Essays · TV

20 TV Episodes To Watch Before the 2019 Emmys

Binge! Binge like your life and Emmy prediction bragging rights depend on it!
Barry Anthony Carrigan
By  · Published on September 12th, 2019

Limited Series:

Chernobyl, “01:23:45”


Chernobyl is a horror story disguised as a historical drama. The first half of the five-hour miniseries involves more gut-churning ecological damage, more blind denial, and more needless loss of life than you’ve likely ever seen on screen before. The depth and breadth of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, and especially of the Soviet governmental response to it, are made horrifyingly clear in a series that seamlessly transitions between a damning political thriller and an unflinching examination of on-the-ground events. The opening episode serves as a gruesome and dread-filled play-by-play of the night the reactor melted down, and as written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, it’s an unforgettable hour that’s well-deserving of the series’ 19 Emmy nominations.

Escape at Dannemora, “Episode 6”

Escape At Dannemora

Few miniseries attempt to give an in-depth look at a recent real-life event without a book or other public source material to use as a road map. Escape at Dannemora not only does just that but the limited series created by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin also makes another unlikely choice in its director, Ben Stiller. Clearly they did something right, since the show, which stars Paul Dano, Benicio del Toro, and Patricia Arquette, garnered 12 Emmy nominations. The series builds slowly but pays off, with no episode taking more narrative risks than the penultimate one. In it, we’re finally shown the crimes that led convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat to prison, and the scenes of chilling violence ripple through the rest of the series, all the while altering our perception of the men we’ve seen on screen for five hours prior. Arquette, who also gave a great performance in another 2019 Emmy-nominated true crime miniseries, The Act, is particularly startling as Tilly Mitchell, whose convoluted reason for allegedly helping the criminals escape is revealed in this episode.

Fosse/Verdon, “Life is a Cabaret”

Fosse Verdon

A Broadway-lover’s dream right down to its pilot episode’s director (In the Heights and Hamilton’s Thomas Kail) and writer (Dear Evan Hansen’s Steven Levenson), Fosse/Verdon follows the turbulent and inspired relationship between famed director-choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Tony-winning dancer-actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). This cast is stacked, and Williams and Rockwell received rave reviews along with Emmy nominations for their performances as the lovers who stayed together through affairs, vices, and professional highs and lows. The premiere episode, “Life is a Cabaret,” pulls out all the stops with two big dance numbers — one for Fosse’s ill-fated film Sweet Charity, the other for what would become one of the most-loved musical movies in history, Cabaret. While it’s easy to see how tortured soul Fosse could steal the scene, it’s Verdon whose story feels fresh, imbued by Michelle Williams’ charm and talent. In total, the series earned 17 Emmy nods.

Sharp Objects, “Milk”

Sharp Objects

Earlier episodes of Marti Noxon’s hypnotic Southern gothic miniseries have specific nominations this year, including the Calhoun Day-focused chapter “Closer,” but let’s not beat around the bush here: the black heart of this series lies in its finale. Everything rotten that reporter, alcoholic, and chronic cutter Camille (Amy Adams) insists she sees in her home town of Wind Gap comes to light in the final hour. Jean Marc-Vallee’s impressionistic, almost sickeningly moody direction casts a lurid yet alluring pall over the series, and that heady sense of foreboding finally gives way to slow-motion pandemonium in “Milk.” While Adams and Patricia Clarkson more than earned their acting nominations, it’s a shame that the third corner of the Preaker family trifecta, Eliza Scanlen as Amma, didn’t also get a nod.

When They See Us, “Part 4”

When They See Us

Ava DuVernay’s best work to date is a richly layered, four-part look at the Central Park jogger rape case and the five boys — now adults, and renamed the Exonerated Five — whose lives were irrevocably changed by their wrongful imprisonment. While documentaries and news articles have outlined the case in-depth, no work has examined the inner lives of the five men like this one. The series earned 16 Emmy nominations, including three for “Part 4,” a triumph of filmmaking that’s in a league of its own. Young actor Jharrel Jerome is the only one of the five child actors to also play his adult counterpart, and as hopeful yet beaten down Korey Wise, he transforms so thoroughly that you’d be forgiven for thinking two different actors embodied the role. There’s a purity to DuVernay’s crisp filmmaking and Jerome’s heartfelt performance here, one that lends a small thing, like the moment a long-broken air conditioner clicks on, all the gravity of a Shakespearean tragedy while still keeping the story grounded in the hard truth of injustice.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)