If there’s one thing lockdown gave us, it was the excuse to watch plenty of television. Television has always been a comfort, but this year it was a much-needed tonic. It proved the perfect method to distract everyone from the horrible news headlines. The best TV episodes released this year did it all, whether it was sparking important conversations, providing much-needed laughter, or igniting cultural obsessions.
“Quiz”, “Episode 3”
“Quiz” may not have made waves in the States, but in the UK this three-part miniseries captivated the nation. Following the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” coughing scandal, James Graham’s screen adaptation of his play became a much-needed distraction. Anchored by two strong lead performances from Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”) and Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”), “Episode 3” confidently challenged all the preconceptions of the case, making the argument for the Ingrams innocence. Graham’s scripts perfectly captured the giddy highs – and the troubling lows of gameshow TV. (Plus, Michael Sheen playing Chris Tarrant was truly something to behold).
“Ozark” Season 3, Episode 9 “Fire Pink”
“Ozark” hit its peak in its third season, partly due to the inclusion of Wendy’s (Laura Linney) brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey) whose character injected some much-needed humanity into the show. Pelphrey’s opening monologue in “Fire Pink” was mesmerizing and devastating to watch, only matched by Linney’s breakdown at the episode’s close once she’s handed her brother over to this death. The haunting and heart-breaking episode raised the emotional stakes for Wendy’s character and proved how much the series owes to Linney’s incredible performance.
“The Good Place” Season 4, Episode 13 “Whenever You’re Ready”
It seems a lifetime ago, but yes, “The Good Place”’s series finale really did air this year. Wrapping up all loose threads is a tough task in any series finale, let alone on a show as inventive and ambitious as this one. Yet “Whenever You’re Ready” was a loving, emotional tribute to the characters and the bonds they’d formed over the series. The real strength in this episode was not any dramatic or shocking moments, but simple, emotionally satisfying storytelling. “The Good Place” will no doubt be remembered as one of the best sitcoms of the past decade, placing compassion for other people front and centre.
“The Mandalorian” Episode 13, “The Jedi”
“The Mandalorian” reached a high point in this episode, featuring the highly anticipated appearance of Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson). The backstory around Grogu (who will always be Baby Yoda, let’s face it) altered the direction of the series and further developed the father/son bond between the galaxy’s favourite pair. Writer and director Dave Filoni accomplished the impossible, crafting an enjoyable episode that managed to please die-hard fans and casual viewers alike. It’s a balancing act that has made “The Mandalorian” resonate so strongly with audiences (which endless spinoffs will probably ruin).
“Schitt’s Creek” Season 6, Episode 13 “Happy Ending”
Season six wasn’t the strongest of the POP comedy, but it accomplished the near-impossible: Giving its characters a perfect send-off. “Happy Ending” was a love letter to the fans, paying tribute to the characters and relationships we’d come to love over the past six seasons. The ending manages to leave all the characters in a better place, giving audiences a sweet and tearful goodbye. If only more shows could stick the landing in the same way.
“I Hate Suzie” Episode 1, “Shock”
Every episode of “I Hate Suzie” was perfect, but it’s the first episode that comes to mind when remembering the Sky/HBO Max series. As Suzie (Billie Piper), does a photo-shoot at her home while dealing with the revelation that nude pictures of her have been leaked, the unease of the situation slowly ramps up. The episode’s frantic, anxiety-inducing pace was unrelenting, expertly placing the viewer into Suzie’s emotional state. The audience could only observe as Suzie’s life unravelled. Messy, dark and funny, “I Hate Suzie” was must-watch television.
“The Great” Season 1, Episode 8 “Meatballs at the Dacha”
The “occasionally true story” from “The Favourite” writer Tony McNamara centring on Catherine the Great became one of the best shows of the year, with its witty scripts and superb leading pair in Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. “Meatballs at the Dacha” felt like the show had hit its stride, masterfully combining the show’s absurd and chaotic scripts with genuine character development. It’s here we see Catherine develop her skills as a politician as she helps navigate Russia’s peace treaty with Sweden. Despite Peter’s character being cemented as a ridiculous tyrant, Hoult still injects Peter with some humanity rather than making him a simple caricature. The emotional depth given to Catherine and Peter’s marriage here amidst all the hilarity made it all the more exciting to watch them at odds.
“Normal People”, “Episode 10”
There were incredibly high expectations set on the BBC/Hulu series, which thankfully didn’t disappoint. Adapted from Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel, “Normal People” catapulted Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal into stardom. The exploration of relationships and mental health made it one of the top shows of the year, yet it’s “Episode 10” that displays the series at its best. This episode belongs to Mescal, whose therapy sessions are so raw with emotion it feels difficult to watch. At the same time, it’s impossible to look away as Connell finally expresses how he feels. It’s a magnetic, vulnerable performance that captured the strength of Rooney’s writing.
“The Crown” Season 4, Episode 4 “Fairytale”
Ever since “The Crown” began, everyone has been eagerly anticipating (or dreading) the inclusion of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). The new season finally saw Diana’s arrival, and it did not disappoint. Despite taking on such a daunting role, Corrin’s presence immediately invigorated the show. Diana’s openness and vulnerability immediately contrasted with the coldness of the royal family. So much so, it even feels jarring to hear Diana listen to contemporary music inside the palace. “Fairytale” expertly charts Diana’s journey into the royal family, as her isolation creeps in after moving into Buckingham Palace. The episode perfectly captures Diana’s youth and innocence and underlines that the Queen’s (Olivia Colman) policy of doing nothing ultimately has emotional consequences.
“The Queen’s Gambit”, Episode 7 “End Game”
If nothing else, 2020 was a great year for chess. “The Queen’s Gambit” quietly debuted on Netflix in October, yet soon transformed into a word-of-mouth sensation, ultimately becoming Netflix’s biggest limited series to date. The success of the stylish series is best evidenced in the finale, “End Game.” It’s here that protagonist Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) finally reached the heights of her powers and became the World Chess Champion. Though it’s not Beth’s win here that was most significant (though it’s thrilling to watch) but her newfound support network. At peace, leaving Beth playing chess for fun in a park was the best possible place to leave her story. Exquisitely crafted, exhilarating and heartening, “The Queen’s Gambit” was television at its finest.
“Ted Lasso” Season 1, Episode 8 “The Diamond Dogs”
“Ted Lasso” proved the most delightful surprise of 2020, being the most assured comedy debut of the year. Funny, heart-warming and optimistic, the AppleTV+ series following football coach Ted Lasso (an incredible Jason Sudeikis), excelled. This was due not only to its positive nature but its strong writing and characterisation. “The Diamond Dogs” was a prime example, avoiding love triangle tropes, instead choosing a mature path to handle relationship conflict. Alongside healthy communication between its male characters and Sudeikis giving a sweet and heart-wrenching monologue, this episode was a standout. “Ted Lasso” treated its characters with care, instantly establishing it as one of the best comedies on television right now. Sudeikis’s darts monologue alone should net awards.
“What We Do in the Shadows” Season 2, Episode 6 “On the Run”
“What We Do in the Shadows” upped its game this season, expanding its world and creating the funniest episode of TV in “On the Run.” Seeing Laszlo (Matt Berry) escape to Pennsylvania from rival Jim (an unrecognisable Mark Hamill – who should do comedy more often) to become ‘Jackie Daytona’ (regular human bartender) was faultless. Berry does line readings like no other, leading an episode that is utterly ridiculous, yet perfect from start to finish.
“I May Destroy You” Episode 12, “Ego Death”
There aren’t enough words here to express the unexpected, mesmerizing ending to “I May Destroy You.” There’s a reason the BBC/HBO drama has ended up on so many end of year lists, due to its stunning performances and nuanced study of consent and trauma. “Ego Death” explored different endings to Arabella’s (Michaela Coel) assault, all open to interpretation, underlining that no neat closure existed. Yet by the end, Arabella has control over her destiny, getting her demons to leave and publishing her second book. The episode pushed the boundaries of television, being challenging and surprising, yet ultimately rewarding and hopeful. In addition, Coel enforced that when you allow creators freedom to create their vision, greatness can be achieved.