The 50 Best TV Episodes of the Decade

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Best TV Episodes of the Decade

20. “ronny/lily” – Barry

Barry

The past two seasons of Barry have provided some of the best dark comedy to television. One episode of the second season stands out, however. “ronny/lily” transcends what we expected out of Barry and out of a 30-minute crime comedy show. Written, directed, and starring Bill Hader, this episode shows off his artistry even more than the rest of the show. It dares to take its time with the action, go after the ridiculous, and refuses to give Barry a break. Along with the tonal shift of the scenes compared to the rest of the series, the camerawork of this episode exceeds expectations. As Barry tussles with Ronny and Lily, the camera jars along with its subjects in a way normally reserved for cinema. Known cinephile Hader has brought a fine piece of art to HBO with “ronny/lily” and it will remain one of his masterpieces. (Emily Kubincanek)


19. “This Is Not For Tears” – Succession

Succession

Succession might only be two years into its TV tenure, but the show has already mastered the art of ending a season with a straight-up banger of a finale. “This Is Not For Tears,” the season two finale, is a showstopper. It brilliantly paid off the long game that dominated season two, while peppering in some (Greg) sprinkles about what is to come. The character work in this episode exposed some long-present fault lines while simultaneously revealing unprecedented details. Succession is also home to some of the greatest actors on TV. While Matthew MacFadyen and Jeremy Strong were the episode’s MVPs, the cast was stellar all around, each cast member adept at garnering frustration and adoration from viewers. “This Is Not For Tears” was also a masterclass in narrative construction by ending with a scene at once shocking and, upon reflection, inevitable. And to top it all off, the final shot of the episode is one that we’re all going to be interpreting until the next season, and maybe long after. My take on what the shot means? Game recognize game. Bring on season three. (Anna Swanson)


18. “Simon and Marcy” – Adventure Time

Adventure Time Crown

There are a lot of reasons to love Adventure Time, but one of the biggest is its gradual evolution from a silly kids’ cartoon into an emotionally rich saga. Another is its beautifully empathetic treatment of its erstwhile villain, Ice King. If you’d like to hear me ramble on about these two topics, have I got the link for you. Alternatively, you can just bask here in my praise of the season 5 masterpiece “Simon and Marcy.” A brief look back 1,000 years in the past of Adventure Time‘s events, the episode shows Ice King not as the goofy old wizard we’ve come to know, but as a terrified and frantic man in the wasted remains of civilization, desperately trying to keep it together for the sake of a little girl who is, as far as he knows, the only other person left alive. It’s a hell of a departure from the usual lightness of daytime Cartoon Network, more The Road than The Powerpuff Girls. But it’s not as gritty as it could be, instead telling a beautiful story of love and sacrifice that has moments of pure comedy (the Clambulance, anyone?) and is sublimely tied together with two renditions of the Cheers theme, sung by Tom Kenny with such subtly heartbreaking differences that it will make even the most jaded viewer tear up. (Liz Baessler)


17. “Part 8” – Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks Return

There’s never been an episode like this on TV before and there likely will never be again. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s return to the small screen was a highlight of the last decade (and of humanity’s existence on earth, to be honest), a fact illustrated by this surreal mid-season voyage into America’s macabre heartland. The episode picks up by continuing the chronicle of the mysterious and sinister Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan) before delving into a beautiful and nightmarish avant-garde odyssey through time and space, good and evil, light and dark. The experimental black and white vignettes that populate “Part 8” capture the fracturing of the national psyche in response to trauma; it’s an episode about suffering and sacrifice, one that poses heartbreaking questions about who and what can be saved. Plus, it features a cameo performance from “The” Nine Inch Nails. What’s not to like? This episode is an otherworldly work of art that affirms the potential of the medium and of the brilliance of the show’s vision. I hope we get more Twin Peaks if Lynch and Frost do indeed want to continue exploring this world, but if The Return is where this story ends, at least they went out with the most stunning 58 minutes ever committed to television. (Anna Swanson)


16. “Into the Unknown” – Over the Garden Wall

Over The Garden Wall Into The Unknown

After eight episodes of a beautiful, folklorish journey through an Unknown world, Over the Garden Wall creator Pat McHale throws his audience a curveball: he offers us a glimpse into something more familiar. That is, during “Into the Unknown,” we take a break from the miniseries’ usual setting and instead witness half-brothers Greg (Collin Dean) and Wirt (Elijah Wood) on a journey through the suburbs on Halloween night. “Into the Unknown” is the beginning of Greg and Wirt’s story at the end, so to speak. It’s the penultimate episode of the series, and it’s only at this point that we get to see the events leading up to their mysterious trek through the woods. Reserving those beats for the emotional climax of the season proves to be incredibly effective, resulting in some rewarding payoff regarding character details that have been with us since the pilot, but that we haven’t seen the full context for until now: Just why has Greg been wearing a teapot on his head this whole time? What’s with that painted rock that hasn’t left his side? And where does a frog name as perfect as “Jason Funderberker” even come from?

Truly, Over the Garden Wall is such a special show, with its rich autumnal atmosphere and its vibrant hand-drawn animation style influenced by old-school Americana. And with “Into the Unknown,” McHale shows us the stuff at its heart: a story of first crushes and costume parties and frog hunts. It’s grounded and nostalgic, and manages to capture that exact feeling of, well, everything that comes with being a teen and wanting to tell someone you care about them. All in just eleven minutes! It all goes to show that “Into the Unknown” is the best of an already perfect series, the total package. You’d be hard-pressed to find too many things that can compete. (Christina Smith)


15. “Mac Finds His Pride” – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Mac Finds His Pride Feature Image

I’ve talked a lot about “Mac Finds His Pride.” Seriously, a lot. But I’m happy to talk about it again, because it deserves it. Everyone knows It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A lot of people know it from roughly ten years ago, probably when they were watching it in college. Some others have kept up with it all along, as they should, because it’s been consistently stellar for its entire crazy run. (Others still have written 19,000 word exhaustive rankings of every episode, though there aren’t many of us). But in 2018 the show managed to surprise all walks of fan with an utterly unexpected, hauntingly beautiful five-minute dance sequence in the rain to the sounds of Sigur Ros. It would’ve been a showstopper in almost any show, but coming from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, home of dumpster babies and the Night Man, it almost felt calculated to be the furthest departure from the norm possible. And the thing is, it worked. It worked astoundingly well. A spare, emotive dance between showrunner Rob McElhenney and professional dancer Kylie Shea, it expressed years of pent up frustration and conflict and denial in a way that would have stood up amazingly on its own, but given its source, has earned it a permanent spot in the annals of history. (Liz Baessler)


14. “Who Goes There” – True Detective

True Detective Who Goes There

True Detective’s first season would have been riveting if it only included scenes of a grizzled Matthew McConaughey slicing up beer cans with a knife and performing monologues in his beautiful southern drawl. Fortunately, the season was also full of compelling mystery, southern gothic spookery, and enough tension for McConaughey to chop up when he ran out of beer. In “Who Goes There,” however, the show also proved that it understood the impact of the proverbial shit hitting the fan.

The standout moment of this episode — and perhaps the entire series — is a six-minute single-shot scene of a neighborhood riot which Rust (McConaughey) must navigate without incurring the wrath of a gang of vicious drug dealers. “Who Goes There” isn’t the most notable episode for advancing the overarching plot of Season 1, but it’s some of the most nipple-hardening television you’re ever likely to see. (Kieran Fisher)


13. “Michael’s Gambit” – The Good Place

The Good Place Michael's Gambit

This episode took a lighthearted comedy about heaven and revealed a darker and more serious underbelly, which has carried through subsequent seasons in more essential discussions about worthiness and equality. For such a good twist, it should almost have been obvious beforehand, but the evil grin and bone-chilling laugh that Ted Danson emits when his plan is unveiled was both surprising and perfect. The cast brings familiar comedic talents, Danson, Kristen Bell, Maya Rudolph, and mixes things up with a group of talented newcomers, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper, and especially D’Arcy Carden. What started out as a silly spin on the afterlife has become a heartwarming (and heartbreaking) study on right, wrong, and eternal judgment. We’ll miss you when you’re gone, Good Place. (Samantha Olthof)


12. “Echo” – The Americans

The Americans Echo

The Americans’ sophomore season closed with the reveal of a killer, a character forced to choose duty over all else, and spy parents bringing their children close to danger, despite their best efforts to protect them. It’s all very dramatic and devastating, one of those episodes that could cause anxiety attacks among even the calmest and collected viewers. However, the real genius of the episode is how it wrapped up a labyrinthine season that wove multiple intricate plots and character threads. In lesser hands, “Echo” would have felt overburdened and stuffed with drama, but it’s an organic payoff and one that set up conflicts that followed. (Kieran Fisher)


11. “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” – Rick and Morty

Rick And Morty

Rick and Morty was a masterwork straight out of the gate. But the tenth episode of the first season, “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind,” was when it really took off and opened up new doors to, quite literally, infinite possibilities. The very first introduction of the Citadel of Ricks, the episode expands its reach to the far, nonexistent corners of the multiverse, while at the same time narrowing it down with a collection of Ricks who have decided to band together to form a society and, in the most un-Rick fashion of all, follow the rules. It compounds the un-special notions of existence that started with previous episodes like “Rick Potion #9” and “Rixty Minutes,” but at the same time it makes us feel special, as we are tuned in to the “Rickest Rick” and the “Mortiest Morty.” It also introduces the closest thing this show has ever had to a villain. Unless of course, you count Rick’s own self-loathing and sadness, but how much of a downer is that? Let’s think instead about the much cooler and real villain, Evil Morty, whose full machinations are still only beginning to be realized. “Rick-counters” is the episode that opens up the world of Rick and Morty and promises something grander, and in a show that’s dealt from day one with everyday trans-dimensional travel, that’s really saying something. (Liz Baessler)


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Liz has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands.