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The Best TV Shows of 2019 - The New York Times

The Best TV Shows of 2019 - The New York Times
Entertainment
It’s been four years since John Landgraf, the chairman of FX, coined the term “peak TV” to describe the ballooning amount of scripted series that would soon, surely, burst. That balloon is still swelling: New streaming services from Apple and Disney arrived in November, soon to be joined by HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock.

All of which to say that it’s only getting harder to pick a mere 10. It’s no insult to be among the many shows I loved and didn’t find room for (“Sex Education,” “David Makes Man,” “I Think You Should Leave”) or the terrific series that I listed in 2018 and omitted this year for the sake of winnowing (“The Good Fight,” “Pose” and — R.I.P. — “Lodge 49.”) And I can only apologize to the one amazing show that would be on this list if I had managed to see it, which you will inform me about in the comments.

It also means that once again I refuse to number my list, because once you approach the summit of the peak, the differences among most of the lead climbers are arbitrary. (My favorite show of 2019 was “Better Things,” except on the days it was “Fleabag.”) Onward and (ever) upward.

The third season of this slice-of-life, multigenerational comedy was its best yet at sketching the love-hate between mothers, daughters and sisters. As Sam Fox, a mid-tier actress raising three daughters and keeping an eye on her aging mother, Pamela Adlon is the patron saint of exhausted overcommitment. “Better Things,” like Sam’s life, is full to bursting: full of mess, passion, resentment, regret, rebellion and optimism, and minutely observed down to the subatomic level. (Streaming on Hulu .)

The title of Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s marriage comedy comes from the Greek for a sudden overturning or upheaval. That’s what love and life is in this show: a succession of earthquakes and eruptions that send you head over heels. The series sent the lead characters down a rapids of life changes — unplanned pregnancy, not entirely planned marriage, parenthood and the aging and loss of parents — and the final season sent them off with raunchy, bittersweet panache. (Streaming on Amazon .)

This parody series is so consistently stunning in its parts that I often haven’t given it enough credit as a whole. Its perfect pitch showed in a sendup of the ill-starred production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” complete with soundtrack album. (John Mulaney, who co-wrote, is a tall drink of turtleneck as a version of the composer.) But maybe even stronger was “Waiting for the Artist,” a surprisingly moving takeoff on “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.” This meticulous show has a jeweler’s eye and an enthusiast’s spirit. (Streaming on IFC and Netflix .)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s tour de force is like what you’d get if a Stradivarius violin could write music for itself. A gymnastically agile writer and nimble, hyperalert actress, she is the perfect composer for her particular instrument. The crescendo to the story of the self-destructive title character explored redemption, spirituality and lust, in part through her attraction to the hot priest known as the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott). If that’s sacrilege — well, what a way to burn. (Streaming on Amazon .)

Among a crop of streaming shows featuring strong first-person comedic perspectives (“Shrill” and “Ramy,” to name two other Hulu offerings), “Pen15” was the weirdest, freshest and most geekily lovable. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — each in their early 30s — disappear fully into the America Online adolescence of the turn of the millennium and abduct us along with them. Like middle school itself, this premiere season could be awkward and excruciating, and yet somehow its bumps made it only more memorable. (Streaming on Hulu .)

Was this 2019’s funniest drama or its most gripping comedy? Its most entertaining piece of pop philosophy or its most spiritually enlightening puzzle? It was all the above, as well as the ideal showcase for the gravelly elder-child appeal of Natasha Lyonne, a prickly video game designer living (and dying and living and dying) in a “Groundhog Day” version of New York City. Playful and endlessly surprising, this was a dark-comic testimony to the power of second chances — or, in game parlance, bonus lives. (Streaming on Netflix .)

What better way to escape the news than with America’s favorite fun-time show about how depraved billionaires run the world with impunity? The second season of this late-capitalist “Dynasty” mastered its balance of dark comedy and pizzicato drama, while deploying a roster of characters — the Roys, their antagonists and their enablers — who were both complex and drawn in deft broad strokes. Depressingly entertaining, this series has become as savory an illicit thrill as a stolen bite of chicken on a yacht. (Streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now .)

I’m allowing myself a cheat here to sneak in two mini-series based on true stories about the crooked path to justice. Susannah Grant’s “Unbelievable,” about the hunt for a serial rapist and the journey of one victim (Kaitlyn Dever), is equal parts shoe leather and empathy. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” about the railroading and eventual exoneration of five teenage boys accused of a 1989 rape in Central Park, is stunning in imagery and performance (especially the unforgettable Jharrel Jerome). Each is a long ride through anger that turns a final bend onto hope. (Streaming on Netflix: “ Unbelievable ” and “ When They See Us. ”)

What’s up with your soul, America? Whatever it is, the late 2010s has been a boom time for eschatological comedy (see also “Russian Doll” and “The Good Place,” currently advancing toward its final reckoning). This family-dramedy-slash-philosophical thriller, from Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg of “BoJack Horseman,” uses entrancing rotoscoped animation to create a specifically observed reality that can dissolve into dreamland with its vision-questing protagonist. It was a head trip with heart. (Streaming on Amazon .)

Damon Lindelof’s latest puzzle box, like his “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” asks: What if? What if we took a legendary super-antihero story of the Cold War and expanded its time frame, forward and backward, into a history of American racism? What if a comic-book adaptation could be both a cleareyed look at the mechanics of hate and a thrilling spectacle with humor and a giant squid? I confess I don’t fully know the answer; I haven’t seen the season finale before finishing this list. But this series’s leap of faith is inspiring enough to convince me to take one of my own. (Streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now .)

MARGARET LYONS

It feels like everything ended in 2019, with TV’s most popular comedy, “The Big Bang Theory,” and its most popular drama, “Game of Thrones,” both finishing up long runs. But there were other, better shows that ended this year, too, and this is an attempt at ranking them in order of excellence.

I went with lots of ties so I could include more of my favorites and also because none of these series aired in a vacuum; one show’s fate ripples through the ecosystem. This list does not include mini-series, old shows that were briefly revived, shows that have not officially been canceled or ended, shows that came back for one misguided musical special (sorry, “Transparent”), or shows that were canceled but then picked up by another outlet, effectively un-canceling them. The shows are ranked on their overall quality, not just on their final seasons.

Two of the boldest romances ended this year, vicious and exquisite and surprising, with beautiful ideas and sometimes nasty characters. “Fleabag,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s two-season reckoning with sex and selfhood, and “Catastrophe,” a four-season prickly domestic comedy by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, were two of TV’s most alive shows, with emotional authenticity for days. I had moments where I thought, “Oh, I should text that to him” or “Who was I just talking to about that?” before I remembered … those are characters from TV, not my real-life friends. “This is a love story,” Fleabag tells us, right at the top of Season 2. Oh, boy, was it. (Streaming on Amazon: “ Fleabag ” and “ Catastrophe .”)

The genre-warping crown jewels of the CW both went out on high notes, as committed to their characters’ arcs and their writers’ visions as ever. Bringing in a high-concept show for a smooth landing is a feat unto itself — be it a telenovela, but earnest, or a dark musical comedy about mental illness — but “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” were remarkably consistent through their entire runs. Also, those were network runs; “Jane” did 100 episodes, and “CXG” did 62. For comparison, there are 12 total episodes of “Fleabag.” (Streaming on Netflix: “ Jane the Virgin ” and “ Crazy Ex-Girlfriend .”)

It’s unusual for a show to get straight-up canceled these days, and the fact that “Tuca & Bertie” was such a creative high-point of 2019 made Netflix’s move all the more galling. But at least we got one season of this wild specimen, an often surreal look at friendship and contemporary womanhood. The show’s anthropomorphic animal world doesn’t shy away from visual puns, but then, it doesn’t shy away from anything, including the brutal disgustingness of having a body, the incoherence of lust, the trauma of sexual assault and the complexities of prioritizing romantic relationships over platonic devotion. (Streaming on Netflix .)

“Orange” ushered in the streaming age, helped legitimize the current wave of issues-oriented shows, nudged conversations about incarceration reform into the pop culture sphere and portrayed women of all walks of life — and it was an interesting, funny, audacious show for seven seasons. Yes, there was torture; yes, there was a singalong to Lisa Loeb’s “Stay.” And both felt appropriate for a show so sprawling, so curious about all the weird nooks of the human condition. (Streaming on Netflix .)

The shows are spiritual opposites in every way — one completely pickled, the other so earnest it makes you want to recycle — and have completely different attitudes about what might draw someone to politics. But the profane “Veep” and the virtuous “Madam Secretary” both poked at society’s deep issues around women in power, looked skeptically at the watered down compromises we’ve been conditioned to see as leadership and found themselves predicting real life in ways that make you want to dig a hole in the ground and shout into hell. (“Veep” streams on HBO Go and HBO Now and “Madam Secretary” on CBS and Netflix .)

“Mr. Robot” could never quite climb back to the heights of its first season, but the hacker-oriented thriller found its way back to vibrancy this year. (The final few episodes don’t air until after this list runs; I hope they are good!) Sometimes conspiracy stories lose track of characterization and depth, but “Mr. Robot” loved all its silky specifics, the hidden sensitivities of even its minor figures. (Streaming on USA .)

The low-fi stoner buddy duo of Abbi and Ilana and the loopier, more saturated Kimmy and Titus have seen both the grimy filth of New York City and the enviable lushness the One Percent enjoys. The shows have given us songs — full-scale wine commercials or just a catchy a cappella tune to sing to yourself on the toilet — and weird names for various parts of the city, as well as lessons in essential backpacks and how tech companies work. New York City is weird and disgusting, but if you can find even one friend amid the chaos, you’ll survive. (“Broad City” streams on Hulu and Comedy Central . “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” streams on Netflix .)

Good shows abound these days, lucky us, but the truly unusual is still hard to find. “Baskets” was distinctive in a lot of ways but especially pacing — and especially especially casting, with Zach Galifianakis as twins Chip and Dale, Martha Kelly as their friend and Louie Anderson as their mother. Sometimes the show’s flat affect could be disorienting, the pull of its melancholy almost too strong. But then these weird little moments of profound humanity would crack through, sometimes gleeful and odd and sometimes simple and poignant. (Streaming on Hulu .)

Tween shows — about tweens, for tweens — have a tough balance to strike: They have to be interesting enough for young attention spans but neither risqué nor pure screaming. This sweetheart show, about a girl who discovers her parents are actually her grandparents and her free-spirited older sister is actually her mother, had plenty of plot for Andi and her interesting friends, all of whom were admirably articulate about their taste and vulnerabilities. Change is hard, the show reminds us, but you don’t have to do it alone. (Streaming on Disney Plus .)

“Speechless,” “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” “Patriot,” “Game of Thrones,” “Counterpoint.”

Mike Hale

For how much longer will a list of “international” shows make sense, when American companies like Amazon, HBO and Netflix are producing TV all over the world? Was “Game of Thrones,” filmed seemingly everywhere but the United States, with overwhelmingly non-American casts and crews, an American show?

It’s a moot point here — “Game of Thrones” wouldn’t have made my Top 10 anyway. But you could raise some of the same questions, in reverse, about the American-financed British series “Killing Eve,” which did. (Or “Fleabag,” co-produced by Amazon, which is included elsewhere in these lists.)

As long as the distinction still matters, here, in alphabetical order, are my Top 10 international shows presented in the United States in 2019. As always, there were far, far more shows I didn’t see than shows I did. Please use the comments to fill in the gaps.

In an economical 132 minutes, this two-part Mexican series — a model of the investigative true-crime documentary — details and chilling indifference. Part 1 is a harrowing re-creation of the night in 2014 when 43 college students, on buses bound for a protest in Mexico City, disappeared while running a gantlet of road blocks and gunfire in a provincial city. Part 2 recounts the succession of reluctant investigations and alleged cover-ups that followed, and lays bare the pain of the parents, whose sons’ bodies have never been found. (Streaming on Netflix .)

The British writer and producer Sally Wainwright is a prolific creator of shows set in the present day in her native Yorkshire: “,” “Unforgiven,” “Last Tango in Halifax” and the great cop drama “ Happy Valley .” In the period romance “Gentleman Jack,” based on the copious diaries of the landowner, industrialist and open lesbian Anne Lister, Wainwright delves into Yorkshire’s past (the show is set in 1832) and the result is as fresh, funny and challenging as anything she’s done. Wainwright’s frequent collaborator Suranne Jones is wonderful as the commanding, supremely (sometimes annoyingly) competent Lister, succeeding in business and love on her own terms. (Streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now .)

The actress Emerald Fennell took over from Phoebe Waller-Bridge as this mordant comedy-thriller’s principal writer, and the show didn’t miss a beat. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, as the formerly mousy secret agent Eve and the childlike, psychopathic assassin Villanelle, played out a second season of fatal attraction and extreme codependence. Comer won an Emmy, but the heart of the show is Oh’s less flashy, more vulnerable performance as a woman who’s thrilled by the discovery that danger turns her on. (Streaming on FuboTV and Amazon .)

Dynamiting the conventions of the South Korean historical drama series, this rollicking, satirical horror-adventure — based on a popular webtoon, or online comic book — adds a zombielike plague and some class-divide comedy to what otherwise looks like a typical tale of 16th-century palace intrigue. A plucky band of underdogs, including an outcast prince and an unappreciated female doctor (played by the South Korean star Bae Doo-na), race around the country trying to stop the undead while fighting off the minions of the prince’s evil stepmother. (Streaming on Netflix .)

The British actor Martin Clunes has built a devoted audience for the grumpy and condescending village doctor he’s played through His character in “Manhunt” — a police detective investigating the killing of a French college student in a London suburb, in a story based on an actual case — could be seen as a departure. But Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton, as portrayed in the three-episode series, has a lot in common with the doctor: He’s awkward, argumentative, touchy and very good at his job. Clunes is excellent in a crisp, moving drama that was announced as a mini-series but then renewed for a second season. (Streaming on Acorn TV .)

Scott Ryan has made a career of writing and playing the Sydney strip-club bouncer and occasional hired killer Ray Shoesmith — he created the character for the 2005 film “The Magician,” long before HBO’s “Barry” popularized the hit man comedy. You might legitimately wonder how well he could play anything else, but he’s perfect as the testy, taciturn, sardonic Ray, in whom judginess and rage share space with loyalty (to his young daughter and disabled brother, nicely portrayed by Chika Yasumura and Nicholas Cassim) and flashes of compassion. In its second season, which grew to 11 episodes (from six), the Australian show was both more reflective and more complicated, adding layers to the clipped comedy that arises from Ray’s contradictions. (Streaming on FX Now and Hulu .)

In 2014, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas spurred a retaliation, the kidnapping, beating and burning alive of M ohammed Abu Khdeir , a 16-year-old Palestinian living in Jerusalem. The writer-directors Hagai Levi (“In Treatment”), Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”) and Tawfik Abu Wael (“Last Days in Jerusalem”) focused this 10-part dramatization on the murder of Khdeir, the agony of his family, and the work of Israeli police and prosecutors to find and convict the killers. That led to condemnation (and ) by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and resulted in a relentlessly absorbing, constantly surprising examination of fear, fanaticism and violence. (Streaming on HBO Go , HBO Now and Amazon .)

Testing the waters for YouTube-size episodes on traditional TV, this 10-part British series totaled just 100 minutes. Its length was in inverse proportion to the talent involved, though: and wrote the dialogue-heavy episodes, Stephen Frears directed them, and a pair of ace performers, Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, played the couple whose fragile marriage required weekly visits to an unseen therapist. The show took place during the 10 minutes before the sessions, when they met at a pub across the street and dissected their relationship in deeper, angrier, fonder and funnier terms than therapy allows. (Streaming on Sundance Now .)

In its third season, this British cold-case procedural remained one of TV’s saddest and most satisfying shows — each installment is a six-episode requiem in which a murder victim is avenged, and ennobled, through the ritual of tireless and enterprising police work. Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, as detectives whose empathy and modesty perfectly suit them for their jobs, give performances that are restrained but at the same time tremendously warm and human. (Streaming on PBS and Amazon .)

This compelling Canadian mini-series created by the writer and producer Robert C. Cooper, best known for his work in the “Stargate” TV franchise, is a straightforward dramatization of an entirely avoidable calamity: the tainting of Canada’s blood supply by H.I.V. and hepatitis C in the 1980s. It can be prosaic and sentimental at times, but its steady, no-frills approach keeps you engaged in the increasingly enraging story. (Streaming on Sundance Now and Amazon .)
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