The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden interview
In his third episode doing late-night talk as himself, Colbert defined the role he would occupy with a sympathetic but not partisan interview with the Vice President. Politics-watchers expected Biden to announce a run for the Presidency on the show; they were surprised when Colbert and Biden bonded over shared grief over still-painful losses. The interview seemed to push the boundaries of what’s possible in late night, and showed a new side of a figure who’d been exhaustively covered in the news.
The Last Man on Earth, “Alive in Tucson”
The single most inventive show currently on TV, The Last Man on Earth has, in its first two seasons, rebooted itself countless times, tearing down central parts of its premise in service of something that might be more fun. It’s exhilarating–never more so than in the show’s pilot, which establishes Phil Miller (Will Forte) as a balefully lonely apocalypse survivor before tossing away the concept with the introduction of a new companion (Kristen Schaal). Not everything the series tried worked, but both the melancholy tone of this episode and the antic glee with which it was left behind made this a near-perfect slice of TV.
Scandal, “Dog-Whistle Politics”
Scandal has righted itself; after spending far too much time on an outlandish secret-spy program, the show has redoubled its focus on its most provocative parallels with the real world. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) made her status as the President’s girlfriend public, giving rise to controversy that felt as though it could happen in our world. Never was the show’s reinvigorated approach to politics and race relations more evident than in this episode, which examined the ways in which powerful black women (like Olivia, or like the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes) are spoken of in elaborately coded ways.
Project Greenlight, “The Pivot”
The reboot of this early-2000s reality TV standard brought the year’s most emotionally and politically charged relationship, between headstrong director Jason Mann and empathic producer Effie Brown. Both were forced to work together on a film about which both had very strong ideas on everything from the film stock (Mann’s passion) to onscreen diversity (Brown’s principle). The tensions between the two, which came to their height in this late-season episode, spoke volumes about expectations around white men and black women in Hollywood. They were also, simply, the best and least contrived depiction in recent memory of a stressful work relationship.
House of Cards, “Chapter 39”
Netflix series tend to have serious problems with pacing; episodes of House of Cards have, for most of the series’s run, blended together into one endless mega-sode. Not so the season 3 finale, which stood out both for ratcheting up the tension to make viewers finally care about a seemingly pointless long-term subplot–the fate of poor Rachel–and for clarifying what, exactly the show had been about all along. Claire’s decision to walk out on Frank at season’s end made the show’s meanderings seem like a path to a grimly satisfying plot twist.
Broad City, “Hashtag FOMO”
The second season of Comedy Central’s most amiably insane show had real points to make about “FOMO”–the “fear of missing out” that’s been painfully exacerbated by social media. But it also contained the year’s best sight gag, with the revelation that Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) turns into a fedora-wearing lounge singer every time she blacks out drinking.
Looking, “Looking for a Plot”
HBO’s moody half-hour came in for criticism throughout its now-concluded run for being “boring.” This was the series’s most eventful episode, sure–encompassing a trip to a funeral in Modesto and a car crash. But for all the incident, “Looking for a Plot” was as deliberate and thoughtful as fans of the show had reason to expect. A scene at a gay bar, in which the show’s characters contemplate what life would be like had they never grown up and gone West, is as fuzzily moving as any the show produced.
Mad Men, “Person to Person”
The final stretch of Mad Men, taken as a whole, was far more interesting than any single episode; it’s hard to single out any particular instance from a run that was so thematically cohesive and so across-the-board satisfying. Still, respect should be paid to the show’s finale, both for its elegant structure (built around Don Draper’s calls to different women in his life) and its remarkable final moments, in which Don, re-envisioning his time at a New Age retreat as a Coke ad, is proven to be a genius who draws, relentlessly, from his life. (Or a vulture preying on others’ pain–debate among yourselves.)
Master of None, “Mornings”
The strongest half-hour of Aziz Ansari’s new sitcom was its most formally inventive. Moving quickly through months in the lives of the central cohabitating couple, the episode depicts the various stages of new romance, from infatuation to disenchantment to trying to figure out a way to actually live together. Master of None was, unusually for a new show, confident in its ability to push past clichés; “Mornings” was tough-minded about both partners’ deficiencies as partners, making their attempts to bridge the gap all the more romantic.
You're the Worst, “LCD Soundsystem”
The second season of FXX’s cult-hit series assayed its lead character’s depression; it was a hard right turn for a series that had previously been an insouciant comedy, and one that yielded television that was often qualitatively “better” than it was actually watchable. But this episode, in which Gretchen stalked a seemingly perfect neighbor couple only to discover they were as lost in the world as she was, opened up the show’s universe. It also resonated, in its final moments, with the sort of visceral pain that TV rarely does so well.