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.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”In the years after 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 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 got both from her male colleagues and the media, and how deeply she wanted to see justice for Nicole Brown Simpson.
“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 is one of the series’ most optimistic. It’s also one of the most beautiful, cinematic episodes of television this year.
“Atlanta”: “B.A.N.”Donald Glover’s understated dramedy was full of surprises, and this 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 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.
“Underground”: “Cradle”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.
“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 a surrogate father to a baby seahorse. 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.
“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.