In a year filled with murdered durders, diverted dick pics, and trees, beautiful trees, it’s impossible to pick a single moment that defined the television landscape. So instead of assigning our poor colleagues a Sisyphean task, we asked them to examine the ravaged ridges and furrows of their brains to select the instance, sequence, or episode — be it surreal, bizarre, or simply unbelievable — that stands out in a year that felt longer and more befuddling than most. Herewith, a collection of the most memorable moments to light up our screens in 2021.
The feds descend on the Beauty Lab parking lot to nab Jen Shah.
The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, “Highway to Vail”
Few things made me feel more alive this year than a bevy of government officials converging on a luxury transportation vehicle in the Beauty Lab parking lot on this season of RHOSLC. They were there, of course, to nab Jen Shah for alleged wire fraud; she fled the scene minutes earlier after receiving a tip from who the hell knows.
All season, we knew this was coming. The September premiere opened with an oh-so-enticing teaser of the moment, while here in the real world, we’d been aware of Shah’s arrest from headlines way back in March. And when the season finally caught up … well, given reality television’s nature to oversell, I wondered if the show would actually be able to deliver.
Boy, did it ever. For a brief moment, it felt like the veil separating reality television and reality had dissolved completely as we watched the remaining housewives hit their phones — much like the rest of us earlier this year — to process what the hell was happening. The details were deliriously wild: Heather calling NYPD officers “the po-po” to their faces; Lisa burning through her deep bench of lawyers; Whitney displaying an unexpectedly robust knowledge of how money laundering works; Jennie not really giving a shit ’cuz she didn’t know Jen that well anyway.
Shah would swiftly return to filming, presumably in an effort to spin the situation as much as she could, and the show settled back into its normal rhythms. But for a hot second, it felt like we were getting raw reality in our reality television, and the supernova of that tension was beautiful. — Nicholas Quah
Alessia Cara’s cameo.
The Other Two, “Chase & Pat Are Killing It”
Comedic bits are one of The Other Two’s many underrated strengths. They pop up like Easter eggs throughout the series, always followed through but never overdone. Celebrity cameos are another hallmark with everyone from real housewives to Saturday Night Live stars popping up. These qualities converged in “Chase & Pat Are Killing It,” when, after a season of teasing, Alessia Cara appeared in the flesh.
To backtrack: Brooke spent the preceding episodes trying to prove her chops as a manager; she dreamed of taking on Cara as a client, pestering the pop singer-songwriter via DM and hoping to run into her at industry events. It was a great bit — Cara was a perfectly random choice of celebrity to loom as a pipe dream for Brooke — and that gave way to an even better cameo when a well-intentioned vacationer brought Cara herself to the sauna, thinking she was a dentist who could help Brooke after she busted her mouth. But Cara didn’t just appear in the episode; she told her “peer in the industry” Brooke that she actually wanted to work with her to book roles like Bambi, own her own percentage of the Nets, and maybe, hopefully, finally get sued. I let out the loudest, gayest gasp! Brooke may be a questionably good manager, but of course Cara wants to get all those things because The Other Two is a deft satire of the silly rules and workings of the entertainment industry. If Cara’s real-life manager is even marginally as good as Brooke, they’re hopefully negotiating for a guest role in season three. — Justin Curto
Joe and Love swing with Sherry and Cary.
You, “Swing and a Miss”
Hooking up with someone for the first time is always going to be awkward. Add two people you kinda hate and your own dangerously jealous partner, and that’s just good TV. Toward the end of You season three, our favorite murderbirds, Joe Goldberg and Love Quinn, hatch a plan to fix their crumbling marriage by banging other people, beginning with influencers Sherry and Cary’s titillating offer to swing. Joe has other motivations as he’s hoping the experiment will ultimately allow him to exit his marriage for a happily ever after with librarian Marienne. Despite this agenda and Joe and Love’s penchant for killing people, you find yourself rooting for the couple: Maybe this is their way out of homicide. Maybe this is the thing that will bond them since bloodshed hasn’t. Maybe this show will turn into Penn Badgley having sex all the time. (Please?) But it’s You. Someone will be cleaning up blood at the end of this romp.
The evening starts off well. The four clink their wine goblets to “a night we won’t forget” and try to loosen up. It’s hard not to find yourself tensing as the anticipation builds. Sherry confesses to being a “screamer”; there’s a moment when Joe sees the Love he fell in love with as she dances with Sherry and experiences “compersion.” (You’s word of the day! It’s the opposite of jealousy!) You’re lulled back into a sense of optimism for the two. Then Marienne calls Joe, refocusing him on his real goal, and as things finally heat up in the bedroom, Love catches Joe fantasizing. Her face falls as she realizes he’s not really in the room with them. He won’t ever be again until she gets rid of the object of his fascination.
They reconvene in the kitchen, and Love lets out everything she’s been holding in: She’s fed up serving as mother, business owner, maid, and chef all while trying to keep the spark alive. It’s something many of us mothers have felt, especially after this year, and it’s hard not to picture yourself in her shoes — until she screams that she murdered their neighbor. Time seems to stand still as Love and Joe, and we in the audience, pray Sherry and Cary didn’t hear the confession. They return to the bedroom, and everyone tries to feel each other out; it’s sultry but tense, and Joe and Love want to confirm they’re safe before they make their move. Watching it the first time, I could’ve sworn the scene was ten minutes long. Finally, everyone’s face falls as Sherry whispers “Go,” and Cary sprints to get help. It’s over. The episode ends before we know the fates of Sherry and Cary; all we do know is that our protagonist just crawled his way out of another grave — and that swinging definitely didn’t save his marriage. — Devon Sherer
Laszlo’s big romantic speech.
What We Do in the Shadows, “The Portrait”
What We Do in the Shadows’ third season was magic, and the moving finale brought Laszlo — the show’s worldly, slightly aloof perv — to the forefront of the plot in a shocking climax that had me scrambling to explain to my loved ones why I was crying over the silly, horny vampire show. But the road to that big Colin Robinson reveal began with a moment much subtler but just as lovely: Laszlo revealing his reason for refusing to return to the U.K. As he recounts the pain of having his wife insulted by British nobility, the timbre of Matt Berry’s legendary voice shifts into a breathy waver for what feels like the first time. It’s a scene that echoes the season-one finale when Laszlo confesses he’s been quietly murdering Nadja’s reincarnated lover Jeff for centuries perhaps to remind us that theirs has always been the story of a pansexual, open married couple who love each other so much they’re actively choosing to spend eternity together. The buildup to this scene also features Berry performing the Toast of London theme on the piano, and it begins in earnest with him somehow adding an h to the word will So, in a way, it’s the perfect overture to Berry becoming a beloved Hollywood star, which he inevitably will whether he likes it or not. Snap indeed, Donal. — Anne Clark
Christine Quinn’s chair purse.
Selling Sunset, “Very High Heels to Fill”
In seasons one through three of Netflix’s Selling Sunset, I found myself wondering, What is this show without Christine Quinn? But after season four, that question became, What is this show without chair purse? The accessory appears briefly in the premiere and quickly eclipsed the O Group employees as Most Valuable Character; the scene is simple yet complex. A very pregnant Christine is touring a house with Jason Oppenheim and wearing a standard Christine uniform: skintight designer dress, stilettos, and an extremely expensive purse. This time, it’s shaped like a chair. Okay, it is a chair. Literally a chair. A tiny, shiny chair. But the best part isn’t that Quinn is carrying around a performative-art piece Jezebel tells me is about $900. It’s that Oppenheim questioned its purpose, and the blonde real-estate agent gave an answer I’ll never forget: “You don’t hold anything. It’s a fashion statement.” Right now, when you Google the term “chair purse,” you’re met with an autofill of “selling sunset.” That’s more than a fashion statement. That’s reality-TV history. — Morgan Baila
WandaVision, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience.”
After a pandemic-induced year-and-a-half pause, the MCU hit the ground running at the start of 2021 with its first Disney+ entry, WandaVision. At the time of its premiere, Wanda and Vision weren’t the MCU’s most popular characters, but creator Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman pulled off something truly special: a powerful cocktail of nostalgia drawing from both classic television and Marvel lore. The premiere offered up a ridiculously fun Dick Van Dyke Show–I Love Lucy pastiche while hinting at the mystery beneath the series’ surface; moments like Wanda jokingly referencing Vision’s “indestructible head” are darkly comedic without hitting the audience over the head with Thor’s hammer. Ultimately, “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience” is accessible, free of overt storytelling responsibility, and utterly delightful — traits becoming scarce as the MCU rages on.
— Savannah Salazar
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked, “Bossy Rossy Ruboot”
In fourth grade, our teacher had us read a book called Frindle in which a student, frustrated by the mysteries of etymology, invents a new word — the titular frindle — and it becomes a sensation, eventually getting codified in the dictionary. It’s supposed to illustrate … something … about the nature of language.
Gagatrondra is bimbo-frindle. It is a word, a reaction, a state of being. It feels as though it’s been around forever, but it was only minted ten months and approximately 100 Drag Race cycles ago on an episode of Untucked. Season 13 was great for the post-episode roundtable series because it was full of fun-to-watch personalities like Symone, Tamisha Iman, Kandy Muse, and in this TV moment of the year, Gottmik. It’s easy to get wary about the rise of look-queens on this show, the VH1-enabled Instagramification of drag learning for a generation of Internet-famous queens who are makeup artists first and entertainers second. But Mik, beyond being an all-time great painter of face, is also a really, really, really funny reality-TV character. She speaks like a Valley Girl refracted through a hall of mirrors, as if Amy Heckerling wrote a twink sidekick into a Clueless that takes place in 3005. To Mik, everything is gorg or stun or a moment. While other queens cry and fight and get overwhelmed, Mik seems like she’s genuinely having fun, and it’s an infectious vibe. She’s also the first trans man to compete on the series, so every lovably dumb word out of her beautiful idiosyncratic mouth is un petit peu revolutionary … even when she’s dressed up as anal beads.
As the other queens gossip about who they think performed worst in the maxi challenge (a long-form improv game better left unrevisited). Denali is “pissed boots” that the judges deemed her only safe. In her mind, “Elliott is a clear bottom” of the week. Nothing about that assessment is shocking — Elliott’s been bringing up the rear all season — but Gottmik responds, “Cle-ar? Gagatrondra!” Not only was this a gag to her; it was a new beast entirely, a word that sounds like a Power Rangers villain, enough for her to spit out her straw to say it. It is eight or ten syllables long. She speaks it through lips drawn into a ruby-rictus (rectus?) grin, face painted like a severe and stunning mask. What makes this moment indelible is how un-gaggy the thing she’s responding to really is and that she has a huge string of melon-size anal beads protruding from her latex-encrusted skull (the theme for the runway was “beads,” and she took it in a dirty direction). Since this moment aired, it’s impossible to know just how widely the term has been used on Twitter and Insta and in reaction memes in part because there’s no agreed-upon spelling. But pretty girls don’t need to know how to spell, just how to vibe in the face of other peoples’ mess. Life is a gagatrondra, old chum. — Rebecca Alter
Renée Elise Goldsberry’s line delivery of “It’s a pastiche of the Jim Carrey oeuvre.”
Girls5Eva, “Cease and Desist”
Tina Fey and Robert Carlock shows are so chock full of bits, it’s easy to miss a few on first watch. Then there are the lines that could’ve been throwaway jokes, but the actor commits so hard they stick in your mind for years to come: Jack Donaghy’s “It’s after six — what am I, a farmer?”; Angie Jordan’s “Ham!”; anything Tituss Burgess says on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. On Fey and Carlock’s new Peacock show, Girls5Eva, that line comes courtesy of Wickie, played by Tony-winning actress Renée Elise Goldsberry. In a flashback, we see Wickie performing in The Mask-ical: The Musical — a Broadway adaptation of The Mask, naturally — complete with yellow suit and green face paint. “I’m smokin’ / I’m smokin’ / Alrighty then,” she belts. But when Dawn (Sara Bareilles) points out that “Alrighty then” was actually Ace Ventura’s catchphrase, Wickie snaps back, “It was a pastiche of the Jim Carrey oeuvre.” Her indignation is palpable, and Goldsberry hits “pastiche” and “oeuvre” like a college student just back from a semester in Paris. The line has not left my brain since I heard it. It’s comedy. It’s art. It’s, dare I say, a pastiche of the Fey and Carlock oeuvre. — Emily Heller
Cindy’s merry proposal.
Search Party, “The Inferno”
There are many bizarre moments in Search Party’s fourth season, but none is as memorably unhinged as Drew being on the receiving end of the most embarrassing marriage proposal of all time. It happens in the season’s penultimate episode after Drew, Portia, and Elliot rescue Dory from the twink superfan who’s imprisoned her for months only to have her slip away and run back to her captor. As they rush after her, Drew is surprised by Cindy, his princess girlfriend from Merry Merry Land, as she launches into an elaborate proposal including a goth waiter delivering a preprogrammed keyboard, a Disney-inspired melody, and his family singing backup. It’s another entry in HBO’s legendarily embarrassing musical moments along with Marnie singing “Stronger” and Kendall rapping “L to the OG,” but there’s something especially sad here that separates Search Party from the rest. Sure, the scene makes you cringe so hard you nearly pass out, but it also manages to break your heart: Cindy is simple and sweet, and she is capable of giving Drew the unconditional love he desperately needs. Yet Drew can’t let himself live happily ever after with his good-hearted princess. “I’m using you to try to get over Dory!” he screams after rejecting her. “I’m addicted to her, okay? I’m addicted to a brainwashed, psychotic murderer!” It’s Search Party at its best: making you laugh as you feel your absolute worst. — Nic Juarez
Whoopi Goldberg asks Meghan McCain about nepotism on The View.
One of television’s best moments of the year kicked off with a very important smile and a “What do you think, Meghan?” Yes, I’m talking about Thursday, July 29, 2021: the day Whoopi Goldberg asked hairstyle slayer Meghan McCain about nepotism on The View. In a segment sparked by Ben Stiller’s remarks about privilege and celebrity, the camera switched from Sara Haines’s blushed eyelids to a split-screen of Whoopi and Meghan — like the producers just knew what we were hoping for — as Whoopi said, “Meghan, you come from notable stock — can you relate to this at all?” Meghan was quick; speaking “for herself,” she noted that when walking through “every single door” of opportunity life has granted to her (slay, life!), “people” have “automatically” assumed she’s a “lazy, spoiled, brat.” But don’t fret, dear reader: The struggle is something she “no longer” cares about; she knows her “work ethic speaks for itself.” She also recognizes that “no one” will have sympathy for someone with “famous” elders. After such a layered response, the camera — clearly shook — returned to the pondering face of Whoopi for a full three seconds. Basically, this one-minute, 43-second clip shifted everything I thought I knew about a Republican who is bad. (Still bad, though.) — Wolfgang Ruth