Although I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that we fixated on a show about 1-percenter problems while our planet baked and the wealth gap widened, I do relish the next round of Boar on the Floor. If this list had been due six months ago, Sally Wainwright’s wonderfully wry yet emotionally charged period drama about Anne Lister, an uninhibited 19th-century English noblewoman, would be right at the top.
The show I used to beg people to watch became everyone’s favorite this year, as creator and star (and now Emmy winner) Phoebe Waller-Bridge returned with a long-awaited second season of her tragedy about a woman who is utterly human in the way she experiences ups and downs and processes her feelings of grief and guilt. Episodes that aired in 2019 (parts of Seasons 3 and 4) featured particularly moving stories in the Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Select Watson) branch, the tense arrival of baby Jack (and glimpses at his future) and a bigger sense of where all this is headed.
I gave creator Craig Main’s gripping miniseries about the 1986 nuclear-plant disaster a rave review back in May, but figured people would find it too depressing to actually watch. Creator Liz Feldman’s dark comedy about two women (Christina Applegate and Linda Castellini) who meet in a grief support group is a master class in the study of narrative momentum and anxious build toward an inevitable yet almost unthinkable reveal.
Dan Reed’s four-hour documentary looks past Jackson’s courtroom entanglements and directly into the eyes of two men who very frankly (if belatedly) tell us what happened to them as boys. Best to also watch Oprah Winfrey’s follow-up special, “After Neverland,” a revealing and thoughtful Q&A session held in a theater filled with men who have all experienced sexual abuse.
With more shows being produced than ever before, 2019 was the year we said goodbye to Game of Thrones and hello to a new age of prestige dramas and comedies across network and cable television and streaming. Instead, the premium cable filled the gap left by Thrones with some of the year's most talked about and searing dramas, including Chernobyl, Euphoria and Watchmen.
Meanwhile, Netflix managed to stay ahead of the streaming pack with offbeat comedies like Russian Doll and Dead to Me, and consistently delivered the fuzziest true crime shows on TV with Don't F**k with Cats and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. This was in no small part down to the additional of Andrew Scott's “Hot Priest,” who provided some of the sexiest scenes on TV this year.
Whether you identify with Logan, Kendall, Roman, Shiv or cousin Greg, these characters are so deliciously deviant that you can't help admire their balls. “Succession” on HBO. Graeme Hunter/HBO One of the year's best ensemble casts went back to the 1980s for Black Monday, an alternate take on what caused the infamous stock market crash that gives the Showtime series its title.
Imagine Wet Hot American Summer in a hostile takeover of Wall Street, and you have some idea of what to expect from the series. Barrel Jerome and As ante Black in particular made the injustice experienced by their characters so palpable that you rooted for them to win long after the credits rolled.
A harrowing look at the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster, what made HBO's miniseries, so enthralling was that it understood the fundamental question behind the catastrophe is not “what went wrong?” Her astonishing turn as megalomaniac Selena Meyer reached new heights in the seventh and final season of the political satire, culminating in a crescendo that was every bit as absurd as it was acerbic.
This nine-part series proved that: A) complex weekly storytelling still has a place on our screens; and B) every show can be dramatically improved by casting Regina King. Roll over, Cagney and Lacey, and tell Rizzo and Isles the news: Duvall and Rasmussen are the new female cop duo here to bust the case wide open.
Merritt Never and a perfect Toni Colette play the cops investigating a serial rapist in Netflix's latest procedural, which injected a much-needed sense of feminist anger into the crime drama genre while also giving Kaitlyn Never her second breakout role of the year after the underrated Book smart. The hashtag #TooMuchTV was slapped on the still-hard-to-believe statistic that well over 500 scripted series alone aired this year, a fact so overwhelming that many TV fans ducked for cover by retreating back to old favorites.
Coming soon after Netflix launched House of Cards, it was an even riskier gamble: a series meant to be binged, no major stars, the most diverse ensemble TV had ever seen, tonally audacious in its veering from raucous comedy to stark drama, and with a sociopolitical agenda, specifically when it comes to the underrepresented voices of women, people of color, immigrants, and the incarcerated in America. Anchoring it all were towering, heartbreaking performances from Danielle Brooks, especially, as well as cast members Laura Gómez, Taylor Schilling, Diane Guerrero, and Natasha Lynne.
Take On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a series about a broke, widowed mother in the depressing shadows of Orlando in the ’90s who is saddled with her husband’s debt from a pyramid scheme. They’re celebratory recreations that nail the tone and whatever the “thing” is about each one that inspired such passionate fan bases, managing to be funny while saying something about art and humanity at the same time.
There was a lot of noise being made on TV this year, with massive series saying farewell and buzz worthy breakout hits whirling new hurricanes of fandom and debate. So there’s a certain kind of pleasure, and almost singular achievement, in a show like Back to Life, a quiet, confidently devastating series that aired in Fleabag’s former U.K. time slot before coming to the U.S. on Showtime.
And what they made was an energizing, engrossing series that doubled as an unexpected look into the cyclical nature of addiction, depression, existential crises, and emotional breakdowns. It’s almost revolutionary, based on recent trends in TV comedy, where darkness and cynicism seem like more of a directive than humor and laughs, to create a series after which the audience just feels... nice.
That’s purposeful on Schitt’s Creek, which father-son creators Daniel and Eugene Levy developed as a place where bigotry and even cruelty do not exist. Some of the most quotable dialogue on TV ; big, swoon-inducing feelings; and ace comedic turns from Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, and the Levy duo prove that earnestness can still produce excellence.
In response to the lunacy in the actual White House, which has made any sort of political satire sobering difficult, and even unfunny, Veep responded by pivoting from playful to exceedingly dark. When the network cut ties with him after he admitted to exposing himself and masturbating in front of women without their consent, critics wondered what it would mean for Along’s sensational series.
But it’s also a heartfelt examination of two bumbling adults leaning on each other as their grace period for “figuring things out” reaches an expiration date. Episodes would straddle both worlds, the violent nature of hit jobs and the goofiness of a low-rent Los Angeles acting school headed by Henry Winkler.
More, it would be Saturday Night Live alum Bill Harder taking on this dark, tortured lead role. Its extraordinary first season threaded all those elements together with a shrewd handle on how moral ambiguity and frustration guided Harder’s Barry.
Season Two deepened the story, focusing on Barry’s struggle to escape his past, all the while lending more nuance to each of the compelling supporting characters’ own existential journeys. The two-part documentary series Leaving Neverland, chronicling the allegations of two men who say Michael Jackson raped them while they were children, arrived like a seismic event.
But there was something about the disturbing specificity with which accusers Wade Robson and James Safe chuck describe what they claim Jackson did to them and the space with which director Dan Reed gave them to explain how the trauma has lingered and affected every aspect of their lives since. But also unsettling were their accounts of how Jackson brainwashed them into keeping the secret and covering up his tracks, and how the singer’s celebrity and the global adoration of him contributed to their families trust in him and his ability to outlast decades of pedophilia rumors.
It’s only after the unlikely collaboration of two female detectives in a different state and their dogged investigation into a serial rapist that they not only catch the perpetrator, but vindicate the original young girl. Featuring focused, fantastic acting work from Kaitlyn Never, as well as Toni Colette and Merritt Never as the detectives, the Netflix limited series resists temptations to sensationalize or exploit in the name of more cinematic drama.
Instead, its brisk, no-frills style contributes a fittingly journalistic approach to telling the story, using the audience’s own burning desire for justice as the spark for the fireworks the investigation deserves. You can credit the brilliant Ava Overlay’s epic approach to telling the story of the men who are now the Exonerated Five for stoking feelings of shame and inspiration at the same time.
Her brilliant flourishes never distract from or disguise the brutal integrity of the story being told: of five young boys from Harlem, all boys of color, who were falsely convicted of rape in 1989 and spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit because of the failure of racist institutions, media, and the justice system to protect them. After spending nearly half their lifetimes in jail under the collective branding of the Central Park Five, Korea Wise, Anton McCray, Yosef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana’s stories are now given the dignity of context, emotion, and truth.
Overlay ensures that their stories are bathed in the beauty that they deserve and, more, that they land with the kind of shattering impact they were owed 30 years ago. It’s the emotional specificity with which they recreate the toxic incubator of insecurities and cruelty that is a middle-school hallway; its way in which it validates the massive, almost unmanageable feelings of that time.
PEN15 is both a hilarious comedy and a horror show, bridging the genres with a simultaneously uncomfortable and cathartic reflection of the human spirit at its most brittle stage of development. It then hurtles into the near future of 2024, where we see the international implications of the xenophobic, economically disastrous, environment-decimating policies enacted by world leaders, especially Trump.
There’s an episode centered on the lengths that a same-sex couple, one of whom is a Ukrainian refugee, must go through to be together that may rank as the most viscerally upsetting piece of television I have watched in my career. Yet there’s a Shakespearean elegance to Succession and the swagger with which it navigated its adrenaline-packed second season that doesn’t just explode the idea that we shouldn’t be enjoying it, but makes a case for its cultural necessity.
It juggles themes that are constantly on our minds, frustrating and depressing us on an eternal loop: wealth and privilege, power and corruption, political cronyism, culpability, misogyny, the media and spin, capitalism and commodity, sex, entitlement, and dynastic chokeholds. The show then lavishes these things with dialogue so winking and perverse it borders on trolling, and a kind of production value that can only be described as sumptuous.
But even applying the skepticism of objectivity, it’s hard not to fawn over a series that met this much storytelling and visual ambition with this much assured confidence in its execution. It’s daring on its own to approach the hallowed Watchmen universe for a series that brings its characters and mythologies to modern day.
And who knows where Damon Lancelot developed not just the insight, but the cajoles, to use the graphic novel’s story Bible as a launching pad for interrogating issues of race and policing in America today. Any list of the year’s best episodes would be top-heavy with Watchmen outings : “The Extraordinary Being,” “A God Walks Into Bar,” “Little Fear of Lightning,” or “She Was Killed by Space Junk.” But taken as a whole, the season is a singular, spectacular achievement.
Ignoring the fact that it is, minute-by-minute and frame-by-frame, an example of creative near-perfection, the way in which the second season of a small, auteur British comedy managed to explode into the zeitgeist at the prodigious scale Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the series did in this past year is an achievement unlikely to be replicated again in this age of #TooMuchTV. The wit with which Waller-Bridge manages to explore a person’s humanity, in this case her semi-aimless title character, and use that to amplify bubbling feelings society is grappling with, marks the kind of once-in-a-generation voice we clamor for but don’t even know we’ve discovered until the truths they are speaking confront us head-on.