As the majority of television shows become heavily serialized for bulk consumption, the art of crafting distinctive individual episodes have sadly become outmoded. In the age of binge watching, one episode purposefully bleeds into the next, making a television show feel like a continuous 10-12 hour movie. And while there are many addictive benefits to this model, it’s come to a point where viewers can no longer recall what happened in which episode anymore.
But even amidst a sea of serialized storytelling, some programs have found narrative value in designing standalone showcases. In fact, some series are finding inspired creative jolts in memorable one-offs that break from format, explore a single theme, or focus on one character – and the payoffs have been incredibly rewarding. The shows here aren’t necessarily the best of the year, but they did contain the best episodes of 2018 – and that should be celebrated.
Honourable mentions: Magic For Humans – “Seeing Is Believing”, Daredevil – “Blindsided”, This Is Us – “Super Bowl Sunday”, Better Call Saul – “Coushatta”, The Flash – “Enter Flashtime”, The Americans – “START”, Supernatural – “ScoobyNatural”, Insecure – “High-Like”
12) Forever – “Andre and Sarah” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Written by: Alan Yang & Colleen McGuiness
Directed by: Alan Yang
Tucked within Amazon’s new series exploring what it truly means to be “together forever”, is a brilliantly crafted love story about two realtors who forge an unlikely connection. Playing out like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight all combined and condensed into half an hour, this wonderful detour of a short story is sweet yet tragic, managing to standalone while also informing the the larger themes of the show’s larger narrative.
11) It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “Mac Finds His Pride” (Season 13, Episode 10)
Written by: Rob McElhenney
Directed by: Todd Bierman
For a show so reliant on awfully offensive behaviour for its satire, nobody expected It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to handle Mac’s coming out in manner this artful or profound. Rob McElhenney’s interpretive dance sequence (set to Sigur Rós’ “Varúð”) that capped off season 13 is a physical masterpiece of emotion and metaphor. Representing the inner struggle between religion and his homosexual identity, this graceful closer to was beautifully moving.
10) Castle Rock – “The Queen” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Written by: Sam Shaw
Directed by: Greg Yaitanes
Sissy Spacek is a marvel and this showcase follows her character Ruth, whose struggle with dementia takes her down a rabbit hole of memories.The viewer is invited to experience the sensation of dislocated time the same way in which Ruth experiences her life, with present moments bleeding seamlessly into past recollections and back again. It’s disorienting, heartbreaking and a beautifully poetic way to depict living with Alzheimer’s.
9) Room 104 – “Arnold” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Written by: Mark Duplass & Julian Wass
Directed by: Julian Wass
Set in a single motel room, season two of HBO’s anthology series is full of weirder and more surprising chamber pieces. And none were better than Brian Tyree Henry’s showcase in “Arnold”. The titular character wakes up with no memory of what he did the night before or how he wound up in the hotel room. The rest involves him mentally piecing things together as memories of the previous night play out around him. Oh, and, it’s a musical!
8) GLOW – “The Good Twin” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Written by: Nick Jones & Rachel Shukert
Directed by: Meera Menon
While GLOW is essentially about the making of an 80s’ all-women’s pro wrestling show, “The Good Twin” breaks format by airing an episode of the show itself! This cheekily meta stylistic departure is a pure delight – loaded with corny comedy sketches and ridiculous song parodies, before culminating in a full-length match. Besides being a silly and cheesy exercise, it also manages to satisfyingly pay off a number of the season’s character arcs.
7) Dear White People – “Chapter VIII” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Written by: Jack Moore
Directed by: Justin Simien
An interview between Samantha and former lover Gabe turns into a riveting two-person theatrical play, where a thought-provoking debate about issues of racial division, becomes intertwined with resentment over each other’s wrongdoings during their break-up last season. “Chapter VIII”’s ability to ground urgent social exploration in emotional consequence and relationship turmoil is truly representative of this second season’s genius.
6) Westworld – “Kiksuya” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Written by: Carly Wray & Dan Dietz
Directed by: Uta Briesewitz
A focused, lyrical and utterly heartbreaking backstory to Westworld‘s most enigmatic character made this episode the show’s greatest so far. By turning Akecheta from a one-dimensional caricatural villain, into Westworld’s most sympathetic hero, “Kiksuya” also managed to plumb hidden depths and recontextualize the gaps within the show’s convoluted mythology. Westworld is often cerebral and philosophical – but it’s rarely ever been this emotional.
5) The X-Files – “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (Season 11, Episode 4)
Written by: Darin Morgan
Directed by: Darin Morgan
While this revival season of The X-Files has been hit or miss, it was worth it because long-time fans got to experience another bizarre and hilarious Darin Morgan-penned episode. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” playfully tackled fake news, The Mandela Effect and a post-truth Trump world in delightfully funny ways. By deconstructing X-Files lore, it questions the show’s very relevance in modern society, making this a perfect send-off for a legendary series.
4) Barry – “Chapter 7: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Written by: Elizabeth Sarnoff
Directed by: Alec Berg
Soul-crushingly harrowing yet gut-bustingly hilarious, the tonally audacious and sublimely executed Barry stands out as one of 2018’s best new shows. And one of the key reasons for that is Bill Hader’s tremendously affecting dramatic performance. Nowhere is that more evident than in “Loud, Fast and Keep Going”, where our hitman turned thespian is forced to make a horrible decision, before paying it’s devastating emotional toll during a staging of Macbeth.
3) The Haunting of Hill House – “Two Storms” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Written by: Jeff Howard
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
The Haunting of Hill House isn’t just the greatest horror series ever created, it’s one of the most emotional seasons of television in any genre. Taking place at the midway point, “Two Storms” was the perfect coalescing of the show’s sophisticated scares and heartbreaking family drama. From hidden frights to intense arguments, it all climaxed with a bravura 23-minute single-take sequence, hailed as the year’s most technically astonishing feat in TV or cinema.
2) BoJack Horseman – “Free Churro” (Season 5, Episode 6)
Written by: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Directed by: Amy Winfrey
By now, we shouldn’t be surprised that BoJack Horseman can do or be anything. It can be the funniest show on TV and the saddest within a blink. But even amidst it’s consistent brilliance, every season somehow manages to go the extra mile by crafting a radical concept episode of unparalleled creativity. In that vein, season five’s “Free Churro” bucked all the rules of animation by having BoJack deliver a eulogy that doubles as a riveting one-man stage play.
1) Atlanta – “Teddy Perkins” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Written by: Donald Glover
Directed by: Hiro Murai
Even by Atlanta’s magic-realist standards, “Teddy Perkins” was extraordinary. Donald Glover’s incredible horror episode played with the “trapped in a creepy mansion” trope in service of a riff on the lives of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and other black musical icons who suffered great personal loss on the way to recording some of the greatest songs ever made – and the thematic question of whether the songs were only possible because of the losses.