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The Best TV Shows of 2019

In a year defined by endings (goodbye, ‘Game of Thrones’) and beginnings (hello, ‘Watchmen’), surrealist sitcoms, tragicomic studies of wealth, and maybe-not-even-technically-TV-shows rose to the top

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Television: There’s a lot of it! But the end of the year is a time to emerge from the fog and focus on quality, not quantity. From cable to streaming, from surrealist sitcoms to true crime miniseries, Alison Herman and Chris Ryan list the best TV shows of 2019.

10. Too Old to Die Young

This is not a bit. Well, it’s not entirely a bit. There are plenty of shows— Barry, The Crown, Chernobyl, Fosse/Verdon to name just a few—that deserve placement on this list, perhaps above Nicolas Winding Refn’s phantasmagoric noir. This 10-episode fever dream was derided, dismissed, ignored, and then quickly forgotten shortly after its very quiet release by Amazon back in the summer. It was a product of a bygone era of art-house excess at the streaming service, and it shows. Excruciatingly slow and honestly boring, it is the most demanding show I’ve ever watched? Is it even a “show”? What the fuck is Too Old to Die Young? An opera? A joke? The most out-there auteurist television trip this side of Twin Peaks: The Return? All of it. It’s about cops, cocaine, cartels, aliens, dreams, psychics, sex, Los Angeles real estate, neon signs, the power of the dolly shot, and stuffed tigers, and it features near-pornographic levels of violence. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it, but I will celebrate it as a singular artistic statement, the kind we, in the era of mass content production by tech and telecom giants, are unlikely to see again any time soon. —Chris Ryan

9. Russian Doll

Speaking of being too old to die young. Sometimes it takes a while for a show to find its voice, but Russian Doll seems like the thing Natasha Lyonne has been waiting her whole life to make. Essentially Groundhog’s Day meets After Hours, Russian Doll is about a hard-living video game developer forced to live the day of her death over and over again, until she gets things right. Lyonne’s Nadia pairs with a Sancho Panza figure in Charlie Barnett’s straight-laced Alan, to go carousing through New York City’s bodegas, parks, bars, apartment parties, and religious institutions, trying not to get tripped up in multiple timelines along the way. It’s a bildungsroman, dripping with passion and certainty, that celebrates the last remnants of downtown New York weirdness and cool, grapples with existential questions about life and the afterlife, and follows characters as they try to make amends and make sense of … everything. —Ryan

8. Unbelievable

We’re in the midst of a boom in both true crime series and post-#MeToo stories about sexual violence. The Netflix miniseries Unbelievable stands out from the crowd the same way its central detectives solve the serial rape case they’re investigating: by doing the work. The radiant empathy of Merritt Wever’s Karen Duvall and fierce righteousness of Toni Collette’s Grace Rasmussen are extensions of the same traits in the show they lead, a miniseries adaptation of a 2015 nonfiction piece. Unbelievable is a riveting piece of entertainment, but this quality miraculously works to amplify, not frustrate, its status as a principled condemnation of the ways rape survivors are disregarded and even retraumatized by law enforcement. There’s a wish fulfillment to Duvall and Rasmussen’s competence, though Unbelievable only lets us experience it alongside the suffering of Kaitlyn Dever’s overwhelmed survivor Marie. It leaves the viewer furious even as it fends off the despair that might prevent them from acting on that fury. —Alison Herman

7. What We Do in the Shadows

As a critic, it’s hard to know what to make of a show like What We Do in the Shadows, the FX half-hour that turns the impeccable 2015 mockumentary into an impeccable sitcom. In a post-Office world, Shadows testimonials and handheld camerawork aren’t breaking formal ground; the plot simply recycles the movie’s bloodsuckers-as-cranky-housemates setup, swapping out New Zealand for Staten Island and adding new characters like a dread “energy vampire.” There’s not much insight to add beyond “this is funny.” As a viewer, of course, that’s Shadows’ entire draw: a wildly inventive, shrewdly written, deeply hilarious comedy that doesn’t ask us to do much more than laugh. Stepping into the cavernous shoes of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi is no easy task, but a cast led by Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou—with assists from supporting players like Beanie Feldstein and even a surprise Tilda Swinton cameo—more than rises to the challenge. Shadows is (un)living proof that when the jokes are good enough, they can speak for themselves. —Herman

6. Tuca and Bertie

Lisa Hanawalt never intended to make a television show. The artist, illustrator, and comics creator spent years in Brooklyn before her high school best friend developed a TV show about Hollywood inspired by her work, a psychedelic melange of anthropomorphic animals, many of them horses. BoJack Horseman is now headed into the back half of its sixth and final season, while Hanawalt got a short-lived opportunity to conceive the spirit of a show along with its look. For much of its first, and likely only, season, Tuca and Bertie plays like a gleefully scatological sitcom about women in their 30s, with everyday issues like cohabitation and sobriety amped up by disembodied boobs and weed-smoking plants. Gradually, though, it deepens into a wrenching exploration of trauma—and, behind the scenes, a case study in Netflix’s growing disinterest in artistic experimentation, as the show was canceled after just a few months on the service. Tuca and Bertie is proof of the payoff that comes with investing in unique perspectives and undertold stories, as well as how rare that investment is starting to become. —Herman

5. Gourmet Makes

In 2019, television is no longer limited to just what’s on television. Over the past few years, the test kitchen over at Bon Appétit has blossomed into a self-contained, virtual Food Network, based largely out of the magazine’s YouTube page. Driven by a handful of core personalities who daylight as editors and recipe testers, the Bon Appetit fandom has metastasized into meme accounts, appreciative essays, and even TikToks—many of which are dedicated to undisputed breakout star Claire Saffitz. At this late stage of the Bon Appétit phenomenon, many of the cast members have their own spinoff “shows”: Brad Leone’s It’s Alive!, about the joys of fermentation; Carla Lalli Music’s Back to Back Chef, in which celebrities make a dish based on her patient, verbal instructions. But Gourmet Makes, Saffitz’s quests to re-create various processed snacks in a professional yet nonindustrial kitchen, is the de facto flagship. Unlike most food TV, there’s little pretense of Saffitz modeling a recipe viewers can make at home. Instead, the appeal is the sheer impossibility of, say, reverse-engineered Gushers, plus the show’s now well-established touchstones: Saffitz’s platonic chemistry with Leone; her frustration with tempered chocolate; the inevitable Day 3 meltdown. Episodes have gradually ballooned to nearly an hour to satiate popular demand. I’ll watch every minute of them. —Herman

4. Mindhunter

In its second season, Mindhunter somehow found a leaner, meaner gear, and it’s not like this thing was exactly Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to begin with. This time around, David Fincher split the directing duties with Andrew Dominik, and Carl Franklin, the latter of whom closes the season with a four-episode crime epic about the hunt for the perpetrator of the Atlanta child murders in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Mindhunter is at once a bingeable whodunit, a textbook for screen directing, and a treatise on crime, punishment, the celebrity industrial complex’s affair with killers, the politicization of law enforcement, and the impossible quest for justice and closure, and what those things mean to the people investigating crime versus those left behind in the ruins of the crime. —Ryan

3. Los Espookys

There’s so much else unusual about Los Espookys that it’s easy to forget the novelty, and significance, of its being the first-ever Spanish-language series to air on HBO. Conceived of by SNL’s Fred Armisen and cowritten by Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega, all of whom serve in the ensemble cast, Los Espookys seems to set and defy its own rules at will. In this unnamed Latin American country, there’s ample demand for “horror groups” to stage elaborate, quasi-mystical pranks, some of them involving aliens. Also, valet parking is a high art; news anchors are beautiful, brainwashed abductees; and the U.S. ambassador is a live-action Barbie doll who gets trapped in an enchanted mirror. At once deadpan and fantastical, Los Espookys flair for the dramatic resembles nothing else on television, except for Torres’s distinctive sketch work over in Studio 8H. The show achieves a similar effect, immersing the viewer in an alternate reality mercifully low on stakes and high on cursed amulets. Only when the spell is broken do you notice the quietly forceful statement of subtitling the English dialogue along with the Spanish. —Herman

2. Watchmen

Damon Lindelof has referred to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1980s masterwork as “scripture”—as in, the original graphic novel is the Old Testament, and Lindelof’s nine-episode HBO series the New. Keeping up the religious metaphor, it might be more accurate to call 2019’s Watchmen an act of blasphemy. Moore has been vocal about his opposition to adaptations of his work, yet Lindelof wastes no time making Moore’s iconic Rorschach a white supremacist symbol within the Watchmen universe and rewriting the very origins of its costumed adventurers to transform a story of Cold War paranoia into one about race and law enforcement. No spoilers, because the season is still in progress, but Lindelof’s additions are daring and thrilling enough to qualify Watchmen’s partial season as one of the best series of the year all its own. Sometimes, the best way to pay tribute to one’s idols is by desecrating them—and it certainly helps when you have an ass-kicking Regina King to help you do it. —Herman

1. Fleabag / Succession

Let’s be honest: When we’re talking about TV in 2019, there’s a class of two, and then there’s everyone else. Months of hosannas mean there’s not much left to say about Fleabag’s ode to the redemptive power of vulnerability, or Succession’s tragicomic study of the social milieu that’s devouring the world from the inside out. But perhaps there is some perspective to be gained in pairing the two together and examining them side by side. Both Fleabag and Succession mark an escalation of television’s extended love affair with the antihero: not just an awful person, but one whose intimate asides make you complicit in her awfulness; not just an awful person, but an entire ecosystem of them without a foil in sight. Both shows had strong, if divisive, first seasons, only to refine themselves into universal acclaim with their second. Fleabag is personal where Succession is sociological, yet each manages to find the pain under the cruelty, the human in the profane. If Fleabag can claw her way back from the existential ledge, if Kendall Roy can find his spine after decades of paternal abuse, maybe there’s hope for all of us. Deeply cynical Brits aren’t typically where one turns for reassurance, but in this chaotic, terrifying juncture in history, we’ll take what we can get. —Herman

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