Best of the Year: The 10 Best Directed Episodes of 2015

When we talk about TV, we focus so much on the writing—plotting, characterization, whether or not arcs are "satisfying," and the like. But despite the attention we pay in reviews and thinkpieces to auteurs, showrunners, and the writers' rooms, directing is just as important to the formulation of all types of TV. Note that focus on all, because from our vantage point, great directing is happening all over the TV landscape, from pay cable to broadcast and from large-scale dramas to sketch comedy. Thus, instead of praising the usual suspects or shows that tend to get the troubling "cinematic" label, this list celebrates a wide array of wonderfully directed episodes, in no particular order. 


Mr. Robot, "eps.1.3_da3mons.mp4"


Numerous episodes from USA Network's much-discussed freshman series could have landed on this list. Niels Arden Oplev crafted a fantastic pilot episode that set the template for Mr. Robot's great visual style that is both curious and entirely focused on the distracted psyche of its main character, while showrunner Sam Esmail managed to carry that style through the second episode all the way to his impressive work in the Season 1 finale. But we'd like to shout out Nisha Ganatra's work in this episode, where Elliot's withdrawal led to stirring and surreal hallucinations, and where the dream-like quality of the episode extended to the experiences of other characters as well (most notably in Shayla and Angela's ecstasy-driven make-out). In a show littered with great individual shots or sequences, this episode was particularly beautiful and character-driven. 


Show Me A Hero, "Parts 3 & 4"

David Simon and Paul Haggis make for strange bedfellows. The former is celebrated for his on-the-ground, realistic investigations of generally ignored urban areas, while the other, well, the other is responsible for Crash. But in this summer's Show Me A Hero, the six-hour miniseries about a complex political struggle over federally-mandated housing, Simon and Haggis brought the absolute best out of one another. While Simon and co-writer William F. Sorzi's portrayal of 1980s Yonkers, New York, would certainly have been great if filmed like Simon's previous series The Wire or Treme, Haggis' slick approach made Hero more of a sweeping tale. But this wasn't some hackneyed, blustery butchering of Simon's typical style. In the middle two hours, Haggis demonstrated a fine ability to nail the quiet moments, with characters on all sides of the debate coming to the realization that they'll never get what they want. In Haggis' tightly-framed phone calls and energetic unruly crowds, the raw impact of a charged debate became very real, "realism" be damned. 


Modern Family, "Connection Lost"


Yeah, producing an entire sitcom episode through a laptop screen is a gimmick, and maybe too much of a celebration of Mac products for a show that has historically prayed at the altar of Jobs a little too much. However, gimmicks, when done properly, can still be very cool. Steve Levitan's "Connection Lost" hit that mark. The novelty of it all, with Claire bouncing from FaceTime to iMessage and beyond to communicate with her family, made this one of the only must-see Modern Family episodes this decade, but lost in the production novelty was how common this experience actually was for many of us. This episode illustrated that, when done right, directing was not just composing cool shots or getting powerful performances out of your actors; it's also about working with everyone, from editors to production designers, to create something compelling.


Game of Thrones, "Hardhome" 


Game of Thrones has done massive action episodes before, but none were as deftly crafted as director Miguel Sapochnik brought more than adrenaline to the battle between the Night's Watch and the White Walkers. At nearly a half hour in length, the biggest fight in the series' history was utter chaos choreographed into something breathtaking. Keep in mind that half the combatants were computer generated, the entire thing was shot in a quarry in Northern Ireland, and star Kit Harington claimed that they were only getting about a minute of footage filmed every day. But giving the battle an emotional heart was the key—it was an utter massacre, and it showed. Even more telling was that even with all the slicing and shooting, the most memorable scene of all was the exchange of looks between the Night's King and Jon Snow as the latter retreated and the former rose his dead friends to join his army. 


Transparent, "Kina Hora"


Sometimes, all it takes is one shot. One shot to tell the audience everything they need to know about characters, the story, the tone, everything. The extended opening shot of Transparent Season 2 was that kind of take. Jill Soloway's medium white shot of the entire Pfefferman clan trying—and failing miserably—to take a family photo at Sarah's wedding perfectly captured the honesty and comedy of the orchestrated group snap, with characters bickering across one another, yelping at other people off-screen, and struggling to synchronize their smiles. With that shot alone, "Kina Hora" would have a chance to make this list. That Soloway followed it up with numerous medium close-ups that illuminated the characters' alienation despite the party happening around them and closed with a glorious tracking shot of the various family members in their separate hotel rooms only further showed the mastery on display in this episode. 


Limitless, "Headquarters!"


Broadcast procedurals never, ever get their due when it comes to direction. It's just too damn easy to point to the end result of some cable drama, ignore the production contexts and intended audiences, and say, "Look at how much more artful this is!" That's nonsense. You know what's hard? Coming up with visually interesting ways to tell same-y stories about good guys catching bad guys every week. In just 11 episodes this fall, CBS's Limitless proved itself to be surprisingly and thrillingly creative in this regard, offering up a smart color-coded presentation of Brian's NZT experiences and regularly amusing ways to deliver traditionally bland exposition. Nowhere was the show's verve more present than in Doug Aarniokoski's "Headquarters!," an hour of crime-solving TV that tackles the FBI's 10 Most Wanted with almost action sequences, rapid-fire editing between multiple global locales, and a playfully fun riff on The Untouchables that we never knew we needed. Scenes like the above montage with boss Naz repeatedly shutting down Brian's request to receive his own headquarters showed that there were indeed ways to have fun on CBS without relying on cynical wise-cracking over dead bodies. 


The Jinx, "What The Hell Did I Do?"


There are probably "better" episodes of The Jinx, but there are few moments from 2015 that we'll remember more than accused double murderer Robert Durst admitting guilt to himself, and unknowingly, the rest of the world, in a hotel bathroom. Those final minutes of The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki's twisty documentary series about Durst's life and (alleged) crimes, were unbelievable in their own right, but it's the way Jarecki and his collaborators led to the final confrontation with Durst, honing in on the handwriting sample on an old letter, that built anticipation in a way that most scripted dramas could only dream (it helped that the sequences were likely shown out of order, of course). Technically, there's nothing special here—this finale features more bumpy car ride conversations and staid ceiling camera footage than ever, lacking the proficient editing between talking heads and footage of Durst that drove prior episodes. And yet, a few digital cameras honing in on one person confronting another with legitimate evidence about murder showed the power in simplicity. 


The Last Man on Earth, "Alive in Tucson"


Typically, sitcoms start off very sluggish until the cast and crew find the right mix of personalities, rhythm, and tone. The Last Man on Earth bucked that axiom with its pilot episode, a Phil Lord and Christopher Miller-directed affair that executed a high-concept premise so successfully that the subsequent—and generally pretty good—episodes haven't quite lived up to its standard. Lord and Miller's version of the post-apocalyptic world took advantage of the wide open spaces of the American Southwest, choosing to shoot Will Forte's Phil with lingering long shots that emphasize his solitude. Of course, the duo never took things too seriously, so said lingering shots often involved Phil committing repulsive gross-out acts or talking to a collection of balls, injecting "Alive in Tuscon" with the proper amount of laugh-out-loud moments. 


Inside Amy Schumer, "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" 


Ryan McFaul and Amy Schumer teamed up to direct "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer," and the result was a fitting homage to the 1957 Sidney Lumet film that also served as a wicked contemporary satire. McFaul and Schumer aped the look of Lumet's film, complete with a classical Hollywood shooting style that may've seen slow to some, if they weren't too busy laughing, or watching with a slack jaw at the audacity of the whole thing. Together, the use of black and white, period-appropriate costuming, and shooting style produced a clear late-'50s vibe that called attention to the central message of the episode: Men have been deciding who's right for TV and why for way too long. These jurors in the 1950s might as well be media executives today.


The Knick, "Whiplash"


We could have drawn any episode of The Knick out of a hat for this list. Steven Soderbergh's riveting, inquisitive, and regularly blunt visualization of turn-of-the-century medical practice has made The Knick one of TV's most extraordinary shows. As director and editor, Soderbergh has topped his Season 1 work this fall by more successfully weaving individual stories together and getting the most out of an entirely new location on the left coast (the season's first couple of episodes were particularly sturdy on this front). But with The Knick, it still came down to the gruesome, apparently true-to-life medical procedures, and the demonstration of addiction, using an exposed brain in a conscious dude, took the cake. Watch as Soderbergh moved the camera around the operating hall in a circle, utilizing both long takes and quick cuts to small details and crowd reactions, to produce a palpable mix of awe and horror. The Knick does this kind of stuff weekly, people!

What well-directed episodes stood out to you in 2015?


Comments (71)
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Apr 20, 2016
How is "the Expanse" episode four not on this list?!
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Feb 03, 2016
The episode Glenn suposely "dies" in TWD was really good too
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Jan 29, 2016
Wow... a lot of people have an eye for direction here. I get immersed in my shows and, if pointed out to me, I can recognize good direction, but I guess it's hard for me to read direction...
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Jan 13, 2016
Better Call Saul. Pick any episode.
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Jan 04, 2016
Brooklyn Nine Nine's Into the Woods. iZombie's Abra Cadaver. American Dad's Manhattan Murder Mystery Tour. Elementary's Tag You're Me. Hawaii Five-0s Day Trippers.
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Jan 04, 2016
No Fargo? Okay then.
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Jan 03, 2016
No love for Banshee as usual...Not surprising.

Tribal, A fixer of sorts (Nola vs Burton) and You cant hide from the dead (Heist episode) outstrips everything on this list comfortably except Hardhome.
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Jan 04, 2016
Including Hardhome.
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Jan 03, 2016
Since this article is about direction, I would have to submit the Banshee episode

"You Can't Hide From the Dead." The POV from the body cams was awesome.

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Jan 02, 2016
No episode of The 100 on this list? Granted I don't pay attention to directing as much as the acting and the writing, but I'm sure an episode belongs on this list.
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Jan 02, 2016
The best scene of the year. The best episode of the year. The best show of the year. One of my favorite television scenes of all time. And this coming from a big GoT, Fargo, Mr. Robot, Banshee and Hannibal fan.

The Leftovers: I Live Here Now



Poignant, heartbreaking, beautiful.
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Jan 03, 2016
indeed!
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Jan 05, 2016
It was torture waiting that 20 minutes to see what happened to Kevin. I almost thought he wasn't coming back. That song moved the hell out me.

Kevin has been saved by divine intervention once, and has come back from being dead TWICE. He's immortal, basically.
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Jan 02, 2016
Jinx, Game of Thones, Show me a Hero, and Every Episode of Hannibal.
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Jan 02, 2016
"Headquarters!" really was a winner. I wish the rest of the series was a little more like "Alive in Tuscon"; a really great episode.
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Jan 02, 2016
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Jan 02, 2016
I thought Mr. Robot was one of the best shows of the year. Does it copy techniques of European small productions? Maybe, I don't really watch European small productions, but why begrudge an American show for picking up solid film techniques, no matter the source. Good directors and filmmakers are always watching what others are doing, honing their craft.

See, we can disagree without personal attacks, doc oc!
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Jan 02, 2016
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Jan 02, 2016
It's called an opinion. That's kinda what we do here.
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Jan 02, 2016
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Jan 02, 2016
Thank you. I've always hated that clearly incorrect title. At first I thought it was a clever play on words, because the first two other people to show up were women. But no, other dudes showed up, as well. What a stupid frelling title.
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Jan 02, 2016
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Jan 03, 2016
LMAO. I'll repeat it again and again. You're a bitter old man that isn't worth more than a piece of shit. And that has nothing to do with me being American (which I'm not, I don't identify myself by any country or nationality, I'm a human being, end of story). You're a bitter piece of shit cause you don't just give your opinions, you put others down as well, and act like your opinion is a fact. The line that made me reply to you initially was in your very first comment, and it goes a little something like this... "Show me somebody that laughed once, just once, during both seasons" That's called, you not liking the show, realizing that many many people do and that it's one of the best shows on TV and choosing to be a bitter piece of shit by saying stuff like that. Yes you're a bitter piece of shit, I'll repeat it over and over again. You mad? I hope you are, cause I'm done engaging in this discussion with you.
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Jan 02, 2016
Yeah, totally agree with you. Uncomfortable, cringeworthy and not very funny at all.
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Jan 03, 2016
Uncomfortable and cringeworthy is precisely what makes it fucking hilarious because that's the type of comedy it is. You just proved to me that you don't know how to judge comedy. It's like describing LeBron James as... Athletic and awe inspiring but not very good at all. Oxymoron.
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Jan 02, 2016
GoT's season 5 was its weakest, but "Hardhome"'s battle deserves to be here. I still prefer "Blackwater", but this one was one of the show's high points.
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Jan 02, 2016
I'm amazed. I expected to see Justified, Parks and Rec, Mad Men and The Americans for some reason, but what a thoughtful list for a change. Modern Family? Really? I thought we didn't like that one. Well, I suspect you still don't because this is just a one-off. What, no Fargo? The best directing is when you don't notice it. But I'll take your word on these...
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Jan 02, 2016
No love for Rick & Morty, or is that because directing animation is split between art, script, and voice direction? Mortynight Run , Auto Erotic Assimilation, Total Rickall, The Ricks Must Be Crazy, and Big Trouble In Little Sanchez all have so much range and weight that any one could be a contender for this list.
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Jan 02, 2016
Yes, glad to see you gave 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer that love, it's a brilliant piece of writing but an even better piece of directing because it never takes its eyes off the ball, it keeps every piece moving fluidly, and all for a single sketch (granted, a full-episode-long one). Every character beat works well, even Goldblum exclaiming "I have a donkey dick" as casual as can be, and Paul Giamatti's cryptic "her ass makes me furious!" Plus, whomever decided to cut the very last joke out, the "but your honor, I was in your courtroom for a speeding ticket" is a genius, that last joke would have RUINED this episode and without it we get something that is award-worthy.

I'm surprised to see Modern Family on here, especially the Skype episode which came down to a solid script, rather than impressive direction (something this series generally has wrapped up tight).
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Jan 01, 2016
BANSHEE season 3 episode 5 Tribal. Is not only because of the tragic end, but the whole episode is directed in those monotones colours, interesting angles and perspectives, all inside the Sherifs office.
If you can bring yourself to watch Siobhan Kelly final moments (I couldn't), here:

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Jan 01, 2016
Mr Robot on ANOTHER list - yeah ok then

No International Assassin? yeah, that makes sense
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Jan 01, 2016
"If-Then-Else" really should be on this list.
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Jan 01, 2016
How could you not include ***insert favorite show + episode here*** ?!?! I mean, COME ON!!
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Jan 01, 2016
Ash vs The Evil Dead, ep 1 is an odd omission. Also Banshee, The Walking Dead, Vikings, Justified, UnReal, Parks and Recreation and Bloodline all had episodes worth mentioning directorial-wise. And as Ugmiwatogla says, POI too. This list feels more like a Tim list, rather than TV.com staff.
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Jan 03, 2016
Vikings had great episodes !
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Jan 02, 2016
I must give you props for Ash vs Evil Dead ep 1, but it's almost cheating to have Sam Raimi - co-creator of the material and director of all 3 original films - get accolades for directing 30 minutes more.
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Jan 01, 2016
Id have to say any of the episodes directed by Mimi Leder from the second season of The Leftovers!
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Dec 31, 2015
Granted, it was very early in 2015, but POI's "If-Then-Else" was truly a masterpiece of cable television.
Limitless, good catch !!
Hardhome, well of course.
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Jan 04, 2016
I agree on Limitless! It feels like it's been a little under the radar, but it desreves all the props it can get!
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Jan 02, 2016
It's network television. It FINALLY hit Netflix this week, so I'll be seeing it soon, glad to have something to look forward to.
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Jan 03, 2016
my bad.
not very easy for us non-americans get this whole cable/network thing.
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Dec 31, 2015
damn, no leftovers or banshee. great list, nonetheless
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Jan 01, 2016
I don´t think many of TV.com staff is watching Banshee. Maybe just a few.
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Jan 01, 2016
they do
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Jan 02, 2016
Yeah, apparently they discovered it after their top 30 shows of the past half-decade.
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Dec 31, 2015
Again, no Banshee, WTF!
"A fixer of sorts" and "Tribal" are second only to Hardhome.
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Jan 01, 2016
Ya "Tribal" definitely should have been on here. Absolutely fantastic episode.
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