Watchmen and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are the Emmys’ most nominated shows of 2020. But if you haven’t been a viewer and don’t want to binge-watch the entire seasons of both shows between now and the Emmy Awards on September 20, which specific episodes should you stream to find out what the fuss is all about?
Over the years, such classic episodes as the funeral of Chuckles the Clown on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the so-called “master of your domain” episode of Seinfeld, and the Lena Waithe–written Thanksgiving episode of Master of None have entered the annals of TV lore. Will any of these years’ shows do the same? The Television Academy’s official list of complete nominations may give a clue, as it shows which specific episodes got the most overall nods this year. (Each show submits six episodes for consideration, while lead and supporting actors submit one each to showcase their performances.)
Scanning the full, 60-page list of nominations in all of its glory, I noticed a few extra-special episodes that seemed to pop up over and over again in a variety of categories. Here, the best TV episodes of the year, according to the Emmy nominators.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, “I’m That Bitch”
All hail the queens of the season 12 premiere, in which guest judge Nicki Minaj (decked in resplendent head-to-toe red) presides over a lip-synch battle to “Starships” and presents the challenge of writing and performing (and crumping to) the titular original song. (Quoth Widow VonDu: “Girls get mad when they look at these thighs / They rub together like they harmonize.”) Nominated for costumes, “contemporary hairstyling,” makeup, directing, and more, this sparkle-dusted sashay of an episode is RPDR at its finest.
Succession, “This Is Not for Tears”
Both Jeremy Strong and Nicholas Braun (a.k.a Kendall Roy and Cousin Greg)—who are nominated for outstanding actor and supporting actor, respectively—submitted this season-two finale, according to GoldDerby; it also got nods for directing, editing, and score. The high drama includes but is not limited to: Greg’s Senate testimony; the Roy family yacht holiday through the Mediterranean (sparking Below Deck crossover comparisons) during which Shiv suggests she and Tom have a threesome with a crew member; and, of course, the press conference in which Kendall drops an enormous bomb on the family empire.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “Comedy or Cabbage”
Pink period costumes are practically their own character on the Emmy-beloved Amazon show, but perhaps never more than in this episode in which Midge and company decamp to Miami Beach. The costumes and makeup in this installment are justifiably among the show’s 20 nominations, but so is the directing and, for guest actor in a comedy series, Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce, who resurfaces and shares a frustratingly hot night of sexual tension—but no actual sex—with Midge. ICYMI: There’s a particularly searing scene at a Cuban club.
Saturday Night Live hosted by Eddie Murphy
This December 2019, pre-pandemic SNL hosted by one of the show’s all-time greats—back for the first time since 1984—delivered, with skit highlights like the return of Gumby during Weekend Update and “Home for the Holidays,” a kind of reverse Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in which Murphy’s daughter’s white boyfriend is treated as an odd man out. Along with later editions of SNL at Home, it’s among SNL’s most recognized episodes of the year, including a nomination for Murphy in the category of guest actor in a comedy series, against Kirby and Brad Pitt for his three-minute stint as Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The Crown, “Aberfan”
Based on a real-life tragedy that claimed 144 lives in 1966, this dark episode about the collapse of a mountain of coal waste into the Welsh village of Aberfan is a heart-wrenching, visually powerful episode that looks more like a Hollywood movie than a streaming TV episode. It delves into one of the key themes of the fictional (and actual) royals too: a tendency to suppress emotions and grief in particular. (It took Queen Elizabeth more than a week to visit Aberfan after the collapse, foreshadowing, perhaps for some viewers, her somewhat slow public response to Princess Diana’s death three decades later.)
Watchmen, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”
The HBO adaptation of the lauded graphic novel had the Emmys at hello: This premiere episode pops up all over the nomination list, including for directing and production design. In it, a Ku Klux Klan attack on Tulsa—shot on the anniversary of the real-life 1921 massacre there—sets the scene for a season of stunning alt-reality drama, starring Regina King as undercover detective Sister Knight and Don Johnson playing the chief of police. It’s a setting that would only go on to become wildly timely with Trump’s later Tulsa rally and the nationwide racial protests.
Cheer was not only one of the definitive binge-watches of the year but also a six-time Emmy nominee, including for outstanding unstructured reality show. The episode repeatedly singled out by the Emmys was also full of “mat talk,” tears (both onscreen and, let’s be honest, behind all of our laptops), and triumph: the finale in which the Navarro squad seeks glory at nationals in Daytona. Directing those fliers’ flips and sound mixing the highest pitched of screams took Emmy-level talent.