The Best TV Episodes of 2019

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

12 Dec 2019 (PT)

We've spent the better part of the last few weeks toasting not only the noteworthy TV accomplishments of this year, but the decade overall. With all the riches that TV has to offer, it can be hard to come up with new ways of saying, “Hey, this thing is good! You should try it if you haven't already!”

So, at the risk of repeating ourselves, we've gathered the top achievements from 2019 on a purely episodic level. Some of these are chapters nested in a much grander arc that require hours of prior viewing to fully appreciate. Others are masterfully executed one-offs that can be enjoyed purely on their own.

Regardless of the reasons for us picking them here, these episodes all underline the idea that TV isn't just a sea of 6- or 8- or 10- or 12-hour movies. At their best, they can highlight the best of what a show has to offer in the tiniest of packages. They can subvert expectations so thoroughly that they take on a mythology all their own. Whatever the reason, they hold your attention. And sometimes, that's all you need.

The Best TV Episodes of 2019


Aaron Epstein/HBO

“Barry” — “ronny/lily”

Directed by Bill Hader Written by Alec Berg & Bill Hader

“Barry's” standout Season 2 episode is one of the better illustration's of the show's ethos. On the one hand, it's cautionary tale. Barry Bill Hader has been operating as an assassin for a long time, and his heart's just not in it. That leads to mistakes, which leads to complications, which could lead to Barry's ultimate demise. He is, after all, hired to kill people, so if he's not good at his job, he could end up dead. It's very serious, very bleak, and very scary stuff. But on the other hand, “ronny/lilly” is an absurdist slapstick masterpiece. Barry starts the episode by trying not to kill someone, and he ends up wreaking more havoc than anyone could've imagined. Co-creators Hader and Alec Berg construct a script fueled by usurping expectations, from the reveal that Barry's mark is a Taekwondo master, to his daughter's superhuman abilities, to a coincidental ending that would seem impossible, had we not been prepared to believe the unbelievable. “ronny/lily” is as expertly done as Barry's mission is carelessly assembled. — Ben Travers

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“Better Things”

Suzanne Tenner/FX

“Better Things” — “The Unknown”

Directed by Pamela Adlon Written by Sarah Gubbins

For a season that took a closer look at who Sam Fox Adlon is outside of her role as a mother, “The Unknown” manages to incorporate a lot of the conflicted elements driving the character's progress. For one, there's the artistic satisfaction she finds in challenging material outside the Hollywood system; a satisfaction joyously captured by her trip to New York City to perform an early iteration of a play headed to Broadway. Then there's her love life, which is complicated by her attraction to Mer Marsha Thomason and made more so by an entanglement with the therapist Matthew Broderick who's supposed to be helping her sort things. “The Unknown” throws all these terrifying opportunities at a woman who puts up a guarded, self-sufficient front — she's a single mom and a working actor in Los Angeles. How would a long-term stay in New York even work? How would a relationship with a woman? What's outside of Sam's comfort zone is exactly what she wants and exactly what she's afraid to embrace. Written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Adlon as were all episodes in Season 3, “The Unknown” is a beautiful, subtle, and immensely enjoyable half-hour story that let's Sam live on her own just long enough to realize she likes it, before sending her scurrying back to safe shores. — BT

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“BoJack Horseman”


“BoJack Horseman” — “Surprise!”

Directed by Adam Parton Written by Peter A. Knight

“Surprise!” is, like so many episodes of “BoJack Horseman” before it, a nightmare come to life in the most hilarious fashion possible. The animated equivalent of a door-slamming farce, the episode features a surprise party gone very wrong, as guests are forced to stay hidden in the midst of a relationship-defining blow-out fight between Mr. Peanutbutter and his fiancee Pickles. “BoJack” has always been a blend of what's best in both animated and live-action television, so an episode which features such pristine use of physical space gags and tension, coupled with an argument where the — extremely effective — emotional climax comes from one party accusing the other of being a very bad dog quickly becomes the platonic ideal of what the show is and always has been. — Libby Hill

The Best TV Episodes of 2019


Liam Daniel/HBO

“Chernobyl” — “Open Wide, O Earth”

Directed by Johan Renck Written by Craig Mazin

Over its five hours, “Chernobyl” deftly balances the personal journey of its central trio of truth tellers with the greater catastrophe unfolding around them. Though later episodes would reach some unforgettable emotional s — Legasov's final testimony, the frenzied rooftop clearing, a litter of puppies found in an abandoned village — this third chapter is the series' richest kaleidoscope. From an unsuspecting firefighter transforming in front of his lover's eyes to the grizzled group of miners who sacrifice mightily to save the power plant damage from getting any worse, this hour shows the myriad ways that one disaster rippled through countless lives. Presented with care and solemnity, it lets history speaks through its fictional representatives. — Steve Greene

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“The Crown”

Des Willie/Netflix

“The Crown” — “Aberfan”

Directed by Benjamin Caron Written by Peter Morgan

The third episode of Season 3 of “The Crown” is a microcosm of what the show does so well; it takes an extraordinary historical event and re-tells it through the most personal of lenses. A catastrophic coal mining accident kills 116 children and 28 adults in Wales in 1966, and Queen Elizabeth Olivia Colman responds by...doing nothing. She writes in her journal and stares out the window as other members of the royal family visit the scene and return emotionally concussed by the devastation. It's not the place of the monarch to intervene in such matters, she believes, and she could distract from the rescue efforts. She is, of course, grievously wrong, but her fraught internal battle between what it means to be human and what it means to be the Queen is never again so sharply displayed this season. — Ann Donahue

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“The Detour”


“The Detour” — “The Game Show”

Directed by Joe Kessler Written by Jason Jones

No other show on TV committed more fully than “The Detour.” Over four seasons, the TBS show put the Parker family through unspeakable on-screen trials as the central quartet traversed the country and then the globe. Years of that controlled chaos reached its apex in this truly unhinged series of fake Japanese game show segments that saw parents Nate and Robin effectively trying to win back their daughter. The whole thing is an unhinged series of physical and psychological torments, all done on a candy-colored sound stage as a studio audience looks on in delight. There are feats of forced flexibility, plenty of unfortunate liquid-covered surprise entrants, and a finale that will forever change the way you hear John Denver's music. What a shining beacon of insanity to help send this hidden gem off into the great TV unknown. — SG

The Best TV Episodes of 2019


Apple TV+

“Dickinson” — “Wild Nights”

Directed by Lynn Shelton Written by Alena Smith & Ali Waller

Easily the best series available for viewing upon the launch of Apple TV+, “Dickinson” made its mark on an already excellent year of television with its third episode, “Wild Nights.” In it, Emily Dickinson Hailee Steinfeld and her siblings decide to throw a house party while her parents are out of town, a premise for so many of the best teen movies of all time, and a choice that crystallizes the series' MO of marrying the reality of being a 19th century young woman with a 21st century spin. As Dickinson attempts to balance her secret girlfriend and her family drama and the mean girls at her party and casual drug use and her dang teenage hormones, things get messy and they get real. It's like, whoa, American poetry legends — they're just like us! — LH

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“Documentary Now” — “Waiting for the Artist”

Directed by Alex Buono & Rhys Thomas Written by Seth Meyers

Pick an episode at random from the third season of this IFC gem — perhaps it's best yet — and you'd probably have one worthy of inclusion on this list. The stellar “Company” riff “Co-Op” has a cast at the of its powers, the season-ending installment on fictional competitive bowlers is surprisingly poignant, and their two-part “Wild Wild Country” reimagining has a third-act twist built on a joke so good you can almost see Michael Keaton glow as he's delivering it. But few half hours of TV this year were as mesmerizing as this chapter, taking its cues from the 2012 Matthew Akers doc “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present.” Anchored by a frighteningly committed Cate Blanchett and bolstered by some impressive location work to bring this fictional performance artist's “legendary” work to life, it's a tribute to the source material that's shocking when faithful and riotously funny any time it veers off the expected script. — SG

“Fleabag” — “Episode 3”

Directed by Harry Bradbeer Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

First and foremost, you should watch all the episodes of “Fleabag” in order — all 12 episodes over two seasons, each a perfect 25-ish minute amuse bouche of hilarity and heartbreak. But if you're trying to convince someone to give the show a try, Season 2's Episode 3 is the standalone wonder that doesn't need any context from the surrounding episodes in order to enjoy it. Fleabag helps her sister Claire cater a work function, and pratfalls ensue — you get to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge do a mad scramble through the streets of London twice — and Kristen Scott Thomas guest stars as a world-weary corporate raider who is the mistress of a particularly devastating brand of three-martini-drunk advice. It's the episode where Fleabag turns a corner, both literally and figuratively. — AD

The Best TV Episodes of 2019


Ali Goldstein/Netflix

“GLOW” — “Outward Bound”

Directed by Anya Adams written by Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch

Like “BoJack Horseman” before it — and not just because they both star Alison Brie — “GLOW” is another Netflix series that seems to understand itself more with every passing season. In “Outward Bound,” the series takes its collective of wrestlers, drops them in the middle of the Nevada desert and leaves them to find empathy and catharsis in each other. The show about women's wrestling that understands that its framing device doesn't hem it in, but sets them free, allowing the series to build deep and complex relationships between women that don't all boil down to jealousy or competition. The episode itself digs into some ridiculously heavy issues, including of parallel generational trauma and identity, the vast gap between freedom in men and women, the fear of losing what security we have, and all the ways our lives end up differently from how we imagine they'll be. It's beautiful and funny, powerful and moving, and it solidifies the series as one of the few places on TV where it's safe to be any and every kind of woman. — LH

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson”

“I Think You Should Leave” — “Has This Ever Happened to You?”

Directed by Akiva Schaffer & Alice Mathias Written by Tim Robinson, Zach Kanin, & John Solomon

Every episode of Netflix's “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” is a like a tiny miracle. It's a caustic series, one that the creators understand can only be ingested in small doses, leading to exquisitely-crafted 17ish-minute episodes designed to give the audience only as much shrieking, brain-clawing hilarity as they can handle. If that sounds unpleasant, it's because it is, in the best possible way. The first episode of the show's stellar first season, “Has This Ever Happened To You?,” features five different absurdist sketches, the highlight being a “Baby of the Year” pageant hosted by the inimitable Sam Richardson and boasting the infamous Bart Harley Jarvis, an in memoriam of old babies or, you know, the elderly, and a sex scandal. It's impossible to actually describe what makes “I Think You Should Leave” brilliant. Just trust that you should see the show for yourself to discover your new favorite/least favorite series. There is no in-between. —LH

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“Lodge 49”

Michael Moriatis/AMC

“Lodge 49” — “Le Reve Impossible”
Directed by Jake Schreier Written by Andy Siara

As each new day brings us closer to this series' eventual fate, this penultimate chapter of its second — and, if there is any justice in this world, not final — season proved why “Lodge 49” is such an invaluable addition to the current TV landscape. After hours of following disparate strands in this mostly Long Beach-based tapestry, they all meet at a single location south of the Mexican border. Ostensibly, most of the trusted, familiar Lodge members and their cohorts are vying to recover the legendary scrolls that have unknowingly guided many of their journeys over the episodes prior. But in true fable form, what they discover — with the help of a stirring rendition of “The Impossible Dream” and an instantly iconic dumpling-eating contest — is that the true treasure they seek is each other. It's another in a long list of showcases for one of TV's strongest casts and a lasting testament to the emotional core that has powered the show for a pair of blissful, surprising seasons. — SG

The Best TV Episodes of 2019


Adult Swim

“Primal” — “A Cold Death”
Written and storyboarded by David Krentz

One of the most impressive feats a show can pull off is to make an audience care deeply about a character within minutes of its introduction. Here, “Primal” manages to do that without a single word. This diversion of sorts from the series' central relationship — of a prehistoric man and his unlikely dinosaur companion — follows a herd of roaming mammoths, desperately trying to survive amidst a brutal ancient blizzard. When the main duo's hunt brings down one of the herd, it sets off a brutal back and forth of survival instincts that shows how the sheer brutality of nature has been a constant since the dawn of time. What truly sets this episode apart, though, is its final act of mercy. It concludes with a final wordless moment, one that pauses the torrent of death of violence to bring some dignity to the snow-covered landscape. — SG

“Schitt's Creek” — “The Crowening”
Directed by Laurie Lynd Written by Daniel Levy

Let's just put it this way: If you Google “Schitt's Creek,” the first auto-fill to pop up is “the one where Moira is a bird.” During the Season 5 premiere, yes, Catherine O'Hara's Moira Rose gets a part in “The Crows Have Eyes III: The Crowening”, which is filming in Bosnia and is “an allegory about prejudice” that she envisions as her comeback vehicle. Dear readers, it is not. But as written by executive producer and co-star Dan Levy, the episode is the perfect “Schitt's Creek” mix of hilarity and bittersweet absurdity. By the end, with O'Hara yelping and cawing and monologuing from a ratty nest in a bird costume that would have been better made by third graders, you really, really, really want her to get another break at the big show, almost more than she does. — AD

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

“Succession” — “This is Not for Tears”
Directed by Mark Mylod Written by Jesse Armstrong

There were roughly six different episodes in consideration from the stellar second season of HBO's “Succession,” all of which would be a worthy inclusion on this list. But when all is said and done, it's difficult to imagine choosing any episode other than the finale, “This Is Not For Tears,” which not only features one of the most uncomfortable family meals in TV history, but also a triumphant reversal of fortune, which allows No. 1 sad boy Kendall Roy an excruciatingly good Jeremy Strong a brief moment in the sun — which will inevitably end up in more pain than he can possibly imagine, but, hey, no spoilers about Season 3. What makes the series so good and what the episode typifies more than anything, is that with great storytelling, even if you suspect what's coming, even if you're sure of how things will end, the payoff is never in the twist. It's in the journey. —LH

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

“True Detective” — “The Final Country”
Directed by Daniel Sackheim Written by Nic Pizzolatto

This episode is the second-to-last of Season 3, and predictably offers tantalizing clues before the ultimate case resolving reveals of the season finale. But what makes this episode of “True Detective” stand apart is how it, finally, links the case in Season 1 to this current storytelling world. As Wayne Hays Mahershala Ali is being interviewed for the docuseries that frames the season, the links are revealed between his investigation of the Purcell case and Rust Cohle Matthew McConaughey and Marty Hart's Woody Harrelson take down of a serial killer linked to a pedophile ring. It's a long-promised narrative move that was more promising in execution than in payoff, but it is rare that a single episode helps to redefine the arc of an entire series. Time is a flat circle, indeed. —AD

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

“Tuca & Bertie”


“Tuca & Bertie” — “The Jelly Lakes”
Directed by Amy Winfrey Written by Shauna McGarry

One of the more rewarding aspects of watching “Tuca & Bertie” is how well Lisa Hanaw's animated series continuously introduces joyous, exuberant characters without betraying the underlying anxiety fueled by a big, scary world. While plenty of episodes build off this juxtaposition for enriching stories, none were more affecting — and beautiful — than “The Jelly Lakes,” Season 1's penultimate entry where Bertie visits her old family cabin and reconnects with old childhood friends. In doing so, she readdresses past trauma connected to present troubles in a way that acknowledges emotions she's been holding onto for a long time, while also pushing Bertie to take action now. Moreover, the animation itself uses the inventive setting of the Jelly Lakes to fill her flashbacks with deep reds, maroons, and purples, reflecting the characters as colorful shadows of their past selves. Haunting images of a swimsuit hanging from a branch and Bertie walking slowly into a deep cave convey the magnitude of her past, and yet equally exuberant scenes where Bertie swims the lake with Tuca belting encouragement from a nearby boat make it possible to revisit the half-hour again and again. “The Jelly Lakes” values the significance of sharing, not repressing; of taking action, rather than hiding; and it does so without alienating viewers with darkness. It's the best of an excellent season, and a calling card for everyone involved, as they move on to future creative endeavors. — BT

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep”

Colleen Hayes/HBO

“Veep” — “Veep”
Written and directed by David Mandel

Ending a satire aimed at eviscerating America's broken political system isn't an easy task in the year 2019, when things are more broken than ever. But by focusing on the personal toll of Selina Meyer's quest for power, showrunner, director, and writer David Mandel found one more way to remind viewers of what's wrong with our corrupt leaders: Even when they win and we lose, they still won't be happy. From the physically revolting endorsement of Jonah Ryan an always excellent Timothy Simons to the stunning — even for her — way she throws Gary Tony Hale at his most heartbreaking under the bus, watching Selina Meyer Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the of her powers do whatever it takes to win the presidency outright is devastating and shocking without becoming unbelievable. It's a pointed end, both for the character we've watched for years and the system she represents. No one wins in this world, and it often feels like no one wins in ours. — BT

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

Don Johnson and Frances Fisher in “Watchmen”

Van Redin / HBO

“Watchmen” — “It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice”
Directed by Nicole Kassell Written by Damon Lindelof

The pilot of a TV show is responsible for setting the tone of the episodes to come, and there hasn't been one in recent memory that nails the introduction as much as “It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice” does for “Watchmen.” The confidence of every element — from the performances to the script to the production design to the costuming to the music — is enthralling. Creator Damon Lindelof is known for the air of intrigue he brings to his pilots, with “Lost” and “The Leftovers” also showing a mastery of the teasing set-up, but it's the death at the end of “Watchmen's” first episode that creates the satisfying throughline of the series. Yes, Robert Redford is president and there is, apparently, a blue guy on Mars — but untangling the mystery of why that instigating murder occurred is what keeps people turning in. —AD

The Best TV Episodes of 2019

Regina King in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill / HBO

“Watchmen” — “This Extraordinary Being”
Directed by Stephen Williams Written by Cord Jefferson & Damon Lindelof

Telling the origin story of America's first masked hero is a challenge in and of itself, but “Watchmen” wanted to do more. Always scrutinizing, rather than elevating, our cultural obsession with men wearing masks, the sixth episode sends our protagonist Angela Abar Regina King into the past, where she sees her grandfather Jovan Adepo try to trust in the law, until the law betrays him one too many times. This distinctly American lie — that justice is blind — fuels the creation of Hooded Justice, a character whose identity was never exposed in Alan Moore's original comic book series and whose identity is repurposed here: Rather than a misunderstood white guy donning the uniform and starting the “hero” trend out of pure patriotic desire, it's Will Reeves behind the mask, forced by prejudice to not only take the law into his own hands but also to pretend to be white while doing so, or risk further persecution. Appropriation is a running theme of “Watchmen,” and Episode 6 inverts the white savior myth by positioning heroes as a piece of black culture. Beyond that, it's a gorgeous, creative, and utterly absorbing hour of television, polished to perfection from the immaculate script through its stunning production. We'll be talking about this one for years to come — an apt reaction to “This Extraordinary Being.” — BT

Source: Indiewire

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The Best TV Episodes of 2019
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