The 25 Best TV Episodes of 2021

TV Lists Best of the Year
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The 25 Best TV Episodes of 2021

As we’ve noted in the past few years, the rise of streaming services and the habit of binge watching often means the art of the TV episode feels lost to the past. As you continue to hit “play next,” storylines can blend together, the finer points forgotten. However, our Paste TV writers have chosen 25 standout episodes from 2021 that are excellent examples of narrative game-changers, experiments in form, or character-driven explorations that have stuck with us long after their seasons have wrapped.

For more great TV, don’t miss our ranking of the 30 Best TV Shows of 2021, as well as The 11 Best Under-the-Radar Series and The 10 Best Supporting Performances.

Spoiler note: While we do try and keep big twists vague in the blurbs below, some spoilers can’t be avoided. If you haven’t caught up with a series and aren’t sure you want to know more, just scroll on by!

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“Illusions,” Mare of Easttown

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Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Network: HBO

Mare of Easttown’s short, seven-episode run meant that every hour was carefully calculated, delivering exactly what we needed in each chapter’s crime plot and emotional narrative. From start to finish, it was exceptional. But it was its fifth episode, “Illusions,” that really changed the game. It was bleak—especially those terrifying final minutes—and yet it also found time for one of the show’s better jokes earlier in the episode. As I wrote at the time, that is the balance that Mare gets so right. It was quiet and action-packed, it was sad and funny, it was plot-heavy and emotionally devastating. To say more would be to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but “Illusions” saw Mare shaking up the genre in exciting ways. —Allison Keene


“New Eyes,” Hacks

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Written by: Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, Jen Statsky
Directed by: Lucia Aniello
Network: HBO Max

Starring Jean Smart as a caustic, aging stand-up comedian and newcomer Hannah Einbinder as the canceled Twitter comedian sent to write new material with her, Hacks is the unexpected buddy comedy you need to be watching. Deborah and Ava butt heads on nearly everything relating to what is and isn’t funny, and the series is built on their generational tension. Both of the women are hilarious in their own ways—Ava, a cannabis-dependent, self-deprecating, chronic oversharer, and Deborah, a comedy legend always quick with a cutting remark to hit the most sensitive nerve—but it isn’t until Episode 6, “New Eyes,” that the connection developing between them finally breaks through their respective issues and insecurities. After recovering from an emotionally devastating morning, Ava is quickly whisked away for “writer’s retreat.” In reality, Deborah is getting plastic surgery at an over-the-top spa where the two will stay as she recovers. “New Eyes” is Hacks at its best, oscillating between heartfelt moments shared by two women who don’t have many other people in their lives, and dark jokes about anything from suicide to disordered eating (“It’s a classic for a reason,” Deborah retorts when Ava calls her out). Over the course of their stay, Ava and Deborah get genuinely close, surprising them both. This episode is a defining moment in the season, allowing the two to finally find common ground and set the tone for the final four episodes where their bond is developed even further.—Kristen Reid


“Retired Janitors of Idaho,” Succession

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Written by: Tony Roche and Susan Soon He Stanton
Directed by: Kevin Bray
Network: HBO

I haven’t verified this, but I’m certain there’s never before been an episode of TV about someone forgetting to take their UTI medication, going piss-mad, and hallucinating an imaginary dead cat during a shareholders’ meeting that could determine whether they get to keep their company. And that’s just one of the reasons Succession’s “Retired Janitors of Idaho” is among the best episodes of the year. From Hugo’s (Fisher Stevens) hesitation in interrupting everyone to alert them to Logan’s (Brian Cox) request to remove the dead cat to Colin (Scott Nicholson) physically cradling an empty paper bag as if it actually contains a feline corpse, the episode is full of excellent performances from the cast. It’s also a microcosm of everything the HBO series does so well.

The writers’ unique ability to blend the show’s style of black comedy with the humdrum of corporate governance—shout-out to Shiv (Sarah Snook) for making serious power moves in between the shenanigans—is highlighted by the expert way the camera moves around the sprawling cast to give everyone their time to shine. It’s a master class in television. And in a season that was often laser-focused on the battle between Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and the rest of the Roy family, by fully embracing this absurd farce, we are reminded that Succession can also be the best comedy on TV when it wants to be. —Kaitlin Thomas


“All-New Halloween Spooktacular,” WandaVision

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Written by: Chuck Hayward and Peter Cameron
Directed by: Matt Shakman
Network: Disney+

One of the most wonderful things about WandaVision was just how episodically constructed it was. It seems a funny thing to say about TV, but in this binge-watch era it can be hard to pinpoint what happened between the premiere and finale as it all passes by in one big blur. WandaVision was an homage and celebration of classic television, and its themed episodes and references to various sitcom eras were pitch-perfect reminders of the best those formats can offer. “All-New Halloween Spooktacular,” however, was also when we really started to see Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) false reality glitch around her, as she nearly loses Vision (Paul Bettany) a second time. The manifestation of powers in her children, as well as the strange return of “Pietro” (Evan Peters) were all great moments, but it was also exceptionally creepy to be reminded that the people Wanda is controlling have no agency. On the outskirts of the town she has created, time moves slowly, and tears roll down the cheeks of frozen residents who are unable to move or call for help. The horror is only magnified when Vision finds Agnes and she tells him he’s been dead this whole time, really making its undertones of horror overt. But Wanda in that Halloween costume? Aspirational. —Allison Keene


“Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

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Written by: Zora Bikangaga
Directed by: Anya Adams
Network: NBC

Last year’s protests around racial inequality and police brutality shook up the status quo in an important and meaningful way. The movement changed the way many of us view the fabric of society—from everyday interactions to corporate responsibility. It’s important that these conversations are also reflected in the art we consume, and in my opinion, no show did it better than Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. In the midseason finale, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning,” Simon (John Clarence Stewart) is dealing with the immediate fallout of publicly revealing that the SPRQ Point software doesn’t accurately recognize Black and brown faces, and that the upper management at the company is almost entirely white. Tobin (Kapil Talwalkar) also gets a moment of uncharacteristic seriousness when addressing microaggressions brought on by racially charged jokes in the office.

For both Simon and Tobin, this is a crossroads moment: either they can stand up for themselves and for POC everywhere, or they can back down and continue to live in an environment that doesn’t really see them. Through their characters, we get a first-hand experience of how racism in the workplace manifests in subtle ways, and the episode is careful to also expose the blind spots of even the most well-meaning white “allies.” For a show that’s usually carefree and light, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” pulled off not only a tonal shift but also executed the concept with honesty and integrity. —Radhika Menon


”S Is for Silence,” Evil

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Written by: Robert King & Michelle King
Directed by: Robert King
Network: Paramount+

An inventive show found a way to get even more inventive with “S Is for Silence,” which was—as advertised—almost entirely devoid of conversation. There were whispers in the woods and one possibly demon-summoning “whoop!” but otherwise, this creepy (and occasionally very funny) episode relied on written notes and physical performances. As our trio stayed at a silent monastery to investigate a corpse that had not decomposed, a potential stigmata, and a haunted cabinet, a new horror was also revealed in one of the show’s spookiest sequences. The change of scenery, new approach to an investigation, and the way the episode cunningly isolated our leads made “S Is for Silence” a true standout in a TV landscape where so much often feels the same. —Allison Keene


“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Dickinson

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Written by: Alena Smith, Ayo Edebiri
Directed by: Stacie Passon
Network: Apple TV+

The second season of Alena Smith’s raucously weird Emily Dickinson bio-series places Hailee Steinfeld’s Amherstian poet in a wild, fraught dance with the tantalizing draw—and implicit dark power—of fame from the jump. What does it mean to really be seen, she spends the season asking anyone who might be willing to even half-listen (Timothy Simons’ Frederick Law Olmsted included). What does it mean to want fame (or not)? What does it mean to NEED it? Is seeking fame a matter of pure ego, or can it mean something more? If you really, truly have something to say, is getting famous the best way to have your message heard, or will the spotlight end up blinding people to everything but the shine of your name?

Every episode of Season 2 gives Emily new ways to ask these questions, and new ways to frame the answers she finds, but it isn’t until she finally publishes her first poem in the eighth episode—and subsequently finds herself rendered invisible to everyone in Amherst but the ghost of Nobody (Will Pullen), her brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe), and the dual spectres of Death (Wiz Khalifa) and a horny Edgar Allan Poe (Nick Kroll)—that she finally starts to get answers that hold any personal weight. In another of the series’ many nods to the fact that what we think of as the quirks and tensions of modern public life are really just contemporary twists on enduring themes, Emily’s inexplicable invisibility allows her to run a 19th century version of the 21st century’s social media gauntlet. She both tortures herself by listening in on the town’s first-blush reactions to her poem (hashtag never read the comments) and reframes her own perspective by slipping into the clandestine victory party being hosted by Hattie (Ayo Edebiri) and Henry (Chinasa Uche) in Austin’s barn to celebrate the success of the abolitionist newspaper they and other Black Amherstians have been publishing in secret to raise funds to send to John Brown.

Juxtaposing Emily’s self-centered tango with personal fame with The Constellation’s barnburner of a campaign against the very concept isn’t just a clever way to move Emily deeper into her own understanding of what value fame might have to her—it gives the season’s central argument some much needed historical self-awareness. That it just so happens to also give us a killer set piece featuring Hattie, Henry and the rest of their Constellation crew voguing to “Gon Blow” by Cakes Da Killa Feat. Rye Rye, well, that’s just a bonus. —Alexis Gunderson


”No Weddings and a Funeral,” Ted Lasso

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Written by: Jane Becker
Directed by: MJ Delaney
Network: Apple TV+

“No Weddings and a Funeral” is Ted Lasso in its most perfect, fully realized form. It epitomizes how effortlessly the show vacillates between humor (“Congratulations, mother. You just fat-shamed a baby”) and heartbreak. Set at Rebecca’s (Hannah Waddingham) dad’s funeral and with Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” as its soundtrack, the episode finds Rebecca and Ted (Jason Sudeikis) each having a reckoning with their now-deceased fathers. The former is still hanging onto the anger she felt after discovering her dad was having an affair, as well as the rage she feels towards her mother (Harriet Walter) for staying with him despite his philandering. Meanwhile, as he prepares to go to the funeral, Ted has a panic attack, as he is still carrying the hurt of being abandoned by his father after he died by suicide when Ted was a teen.

It was a heavy episode, but it wasn’t all serious. It also featured some all-time bon mots from Roy (Brett Goldstein); when told the human body weighs 21.3 grams less after death, he deadpans, “Whoever figured that out clearly weighed someone, murdered them, and weighed them again.” Elsewhere, Keeley (Juno Temple) and Sassy (Ellie Taylor) shriek with delight at Rebecca’s new relationship.

The pain of our childhood stays with us and manifests itself at both expected and unexpected times. Ted Lasso explores the loss of a parent with nuance and grace while also foreshadowing things to come—did you miss Rupert (Anthony Head) whispering in Nate’s (Nick Mohammed) ear the first time around?—and making us laugh despite ourselves (“Avenge me, Keeley. Avenge me”). Later, after a heartbreaking moment, Sam (Toheeb Jimoh) tells Rebecca “I’m only going to get more wonderful.” The same could be said for Ted Lasso.—Amy Amatangelo


”The Boy in 6B,” Only Murders in the Building

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Written by: Stephen Markley & Ben Philippe
Directed by: Cherien Dabis
Network: Hulu

Silent episodes became somewhat of a trend this year. In addition to Evil’s entry to the genre, Only Murders provided its own very memorable take. “The Boy from 6B” features no audible dialogue and takes place entirely from the perspective of Theo Dimas (James Caverly), who is deaf. The episode is also notable for giving us a full explanation of the central crime that our team is investigating long before the finale, as we see Theo observing the group’s attempts to solve it and a flashback to what happened that night (his name is also key in unlocking more evidence). But it also gave us crucial insight into Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), while giving Theo a complicated introduction that doesn’t aim to make him heroic nor cast him as a central villain. It’s the kind of normative, layered portrayal that the deaf community has been looking for in television, and made for an unforgettable chapter in an already excellent new series. —Allison Keene


“Chase Becomes Co-Owner of the Nets,” The Other Two

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Written by: Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider
Directed by: Kim Nguyen
Network: HBO Max

Made for the terminally online, The Other Two lampoons the entertainment industry with glee as it follows the older siblings of a viral teen heartthrob. The second season shows Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke Dubek (Heléne Yorke) on an upward swing, but “Chase Becomes Co-Owner of the Nets” places each in their personal hell. For aspiring actor Cary, this means having the funding pulled for his first film, while Brooke finds herself trapped on a feminist speaking panel orchestrated by her boss (“Is she mad at you?” Cary wonders).

The Other Two specializes in pop-savvy cringe comedy, but Season 2 takes care to deepen emotional beats too. Here, Cary’s dream ballet with his Deadline casting article fits alongside a touching reminder that even if they still feel like flops, the older Dubek kids have come a long way since begging to walk the red carpet for When in Gnome. But this episode really belongs to Brooke, who’s accused of being anti-woman after forgetting an audience member’s name. What follows is the funniest bit I’ve seen all year. Backed by a human rights lawyer and a Palme d’Or winner, Brooke defends herself, asserting that women supporting women doesn’t mean unquestioningly supporting every woman. Or, to put it simply, she’s not anti-woman for unfollowing someone whose Instagram stories look more like dots than dashes. In a stellar season that’s covered everything from celebrity churches to a Grindr hole pic gone awry, nothing tops Brooke passionately chanting “Women can suck!” To me, that’s feminism. —Annie Lyons


“Catskills,” Girls5Eva

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Written by: Chelsea Devantez and Berkley Johnson
Directed by: LP
Network: Peacock

In many ways Girs5Eva is an outrageous farce. The comedy follows four now-middle-aged women trying to rekindle the fame they had in the ‘90s when they were going to be famous “5eva.” The show is hilarious and the jokes come so fast you might miss a few gems if you aren’t paying close attention. (It took me watching the episode for the second time to realize Girls5Eva was promoting “Perdue Zero,” the first chicken without bones or calories!) But what makes the show truly special is that underneath the hilarity, the mocking of the TRL/MTV era, and the ode to the questionable ‘90s fashion choices lies real emotions and real characters. In “Catskills,” the ladies take a trip to a remote cabin in the hopes of writing their next hit song. Gloria (Paula Pell) “accidentally” runs into her ex-wife Caroline (played by Pell’s real-life wife Janine Brito), and thinks they can rekindle their romance. But Gloria soon learns all the problems of their relationship are still there; she is a relentlessly hard worker because during the height of the group’s popularity she had to conceal the fact that she was gay, and hid her true self behind her work ethic. Wickie (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Summer (Busy Philipps), and Dawn (Sara Bareilles) have similar epiphanies. They are all more than the one-note description Girls5Eva gave them. Not many shows can be this concurrently funny and profound. Come for the jokes (“Assembly requires four men, or nine daughters”), stay for the deep dive into living in your truth. —Amy Amatangelo


”Hunting,” Reservation Dogs

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Written by: Sterlin Harjo
Directed by: Sterlin Harjo
Network: FX on Hulu

Reservation Dogs is ostensibly a comedy, but like so many FX half-hour series, it also relishes in handing viewers emotional gut-punches. “Hunting” was one such episode. In it, we find Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and her father Leon (Jon Proudstar) spending a day trying to hunt a deer that never seems to come. Throughout, the duo share memories and heartaches of other hunting trips before the passing of their cousin and nephew Daniel (Dalton Cramer) the year before. Their thoughts of him are bittersweet, and there is some mythos woven into the fabric of the episode as Willie Jack believes Daniel’s spirit is still with them. It’s also a chapter in which Willie Jack decides to stay in Oklahoma with her family instead of going off with her friends to California, which had been the rippling theme of the season. In reconnecting with her father over Daniel’s death and beginning to realize the importance of keeping loved ones close, Willie Jack’s more serious episode was a beautiful and haunting tribute to those we’ve lost. —Allison Keene


“Episode 6,” Sex Education

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Written by: Temi Wilkey
Directed by: Runyararo Mapfumo
Network: Netflix

One of Sex Education’s triumphs is that its “education” extends to everyone, no matter what stripes they wear. Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) evolution has been a bright spot of the series, and in the third season he is finally coming into his own. He is out, proud, and in love, finally wearing his heart on his sleeve without looking over his shoulder. The only problem is that his boyfriend, Adam (Connor Swindells), isn’t as secure in his identity and thus much of their relationship is often dictated on Adam’s terms. When Eric’s family travels to Nigeria for his cousin’s wedding, he meets a photographer, Oba (Jerry Iwu), who shows him the underground gay scene in Lagos. From feeling the scrutiny of the cab driver and wondering whether Oba can be trusted to finally feeling at home in the dim magic of the club’s dance floor, Eric has an eye-opening experience that ultimately prompts a genuine conversation with his mother about sacrifice and happiness. Eric finally feels the lightness of being who he is without judgment or consequence—something he has been craving as long as we’ve known him.

Elsewhere in the episode, Adam’s father (Alistair Petrie) attends therapy and reconnects with his love of cooking, which reminds him of his late mother, and Adam starts thinking about entering his beloved dog into a competition. At school, Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) and her fellow students are fighting back against the new headmistress’s conservative policies and her cruel punishments by releasing a recording of her nasty tirade about the student body. “Episode 6” is a turning point for a lot of characters to begin moving beyond their trauma and start focusing on things that bring them active happiness. In one of the most deeply empathetic and heartwarming shows on TV right now, this episode is firing on all cylinders. —Radhika Menon


“Fixed” Kevin Can F— Himself

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Written by: Valerie Armstrong
Directed by: Anna Dokoza
Network: AMC

Kevin Can F— Himself remained a captivating show throughout its first season. The tonal tightrope walk that exposed how the horrors of sitcom tropes fit perfectly alongside the beats of a primetime crime drama created a show unlike any other on TV. “Fixed,” the Season 1 finale, brings all of the show’s warring dilemmas together. The transformation of Kevin (Eric Petersen) into a Trump-like figure in the wake of a traumatizing shooting solidifies Allison’s (Annie Murphy) belief that nothing bad ever happens to men like Kevin. The episode also provides a great chance for Murphy to showcase Allison’s increasing desperation and anger, culminating in violence so shocking that it brings the world of the sitcom and the world of the drama crashing together in a horrific way. The episode succeeds both as a solid end to an intriguing series while also laying the groundwork for a second season with even higher stakes. —Leila Jordan


“December 19,” Cobra Kai

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Written by: Bob Dearden
Directed by: Josh Heald
Network: Netflix

Cobra Kai’s Season 3 finale stitched together all the disparate storylines into the climax we’ve been oddly rooting for since we were reintroduced to these knuckleheads of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). We get Kreese’s (Martin Kove) history fully revealed, which reinforces how dangerous he is being in charge of anyone, much less kids. And then Ali’s (Elizabeth Shue) mini-arc pays off beautifully with her reunion/memory lane time with both her exes giving everyone closure and a huge dose of “grow up!” to Daniel & Johnny. All of it ends with the two frenemies finally coming together against Kreese. It sets up an intriguing path forward on just how they’ll work together and in any way successfully mix their karate philosophies. And the episode gracefully and excitingly uses all the characters, the dojo faction players and their world views towards what we always knew was inevitable: Danny and Johnny kicking ass for the same cause together. —Tara Bennett


”A Secret of My Own,” Cruel Summer

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Written by: Matthew Antonelli (with Savannah Ward and Brian Otaño)
Directed by: Alexis Ostrander
Network: Freeform

The word “revelation” probably sees too frequent use in spaces like this to ring of honesty, but still: Freeform’s circuitously plotted retro teen thriller Cruel Summer was one of 2021’s greatest revelations. A genuine two-hander, with Chiara Aurelia’s inscrutably hungry Jeanette on one side and Olivia Holt’s gossamer-strong Kate Wallis on the other, the series fully blew the “teen girls keeping secrets” format to smithereens. In twisting its timelines, blurring its sympathies, and generally putting its central players—not just Jeanette and Kate, but all of us sitting complicit on our couches at home—through a kaleidoscopic ringer, Cruel Summer made the very idea of “truth” seem laughably beside the point.

That said, while the series didn’t drop a single dud throughout its brutally efficient first season, the penultimate episode, “A Secret of My Own,” is inarguably its best. Focusing entirely on Kate’s memories of her year trapped inside her would-be kidnapper’s home, the episode serves—at least on the narrative level—as a necessary catharsis, finally shedding light on the howling black hole at the center of the mystery of what Kate went through before she made her harrowing escape. But while her escape really is as harrowing as earlier episodes in the season had led us to fear, the truth of the rest of her year behind closed doors turns out to have been, well, nauseatingly romantic.

Make no mistake: What Kate experienced at the hands of her captor is categorically not and could never be considered romantic. But that doesn’t change the fact that is how Kate, with all her youth and innocence, experiences it. By sympathetic extension, it’s also how we, the audience, experience it, too. This complicity, hammered home by the uncharacteristically straightforward approach writer Matthew Antonelli and director Alexis Ostrander take in unspooling the narrative, is wholly by design. This is a story, after all, that we’ve seen played out with romantic seriousness on teen TV for ages. And that, as Cruel Summer so devastatingly reminds us, is the most harrowing fact of all. —Alexis Gunderson


“Spirit of the Ducks,” The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers

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Written by: Todd Linden
Directed by: Steve Brill
Network: Disney+

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers might be an underdog story for a new generation, but it succeeds because it knows where it came from and how to deploy its nostalgia-inducing moments for maximum effect. So it’s no surprise the episode featuring the return of six OG cast members was the best of the season—and one of the best episodes across TV this year. Set against the backdrop of Evan (Brady Noon) considering leaving his team, the Don’t Bothers, for the Mighty Ducks and a swanky gala celebrating the history of the Ducks as a team, the episode sees Elden Henson (Fulton Reed), Garette Ratliff Henson (Guy Germaine), Vincent LaRusso (Adam Banks), Marguerite Moreau (Connie Moreau), Matt Doherty (Lester Averman), and Justin Wong (Ken Wu) reprise their roles from the beloved film franchise. They reunite with Emilio Estevez’s Gordon Bombay in an emotional outing full of callbacks that hits you right in the heart and reminds everyone why this show exists. It reveals who Bombay once was—how formative a presence he was in the lives of the kids he coached—but it also highlights how the Ducks have lost sight of who they are: they’re now the cake eaters. In other words, it’s a perfect bridging of the past and present, so the episode works no matter your age (though everyone over 30 probably enjoyed it more). Honestly, the only thing that could have made it better would have been an appearance from Charlie Conway (Joshua Jackson) himself. But hey, there’s always Season 2. —Kaitlin Thomas


“Andante,” All Creatures Great and Small

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Written by: Lisa Holdsworth
Directed by: Metin Hüseyin
Network: PBS

One of the most affecting episodes of an already emotionally strong series, “Andante” explores the fallout from a decision that young Yorkshire vet James (Nicholas Ralph) made to put a prized racehorse down in order to relieve it from its pain. That moment puts the practice where he works in jeopardy, including a contract that his boss—the icy Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West)—is hoping to get with the racetrack. Elsewhere, a more uplifting subplot regarding Siegfried’s always mischievous brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) and his method of debt collection is as charming as expected, not to mention a sweet moment spent with the lovely Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) and her invaluable advice. But what really makes “Andante” stand out is us seeing a different side to Siegfried, who not only defends James in no uncertain terms, but also explains why he became a veterinarian and will always put the animals first—even if it means losing out on a dream job. His difficult, moving story about what happened to cavalry horses in WWI is haunting enough, but it’s the way West delivers the lines that is unforgettable. Here we see the frosty Farnon show just a hint of emotional depth like never before to champion the protection of animals, and it was simply beautiful. —Allison Keene


“What About Gary?” Black-ish

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Written by: Edgar Momplaisir
Directed by: Natalia Anderson
Network: ABC

Since its inception, ABC’s long-running comedy has been an outlet for some Black Americans to articulate their feelings on race and classism. Usually through narrator/lead Dre Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) voiceover, audiences learn about systemic oppression in our country and elsewhere as troubling images flash onto the screen. Episodes that have discussed everything from Juneteenth to the Trump inauguration and police brutality to colorism have served as teaching tools masked as entertainment.

This season, as the world was still reeling from the deaths of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and as mainstream media was just beginning to cover the concept of many Black Americans feeling exhausted, Black-ish sought to explore what it’s like to routinely have to explain these issues to white people. In “What About Gary?” Rob Huebel guest stars as the titular progressive and well-meaning cousin to Dre’s wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). Wondering if he, himself, is racist, Gary asks Dre to educate him on everything from redlining to correctly identifying similarly named celebrities. What follows is an abridged, half-hour response to everyone who has sent a “check in” text to their Black friends and family that was really meant to absolve themselves. —Whitney Friedlander


“Carolina Sphinx Moth,” Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

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Written by: Allison Lyman, Josh Thomas
Directed by: Rachael Holder
Network: Freeform

Despite featuring American television’s first autistic lead played by an autistic actor (Kayla Cromer), nuanced queer representation across the board, and a plethora of compelling performances from a raft of fizzy young talent, Josh Thomas’ family dramedy Everything’s Gonna Be Okay has more or less spent its first two exceptional seasons flying under the mainstream radar.

This is a shame for a thousand reasons, not least of which is the fact that, even in a TV landscape as packed to the gills with the kind of big, creative swings our current one is, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’s vibe is nevertheless wholly singular. But while Thomas’ portrait of young siblings in grief has been worth falling into since Season 1, the slow build-up to a surprise autism diagnosis—a diagnosis that finally hit in “Carolina Sphinx Moth,” and which mirrored Thomas’ own in real life—made the case for anyone wanting to catch up on this series to get on it already. Of course, the fact that it’s Maria Bamford’s Suze who gets the diagnosis ball rolling is a solid opening move. (The addition of her and Richard Kind as Matilda’s girlfriend’s parents this season was a stroke of casting genius.) But in the end, it’s the fact that the show knows both itself and its cast well enough that it can be dead confident in taking on such a complex storyline and handling it with absolute care that makes “Carolina Sphinx Moth” such a standout episode. I mean, it’s unsurprising that the family’s (and audience’s) gradual understanding of Nicholas’ new reality is handled as deftly as it is. As is the fact that—even on the precipice of accepting that his capacity to conceive of others’ interiority is different from most people’s—Nicholas nevertheless knows his own sisters well enough that he implicitly understands both when and how to pull them each into this particular circle of trust. But just because a thing is unsurprising doesn’t mean it can’t also be astounding, and with “Carolina Sphinx Moth,” I was just that: astounded. —Alexis Gunderson


“The Ex-Factor,” Legends of Tomorrow

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Written by: Grainne Godfree and Tyron B. Carter
Directed by: David A. Geddes
Network: The CW

Legends of Tomorrow is the superhero series known for its utterly fearless storytelling and ridiculous episode premises, whether that means anthropomorphizing a blue plush toy to defeat an evil demon, visiting the set of Lord of the Rings, trapping the Legends in classic TV genres, or making them all (admittedly adorable) puppets as part of a children’s program. Truly, there’s nothing this show can’t do.

On paper, Season 6’s “The Ex-Factor” isn’t even close to the weirdest story this show has told, with a plot that sees social media influencer Zari Tarazi (Tala Ashe) battle an alien in a reality singing competition. But the true wonder of this hour is the way that Legends uses hilariously awkward pop routines to explore deeper truths about how this version of Zari sees herself and her place on the team. Plus, she and John Constantine (Matt Ryan) finally admit their no-strings relationship is something more serious, delighting Hellstar fans everywhere. Truly, when you find a man who will endure public humiliation for you, keep him. —Lacy Baugher Milas


“Tribulation,” Schmigadoon!

Written by: Allison Silverman
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Network: Apple TV+

Friend, either you are closing your eyes to other shows on the Ted Lasso network or you are dead inside and hate musical comedy, because right here we’ve got “Tribulation.” Which is an episode of Scmigadoon!. Which is a show on Apple TV(+) and that rhymes with “C” and that stands for Chenoweth. (Kristin Chenoweth, that is).

You see, she plays Mildred Layton, a pursed-lipped, stuck-up, snot-nosed, puritanical preacher’s wife who’s up in everybody’s business. Passing judgment and being unwelcoming to Schmigadoon newcomers like big city doctors Melissa and Josh (Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key). And turning locals against each other just so she can become mayor (which is quite progressive, actually—a female mayor! Right here in Schmigadoon!).

Now, I know that her performance of “Tribulation,” a parody number inspired by “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man might not be enough to sell you on this show. Would you like to know what else happens in this episode? Yes, it’s got Jane Krakowski! In her own show-stopping number as Countess Gabriele Von Blerkom! The character is a take on the Baroness from The Sound of Music and definitely a Nazi! And it’s got Ariana DeBose! Who plays Anita in the new West Side Story! She plays schoolmarm Emma Tate and has a secret she’s hiding from everyone else in Schmigadoon! Oh yeah, you’ve gotta watch Scmigadoon!’s “Tribulation.” Right here on Apple TV+.—Whitney Friedlander


“Dickhead,” The Great

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Written by: Tony McNamara
Directed by: Colin Bucksey
Network: Hulu

There are so many standout moments in Season 2 of The Great that it’s difficult to highlight any single episode as the season’s best. In fact, it’s possible to make a solid argument for almost all of them. But for the purposes of this list, “Dickhead” gets the nod—not just because it is genuinely hilarious in its own right (I support Catherine’s [Elle Fanning] charmingly optimistic version of a “Build Back Better” plan for Russia), but also because it lays so much groundwork for what is to come. From Peter’s (Nicholas Hoult) sincere desire to better himself for Catherine’s sake and his almost immediate failure to stop committing wanton violence, to the establishment of Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) as the season’s vague moral compass and Catherine’s historically accurate embrace of religious freedom, there’s so much to enjoy. (And that’s before we get to the new empress’ coronation dress.)

Hoult is particularly fantastic in the hour, fully inhabiting the contradictions of Peter’s glacially slow personal growth—I mean, yes, he kills a man for calling him a dickhead (apparently illegal in Russia, who knew?), but he also feels bad about it, which is actually a certain kind of progress for a man who was gleefully sending lookalikes to their deaths in the previous episode. Can Peter truly change (and does it even matter if he can or can’t?) is a question the rest of Season 2 tries to answer, but as an opening salvo in the debate, “Dickhead” is a winner. —Lacy Baugher Milas


“Double Turn,” Heels

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Written by: Eric Martin
Directed by: Pete Segal
Network: Starz

By virtue of being the Season 1 finale, Heels’ “Double Turn” has a leg up from the start, but the episode exceeds all expectations as storylines come together in an hour that is at times exhilarating and other times heartbreaking. The episode sees Jack (Stephen Amell) and the Duffy Wrestling League finally get their moment in the spotlight at the South Georgia State Fair, while Staci (Alison Luff) prepares to perform at the rodeo even as her marriage crumbles further in the wake of her discovery that Jack orchestrated the Great Kleenex Incident that prompted Ace (Alexander Ludwig) to turn heel. But all of that feels destined, as does Ace finding out the truth and turning on Jack in the ring, so it is the moments we don’t see coming—or believe the writers will follow through on—like Wild Bill (Chris Bauer) pooping his pants in the middle of the match or Crystal (Kelli Berglund) claiming the championship belt for herself after a season of being told she wasn’t good enough, that ultimately set the episode apart.

But the hour also has everything that makes Heels a great time week in and week out: dynamic, flawed characters; complicated personal relationships; and a perfectly deployed but surprising sense of humor. This, in turn, makes “Double Turn” not just one of the best episodes of Heels’ first season but of the entire year as well. So while the show, with its underdog attitude, small-town setting, and focus on professional wrestling, might feel a bit modest in comparison to some of the more high-profile series on this list, it knows exactly what it’s doing and how to leave its mark, and “Double Turn” is the perfect example of that. —Kaitlin Thomas


”Book IV: Lamentations,” Midnight Mass

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Written by: Mike Flanagan, Dani Parker, Joyce Sherri
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Network: Netflix

Though Netflix’s Midnight Mass is technically a horror story, at its heart it is a meditation on faith and belief. But unlike other shows that draw smirking comparisons between literal monsters and the monstrousness often perpetrated in the name of Christianity, Midnight Mass takes the complexity of religion seriously, from the way belief informs the day-to-day life of its practitioners to the ease with which someone might truly believe an ancient, terrifying being is actually a messenger of God. (After all, angels, as described in the Bible, are actually fairly horrifying creatures.)

Nowhere is this delicate balance more evident than in the series’ fourth episode, “Lamentations,” which reveals that Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is drinking the blood of his congregation even as it highlights the show’s deep comprehension of the beauty inherent in Christian belief. Erin’s (Kate Siegel) extended monologue about what she believes happens to us after we die is not just beautifully written and incredibly acted—reader, I wept like a child, and someone needs to give Siegel an Emmy right the hell now—but demonstrates a rich understanding of why people want to believe in something greater than themselves at all: that we are loved, and we are not alone.—Lacy Baugher Milas



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