5. “The Magic of David Copperfield V. The Statue of Liberty Disappears” The Americans
“The Americans” typically doesn’t traffic in big, show-stopping moments. Even when it must depict scenes that, on any other show, would be executed in showy, headline-grabbing fashion, the FX series applies the same rigor, patience and subtlety that it has become known for. “The Magic of David Copperfield” opens in several minutes of sustained, unbearable silence, culminating in Martha’s heartbreaking departure; the episode ends with a seven-month time jump (!), the family — ostensibly — in much better shape than it was before.
What transpires between those bookending scenes is vintage “Americans:” pressure-cooker tension and all the cutting family drama that feeds into it. Elizabeth nearly confronts Phillip about Martha, erratically kills her informant Lisa, and she unloads seasons’ worth of buried emotions on Paige — Keri Russell is a marvel here, practically showboating her talents in what is perhaps television’s most difficult and demanding role. Every line, shot and character choice in this show is beautifully judged; “The Americans” is pulp as high art, narrative as sustained metaphor, the intra-familial psychological warfare of marriage, children and patriotism as Cold War spy thriller. As the episode ended, I was almost relieved, in a sense, at this relaxed sigh of a time-jump — six episodes of high-wire anxiety can take a toll. But, as “The Americans” is wont to do, the show can’t resist a twist of the knife: Everyone in this Jennings family, just as every family must do, is feigning happiness. Paige is not contentedly playing mini-golf with Pastor Tim; she’s on assignment from her parents, and we can see the remorse written on her face. The Statue of Liberty has, indeed, disappeared.
— Nabeel Chollampat
4. “B.A.N” Atlanta
Part of what made “Atlanta” such a success in its inaugural season was its unabashed willingness to take risks with the assuredness of a well established series, as it often turns to the surreal and unexplained to provide further insight on its unique subject matter and characters. Written and directed by series creator and star Donald Glover, “B.A.N.” proved to be the biggest dive the series took and it paid dividends.
Framed as an episode of the fictional talk show “Montague” on the titular “Black America Network,” the episode focuses its spotlight on Bryan Tyree Henry’s (“Vice Principals”) Paper Boi as the program forces him to navigate several complex subjects, from transphobia to Black culture. Henry’s performance continuously ties the episode together as he conveys Paper Boi’s confusion, frustration and eventual clarity, saying, “It’s hard for me to care about this when nobody cares about me as a Black human man … where’s tolerance for people like me?”
Meanwhile, “B.A.N.” ’s use of parodic commercials further bolstered its arguments, as Glover puts on a showcase in comedic writing, constantly raising the bar with each subsequent segment, ultimately culminating in a cereal commercial that steers into a shocking display of police brutality.
In a first season that constantly challenges its form and structure, “B.A.N.” serves as a peak to “Atlanta” ’s many highs, confidently encapsulating the hilarious, perplexing and challenging tone that defined the show’s first brave steps in the landscape of television.
— Matt Barnauskas
3. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
A key reason why “The People v. OJ Simpson” is among the best shows of the year is in how it brings the real figures of the case to life and makes them three-dimensional characters. No episode of the series does this more than “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” The hour focuses on Marcia Clark, the main prosecutor on Simpson’s trial. It depicts the toll the trial took on her, both in terms of her relationship with her family and her emotions. In the episode, her husband complains to the press about how she’s failing to take care of her children and she gets the famous haircut which the press makes fun of her for. Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) won an Emmy for her performance as Clark and this episode was likely the centerpiece for that campaign. Her chemistry with Sterling K. Brown’s (“This is Us”) Chris Darden is another highlight, as Darden and Clark become closer. While the entire run of “The People v. OJ” was quite remarkable, this hour proved to be its best, mostly due to Paulson’s amazing work as Clark.
— Alex Intner
2. “The Animals” Orange is the New Black
While so much of TV watching is passive, the penultimate episode in season four of “Orange is the New Black” is anything but. The series has never been afraid to be political or controversial, readily employing what is considered taboo as an agent to explore the humanity of its characters. But in “The Animals,” this is taken a momentous step further. The episode culminates in a heartbreaking, nuanced and complicated death of one of the series’ most beloved protagonists that inevitably transcends from the fictional screen to the messy, real world. With impeccable writing and nuanced storytelling, “The Animals” perfectly captures the tension that lies at the core of the entire series: Right and wrong is rarely black and white and good people sometimes do evil things.
— Danielle Yacobson
1. “Fish Out of Water” BoJack Horseman
As an homage to Charlie Chaplin, Looney Tunes and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” the tour de force “Fish Out of Water” is a masterwork in both animation and storytelling. Despite the lack of dialogue — the episode is almost entirely silent — “Fish Out of Water” compels in its wonderful, eye-popping visuals, as well as its zany and surprisingly poignant premise. When the hapless BoJack descends into the sea to promote his biopic Secretariat at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, shenanigans immediately ensue. Without a cigarette to light, a vodka to drink or a voice to communicate with sea creatures, BoJack is both physically and emotionally lost in this unfamiliar environment, causing for some deeply unsettling (and hilarious) gags.
It’s a delight and a pity to see BoJack interact in this beautifully constructed abyss, which is a testament to the brilliant artistic vision of creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. After going on an insane, death-defying quest to find Kelsey Jennings (Maria Bamford, “Lady Dynamite”), the woman fired from directing Secretariat, BoJack digs deep into his soul and writes: “In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.” It’s a bit of risk for a show built on excellent banter to solely rely on animation, but “Fish Out of Water” pays off tremendously in its experimental approach and reaffirms “BoJack Horseman” as one of the most touching, vibrant and genuinely thought-provoking TV satires currently on air.
— Sam Rosenberg