Even before Apple TV+ and Disney+ entered the picture in November, there was more scripted television flooding the airwaves than at any prior point in history. The surplus of content can be kind of overwhelming—and in case you think Peak TV has reached its peak, get ready for HBO Max, Peacock, and [checks notes] Quibi, coming to a screen near you in 2020. Thankfully, the rise in TV quantity hasn’t always meant a dip in quality—as we were blessed with some peerless, compelling episodes from the very best shows of 2019. Below, Ringer staffers Andrew Gruttadaro and Miles Surrey break down their top 10 installments from the year.
10. “Has This Ever Happened to You?,” I Think You Should Leave
It’s not exactly easy to pick the best episode of I Think You Should Leave—Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch show is much more about the sublimely weird moments that are scattered throughout the first season’s six-episode run. But the premiere episode is as good a distillation of I Think You Should Leave as there is—an astounding arrival that makes the show’s singular vocabulary (“You made a big mud pie and took too small a slice”), penchant for pushing jokes to their brink (and then a little further), and ability to create laugh-until-you-cry moments (I almost killed a friend by showing him the “Instagram” skit) abundantly clear. Robinson’s brand of humor was always too strange for Saturday Night Live, and despite the niche appeal of Detroiters, Comedy Central wasn’t a prevalent-enough stage. But Robinson and Netflix proved to be a perfect match, with the streamer force-feeding Turbo Time, “The Bones Are Their Money,” and “You have no good car ideas” down our throats until we were left begging for more. In 2019, no comedy was funnier, more distinct, and more culture-shifting than I Think You Should Leave. Also, fuck you, Bart Harley Jarvis. —Andrew Gruttadaro
9. “Overton Window,” Billions
There’s an important distinction that should be made between great episodes and great scenes, how they aren’t always mutually exclusive, and the way certain episodes of a show can be propped up by one or two shining moments. Having said that, the greatness of the fourth episode of Billions’ fourth season, “Overton Window,” is about one thing: Chuck Rhoades giving a televised speech in which he confesses to the world that he’s in a consenting BDSM relationship with his wife, Wendy. (At one point, Chuck basically apologizes by saying you probably don’t want the rest of the world to look at what you do in the privacy of your bedroom—unless that is your kink, then it’s totally cool.)
The extent to which Chuck details his sex life to the public is extraordinary—I probably rewatch the speech at least once a month—but what makes “Overton Window” a special episode is how Billions builds up to this epic betrayal. Wendy has constantly supported Chuck’s endeavors—and has been surprisingly chill about the immense dick-swinging contest he’s had with her boss, Bobby Axelrod—but she draws a clear line in the sand; divulging their personal lives is too far. Incredibly, Chuck’s bet that the world will accept his “Make BDSM Great Again” platform pays off, and he’s elected as New York State’s attorney general. But it also creates a fissure in his marriage with Wendy that, heading into Billions’ fifth season, may be beyond repair. And that’s not the sort of pain that turns Chuck on. —Miles Surrey
8. “The Trial,” What We Do in the Shadows
Much like Taika Waititi’s eponymous film, FX’s What We Do in the Shadows gleefully leans into mundanity. This simple idea—that being an immortal, centuries-old vampire could lead to a meandering existence—is elevated by the show’s largely anonymous cast and the fact our vamps are based in Staten Island. (No disrespect to the Staten Islanders out there, but it’s usually not the borough tourists head for when they visit New York.) But in “The Trial,” What We Do in the Shadows pulls out all the stops, providing what could be the greatest on-screen vampire reunion … ever?
When our protagonists Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadja go before an international tribunal of vampires to answer for the death of the “Baron,” they’re greeted not just by the stars of the original movie, but some of the most famous actors who’ve played vampires in other projects: Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Paul Reubens (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn), and even Wesley Snipes (the Blade trilogy) via glitchy Skype. Absentees Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Robert Pattinson, and Kiefer Sutherland are all name-dropped, as well, turning “The Trial” into the Avengers for pop-culture vampires and, more importantly, a clever inversion of the show’s banal storytelling. The flex of having all these stars show up is commendable in and of itself, but “The Trial” is a series highlight for its excellent banter and the subtle implication that Swinton and Co. are also still themselves—and that they play vampires on screen in order to hide in plain sight. Like the humans they feast on, the vampiric world of What We Do in the Shadows remains an absolute treat. —Surrey
7. “Week 9,” The Bachelor
Historically, The Bachelor has been a victim of its own hype. Literally every season, Chris Harrison has initiated by promising “the most dramatic season in the history of The Bachelor.” It only stands to reason that most of the time, that promise cannot be met. So when ABC spent 100 percent of its effort promoting Bachelor Colton Underwood’s jumping over a fence as “the most shocking moment you’ll ever see,” one could be forgiven for not fully buying that statement—even as the weeks dragged on, and as our thirst for a fence-jump intensified.
Which is why “Week 9” was so miraculous—it is the one time in Bachelor history that a moment exceeded its hype. Part of the reason is context: Bachelor producers had gone behind Colton’s back and flown in the father of his top pick, Cassie, so that he could convince her to leave the show. The realization of this betrayal is what led Colton to take such drastic measures, and watching him process this in real time was genuinely fascinating. Another part of the reason is the sheer athleticism of the act: Colton cleared that fence with ease, in one smooth process, as if it were a structure made by Playmobil. “He just jumped the fucking fence,” Harrison said, blandly yet perfectly capturing the shock of the moment.
Colton Underwood broke The Bachelor. No mere fence—or reality show formula—could contain him. And watching it all happen was, and I mean this wholeheartedly, the most dramatic thing I saw in 2019. —Gruttadaro
6. “Volume 5: The Fool,” Too Old to Die Young
While the first season of Big Little Lies pointed toward a future full of star-driven TV projects—and there have been many of them, including a second season of the HBO series that added Meryl friggin’ Streep—2017 was also a banner year for auteur TV. After David Lynch brought the singular, masterful Twin Peaks: The Return to Showtime, it felt like it was only a matter of time before the television gods gave us a worthy successor evoking similar arthouse sensibilities. Well, it finally arrived in 2019, courtesy of [checks notes] Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn’s Amazon Prime miniseries Too Old to Die Young didn’t have the nostalgia or fanfare of Twin Peaks, but it was bleak, brutal, and beautiful television—and featured a standout episode in “The Fool.”
L.A. detective Martin Jones (Miles Teller), who’s been moonlighting as a vigilante killing evil people who’ve escaped legal justice, heads to New Mexico to take out a pair of underworld pornographers. A filmmaker whose languid pacing and ultraviolence has polarized audiences, Refn is at his most conventional in “The Fool,” which isn’t an insult—he’s very much still himself. Every minute of Martin’s New Mexico odyssey is undeniably gripping—from the moment Martin eerily ingratiates himself to the pornographers by boasting about his underage girlfriend up to the strangely elegiac car chase scored to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” after he kills one of the targets.
Refn, it goes without saying, remains the definition of an acquired taste, but for those willing to meet the enigmatic auteur on this bloody, neon-soaked playground, “The Fool” represents some of his finest work. And if Too Old to Die Young isn’t the best TV series of the year, it can at least claim to be unique. —Surrey
5. “This Is Not for Tears,” Succession
For an entire season, we watched as the Roys laid waste to such virtues as morality, modesty, fidelity, and generosity in their quest to keep Waystar Royco afloat and in the family. Succession’s unparalleled ability to implicate the gaudy, shameful sins of the rich was on full display throughout, from Kendall’s hubris to Shiv’s ambivalent power trip to Tom’s sad-sack ineptitude to Roman’s unapologetic relativism to Logan’s unceasing cruelty. It was funny, and fun, to watch, but equally painful. The Season 2 finale, “This Is Not for Tears,” is when all the checks came due—for Shiv, for Tom, and especially for Logan. But most remarkably, the episode’s climactic moment—in which Kendall, after 10 episodes of being trapped under his father’s thumb and reduced to a beaten-down dog, turns the tables and publicly places all the blame for Waystar’s sins at Logan’s feet—proved that Succession’s world could change. That Logan could be beaten. That there is a future for this show that is not solely defined by the insurmountable tyranny of one terrible man. —Gruttadaro
4. “Episode 6,” Fleabag
It was inevitable that Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s breakout Emmys darling, would wind up somewhere on this list. Really, the biggest dilemma was singling out one episode from a second season that’s about as close to perfection as TV gets. But as strong as Fleabag’s second season started with the dinner episode—which proceeded not unlike a stage play, recalling the fact Fleabag began as Waller-Bridge’s one-woman theater production—it was the sixth and final episode that sealed the show’s greatness, breaking our hearts in the process.
While Fleabag’s sister Claire is finally willing to pursue true love courtesy of a Finnish hunk named Klare (same enunciation), her own relationship with the (hot) Priest is at an impasse. In the finale, the Priest chooses his love of God over his love of Fleabag; a decision foreshadowed in the third episode when she tells us “we’ll last a week.” And if the unavoidable—but still no less devastating—breakup between Fleabag and the Priest isn’t enough, the closing moments of the series indicate she’s giving up her fourth-wall-breaking confessions, too. It’s impeccably bittersweet; Fleabag no longer needs to confide in her unseen friend(s) because she’s finally ready to open herself to the rest of the world. We’re proud of what Fleabag’s achieved in her hilarious, acerbic, and soulful journey of self-discovery—but that doesn’t mean we won’t miss her presence dearly. —Surrey
3. “Vichnaya Pamyat,” Chernobyl
IMDb might be, uh, slightly overrating it as the “highest-rated series ever,” but make no mistake, Chernobyl was legitimately impressive television. Craig Mazin’s miniseries turned (no offense) dry material about nuclear reactivity and reactor maintenance into a harrowing horror story with an unconscionable amount of real-life casualties and far-reaching consequences. And the most aggravating thing of all is just how avoidable the Chernobyl accident could’ve been, as punctuated by the series finale, “Vichnaya Pamyat.”
Chernobyl saves the full explanation of what, exactly, went wrong for its final hour, with Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov pulling no punches during his testimony in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency by placing the blame on incompetent plant supervision, and more importantly, the Soviets’ willingness to pay for inexpensive (and thus, inferior) materials for their nuclear plants. As he talks, Legasov calmly removes red and blue tiles from his ASMR-lite presentation, breaking down how an RBMK reactor functions—a sight that wouldn’t be out of place in a Vox explainer video—as flashbacks from the tragic evening are interspersed. What cements the infuriating—but nevertheless compelling—Chernobyl viewing experience is knowing that Legasov will be silenced by his own country for the crime of being forthright. “Where I once would fear the cost of truth,” he says, “now I only ask: ‘What is the cost of lies?’” It’s a powerful, evocative statement that—to state the obvious for a second—still carries sociopolitical relevance.
HBO is no stranger to fostering must-watch, Emmy-winning television. But Chernobyl—retelling an established historical event from the ’80s, written by the dude best known for sequels to The Hangover and Scary Movie franchises—truly came out of left field on the way to becoming one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. —Surrey
2. “This Extraordinary Being,” Watchmen
In the earliest episodes of Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s almost miraculously successful adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic, we’re inundated with clips of American Hero Story, a TV series based on the true story of Hooded Justice, the first masked vigilante. Better than any other show, Watchmen uses the media of its imagined world as exposition, and in those early episodes, the dramatized trevails of Hooded Justice (played in American Hero Story by Cheyenne Jackson) simply felt like a clever way to shed some light on the history that led to Watchmen’s present. It isn’t until “This Extraordinary Being” that we learn how profoundly integral Hooded Justice is to what the show is trying to accomplish.
Swallowing a jar of her grandfather’s actual memories, Angela Abar (Regina King) relives the most important moments of his life—flashbacks that are expertly done, deftly and intermittently swapping Angela into Will Reeves’s place. Only then is it revealed that Will is the real Hooded Justice; that he has been wearing a mask on top of another mask, posing as a white man posing as a superhero. “This Extraordinary Being” is the moment in which everything in Watchmen’s excellent first season snaps into place: Why the Black Wall Street Massacre is so important to the series, where Angela has inherited her anger, and how important it is, in a story like this, to consider who exactly society will allow to be a hero. —Gruttadaro
1. “ronny/lily,” Barry
Even though, up until the fifth episode of its second season, Barry had continuously subverted expectations about the kind of show it is, and the kinds of things it’s capable of doing, there was no way to predict “ronny/lily.” A hit gone bad—sure, that’s a fine way to explain this episode. But allow me to insert a few key missing details: Bill Hader in a blood-soaked ski mask; Stephen Root’s Fuches glueing his hands to a steering wheel; the fight between Barry and Ronny, an apparent karate master, being possibly the only TV fight to ever acknowledge that fighting is simply very exhausting; and of course Lily, Ronny’s little girl, who might be better described as “a fucking alien.” The way “ronny/lily” continues to escalate in unexpected ways is unparalleled, resulting in the most enthralling, enjoyable 38 minutes of television this year. But most impressively, the episode slyly drags Barry deeper into his existential morass. Barry eventually escapes Ronny and the girl who casually climbs houses and takes a bite out of Fuches’s cheek, but doing so only reinforces the debilitating truth that he’ll never escape his life. —Gruttadaro
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.