A streaming guide to the top 10 TV episodes of 2016

A streaming guide to the top 10 TV episodes of 2016

In the age of Peak TV, as FX's CEO John Landgraf termed it in 2015, there's simply just too much to consume. There are literally not enough hours in the year to watch every show on television — and there are barely enough to keep up with the best stuff out there while still living a semblance of an ordinary life. 

Short of holing up in a bunker and watching everything, the only way to keep up is pick and choose what TV to watch. It's the same for those of us who write about pop culture: We watch what we can, sample certain shows while leaving others behind, etc.

Consider this list of 2016's best TV episodes a sample menu of what I've been watching this year. These are 10 of my favorite shows, though not all of them (consider the lack of Vanderpump Rules, TV's greatest drama), and the episodes sum up what made them great this year.

It's not a list of objective bests — how could you even make such a thing, when watching everything is an impossibility? Instead, we've provided streaming options for each, so you can try out something new, or revisit something you also loved this year.

[Editor's note: There will be some spoilers for these series, but nothing that will ruin your ability to watch and enjoy the episodes listed.]

10. "P-I-PILOT," Speechless

One of the season's stealth hits, Speechless hit ABC this fall and quickly proved more charismatic than any other network sitcom. The cast is universally great, but a single look at Minnie Driver's matriarch Maya in the pilot is enough to understand why she's the star. 

She's giving the perfect mix of hard-charging mom meets flawed, fascinating woman, all tied together with her natural, delightful British accent. It's a tour-de-force of sheer charm, and Driver makes Speechless all the more lovely.

Where to stream: Hulu

9. "Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady!" Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

As Marcia Clark in season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey was basically a running punch line that aged poorly. In season two of her and Robert Carlock's Netflix series, she cast herself as plucky protagonist Kimmy Schmidt's therapist — a woman with a drinking problem who got as much help from Kimmy as she gave.

Fey's introduction to the season transformed it. The first half of the episodes spent too much time running in place, while the second half took a slower approach to real, meaningful character development. She changed Kimmy — and Kimmy — for the better.

Where to stream: Netflix

8. "Lucas and Many," Catfish

I wrote about "Lucas and Many" when praising the surprisingly excellent fifth season of Catfish, but the episode really deserves its own plaudits. Unlike most episodes, which focus on one victim, "Lucas and Many" saw Nev and Max discover a veritable catfishing ring. 

One man, Lucas — actually Zac — collected 400 different victims, including a trio of compelling protagonists. The final confrontation, in which the core three women tear slippery snake Zac apart, is docu-reality TV at its most thrilling. 

Where to stream: Hulu

7. "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Sarah Paulson won an Emmy for this episode of Ryan Murphy's greatest-ever series. By the time her Marcia Clark is done suffering every inch of indignity the world throws at her, you'll understand why — and why it was an overdue reward for one of our greatest TV actresses.

Where to stream: FX Now, iTunes

6. "Trivial Pursuit," Casual

Casual deserves a better rap. The show could easily be lumped in with other dark comedies about disaffected white people living in Los Angeles (see: HBO's cancelled Togetherness). But Casual is a far smarter show, offering real insight about social anxiety in adult situations.

No episode does this better than "Trivial Pursuit," in which Valerie tries to reach out to an old friend, but winds up crashing a dinner party in her effort. Every moment is cringe-worthy in how relatable it is. If you need convincing on Casual's intelligence, there's no better place to start. 

Where to stream: Hulu

5. "Fall," Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It feels slightly unfair to offer up a whole episode of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, since each aired for a full hour and a half (as opposed to a 30-minute episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for instance). So consider this citation less about the full of "Fall," which has some of the series' worst moments in addition to the best (ugh, that Life and Death Brigade sequence).

Instead, this is a shout-out to Lauren Graham's monologue. On a trip to the Pacific Crest Trail that never gets off the ground (no matter how much Lorelai Gilmore talks about Wild), Lorelai finally finds the peace she's been looking for all year. She calls her mom Emily and offers up a story about her deceased father, Richard, that is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming. It is the scene of the series, and proves why Graham's performance is sublime.

Where to stream: Netflix

4. "Stop the Presses," BoJack Horseman

There were plenty of strong episodes in BoJack Horseman's uneven-but-still-stellar third season. "Fish Out of Water," an almost entirely silent episode, is an easy contender for "best of" contention. So is "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew," which so effectively took on the topic of abortion.

But I'm going with "Stop the Presses," an episode framed by former washed-up actor BoJack's customer service call with his local newspaper as he tries to cancel his subscription. The person on the other end (voiced by Candice Bergen) ends up engaging in something of a therapy session with him. The dialogue is sharp, deep, and gets to the series' core mission — an exploration of depression — in a new, effective way. It's not the flashiest episode, but it sneaks up on you.

Where to stream: Netflix

3. "Revenge of the Queens," RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars

Few shows had seasons like RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars in 2016. The Logo show that puts queens in the Olympics of drag broke out in a big way this year, and All Stars was a showcase for the best of the best. If you wanted to see unbridled and unbound creativity running free, there wasn't much better a place to go than Drag Race on television.

"Revenge of the Queens" is, put simply, Drag Race's best episode, and one of the great reality TV episodes of all time. After five episodes of season four queen Phi Phi O'Hara stepping back into the role of villain, surviving past two much more enjoyable queens (season five's Alyssa Edwards and season two's Tatianna), RuPaul gave the eliminated girls a chance to return. Alyssa and Tati ran with it, delivering a lip sync for the ages to Rihanna's "Shut Up and Drive."

They both returned, while Phi Phi was sent home in a blaze of glory. It was storytelling perfection, and something a narrative drama never could have put together. It was proof positive of reality TV's greatness as a genre.

Where to stream: iTunes

2. "San Junipero," Black Mirror

Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" begins and ends Black Mirror season three's fourth installment. After watching three relatively mediocre episodes of the sci-fi series, heaven is desperately needed, so it's quite a promise to make. Luckily, Black Mirror fulfills it.

"San Junipero" is one of the most important queer works of the year. It offers up a fantasy world where two women (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis) can fall in beautiful love despite the odds. It offers optimism as all other Black Mirror episodes show how technology corrupts the world. It truly is a little slice of heaven, a beautiful hope spot in the mire of 2016. We needed "San Junipero." We still do.

Where to stream: Netflix

1. "Episode Seven," American Crime

American Crime aired back in spring, but its topics feel cut straight out of this fall's news cycle. There's a hate crime, a school shooting and a privileged white community prioritizing self-protection over the truth. Its continued relevance as 2016 comes to a close is not a recommendation. It's horrifying to consider how little progress we've made this year; instead, it seems like we've regressed.

But that makes American Crime season two all the more important to watch. It is gripping filmmaking and storytelling, all about what happens when a charge of rape washes over a community. The performances are sublime — from Connor Jessup, Lili Taylor and Felicity Huffman, especially — and the direction is astonishing. Watch the long take at the end of episode seven (though unlike every other show on this list, I have to recommend you watch the first six episodes first) and be astonished by what creator John Ridley accomplishes.

Any show that airs months before the end of the year is bound to fade from memory as culture writers build their top 10 lists. But mine wouldn't be complete without this gorgeous, devastating series, which peaked so marvelously in episode seven. It was the greatest TV had to offer in 2016 — even as it reflected the ugliest the world had to offer this year.

Where to stream: Netflix