Hot take: TV is Good Right Now. Also, there is Too Much TV.
While discussions rage right now about the state of the movie industry, and whether creativity is bankrupt and original movies can’t find the audiences they used to find in the face of homogenous blockbusters sucking up all the oxygen (I love ya, but *cough*Marvel*cough*), the state of TV is pretty unimpeachable. Sure, it’s not without its own looming crises; as the theater experience becomes more consolidated, the increasing balkanization of streaming services means that TV is more siloed off from itself than ever before. Just last month we saw the launch of two new major streaming services (Apple TV+ and Disney+), and more are sure to come. Pretty soon, we’ll be paying more for all these services than we did for cable.
That being said, similar criticisms can’t really be levied against the quality of the shows we’ve seen this year. The prestige drama is in full force, with some incredible surprises (Watchmen) and brilliant one-off miniseries. HBO and Netflix continued their reign in full force; while some classics left with a bang, brilliant new shows came to replace them in our hearts and minds. Adaptations of existing properties found new ways to express the ideas (and humor) of their source material, and high-concept comedies dug into weighty material while not sacrificing a whit of their wit. While our first year in operation saw us coming to TV late in the game (as evidenced by the dearth of full reviews for some of our picks), our list of the top 25 TV shows of 2019 makes us excited to dig even deeper into the television landscape in 2020.
As with our best films of the year list, the following picks are presented to you in no particular order, just an alphabetical ranking of the shows we love and deserve your love too. There’s too much television for us to haggle over rankings and placements; we adore our TV children too much for that. [Clint Worthington, editor-in-chief]
Honorable Mentions: BoJack Horseman (Netflix), Barry (HBO), The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix), The Mandalorian (Disney+), Los Espookys (HBO), Tuca & Bertie (Netflix), POSE (FX), Ramy (Hulu), Fosse/Verdon (FX), Undone (Amazon Prime Video), The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video), Sherman’s Showcase (IFC), Lodge 49 (AMC), Stumptown (ABC), Euphoria (HBO).
Never has the sound of mechanical clicking caused such skin-crawling fear as it does in Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries about the aftermath of a nuclear accident of which Earth will still be feeling the effects thousands of years from now. Depicting a perfect storm of cut corners and coverups, the series (led by the ever-reliable Jared Harris) focuses on both the politics of the event and its bleak practicalities — evacuation, isolation, what to do with abandoned pets. Amping up the horror movie feel is the excellent sound design by Stefan Henrix and Joe Beal, which makes scenes inside the power plant reactors seem like they’re taking place in a haunted house, and an eerie score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. With chilling parallels to modern “fake news” and disinformation, it caused more viewers to lose sleep than any killer clown could ever manage. [Gena Radcliffe]
The Crown (Netflix)
Watching Peter Morgan’s sumptuous, layered political drama in a 2019 where England is beset with greater political turmoil than ever — the looming specter of Brexit, the results of the recent election — is a curious reminder that the United Kingdom has long dealt with these kinds of difficult problems. With season 3, the show continued its brief (using the reign of Queen Elizabeth to chart the history of 20th-century England) through the 1960s and 1970s, recasting its leads to reflect a more settled monarch and her advisors. Replacing Claire Foy, Olivia Colman brings a fascinating sense of maturity and insecurity to Elizabeth; though her presence feels less central to the show than in the Foy era, the show still mines tremendous drama out of the UK’s most significant events (the Aberfan disaster, Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales). [Clint Worthington]
Dead to Me (Netflix)
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini star as two women that form an unlikely friendship in the midst of tremendous grief. Applegate plays Jen, whose husband has recently died in a hit and run. She meets Judy (Cardellini) at a grief support group and soon the two form an intense bond. But as the show slowly reveals, their grief isn’t the only thing binding them together. It’s not just absurdly witty, it’s also one of the most honest and open portrayals of grief ever committed to screen. In between laughs, it captures the slow bearing down of the waves that comes with living in the wake of unimaginable loss. It’s a show that recognizes the intense sadness and anger and complications of grief; it knows that you don’t just shrug it off and move on. In short, Dead to Me is a miracle. [Sarah Gorr]
Documentary Now! (IFC)
Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s pet project at IFC feels like a show designed to appeal to about five people — pitch-perfect parodies of some of the most iconic documentaries in film history — but by God, does it work. This year’s slate was no different, from Cate Blanchett as a Marina Abramovic-like performance artist to Armisen as a narcissistic nobody forging a DIY documentary from the largesse of Kickstarter. But the real home run, of course, was “Original Cast Album: Co-Op”, an uproarious John Mulaney-penned spin on a day-long recording of the cast album for a failed, Company-like musical. Filled with hummable songs and aggressively funny inside jokes (“How’s that for allegro?!”), it might be one of the funniest TV episodes of the year. [Clint Worthington]
Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video)
Everyone’s favorite fuckup is back in what (rightfully) became the critical and cultural darling of 2019. Phoebe Waller-Bridge outdoes herself in Fleabag season 2, which delves into Fleabag’s incredibly flawed and complicated relationship not just with love, but with life and herself. It understands perhaps better than any other show the famous line from Tim Krieder’s now meme-ified essay, “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” And for Fleabag, that’s exactly what intimacy is for her: mortifying. But watching her attempt to grapple with that amid dealing with her own internal pain and her father’s wedding to her deliciously loathsome stepmother (Olivia Colman) was one of the true delights of the year. [Sarah Gorr]
Read Joe Lipsett’s review of Fleabag season 2 here.
Gentleman Jack (HBO)
Sally Wainwright’s historical drama Gentleman Jack is a fun, fast-paced look at what life was like in Georgian-era England for a queer woman ahead of her time. The titular “Gentleman Jack”, aka Anne Lister (a sly, clever Suranne Jones) plays a land-owning, gender-bending woman with a mind of her own, and she’s not afraid to give you a piece of it. Confidently striding through town, her world is upended when she falls for Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), an “old maid” by the time’s standards in awe of Lister’s worldliness and bravery. The romance between the two is one of the most tender and nuanced romances on TV this year. Wainwright makes sure that Lister isn’t boxed into being the “perfect” lesbian—she’s deeply flawed—but the writing is so beautiful we only love her all the more. [Sarah Gorr]
Read Sarah Gorr’s full review of Gentleman Jack here.
Jenji Kohan’s heartfelt ‘80s wrestling dramedy might be closing out at Netflix next season, but this third go-round with the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling shook up the ringside formula in a few significant ways. Moving the gang to Las Vegas and giving them their first taste at real fame, Ruth (Alison Brie) and the rest faced personal and professional problems with their patented mix of pluck and relatable friendship. Geena Davis was a welcome addition as their venue’s tough but understanding manager, and the one-two punch of “Freaky Tuesday” and “Outward Bound” served as searing portraits of the physical and psychological toll that comes from the humiliating, liberating work of professional wrestling. It’s as much a story about the failure of the ‘80s to live up to its own glitz and glamour as it is about the struggles women face in a man’s world and the power that comes from tag-teaming the patriarchy. [Clint Worthington]
Read Tim Stevens’ full review of GLOW season 3 here.
Good Omens (Amazon Prime Video)
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s hilarious and heartwarming take on the apocalypse sauntered its way onto Amazon Prime Video this year, with David Tennant and Michael Sheen as a buddy cop duo for the (dark) ages. Tennant plays Crowley (formerly Crawley), a lazy, indulgent peacock of a demon. His angelic counterpart/thinly-veiled significant other is Aziraphale is played with fussy delight by Sheen. The two must go up against their respective home teams in order to subvert the apocalypse and save the world from imminent destruction. It’s campy and silly in all the ways that Gaiman and Pratchett are known for, to be sure. But where Good Omens truly shines is the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale, which anyone who has been in a long term relationship recognizes as a prime example of two people who have come to support, respect, and even love each other… even if it took them a few thousand years to get there. [Beau North]
Read Chris Ludovici’s full review of Good Omens here.
The Good Place (NBC)
The Good Place seems like a show that should’ve long worn out its welcome. After season one’s big reveal, how could one go forward? And not just for a concluding episode, but three entire seasons? Credit lies, in part, with the creativity and spiritual warmth of showrunner Michael Schur. Long a purveyor of genuinely decent worlds in television sitcoms (Parks and Recreation), Schur painted himself into the ultimate corner and has spent the years since twisting the concept of morality and the afterlife to ring out every drop of storytelling from it. Having one of the most photogenic and quick-witted casts around — Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, and William Jackson Harper in the leads, with the likes of Marc Evan Jackson in support — certainly doesn’t hurt either. [Tim Stevens]
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix)
While boomer comics complain about political correctness and the death of ‘edgy’ humor, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is over here proving that the biggest laughs can come from surprisingly wholesome places. A whirlwind sketch show with nary a dud in its six episodes, the series allows Robinson to insightfully hone in on the everyday niceties of society, and what happens when we nudge them beyond their breaking point. Whether taking the performative self-deprecation of social media posts to their fullest conclusion (“Gulping down pig dicks with these bags of meat”) or putting the most proudly cruel person in a car focus group (“You have no. Good. Car. Ideas.”), Robinson’s brand of absurdism is as strange as it is infectiously quotable. Just give me a TC Tuggers shirt and a Baby of the Year award; I’m all in for next season. [Clint Worthington]
As the only place to appreciate new David Fincher-directed content since 2014’s Gone Girl, Mindhunter has a visual advantage from the start. Of course, that was the case in season 1 as well. Season 2 is further aided by a show that has grown more confident in its world. Freed from establishing the rules of its psychological game, Mindhunter proved smarter, looser, and more deeply unsettling. What perhaps makes the show most impressive is how much it eschews the usual shock and gore of other police procedurals; instead, it fully rests itself on taut atmosphere and the adept trio of Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv, who make every interview drip with tension and foreboding. [Tim Stevens]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Mindhunter season 2 here.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime)
After deleting another Facebook message from a high school classmate who’s building their brand and pushing you to buy their overpriced skincare products, relax with On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy from Robert Funke and Matt Luske parodying the world of multi-level marketing scams. Kirsten Dunst (who in the past decade became one of our best, inexcusably underused actresses) plays Krystal, a new widow who finds herself destitute after her ambitious-but-naive husband spent all their money on FAM, a business that’s part Amway, part Scientology, and all con artistry. The need to support herself at least as urgent as the need for revenge, Krystal gets involved with FAM, and finds herself torn between wanting to succeed and wanting to gut it from the inside out. Deeply funny, creepy, and tragic all at once, On Becoming a God is an all-too-timely look at how the rich relentlessly take from the working class and then shame them for not working harder. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Gena Radcliffe’s recaps of On Becoming a God in Central Florida here.
One Day at a Time (Netflix)
A reimagining of Norman Lear’s 1984 sitcom, Gloria Calderón Kellett’s One Day At A Time focuses on a newer, modern family — the Cuban-American Alvarezes — and the newer, modern challenges they face. The multi-cam sitcom format feels revolutionary in the hands of this capable cast, taking on heady topics without making them feel like ‘very special episodes’ – with an ex-Marine mom dealing with PTSD, a family friend with substance abuse issues, a daughter whose coming out is not the safe comedy romp you’d expect from must-see-TV, and a teen son who has to learn that he will be held to a different standard than his white friends. Forget the laugh track; you’ll be reaching for your box to tissues more often than not. Add to that the always-brilliant Rita Moreno as the family matriarch, and it’s impossible to understand how Netflix could let this one go. [Beau North]
The funniest new show of 2019, Pen15 is a raw, earnest, and hilarious look at what it’s like to be a preteen girl, specifically a preteen in girl in the early 2000s. Creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle also star in the show as aged-down versions of themselves. The rest of the cast, though? It’s populated solely by kids, which you’d think would make the entire conceit gimmicky, but it doesn’t. Erskine and Konkle perfectly ride the line and somehow manage not just some of the absolute funniest scenes (Anna’s first kiss had me roaring with laughter, while also reminding me far too much of my own), but some moments of genuine heartfelt emotion. They understand that as awkward and terrible as this period in life is for most girls, it’s also their most relatably vulnerable. You’ll never laugh at the girls, always with them and maybe even a little at yourself. [Sarah Gorr]
Russian Doll (Netflix)
The reductive elevator pitch of “Groundhog Day, but on the lead’s birthday” fails to reveal the weird, wonderful show that is Russian Doll, co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. It proves the kind of headscratcher that was rewarding no matter how deeply you choose to dig into it. Themes of generational trauma, survivor’s guilt, coping with chronic mental illness and facing mortality adds depth without making Doll ever feel like a drag. The cast, anchored by a never-better Lyonne and Charlie Barnett, give every new incarnation of the day a tone full of bittersweet zing and naked honesty. Plus, it features the best needle-drop of 2019, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”, a ridiculous earworm that perfectly captures the madness of our repetitive routines. [Tim Stevens]
Schitt’s Creek (Pop)
Can one show lay claim to the title of “funniest comedy of 2019”, while also being warmly humanistic and boasting the best same-sex relationship on television to date? If the show is Eugene & Dan Levy‘s Schitt’s Creek, it turns out the answer is “absolutely.” Originally marked as a sort of Canadian Arrested Development that relied on the considerable abilities of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, it stumbled to find its voice among its initial bitterness. A few seasons and refinement of the good-hearted nature of the show’s world later, Creek has evolved into a truly excellent ensemble comedy that manages to reveal the considerable shortcomings of the 1%, without giving in to the cynicism that would imply. [Tim Stevens]
Sex Education (Netflix)
Sex is difficult for everyone, be you Otis (Asa Butterfield) the son of a well-known sex therapist, or Jean (Gillian Anderson), the very cool sex therapist mom herself. It also doesn’t matter when you grew up; there might be for information out there but that doesn’t make any of the feelings that come along with sex easier to puzzle out. Therein lies the draw of Sex Education: taking place in a sort of nowhere realm of England where the ’80s and cell phones seemingly exist at the exact same moment, Education grasps the universality of the confusion, discomfort, desire, thrill, and heartbreak sex visits upon us all. And they throw in some cracking first-class jokes for good measure, too. [Tim Stevens]
Read Taylor Beck’s full review of Sex Education here.
If you had told me ten years ago that there would someday be a pool party scene that was nothing but women who looked like me and it wasn’t a punchline or cruel prank, I wouldn’t have believed it. But Shrill, loosely based on Lindy West’s 2016 memoir of the same name, was groundbreaking for portraying Fat women not as jokes but as what they are: women. Intelligent, sexual, funny, and driven, but in the end just women. Fat women are women. Fat people are still people. With Aidy Bryant’s sparkling lead performance and an outstanding supporting cast, Shrill proves that our stories are worth sharing too. [Beau North]
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Season 3 of Stranger Things had some tone issues. It tried too hard for broad comedy, as evidenced by the cute but overlong “Neverending Story” sequence. Jim Hopper’s struggle with trauma and frustration over being a lonely single dad was mistakenly played for laughs. The sci-fi horror lost some of its impact from the first season. So why is it on a “best of” list? Because The Duffer Brothers‘ latest sojourn to Hawkins perfectly captured the bittersweet pain of friendship drifting apart like clouds on a summer day. Even if the season didn’t end with Will (Noah Schnapp) and his family moving out of Hawkins, it would only be a matter of time before the dynamics between him and the other boys changed. Mike and the others were ready to move on to the next phase of their lives, while Will, dealing with his own trauma, wanted to cling to the memories of his life before he went to the Upside Down. It’s a most relatable tragedy – the tragedy of growing up and realizing nothing will ever be the same. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Stranger Things season 3 here.
In a world that’s all too aware of the ways the mega-rich fuck over the little guy and turn it into smug corporate culture, Jesse Armstrong’s Succession serves as vital catharsis. Tracking the myriad wits and whims of the Roy family, the show pairs Armstrong’s razor-sharp wit with a cast of actors so deliciously suited to the material, to the point where each character can verbally cut to the quick of the other’s greatest weaknesses. Porting the angry nihilism of producer Adam McKay’s The Big Short to a Murdoch-like media family is a genius idea, and Nicholas Britell’s chutes-and-ladders theme song is a perfect audio accompaniment to the grotesque vagaries of the Roys’ power. The Roys are terrible, selfish people, and the show knows that more than anyone; and yet, we see the ways they’re stifled by the same wealth that protects them from consequences. [Clint Worthington]
Read Clint Worthington’s recaps of Succession season 2 here.
True Detective (HBO)
The announcement that second-tier 90s heartthrob/e-cig spokesman Stephen Dorff had been cast in season three of True Detective was met with a collective shrug. Joke was on us — Dorff was the unexpected heart and soul of the season, playing Mahershala Ali’s partner and friend as they’re both haunted by a 35-year-old murder case. Though the show is still heavily focused on male pain, while women act mostly as either harried wives or shallow dick receptacles, Dorff, Ali, and Scoot McNairy (playing the father of a murdered child) take a well-worn trope and add some weary empathy to it. All three of these characters know that life is cruel, relentless, and, worst of all, very, very long. In Ali’s case, it plays a further cruel trick in picking and choosing which memories he gets to keep in his old age, taking the good, and leaving far too much of the bad. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Gena Radcliffe’s full review of True Detective season 3 here.
Succession wasn’t the only HBO show where a Thick of It alum got to illustrate the caustic humor and depressingly cyclic nature of power. Armando Iannucci’s acid-tongued political comedy closed its seven-season run with an all-timer of an ending. Like the Roys, you outwardly hope for the amoral, calculating Selina Mayer (an all-time-great Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to get her comeuppance; and yet, there’s something so alluring about her uncompromising grasp for power, her unflinching ability to throw people under the bus, that makes us genuinely punch the air when she gets exactly what she deserves. Surrounding Louis-Dreyfus, of course, is one of the best ensembles on TV, from Tony Hale’s supplicant Gary to Sam Richardson’s delightfully earnest Richard Splett. And who could forget Timothy Simons’ sleazy Jonah Ryan, who reminded us of the kind of smug, entitled ignorance that tends to win you elections in this day and age? We’ll miss Veep, but it’s hard to think of a better way for Selina Meyer’s term in television office to end. [Clint Worthington]
Viewers tuning in for the premiere of HBO’s sequel to the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen probably never expected the first ten minutes to brutally depict the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 (chiefly because its a footnote of racial violence curiously absent from the history books). But showrunner Damon Lindelof and director Nicole Kassell want to you to know right away that this isn’t going to be a safe or comfortable ride. With Regina King giving a powerhouse performance as a world-wearied cop/superhero and heavy hitters like Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart stepping into roles as two of the “New” Minutemen, Watchmen pays loving (if sometimes barbed) homage to its source material. At the same time, Lindelof and co. ground every episode in real, true-to-life fears: loneliness, trauma both immediate and inherited, legacies, love, and what humanity means, depending on who tells the story. The sixth episode of the series, “This Extraordinary Being”, is a truly stunning, groundbreaking piece of television. [Beau North]
Read Clint Worthington’s recaps of Watchmen here.
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
The best comedy of the decade spun-off into one of the best TV series of the year. Somehow both a little dirty and sweet-natured, What We Do in the Shadows surely had the biggest out-loud laughs-per-episode ratio of any sitcom in 2019. Though it featured cameo appearances by the original cast of the movie, the new characters more than held their own, particularly Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson, a psychic vampire who drains his victims by boring them to death. And there’s Harvey Guillén as Guillermo, the vampires’ devoted human servant who longs to be made into a vampire himself — until he learns he’s a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing. With the vampires doing everything from attending a city council meeting to unsuccessfully trying to hold an orgy at their house, it makes life as the undead seem hilariously mundane, a comedy flipside of Jim Jarmusch’s philosophical Only Lovers Left Alive. [Gena Radcliffe]
When They See Us (Netflix)
Every bit as horrifying as Chernobyl, if not more so, When They See Us is an unflinching look at American racism as explored through the famous case of the Central Park Five. The five New York boys wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park finally get the lens they deserve, thanks to the graceful hand of Ava Duvernay. She focuses intensely on the horrors the boys experienced and makes it clear that they were just that: boys. Not men. Children. Through Duvernay’s sensitive, intense eyes, we see that their case was a massive miscarriage of justice that left an indelible mark on the boys for the rest of their lives. When They See Us is as hard to watch as it is necessary to see, a searing indictment of systemic racism in the police system and a reminder of our current President’s shameful history with race. And, as Duvernay’s second foray into television, it helps set the bar high for whatever she tackles next. [Sarah Gorr]
Read Sarah Gorr’s review of When They See Us here.