Daniel Fienberg: The 10 Best TV Episodes of 2019

9:15 AM 12/17/2019

by Daniel Fienberg

The Hollywood Reporter’s chief TV critic finds perfection in installments of 'Barry,' 'Baskets,' 'Bojack Horseman' and 'Broad City' but dips into the rest of the alphabet too, lauding the superlative season two opener of 'Fleabag,' plus great samples of 'Ramy,' 'Watchmen' and others.

From left: 'Fleabag,' 'Barry' and 'Watchmen'
From left: 'Fleabag,' 'Barry' and 'Watchmen'
Courtesy of Amazon; Courtesy of HBO

After limiting my Great Performances of 2019 list to shows that didn't also appear on my best of the year list, I thought about doing something similar for Great Episodes of 2019. That didn't work. I didn't want to do a list that wouldn't let me talk about the flawless one-act play that opened this season of Fleabag or any of the nearly stand-alone episodes that made Watchmen or Ramy so notable.

I drew the line there, though, as I didn't write up full capsules for my favorite episodes of Succession ("Tern Haven"), Russian Doll ("Ariadne"), Lodge 49 ("Le Reve Impossible"), Brockmire ("Banned For Life"), Better Things ("Shake the Cocktail") or When They See Us (the Jharrel Jerome-centric fourth hour). I could have, but other shows and other episodes deserved a little end-of-year love. 

I still wasn't able to make space for showcase episodes from PEN15 ("Ojichan"), Primal ("Spear and Fang"), What We Do in the Shadows ("The Trial"), The Righteous Gemstones ("Interlude"), Mindhunter ("Episode 5"), Jane the Virgin ("Chapter One Hundred"), Evil ("October 31"), Superstore ("Employee Appreciation Day"), Fosse/Verdon ("Nowadays"), Sherman's Showcase ("Ray J's Showcase") and many, many more. 

With those exclusions in mind, here are 10 great episodes of TV from the past year. Once again, it's dominated by half-hour shows. This was a remarkable year for TV comedy.

  • Barry, "ronny/lily”

    Aaron Epstein/HBO

    After starting its second season with four episodes grounding the characters and the life-or-death stakes of their acting/killing lives, to the point at which I said the show was basically a half-hour drama, Barry decided to take a darkly cartoony detour. "ronny/lily," masterfully directed by Hader, has a giddy sense of anarchy that harkens back to early Coen Brothers — think Raising Arizona, with slightly more martial arts — coupled with the show's generally morose and droll sensibility. "Yes, we want you to invest in the psychological realism of Barry's PTSD," the episode says, "But please don't forget that this show is fundamentally an outsized genre piece, so if we want to have a tiny karate master scaling trees and flipping over fences, that's something we have in our arsenal, too." It's an episode full of shocking laughs and shocking violence, one that only becomes more assured with repeat viewing.

  • Baskets, "Grandma's Day"

    Erica Parise/FX

    Out of context, it's hard to appreciate why this episode of FX's beloved, now-departed comedy is so special, except when you pause and think that Baskets was sold as a wacky oddity with Zach Galifianakis playing two characters, one an aspiring clown. But the pivotal episode of the show's final season is mostly Christine (Louie Anderson in a performance for the ages) driving around Bakersfield with granddaughter Crystal (Julia Rose Gruenberg), reflecting on the family's deep roots in a seemingly rootless city. Like so many of the best Baskets episodes, "Grandma's Day" is awash in deadpan humor, but what really comes to the surface is its empathy. I give you Christine Baskets standing in an antique store going over black-and-white pictures and simply begging her granddaughter, "Don't let our photos end up in a place like this or in a garage sale or something like that. Don't let us be forgotten." Hopefully this underwatched gem won't be forgotten either.

  • Bojack Horseman, "Surprise!”

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Normally when I single out a Bojack Horseman episode for this sort of recognition, it's either one of the show's trademark deep dives into depression or addiction, episodes that normally play with story structure and format, or else a clear boundary-breaker like "Fish Out of Water." For whatever reason, though, I just adore the Peter A. Knight-scripted, Adam Parton-directed "Surprise!" because it shows the extremes to which you can take farce when you're working in the confines of animation. The episode, with Todd planning a surprise wedding for Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles Aplenty and then having to move various aspects of the party around the house when Mr. Peanutbutter spoils the mood with a relationship-dooming confession, is wonderfully zany and innovative at every turn.

  • Broad City, "Stories”

    Courtesy of Comedy Central

    For whatever reason, when I think of Broad City, I think mostly of the chemistry between stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, their respective gonzo performances and the snort-out-loud dialogue between the characters. I don't think of the show as being formally adventurous. Stupid me. "Stories," the premiere of the Comedy Central favorite's final season, was written by Jacobson and Glazer, directed by Nick Paley, and its reliance on social media and streaming grammar to follow Abbie's 30th birthday walk through Manhattan is funny, innovative and often straight-up inspired. It was a great final season for Broad City and this is as good a place to recognize the show as any.

  • David Makes Man, "David's Sky”

    Rod Millington/Warner Bros.

    To watch the pilot of OWN's David Makes Man is to marvel that we live in an expansive era of TV possibility in which an hour this impressionistic and this poetic would even be considered, much less aired. The only part of the episode I don't love is a too-obvious climactic twist. But for most of its running time, this episode, from creator Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Michael Francis Williams, drops you into its Florida world without any hand-holding. The distinctive photography washes over you, a mixture of alien beauty and unfetishized poverty, and you just become absorbed in seeing the world through the eyes of the main character, played by revelatory newcomer Akili McDowell. Maybe the pilot was more aesthetically ambitious than the rest of the series, but no matter. 

  • Documentary Now!, "Original Cast Album: Co-Op"

    Rhys Thomas/IFC

    I still don't know what we did, as a society, to deserve this ultra-nerdy celebration of non-fiction storytelling, but if IFC doesn't especially care about mainstream popularity and is willing to give Seth Meyers and John Mulaney, plus director Alex Buono, apparent carte blanche to do a loving, obsessive tribute to a nearly unavailable D.A. Pennebaker film that was really a failed pilot for a TV show that never ended up existing … We should all consider ourselves lucky. 

  • Fleabag, "Episode 1"

    Courtesy of Amazon

    It's easy to be dazzled by a big, experimental episode, like "A God Walks into Abar," from Watchmen. But don't ever underestimate the precision craftsmanship exhibited by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and director Harry Bradbeer on the second season premiere of Fleabag. To some extent, it's a bottle episode, set around the dinner table and in the hallways and alleys and bathrooms of a restaurant in the middle of an excruciating dinner gathering. It's full of laughs, builds an astonishing amount of tension and it gives generous beats to every main character, plus the introduction of Andrew Scott's Hot Priest. It's just about the best one-act play you could ever watch and yet as good as it is, if you told me you preferred the equally contained, perhaps even more emotionally potent wedding-set finale, I wouldn't fight you.

  • Ramy, "Cairo Cowboy"

    Hasan Amin/Hulu

    Want to know why Ramy Youssef's Hulu series came in at No. 3 on my Best of the Year list? Because when it came to choosing the season's best episode, it was nearly impossible to select between the 9/11 flashback "Strawberries," the Hiam Abbass showcase "Ne Me Quitte Pas" or the May Calamawy-centric "Refugees." So naturally I went with the season finale, written by Youssef and directed by Jehane Noujaim, an episode shot in Egypt under unknowably complicated circumstances and blending an excruciating road trip, fascinating family exploration and then, in the end, a very different kind of family exploration. All four episodes represent half-hour stories that no other show on TV could have told. 

  • Tuca & Bertie, "The Jelly Lakes”

    Courtesy of Netflix

    I still don't understand Netflix's abrupt cancelation of Tuca & Bertie and I don't know that I ever will. I'm inclined to blame dude-bros who expected a show like Bojack Horseman, watched the first 10 minutes of the pilot and said, "Ew, girls" and stopped watching. Lisa Hanawalt's one-and-done Netflix gem shared ample visual DNA with Bojack, but it was a brighter, freer and more whimsical show. So watching how those elements can be part of a half-hour that's VERY Bojack-ian — the penultimate episode messing with time and memory and repressed trauma are a Raphael Bob-Waksberg standard —and yet completely unique is quite illuminating. Somehow Tuca & Bertie used its big heart and embrace of silliness to set up a gut-punch of an episode about sexual assault that still felt earned and revelatory.

  • Watchmen, "Little Fear of Lightning"

    Mark Hill/HBO

    Feel free to favor one of the season's showier episodes. With its dazzling approach to time and character, "A God Walks into Abar" was such an astonishingly confident penultimate installment that I was, unavoidably, just a wee bit disappointed by the season finale. Also playing on time and memory, "This Extraordinary Being" is aesthetically audacious and aggressively forced HBO's sequel series into conversation with the classic comic. And the Watchmen pilot is as brash a statement of high-minded principles as I've ever seen in a series-opener. Still, my favorite Watchmen episode was Damon Lindelof & Carly Wray's "Little Fear of Lightning," directed by Steph Green. For want of a better description, it's a flashback-heavy The Leftovers episode that just happens to focus on Tim Blake Nelson's Wade, expertly exploring the 1985 squid attack, answering Big Questions about Adrian Veidt's exile and utilizing a terrific "squid pro quo" joke.