Four months into 2019, we unexpectedly and somewhat inexplicably stumbled upon the TV trend of the year: ultra-short comedy series on streaming services, designed to be consumed in a single afternoon or less.
In retrospect, February’s Russian Doll (Netflix) and PEN15 (Hulu) were harbingers of this trend, which continued in March with Shrill (Hulu).
But April was where it saw its fullest flowering, with Netflix debuting Special and I Think You Should Leave, two terrific, funny series whose first seasons can be watched in their entirety in a little under two hours, and Hulu debuting Ramy, which is closer to five hours but helps mark the streaming platform as one of the most exciting forces in TV comedy right now.
There was plenty of other stuff spread across the month, too — April is when many of TV’s serious awards contenders come out to play, in order to finish airing before the May 31 Emmys deadline. (Perhaps you’ve heard some chatter about a little show called Game of Thrones, for example?) But when we look back at April 2019, it’s going to be Special, I Think You Should Leave, and Ramy that we keep returning to.
And those three comedies are in good company: Here are our five favorite new shows of April 2019, six other new shows we really liked, and six returning shows worth checking out. (Yes, we included Game of Thrones. No, you probably didn’t need the reminder.)
Fosse/Verdon is a mesmerizing show about the destructive codependency of a showbiz marriage
Here’s an excerpt from my earlier, 4.5-star review of the new FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon, which tells the true story of the tumultuous relationship between Broadway legends Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams):
I loved Fosse/Verdon, but the miniseries is either a masterpiece or an utter disaster, and I’m not sure how much room there is between the two in this case. The show it reminded me most of was The Americans, not just because that show’s co-showrunner, Joel Fields, is involved in this project, and not just because a handful of its writers are writing on this, too. No, both series are about the impossibility of those inside of a marriage to understand each other and those outside of it to understand the couple as a unit. And they’re both about how easy it is to use toxicity as a crutch.
But The Americans’ central spies were fictional, even if some of the things they did “really happened.” Multi-award-winning director and choreographer Bob Fosse and his longtime estranged wife, the actress and dancer Gwen Verdon, really did exist, and if we gain something from trying to understand how he was such an asshole, or what kept drawing her to him, etc., we still have to factor in that all of this happened to real people, many of whom are still alive.
But remember how I said this might be a masterpiece? I meant it. Because if Fosse/Verdon isn’t quite the excoriating biography of Fosse or the retroactively celebratory biography of Verdon anyone might have expected or dreamed of, it is a deeply fascinating portrait of Fosse/Verdon, a third person formed out of the two of them, who has shaped our modern world.
Watch Fosse/Verdon if you like: Broadway, The Americans, Mad Men
Where to watch: New episodes of Fosse/Verdon air Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX. Previous episodes are available on the network’s streaming platforms. —Todd VanDerWerff
Gentleman Jack is the latest series from one of the most incisive TV writers around
Much of the discussion around HBO’s new BBC co-production Gentleman Jack (I’ve seen four of eight episodes) has focused on how it’s a one-show assault on the usual period drama gender binary. The series is based on a real woman, Anne Lister, who decided she might as well wed her way into high society — by marrying a well-positioned woman. And as played by Suranne Jones, Lister has a carefully curated swagger, the kind of masculine energy few women are allowed to have on television in 2019. Imagine how this threw people in the 1830s!
But Gentleman Jack also marks the return to television of Sally Wainwright, one of the best TV writers in the world at capturing the complexities of human relationships, especially in insular communities like small towns. Her critically acclaimed Happy Valley, which aired on Netflix in the US, was a terrific example of the British mystery format, and while her exploration of late-in-life romance, Last Tango in Halifax (a PBS show here), is a bit cloying, it’s hard to hold that against such a sweet show.
Hopefully, Gentleman Jack will bring her work to a wider audience. The show is not always perfect — it overrelies slightly on Lister saying something cutting or audacious to put a button on a scene. But in its portrayal of the lives of LGBTQ people in the sorts of period drama pasts typically only afforded to those who are heterosexual and cisgender, it offers something rich and swooning and romantic. —TV
Watch Gentleman Jack if you like: Downton Abbey (this one’s a gimme), Masterpiece Theatre (also a gimme), Billions
Where to watch: New episodes of Gentleman Jack air Mondays at 10 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO’s streaming platforms.
I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson is absurdist comedy at its finest
Created by and starring former Saturday Night Live featured player turned writer Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave is a sketch series that zips back and forth between bizarre commercial parodies that end up in completely different places than where they began; satirical takes on social media that turn aggressively and hilariously toward the surreal; and, at the show’s best, subversive and unpredictable spins on mundane situations like birthday parties and business meetings.
That may sound superficially similar to Saturday Night Live. Be forewarned: I Think You Should Leave is like a SNL that plays exclusively in a very funny version of hell, where exploring your madness is both allowed and encouraged. Robinson’s sketches stay fully committed to their core conceits, following them to outrageously weird places. And then, when you’re at a loss for where the joke can even go next, Robinson tosses to something else. It works like a charm every time. —Allegra Frank
Watch I Think You Should Leave if you like: Kroll Show; Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; the in-studio character bits on Late Night With Seth Meyers (you’ll see some familiar faces from Late Night on I Think You Should Leave)
Where to watch: All six episodes of I Think You Should Leave are streaming on Netflix.
Ramy is one of the best shows of the year
Quietly and sneakily, Hulu — which was previously best known for its dramas — has launched three comedies in 2019 that just might land on my end-of-year list. February’s PEN15 was a perfect blast of adolescent angst. March’s Shrill was a sharp adaptation of Lindy West’s book about being a plus-size woman in America.
And now comes the poignant, engrossing Ramy. I’ve seen six of 10 episodes, and I’m parceling out the rest because I don’t quite want it to be over.
Broadly speaking, Ramy is similar to shows like Atlanta and Master of None. It centers on a young Muslim American man living in New Jersey, played by comedian Ramy Youssef (who also co-created the show). It’s funny, certainly, because Youssef is effortlessly funny. But it doesn’t mind not being funny in moments where the best thing it can do is drop the jokes for a while to explore another character’s perspective or examine its main character’s flaws and shortcomings.
Yet Ramy is never self-serious. It’s interested in the divide between its characters’ faith and the world at large — between the religion Ramy grew up in and the secular country that offers so many reasons to leave that religion behind. It’s the rare series that seriously considers the perspectives of believers, nonbelievers, and those who are questioning their faith, and it’s terrifically thoughtful about the strained relationships between parents and children too.
It’s some of the best television of the year. —TV
Watch Ramy if you like: Master of None, Atlanta, The Sopranos (and for more than the New Jersey of it all — The Sopranos was fascinated by faith too ... but also, yes, for the New Jersey of it all)
Where to watch: All 10 episodes of Ramy season one are streaming on Hulu.
Warrior is wild action TV fun from the creator of Banshee
From 2013 to 2016, the late, great Cinemax series Banshee transported the principles of action movies — from last-minute escapes to brutal fights to brawny knowhow — to otherwise quiet Amish country. The show’s four-season run is one of those slightly underrated works that I’m always happy to turn people on to, simply because it’s such a wild, weird time.
And now Banshee creator Jonathan Tropper has returned to the idea of deploying action movie tropes within small, insular communities that aren’t often depicted on TV with his new Cinemax series Warrior, co-created with director Justin Lin. (I’ve seen three episodes so far.) This time, the action takes place in San Francisco in the 1870s, when Chinese immigrants were arriving on American shores in significant numbers, and organized crime came too.
At its core, Warrior is a martial arts epic, with star Andrew Koji playing Ah Sahm, a Chinese man who travels to San Francisco to find his missing sister and quickly gets drawn into a gang war. But its combination of brutally entertaining fight scenes and the alienation of the immigrant experience adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. This show is still figuring itself out, but it’s doing so many interesting things along the way that I’m more than happy to enjoy the ride. —TV
Watch Warrior if you like: Into the Badlands, Banshee, Peaky Blinders
Where to watch: New episodes of Warrior air Fridays at 10 pm on Cinemax. Previous episodes are available on Cinemax’s streaming platforms. (Helpful hint: If you have HBO, you probably have Cinemax!)
6 more new shows worth checking out
There’s lots and lots and lots of television out there! Here are six more new shows that debuted in April and are worth your time on one level or another.
- Okay, maybe Bless This Mess (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30 pm Eastern) isn’t a great show just yet. But its tale of two urbanites (Dax Shepard and Lake Bell) who find themselves taking over a farm is perfectly anodyne network comedy fun. Here’s hoping it gets just a little weirder in future episodes.
- Do you hear the people sing? Not on Les Misérables (PBS, Sundays at 9 pm Eastern, though check your local listings), which is a straightforward adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel and not a musical. But with that caveat aside, this is a sumptuous, handsomely produced miniseries that will serve perfectly well for students trying not to read the book for decades to come.
- Our Planet (streaming on Netflix) is depressing, as it’s perhaps the first major nature documentary series in which every episode offers ample evidence of how climate change is wreaking havoc on animals’ habitats. But the series was made by the folks who made Planet Earth and is, thus, gorgeous enough to maybe spur action when it comes to saving the planet.
- Reconstruction (PBS, now streaming) is a terrific four-hour documentary on the legacy of the post-Civil War period, when the North tried and failed to remake the South to minimize the influence of slavery. Perhaps no other era still looms as large over American history — while being as poorly understood — as Reconstruction. This film is a great starting point to learn more.
- It only takes about two hours to watch Special (streaming on Netflix) in its entirety, with eight short-form episodes comprising a warm and funny story of a young gay man with mild cerebral palsy who decides to just go after the life of his dreams. It honestly might have been better served by slightly padded running times (some of the story beats are a bit rushed), but the characters are all perfectly observed.
- The Twilight Zone (streaming on CBS All Access, new episodes on Thursdays) isn’t yet to the level of Rod Serling’s original — what could be? — but its episodes have had more hits than misses, though the misses are ... pretty miss-tastic. Still, the best episodes of this show perfectly capture the chilly paranoia of the beloved sci-fi anthology.
And 6 returning shows worth checking out
That’s right, there’s even more television that deserves your attention. These six returning series — including a certain show featuring some dragons — are all worth having on your docket.
- Looking for a good old-fashioned cop show? Bosch (streaming on Amazon Video) is probably the best cop show going at the moment, offering solid, sturdy crime-solving, compelling characters, and five seasons’ worth of great Los Angeles locations.
- Looking for a ribald comedy with a heart hidden somewhere within it? Brockmire (IFC, Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern) is wonderfully dark and strange, and it boasts an amazing performance from Hank Azaria as a washed-up baseball announcer. The show just started season three.
- I (Todd) genuinely had no idea that The Chi (Showtime, Sundays at 10 pm Eastern) had returned for its second season until I started working on this article. But I really loved season one, so hopefully season two is just as good.
- Looking for Game of Thrones? Well, Game of Thrones (HBO, Sundays at 9 pm Eastern) is back and probably needs no introduction at this point in time. The eighth and final season is airing now, and maybe you want to watch it? Up to you, of course!
- Looking for what could be the next Game of Thrones — a.k.a. the TV show we all get obsessed with for a few years? Consider Killing Eve (AMC/BBC America, Sundays at 9 pm Eastern), a twisty, fun tale of lady assassins and the other ladies who maybe kinda love them, anchored by amazing performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. The show just started season two.
- And if you’re not looking for any of those, you’re probably looking for Legends of Tomorrow (The CW, Mondays at 8 pm Eastern), which is maybe the wildest show on TV, in ways that are difficult to describe in a short blurb. (Suffice to say, a gorilla once tried to kill Barack Obama on this show.) It just returned to finish out its fourth season.
And guess what? The 2018–’19 TV season is almost over, and May will see a ton of streaming series debuting just in time to qualify for the Emmys. So get ready for that onslaught!