10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Box”
Season 5 | Episode 14
Directed by Claire Scanlon
Written by Luke Del Tredici
The “bottle episode”—an episode that confines a small number of characters to a single location for its duration—has become a staple of television. Bottle episodes are often utilized as a means of saving money, as the cast is small and only one or two sets are needed. At their worst, bottle episodes are budget-mandated and uninspired. At their best, they establish, grow, and/or flesh out character relationships. “The Box” falls squarely into the latter category. This episode sees Det. Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Cpt. Holt (Andre Braugher) interrogating a murder suspect (Sterling K. Brown) who always seems to be one step ahead of them. The normally-dramatic Brown, who received an Emmy nomination for his guest performance here, displays an impressive and previously-unseen knack for comedy; it’s a performance that pivots between playful snarkiness and genuine creepiness, the kind of work only an actor of Brown’s (American Crime Story, This is Us) caliber could bring to the table. Ultimately though, this is an episode around Peralta and Holt’s father-son relationship, adding shades of depth to the goofy-but-brilliant Peralta and expanding upon his motivations for being the detective he is. “The Box” is utterly hilarious, but even more insightful in how it develops its lead characters.
09. The Flash / Arrow / Supergirl – “Elseworlds”
Season 5 / 7 / 4 | Episode 9
Directed by Kevin Tancharoen / James Bamford / Jesse Warn
Written by Eric Wallace and Sam Chalsen / Caroline Dries and Marc Guggenheim / Marc Guggenheim, Robert Rovner, and Derek Simon
Past crossovers between the CW’s “Arrowverse” shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow) have gone for the biggest stories possible: alien invasions, Nazis from alternate dimensions, that sort of thing. Though last year’s three-part crossover had some of the highest stakes ever, there was something smaller and more intimate about it. “Elseworlds” brought a Freaky Friday spin to its proceedings, altering reality and swapping the lives of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) and Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), a.k.a. The Flash and Green Arrow, respectively. The culprit? The Monitor (LaMonica Garrett), a God-like embodiment of all the positive matter in the Multiverse, whose power was given to Dr. John Deegan (Jeremy Davies), a mad scientist at Arkham Asylum who uses that power to re-shape the world as he sees fit. Despite its high stakes, “Elseworlds” sports a unique sense of humor and a deep stack of fan service moments to appease hardcore DC fans (including appearances by Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman, Ruby Rose’s Batwoman, and everyone’s favorite android Amazo). Best of all, it serves as a prelude to next year’s crossover, one that has been teased since the first season of The Flash: an adaptation of Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of the biggest and most well-known comic book crossover events in the history of the medium. “Elseworlds” strikes a perfect balance of tone, offering the kind of light, superhero action The Flash promised early on in its run while maintaining a heightened sense of urgency.
08. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “Mac Finds His Pride”
Season 13 | Episode 10
Directed by Todd Biermann
Written by Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney
Most sitcoms have expiration dates, almost as a rule. Modern Family began its descent around its fourth or fifth season. The Office plummeted upon Steve Carell’s departure in the seventh season. And Arrested Development—once thought to be well ahead of its time—has twice failed to mount a critically-successful comeback on Netflix. Very rarely do sitcoms make it very far without collapsing under the weight of higher and higher expectations. That’s what makes It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s thirteen-season (and going) run all the more impressive: its consistency. With a strong understanding of its characters, Always Sunny has, in the decade-plus it’s been on the air, elaborated on their qualities by plunging the depths of their souls. In Mac’s (Rob McElhenney’s) case, his attempted masculine veneer, his closeted homosexuality, and the internalized homophobia that comes with it all stem from his relationship with his convict father, a man who never bothered to give his own son the affection and love Mac so desperately craves as an adult. This all comes together in the season finale, in which Mac (who came out of the closet to the Gang for good during the twelfth season) and Frank (Danny DeVito) try to figure out just where Mac fits in as a gay man. The first half of the episode is littered with Frank’s casual homophobia, and, until that halfway point, “Mac Finds His Pride” feels like it’s succumbing to those late-stage sitcom doldrums. But then, upon Frank’s urging, Mac decides to come out to his father “his way.” The result is unlike anything the show’s ever done before—a choreographed interpretive dance in the final ten minutes, set to the music of Sigur Rós. It’s stunning and emotional, something Always Sunny rarely is, and it’s made all the more impressive by how late into the show’s run its creators decided to do it. It feels like a reinvigoration of the series, and if the showrunners continue to experiment in this manner, I could see Always Sunny lasting for many more years to come.
07. Better Call Saul – “Winner”
Season 4 | Episode 10
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Written by Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz
“Winner” feels like the episode Better Call Saul was leading up to all this time. Not only does it cleanly tie together all of the season’s previous plot threads, it also gives us a taste of the character we’ve been waiting for: Saul Goodman. In reclaiming his license to practice law from the New Mexico Bar Association, Jimmy decisively slips into this persona, using his brother’s death to emotionally manipulate the panel of lawyers deciding his fate. Jimmy has always been a slick customer, but his deception fools even his girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn). And upon his reinstatement to the bar, he requests a name change—here we finally see Jimmy fully morph into the Saul Goodman persona made famous by Breaking Bad. Jonathan Banks, meanwhile, does some of his best work as Mike since season one’s “Five-O”; here, he is left no option but to kill the runaway foreman of crime lord Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito’s) construction project. Banks sells every hint of Mike’s reluctance and inner turmoil, and the scene in which he completes his mission is utterly heartbreaking. “Winner” may not be as pulse-pounding as last season’s finale, but it’s just as emotionally hard-hitting and effectively lays the groundwork for what will surely be an incredible final season of this shockingly fantastic prequel series.
06. American Crime Story – “A Random Killing”
Season 2 | Episode 4
Directed by Gwyneth Payton-Horder
Written by Tom Rob Smith
The prevailing theme of American Crime Story’s second season—subtitled The Assassination of Gianni Versace—is homophobia, and the role it played in delaying the capture of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Structurally, the series begins with the eponymous assassination and works backwards through each of Cunanan’s (Darren Criss’s) kills. And though the glamor and élan of Gianni (Édgar Ramirez) and Donatella (Penélope Cruz) Versace makes for sumptuous viewing, it is the episode that covers the death of real estate developer Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) that stands out. The tragedy of Lee Miglin—a married man in the closet whose behind-the-scene dalliances with Cunanan turned fatal—is compounded by its effect on his wife Marilyn (a terrific Judith Light). Though cops suspect that Lee was killed by a secret lover, Marilyn refuses to accept that her husband’s death was anything more than random. It is here the show offers some of its most complex characterizations. On one hand, we as the audience are meant to empathize with Marilyn, who only discovers her late husband’s secret upon becoming a widow. On the other hand, it’s difficult to watch her deny her husband’s sexual orientation, and it speaks to the broader issue of how society (particularly during the time this took place) forces gay and bisexual individuals to hide who they are. Tragically, even after his death, though Lee’s soul was freed from his body, he himself still could not be freed from the closet. “A Random Killing” confronts this season’s themes more directly than any other episode, and it’s all the more effective for it.