It was a great year for television. Or at least certain types of it.
It was a great year for half-hour dramas. The format was long dominated by comedies, which then gave rise to dramas masquerading as dramas. In recent years, studios like Amazon and Showtime have popularized the idea of telling serious stories inside 30 minutes, and other networks and streaming platforms have followed suit.
It was a great year for animation. The genre has expanded in multiple directions in recent years, and cartoons have proven their potential to be just as nuanced and thoughtful as live-action shows. An uncommon number of these animated gems made my list this year.
It was a great year for women on television. Many of TV’s best shows feature female perspectives, both in front of and behind the camera. In fact, my five favorite shows this year all have a female lead, and if that doesn’t improve my reputation with the woke corners of the Internet, I don’t know what will.
Sure, there were probably some genres where television faltered, but as Peak TV continues apace, I choose to focus on the positives. So much has happened in the television world these last ten years, and I’m all for ending the decade on a high note.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. Here are the ten best TV shows of 2019:
10. Green Eggs and Ham
The idea seemed ridiculous – a Dr. Seuss book with a total of fifty distinct words, expanded into a serialized 13-episode TV show with an estimated $70 million budget. But incredibly, Netflix’s team of talents pulled it off. Sweet, funny, and gorgeously animated, Green Eggs and Ham made great use of the dynamic between its two leads (memorably voiced by Michael Douglas and Adam Devine) and told a compelling, layered story with a colorful cast of characters. Though primarily geared to young viewers, there’s plenty for older ones to appreciate as well.
9. What We Do in the Shadows
Spinning off from Taika Waititi’s supernatural mockumentary, the TV series of the same name follows a vampire clan led by Nandor the Relentless (hammily played by Kayvan Novak) as they attempt to adjust to life in modern-day Staten Island. The show’s dry humor, mixing the world of horror with the innate horrors of modern-day suburbia, yields incredible laughs, boosted by its rich and wholly committed cast. Though not particularly deep, the show is among TV’s sharpest and funniest comedies.
Based on a horrifying true story, Unbelievable follows two detectives (Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) as they investigate a series of rapes occurring in Colorado, and their tenuous connection to a similar crime in Washington years earlier. The miniseries provided an unflinching look at both the difficulties in catching these criminals and the fallout their actions have on their victims – Kaitlyn Dever’s astonishing performance, as a girl whose life falls apart when she is accused of making up her accusation, was among the year’s best. The series treated its subject matter with grace and care, and ended on a hopeful note for its characters and viewers. Few shows this year were as difficult to watch, yet even fewer were as rewarding.
7. Young Justice: Outsiders
Six years after Cartoon Network pulled the plug on the excellent Young Justice, the series returned for a third season on DC Universe. Continuing the storyline where Season Two left off (complete with edgier and more violent subject matter to reflect its new platform), the season unspooled an engrossing story about power dynamics, foreign tensions, and teenage outcasts (as well as the occasional dig at modern-day America). New characters like Halo and Forager sparked up the already expanding cast, deepening its base and yielding the show’s darkest and most complicated season yet. If there’s a vote to be held for the best superhero series of the decade, Young Justice is certainly a contender.
Another TV series to step up its game this year was Barry, HBO’s brilliant dark comedy about a hitman trying, with rare success, to change his ways. Season Two of the show smartly dealt with the fallout of the first season finale, and featured perhaps the show’s strongest episode yet in “ronny/lily.” With excellent performances from Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, and a delightful supporting cast, I’m even more invested in this series than I was a year ago.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen stands as one of the greatest comic books of the 20th century, and producing a TV sequel to it seemed like a thankless task. But Damon Lindelof wisely shifted the focus of the story to a new, present-day setting and new series-molded heroes like Sister Night (finely portrayed by Regina King), with the same artful writing and direction that defined the best of The Leftovers. Its messages weren’t subtle, but as proven in episodes like “This Extraordinary Being” (a largely B&W outing that introduced a clever twist on one of the comic’s original heroes), they could be marvelously effective. A worthy sequel to the comic, and an impressive series on its own.
4. Better Things
Three seasons in, Better Things has fully found its voice as one of TV’s most achingly and emotionally real shows, detailing all its characters in rich and textured ways. Episodes don’t adhere to traditional plot structures, but they’re all the better for it, allowing more freedom to explore the complicated dynamics between Sam and her three daughters. In one episode, the most sympathetic character in the series can be Max; the next, it could be Frankie, Duke, or even Phyllis. Louis CK may no longer be attached to the series, but Adlon and co. are doing great work without him.
The year’s best animated series was among TV’s trippiest, telling the story of a young woman who jumps through time and altering realities to determine the cause of her father’s death. Aided by the innovative use of rotoscoping, Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg create a visually dynamic mystery series that plays with our perceptions of time and reality, yet the show never loses sight of its emotional core. The performances, particularly from Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk, are as good as any you’ll find in a live-action series, and help lift the story well above its gimmicky concept.
The first season of Fleabag ended on such an emotionally perfect note that a sequel seemed unnecessary – yet three years later, Phoebe Waller-Bridge delivered a follow-up for the ages. Kicking off with an extraordinary premiere (which saw Fleabag trying to navigate her way through a disastrous dinner party), and following her hookup with the charming Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), the season dealt with topics like love, death and religion in nuanced and thoughtful ways, and ended the story on a note even more perfect than its predecessor. Waller-Bridge has guaranteed that the show has reached its conclusion, but I can’t wait to see what she does next.
1. Russian Doll
It was a year of weird experiments and wild ideas, so it’s only natural that I top my list with the weirdest and wildest. Russian Doll began by drawing from the Groundhog Day format – a young woman (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying and repeating the night of her birthday over and over again – and then taking its premise in increasingly unpredictable directions. The show was funny, suspenseful, and moving in its depiction of its main character’s predicament, with the season growing ever deeper as it went along. As with several other shows on this list, Russian Doll seems built for only one season, and I’ve no idea what Lyonne and Lesley Headland have in store for a second one. But I’ll happily trust them to stay the course after this incredible debut year. No show this year struck me, either emotionally or intellectually, with as much impact as this one, and no other has lingered with me so well to year’s end. Between its great writing, strong acting, and phenomenal production, Russian Doll is one show for which you Gotta Get Up.
(Yes, I’m leaving you with an earworm. Enjoy!)
Bojack Horseman, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Doom Patrol, DuckTales, Killing Eve, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, One Day at a Time, The Other Two, Rick and Morty, A Series of Unfortunate Events