The TV of 2019 gave me hope for the medium’s future.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s still way, way too much of it (688 series airing in primetime or on a streaming service, by one count). No one person can reasonably hope to watch all of it, and no one person should try.
But in 2019, I felt like TV abruptly remembered what makes TV great, which was a feeling I didn’t have last year. More than any year since Netflix came on the scene in 2013, television was dominated by great shows that were released the old-fashioned way — week to week — and forced us all to watch new episodes more or less together.
Shows like Succession and Watchmen and Stumptown asked viewers to keep coming back, to make the time for them each week. So did two of the biggest TV stories of the year — HBO’s final season of Game of Thrones and Disney+’s Baby Yoda star vehicle The Mandalorian. And audiences obliged. Social media discussion would spike with every new episode, and what ratings data we have suggests each of these shows found an audience.
Were there great binge-watch shows, too? Of course. I would be remiss not to recognize, say, Amazon Prime Video’s Fleabag or Netflix’s Russian Doll. But in 2019, TV felt like TV again, a medium of giant stories that are, nevertheless, made up of smaller stories, and that felt good.
Here are my top 18 shows of 2019, ranked from bottom to top.
18.) Stumptown (ABC)
ABC’s private eye show isn’t perfect. But it stars Cobie Smulders as the scuzzball detective of my dreams, and with each and every episode, it figures out a little more what it’s doing. The central trio of Smulders, Jake Johnson, and Michael Ealy gets both more comfortable and more fraught with sexual tension. And it earns bonus points for treating Smulders’s character’s bisexuality (mostly) matter-of-factly.
17.) True Detective (HBO)
The third season of HBO’s famously uneven anthology series was its best yet, leaping across three separate decades — the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2010s — to tell the story of one man who nearly lost himself by plunging headlong into the investigation of a missing girl. Mahershala Ali was tremendous playing versions of the central character at three distinct ages, and the final few episodes were a powerful evocation of memory and the way trauma haunts us endlessly.
True Detective is available on HBO’s streaming platforms. A fourth season has not yet been announced.
16.) Unbelievable (Netflix)
Netflix’s true-crime miniseries could be hard to stomach, despite Kaitlyn Dever’s deeply committed performance, due to its story about a young girl who was raped, then had her testimony discredited by the police. But it was also a winning cop show, with Merritt Wever and Toni Collette offering a modern riff on the female buddy cop story that was all the more remarkable for having really happened. (And, yes, these first three shows are all variations on the detective show, which had a good year.)
Unbelievable is streaming on Netflix.
15.) The Magicians (Syfy)
The fantasy drama’s controversial fourth season also proved its most thoughtful. The second half of the season comprised a series of smaller gut punches that led right into a massive gut punch of a finale, and all along, it kept asking questions about why we keep putting cis, straight white guys at the center of our power fantasies. The Magicians also aired an unexpectedly poignant musical episode set in a desert, something no other show on this list can boast.
14.) Chernobyl (HBO)
In their five-episode HBO miniseries, writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck turned the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant into a pure horror story, without distorting the record of what actually happened (at least not too much). Jared Harris led a note-perfect cast, and Chernobyl’s evocation of the grim slog that was thanklessly saving the world from nuclear disaster made for a series that never once blinked while staging enough, “How did they do that?” set pieces to make a surprisingly easy binge-watch.
Chernobyl is available on HBO’s streaming platforms.
13.) Pose (FX)
After briefly losing focus during a funeral episode that tried mightily to be the cable drama version of Angels in America, the back half of Pose’s second season was the strongest the series has been, thanks to a genius cast and a warm depiction of queer found families that argued they are perhaps even more important than blood families, simply because they are chosen. The season’s ninth episode, featuring a boozy beach getaway for a group of trans women, was as loose and lovely an hour as TV produced this year.
Pose’s first season is streaming on Netflix; its second season will be added in the new year. A third season has been ordered and will air on FX.
12.) PEN15 (Hulu)
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle co-created (with Sam Zvibleman) this excruciatingly awkward middle school comedy set in 2000. But perhaps even more importantly, the two women — both in their 30s — also play their 13-year-old selves. It absolutely should not work, and yet PEN15 not only doesn’t fall on its face, but thrives. TV is experiencing a bit of a teen TV boom right now, and this is one of the few shows to truly capture the inner lives of adolescents with thoughtful insight.
PEN15 is streaming on Hulu. A second season has been ordered.
11.) Couples Therapy (Showtime)
A reality show about couples therapy could be so very disastrous. A documentary series about couples therapy, though? That has promise. And in the hands of the same folks who made the award-winning documentary Weiner (about the scandal-plagued politician Anthony Weiner), Couples Therapy is a soothing but unflinching weekly dive into the lives of four deeply broken couples, guided by the coolly compelling Dr. Orna Guralnik to confront their core differences and talk through their biggest arguments. This show was perhaps 2019’s strongest argument for TV as a force for good.
Couples Therapy is available on Showtime’s streaming platforms, and the network has renewed the show for season two.
10.) David Makes Man (OWN)
Or maybe 2019’s strongest argument for TV as a force for good was David Makes Man, focused on a black teenage boy growing up in Florida. The series, from Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, alternated between theatrical flights of fancy, depicting David’s visions of the world around him as a kind of dreamscape, and more realistic looks at how horribly underfunded David’s school was and how much poverty had hurt? affected? his neighborhood. Newcomer Akili McDowell is terrific as David, and Phylicia Rashad gives a wonderfully guarded performance as a teacher who wants to help the boy.
A marathon of David Makes Man will air on OWN on New Year’s Day. OWN has ordered a second season.
9.) Mr. Robot (USA)
I know the conventional wisdom is that Mr. Robot made a grand entrance in a fun first season, then choked on its own hype. But both its third season (which aired in 2017) and this year’s fourth and final season have provided fascinating looks at what happens when capitalism creates division and dissension among people who might otherwise connect. The final season has been a wildly entertaining, throw-everything-at-the-wall sequence of events, which resolved Mr. Robot’s main conflict with several episodes still to go, delivered a silent episode and a stage play homage episode, and concluded with a trip to an alternate universe. It was truly unique.
8.) Better Things (FX)
The wondrous third season of Pamela Adlon’s meditation on womanhood at middle age saw the show’s storytelling grow more serialized, with fully developed arcs involving Samantha Fox (Adlon) and all three of her daughters, as well as most of the other important people in their lives. And despite Better Things’s focus on biological family, it’s also very wise about chosen families — about the way that people with similar spirits are drawn to one another, while blood relations we don’t quite fit with become almost like ghosts. The show remains one of TV’s hidden treasures.
7.) Barry (HBO)
Bill Hader’s work as a hitman who really wants to be an actor reached new heights in the show’s second season, as Barry himself reached new depths. Several sequences in which the character channeled his rage into his performances — but never quite figured out how to effectively temper that rage so as not to terrify the audience — made for some of the best TV acting of the year. But, really, Barry might have TV’s best ensemble cast, from top to bottom, and the show’s blend of over-the-top humor with genuine pathos and a fair dose of bloodletting is one of TV’s most unpredictable mixes.
Barry’s first two seasons are available on HBO’s streaming platforms, and HBO has renewed the show for season three.
6.) Lodge 49 (AMC)
2019’s most unfortunate cancellation was this AMC drama about wastrels drawn together by a fraternal order that just might have been sitting on real magic — or maybe just a vague approximation of magic. The second season brought all of the characters together in a quest to find meaning amid the ruins of both capitalism and their personal lives, continuing the series’s celebration of friendship and human connection in a world that seems intent on splitting everybody apart. Plus, it had one of the TV year’s most inspired guest turns, from Paul Giamatti as a rapscallion of a crime novelist with an immense appetite for life.
Lodge 49’s only two seasons will eventually both stream on Hulu. For now, just season one is available there.
5.) Fosse/Verdon (FX)
FX’s eight-episode biographical miniseries was an okay biography of legendary Broadway choreographer and director Bob Fosse; an excellent biography of Gwen Verdon, the muse Fosse ground down into a fine dust; and a transcendent biography of Fosse/Verdon, the unusual alchemy that developed between them. The show was criticized for the way it seemed too willing to celebrate the controversial Fosse (a rampant sexual harasser who endlessly propositioned women he worked with, mistreating them if they said no), but those critiques missed the way the miniseries’s ingenious structure doubled back in on itself to reveal the rot within Fosse and the instability of any partnership founded atop such decay.
Fosse/Verdon is available on Hulu.
4.) Russian Doll (Netflix)
Building a TV show around a time loop is such a natural fit for a medium where every single episode resets to a status quo that it’s a wonder no one has ever done it quite as well as Russian Doll, a brilliant dark comedy co-created by star Natasha Lyonne, director Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. You might come to the show for the story of a woman (Lyonne) who just keeps dying and then being resurrected again on the night of her birthday party. But you’ll stay for the show’s crackerjack plotting and the way that Headland and the show’s other directors depict the time loop’s decay with each new iteration, as things falling apart, people disappear, flowers wither. Lyonne’s performance is excellent, too, all bruised soulfulness and hard-won hope.
Russian Doll’s first season is streaming on Netflix, and the show has been renewed for season two.
3.) Succession (HBO)
The top three shows on this list almost ended up in a three-way tie for first place, as I seriously considered all three the show of the year at one time or another. Succession transcended its already excellent “operatic soap about horrible rich people” roots in its second season, leaning more heavily into both comedy and tragedy. It was frequently the funniest show on television — I don’t think I laughed more at any line of dialogue this year than when a disgusted senator read, “You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking a few Greggs” — but it was also full of crushing sadness and horror, as Succession made very clear that its characters all live in the shadow of patriarch Logan Roy’s tyrannical abuse. Few shows have so artfully captured how it feels to live in a world where the ruling class seems intent on driving us straight off a cliff.
Succession is available on HBO’s streaming platforms. HBO has renewed the show for season three.
2.) Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video)
Fleabag season two was very nearly perfect. Phoebe Waller-Bridge followed up the show’s already great first season with one that was somehow more accessible yet still had Fleabag’s dark edge. Fleabag herself (Waller-Bridge) had softened a bit between seasons, but her quest for self-improvement hadn’t yielded much in the way of happiness or fulfillment. Then she met a priest — a Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) — and the series kicked off six brilliantly conceived and structured episodes that flirted with and subverted romantic comedy tropes before revealing that the show’s real subject wasn’t love, but the remarkable power of knowing that somebody sees you for who you truly are.
Fleabag is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s probably over for good, but you never know.
1.) Watchmen (HBO)
TV’s wildest ride in 2019 was HBO’s fanfic reinterpretation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s landmark 1986 comic. For its move to TV, Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof rearranged the comic’s bones around an entirely new story that still resonated and intersected with the old one. Beloved characters from the comic — Laurie Blake! Adrian Veidt! — dropped in as 30-years-older versions of themselves, but Watchmen’s real trick was inventing an entire supporting cast of folks from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who could stand toe-to-toe with the legends.
The season’s dominant theme was race in America, a dangerous minefield for a white showrunner and an especially dangerous one for a genre series that combined depictions of historical race massacres with a superhero whose power involved being able to slip and slide on the ground. But the show’s absurdist streak and its love of superhero goofiness allowed it to create a rich reflection on the many horrors wrought by white Americans on nonwhite Americans, and especially on black Americans. Its most memorable episode retconned the rise of superheroism itself to be something white folks appropriated from one black hero, and its ultimate subject was the way that white supremacy is a cancerous growth on society that is extremely tough to kill.
There were more flawless shows than Watchmen in 2019. There might even have been better shows than Watchmen in 2019. But there was no show I felt more evangelical about this year than Watchmen, no show I pressed as fervently on other people. It was a grand, messy, messed-up TV experiment, and it left me as excited by the possibilities of the medium as anything I’ve seen this decade. It ended perfectly, and I never wanted it to end.
Watchmen is available on HBO’s streaming platforms. The network hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to order a second season.
11 honorable mentions
I flirted with including all of these shows on the list at one point or another, so it’s only fair that they get a shoutout, too.
- Dickinson (AppleTV+) was the kind of teen comedy that felt like it was designed less for teens and more for former English majors in their 30s, but you know what? It was pretty perfect at being just that.
- Evil (CBS) took the creators of The Good Wife from the courtroom to the horror genre, putting a weirdo modern spin on The X-Files by daring to suggest that maybe it’s demons who’ve made the world as bad as it is.
- Girl Meets Farm (Food Network) is my favorite comfort food show of the moment. Host Molly Yeh’s Midwestern folksiness conceals a winking deadpan that makes her one of food TV’s most engaging personalities.
- I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix) was as hit-and-miss as all sketch comedy shows, but when it hit, it left me in stitches.
- One Day at a Time (Netflix) wasn’t as strong in its third season as it had been previously, but it remained TV’s warmest and most watchable family comedy, with an ensemble cast operating at the peak of its powers.
- Ramy (Hulu) featured a rich, empathetic portrayal of Muslims living in America, from the devout to those whose faith has all but faded away. Its look back at the characters’ lives before and after 9/11 was one of the best TV episodes of the year.
- Superstore (NBC) followed up a barn-burner of a fourth season with a fifth season that deflated just a little, but when the show is on its game, there are few comedies more pointed or funny.
- Undone (Amazon Prime Video) didn’t entirely convince me it knew what it was talking about when it came to mental illness, but its story of a young woman who starts seeing her father’s ghost — and learns she can time travel — looked like nothing else on TV.
- Vida (Starz) is one of TV’s sexiest shows and one of the only shows that’s trying to talk about how gentrification is changing historically significant neighborhoods where people of color have traditionally lived. Maybe an acquired taste, but a vital one.
- When They See Us (Netflix) had the slight air of “eat your vegetables” TV in its first couple episodes, but its methodical portrayal of the systematic failure of the falsely convicted Central Park Five built and built to a thunderous roar against racism in America.
- You’re the Worst (FXX) wrapped just about perfectly, with a series finale that twisted itself into timeline pretzels to tell the story of its central couple’s wedding — and then to peek beyond that happy day. The show was TV’s most unconventional romantic comedy, and its conclusion a potent reminder of what made it so good.