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The 5 best TV shows of May 2019

From Chernobyl to Fleabag, these are the shows that made one of TV’s busiest months great.

Tuca & Bertie, Chernobyl, Fleabag
Want to watch a great TV show? Check out Tuca & Bertie, Chernobyl, or Fleabag.
Netflix, HBO, Amazon Video
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.

The month of May frequently becomes a headlong rush of streaming TV, as many shows scramble to debut by May 31 — the cutoff date to qualify for the Emmys in the fall. As a result, the end of the month often becomes a glut of bingeable television. (March and April bring a similar rush on cable, where networks still tend to roll out one episode per week.)

In May 2019 alone, we’ve had major awards hopefuls debut on Amazon (including Fleabag and Good Omens), Netflix (including Dead to Me and When You See Me), and Hulu (Catch-22). Will any of these shows bear fruit? Maybe! The modern Emmy race is largely decided by how much money networks invest in their frontrunners’ campaigns — thus ensuring visibility among voters in this era of endless content — and Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are all very well funded.

But what about quality? Are any of these shows something you actually want to watch? The divide between what’s worthwhile and what’s not is surprisingly vast.

So we here at Vox have combed through May’s many, many releases to find the five must-watches from the month, as well as seven other shows to consider. (And if you’re still looking for more, also check out our lists for the months of January, February, March, and April.)

On with the show(s)!

Chernobyl turns a real-life disaster into a haunting meditation on bureaucratic dishonesty

HBO’s Chernobyl, a five-episode miniseries produced in conjunction with the UK’s Sky Atlantic, is grim business, in the same way that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and AMC’s The Terror are grim. It begins with a man hanging himself, then jumps backward in time two years, to show the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what was then still the Soviet Union. The first episode ends with children laughing and playing, oblivious to the songbird that just dropped dead at their feet, a victim of the toxic radiation spewing into the atmosphere.

Chernobyl is also extremely dense. Much of the dialogue is exposition, and there are long scenes where characters just explain nuclear physics to one another. These explanations are always clear, and the stakes involved — if things get worse, they could endanger an entire hemisphere — make the exposition compelling. But you’re still watching a lot of people speak in hushed voices over diagrams of nuclear power plants. The series doesn’t make any real attempt to inject false drama for escapist purposes. It doesn’t need to.

And yet Chernobyl never feels oppressive. The scripts by Craig Mazin are detailed and thoughtful, the direction by Johan Renck is admirably restrained, and the performances (particularly from lead Jared Harris) are stolid and stoic, in a way that seems to capture “the real” Soviet Union.

Most notably, Chernobyl doesn’t feel like a polemic against nuclear power, or Communism, or Soviet Russia more generally. Instead, it focuses on the danger of what happens when a self-serving lie enters a bureaucracy and worms its way through the chain of command. What happened at Chernobyl was bad. But so many of the deaths it caused happened because various authority figures refused to believe it was bad. The fact that it didn’t get even worse is testament to the bravery of those who stopped the disaster in its tracks, and to how hard they had to work to combat the bureaucracy’s lies in the first place.

Beyond grimness, Chernobyl has something else in common with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Terror: It tells a story about our world by telling a story about a completely different time and place. Systems are only as good as the information put into them, the series argues. Be wary of any system built atop self-serving lies. And be skeptical of any story you’re told that insists it is the whole truth.

Watch Chernobyl if you like: In addition to the aforementioned Handmaid’s Tale and The Terror, you’ll probably like Chernobyl if you like any BBC or Danish crime dramas, which have a similarly dark and moody vibe.

Where to watch: New episodes of Chernobyl air Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. The finale airs Monday, June 3. Previous episodes are available on HBO’s streaming platforms.

Fleabag season 2 might be the best TV show of the year

Here’s an excerpt from my five-star review of Fleabag season two, which recently debuted on Amazon Video:

Here’s the problem with talking about Fleabag: A lot of what makes it work stems from the audacity of its presentation, from the sheer skill with which Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who wrote every episode and stars as Fleabag) flits between Fleabag in her reality and Fleabag looking through the camera and into ours. But that presentation is hard to convey in words.

“She looks at the camera sometimes” doesn’t seem that impressive by itself because lots of movie and TV characters are well aware of the camera in their midst. (The obvious, kind of terrible example is Frank Underwood from House of Cards.) The brazen theatricality of this idea is so easy to overdo if all involved aren’t very careful about it.

Watching her work is a basic reason to check out Fleabag: Waller-Bridge’s skill at playing with the relationship between Fleabag and viewers is notable on a sheer level of being a virtuoso performance by an actor at the top of her game. The character is constantly aware of two levels of reality — the characters she’s hanging out with as well as all of us in the audience — and Waller-Bridge plays this awareness a little like Fleabag is constantly distracted by something, like we’re the phone screen she can’t quite look away from, even though she’s talking to somebody else.

Watch Fleabag if you like: Killing Eve, stage plays, My So-Called Life

Where to watch: Both seasons of Fleabag (which Waller-Bridge has said will not continue past season two) are available on Amazon Video.

State of the Union is an argument for why less is often more on TV

State of the Union, a new 10-episode miniseries from Sundance (both the TV channel and the Sundance Now streaming app), is part of the year’s most notable TV trend: leaning into the idea that less is more.

At first blush, “10-episode miniseries” doesn’t really sound like “less.” But then you learn that each of those 10 episodes is just 10 minutes long, so the entire series’ is only about half the length of something like Avengers: Endgame. Its two leads are genuine movie stars — Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd — and it boasts a fresh and witty script from the novelist Nick Hornby. Even 10 years ago, State of the Union might have been an Oscar contender movie. But in this new era of boutique TV, it’s something else entirely.

What makes it feel like a TV project and not a movie arbitrarily cut into pieces is how episodic its story beats and structure are. Each and every episode encompasses the minutes immediately leading up to a marriage counseling session that the main characters are attending, in hopes of salvaging a broken relationship. They talk and argue and flirt and fight. They drink many, many pints in a nearby pub. And we start to get the sense that these moments they spend together before counseling are maybe helping them more than the counseling is.

Ultimately, 100 minutes of television encompasses many weeks of “real” time. And in that time, we see the couple’s relationship grow and change and wither and replenish itself. TV has made many attempts over the years to do story arcs about couples attending counseling, but State of the Union may be the first series that actually shows how the hard work of trying to fix your relationship can bear fruit in other parts of your life — or not.

State of the Union is slight enough that you might be tempted to pass it by when looking for something to watch (and, like, do you even have Sundance Now?). But it’s worthy a look, and if you’ve only got an afternoon, there are few better options.

Watch State of the Union if you like: thirtysomething, In Treatment, The Americans

Where to watch: State of the Union is streaming in its entirety on Sundance’s website and the Sundance Now streaming service.

Tuca & Bertie is the latest spin on the inner lives of cartoon animals from the BoJack Horseman folks

Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie is a delightful look at the lives of 30-something bird women, with terrific performances from Tiffany Hadish and Ali Wong. Pilot Viruet had this to say, in their four-star review for Vox:

There’s a sense of chaotic energy that runs throughout Tuca & Bertie, Netflix’s newest adult animated series. It’s a welcoming and specific sort of chaos, the kind that only feels possible in a sitcom about two 30-something “bird women” who live in a world populated by subways made of caterpillars, topless anthropomorphic plants, and dancing STDs; and where a woman’s breast (just one!), fed up with workplace sexual harassment, can pop right off and stomp away to get a drink.

That’s the world created by Lisa Hanawalt, best known for her indispensable work as a production designer and producer on BoJack Horseman. To get it out of the way: Yes, Tuca & Bertie will immediately be lumped in with BoJack Horseman, thanks to its anthropomorphic animal characters and Hanawalt’s distinctive style. But it’s also an unfair comparison because the two series are markedly different.

Tuca & Bertie is much lighter and more fantastical, and exists in a bizarre and surrealistic universe that leaps off the screen with near-tangible fun. It is more about the years between Broad City and Playing House, mixed with the absurdity of Lady Dynamite; there are even portions of its 10-episode first season that feel reminiscent of the video game Night in the Woods. But these are all more reference points than comparisons, because Tuca & Bertie — despite the existence of plenty of other comedies that seem to share some of its DNA — manages to feel like something completely new.

Watch Tuca & Bertie if you like: BoJack Horseman (it had to be done), Broad City (it also had to be done), Mission Hill (remember that one?)

Where to watch: The first season of Tuca & Bertie is streaming on Netflix.

Vida is a sweet triumph and a wonderful story about sisterhood — and so many other things

Is Vida, in and of itself, worth the cost of a Starz subscription? Well, listen, don’t let me tell you what to do, but the half-hour drama about two sisters who move back home and reconnect after the death of their mother was already a favorite of mine after season one, and it has only deepened and grown richer in season two. So, yes. Yes, it is.

Created by Tanya Saracho, the series is one of TV’s most political shows, but not in the way you might think after reading that statement. Its depiction of the east side of Los Angeles and the area’s predominantly Latino communities (and explicitly its Mexican-American community) is thoughtful beyond even the much-needed representation of Latinx identities that it brings to television.

That’s particularly true in season two, which has more room to spread its wings beyond establishing the characters and premise, as season one necessarily concentrated on. Now that sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) are firmly ensconced as the new proprietors of their mother’s bar in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, the series can dig into what it means to be part of a community.

More than any other show on TV, Vida is interested in the question of gentrification and what is lost when a neighborhood becomes just like any other one. And it allows Emma and Lyn to struggle within themselves about just how much they’re willing to embrace the neighborhood as it is versus how much they want to help it change. Along the way, it also becomes a rousing series about rebooting your life in adulthood, about coming back home, and about making space for queer identities in 2010s America.

Vida shortchanges a few of its supporting characters, which is an offshoot of having just a half-hour to work with each week, but at its center is a story that is absorbing and full and almost greedy for life.

Watch Vida if you like: Northern Exposure, Cheers, Frank’s Place

Where to watch: New episodes of Vida air Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on Starz, with two episodes airing each week. The entire second season is currently available on Starz’s streaming app.

7 other shows that are worth checking out

Deadwood: The Movie
Deadwood is back — in movie form!
HBO

The deluge of May programming continues right up until the very end — seriously, three of the programs listed below are debuting on the last day of the month — so honestly, you can probably find something that appeals.

  • Nobody I know watches Animal Kingdom (TNT, Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern), and lots of viewers’ only experience with the show seems to be making fun of the many promos that TNT runs for it during the NBA playoffs. But it is a scuzzy, scummy summer show about criminals doing bad things, and I low-key love it, even as I’ll admit it makes weird missteps here and there.
  • Is Catch-22 (streaming on Hulu) a whip-smart, funny World War II comedy? Or does it treat its subject matter so straightforwardly that it betrays the deeply satirical novel upon which it’s based? Critics are sharply divided. (I found the first couple episodes mostly pleasant.) But either way, it’s worth watching for actors Kyle Chandler and Charlie Abbott, especially. George Clooney also shows up.
  • A lot of people are crazy about Dead to Me (streaming on Netflix). I think the comedy — about two women who meet at a grief support group and don’t realize they share an unexpected connection — bounces wildly among tones in a way that doesn’t really work for me. But hey, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are terrific as those two women.
  • I have so much more to say about Deadwood: The Movie (HBO, Friday, May 31, at 8 pm Eastern) in my full review. But here, I will note that as a long-time fan of the show, this much-delayed, long-anticipated two-hour conclusion is a wonderful farewell to the characters I love so much.
  • I haven’t seen Good Omens (now streaming on Amazon Video), the new adaptation of the beloved comedic novel about the end of the world by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. But Aja Romano, who is reviewing it for Vox, says, “It’s not perfect, but it’s very lovingly done and will delight fans of the book.” Look for their review elsewhere on the site.
  • Is The Society (streaming on Netflix), a new series about teens trying to rebuild civilization after all the adults disappear, as silly as it sounds? Absolutely. But sometimes, you need a silly genre show to veg out to when you’re doing other things, and The Society absolutely qualifies.
  • I also haven’t seen When They See Us (streaming on Netflix), Ava DuVernay’s new miniseries about the horrible injustices suffered by the Central Park Five. But Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson has, and she says it’s “stirring and structurally interesting. It’s more interested in the crime done against the young men but in the format of a true crime series, which is a damning and gripping subversion of the popular form.” Sounds great!

Phew, that’s a lot of television. Once you get through all of it, please join us in June for the returns of HBO’s Big Little Lies, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Netflix’s Black Mirror.

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