TV Never Sleeps’ Best of 2019
Randy’s favorite shows, performances, and oddities of the year in television.
2019 was officially the year Peak TV ended; what we saw, especially in the second half of the year, was the dawning of the Too Much TV era, a harbinger of the impending Streaming Wars II in 2020, when over 500 scripted series will air across approximately 51,943 different networks and services.
Because of its strange existence between the age of Game of Thrones and the age of A Shitload of Semi-Prestige, Extremely Forgettable Television Series, 2019 was a weird collection of highs and lows – one definitely marked by a series of disappointing, seemingly premature cancellations, shows like Tuca & Bertie, Abby’s, and Lodge 49 lost as artifacts of a time nobody seemed to understand how to effectively measure an audience.
But it was also a year defined by some memorable, ambitious television that wore its niche qualities like a badge, and didn’t conform to be yet another middling, mindless binge watch or network procedural. There were even some good spin-offs, adaptations, and reboots (shout out Dark Crystal and The Mandalorian, two shows I wish I’d seen more of before writing this list), in an age where their proliferation has led to some truly middling results (Carnival Row, anyone?)
Without further ado, here are my picks for my favorite shows, performances, episodes, and moments of TV in 2019:
A Black Lady Sketch Show & I Think You Should Leave revitalize sketch comedy
The back half of the 2010’s has proven to be pretty great for sketch comedy shows, a trend no more obvious than in 2019’s A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO) and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix), two of the best entries in the genre of the decade – and more importantly, two series with incredibly diverse comedic voices.
I Think You Should Leave‘s genius comes in its brevity: Tim Robinson and company’s sketches are short and absurd, exaggerating mundane situations to examine the strange social contracts we all have with each other (plus, the entire season is 90 minutes long!). Whether a criminal in a hot dog costume or a baby in a reality competition, I Think You Should Leave‘s ability to tweak reality into hilarious surrealism instantly (and rightfully) turned it into the internet’s favorite show – complete with my single favorite niche Twitter account of the year, I Think You Should League Pass.
On the other hand, A Black Lady’s Sketch Show is an absolute mastery of the ensemble format, offering its audience wonderfully textured sketches, that examine everything from culture to gender , with some of the most incredibly tight, mature comedy writing on television. A Black Lady Sketch Show brazenly declares its identity in its title, and embodies it in every hilarious, guest-star laden sketch: this is a show written, produced, and performed by black women, a powerful avenue for some of the generation’s greatest comedic voices (created by Robin Thede and produced by Issa Rae, ABLSS stars Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Quinta Brunson). The results? Sketches like “Purgatory Soul Food,” “Bad Bitch Support Group,” “Courtroom Kiki,” and my personal favorite, “Invisible Spy.”
Alan Arkin as Norman Newlander, The Kominsky Method
In the first episode of Chuck Lorre’s unexpectedly touching The Kominsky Method, retired Hollywood agent Norman Newlander loses his wife to cancer, sending him into a depressed spiral of trying to find purpose in life when the only thing he really loved was gone. While the series around him took awhile to find its stride, Alan Arkin’s performance as the brash, outspoken Norman was always pitch perfect, a somber portrayal of a man contending with an emptiness in his life, for which there is no way to fill.
Season two gave even more layers to Norman’s character, as his adult daughter (Lisa Edelstein, delivering a fantastic performance of her own) returns from rehab and begins to try and rebuild her life. Norman is trying to rebuild his life, going on his first dates as a widow and contending with the undeniable fact that the world continues spinning, even when the center of our known universe is no longer there.
It would be easy for the character to fall into grumpy parody; Arkin offers such incredible complexity to Norman, however, he becomes one of the easiest characters on television to root for. Though the show around him (which co-stars Michael Douglas as an acting teacher learning to be a better father himself) is often more interesting to examine than it is rewarding to watch, Arkin’s Norman offers The Kominsky Method a distinct heart the show builds its entire emotional foundation on.
“Broad City” – Broad City
After a couple meandering seasons, Broad City‘s final run turned out to be one of 2019’s biggest surprises, securing its legacy among the decade’s greats with a gem of a fifth season. Broad City was always an unconventional comedy series about personal and professional growth – but its final run of episodes were about its protagonists maturing beyond their shared, now iconic friendship, confronting the fear of the unknown in unexpectedly powerful, poignant ways.
The premise clearly energized Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, and their writing team: the final season of Broad City is arguably its most memorable, taking a deep look into Abbi and Ilana’s friendship and contending with the inevitability that one day, they’ll have to face life challenges without each other by their side. It does so by taking a rather intriguing risk; it separates Ilana and Abbi for large portions of the season, isolating them so each can figure out what they really want from life.
A love letter to a friendship, an era of television, and Broad City‘s eloquently goofy portrayal of New York, “Broad City” is the rare, truly perfect series finale, one that uses its narrative simplicity (Abbi and Ilana steal a toilet before Abbi moves to Colorado) to explore the deep emotional texture of their universe-expanding relationship. I won’t spoil anything here – but even if you fell off the series during its slightly too wacky middle seasons, you won’t be disappointed (or have a dry eye) watching Broad City‘s touching last episode, one of the best to air in 2019.
Thanks to shows like Channel Zero (RIP), Creepshow, and The Twilight Zone, horror on the small screen is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Though Chernobyl doesn’t explicit share any DNA with these series – after all, it is a true fucking story – it is far and away the most effective work of horror I saw in 2019, a frightening reminder of how close we perpetually exist to catastrophic disaster – and more importantly, how woefully inept bureaucracies are prepared to handle such calamities.
Led by a terrific cast (including Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and a sublime Emily Watson), Craig Mazin’s historical mini-series takes a surprisingly objective look at the nuclear disaster and its fallout; beginning with “1:23:45,” easily the most harrowing series premiere in recent memory, and continuing through every seemingly-impossible step of the recovery – a story that ranges from blubbering politicians (and the power of public spin) to young volunteers, sent through infected towns to kill all the pets and stray animals left behind by evacuating families.
Dark, unforgiving – and sometimes, outright depressing, Chernobyl is the kind of jarringly honest reflections on history television needs more of.
Daisy Haggard as Miri Matteson, Back to Life
Though as a series, Back to Life is never able to truly become the spiritual successor to Rectify it so clearly could’ve been, it is still a touching story of redemption and the passage of time, studying the time-delayed ripple effect of a murder in a small British town.
Daisy Haggard stars as Miri Matteson, the killer in question: 18 years after accidentally killing her best friend during an argument, Miri finds herself trying to reintegrate herself back into the world after serving her time. In Miri, Haggard finds a career-defining performance, equal touches quirky and devastating, able to turn the character on a whim to elevate the emotional tenor of any given moment.
I think what sticks with me after Back to Life‘s brief six-episode first season is just how effortles the performance comes across; though Miri is desperately trying to put her past behind her, Haggard never once leans on melodrama or histrionics to give voice to her arrested emotional development. Instead, she offers a carefully crafted, nuanced portrayal of a woman trying not to drown in bad memories and regrets, a sheen of optimism that slowly cracks as the season continues. It is a performance television critics didn’t talk about enough in 2019, and it is one I’m looking to see grow and get its due in 2020.
Deadwood: The Movie
I’ve written at great lengths already about Deadwood: The Movie, so let me just say this: Deadwood: The Movie is better than it has any right to be. David Milch, returning to his Western masterpiece for the last time, crafts a wistful, optimistic, unbelievably beautiful epilogue to the world of Deadwood, looking forward to the future while taking time to reflect on his iconic series, the passage of time, and the weight of a lifetime’s collection of memories and experiences. I cry through the final twenty minutes every time I watch it – partly because I still can’t believe it exists, but mostly because it is an emotionally charged, effortlessly poignant ending to one of television’s greatest dramatic experiments.
Edi Patterson as Judy Gemstone, The Righteous Gemstones
There were a lot of great female comedic performances in 2019 – and while much attention will rightfully be given to Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle of Pen15, and Pamela Adlon of Better Things, my personal favorite performance of the year came from Edi Patterson as Judy Gemstone on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, a surprisingly emotional series of televangelists and white privilege.
As the daughter of a outright legend, the pressure Judy feels to make a name for herself – in a family full of men trying to diminish her influence, no less – is palpable; how Patterson morphs that into a layered, uninhibited performance as the vulgar, energetic Judy is a sight to see. Able to be hilarious and devastatingly honest in the same moment, Judy Gemstone is the real heart of The Righteous Gemstones, a character whose nepotism is balanced by her vulnerability, her desire to be more than just a rich daughter living in the shadow of her mother’s legacy. Patterson also offers some of the best line readings in all of television, as if you needed another reason to be convinced of her comedic mastery.
The fireplace scene in Game of Thrones‘ “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
Let’s be honest: the final season of Game of Thrones blows, a mess of undercooked character motivations, poor plotting, and one of the most laughably hollow, lazy series finales ever. Even for a show that seemed to stumble upon greatness more often than willingly construct it, the last eight entries in HBO’s A Song of Fire and Ice adaptation was a miscalculation of epic proportions, roundly rejected by audiences and critics alike (including this guy).
But for all the frustrations of experiencing the incoherent “The Long Night” and the cynical “The Bells,” Game of Thrones was still capable of some incredible character moments, almost all of which came in the season’s best episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”
Though never an episode that will rank high on anyone’s list of best episodes, there is a particular sequence that ranks among the best of the series, the one time the weight of its characters grueling journeys through Westeros shone through its unkempt, underwhelming mess of terrible writing and unconvincing climactic moments (ok, there is one other: the Hound vs. Mountain fight at King’s Landing, but that moment exists in the shadow of the awful material around it).
I’m talking, of course, about everyone hanging out in the Stark home, reminscing about the paths they took to get there – a conversation that leads to Brienne of Tarth’s knighting at the hand of Jaime (a moment they immediately undercut with some unnecessary romantic tension, but… we’ll just pretend that doesn’t happen, for the sake of preserving this scene). It’s a four-minute scene that captures everything great about Game of Thrones; there are no fancy dragons or eye-opening scenes of bloodshed. It’s just a bunch of weary people talking about the rich past of their world, bonding over the shared understanding of “fuck tradition.”
And it ends with perhaps the best culmination of a plot arc in the entire series (well, except maybe the rise and fall of Robb Stark); Brienne rightly becoming a knight of the Seven Kingdoms, as deserving a happy ending as anyone in the realm of Westeros deserved. The emotional power of that moment is a thing few shows are able to pull off, and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” does it with a confidence rarely seen in its final hours. It still warms my heart to think of Brienne’s smile when she rises a true knight of the realm; though Game of Thrones will be remembered for much louder, more dramatic moments, that image is the one I’ll always keep in my mind when remembering the long, strange journey through the most-discussed television series of all-time.
“Fish Night” – Love, Death & Robots
Love, Death & Robots is not a great series – it vacillates wildly in quality between its eighteen entries, as one might expect from a science fiction short film anthology. But there are a few noticable standouts (like “Ice Age” and “Zima Blue,” which you can read about in my official ranking), led by Philip Galett’s adaptation of Joe Landsdale’s short story “Fish Night.”
A tale of two salesman stranded on the side of a road, “Fish Night” goes light on the science fiction, and heavy on character and tone, creating one of the dreamier, effortless entries in the series. Quiet and contemplative, “Fish Night” slowly builds to a transcendent climax, in turn delivering on the promise of Love, Death & Robot‘s approach to short-form, ambitious sci-fi stories.
Legends of Tomorrow
Who would’ve thought that the fourth spin-off of the Arrowverse, featuring a handful of C- and D-list DC characters, would eventually become one of the most audacious, emotionally rewarding series on television? Since a mostly underwhelming, creatively safe, first season, Legends of Tomorrow has slowly transformed itself into the most reliable, consistent drama on network television – to the point its storytelling choices and character evolution apes anything done on Arrow and The Flash throughout their run.
Whether it is Sara Lance fucking her way through history (or, in recent seasons, dating a clone-turned-government agent named Ava), John Constantine dealing with his endless parade of demons, or Heat Wave’s writing career, Legends of Tomorrow‘s merry band of misfits have become my favorite collection of characters on television. And though LoT never really exceeds the limited emotional landscape of its network counterparts, what it does with form is simply fascinating, packing every time-traveling adventure with meta references, extended cinematic homages, and the kind of Don’t Give a Fuck storytelling television just doesn’t have anymore. Legends of Tomorrow demands its audience take massive leaps of faith; for those of us that are willing to make the jump, it is a consistently rewarding journey.