The 20 Best TV Shows of 2019 - Rolling Stone
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20 Best TV Shows of 2019

From metaphysical quandaries to white nationalism, religion to romance, awkward adolescences to fraught marriages, the year’s best series covered all the bases

TV, Rolling Stone, Best 2019

Left to Right: Netflix; Mark Hill/HBO; Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

The best television shows of 2019 drew their power from moments both tiny (a sad woman waving goodbye as she walked down an empty street) and enormous (a nuclear meltdown that nearly wiped out all of Eastern Europe). They traveled through time (for flashbacks to decades past, and for Natasha Lyonne to live the same day over and over) and space (in one case, regular visits to a moon of Jupiter). They dealt with subjects absurd (adolescent sexual awakening) and profound (racism, spirituality, sexual assault).

For the most part, they were young shows, too. Some years, the top 20 is full of old favorites that have been great forever. This year, the BoJack Horsemans and Brooklyn Nine-Nines of the world continued to do superb work, but they didn’t quite make the cut. This list has only one show in its fourth season and a couple in their third. Everything else is two years old or younger. Even as the year saw finales to era-defining series like Game of ThronesBroad City, and Orange Is The New Black (among many others), ending the decade with so much great new blood is a very promising place for TV to be. Here are the year’s best series.

 

Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

1

‘Fleabag’ (Amazon Prime)

The second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s tragic farce began with her face covered in blood. It ended with her gently waving goodbye to us — her invisible, silent confidants. The wave proved the far more powerful moment. That seemed about right for this season, which was as much about the relationship between fictional characters and their audiences as it was about Fleabag attempting to repair things with her estranged sister Claire (Sian Clifford), or grappling with her feelings for a hot priest (Andrew Scott). Season Two continued to break the fourth wall — then broke it twice over when the priest (who has his own invisible, all-knowing friend in God) began to notice Fleabag talking to us — in a way that laced Waller-Bridge’s sterling comic delivery with something more bittersweet. Fleabag joked with us because she had no one else who would listen. The series’ original six-episode run in 2016 was so perfect and seemingly complete that its return could have felt like an unnecessary cash-in. Instead, Fleabag gave us the rare sequel that surpassed the original, going deeper and sadder, but also more explosively funny than ever. (That opening episode revealed the source of Fleabag’s bloody nose with astonishing comic precision, winning Emmys for Waller-Bridge — as actress and writer — and ace director Harry Bradbeer along the way.) That farewell wave suggested Fleabag finally realized she had to focus more on her side of the barrier between reality and fiction, and that we would thus never see her again. If so, what an incredible way to go.

Mark Hill/HBO

2

‘Watchmen’ (HBO)

If Fleabag was a small story told spectacularly, then WatchmenDamon Lindelof’s reinvention of the landmark Eighties comic about how superheroes might function in the real world — was a huge spectacle that turned out to be an occasionally messy but always riveting story. Lindelof’s take ingeniously mixed characters and tales from the comic with the ongoing American problem of white supremacy, from the very real Tulsa, Oklahoma, race massacre of 1921 to a fictionalized Klan offshoot modeling itself on Watchmen vigilante Rorschach. There were cops (the fire-breathing Regina King) with costumed superhero identities, former vigilantes (the marvelously dry Jean Smart) working for the FBI, and some indecipherable but hilarious lunacy involving ex-hero Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons, having a blast) on... Europa? With servants who are clones? Part national nightmare, part cosmic odyssey, backed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ hypnotic score, Watchmen was as enormous a swing as the comic, and one that hit staggeringly hard each time it connected. At this writing, I still haven’t seen the finale, but the first eight episodes are so magical (the sixth especially), the only regret the last one may give me is not ranking the show higher.

Russian Doll

Netflix

3

‘Russian Doll’ (Netflix)

Sweet birthday, baby! This metaphysical comedy co-created by (along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) and starring Orange Is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne was both a high-concept mystery and an intimate character study. As Lyonne’s Nadia found herself dying and being reborn again and again on the night of her 36th birthday party, Russian Doll bent, folded, and rearranged its Groundhog Day-esque conceit until it felt like something thrillingly new. Some deaths were heartbreaking, others hysterical, as an increasingly exasperated Nadia tried to figure out why this was happening to her — and to a depressed introvert (Charlie Barnett) who was her spiritual opposite. And Lyonne’s performance was never less than a hurricane of charisma. Live. Die. Wisecrack. Repeat.

BETTER THINGS - Pictured: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Suzanne Tenner/FX

4

‘Better Things’ (FX)

The first two seasons of this remarkably intimate story of single mother Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) raising three daughters were made in creative partnership between Adlon (who based much of it on her own life) and Louis C.K. Then C.K. was exposed as a serial sexual harasser and ousted from the series. Better Things not only survived without the man who had written or co-written every previous episode, but thrived. Season Three still had that intoxicating sense of place and feeling, where long stretches would pass without the need for anything resembling a conventional story. But Adlon and her new collaborators also proved splendid at incorporating more traditional plots about Sam’s acting career and romantic life (including the liveliest performance Matthew Broderick has given in forever, as Sam’s shrink-turned-boyfriend), even as her primary interest — and the series’ — remained how she parents her girls. A show to experience more than to watch, it was lovelier this year than ever.

UNBELIEVABLE

Beth Dubber/Netflix

5

‘Unbelievable’ (Netflix)

“No one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying,” an attorney notes late in this miniseries. “But when it comes to sexual assault?” Based on an award-winning ProPublica investigation, Unbelievable told two parallel but ultimately linked stories about rape, one deliberately agonizing to sit through, the other a gripping thriller. In the former, a young woman (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) reports her assault, is treated skeptically by family, friends, and police, and is ultimately pressured to recant. In the latter, two cops (Meritt Wever and Toni Collette) from neighboring towns realize their investigations might involve the same rapist, and that they might have a serial predator on their hands. By exploring the subject from so many angles at once — and casting three superb actors in the central roles — Unbelievable functioned as both a propulsive drama and an exhaustive discussion of why rape investigations can feel as traumatic to survivors as the rapes themselves.

HBO

6

‘Chernobyl’ (HBO)

Where Unbelievable made its grueling subject matter watchable by framing much of itself as a police procedural, Chernobyl cleverly looked at its own tragedy — the 1986 meltdown of a Soviet nuclear reactor — through the lens of competence porn. Written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the miniseries didn’t flinch on the graphic horrors the meltdown visited on its first responders, nor on the institutionalized Soviet stubbornness that allowed it to happen. But its primary interest was in the many scientists (represented by a chilling Jared Harris), miners, and others who put themselves at tremendous personal risk to find creative ways to prevent a local catastrophe from mushrooming into a global one. Nightmarish and inspiring in one compact, five-episode package.

David Pasquesi as Blaise St. John, Wyatt Russell as Sean "Dud" Dudley, Brent Jennings as Ernie Fontaine - Lodge 49 _ Season 2, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

7

‘Lodge 49’ (AMC)

This quirky series about the struggling members of a local fraternal order was an incredibly blunt and dark examination of economic life in an America that’s increasingly leaving too many people behind. But it was somehow also a ridiculous and warm tale of how these same people found strength and reason for optimism in their bonds. In the same way, you can choose to look on its cancellation after two low-rated seasons as another Peak TV sob story. Or you can take solace that we got as much time as we did to enjoy endearing performances by, among others, Wyatt Russell, Brent Jennings, Sonya Cassidy, and, this season (as a bestselling author with a zest for life and an unfortunate habit of diving through plate-glass windows), producer-guest star Paul Giamatti. We prefer to consider the very existence of such a strange and specific show one of the many miracles of this topsy-turvy television age.

Ramy -- "A Black Spot on the Heart" - Episode 103 - So let me get this straight, you don’t do drugs, but you’ll have sex with women you’re not married to…? That’s not nuanced, it’s hypocritical. Ramy (Ramy Youssef) and Steve (Steve Way), shown. (Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Hulu)

Barbara Nitke/Hulu

8

‘Ramy’ (Hulu)

Even more than race, religion seems to be the third rail that few modern TV series are willing to touch. This dramedy, co-created by and starring comedian Ramy Youssef, focused almost entirely on its title character’s faith. Ramy, an assimilated young man living in suburban New Jersey with his Egyptian immigrant parents, decides he wants to be a better Muslim — if only the increasingly complex demands of modern American life will let him. The series’ first season explored this challenge in ways that could be funny or poignant, but were always thoughtful and empathetic. Several episodes — a flashback to young Ramy in the days after 9/11, or the attempt by Ramy’s lonely mother (Hiam Abbass) to meet people by becoming a Lyft driver — will linger long after you’ve watched them.

POSE -- "In My Heels" -- Season 2, Episode 10 (Airs Tues, August 20, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured (l-r): Hailie Sahar as Lulu, Dominique Jackson as Elektra, Jonovia Chase as Kiki Pendavis. CR: Michael Parmelee/FX

Michael Parmelee/FX

9

‘Pose’ (FX)

Have tissues handy — not because terrible things will happen to the show’s many LGBTQ characters, but because, mercifully, so often they won’t. Where so much of modern TV drama — including several other shows by Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy — trends toward making characters suffer, this series about Eighties ball culture recognized that its brown and queer protagonists don’t need any added burdens for their lives to be inherently dramatic. Season Two offered its occasional tragedies, but so many of its most potent scenes — including the surprising face turn of Season One villain Elektra (Dominique Jackson), and health crises for both Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Emmy winner Billy Porter, amazing) — involved people getting a break at the exact moment they so desperately needed one.

David Makes Man--Ep 101--"Pilot"--Photo Credit: Rod Millington / ©2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Rod Millington / ©2018 Warner Bros

10

‘David Makes Man’ (OWN)

The Oprah Winfrey-led OWN has had impressive series before, like the family saga Queen Sugar, but this coming-of-age drama from Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney felt like a creative leap even above those. Following a 14-year-old (an achingly vulnerable Akili McDowell) as he moved between his threadbare life in a housing project and his days at a magnet school for gifted children, every frame of the series was soaking in David’s desperate need to feel safe and comfortable anywhere. But even as David Makes Man stared down the complications and dangers of its young hero’s life, it also found imaginative, even fun ways to get inside his worried head.

WHEN THEY SEE US

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

11

‘When They See Us’ (Netflix)

Like Unbelieveable and Chernobyl, this Ava DuVernay-helmed miniseries about the teen boys wrongly convicted in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger rape case helped make this the Year of Difficult TV. When They See Us didn’t offer any of the procedural relief of the other two; when we saw cops, they were terrorizing these poor kids into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. But the unsparing nature of the storytelling fit the terrible miscarriage of justice — particularly in the later hours, as we followed Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome, an unknown who won a deserving Emmy for the role over the likes of Mahershala Ali and Benicio Del Toro), the one member of the group tried and convicted as an adult. A show few will want to watch twice, but that no one who watched once will forget.

PEN15 -- "Ojican" - Episode 103 - Maya feels a tickle down there which becomes kind of an addiction, distracting her from her best friend who really needs her. Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle), shown. (Photo by: Alex Lombardi/Hulu)

Alex Lombardi/Hulu

12

‘Pen15’ (Hulu)

At first glance, Pen15’s gimmick — 31-year-old co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves at 13, opposite a cast of actual middle schoolers — seemed better suited to a brief comedy sketch than an ongoing series. Instead, the conceit proved surprisingly elastic. It allowed the show to mine huge laughs out of the girls exploring their budding sexuality, but with the presence of adult actresses eliminating the creepiness that would exist with real adolescents. And while Pen15 was mostly bawdy comedy in the vein of Broad City, it could also be startlingly tender and insightful in how it showed each girl struggling with both family issues and the ways that puberty was transforming their friendship. A silly idea presented very smartly.

Hank Azaria as Jim Brockmire, Amanda Peet as Jules - Brockmire _ Season 3, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Kim Simms/IFC

Kim Simms/IFC

13

‘Brockmire’ (IFC)

After the second season of this baseball comedy sent disgraced, substance-abusing announcer Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria) to rock bottom, this year’s wonderful third season found him struggling to do his job while sober, and attempting to repair the many relationships he’d damaged along the way. But if Jim feared he couldn’t be himself without booze and pills, Brockmire did just fine on that front. Season Three took the show’s usual balance of raunch and pathos to new heights, particularly in Jim’s unlikely friendship with a dying — and legendarily well-endowed — ex-player (J.K. Simmons, incredible) who used to hate him. One more season is in the works, but this would have been a fine conclusion to one of Peak TV’s great undiscovered gems.

Netflix

14

‘Tuca and Bertie’ (Netflix)

Remember when one of the appeals of Netflix was that it felt like a safe place for weird, niche-y TV shows and the people who loved them? This year, the streaming giant’s executives seemed to realize that they could cancel shows just like their peers on broadcast and cable, and brought the axe down prematurely on a lot of fine series. None stung more than the cancellation of this animated female buddy comedy from BoJack Horseman’s Lisa Hanawalt, starring Tiffany Haddish as a brash recovering addict and Ali Wong as her responsible but timid BFF. Like BoJack, Tuca was a little slow to find its narrative footing. (Though even from the start, the trippy animation style made it worth watching.) And like BoJack, it soon developed into an irresistible combination of laughter and tears, particularly in later episodes that explored Tuca’s family history of addiction and the adolescent trauma that made Bertie so shy as a grown-up lady bird. By the end of that season, the series felt like the kind we’d get to marvel at for years to come. Netflix unfortunately had other plans.

180626_Catastrophe4_166614.jpg

Mark Johnson/Amazon

15

‘Catastrophe’ (Amazon Prime)

This raunchy romantic comedy about a trans-Atlantic one-night stand that improbably created a solid family unit always had room for darkness amid the dick and poop jokes. Still, the circumstances behind the final season — written by co-creators and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan not long after the death from brain cancer of Delaney’s young son Henry — are even more impressive than the episodes themselves, where the fictional Rob and Sharon found their marriage’s shaky foundation on the verge of crumbling. How, under those creative conditions, could Catastrophe have remained as funny as it was? Somehow, the writing partners made it work, all the way through a lovely, ambiguous final scene that used visuals, rather than dialogue, to make one final statement on the challenges of caring about other people.

HBO

16

‘Los Espookys’ (HBO)

Meet the year’s most endearing oddball. This comedy followed a quartet of friends (including Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega, who co-created it with Fred Armisen) in an unnamed Latin American country who start a business to help people by using primitive (and, occasionally, supernatural) creature effects to scare them. Playing out mostly in Spanish with English subtitles (and occasionally vice versa), Los Espookys turned out to be as gentle and kind as it was strange and silly.

MR INBETWEEN -- "Socks Are Important" -- Season 2, Episode 9 (Airs Thursday, November 7, 10:00 pm ET/PT) -- Pictured: (l-r) Chika Yasumura as Brittany, Scott Ryan as Ray Shoesmith, Alyla Browne as Maddy. CR: Joel Pratley/FX

Joel Pratley/FX

17

‘Mr. Inbetween’ (FX)

This Australian dramedy, about hit man Ray Shoesmith (played by creator Scott Ryan) juggling his violent professional responsibilities with the nicer personal ones he has as a friend and father, leveled up enormously in its second season. Where the show in its first year didn’t seem to know whether to celebrate or condemn Ray’s bad(ass) deeds, Season Two was very much about the collateral damage left in his wake, and was far richer and more satisfying to watch as a result.

FOSSE VERDON -- Pictured: (l-r) Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. CR: Michael Parmelee/FX

Michael Parmelee/FX

18

‘Fosse/Verdon’ (FX)

This star-studded miniseries (including behind the scenes, where the creative team included Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, Dear Evan Hansen’s Steven Levenson, and The Americans’ Joel Fields) explored the romantic and professional partnerships between legendary director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and actress Gwen Verdon (Emmy winner Michelle Williams). The title, and the show itself, were meant to be correctives to the disproportionate amount of credit Bob got for projects he and Gwen closely collaborated on, and to the glut of dramas built to explain, or excuse, the toxic behavior of difficult male geniuses. In its best moments — particularly the riveting episode about how the duo clashed during development and production of Chicago — it succeeded in those goals, even as the miniseries’ chief concern was clearly more Fosse than Verdon. Still, Rockwell and especially Williams were superb throughout, and Kail and the other directors nimbly recreated some of the duo’s most iconic moments from stage and screen.

Sex Education Season 1

Sam Taylor/Netflix

19

‘Sex Education’ (Netflix)

The premise — teenaged Otis (Asa Butterfield), son of sex therapist Jean (a hilariously unbridled Gillian Anderson), opens a bootleg sex-therapy clinic for his classmates with the help of friends Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) — and some of the early scenes suggest a show that will lean hard on the first word in its title. Instead, it’s “education” that’s the more important word, as this excellent comedy reveals itself to be thoughtful and kind in exploring the many reasons its young characters do or don’t want to hook up, and also (particularly in probing Eric’s queer identity) how they choose to present themselves to the world.

Cinemax

20

‘Warrior’ (Cinemax)

OK, so the most important battle scene in Game of Thrones history played out under conditions literally too dark to see. The year in television still offered plenty of thrilling action elsewhere, both animated (Genndy Tartakovsky’s stunning caveman/dinosaur team-up Primal for Adult Swim) and live-action, as in the case of this 19th-century crime epic inspired by an unsold Bruce Lee pitch. In pitting rival Chinese tongs against both each other and San Francisco’s white sociopolitical power base, Warrior offered one lavishly-choreographed fight scene after another, and a host of colorful characters to place in them. (Though the Chinese characters were all much more compelling than the white guys.) A fine, and very fun, successor to the best of Cinemax’s Friday night pulp dramas, Banshee, whose executive producer Jonathan Tropper orchestrated the wonderful mayhem here.

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