No one can watch all the TV shows anymore, even a professional, and that goes a thousandfold for TV episodes. So I can’t claim these to be definitively the best installments of TV in 2019. They’re just the ones that have stuck most in my mind as we head into 2020. (For variety’s sake, I’m skipping the many terrific episodes of the shows I already put on my 10-best list, among them “Anna Ishii-Peters” from “Pen15” and the mind-blowing “This Extraordinary Being” from “Watchmen.”)
‘Corporate’ (Comedy Central)
The launch of a line of men’s cosmetics drove one of this underappreciated office comedy’s most lacerating half-hours. From the gender politics of air conditioning (“the temperature in offices is set by men in suits who get to keep the hair on their bodies”) to a list of nonthreatening speaking tones for female executives (including “Dying Ballerina” and “Anthropomorphized Sparrow”), the satire was sharp as a razor and fine as an eyebrow pencil.
‘David Makes Man’ (OWN)
The pilot of this new series, from Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”) came to viewers like something from a vision — lyrical, numinous, skating across the boundaries of fantasy and reality, memory and present. As the title character, a gifted boy from a Miami housing project, Akili McDowell established one of the performances of the year. (Streaming at OWN.)
‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
The sack of King’s Landing in “The Bells” had the pyrotechnics, and “The Iron Throne” had, for better and worse, the big finish. But this episode — the calm before the storms in the series’ final run — brought “Thrones” back to what it did best: conversations among people facing the end of everything they know. (Streaming at HBO Go and HBO Now.)
‘Lodge 49’ (AMC)
“Le Rêve Impossible”
The title, in French, is “The Impossible Dream,” which aptly describes this humane, whimsical show. The penultimate episode, featuring an escapade in Mexico, a set of ancient scrolls, arson at an auction and a French cover of the aforementioned song from “Man of La Mancha,” captured all that was winning and — in the best way — quixotic about this series. (Streaming at AMC.)
“Never Knew Love Like This Before”
This drama about the vibrant New York ballroom scene of the 1980s and 1990s is always partly about confronting reality, and partly about triumph through imagination. This episode exemplified both, as the violent death of Candy (Angelica Ross) — which aired amid a real life series of murders of transgender women of color — led to a gutting but celebratory posthumous fantasy.
“Ne Me Quitte Pas”
One mark of a good series is that it knows its characters well enough that any one can carry an episode. Here, the comedy about a young Muslim man (Ramy Youssef) and his personal journey shifts focus to his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), who tries to escape her feelings of isolation by driving a ride-share cab. It’s a bittersweet cigarette drag of an episode, perfumed with loneliness and memory, and Abbass’s performance is astonishing. (Streaming at Hulu.)
‘Tuca & Bertie’ (Netflix)
“The Jelly Lakes”
This animated comedy was canceled too soon, but it left us this gem, in which Bertie (Ali Wong) — an anxious songbird and aspiring baker — revisits the scene of a childhood trauma. It’s a dive into the deeps of the past that emerges with a hard-earned treasure. (Streaming at Netflix.)
After choosing these six episodes, I realized that none of them were from streaming services — all of them are good old TV, and two are even from the antique world of broadcast. And I realized further that I’d watched them all on a TV set, after going through the trouble of recording them. Funny what makes an episode stick in your mind.
“The Viewing Party”
Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow’s sitcom about a nice white guy trying to reconcile modern life, stand-up comedy and his Christian faith really hit its stride in its final season, demonstrating a confidence and an edge that a lot of more obviously topical shows could envy. Episodes with cameos by Jaboukie Young-White and John Mulaney were excellent, but “The Viewing Party” highlighted Madeline Wise’s nervy, sexy, frighteningly vulnerable performance as the girlfriend Pete both needed to escape and didn’t deserve. (Streaming at HBO Go and HBO Now.)
This mini-series about the creative and destructive relationship of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse didn’t nail every move, and its Brecht-Fosse-style devices were mostly just distracting. But its high points kicked higher than just about any other show’s, and the finale had a full share of them: Margaret Qualley, excellent as Ann Reinking, angrily auditioning for “All That Jazz”; Michelle Williams, scintillating as Verdon, showing Debbie Allen (Kelcy Griffin) how to do it in “If My Friends Could See Me Now”; and Sam Rockwell, simply sensational as Fosse, tapping out his grief at his best friend’s funeral. (Streaming at Hulu.)
“Right to Fail”
It might seem like a cheat to include what’s essentially a self-contained documentary. On the other hand, why miss a chance to talk about “Frontline,” an invaluable prime-time TV series that gets neglected in the era of peak-TV drama and comedy? A collaboration between “Frontline” and ProPublica, this investigation of the consequences of a change in how New York State deals with mentally ill adults was lucid and heartbreaking. (Streaming at PBS.org.)
‘Gentleman Jack’ (HBO)
“Are You Still Talking?”
Sally Wainwright’s dramedy about Anne Lister, a larger-than-life, real-life woman in early-19th-century Yorkshire, told a story with modern overtones and a tremendously satisfying classical construction — it was the year’s best Jane Austen story not written by Jane Austen. The last episode led to a tense and joyous variation on the inevitable conclusion of such tales, the happy wedding achieved against all odds. (Streaming at HBO Go and HBO Now.)
‘Les Misérables’ (PBS)
Adaptations of Victor Hugo’s paean to human suffering are inevitably bushwhacked by the novel’s mounting sentimentalities and coincidences. (Adding treacly songs helps.) The prolific and reliable TV adapter Andrew Davies (“Bleak House,” next month’s “Sanditon” on PBS) mostly skirted those problems in this BBC production, and the first episode — when the story is still relatively straightforward — was a showcase for the fine cast: Dominic West’s Jean Valjean escaping David Oyelowo’s remorseless Javert, and encountering grace in the form of the bishop, touchingly played by Derek Jacobi. (Streaming at PBS.org.)
‘Rick and Morty’ (Adult Swim)
“Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat”
The Season 4 premiere of the animated comedy that eats meta for breakfast was not the show’s finest episode ever, but it was the first in 770 days, so that counts for something. And it was more than good enough, with multiple fascist dystopias including one inhabited by giant shrimp, and the sort of smarter-than-it-looks plot device the show often sneaks in: When Morty obtained a crystal that showed him all of his possible futures in real time, he became its slave, second-guessing every action and word until he was reduced to an anguished wail. A lesson in predestination and 10 jokes a minute! (Streaming at AdultSwim.com.)
I spent every possible moment I could this year cramming interesting television into my brain, and I’d like to think I’m better for it. So much love and strife and loss. Some magic, some mystery, some poetry.
Because of the ever-growing breadth of contenders, I picked shows that were not otherwise represented on our Top 10 lists. I focused on episodes that were standouts within their seasons, which means that fantastic shows that had very even years were excluded from the festivities — in particular “Glow,” “Schitt’s Creek,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Derry Girls,” “Blown Away,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Vida” and “Dead To Me.” My heart will always have room for everyone, but alas, my list does not.
“Barry” likes to toy with opposites. It’s a show where learning how to act actually teaches you how to be your real self, where the most revered characters are either reviled or ignored outside of their little worlds. So maybe I should have been less surprised that Barry’s fiercest, harshest match turned out to be a little girl — but I was surprised, and actually gasped during the astounding fight sequence, which was part martial arts, part Regan in “The Exorcist.” Yes, “Barry” is a violent show. But it never pretends that violence is no big deal, and throughout “ronny/lily,” the sense of wild terror is matched by a desperation to change, and the even bigger fear that change is not possible. (Streaming at HBO Go and HBO Now.)
‘It’s Alive’ (YouTube)
“Brad and Claire Make Doughnuts, Parts 1, 2 and 3”
The Bon Appétit cinematic universe has robust offerings across a few different formats, but there’s no real contest: Nothing beats the combo of Claire Saffitz and Brad Leone. She’s the erudite perfectionist, he’s the ADD goofball, and together they’re Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon hosting “Weekend Update.” He encourages her to learn some basic survival skills, and she teaches him how to pronounce “brioche.” The previous best episode for the duo was when they made sourdough bread (Brad: “I don’t know how bread doesn’t cost $35”). So of course making sourdough doughnuts turned into a three-episode epic, with some disastrous failures before a glorious success. (Streaming at YouTube.)
Annie (Aidy Bryant) wants to write about the Fat Babe Pool Party for the alt weekly where she works, but her boss pooh-poohs it. “The last thing we need is everybody feeling comfortable in their own skin,” he tells her dismissively. “That would be the ’70s.” He’s joking, but he’s not actually joking, and over the course of the episode, Annie realizes how much she has lost in her life by feeling ashamed and unworthy. She decides she doesn’t want that anymore, the “mind prison” of self-loathing, and over the course of one monologue, you can see her become freer and more determined. It’s beautiful to watch someone become herself. (Streaming at Hulu.)
Every few years something major happens on “Jeopardy!,” and suddenly a dorky staple becomes water-cooler buzz. For several weeks this spring, “Jeopardy James” — James Holzhauer — captured everyone’s attention with his bananas earnings, his big wagers, his unusual style of play. I wouldn’t call him a heel exactly, but there was something unnerving about it all, a feeling that maybe he would never lose and “Jeopardy!” would be different forever. So when Emma Boettcher triumphed over the most dominant contestant ever, it was both a tremendous win for propriety — the librarian topples the gambler! — and a crushing end to a literal game-changing era.
‘Molly of Denali’ (PBS Kids)
“Molly of Denali” follows the adventures of a 10-year-old Alaska Native girl who likes vlogging, solving puzzles and the outdoors. The show’s pilot is not just a solid episode of an educational kids show, though; it also tells an important and often glossed over story. Molly wants her grandfather to sing at a community event with her, but he refuses, and she can’t understand why — until she learns that, as a child, he was forced to go to a boarding school that tried to strip him of his cultural identity, his language, his music, his traditions. The episode has a happy ending, but it’s also one that acknowledges Grandpa’s real suffering in meaningful but kid-appropriate ways. (Streaming at PBS Kids.)
‘Couples Therapy’ (Showtime)
I gobbled down “Couples Therapy” like it was my last chance for human contact before going to space. Immerse me in it, let me revel in its imperfections, which will become beautiful in my imagination when I can no longer observe them so closely. The show, a documentary series that follows four couples through their therapy sessions, is one of the richest depictions of the human condition TV has produced in a long time, and Episode 6 is when some of the couples finally break through all the layers of despair and we start to see glimmers of joy. It was the first episode where I thought one of the couples actually should stay together, and by the time the show finished, I had a weird amount of hope for them all. (Streaming at Sho.com.)
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