Earlier this fall I counted down my picks for the best shows of the decade, but as the year comes to a close, I felt compelled to share my picks for the best shows to air this year. Evaluating a specific year is different than evaluating a decade; for my year end list, I’m only focusing on the season that aired during 2019, which allows me to highlight new shows, as well as recurring shows with particularly impressive runs this year.
As with any list, there are things that I’m sad to leave off. I was very impressed by Paul Rudd’s dual performance as clones in Living With You, and I was thoroughly entertained by the spirited Neil Gaiman adaptation Good Omens. FX’s surrealist superhero show Legion delivered a solid finale to the most daring comic book show in history, and The End of the F***ing World returned for a contemplative and equally brash second season. While it ultimately couldn’t live up to its extreme expectations, there was a lot to like in the final season of Game of Thrones, including the emotional character piece episode “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” and the rousing action spectacle “The Long Knight.”
That being said, I stand by the ten shows I’ve selected as the best of the year, and while there’s obviously no way I would have time to watch every new show across the many platforms this year, I feel that these ten represent an eclectic mix of the types of storytelling on the small screen this year. Here are my top ten favorite shows of 2019.
10. The Boys
Completely unsubtle and often purposefully distasteful, The Boys is perhaps the perfect response to the current superhero phase that is both socially adept and thoroughly entertaining. It’s easy to poke holes in society’s obsession with caped crusaders, but for all its ultra violence and gross out humor, The Boys comes to some interesting conclusions about how corporations intersect with pop culture icons and how easy it is to be swayed by marketing campaigns and charismatic leaders. Props in particular are due to Antony Starr for his performance as Homelander (a darker riff on a Superman-esque character), who is one of the most compulsively hatable television characters I’ve seen in awhile.
9. Russian Doll
We’ve seen many riffs on a Groundhog Day style time loop premise, and while Russian Doll shares many qualities through its themes of self-betterment and experimentation, it also has more fun with the its shocking deaths and mystery premise than many of its predecessors. Much of this is due to Natasha Lyonne’s spirited lead performance; Lyonne is the perfect mix of tragic and aggressive that makes her perfect for a journey of self discovery, and through a variety of flashbacks and alternate scenarios, her character Nadia shows a lot of genuine vulnerability. It’s also impressive that the running gags never feel stale and the reasoning for this loop is thoroughly explained, with a great hook at the end that left me dying to see a second season.
8. The Righteous Gemstones
The Righteous Gemstones could’ve been an extended sketch of Danny McBride lampooning wealthy televangelists, but the series is surprisingly heartfelt, well plotted, and doesn’t use its (albeit frequent) physical gags to distract from the story at hand. It’s satirical without being exploitive, and the great mix of character actors including McBride, John Goodman, Adam Devine, and Edi Patterson all ground their wacky personalities in a genuine family dynamic. For a series that seems fitted for weekly inconsequential adventures, there’s a surprisingly compelling central mystery narrative to The Righteous Gemstones that allows its characters to deepen each week, while still leaving room for asides dedicated to the more overtly comic subplots.
7. Bojack Horseman
There’s little to say about Bojack Horseman that hasn’t been said already, but I’ll reiterate that its the most continuously daring and emotionally complex work of the past decade and hasn’t yet collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. The first half of the show’s final season isn’t meant to be immediately rewarding, but it sets up all the right things for each character to find some sort of conclusion when the show wraps up next year. While not quite as rawly emotional as the show’s fourth season or self reflexively contemplative as its fifth season, this year’s Bojack Horseman shows no signs of any easy conclusion and isn’t afraid to put these characters’ legacy under fire.
6. Stranger Things
I don’t think Stranger Things has ever been about plot (the details of what The Mind Flayer is or how Eleven got superpowers never intrigued me), and the show’s third season puts the characters in a tough spot as they find that even the most exciting events of their childhood can’t keep them together as they grow up. While segmented off in a way where we get to see interesting character interactions (Dustin and Steve remain the MVPs), its also a show that is confident enough in its characters that it isn’t afraid to meander a little bit, as evidence by its mall centric premise and humorous scenes of Hopper wrestling with being a dad. Stranger Things isn’t the show it once was because it simply can’t be the same thing anymore, and for a show that’s so essentially linked to the wave of 80s nostalgia, it constantly proves its ability to evolve.
5. Mr. Robot
I ranked Mr. Robot as my second favorite show of the decade, and a series with so many obvious high points and such a rich legacy would understandably face considerable pressure to resolve itself in a just way. Sam Esmail doesn’t play by any traditional rules of television, and between his all silent “405 Methods Not Allowed,” the crackpot thriller “409 Conflict,” and the meditative “404 Not Found,” Esmail shows his ability to fit so many genre experiments within one narrative. This is of course without mentioning “407 Proxy Authentication Required,” one of the most devastating and shocking moments in television history that not only changes the entire series’s meaning, but stands on its own as a powerhouse acting showcase for the incomparable Rami Malek.
After its razor sharp debut season, Mindhunter returned with a similarly jaw dropping follow up that dug deep into the lasting psychological effects that studying the criminally insane takes on Agents Holden Ford, Bill Tench, and Wendy Carr. Each character wrestles with whether the ends justify the means in their quest to do unprecedented research on serial killers, and while David Fincher once again puts sensationalism under fire with his incredible first three episodes, its the last four episodes from noted filmmaker Carl Franklin that show the impact on underrepresented communities and how the circumstances in which a crime was committed are as important as catching the perpetrator.
There are few texts as richly pertinent to today’s climate as Watchmen, and Damon Lindelof’s follow up to the iconic graphic novel is an ingenious mix of past and present; like Dr. Manhattan, we feel all these things at once as our own world is mirrored and the original universe is shattered as it evolves far past its shocking conclusion. HBO’s Watchmen ties in the history of the classic characters by exploring the events and people that surrounded them, and draws in many new perspectives on what a world that sent superheroes in to war and suffered an extraterrestrial tragedy would look like. Those who are taken aback by the more outlandish and inexplicable elements of the early episodes should find solace in the fact that everything Lindelof sets up has a pay off, and that the series continues the themes of systemic violence and governmental oversight that Alan Moore crafted nearly thirty years ago.
Barry has such a great concept that it could easily coast off of for easy laughs, and while the first season seemingly left the central character’s redemption ambiguous, the even more impressive second season is equally as resonant. A show about facades and performances is perfect for a commentary on what we hide and how we present ourselves, and as Barry, Sally, and Gene reveal snippets of their past, we gain a greater appreciation for who they are and have more empathy for their current mistakes. It’s also the most consistently hilarious thing on television, and between the thrilling “rony/lily” episode to Anthony Carrigan’s uproarious performance as NoHo Hank, Barry never feels the need to be definitively one thing.
I conservatively ranked Succession as the sixth best show of the decade, but perhaps in my desire to not be impulsive with anointing a new great series, I wasn’t as assertive as I needed to be when stating just how damned brilliant this show is. I should be clear: the first season of Succession was a masterpiece, but this year’s second season is an all-timer. Once it got over the hurdle of crafting an outrageous family that could very well exist in today’s climate, Succession dove deep into a Shakespearean power struggle between the siblings of a media empire as the corporation’s heir was determined and the company itself got under fire. It’s not a matter of whether or not Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Shiv (Sarah Snook), or Connor (Alan Ruck) are suppose to be likable, or if the affable Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) or Greg (Nicholas Braun) are responsible for being drawn into this dynasty, but of whether or not there’s a reason to invest in this power struggle and the interpersonal stakes, and Succession is so imminently clever and painstakingly structured that the moral dilemma at its center was never a hindrance.
It’s also the most consistently shocking and inventive thing to air this year; this is the show where an office suicide can set up an internal struggle over who gets preferential protection, where a family dinner tradition can be the most terrifying thing in the world, where the sharp dissolution of a subordinate company can be the result of a sibling power struggle, and where an impromptu rap tribute doesn’t feel out of place. Is it a satire? A reckoning? A mystery? A thriller? Succession is all of those things, and for a show that seems to have a clear endgame in mind, its never one to show its cards too early. I can make the case for why Succession is the next big show because of its unparalleled technical merit (how do they shoot in so many locations?), its riveting performances (give every award to Jeremy Strong), or its deeply powerful writing (including a brilliant subversion of the D.C. judicial process that fits in to the sporadic sensationalism of modern politics), but it’s ultimately the show I was most engaged with each week and the one I’ve recommended to the most people. Season 3 can’t get here any sooner.