When we think about television in 2021, it’s not always as an entire episode or season of a show. Oftentimes, we think of them as moments—a few seconds of dialogue, a full scene, the way the actor or actress delivered a line. Whatever it is, it stood out from the rest—it moved you or surprised you; it made you stop and think, “yeah, this show is good.”
These moments can be transformative, like when two characters who hate each other embrace in a moment of understanding and comfort. They peal back the layers of characters we thought we understood to give us a deeper insight into humanity itself, in good ways and bad. Or, it’s simply a moment of art that’s been playing on a loop inside your head ever since you saw it.
Before we tackle the best television shows of 2021, we wanted to take a look back at ten of the biggest, coolest, most moving, devastating, jaw-dropping, and downright exciting moments from television this year.
Spoilers below for Succession, What We Do in the Shadows, Ted Lasso, Evil, Squid Game, Mythic Quest, and It’s A Sin
What We Do in the Shadows
3×08, “The Wellness Center”: Guillermo rescues Nandor from a cult
Not only was this a one take shot, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) and Nandor’s (Kayvan Novak) escape from the very human wellness center perfectly encapsulated their relationship: Guillermo will do anything for his master, including entering a den of brainwashed vampires, and Nandor reluctantly but with total trust, will follow.
“The Wellness Center” was another step in Nandor’s struggles with his mental health in Season 3. His intention in joining the center was to essentially stop being himself, hiding away in a cult that promised false fulfillment. Guillermo’s tough love in this episode is an extension of Nandor’s journey—when we can’t help ourselves, and refuse to ask for it, someone’s always there to set us back on our path.—Katey Stoetzel
3×10, “The Portrait”: Guillermo fights back
The moment we stand up for ourselves is the moment we step fully into who we’re supposed to be. Guillermo may love his vampire master, but their positions created a power imbalance. Even after Guillermo became a bodyguard for Nandor, he was still treated as a slave.
When Nandor decides he’s leaving Staten Island and not taking Guillermo with him, Guillermo’s retaliation is a long time coming. He exposes that he can’t be manipulated by vampire hypnotism, and then proceeds to tackle, body slam, beat up, and slap Nandor all while yelling about how unappreciated he is in the vampire household. It’s damn cathartic. Even though this scene ends with Nandor finally saying he’ll turn Guillermo into a vampire, it’s still a moment that showcased Guillermo’s power and relevance in this story.—Katey Stoetzel
2×04, “Breaking Brad”: Brad begs for his job
Our man Brad (Danny Pudi) is the bad guy in the Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet office. There’s been a few moments in Season 1 and the “Quarantine” episode where a softer side to Brad has peaked through. In “Breaking Brad,” the flood gates open when his brother Zach (Parvesh Cheena) surprises Brad for his birthday. Except, it’s not Brad’s birthday—Zach’s here to tank the company, and the emotional turmoil it sends Brad down finally explains his entire personality.
In the episode’s most emotional moment, Brad’s stoic facade breaks when he pleads with his brother to leave Mythic Quest alone. Danny Pudi really sells this poignant scene, softening Brad’s voice and giving into his brother’s request that he beg him not to ruin Mythic Quest. Here, office mean guy turns into an understandable, if still largely unlikable character (though how unlikable can Brad be when he’s played by Pudi?)—Katey Stoetzel
2×08, “Man City”: Jamie and Roy hug
Phil Dunster’s performance as the cocky yet sincere Jamie Tarrt is one of the best on Ted Lasso. The end of Season 2, in particular “Man City,” delivers a shining example of this. Already one of the finer and more cohesive episodes of the season, it delivers its final blow in the ending moments as Jamie is forced to deal with the humiliation of his father’s abuse in front of his entire team—a team of which he’s just rebuilt a bridge following his bullying in Season 1—while also having to stand up for himself.
Jamie landing a blow against his drunken father and Beard roughly escorting Jamie’s father out of the locker room was already a level of unexpected catharsis from the show, but the hug that Roy (Brett Goldstein) pulls Jamie into fully encapsulates the show’s message of our capacity for change when surrounded by others trying to do the same. It’s a beautiful moment of character growth in an already tremendous episode.—Allyson Johnson
3×09, “Chiantishire”: The sibling reckoning
As has already been decreed by many a critic, the Season 3 finale of HBO’s Succession is an example of the finest work television has to offer, with creator Jesse Armstrong intricately weaving threads throughout to culminate in a scene that is shockingly devastating. After two seasons worth of time spent keeping all of his cards to himself, Kendall finally admits to Shiv and Roman that he caused the wait staff’s death at Shiv’s wedding at the end of the first season and that their father, Logan, helped cover it up.
Jeremy Strong is terrific in this moment as a character slowly but surely coming undone, but it’s the details that make the sequence sing. From Roman’s inability to utilize actual emotion to comfort his brother, instead relying on crass jokes that wrangle out a laugh, to Shiv being the most awkward of them all and keeping her distance. All of which formulates one of the most exquisitely framed shots in recent memory for television as Roman and Shiv stand behind a crouched Kendall, trying to keep him held together long enough to fight once again against their manipulative father.—Allyson Johnson
1×06, “Kkanbu”: The end
Netflix’s Squid Game was a cultural phenomenon as, through word of mouth, it saw its popularity soar. Even if the show had been mediocre overall (it was not) it still would have earned praises for how it handled it’s sixth, most emotionally potent episode. Setting allies against allies, and friends against unlikely friends, the episode follows a familiar routine of characters having to play classic childhood games to survive the round, ensuring the death of another.
This time it pits leads against secondary characters we’ve come to care for and, in some cases, root for more than the trio of leads at the forefront. It’s as devastatingly visceral as any television moment has been this year, as the writing superbly demonstrates the gray area so many of the characters are operating within as they try and stay alive in whatever clumsy manner they can.—Allyson Johnson
2×06, “C is for Cop”: Kristen’s confession
Ever since Kristen (Katja Herbers) killed serial killer LaRoux in the Season 1 finale, her mental state has steadily been regressing. Her guilt comes to a head in “C is for Cop” when her detective friend Mira Byrd (Kristen Connelly) starts questioning Kristen about her involvement in LaRoux’s death.
“C is for Cop” tackles police brutality by showcasing the insidiousness of racial profiling, white privilege, and racial bias. When Kristen falls to her knees in her backyard, crying to Detective Byrd, also a white woman, that she killed LaRoux, it should be a moment of catharsis. Instead, Byrd tosses aside the murder weapon and tells Kristen it’ll be okay because it was in self defense, despite the fact that part of Kristen’s confession involved explaining that it was premeditated.
Connelly’s subtle change in demeanor is fascinating as she goes from concerned friend to dirty cop, letting her friend get away with murder. The moment is underscored when Byrd unnecessarily says they’ll just explain their presence in Kristen’s backyard by saying there was a Black man harassing Kristen. It’s a chilling indication of just how deep racism runs in the police department. For Kristen, it’s a moment that will further define her guilt for the rest of the season, knowing that her privilege as a white woman kept her safe; when she’s granted absolution for the murder and for how the police let her go at the end of the season from her friend David (Mike Colter), a Black man who’s just been ordained as a priest, it’s an even stronger indictment of the world today.—Katey Stoetzel
It’s A Sin
1×05: Jill and Valerie on the boardwalk
A devastating bait and switch, this scene late in the final episode of It’s A Sin takes your breath away the moment “he died yesterday” leaves Valerie’s (Keeley Hawes) mouth. Perhaps it’s the hope in Jill’s (Lydia West) face that she’ll get to see her best friend; maybe it’s how for a moment, we thought Valerie did the right thing; maybe it’s the split second of relief we feel when we think Ritchie (Olly Alexander) will get to be surrounded by his friends again.
Or maybe it’s the sudden absence of sound as the realization sinks over us and over Jill at the same time, making us sit in this horrible moment of loss and grief, with the greater implication that this is just how death from AIDs went in the 1980s. The following yelling match between Jill and Valerie is satisfying, as Jill gets to scream out all of her grief and frustration to this one woman who kept her from saying goodbye to her friend. In the end, it’s a hollow satisfaction.—Katey Stoetzel
I Think You Should Leave
It’s nearly impossible to pick any one moment from Season 2 of the brilliant I Think You Should Leave as the best. So much of this sketch comedy series by and starring Tim Robinson is objectively based on the humor of the consumer.
That said, if there’s a skit that I replay over and over again as an act of self-care, it’s the first skit of episode five of season two. It’s relatively simple and low stakes considering his other sketches, but it lands the punch due to the simplicity. A man gets angry at a bad driver and yells, asking if he even knows how to drive. Said driver, disarrayed and stressed (played by Robinson) leans out his window and says “no.” That’s it. That’s the joke. But it’s the succinct manner in which he lands the punchline that makes it such a memorable and rewatchable one.—Allyson Johnson
1×02, “Don’t Touch That Dial”: Wanda’s in control
Any Marvel fan knew going into Disney+’s original series WandaVision that all wasn’t as it seemed based on the promo that teased classic television formats and plays on sitcoms from the last 50 years. Still, it was easy to be caught up in the charm and playfulness of the world they’d created as Wanda and Vision enjoyed marital bliss in a world separate from the one we knew them from.
Episode 2 ends on a note of earned foreboding as someone from the outside world manages to break through and Wanda, in a chilling moment from Elizabeth Olsen, deliverers a sturdy “no” which rewinds this pocket of the universe she’s created where VIsion is still alive and they’re living happily. If audiences weren’t already sure that she knew more than she was letting on, it was this scene that absolutely confirmed it.—Allyson Johnson