Emmys 2016: 20 Must-See Episodes to Watch Before Awards Night

From the "Battle of the Bastards" to the paranoid 'Mr. Robot' pilot, your viewing guide to TV's big night

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Emmys 2016: 20 Must-See Episodes to Watch Before Awards Night

TV: now more than ever! With online-streaming platforms firing on all cylinders, cable upstarts making their name in the game, and networks clawing at one another for viewership, there's an embarrassment of riches on the tube — and this year's lineup of Emmy nominees fully reflects that. In terms of sheer numbers, it's a lot to manage. Squeezing in all the Best Picture Oscar nominees every year? Solidly doable. Committing to two dozen full seasons of television? We hope you have stock in Visine and aren't big on that whole "sleep" thing.

With 24 measly hours in a day, viewers have no choice but to pick their battles when boning up for Emmy night on September 18th. So with a nice, long holiday weekend coming up, we've taken the liberty of singling out the highlight episodes from 20 nominated series — a basic primer of sorts for anyone rushing to form an opinion on Better Call Saul or see what the Mr. Robot fuss is all about. These episodes aren't necessarily the end-all and be-all best-of-show choices; rather, their excellent introductions as examples of why these particular shows are award-worthy and totally worth your time. We've included viewing links where applicable.

1. Master of None – "Parents"
Pretty much any episode of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's Netflix series could stand on its own as a representative sample, but thanks to the former's decision to tap his actual parents to play his alter ego's mom and pop, this is the one that made the cut. The elder Ansaris are naturalistic and hilarious in this paean to the sacrifices that immigrants make for their first-generation American children; they even bring the pathos when needed. The flashback sequences to India display a little more cinematic panache than usual as well, and papa Shoukath Ansari knocks all of his punch lines dead. (Netflix.)

2. Mr. Robot – "eps1.0_hellofriend.mov"
Creator Sam Esmail initially envisioned his USA series as a feature film — then as ideas kept multiplying and spawning new conceptual routes (kind of like a computer virus), he figured he needed more room to expand. So he lopped 20-or-so pages off the script and voila: The series pilot episode was born, a conspiratorial whisper uttered in an unsafe world. Esmail immediately sows the seeds of distrust, establishing Rami Malek's computer whiz Elliott as an unreliable narrator and calling his relationship to the audience he frequently addresses into question. The first tumble down this techno-rabbit hole was the most disorienting. (Amazon Prime.)

3. Game of Thrones – "Battle of the Bastards"
Nobody's favorite part of playing with dominoes is the setup; it's all about the thrill of watching them topple over. Likewise, fans and critics alike raved over the sixth season's finest hour for the satisfying inevitability of how it deployed plot points that had been a long time coming. Watching Daenerys' long-awaited reunion with her fire-breathing pets, seeing you-know-who finally murder you-know-who; even though audiences knew these twists had to happen, that didn't detract from their cathartic drama. (HBO.)

4. Homeland – "The Tradition of Hospitality"
Agent/ant-heroine/terrorism's worst nightmare Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, in fine form) speeds out of the suicide-bombing frying pan and into the IED fire during the unbearably intense climax of this episode. That elaborately orchestrated — and even more elaborately photographed — attack sets the events of Homeland's fifth season in motion, and still left time for some excellent guest work from German thespian Nina Hoss, too. Nobody's ever been fully safe on Showtime's white-knuckle thriller. This season, they were even unsafer. (Hulu.)

5. The Americans – "The Magic of David Copperfield v. the Statue of Liberty Disappears"
Soviets-on-the-sly Phillip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) explode into a conflict they'd been putting off all season. The seven-month time jump that concludes this episode made the most headlines, but the scenes that precede it — especially a nearly dialogue-free overture ranks among the show's most virtuosic sequences — are no less impactful. That's not to diminish the flash-forward's importance, however, as it reinvigorated every in-progress plotline in one fell swoop. Everything old was seven months newer again. (Amazon Prime.)

6. Transparent – "Man on the Land"
Jill Soloway's stellar drama is all about navigating shifting identities, both within a family and the individuals that make it up. This half-hour delved into a complicated issue of gender identity, the show's favored topic, by bringing trans woman Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor, masterly) to a feminist music festival where she faced discrimination from women who still considered her an invading man. It's a typically emotional episode, but the surgical precision with which Soloway picks apart nuanced discourse could be studied in schools. (Amazon Prime.)

7. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – "Kimmy Sees A Sunset!"
As the show's peppy title indicates, 30 Rock team Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's new brainchild runs on hope — so what a blow it was to see indomitably upbeat Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) finally accept failure. When she realizes that she can do nothing to help her profligate alcoholic of a therapist (Fey), Kimmy takes a huge, vital step toward maturity. Throw in a warming, riotous B-plot about Kimmy's roomie Titus (Tituss Burgess) moving in with his boyfriend, and it's an automatic season standout. (Netflix.)

8. Veep – "Mother"
When the death of your mother is the second-worst thing that happens to you on a given day, you're in some deep shit. President Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus, a powerhouse) learns that a convoluted political loophole will prevent her from gaining re-election just after pulling the plug on her comatose mother; when she finally breaks down, it's difficult to tell which causes more pain. It's a tender moment among the satire's usual symphony of obscenity and bad Beltway behavior. (HBO.)

9. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story – "The Race Card"
In the court case of the decade, lawyers Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) go head to head, exploding the racial tensions crackling all across America with a single utterance of the N-word. As the fate of O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) hangs in the balance, the two men unwind thorny identity politics and put them on full display — a reminder that the Nineties were no less of a powder keg than the chaotic present day. For bonus points, add Sarah Paulson in a strong turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark, dealing with discrimination of a different stripe. (Amazon Prime.)

10. House of Cards – "Chapter 44"
This episode sends the tightly controlled D.C. of Netflix's political thriller into total disarray, with all the characters picking up the pieces in the aftermath of an assassination attempt. While Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) hangs on by a thread as he awaits a full liver transplant, his wife Claire (Robin Wright) consolidates power and makes her play for the brass ring. Some have suggested the once-blockbuster program had begun to falter; this was an hour that felt both unpredictable and unmissable. (Netflix.)

11. Better Call Saul – "Klick"
It's a cruel cosmic joke worthy of the Coen brothers: A guy spends days on end at his dying mother's bedside, and then she kicks the bucket in the 15 minutes he leaves to get a sandwich. That's how Vince Gilligan begins the end of this morality play's second season, which pushes the tenuous relationship between brothers Jimmy and Chuck McGill (Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean) to its tipping point. A season's worth of deception and betrayal comes to a head in a tricky gambit worthy of its Breaking Bad legacy. (AMC.)

12. Silicon Valley – "Founder Friendly"
Who knew corporate restructuring could be so exciting — or so damn funny? Permanently anxious programmer Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is ousted as CEO from his own company Pied Piper in the opening of the third season and spends this episode scrambling to regain his footing in a competitive marketplace. The stealth MVP is Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) with a never-ending cavalcade of old-person insults, but watching Richard learn just how unstable the tech bubble can be was a treat unto itself. (HBO.)

13. Black-ish – "Hope"
It was inevitable, necessary, cathartic — Black-ish simply had to do a police brutality episode in a year when to exist while black in a public space was to court danger. But this is miles from the preachy Very Special Episodes of sitcoms past; the cast and writing staff use disarming honesty and genuine wit in their efforts to heal a still-open wound. A boy named McQuillian is slain by a police officer in this episode, but his name is irrelevant. He stands in for the countless black bodies splayed across the nightly news week in and week out. (Hulu.)

14. Fargo – "Palindrome"
Anger, greed, and a healthy dose of bad luck conspire to tear apart the rotten Gerhardt clan in the second season of FX's homespun crime drama, and in the finale, everyone gets what's coming to them. While thoroughly Midwestern sensibilities put up a veneer of politeness, savagery claims several lives and challenges the once-wholesome worldview of can-do couple Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst). Though fate's crueler to some than others — fan favorite Mike (Bokeem Woodbine) gets promoted, only to suffer a sort of bureaucratic poetic justice — nobody can escape fickle destiny in this offbeat saga. (Amazon Prime.)

15. The Night Manager – "Episode 5"
The latest John le Carré adaptation was a cat-and-mouse game between two actors at the height of their powers: Tom Hiddleston brought appropriate gravitas to former soldier Jonathan Pine as he sniffed out a connection between arms dealers and intelligence officials, and Hugh Laurie was marvelous as the gunrunner Pine's sent to investigate. The fifth part of their saga brought simmering tensions to a head, as a long-running con comes to light and the tables begin to slowly turn. (Amazon Prime.)

16. Inside Amy Schumer – "Welcome to the Gun Show"
Schumer's always at her best when she's satirizing one of the big targets of the day — and in this season-high collection of sketches, she takes aim at the rabid gun culture festering in America. A razor-sharp QVC parody sees Schumer hawking firearms to anyone, absolutely anyone who wants to buy one, but the most affecting sequence is a snippet of Schumer's stand-up about the Louisiana shooting that took place during a screening of her film Trainwreck. It's far from serious — Schumer has time for a potshot at Scarlett Johansson – but it's stirring nonetheless. (Hulu.)

17. Key & Peele – "MC Mom"
The final season of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key's celebrated sketch program offered plenty of memorable bits to send them off on a high note. The title sketch, featuring Peele as a rapping momma sending her son a video message at college, is plenty amusing (MC Mom has bars for days), but the duo's take on Big Boi and Andre 3000 is the clear champion. As the duo dissolved their show, they gave their typically bizarre take on another pair of collaborators getting too successful for their own good. (Hulu.)

18. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver – "Tobacco"
The best part of any segment of Last Week Tonight comes near the end, when Oliver reveals that he and his merry band of writers have already undertaken some huge project and started to make a little difference in the topic of the evening. When Oliver took on the nefarious corporations of Big Tobacco, he gifted unto them a new mascot more reflective of the reality brought on by smoking: Jeff, the Diseased Lung. A sad-eyed cowpoke suffering from emphysema and imminent cancer, Jeff puts an ironic, cartoon face on the unchecked smoking marketplace. (HBO.)

19. Modern Family – "The Party"
As Modern Family rolls into what must be its hundredth season, the sitcom has remained a perennial Emmy favorite. Accepting the Simpsons principle of "every season has at last one worthwhile episode," this year's keeper doses strait-laced types Phil and Mitchell (Ty Burrell and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) with a couple THC-infused gummies and then sits back while the chaos creates itself. Finding a fresh spin to put on these characters so late in the game isn't easy; a little bit of cannabis, naturally, does the trick. (Hulu.)

20. Horace and Pete – "Episode 3"
Character actress Laurie Metcalf earned an Emmy-nomination hat trick this year, and the crowning jewel among her three noted performances has to be her heart-stopping turn in Louis C.K.'s online TV show/filmed play. In an arresting monologue that stretches on for a good nine minutes, Metcalf casts a spell as C.K.’s character’s ex-wife, divulging her shameful affair with her new husband's elderly father. The actress cycles through longing, self-loathing, faded lust, hope and despair — it's the year's strongest small-screen performance, full stop. (LouisCK.net)