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20 Best TV Episodes of 2016

Which episodes will reign supreme?

1 of 20 Ray Mickshaw/FX

1. "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Episode 6 of The People v. O.J. Simpson finally gave Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), lead prosecutor in Simpson's murder trial, a chance to tell her side of the story, through Paulson's exquisite performance. Though she was vilified during the actual case, Marcia Clark's tale is one of redemption and even vindication in "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," which lays bare the atrocious, sexist criticism she was subject to over the course of the trial and beyond... Criticism about everything from her haircut, to her demeanor in court, to her choice of vacation attire. Look no further than the scene in which Paulson's face crumples as Clark tries to maintain her composure in court to see why she was the shoo-in choice for the Lead Actress Emmy award this year. This episode marks the moment when Ryan Murphy's miniseries elevated itself from a true crime docudrama, to a poignant piece of art seeking to convey a powerful message. -- Liz Raftery

2 of 20 Guy D'Alema/FX

2. "B.A.N." Atlanta

This one is a feat of sequencing. "B.A.N." is the seventh episode of Atlanta's brilliant first season. The prior six episodes had each gotten progressively more surreal, instructing viewers not to get comfortable with any particular form or tone. And then the seventh episode was a Charlie Rose-style talk show called Montague on the fictional Black America Network, where rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry)and two random guest stars debate the media's portrayal of black people and trans people. Series star Donald Glover wasn't even in the episode! It was the peak of Atlanta's audacious risk-taking, and we can't think of anything that made us laugh harder than the show within a show's fake Arizona Iced Tea commercial. -- Liam Mathews

3 of 20 HBO

3. "The Winds of Winter," Game of Thrones

All season long, the women of Westeros were preparing to make their moves... And in the finale, they were finally ready. Between Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Olenna (Diana Rigg) sailing towards Westeros together, Cersei (Lena Headey) crowning herself queen, Lyanna (Bella Ramsey) crowning Jon (Kit Harington) king and Arya (Maisie Williams) gleefully slitting Walder Frey's (David Bradley) throat, "The Winds of Winter" allowed the women of this world to bring many long-running storylines to a close, all while expertly setting the board for show's dramatic conclusion. -- Sadie Gennis

4 of 20 JoJo Whilden/Netflix

4. "The Animals," Orange is the New Black

That sound you heard over the summer was Orange Is the New Black fans' hearts collectively breaking, after the show decided to kill off fan-favorite character Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). Borrowing its title from the show's theme song, "The Animals" showed the Litchfield prisoners being treated as such by the guards, many of whom lost any traces of their own humanity after this episode. At once a game-changing plot twist and a political statement about police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Poussey's heartbreaking demise in the penultimate episode became not only the most pivotal moment of the season, but perhaps the entire series. The hour and its aftermath left us wondering, both in regards to the show and to the state of the world in general: "Where do we go from here?" -- Liz Raftery

5 of 20 HBO

5. "The Beach," The Night Of

HBO's crime drama got off to fantastic start thanks to a tense hour that never denied that something was about to go horribly wrong for Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed). That sense of impending dread was almost Hitchcockian, as we watched for clues to what was about to happen; but the truly terrifying part was when we watched the penal system unfold as Naz was busted for murder. We've seen plenty of crime shows from the cops' perspective, but seeing the perp go through all the tedious, yet life-changing hoops while the police unemotionally went through their normal day-to-day routine was the real scary part. -- Tim Surette

6 of 20 Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

6. "Dave Chappelle/A Tribe Called Quest," Saturday Night Live

The triumphant returns of comedian Dave Chappelle and rap group A Tribe Called Quest would be notable under any circumstances, but this one came just a few days after an election that left half the country stunned and reeling. Chappelle's monologue, the election night sketch with Chris Rock and Tribe's fiery performance of "We the People" were cathartic and inspiring in a moment when hope for some Americans was in short supply. -- Liam Mathews

7 of 20 HBO

8. "Mother," Veep

Veep is at its best when it shows Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) at her worst, which is exactly what "Mother" did. Selina's mother is dying just as she realizes the presidency is slipping through her fingers during a recount. Of course, the latter concerns Selina more. Watching Louis-Dreyfus -- who submitted this episode en route to winning her fifth straight, and sixth total comedy lead actress Emmy -- modulate Selina's narcissism and grief while nailing her acid-tongued barbs is nothing short of stunning. On the surface, it seems like her grief is misplaced, but as someone who hated a mother who never gave her the love and approval she wanted and needed, Selina coming to terms with the end of a complicated relationship -- with her mother, and with the presidency -- is brutally honest and relatable. It culminates with her sobbing eulogy -- a slice of dark comedy that ought to be studied for years to come. -- Joyce Eng

8 of 20 Netflix

7. "Fish Out of Water," BoJack Horseman

Netflix's animated comedy isn't afraid of taking risks, from a shockingly hilarious pop song about abortion, to the basic concept of the show: an alcoholic, washed-out sitcom star who happens to be a horse. But the fourth episode of the show's third season was a stand-out, as BoJack (Will Arnett) traveled under the ocean for a film festival/almost literal fish out of water story. Told entirely through music, action, and bubbles (BoJack doesn't talk fish language) the episode could have been a one joke premise; but as usual with this show it took things one step further for a meditation on fatherhood, owning up to your mistakes and an epic chase through a taffy factory. -- Alex Zalben

9 of 20 Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

9. "Manifest," Luke Cage

Few TV shows have so boldly turned the initial concept on its head as Luke Cage did in the seventh episode of its freshman season. The superhero/hip-hop infused epic had been building to a confrontation between the bulletproof Luke (Mike Colter) and Harlem crime boss Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) for nearly seven hours... But in an episode heavy on flashbacks to Stokes' youth, we learned how the formerly sensitive, Julliard-hopeful boy became the hardened criminal we know now; and then he was violently murdered, shockingly and suddenly by his sister Mariah (Alfre Woodard). We're hard pressed to think of a superhero show -- or any show, really -- that gave their main villain such a full, rounded arc only to take him off the board when the show was only half over. Sweet Christmas, indeed. -- Alex Zalben

10 of 20 Laurie Sparham/Netflix

10. "San Junipero," Black Mirror

"San Junipero" hits like a sledgehammer by the time the post-credits sequence rolls and we see Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) dance away the rest of their lives in love to Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," rounding out the most important and inclusive episode of television of 2016. The lesbian and interracial sci-fi love story, where the dead are uploaded to a virtual heaven, deservedly got headlines for the way it was portrayed as hardly anything unusual -- it's just love, guys -- but "San Junipero" also tells a love story about two demographics that are largely ignored on television: the elderly, and the disabled. The happiest and least tech-dependent episode of Black Mirror's three seasons, "San Junipero" is also its best, most eyeball-wringing, and most important episode. -- Tim Surette

11 of 20 Ryan Green

11. "Season 2, Episode 8," American Crime

ABC's most serious drama is a must watch as a commentary on race, politics, the penal system, and socioeconomic disparity. But in a typical hour it's also an incredibly solid TV drama . "Season 2, Episode 8" broke the mold, though, by intercutting the scripted story with personal accounts from real-life school shooting survivors and victims of bullying, the two subjects that rose to the foreground in the powerful previous episode. It was a daring decision by showrunner John Ridley, but one that paid off and fully delivered his message: These are real issues that affect real people. Television shows don't have to be an escape. They can be lessons. And few are doing as good a job of educating its viewers like American Crime. -- Tim Surette

12 of 20 Fox

12. "Glued, Where's My Bob?" Bob's Burgers

How do you pick a perfect episode of a perfect show? Bob's Burgers made a seemingly impossible task pretty easy with their monumental 100th episode, which aired this Spring. It's a borderline bottle episode with almost the entire half hour spent with Bob (H.Jon Benjamin) glued to the restaurant bathroom. The episode combines the show's clever humor with a slew of new musical numbers (Um, can we have the official Bob's Burgers soundtrack, please?!) The episode did exactly what a seminal episode should do, which is remind its fans of what makes them love the show in the first place. It's an episode that you can show to anyone who has never seen it before and it'll show them exactly what Bob's Burgers is about and why they should love it. Here's to another 100 episodes. -- Megan Vick

13 of 20 Mike Yarish, Mike Yarish/The CW

13. "I'm Going to the Beach with Josh and His Friends!" Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

There were a number of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend episodes that probably could have found their way on to this list, but "I'm Going to the Beach With Josh and His Friends!" from the musical comedy's first season stands out for being an emotional turning point for the show as well as for Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) as a person. After living in denial for months, Rebecca's neuroses finally bubbled over during a trip to the beach and she was forced to confess in front of everyone the real reason she moved to West Covina: her search for happiness. Instead of pushing Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) away, Rebecca's confession brings them closer together and solidifies a bond between the two that no one else understands, and in turn allows Rebecca to accept her feelings for Josh after attempting to ignore them for months. Also, this was the beginning of White Josh and Daryl's relationship and that's worth celebrating. -- Kaitlin Thomas

14 of 20 Katie Yu, Katie Yu/The CW

14. "Salivation Army," iZombie

iZombie loves to end each season with an action-heavy adrenaline rush, and this year's showdown at the Max Rager lock-in put the Meat Cute massacre to shame. After giving us a slow build all season, iZombie let loose with an endlessly fun zombie outbreak that pitted our heroes against a group of party people-turned-brain munchers. But what truly made "Salivation Army" stand out is the way it took the world iZombie has explored for two seasons -- that of Liv's immediate circle of friends and co-workers -- and dramatically expanded it with Vivian's mic drop of a proposal to turn Seattle into a safe haven for zombies. That's the kind of finale cliffhanger that will keep us on the edge of our seats for months to come. -- Sadie Gennis

15 of 20 HBO

15. "November 13," Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight's post-election episode became an instant classic when John Oliver summed up not just how awful 2016 was as a whole (R.I.P. everyone you've ever loved, apparently), but also highlighted the myriad problems America now faces in the wake of Donald Trump winning the presidency. From potentially harmful policies to the future makeup of the Supreme Court, Oliver covered it all with his signature style that poked fun but also stressed that this situation is not normal. The only bad thing about the November 13 episode is that it was the final episode of the year. We could really use Oliver to get us through these last few weeks. -- Kaitlin Thomas

16 of 20 Jackson Lee Davis/Sundance TV

16. "A House Divided," Rectify

Rectify continued to be the most heartbreaking show that you're not watching with its fourth and final season premiere. Daniel (Aden Young) has been living on his own in the group home in Nashville for three months when we join him for an episode solely from his perspective. By all major accounts, Daniel is doing fine, but the episode expertly explores the depths of Daniel's loneliness now that he's been separated from his family. As a whole, Rectify is emotionally gripping as it doesn't allow its characters to flinch away from their problems but pushes them to deal with their own existential crises head on. However, "A House Divided" goes above and beyond with one scene where Daniel admits he has no idea whether he killed his high school girlfriend or not, but the harrowing experience of spending 20 years on death row for it anyway has made him a shell of a man. It's a devastating monologue that perfectly captures what makes Rectify such a rare gem of a television show. Its brutal honesty is not only beautiful, but cements Rectify as one of the best TV shows to ever hit the airwaves. -- Megan Vick

17 of 20 Robert Voets, WARNER BROS.

17. "Worlds Finest," Supergirl

There was no greater distillation of joy on television this year than Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) using his super speed powers to get Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) ice cream during the former's guest turn, crossing over from The CW to CBS. Beyond those five seconds, though, the episode was a high mark for Supergirl, from pointedly hilarious jokes at The CW (shades of the show heading there in Season 2), to huge character growth in her journey towards becoming the hero she's meant to be. Gustin and Benoist's chemistry is so good, that the shows are crossing over two more times before their current seasons are over. What did we ever do to deserve these ice cream-esque treats? -- Alex Zalben

18 of 20 Netflix

18. "Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers," Stranger Things

Really any Stranger Things episode could go on this list, since the first season is such a cohesive whole; but the pilot is the one that establishes the nostalgic tone, plays that mysterious synthy theme song for the first time. This was the one that made so many people go "Oh wow, what is this show? This is great!" -- Liam Mathews

19 of 20 Scott Everett White/The CW

19. "Chapter Forty Four," Jane the Virgin

"Chapter Forty-Four," also known as the Season 2 finale of Jane the Virgin, was a monumental episode that delivered the show's signature emotional moments as well as at least one major punch to the gut. After two seasons of love triangle shenanigans, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) finally married Michael (Brett Dier) while Rafael (Justin Baldoni) chose to walk away. But because this is a telenovela, the episode also ended on a major cliffhanger, one that saw Rose (Bridget Regan) return and shoot Michael, thus leading to the Big Emotional Cliffhanger of 2016. Well played, Jane. Well played. -- Kaitlin Thomas

20 of 20 FX

20. "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears," The Americans

From the powerful opening sequence -- a silent scene as Martha is taken to her drop-off point, before telling her husband, "Don't be alone, Clark" -- until the surprise time jump at the end, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears," directed by star Matthew Rhys, is a marvel of storytelling that pays off on all fronts. Crushing under the weight of their jobs and family strife, the Jennings -- Paige included -- are downright miserable. Gabriel grants them a "vacation," and just like David Copperfield would do, time vanishes before our eyes until we catch up with everyone seven months later. It's a brilliant, well-executed move that refocuses the show and relieves the mounting, palpable pressure bursting through the screen. But most effectively, and most tragically, you know the reprieve cannot and will not last. -- Joyce Eng