The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards are airing on September 22nd, and if you’re anything like me, you still have some last-minute studying to do before the test. Have no fear, we’ve got you covered with this list, which features one integral episode from the nominated season of each live-action narrative series that’s in the running for the biggest categories of the night. Namely, these are the picks for Best Comedy, Best Drama, and Best Limited Series.
There are plenty of other great nominees worth watching, among them TV movies like Deadwood: The Movie, documentaries like Beyonce’s Homecoming, children’s programming like A Series of Unfortunate Events, and animated shows like Bojack Horseman. However, if you plan to tune in just long enough to place your bets on the categories that take up most of the show’s three-hour telecast, you can binge or brush up on the following episodes — all of them excellent — and you’ll be golden.
Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s dark comedy about a hitman-turned-amateur-actor garnered an impressive 17 nominations this year, including six (for writing, directing, editing, production design, sound mixing, and sound editing) for this episode alone. “Ronny/lily” is the series’ most ambitious outing, and it’s also mind-bogglingly surreal. In its fast-paced 38-minute runtime, Barry (Hader) goes to a man’s house to deliver on what he assumes will be an easy kill, only to discover that the man, himself a Taekwondo master, has a supernaturally ferocious young daughter (child stunt actress Jessie Giacomazzi) who’s out for Barry’s blood. The relatively self-contained episode is hilarious, freaky, and formally impressive as feral Lily’s moves become increasingly over-the-top.
Fleabag, “(Season 2) Episode 1”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series attracted massive critical acclaim from the get-go, so expectations for the second (and ultimately final) season were sky-high. Somehow, Waller-Bridge managed to smash through that sky with a series of episodes that are more profound and stunning than anyone could’ve imagined. “This is a love story,” the protagonist tells us at the season premiere’s opening, after tidily cleaning smeared blood off her face, and it’s a promise and an invocation. Between the popular Fleabag jumpsuit and the introduction of the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), this episode, which is set during a particularly tense family dinner, quickly became a part of both the zeitgeist and our pop culture vernacular. Every episode of this season is a perfectly structured delight, and while others might be more important in the long run (I’m partial to Episodes 4 and 6) it’s this one that’s nominated in the writing, directing, editing, and cinematography categories.
The Good Place, “Janet(s)”
D’arcy Carden has long since been The Good Place’s secret weapon. Much as her all-knowing assistant character, Janet, has long-since been the secret weapon of the metaphysical sitcom’s central group of sometimes-do-gooders. “Janet(s),” an episode that pokes fun at the limits of a fast-moving high concept series by stranding the characters in the dead-end, liminal white space of Janet’s void, finally gives Carden the chance to show her full comedic range. As Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell) work out their relationship, they, Jason (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) all transform into versions of Janet. Carden’s impersonations of the other actors’ performances are inspired enough to have earned the episode a nomination for best comedy writing in addition to the show’s other nominations.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “We’re Going to the Catskills!”
Emmy voters have eaten Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest series up like candy, which makes sense; the show is a brightly-colored 1950s confection, as eye-catching as it is funny. No season two episode pulls out all the visual stops quite like “We’re Going to the Catskills!” It’s a perfectly orchestrated hour of excess, with a Pleasantville-esque summer camp set and enough costume changes to make your head spin. In an extended still long shot, multiple members of the upper-class Jewish Weissman-Maisel family flutters around the two stories of their doll-house-like rental cabin, each one yelling over the other. As always, Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a speed-talking talent, somehow stealing scenes despite being the show’s protagonist. Brosnahan is once again nominated for best comedy actress, while the episode itself has seven nominations and the show has several more.
Russian Doll, “Nothing in This World is Easy”
Has any other debut season this year captured the public imagination as fully as Russian Doll? Star Natasha Lyonne co-created the series with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, and with only eight short episodes, the show goes down easy, like a smooth drink on a cold New York night. It’s also earned an impressive 13 Emmy nominations, among them three for this pilot episode. Lyonne is a bristling, fiery screen presence as a woman named Nadia who seemingly dies on the night of her birthday party and is forced to relive the night again and again. The show builds to a soul-jangling season finale, but “Nothing in This World is Easy” introduces us to the hilarious and frustrating moments that will become touchstones on Nadia’s strange journey, from Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” to Greta Lee yelling “Sweet birthday baaa-beeey!”
Schitt’s Creek, “Life is a Cabaret”
Fun Emmy fact: there are two different Emmy-nominated shows that aired episodes called “Life is a Cabaret” this year (see below for the other one), and both originally aired on April 9th! Also fun: the fifth season of PopTV’s underrated sitcom gaining four Emmy nominations when the show had previously gone unrecognized. The series was co-created by Dan and Eugene Levy, who also star along with Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy as a wealthy family whose assets are seized, forcing them to move to the only place they have left: a small Canadian town they once bought as a pun. Season five is rife with standout episodes, including “Meet the Parents” and “The Hike,” but the penultimate season’s finale is a can’t-miss for its jubilance and genuine emotion. While David (Dan Levy) tries to keep a secret until the Cabaret afterparty, star of the show Stevie (Emily Hampshire) disappears and Moira (O’Hara) gets some scream-inducing news.
Television’s meanest comedy reached new cynical highs (lows?) in a final season that wasn’t afraid to make its characters more irredeemable than we ever thought possible. Chief of staff turned campaign manager Amy (Anna Chlumsky) suddenly became the show’s answer to real-life Republican pundit Kellyanne Conway, while Jonah (Timothy Simons) transformed into a fear-mongering Presidential candidate whose platform was based on his alleged hatred for “Muslim math.” At the risk of being out-eviled, Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) makes a number of heartless and calculated decisions in the series finale, the repercussions of which we see in a final scene that flashes 24 years ahead. Armando Iannucci’s relentless satire of American politics has rarely been darker or better than this poisonous endcap. The series has always been an Emmy favorite, and its final season is no different, garnering nine primetime Emmy noms, including a few for the finale specifically.