As part of our best of 2019 coverage, this week we’re asking:
What was your favorite episode of television this year?
It would have been so easy for a television sequel to Watchmen to coast by on name recognition and a minimum of effort. Instead, Damon Lindelof took the graphic novel and turned it into a stunning exploration of race, trauma, and legacy. This is personified in “This Extraordinary Being,” where protagonist Angela Abar experiences her grandfather’s memories and reveals his origins as America’s first costumed crime fighter, one who wears a second mask under his first to hide his blackness from those who he would try and save. This exploration stands as important an exploration of superheroes since perhaps the original graphic novel was written. Alan Moore is famously prickly about superheroes and the licensing of his own creations, but Watchmen is easily the most Moore-like of adaptions; it takes an established property and breaks it down, in order to rebuild it and see how it works.
The Battle Of Winterfell was one of 2019’s most-anticipated television events, and one of the most-involved productions in Game Of Thrones’ exceptionally involved eight-season run: Shot over the course of 55 nights and 11 weeks in frigid conditions, “The Long Night” marked the final confrontation between the defenders of the living and the armies of the dead. And then, like, five minutes after it ended, The Night King got slaughtered by another vengeful daughter: The true victor on the evening of April 28 was Barry’s “ronny/lily.” The episode is a surreal, surreally entertaining digression in the hitman comedy’s sophomore season, in which Bill Hader choreographed legible, bone-cracking, blood-splattered chaos better than the combined creative forces of the biggest TV show on the planet. “ronny/lilly” is plenty funny on its own—the pull-out that strands Barry among his latest target’s martial-arts prizes is brilliant and should be shown in any film study class—but its best joke was written by the folks who make the programming schedules at HBO.
I love media that wears its unpopularity on its sleeve (shout out to Hollywood Handbook), and few TV shows are as good at that as American Dad. Specifically, I’d like to highlight “Top Of The Steve,” an episode that involves Steve and Roger attending a boarding school and quickly realizing that they’re actually living in a spin-off show—complete with new theme song, new storyline hooks, and a suspiciously Canadian setting that is probably cheaper to “film” at. The meta gag is that American Dad is going off the rails and needs to be refreshed, with the other characters even meeting potential Steve replacements like an adorable orphan and a previously unmentioned British relative.
The “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” episode of Documentary Now! is a windfall of riches for musical theater nerds. A loving (and thorough!) tribute to the late D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, Original Cast Album: Company, writers John Mulaney and Seth Meyers could not have hit the nail more squarely on the head. From the comically histrionic dialogue (“Bye bye, box!”) to the spirited, vocally ambitious number handled expertly by Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry, every beat was so familiar. But it’s Paula Pell’s Patty and her Elaine Stritch-like struggle with her show-stopping number, “I Gotta Go,” that cements the episode’s objective. It would make absolutely zero sense for them to attempt a sequel to this parody, and yet I still want them to try— if only to hear Goldsberry sing about more colors and see Mulaney with another ’70s shag haircut.
There’s no episode of television I watched more this year than “It’s The Cigars You Smoke That Are Gonna Give You Cancer” from I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. “Chunky,” a fifth-episode sketch, remains my personal favorite, but the one-two punch of the “stinky” car brainstorm and Conner O’Malley’s Robby Star makes the third entry essential viewing, as do Fred Willard and Tim Heidecker as a madcap organist and the world’s worst hipster, respectively. I guess you could say it’s really in my “Q-zone.”
I’m tempted to declare a tie, since this is my prompt and Lodge 49’s “Circles” set a new bar for worldbuilding flashbacks while Tuca & Bertie’s “The Jelly Lakes” left me speechless with its combination of construction paper animation and more fluid designs. But we’ve already had one of those this year, so I will just say that Shauna McGarry’s teleplay—brought to life by Tuca & Bertie creator Lisa Hanawalt and lead voice actors Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong—got under my skin in a way that few other stories did this year. And if ever a bit of casting was pulled from my dreams, it’s Jane Lynch and Isabella Rossellini voicing two lovebirds (actually, they’re a muscular turaco and a craft-loving owl, but you get my point).
Having lived and breathed the world of Mr. Robot since it premiered five years ago, I can honestly say the season four highlight “Proxy Authentication Required” is not only possibly the best TV episode of the year, but arguably the best installment the unconventional and ambitious series has ever done. Shedding its usual bag of tricks, Sam Esmail frames the entire thing as a postmodern stage play (it’s even broken into official acts), the camera roving and swirling around the four characters (five, if you count a certain guy who lives in protagonist Elliot Alderson’s mind) while building to one of the most searing emotional beats of the series. Mr. Robot always broke the fourth wall, but in this case it actually removed it from view altogether.
Another year, another nigh-perfect high-concept BoJack Horseman episode. But where “Free Churro” and “Fish Out Of Water” foregrounded their conceptual weirdness, mid-season finale “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is a lot more subtle. In fact, you might not even notice at first that none of the show’s principal cast appear. (The Margo Martindale cameo, and the Paget Brewster-voiced screwball reporter, serve as potent distractions.) By the time you do, though, the dread has already set in, as Raphael Bob-Waksberg flits across the series’ deep supporting bench, meticulously laying out all the ways BoJack’s hard-fought “redemption” has only been built by paving over all the unforgivable harm he’s done.