Since Simon and Erik have been kind enough to share their books and music faves from the year, I’ll do the same with my TV favorites. 2019 has felt like a weird year in pop culture—all those megafranchises winding down or at least taking a pause—and TV has felt the most affected. More than a dozen shows I watched this year wound up their run or were cancelled. Everyone seemed to be clearing the decks, in preparation for the arrival of new streaming platforms and a realignment within Hollywood. Somehow, that didn’t stop the glut of good-but-not-great shows from overwhelming my eyeballs, but nevertheless, there have also been some real gems this year. From prestige dramas to painfully earnest social SF to oddball comedies, these are my choices for the year’s best TV.
Best Show of the Year (TIE): Fleabag and Chernobyl
I missed Fleabag the first time around. I watched the first three episodes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s bracingly candid comedy —based on her mega-successful one-woman show—when it premiered in 2016, and decided that it was well done but not for me. I only returned to that season because everyone lost their shit over the show’s second season this year. Watching them back to back, it’s easy to how the show has changed and grown. S1 of Fleabag takes a while to make its scheme clear, to establish that its filthy-mouthed, filthy-minded heroine isn’t simply a trashfire of a person, but is laboring under a tremendous weight of grief and guilt. S2 reverses the direction of its story. Instead of asking whether a person who has done something terrible can move on from it, it asks what you do when you’ve gotten your shit together, and life still doesn’t make any sense. It’s a more inviting season than the first one–it sands down the nameless heroine’s rough edges, and of course, introduces everyone’s new dreamboat, Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest. But both seasons are brilliantly written, breathtakingly funny, and at points, wonderfully painful. From the opening scene of the season, in which Waller-Bridge calmly wipes blood from her face, turns to the camera, and informs us: “This is a love story”, Fleabag feels entirely in control of both its story and its audience, even as its heroine struggles to achieve that control in her life.
Chernobyl is, of course, Fleabag‘s polar opposite, very serious and very bleak. Eight months after it sandbagged the entire anglophone TV-watching audience—those five weeks in which it seemed that nobody could talk about anything else—the thing that lingers in my mind is how successfully the show creates a sense of the otherworldly out of what we know to be actual, recent history. Reaching into the genres of SF and horror, it uses their tropes to show us how we now have the power to turn our planet into an alien zone, where humans can’t survive, and where the beauty and bounty of nature conceal poison whose effects will be felt even by future generations. Despite being historical, Chernobyl tapped into our present moment better than almost anything else on screen this year. The disaster it depicts is rooted not just in failures of engineering and management, but in a political system that prioritizes careerism and the achievement of empty benchmarks over the safety of its citizens, and which treats those citizens like inconveniences, canon-fodder, and even enemies once the disaster occurs. And it achieved all this while being a genuinely riveting drama, anchored by fine central performances, great writing, and a meticulous recreation of the event and its aftermath. We’re all getting a little tired of the label “prestige television”, and with good reason, but Chernobyl is a reminder of how that subset of TV still has the power to surprise and enlighten us.
Rest of the Best:
The fire hose of superhero TV series shows no sign of letting up, and after a while they all seem to blur together. So it’s all the more surprising that Doom Patrol not only managed to stand out from the pack, but to make such a powerful statement about inclusivity, trauma, and recovery. Following a group of misfits, all of whom have failed in life as much as they’ve been failed by it, Doom Patrol touches on mental illness, queerness, and disability, and does so with irreverent, raunchy humor and a finely-honed sense of the absurd. It’s a show that has featured a sentient, teleporting, genderqueer street, and a rat on a mission of revenge against the robot who killed its mother, but it is nevertheless entirely heartfelt and entirely winning.
Somewhat under-sung due to Chernobyl sucking up most of its oxygen, Fosse/Verdon follows the creative and romantic partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon over decades, in which they create works like Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and Chicago, even as their personal relationship crumbles under the weight of his infidelity and narcissism. It hit a lot of my favorite tropes—stories about artists and the creative process, stories about women who are professionals and how they struggle to be taken seriously and to keep their careers alive as they age, and stories about smart, stubborn people who can’t live apart any more than they can live together. It was also a great show to watch with my mom, who introduced me to much of Fosse’s work, and to learn the behind-the-scenes story with her.
Time loop stories felt kind of played out before Russian Doll came along and reminded us that it’s not the loop or how you get out of it that is the point of the story, but the way it reveals the character of the person stuck in it, and how it forces them to reflect on the meaning of their life and its direction. Russian Doll gives us Natasha Lyonne’s whip-smart, acerbic New Yorker Nadia, whose tough exterior takes many blows—and many deaths—before it begins to crack. More importantly, it takes meeting her fellow looper Alan, who like Nadia is stuck in patterns he can’t break, and struggling with anguish he can’t express. It’s a show that reminds us that the essence of good storytelling is specificity, rooting its characters in their city, their ethnicity, and even a particular neighborhood. And it comes together in a climax that is exciting and cathartic, delivering a familiar message—that only human connection can save us—with renewed urgency.
Years and Years
Russell T. Davies’s peek into a future that is just around the corner is exactly as depressing as you’d imagine. It envisions climate change, economic crises, rampant refugeeism, and the rise of the far-right, and filters them all through the eyes of people just privileged enough that most of this devastation doesn’t touch them. It’s easy to dismiss the show as miserablism—and its hopeful ending as cloying and unrealistic. But what Davies is doing with this series is issuing a rallying cry to people who are tired of watching the world go down the drain on TV, reminding us that change will only happen if we make it happen. It’s the most urgent, most important work of science fiction in 2019—certainly on TV, but maybe in any medium.
David Makes Man – Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s first TV show is a coming-of-age story about a black teenager from a poor Florida neighborhood that insists not just on its characters’ humanity, but on their right to dream, and to experience poetry and wonder. Its semi-surrealist storytelling only intensifies the urgency of the main character’s dilemma—to protect his family and his neighborhood, or do everything in his power to get out.
The Good Place – As the most consistently imaginative show on TV has barreled towards its ending, things have gotten a little more sedate. We’re no longer blowing up the premise every week, and the result has been a bit more sitcom-y, a bit less mind-bending, than previous seasons. Still, this is a season that has given us demonic mysteries, a journey to hell, and a deep dive into Chidi’s past. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, and I can’t wait for the conclusion.
Schitt’s Creek – After years of the fandom for this show slowly building and then becoming almost impossible to avoid, I finally gave up and mainlined the first five season. And what do you know, everyone was right. This is an utterly charming show, anchored by amazing performances, especially from Catherine O’Hara as the narcissistic yet oddly wise Moira Rose. That Dan Levy has also written himself one of the sweetest queer love stories on TV is icing on the cake.
Show That Should Have Sucked But Turned Out Surprisingly Good: The Boys
As noted above, we are in no shortage of superhero shows, and “what if superheroes, but bad” is already a threadbare premise. Add to that a source material that everyone assured me was in love with its own transgressiveness, and I approached The Boys with great trepidation. But to my surprise, this has turned out to be one of the smartest shows I’ve watched this year. So yes, there’s a scene in which a superpowered woman in the throes of passion crushes a man’s head between her legs, but far more interesting—and horrifying—is the scene in which the show’s Superman analogue rescues a hijacked plane, only to realize that he’s actually doomed it. Again and again, The Boys makes the choice not to be sensationlistic, and in so doing manages to comment on celebrity culture, the untouchability of corporations, and the unholy alliance between the American military-industrial complex and the evangelical subculture. That, along with some genuinely excellent performances, makes The Boys an unexpected but utterly winning delight.
Best Series Finale (TIE): Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
2019 was the end of an era for the CW, as two of its flagship shows over the last decade (and, let’s be honest here, the two that have given it any amount of cultural cachet) came to an end within months of each other. Though very different in focus and tone, both shows have been master-classes in how to juggle humor, romance, and melodrama, and Jane has also been great at delivering shocking twists and tying together long-running plotline (watching its final season side-by-side with that of Game of Thrones was quite a trip, let me tell you). In the end, Jane gives its heroine the happy ending she deserves, while Crazy gives its anti-heroine the hopeful beginning she needs.
Worst Series Finale: Mr. Robot
I know, you expected me to say Game of Thrones. But the thing is, we all knew Thrones‘s ending was going to suck because the season and change leading up to it were so obviously flawed. Mr. Robot fooled me into thinking it knew where it was going by being, from beginning to end, so impeccably well-made. In its visuals, its writing, its acting, even its use of music, this has always been a singular viewing experience, so it was easy to believe that it was leading up to a singular conclusion. Instead, the show delivered over-familiar pablum. The all-powerful corporation E-Corp, which had its tendrils so deeply in every aspect of society that it seemed more powerful and immovable than governments, is defeated in a heist that feels like something out of an Ocean’s 11 movie. Villain Whiterose’s mysterious machine, teased since the second season and so alluring that it even drove one of the main characters to insanity, is never even activated. All of this is in service of clearing the board so the show can deliver a deep dive into main character Eliot’s psyche, making increasingly trite, unconvincing use of its multiple-personality premise, finally ending on a revelation that is simultaneously overwrought and unsatisfying.
Show That Everyone Loved But I’m Still Not Sure How to Feel About: Watchmen
There’s a lot to say in favor of Watchmen. It looks amazing. It builds a fascinating, detailed world. It has great performances and a diverse cast (when was the last time you saw so many middle-aged and older women on screen at the same time, much less playing such dynamic, powerful characters?). It carries forward the ideas of the comic while telling a story that is all its own. It addresses issues of race that underpin a lot of superhero storytelling but are rarely acknowledged. But taken as a whole, I really don’t know what the show was trying to do, and thus how I feel about it. I think I’m going to have rewatch the season (and maybe reread the comic first), but provisionally, my verdict is that it’s brilliant in its parts, and not that great—maybe even incoherent—in its whole.
Show That Everyone Loved And I’m Decidedly Meh About: The Mandalorian
Look, The Mandalorian is really pretty. And Baby Yoda is cute as all get-out. But really, what else is there to watch for here? Except a cubic parsec of fanservice, that is. While the basic concept of a spaghetti Western set in the Star Wars universe has a certain kooky charm, the show itself never rises above its high production values. Watching it feels not unlike the experience of watching a friend play a Star Wars-themed computer game—a series of formulaic and not very emotionally involving adventures, at the end of each of which you get an armor upgrade and a new mission objective. The fact that the season’s final episode kicks things into gear in a big way only confirms me in my sense that the whole thing should have been a movie–it certainly couldn’t have been worse than The Rise of Skywalker. And at a shorter running time and with a more compressed story, the fact that the show’s title character has no charisma or even much of a personality—despite being played by Pedro fucking Pascal—might have registered less, and been less annoying.
Most Unjustly-Cancelled Show: Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger
It’s hard to know whether Cloak & Dagger was a victim of low ratings or the realignment of Disney’s business model after its acquisition of Fox and the launch of Disney+. But either way, its loss is a tragedy, because after years of making various unsuccessful tries with its TV arm, Cloak & Dagger was finally a great Marvel TV show. Weird and hallucinatory and not afraid of messy emotion, it nevertheless managed to feature cosmic superpowers and thrilling super-fights (on what must have been a shoestring budget, no less). It was also the most grounded of the Marvel TV series (maybe of the entire MCU), delving into the history of its New Orleans premise, touching on issues like police brutality, racism, and privilege. All that, and it looked amazing, and had wonderful performances from its young cast. A great loss all around.
Most Promising Show That Isn’t Quite There Yet: Stumptown
We got a Veronica Mars revival this year that failed to live up to its potential because of its refusal to say that thing that all noir detective stories must acknowledge—that the detective is kind of an asshole who needs to get their shit together. Stumptown isn’t as good as Veronica Mars yet (or Terriers, another beloved, cancelled-too-soon show that a lot of fans have likened it too), but it recognizes this necessity, and pays it off almost immediately in the person of its heroine, Dex Parios, a borderline-alcoholic with PTSD who decides to embark on a new path by becoming a private detective. Cobie Smulders is instantly winning as Dex, who is at once self-destructive and desperate for a second chance, and she’s surrounded by a winning cast. The cases of the week are still a little underbaked (though there have been a few standout episodes), and the character dynamics can feel a bit repetitive. But the show is smart and energetic enough that I’m willing to give it a chance to come together.