When it comes to end of the year 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 narratives have truly impressed.
Below are 25 of the best episodes of 2019, voted on by the Paste TV editors and writers, which represent our favorites—and not all are premieres or finales! (Although we did limit the choices to one per series). 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.
Eligibility: Episodes had to air between January 1, 2019 and November 15, 2019. So no Mandalorian, although we will find other ways to honor the overwhelming healing power of Baby Yoda elsewhere!
Honorable Mention: “The First Time” (One Day at a Time), “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” (Modern Love), “We’re Gonna Need a Spotlight” (Legacies).
Writers: Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs
Director: Andrew DeYoung
Network: Comedy Central
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
Writers: Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan
Director: Jim O’Hanlon
Network: Amazon Prime
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
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
Writer: Terri Minsky
Director: Paul Hoen
Network: Disney Channel
Andi Mack did it. It went there. It made history. In the much-hyped series finale—after Andi’s (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) catharsis watching Bex (Lilan Bowden) and Bowie (Trent Garrett) finally dancing their wedding dance, after the joy of seeing Cece (Lauren Tom) reveal herself to have been the break-dancing dinosaur in the middle of Andi’s party, after the long-awaited smooch between competitive buds Buffy (Sophia Wylie) and Marty (Garren Stitt), after a raucous, full-cast sing-along to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”—Andi Mack put Cyrus Goodman (Joshua Rush) on a quiet bench in front of a romantic fire with reformed-bully-turned-beloved-friend TJ (Luke Mullen), and let them finally break through their anxieties to come clean to one other about their true feelings. Friends, they held hands. Friends, DISNEY CHANNEL BOYFRIENDS.
If you’ve watched The Discourse about Andi Mack show grow in the last year or so, you will know that despite Andi Mack technically being an exquisite mother-daughter show about the relationship between Andi, Bex (Lilan Bowden) and Cece (Lauren Tom), the BIG thing it did better and sweeter and sooner than any other kids show out there was introduce Cyrus as Disney Channel’s first out gay character, an arc that started with an admission to one friend of a passing crush on another and grew not only to include the first utterance of “I’m gay” on Disney, but also the possibility that Cyrus could get a romantic “endgame” in the same way that so many straight teens on Disney do. And yet, by the time TJ burst in relief at Cyrus taking his outstretched hand, the work Rush, Mullen and creator Terri Minsky had done to get them there was so solid and subtle that it felt as much a “well, duh” part of the whole episode’s things change but we love and grow them thesis as everything else in the episode—up to and including Andi revealing that, in preparation for her big move to her magnate art high school, she had cleaned out Andi Shack.
Not getting to see where Cyrus and TJ (and Andi, and Buffy, and Jonah, and Marty, and Amber) go next is going to be a huge bummer for fans, of course. But while there’s enough precedent of Disney Channel spinning original movies out of beloved series that one should never say never, if this is where Andi Mack leaves us, it is on a lovely note of hope even in the face of change. And that’s something we can all appreciate. — Alexis Gunderson
Writer: Marquita J. Robinson
Director: Mark A. Burley
One of the most joyous things about GLOW is how it continues to keep things fresh in terms of its show-within-a-show. When the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling started their residency in Vegas, we saw less and less of the stage show because it was, of course, now almost always the same. That changed in “Freaky Tuesday” after Tammé injured her back and the women swapped roles. Not only was it fun for them to explore new characters, it was incredibly fun for us. It shook up a formula we saw developed over the course of two and a half seasons, and proved that GLOW can continue to reinvent itself (as it also did later in the season during their Christmas performance), and that its characters can, too. One of the best transformations of the season came in the form of Sheila, whose Liza Minnelli performance in this episode really illustrated how the camaraderie of the group helped her come out of her shell. GLOW is, above all, a show about friendship. —Allison Keene
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Network: Amazon Prime
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
Writer: Russell T Davies
Director: Simon Cellan Jones
Years and Years was great at making safe Westerners feel completely and totally unsafe. It does this by putting mostly white, middle-class individuals through the ringer of totally plausible world events, like banking collapses or, in this latest episode, a refugee crisis. One of the most uncomfortable things about the series is how it makes many of us firmly confront our privilege by how disturbed we are when things happen to people who, traditionally, are not affected by these kinds of horrors. That is never more true than at the end of Episode 4.
Years and Years understands this feeling completely, because Danny (Russell Tovey) even says at the start of the episode (When talking with his sister Edith [Jessica Hynes] about how to get his boyfriend Viktor [Maxim Baldry] out of Spain): “We’re not stupid, we’re not poor, I’m sorry but we’re clever.” Edith immediately and rightfully pushes back, saying “I don’t think refugees are refugees because they’re thick.” Danny retreats to say that’s not what he meant, it’s the system that’s stupid. But his words still hang in the air; Danny feels invincible because he’s lived in a world where that has been true. Even later in the episode, after losing his passport, Viktor comforts Danny but saying that he’ll be fine. He just has to walk up to the Embassy, as a white man from England, and say his passport was stolen. It may take some time and some money, but he’ll get home. Danny dismisses this and says he’ll never leave Viktor, but again, those words hang in the air.
Danny and Viktor are on a boat that is populated entirely with people of color. No one speaks the same language, and though their points of origin are all different, they share the same longing for freedom. Danny taking his shoes off just before they board is, in hindsight, one of the most poignant moments in the whole episode. He’s still clinging to some sense of decency instead of realizing that he’s looking death straight in the face.
The scoring of this scene is warily hopeful, bordering on triumphant. They’re on the boat, with 26-ish other adults and children, setting out into rough seas before dark. Quick cuts then suggest a squall, and ultimately, bodies washed up on the beach. 17 of them. One is Danny.
In this moment I was confronted, again, by my own privilege, bias and presumptions that Danny would survive this. He’s a white male lead in a limited series about a close-knit family. But it is Viktor who survives. Danny made a statement early in the episode regarding their plans: “even if I have to commander a yacht to get us across the channel,” that haunts this moment. He didn’t commander anything, he made a back alley deal where he was nearly humiliated as his protestations were ignored. It wasn’t a yacht, it was an overloaded dingy. And he didn’t make it across. —Allison Keene
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
Writer: Grainne Godfree & Jackie Canino
Directors: Alexandra La Roche
Network: The CW
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
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
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
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: The 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
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
Writer: Denitria Harris-Lawrence
Director: Kiel Adrian Scott
OWN’s wonderfully lyrical series David Makes Man, from Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, changed perspectives in the affecting “Gloria.” Instead of continuing to show us the trials and tribulations of its title character (played by the excellent Akili McDowell), as he tries to hold on to his academic ambitions despite the pushy drug culture of his neighborhood, we focused on how his mother Gloria struggles between her own ambitions and a system designed to keep her down.
One of the best things about David Makes Man is how it gives us access to the inner thoughts of its characters, often through their daydreams, but also though imaginary figures or even scrawling text on the screen. In doing so, it illuminates their specific hopes and puts the realities of their situation into exceptionally sharp relief. “Gloria” starts with exactly one of those reveries, as David’s mother—played with outstanding charisma by Alana Arenas— appears to get the assistant manager position she’s been hoping for. She chats easily with patrons, is clearly beloved by all who frequent the diner, and there’s a yellow glow to all of her surroundings. But that comes crashing back to blues and grays as she blinks back into the reality of her manager yelling at her to cut her break short and get back out on the floor, where patrons complain as the overworked staff try to make up for gaps in the shift. Gloria is chastised by this (white) boss for being “sassy” with customers in a way that feels overtly racial, and is then more or less threatened by him later with an unwanted sexualized advance.
As we learn in this episode, Gloria is a recovering addict who doesn’t have many opportunities, especially since she dropped out of school after one of her teachers got her pregnant. She’s a tough but fair mom, one whose true self can be seen in her relaxed interactions with Ms. Elijah (Travis Coles). But she’s also exactly the kind of person who is one injury away from slipping back into her painkiller addiction, and one paycheck late from having the power turned off or not being able to afford a phone.
In “Gloria,” you can see the constant pull of Gloria’s dual natures. She works so incredibly hard to make the right choices all of the time that you can feel her fatigue. And it’s not just the demons in her mind that plague her; a pharmacist (again, white) profiles her and encourages her to pay him a little extra to get some stronger painkillers. “No ID required,” he says with a slimy smile. She imagines screaming at him, “I said NO!” but instead just wearily takes his card and, the next day, returns her son’s newly-bought toys to have enough cash to procure those pills. Thwarted by a kind cashier, she buys another icy-hot patch instead. Similarly, after she’s fired at work, she reaches for a knife and a kind cook grabs her hand to steady her to drop it. It’s not the right choice to react with violence, but you can feel the enormity of her anger and desperation as she cries out to her boss, “I have kids!”
One of the things that makes “Gloria” so profound is showing why you can’t judge Gloria and her desire to want to make that pain go away. She dreams of going with Ms. Elijah to a drag ball and performing, but knows she should stay home with her boys and count every penny for the bills. The weight of the episode, though, comes in the understanding that this is not just one bad day, this is a cycle of being demoralized at almost every turn and just getting through. —Allison Keene
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
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
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
Writer: Tony Roche
Director: Andrij Parekh
This episode needs to only be described in four words: Boar on the Floor. It’s everyone’s favorite game of abject humiliation! But “Hunting” was a stand-out Succession episode in a sea of great ones in Season 2 not just because of the iconic Boar on the Floor, but because of how it showcased the indulgences of the ultra-wealthy, including literally shooting pigs in a barrel. It showed that Logan is not always right, and in fact may be more affected by his stroke than had been previously let on, and it also solidified Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) loyalty to Greg (Nicholas Braun) despite all of his bluster otherwise. The Hungary jokes were funny and typical Succession patter (in a sumptuously directed episode), but that revelry was viciously sliced in two by Logan (Brian Cox) calling Roman (Kieran Culkin) “a moron,” despite Roman selling out everyone else in the family for Dad’s approval. Back on the lighter side, Shiv (Sarah Snook) had a classic line delivered to the hapless Connor (Alan Ruck) in, “You think if you’re looking down on the elites from this penthouse, maybe it’s indicative of something?”
But Boar on the Floor was the touchstone moment because of how it illustrated Logan’s total control over his family and followers, and how willing everyone is to prostrate themselves in front of him to hold on to their wealth and favor. That one horrifying yet hilarious scene, the ultimate in cringe comedy, really summed up the entirety of Succession: “Money wins.” —Allison Keene
Writer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Network: Amazon Prime
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
Writer: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Director: Louis Leterrier
Though Episode 2’s “Podling puts on his shoes” or Episode 3’s magnificent, manic “Podling Deterg” scenes are just a few of this glorious show’s best moments, “Time to Make … My Move” (the series seventh hour) is a full episode that perfectly balances Age of Resistance’s dual narrative natures. On the one hand, the episode starts out not only with a very meta (and wonderfully performed) puppet show for the puppets themselves, but also a lot of slapstick hilarity thanks to the back and forth between the exasperated Heretic (Andy Samberg) and the achingly slow Wanderer (Bill Hader). It’s fun and funny, the hallmarks of this show, but then things take a turn. The last half of the episode is genuinely chilling, as an arachnid army called the Arathim Ascendancy begins its campaign of mind-control over some of our heroes. It’s incredibly scary, and proves that Age of Resistance isn’t really for kids (particularly in a final moment of incredible sacrifice). But these two sides together—like the villainous Skeksis and the blissed-out urRu—create perfect, epic storytelling harmony, one that made this series one of the absolute best of the year. —Allison Keene
Writer: Susannah Grant
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
In the first episode of Unbelievable, we follow—in soul-crushing fashion—the bureaucracy of rape. The event itself is shown in brief flashbacks; we’re not meant to linger here. Instead, the horror continues in the cold light of the police station, in the caustic processing of Marie Adler’s (Kaitlyn Dever) clothes and the internal exams she must go through, the pictures of her bruises, and the repeating of the story of her assault over, and over, and over again to callous or blatantly uninterested (mostly male) parties looking to poke holes in her statement.
It’s an incredible contrast, then, in “Episode 2” when we are introduced to Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) as she is now the detective on the scene of another assault several years later of a different young woman. The way Karen gently handles the case, including inviting the woman to sit in the privacy of Karen’s cop car where she listens intently and offers words of encouragement, is so moving it will make you weep. This is how these horrible cases should be handled, and sure enough, Karen’s work starts the journey to finding the assailant—who might have been stopped earlier if the original cops had handled their case with any kind of care or compassion.
Unbelievable is, above all, about the necessity of bringing humanity to police work, especially in cases that involve physical assault and trauma. It’s about believing those who have been harmed, and not treating victims like nameless cogs. “Episode 2” shows what it should look like, including the introduction of another badass cop, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) who has her own dogged approach to solving these crimes. It’s a strength that is juxtaposed with the falling apart of Marie, who has no support or resources to help her process what has happened to her, until these two incredible women enter her orbit. —Allison Keene
Writers: John Carcieri, Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride
Director: David Gordon Green
By now, if you’ve watched HBO’s excellent The Righteous Gemstones, the original song “Misbehavin’” is not just familiar to you … it’s stuck in your head, permanently, to the point that you’re convinced it will drive you to acts of insanity. You’ve passed the stage where you appreciate the extremely sticky melody, you’ve passed the stage where you laugh at hysterical lyrics like “running through the house with a pickle in my mouth!” and you’ve passed the stage where you delight in watching Walton Goggins clog on YouTube, over and over, at 2 a.m. You are now in its clutches, forever and ever, and for this fate you have composer Joseph Stephens and writers Danny McBride and Edi Patterson to thank.
In “Interlude,” we flash back to when when Baby Billy is still a young man and becomes angry at his sister, Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles) because she has the audacity to get pregnant just before they’re meant to embark on two-person tour of the south. His selfishness isn’t a secret, but unlike Lee Russell in Vice Principals, this Goggins character is more grounded, his ugly qualities more understandable. He gradually convinces his sister to go on tour anyway by way of a sympathy play, and it leads to a remarkable scene where the two of them perform a duet called “Misbehavin’” on Eli (John Goodman) and Aimee-Leigh’s show.
I’ve watched the scene a dozen times, partly because the song is annoyingly catchy, but mostly because it highlights the ability of McBride’s shows to cover a staggering amount of emotional and tonal ground. On one hand, it’s bizarre and hysterical to watch these two adults singing a song whose lyrics and tone make it abundantly clear that it’s meant to be performed by young children. Then, past the comedy, it’s a sad and even pathetic scene for Baby Billy, who clearly relishes and needs the attention, proving that he’s stuck in a state of nostalgia. We already knew that by the way he embraces the “Baby” part of his name as a grown man (“Silly Baby Billy!” he shouts to the crowd, when he’s introduced), but the song makes it clear, and you hurt for him, not least because his sister has the lion’s share of the family talent. But there’s also this: They’re good! Despite the absurdities of the schtick, they nail it, and the crowd erupts when they hit the last note. Even Eli, frustrated in the background, can’t help but tap his feet and smile. Baby Billy is egotistical and toxic, but in his repugnance you see a spark of genuine yearning for the memory a life that peaked far too early. —Shane Ryan
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
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
Writer: Peter Morgan
Director: Benjamin Caron
“Aberfan,” arguably the strongest episode in this third season of The Crown, concerns a horrific national tragedy: The collapse of a coal deposit in the titular Welsh village, which then ran down the mountain as, essentially, a river of coal, burying a local school and killing 144 people, 116 of them children. Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is urged by Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) to visit the town in person and provide comfort; she replies that her appearance on the scene would bring rescue work to a halt. But her anxiety surrounding what’s being asked of her, something that would never have occurred before the rise of television, has a personal bent as well; as she watches all those around her react in horror (Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip included), she wonders what exactly is missing inside her that prevents her from feeling things as strongly as the other people in her life. Safe inside those walls she built, she asks for a recording of the families singing at the funeral, something Philip describes as being “the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard.” “Did you weep?” she asks. “I might have wept, yes. Are you going to tell me it was inappropriate? The fact is anyone who heard that hymn today would not just have wept. They would have been broken into a thousand tiny pieces.” Then he opens an envelope and she just stands there. It’s a big moment.
Not as big as the last, however. She gets the recording of the hymn and sits alone in some magnificent room to listen to it. (The sound design here is masterful; the clicks of the record player gradually fade out and it’s as though it’s being sung right there in the room.) She sits, the camera focusing on the back of her head; then it switches to her expressionless face. She doesn’t move at all at first, but over the course of 30 uninterrupted seconds, a tear slowly grows in one eye. Then she moves her jaw a little—perhaps it, too, is a swallow—and the tear escapes.
That’s it. That’s all that happens. It’s magnificent. —Allison Shoemaker
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