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10 Best Television Episodes of 2019
There are rare occasions when one episode of television just takes your breath away. Or makes you laugh. Or think harder. That’s the power of television: in the course of about an hour, a single episode can get fully seared in your memory. Fortunately for TV lovers, 2019 was full of a whole slew of incredible television. Taking a bit of inspiration from the realities of 2019 itself, series like Watchmen, Pose, and even Grey’s Anatomy (yes, it’s still on) tackled the social ires that plague our communities, but there’s something extra poignant about seeing those topics seep into the entertainment we consume in our down time. Television has always had a way of making the taboo a bit more digestible, but the stories told on television this year took it to a whole new level.
But beyond the social messaging, some series simply found a way to tell a damn good story, message or not. The second season of Fleabag punctuated the decade with some of the sharpest comedy we’ve seen in years. Big Mouth continues to find a way to weave in animation with smart storytelling season after season. And even though some of these series didn’t see Emmy or Golden Globe nominations, they still managed to occupy a place in our minds.
10. “Duke,” Big Mouth
“Duke” narrates a central mystery: how did jazz legend Duke Ellington, whose ghost lives in Nick Birch’s attic, lose his virginity? This Very Special Episode takes Nick, Andrew, and Jay back in time to Washington D.C. circa 1913, or as Duke describes it, “America’s puberty, and my puberty, too.” What follows is a singularly unusual episode of Big Mouth, one filled with romance, wistfulness, and a rare, cheeky bit of privacy. In an age where teenagers are more logged on than ever, an episode of television preserving the intimate mystery of Duke’s first time is a welcome revelation. —Adrienne Westenfeld
9. “Chase Drops His First Album,” The Other Two
Comedy Central’s The Other Two remained a bit of a blip on the comedy radar this year, mostly adored in critical circles, but the heartfelt comedy from Chris Kelly was at its best in its inaugural season when it tackled the line between comedy and tragedy. In a bottle episode that kept its entire cast on a plane for Chase’s album drop, Cary (Drew Tarver), Brooke (Heléne Yorke), and Pat (Molly Shannon) wrestle with the complex task of when to reveal to Chase (Case Walker) that his father died from alcoholism.—Justin Kirkland
8. “Janets,” The Good Place
The Good Place has been a nugget of gold for all four seasons it’s been on air, but the quirky NBC comedy is at its best when it leans all the way into the weird. “Janets” is the epitome of that type of strangeness. Stuck in a void while Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D’Arcy Carden) attempt to save the Soul Squad from eternal damnation, the core four are kept in Janet’s void, but there’s a catch: they all appear as Janet. Carden was tasked with the impossible feat of playing four different characters who all interact with one another. What easily could have been a shtick of an episode turned into a true testament to the comedic force that Carden is, as well as how inventive network sitcoms can be.—Justin Kirkland
7. “This Is Not For Tears,” Succession
In the hall of fame for television episodes that fulfill that old “surprising and inevitable” chestnut dispensed in writing workshops around the country, “This Is Not For Tears” is a standout. After a season spent building dread and suspense around which Roy family member would become the “blood sacrifice” laid at the shareholder altar, this season finale solves the mystery, only to subvert expectations at the final second. “This Is Not For Tears” pays off the long saga of tortured gamesmanship between Logan and Kendall, allowing Kendall to rise like a phoenix from the debasement he’s suffered for two seasons. —Adrienne Westenfeld
6. “Episode 4,” Years and Years
Years and Years was one of those series that floated under the radar for most of this year, but it packs one of the biggest punches of the 2019. Actually, the insane realism of the sci-fi show that speculates on what global politics could look like over the next 15 years might hit a bit too close to home for most. In “Episode 4,” the tragic repercussions of immigration reform are on full display when Daniel (Russell Tovey) attempts to get his fiance, Viktor (Maxim Baldry) back to England via a small motorized raft. The results make for one of the most heart-wrenching, brutal twists on television this year.—Justin Kirkland
5. “Ariadne,” Russian Doll
Russian Doll might have been the first truly great series of the year, but of all its parts, the final installment is the one that really sells the series as something remarkable. After multiple episodes of seeing Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) die over and over, the season finale explores why this show about death was actually about living all along. Lyonne’s character arc provides a concrete foundation for a series that very easily could have saccharine, and its final episode gave an emotional conclusion that felt neither forced, nor arbitrary.—Justin Kirkland
4. “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Pose
Pose turned up the intensity in Season Two by jumping forward in time and highlighting activism within the HIV community. The true shock of the season hit in Episode Four though, when Candy, a trans woman and mainstay of the ballroom scene, was brutally murdered in a motel. The episode highlighted the unceremonious treatment that trans women, particularly those of color, receive in death. But more than the injustice of Candy’s death, “Never Knew Love Like This Before” shined a light on the tight knit community that mourned her death. For a show set in 1990, it’s incredible just how much this particular episode resonates in 2019. —Justin Kirkland
3. “Episode 6,” Fleabag
In twelve formally daring, perfectly compact episodes, Fleabag excavated themes of family, grief, trauma, and spirituality, all through a remarkable arc of growth and self-knowledge. In the final episode of the series, creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge crystallized these themes into a perfect, gutting ending, which sees Fleabag offer her heart to the Catholic priest for whom she’s fallen, only for him to choose God over her. Fleabag’s compulsion to break the fourth wall as an emotional crutch comes full circle in the episode’s final moment, when a heartbroken Fleabag tells us goodbye, choosing instead to embrace her life in all its agonies and ecstasies. As Fleabag ends the story she’s been telling us all along, what emerges is a poignant celebration of being present in one’s life. —Adrienne Westenfeld
2. “Silent All These Years,” Grey’s Anatomy
For a series that has been on the air for 15 years, Grey’s Anatomy could get a pass for sticking with what’s comfortable. But under the guidance of showrunner Krista Vernoff, the series has reclaimed its cultural currency by skewering social issues via the work done at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. Most powerfully, the series aired “Silent All These Years” earlier in 2019. Set with two dual storylines, a series regular discovers that her birth was the result of a sexual assault, while back at the hospital, a patient comes in after being raped. Traumatized by the experience, women (comprised of real-life actors, extras, writers, and technical crew) line the halls of the hospital so that the woman can go into surgery without having to see a man. It remains one of the most powerful images to emerge from television this year.—Justin Kirkland
1. “This Extraordinary Being,” Watchmen
In the short run that Watchmen had this year, the series has already exceeded the high expectations its viewers had for it. Still, no episode—Watchmen or otherwise—has managed to have the impact that “This Extraordinary Being” had. Acting as an origin story for Hooded Justice, “This Extraordinary Being” also served as a painfully relevant meditation on racism in America and how the subtleties of prejudice can be just as damaging as overtly racist acts. Pulling off an origin story for a character known by so many is a difficult task on its own. Pairing it with a nuanced discussion on race in America is sheer brilliance.—Justin Kirkland
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.