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Friday, December 30, 2016

YEAR IN REVIEW: Top 20 Episodes of 2016

Here is my annual end of year countdown of the best episodes of the year! Enjoy!

Past countdowns: 2015   2014   2013   2012   2011

20) Black-ish #47 "Daddy Dre-Care" (ABC/May 11, 2016)
Black-ish earned the #1 spot on last year's countdown. While I enjoyed Black-ish all season, I haven't been as enamored with the show this year, especially during this fall season. But the best episode of Black-ish in 2016 wasn't one of their patented hot button issue episodes like the acclaimed "Hope" (which fell a little too forced to me). Instead, my favorite was a fairly standard sitcom episode but it delivered a lot of laughs. Everyone in the house gets sick and Dre does not want to catch it. The whiny kids coupled with Dre's hysterics about not getting sick made for a lot of funny moments. I like when Black-ish gets daring but only when it's so beautifully constructed like last year's #1 show, "The Word." I'm also OK with episodes like this, that basically exist to be funny.


19) House of Cards #43 "Chapter 43" (Netflix/March 4, 2016)
I finally caught up on House of Cards after getting Netflix in 2015 and was totally enamored with the first season and beginning of the second. I felt like it lost a step as season two continued and especially into season three. But I was finally able to watch season four at the same time as most others and thought it regained some of its mojo. The best and most shocking episode since the season two premiere was "Chapter 43" where there was an assassination attempt on Frank Underwood and a beloved character (perhaps the only beloved one) died trying to protect him. A presidential assassination attempt happens on almost every presidential drama (Scandal, The West Wing, etc). What makes this more interesting is the impact on Claire Underwood, who was feeling very conflicted about her husband even after the assassination attempt. Robin Wright is just so continually impressive in this show and her stoic response said so much in mostly facial reactions.

18) Fresh Off the Boat #34 "Rent Day" (ABC/May 3, 2016)
Similar to Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat has been funny all year long but there was no episode that just stood so far above everything else like last year's Christmas episode, which ranked #4. Not surprisingly though, my favorite episode of the year was Jessica centered. Constance Wu is one of the consistently funniest performers in any sitcom. And this episode, where she gets scammed in her landlord business by some tenants who appear to be perfect but are the complete opposite, was a great showcase for her because she is never funnier than when she's enraged by something. I love the entire ensemble for Boat, but any episode that doesn't feature a heavy dose of Jessica is a disappointment. Episodes like this are my favorite.

17) Superstore #9 "All-Nighter" (NBC/February 8, 2016)
Superstore was such a revelation this year. It has filled the void left by The Office and Parks and Recreation for me with its funny take on the workplace. The best episode of season one was "All-Nighter" where the entire staff gets stuck in the store for the whole night. While this is a classic sitcom set-up, it requires a bit of a suspension of disbelief in 2016, but it's still a great way to get the entire cast together in an extended storyline. And the Superstore ensemble is top notch. From Glenn's car getting stolen to pregnant teen Cheyenne performing her dance recital for her co-workers to a drunk Amy, there were a lot of great moments. This was the episode where I felt like the ensemble really gelled and the show moved from promising to a very solid sitcom.

16) The People v. OJ Simpson #1 "From the Ashes of Tragedy" (FX/February 2, 2016)
One of the most talked about shows of the year, and deservedly so, was FX's riveting first installment of American Crime Story, focused on the murder & trial of the century: The OJ Simpson trial. The first episode of The People v. OJ Simpson, focusing on the murder & the infamous car chase, was one of the most fascinating episodes because of the way it evoked its 1990s setting and made a story where we know the ending so compelling. We also got to see most of the many brilliant portrayals in the series: Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran specifically but there were also many others including John Travolta's interesting (though odd) portrayal of Robert Shapiro and Cuba Gooding Jr. having the voice down perfectly as OJ himself. Some of these performances had much better episodes later on but the revelation of each of these characters made the first episode something special.

15) Blue Bloods #141 "Personal Business" (CBS/November 11, 2016)
Blue Bloods is probably the most consistent show I watch. It rarely soars to unbelievable highs but it also rarely has clunkers. It also continues to have a lot to say about police in an era where tensions with cops and the public are high. It rarely delves much into its characters' personal lives, but it did in "Personal Business." There were several good stories including a compelling case where a rape victim killed her attacker and an off-duty cop chose to hide and protect his daughter instead of save a store clerk during a robbery. Both those stories were done well but the most pivotal moment was finally another step forward in the long brewing Jamie/Eddie relationship when Eddie told Jamie she had feelings for him and they shared a kiss before the show simply left it there. Blue Bloods is known as a procedural, not a character drama, but they have done a nice job with this slow burn story.

14) Superstore #13 "Strike" (NBC/September 22, 2016)
I already sung the praises of Superstore with my #17 entry. But the comedy came back even stronger for its second season this fall, starting with a bang and an episode that saw the Cloud Nine staff on strike. This allowed for a lot of funny moments as Amy and Jonah were far more into the strike than the rest of the staff and Dina tried to put a stop to it using whatever means necessary. One of the things that Superstore does extremely well is little stories from small side plots down to just simple cutaways that have nothing to do with the main plot. One great small side plot in this episode was Garrett falling for a beautiful protester who ended up being a huge bigot. The show is not afraid of some sharp social commentary even when done in such a silly way. I can't wait for more Superstore in 2017, it was the comedy I looked forward to the most each week.

13) Chicago Fire #100 "One Hundred" (NBC/December 6, 2016)
Chicago Fire was a little show that could when it premiered in 2012 but it has spawned an empire with the fourth Chicago series joining in March, Chicago Justice. I know this isn't among TV's all time great dramas but I think it doesn't quite get the respect it deserves for being a good character drama that has managed to keep finding new and interesting storylines. The 100th episode had a small tie-in with the crew celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Molly's Bar, but more importantly, it delivered a satisfying wedding between Dawson and Casey after years of will they or won't they. And then it ended on a big cliffhanger that certainly has me interested to see what happens next. This episode did a nice job of celebrating episode 100 while propelling the show forward to its next batch of episodes.

12) This is Us #10 "Last Christmas" (NBC/December 6, 2016)
I'll only partly sing the praises of This is Us here because there is another episode still to come on the list. But the most recent episode, the Christmas episode, showed all the reasons why it is the breakout hit of the fall season on broadcast TV. The episode had the usual warmth, tugging at the heart strings, comedy, and a twist. The ensemble is terrific from top to bottom but the performance that put this episode over others in my end of year countdown was Mandy Moore's. She has been brilliant in this show and was very deserving of her Golden Globe nomination. Her heartbreaking discussion with Kate in the van on Christmas Eve was so well acted and she flawlessly portrays both a woman her age in the 80s and a woman much older in 2016. I hope she gets the Golden Globe!

11) The Middle #157 "Floating 50" (ABC/January 20, 2016)
If Blue Bloods is the most consistent drama on TV, I would say that The Middle is the most consistent comedy. It is always funny and always sweet. "Floating 50" was a great episode early in the year that focused on Mike, Axl, and Brick trying to throw a last minute surprise 50th birthday party for Frankie. Predictably, things went horribly wrong especially because Frankie went to surprise Sue at college, not knowing that Sue was coming home for the party. The thing I love about The Middle is it tends to subvert its sweet moments to also give them a touch of comedy so its not overly sappy. That was exemplified in this episode by Frankie finally getting to enjoy her party with all her friends, but via Skype because she was at Sue's college. That's a great example of why The Middle is still going strong all these years in.

10) New Girl #116 "Landing Gear" (FOX/May 10, 2016)
New Girl concluded its stellar comeback season last spring with the long gestating wedding between Schmidt and Cece. A wedding episode where things are going wrong is nothing new for a sitcom but it works well when the characters are all at the top of their game and they are here. I didn't love that they hinted they were going back down the Jess & Nick road but that has ultimately proven not to happen yet midway through the next season. The finale of the episode, when Schmidt could finally arrive and they had to have it in the apartment instead of the big plans, was near perfect. It was a beautiful montage full of funny moments. As a fan of New Girl for over five years, it felt like celebrating a wedding with your friends.

9) Mom #56 "Diabetic Lesbians and a Blushing Bride" (CBS/February 18, 2016)
Mom has never been afraid to "go there" when it comes to daring storylines especially related to alcoholism and drug addiction. And it was particularly intense in this February episode, which saw Christy and the support trying to help a 19 year old drug addict, Jodi, in the midst of Marjorie's wedding weekend. While most sitcoms would choose to have a happy ending and Jodi getting the help she needs, Mom decided to have Jodi die at the end of the episode in a heartbreaking moment. It was a stunning end to the episode and once again showed that a broadcast TV comedy is not afraid to deliver a moment like that.

8) Full Frontal with Samantha Bee #15 "Libertarian Convention" (TBS/June 13, 2016)
In the absence of Jon Stewart and David Letterman, my two favorite late night hosts are James Corden and Samantha Bee. Corden is a funny showman and his show is always a great time but it's Bee who has taken up the mantle as a warrior against the craziness of politics. She is similar to Jon Stewart but more enraged and even more biting. In a year full of big news stories, Bee was never more forceful than when she commented on the Orlando tragedy in June. Her angry monologue is must-see TV and while there is a bit of sarcasm and a few quips, it is not really a comedy show in those moments, it is a very thoughtful monologue. There was a great comedy bit later in the episode about the Libertarian Convention, but the reason this is on the list is because of Bee's opening monologue.

7) Pitch #1 "Pilot" (FOX/September 22, 2016)
Pitch was one of two rich character dramas from Dan Fogelman that premiered this fall (the other being This is Us). Unfortunately, it looks like we won't see anymore of Pitch. While I don't think it maintained its quality as much as This is Us, it was still very enjoyable. The pilot was its highest moment in my opinion with a beautifully shot pilot thanks to involvement from MLB. Kylie Bunbury was a revelation as Ginny Baker, the first female pitcher in MLB history. There were also great performances by Dan Lauria and Mark-Paul Gosselaar and a twist that didn't match the hype of the This is Us twist, but was a good twist nonetheless. I wish this show would get more time because I enjoyed the rest of the episodes as well, but it seems as though it is done, at least on FOX.

6) The Goldbergs #64 "The 'Dirty Dancing' Dance" (ABC/March 2, 2016)
The Goldbergs has done a great job parodying classic 1980s movies (their Ferris Beuller parody ranked #9 last year). This year, they not only parodied Dirty Dancing, complete with the classic "Time of Your Life" dance at the end, they also brought Footloose into the mix. In an episode completely centered on dancing, there's a great side story where Murray tries to privately learn how to dance to disastrous results. The highlight of this episode is easily the final scene when Erica's dance finally happens, she gets her iconic Dirty Dancing moment, Murray dances with Beverly, and Adam captures it all on videotape. The Goldbergs does pure joy moments better than almost other show and this was its highest moment of 2016.

5) Designated Survivor #10 "The Oath" (ABC/December 14, 2016)
I've enjoyed Designated Survivor from the start but I kept wanting it to be a little more intense and a little more urgent with bigger conspiracy stories. Well after their most recent episode, I feel like they are definitely heading in the right direction. "The Oath" was easily the best episode so far of this freshman drama. The show finally has the intensity you would expect from a show about a catastrophic terrorist attack starring Kiefer Sutherland. As Agent Wells tracks down and begins to unravel the conspiracy, President Kirkman was just beginning to realize the problems are bigger than he realized. The episode kept me on the edge of my seat and it's too bad we have to wait until March to see the rest of the season. I am hopeful that this is not a blip and instead a direction the show plans to go in. If all episodes are as good as "The Oath," then I like where this show is heading.

4) New Girl #95 "Big Mama P" (FOX/January 5, 2016)
New Girl returned for its fifth season in January and I could instantly tell things were going to go better for a show that went through some very uneven years. "Big Mama P" was probably the best episode of the show since the second season. It had some funny moments for all the characters but the reason this is placed where it is was because of Nick thinking he had Cece's mother with him when in fact, it was a stranger. This run of misunderstandings and the dialogue involved was absolutely hilarious and had me laughing out loud. Jake Johnson was at his peak in this episode with some hilarious one liners. The episode showed how good New Girl can be as a screwball comedy. The storyline between Schmidt and Cece's real mother was also enjoyable and pivotal in advancing the season-long story leading up to the wedding.

3) Scandal #83 "Pencils Down" (ABC/March 17, 2016)
Scandal had an up and down fifth season but it was very clearly at its best when it was focusing on the presidential election and "Pencils Down" was all about the three campaigns (Susan Ross, Mellie Grant, and Hollis Doyle) getting ready for the Republican Presidential Primary. It was a great hour full of compelling stories bouncing from one to the next. The episode picked up steam as it went and we got to the night of the debate. In an absolutely stellar closing sequence, the different candidates prepared to take the stage while Olivia got some dirt on Susan Ross as "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" by Diana Ross and the Supremes played. Scandal can be so good with these musical montages and this episode really revitalized my love for Scandal. It still got off track at times later in the season but when Scandal is in top form, it's still as good as any drama on TV.

2) This is Us #1 "Pilot" (NBC/September 20, 2016)
The much heralded pilot episode of This is Us got the freshman drama phenom off to a rocking start. For most of the episode, it appeared to be a very well-written, well-produced, and well-acted character drama. That would have made me excited enough. But then there was a much heralded twist in the closing moments that really put this show on another level. If you don't know the twist by now, you've been living under a rock, but I still won't spoil it. It was just an incredibly clever way to put a pilot together. If the show itself wasn't good, it would be a gimmick. But the show and the individual performances are so good too that the twist only added to everything. A great guest turn by Gerald McRaney sealed this episode's spot way up at #2.

1) The People v. OJ Simpson #6 "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" (FOX/March 8, 2016)
Like so many others, 2016 made me completely re-interested in the OJ Simpson trial thanks to the OJ: Made in America documentary and especially FX's The People v. OJ Simpson. I loved every episode of this show, which was so deserving of the many awards it has (and will) receive. But the episode that topped them all was Sarah Paulson's tour de force in "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia." Paulson's perfect Marcia Clark was so layered and complex and the show did a great job of not hiding her faults but also making her a sympathetic character. Paulson's reaction as she arrived at the courthouse with her new hairstyle was heartbreaking. I would say her performance was the single best on TV in 2016 in what was one of the best shows of 2016. "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" earned Sarah Paulson her Emmy Award, it will probably get her a Golden Globe next week, and it is my #1 episode of 2016.

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