by Matthew Thompson
By the time I run down my favorite TV shows at the end of the year, I don’t typically have time to focus on specific episodes. So I have decided to remedy that throughout the year. Every three months, I will put together a list of my five favorite television episodes of the previous quarter. Here is my first go at this new feature: my top five TV episodes from the first quarter of 2017 (be warned: these descriptions contain some spoilers).
5. This is Us “Memphis”
This is Us caught my attention with its clever pilot, but it won me over with the quality of the stories it told about the multi-generational family at its center. Of the varying plots following the parents and three children, the best of them throughout the season was the one focusing on Randall and his evolving relationship with William, the biological father he never knew. The culmination of this storyline comes in “Memphis.” Like any good episode of This is Us, it is an emotional outing that tugs at your heartstrings and puts your tear ducts to the test. When Randall and William head to his hometown of Memphis, everyone knows where the hour will end… except Randall. William is at peace with never returning to his new home of New York. We the audience know his passing is imminent. Randall doesn’t figure things out until right at the end, but their final trip acts as a wonderful way for the characters to say goodbye to each other and for the audience to say goodbye to William. Terrific performances by Ron Cephas Jones and Sterling K. Brown help lift the heartfelt episode to another level.
4. Man Seeking Woman “Popcorn”
Even as Man Seeking Woman has veered more and more towards cohesive ongoing storytelling – this year putting Josh into a stable long-term relationship – the show still typically has several distinct vignette-style gags each outing. What makes for a special episode of the show is when it can nail every one of its varying concepts. The third season featured a few that pulled off this feat, but my favorite was “Popcorn.” Here we see Josh meeting his new girlfriend Lucy’s parents for the first time. It is an episode that focuses more on Lucy – played brilliantly by new series regular Katie Findlay – delving into things such as her parents’ passive-aggressive behavior and whether or not Josh has her back during disagreements with them through riffs on Ghost Hunters, McCarthyism, and – my personal favorite – Where the Wild Things Are. Even the cold open and credits tag are winners. It was a creative and hysterical episode of television that had me howling with laughter from Lucy repeatedly telling conference attendees to “Suck her dick” to that giant monster-sized Xanax.
3. Jane the Virgin “Chapter Fifty-Four”
Any Jane the Virgin viewers that have been paying attention knew Michael’s death was coming. The series’ omniscient narrator has been foreshadowing it for two years now. That doesn’t mean we knew when it would happen and more importantly it doesn’t lessen the impact it has on the show. Regardless of how you felt about Michael – I found him likable if a bit boring as a suitor for Jane – his passing affects the series and its characters in a huge way. What really brings this episode to the next level is the decision to jump forward in time afterwards. I’m a sucker for a good time jump and it just makes so much sense here. Passing over some of the grieving time allows Jane the Virgin to retain its light-hearted tone when we pick up with the characters again three years in the future while the series’ penchant for flashbacks allows it to return to the some of the emotional beats they may skipped over in the process. And this was just the end of an all-around excellent episode that would shake up the show in a very welcome way going forward.
2. Black Sails “XXXVII”
For the third year in a row, Black Sails has been the best show on TV during the first quarter. In truth, it had several episodes worthy of consideration for this list, but my favorite has to be the latest. The series’ penultimate episode gave us our first extensive look at Skeleton Island in the show. I loved the atmosphere created for the location. It felt unique to anything else in Black Sails thus far and was buoyed by great direction and beautiful scenery. The hour was peppered with the kind of great fights you’d expect from television’s premiere action/adventure series – the highlight being Flint’s back-and-forth battle with Joji. There were smaller moments like Madi’s stirring speech to Rogers or the darkly humorous moment of Rhackam’s guide dying on him. Then there was the further exploration of the Flint-Silver relationship. Here they smartly use flashbacks ala the third season finale that help illuminate the complicated feelings between the two pirates as Silver hunts Flint and the treasure. It is a riveting, superbly made episode of television. I can only hope the upcoming finale delivers a suitable end to the series with a similar quality.
1. The Good Place “Michael’s Gambit”
The best kind of twist is one that surprises you and yet makes total sense in hindsight. Even after all the twists and turns of the season to that point, the one featured in The Good Place finale – that what we thought was the Good Place was actually the Bad Place – managed to catch me off-guard. And yet when it happened, so many things clicked into place. What I had chalked up to the issues with the points system or it being Michael’s first go as an architect worked in a way they didn’t before. And I mean… frozen yogurt?! That isn’t heavenly in the least! I should have known! “Michael’s Gambit” delivered this bold twist that completely recontextualizes the series with aplomb (I look forward to rewatching the season again with this knowledge). Throw in the series typical sense of humor and a killer heel turn by Ted Danson and you have the perfect finale to The Good Place’s stellar freshman season. I’m not exactly sure where they take the series from here, but I couldn’t be more excited to find out.
Those are my favorite television episodes of 2017 thus far, but I only watch a fraction of the great shows airing these days. So let me know which episodes were the highlight of your TV year so far in the comments below or on Twitter. I’d love to hear them. As always, thanks for reading!