Ranking the Best Shows of 2019: Part Three
Trying to decide the best television series of 2019 is no easy task since there’s way too much to choose from. It’s hard sometimes to know where to draw the line and how many shows we want to include. For example, should we consider game shows or talk shows or the 6:00 evening news? Why is it that only prestige dramas and sitcoms usually make the cut? What’s even harder is trying to rank these shows in order of our favourite to least favourite. How, for example, do you compare a comedy/drama about an anthropomorphized, talking horse with an in-depth documentary series about the Central Park Five? As I said, it isn’t an easy task and when deciding what to add to the list this year, we considered every sort of television programming you can imagine, from Jeopardy to AEW Wrestling to the NBA Finals and everything in between. With that in mind, we’ve narrowed down our personal favourites. Here is the third and final part of our list of the best TV shows of 2019.
10: The Expanse (Amazon Prime)
It’s a whole new world for The Expanse in its fourth season, in more ways than one: as inners and belters alike head to unknown worlds, television’s best science fiction series finds itself in a new, unexpected home at Amazon Prime.
Thankfully, the shift to streaming hasn’t had a lasting effect on one of the more philosophically curious, sociopolitically prescient series of television’s current era; The Expanse remains one of television’s greatest, most meaningfully crafted series in that sense, as Holden and the crew of the Rocinante continue to follow the trail of the proto-molecule through the galaxy, and into whatever shitstorm inevitably awaits them. Anchored by a strong collection of character arcs – from Bobbie’s shared identity crisis with her home planet to the arrival of Murtry, a scientist-turned-aggressor ingraining himself on the strange planet of Ilus – The Expanse is dramatic television firing on all cylinders, an ambitious, emotional journey through the stars led by some of the best ensemble work on television. (Randy Dankievitch)
9: Barry (HBO)
Barry‘s first season felt like a well-contained story; like many shows in the current era of television, it felt like less might be more for Bill Hader and Alex Berg’s black comedy about a lonely hitman trying to convince himself to live a clean life. Boy, did they prove me wrong: Barry‘s second season quietly transformed itself into one of the best, most devastating character studies on television, catapulting itself into the highest echelon of television with episodes like “rony/lilly” and “berkman > block” (both directed by Hader, who firmly establishes himself as one of the best directors working in the medium).
After an uneven premiere, it appeared Barry was going bigger in its second season: while it certainly has that feel in an external sense (at least, in the show’s wandering first few hours), Barry‘s second and third acts doubles down on its central theme of honesty, and just how it easy it is for people to lie to themselves. The fallout of this self-deception plays out in a number of powerful ways, from Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from Fuches and his bullshit, to Sally’s beautifully layered arc of trying to capture her truth as an artist (the show’s most marked improvement of the season). With it, Barry found a way to refine its mix of violent comedy, industry satire, and deep character study into something much sharper, and wildly more satisfying. (Randy Dankievitch)
8: Superstore (NBC)
Perhaps the last great remaining workplace comedy on network television, Superstore‘s fourth season slowly shifts itself away from the melodramatics of its predecessor… and in the process, establishes itself as one of the more heartfelt and progressive shows on TV. More importantly, it does so without pretension, even though just about every major narrative arc of the season hinges on relevant social movements (like immigration, unionization, corporate capitalism), Superstore never lets these moments overwhelm its eclectic, lovable cast of characters, one of the most hilarious (and diverse) on television.
There are too many satisfying arcs to list here (though Amy’s ascension to store manager is a personal favorite) – but it’s the final four episodes of the season, culminating in “Employee Appreciation Day,” that firmly cement Superstore‘s legacy as one of the decade’s great ensemble comedies (and in a roundabout way, everything Aaron Sorkin wishes The Newsroom could’ve been). It’s striking to see a show (a network comedy, no less) take such strong stances on unions, immigration, and corporate discrimination – to do so while also remaining a deeply rewarding comedy about a cast of blue-collar misfits is something truly special. (Randy Dankievitch)
7: Euphoria (HBO)
HBO’s button-pushing new drama Euphoria zeroes in on the lives of several high school students living in California and how they navigate a world filled with violence, profanity, drug use, overt bullying, and sexual abuse. The show has been billed as a parent’s nightmare, no thanks to the explicit sex scenes, nonconsensual-sex tapes and child pornography but beneath the show’s explicit exterior is a compassionate examination of adolescent longing. Told from the perspective of a 17-year-old drug addict named Rue, who is desperately trying to self-medicate her severe depression with whatever drugs she can get her hands on, Euphoria is both an exploitive and a surprisingly tender look at the overwhelming anxieties faced by teens today including neglect, anxiety, and loneliness. Some scenes contain powerful messaging while others seem designed simply to shock, but more often than not, Euphoria will have viewers thinking long and hard about the current modern challenges facing youth today.
Euphoria channels the spirit of movies like Kids and Gummo, and like those films, it’s best to view the series as a mood piece rather than a guide to Gen Z behaviors. If the series can slow down and stop trying so hard to shock adult viewers, it could become a worthy addition to the HBO pantheon. There’s a lot of potential here, but like the characters it follows, Euphoria is sometimes lost and trying to find its voice. That said, despite its shortcomings, it is still one of the better shows of 2019. (Ricky D)
6: Chernobyl (HBO)
It’s been a quiet year for horror series during the first half of 2019 – until Chernobyl arrived in the spring, with the terrifying reminder that nobody is safe from the unseen terror of radiation, the toxic, silent killer at the heart of HBO’s harrowing, moving (and most terrifyingly, historical) account of the Soviet nuclear disaster. Centered around the doctors, scientists, and politicians ensnared by the government to “fix” the un-fixable, Chernobyl is a moving account of the mistakes, guesses, and half-truths that, over time, transformed bad calculus into an international disaster with an immeasurable human cost.
Perhaps the most cogent terror of Chernobyl is not the big explosions and uncertainty of early episodes: it is the creeping realization of how close we are to this happening a (third) time, and how unprepared the bureaucracies of the civilized world are prepared to handle it. Chernobyl is a powerful reflection on human persistence, and what a dangerous double-edged sword it is for the world, and particularly its most powerful men, to wield.
Led by a trio of powerful performances from Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson, Chernobyl is an intoxicating mix of terrifying images and anxiety-inducing foreshadowing, a damning account of the lives lost at the expense of playing politics (or in the case of a young military recruit, a damning loss of innocence). Even without the horrifying images of seeing what happened to the unsuspecting first responders to the disaster (and the creeping realization of its main players of their own fates), Chernobyl‘s depiction of a government’s ineptitude to deal with the fallout of its own ambition makes it the most frightening show of 2019. (Randy Dankievitch)
5: Game of Thrones (HBO)
Like Black Mirror, Game of Thrones’ latest (and final) season has been incredibly divisive. With many fans lamenting the pacing issues and plot revelations behind the endgame of George R.R. Martin’s dark fantasy series, Game of Thrones may not have another Emmy in the bag, but it does leave a lasting legacy nonetheless.
The settling of some of the show’s most long-simmering and important plotlines may not have pleased all viewers, but the fact that Game of Thrones managed to tell the entire story of a seven book fantasy saga on television at all is wildly impressive.
Even with the polarizing reactions to season 8, Game of Thrones still offered the bombastic story-telling, intricate characterization, top-notch production values, and fantastic performances for which it has come to be known. These factors alone make it stand out among the best television of 2019, even if it couldn’t live up to the sky-high expectations of some of its fans. (Mike Worby)
4: Fleabag (BBC One, BBC Two)
Nearly three years after its genius debut, Fleabag finally returned for a second go-round in April – and somehow lived up to its gigantic expectations, delivering a second series even more darkly poignant and emotionally devastating than the first. Through the conduit of the meme-ified Hot Priest, Fleabag‘s second offering picks up the first season’s observations about human connection and gives it a properly epic feel, turning the audience into Fleabag’s only friend, and God of her world.
It’s stunning how effortless it all feels: from Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ little glances towards the camera to the layers of nuance in each of the season’s scripts, Fleabag is a work of art all to itself, lacking in the prestige pretention so many other notable series of the era get tied up in. It is undoubtedly one of this decade’s most important, reflective series on the human condition – but it never ever feels that weight, especially as it tells its tragic, comical love story of Fleabag and the aforementioned Hot Priest (who at one point, looks right through Fleabag and towards the audience, as shocking a moment as anything on television in 2019).
There are few shows as rewarding or as rewatchable as Fleabag, in all its twitchy, horny, awkward glory. It is a story of loss and discovery, of failure and retribution – and most importantly, of life’s continuous disappointments and occasional joys. Fleabag reminds us just how hard it is to latch onto the latter; but in the few moments we can, the peace and clarity we’re offered can energize an entire lifetime of beautiful misery. (Randy Dankievitch)
3: Mindhunter (Netflix)
With fans having waited with great anticipation for two years, David Fincher’s revolutionary Netflix series returned this year for its sophomore season, giving fans an even deeper dive into the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.
Ultimately, the second season of Mindhunter did not disappoint— it’s hands down one of the best shows of 2019, a meticulous, well written and darkly evocative re-creation of a time and a place that captures the complexity and inherent difficulties of old-fashioned detective work. The attention to detail applied here must be applauded. Mindhunter captures every feeling and nuance of an entire era and through its brilliant commentary, it will make you want to dig through Wikipedia posts while binging several true crime podcasts just to learn more about its subjects. It’s a story about the incomprehensible nature of evil and reminds us that in the end, no matter how hard we try, we won’t learn every detail and understand every motive. (Ricky D)
2: Succession (HBO)
The first season of Succession didn’t get the attention it deserved when it premiered in 2018 but fast forward one year, and HBO’s darkly funny drama about the Roy family (the dysfunctional owners of a global media and hospitality empire who are fighting for control of the company) became one of the most talked-about shows of 2019.
It’s easy to see why it took so long for viewers to warm up to Succession given that the characters in Succession are despicable creatures and will do everything in their power to get their share of the family media empire. This is a show about rich people— there’s no way around it— but Succession does not glamourize their wealth nor does it makes no apologies for it. The truth is, the characters in Succession are some of the worst people you’ll see on television with each episode steadily and surely raising its characters up to new levels of horrors. The Roys are destructive people and they and their organization cause other people to suffer and sometimes self-destruct in front of them, but they are so far removed from reality that they cannot see the harm it inflicts on others. Or maybe, they just don’t care. Whatever the case, Succession finds pleasure in awful people trying—and failing in doing awful things to one another. After each episode, it becomes clear that despite having wonderfully written characters, there’s nobody to root for. What makes the second season of Succession an improvement, however, is how it examines what happens when that power and privilege are stripped away.
The word “Shakespearean” is often mistakenly used to describe high-prestige dramas but in the case of Succession, it feels like the best descriptor for the series. Succession isn’t what you’d call a very cinematic series. Its strength lies in its theatrical quality, sharp writing and exceptional performances that bring a new level of sympathy for some of television’s least likable characters. In fact, several episodes don’t do much other than place the central characters in a confining space and allow the selfish one-percenters to try and outdo each other’s depravity. It is an act of torture, and yet, you can’t help but watch the drama unfold. And the reason we enjoy watching them plot, bicker, argue and backstab each other is that despite its deplorable characters, Succession is extremely funny.
The season finale itself, is one of the best hours of television this year, as we watch nearly all the members of the Roy family and their business colleagues attempt to decide who among them should be sacrificed in order to save the rest. Without giving away any spoilers, the final shocking twist nearly broke the internet and left viewers clamoring for more (Ricky D)
1: Watchmen (HBO)
In an age of adaptations, sequels, reboots, prequels, trilogies, and shared universes, Damon Lindelof’s stylish, driven Watchmen series stands out – in fact, it may be the single most affecting dystopian fiction of 2019. It is undeniably the most fascinating; set 37 years after the events of the seminal graphic novel, Lindelof (along with a writing staff that includes Carly Wray, Cord Jefferson, and Nick Cuse) creates an allegorically rich world of masked police, Rorschach-quoting white supremacists, and a couple essential familiar faces.
Watchmen may be the biggest surprise of the year; not in its quality, because the creative talent on both sides of the camera (the cast boasts Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, and Lou Gossett Jr. among its regulars) is quite obvious. What makes Watchmen so unexpected is its fearlessness; in both continuing the legacy of a particularly pernicious, critical piece of American literature, and as a timely series about race in America.
It succeeds wildly at both: led by King’s performance as Sister Night (along with a stunning Jovan Adepo as young Will Reeves), Watchmen is the expected tour-de-force of dramatic prowess, a show capable of beautifully crafted character moments and genuine moments of awe and surprise. But more important is its bracing honesty, a dystopian sci-fi series that is willing to be strange, funny, and strikingly critical all in a single breath. Though we all expected Lindelof’s take on Watchmen to be a gorgeously crafted, wonderous fun house of weirdness, the unexpected sociopolitical weight of his ruminations on the nature of gods and men firmly establishes Watchmen as one of 2019’s great series. Also, the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score fuckin’ slaps. (Randy Dankievitch)