The Best TV Episodes of 2017 — So Far

For TV fans, the Peak TV era is both a blessing and curse. There is so much great television out there, and yet there is also too much to keep up with. Halfway through the year, Chris Cabin and I pause and take stock of the great series and episodes that have already aired (between January 1st and mid-June-ish) before things start to rev up for the insanity that is the fall premiere season.

If you don’t see your favorite on here it might not have made the cutoff, and there are also absences with great shows like Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan, series I loved but where one particular episode didn’t jump out at me, though the works as a whole are wonderfully engaging (and visually stunning). And in the case of other missing series (or particular episodes), it’s possible that we just aren’t caught up yet (or in the case of The Leftovers, just plumb don’t like it — sorry!)

Check back in December for Part 2 of this list, and in the meantime, let us know what some of your favorites are. Here are ours:

Fargo Season 3: ”The Law of Non-Contradiction”

Writers: Matt Wolpert & Ben Nedivi

Director: John Cameron

It’s rare for a show to make it onto our list twice, but if any show deserves it it’s Fargo. Noah Hawley’s loving crafted anthology series is a work of aesthetic control and purposeful restraint, whether it’s in the muted “Minnesota nice” of its heroes, or in the deliberately swift and brutal movements of its villains. “The Law of Non-Contradiction” broke form, though, as a capsule episode and a road trip that took the show out of the tundra and to California, where Gloria (Carrie Coon) set to find out more about her recently murdered step-father. It’s a showcase for Coon’s talents, which is always delightful to behold, but it also included an extended animated sequence that illustrated her step-father’s lost sci-fi novel “The Planet Wyh,” featuring a helpful android named MNSKY. Hawley’s incorporation of animation is something nearly unheard of in the world “prestige TV dramas,” and it was a fantastic story-within-a-story-within-a-story that (with the flashback) also felt Twin Peaks-y in its use of diners and old Hollywood scams and suddenly escalated violence. A stand-out episode for what has always been a stand-out series. — Allison Keene

This Is Us Season 1: “Memphis”

Writer: Dan Fogelman

Directors: John Requa & Glenn Ficarra

Though most of This Is Us’ inaugural season was engineered to be emotional, one episode that truly stood out was “Memphis.” Look, if you didn’t cry at this episode I don’t know why you even watch this show. “Memphis” told the story of William (Ron Cephas Jones), who returned to his hometown on a road trip with his son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) as a final wish before he passed away. The father-son dynamic here was beautiful and heart-wrenching, as were the flashbacks to William’s early life and what could have been for him. Meeting up with his cousin at a jazz club was Treme-like in its unhurried desire to let the band jam on, as an ebullient Randall got increasingly sloshed. This last-hoorah for the two, who had only just recently gotten to know one another, was an important step for Randall’s character, especially in the end when he got to be the strong one. But mostly, it was a lovely capsule episode that did what This Is Us does best: get to the heart of family matters.  — Allison Keene

Legion Season 1: "Pilot"

It’s a bit of a cheat to pick a season premiere as a best episode, even more so a series premiere. Pilots and premieres are built and designed to immediately entice and ensnare the audience in the world that, if all goes well, will be built up and out as the episodes go on. And yet, it’s impossible to ignore the immediate and ruminative delights that Noah Hawley lays out in the series premiere of Legion. Tricked out with all manner of “Look Ma!” camera movies, flourishes of bright color, and a superb cast fronted by Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza, the story of David Haller (Stevens) — one of the most formidable mutant in the X-Men universe — is first and foremost a trip to witness. The scenes in Clockworks are dazzlingly expressive and bold even by FX’s standards. And at the core of the show’s success is Hawley’s unwavering interest in diving into his main character’s knotty inner issues, as the show fixes itself more on the importance of self-knowledge, skepticism, and self-care in defeating villains than the ability to turn a person inside out or grow blue hair and hang from the ceiling. 

Nevertheless, Hawley decides to cap this electrifying hour of visual storytelling off with a thrilling escape that includes telekinetic tosses, burnt corpses, and a beachfront rescue via helicopter should show just how much ambition the visionary has culled from here. With “Chapter 1,” he’s issued a serious challenge to any Marvel adaptation that thinks exclusively in terms of plot, which is to say most of them, and by the end of the season, the challenge stands. — Chris Cabin

Detroiters Season 1: “Happy Birthday Mr. Duvet”

Writer: Amber Ruffin

Director: Becky Martin

It’s easy for a show like Comedy Central’s Detroiters to get lost among the Peak TV fray, but I sincerely encourage you to go back and watch it (for reference, here’s my review).

There are a lot of things to love about the quirky comedy, but “Happy Birthday Mr. Duvet” took the show to a new level. The jokes and interactions between Sam Richardson (whose character is terrified about giving the perfect speech for his father’s party) and Tim Robinson (who has a hilarious obsession with a clown’s antics — or lack thereof) are pretty fantastic per usual. But it’s the sudden cuts to the group all doing the Detroit Hustle after every randomly placed prompt that pushes “Happy Birthday Mr. Duvet” beyond comedy and satire and into a surreal dreamscape (or hellscape, later, if you’re Sam) that brings out the show’s unique style and wonderfully hyper-localized references. The cringe comedy is at an all-time high here, but the show’s biggest asset is that Richardson and Robinson’s sincere affection and comedic rapport are truly unmatched. Hey everybody, let’s Hustle! — Allison Keene

Legends of Tomorrow Season 2: “The Legion of Doom”

Writers: Phil Klemmer & Marc Guggenheim

Director: Eric Laneuville

Oh boy oh boy did I love this episode of Legends of Tomorrow. Like several other series on this list, Legends vastly improved with its second season. One of the biggest reasons was thanks to its new villain team, the Legion of Doom, made up of Arrow-verse baddies Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher), Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), and Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman). The episode which bears their names came with a fantastic Eobard introduction, as well as the reveal that the speedster is being chased out of existence by Black Flash (the first time we’ve seen him return since The Flash’s Season 2 finale). All of this helps the Legion balance out their power and become a truly united force in their ultimate quest for power. It was a great episode (I wrote more about it here) that allowed the villains to have their moment to not only bicker with one another (which was gleeful fun), but it solidified them in these new roles. Plus, the hour ended with Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) shooting George Washington in 1776, which is really just peak Legends on every level. — Allison Keene

Master of None Season 2: “First Date”

Writers: Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang

Director: Eric Wareheim

If you’ve used online dating and lived in any major city, Master of None‘s “First Date” probably hit a little too close to home. Edited with finesse and paced brilliantly, this trip through a flurry of first dates, fragmented into representative flashes, allows Aziz Ansari’s Dev to react to a number of distinct types. There’s the spoiled young woman frivolously living off her parents; the flirty colleague; the busy but good-humored career woman; and, of course, the witty, warm stoner who takes him home. Ansari gives even the least admirable of these characters a relatable pulse of life. He averts treating any of them like a simple stereotype, and the results is 20-odd minutes that evokes the thrill of meeting new people and possible romantic parties while also highlight how exhausting, confusing, and repellant the dating scene can be. No small feat. — Chris Cabin

Better Call Saul Season 3: “Sabrosito”

Writer: Jonathan Glatzer

Director: Thomas Schnauz

In a Better Call Saul season that travelled further into the world of Breaking Bad than ever before, “Sabrosito” showed the right balance of how to keep the Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) storyline intact and still flirt with “Breaking Bad: Origins” for a multitude of other characters. I’ll admit that I was very hesitant at the start of the season with the time the show was spending with Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) while lessening time spent with characters like Kim (Rhea Seehorn), but “Sabrosito” showed exactly how the two shows can be reconciled in one fantastic episode (which I wrote about more in-depth here). It was a taught, tense, twisty, and fantastically acted episode that shows the series at its best. Now if only we would get some news on that Season 4 renewal … — Allison Keene

Hap and Leonard Season 2: “Holy Mojo”

Writer: John Wirth

Director: Abe Sylvia 

In Hap and Leonard’s second season, the series tackled some serious racial issues. “Holy Mojo” started out with a lynching and the burning of a church that happened decades earlier in an East Texas town, a key event to the unfolding horrors unfolding in the show’s present timeline. The church’s burning by the Klan also held an important clue that Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Michael K. Williams) use to try and find a serial killer, but in the course of that investigation, the show takes a quirky but emotional turn as they are run out of a neighborhood by fed-up mothers who think they are after their sons.

“Holy Mojo” is the best example of how Hap and Leonard can walk the line between deep feeling and and understated humor. There’s a wryness, even in dark moments (like having to submerge a van that holds a recently deceased friend) that keeps the show from ever getting too macabre. Despite its devastating start, “Holy Mojo” also allows for a moment of triumph as the two friends save young man from doom, and there’s are several great moments relating to Leonard’s creative revenge strategies. “Holy Mojo” is an emotional rollercoaster, but also the show at its best, where the past and present meet together in unsettling but important ways. — Allison Keene

Downward Dog Season 1: “Pilot”

Writers: Samm Hodges & Michael Killen

Director: Michael Killen

Few comedies are as sincere — and sincerely funny — as Downward Dog, a show that has no right to work, and yet does so beautifully. In the “Pilot” we are introduced by Martin (played by Ned the dog), who is an existential hipster of a pooch, explaining to us with a narration and solo cutaways the important aspects of his day while his owner Nan (Allison Tolman) is at work. But we spend equal time with Nan at her Urban Outfitters-like corporate job, where she fights against the ignorance and sexism of her idiot boss to create an ad campaign that will actually make shoppers feel good about themselves. What makes “Pilot” work so well is that Nan’s original throw-in-the-towel idea is literally destroyed by a bored Martin, and is replaced instead with an idea inspired by him; for people to see themselves with the unconditional love that a dog like Martin has. It sounds cheesy but by God it’s not, and through Killen’s directing (both of the hilarious Martin and the color-saturated world of Pittsburgh in the summertime), the show is elevated by its cinematic style. Downward Dog is a genuinely great show that is witty and joyous, and “Pilot” is the perfect introduction. — Allison Keene

The White Princess: “Traitors”

Writers: Loren McLaughlan & Amy Roberts

Director: Alex Kalymnios

It’s hard to pick just one episode of the excellent Starz miniseries The White Princess to highlight since it’s so short and tightly focused in its narrative. However, “Traitors” was a important pivot for the show’s character drama. In it, we spent some quality time with “The Boy,” who is potentially the disposed heir to the English throne — or an imposter. Patrick Gibson’s serene performance could go either way, and it’s part of the series’ core conflict. It shows the now-Queen Lizzie (Jodie Comer) choosing her husband the King’s (Jacob Collins-Levy) side over her York heritage, and her mother (Essie Davis) pulling one last coup. Meanwhile, we learn the true murderer of the princes in the tower (or who the show chooses to point to for it), which has dire consequences across the board. “Traitors” laid all of the political cards on the table, and beautifully sets up the series’ final episodes with an emotional urgency. Even if you know how the history plays out, The White Princess — in this particular hour — makes you question everything you think you know. It’s an incredibly engaging episode for a superbly wrought historical drama. — Allison Keene

Speechless Season 1: “R-U-N—RUNAWAY”

Writer: Mark Kunerth

Director: Claire Scanlon

Speechless is the kind of show that could have been, from the start, a cutesy show about the “lessons” that the public needs to learn about caring for a child with disabilities. But the series instead walked a very fine line between the irreverent and the sincere in a way that has made it one of the year’s best. An episode like “R-U-N-RUNAWAY” could have tipped that balance, but instead it was just an extremely affecting half hour about how JJ (Micah Fowler) wants to run away but literally can’t because of his wheelchair. Though his mother (Minnie Driver) tries to facilitate him taking off, JJ is still trapped in her sights. His frustration is agonizing.

Eventually he meets up with another wheelchair-bound young man, who gives him the advice to live his life on his own terms — that he can do things on his own like a normal teenager (which is all JJ, and the show, wants to be), he just has to do it in his own way. The execution of this whole storyline is far better than I can accurately describe it in just a few sentences, but it’s also mirrored by a fun and similarly affecting plot between Cedric Yarbrough’s Kenneth (reliving his days as a former basketball player) and the hyper-competitive Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Speechless’ “lessons” are usually skewed or inverted in some way to keep things from ever being too sentimental, but “R-U-N-RUNAWAY” embraces the tender side a little more in a way that only this show can do so effectively. — Allison Keene

Girls Season 6: “American Bitch”

Writer: Lena Dunham

Director: Richard Shepard

Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled over this exception episode from arguably the very best season of Girls to date. As a dissection of sexual politics in the age of men’s rights activists, it’s sublime, and watching the great Matthew Rhys’ take on a special sect of misogynists is borderline decadent. The swarm of often legitimate reasons that Rhys’ controversial writer gives for his sexism turns out to be little more the calculated, craven machinations of a devilish prankster, which reflects a day and age where its hard to know if people are complex and self-aware or scheming and self-obsessed. Beyond that, the episode is a simple but rare sort of delight: two characters that are very hard to like talking it out to see just how much they enjoy hating each other, played by two phenomenal performers.  — Chris Cabin

Twin Peaks: The Return: “Part 1 & 2”

Writers: David Lynch and Mark Frost

Director: David Lynch

The same year that brought us “Peak TV” has also brought us proof that most TV is just child’s play. This is thanks to the reemergence of David Lynch, the master behind Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, and the incomparable Eraserhead. When stacked up alongside the staggering first seven episodes of the show’s third season, other shows seem cautious, tedious, bound to outdated storytelling devices, and seismically lacking in style. This is a long way of saying that  25 years after the show originally broke TV, Twin Peaks has not only returned just as weird and wonderful as it ever was, but has reinvented itself in total. In the first two episodes, Lynch sets up a transcendental world of menace, madness, and messy humanity, one that quietly criticizes and embraces the trend of remaking old shows or returning to long-cancelled programs. Most of all, Twin Peaks’ return  has character, the feeling of being the brainchild of a singular artistic team led by a visionary. The series’ eerie, rapturous spell is cast well before the second episode ends and it hasn’t let up yet. — Chris Cabin

Arrow Season 5: “Lian Yu”

Writers: Wendy Mericle & Marc Guggenheim

Director: Jesse Warn

Guys, there’s an episode of Arrow on this list. Yes, Arrow! After nearly giving up on the series to start its fifth season, the show won me back in a big way with the advent of Prometheus as such an effective foil for Oliver (Stephen Amell), who was forced to confront his past. The season finale, “Lian Yu,” brought the show back to its literal beginning on the island, as well as restoring some major characters from the past. It could have, in many ways, served a series finale, as all of Oliver’s (living) friends and foes came together in a final epic, emotional battle.

Still, in the end, it was Prometheus who had the final laugh (so it seems) by again being ahead of Team Arrow yet again and literally blowing shit up. It’s a fantastic potential reset for the series, as well as a great culmination to the Prometheus storyline, Oliver needing to step up as a father, and the perfect way to end a season that worked hard to get back to its roots. — Allison Keene

Man Seeking Woman Season 3: “Bagel”

Writer: Stefani Robinson

Director: Ryan Case

In a series that has always leaned heavily into the surreal, “Bagel” was a genuinely sweet episode that (in typical Man Seeking Woman form) started off with raunchy irony before settling into one of the series’ most affecting stories. In the third and final season, Josh (Jay Baruchel) finally ends up in a happy and stable relationship with Lucy (Katie Findlay), and in “Bagel” he proposes. But first, he asks her parents, who presume he’s asking for permission to have anal sex, which is completely horrifying and played with total sincerity, making it fully on-brand for the show. But “Bagel” then transforms into Josh’s neuroses getting the better of him and keeping him from popping the question, until a fight between them brings it out. Ultimately, Josh and Lucy propose to each other, through an escalating and absurd series of novelty rings that represent all of the things they like to do together, and “Bagel” represents an already great series at its best through a marriage: of sweetness and rude comedy. — Allison Keene

Fargo Season 3: “Aporia”

Writers: Noah Hawley & Bob DeLaurentis

Director: Keith Gordon

In a marked contrast to the other Fargo episode on our list, “Aporia” was a fast-paced penultimate hour for the season that laid out pivotal character moments, particularly for Carrie Coon’s Gloria (this is a theme — Carrie Coon is fantastic). But it was also the season’s most triumphant moment for Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who had teamed up with the forever-Fargo character Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) to neutralize the dastardly Varga (David Thewlis) — and impress him along the way (not once but twice).

But for Gloria, things were hardly so clear, as Varga’s machinations overturn her murder investigation. The way all of this is choreographed and edited together is sweeping experience, punctuated at the end of the hour by Gloria’s confession that she feels unseen by the world, and her fellow cop friend Winnie (Olivia Sandoval) bucks her up enough so her confidence is restored and she makes herself seen. It’s a glorious episode that led to a so-so finale, but “Aporia’s” pacing, character moments, and narrative satisfaction made it one of the best episodes of a very good season. — Allison Keene

Baskets Season 2: “Ronald Regan Library”

Writer: Samuel D. Hunter

Director: Jonathan Krisel

In its much improved second season, FX’s quirky drama Baskets became more of a series of beautifully shot vignettes that increasingly included the show’s standout performance of Louie Anderson as Bakersfield mom Christine Baskets. “Ronald Regan Library” is the show at its best and most emotionally raw, as Christine travels to go bail her son Chip (Zach Galifinakis) out of jail, and ends up going on a date of sorts to the Presidential Library with the father of one of Chip’s fellow sundries. There are a number of things that work really, really well in this episode, including Chip escaping the library tour in order to deliver a pan flute of a deceased friend to that friend’s family. But as always, Anderson steals the show, elevating Christine’s mundane conversations into something spellbinding. The best moment, though, comes at the end when Christine’s date (a Jimmy Carter fan) buys her a Regan bracelet she’s been eyeing. When she hugs him, Anderson allows a multitude of emotions to pass over his face, in one of the year’s most affecting TV moments. It also helped solidified Baskets’ true diamond-in-the-rough status as a TV gem. — Allison Keene

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: “Net Neutrality 2/Brexit 2”

In a year of mediocre sequels — John Wick 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, The Reagan Era 2, etc. — John Oliver delivered two blockbuster sequels to his HBO-backed exposes on Net Neutrality and Brexit in his essential fourth season hosting Last Week Tonight. For the continued fight over a free and open internet, Oliver called on legions of 4chan trolls and reddit misfits to storm the FCC’s website; the website crashed within 30 minutes after the show ended. It was an inspiring moment that capped off an hysterical criticism of the FCC’s weak reasoning, the we-mean-no-harm fallacy sold by Net Neutrality opponents, and that ridiculous Reese’s mug. And to usher in what may well be the end of his homeland, Oliver flew the very real Lord Buckethead across the pond to hype him as the best possible choice to lead Brexit negotiations, after dismantling any and all notions that the conservatives or Theresa May have any idea what they’re doing. I hope he does this for another decade. — Chris Cabin

American Gods Season 1: “Head Full of Snow”

Writers: Michael Green, Bryan Fuller

Director: David Slade

Much like Twin Peaks, it’s hard to pick a single episode in a series like American Gods that feels so cohesive and governed by its own narrative and aesthetic impulses. This one gets the edge for the Jinn storyline, in which a heated romance erupts between a bottomed-up Muslin salesman (Omid Abtahi) and a fire-eyed Jinn posing as a taxi cab. The sex scene belongs in the history books, but the opening story of Anubus (Chris Obi) and the Egyptian grandmother, as well as Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Wednesday’s (Ian McShane) snowy heist, are flush with grand symbolic gestures and flashes of debauched humor. Mr. Nancy’s (Orlando Jones) outstanding introduction on the slave ship may remain the show’s most noteworthy sequence but “Head Full of Snow” reveals an audacity and empathy in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green that matches the most dazzling and daring moments in Hannibal. — Chris Cabin

Latest Feed

Follow Us