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Top TV Episodes of the Month: Nathan for You, Vice Principals, The Punisher

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Soon the bells will chime, and they’ll be coming from your DVR, which frankly just can’t take it anymore. This year saw more than 500 scripted series hit the airwaves (and the YouTubes and Hulus and Netflixes, oh my), and the words ‘Peak TV’ have never rung as true. Any minute now, we’ll be falling down the rabbit hole of year-end lists, traveling back to to a time when no one knew what The Good Place was and we still thought David Lynch might tell us where Annie was. It’s a little hard to believe that the list of 2017’s finest is still growing, but it is. Five such shows follow, and as usual, this list could easily be twice as long.

Is it time to admit that definitely picking the five best episodes of any given month is a fool’s errand? I think so. Curating a list like this is something of a balancing act, spreading the love between streaming and broadcast gems, rewarding things that weren’t highlighted in previous months, and recognizing that an individual hour can sometimes outpace the series it calls home. How do you recognize something like Netflix’s Alias Grace, the finest series of the month and easily one of the year’s best, when no single episode sits head and shoulders above the rest? What of something like Vice’s The Trixie and Katya Show, an oddball gem that’s both essential viewing and total fluff? How the hell do you factor in the raucous conclusion to The CW’s four-part Arrowverse crossover, when the three parts that preceded the final Legends of Tomorrow installment were great fun but wildly uneven? And what in the hell do you with glorious messes like Mr. Robot, Outlander, and Godless, which all had high highs and low lows?

Basically, you just pick, and that’s what we did here. It’s great stuff, from shows whose names you should expect to see a lot as list after list rolls out, filled with performances, direction, and writing that are rightfully heralded. Consider this a way to start easing the burden on your DVR, and hopefully by the time 2018 rolls around, you’ll be ready to start fresh — because if you thought 2017 was nuts, you won’t believe what happens next.

–Allison Shoemaker
Senior Writer

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She’s Gotta Have It

“#Booty Full (Self Acceptance)”

 Top TV Episodes of the Month: Nathan for You, Vice Principals, The Punisher

Spike Lee’s Netflix reboot of his seminal film She’s Gotta Have It doesn’t reveal its true colors until the five-minute warning of the first episode. On her way home from a girlfriend’s apartment, our modern Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) gets catcalled and then grabbed by a stranger on the street. She’s able to fight him off and get away, but it’s an encounter that she struggles to process moving forward. While Nola the radical artist pulls a Banksy and secretly plasters the neighborhood with a series of powerful, anti-catcalling images (artwork that’ll later be defaced with slurs like “cunt” and “slut” spray painted on it), Nola the person finds herself truly shaken by the event, struggling to reclaim normalcy, regain her confidence, and figure out how she wants to inform the men in her life about the incident.

If the early parts of this season, particularly the second episode, are any indication, one of the merits of Lee’s reboot will be that it takes the time and compassion necessary to seriously address what women (regardless of color) sadly endure in our society on a regular basis. While shows might try to wrap up the topic of sexual assault in one neat and tidy episode, Nola’s encounter clearly will be a through line that the series returns to because that type of experience would be one that a victim must return to in order to move beyond. In a time when our entire society needs to do some serious self-reflection on how we treat one another, a show that doesn’t skirt the difficult dialogues for the comfortable ones feels painfully needed. –Matt Melis

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The Punisher

“Kandahar”

 Top TV Episodes of the Month: Nathan for You, Vice Principals, The Punisher

The Netflix-Marvel team-up has come a long way, for better and worse, from the heralded “hallway fight” in Daredevil’s first season. It’s yielded hours of television that are as gorgeously shot as they are intellectually and thematically rich, and on the flip side, it’s also given us Iron Fist. The finest hours all have three things in common, though, other than the absence of Danny Rand: they’re character-driven, intimate, and center on a remarkable lead performance.

Enter Jon Bernthal, the magnetic lead of The Punisher, whose performance in Daredevil’s crowded second season is so good it earned him his very own spinoff. “Kandahar” zooms in on what will become the show’s central relationship. In it, Bernthal’s Frank Castle and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Micro suffer a standoff in which the most potent weapons are mental, not physical, and where their Achilles heels exist in memory. It’s a tense, moody, and complicated hour with great performances from both men, and a hell of an action sequence for good measure.

Still, what really distinguishes “Kandahar” is how nimbly it handles exposition. In one hour, we learn a great deal about the pasts of two broken, angry men, and we do so without so much as a single info dump. For Micro and Frank, the past is ever-present, and so every revelation burns. It’s great writing, and though the series itself is uneven, this one hour is anything but. –Allison Shoemaker

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Curb Your Enthusiasm

“The Shucker”

the shucker Top TV Episodes of the Month: Nathan for You, Vice Principals, The Punisher

For the most part, the super-sized episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm haven’t really worked this season. What’s often happened is a mish-mash of threads that ultimately resolve themselves in ways that are all too convenient, or some that are simply left aside altogether. “The Shucker” is one of the few that gets away squeaky clean, sauntering around like a classic Curb episode, even when it indulges in some carnival fare, like that boisterous Judge Judy sequence. Eh, it still works.

But that whole charade is hardly as funny as the weird mundanities that Larry David, Jeff Schaffer, and Justin Hurwitz pepper throughout the episode. There’s the running bit with Mrs. Shapiro, the former owner of Larry’s house, who wanders into his dinner party like a geriatric gremlin. Then there’s the business with the titular schmohawk himself, played by Stephen King’s favorite Jack Torrance, Steven Weber. Christ, that whole ordeal with the Hamilton tickets … what a jerk.

Speaking of Hamilton, we can’t forget Lin-Manuel Miranda, who gets the Extras treatment here, acting like a power-hungry sociopath who plays it nice with that boyish grin of his from behind his ludicrous desk. Sure, the whole chair race is an echo of Larry’s doctor’s office run from over a decade ago, but it’s all in good fun. Besides, the way they both play it off as if nothing happened is even better, as if they’re competing for casualness. And that whole Ted/Tahoe exchange? Perfect.

Thank god that stupid fatwa was lifted! –Michael Roffman

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Vice Principals

“The Union of the Wizard and the Warrior”

22the union of the wizard and the warrior22 Top TV Episodes of the Month: Nathan for You, Vice Principals, The Punisher

Over its limited two-season run, Vice Principals served as a near-perfect distillation of the themes with which Jody Hill has been seriocomically obsessed since his debut with The Foot Fist Way nearly 10 years ago: the hubris, danger, and latent pain of pathetic middle-aged men. Gamby (Danny McBride) and Russell (Walton Goggins) may not be good people, and at times in the show’s 18 episodes, they’ve been outright reproachable. Yet “The Union of the Wizard and the Warrior” doesn’t conclude on a note of victory or defeat, of the kind either man spent the series chasing for and/or against one another.

Instead, it achieves a place of peace, seeing the two reunite to save North Jackson High School from the forces of evil. In this case, those would be a rogue Bengal tiger and the violent endgame of Edi Patterson’s spurned teacher Jen Abbott. For all of the profane bluster the series put forth, it ends on a sweet note, at least as sweet as an episode can when it also involves Russell being mauled by said tiger after an earlier murder attempt.

In its strange way, Vice Principals winds up being about the platonic love between two men who, two seasons earlier, would’ve chortled at such a thing. Gamby may get the girl and both may find jobs more suited to their respective skills, but they end up without each other. It’s a perfectly bittersweet ending to a series that excelled at earning that emotion. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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Nathan for You

“Finding Frances”

finding frances Top TV Episodes of the Month: Nathan for You, Vice Principals, The Punisher

Where does Nathan for You even go from here? Maybe nowhere. Maybe this is it. “Finding Frances”, a feature-length episode that deviates from the show’s central format in numerous ways, certainly feels like an ending. In reconnecting Bill Heath, the show’s resident Bill Gates impersonator, with his long-lost love, Frances, Nathan seems to find an ending for the character he’s cultivated while also commenting on the line between reality and fiction the show itself has long blurred. With “Finding Frances”, Nathan has taken a show about absurd, roundabout business advice and transformed it into a comment on how we nurture self-delusion.

That said, it was also very funny. The sequence where Nathan and Bill pretended to be making a sequel to Jeff Nichols’ 2012 film Mud (aka Mud 2: Never Clean) to gain access to old yearbooks was classic Nathan for You. The episode’s emphasis on character, however, allowed for a different strain of humor to emerge, a joyous one informed by empathy. Watching Bill don a fake pair of glasses and sing “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas” was hilarious, but also inspiring when taken in light of his Hollywood dreams. And though it was funny to watch Bill run down Frances’ husband or creepily role play with the actress from LA, it was also a little bit tragic, knowing Bill the way we do. And then there was Nathan’s reaction to Bill’s claim that “you gotta know what you’re stickin’ it in,” which might’ve been Nathan’s most purely honest moment since that gas station owner told him he drinks his grandson’s piss.

What’s really happening between Nathan and the escort he begins meeting with remains less transparent, but it nevertheless resonates on multiple levels. Nathan’s character was built on a foundation of solitude even before Brian Wolfe called him “The Wizard of Loneliness,” and his desire for (and inability to achieve) genuine human connection has been especially prevalent in the last several seasons. The way he confronts it here is moving, but the truth of it is irrevocably tainted by the money, the cameras, and crew surrounding them. The same goes for Bill. The same goes for the whole show. What even is reality? –Randall Colburn

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