The A.V. Club’s favorite TV episodes of 2020

The A.V. Club’s favorite TV episodes of 2020

Clockwise, from left: Killing Eve (Screenshot), DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow (Screenshot), What We Do In The Shadows (Screenshot), The Mandalorian (Screenshot), Pen15 (Screenshot), BoJack Horseman (Screensthot)
Clockwise, from left: Killing Eve (Screenshot), DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow (Screenshot), What We Do In The Shadows (Screenshot), The Mandalorian (Screenshot), Pen15 (Screenshot), BoJack Horseman (Screensthot)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The A.V. Club’s end-of-year coverage is officially underway—check out our picks for the best movie trailers and film scenes. Before our best TV shows list arrives next week, we’re looking back at our favorite episodes of the year with this week’s AVQ&A:

What was your favorite episode of TV this year?

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Better Things, “Listen To The Roosters”

Better Things, “Listen To The Roosters”

In the year that the comfort watch reigned, I suppose it’s only natural that my favorite episode is also the one I found most restorative. Pamela Adlon wrapped another exceptional season of television with “Listen To The Roosters,” a season finale that’s equally bracing and gracious. The episode comprises three parts with their own narratives and genre: The first is almost a whimsical ghost story, the second is live theater, while the conclusion is nothing less than a spell. Better Things season four was about metabolizing even your anger—decades-old and warranted though it may be— to make room for something more positive, more beneficial. But Adlon never glossed over the hurt or resentment; as Sam Fox, she’s had to sit with every betrayal, every rejection, every disappointment. And because of that, she couldn’t just churn out a conventional closer to the latest installment of her coming-of-middle-age comedy. In the spirit of the season-long exploration of religion and culture, “Listen To The Roosters” ends in a type of baptism for Sam and her daughters, washing away the bitterness and conflict (for a little while, at least). It was a chance to catch our breath, and for Adlon to take our breath away with a rousing speech about the real life-cycle of womanhood: “You’re primed and you’re prepped and abused and adored and harassed and worshipped. And then it all stops.” [Danette Chavez]

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3 / 16

DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, “The One Where We’re Trapped On TV”

DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, “The One Where We’re Trapped On TV”

There was no chance I was ever going to pick anything other than Legends Of Tomorrow’s “The One Where We’re Trapped On TV” for this list. My love for this show is well-documented at this site, but come on, this was made for me. The CW’s worst/goofiest/best superheroes end up in a universe where they’re all characters on TV shows, living through elaborate parodies of Star Trek, Downton Abbey, and Friends, right down to the ridiculous wigs, extremely accurate (yet legally distinct) sets, and ready-made catchphrases? To quote lovable actor and neighbor Nate Heywood from Ultimate Buds: “Why not?” [Sam Barsanti]

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4 / 16

Killing Eve, “Are You From Pinner?”

Killing Eve, “Are You From Pinner?”

There was very little Eve killing on Killing Eve this year. In fact, the entire season was stripped of its usual tension as the writers chose to keep Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) apart for most of the episodes. The result was a lackluster string of plot developments that failed to recreate the magic of the first season, or even the watered-down version of it from season two. But there was one shining moment of season three: episode five—“Are You From Pinner?”—in which Villanelle is reunited with the mother who gave her up as a child and set her on her path as an assassin. A superb showcase of Comer’s incredible talent, the single-story episode is worth watching even if you’ve never seen a moment of the series before. [Patrick Gomez]

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5 / 16

Schitt’s Creek, “The Premiere”

Schitt’s Creek, “The Premiere”

Image for article titled The A.V. Club’s favorite TV episodes of 2020
Screenshot: Schitt’s Creek

Yes, a lot of people loved the over-the-top wedding that ended the run of Schitt’s Creek, but my favorite episode of the final season (and so, my favorite episode of the year), happened a bit earlier. I loved the running SC bit of Moira Rose’s cinematic comeback The Crows Have Eyes 3: The Crowening, so I was thrilled when in episode five, “The Premiere,” a positive review from an ornithology journal inspires Moira (Catherine O’Hara) and her publicist daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) to make a big event of the movie debut. Unfortunately, Alexis has Roland (Chris Elliott) unleash a cage of crows on the local red carpet, who then start attacking the attendees. Fortunately, David (Dan Levy) and Patrick (Noah Reid) are baked on the latter’s wisdom teeth meds and giggle throughout the terrifying attack. Another stellar B story involves Stevie (Emily Hampshire) and Johnny (Eugene Levy) renewing their respectful motel partnership. Just another perfect episode in a series packed with them; I’m so going to miss this show. [Gwen Ihnat]

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6 / 16

Pen15, “Vendy Wiccany”

Pen15, “Vendy Wiccany”

It’s difficult for me to pick a favorite episode of Pen15's near-perfect second season, but if hard-pressed I’d go with “Vendy Wiccany,” in which Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) become witches for the week in the hopes that a little black magic can fix all of their problems. The fleeting nature of their obsession is eclipsed by the intensity of their commitment, a manifestation of blind, frenzied faith that only a tween could achieve. It’s what the show does so well; every crush or conflict comes with the highest of stakes and harshest of comedowns. And, at that age, they more or less determine your identity. Everyone has a goth phase. [Randall Colburn]

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7 / 16

The Haunting Of Bly Manor, “The Altar Of The Dead,”

The Haunting Of Bly Manor, “The Altar Of The Dead,”

Netflix’s The Haunting Of Bly Manor was far from perfect, but it had one absolute showstopper of an episode in “The Altar Of The Dead,” which finally placed T’Nia Miller’s mysterious housekeeper, Hannah Grose, front and center. Time-jumping between a dizzying array of moments in her life, it’s soon clear that Hannah has no control over which familiar scenes at Bly she’ll be leaping into; she leaves one room only to walk right into a different location entirely—and often weeks, months, or even years apart. The installment is a crucial one for the plot of the series, to be sure, but the dazzling structure and tightly scripted journey through life and death (combined with Miller’s achingly sincere performance) are what make it so memorable, rendering the episode not just a technical and narrative marvel, but an emotional one, too. [Alex McLevy]

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8 / 16

The Mandalorian, “Chapter 13: The Jedi”

The Mandalorian, “Chapter 13: The Jedi”

I was trying very hard not to pick an episode from The Mandalorian season two, as it’s one of more obvious fan picks (I also desperately wanted to avoid spoilers). However, the more I trailed off into the long list of shows I actually sat down and watched this year, I kept finding my way back the Disney+ original and the sheer amount of awe I felt watching Rosario Dawson bring Ahsoka Tano to life. Tano, who started out as one of the most annoying people in the Star Wars universe only to became one of the coolest and most dynamic characters, made her first appearance in the most recent season of The Mandalorian. In “Chapter 13: The Jedi,” we get a live-action rendition of Ahsoka wielding her white sabers while kicking the Empire’s ass, and it is as magnificent as that sounds. [Angelica Cataldo]

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9 / 16

What We Do In The Shadows, “On The Run”

What We Do In The Shadows, “On The Run”

Like Angelica, I was trying to outrun an obvious pick. But the thing about trying to dodge a vampire is that those motherfuckers will always catch up with you. So, at the risk of beating a undead horse, here are some not-wholly-Jackie Daytona-related reasons why no other 2020 episode was ever going to overtake What We Do In The Shadows“On The Run” in my estimation:

  • Stefani Robinson’s Emmy-nominated script, so economic in getting Laszlo off of Staten Island, so impeccable in its Transylvania/Pennsylvania joke and funny names
  • Mark Hamill making what I can only hope is the first of many appearances playing one of those funny names, the ruinously gullible Jim The Vampire
  • The mirror gag that gives Laszlo’s game away
  • The pool-cues-as-lightsabers moment that, were I Matt Berry, would’ve killed me dead on the spot
  • The disparate reactions from Natasia Demetriou and Kayvan Novak at Laszlo’s return, with a button from my favorite season-two running gag, the doll possessed by Nadja’s ghost (who also gets in a good dig at Colin Robinson earlier in the episode)
  • The fact that, seven months later, I still don’t know if Laszlo was using his vampire powers to help the volleyball team win. I thought so at first, but the more I’ve gone back and watched “On The Run”—and I’ve done that a lot—the more tantalizingly ambiguous it seems. Such is the mystery, and the magic, of Jackie Daytona. [Erik Adams]
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10 / 16

BoJack Horseman, “Xerox Of A Xerox”

BoJack Horseman, “Xerox Of A Xerox”

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Screenshot: Netflix

BoJack Horseman spent six seasons asking, “BoJack is basically a good guy, right? Despite everything?” And with “Xerox Of A Xerox” comes its final, damning answer: No. No, he’s not. The crux of it all comes down to two interviews the titular horse/man subjects himself to as a form of damage control for his escalating scandals, both with “softball” TV personality Biscuits Braxby. The first is triumphant, a masterclass in spin, with BoJack as the humble (but funny!) supplicant of public forgiveness. The second is a rug-pull of the highest order, as Braxby lays out, in cold detail, the patterns of behavior that seems to lead to dead or wounded young women everywhere he goes—reminding BoJack, and the audience, that “redemption” doesn’t automatically fix harm or correct bad patterns, and that “self-destruction” rarely restrains itself to a single man. [William Hughes]

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11 / 16

Insecure, “Lowkey Happy”

Insecure, “Lowkey Happy”

There were very few episodes of television as emotionally and visually gratifying for me as Insecure’s season four episode “Lowkey Happy.” Truthfully, I wasn’t prepared to enjoy it at all: An entire episode dedicated to Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence’s (Jay Ellis) tumultuous relationship seemed like a potentially unnecessary retread and a disaster waiting to happen. I was thrilled to be wrong. Series writer and co-star Natasha Rothwell crafted an intimate moment of growth between two intrinsically linked characters that was so engaging it totally flipped my perception of the pair. Within three scenes, I was wholeheartedly rooting for their reconciliation, not only because of the deeply romantic ambiance (thanks to the impeccable direction of the show’s longtime cinematographer, Ava Berkofsky), but because they had reached a place of shared honesty and vulnerability. It was beautiful to witness two people finally show up for each other. [Shannon Miller]

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12 / 16

The Great, “The Beard”

The Great, “The Beard”

The dialogue in The Favourite was like pure golden honey being poured directly into my ears, so what a treat it was to luxuriate in that language for ten whole hours when The Great premiered back in May. The series is arguably greater than the sum of its parts, making it difficult to pick one episode in particular; the first isn’t really representative of the rest, however, at least in terms of Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) character. She starts off as a naive, swooning teenager eager to meet her one true love, but by episode two, “The Beard,” the power in her marriage has shifted into her favor as Peter (Nicholas Hoult) tries to overcome her disgust with his own crude brand of romance—if threatening to kill one another counts as romance (and it kind of does, at least in this world). The overarching plot is still coming together at this point in the series, but what I enjoyed most about The Great were the sharp-tongued retorts and aristocratic excess, so I actually preferred these early episodes to the more plot-heavy ones later on. [Katie Rife]

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13 / 16

The Last Dance, Episodes III and IV

The Last Dance, Episodes III and IV

It would perhaps be unreasonable to expect a series about the 1990s Chicago Bulls not to forefront the team’s leader, MVP, and one of the greatest basketball players ever. Still, I grew fatigued with just how much time ESPN’s The Last Dance spent on Michael Jordan, specifically his countless (often manufactured) rivalries and petty slights from that era, still unforgotten all these years later. But that’s only partly why episodes III and IV, which focus on Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson (they aired back-to-back), felt so refreshing. In addition to serving as a breather from Jordan’s megalomania, the third and fourth installments offered alternative visions of sports excellence and masculinity, examining just what drove these two creative, iconoclastic men to take risks that often appeared counterintuitive. Plus, the episodes allow Rodman this thrilling insight for why he played the way he did: “I wanna go out there and get my nose broken. I wanna go out there and get cut. Something that brings out the hurt, the pain. I wanna feel that.” His Airness could never. [Laura Adamczyk]

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14 / 16

The Masked Singer, “The Group C Premiere—Masked But Not Least”

The Masked Singer, “The Group C Premiere—Masked But Not Least”

I wholeheartedly co-sign Randall’s ode to Pen15’s “Wendy Viccany,” a standout episode of a standout season, so let me throw a curveball—a little vampin’, if you will—and shout out the October 28 installment of Fox’s The Masked Singer. Admittedly, I’ve never seen a full episode of the madcap singing competition, but I have memorized every breath, every snort of Lips’ performance that night, a bonkers cover of Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker.” Beneath that giant pair of sequined lips? Daytime talk show royalty Wendy Williams, of course. No amount of off-key belting could disguise her distinctive “New Yawhk” accent, and the fact that she delivered the whole thing seated on a chaise lounge—postured exactly the same way she is for The Wendy Williams Show—meant that her reveal came as no surprise. But what was surprising was every single performance choice Williams made; whether you consider it a trainwreck or a stroke of genius, it was the one television moment that dared to match the delirium of 2020. [Cameron Scheetz]

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15 / 16

Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., “As I Have Always Been”

Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., “As I Have Always Been”

Like Sam, my pick is from an often overshadowed, but ultimately beloved ensemble superhero show with an iconic comic book imprint in its title. Of course, I’m talking about Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., specifically the ninth episode of the show’s final season, “As I Have Always Been.” The “time loop episode” is a well-worn trope in genre television that has proven to be a creative boon for many of the shows that attempt it (hello again, Legends). Thankfully, S.H.I.E.L.D. knocks it out of the park with its take, deftly balancing a deluge of exposition with an economical edit, and some of the season’s most affecting moments. Plus, it’s funny as all hell. [Baraka Kaseko]

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