The countdown

The 50 greatest TV episodes of all time, from This is England to I May Destroy You

A brilliant episode can refine the essence of the best shows into a single, self-contained moment. Here are our favourites from over the decades

Sunday 14 May 2023 08:10 BST
Sarah Jessica Parker in ‘Sex and the City’ and Jon Hamm in ‘Mad Men’ are just some of the actors who’ve starred in TV’s most wonderful episodes
Sarah Jessica Parker in ‘Sex and the City’ and Jon Hamm in ‘Mad Men’ are just some of the actors who’ve starred in TV’s most wonderful episodes (Getty/iStock/Netflix/AMC/BBC/Shutterstock)

Television shows are, inevitably, made up of parts. On the surface, there’s the great, overarching story that begins with the first shot and ends with the last. But, within that narrative, there are small parts: the series, and the episode. It is the smallest of these sub-divisions, the episode, that is most intriguing. A truly brilliant episode can bridge the gap between cinema and TV. It can refine the essence of the best shows into a single, self-contained moment. At its most potent, a perfect episode is like mainlining all the myriad ingredients of prestige television in a single sitting.

But great TV shows do not necessarily beget great episodes and, conversely, great episodes are not always the sign of a great show. The start of 2023 has been dominated by discussions about The Last of Us, a perfectly good series including one stunning episode. In it, two supporting characters tell us the story of humanity’s endurance at the end of the world. It is an episode that any show would be proud of. Succession has also returned to screens, with a run of spectacular episodes spawning endless think pieces and memes. Ahead of Sunday night’s (14 May) Bafta Television awards, we’ve compiled a list of the greatest TV episodes of all time. Admittedly, it’s a list that features lots of excellent shows and a few mediocre ones, but what matters here is how they tell a story over one single broadcast. Whether that’s an hour of prestige drama or a 20-minute sitcom, these are the moments when television transcends its format and becomes an art form.

50. Homeland – Series 1, Episode 7: ‘The Weekend’


In Homeland’s seventh episode, the show went from just another prestige espionage thriller to something more profound and substantial. “The Weekend” followed Claire Danes’s CIA agent Carrie and recently rescued marine Brody (Damian Lewis), who may or may not have been turned by al-Qaeda, as they head away on a countryside retreat. Homeland’s later seasons were much, much better than many gave them credit for, but, truthfully, the many action-packed set-pieces that ensued never matched the high-stakes showdown featured in the final 10 minutes of this instalment. Proof, if ever it was needed, that two people simply talking in a room can be just as thrilling as any action scene. Jacob Stolworthy

49. Celebrity Big Brother – Series 17, Episode 8: ‘Day Seven’


Reality TV remains the bastard stepchild of scripted television, and often for good reason. But there are times in which cosmic coincidences collide in such farcical fashion that the result is funnier than anything pre-planned. CBB’s 17th series saw Angie Bowie being told of the death of her ex-husband David and stumbling out of the diary room in a daze, where she encountered reality TV stalwart Tiffany Pollard. “David’s dead,” Angie uttered. Pollard, understandably but also not understandably at all, assumed she was talking about fellow contestant David Gest – who no one noticed was asleep nearby. What followed was a tour de force in tears, crossed wires and collective acrimony, culminating in Pollard attempting to throttle Bowie. Gest, on the other hand, did actually die a few months later. You quite literally couldn’t make this up. Adam White

48. Insecure – Series 4, Episode 8: ‘Lowkey Happy’


After their stagnant long-term relationship ends in infidelity, Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) decide to meet up, two years after the fact. A rare two-hander for the sleek comedy series, “Lowkey Happy” shows the old flames wandering through south Los Angeles and trying to make sense of their new lives. With brimming chemistry and stunning on-location cinematography, it’s Insecure at its best. The sparks between Issa and Lawrence are impossible to ignore and seeing them let their guards down and be truthful about their feelings culminates in a joyful, romantic reunion. Though it’s far from plain sailing for the pair going forward, this episode is a standout moment of bliss. Nicole Vassell

In the clouds: Jay Ellis and Issa Rae in ‘Insecure’
In the clouds: Jay Ellis and Issa Rae in ‘Insecure’ (HBO)

47. Planet Earth II – Episode 1: ‘Islands’


Smuggled into this 2016 David Attenborough series is a high-octane thriller so edge-of-your-seat suspenseful that Alfred Hitchcock’s ghost had to have directed it. It takes place in the Galapagos islands, with a newborn iguana being relentlessly chased along a beach and a rock wall by dozens of racer snakes, who harpoon themselves out of the ground as if they all have tiny trampolines. It’s extraordinary television. AW

46. Six Feet Under – Series 5, Episode 12: ‘Everyone’s Waiting’


It’s hard to pinpoint a specific episode of Six Feet Under that stands out from the rest as there’s not really a dud in the pack. But the series finale capped things off in a spectacular manner. Every character was given a memorable ending via a montage flashforward climax, soundtracked to Sia’s “Breathe Me”, that’s been oft-repeated but never matched. The highlight, though, comes as the characters sit around the Fishers’ dinner table, morosely paying tribute to fallen son Nate (Peter Krause). “May he rest in peace,” says his brother, David (Michael C Hall). Here, the episode cuts to a white screen, with a sunglasses-wearing Nate, from the afterlife, maniacally dancing to Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate”. That right there is Six Feet Under summed up in 10 zany seconds. JS

45. Catastrophe – Series 4, Episode 6


Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s sitcom, in which a one-night stand snowballs into parenthood and a dysfunctional marriage, was very, very good. But with its dark, bittersweet final episode, it secured itself a place as one of the best shows of the decade. The family have flown to America for Rob’s mother’s funeral (played, in an extra layer of poignancy, by Carrie Fisher just a few months before her own death), and the relationship is fracturing. But just when we expect the pair to implode, the show throws curveball after curveball, with Sharon revealing she is pregnant again, before the couple decide to go swimming in an ocean. We see a sign warning of lethal rip tides, leaving a note of shocking ambiguity – a reminder that a life together contains joys and hazards all at once. Jessie Thompson

44. Girls – Series 5, Episode 7: ‘Hello Kitty’


Lena Dunham’s Girls was, by its fifth season, a victim of its own success. So much ink had been spilt on so many column inches, about the show and its creator, that people seemed to miss the portrait of Hannah (Dunham) and her friends maturing like a fine wine. “Hello Kitty” is the perfect illustration of that: Hannah attends an obnoxious installation art piece where her ex, Adam (Adam Driver), is performing. Over the course of the evening, her precariously balanced interpersonal relationships come crashing down. In an exquisitely confident, heart-breaking shot, Hannah watches her friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) as she watches Adam, and realises that they are in love. For a show that is so writerly, this wordless moment showed how beautifully it had grown out of its self-conscious millennial origins. Nick Hilton

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43. The Virtues – Episode 1


Some of the best work of Stephen Graham’s career – and what a career it is – happens in the opening episode of Shane Meadows’ visceral, semi-autobiographical drama. It focuses on Graham’s Joseph, a broken man who, left alone by his family and contending with flashbacks to childhood trauma, relapses into alcoholism. He’s on a mission. Everything seems almost joyous at first; he’s buying drinks for strangers. He’s the life and soul. But then he’s angry. He’s roaming the streets. A bodycam capturing every sozzled sway and sodden worry. It’s the dizzying start to a harrowing, heart-piercing story. Ellie Harrison

Goodbye son: Stephen Graham in ‘The Virtues’
Goodbye son: Stephen Graham in ‘The Virtues’ (Channel 4)

42. Only Fools and Horses – ‘Heroes and Villains’

1996 Christmas special

This episode ranks as the funniest episode of arguably the funniest sitcom ever. The centrepiece – Trotter brothers Del Boy (David Jason) and Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) scaring off a gang of muggers while dressed as Batman and Robin – remains one of its peaks, up there with the classics (Del falling through the bar and the chandelier moment). But there’s so much joy crammed in throughout the remainder of the episode, too, from the opening dream sequence (“Rodney, wake up, you dipstick!”) to all the gems courtesy of Roger Lloyd Pack’s Trigger. JS

41. The Comeback – Series 1, Episode 12: ‘Valerie Shines Under Stress’


Lisa Kudrow’s tragicomic masterpiece is a wince-inducing exposé of Hollywood narcissism and fruitless ambition. She plays Valerie Cherish, a forgotten comedy star from the Nineties who mounts a comeback via a reality TV show and a supporting role on a terrible new sitcom. In this standout episode, Valerie finally receives a comic set piece on her new show, one involving a diet-induced daydream and an enormous cupcake costume. While filming it, though, she experiences humiliation, belittling and vomit, before – at last – a tiny sliver of personal victory. AW

40. Game of Thrones – Series 1, Episode 9: ‘Baelor’


At its best, Game of Thrones was among the greatest event TV ever to grace our screens. But it eventually declined in quality like a Babybel in a sauna. While many would point to “The Rains of Castamere”, which featured the Red Wedding, as the most thrilling episode, “Baelor” represents the key moment of cultural penetration for the show. The first season’s penultimate episode showed viewers it was not going to be like other landmark television. No, it was going to chop the head off its main character. The shocking death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is shown through the eyes of his daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), crouched behind a statue of Baelor the Blessed. The moment of violence is eclipsed by Arya’s closed eyes – and the show demonstrated it had something that it would, eventually, lose: restraint. NH

39. Edge of Darkness – Episode 2: ‘Into the Shadows’


If BBC Four’s recent re-screening proved that there is still much to admire in Troy Kennedy Martin’s nuclear thriller – especially in Bob Peck’s central performance as grieving detective Ronald Craven – it also exposed how much slower TV drama was back then. Welcome energy and humour came in the plot-thickening second episode when Craven meets CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (played by future Bond villain Joe Don Baker) – the pair bonding over the ominous lyrics to a Willie Nelson song. “Now the lesson’s over and the killin’s begun…” Gerard Gilbert

38. The Leftovers – Series 3, Episode 6: ‘Certified’


While there are more technically impressive episodes of The Leftovers (“International Assassin”), this grounded final season outing gets my vote. Designed to be a swansong, of sorts, for Amy Brenneman’s Laurie, it’s a masterclass of understatement. While nothing major may happen, every line of dialogue hits like a tonne of bricks. A speech from Laurie and Carrie Coon’s Nora – about a beach ball, no less – ranks as one of the show’s most moving scenes. Add Max Richter’s spine-tingling score over the top, and you have one of the most moving scenes in TV history. JS

37. Cracker – Series 2, Episode 2: ‘To Be a Somebody’


Britain seemed to briefly stop in October 1994 when Robert Carlyle’s aggrieved, racist killer Albie Kinsella stabbed Christopher Eccleston’s kindly DCI Billborough to death in the second series of this seminal detective drama. It was a turn that perfectly embodied the show’s genius: social-realist crime, star-making performances and ruthless plot twists. Forget Hagrid, Cracker’s dysfunctional, anti-social criminal psychologist Fitz remains Robbie Coltrane’s greatest creation. AW

36. ER – Season 1, Episode 19: ‘Love’s Labor Lost’


This Emmy-winning episode of the long-running medical drama was a masterclass in slow-building tension, beginning with pregnant Jodi (Colleen Flynn) arriving with husband Sean (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) at County General complaining of bladder and stomach pain. Diagnosed with a uterine infection, Jodi is given antibiotics by Dr Greene and sent on her way. But then she loses consciousness in the car park and, suspecting pre-eclampsia, Greene decides to induce labour. Cue a series of catastrophic decisions, made under pressure and culminating in an entirely avoidable tragedy. Fiona Sturges

35. The Royle Family – Series 3, Episode 5: ‘London’


Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s The Royle Family understood the rhythms of working-class monotony, where the TV set is the centrepiece of the home and of most evenings, and interaction is an endless loop of random asides and non-verbal communication. “London” is potentially the show’s peak, with Ricky Tomlinson’s Jim lightly – if cruelly – jeering at the hushed ambition of his teenage son Antony (Ralf Little), and Liz Smith’s Nana loudly breaking wind. AW

A British classic: ‘The Royle Family’
A British classic: ‘The Royle Family’ (BBC)

34. Twin Peaks – Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’


A 15-year-old girl’s body washes up on the shore of a small rural community, and no one knows who’s responsible. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s elegiac drama – part soap opera, part murder mystery, part surreal horror – shot out of the gates with a strange, traumatising story about grief and violence in a rural American town. Lynch and Frost would go on to push the experimentation to another level in the 1992 film prequel Fire Walk with Me and the brilliant, undefinable 2017 revival series, but nothing can top the giddy, unsettling novelty of its first chapter. There was TV before the Twin Peaks premiere, and there was TV after it. Louis Chilton

33. Better Call Saul – Series 6, Episode 7: ‘Plan and Execution’


Other lists might include Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” or any of the final three episodes in that show’s fourth season. But this episode of the prequel series Better Call Saul surpassed all of those. BCS never pinned itself to a genre: was it a legal comedy or a cartel thriller? It was both of these things concurrently – and mostly separately. That was until two key figures from each world collided in devastating fashion. The result, which saw Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) execute Jimmy’s poor lawyer rival Howard (Patrick Fabian) during takeaway night in Jimmy and Kim’s living room, was astoundingly good television. The effect felt even more stratospheric due to the six-season build-up. JS

32. Gilmore Girls – Series 2, Episode 16: ‘There’s the Rub’


With cult TV shows, identifying a “best” episode becomes highly personal. For Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Noughties dramedy, it depends which relationships you find most important. Are you a Rory and Jess obsessive? Then “Teach Me Tonight” might top your list. If you love Lorelai and Luke, maybe “Say Something” broke your heart. My favourite Gilmore girl has always been the matriarch, Emily (Kelly Bishop), and there’s no better showcase for the fractious family relationships than “There’s The Rub”. A spa weekend brings out all the things that Emily and her daughter Lorelai (Lauren Graham) find annoying about one another – and just when they arrive at a moment of tidy reconciliation, Gilmore Girls demonstrates its unsentimental streak and pulls that comfort away. A masterclass in TV writing. NH

31. Doctor Who – Series 1, Episode 2: ‘The Daleks’


British TV had already experienced a science-fiction phenomenon with The Quatermass Experiment a full decade before this episode of the fledgling Doctor Who. But the opener to the second Doctor Who adventure saw the introduction of an element that was as crucial to the show’s success as it had been to the works of Milton and Shakespeare: enemies that are more compelling than the forces of “good”. The Daleks were the creation of writer Terry Nation, who would go on to write Blake’s 7 and Survivors (about a pandemic plague accidentally released by a Chinese scientist). Nation had the Nazis in mind for his merciless cyborg mutants and the BBC’s costume and special effects’ departments did him proud. Chris Harvey

30. Fleabag – Series 2, Episode 1


There are so many iconic dinner table scenes in film and TV that they warrant their own list. Take that “I’m a wolf tonight” moment in Doctor Foster, or the intense meal sequences in American Beauty or Django Unchained. And the season two opener of Fleabag has to be up there, too. It takes place almost entirely over one dinner at a restaurant, and sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s protagonist navigate the celebration of her father’s engagement to her cloying artist godmother. From a bleeding nose to the exchange of pleasantries through gritted teeth, and the introduction of Andrew Scott’s priest, it is, quite literally, a bloody masterpiece. EH

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the fantastic, unflinching ‘Fleabag’
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the fantastic, unflinching ‘Fleabag’ (BBC/Two Brothers/Luke Varley)

29. Boys from the Blackstuff – Episode 4: ‘Yosser’s Story’


Both the funniest and the bleakest episode of Alan Bleasdale’s saga of unemployed Liverpool tarmac-layers. Unforgettably portrayed by Bernard Hill, Yosser Hughes’s hectoring “gizza job” catchphrase passed almost overnight into the language under the first Thatcher government, as a mentally disintegrating Yosser struggled to keep his three children from being taken into care. And Yosser is eminently quotable, whether telling a foreman: “You can’t sack me, I’m on the dole”; or speaking to a priest who’s just introduced himself as Dan: “I’m desperate, Dan.” GG

28. EastEnders – Episode 249: ‘Dot and Ethel’


When Dot (June Brown) and Ethel (Gretchen Franklin) spend a rainy afternoon looking after baby Vicky Fowler in 1987, a beautiful portrait of friendship emerges. Between bouts of bickering, the pair share wartime memories: Dot had been evacuated to Wales during the Blitz while Ethel, who stayed in London, recalls coming home to find a doodlebug had hit her house. More kitchen sink drama than traditional soap opera, this was the first of two remarkable two-handers featuring Dot and Ethel. The second came 13 years later when Dot helps her terminally ill friend to die. FS

27. Black Mirror – Series 2, Episode 1: ‘Be Right Back’


Yeah, yeah, we know, Black Mirror’s time-travelling love story “San Junipero” is a spine-tingling, non-soul-destroying mini-masterpiece. But the very best episodes of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series are from its lower budget, Channel 4 era. Back then, the concepts were simpler but there was a sense of profound human melancholy to the darkness. Take Jesse Armstrong’s “Entire History of You”, the saddest, most beautiful study of memory and infidelity. But my favourite has to be “Be Right Back”, an Ishiguro-esque tale that sees a widow, played by Hayley Atwell, purchasing an artificial version of her late partner (Domhnall Gleeson). The power of the episode comes not from the knowledge that such things might one day be possible (hello ChatGPT), but in how the all-too-tempting technology ends up deepening her sense of loss. JT

26. Lost – Season 3, Episodes 22 and 23: ‘Through the Looking Glass’


This two-part finale of Lost is one of the greatest creations in TV history – and one that not only turns everything that fans previously thought completely on its head, but challenges the medium of television as a whole. That it does so in such an assured, sublime and immensely unexpected way is testament to this show’s genius. It’s Lost at its most legendary (see: Not Penny’s Boat and “We have to go back!” in the same episode) and has embedded itself in the history books for encouraging everyone involved in TV to think outside the box. JS

25. Frasier – Series 4, Episode 18: ‘Ham Radio’


Throughout its first several seasons, NBC’s superlative Cheers spin-off excelled across a panoply of comic modes: from comedies of manners to slapstick to high farce. The raucous “Ham Radio”, perhaps the series’ slickest instalment, sees Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) attempt to orchestrate a live radio drama, only to be undone by his own egomania. Evoking Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, the episode is a masterclass in set-up and pay-off, condensed into one 20-minute riot. LC

24. Sex and the City – Series 6, Episode 18: ‘Splat!’


Sex and the City was a glamorous tapestry of bawdy humour and watercooler-primed drama, where comic mishaps became referendums on womanhood and feminism. Its apex was this late-series episode, in which the surreal demise of a New York party girl (Kristen Johnson’s Lexi Featherston, who plummets out of a window at a book launch – hence the title) sends Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie into a tailspin. Because this show was always secretly masterful, the episode becomes a haunting dissection of age, regret and monogamy. AW

23. Atlanta – Series 2, Episode 6: ‘Teddy Perkins’


Donald Glover’s wonderfully sui generis sitcom was always willing to indulge bizarro detours into the world of surrealism – and things never got more surreal than season two’s “Teddy Perkins”. For this chilling one-off story, Glover, in whiteface, plays Theodore “Teddy” Perkins, the creepy, Michael Jackson-esque brother of a reclusive musician called Benny Hope. Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) visits Hope’s house to pick up a piano, resulting in one of the most haunting, and blackly hilarious, episodes of TV in recent years. LC

Donald Glover in sui generis sitcom ‘Atlanta’
Donald Glover in sui generis sitcom ‘Atlanta’ (Copyright 2018, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.)

22. M*A*S*H – Series 11, Episode 16: ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’


M*A*S*H’s exit from the airwaves, after 11 years (a run some seven years longer than the actual Korean war...), is an undeniable landmark in American television. More than 121 million people tuned in to watch Hawkeye bid adieu to the 4077th, but true to the way the show had matured over the years, the finale looks squarely at the horrors of war. “It was a baby,” remains one of the most gut-wrenching lines in sitcom history, but despite that, the final shot of Hawkeye (Alan Alda) leaving Korea, a giant GOODBYE spelled out below, is one of the most uplifting ever committed to the small screen. NH

21. Pride and Prejudice – Episode 3


We Brits love a period drama, and they don’t come any better than Andrew Davies’s classic Austen adaptation. People still talk about Colin Firth’s shirt-clinging dive into the pond at Pemberley in episode four, but this one has the edge, with a full helping of the obsequious Mr Collins (David Bamber), the abominable Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and several clashes between Firth’s Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet. He’s at peak pride and she’s at peak hatred when he makes his “against my own better judgement” proposal at the end. Watch the sparks fly! CH

20. The Last of Us – Series 1, Episode 3: ‘Long, Long Time’


Brave, unexpected and loaded with poignancy, the third episode in this dystopian video game adaptation delivers a solar-plexus knockout. Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett are the couple who will destroy you. Meeting four years into a fungal pandemic that has caused the near-annihilation of humankind, Bill (grizzled, hard) and Frank (pretty, sophisticated) are initially suspicious of one another. But over a bottle of beaujolais, romance blossoms. From there unfolds a sensitively told character study, a sweeping story of enduring love and heartbreaking tenderness, with some high-stakes drama adroitly woven in. Magical and game-changing. Patrick Smith

19. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Series 4, Episode 10: ‘Hush’


“Hush” is Buffy’s grandest statement, an almost entirely silent episode reflective of a series that regularly played with form, blended genres and redefined TV. In it, a pack of demons steal the voices of everyone in the town of Sunnydale, leaving Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends to navigate a crisis using mime, white boards, and comic gesticulation. From its ghoulish make-up effects to Christophe Beck’s 20 or so minutes of practically uninterrupted score, this is staggeringly well-made television. AW

18. The Prisoner – Episode 1: ‘Arrival’


Cult TV starts here. The title sequence, with Patrick McGoohan’s lead character speeding through Sixties London in a two-seater Lotus Seven, in hasty flight from we know not who, is a classic of storytelling in itself – striking images, spy music theme and, most importantly, pace. It sets the tone for a Kafka-esque show in which McGoohan’s intelligence agent is reduced to the designation Number Six and held prisoner in “The Village”, where his captors grill him. Its blend of surreal wit with design-classic sets is unmatched, captured in a script where lines such as “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own” can be met with an insouciant: “Is it?” CH

17. Succession – Season 2, Episode 10: ‘This is Not For Tears’


Family showdowns are ten-a-penny in Succession, but few were so perfectly choreographed as the season two finale. Set on a superyacht in the Mediterranean, it saw fearsome patriarch and head of the Waystar empire Logan Roy (Brian Cox) deciding who would carry the can for a sex abuse scandal in the cruise division. A breakfast meeting in which the family discuss suitable candidates pinballs between tragedy and comedy, while the eventual knifing of eldest son Kendall was brutal, and made all the more electrifying by his ballsy last-minute fightback. FS

(Succession Season 4 Episode 3, “Connor’s Wedding”, will go down in TV history. But we still think “This is Not For Tears” pips it to the post.)

16. Heimat – Episode 7: ‘Soldiers and Love’


Edgar Reitz’s masterful, dramatic overview of Germany between 1929 and 1982, focusing on one extended family in the rural southwest, is famous for alternating between colour and black and white – a technique used to great effect when a swastika shockingly first appears in crimson red. This later episode focused on the fate of Woppenroth’s inhabitants towards the end of the Second World War, when the town comes under fire from American troops and loved ones are missing or worse. Shattering, in every sense. GG

15. The Singing Detective – Episode 1: ‘Skin’


Despite being preceded by the stylistically similar Pennies from Heaven (1978), the opening episode of Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, with characters bursting into lip-synced pop songs from the 1940s, is still a delightful surprise. Potter’s trademark style reached its heady zenith in this instalment, set in the hospital where Michael Gambon’s hallucinating pulp fiction author is being treated for his psoriasis by (apparently) singing doctors and dancing nurses. The choreography to the spiritual song “Dem Bones” is the showstopper. GG

14. The World at War – Episode 20: ‘Genocide’


Assembling an unprecedented cast of witnesses from all sides of the conflict, Michael Darlow’s film about the Holocaust is one of the most lucid and powerful ever made. The director insisted that this episode – one in 26 in The World at War, a series made over the course of three years – “stare at the facts”. “I thought we needed to face the actual truth,” he said. It includes interviews with those who lived through it, who saw their families murdered, and a horrific account from the supreme leader of the Nazi SS in Italy, guilty of transporting 300,000 Jews to Treblinka. It cannot be forgotten. CH

13. Peep Show – Series 4, Episode 6: ‘Wedding’


Oh what torture a British man will subject himself to! And all in the name of politeness. This season four episode of Peep Show, in which Mark struggles with the idea that he is marrying Sophie but is unable to confront that fact and deal with it in a normal way, is the best small-screen demonstration of the UK’s epidemic of awkwardness. From a hungover Super Hans vomiting into a top hat and Jeremy wetting himself, to Mark stepping in front of a literal car in an attempt to avoid his own nuptials, it’s perfect chaos. EH

12. It’s a Sin – Episode 3


Russell T Davies’s unrelenting drama set a high bar for new series right at the top of 2021 with its illustration of the impact of Aids on a group of friends in 1980s London. In episode three, the friends are forced to face the growing epidemic head-on when it comes for one of their own: Colin, a softly spoken import from the Welsh valleys. After he suffers some unexplained fits, Colin is eventually diagnosed with a brain inflammation caused by Aids. Callum Scott Howells’s performance is devastating, from showing Colin’s heartbreak when he realises his fate, to his disturbingly swift physical and mental decline. It’s powerful, unforgettable, and one of the finest hours of television this decade. NV

11. BoJack Horseman – Season 3, Episode 11: ‘That’s Too Much, Man!’


Deftly balancing punchlines with pathos, BoJack Horseman was not only a deliciously odd satire of toxic celebrity culture, but one of the most moving meditations on depression ever seen on TV. Netflix’s animated series – about an ageing anthropomorphic horse living the louche lifestyle of a showbiz washout in Los Angeles – reached its emotional apex towards the end of its third season, with an episode so unexpectedly bleak that it leaves you winded, gasping for air. Death, destruction and horrendous self-loathing: it’s all there, as BoJack goes on an epic bender with the recently sober Sarah Lynn, a former co-star to whom he was supposed to be a father figure. Guaranteed to slay you. PS

10. The Wire – Season 1, Episode 4: ‘Old Cases’


There’s nothing like a bit of precision swearing to bring a scene into focus. In this episode of The Wire, detectives McNulty and Bunk (Dominic West and Wendell Pierce) are busily trying to pin old crimes onto Avon Barksdale’s drugs gang when they are called to a seemingly unrelated homicide. Assessing the crime scene in near-silence, they methodically track the path of the bullets from outside the apartment window, into the victim’s head and onto the door of the fridge, relaying their bafflement, then realisation, then astonishment through variations of the word “f***”. Magnificent. FS

Double act: Dominic West and Wendell Pierce as McNulty and Bunk in ‘The Wire’
Double act: Dominic West and Wendell Pierce as McNulty and Bunk in ‘The Wire’ (HBO)

9. The Simpsons – Series 5, Episode 2: ‘Cape Feare’


Throw a dart at a list of The Simpsons episodes from 1991 to 1997 and odds are you’ll hit one of the best TV episodes ever made – such was the freakish comic ingenuity of the long-running cartoon’s “golden era”. “Cape Feare” is The Simpsons at its quicksilver best: an episode-long parody of the 1991 Scorsese movie Cape Fear, landing Homer’s family at the centre of a bungled murder plot involving Kelsey Grammer’s Sideshow Bob. LC

8. The Office – Series 1, Episode 5: ‘Training’


Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s peerlessly quotable comedy hit new heights with “Training”. From David Brent’s disastrous hotel roleplay (“sometimes the complaints will be false”) to the singalong rendition of “Free Love Freeway”, this first-season episode contains several of the series’ best-loved moments. Special praise should also go to guest star Vincent Franklin (later known as Stewart Pearson in The Thick of It), whose exasperated teambuilding instructor is one of Brent’s best foils. Go and get the guitar… LC

7. Mad Men – Series 4, Episode 7: ‘The Suitcase’


“The Suitcase” is about as close to perfect as an hour of TV has come. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is working on a campaign for luggage manufacturer Samsonite with her demanding boss Don (Jon Hamm). Over the course of an evening – Peggy’s birthday – the two finally give voice to the frustrations, anxieties and grievances that have been simmering in their relationship. Both are outsiders, dealing with grief, struggling to balance their personal and professional lives, but they gain a fleeting catharsis, falling asleep together on the couch at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. You’ll never hear Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bleecker Street” again without a tear in your eye. NH

6. Brideshead Revisited – Episode 11: ‘Brideshead Revisited’


The final episode of Granada TV’s Evelyn Waugh adaptation is by far the most melancholic, and not simply because Laurence Olivier, in his last significant screen role, gives an acting masterclass as his Lord Marchmain lies dying – the dissolute, snobbish marquis making a surprise reconversion to Catholicism. The final 15 minutes set during the Second World War, when the narrator Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) returns to Brideshead with his army squadron, and finds the place that holds so many memories being turned upside down by the troops, makes for a perfect Proustian coda. GG

5. The Thick of It – Series 3, Episode 6: ‘It’s a lockdown!’


Ben Swain’s nervous Newsnight blinking. Peter Mannion calling App Britain. The death of Mr Tickel. (It’s actually Mr Tick-el.) The canon of superlative The Thick of It moments is legion, but the series reached its peak with the pitch-perfect hysteria of the now much-memed “lockdown” episode. With the PM on holiday, sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker needs to contain the chaos when Nicola Murray accidentally launches a leadership bid. “Unthink the unthinkable. You can’t even cope with thinking the thinkable,” he rants at the staff of DoSac, including press officer Terri Coverley – who is, inexplicably, wearing trainers. The febrile, surreal and frequently incompetent offices of power are summed up in 30 exquisite minutes. JT

4. Blackadder Goes Forth – Season 4, Episode 6: ‘Goodbyeee’


The final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, the Richard Curtis/Ben Elton sitcom set in the trenches of the First World War, took a risk when it set aside the usual daft wordplay and sight gags in favour of extreme pathos. Aired in 1989, the episode’s final scenes remained a closely guarded secret, ensuring that audiences were thoroughly sucker-punched as the soldiers, played by Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Robinson and Tim McInnerny, were sent over the top and to their deaths in shattering slow-motion. FS

3. The Sopranos – Series 3, Episode 11: ‘Pine Barrens’


It can be easy to overlook the fact that David Chase’s dark, violent mob drama is one of the funniest series of all time. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Pine Barrens”, an episode that sees Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) attempt to chase and kill a runaway Russian gangster in the frozen New Jersey Pinelands. Violence and idiocy intersect with unpredictable results. Elsewhere, Tony’s (James Gandolfini) fling with Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra) comes to a steak dinner-flinging crescendo in another of the series’ most memorable moments. LC

2. I May Destroy You – Episode 12: ‘Ego Death’


The staggering finale of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is one of those episodes of TV you could watch over and over again, and continue to find new meaning. It sees Coel’s traumatised protagonist, Arabella, encounter the man who raped her at the bar where they first met, months after the attack. After the initial shock, her imagination splinters off into the various scenarios that could follow, from a vigilante revenge fantasy to her aggressor having a bathroom breakdown. Just like the rest of the series, it’s surreal, panic-inducing and totally unforgettable. EH

1. This Is England ’86 – Episode 4


The finale of Shane Meadows’s TV spin-off from his 2006 film This Is England – about a gang of skinheads growing up in the Midlands – is condensed into a little over 45 minutes, yet it hits home with an authenticity that feels vital as it lurches between joy and terror. It starts with a plan for an impromptu wedding and builds towards a violent confrontation between rapist Mick (Johnny Harris) and his “stepdaughter” Lol (Bafta-winning Vicky McClure). Meadows later described their fight as “about as real as you can go”. Its climax, involving Stephen Graham’s right-wing skinhead Combo, is as unexpected as it is powerful. One of the most shattering episodes of television drama ever made. CH

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