As I mentioned in my list of the ten best shows of 2020, there was a lot of great TV this year. So, I've decided to list some of the best episodes of the year, to spotlight some shows that perhaps weren't strong enough overall to make the other list, but that had a really good episode.
10. "In the Belly of the Whale" (Hunters episode one of season one, Prime Video)
This show premiered back in February, which feels like a lifetime ago. But I liked it! It definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea, but you'd know whether or not it is by watching the 90-minute first episode, which is probably the high point of the series (it gets very twisty toward the end). Al Pacino is in it!
9. "Elizabeth, Margaret, and Larry" (Curb Your Enthusiasm season ten episode eight, HBO)
Curb Your Enthusiasm has done ten seasons in twenty years, and when the latest premiered, I thought it was stale and out-of-touch, a poor imitation of its former self. But the back half of the season was actually very good, and included this now classic episode where Jon Hamm shadows Larry while preparing to play a Larry David-type character in a movie.
8. The Pad Thai Gamble (Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi season one episode nine, Hulu)
I don't watch many food shows, but I did watch this one, which is part food show, part travelogue, part cultural history lesson. In this episode, Padma travels to Las Vegas and talks with many Thai immigrants about their experiences and their food. It's a really lovely journey behind the foods that may seem generic but so often have very specific and interesting origins.
7. "Kiss" (Run season one, episode two, HBO)
Run started off very good and spent the second half of its season telling a Hitchcockian crime story that dragged on for four episodes when it really could have been done in one. But, before that, we got one perfect episode where the show was trying to be little more than Merritt Weaver and Domhnall Gleason as ex-lovers who reunite for a train journey across the country. Great acting and sharp dialogue aren't all this episode offers, but it actually seeks to make train-riding a fun and exciting alternative to being in the car, an addiction of so many Americans that is slowly bringing the country into ruin.
6. "That's Not Amore" (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, season ten episode fourteen, Bravo)
Every once in a while, a reality show, especially a long running one, will forget why viewers started watching the show in the first place and jump the shark. RHOBH did that this year, but what made this time unique was the woman at the center of this particular drama, the actress Denise Richards, refused to play by the reality show rules and, in the process, exposed the show as a vapid exercise in public shaming. You see, most Housewives join the show to gain exposure for whatever product they are trying to sell. Thus, they subject themselves to embarrassing rounds of fighting with the other cast members over whatever perceived slight they're mad about. But Richards is already famous and has a career, so when the women accused her of cheating on her husband with RHOBH castoff Brandi Glanville, Richards would have none of it. She denied the accusations and tearfully pleaded to not have the footage of these conversations aired on TV, while the viewing public watched on in horror at how cruel the women were to her. At one point, Richards attempts to leave during an argument and the show breaks the fourth wall to show us a producer coaxing her to stay and fight. For the rest of the season, the women continue on their insane quest to expose Richards as lying about her personal life, so when Richards announced that she had quit the show, all we could do was cheer.
5. "Chapter Ten: The Passenger" (The Mandalorian, season two episode two, Disney+)
"The Passenger" represents The Mandalorian at its best, quirky characters doing a mission for a half hour. It wasn't trying to connect the various threads of the larger Star Wars franchise or anything like that. It was focused on the interactions between the titular Mandalorian, Baby Yoda, and that week's guest star, which in this case, was a frog lady. It was funny, bizarre, and had some terrific visual effects.
4. "Fairytale" (The Crown, season four episode three, Netflix)
The latest season of The Crown was very popular, but I don't think it was the best one. Certainly it wasn't as good as season two, but it is still better than many, many other shows. I particularly loved this hour, centered on Diana's life in the weeks leading up to her wedding to Charles.
3. "Pilot" (Ratched season one episode one, Netflix)
2. "New York, New York, New York" (This Is Us, season four episode sixteen, NBC)
The fourth season of This Is Us was really good (the fifth season is off to an inauspicious start thanks to two uncharacteristically inelegant plot twists). I could have chosen from several episodes for this spot, but I picked this one because I think This Is Us is, in a lot of ways, the story of Rebecca's life. And that element comes through strongly here, with the haunting image of Rebecca as a little girl looking at Sargent's Madame X and her monologue about the the times in her she tried to get back to the Met to see the painting again, but life always got in the way. It was poignant and beautiful.
1. "Right Here, Right Now #4" (Who Are Who We Are, season one episode four, HBO)
I'm still not quite sure what I thought of Luca Guadagnino's six episode miniseries about teenagers living on an American military base in Italy. Aside from an incredibly grating central performance, it was pretty good show, but never moreso than its fourth hour, which sees the group celebrate the last day before with their friend before he gets shipped out to the war. They play paintball, there's a wedding, and there's a party at a house they break into. The thematics are not subtle, but this last gasp of adolescence before the real world enters is rendered beautifully by Guadagnino's expressive and refined filmmaking.