50 Greatest Episodes of The 21st Century
Part 7: 20–16
20. black-ish — ‘Hope’ — 2.16
This is one of the few episodes from the original TV Guide list that I can’t help but agree with. This series always mixed its dealings with relevant issues with a big dose of humor, but in this rare exception, it went into territory it rarely dove into. Dealing with an issue that has sadly become too common — a black child gunned down by a white man — the episode dealt with the stain of prejudice, and the futility that the Johnson clan so frequent bury. In perhaps the most painful moment of all, Dre recounts a moment that almost every African-American must have feared — the possibility that Obama would have been assassinated. But even after everything else, it ends on the tiniest ray of hope possible when Zoey, who spent the entire episode pretending not to care, finally admitting feeling futility, and the way the rest of the Johnson children tried to seize to this. There should be more episodes like this starting discussions. We need them now more than ever.
19. Parenthood — ‘Because You’re My Sister’ — 4.14
This was one of the most undervalued series in television history, a brilliant comedy-drama that touched on dozens of issues, and never seemed heavy handed, that had sixteen lead roles and never seemed like it was favoring one character more than another. Choosing just one episode as better out of the 103 that finally aired is very difficult, but if I was forced too, I would have to pick the fourth season finale. That season dealt with one of the most gutwrenching storylines on a show that has dozens of them — Kristina’s season long battle with breast cancer. Fueled by the brilliant work of Monica Potter and Peter Krause, watching Adam and Kristina fight all season with this horrible crisis, and then finally get the good new was one of the pure joys. The series also balanced it with another heartbreakers, as Sarah (the incomparable Lauren Graham) having dealt with a love triangle all season long, dropped the wonderful Mr. Cyr, in favor of Hank — only to find that Hank had chosen to move back to Minnesota. (It would only be a temporary problem, but I felt like my heart had been stepped on.). The episode was moving, funny, angry, and ultimately joyous — all the things that this series could do perfectly, often in the same ten minutes. Stream it. Now.
18. Mr. Robot — eps3.4_runtime-error.r00 -3.5
This is by far one of the darkest and most relevant series on the air, featuring some of the most brilliant cold openings since the days of Breaking Bad (which we’ll get to soon enough), and features some of the most daring plot twists since Lost (ditto). There have been many incredible episodes over the course of its three season run, but by far, it’s tour de force came just last year. Eliot finds himself trying to undo part of his hack at ECorp. During the course of forty-five minutes, he finds that his job is non-existent, that both Angela and his sister have betrayed them, and then finds the building overrun by the Dark Army. All of this would be stunning enough, but what makes the episode remarkable is that it seems to flow in a single, unbroken shot, following Eliot and Angela as they run around the building, trying to fix or break everything the other is trying to do. This was something that I’ve only seen tried before a few times, but never on a scale like this. With this episode, it more than demonstrated why its one of the greatest series currently on the air. I can’t wait to see what happens in Season 4.
17. Homeland — ‘The Weekend’ — 1.7
This Showtime series has been all over the map. At times it has been one of the greatest accomplishments TV has ever aired, at other times, so slapdash in its plotting that you wonder whether writers learned anything from their mistakes from 24. What I think all viewers of the series can agree on is that the first season has been by far the best of them, and while the season finale was incredible, I think the highpoint came before that in this episode. Brody and Carrie have run off to a cabin in the woods to have a sexual encounter. During the course of this episode, Brody learns (inadvertently at first) that Carrie works for the CIA, that she has been surveilling him illegally, and that she thinks he’s working for Al-Qaeda. Up until this point, the series has measured all of Brody’s movements with ambiguity, so we still don’t know anything for certain. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are magnificent throughout this, but what makes this episode even better is the encounter going on as Saul drives an American sleeper agent to prison, and gently tries to get information from her on the entire trip. In the final ten minutes, he succeeds, and we begin to get the scope of the plan. We learn that an American prisoner of war was turned, but it was the other man, one that we have had reason to believe Brody murdered. If this had been the final resolution — and Gordon and Gansa said it might have been — I still think a lot of people would have been satisfied. As it is, it stands as the finest hour of one of the best first seasons in TV history.
16. American Crime — Season 2, Episode 7
This was one of network television greatest accomplishments this decade, a series that looked with real intensity, at the true darkness that penetrates America’s soul when it comes to some of the biggest flashpoints in all culture. One could make an argument that first season of this anthology series, which dealt with racism and hate crimes, was the best, but by far the best episode came in an episode which dealt with the aftermath of a homosexual rape at an Indiana prep school. After Taylor spent the length of the season being attacked an ridiculed, he finally acted out on his aggression by bringing a gun and killing one of his attackers. All of the leads — from Felicity Huffman to Timothy Hutton on down were brilliant — but what made this episode work was how intercut between survivors of the all too frequent school shootings in this country, as they dealt with their real life problems. Like this series so brilliantly — and rarely — it pushed no agenda, it took no side. It just showed the horror and scale of the madness that has penetrated our world in human terms. That a series this good was allowed to air on network TV was a triumph. That ABC canceled it in favor of more Shonda Rhimes just goes to show the world we live in.