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The 5 best TV debuts of February 2019

Russian Doll, PEN15, and 3 other TV shows that you’ve just gotta see.

Better Things, Russian Doll, PEN15
Better Things, Russian Doll, and PEN15 are among the best shows of February.
FX, Netflix, Hulu
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

2019 is but two months old, and it’s already looking like a more promising TV year than 2018, thanks to a combination of fun new shows and returning favorites.

So we’ve gone and ahead and made a short list of our favorite debuts of the month, just like we did in January, with a focus on shows that flew a little under-the-radar in this age when it’s increasingly easy to just turn on your favorite streaming service and let it suggest whatever it wants. (But, okay, you’ll also find that we’ve included the wildly praised, much beloved Russian Doll. We’re not made of stone.)

And where the shows we recommended in January were mostly on cable, this month’s picks include several shows you can stream in full right now.

We’ll keep recommending new shows each month for the rest of the year — and hopefully something will pop up on one of these lists that you’ll end up enjoying.

With that in mind, here are our five favorite TV debuts of February 2019, including three new shows and two returning ones.

FX’s Better Things is even better in season 3

I enjoyed few TV shows as much as I enjoyed Better Things in its second season, which aired back in 2017. I wrote glowing, beautiful things about it. And then, right as season two was ending, its co-creator and co-writer Louis C.K. confessed to having masturbated in front of women who did not want him to do so, after the New York Times revealed his misconduct.

It almost didn’t matter that Better Things is the brainchild of star Pamela Adlon (who also directed every episode in seasons two and three). The scandal threatened to swallow the show whole. C.K. was fired from the show (and FX in general), and Adlon has talked about how she was shaken by the whole experience.

And it really stinks that I more or less have to recount the whole ordeal here, because season three is as good as the show has ever been — even better, really. The season’s first half (I’ve seen eight episodes of an eventual 13) involve Sam Fox, Adlon’s character, confronting the many ways that society doesn’t have as much room for aging women as it does aging men. She’s turning 50, and her oldest daughter, Max, is off to college in Chicago. So she’s thinking about these things.

But Better Things is always loose and freewheeling in the best possible way. The characters are funny, but the show never forces laugh lines, and when Sam and Max have a lengthy discussion about whether it’s better to get the best room or the best bed in a college dorm, it feels both amusing and lived in.

Add to that Sam’s other two kids — middle daughter, Frankie, who is testing the boundaries of her teenagerhood, and youngest daughter, Duke, who is seeing ghosts — to say nothing of Sam’s increasingly absent-minded mother, Phil, and you have a recipe for an over-scheduled sitcom mom who never quite becomes her most cliché self.

Better Things is also slightly more serialized this season, as the show follows Max’s adventures in Chicago and the specters of both Sam’s father and estranged ex-husband keep popping up. And Adlon’s direction, always terrific, offers a breezy, sun-dappled view of the family’s hometown of Los Angeles that never feels sentimental or cynical. This is a wonderful show, and TV is lucky for how thoroughly Adlon has overcome the awful circumstances she had to deal with to make the show even better.

Watch Better Things if you like: Enlightened, Murphy Brown, You’re the Worst

Where to watch: Better Things season three debuts Thursday, February 28 at 10 pm Eastern on FX. The previous two seasons are available on Hulu.

TBS’s Miracle Workers is the kind of weirdly out-there show TV could use more of

There are times when Miracle Workers, a new limited series comedy on TBS, feels a little like those Twitter threads where God designs animals and the angels react in horror — but, y’know, as a workplace comedy. And then there are times when the show captures some of the loopy, bittersweet vibe of creator Simon Rich’s previous series, the three-season FXX sketch rom-com Man Seeking Woman.

Rich’s work occupies a weird in-between space in the comedy world, where his shows fit comfortably into neither the world of sketch comedy, nor the world of traditional sitcoms. The best way I can describe his shows is that they subscribe to the tenets of magic realism and traditional sitcoms equally.

Hence, Miracle Workers can be set in heaven, among the angels who grumble about their boss (God), while also having some of the vibe of The Office or Superstore. Whenever Rich wants to leave reality behind for something utterly bizarre, he can. But he can also take a turn into romantic realism (in the sense of storytelling that wears its heart on its sleeve; not in the sense of everybody kissing all the time).

He’s bolstered by a terrific cast that includes an incredibly game Daniel Radcliffe, who finds laughs even in lines that aren’t explicitly jokes; Steve Buscemi as a bumbling, kinda bored God, who maybe can’t read when you come right down to it; and a terrific breakout performance from young actress Geraldine Viswanathan. Miracle Workers takes a little while to get going, and it never quite escapes the feeling that its parts are greater than its whole, but the parts are a lot of fun.

Watch Miracle Workers if you like: The Good Place, 30 Rock, Fargo

Where to watch: Miracle Workers airs Tuesdays at 10:30 pm Eastern on TBS. Previous episodes are available on the network’s website.

In season 3, Netflix’s One Day at a Time is still one of TV’s freshest, funniest sitcoms

Here’s an excerpt from my earlier, four-and-a-half-star review of the third season of One Day At a Time, Netflix’s warm, traditional sitcom about a single mom and her family:

I always feel like I’m selling One Day at a Time short, because it’s so easy to talk about it in terms of how beautifully crafted it is, or in terms of the serious topics it tackles, or in terms of just how much it might move you or make you cry. It is a very funny show, one of TV’s funniest in fact, if only because nobody is as good at wringing every ounce of laughter out of a joke as this cast.

But mostly I feel like I sell the show short when I try to recommend it because I just love it that much. As I started watching season three, even when a joke didn’t land or a storytelling choice didn’t quite pay off, I felt a little like I was welcoming an old friend back. It’s impossible to say whether anybody but me watches this show, thanks to Netflix’s obfuscation of its own numbers, but if you haven’t, yet, it’s time to start. One Day at a Time is a TV treasure, and it would be a shame to see it go away. You wouldn’t take my friends from me, would you?

Watch One Day at a Time if you like: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mom, This Is Us

Where to watch: All three seasons of One Day at a Time are streaming on Netflix, and if you watch them, I’ll come over and bake you brownies, because you need to see this show!

Hulu’s PEN15 is the teenage cringe-com that will remind you of just how awkward adolescence can truly be

Here’s an excerpt from Alex Abad-Santos’s four-star review of PEN15, Hulu’s coming-of-age comedy about two 13-year-old girls in the year 2000 — who are played by the show’s creators, who are in their 30s:

PEN15’s reluctance to turn its characters’ behavior into a teachable moment might be more honest than most shows want to admit: Kids don’t always learn lessons, some of those kids end up being adult jerks (they have to come from somewhere, right?), and kids who are bullied may never get the respect they deserve.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain any hope. PEN15 acknowledges that middle school is indeed a special type of hell, but it also understands that if we were lucky, we had someone like Anna or Maya to get through it with.

Watch PEN15 if you like: My So-Called Life, basically anything on YouTube, Parks & Recreation

Where to watch: PEN15’s first season is streaming on Hulu.

Netflix’s Russian Doll is so good. So, so, so, so good.

Here’s an excerpt from my five-star review of Russian Doll, Netflix’s ingenious dramedy about a woman who can’t seem to escape her birthday party:

Natasha Lyonne is one of my favorite actors. That’s one of my few shareable reactions to the new Netflix comedy Russian Doll, because the less you know about this terrific new series, the better. So let me just assure you that Lyonne is the star, she gets to showcase her considerable range, and her gift for wildly unconventional line readings is on full display. The series is probably too weird to win a bunch of Emmys, but God willing, Lyonne will be nominated. She’s so good.

But she does more than just play the central role of Nadia, a woman who becomes trapped by most unusual circumstances, then works to figure a way out of them. Lyonne also co-created Russian Doll and wrote many of its episodes. And she directed the season finale. If you’ve been looking for an incredibly efficient Natasha Lyonne delivery vehicle (and I have) — this is the series for you!

Watch Russian Doll if you like: The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, Veep

Where to watch: Russian Doll’s eight-episode first season is streaming on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it by now, for God’s sake, what are you waiting for?

Five other shows worth sampling ...

While the five shows above are my top priorities from February’s TV debuts, you might also consider checking out the five shows below to see if they’re to your liking.

  • At Home with Amy Sedaris (truTV, Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern) is a truly wacky, endlessly inventive series that simultaneously parodies DIY Martha Stewart types and builds an entire universe around the fictional show within a show, also called At Home with Amy Sedaris. It has shades of the ’70s soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
  • I never saw the movie that Boomerang (BET, Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern) is based on, so I fear I’m missing something in this romantic drama that is kinda-sorta a sequel to the original film and also kinda-sorta a remix of it. But the story of a would-be Lothario who discovers that his new female boss is even more of a player than he is offers sassy, sexy fun, even for those of us unfamiliar with the source material.
  • It’s hard to believe that Documentary Now (IFC, Wednesdays at 11 pm Eastern) even exists, much less that it’s now in its third season. But if you fall into the show’s incredible niche audience — namely, people who’ve been crying out for an anthology series that makes very specific fun of very specific documentaries — boy, are you gonna love it as much as I do.
  • Doom Patrol (streaming on DC Universe) hasn’t convinced me to subscribe to its streaming service based on the two episodes sent to critics, but I enjoy its agreeably cracked vision of a team of superheroes with very strange powers. Plus, the cast (which includes Brendan Fraser and Matt Bomer!) is excellent.
  • Finally, if you just need a show to watch while you fold laundry, Whiskey Cavalier (ABC, Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern) is one of the best laundry-folding shows to debut in quite some time. It involves two people with sexual chemistry they won’t act on for several seasons, spy missions, and sexy complications. What’s not to like?!

And don’t look now, but March is right around the corner, bringing with it everything from the return of The Good Fight to a terrific new series based on the Lindy West book Shrill. To television!

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