The TV event of 2019 was Game of Thrones‘ final season, and that was mostly a bust. Some great shows have taken the year off altogether (Better Call Saul) or came back so recently (Big Little Lies, Pose) that it’s hard to seriously consider them for a list of the best shows of the year’s first half. But this has, nonetheless, been a splendid six months of television. New talents and shows have made immediate impacts (so many that the list below didn’t have room for FX’s hysterical vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows), while a slew of old favorites (Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You’re the Worst) went out in very strong fashion. It’s been a period defined by shows about women, made by women, and more generally by intensely personal stories from atypical creative teams (often with those creators also playing the lead roles). The second half of the year has a lot to live up to if it hopes to match the best of this first half.
Season Three of Pamela Adlon’s autobiographical dramedy ventured into uncharted territory, both onscreen and off. In a year where Adlon and her collaborators wrote the show without the input of disgraced co-creator Louis C.K., Better Things devoted more time to Sam Fox’s career, her friendships, and her romances than it had before. It covered those aspects of her life with the same nuance, artistry and essential grace with which it had previously tackled her role as a mother to three headache-inducing girls — and was still spectacular whenever it returned to the fraught relationships between Sam and her daughters. A special show rising above ugly behind-the-scenes circumstances.
So many of the huge laughs and abundant tears of IFC’s baseball-themed comedy have come via the title character’s staggering consumption of booze, pills, blow, and illicit substances you’ll wish you’d never heard of. Season Three offered us a sober Jim Brockmire (a never-better Hank Azaria) without losing the humor, the pathos, or the delicate balance between the two. In showing us a Brockmire trying to be a better person and a better friend (to a new supporting cast including Tawny Newsome and a spectacular J.K. Simmons), the series was able to be as ridiculous as ever, even as the sad moments hit harder because Jim was alert enough to more fully experience them.
Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s tale of a romance that unfolded in the wrong order — they met, then got pregnant, then got married, then fell in love — came to an appropriately bittersweet conclusion. The stars and creators found a way to write comedy in the wake of real-life tragedies: the deaths of co-star Carrie Fisher, and of Delaney’s young son Henry. If this final batch of episodes felt a bit darker than before, that seemed less the bad news seeping into the story than Catastrophe than Delaney and Horgan continuing to acknowledge just how tough it can be to make a marriage work — even when the couple likes each other and is as seemingly well-matched as these two dummies were.
One of HBO’s strongest miniseries in years, the story of the 1986 meltdown at a Soviet nuclear power plant seemed too bleak and horrifying to endure at a time with its own abundant horrors and injustices in the news … so I bailed after the first episode. But when I worked up the nerve to return, what I found was less an accounting of smug bureaucrats making things worse, but of scientists (Jared Harris, spectacular in his exasperated decency), politicians (an unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgard), coal miners, soldiers, and more willfully risking their lives to limit the tragedy’s impact. A meticulous, plain-spoken, unbelievably poignant tale of an unsolvable problem being attacked from all sides by people who understood what greater horrors would be unleashed if they didn’t.
The original 2016 six-episode run of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s seriocomedy about a lonely and profoundly self-destructive woman was such a perfectly closed loop, it seemed folly to try making another season. But Fleabag‘s belated return was, amazingly, an improvement on its first season. As Fleabag fell for an equally isolated (and, yes, extremely hot) priest (Andrew Scott), the new episodes not only dug deeper into her pain and her attempts to improve, they became an essential commentary on the nature of the dysfunctional, one-sided relationship between fictional characters and their audiences. This season’s goodbye felt more definitive, as Fleabag literally waved goodbye to us. The only gesture that seems appropriate in response: hearty applause.
This eight-part miniseries about the long personal and professional entanglement between director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) at times felt like less than the sum of its many amazing parts, including a creative team joining up writers and directors who worked on Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and The Americans. But Williams’ performance was never less than riveting — the seventh episode, about the backstage genesis of the ex-spouses’ last great collaboration, Chicago, was as good an hour of TV as you’ll see this year — and Rockwell was great in spite of some over-familiar clichés about problematic geniuses. Not as incredible as I’d hoped, but terrific enough, often enough.
In which a seemingly dumb idea — 31-year-old co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves as middle schoolers, opposite actual 13-year-olds — plays out in wicked smart fashion. The central visual joke of these two adults cosplaying among real kids turned out to be inexhaustibly amusing. And Erskine and Konkle’s true ages provided enough cover for the show to get very raunchy in exploring the sexual impulses of girls on the verge of womanhood. But Pen15 also managed to get surprisingly serious about the way the girls’ friendship evolved and fractured during that messy transition, occasionally approaching the rarefied air of a My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks.
There are some TV shows that could have been created by almost anyone with the right amount of talent. And then there’s something like Ramy, which feels so wonderfully specific to the experience of comedian Ramy Youssef — who co-created, starred, and even directed an episode — that it’s hard to imagine anyone else even thinking of it, let alone trying. Youssef plays a millennial Muslim-American in the New Jersey suburbs struggling to balance a renewed commitment to his faith and the complications of modern life. At times explosively funny, at others achingly sad — and occasionally, like the flashback episode about young Ramy’s experience on and around 9/11, both at once — it’s a true, instantly strong original.
Edge of Tomorrow meets the idiosyncratic genius of co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne in one of this year’s TV highlights. Lyonne (with help from Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler) gave herself the role of her career as Nadia a self-destructive, creatively profane video game designer who keeps dying and then resurrecting at the same moment in her 36th birthday party. Despite the Groundhog Day of it all, the eight episodes never felt repetitive, as they found new ways to depict Nadia’s existential crisis that were surprising, hilarious and/or moving, all on top of each other. A high concept executed at the highest possible level.
More adolescent hijinks, this time across the Atlantic and with a slightly older age group. Otis (Asa Butterfield, winningly flustered at all times) is sexually repressed to a profound degree. But his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson at her most confident) is a libidinous sex therapist, which gives him a lot of secondhand advice to offer his horny classmates — for a small fee, negotiated by Otis’ crush Maeve (Emma Mackey). Despite the title, the premise, and all the frank discussion of technique, this charming series proved to be more interested in its teen character’s identities than in their ability to get off.
Martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s vision of an epic historical drama about a Chinese immigrant arriving in 19th century America didn’t happen in his lifetime, though parts of it were allegedly stolen for the Kung Fu TV show with David Carradine. Instead, the idea lay untouched for decades until the TV ecosystem had evolved enough to do it right. Showrunner Jonathan Tropper brought the whole sweeping saga to life, with scorching rivalries between different Tongs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, racial tension very much evoking our current ugly political moment, and elaborate fight scenes that often surpassed the best that Tropper’s previous Cinemax pulp drama Banshee had to offer.