The 30 best TV episodes of 2020
At a time when many television show are actually "10 hour movies," EW remains infinitely grateful for the programs that remember the episode is the fundamental unit of television. To show our appreciation, the staff banded together to celebrate the episodes that made us hope, think, cry, and — when we needed it — laugh.
(Written and directed by Thomas Schnauz)
“Bagman” was a thoroughly gripping trek through sun-baked hazards that reflected brilliant rays of Breaking Bad’s desolation and violence. But its follow-up, “Bad Choice Road,” proved to be even more unsettling, more unpredictable, more… Better Call Saul, with worlds slamming up against each other. The hour was laced with mesmerizing moments — Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) bailing out Lalo (Tony Dalton) with two dufflebags containing $7 million in cash; Mike (Jonathan Banks) counseling Jimmy on the inevitable consequences of decisions big and small — but none more so than the excruciatingly tense 10-minute scene in which Lalo showed up at Jimmy’s apartment to sniff out his shady desert story (“Tell. Me. Again.”). With Mike secretly on sniper standby, Kim (a.k.a. Saul’s most intriguing character) sprang to action, defending Jimmy like a client (one she knew wasn’t being honest with her) while chiding a treacherous cartel member. “Get your s--- together,” she warned Lalo, “and stop torturing the one man who went through hell to save your ass.” And in that moment, Kim saved Jimmy’s. Raise a glass of piss (and vinegar) to her. —Dan Snierson
Honorary Mention: "Bagman"
(Written by Alison Tafel, directed by Amy Winfrey)
Though it was a cartoon about an anthropomorphic horse, BoJack Horseman was always working in the style of turn-of-the-decade “prestige” TV shows about flawed male protagonists. So the question was there: Would the show end with BoJack’s death, like Walter White in Breaking Bad? The series’ penultimate episode gave us one hell of a fakeout. Sent to a state of purgatory after his latest and worst drug overdose, BoJack got to confront all his demons (and the shades of loved ones he let die) in a surreal episode that showed off the show’s excellent animation as well as its uncompromising attitude towards exploring its characters’ failings. —Christian Holub
(Written by Nick Perdue and Beau Rawlins, directed by Rebecca Asher)
The kidnapping of Cheddar — Captain Holt’s (Andre Braugher) beloved corgi and Nine-Nine fan-favorite — aligns Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) with Holt and Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson) on a mission to rescue their “fluffy boy” and gave us one of the best-ever episodes of B99. From Peralta going full Pygmalion to impersonate Kevin (trading “cool cool cool cool” for “indeed indeed indeed indeed”) to Holt making a meal out of saying “sumbitch” and going full ‘80s action hero to save Peralta in the final action sequence, it’s a 10/10 — or a 70/70 in dog grades. —Jessica Derschowitz
(Written by Peter Morgan, directed by Julian Jarrold)
The fun thing about “48:1” is that for once the queen lets her apolitical mask slip and actually takes a (somewhat) public stance to support something she believes in. (The other fun thing is Prince Andrew being shown to be the pompous ass we all know him to become.) Most of the episode centers around the publication of a 1986 Sunday Times article in which the queen (Olivia Coleman) seems to have gone against protocol and expressed dismay for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s (Gillian Anderson) refusal to back economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The tension really boils over at the prime minister’s weekly audience with HRH, where neither woman is willing to back down. Both Anderson and Coleman’s performances are electric, and The Crown once again does what it does best and leaves you longing to know what really happened in that room. —Ruth Kinane
(Written by Saladin K. Patterson, directed by Tony Yacenda)
Nobody was checking for a show about a white rapper who mostly rhymes about his penis to deliver a poignant portrayal of a Black man learning to manage his mental illness. The FXX comedy Dave however delivered and defied expectations. Coming in as the show’s fifth episode, the comedy had let viewers possibly, nervously laugh at Lil Dicky’s (a.k.a. Dave Burd) earnest oddball hype man GaTa before revealing how much he is actually the heart of the show, and how he and Dicky saved each other. It’s nice that the funniest scene in “Hype Man” is probably just the irony of GaTa finally, agonizingly admitting he is bipolar only for his friends to quickly accept that information, and move on like normal.—Marcus Jones
(Written by Grainne Godfree and James Eagan, directed by Marc Guggenheim)
Legends of Tomorrow went on a fun and moving Magic School-Bus-like journey through television in season 5's penultimate episode. With the Legends trapped on TV, director Marc Guggenheim, director of photography David Geddes, and the art department impressively replicated the shooting styles and look of each show being parodied — Friends, Downton Abbey, Stark Trek, and Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood — which made the hour fun and immersive. Yet, the script's "For the Man Who Has Everything"-like twist and the cast's heartbreaking performances are what pushed the story over the top, because they spotlighted what makes the titular screw-ups so heroic: Despite their dark pasts, they try to do better every day. In a year without a new MCU release and where Amazon's The Boys savagely (and convincingly) read superhero media for filth, "Trapped" (and the season as a whole) was a welcomed reminder that all is not lost for the genre. —Chancellor Agard
Honorable Mention: "Mr. Parker's Cul-De-Sac"
(Written by Jason Segel, directed by Charlie McDowell)
Creator-writer-star Jason Segel predicted exactly how audiences were going to be reacting as they watched the season 1 finale of his “spooky adventure” series. “I know it’s a lot to digest, you probably want me to explain more of what’s going on in the show," Segel said to the camera deep into the very meta, fourth wall-shattering episode. Perhaps the most surreal thing to happen on TV in 2020, “The Boy” leaves behind the season’s big mystery and becomes something much more personal. Gone is the story of Peter (Segel) and company, paving the way for a journey of self-discovery for a version of the real Segel through the ups and downs of his life and career, ranging from fun references of his film breakout Forgetting Sarah Marshall (“Jason Segel, show us your d---,” one person yells to him from afar) to coming to grips with his struggles with alcoholism and celebrity. The courage and guts this took is something that will never be forgotten. —Derek Lawrence
(Story by Francisco Angones, Madison Bateman, Colleen Evanson, Christian Magalhaes, and Bob Snow; teleplay by Snow, directed by Tanner Johnson).
In its first two seasons, the new DuckTales thoroughly surpassed its predecessor in humor and cleverness. With its third (and unfortunately final) season, DuckTales set its sights on the other Disney Afternoon cartoons as well — even though they all belonged to different genres. The Huey, Dewey, and Louie of DuckTales are death-defying adventurers, but the Quack Pack version of the characters just act like a normal sitcom family. This episode reconciled the two by using another element of Disney’s Duck mythology — Gene the Genie (Jaleel White) from the 1990 DuckTales film Treasure of the Lost Lamp. When Donald Duck wishes his family was normal, they get sent to a sitcom dimension; only Huey (Danny Pudi) senses something is wrong, and the resulting journey to convince his family evokes the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. The fact that Pudi also played iconic fourth-wall breaker Abed on Community is just one facet of this episode’s playful dance with meta absurdity. —C.H.
(Written by Dewayne Darian Jones, directed by Rob Hardy)
Surreal and chilling, Evil season 1’s penultimate episode raised interesting questions about revenge and artistic responsibility via priest-in-training David Acosta’s (Mike Colter) encounter with a Rwandan genocide survivor, and pulled off a subversive twist involving series big bad Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson) — all of which culminated in the hour’s devilishly wild and unforgettable final shot. —C.A.
Honorable Mention: "Room 320"
(Written by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery, directed by Gareth Evans)
Director Gareth Evans demonstrated a proficiency with action set-pieces in his two Raid movies and an ability to make his homeland of Wales seem utterly nightmarish in the 2018 terror tale Apostle. But can the director do both in the same story? Yes! This fifth chapter of Evans and fellow co-creator Matt Flannery’s British crime saga boasts both jaw-dropping mayhem and folk-horror vibes aplenty as the attempt by underworld leader Kinney Edwards (Mark Lewis Jones) to smuggle his son Darren (Aled ap Steffan) out of the U.K. via a spookily remote part of the Welsh countryside turns into the bloody siege of a farmhouse-cum-illegal bullet factory. —Clark Collis
(Written by Michelle and Robert King, directed by Brooke Kennedy)
Michelle and Robert King’s brilliant legal drama continued to defy expectations with its trippy season 4 premiere, which sent Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart to an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election. At first, all seems right in the world. The Clinton administration cured cancer, Merrick Garland and Elizabeth Warren are Supreme Court justices, and the polar bear population increased. But then, Diane discovers this is far from utopia. Without Trump’s victory, the anger that spurred on the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement never surged, thus men like Harvey Weinstein not only remained in power but were heavily protected by the belief that Clinton’s ascendancy balanced the scales for women everywhere. Sobering and scathing in equal measure, the episode refuted the liberal fantasy was a warning against falling to prey to the liberal fantasy that a Clinton administration would've fixed all our problems and the good fight would be over. In fact, the hour is even more impactful following Joe Biden’s victory because it’s a reminder that there’s still work to be done. —C.A.
(Written and directed by Mike Schur)
When it came time to conclude this soul-searching amusement park ride through the afterlife (and the back-to-life!), Mike Schur’s perky and penetrating metaphysical comedy indeed pulled no punches. In fact, those blows were guided straight into the gut. Even eternal paradise can’t last forever! Only with death can life have value! Steeped in gratitude, acceptance, and bittersweetness, the closure-soaked farewell was devastating (Eleanor pleading with Chidi to stay), lovely (Chidi’s ephemeral Buddhist wave speech) and silly (new human Michael’s delight in burning his hands trying to handle just-microwaved food). In short, the Good Place finale hurt in all the right ways. +10000 points. —D.S.
(Written by Angela LaManna, and directed by Liam Gavin)
It’s hard to nail a twist on any show, let alone the follow-up to one of the most acclaimed horror projects in recent memory. But Haunting of Hill House's Mike Flanagan and his team succeeded in Bly Manor's fifth episode, pulling off a reveal so poignant and heart-wrenching, even shrewd fans who guessed Hannah’s (T’Nia Miller) fate weren’t prepared. In a show brimming with talent, Miller’s unforgettable performance stands out, with every line a dagger to the heart. Sure, maybe ghosts aren’t real, but Bly Manor still haunts us with the words unsaid, the futures that could’ve been, and makes us wish we could spend a lifetime with Hannah and her beloved Owen (Rahul Kohli) in their fragile infinity. —Rachel Yang
(Written by Lucy Prebble, directed by Georgi Banks-Davies)
Billie Piper is a singular talent and we are all thankful that this British import reminded us of that. In the finale, we see the results of her character Suzie Pickles finally cracking after feeling like the only one to suffer from her phone being hacked, and photos of her performing a sexual act being leaked to the world. And if what follows is any indication, she is probably right to feel that way. The resolution is a punch in the gut, as the show hauntingly concludes with the song that opened the series and made Suzie a star. —Marcus Jones
(Written by Michaela Coel, directed by Michaela Coel and Sam Miller)
In the series’ final episode, Arabella (Michaela Coel) — after weeks of trying to piece together the night of her sexual assault — is finally confronted with the memories of what happened that night, which, up until this point, had been just out of reach of her consciousness. The episode takes us down the path of three imagined scenarios, in which Arabella confronters her rapist, David. One ends violently for David, another in tears and the final, in consensual sex. None of the outcomes are neat. None of the outcomes are easy. And none of them fully satisfy Arabella or the viewer because, just like in real life, closure is never that clean or complete. —R.K.
(Written by Natasha Rothwell, directed by Ava Berkofsky)
“Let’s not do the tiptoe s--- tonight.” Penned by scene-stealing costar Natasha Rothwell, Insecure’s most romantic installment to date glimpses what could have been for Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis). Through brutally honest confessions and Bourne Identity puns, the exes unpack what went wrong in their relationship and realize they might still have a chance to be, together or apart, low-key happy. —D.L.
(Written by Misha Green and Shannon Houston, directed by Charlotte Siegling)
Lovecraft Country was one of 2020's most ambitious shows. Case in point: "I Am." Centered on a terrific performance by Aunjanue Ellis, the hour followed her character Hippolyta Freeman as she explored the multiverse and experienced all of her wildest dreams — from befriending Josephine Baker in Paris, to fighting alongside Amazons in a battle against Confederate soldiers, and ultimately going on adventures with her deceased husband George (Courtney B. Vance). It was thrilling and moving sight, and revealed how expansive Lovecraft's imagination really was. —C.A.
Honorary Mention: "Sundown"
(Written by Mike L. Mayfield, Duncan Trussell, and Pendleton Ward, directed by Ward)
Netflix’s awe-inspiring cartoon reinterprets co-creator Duncan Trussell’s podcast into techno-magical adventures, following a lonelyboy interviewer (Trussell) and the curious characters he meets on dying worlds. The season (series?) finale showcases co-creator Pendleton Ward’s boundary-bursting imagery. It’s also a heartfelt piece of autobiographical art. Trussell’s own late mother, Deneen Fendig, is the episode’s interviewee, discussing life, the universe, and everything. The characters go on a journey that, in bio-cosmic terms, makes the end of 2001 look like the beginning of 2001. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! Your head will explode! Forfeit your bodies, children, and live in the electric light! —Darren Franich
(Written by Amina Munir, directed by Linda Mendoza)
Never Have I Ever delivered an all-around solid first season, but the most memorable half-hour goes to the third episode, which sees Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) attend a party, drink too much, and get attacked by a coyote that she thought was the spirit of her dead father. It also features one of the season’s best lines, as Devi’s disappointed mother (Poorna Jagannathan) visits her in the hospital and explains why she shouldn’t try to be a normal kid: “Normal teenagers end up in prison, or worse, working in Jersey Mike’s.” —Samantha Highfill
(Written by Alice Birch, directed by Hettie Macdonald)
It’s more or less impossible to make it through even half an episode of the BBC/Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel without feeling sad, horny, or both all at once. Episode 10 mostly forgoes the horny, but really delivers on the overwhelmingly sad when Connell (Paul Mescal) sees a therapist to work through his depression surrounding the death of his high school friend. Mescal’s performance is both measured and overwhelmingly authentic. "I hadn't played a scene where that content was required before," Mescal told EW. "There was pressure on it because of the responsibility I felt towards achieving something that was fictional, but a reality to lots of people." As all great television does, it blurred the lines for us. —R.K.
(Written by Chris Mundy, directed by Alik Sakharov)
There’s going out with a bang, and then there’s going out with a bang. Ozark’s slow-building tensions made for an excellent at-least-I’m-not-running-a-criminal-operation escape when season 3 arrived in March, during the early heights of the pandemic — and it finished off with an explosive finale that saw cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (the excellent Janet McTeer) shot in a point-blank execution steps away from a horrified Wendy and Marty Byrde (Laura Linney and Jason Bateman), who are then left in the world’s worst group hug while we all wonder what else awaits them in season 4. —J.D.
Honorable Mention: "Fire Pink"
(Written by Katori Hall, directed by Tamra Davis)
By the time this fourth episode of the Starz strip club drama hits, the audience has already been well immersed into the world of the Pynk, to the point where they too are ready to drop stacks at Mercedes’ final dance. And then the show takes an unexpected turn. While it is devastating to see what befalls Brandee Evans’ queen bee character (though wickedly satisfying to see her fight-or-flight reaction to it), a star is born when Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton) fills in and dances to “Fallin',” as its rapper Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) sits outside the club having the most earnest, tender reaction to finally getting recognition. —M.J.
(Written by Josh Levine, directed by Sam Zvibleman)
The magic of Pen15 is in how it uses the searingly painful awkwardness of middle school to its advantage, and the result is a delicate balance of humor and, well, trauma. For anyone who’s ever experienced the hormonal war that is middle school, watching the show is going to hurt. But that’s also what makes it so funny. And no episode embodies that balance more than season 2’s “Sleepover,” in which Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) experience the fun yet oftentimes torturous experience of an all-girls sleepover. —S.H.
(Written by David Simon, directed by Thomas Schlamme)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Peaceful protests around the nation are turning violent. American citizens are dying at an unusually high rate, and the president insists that everything is fine — when he isn’t mongering hateful rhetoric. Also, someone keeps trying to throw out ballot boxes from Black neighborhoods. In a year full of empty TV drama spectacle, the edge-of-your-seat conclusion to HBO’s alternate-history miniseries was a marvelous argument for slow-burn storytelling, paying off the previous five chapters’ gradual descent into fascism with a visceral portrait of a nation on fire. —D.F.
(Written by Ramy Youssef and Adel Kamal, directed by Youssef)
In the season's most hilariously absurd installment (my colleague Darren Franich accurately called it “the ultimate Ramy episode”), Ramy (Youssef) teams up with Sheikh Ali's (Mahershala Ali) daughter, Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo), to try to win back a rich donor who pulled his funding for the local Sufi Center. Upon arrival at the massive estate, Ramy notices a familiar face: porn star Mia Khalifa (Lindsay Lohan was supposed to be there as well, that is until she ghosted Youssef). "So much of this season talks about Ramy using sex and porn to emotionally divert and to not have to deal with intimacy issues that he's having,” Youssef explained to EW. “And so when you have a character who has a porn addiction, why not have a conversation with someone who is probably the most controversial porn star ever?” Come for the reveal of the wild use of Khalifa’s breast milk, and stay for the joke about LeBron James, China, and Space Jam 2. —D.L.
Honorable Mention: "Uncle Naseem"
(Written by Jeff Loveness, directed by Erica Hayes)
When it comes to Rick and Morty, anything is possible. Like literally anything. (See the time our two leads turned the whole world into a grotesque Cronenberg reality and then bailed into another reality.) But will that formula of cracked-out oddities ever become stale? The writers unpacked that internal dilemma and ended up creating perhaps their best episode yet with “Never Ricking Morty.” Instead of another Interdimensional Cable standalone episode where Rick and Morty watch shows from all different realities, they find themselves in an anthology episode on a literal literary device, a Snowpiercer-esque story train—that also happens to mimic series co-creator Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, his own system for writing stories. But more hilarious and profound than watching the characters of Rick and Morty traverse train cart after train cart and grappling with story conventions that the show Rick and Morty dealt with in past episodes is the final twist: this is all not really happening (or is it?!) inside a toy train Morty bought from the Citadel of Ricks gift shop. And Rick’s drunken reaction in praise of consumer-driven capitalist society is the perfect way to end this fifth-wall-breaking madness. —Nick Romano
(Written by Laurie Nunn, directed by Ben Taylor)
A lot happens in the penultimate episode of Sex Education’s sophomore season, (Jean finds out about the sex clinic! Jackson’s mom finally accepts he doesn’t want to swim!), but none more important than what goes down in detention. It’s there that the show’s young women — Aimee, Maeve, Ola, Lily, Viv, Olivia — are forced to come up with one thing that unites them before they’re allowed to leave. Their response to the teacher in charge of detention pretty much sums it up: “Other than nonconsensual penises, not much.” Turns out, Aimee, who has been grappling with the assault against her on a bus earlier in the season, is not the only one who has been assaulted or abused or harassed in some way by a man — they all have. Armed with this new knowledge, the girls leave detention and demolish an abandoned car in a junk lot together. And the next morning when Aimee decides to once again attempt to ride the bus, she’s not alone. All the girls are there waiting for her. It’s cathartic, heartbreaking, and so, so sweet, and it made for one of the most powerful episodes of television this year. —Lauren Huff
If there was ever any doubt that Tony Vlachos deserved to win the all-champions edition of the venerable reality franchise, that doubt was laid to rest when the New Jersey cop produced the most dominant single episode performance in Survivor’s 40 season history, and did it all in wildly entertaining fashion. In just three days, Tony found an immunity idol after craftily sending off another player, quoted Scarface, wiped out while running through the jungle at top speed for no reason, got three different people from different alliances to give him Fire Tokens when he was hit with the Extortion Advantage, won his second straight immunity challenge, completely flipped the vote all by himself by breaking people off from different alliances to take out Sophie, and, in the preview for the following week, was seen hiding up in the trees in a freakin’ Spy Nest. Again, A SPY NEST!!! Nobody in the history of Survivor has mixed nonsense and game sense like Tony Vlachos, and his antics made this episode — not to mention the entire season — a pure delight. —Dalton Ross
(Written by Jane Becker, directed by Tom Marshall)
Episode 3 puts Jason Sudekis’ Ted Lasso — the preternaturally positive football coach at the center of this feel-good hit — under a skeptical reporter’s microscope. But when fussy sportswriter Trent Crimm (James Lance) spends a day with Ted, he learns that the Lasso way isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about inspiring the people around you. “Trent Crimm” also kicks off two fabulous subplots featuring team-adjacent influencer Keely Jones (Juno Temple): Her budding romance with choleric player Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), and her unexpected friendship with the tightly-wound Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham). Ted Lasso is what you get when heart and sports combine. —Kristen Baldwin
Honorable Mention: "Diamond Dogs"
(Written by Stefani Robinson, directed by Yana Gorskaya)
The Staten Island-set vampire mockumentary gets its best episode yet by leaving the island and hitting the road, following Matt Berry’s Laszlo as he tries to evade a vampire nemesis (Mark Hamill, clearly having a blast). Disguised as “regular human bartender” Jackie Daytona, Laszlo flees to Pennsylvania (because it rhymes with Transylvania) and soon embeds himself with the locals, cheering on the women’s volleyball team and learning about the joys of small-town bartending. The toothpick-toting Daytona may be undead, but this ridiculous episode has a real, beating heart. —Devan Coggan
For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Friday. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.