Picking the year's ten best episodes in the Peak TV era is the fastest way to drive yourself insane, but it's also the only way we know to put a bow on a year of exceptional television. From comic book adaptations, to high school returns, to ruminations on death, wealth, family, and community, there was so much great TV this year!
Premiered: February 27, 2019
Chalk this one up to playing to a pre-sold audience, but the brilliant comedic minds of Documentary Now! finally fixed their eyes on a classic of the genre that also speaks to the musical theater nerds out there. In creating a detailed parody of D.A. Penebaker's Original Cast Album: Company, which chronicled the arduous process of recording the cast album to Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed '70s musical, writers John Mulaney and Seth Meyers zeroed in on the major personalities, including dogged Hal Prince, a mercurial Sondhem, and of course, an unraveling Elaine Stritch, here parodied by the iconic Paula Pell. But more than just playing the hits, Mulaney and Meyers deliver a blown-out rendition of "Co-Op," with more than a few numbers that have staying power. It just goes to show that sometimes parodying the best will produce the best.
Premiered: April 21, 2019
Say what you will about the embattled final episodes of Game of Thrones, but its final season produced two episodes that made it almost impossible to pick a favorite. "The Long Night" was the greatest sporting event of the entire year, and probably deserves an ESPY for the cheer it sent around living rooms and viewing parties around the world when Arya Stark stuck that dagger into the Night King and sent him and his army shattering into a million pieces. But it was the episode that preceded it, the calm before the storm, that offered Thrones its last best hour. With war upon them, the gathered characters, who for so long were cast to the far corners of this vast narrative, came together to drink, tell tales, share silences and, in the episode's most moving moment, declare Brienne of Tarth a most worthy knight of the Seven Kingdoms. It was an episode eight seasons in the making, and well worth the wait.
Premiered: August 9, 2019
Once a season, GLOW takes a moment away from its interpersonal issues and tales of female self-actualization in the 1980s, and presents a full show for its audience. This year, with their Las Vegas revue growing repetitive and stale for our Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, everyone decided to swap gimmicks for a night, and the results were hilarious, illuminating, and — in the episode's crowning moment — almost surreal, as Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) emerged as a boozy, hammy Liza Minnelli impersonator. Sheila's season-long story arc was one of the year's most satisfying, so it's only appropriate that she was the highlight of the season's best episode.
Premiered: July 26, 2019
A series finale is a tough landing to stick, and Orange Is the New Black did just that, largely by staying true to its characters and eschewing spectacle for moments of connection, introspection, and grace among the inmates at Litchfield. Dealing with the aftermath of the season's strongest gut punch, the show stuck to its guns, which meant moments of hard-earned humanity coupled with the harsh realization that some inmates just aren't there yet (what's become of Daya is tragic, but kudos to the show for not giving her some ahead-of-schedule epiphany). Danielle Brooks, Natasha Lyonne, Selenis Leyva, and even embattled Taylor Schilling delivered some of their best work as the show went out reminding us why it was such an important and often vital series.
Aired: February 14, 2019
Network/Platform: Comedy Central
One of the year's best new comedies was a riff on celebrity, as well as a tale of enduring sibling bonds under even the most ridiculous of circumstances. When their little brother Chase (Case Walker) becomes a Bieber-esque tween star, siblings Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Helene Yorke) find themselves under frenzied pressure to make something of themselves. Cary's initial resistance to being fame adjacent is put to the test in this episode when Chase releases a new song about how super great and okay it is that his big brother Cary is gay. So Cary has to deal with being suddenly gay-famous, while Cary's management team (headed by a sublime Wanda Sykes) must stay nimble in order to navigate the choppy waters of having a hit song about gayness in 2019. The minute-by-minute shifts in whether "My Brother's Gay" is in or out of favor with The Gays is sharply observed ("the AV Club said it's 'no Moonlight'"), and Cary's flip-flopping over whether he's cool or not cool with being a footnote to gay notoriety is as well. That it all ends on a note that's both sweet and stinging is just about right.
Aired: February 8, 2019
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle's semi-surreal return to the horrors and obsessions of middle school was one of the year's more delightful surprises. In playing characters modeled after themselves at 15, Erskine and Konkle devised a kind of memory trap, where everything that ever happened is reflected back at twice the intensity. "Posh" manages to show off most of Pen15's strengths (Erskine and Konkle's dynamite chemistry, as well as the almost preternaturally mean gaggle of actual tween girls playing Anna and Maya's friends) while telling a thoughtful story about Maya being cruelly ostracized for her race, and Anna clumsily trying to make everything better. As discussions of race, privilege, self-hatred, and friendship go, this episode far outpaces anything else on TV.
Aired: July 9, 2019
After giving strong consideration to "Life's a Beach," where Blanca, Elektra, Angel and Lulu take a weekend trip to the beach and cut up something serious, we went with what was for many the emotional high point of the season. In a single episode, the embattled and often antagonistic Candy Ferocity goes missing and, after her friends and community members begin to fear the worst of what happens to trans women of color, be it in the early '90s or 2019, they learn the worst did indeed happen. Candy's murder galvanizes the house-ball community in Pose, leading to a memorial service where each major character reckons with the Candy on their shoulder If that alone didn't vault this episode to the top, the hugely emotional lip-sync performance of the title song finishes the job. Angelica Ross gets to live out Candy's moment in the sun, and it is indeed glorious.
Aired: August 18, 2019
In the immediate aftermath of "Vaulter" airing, everyone who ever worked in digital media engaged in a kind of group therapy over the mass-level PTSD brought on by Succession's frighteningly true to life depiction of the shuttering of a web site by its corporate masters. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) at first plays the cool plutocrat, with his assurances of simple fixes and a commitment to the brand. But seeing how little provocation from dad Logan (Brian Cox) and brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) it takes to get Kendall to swiftly and enthusiastically yank the guts out of Vaulter, all because "my dad told me to" is to see late capitalism at its most craven... and Succession at its very best.
Aired: September 13, 2019
As much as a show starring Toni Collette and Merritt Wever can be considered "under-the-radar," it's remarkable how unassuming Unbelievable was when it dropped on Netflix. This was no event series that had to be binged before the weekend was over just to stay current. Instead, and all too appropriately, Unbelievable was a slow burn, a word-of-mouth avalanche as people began to realize that this deeply harrowing and often difficult-to-watch show about rape and its aftermath was seriously great. Unbelievable is about the way systems fail the victims, and the near-miracle of having two such dogged and empathetic cops like Collette and Wever on the case. Since episode 3 is when those two characters put their investigations together, it's the episode that makes the list.
Aired: November 24, 2019
For a show with so many jaw-dropping moments, picking one episode isdifficult. Not impossible, though. Angela Abar's nostalgia-fueled trip through her grandfather's memories delivered one of our favorite things in fiction: an alternate history. From the community of Tulsa, to the police force Angela belongs to, to the Minutemen of both this series' American Hero Story and of course the original Watchmen book, Will Reeves (an impeccable Jovan Adeppo) and his tenure as Hooded Justice cast the entire history of the Watchmen in a different light, and it gives Angela a brand new sense of her mission. It's an incredibly intelligent, empathetic, and ultimately tragic story-within-a-story for a Watchmen universe that knows a thing or two about bested narratives.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.