When it comes to end of the year (or best of the year so far) pieces, it’s usually dramas or high-profile miniseries that dominate the space. Not so in 2019! This time around, comedies and half-hour formats have gotten quite a bit of love from Paste editors and writers. There are dramas and expensive miniseries represented here, of course. But some of the most innovative television has come in that 30 minute format, where experimentations in visual style and storytelling narrative have truly impressed.
Below are 16 of the best episodes of 2019 so far. Why 16? Because that’s exactly how many we wanted to include. (A note on eligibility, episodes had to air before June 14th). We’ll update this list at the end of the year when we’re all caught up on more shows, and the flashy fall premieres have had time to wow us. But for now, here are some of hours and half-hours that showcase the best of the best of the year (and not all of them are premieres and finales!)
A note on spoilers: We’ve tried to keep things general, but when in doubt (if you’re not caught up), scroll on past to the next item.
16. “Chase Gets a Girlfriend,” The Other Two
Writers: Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs
Director: Andrew DeYoung
It’s hard to choose just one episode of the excellent comedy series The Other Two, especially when you have in the mix that amazing music video featured in “Chase Gets the Gays,” or the season finale’s stunning reveal that we all should have seen coming, and yet, most of us didn’t. But what makes “Chase Gets a Girlfriend” the winner on our list is because it features Justin Theroux’s apartment. It’s not really Justin Theroux’s apartment, but also, it probably is. I mean, the massive shoe closet of black boots, a bathroom that just features a motorcycle inside (“where do you go?”), and a small chapel for Theroux’s church based on himself is all genius. Of course, it’s The Other Two’s excellent cast that sell both the physical comedy of the concrete chairs and the mystery bathroom, as well as the actual ethical implications of Chase being romantically partnered with another pop star to mutually raise their profiles. Chase being controlled by all of the so-called adults in the room (when he, often, is the most grounded one) is a recurring theme in the series. But seriously, that apartment. —Allison Keene (Photo credit: Comedy Central)
15. “Episode 5,” Catastrophe
and Sharon Horgan
Director: Jim O’Hanlon
Catastrophe’s final season is one of the best in modern comedy, delivering sweet-and-sour tang and jokes so brutally unexpected that your laugh outbursts may frighten small children, pets and yourself. Ahead of the British show’s sublime finale, co-creators, writers, and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan tackled workplace sexism with dry humor and ferocious practicality. Rob meets his boss’s boss, a man that ignores his direct report (an exceedingly competent woman) and takes a shine to Rob. He’s a man, after all. Sharon has a new (male) boss that’s a little too cozy and seems to leave a mysterious liquid on her desk after sitting there. The fallout from these storylines sees both main characters chastised for their expectations. Sharon’s is funny, light—a story of how women are trained to approach a world stacked against them. Rob’s subconscious flirtation with sexism, on the other had, is nuked from orbit. A surgically cruel remark from Sharon (“I’ve seen you be shitty before, but I’ve never seen you be so small”) stands alone in a show with a bottomless arsenal of verbal Hellfire missiles. A sharp episode that doles out the toughest love that a comedy could bear, “Episode 5” also exemplifies the elastic quality of the central couple’s love. They listen, they learn, and they always come back together. —Jacob Oller (Photo credit: Amazon Prime)
14. “Adriadne,” Russian Doll
Writer: Natasha Lyonne
Director: Natasha Lyonne
Russian Doll’s first episode was clever, stylish and funny—Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia was caught in a time loop, reliving the same night of her birthday party over and over, always ending in death, always restarting in her friend’s bathroom. But there was no sign yet of the amount of heart that the series would display by the time it was done. Written and directed by its star, Lyonne, the finale “Adriane” finds Lyonne and her fellow time looper Alan caught in separate loops where they find versions of each other unaware of the loops. After seven episodes of trying to figure out the “why” of their predicament, they realize they need to help each other, a lesson they both needed all along. It’s a surprisingly sweet and wholly satisfying ending to one of the most original new series of the year. —Josh Jackson (Photo credit: Netflix)
13. “Hard Times,” Good Omens
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Good Omens is a series that tackles more than its fair share of deep philosophical issues, telling a story about hope, love and faith in one another during the literal end of the world. But despite the somewhat pressing nature of the impending Apocalypse, Good Omens spends most of its third episode exploring the complicated pair at the heart of story: prissy angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and snarky demon Crowley (David Tennant).
The thing that even the most casual of viewers are likely to remember about this series is the absolutely remarkable twenty-eight minute cold open (yes, you read that right) that kicks off “Hard Times.” Rather than delve further into the whole Antichrist issue, Good Omens instead takes an extended detour into Aziraphale and Crowley’s past. We see their first meeting in the Garden of Eden before zooming through a six thousand year history of their friendship that plays like a slow burn romance. Grudging professional courtesy turns to a partnership of convenience becomes real, obvious affection by the end. The sequence thoroughly establishes both the origins of The Arrangement that has landed them both in their current predicament and the depth of their connection to one another as they make deals and save one another multiple times. (Find me a more romantic scene on television this year than Crowley rescuing Aziraphale’s rare books from an exploding church full of Nazis, is what I’m saying.)
Not bad for a sequence that, technically shouldn’t exist. None of these flashbacks appear in the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel on which the show is based and were specially written for the Amazon series. God—or Gaiman himself in this case— does indeed work in mysterious ways. —Lacy Baugher (Photo credit: Amazon Prime)
12. “Shake the Cocktail,” Better Things
Writer: Pamela Adlon
Director: Pamela Adlon
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, almost all women hate their mothers at one point or another, that is their tragedy. All mothers have to find a way of coping with it, that is theirs. Better Things star and co-creator Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox has spent three seasons of her dramedy straddling these lines, both as the single mother of three children and as a daughter coping with living hear her own aging, aggravating maternal unit.
All of this came to a head in the show’s third season finale, “Shake the Cocktail,” which Adlon wrote and directed. Middle child Frankie (played by the extremely talented Hannah Alligood) has ceased contact and moved out after an infraction that Sam still isn’t quite sure she made last episode. And because she is the coolest mom ever—ask all of Frankie’s friends; they’ll agree with me—she suffers in mostly silence, instead opting to bring Frankie a peace offering of home-made chili while her other children help her cope and taking out her frustrations on a long-time friend (Diedrich Bader’s Rich).
On the plus side, these events helped Sam take her mind off of turning 50 and her fears of kicking off early like her dad (Adlon’s actual father, TV producer and author Don Segall, died at 61). Oh, and now we also know that Matthew Broderick, who plays Sam’s boyfriend/therapist, does a kick-ass one-word John Lithgow impression. — Whitney Friedlander (Photo credit: FX)
11. ”Séance & Sensibility” Legends of Tomorrow
Writer: Grainne Godfree & Jackie Canino
Directors: Alexandra La Roche
Legends of Tomorrow is an absolutely, totally, and wonderfully bonkers show. That’s why it not only can have an episode that includes a somber funeral, a meeting with Jane Austen, a girl turning into a werewolf, and a Bollywood song-and-dance number that pushes the sexual boundaries of what’s allowed on network television. More importantly, it all works! And it is one of the year’s best episodes. Without giving too much away (because truly, Legends’ twists and turns are always delightful), suffice it to say that this is an hour that will literally make you laugh, cry, sing, and wonder why more people aren’t talking about this excellent show. —Allison Keene (Photo credit: The CW)
10. “Silent All These Years,” Grey’s Anatomy
Writers: Elisabeth R. Finch
Director: Debbie Allen
Although it’s now in its 15th season, Grey’s Anatomy remains a TV trailblazer. “Silent All These Years” follows the harrowing story of Abby (terrific guest star Khalilah Joi), a woman who’s been raped and struggles to come to terms with what happened to her. The episode shows, in excruciating and matter-of-fact detail, exactly what goes into collecting evidence for a rape kit. Abby’s arc is juxtaposed against Jo’s (Camilla Luddington) visit to meet her birth mother, Vicki (Michelle Forbes, in an incredible guest turn). Jo learns she is a product of rape and struggles to reconcile this information with what she had always thought about her birth mom. In the episode’s most powerful scene, the female doctors, nurses, and hospital employees (some of whom were played by Grey’s writers and producers) fill the hospital hallway to provide a protective line of support as Abby makes her way to surgery. Ben (Jason George) also has an important conversation with his stepson, Tuck (BJ Tanner), about consent. The episode is an unflinching look at the devastating impact of rape. Few series can so seamlessly and simultaneously educate and entertain. Grey’s debuted exactly 14 years ago. It’s as pioneering as ever. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo credit: ABC)
9. “Twin Cities,” Counterpart
Writer: Justin Marks
Director: Justin Marks
The excellent Starz series Counterpart introduces us to a world that has been split in two for decades, as two parallel Earths share a single portal in Berlin unbeknownst to all but government spy agencies on either side. Counterpart explores what-if questions about making different choices in one’s life, and how things might have changed if we had. It does so through the lens of Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), who unexpectedly meets his “other” after his wife Emily (Olivia Williams) suffers an accident that puts her into a coma and her own secrets are revealed. But Emily also has an other … as do we all, and thus starts the Howards journey of self-discovery x 2.
Somehow, the events of the Split never seemed extremely important when watching Counterpart; the tension of the character drama was enough. If you can accept that the world has split into a second world of dopplegangers, and that there is a secret war between these worlds, you don’t need to necessarily know all of the particulars of it. And yet, “Twin Cities” went back in time to explain exactly how the Split started, and the original sins that led us to the show’s current narrative. It’s a fascinating episode that really delves into the moral and emotional quandaries when faced with the idea of another version of yourself living a life made of different choices—which you can also interact with. An extraordinary hour of television, “Twin Cities” answered a question we didn’t know we needed explained, and did so with the same kind of intensity and intelligence that defined the rest of the series. —Allison Keene (Photo credit: Starz)
8. “Pandemonium,” The Good Place
Writers: Megan Amram and Jen Statsky
Director: Michael Schur
The Good Place ended their season with the aptly titled finale, “Pandemonium.” The characters are thrown into a frenzy when people from their past come back to ruin their lives, including a lying gossip columnist, from The Gossip Toilet (how dare they mess with Tahani that way?) Michael can’t handle his work as the architect and Eleanor takes over. All of that is the kind of storyline you expect from The Good Place, but what you end up thinking about is not how silly the show can be but the heart. Chidi is Eleanor’s soul mate but gives it all up for the good of the group: ihe only way to save everyone is to sacrifice his own memories. Just like that, he has to start over with Eleanor and the season ends, leaving us to hope that true soul mates always find each other, even after a memory wipe. —Keri Lumm (Photo credit: NBC)
7. “Hitchcock & Scully,” Brooklyn 99
Writer: Lang Fisher
Director: Cortney Carrillo
An entire episode of everyone’s favorite cop comedy devoted to investigating the wet’n’wild vice cop glory days of precinct schlubs Scully and Hitchcock? I believe it was a young Jake Peralta who said, “I believe it was a young Barack Obama who said, uh-yes we can.”
Look, I’ve marveled at the casting of eerily perfect young versions of characters before, but Juel Bestrop, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s casting director, fully outdid herself in snagging Alan Ritchson and Wyatt Nash to play the younger, hotter, deeply cooler versions of Joel McKinnon Miller’s Scully and Dirk Blocker’s Hitchcock. They are incredible, and while I’m positive that Season Six will be bursting with reasons to be thankful NBC swooped in a rescued the 9-9 from cancellation, just seeing this single casting coup, in this single glorious episode that takes the two detectives most deservedly at the butt of the series’ dumbest jokes and makes their real (if hidden) detective skills and moral compasses the narrative fulcrum to both Holt’s (Andre Braugher) internal revolt against the regressive new commissioner and Jake (Andy Samberg) and Boyle’s (Joe Lo Truglio) always-evolving friendship, proves that NBC knew what it was doing when it bet on Brooklyn Nine-Nine having plenty of comedic ground yet to mine. That we also get backstory for Wing Slutz, a racially coded battle between Terry’s Upstairs People and Amy’s Downstairs People back at the overly crowded precinct, and a not-sex van called the Beaver Trap that very possibly had a scarf in it that I also own (brb, finally turning on Marie Kondo to see if that should or should not spark joy) is just icing on the 9-9 cake. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo credit: NBC)
6. “The Trial,” What We Do in the Shadows
Writer: Jemaine Clement
Director: Taika Waititi
FX’s charming What We Do in the Shadows pulled out all the vampiric stops this week (vampire shows don’t raise stakes out of principle), as director Taika Waititi and writer Jemaine Clement used all the goodwill they’ve developed in the worlds of comedy and Marvel movies to unite pop culture vampires into the hilariously dry episode “The Trial.” The inept vampiric housemates are taken before the Vampiric Council due to a potential vampire-on-vampire crime—and going beyond Staten Island introduces the series to a plethora of incredible cameos in one of the season’s funniest episodes. The hilarious Kristen Schaal and Dave Bautista pop up alongside former vampire portrayers Waititi, Clement, Jonny Brugh, Paul Reubens, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Trejo, and a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton. Robert Pattinson, Tom Cruise, Kiefer Sutherland, and Brad Pitt all get name-checked as council members. Oh, and Wesley Snipes—Blade himself—shows up via Skype. Game of Thrones may have assembled some huge battles over the years, but in the world of vampire comedy shows, this cast is unmatched. —Jacob Oller (Photo credit: FX)
5. “Veep,” Veep
Writer: David Mandel
Director: David Mandel
Both satisfying and depressing, the series finale of the eerily prescient Veep was an insult fest of a political satire. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer became president in her own right. But she lost all the people who mattered along the way. This includes her daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) and her wife Marjorie (Clea DuVall) and their baby son, who severed ties after Selina made the Faustian deal with a conservative politician to re-illegalize gay marriage in exchange for his electorates. And it includes Kent Davison (Gary Cole), her senior strategist who could not stand by and watch the conspiracy theorist and fake-news spouter Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) become her vice president and therefore a heartbeat away from ruining democracy as we know it. But the hardest hit was the loss of Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), Selina’s loyal assistant who was too sweet to see the handcuffs coming when she set him up to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. Say what you will about a major death on Game of Thrones that happened on the channel earlier that night; the betrayal of Gary—a decision, we learn from the coda, that he never really processed—hit way harder than a quick extinction by dragon fire.
What made the finale work so well is Selina’s (and sometimes her team’s) insistence that everybody does things like this in order to win. From Vince Foster’s suicide during Bill Clinton’s administration to the imprisonment of Michael Cohen now with Donald Trump in office, she’s right and that is sickening. But, in its seven seasons, Veep has been nothing if not honest. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo credit: HBO)
4. “Pool,” Shrill
Writer: Samantha Irby
Director: Shaka King
Star Aidy Bryant & Co.’s televised, somewhat fictionalized, take on writer-activist Lindy West’s memoir has been deservedly lauded for so many things: a fat woman who is comfortable with her body and has sex without it being a thing, a frank and honest abortion scene, a queer best friend who is a 3-D human, and flattering costumes (even if they were bespoke). But if we have to choose one standout episode from the first season, it’s “Pool.” Written by Samantha Irby and directed by Shaka King, the fourth episode is a fight song for everyone who has ever felt or been stigmatized due to weight (so, pretty much everyone).
This isn’t so much because of what Bryant’s Annie says, although she has an A+ monologue about the societal-approved shame that everyone from her boss to her mother feels like they can heap on her because they think they’re helping. Rather, it’s what she and the episode show: an FOMO-inducing pool party full of women who aren’t a size two who unabashedly shake their curvaceous hips, stomachs and thighs on the dance floor or in the water and who eventually give Annie the confidence to embrace her body for the beautiful wonder that it is. — Whitney Friedlander (Photo credit: Hulu)
3. “Episode 6,” Fleabag
Writer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Heaven help us. Fleabag’s second season finale featured a wedding and an implied hasty run to the airport to intercept true love, but while those sound like typical comedy series tropes, nothing about the exceptional Fleabag is ordinary or expected. What really made “Episode 6” so intense, though, was the conclusion of the relationship between Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and the (hot) Priest (Andrew Scott). I mean truly, have two people ever had this level of onscreen chemistry? It was beyond smoldering, it was nearly spiritual. And that fits. The bittersweet finale, which acknowledged several hard truths, also saw Fleabag setting off into an unknown that feels uncertain but also somehow triumphant. No longer hiding from herself with asides to us, we weren’t invited to come along this time. And like how things ended with the Priest, that was both difficult and fair to accept. —Allison Keene (Photo credit: Amazon Prime)
2. “Vichnaya Pamyat,” Chernobyl
Writer: Craig Mazin
Director: Johan Renck
Chernobyl saved the full explanation of the 1986 nuclear disaster until its fifth and final hour, “Vichnaya Pamyat,” using the same tactics it did earlier in the season to maximize our dread, except this time in new ways. Initially, even those with a passing knowledge of the nuclear meltdown knew that a scene of children playing in radioactive ash was going to end badly (even if its characters didn’t yet), but the horror grew as we were introduced not only to the barely-avoided global scope of the disaster, but of the human cost it took to keep it contained. This was magnified throughout the series’ short run of episodes, but never more so than in its finale. “Vichnaya Pamyat” starts with serene scenes of a town and its inhabitants who don’t yet know that a hellmouth is about to open up and destroy them. But more than that, these are now faces we recognize from the series. We know them as men, women, and children who will die horribly in the chaos of the fallout.
Truly, what other dramatic series has ever spent as much time in an episode as “Vichnaya Pamyat” did literally educating viewers? I walked away from the hour knowing the basics of how a nuclear reactor works and why Chernobyl had such a catastrophic failure, which is an incredible feat of storytelling. Not to mention that it was all extraordinarily compelling! Making what could be such dry material so dramatic is part of the wonder of this series, and it’s down, again, to our human connection to what happened.
Eventually, “Vichnaya Pamyat” shows us the ghost town that now exists in the place where a thriving community once was, already haunted by the ghosts of those who died trying to stop the horror. Everything about Chernobyl was maddening, and Mazin’s series never let up on that tension. We’re meant to be driven mad by it, even though there is some kind of hope in the end of there were valuable lessons learned. Yet everything marches inevitably towards an epilogue that chronicles the deaths, sacrifices, displacement, illnesses (including heightened cancer rates among children), and the political legacy of the disaster. All of it is set to a haunting a capella choral piece, with Valery’s words still hanging in the air. “The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants […] This, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl: Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask ‘what is the cost of lies?’” As the series proved, it’s too high. —Allison Keene (Photo credit: HBO)
1. “ronny/lily,” Barry
Writers: Alec Berg and Bill Hader
Director: Bill Hader
While you were off Tweeting about dragons, raising the dead and bad lighting, let us remind that Thrones wasn’t the only show in HBO’s Sunday programming block that featured a young woman succeeding where grown-ups so epically failed, and ended with deaths serving as plot progression. The excellent episode of Barry, “ronny/lily”—which star Bill Hader directed and co-wrote with his series co-creator Alec Berg—is a master class in how to do dark comedy.
It opens as Hader’s hitman/struggling actor attempts to clean up the problem from the previous cliffhanger when Detective Loach (John Pirruccello) told him he’d ignore the fact that Barry killed his partner if he offed his wife’s new boyfriend, Ronny Proxin (Daniel Bernhardt). Because Barry’s a changed man, he decides he’s just going to show up at Ronny’s house in broad daylight wearing a ski mask and goggles and suggest he relocate to Chicago. Ronny, a taekwondo all-star, doesn’t agree: A fight between middle-aged men ensues as the camera more or less holds steady and the characters jump in and out of frame. Leaving Ronny to expire from a busted windpipe, Barry is about to be on his way when Ronny’s daughter (Jesse Giacomaszzi) comes home. Barry has a code and doesn’t want to harm the middle-schooler. Lily, rightly so, has no similar code, and Barry takes another beating. Not stopping there, Lily eventually jumps on top of his getaway car, sneaks in the back window and bites into the cheek of Barry’s handler, Fuchs (Stephen Root).
Ronny, who actually survived his run-in with Barry, is finally brought down in a shoot-out at a grocery store at the end of the episode. So is Loach. And Barry uses this opportunity to end his relationship with Fuchs. But Lily? She’s still roaming free. I hope we get to see more of her particular brand of vigilante justice now that she’s had her superhero origin story. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo credit: HBO)
For more on this episode’s unexpected Mystery Science Theater 3000 connection, check out this essay.