One delightful byproduct of the current TV boom is the level of experimentation that creators are apparently enjoying, particularly on cable and streaming series. The past few years have seen an explosion of series that challenge TV’s norms: Series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin are breaking with the half-hour-comedy/ hour-long-drama standard; early this year, Louis C.K. secretly filmed his passion project, Horace and Pete, and released it on his website; in May, Netflix launched its first talk show, Chelsea, which drops new episodes three times a week.
It’s been a great year for pleasant surprises (er, in scripted TV at least), particularly amongst series that used a single episode to deviate from their own norms. These episodes reorient the viewer, telling a story through the point of view of a secondary character, shifting the action to a strange new location, or mixing up a show’s house directing style. They’re standalone episodes that often don’t require a ton of backstory, making it easy for a casual or first-time viewer to drop in, and they offer a jolt of the unfamiliar for longtime fans. They take big risks that pay off. Here they are, the best one-off episodes of 2016.
BoJack Horseman, “Fish Out of Water” (Season 3, Episode 4)
BoJack Horseman was already one of TV’s most visually inventive animated series before it dropped this Season 3 episode that contains almost no dialogue. “Fish Out of Water” sees BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) travelling to a film festival deep in the Pacific Ocean as part of his Oscar campaign. In a nod to Lost in Translation, life underwater is as disorienting to BoJack as Japan might be to an American tourist; he has to wear a scuba helmet, and he can’t speak to or understand anyone. The result is a touching episode that feels more like a short movie, full of brilliant animation that allows the characters to wordlessly express their emotions. All that and a clever kicker — BoJack was able to talk all along, through a button on his helmet — makes “Fish Out of Water” a pitch-perfect BoJack episode.
Girls, “The Panic in Central Park” (Season 5, Episode 6)
If you were to ask me which character on Girls I’d like to have an entire episode devoted to, Marnie (Alison Williams) would probably be my last pick. But the melancholy “The Panic in Central Park” does just that, and it’s one of the best episodes the show has run in its five seasons. At this point in the series, the central quartet of friends has largely gone their separate ways, and this episode shows us a side of Marnie that even her closest friends would have a hard time recognizing. Decked out in a giant pair of headphones and drawstring sweatpants (!), Marnie heads out to escape the confines of her tiny apartment and her terrible husband, and runs into her ex, Charlie (Christopher Abbott), who’s transformed from a slightly dorky, buttoned-up nice guy to a husky, bearded coke dealer. In a surprising and visually stunning half-hour, the episode illustrates the idea that to move on with your future, sometimes you need to revisit your past.
You’re the Worst, “Twenty-Two” (Season 3, Episode 5)
The main characters on You’re the Worst are so selfish, nihilistic, and petty that it makes Edgar (Desmin Borges), the Iraq War veteran who lives with Jimmy and Gretchen (Chris Geere and Aya Cash), look positively saintly in comparison. Edgar is normally relegated to the background, but this episode brings him to the fore, tackling his persistent PTSD and the VA’s shoddy treatment of it — the title refers to the estimated number of veterans who commit suicide every day. Like Atlanta’s “Value,” which funnels the show’s point of view through a supporting character, “Twenty-Two” reorients our perspective from the very start, when we see Edgar lying awake in bed, unable to sleep. Borges and creator Stephen Falk, who wrote and directed the episode, invite us into Edgar’s daily reality, and the result is a powerful act of empathy.
Veep, “Kissing Your Sister” (Season 5, Episode 9)
Throughout Veep’s fifth season, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), Selina’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) daughter, can be seen in the background, filming scenes for a documentary she’s making for a college film class. The penultimate episode makes good on that promise by giving us an entire episode in the form of that documentary, hilariously titled Kissing Your Sister: The Story of a Tie. The episode’s mockumentary format allows the show to break from its usual vérité style, so we see talking-head interviews with members of Selina’s staff, who inevitably fire off brutal zingers at the expense of their colleagues and reveal a great deal about themselves in their reaction to the camera. “Kissing Your Sister” is also a treasure trove of sight gags and call-backs, a particularly satisfying reward for Veep’s viewers.
High Maintenance, “Grandpa” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Every installment of this web-series-turned-HBO-comedy is a standalone episode, so really any of the six episodes of its first season on HBO would fit on this list. But “Grandpa” is inventive even by High Maintenance’s standards: The whole episode is told through the point of view of a dog, Gatsby, whose owner moves to a small New York City apartment after living in a house with a backyard in Indiana. Stuck at home alone all day, Gatsby comes to live for his dog-walker, Beth (Yael Stone), who takes him on walks through the park and gives him “the best motherfucking treats.” The directing, by creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, ingeniously use zooms, pans, and slow-mo sequences to help us understand exactly what the dog is feeling. It’s must-see-TV for any dog owner who’s imagined her pet’s undoubtedly rich inner life.
Atlanta, “B.A.N.” (Season 1, Episode 7)
This episode sets the tone right away with a fake commercial for a real product: “The Dodge Charger: The official car of making a statement without saying anything at all.” Atlanta’s “B.A.N.” takes the form of a local cable-access talk show called Montague, where host Franklin Montague (Alano Miller, of Underground) welcomes Atlanta rapper Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Dr. Debra Holt (Mary Kraft), the head of the“Center for Trans-American Issues,” to discuss perceived transphobia in Paper Boi’s lyrics. (Series creator and star Donald Glover is notably absent.) The episode both pokes fun at and engages in this kind of intellectualizing of rap, as the characters debate how rap music reflects and distorts sexuality. Parody ads for Arizona Ice Tea and Mickey’s malt liquor fully situate the episode in the context of Atlanta’s black communities, which is fitting for a show with a distinctly “for us, by us” ethos.