NGN’s Best of 2016: TV Moments, Episodes, and Shows

I hope all of you have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and may 2017 bring you an abundance of laughter, love, peace, good health, and everything that makes you happiest.

I apologize for the delay in posting my Best of 2016 lists; I needed to take some time instead to write something in honor of Carrie Fisher, a personal hero of mine. But the delay just means you get three lists in one on this last day of 2016!

For as difficult as parts of this year have been, I think we can all agree that it was a great year for television. In a world where it felt like sexism was given a frighteningly public platform, we were given shows, episodes, and moments that brought fierce, complex female characters to the forefront. In a stressful year, we were given plenty of things to laugh about, but there were also plenty of cathartic moments to cry over, too.

As the television landscape continued to broaden and deepen, it became more difficult than ever to narrow down these lists, which is a problem I am more than happy to have. These are my choices for the best TV had to offer this year (in addition to my picks for Best Performances and Best Relationships, which I shared earlier), but I want to know yours, too! Don’t forget to add your picks in the comments and to check out the lists made by TVexamined and MGcircles for more end-of-2016 fun!

Best Moments

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Source: Disney Channel

1. Secret Santa exchange (Girl Meets World: “Girl Meets a Christmas Maya”)
Sometimes you just want to feel good when you watch television, and no moment this year made me feel better than this gift exchange between the core group of friends on Girl Meets World. Each gift represented the kind of deep, sincere understanding and appreciation that makes the relationships on this show so special. From Smackle’s gift of the broken clock and reminder to Maya that her friends know how hard she’s working to fix herself to Zay’s gift of the re-written etiquette book that made Smackle feel loved for exactly who she is, this was one of those moments that made you feel hopeful for the future. In a year that made many of us confront the reality that the world can be an unkind place, this was a reminder of the importance of kindness and friendship just when we needed it most.

2. Claire and Jamie say goodbye (Outlander: “Dragonfly in Amber”)
Claire and Jamie’s love story has always been epic, but this scene took it to an entirely new level of emotional power. The chemistry between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Hueghan was sparking during this scene with a ferocity I’ll never forget, an intensity and total believability (even in the face of the fantastical element of time travel) that set this scene apart from any other love scene that aired in 2016.  I dare you to watch Hueghan deliver his line, “Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God, I loved her well” without swooning and crying at the same time. (I’ve tried; it’s physically impossible.)

3. “Hallelujah” (Saturday Night Live: “Dave Chappelle, A Tribe Called Quest”)
Kate McKinnon is a gift that none of us are worthy of, and if you need proof of that, watch this moment again. It was the perfect blending of character and actor; you could feel her singing as both Hillary and Kate, which made it even more cathartic to watch. For those of us left shocked and saddened by the results of this year’s presidential election (and the loss of the genius Leonard Cohen), this was the cathartic moment we so desperately needed. “Hallelujah” is one of my favorite songs ever written, and this only made me love it more. I still can’t watch it without crying through McKinnon’s stunning vocals on the last verse (“And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…”) and her impassioned, emotional plea to do as both she and Hillary would want and never give up fighting for what we believe in. When I need to feel both emotional and empowered, this is still the moment I turn to.

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TV Time: Once Upon a Time 6.03

Before we begin, I know that Ella is known as Ashley in Storybrooke, but to avoid confusion, I’m just going to refer to her as Ella throughout.

Title The Other Shoe

Two-Sentence Summary When Cinderella discovers that her stepmother and stepsister have found their way to Storybrooke, she has some things to make right after ruining her stepsister’s chance at happiness in the past. As Emma tries to help her, she learns that you have to allow yourself to be happy in the present—even when the future is uncertain.

Favorite Line “I know everything in life is uncertain. Sometimes you have to walk out the door and hope there’s no bus.” (Emma)

My Thoughts “The Other Shoe” was one of my favorite episodes of Once Upon a Time in years. It was funny, it was romantic, it featured new twists on a classic fairytale, it dealt with universal themes in a magical setting, it put the spotlight on the family dynamics that warm everyone’s hearts, and it featured a bunch of women being strong in a myriad of important ways. In short, it felt like the classic Season One episodes that made me fall in love with this show—with the added bonus of focusing on the character development of Emma Swan and all the beautiful ways she has grown since that first season, while highlighting the compelling inner conflict that shows how much she can still grow.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that such a phenomenal episode was written by one of the most universally adored Once Upon a Time writers: Jane Espenson (with Jerome Schwartz). Espenson has an unparalleled sense of who these characters are now, where they’ve come from, and what real relationships between fairytale characters would look and sound like. Her gift for natural dialogue and sincere emotions in the middle of this crazy fairytale world has always made her episodes stand out. Also, she has a great sense of humor; it felt completely right for a Jane Espenson episode to feature Cinderella wearing pale blue Converse and holding a shotgun, as well as Grumpy complaining about doing all the work while Dopey gets his advanced degree. (Side note: Does Storybrooke have a college, or is Dopey taking online classes? Inquiring minds need to know.)

Espenson is also great at crafting thematically cohesive episodes, and this was another excellent one. In the case of “The Other Shoe,” nearly every storyline seemed to revolve around the idea of happiness—what it looks like, how to hold on to it, and what we do when we’re afraid that we’ll lose it. As such, it was an aptly titled episode, as many of the characters were struggling with the idea of waiting for “the other shoe” to drop.

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The Best Thing I Saw on TV This Week (9/25 – 10/2)

This week in television started out with a strong Season 6 premiere of Once Upon a Time that laid out some very compelling internal and external conflicts for each character. On Monday, Dancing with the Stars aired a head-to-head dance-off episode, and that was followed by the first U.S. presidential debate of the election season. Tuesday’s episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine brought us back to the precinct and balanced that with some biting, Florida-based satire from Jake and Holt’s storyline. Tuesday also featured a politically-minded episode of New Girl and a second episode of This Is Us that gave each character even more depth and each relationship even more nuance. On Wednesday, Speechless proved to me that it has the right balance of heart and humor to keep me invested for the long haul, and black-ish made me cry with its emotionally gripping sonogram scene. Thursday provided me with moments that sold me completely on two very different partnerships: Eleanor and Chidi on The Good Place and Ginny and Mike on Pitch. Finally, Saturday Night Live kicked off its season with a much-hyped debate skit and an entire episode devoted to reminding everyone why Kate McKinnon won her Emmy. (Her impression of Trump campaign manage Kellyanne Conway was exceptional.)

It was impossible for me to pick just one moment this week that I loved more than any other, but all of my favorite moments were connected by the same theme: emotional investment. All the new shows I’ve started watching featured a moment this week where I knew I was hooked—whether it was Maya listening to Kenneth help J.J. use the bathroom on Speechless; Rebecca and Beth doing their best to be good wives and mothers (and delivering killer monologues in the process) in two different timelines on This Is Us; Eleanor praising Chidi with nothing to gain from it on The Good Place; or Mike telling Ginny that she might not trust her fastball but she needs to trust him on Pitch. All of those moments took me beyond the initial introduction of characters and stories and revealed something genuine and compelling about the relationships that will serve as the heart and soul of these shows. All of these were moments of sincere connection, and it was lovely to see such strong dynamics developing so early in the game for these shows.

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The Best Thing I Saw on TV This Week (4/10 – 4/17)

This week in television started off with a closer look at Belle’s character on Sunday’s episode of Once Upon a Time. Monday gave us Disney night on Dancing with the Stars, Jane’s bachelorette party on Jane the Virgin, and one of the most uplifting Castle moments of this season when Ryan and Jenny’s new baby boy was born (and given the perfect middle name of Esposito). On Tuesday, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s penultimate episode made me laugh harder than any episode of television so far this season, while The Mindy Project‘s big return made me cry (while also making me feel so proud of Mindy). Wednesday’s episode of Nashville took the drama—especially surrounding Maddie—up another notch, and on The Americans, certain characters found a way to release some of their own tension while others found their anxiety reaching a fever pitch with no release in sight. On Thursday, Orphan Black premiered with a look at Beth’s story, and on Friday, the impossibly charming Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt returned to Netflix.

When many TV shows seem to be going to very dark places, it’s nice to take a moment to celebrate shows that still make us laugh. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine was at its comedic best on Tuesday night. “Bureau” had so many highlights that I can’t pick just one for the best moment on television this week. But I will single out Andre Braugher as the week’s best performer. Whether he was talking about his lint (which was oblong and blue, in case you were wondering) or describing the plot of Sex and the City, he proved once again why it’s a crime that he hasn’t won an Emmy for this role yet. I hope this is his submission episode for this season, because I can’t think of a better example of his talent.

What was the best thing you saw on TV this week? And would anyone else like to sign a petition for FOX to create a web series in which Captain Holt reviews TV shows?

The Best Thing I Saw on TV This Week (3/27-4/3)

This week in television started off strong on Sunday with a powerful examination of Killian’s character on Once Upon a Time. On Monday, Jane the Virgin gave me plenty of reasons to reach for my tissues (especially with the new storyline its opening up for Petra), and early frontrunners are starting to separate from the pack on Dancing with the Stars. Tuesday’s episode of The Flash was a time-traveling adventure, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine borrowed just the right amount from Parks and Recreation‘s excellent “Two Parties” episode. Also on Tuesday, tensions continued to rise in The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s penultimate episode. Finally, Wednesday’s episode of The Americans ensured that I’ll never be able to go to EPCOT again without thinking of Pastor Tim, Glanders, and Elizabeth’s dreams of Odessa.

There were some incredibly powerful statements made on television this week—from Killian finally saying he deserves to be saved on Once Upon a Time to Philip telling Elizabeth that he wants to run on The Americans. However, nothing could top the dramatic force of the breathtaking moments in The People v. O.J. Simpson in which both Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark are threatened with being held in contempt of court.

That explosive scene was the perfect example of how to make rising tension pay off. Darden’s outburst felt cathartic after weeks of mounting pressure and increasing failures for the prosecution. Sterling K. Brown might not have the profile or fame of the other actors on this show, but he is every bit their equal in terms of the power of his performance.

And that explosive reaction from Darden was followed up by one of my favorite moments so far on what I believe is one of the best shows on television right now: when Marcia Clark’s own frustrations boiled over, putting her in jeopardy of also being held in contempt, to which she replied (with pitch-perfect delivery by Sarah Paulson): “Shall I take off my watch and jewelry?” Because I don’t remember much about the trial, I had no idea this moment was coming, so when it did, I was blown away—not just by the moment itself but by the performances that made it resonate and the direction that made it almost unbearably tense. While so much of this scene’s brilliance came through in strong line readings, there was also so much being said in silence. Brown and Paulson are so good in their characters’ unspoken moments of connection and partnership, and this was another scene that showed that aspect of their palpable chemistry off to its fullest extent.

The People v. O.J. Simpson ends this week, and, while I know how the story ends, I’m still waiting with bated breath to see what these actors do with it. That’s when you know a show is great and a cast is masterful.

What was the best thing you saw on TV this week?

TV Time: The Americans 4.03

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Source: mstarsnews.musictimes.com

Title: Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow

Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
“Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” made me think a lot about the pilot of The Americans and how things have changed for its characters since that first episode. And no character has changed more since her first appearance than Elizabeth Jennings. When we first met her, she was a woman who put her mission above everything else, and Keri Russell was so good at showing Elizabeth as steel personified—protecting herself from the inside out. But time changes people, and so does love. Elizabeth isn’t who she was when we first met her, but she’s not unrecognizable like she could have been if a lesser actor had been tasked with her transformation. Instead, Russell has showed us—in this episode perhaps better than any other—that the change in Elizabeth has come from letting herself have emotions and reactions that she would have previously compartmentalized to focus on the best way to serve her cause. They’ve always been a part of her, but she’s showing them now, and it’s added a wonderful layer of depth to Russell’s already nuanced performance.

Elizabeth has previously used her missions as ways to let hidden parts of her see the light (like when she opened up to her mark in Season Two about being raped), but this episode was the first time we saw her genuinely have fun while on a mission. And it wasn’t Patty the potential Mary Kay salesperson having fun. It was Elizabeth having fun. It was Elizabeth bonding with Young Hee (who I already love) and forming what felt like a sincere connection and not just a front for whatever Elizabeth’s endgame is. Russell did a masterful job of making me wonder how much of that dynamic is forced and how much is the beginning of a real friendship between two women who connect with each other as immigrants (even if Elizabeth can’t tell Young Hee she’s also an immigrant)? My gut reaction is that Young Hee has the potential to be Elizabeth’s Martha—there was something about the instant kinship Russell projected in the scenes between them that has me thinking it won’t be easy for Elizabeth to do something terrible to this woman for her job.

I loved seeing the sincerity in some of Elizabeth’s interactions with Young Hee contrasted with her interactions with Pastor Tim. Russell was brilliant in that confrontation, allowing us to feel how hard it was for Elizabeth to interact with him. It was uncomfortable, and it was supposed to be. And so much of that pitch-perfect uneasiness came from Russell’s fake smile and forced tone of voice. It takes a great actor to show someone struggling to give a good performance, and luckily, Russell is truly one of the greatest actors on television right now.

As the episode went on and Elizabeth wrestled with the lose-lose situation she and Philip were in, I found myself more and more captivated by Russell’s silent reactions to everything happening around her. Where there once would have been firm conviction in her eyes, there was sadness. Where she once would have pushed Philip away, she reached for his hand. In this episode, Elizabeth showed her feelings as she felt them—her uncertainty, her love, and her fear. They still may not be worn on her sleeve, but they’re visible if you know where to look (her facial expressions, her tone of voice, her body language). And that’s what makes them all the more affecting.

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TV Time: Once Upon a Time 5.12

Title Souls of the Departed

Two-Sentence Summary As Regina’s relationship with both of her parents is explored in the past and present, she begins to sew the seeds of hope in the Underworld. That hope will be needed, as the quest to save Hook is revealed to be even more challenging than initially feared.

Favorite Line “If you stay, you spread hope, and that’s the best thing anyone can do.” (Henry Sr., to Regina)

My Thoughts It all started with the tick of a clock…

The pilot of Once Upon a Time ended with a ticking clock and a smiling little boy, a symbol of the possibility that things could begin to change for the better and that hope had arrived in a place long thought to be without it. The 100th episode of Once Upon a Time also featured a ticking clock in its final minutes, serving once again as a symbol of positive change in a previously hopeless world. The difference this time was in the person smiling as the clock began to tick and hope began to spread. In the pilot episode, Regina was the villain keeping everyone in a state of hopeless stasis, but 99 episodes later, she was now the hero smiling at the possibility of restoring hope and happiness in a dark world.

“Souls of the Departed” showed how much Once Upon a Time has grown over the course of 100 episodes while still honoring the hopeful tone that has always been its hallmark. And it did so through the lens of Regina’s character growth. Did we need another flashback to the Regina/Snow war? Of course not. That story’s been told an exhaustive number of times. (Although it was nice to fill in the gaps concerning how Cora came to be in possession of a shrunken version of her husband.) But it served as a nice reminder of how far Snow and Regina’s relationship and Regina’s character in general have come since the days when the story told in those flashbacks was the only story to tell for those characters. And it’s always fun to see Lana Parrilla in full “Evil Queen mode,” complete with those gorgeous costumes.

The flashbacks also set up a very nice parallel between Emma in the Once Upon a Time pilot and Regina in the show’s 100th episode. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the writers chose to set this episode’s flashback on Regina’s birthday, just as the series started on Emma’s birthday. Emma and Regina have always been positioned as two sides of a coin, characters whose journeys reflect each other in fascinating ways. And just like when Emma’s decision to stay in the pilot made the clock move, Regina’s decision to stay in this episode did the same. Both of these women have grown from being loners to being part of a loving family, and their choices to stay and be a part of something instead of running away represent the hope that we can all find it in ourselves to stay and fight for what’s right when it feels easier and safer to leave.

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The Best Thing I Saw on TV This Week (11/15 – 11/22)

This week in television started off strong on Sunday, with a powerful pair of Once Upon a Time episodes, a true test of Jake and Amy’s relationship on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the introduction of Vanessa Williams on The Good Wife. On Monday, Dancing with the Stars asked its contestants to perform three routines, Castle further explored the shifts in both the Castle/Beckett and Ryan/Esposito dynamics, and Jane the Virgin showed Mateo’s growth and how his family grew with him through a series of time jumps. Tuesday’s episode of The Muppets featured a budding romance between Scooter and Chelsea Handler, and The Flash reminded us all why Barry has the best dads on television. On Wednesday, Nashville added some new obstacles for Deacon and Rayna to overcome and broke all our hearts when Avery sang Will’s new song. And this week’s Saturday Night Live was its most entertaining episode of the young season.

Even though there were plenty of great moments on television this week, it’s been seven days, and I still can’t stop thinking about Once Upon a Time. Everything about “Birth” was the best thing I saw on TV this week—the twists, the complexity, and, especially, the performances. Jennifer Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue were at their very best throughout the hour, allowing me to get lost in my emotions without ever once stopping to think about simplistic concepts of who was “right” or “wrong.” Those two actors are such an important part of this new fairytale love story we’re all watching unfold every week. And it was their incredibly vulnerable work that allowed this tragic chapter in Emma and Killians’ love story to resonate as fiercely as it did.

However, I think one my favorite things about this episode was the reminder to hope even in dark times. From Operation Light Swan to Killian telling Emma he loves her no matter what she’s done, there were hints that no matter how bleak things might look, there is still forgiveness, healing, and a happy future to look forward to. And at the center of all those hopeful moments was the scene in which Emma chose to let go of the darkness and light the flame that would make it possible. Emma’s fear of allowing herself to start planning for a future with Killian felt so relatable, because who hasn’t been afraid to actually start working toward a future that you know might not work out or might get taken from you? But what made that moment so beautiful was watching love conquer fear and, by extension, darkness. Their love was strong enough to light the flame that was meant to defeat the darkness. And if that doesn’t give you hope that their love will be strong enough to conquer the darkness once and for all, then I don’t know what will.

Once Upon a Time is a show about hope, and I love that, even in an episode that felt almost unbearably sad at times, there were still so many reasons to hold on to hope. Love is stronger than darkness. And that’s a message I will always believe in.

What was the best thing you saw on TV this week?

Fangirl Thursday: A Thankful Heart

I know Thanksgiving isn’t until next week for those of us living in the U.S., but posting on the holiday itself is never very convenient—even if it does always fall on a Fangirl Thursday. Besides, you shouldn’t have to limit your expressions of gratitude to one turkey-stuffed day each year. And I have far more than a week’s worth of things to be thankful for anyway.

I write the words “thank you” a lot. I write them so much that—to some—they might seem like meaningless filler or something I just say to say something. But I hope you know those words have never lost their weight for me—no matter how many times I write them. I write them so much because hardly a day goes by (and sometimes hardly a minutes goes by) without me experiencing a rush of gratitude. I mean those words with all my heart every single time I write them. Thank you.

I’ve always said that running NGN is a labor of love, and I’m thankful for both the labor and the love. I’m thankful that it is challenging and scary and exhausting sometimes to run this site. Because that’s when I know it matters—when it’s more than just some writing I do for fun. And it’s those moments that remind me to always look for the love, to look for the reasons I started NGN in the first place. And I always find those reasons. I always find that love. And I am so grateful that something I love so much and care so deeply about has become something other people love and care about, too. My writing goal is always to make people feel less alone in their intense love for the things they care about. And it turns out that’s exactly what all of you who visit NGN are doing for me.

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TV Time: Once Upon a Time 2.16

Title The Miller’s Daughter

Two-Sentence Summary As Cora plots to stab the dying Rumplestiltskin and become the Dark One herself, we uncover the twisted history between them during flashbacks to Cora’s life as the miller’s daughter who was taught dark magic by Rumplestiltskin before betraying him, ripping out her own heart to allow herself to do so. That heart becomes the means by which Cora ultimately meets her demise at Snow’s hand.

Favorite Line “You are a hero who helped your people. You are a beautiful woman who loved an ugly man—really, really, loved me. You find goodness in others, and when it’s not there, you create it. You make me want to go back—back to the best version of me… And that’s never happened before. So when you look in the mirror, and you don’t know who you are—that’s who you are. Thank you.” (Rumplestiltskin, to Belle)

My Thoughts Ever since I started watching Once Upon a Time, I’ve loved it for two reasons: its unashamed optimism in an age of television cynicism and its ability to create a world in which fairytales are no longer black-and-white but much more morally complex. It wasn’t until this episode that I realized having morally complex characters means that their actions won’t always inspire optimism. If I love Once Upon a Time because the villains aren’t 100% evil, then I also have to accept that the heroes aren’t always going to be 100% good—not even my favorite hero of them all.

“The Miller’s Daughter” was all about the choices we make and the reasons we make them—and what that ultimately says about who we are. No one in this episode was pure good or pure evil, and that’s how I like my Once Upon a Time. This episode was one of the richest, most well-written episodes the show has ever had, which should surprise no one after learning that Jane Espenson wrote it. This woman has a talent for character development and adding layers to the Once Upon a Time mythology that I’ve yet to see matched by any other writer for this show.

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