Whether they're delivered on a traditional weekly basis or via an all-at-once season dump, all TV series come in digestible chapters featuring a beginning, middle, and end. These are all parts of a show's inevitable up and downs, as each hour or half-hour is put together by a different writer, director, crew, and more, creating some episodes that are better or worse than others.
A bad show can have a great episode, a great show can have an awful episode, but since we're in the business of honoring the greatest as we look back on 2019, we've put together a list of the greatest episodes of the year. Between the origin stories, standalone flashbacks, moments of character clarity, and a gathering of pop culture's greatest vampires, our list has a little bit of everything that has one thing in common: Each episode left us panting in awe. Here are the 15 best episodes of 2019.
15. "Pool," Shrill
Where to watch: Hulu
When historians eventually look back on this era, 2019 will be marked as the year that started the fat revolution, thanks to the thumping anthems produced by Lizzo and a groundbreaking episode of Shrill. The series, inspired by the Lindy West book of the same name, spends its first few episodes showing Annie's (Aidy Bryant) struggle to be accepted as a serious cultural commentator at her online writing job, in no small part because of her size. In "Pool," Annie gets invited to a pool party for plus-size women. Director Shaka King filled every frame of that party with thicc bodies, bodacious, joyful, and free, in various states of undress. The outing also includes a breathtaking sequence of Annie diving underwater, observing her new-found friends in stunning slow motion. The episode not only served as a turning point for Annie's confidence (she finally stands up to her a-hole boss in the following episode), but also made a bold statement to Hollywood that big bodies are beautiful and worthy of taking up space — both behind and in front of the camera. While other television shows have talked about body positivity and inclusivity, Shrill raised the bar for actually showcasing plus-size people on television. -Megan Vick
14. "Life Is a Cabaret," Schitt's Creek
Although the members of the Rose family are typically the center of attention (both in Schitt's Creek and in fans' discussions of it), "Life Is a Cabaret" put the much-deserved spotlight on Stevie (Emily Hampshire), whose gutting performance of "Maybe This Time" in Moira's (Catherine O'Hara) production of Cabaret still has us reeling all these months later. After witnessing Stevie struggle with feeling left behind while watching her friends navigate their futures with (seemingly) relative ease, Stevie's musical performance in the Season 5 finale was a triumphant moment of catharsis, celebrating a woman naming her fears and finding that they don't have as much power over her as she had imagined.
While the citizens of Schitt's Creek don't know what their futures hold as they transition into the next phases of their lives, "Life Is a Cabaret" summed up precisely what makes this show great: the steadfast belief that, no matter what you've gone through or what the state of your life may currently be, there's always something new on the horizon and maybe — just maybe — this time you'll win. -Sadie Gennis
13. "The Trial," What We Do in the Shadows
Where to watch: Hulu
What We Do in the Shadows fans hoping for cameos from the original film's trio of vamps were treated to that and more in "The Trial." The stellar episode, directed by executive producer Taika Waititi, saw a number of actors who've famously donned the fangs for TV and film appear as part of an international vampire tribunal responsible for doling out punishments to Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Nandor (Kayvan Novak) for their roles in the death of the Baron (Doug Jones). The episode, which was based on an idea from Tilda Swinton and came together through the magic of editing, was an embarrassment of riches, featuring Waititi, executive producer Jemaine Clement, and Jonathan Brugh reprising their roles from the cult film, as well as appearances from Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Paul Reubens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn), and Wesley Snipes (Blade), the last of whom had to Skype into the meeting, adding to the absurdity of the half-hour. With additional references to Robert Pattinson, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kiefer Sutherland, the meta episode was a hilarious love letter to pop culture and a fine example of what can be accomplished when you flat out refuse to believe there is a limit to vampire gags and jokes. If there's any episode that is bound to become an instant classic, it's "The Trial." -Kaitlin Thomas
12. "The President," Derry Girls
Where to watch: Netflix
Like dear old Uncle Colm (Kevin McAleer) painstakingly reciting American presidents, it would be easy to get lost in the weeds listing everything Derry Girls does right, but here's one to start: It never puts the headlines before the people who live through them. The Northern Irish sitcom makes its priorities clear in its Season 2 finale, "The President," which is set against the backdrop of Bill Clinton's 1995 visit to Derry but ends with the girls leaving Clinton behind to embrace their friend. It's a riotous and disarmingly earnest episode that captures how surreal it is to live through history while you're still expected to go to school — or skip it. -Kelly Connolly
11. "Rose390," Evil
Where to watch: CBS All Access
Come on over to the side of Evil. The new procedural from CBS's favorite boundary pushers, Robert and Michelle King, marries the comfort of nominally normcore TV with the thrill of rewriting the rules. With its fourth episode, "Rose390," the show moved into its darkest territory yet, following Kristen (Katja Herbers), David (Mike Colter), and Ben (Aasif Mandvi) as they investigated a truly creepy kid to see if he might be possessed. A parallel subplot about Kristen's daughters dabbling in an occult AR game delivered scares of a more fun variety — and another creepy kid; all hail creepy kids! — but it was the episode's shockingly grim ending that pushed it over the edge. Evil can be dangerous. That's what makes it fun. -Kelly Connolly
10. "Strawberries," Ramy
Where to watch: Hulu
Two things you think wouldn't mix well — the horrors of puberty and the fears of radical terrorism — crash together absurdly and astutely in this superior episode of Ramy, Hulu's comedy about a young Muslim American man (Ramy Youssef) in New York City. Flashing back to 2001, a 12-year-old Ramy on the precipice of the sexual awakening that defines his adult life finds himself wondering if his first attempted mastubatory session caused 9/11. When he enters a school stall to jerk off as two planes hit the Twin Towers, he leaves it with America and American relations with Middle Easterners changed forever, creating a turning point in his life that's two-fold. It's also the episode that underlines the season's dangerous subtext of Ramy's potential radicalism and delivers the origin of Ramy's friendship with Stevie, two plots that bubble under the surface of Ramy's horniness. Hilariously raw and surprisingly touching — accidental choice of words for a show about masturbating, sorry — "Strawberries" is the only coming-of-age story you'll ever see that features a cameo by Osama Bin Laden. -Tim Surette
9. "Freaky Tuesday," GLOW
Where to watch: Netflix
In GLOW's excellent "Freaky Tuesday," there's an unforgettable moment when Sheila (Gayle Rankin), an enigmatic figure who refused to be seen outside of her She-Wolf persona, ditches her trademark fur ensemble and perfectly embodies Liza Minnelli during a wrestling match in one of the greatest performances since Reese Witherspoon's wig in The Morning Show. That refreshing surprise topped a fun-filled hour of character swaps as the ladies found a creative way to break up their mundane schedule while delivering one of the best TV moments this year. More than just an homage to "Freaky Friday" and "Groundhog Day," the episode brilliantly illustrated the toll wrestling takes on the body while keeping things interesting and fun. -Keisha Hatchett
8. "Twin Cities," Counterpart
Where to watch: Available for purchase from Amazon
Counterpart's too-soon cancellation was a terrible way to start 2019, but before it left, Starz's drama about parallel universes at war with each other dropped its best episode that underlined the show's fascinating themes of identity and the ripple effects of choice while also decrypting many of the show's biggest secrets. How were the universes created? How did the Office of Interchange come to be? Who was Management? The flashback rewound to each universe's versions of a younger Yanek and his colleagues coming together to understand the breakthroughs they made when they discovered a portal to a universe identical to their own, all symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall happening at the same time. By using sets of identical twin actors rather than special effects and camera trickery, "Twin Cities" felt even more real, through the joys of their collaboration to the tragedies of personal interference. It's hard to imagine Counterpart's best episode didn't even feature the series' MVP, J.K. Simmons, but "Twin Cities" was the series distilled to its most compelling parts, a perfect standalone story that shed light on the rest of it. -Tim Surette
7. "Episode Five," Sex Education
Where to watch: Netflix
For the most part, Sex Education's highest stakes were potential high school humiliation or a broken heart — typical fare for a teenage comedy. Then came "Episode Five," in which an adventure to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch became a life-threatening affair for Otis' (Asa Butterfield) best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Not only did the hour showcase that the accepting bubble that Otis was trying to create at their high school was not the norm, but it also showed the cracks in one of the show's most meaningful relationships. Eric would not have been in so much danger if Otis had shown up to support his friend instead of being wrapped up in his own romantic foibles. After Eric was attacked by homophobes when they saw him in Hedwig-inspired drag, he had to decide if he wanted to continue living an out-and-proud life or take his immigrant father's advice to step back into the closet. It's a show-stopping outing for Gatwa, who ran the gamut of emotions from joy to fear to anger over the course of the episode, and also a heartbreaking showcase about how alienating coming out can be for anyone. Still, Sex Education used "Episode Five" not just to break hearts, but to use Eric's experience to eventually bolster the young man's self-esteem and to inspire Otis to be a better friend, providing a higher purpose for Eric's suffering within the overall story. -Megan Vick
6. "This Is Not for Tears," Succession
The whole second season of Succession, and arguably the whole show, was building to the moment when psychologically broken, approval-craving son Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) turned on his emotionally terroristic father Logan (Brian Cox) and publicly blamed him for the crimes of WaystarRoyco's cruise division. The turn came after Logan told Kendall he would never be CEO because he's "not a killer," even though Kendall literally killed someone. The scorned son finally broke free from the father who didn't deserve his loyalty, and he will almost certainly be destroyed for it. And the father is perversely proud, in a way. It was the show's most Shakespearean twist to date.
All the threads of Succession's ascendant second season converged here and blew up in spectacular fashion, with every scene building to a killer line, either funny ("Thank you, father. Thank you for the chicken."), sad ("I wonder if the sad I'd be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you."), or opulently brutal ("The actual fact is we're persuading more and more shareholders every day that we offer them just a slightly better chance for them to make a little bit more money on their f---ing dollar and that's all that this is."). It also gave us an etiquette rule for the next time we're on a megayacht: "Sails out, nails out, bro." What a cursed, miserable existence these people lead. -Liam Mathews
5. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms," Game of Thrones
Though Game of Thrones' final season moved at a breakneck pace for most of its six-episode run, it did take a break to settle down and do some real character work in its second episode, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms." Before the massive battles and betrayals took center stage, we got to enjoy a moment of quiet at Winterfell, in which Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) was finally rewarded for her long-lived loyalty and honor. Though women were typically not allowed to be knighted in the Seven Kingdoms, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) completed a pretty impressive (if not entirely effective) redemption arc by knighting his dear friend and later lover. It was a title she justly deserved, and if the tears in her eyes didn't move you to leak a few of your own, you clearly need to go back and rewatch "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" and then reevaluate your life choices. -Lindsay MacDonald
4. "ronny/lily," Barry
Barry packs a lot of plot into its half-hours, but in the middle of Season 2, it took a breather to stretch out and run the weirdest trio of action sequences of the year. In the first, Barry (Bill Hader) fought Ronny, a man he didn't know was a taekwondo champion, played by stunt performer Daniel Bernhardt. It's a brutal, visceral brawl with a four-minute single-take wrestling match that ended with Barry crushing Ronny's windpipe. Then, Ronny's preteen daughter Lily (Jessie Giacomazzi) came home, and Barry had to fight her, too, because not only was she also a taekwondo champion, she's also maybe possessed with the spirit of a "feral mongoose." This sequence ended when Lily, covered with blood, let out an animalistic roar and disappeared into the night, like the Russian in the Pine Barrens, never to be seen again. The third sequence took place in a supermarket where Barry was getting first aid supplies. Ronny seemingly came back from the dead and kicked the crooked cop who hired Barry to kill him to death, and then promptly got mowed down by the police. All the while, LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live?" played.
It was a feat of television in which every department stepped their game up and delivered. "You're just trying to make each shot, and each moment, each cut, each costume decision, each production decision, all of it to be part of the piece, and that in and of itself can be very daunting," Hader told TV Guide after the episode aired. "The fact you can put all those things together, and you really don't know what you have until you cut it, and you look at a cut that you like because the first cut, invariably, you don't like and you feel like you blew it, and you want to die, but once you get it and order it, it's like, 'Oh, this really works.'" This really worked. The episode felt designed to be great, and it succeeded. -Liam Mathews
3. "Episode 1," Fleabag
Where to watch: Amazon
This is a love story. The first season of Fleabag was a rousing experience all right, but Season 2 moved the Amazon original series into masterpiece territory. Picking up more than a year after the gutting events of Season 1's finale, the second and final outing reintroduced audiences to Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), now with a thriving cafe and a surprising level of self-possession. The first episode of the new season was particularly great as the group reunited for dinner for what was the first time together since their falling out. Not only did this event inspire many cringe-worthy exchanges, a pair of bloody noses, and a few of those signature fourth-wall winks, but audiences were also introduced to the internet's new boyfriend, Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), in all his four-letter-word-loving glory. After an entire episode brimming with surprises, an artfully overwrought soundtrack, and a character clash for the ages, the premiere set the perfect tone for the delightful season ahead and is endlessly rewatchable as a standalone piece. -Amanda Bell
2. "Week 9," The Bachelor
Where to watch: Available for purchase from Amazon
Unlike a certain other hugely popular fantasy series, The Bachelor's highly anticipated climax actually lived up to the hype. And not only did it deliver, it was actually even a little bit better than expected.
"Week 9" contained the famous Fence Jump (capitalized because it deserves to be capitalized), the moment the whole season had been building toward. In it, speech pathology student Cassie Randolph tearfully broke up with Bachelor Colton Underwood after he professed his love and devotion, and Colton, emotionally wrung out and wanting to be alone, used his considerable upper-body strength to gracefully vault himself over a fence and disappear into the Portuguese countryside. We saw the Fence Jump in the trailer, but until the episode aired we didn't see the perfect cherry on top, which was host Chris Harrison, watching as he approached the scene to try to talk to Colton, calmly say, "He just jumped the f---ing fence," with his hands in his pockets. An unflappable pro, even when the show is falling apart around him.
The Bachelor has been on since 2002. It's about to air its 24th season, and the franchise is closing in on 50 seasons across all its spin-offs. And yet it still has the power to surprise and create water cooler moments that conquer the entertainment news cycle based on things that happen on the show, not just off-screen controversies. -Liam Mathews
1. "This Extraordinary Being," Watchmen
A thing we do during this tidal wave of content called Peak TV is to urge people to have patience. Don't worry, this show gets good after Episode 4, during Season 3, just wait until the reboot! There was none of that with Watchmen. Damon Lindelof's high-wire continuation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' groundbreaking graphic novel came to HBO bearing the weight of expectations and managed to exceed those preconceived notions within the first minutes of Episode 1. By Episode 5, an origin story of one of the show's more mysterious characters, Watchmen hit a level that would seem unsurpassable... until Episode 6. Told via drug-induced black-and-white flashbacks (on Watchmen, nostalgia is a helluva drug), "This Extraordinary Being," expands on the Superman-y beginnings of Will Reeves (played by Louis Gossett Jr. in the show's present time and Jovan Adepo in the past), who survived the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, found his way to New York in the 1930s, and fought against racist cops and a vast white supremacist conspiracy while hiding his sexuality. It's a superhero origin story like none seen previously, one that uses the genre's expected beats and the audience's knowledge of its archetypes to show how myths really form. -Christopher Rosen
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)