2019 was another great year for TV and so many shows are deserving of recognition, so many that I couldn’t contain it to just one blog post. You may have seen #11-20 that I published last week. Well now we’re back with the rest of the list, the cream of the crop! Here are the 10 best shows of 2019:
10. Perpetual Grace, LTD (Epix)
Have you ever come across a show that feels like it was tailor-made for you and your tastes? Perpetual Grace, LTD was just that show for me this year. It combines noir with all the sensibilities of the Cohen brothers to create something that felt fully formed right off the bat. The series follows a con man named James (Jimmi Simpson) as he’s roped into an attempt to con a malicious preacher and his wife (Sir Ben Kingsly and Jacki Weaver) out of money they’ve stolen from their parishioners.
As with any noir, things go off the rails really fast, and it only gets weirder from there. Unfortunately, the show lives on Epix, which is a premium channel/streaming service that few people have. This show is worth the $5.99 a month, so give it a shot and come join the Special Boys (watch the show, you’ll get it) on this insane, weird, and captivating ride.
9. Barry (HBO)
HBO’s Barry was a breakout hit in its first season showing a new side of writer, director, and co-creator Bill Hader. He stars as an assassin who desires to leave that life behind and become an actor in LA. Season two twisted the screws even further on Barry (Hader) and brought the show to even deeper dramatic waters. In season two, Barry is trying to leave his old life behind, but over these 8 episodes, he must continually confront that he is not the good person he so wishes he was. Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, and Sarah Goldberg will out an incredible support cast that each got fantastic moments to shine this year. I was dubious on what Barry would do after season 1, which felt like a very natural conclusion for the story, but the show successfully expanded and deepened its story this year. Its cliffhanger promises an exciting direction for the third season in 2020.
8. Counterpart (Starz)
Shows get canceled all the time. It’s just a fact of life in the TV business. Still, when one you love gets the ax before it has a chance to finish its story, it hurts a little. Many shows received that fate this year, but none hurt me more than Starz’s short-sighted decision to cancel the excellent Counterpart after two seasons. I suppose the writing was on the wall given the total lack of promotion the second season got, but nonetheless, I held out hope.
I’ll never understand how this show didn’t earn lead actor J.K. Simmons an Emmy nomination. His dual role as Howard Silk and his doppelgänger was as compelling a performance as I’d ever seen on TV. These two versions of the same man became more like each other than they cared to admit. Meanwhile supporting actors like Olivia Williams, Harry Llyod, and Nazanin Boniadi also go to explore new facets of their characters while the war between two alternate worlds raged in the background.
Thankfully the season two finale brought enough closure to the story that I don’t feel like things were left undone, but I know there was so much more story left to tell. I can’t encourage you to watch this show enough. Subscribe to Starz for long enough to check it out. These 20 episodes are a thrilling and thought-provoking ride, combining a great balance of science fiction and espionage with a killer lead performance at its heart. RIP Counterpart, perhaps you were too good for this cruel world.
7. Russian Doll (Netflix)
Russian Doll came out of nowhere at the beginning of 2019 and wowed me with a unique twist on the age-old premise of a character reliving the same day over and over. In this case, it was writer and co-creator Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia who would repeatedly die on her 36th birthday and wake up in the same bathroom at her birthday party. While the premise of the show might sound like it would quickly wear itself out, Russian Doll used Nadia’s loops to explore her psychology and the ways she’d kept people on the edges for most of her life. At only eight half-hour episodes, the show didn’t overstay its welcome, and the story felt complete by its conclusion. I’m not sure where the show will go in it’s previously ordered second season. Nothing can take away the accomplishments of this season and it’s reminder that the way through the darkness of life is not alone, but together.
6. Chernobyl (HBO)
Everyone loves comfort TV. You know, the shows you put on and just laugh at and relax with characters you love. Now that you’re thinking about just such a show, picture the extreme opposite of that and you’ve got HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl. This five-part series, created and written by Craig Mazin, chronicled the 1986 reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the aftermath as the Soviet Union struggled to contain what could have been a world-ending disaster. The series is unflinching in its depiction of the scale of this tragedy as thousands of men and women sacrifice themselves in the name of containing the fallout all the while facing a government that refused to admit the negligence that brought about this tragedy. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding lead performances by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, and Jessie Buckley, who provide us a window into the many facets of this tragedy.
Chernobyl is not an easy show to watch; it is graphic and sobering. Make no mistake, you will be challenged by this show. It’s worth it to get a deeper look at a tragedy that is often talked about, but few of us really understand just how bad this was.
Fun fact: the show came from Craig Mazin, who wrote the sequels to the Hangover movies. You wouldn’t have expected him to do something like this given his previous filmography.
5. Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
Like your favorite pair of pants, Bojack Horseman is once again back to provide the smartest Hollywood satire on TV and to also punch you in the gut with its deep pathos. These eight episodes (the first half of the final season) saw Bojack (Will Arnett) finally take steps to move past his addictions and make amends for the damage he’s caused to those in his life. The show remains as smart as ever, and while this season didn’t have a standout episode, like season three’s underwater episode or “Free Churro” from season five, it was heartwarming to watch Bojack’s journey to recovery. I’ll miss the show when it’s gone, but I can’t wait to see how it all closes out in early 2020.
4. Mr. Robot (USA Network)
Endings are incredibly hard. We live in a culture that seems to only care about the last 5 minutes of a show, and if it isn’t “good” (however subjective that is), then the time spent watching the show is wasted. Setting aside how silly that notion is, the final season of Mr. Robot had a lot of expectations on its shoulders, but these final 13 episodes managed to bring the story of Elliot (a fantastic Rami Malek), Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and their war against Whiterose (BD Wong) to a conclusion that was satisfying on both an emotional and plot level.
This season continued the show’s (and creator, writer, and director Sam Esmail’s) penchant for format-breaking episodes like an almost silent heist or a commercial-free episode structured like a five-act play. As thrilling as these changes in format are on their own, they were always in service of the larger story. It was certainly showy, and it felt like Esmail was showing off what he and his cast and crew could do, but it was never to the point of distraction. All of this would’ve failed without Rami Malek and the rest of the cast anchoring the madness. Elliot’s war against the top 1% of the 1% almost consumed him and ultimately brought him to the very core of who he is. Equal praise goes to Carly Chaikin as Darlene fought to keep her brother tethered to reality as she assisted him in his crusade.
In its final episode, the show journeyed deeper into Elliot’s psyche than ever before, and it ended with one of my favorite shots and lines I’ve ever heard on TV. As much as Mr. Robot was a commentary on the dangers of an overly capitalistic society where people are treated as commodities, the show ended with a message of connection. We have to stay tethered to each other in a world that would love us to isolate ourselves with our screens and with hollow distractions. For four seasons Mr. Robot was an absolute joy to watch week to week and discuss with my friends. It challenged me and made me reflect on our world in new ways. It was said that no show has more to say about the world we live in than Mr. Robot, and now as the show comes to a close, I think that statement still holds true.
3. Fleabag (Amazon)
Season one of Fleabag premiered on Amazon Prime back in 2016 but didn’t make much of a splash culturally. Three years later the second season debuted to rave reviews. I watched both seasons of Fleabag this year (twice through the second) and remain convinced of this show’s brilliance. As soon as the credits rolled on the second season, I knew I’d just witnessed something special.
Writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge takes us on a journey of loss, grief, faith, acceptance, reconciliation, and even an examination of how audiences watch the lives of fictional characters, through 12 perfectly constructed episodes. Waller-Bridge and her insanely expressive face may be the star of the show, but with supporting players like Sian Clifford, Brett Gelman, Andrew Scott (who’s character has affectionately come to be known as “Hot Priest”) and the incomparable Olivia Coleman, Fleabag is packed with talent.
While I’m tempted to go into more detail about the merits of the show, I think discussing any more of the events in either season would cheapen its impact. Fleabag is something best experienced, and given how brief its run is, you can watch both seasons in a matter of days. Don’t miss this show.
2. Succession (HBO)
Here’s another show I was late to the game on. Succession premiered back in 2018, and while many dismissed it as simply a drama about the plights of the insanely rich, the show proved to have much more on its mind than its premise might have suggested.
While Succession does enjoy showing the lavish lives of the uber-rich Roy family, it is a story about abuse and the toxic cycles that dominate families all over the world. What was most surprising about Succession is how much I found myself sympathizing with the characters despite all of them being absolute monsters to each other and to everyone they come in contact with. Whether it was heir-apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and his many struggles to get out from under his dad’s thumb, Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) ploys to get in closer to her dad or Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) desire to prove himself, I felt sorry for all of these people, despite their immense wealth.
The second season of the show expanded the world by introducing a rival family-owned media company (and brought in Cherry Jones and Holly Hunter for great supporting roles). It further revealed the deep wounds in each member of the Roy family and the ways their patriarch Logan (Brian Cox, chewing ALL the scenery) had pitted them against each other. Rather than band together and take over their father’s company, each sibling, cousin, and business partner is constantly punching down on each other and playing right into Logan’s hands.
While Succession could be riotously funny (thanks cousin Greg), the show was at its best when it showed us the generational effects of abuse and the ways these cycles perpetuate themselves over and over again. Backed by the best ensemble on TV, Succession is a must-watch show going into its third season in 2020.
1. Watchmen (HBO)
Holy heck Watchmen was a trip, wasn’t it?
This TV version of Watchmen wasn’t an adaptation of the seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons but rather some kind of cross between a direct sequel and another story set in the same world as the book. Created by Damon Lindelof (of LOST and The Leftovers fame), Watchmen was an ambitious examination of race, nostalgia, generational trauma, and so much more. If that sounds like a lot of one nine-episode season of TV to cover, it is. But even if Watchmen wasn’t able to do all of those topics justice (I’d argue that it almost completely succeeded), it constantly amazed me with it’s cast, soundtrack and ambitious structure.
This version of Watchmen was set in Tulsa, OK in 2019 as police detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who also goes by the alias Sister Night, investigates the murder of a cop by a white supremacist group called The Seventh Kalvary. From there we meet characters like Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and even characters from the graphic novel like Laurie Blake (a fantastic Jean Smart), who each get their own spotlight episodes that add color to the world beyond Angela’s perspective.
These nine episodes build to a conclusion that plays in such a way that there doesn’t need to be any more. That alone is one of the show’s greatest strengths. I was completely satisfied, but this season, as Lindelof promised, gives closure on the main plot while leaving the door open for more stories. The way the show addresses trauma, and the way that people hid that trauma behind masks (literally in the case of this show) was a poignant reminder that the only path to healing is by opening up. There are other notions that the show tackles (specifically racism) that don’t end with any kind of nice bow on them, but that feels appropriate given the subject matter at hand. Some things can’t be solved neatly.
When Watchmen premiered in October of this year, I knew it was something special. A notion that I became more convinced of with each passing week (particular with episodes 5 and 6). By the end, I knew it was the best thing on TV I had watched and would likely watch for the rest of the year. Damon Lindelof and company deserve all credit for taking a beloved property and presenting a new take on it. In terms of using existing IP to tell new stories, it doesn’t get any better than this adventurous and bold show. I can’t praise it highly enough. It was the best show of 2019. You owe it to yourself to watch this show.
There you have it! That’s the end of the best TV shows I watched in 2019. As usual there was a ton of amazing TV this year. So much to enjoy, laugh with, be challenged by, and so much more. What on the list did you miss that you’re interested in checking out? Did I leave anything off that you liked? Let me know in the comments! See you in 2020!