There were many great moments this decade, but the ones highlighted here tend to oscillate between wildly funny and greatly disturbing, sometimes at the same time. These scenes and descriptions may contain major spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Onion SportsDome – Rape accusation (2/9/2011)
Onion SportsDome was a brilliant evisceration of ESPN, and it lasted for one glorious season. Its finest moment has found its way outside the context of the show, a sadly relevant perversion of the human interest story. Like the best Onion pieces, it hurts to laugh.
2011 NBA Western Conference Semi-Finals – Game 4, aka “The Mother’s Day Massacre” (5/8/2011)
It would be hard to pick just one moment from the Mavs’ incredible run in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, culminating in their first and only championship. Their Game 2 Finals performance, when they came back from 15 down late in the 4th quarter, was a contender, as was Dirk’s tearful exit at the end of regulation of Game 6. But this was crucial for several reasons: 1. Only Charles Barkley predicted the underdogs could topple the reigning champs. 2. The Mavs not only beat them, but swept them, closing out Game 4 in devastating fashion. 3. This was a preview of what the NBA would become: with a major focus on 3-pointers. 4. Phil Jackson retired after this season and the Lakers have not won a playoff series since.
Breaking Bad – The Man Who Laughs (9/25/2011)
Again, it was hard to narrow down an ultimate Breaking Bad moment, but I’m going with the moment Walt was officially off the deep end: After realizing his stash is missing and everything has gone to shit, he has no choice but to lay there and laugh like a maniac.
Rob Ford says, “I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.” (11/14/2013)
One thing we may have forgotten about the pre-Trump era is that nutty press conferences were pretty rare. But Toronto mayor Rob Ford, a walking gaffe, made them a special event. Asked about a sexual harassment scandal, Ford could have said, “No comment” or even offered an “I wouldn’t do that” defense. Instead, he goes for the most insane answer possible. R.I.P.
True Detective – Stash house raid (2/9/2014)
The episode that won Cary Joji Fukunaga a well-deserved Best Director Emmy, this harrowing episode features the most impressive one-take scene of any TV show. With McConaughey’s undercover working with racist bikers to rob a stash house, everything goes awry almost immediately, and whatever delusions Rust entertained about being better than his cohorts evaporates in five minutes.
House of Cards – Frank kills Zoe (2/14/2014)
The murder heard ’round the world. Dropping the second season of House of Cards on Valentine’s Day 2014, Netflix went for the jugular right away, killing off Frank’s main foil in gruesome fashion in the premiere. I’ve never gotten so many “WTF” texts about a show in a single night.
Silicon Valley – The dick joke (6/1/2014)
Apologies for having to see T.J. Miller if you click the link, but the high point for Silicon Valley‘s first season – and for highbrow takes on lowbrow humor – came in its season finale, when an off-handed joke about how impossible it would be to win the competition they’ve entered turns to a scientific exploration of efficient handjobs.
Game of Thrones – Cersei’s revenge (6/26/2016)
Probably the best section of any single episode this decade, the opening of the sixth season finale is a masterclass in sustained suspense. Cersei (Lena Headey) has refused to show up to her trial by the city’s pious religious leaders, but only Margaery (Natalie Dormer) knows it’s more than a “fuck you” to the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). She’s really up to destruction, but in getting revenge, she doesn’t realize she’s destroying herself in the process.
Saturday Night Live – Black Jeopardy! with Tom Hanks (10/22/2016)
SNL‘s attempts at political humor this decade have mostly been a failure, with two low points: having Trump himself host and then, after his election, having Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton sing “Hallelujah.” But in a best-of-times/blurst-of-times situation, they got it right, having host Tom Hanks join a game of Black Jeopardy!, playing a MAGA hat-wearing conspiracy theorist. It could have gone wrong in a million ways, but on focusing what he has in common with his competitors, the jokes don’t come easy but they do come quickly, ending with a great punchline proving any unity would be short-lived.
The Oscars – “Moonlight has won Best Picture.” (2/26/2017)
I remember where I was when it happened. My friends and I had had a great day: We’d gone to see Get Out, which wasn’t yet a full-blown phenomenon. We’d gotten a king cake. And we’d had dinner and relaxed while watching the Oscars, which we assumed would be dominated by La La Land. It still won the most awards, but lost some surprising categories. Then came Best Picture. After La La Land was announced, we started saying our goodbyes and packing up, but luckily we hadn’t turned off the TV just yet. Producer Justin Horowitz then asked the producers of Moonlight to come up. I thought it was a nice gesture, but then he plainly stated, “This is not a joke. Moonlight has won Best Picture.” Chaos ensued, with a moment only live TV can provide. Sadly, the insanity meant the producers of the actual best movie of the year – one of the rare occasions the Academy actually picked correctly – had their acceptance speech diminished. Still, it was an unforgettable moment on a show that often has no surprises.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “I Want It That Way” (4/15/2018)
Picking the best Brooklyn Nine-Nine cold open is a fool’s errand. My personal pick is Boyle’s reveal that he suffered from a Dianne Wiest infection, but could I really honor such an atrocious pun? Instead, I went with Jake at his most in-his-own-head, forcing every guy in his line-up to belt out the Backstreet Boys’ best-known hit. But only this show would end such a joyful moment with such a dark punchline.
Barry – “Why did you just say that?!” (5/6/2018)
Even with only two seasons under its belt, Barry is easily one of the decade’s best shows. I was into it from the beginning, but this moment in the seventh episode solidified it as the best show of 2018. After surviving a job gone wrong, Chris tells Barry he plans on going to the cops and confessing, which causes Barry to snap, and in one single moment takes him from antihero to full-on villain.
The Americans – The parking garage (5/30/2018)
The 90-minute finale of The Americans was a tremendous piece of television, and the creators somehow saved the most tense scene for it, then stuck it in the middle of the episode. Stan, the next-door neighbor of spies Elizabeth and Phillip, has finally realized after all this time that they’re the Russian assets he’s been looking for this whole time. It’s a betrayal. Yet he still allows them to lie to him a few more times, letting him think they didn’t really do anything so awful. Then to twist the knife, Phillip casually tosses out that Stan’s new wife Renee might be a spy, too. But he doesn’t know for sure, and now neither will Stan.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Mac’s dance (11/7/2018)
The only time the show has managed to get serious, and they pulled it off. After Mac’s thinly veiled homosexuality had been used as a running gag, he finally comes out to his father in an interpretive dance set to Sigur Rós’ “Varúð.” It’s one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on television, and a one-time attempt for the show to let its characters not be terrible.
Fleabag – The love speech (4/8/2019)
Season 2 of Fleabag is my pick for the show of 2019, six perfect half-hours about what we will and won’t do for love. It all culminates in Andrew Scott’s beautiful, honest and hopeful distillation of romance.