Living in the age of Peak TV is exhausting, because there is almost too much quality programming to keep up with. Television has gotten so good that former favorites from recent years like Mindhunter, Killing Eve, Big Mouth, Stranger Things, Arrested Development, and the final season of Game of Thrones didn’t even crack my Top Twenty list!
So here goes nothing. I’ll start with my #20-11 shows of 2019:
20. I Am the Night (miniseries; TNT)
19. Barry (season 2; HBO)
18. South Side (season 1; Comedy Central)
17. Russian Doll (season 1; Netflix)
16. Wu-Tang: An American Saga (season 1; Hulu)
15. The Umbrella Academy (season 1; Netflix)
14. iZombie (season 5; CW)
13. Bosch (season 5; Amazon Prime)
12. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season 3; Amazon Prime)
11. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (season 1; Netflix)
And now, more detailed descriptions for the Top Ten:
10. Dead to Me (season 1; Netflix) — this show makes the list for the career-best acting of Christina Applegate (who I never thought could be this good) and Linda Cardellini (who I wasn’t that familiar with, so shame on me). The twist happens early, so what’s left is a complicated character study of two flawed and broken women and their strange bond. It’s coming back for a second season, but even if it didn’t get picked up, I think it ended on a good note.
9. Fosse/Verdon (miniseries; FX) — I love learning the history of music and culture I missed out on, so this was an educational look at the careers of talented, troubled theater and film director/producer/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife and muse, dancer/actress Gwen Verdon. I loved the movie version of Chicago, and this summer, my wife and saw it on Broadway, caught up in Fossemania (a Fosse frenzy?) after this miniseries gave us a look behind its scenes. It was also some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from Sam Rockwell (one of my favorite actors) and Michelle Williams (someone else I wasn’t that familiar with, so shame on me).
8. Veronica Mars (season 4; Hulu) — a pure nostalgia bomb, bringing us back to the seedy beach town of Neptune, the tiny and tenacious blonde private eye, my favorite fictional father Keith Mars, and a lot more mysteries, quips, danger, and heartache. It was nice to see these characters one more time, some of them for the last time… but I have a feeling (more like a hope in my heart) that we still have more cases to solve with Veronica and Keith.
7. The Good Place (seasons 3 and 4; NBC) — we got the last few excellent episodes of Season 3 in January, and then the majority of Season 4 this fall. I feel like they spent a lot of time treading water so far in the final season, especially introducing some unlikable new characters near the end, taking time away from the core sextet we have come to know and love. But this smart, sweet, clever, hilarious, hopeful, good-natured show has earned plenty of goodwill from me, and I look forward to the last few episodes when it returns in January 2020. I have no doubt it will stick the landing and give us an unforgettable tearjerker of a finale, while still teaching us college-level philosophy and making us think about becoming better people.
6. Doom Patrol (season 1; DC Universe) — one of two comic book adaptations in my Top Ten, this show is about people with super powers, but instead of gifts or talents, they are presented as disabilities. The Doom Patrol members aren’t heroes by choice, but trauma survivors, broken and damaged people who form a “found family” and deal with existential threats to reality itself. It was a remarkably accurate adaptation of Grant Morrison’s classic Doom Patrol comics of the late ’80s and early ’90s, with excellent production value and fun acting by Diane Guerrero (another pleasant surprise as Crazy Jane, a woman with 64 alternate personalities, each with their own powers), Timothy Dalton, Brendan Fraser (we missed him!), Matt Bomer (this dude should have played Superman), and the always-great Alan Tudyk as one of the most entertaining, most terrifying villains in a long time.
5. Fleabag (season 2; Amazon Prime) — first of all, I really don’t care for British comedy. I often find it either too dry, smug, or mean-spirited. Yes, including that one that you love. But I enjoyed the first season of Fleabag well enough, and really liked the first season of Killing Eve, written by Fleabag’s creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But after Fleabag Season 2 won all these awards and accolades, I gave it a chance here, at the very end of 2019, and binged the all six episodes in one night — the very night I’m writing this Top Ten list. (Luckily they’re only about 25 minutes each.) It was outstanding — streets ahead of the first season. So funny, sad, clever, and cathartic, even ending with a bit of hope. Waller-Bridge is so incredibly talented and funny (she even salvaged the usually execrable Saturday Night Live this season), and I’ll be on board for whatever she does next. Hopefully it will have more asides and knowing looks to the audience.
4. Sherman’s Showcase (season 1; IFC) — this is a high concept comedy, cats and kittens: Sherman’s Showcase (a show within a show) is a loving homage to Soul Train and other musical variety shows, and it has been running continuously since the 1970s, hosted by the mysteriously ageless Sherman McDaniels. The Sherman’s Showcase we watch is a collection of clips highlighting the fake show’s almost 50-year history, featuring hilarious musical homages that stand on their own as great, catchy songs that SLAP (including a weirdly prophetic song called “Time Loop” that might have deeper significance to the narrrative). There are also interview segments, fake commercials, movie and TV parodies, surreal sketches, and plenty of running gags. Co-creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle (who also created the great new Comedy Central sitcom South Side, which made my Top Twenty) are brilliant, drawing their influence from those old Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime specials I have very vague childhood memories of, as well as half a century of popular music and variety shows.
3. Ken Burns’ Country Music (miniseries; PBS) — I doubt this eight-part documentary miniseries will end up on many other “Best TV Shows of 2019” lists, but I loved it. I’ve spent most of my life listening to, playing, and learning everything I could about rock and jazz music, got deep into hip hop later in my life, but made it pretty far without ever giving country, that other major American musical genre, much of a fair chance. There’s so much awful country music, especially now, but to be fair, there is plenty of awful rock and hip hop too — especially now. This documentary took us back to the early 20th Century and introduced me to a lot of the names and songs I’ve heard my whole life, only with more historical context and framework to better appreciate the songwriting, the musicianship, and the evolution of the sounds and styles. I’ve always loved Johnny Cash, but now I’ve embraced Patsy Cline, Hank Williams (not Junior!), the Western swing of Bob Wills, and lots of other twangy crooners, honky tonk angels, and outlaw poets. My favorite decades of country music are the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but even now, there are great modern artists to be discovered, like Margo Price, Orville Peck, and Kacey Musgraves (and that’s not even getting into the virtuoso musicians in folk, bluegrass, and Americana). I feel like I just audited a brilliant college course on country music, and I have more of an appreciation for it than I ever dreamed possible. Plus, the documentary introduced me to this bit of pure sunshine: a young Dolly Parton performing “Mule Skinner Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwc1FkkWulc
Even if you think country music sucks (like I once did, not having been exposed the really cool old stuff), I think this would be awfully hard to not fall in love with.
2. Star Trek: Discovery (season 2; CBS All Access) — I admit it, I’ve never been the biggest Star Trek fan. Sure, Captain Kirk was a cool dude, and William Shatner used to be pretty amusing. And Picard was awesome, but the shows in general left me cold. I wanted to be a Trekkie; I WISHED I was a Trekkie. But now, I finally found the Star Trek that made it all click for me: Discovery. I subscribed to CBS All Access for a month and binge-watched both seasons of Star Trek: Discovery over the course of two weeks. Last year’s Season 1 (co-created by the great Bryan Fuller, the creative genius behind Hannibal) looked gorgeous, with the nicest production value I’ve ever seen on a Star Trek show, and it introduced us to a compelling cast of characters and an interesting status quo, set shortly before the events of the original series from the ’60s. I also appreciated that it was a serialized narrative, which I’m not used to from Star Trek, but perfect in this age of prestige television. This year’s Season 2 was even better, improving on the first season in every way. It introduced my favorite Star Trek captain ever, who is probably my favorite fictional boss of all time. (I am lucky to have a good supervisor now, but I haven’t always had such fantastic bosses. Because of this, I honestly get choked up whenever I see a capable, competent, courageous, patient, kind, loyal, supportive boss in any media.) The show had so many twists and turns, a surprising amount of tension-relieving humor, and so much empathy, heroism, and heart. My wife and I laughed a lot and cried far more than we ever would have expected. In a year full of ups and downs, dizzying highs and terrifying lows, Discovery was the show I had no idea how much I needed.
1. Watchmen (season 1; HBO) — who watches the Watchmen? There was no reason for it to exist. The twelve issue series by legendary writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is often considered the greatest comic book of all time. It already got one adaptation back in 2009, a pretty, but flawed, movie directed by Zack Snyder. While Watchmen really required a long-form TV adaptation on a channel like HBO to do it justice, it didn’t seem necessary, and fans were skeptical. I was skeptical! But I should have had more faith in showrunner Damon Lindelof, co-creator of two of my favorite shows of all time, Lost and The Leftovers. He didn’t give us a straight adaptation of the comic, but an audacious sequel, set 35 years after the events of the graphic novel (which was set in 1985). It ended up a brilliant and ambitious epic about America’s fraught history of racism (starting with the Tulsa massacre of 1921, which I never learned about in school, even as the son of a history teacher), generational trauma, the dangers that come from vigilantism and self-appointed saviors and people wearing masks, and how the sins of our ancestors continue to affect us and threaten the world itself. We caught up with some old faces from the original comic, but our point of view character in this strange alternate 2019 was the unforgettable Sister Night, aka Angela Abar, played by the great Regina King. Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Hong Chau, and Jeremy Irons were also excellent in their roles. This series included the single best TV episode of the year: the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being.” (But don’t you dare watch it out of order!) I was blown away by how good Watchmen turned out to be, defying any and all expectations and truly surprising everyone with what we were going to see on our screens every week. In this age of binge-watching everything, with entire seasons of shows dropping on streaming services at once, Watchmen reminded us of the joy of watching a new episode every week, giving us time to ruminate and analyze and read reviews and craft theories about what the hell is going on. It was a very nice touch to have supplemental readings available every week on the HBO website, fleshing out the world of Watchmen after each episode with additional world-building details. Up above, I mentioned that Star Trek: Discovery was the show I didn’t realize how much I needed. Well, Watchmen was the show I didn’t realize how much I wanted. Ultimately, it edged out Discovery on my list because it was so unpredictable, in the best possible way. If this is the only season we ever get (and it might be), it more than accomplished everything it set out to do, and the ending really satisfied.
And since you made it to the end, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2019.