Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Kerry Bishe (left) and Mackenzie Davis in Halt And Catch Fire (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

The best TV scenes of 2017

Kerry Bishe (left) and Mackenzie Davis in Halt And Catch Fire (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

Television provides so many units in which to appreciate the medium’s annual output. A series can leap to the forefront on the strengths of a single great season; if it’s running as part of the traditional broadcast calendar, those accolades might have two halves of separate seasons. Try as streaming services and serialized cable might, they’ve yet to fully diminish the episode, a canvas on which even the crummiest of programs can paint a masterpiece. At an extremely granular level, there’s also TV that can be recommended on a scene-by-scene basis, as evidenced by the list below. Each entry is in some way dependent on what comes before and after it, but each is strong enough to stand on its own. These are the TV scenes from 2017 that we’ll be thinking of well into 2018, from divine interventions to stories that may or may not be true to mind-scrambling sequences that attempt to depict the origins of good and evil.

Sex in the stars, American Gods

The most powerful sex scene from Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods wasn’t the one that was the most talked about ahead of the premiere. While the show was in development, book readers wondered how (departed) showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green would depict Bilquis’ man-devouring vagina on the small screen. And although that aspect of the source material was thoughtfully and sumptuously rendered for television, it’s the union of Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the ifrit (Mousa Kraish) that deserves admission to the upper echelons of sex scenes, gay or otherwise. Everything is laid bare: the couple’s isolation, desire, and bodies. The scene is notable for its extended full-frontal shot and orgasm—with the latter illustrated as part of a desert night sky—but more than that, it’s incredibly romantic and realistic. In fact, after seeing the tape, Fuller gave the actors notes on how their hips should be positioned. And the results are as exquisite as they are groundbreaking. [Danette Chavez]

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” The Americans

You’re forgiven for checking the time stamp when the drama-drenched intro to “Goodbye Yellow Brick” road fades in to the mix during “The Soviet Division.” Like a lot of TV shows, The Americans reserves its flashiest needle drops for openings and closings: Think the ironic use of “More Than This” at the end of “The Midges” or the tension-ratcheting “Tusk” during our very first glimpse of married spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. But this title track from a double album by another AOR superstar has a different placement and a different purpose, throwing viewers off balance as the Jennings family steps back to take account of lives they barely recognize. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics sync up with the themes of The Americans’ most polarizing season and the epiphanies that tie into them—perhaps a little too well, in the case of racquetball third wheel Philip and the “Maybe you’ll get a replacement” line—but the song doesn’t carry the whole load. It’s shared by Matthew Rhys’ resigned posture; by the way Keri Russell is framed against the prison of possessions Elizabeth has built for herself; and by the internal flashbacks Holly Taylor conveys as Paige Jennings walks to her car, retracing the steps that once led her to the scene of a mugging—and then the scene of a murder. Farewells are laced throughout The Americans’ penultimate season, but the ones that sting the most are the ones that play out slowly across all 10 episodes, finally landing alongside Elton John’s return flight from Oz. They’re not the end (of the series or the season), but these images are poignantly wrapped up in finality all the same. [Erik Adams]

Jimmy puts Chuck on the stand, Better Call Saul

It only takes around five minutes for Better Call Saul to irrevocably destroy whatever relationship still existed between Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean)—five minutes and a little sleight of hand with a cellphone battery. In the courtroom-based “Chicanery,” the AMC drama subverts the classic witness-stand gotcha as Jimmy schemes to turn Chuck’s self-diagnosed electromagnetic sensitivity—and his arrogance—against him, luring him into a trap with the help of future Breaking Bad favorite Huell (Lavell Crawford). But it’s not the fan bait nor even the cleverness of Jimmy’s scheme that makes the moment so memorable. It’s the pain that slowly creeps across Odenkirk’s face as he grudgingly baits every hook, compounded by the shock and pity that flits across everyone else in the room as Chuck lashes out at his brother with an unhinged rant that reveals the true depths of his barely concealed hatred. It’s an emotional turning point that’s made all the more cutting by the fact that we know Chuck is actually in the right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. And it leaves us in the same stunned silence. [Sean O’Neal]

Sam says no ad infinitum, Better Things

Max (Mikey Madison) might have graduated, and Sam (Pamela Adlon) may have “died,” but the biggest changes in Better Things second season were more about its lead character digging her heels in. Sam is too calloused to even register being “put upon” at this point, but the day finally came when she put a cap on her emotional and financial obligations. She prepared to cut off her ex-husband and ended two relationships that were non-starters (sorry, Henry Thomas). These moments don’t happen sequentially, but they are all captured in Sam’s concerto of “no”s in “Blackout.” Yet another dude tries to parlay a moment of empathy into something more—though it’s blessedly lacking a coercive vibe—and Sam shuts him down. Hard. She says nothing but “no” for about a solid minute, but each one of those syllables has a different inflection and a different scenario it’s shutting down. [Danette Chavez]

“Let’s Generalize About Men,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

At midseason, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has sidelined the relationship drama to focus more on Rebecca’s mental illness. Sure, that’s what the show has always been about, but it’s been especially unflinching of late, even as it’s highlighted supporting players like Paula. But before it got down to the real work, CEG took some time to generalize about men (including gay men, though they’re pigeonholed in a different way). This Pointer Sisters-inspired riff is the pre-game before Rebecca’s big internal showdown; accordingly, it’s made up of relentless, wine-fueled grousing that’s briefly interrupted by Paula’s observation that she’s raising sons who will, in her friends’ minds, almost certainly be rapists. But there’s no room for nuance anywhere in their Aquanet ’dos or massive shoulder pads. Although it’s ultimately empty catharsis for Rebecca, making blanket statements about men turned into one of the third season’s standout moments. [Danette Chavez]

First group fight, The Defenders

True, the final episode’s confrontation with the Hand might have been a more impressive overall battle, but there’s nothing quite like that very first superhero team-up. After four separate series and years of waiting, the inaugural encounter of Marvel’s quartet of NYC-centric ass-kickers was just as enjoyable as could be hoped. From the rewarding pairs of Danny Rand and Luke Cage bickering to the dry put-downs that Jessica Jones laid on Matt Murdock, what makes the fight great is how steeped in characterization the penthouse suite battle at Midland Financial is. All the superb choreography is tailor-made for each hero’s strengths and personality, so by the time they’re helping each other fling enemies across the room, you’re left with a smile on your face—and those who stand in their way are left unconscious. [Alex McLevy]

The brainstorming session, Friends From College

This is the type of thing you expect when you hit play on a post-grad reunion comedy from the guy who directed Neighbors: Three comic forces playing coked-up jags, spitballing ideas for the next YA-lit blockbuster. This is what you want to see when Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, and Nat Faxon are thrown into the same room together: seasoned team players feeding off of one another’s energy in a way that’s so intense that even Billy Eichner is asking them to tone it down. And yet, because Friends From College is detrimentally more interested in the consequences of this regressive behavior (and way too invested in the eponymous clique’s inner-group adultery), these sorts of genuine hijinks are too few and far between in the inaugural Netflix go-round from Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco. It stands out because it’s a rarity; it stands out because it shouldn’t (and in this case, doesn’t) require much more than some pizza, some tap-dancing, and some permanent markers to make these people funny. But none of those things hurt either. [Erik Adams]

Introducing Zoya The Destroyer, GLOW

For the first five episodes of GLOW, we watch Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) wrestle with herself, as the aspiring actor struggles to find her role among a roster of women grapplers and somersault her way through an estrangement from her best friend turned worst enemy, Debbie (Betty Gilpin). And then, at the top of the sixth episode, we watch Ruth literally wrestle with herself, by way of selling her newly adopted ring persona, Zoya The Destroyer, to GLOW director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) and GLOW’s star attraction—who just so happens to be Debbie. What follows is an uproarious harnessing of Brie’s spark-plug energy, one that lays bare the extremes of her character’s drive, ambition, and desire for validation. Like so much of GLOW, her routine impresses through sheer physical demand: part shadowboxing, part ballet. The actor’s commitment is stirring, her character’s zeal unnerving. Debbie turns away unimpressed, but surely that’s a minority opinion. [Erik Adams]

“It’s going to be the same every time,” The Good Place

“The pig’s getting angry!” (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)
“The pig’s getting angry!” (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Dance Dance Resolution” ramps up the pace of The Good Place to an extreme degree, burning several years of story in a daffy montage of epiphanies like the one that wrapped the show’s first season. It’s a colorful whirligig of a sequence, excerpting scenarios we’ll never get to see play out in full—Eleanor and Tahani are soul mates, Eleanor is a monk, Eleanor and Chidi wrangle an ornery pig—in the process of disabling the big reset button that returned the show to its heavenly square one. (There’s a literal reset button, too, put to use in a Möbius strip of pratfalls for D’Arcy Carden.) We may never be able to fully trust the show again, but every time Kristen Bell says, “This is The Bad Place!” it’s a promise from Michael Schur and crew that they’ll never torture us for their own sick, twisted kicks—they’ll only torture us for our amusement. [Erik Adams]

Donna and Cameron plot their future, Halt And Catch Fire

We know what comes next for the industry Donna Emerson and Cameron Howe helped build, but Halt And Catch Fire remains tantalizingly mum about what the future holds for Donna and Cameron specifically. We do know what it doesn’t hold: Phoenix, risen from the ashes of the pioneering online gaming and social media platform Mutiny, its brief and tumultuous life span all too familiar to anyone who’d followed the personal and professional relationships between its co-founders. Of course, Phoenix exists entirely in the realm of theory, hatched and buried over the course of two separate sustained shots, as director Karyn Kusama gradually zooms in on a conversation between Kerry Bishe and Mackenzie Davis. It’s an exercise in showing while telling, the script by co-creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers achieving the uniquely Halt And Catch Fire alchemy in which concepts like fundraising and R&D transform into the stuff of great drama—while, in the background, a brilliant, neon firebird flickers to life. Halt And Catch Fire never met a technological double entendre it didn’t like, and this conversation is built from two of them—history and memory—its power drawn from the fire-and-ice routine Bishe and Davis honed across the show’s run. This is one of the precious few scenes they share in the fourth and final season; providing play-by-play for events that have been (in a sense) but will never come to be (in another sense), they more than make up for all that lost time. [Erik Adams]

Ofglen’s lover is hanged, The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s novel never really delves into Ofglen, the assigned partner to Offred who first reveals to her the secret network of resistance hidden deep within the oppressive Gilead. But Hulu’s adaptation expands on her character considerably—partly as a means of giving Alexis Bledel more to do—in its harrowing third episode, “Late.” Here we learn that, after she was taken away from her Commander, Ofglen was placed on trial for “gender treachery” over a sexual relationship with a housemaid. Bound and gagged (impressively, Bledel doesn’t have a single line in the episode, communicating solely with her eyes and muffled wails), she’s then sentenced to “redemption”: She’s marched to a van where her lover waits, then watches helplessly as the maid is taken and hanged from a crane while the van slowly drives away. It’s a horrifying scene in an episode (and a show) filled with them, and it tells us everything about Ofglen and the world she’s living in without her ever saying a word. [Sean O’Neal]

Nora’s story, The Leftovers

Across three seasons, HBO’s The Leftovers hinged on uncertainty, as the question of whether the many disappeared souls of The Departed had really been “raptured,” or just been eradicated in some sort of freak metaphysical accident, plagued those they left behind. So it’s only fitting the show went out on the same note of ambiguity, with Carrie Coon’s Nora, now decades older, telling Kevin (Justin Theroux) how she finally successfully crossed to the other side, where she discovered her family living in a “world full of orphans”—yet also happy, having at last found a way to move on. By confining the scene to just Coon’s spellbinding monologue, with no cutaways to confirm or contradict her story, we’re left with the same conundrum as Kevin: to choose whether to believe her, which then colors our perception of the entire series. It’s the perfect conclusion to a show that was largely about the power—and the dilemmas—of faith. [Sean O’Neal]

David meets Oliver on the astral plane, Legion

We were already questioning our parameters for reality when Legion threw “Chapter Four” at us. Then Jemaine Clement as Oliver Bird fourth-walled us by saying every story we’ve ever heard from childhood is about empathy (a fuzzy rabbit) or fear (getting sucked into the ocean). In this tale, he says, the fuzzy rabbit will in fact get too close to the ocean. That rabbit turns out to be David (Dan Stevens), the powerful telepathic mutant at the center of the series, who winds up trapped with Oliver in the icy cube of the astral plane. Is it real? Is it in David’s mind? Or Oliver’s? What the hell is it? Oliver’s freakily nightmarish welcome helps us not at all. He steps out of a diving suit, starkly asks, “Drink?” and turns on some discordant jazz that sounds like the Shadow King’s own personal soundtrack. “This space can be anything you want it to be,” Oliver says, but in this frightening mental journey, that’s far from reassuring. Yet Oliver’s commitment to that leisure suit and those jazz grooves makes us just as transfixed and helpless as David is in that mysterious frosty box. [Gwen Ihnat]

Lonely Uber ride home, Master Of None

Screenshot: Master Of None
Screenshot: Master Of None

So much of Master Of None relies on Aziz Ansari’s nonstop patter, but the Netflix comedy’s second season found its most transformative moment in shutting up. In the final moments of “The Dinner Party,” Ansari’s Dev finds himself sitting alone in the backseat of an Uber, having just said goodbye to the friend he’s falling for (Alessandra Mastronardi) and whom he might never see again—and who will almost certainly never be his. As the camera lingers, we sit there with him, watching for several minutes as he takes his lonely ride to an empty home as the haunting strains of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” unfold (just one of the show’s many masterfully chosen music selections). Dev doesn’t need to say a word; anyone who’s taken that same late-night journey knows the forlornness he’s feeling as he receives, but can’t bring himself to reply to, the text his unrequited love sends. The quick thanks he offers to the driver at scene’s end only punctuates that slowly sobering reality creeping in on his fading, drunkenly romantic reverie. It’s a simple yet daring scene, and it has the quiet power of deepening the entire show. [Sean O’Neal]

The first meeting with Edmund Kemper, Mindhunter

In the pilot episode of Mindhunter, the idea of catching killers by examining their behavior is little more than a flash of inspiration in the brilliant mind of young FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff). In the second episode, however, that idea becomes an imposing physical reality when Holden comes face-to-face with 6-foot-9, 300-pound “co-ed killer” Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton, who looks and sounds incredibly similar to the real thing). When Ford enters the prison where Kemper is serving eight concurrent life sentences, his orderly surroundings at the FBI are replaced with the chaos of thousands of convicts all swearing and yelling and taunting each other in unison. Then Ford passes through into the private room where he’s set to interview Kemper, and eerie calm descends once more. After some passive-aggressive jockeying to let Holden know that this is his turf (note that Kemper insists on getting Ford an egg salad sandwich after he asks for tuna), Kemper, satisfied that Ford presents no threat, starts speaking freely—a little too freely, really—describing his “vocation” as a killer with the same matter-of-fact tone with which you might discuss your job as a plumber or an elevator repairman. Not yet the twistedly lovable homicidal teddy bear he would become in later episodes, in that moment Kemper is the face of death itself—impassive, intriguing, and extremely dangerous. [Katie Rife]

Lydia tells her immigration story, One Day At A Time

Despite its issues-based pedigree, Netflix’s One Day At A Time reboot avoids being a series of very special episodes. It tackles plenty of timely subjects, including immigration policy and queerness, but not in some hackneyed, one-off manner, because these are the things that the Alvarez family lives with every day, not just for 25 minutes at a time. “Viva Cuba” turns a conventional sitcom ploy—a heart-to-heart between grandchild and grandparent—into an eye-opening, heartbreaking tale of love and loss, one that reverberates into the present. As Lydia, Rita Moreno is the show’s live wire, but here, her performance moves from hammy to quietly stricken. She becomes almost a spectator in her own story of childhood migration, as she’s presented once again with the sacrifices made by her parents. By the end, Alex (Marcel Ruiz) has taken over the narration, but Lydia’s eyes say more than his words ever could. [Danette Chavez]

Rick confronts the family therapist, Rick And Morty

Pickle Rick” is a strong contender for one of the most purely entertaining episodes of Rick And Morty ever—so much so that businesses are being forced to ask obnoxious asshole fans (an unfortunately large contingent) to stop yelling “I’m Pickle Riiiiiiick!” But all that cyber-vegetable rat-killing and European bodyguard murder would just amount to an absurd goof if it weren’t then followed by one of the most searingly honest moments of the season. After literally enduring life as a pickle in order to avoid an hour-long family therapy session, a desperate Rick finally arrives on the psychologist’s couch and announces his utter lack of interest in anything so unworthy to a mind as special as his as working on repairing relationships with his family. Only, the therapist immediately understands: “Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is, it’s not an adventure,” she tells Rick, and the words hit with the kind of force that only brutal truth possesses. It was a rare instance of Rick being confronted with the fact that even the most brilliant mind in the galaxy can forget basic truisms of human nature—so true, in fact, that Rick and his daughter immediately shunt it aside. [Alex McLevy]

Jughead’s birthday party, Riverdale

The first season of Riverdale started out with an intriguing murder mystery and an appealingly broody Jughead (Cole Sprouse), while Archie (K.J. Apa) seemed dumb as a box of rocks right out of the gate. The somewhat gloomy teen series was enjoyable, but not straight-up addictive, until everything kicked into a frenzied momentum in episode 10 at Jughead’s birthday party. Betty (Lili Reinhart) wants to celebrate her new boyfriend’s birthday quietly, kicking off with a creepy rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the near-dark. Enter Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), a number of kegs, and a disturbing truth-or-dare game that brings everyone’s darknesses to light, even Betty’s. This results in Jughead defending her in a fight, then going after his girl. When he finds her, Jughead finally removes his cap, opening himself up to Betty forever. While Riverdale is now appointment TV, Juggie’s birthday party is when the show turned everything up to 11 for the first (but far from the last) time. [Gwen Ihnat]

The origins of Bob and Laura, Twin Peaks

Of all the audacious things undertaken by the boldest show of the season, the most daring part of Twin Peaks: The Return was its attempt to provide answers—not only to the mysteries that have lingered since the cult series ended a quarter-century ago but also to the more universal questions of life itself. Thankfully, David Lynch and Mark Frost did it in appropriately bizarre, Twin Peaks fashion: Its bravura eighth episode lays out what appears to be a comprehensive mythology for everything, one that begins with the 1945 atomic bomb test and ends with a soot-covered lumberjack growling a prose poem while a teenage girl swallows a beetle-frog. In its central scene, the Black Lodge’s Giant watches those mushroom clouds unfurling over New Mexico from inside his astral plane, spies the face of Killer Bob escaping from the blast, then conjures a glowing orb from his head that holds the familiar face of Laura Palmer, which he then sends down to Earth. It’s an origin story of sorts—about Twin Peaks’ central murder mystery, yes, but also about the nature of evil lurking within all of us that the show has always explored. It answers everything, yet explains nothing, which is all we could have ever hoped for. [Sean O’Neal]

The “pyramid of babies” dream opening, The Young Pope

The memes about a hot and totally bitchin’ Holy See preceded The Young Pope’s HBO debut by weeks, but they just slid like so much holy water off a kangaroo’s back with the introduction of Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law). Paolo Sorrentino’s drama shifted into a meditation on loneliness as the season unfolded, but early on it was full of surreal-to-the-point-of-ludicrous moments, including the opening scene of the series premiere. This dream sequence cheekily acknowledges the show’s provocative premise, as we watch Lenny Belardo, the handsome man who would be pontiff, emerge from a pyramid of babies to walk out onto St. Peter’s Square. Sorrentino’s rococo sensibilities also apply to layering themes, as viewers are left to ponder whether the babies represent the pope’s age or innocence. And within its first two minutes, The Young Pope demonstrates it’s not just in on the jokes—it’s transcended them. [Danette Chavez]