseball game, the trade deadline, a lie between business partners, an argument between friends, a date, an early end to that date, and finally, an admission that the show’s protagonists have more than just chemistry as teammates. Maybe that reads like the personal drowns out the baseball, but the developments on the sports side only enhanced the account of the other. The tension between front office and manager surrounding the potential trade was as important as pitcher Ginny Baker’s (Kylie Bunbury) acceptance that she could have a social life outside of baseball. And Oscar’s (Mark Consuelos) insistence on finding a balance between sabermetrics and his emotional attachment to his players was timely — and that battle felt as weighty as Ginny and Mike’s (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) struggle to figure out what they mean to one another.

Given the the show’s generally low ratings and the season’s final episode airing this week, it’s hard to say if Pitch will be back for more. But "Scratched" was an example of the balance the show aims to strike (pun half-intended), and it was one of the great TV episodes of the year.

"Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster"

The X-Files

Ben Lindbergh: "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster," the third of six new episodes of The X-Files that aired early this year, is a reason to root for reboots — or "continuations," as series creator Chris Carter called his show’s return after a 14-year hiatus from Fox (the network, not Mulder). Yes, reboots can be bad: The two Carter-penned episodes that bookended the mini-season, the aptly named "My Struggle" and "My Struggle II," were the worst TV I watched this year. Yet there was "Were-Monster" — 44 minutes of peak-quality X-Files, produced long after fans had abandoned all hope of seeing such a thing — to stand athwart Carter’s exposition-filled, cliffhanger-y crap and proclaim, "I was worth it!"

What a difference a deft writer-director makes. Shepherded to the small screen by Darin Morgan, whose five X-Files episodes are all greatest hits, "Were-Monster" benefits from great guest stars (Rhys Darby and X-Files superfan Kumail Nanjiani) and Morgan’s trademark tone: light-hearted, self-referential, and slightly surreal.

The episode, an affectionate, philosophical send-up of the series’ more outlandish monsters of the week, documents Mulder’s crisis of faith in the paranormal, which coincides with sightings of a homicidal lizard-man. Morgan’s script squeezes in nostalgia (Scully’s "I forgot how much fun these cases could be"), a few winks to 2016 ("Mulder, the internet is not good for you"), and even a nod to the series’ convoluted mythology (Scully’s "You forget, I’m immortal"). It also finds time for a monologue in which Mulder conducts both sides of a stereotypical conversation with a silent Scully as the leads’ long-lived chemistry comes through.

Morgan gives "Were-Monster" an uncharacteristically optimistic conclusion, compared to his previous work. "I’m not necessarily happier," he explained after the episode aired. "I don’t understand life any more than I ever did. But now I have dogs, so things don’t seem so depressing."

"If I Were a Bell"

Transparent

Alison Herman: Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali Pfefferman, and therefore the show she leads, started digging into the idea of "inherited trauma" in Transparent’s second season. It sounded like a questionably scientific concept that’s catnip to grad students in search of a lens. But that describes any number of the motivating principles behind Jill Soloway’s genius, and even if Ali herself is a dilettante, Soloway isn’t. In Season 2, the Pfeffermans’ ancestral suffering occasioned season-long flashbacks to Gittel, Maura’s trans aunt in Weimar Berlin. In Season 3, Soloway concentrated everything in one episode, brought it one generation closer to the Pfeffermans as we know them, and tapped American Honey director Andrea Arnold to pull it off. "If I Were a Bell" introduces us to the repression of Maura’s childhood, bound up in the Cold War and the specter of the Holocaust. It shows us how Maura and Shelly met, steeping their relationship (and their future children’s lives) from the start in deception and secrecy. But most of all, it brings us into Shelly’s inner life with a reveal that’s shocking but not cheap, imbuing Transparent’s most two-dimensional character with as much psychic pain as the rest of the family and setting up the season’s transcendent final scene. The Pfeffermans may be lost, but who can blame them? They were doomed from the start.

Episode 6

Fleabag

Sean Fennessey: In September, Allison P. Davis ably summed up the Fleabag vibe:

Classic sitcom formula right there. This is a comedy show about how everything is a joke and nothing is funny. It sounds un-fun — it is not. Assuming you can handle creator-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fourth-wall-smashing Halpertian mugging, you will discover a show with few equals and less precedent. Fleabag, produced in conjunction with Amazon Studios and BBC, is in some ways the logical conclusion of the sad single-cam comedy — it’s Brexit-era Louie. The season finale blows up most of the comic pretense and unravels into full-blown crisis. I’m reluctant to say more — the entire season runs less than three hours, and while acid-dipped and depression-bound, it moves briskly. Watch it.

"Hello Kitty"

Girls

Juliet Litman: Episode 6 of Girls Season 5 elicited all kinds of accolades. That was the one where Marnie ran into ex-boyfriend Charlie, and that ended with her walking barefoot through Chinatown to break up with Desi. It was a great 30 minutes of television, but it was a bottle episode, which is to say: Lena Dunham was flexing her writer muscles for it, but it wasn’t pure Girls. Pure Girls? That would be Episode 7 — the one that begins with Hannah flashing her vagina at her boss before she goes to an interactive play that brings the core cast (sans Shoshanna) together. "Hello Kitty" was my favorite episode from my favorite season of Girls. It was funny and smart and completely unique.

The plot finds Adam acting in a play that reenacts the night that Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964. The audience members become witnesses as they move from apartment to apartment, interacting with the actors, who largely ignore their audience-slash-witnesses. The conceit itself is something you’d find only on Girls, turning an esoteric interest into material that foregrounds an entire episode. Hannah and Fran fight, Marnie tells Ray she’s getting divorced, and finally Hannah has to confront Adam and Jessa, who are now coupled up. All of this relationship drama is heightened in comparison to the campy melodrama of the play that is happening concurrently. But wait: Shouldn’t an unsolved murder count as the drama and the foibles of relatively privileged 20-somethings be classified as melodrama?

Bottle episodes tend to close off a show’s world to explore characters more deeply, which is precisely the service that Marnie’s Central Park walkabout performed. To my mind, "Hello Kitty" marked the greater achievement because it managed to propel the plot forward for nearly every character while also broadening the gals’ world. They had to interact with each other, and with strangers. Even though they often act like there’s no one else in the world, the girls of Girls need to face consequences once in awhile. "Hello Kitty" served up that reality with ingenuity and a lot of humor.

"It Is What It Is"

Last Chance U

Donnie Kwak: The first 10 minutes of the Last Chance U season finale are more intense than anything else I watched on TV this year. The episode opens as a brawl erupts between East Mississippi Community College, the subject of Netflix’s football docuseries, and opponents from a rival school. Roving on-field cameras capture the frantic outbreak of fists and kicks. The violence is startling, yet it’s not the melee but its immediate aftermath that unsettles most. Simmering resentments threaten to boil over; unresolved ire turns inward. EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens furiously upbraids his Lions players — the vast majority of whom are black — for their "redneck hood thug attitude." Later, as team members stew out of Stephens’s earshot, defensive lineman Ronald Ollie bitterly declares: "That’s the white man, bro." Adversity is breaking the Lions apart, but maybe they were never really together to begin with. The scene is a poignant vignette of Deep South racial dynamics — loaded and tenuous. It’s uncomfortable precisely because it is so real.

The brawl is teased in the opening seconds of the very first episode; the finale’s payoff is all the more gripping after you’ve invested hours in the characters of the powerhouse EMCC team over the course of a fortuitously eventful season. Episode 6 is that dream finale in which every plotline reaches a satisfying coda, and each character finds some measure of resolution. In the end, there is hard-earned hope. I can’t imagine how they’ll top this in Season 2, but I’ll be watching.

"Ordinary Death"

The Night Of

Chris Ryan: A New York Post episode of a New York Times show. Many disliked "Ordinary Death," the penultimate installment of HBO’s limited series The Night Of. It’s pure tabloid: an illicit kiss, witness-stand reversals, Scooby Doo investigations into possible perps, big reveals, and a highly stylized murder set to the somber tones of Carter Burwell’s The Man Who Wasn’t There music.

(HBO)
(HBO)

After the show took its time wandering along the distinctive path laid out by cocreators Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, "Ordinary Death" found The Night Of rolling around in the familiar muck of its genre: a procedural. All the hallmarks of a crime show were here: the cross examinations, the brooding detective, the lawyer in too deep, the shadow society of prison. But Zaillian and Price, along with their director of photography, Frederick Elmes, push everything one step beyond the limits of genre. Rewatching the episode, the moments that seemed sensationalistic on first viewing now seem sad and real. Chandra’s ill-fated kiss is foreshadowed by her spurned effort to embrace Safar; Naz’s orchestration of Victor’s death is signaled by wild-kingdom documentaries playing on Rikers Island televisions; Stone’s Hardy Boys routine is perfectly logical behavior for a lawyer who doesn’t do much investigating.

The episode featured almost every major character from the show, with especially beautiful performances from Michael Kenneth Williams, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeannie Berlin (between this and her turn in Margaret, Berlin has given two of my favorite New Yorker performances of the century), and Bill Camp, though star Riz Ahmed deserves special citation. The sheep became the wolf. The tone poem became the hardboiled crime show.

"Smoke and Mirrors"

The Crown

Amanda Dobbins: The fight is about halfway through the episode — and also, not coincidentally, the first season of The Crown. In one corner you have Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy), young, shy, and overwhelmed by a job she never wanted. In the other is her husband, Prince Philip (Matt Smith), generally considered to be a colossal dick but so far, at least in the world of the show, doing his best to respect his wife’s constitutional duties. Netflix paid $100 million for this thing, so they’re in a magnificent old church, but otherwise it’s Peter Morgan playwriting at its finest.

They’re fighting about whether Prince Philip should kneel to Queen Elizabeth at her coronation, which is to say they’re fighting about whether a man can take a backseat to his wife without having a total meltdown. Elizabeth, history, and 2016 power dynamics say yes; Philip and his postwar pride say no. He’s wrong, but that’s not the point, since everyone on this show ends up doing exactly what they’re supposed to, no matter the personal cost. (It’s a theme.) The point is to watch Foy’s extraordinary, Emmy-deserving expression as she summons the courage to tell her arrogant, misogynist, beloved husband that he has to do what she asks, even if it permanently alters her marriage.

It shouldn’t, and it does. I am not here to advocate for the politics of 1953 or for a world in which we are governed by unqualified descendants of inbred aristocrats; I watched this show for the corgis and the tiaras like the rest of you. But you take female leaders where you can get them, I guess. The Crown is a slow, low-stakes drama about people who live in palaces paid for by the public; it is also an occasionally moving show about what it costs to be in charge, and how much more it costs if you’re a woman. A rich, reluctant heiress deserves no pity, and yet it’s hard to watch the final scenes of "Smoke and Mirrors," as Philip dutifully kneels to an impassive Elizabeth, and not feel for the woman hiding underneath the giant fur cape. She’s in power, and totally alone. If it can happen to a queen, it can happen to anyone.

"Travel Agents"

The Americans

Katie Baker: "They seduced … and married … my secretary!" realizes poor Agent Frank Gaad in The Americans, with no small amount of well-I’ll-be-damned respect for the Russian adversaries who have totally screwed him. Leave it to this show to mine some comedy out of an episode that is otherwise a punch to the gut (and also features one; sorry, Martha). Like all good episodes of The Americans, "Travel Agents" succeeds not just on the strength of its big, tangled story, but also on the small, precise, often funny details: the FBI agents rifling through Martha’s tampons; the three teens stealing fridge beers; Philip’s lack of appetite for borscht. But "Travel Agents" is also a propulsive episode that moves quickly forward. It is part thriller — various parties race to a D.C. park in separate pursuit of the same woman — and part tragedy. In the end, it’s hard to know which conversation is more affecting: the one in which Elizabeth asks Philip if he might disappear with Martha, or the one in which he gives his "wife" the answer.

"Kissing Your Sister"

Veep

Sam Schube: Veep’s genius comes from its insistence that every human endeavor, even one as noble as running the country, will necessarily be suborned to ego maintenance, to calculated slights and an avalanche of insults. The trick, of course, is that the chaos is painstakingly assembled — whether at the hands of high priest of abuse Armando Iannucci, who led the show’s first four seasons, or David Mandel, who manned this year’s fifth. There’s nothing funnier than a tightly scripted train wreck.

That craftsman’s quality makes "Kissing Your Sister," this season’s second-to-last episode, an outlier and a masterpiece. The half hour is framed as a documentary — the final-product film we’ve spent a season watching First Daughter Catherine Meyer (Sarah Sutherland) shoot, catching off-the-record snubs and back stabbings from unseen corners of the West Wing. The joke throughout the season is obvious, and a little easy: No one likes or cares about Catherine, so she’s able to get incredible material. But "Kissing Your Sister" ups the ante considerably, because it — Catherine’s doc — is really, really bad. And it’s bad in an inside-baseball, I’ve-seen–Alexandra Pelosi–docs way: stock shots of Washington monuments, choppy audio, an utter lack of self-awareness. It’s also hilarious; Catherine’s directorial shortcomings don’t get in the way of Mandel and crew’s buzzsaw.

Most of all, "Kissing Your Sister" is egalitarian, sort of: Catherine, usually made sympathetic by her role as staff pincushion, gets to be laughed at on her own merits. She’s a terrible director — but on this show, that’s something of an honor. If you’re getting insulted, you’re probably doing something right. Usually, Veep is an impeccably constructed ballet of profanity. But for one glorious night, it was an absolute mess.

"Chapter Seven: The Bathtub"

Stranger Things

Tate Frazier: While all signs pointed to the ’90s owning the nostalgia play in pop culture, the Duffer Brothers flipped it to the Upside Down and delivered a familiar ’80s setting with a new mix of electromagnetic fields and monsters. In the seventh episode of Stranger Things, the pieces of the puzzle finally come together: The episode finally reveals the Upside Down, showing us a damp, bleak abyss where Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has been cooped up the entire time. It’s the reveal of what’s behind the whole series and it delivers — not unlike Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves, playing in the town’s local theater.

"Grandpa"

High Maintenance

Allison P. Davis: It’s a gamble to tell a story from an animal’s perspective. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with something as gimmicky as Look Who’s Talking Now. When done correctly, you’ll end up with something as masterful as Homeward Bound or Otis and Milo. Fortunately for us, when the HM team took that risk, the result was "Grandpa," told entirely from the POV of a dog, Gatsby, who is desperately in love with his dog walker (Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone) — and one of the most empathic 30 minutes of TV that aired in 2016. It’s such a weird episode, but somehow that dog managed to act out more convincingly than most bipeds the heart-wrenching love story about a guy who can’t get the girl. You don’t need to be stoned to fully enjoy it, but if you were, I think taking a trip in this dog’s brain could unlock some next level mysteries about life.

"San Junipero"

Black Mirror

Mallory Rubin: I considered writing about "The Winds of Winter," but I’m still not mentally and emotionally capable of thinking about the Season 6 Thrones finale as an episode of television as opposed to, you know, a monumental, affirming, life-altering event. (Also, the Maester beat me by about .02 seconds during our staffwide "claim your topic!" email thread, so alas, here we are.) While nothing in this blessed life can compare to the moment when the shot cut from Lyanna’s tiny newborn bundle to present-day Jon’s stern face, one hour of TV came surprisingly close: "San Junipero," the gorgeous, wrenching fourth installment of Black Mirror’s third season.

I like TV that makes me feel something, whether it be hunger (Top Chef), jealous rage (Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles), or lust (Quantico). "San Junipero" made me feel everything: It moved me, inspired me, devastated me, floored me — sometimes in turn, sometimes all at once. It made my heart both sing and weep; it made me both question and crave the bonds that tie us. I clung to the hopeful possibilities it presented: eternal life and love, at least of a sort. I also admired the way the show poked and prodded at how fulfilling that life and love can be if paired with equally eternal longing. "San Junipero" challenged me while making me feel safe (and making me want to spend forever with the goddesses Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It made me realize that sometimes the perfect song blares as you fire up the Miata, but sometimes you walk out of the bar and find that it’s raining.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Cohen; it is Yael Stone.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.