Ranking the Best Shows of 2019: Part Two
As the dawn of the Second Streaming Wars between Disney+, Netflix, and the hundreds of other streaming services, networks, and cable channels approaches, television finds itself in a strange place, an increasingly influential – and overcrowded – medium of art, one facing the end of an era with the conclusion of cultural touchstones like Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory.
It’s still been a wonderful time for television, though – a time for wildly creative auteurs, some memorable performances – and of course, the final season of HBO’s iconic tale of dragons & boobs. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites from the strange, weird half year it’s been – here is the second part of Goomba Stomp’s Best TV shows of 2019.
20: Primal (Adult Swim)
One of the biggest surprises of the year came from Adult Swim and Genndy Tartakovsky with Primal. Set in a fantastical version of prehistoric times, Primal sees its two speechless protagonists travelling together across a brutal and unforgiving wilderness after a series of tragedies bonds them together.
Though the tale of this unlikely duo and their journey is compelling enough, it’s the jaw-dropping animation that will keep you coming back for more. Tartakovsky is best known for sillier fare like Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory but his work here is some of the most stunning artistry you’ll see in the entire industry.
At a mere 22 minutes an episode, Primal is absolutely worth a look for anyone with even a passing interest in animated entertainment, and with the season being broken into two parts (with the second part coming in 2020) there’s plenty of time to get caught up before we see how this intense, bloody tale comes to a close. (Mike Worby)
19: Stranger Things (Netflix)
Stranger Things is so popular that we sometimes forget this once unknown property came out of nowhere in 2016 and surprised the world by becoming the most popular series on Netflix due to word-of-mouth. It was the first original streaming series that quickly became a water-cooler topic and three seasons later, Stranger Things shows no signs of slowing down.
Except for a few missteps, the third season of Stranger Things surpasses the creative heights of the second season if only because it raises the stakes. Not only does season two’s Big Bad, the Mind Flayer return to prey on the residents of Hawkins, Indiana but having Billy as the Mind Flayer’s surrogate villain makes the threat to Hawkins a little more tangible. As awful as Billy was in the second season, it pales in comparison to what the Mind Flayer forces him to do this time around. And thanks to great writing and a superb performance by Dacre Montgomery, we end up caring about Billy once Eleven delves into his memories and we learn why Billy is the way he is. In season two, Billy was the bully but in season three, it’s the bully who becomes the victim and he’s desperately in need of saving. Along with Russian spies, Cold War paranoia, and the arrival of a new shopping mall that puts everyone out of business, the third season of Stranger Things is packed with enough mystery, suspense, and nail-biting tension to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Anyone who enjoyed the first two seasons of Strangers Things should no doubt enjoy the third season. The character-based humor, funny quips, excellent cast, period-specific detail, pop culture references, science fiction horror, and moments of fan-satisfying gratification are all present and accounted for. Season Three has everything a fan could want— it’s exciting, funny, suspenseful and features arguably the two best episodes of the series so far. More importantly, the season explores the idea of friends drifting apart. In Season Three, the children have grown into young teens with new interests and shifting priorities and now they must find a way to put aside their differences and work together. Season Three ends with perhaps the most satisfying conclusion yet and features moments that could make even the most jaded viewer teary-eyed. (Ricky D)
18: When They See Us (Netflix)
Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in When They See Us, a dramatized account of how thirty years ago, five young boys came to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and beating a white female jogger in Central Park, and leaving her left for dead. It is one of the most famous cases of young boys wrongfully accused of a crime they did not commit. The case made headlines around the world and the five teenagers, all of color, would ultimately become known as the Central Park Five. The story of the Central Park Five has been covered extensively by media since, including in the incredible 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. But this scripted miniseries is different and it feels more personal due to DuVernay’s approach in closely examining the five individuals whose lives were turned upside down before they’d even had the chance to finish high school. And in many ways, When They See Us is the perfect companion piece to that famous documentary. Instead of reinvestigating this case, or delving into the circumstances that led up to it, When They See Us focuses more on the suffering the boys endured both when they were forced to do time and when they were released from prison.
The first episode shows how the police department, detectives and lawyers tricked these young boys into confessing to a crime they were not guilty of. The second episode captures the trial and the media hype surrounding the case while the penultimate episode (which brings in four older actors to play the characters as adults), tracks the experiences of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond, the four men who emerge from their juvenile sentences and are faced with various obstacles when restarting their lives as registered sex offenders. The final episode which is the most heartbreaking runs nearly 90 minutes long, and focuses on the particular suffering of 16-year-old Korey, the only one of the five sentenced as an adult and winds up spending his time behind bars in various adult prisons. When They See Us is not an easy show to watch but it is essential viewing if you care at all about how unjust the justice system is. It’s a powerful, dense, series that examines not just the effects of systemic racism but the effects of all sorts of disenfranchisement. It is profoundly rich, urgent, unflinching, and DuVernay’s strongest work to date. It might also just be the best series of 2019. (Ricky D)
17: Mr. Robot (USA)
When Mr. Robot hit the scene five years ago, it was one of the breakout critical sensations of that year. It was a series that was legit must-watch television thanks to its tremendous zeitgeist appeal and Rami Malek’s performance as the disaffected hacker protagonist Elliot Alderson. Mr. Robot put its network, USA, on the map and made Malek a bona fide star. It revived the career of former Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater and it made creator-writer-director Sam Esmail one of TV’s most talked-about new auteurs. There was a time when Mr. Robot was considered the best show on television, but all the plaudits Mr. Robot received for its first season died quickly with its meandering second, as fans grew tired of Esmail continually toying with viewer perceptions. The third season was an improvement, but despite some truly outstanding episodes (most notably “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00”), it still felt like it was trying too hard to outsmart the audience. By the time season three ended, the conversation had moved on and Mr. Robot felt stuck in the past.
Thankfully, Mr. Robot returned with a satisfying, thrilling final season that surprised its fanbase and kept them at the edge of their seats. The stakes in season four are higher than they’ve ever been—opening with a major character death and making it clear that Elliot’s mission to take down Whiterose and the Dark Army was going to come at a high cost. What’s more, is that Mr. Robot’s fourth and final season has taken its stylistic ambitions to new heights. Mr. Robot has always been fond of experimental filmmaking in the television landscape— in season three, Sam Esmail constructed a brilliant hour that was filmed and edited to seem as if it all done in one long, continuous single shot— but this season’s direction is truly special. For the most part, Esmail has maintained his undeniably unique aesthetic, taking full advantage of negative space, vertigo-inducing God’s-eye perspectives, Dutch angles, shadowy faces and of course, using a wide lens in tight spaces. The blocking of scenes involving each actor is the sharpest it’s ever been, and the art direction still feels somewhat revolutionary. There’s no denying Mr. Robot is one of TV’s most stylistically and creatively adventurous and season four brings even more to the table.
Writer and director Sam Esmail (the show’s creator and showrunner) has once again directed every single episode of the season and with each season, he becomes better and better at his craft. Episode four titled “Not Found” is one of the strangest (and best) Christmas episodes ever— as Darlene, Dom, Elliot, and Tyrell face their demons on Christmas Eve. The season’s fifth episode — “405 Method Not Allowed” is one of the most inventive entries to date and features just two lines of spoken dialogue as Elliot and Darlene undertake an ambitious heist. If that isn’t enough, halfway through Mr. Robot’s final season, Sam Esmail puts together a gripping bottle episode structured as a play in five acts, which focuses exclusively on Vera’s kidnapping and subsequent emotional manipulation of Elliot. “Proxy Authentication Required” is a riveting hour, relying heavily on extended conversations and superb performances by Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Elliot Villar and Gloria Reuben to reveal a pivotal moment in Elliot’s tragic past. With “Proxy Authentication Required,” Esmail comes across as a modern-day Hitchcock— the episode is exhilarating, horrifying, and thrilling, despite never leaving the New York apartment.
Much has been said about how the show critiques consumerism, the internet, capitalism, and the use of technology to oversee and control our daily lives—but Mr. Robot is and has always been foremost, a story about mental illness. At the center of this show is Rami Malek whose emotional range as an actor has helped carry the series through both the highs and lows. Season four is a testament to his incredible talent and that of Sam Esmail who’s given us one of the decade’s signature prestige dramas. (Ricky D)
16: Now Apocalypse (Starz)
Once considered the angriest, most unconventional, and relentlessly intriguing voices in independent cinema, Gregg Araki first made his name as a filmmaker in the 90s, emerging as part of the new queer cinema movement when his third feature, The Living End— a controversial road movie about two HIV-positive runaways who go on a violent cross-country spree. From there, Araki went on to make several more features including Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere (which would become known as the Teen-Age Apocalypse Trilogy) and his most famous film, Mysterious Skin: the coming of age drama about a small-town rent boy played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
If you’ve seen any of the Gregg Araki’s films, you should know what to expect from Now Apocalypse, his surreal, coming-of-age comedy series that … wait for it … explores identity, sexuality, and artistry while navigating the strange, dangerous and oftentimes bewildering city of Los Angeles while the main protagonist Ulysses, is having premonitions about the end of the world. Sound familiar?
Co-written by Araki with sex columnist Karley Sciortino, the new half-hour sci-fi comedy from Starz is bound to confuse viewers who have little-to-no previous exposure to Araki’s body of work – which is fine by me because despite its utterly ridiculous plot, Now Apocalypse features everything you’d want from a Gregg Araki series. Now Apocalypse is unapologetically queer, quirky, mysterious and fun. And while it is admittedly a huge mess, it is also never once boring and quite frankly, refreshingly different from everything else on TV. (Ricky D)
15: Dark Crystal (Netflix)
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an utter feast for the eyes, pulses, and minds and it will more than exceed the expectations of fans of Jim Henson’s original. This is one of the most ambitious and immersive TV events of the year – a series that builds on the wonderment of the 1982 film and delivers a smarter, creepier, more whimsical, and more narratively thrilling adventure. Age of Resistance is made with such intelligence, imagination, passion, and skill, that you can feel the filmmaker’s passion oozing out of every frame. Anyone else looking to make a fantasy TV series should take notes since this is a prime example of how to do it right.
Whether you’re watching for fulfilled nostalgia or simple curiosity, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will more than keep you enthralled with its craftsmanship and pure artistry. It’s extraordinary work, grandly conceived, brilliantly executed and one of the best fantasy tales since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
What Louis Leterrier and company have accomplished here is amazing on every level. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a technical marvel and an achievement in the art form of puppetry. Every scene is teeming with life and every episode is blessed with a good script, fantastic performances, and stunning visuals. Age of Resistance is crammed with so much adventure, so many spectacular effects, so much derring-do, and so much visual wonder, it will keep some viewers coming back for more. More importantly, it’s clear the entire team went out of their way to stay true to Jim Henson’s vision and retain the spirit of the original film. Netflix deserves credit for taking a gamble on such an ambitious project and judging by how it ends, we will hopefully see a second season in the near future. (Ricky D)
14: The OA: Part II (Netflix)
There’s nothing on television like The OA, a show about trauma, companionship, love… and traveling through parallel universes by doing an interpretive dance. Nearly two and a half years after its strange, hauntingly beautiful debut, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s ridiculous, heartfelt series returned a completely different animal, trading in its poignant, quiet reflections of season one into a loud, vibrant kaleidoscope of utterly ridiculous stories.
There are deadly online mobile games, a telepathic (and horny) octopus, and mini-robots who dance the movements: these are but a few of the ridiculous twists and turns offered in The OA: Part II, which is somehow a more ostentatiously opaque, thoroughly challenging offering than its predecessor. Unlike anything else on television, The OA: Part II demands audiences to trust it, to believe in the utter bullshit it portrays as plot development on screen – a challenge it most certainly meets, with a welcome earnestness and disregard for formula, or at times, even basic coherency.
It is an utterly confounding, beautiful work of art: The OA: Part II is unforgiving and bold, one of the rare television series that is truly “like nothing else on television.” In 2019, that is a harder and harder thing to claim, but there is nothing like The OA‘s exploration of identity, destiny, and even reality. It is something you must truly see to believe – especially its ending, one of the most purely bat shit crazy plot twists I’ve seen in the Peak TV era. (Randy Dankievitch)
13: The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)
Though Danny McBride’s HBO work is often remembered for its audacious humor, it’s the fascination with modern Americana that truly makes Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals memorable series – which in a way, makes him an unnatural fit for a series as big and loaded as televangelism. And yet, The Righteous Gemstones hits the ground running, a comedy about the intersection of religion, business, and family, in one of 2019’s more interesting shows about inter-generational conflict – and more prudently, honesty and forgiveness.
Led by Edi Patterson’s mesmerizing performance as forgotten Gemstone sibling Judy (who surprisingly outshines John Goodman, an unhinged Walton Goggins, and Danny McBride), The Righteous Gemstones is the rare comedy that is as reflective as it is funny: even in the age of Peak TV’s hybridization of traditional genres, Gemstones is one of few series able to nimbly jump between identities.
Perhaps most importantly, it is as confident a comedy as there is on television, a conviction of theme and character that only grows stronger as the season builds its dramatic crescendo, resulting in one of the most satisfying season finales of the year. (Randy Dankievitch)
12: I Think You Should Leave (Netflix)
As Netflix continues to diversify its eclectic brand of offerings, the streaming service is catering to more markets than ever. One of its latest successes is the no-holds-barred sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave.
Created by and starring SNL alum Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave goes all-in on each of its increasingly outlandish scenarios, including a cringe-inducing job interview, a man trying to get revenge on a baby, an awkward Instagram lunch date, and bikers from outer space. Yes, I Think You Should Leave is as silly and out there as it sounds, but with guest stars like Will Forte, Michelle Ortiz, Steven Yeun, and a host of others to sell the insanity, the comedy rarely falters.
With the first season coming in at only 90 minutes, and a second season already on the way, there’s no excuse not to give this brilliant Netflix sketch series a chance. (Mike Worby)
11: Russian Doll (Netflix)
Russian Doll may very well be the very best TV series Netflix has produced to date. Co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the series stars Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, a New York woman celebrating her 36th birthday, who is doomed to repeat the same endless time loop before she dies at the end of the night each time — only to awaken the next day having to start all over. Every time she thinks she might make it past the reset point, she dies again and again. The stakes are eventually raised when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow wanderer who is also stuck in his own depressive loop. What starts out feeling like a zany homage to Groundhog Day unravels to becomes something darker, deeper and far more complex. With so much bubbling under the surface, one could say, it’s a show carefully constructed like, well, a Russian doll.
One of the most straightforward threads of Russian Doll considers addiction which makes sense considering Lyonne has spoken about how parts of the story were inspired by her own history with drugs. A more popular reading is that the curse placed on Nadia and Alan could stand in as a metaphor for mental illness as they struggle to find a way to end the loop, only starting to realize that they need to first seek the emotional closure in order to overcome their own personal struggles before moving on. Meanwhile, Russian Doll has also drawn comparisons to video games such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in which Nadia, who just so happens to be a video game designer, must race against the clock in order to avoid death, and avoid starting all over again. Along with themes of trauma and existential questions about the construction of the universe and the importance of human connection, one’s interpretation of what the show is all about may vary from person to person. Somehow, though, Russian Doll manages to address all of these subjects and more, weaving countless themes and cultural references into a tight three-and-a-half-hour running time in which not a second is wasted. (Ricky D)