When you think about the history of television, you see that it has evolved as a medium over the last twenty years, and with the rise in streaming and a strong push for what's become known as "prestige programming," there has been more crossover between TV and film than ever before. But a limited series (or miniseries, as most would have been called a few decades ago) is not a "10-hour movie," no matter how many times movie folks try to spin it that way.
Television is special because of its episodic nature and its ability to tell a compelling, ongoing story over a long period of time. Episodes can be serialized or can stand alone within the larger story, but they're all equally important to the overarching narrative and structure of the medium. Still, some happen to be better than others.
Despite the chaos of 2020, television offered up a plethora of outstanding episodes to keep us all entertained while we quarantined at home. Whether they made us laugh out loud at the sheer absurdity of their stories or made us contemplate humanity and the passing of time, these are the best episodes of 2020.
(Disclosure: Links to retailers may earn money to support our work.)
Three words: Tell me again. The high point of Better Call Saul's incredible fifth season — and one of the best scenes of the whole magnificent show — was the brutally tense, 10-minute-long standoff at the end of the season's penultimate episode, "Bad Choice Road." As Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) grilled Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) on what really happened to him out in the desert, writer-director Thomas Schnauz dialed up the suspense, making it hard to believe everyone would survive the night. But Kim (Rhea Seehorn) stepped up — literally putting herself in the crosshairs of a watchful Mike (Jonathan Banks) — to verbally smack down the cartel enforcer in her living room until he retreated. Seehorn's contained rage was a thrilling release at the end of a confrontation that had everyone holding their breath. But as the kicker to an episode about inescapable consequences, the scene felt violent in its own way: Kim Wexler is in the game now, and there's no turning back. –Kelly Connolly
Where to watch: Hulu
Brooklyn Nine-Nine's recurring character Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas) always delivers the kind of chaotic energy we can't look away from. In "Pimemento," he was on the run after someone tried to kill him, and complicating matters was his short-term memory loss. (Cue the line: "Pimento has Memento!") Jake (Andy Samberg) and Charles (Joe Lo Truglio) jump in to help, which only leads to more pandemonium and movie references galore (insert the Finding Dory jokes here). Combine all this with Jake and Amy's (Melissa Fumero) desire to grow a family with an in-the-dark Charles, this episode serves up the kind of craziness and laughs that have become the show's hallmarks. –Aliza Sessler
Where to watch: Hulu
For a show about a rapper, Dave didn't have nearly enough scenes of Dave "Lil Dicky" Burd rapping. That made the FX series mostly a raunch-com about a guy moaning about the mangled cocktail weenie in his sweatpants — with occasional moments of insight when the show interrupted its bro-down for shockingly perceptive episodes focused on side characters. But the finale let Dave spit fire, finally allowing us to see the talent he arrogantly saw in himself. The first act is an opus: an eight-and-a-half minute rap video in which Dave tells a story about getting thrown in jail for indecent exposure after showing a testicle to the crowd at his concert, and how he survived prison by biting off the dong of a gang leader. Yes. Of course, it was all a demo played for aghast executives at his new record label, thus starting a conversation about art versus commercialism, for which Dave is a natural poster child. The final moments saw him win over his biggest critic, Charlamagne tha God, as well as his second biggest critic, me. Season 2 needs to do more of this. –Tim Surette
Where to watch: HBO Max
No one expected Doctor Who to change the game in a Judoon episode, but "Fugitive of the Judoon" pulled off two of the season's greatest twists, using the villains of the week as a Trojan horse — or maybe Trojan rhino — to introduce a character who would completely upend the mythology of the 57-year-old series. With her debut as a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, Jo Martin became the first Black Doctor in Who history. It was a blast to watch her super-cool take on the character face off against Jodie Whittaker's Doctor at the helm of an old-school TARDIS, pushing the show into the future without overlooking its past. In the episode's other electrifying surprise, Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) mouth-kissed his way back into the Doctor's orbit a decade after his last appearance on Doctor Who. Not bad for a rhino cop episode. –Kelly Connolly
The bulk of Evil's fantastic first season aired in 2019, but Robert and Michelle King's twisted supernatural drama kicked off this year as only it could with "Room 320," a claustrophobic psychological thriller that went deep on the horrors of medical racism. The episode trapped Mike Colter's David Acosta, recovering from a stabbing, in the hospital with a menacing nurse (Tara Summers) who liked killing Black patients. As an overmedicated David fought to stay alive, his nightmares bled into an even more terrifying reality. The stunning hour walked the line between trippy and dead serious, following David through every urgent, bloody attempt to find someone who would listen. The demons roaming the halls were practically comic relief by comparison. –Kelly Connolly
Where to watch: Netflix
If I had my way, Justified would still be on TV. It would run for 40 seasons. Raylan Givens would limp around Harlan and yell at kids to get off his lawn. I would eat it up. And so, it seems, would the Judge (Maya Rudolph) on The Good Place. In "You've Changed, Man," a version of Justified star Timothy Olyphant is conjured to distract the Judge while Team Cockroach pitches their plan to save humanity via a new version of the afterlife — a plan that sounds an awful lot like the premise of The Good Place. Their plan ultimately works, saving humanity from being rebooted (once Shawn [Marc Evan Jackson] agrees to this setup, of course). And while the episode is the culmination of four seasons of character development and story evolution based on philosophical teachings and self-betterment, it is perhaps best remembered for Olyphant's willingness to goof around and don a Raylan-esque cowboy hat to satisfy the Judge, The Good Place creator Mike Schur, and everyone else who ever loved his portrayal of Elmore Leonard's laconic lawman. After Fox canceled The Grinder, which featured Olyphant as a fictional version of himself, this meta exercise is the next best thing, and the fact that the cameo came after the writers left a series of breadcrumbs referencing the Judge's love for the FX Western made the guest appearance even better. Of course, it's also cool that humanity wasn't rebooted and Emperor Kid Rock never rose to power, but mostly the Olyphant thing. –Kaitlin Thomas
Where to watch: Netflix
As a whole, The Haunting of Bly Manor struggled to reach the heights of Hill House, but the fifth episode embodied the second season at its very best. "The Altar of the Dead" focuses on the tragic story of the housekeeper, Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller), as she weaves in and out of memories throughout her time at Bly while refusing to accept the fact that she's dead. It's a heartbreaking portrait of a woman fueled by love, restrained by fear, and stubbornly held together by duty and denial. And though Bly Manor delivered its fair share of devastating twists, none were as haunting as Hannah finally finding the courage to pursue a future with the lovable cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli), only to realize it was too late for her to make different choices. It's an emotional powerhouse of an episode in which the horror doesn't lie in the ghosts or the dream-hopping that drove the season, but in the everyday terror of how easy it is to let your life pass you by. –Sadie Gennis
Where to watch: Showtime
Before Showtime decided to cancel the unique and heartwarming Kidding, the series delivered an emotional masterpiece in the form of "Episode 3101," a Season 2 episode that's actually an installment of Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time, the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood-inspired show within the show. The episode serves to kick out half of the puppets who live in Pickle Barrel Falls — conveniently every puppet that Deidre's (Catherine Keener) husband seized the rights to in their divorce in the previous episode — and to help Jeff (Jim Carrey) himself make sense of his impending divorce. Both missions are accomplished after Pickle Barrel Falls experiences an "ungluing" and everything in the town falls apart, forcing the puppets to find new homes and leaving Jeff to explain that sometimes loving someone very much isn't enough to keep everything together. The fictional children's show breaks down adult problems with tender care, and it has the added bonus of featuring Ariana Grande as a pickle fairy who brought us to tears with her song about the power of love and believing in things. Kidding was a creative and underappreciated gem throughout its too-short run, and the depth of "Episode 3101" is an example of what all TV should strive to be. –Megan Vick
Where to watch: Apple TV+
Apple is used to generating mass hysteria with its product releases, but Apple TV+ hit the market with all the excitement of a new iPod Shuffle. Apple's first great series arrived months after launch with the anthology comedy series Little America, and no episode does a better job of capturing the series' immigrant experience than "The Cowboy." In it, a Nigerian man named Iwegbuna (played by the effortlessly charming Nigerian multi-hyphenate Conphidance) moves to the U.S. to attend college, and in his free time he learns to dress and behave like a cowboy from some open-hearted locals who help him fulfill a dream he's had since admiring cowboys on film back in his home country. It's about fitting in to a new home and keeping your own traditions alive, and it's filled with touching moments that actively tear down barriers. Watching a pair of old white guys give Iwegbuna tips on purchasing a new cowboy hat and boots is great not just because it's funny, but because it's a model for how we should all treat someone looking to expand their knowledge of other cultures. –Tim Surette
Lovecraft Country's go-big-or-go-home first season took the occasional swing and a miss, but the series premiere was a triumph — a harrowing ride through 1950s Jim Crow America that didn't skimp on pulp scares but was at its scariest when it was at its most real. The highlight of the episode was Tic (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett), and George's (Courtney B. Vance) gripping road trip to New England, where racist sheriffs lay in wait to chase them through sundown counties. But the hour also left room for vivid, tender celebrations of Black love and joy, and for every tentacled monster, it paid homage to Black artists like James Baldwin and Gordon Parks. "Sundown" was the smartest blockbuster of the summer. –Kelly Connolly
Where to watch: Apple TV+
As the pandemic raged, this Mythic Quest episode managed to do a few seemingly impossible things all at once: It was sincere without being cloying, talking about the anxiety and depression so many of us are trying to deal with during these stressful times. It was also goofy, with a Rube Goldberg-inspired sequence that was perfectly coordinated with all the remote cast members. The episode is a time capsule of 2020, complete with the frustration, sadness, and sense of struggle everyone can relate to. Best of all, the cast and crew produced the episode observing protocols that kept everyone properly distanced and safe. All in all, a pandemic TV miracle. –Diane Gordon
Where to watch: Hulu
For theater kids like myself, "Play" is a humiliating and hilarious trip down memory lane. In the episode, best friends Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) find themselves spending some time apart when Maya lands the lead in the school play, leaving a jealous Anna to search for her own place in the production as a techie. Now on separate sides of the great theatrical divide, we watch as Maya and Anna gain confidence in their own abilities and in themselves as individuals, only for the duo to fall back on their worst tendencies when they finally come together again for "hell week." These rifts are a part of any adolescent friendship, where not every relationship is able to evolve beyond codependency, and PEN15 explores these growing pains with great tenderness. The same can be said for the show's approach to Gabe's (Dylan Gage Moore) struggles to accept his queerness, as his valiant attempts to avoid kissing his co-star and new girlfriend, Maya, lead to a heart-wrenching kiss through masks while slow dancing. While the episode still registers high on the cringe factor, "Play" demonstrates such overwhelming compassion for these clueless kids coming to terms with themselves that it's hard not to become more compassionate toward your own middle school self in the process. –Sadie Gennis
Where to watch: Hulu
Many of Ramy's best episodes are ones that creator and star Ramy Youssef isn't in. That's the case for Season 2's finest half-hour, "They," which focuses on Ramy Hassan's mother, Maysa, played by the great Hiam Abbass. In the episode, Maysa is about to take her citizenship exam, which her naturalization officer assures her will be "a softball." But she is thrown a curveball when a passenger she drove in her Lyft reports her to the company, which she worries will affect her citizenship application. With her daughter Dina's (May Calamawy) help, she figures out that the passenger who reported her was probably a gender nonconforming person named Sophia (Maybe Burke) whom she offensively misgendered. And then she goes and finds them to apologize, which only makes things worse.
The specter of Donald Trump hangs over the episode in a unique way that only a show with Ramy'spoint of view could pull off. Maysa wants to become an American citizen in order to vote against the anti-Muslim president, but her hatred of Trump doesn't mean she's not like him in the careless, offensive, stream-of-consciousness way she talks. It's a nuanced, empathetic portrait of a character who feels like a real person, and a type of person (an emotionally complex middle-aged, middle-class, Middle Eastern woman) who rarely gets shown on TV. –Liam Mathews
It's difficult to pick a single episode to celebrate Schitt's Creek's excellent final season, but "The Incident" best encapsulates why this show will go down as one of the most beloved comedies of all time. The second episode brought childhood trauma to the forefront when David (Dan Levy) awoke with Patrick (Noah Reid) to discover he had wet the bed during the night. Leave it to Levy's compassionate genius to make a problem that reportedly only affects 1 to 2 percent of adults feel universal as Patrick's gentle understanding of the issue only exacerbates David's anxiety about the situation. Moira's (Catherina O'Hara) first big foray into social media also ups the stakes when she accidentally reveals the accident to everyone on the World Wide Web, but the episode showcases one of Schitt's Creek's greatest strengths: finding ways to make us laugh without ever punching down. –Megan Vick
Where to watch: Hulu
No episode of TV made me laugh harder this year than What We Do in the Shadows' "On the Run." Laszlo (Matt Berry) is being hunted by Jim the Vampire (Mark Hamill), to whom Laszlo has owed money for over a century. When faced with the choice to either pay his debt or fight Jim to the death, Laszlo instead decides to go on the run, leaving his wife and roommates behind on Staten Island to start a new life in Pennsylvania. In order to effectively disguise himself, Laszlo operates under the alias Jackie Daytona, a Springsteen-esque, jeans-wearing bar owner who is never seen without a toothpick in his mouth and is an avid supporter of the local girls' volleyball team. No one in town understands who he is or where he came from (a hilarious detail is Laszlo's claim that Jackie hails from Tuscon, Arizona, while doing nothing to cover up his English accent), but everyone loves him anyway. It's a gloriously silly half-hour of TV and the best example of what the FX comedy can do. The standalone episode more than earned its Outstanding Writing Emmy nomination. –Allison Picurro
Edited by Kaitlin Thomas and Noelene Clark
Illustration by Jessie Cowan