We stopped pretending that we could crown the best TV show of any given year a while ago.
The past decade saw an explosion of quality original programming broadcast on so many different channels and streaming services that it’s a masochistic pursuit to even try to keep up. How can you confidently declare a cumulative “best of” list when there’s likely something sitting in your Netflix queue just waiting to shake up your Top 5? Our staff is comprised of some of the most prolific binge-watchers on the internet, and even we can’t consume everything produced for TV in a given year.
So instead of posting a subjective-by-experience list of the best series that aired in 2019, we decided to highlight some of our favorite individual episodes, specials, and events. We prefer this method as it gives readers a good snapshot of our staff’s diverse tastes, shows love to some series that may have amounted to less than the sum of their parts, and highlights on a more micro level just why these shows grabbed our attention or became an obsession. Hopefully, we’ll steer you toward your next TV rabbit hole. As we undoubtedly neglected to mention someone’s favorite here, sound off in the comments with what you think we missed.
– Nick Harley
American Horror Story: 1984, “Red Dawn”
American Horror Story is notorious for starting off with a decent idea and collection of stories, only to routinely fly off the rails around the season’s midway point. The series’ ninth season, AHS: 1984, functions as a loving ode to the slasher genre and films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street that helped define it. The season throws a bunch of individuals into a summer camp and lets loose multiple serial killers, and the results are some of the most satisfying content that American Horror Story has turned out in years.
Rather than derail the season, “Red Dawn” effectively shows off the full scope of this experiment. It cleverly turns the season from a story about a serial killer at a summer camp into a layered narrative that looks at generational trauma in creative ways. “Red Dawn” is proof that American Horror Story shouldn’t be written off and that it still has some tricks up its sleeve.
– Daniel Kurland
Arrow, “Starling City”
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago when the very concept of a TV series based on Green Arrow, a third rate DC Comics character whose primary claims to fame were archery skills, questionable trick arrows, and an even more questionable code name, seemed impossible. Eight seasons later, and an actual Green Arrow TV series has reshaped the television landscape, launching five spinoffs (with more on the way) and a blockbuster-style superhero mythology and formula so far-reaching and effective that they actually named it the Arrowverse. And as ground zero for what has since become the broadest live action exploration of the DC Universe in history, it deserves to go out on its own terms.
And that’s exactly what its final season premiere, “Starling City,” does. Revisiting themes from the first season, and bringing back long dead beloved characters (via the miracle of alternate universes… more on that later in this list), Arrow’s final season premiere could have just traded on nostalgia. Instead, it gives us an action sequence that deserves to live forever in the pantheon of great TV fight scenes, reminding audiences one more time that Stephen Amell might be the most physically convincing superhero of the modern era. It also gives us dramatic highlights that would, in a more just world, put the actor in the Emmy conversation. We’re really gonna miss this show.
– Mike Cecchini
Ever since Paulie and Christopher got lost chasing that Russian through the Pine Barren on The Sopranos, just about every TV show with dramatic leanings has been looking for its “Pine Barrens.” With season 2 episode 5 “ronny/lily,” HBO’s hitman dramedy Barry gets its own.
“ronny/lily” is a simple, self-contained story of a hit gone hilariously, rapturously wrong. Barry is charged with killing Ronny Proxtin but instead the now soft hitman-turned-actor tries to convince Ronny that it’s in his best interest to just leave town. But Ronny isn’t ready to leave without a fight. Barry spends the rest of the mostly silent, scoreless episode bloodied and broken trying to capture (and at times avoid) Ronny’s seemingly feral daughter, who also happens to be a Taekwondo expert.
Directed by Bill Hader, “ronny/lilly” is a beautiful, stylistic flourish for an already excellent second season.
Better Things, “Shake the Cocktail”
Pamela Adlon’s Better Things has quietly turned into one of the most beautiful and authentic shows on television. The show’s third season became even more personal as Adlon stepped behind the camera to direct the entire season. “Shake the Cocktail,” the third season finale, is centered around Sam’s 50th birthday.
Sam entertains many complicated feelings over this milestone and it turns into a deeply honest meditation on what it means to be a mother. Sam is endlessly caring for the other people in her life, namely her children, but “Shake the Cocktail” reiterates how important it is that she doesn’t love herself in the process. It’s a glowing example of everything that the show does right. Plus, it’s hard not to love that instantly-memorable dance number.
– Daniel Kurland
Bojack Horseman, “A Quick One, While He’s Away”
As BoJack Horseman’s sixth and final season prepares for the end, it also features genuine change for the damaged BoJack Horseman and the bulk of the show’s cast. This series has continually shown BoJack’s difficulty to make progress in his destructive life, but the show’s sixth season places the character in rehab and really takes it seriously. The result is a powerful season that’s arguably BoJack Horseman’s most optimistic batch of episodes ever.
“A Quick One, While He’s Away” the finale to the first half of BoJack’s sixth season, hints at a dark future to come and entertains the idea that, just because BoJack has made progress, he doesn’t necessarily deserve absolution. This episode digs up many of the souls who have become collateral damage in BoJack’s whirlwind of a life. Many of his past demons come back in big ways that hint towards an extremely emotional final lot of episodes.
– Daniel Kurland
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “He Said, She Said”
Regular viewers know Brooklyn Nine-Nine can be deft and emotionally intelligent when it calls for it, handling comedy and social commentary with grace, and there’s no better example than Season 6’s “He Said, She Said.” Directed by Stephanie Beatriz, “He Said, She Said” addresses the topic of #MeToo in a way that Beatriz describes as “subtly discussing social issues through a multifaceted and complex lens while taking you on a comedy joyride.” The episode fits in plenty of laughs, but also does an excellent job at highlighting not only the indignities that women are forced to suffer on a daily basis, but the ways in which sexual assault victims are disregarded, humiliated, and professionally stifled when they come forward with their stories.
Jake and Amy are assigned by Holt to team up on a case that involves a finance bro getting his “dong broken” after he’s attacked by a female co-worker who claims that he tried to sexually assault her. When the female victim expresses doubts about testifying, Rosa criticizes Amy’s determination to get the victim on the stand. It’s a startlingly honest and complicated conversation for a network comedy, only topped when Amy relays her experiences with sexual misconduct in the workplace. Melissa Fumero is routinely excellent, but she’s phenomenal here. She and Samberg provide the emotion the scene calls for with vulnerability and compassion. Anyone that argues that Jake and Amy aren’t a believable couple will be eating their words after this scene. Only a certain caliber of show can execute an accurate and nuanced portrayal of what victims of sexual assault go through in just a 22-minute runtime, with several of those minutes dedicated to a B-plot.
– Nick Harley
Chernobyl, “Vichnaya Pamyat”
Created by Craig Mazin, the man who told Benioff and Weiss that the original, unaired Game of Thrones pilot was shit, Chernobyl, which premiered in the wake of that other HBO show’s divisive ending, was everything Thrones was not: measured, thematically-sharp, and horrifically realistic. The story of the real-life Chernobyl nuclear disaster and, perhaps more importantly, the scope of the cleanup that followed, Chernobyl’s focus on the importance of uncovering and making public the truth, even after a tragedy has happened, is hammered home beautifully in this last hour.
In “Vichnaya Pamyat,” we see Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), Legasov (Jared Harris), and Khomyuk (Emily Watson) testify to Soviet authorities in a puppet trial set in the abandoned city of Chernobyl. As they recount the events that led to the meltdown, we flash back to the actions preceding the event. Despite being threatened by the KGB and with the knowledge that the facts will be suppressed in the state-controlled media, Legasov chooses to tell the truth about the bureaucratic negligence and the design flaw in the control rods that led to the accident. Court drama has rarely been so suspenseful, or so important.
– Kayti Burt
Crisis on Infinite Earths Parts 1-3
Are we cheating by including three episodes as one entry here? Maybe. Do we care? Not even a little bit.
The original Crisis on Infinite Earths is the prototype for the line wide comic book crossover event. Everything that has ever kept casual fans from getting into comics, but that comics fans profess to love, is present and accounted for: more characters packed into a page than you could possibly keep track of; a story that makes no sense if you don’t have the equivalent of a law degree in DC Universe history; and a universe-threatening “nothing will ever be the same” ethos that could theoretically be undone whenever the narrative (or sales) demand it. But it’s also a timeless, cosmic tale of heroes making the ultimate sacrifice in the face of impossible odds and a seemingly all-powerful villain. For 30 years, the thought of a Crisis on Infinite Earths movie seemed even beyond the realm of dorm room bong hit fantasy. But a Crisis on Infinite Earths TV show? Yeah, they somehow did it.
It took seven seasons of Arrow, four seasons of Supergirl, five seasons of The Flash, four seasons of Legends of Tomorrow, and two seasons of Black Lightning to get us here (not to mention freshman drama Batwoman) but the Arrowverse found a way to make this most impossible of superhero epics work on screen. By making the stakes matter for the leads of all their shows, the Arrowverse moved beyond the novelty factor of their annual crossovers. And by bringing in stars of other DC TV shows and movies from years gone by for cameos (hi Robert Wuhl and Burt Ward!) or more substantial roles with integral stories (Brandon Routh’s sublime return as Superman and the great John Wesley Shipp giving his 1990s TV version of Barry Allen the sendoff he deserved), the first three parts of Crisis on Infinite Earths made us believe, even in this era of superhero saturation, that anything is truly possible in the multiverse.
And there’s still two episodes left in January. Holy moley.
– Mike Cecchini
Dickinson, “We lose – because we win”
On paper, Dickinson is the sort of show that really shouldn’t work. The fact that it does is one of 2019’s most surprising gifts. A period piece with a thoroughly modern sensibility and soundtrack, Dickinson manages to be a love letter to an often misunderstood historical figure and her work, a compelling teen drama, and a commentary on contemporary feminist all at once.
The series’ seventh episode, “We lose – because we win,” manages to combine all three of those things into a truly exceptional half hour. This episode not only sees Emily punished for using her brother’s name to win a poetry contest as Austin triumphantly secures Sue a family burial plot by digging up a dead baby, it also examines broader political and gender issues in a way that feels relevant and necessary to a modern day audience. Whether it’s a girl who hallucinates herself at the center of a freak show because of her love of an unacceptable calling, a father incapable of imagining a world in which he is responsible for his own failures, or a society that refuses to see the capabilities of the women at its center, these are stories that feel very familiar, no matter when they take place.
– Lacy Baugher
Documentary Now, “Original Cast Album: Co-Op”
Each time we talk Documentary Now, we feel the need to remind people what exactly this show is and what’s so great about it. More than any other show on this list, Doc Now is a darling of critics and Emmy voters (all three seasons earned Outstanding Variety Sketch Series nominations) with truly abysmal live ratings. The fact that it’s even on the air still is a testament to the folks in charge at IFC, and to the executive producers, directors, and writers who compromise nothing to realize their vision of creating mockumentaries that measure up in quality to the source material they are spoofing.
The allure, and possible turn off for some viewers, of this format, in which each episode parodies a real-life documentary, is that the show varies so wildly in tone and material. Not to mention that, across its three seasons, we’d argue the series’ watershed episodes almost all come in season 2 and 3. So if you tuned out of Doc Now after season 1, we implore you to go back and try season 2’s “The Bunker,” Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything,” and “Mr. Runner Up.”
“Original Cast Album: Co-Op” is the high point of the overall strong third season. Written by John Mulaney and Seth Meyers, who if we had it our way would be contractually obligated to write everything that airs on TV in 2020, the episode chronicles the live album recording of a doomed ‘70s Broadway production titled: “Co-Op.” Taran Killam, John Mulaney, and James Urbanik star as the prickly creative team behind the play. Then you have comedic geniuses Richard Kind and Paula Pell, and Hamilton alum Renee Elise Goldsberry singing ridiculously funny and catchy tunes about living or working in a cooperative community. It’s a mockumentary worthy of a gold record. When it’s all said and done, “Co-Op” could stand alone as Documentary Now’s finest half-hour.
– Chris Longo
DuckTales, “A Nightmare on Killmotor Hill”
DuckTales is an extremely funny show, and while “A Nightmare on Killmotor Hill” does have some gloriously wacky moments, it quickly becomes the show’s most heart-wrenching yet inspiring episode. Lena is struggling with the after effects of Magica’s abuse and while she doesn’t resolve it in this episode her triumphant stand at the end demonstrates she’s well on her way.
Lena’s declaration that “I don’t need you. YOU NEED ME! You are no longer allowed in my head!” just shows how committed DuckTales is to portraying the effects of abuse with great care and devastating power. “A Nightmare on Killmotor Hill” shows what the best kind of TV does: it holds up a mirror to our own lives and safely lets us explore them.
– Shamus Kelley
Fleabag Season 2 Episode 1
Every minute of Fleabag’s second and final season is perfect, but Episode 1, which picks up roughly a year following the events of Season 1, is the ideal scene-setter for the story to come. Set almost entirely in a restaurant where Fleabag’s family is gathering to celebrate the engagement of Fleabag’s Father and Godmother, the dinner is a simmering pressure cooker of meticulously-built family drama that plunges us back into this emotionally-taut world.
While much has stayed the same—Claire is unhappily married to Martin, Godmother is controlling towards Father, and passive aggressively cruel towards Fleabag and Claire, and Martin is an alcoholic asshole—creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge isn’t interested in telling the same story over again. Fleabag has changed; she’s doing better, her sense of self-worth markedly improved since last we saw her, and it;s fascinating to see how that personal growth affects a family dynamic somewhat dependent on Fleabag as the emotionally-unstable “screw-up.”
In the midst of it all, we get a new variable: the Priest, affectionately known on the internet as “Hot Priest.” The brilliant Andrew Scott’s addition to an ensemble of already brilliant thespians gives Waller-Bridge yet another playmate in this story of healing. “This is a love story,” Fleabag tells us at the beginning of this episode and this season. And what a love story it is.
– Kayti Burt
The Flash, “Into the Void”
It’s safe to say that the last two seasons of The Flash weren’t exactly anybody’s favorites. Plodding pacing, fourth-rate villains who had to somehow pad out 22-episode seasons, and a failure to strike the tonal balance that made the earlier seasons so successful were starting to take their toll. Ah, but along comes new showrunner Eric Wallace, with a vision to split the one long season into two shorter ones (with two different Big Bads). The new story structure, along with the seemingly inevitable knowledge that the death of Barry Allen was foretold for the midseason finale, imbued the season with a sense of urgency from the outset unlike anything fans had seen in years.
Oh, and with all of this came some aesthetic improvements. A new Flash costume that is easily the best (and most comic book faithful) the character has ever worn on this show was a welcome addition. But the real fun came in a psychedelic climax in the mouth, where the Scarlet Speedster launches himself into a black hole…to the tune of Queen’s forever fucking immortal “Flash’s Theme.” Yeah, yeah…wrong Flash. They knew it and we knew it. And it was still the most triumphant 3:30 in superhero TV this year…if not ever.
– Mike Cecchini
Game of Thrones, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
Look, we acknowledge that many people have strong opinions about the final season of Game of Thrones, but can we at least all agree that “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is downright delightful? It’s like the hangout version of the show that you might fantasize about while drifting off binge-watching a season of New Girl. On what many presume to be their last night on earth, the Game of Thrones cast finally mixes and mingles all under one roof, resulting in unexpected reunions, romance, petty drama, and heartfelt displays of friendship, without a goddamn dragon or ice zombie to be found. And it rules.
Back in a magical time when we were all still wildly hyped for Game of Thrones Season 8, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” brought us Brienne’s arc-concluding, triumphant moment, Jaime’s last acts as a redeemed man, Arya’s Big Dick Energy, Sansa’s politicking, Bran’s Dr. Manhattan-esque one-lines, and the first real indication that we were getting a Daenerys heel turn. Tormund Giantsbane is out here telling incredible stories about titty milk and is insanely horned-up. Layanna Mormont literally tells Jorah to fuck off. This episode was insanely fun in the moment, even if it looks a little fan-servicey in retrospect. We were all so innocent then. No coffee cups to be found.
– Nick Harley
Good Omens, “Hard Times”
The adaptation of Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett’s beloved fantasy-comedy novel Good Omens burst onto the 2019 scene, refusing to succumb to the grit and seriousness that defines so much of our pop culture right now while also telling a story about the potential end of the world. God and Satan. Witches and witchfinders. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Shakespeare! This story has it all, but, at its emotional center, is the relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley, an angel and demon who love one another despite being on different sides of an ongoing war.
The first half of Episode 3, “Hard Times,” takes a break from the end of the world to tell the story of Aziraphale and Crowley’s friendship from the Garden of Eden to today, checking in with them at key points in western history like Noah’s Flood, the Crucification of Jesus, Ancient Rome, Medieval England, Revolutionary France, and the London Blitz. The sequence gives David Tennant and Michael Sheen a chance to indulge their most charismatic and comedic sides (and to wear the best wigs), while also grounding this apocalyptic tale in an epic love story.
– Kayti Burt
The Good Place, “The Answer”
When it’s operating at peak capacity, there is no more efficient feels factory on television than NBC’s The Good Place. This at its core is a story about human beings and what we owe to each other. As Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason confront that existential question, it can lead to some emotionally-fraught territory.
Still, few episodes are as bursting with sheer love for the human species that season 4’s midseason finale “The Answer.” As everyone waits for Chidi Anagonye to wake from his amnesia to offer up “the answer” for how to create a better life, Chidi flashes back through important moments of his life and all the times he thought he had “the answer.”
The story of Chidi’s life and many afterlives seem to suggest that there might not be an answer at all. Or maybe just the one.
– Alec Bojalad
I Think You Should Leave, “It’s The Cigars You Smoke That Are Gonna Give You Cancer”
Tim Robinson’s time on Saturday Night Live was short and his underrated Comedy Central series, Detroiters, co-starring real-life BFF and Veep alum Sam Richardson, was short-lived. That didn’t deter Robinson from making one of the year’s finest freshman comedies, I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. By my irresponsibly-unscientific estimation, the series was second to only Baby Yoda in memes generated in 2019, and episode three is a major reason why.
The series is comprised of uncomfortable sketches in which people take everyday situations to the absurd. One man stood above the rest: Ruben Rabasa, who plays the Good Car Idea man in the focus group sketch. The Cuban-born actor spent nearly his entire acting career, which dates back to the late ‘70s, in small parts. Sure, you could call a handful of one-liners in a three minute sketch a small role, but Rabasa makes every frame count with his carefully articulated pronunciations, side-eye glances, and hand gestures. The lines are so over-the-top—“steering wheel flies off,” “no room for mother-in-law,” and “too small”—and yet Rabasa maintains his body control, but more importantly, brings an unrelenting doggedness and glee to the role—traits that define the ethos of the entire series.
The episode also features three other standout performances. SNL’s Cecily Strong plays a woman who ends a marriage because she perceives that her husband, played by Robinson, was emasculated by a magician. And in what may be my favorite sketch of the series thus far, Tim Heidecker plays Howie, an insufferable music snob who torments his girlfriends’ friends with a frustrating game of charades. The punchiest string of jokes in any season 1 sketch follow as Heidecker revels in getting on everyone’s last nerve at the party. The cherry on top is an infomercial sketch that gets hijacked by Conner O’Malley, who plays a sleazeball music producer named Robbie Starr. Starr’s enthusiasm for material like “Moon River Rock” is how I feel about I Think You Should Leave: “It’s a guaranteed goddamn hit!”
– Chris Longo
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “The Janitor Always Mops Twice”
I know it’s getting exhausting to hear critics and industry types go on about how damn impressive it is that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hasn’t run out of steam 14 seasons into their loud, abrasive comedy series (especially given how supposedly difficult this brand of comedy is to pull off in 2019), but as long as the cast and crew keep pumping out episodes like “The Janitor Always Mops Twice,” you’ll keep hearing us sing Sunny’s praises.
In the mold of other great experimental episodes like “Charlie Work,” “Being Frank,” and “The Gang Makes ‘Lethal Weapon 6,” “The Janitor Always Mops Twice” reimagines It’s Always Sunny as a film noir and absolutely nails the execution. Writer Megan Ganz is clearly a fan of the genre, as she peppers in all of the essentials: the hard-boiled dialogue, stock character types, multiple plot threads, pulpy voice-over work, and a twist-laden mystery. However, even with all of the trappings, like period appropriate outfits, silly accents, monochrome coloring, and unconventional camera work, the gang is still the gang. In an age where genre spoofs have largely fallen by the wayside except for in the world of animation, an apparently loving, well-crafted genre send-up is fun to behold.
– Nick Harley
Legion, “Chapter 22”
We were never supposed to get Charles Xavier on Legion. When the show was developed, FX and Fox made it quite clear that though a passing reference may be made to David’s famous mutant father, the character was unlikely to appear on screen. However, the Fox-Disney merger made it so Fox no longer needed to keep their prized toy in the box, only to be brought out for feature films. It’s a wonderful development for the series, as the introduction of Charles Xavier and his lover Gabrielle Haller leads to one of the series’ finest hours.
Taking liberties with their comic book origins, “Chapter 22” is a fine reintroduction to Charles Xavier, but an even better episode of Legion. It’s able to tell a compelling love story while working in some patented psychedelic and disconcerting imagery. Utilizing non-linear storytelling, we’re able to watch as Charles makes the mistake of engaging a monster and how that monster takes away all that is truly important to him. For anyone that found themselves discouraged with Legion during its difficult second season, this episode will remind you what you loved about the show in the first place.
– Nick Harley
Legends of Tomorrow, “Seance & Sensibility”
Legends of Tomorrow is the weirdo cousin of The CW’s Arrowverse, a show that manages to include everything from time travel and magic to clones and werewolves, yet still combine them all in such a way that keeps the series’ characters and their respective journeys front and center.
“Seance & Sensibility” is absolutely everything that Legends of Tomorrow does right, on steroids. On most shows, an installment that features a somber funeral, a Bollywood dance number brought on by licking the ashes of a dead god, and Jane Austen herself is something that could simply never happen, let alone work. But on Legends of Tomorrow it results in the best episode of the season, an emotional romp that’s full of joy, heartache and a lot of singing and dancing. In a season that was focused on chasing mystical creatures through time (don’t ask; it’s a long story), this installment was pure magic.
– Lacy Baugher
Looking For Alaska, “Now Comes the Mystery”
Hulu brought John Green’s first novel to the screen this year to beautiful results, telling a coming-of-age story that explores class tensions, grief, and first love and loss in nuanced, honest ways. The story begins when Miles “Pudge” Halter leaves Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Once there, he falls in with scholarship kids Alaska Young and Chip “The Colonel” Martin, as well as Takumi Hikohito, immediately becoming embroiled in the class-driven prank wars that keep the student body amused.
As a limited series, Looking For Alaska doesn’t waste any time telling its story, and by Episode 7, the narrative status quo has changed a great deal, with the Culver Creek community losing one of their own in a tragic accident. Episode 7 sees the immediate aftermath of that incomprehensible tragedy, as our main and supporting characters struggle to accept the immense loss they have all suffered. “Now Comes the Mystery” gives this young central cast a chance to shine, and boy do they ever, bolstered by performances by some of the older actors in the cast and the exceptional writing from series creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage.
Grief is hard to honestly portray on screen, but by centering this tragedy in an eight-episode limited streaming series, Looking For Alaska does a phenomenal and devastating job of exploring this complex, universal experience in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the media environment 15 years ago, when Green’s book was first published.
– Kayti Burt
The Mandalorian, “The Sin”
When people criticize The Mandalorian, they talk about how the Star Wars series is just leaning into familiar Western or samurai movie tropes, but there’s a reason those storytelling beats are familiar: it’s because they work. The Mandalorian doesn’t need to take huge storytelling risks because it has the luxury of being set in a universe so many fans are fascinated with and happy to spend time in. The Mandalorian feels like a relic from an era when TV served as competently-made comfort food, and that is not a complaint.
“The Sin” is the best episode of the new series to date. The plotline is simple: Mando hands Baby Yoda over to his mysterious client, has second thoughts, then blasts his way back into Werner Herzog’s compound on a rescue mission, pitting him against Carl Weathers’ Greef Karga and the guild of bounty hunters. Directed by Deborah Chow, the first woman to ever direct a live-action Star Wars film or TV show, the action scenes, especially when Mando’s Mandalorian brothers in arms come jetpacking in to make the save, are thrilling. The pacing remains smooth, even during a wisely-chosen detour to develop our understanding of Mandalorian customs. But most importantly, we get more memeable Baby Yoda content. We all know that the adorable, instantly iconic (Don’t Call Him) Baby Yoda is the real star of the show and he was never going to be omitted from this list. This is Baby Yoda’s world now, we’re just living in it.
– Nick Harley
Mr. Robot, “Proxy Authentication Required”
The final season of Mr. Robot may not be the cultural force that its zeitgeist-capturing first season was, but it’s been a high-stakes, propulsive race to the finish line, full of cyber heists, surprise departures, and shocking reveals. No moment in the series hits harder than in “Proxy Authentication Required” when Elliot finally comes to the realization that his father, who we believed to be the inspiration for Mr. Robot, was actually a sexual predator that victimized Elliot and made him the wounded, fractured loner that we’ve come to know. The audience comes to the realization moments before Elliot puts the pieces together, then is forced to watch in horror as his entire world comes crashing down.
“Proxy Authentication Required” has a classic five-act structure and is staged and paced like a stage play (and thankfully aired commercial-free), with tight blocking and characters deploying grand, sweeping monologues. Rami Malek has never been better, delivering a powerful, heartbreaking performance and the episode completely recontextualizes everything we thought we knew about the series and its characters. This isn’t merely a twist, it’s a hurricane-force game-changer.
– Nick Harley
Nostalgia is a force that’s never been more popular than it is now, with properties like Stranger Things reminding audiences how much fun it is to throw back to previous decades. The ‘90s have once again become especially fashionable and Hulu’s PEN15 perfectly taps into what it was like to be a growing teenager during that time period. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the episode “AIM” (although “Wild Things” is a close second), which operates as a loving tribute to the popular instant messaging service of the 1990s.
Every episode of PEN15 effortlessly explores the awkwardness of adolescence, but “AIM” is an incredibly earnest installment that does a lot with a little. It looks at something as simple as the anticipation of sending an online message and waiting for a response or being in your first chat room. It’s an experience that current adolescents may take for granted, but PEN15 is a sincere look at a different time. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkles’ freakishly authentic portrayal of teenagers is enough of a reason to give this show a chance and “AIM” makes for a compelling entry point.
– Daniel Kurland
Primal, “Rage of the Ape-Men”
It’s almost a guarantee that any Genndy Tartakovsky animated project is going to become appointment viewing and challenge the medium in some major ways. Adult Swim’s Primal may be Tartakovsky’s strongest series yet, which is certainly saying something with this creative genius. Primal throws things back to the prehistoric era and tells the moving story between the unlikely alliance of a Neanderthal and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Every episode of Primal is a triumph of animation as Spear and Fang face new threats, but impressively the shows plays out with zero dialogue and relies purely on visual storytelling.
“Rage of the Ape-Men” is the culmination of the series’ first group of episodes and hints at a major change in the status quo moving forward. The episode manages to be not only the most emotional installment to date, but it’s also exquisitely gory and features Tartakovksy at his most unleashed. There’s an epic bloodbath that makes some of the heavier moments in Samurai Jack look like play fighting. Primal is absolutely mandatory viewing for fans of animation and action.
– Daniel Kurland
A common theme you’ll see on this list are episodes that touch on stories and perspectives that rarely, if ever, get mainstream attention. Hulu’s Ramy, a semi-autobiographical series created by comedian Ramy Youssef, is full of them. His series focuses on the titular Ramy, a first generation Egyptian-American whose millennial lifestyle in suburban New Jersey often clashes with his religious beliefs as a practicing Muslim. While faith as a storyline increasingly feels more taboo on television, Ramy tackles it head-on, and it informs how the character contextualizes family, society, and his sense of self.
All these themes swirl around “Strawberries,” a flashback episode set around the events of Sept. 11th, 2001. We see a middle school Ramy (played by Elisha Henig) cope with the insecurities of his family and faith making him an outlier in the post-9/11 world. For groups of people who were similarly affected by these circumstances, I can only imagine seeing this representation on screen can provide a powerful retrospective of a complex and emotional time in their lives. For the rest of us, Youssef not only lends us his shoes to experience a dark time in his life, but he also ties in universal themes of childhood and friendship. It was truly a breakout year for Youssef, who also put out maybe the year’s finest stand-up special on HBO. Much of the stand-up material is fleshed out in Ramy, but “Strawberries” is empathetic storytelling at its finest and a standout in a thoughtful and spirited first season.
– Chris Longo
The Other Two, “Chase Performs at the VMAs”
Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider have created something truly special with The Other Two. Comedy Central has recently lost heavy-hitters like Broad City, with Corporate also on the way out, but The Other Two makes those losses a lot easier to bear. The series is a razor sharp satire of the entertainment industry that looks at the meteoric rise of a Justin Bieber-esque celebrity, which results in his entire normal family becoming famous in the process. Every single person in this show is hilarious and there’s not a weak link in the lot.
“Chase Performs at the VMAs” is the finale to the show’s first season and it’s a very strong representation of the comedy’s core values. The installment lampoons celebrities in very funny ways, but it’s also full of heart. This finale also ambitiously pushes the show into new territory and attempts to mix up its central premise. Thankfully a second season is on the way to see how this all shakes out.
– Daniel Kurland
The Righteous Gemstones, “Interlude”
*deep breath in* MAMMA TOLD ME NOT TO I DID ANYWAY MISBEEEHAVVVVIN! Yes, midseason Righteous Gemstones flashback episode “Interlude” will always be best known for that absolute showstopper of a song featuring Aimee Leigh belting high notes and Baby Billy wearing his clogging shoes. But even beyond that brilliant earworm of a country gospel tune, this is a wonderful episode of television and elevates The Righteous Gemstones to another level.
This is the story of the Gemstones family as they used to be, back when Jesse and Judy were kids and the only thing they were afraid of was the impending birth of their younger brother Kelvin. The Gemstones had everything they could ever want and still Jesse and Judy are afraid of sharing their parents’ love with someone else. Patriarch Eli (John Goodman) can only look upon the impending destruction that all his wealth and success hath wrought.
“Interlude” was written and ultimately created almost as a throwaway. Series creator Danny McBride had some extra time between episodes and successfully pitched HBO for a 9th installment of the season. The end result is an essential episode that makes the tale of the Gemstone family feel righteously Biblical.
– Alec Bojalad
Russian Doll, “A Warm Body”
Russian Doll did a great job of introducing a complex concept that could easily have felt derivative of Groundhog Day and the many TV shows that have attempted this formula in a single episode. A woman named Nadia, abrasive and disillusioned, leaves her own birthday party only to die a sudden death, but just as suddenly, she’s back at the party reliving the same night, struggling to understand why it’s happening after each repeated death.
But “A Warm Body,” the third episode gave us a few twists that changed everything and made this show a truly metaphysical, philosophical comedy tour-de-force. First, it led Nadia to search for answers at a synagogue, a sequence which provided more insight into what was truly happening than any other stop on her journey. Second, it introduced us formally to Horse, the homeless man that was a walking metaphor, open to endless interpretation.
It was the man Nadia meets in the elevator at the end of the episode, however, that made “A Warm Body” stand out in this stellar season of television. Without spoiling things, let’s just say Alan had a unique perspective on Nadia’s repeated deaths that no one saw coming.
– Michael Ahr
The Magicians, “All That Hard, Glossy Armor”
There is more creativity in one episode of The Magicians than in entire network lineups; “All That Hard, Glossy Armor” is a shining example of this. One of the Syfy’s show’s ambitious musical episodes, the tenth episode of Season 4 is ostensibly the story of Margot heading out into the Fillorian desert in order to find a weapon that will free best friend Eliot from the clutches of The Monster, but it becomes an exploration of female anger that is an incredibly rarely told story in mainstream media.
Though we may get some truly delightful group musical numbers, it is Summer Bishil who is asked to carry this episode, and she is more than up for the task, showcasing her incredible acting range in the climactic scene that sees Margot telling the Eliot in her head just how angry and tired she is.
“Are you stronger than a mountain?” Eliot asks. “I’m a king. Not a goddamn princess,” she tells him, beginning a poetic speech about embracing her anger. Sure, the singing is great. But this articulation of Margot’s character and the boxes still put around woman in today’s world is much more advanced and nuanced than so much of the conversation that is going on in mainstream media today around female empowerment. In a season that was somewhat divisive among fans, this episode is a reminder of just how important—and good—this show can be.
– Kayti Burt
Schitt’s Creek, “Meet the Parents”
Schitt’s Creek, a feel-good beacon of light in the 2019 darkness! This show refuses to surrender to the pessimism that defines so much of our mainstream media, instead celebrating the strides our society has made, most specifically in LGBTQ+ representation and acceptance, and reminding viewers just how much power there can be in personal growth and self-acceptance.
In “Meet the Parents,” David is arranging a surprise birthday partner for his partner (in business and in life) Patrick. He invites Patrick’s parents, unaware that Patrick has not yet “come out” to them or informed them about his months-long romantic relationship with David. Instead of falling into the overrepresented trope of a negative “coming out” experience, Schitt’s Creek takes this opportunity to tell yet another story of the power of vulnerability, love, acceptance, and community.
– Kayti Burt
Silicon Valley, “Exit Event”
Richard Hendricks and the merry men (and lady) of Pied Piper failed just as many times as they succeeded throughout the six season run of Silicon Valley. Every obstacle, however, was always met with a solution up to the very end. The genius of the series finale, “Exit Event,” is that it finds a way to honor the show’s dedication to both failure and victory.
Richard, Gilfoyle, and Dinesh succeed in creating the democratic, decentralized Internet that they dreamt of. Unfortunately, the combined forces of the trio’s coding skills creates a technological monster so effective that if allowed to proceed will eventually lay waste to every possible encryption and usher in the technoapocalypse. Pied Piper has to make sure the launch of the new Internet fails and they have to ensure that it does so in a humiliating, public fashion lest anyone ever try to follow in their footsteps.
“Exit Event” provides one last opportunity for the show’s characters to do what they do best: succeed at failing…or is it failing at succeeding?
Stranger Things, “Chapter 8: The Battle of Starcourt”
There is something delicious about Stranger Things season 3 ending its season by literally destroying the Starcourt Mall. For the seven episodes preceding it, a shopping mall in Small Town, USA in 1984 was treated with the menace of the shark in Jaws. Thirty-five years later, these concrete hubs are now seen as the last bastion of commerce not consumed by disruptive business models on the internet. Business models like Netflix.
This is all to say there is some grand meta-humor as our plucky heroes fight the Mind-Flayer for hopefully the last time, just as there is meta-nostalgia when Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is rocking out with girlfriend Suzie to an acapella rendition of “The NeverEnding Story” song. But all these extracurricular in-jokes just add to the enjoyment of Stranger Things 3 instead of distracting from it.
This season remembered the story is about its characters, and the finale put that front and center. There is something pure about Dustin and this series taking a breath mid-climax for some Limahl high notes, just as there is something appropriately tragic about Hopper (David Harbour) being whisked away by Russians before he can have that date with Joyce (Winona Ryder). It is the human element that makes all the sci-fi shenanigans and nostalgia sing. And when the season ends on Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) losing her sense of home all over again, which is the stuff that made her arc in the first two seasons poignant, it gives Stranger Things 3 a new super power: melancholia.
– David Crow
Succession, “This is Not for Tears”
In many ways, Succession season 2’s finale seems like a throwback to a simpler time when the season finale of a big HBO drama could dominate the cultural conversation for weeks if not months. Of course, we’re in a new era of TV-watching now with audiences splintered across hundreds of different quality TV options and the majority of conversation siloed into various factions on Twitter. Still, “This is Not for Tears” confidentiality presents itself as though it is the most important hour of television in the world and then goes about proving that it just might be.
The Roy family finds themselves enmeshed in the Waystar/Royco cruise scandal in this finale. So daddy Logan Roy invites everyone on a yacht to get away for a bit. At least that’s how he pitches it, but everyone knows that this is a slightly more polite mob hit. Someone has to take the bullet for this fiasco, but who will it be?
“This is Not for Tears” is everything great about Succession dialed up to 11. Somehow the excellent assembled cast, director Mark Mylod, and writer Jesse Armstrong are able to make a yacht vacation feel like a Hitchcock thriller.
– Alec Bojalad
The Umbrella Academy, “Number Five”
The entirety of The Umbrella Academy was amazing, but its particular strength came from episodes which focused on a single character. Many fans hone in on the excellent Vanya and Klaus arcs, but the fifth episode (appropriately enough) gave us an enticing glimpse at the backstory of the enigmatic, time-traveling Number Five.
He may appear to be 13 years old, but Number Five has actually spent decades in an apocalyptic future. In the episode that bears his name, we’re introduced to the Commission, an agency which polices the timestream, assassinating people to manipulate history, a task for which Number Five is uniquely suited.
It’s a complete departure from the Hargreeves murder storyline that anchors the series, but the episode immediately created the impression that the storytelling possibilities for The Umbrella Academy were endless and fascinatingly varied. Plus young Aidan Gallagher was eerily convincing as a 58-year-old man trapped in a teenager’s body.
– Michael Ahr
No TV show that has delivered over 30 hours of some of the most incisive, biting, and hilarious political comedy ever needs to “stick the landing” with a great finale to be considered a classic. Veep, Satan bless it, decided to do so anyway.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect conclusion to the story of history’s most ruthless VP Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) than what this finale (fittingly titled “Veep”) gives us. As a new contender enters the Presidential race, Selina does whatever it takes to get back some votes and win. This includes compromising just about every position she supposedly holds dear and doing the unthinkable: putting Jonah Ryan one heartbeat away from the presidency.
The episode is brutal, noxious, hilarious, and completely riveting. It even contains perhaps the greatest Julia Louis Dreyfus comedic performance ever committed to film and therefore by default: the greatest comedic performance.
– Alec Bojalad
Watchmen, “This Extraordinary Being”
There are no shortage of contenders for the best episode of HBO’s brilliant Watchmen. There’s the thrilling and enigmatic first hour, the hilarious and stylish Laurie-centric “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” and the fear tinged Looking Glass exploration “Little Fear of Lightning.” But ultimately it’s the show’s sixth hour that reigns supreme.
“This Extraordinary Being” contains the reveal that inspired Damon Lindelof to pick up the mantle of a Watchmen TV series in the first place. The story of Will Reeves and who he would one day become not only delivers on the promises of the show’s premiere, it rewrites the American superhero myth in thrilling, satisfying, and entirely logical ways. Watchmen has Adrian Veidt’s brilliant brain, and Doctor Manhattan’s omniscient power, but “This Extraordinary Being” is its beating heart.
– Alec Bojalad
What We Do in the Shadows, “Baron’s Night Out”
It wasn’t always clear if FX’s adaptation of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s excellent vampire mockumentary would work. The genre of “vampire mockumentary” only had one entry before 2019 and it was pretty much the definitive one. Still, What We Do in the Shadows quickly made clear that there was plenty of more comedic opportunities left untapped in the stories of modern vampires.
Episodes like “Baron’s Night Out” were a clear example of what the show had to offer. The plot here is simple. Our three vampires (and the energy vampire they roll with) have to deal with the sudden appearance of their old friend/master “The Baron.” Afraid that the Baron will kill them all due to their failures to subjugate the mortals of North America, they decide to kill him first. Before that, however, they gotta give the guy a night out on the town in Staten Island at least.
And so they do, three gothic vampires, and their ancient master wearing a New Jersey Devils hat. There will be puking blood. Lots of it.
– Alec Bojalad