EW critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich watch as much TV as they can — just for you! (Except Vanderpump Rules; Darren watches that for himself.) Here’s a peek at their online chat about their favorite shows of 2019.
DARREN: I’m a sucker for a brilliant standalone episode, Kristen. And my No. 10, Barry, delivered a sun-scorched surreal masterwork with the fifth episode of its second season. Let’s be clear: This was a messy season for this showbiz farce, after a basically perfect 2018 debut. But I love how co-creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg keep tone-twisting between chipper-freaky action-comedy and dreamy psychological drama. And the unexpected MVP of the season was Sarah Goldberg’s Sally. Like Hader’s forlorn hitman, she was struggling between a brutal past and a brighter future — and her actions in the season finale formed one of the year’s most quietly devastating twists.
KRISTEN: Agreed on all counts, Darren! My No. 10 is itself a type of psychological drama: USA Network’s revival of Temptation Island. When four couples “at a relationship crossroads” arrived in Hawaii to mix and mingle with hot-to-trot singles, the subsequent breakups were not surprising. But my Lord, the pathos of those breakups! Evan foisted off the psychic burden of his painful family history — his dad was murdered by his mistress’s husband — and fell hard for another woman, while his girlfriend Kaci kept telling herself it would all be okay. (It wasn’t.) And the big twist: Javen and Shari, who arrived bickering and miserable, left the Island together, with an even deeper bond. This reality was stranger and more compelling than fiction.
DARREN: And my No. 9 is another compelling true-life entertainment! This past winter, Jeopardy! turned its 30th anniversary All-Star Games turned into a brainiac thunderdome. That planned reunion led into the unplanned reign of James Holzhauer, whose big-money bets lent Icarus-afire insanity to this seminal quiz show’s relaxed sensibility. Host Alex Trebek’s good-humored charisma has been an elemental fact of television for as long as I’ve watched television. I hope he knows how inspired we lifelong viewers are by his ongoing work, which feels like a monument to quiet grace given his movingly honest conversations about his cancer diagnosis. In an age of proud steroidal idiocy, we need the quizmaster whimsy of Jeopardy! more than ever. I look forward to watching this show — and Alex Trebek — for many years to come.
KRISTEN: Amen! Let’s keep the unscripted trend going: I’m putting Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly at No. 9. For years, most of us have kept R. Kelly in the attic of our mind, tucked on a back shelf in a box labeled “Things I know but don’t want to KNOW.” With this docuseries, exec producer Dream Hampton — and the seven women who came forward to detail their allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of the R&B superstar — put that box in our living room and dared us to look inside. Surviving R. Kelly strips the idea of storytelling to its barest essentials: Its heroes are women sitting alone in front of a camera, talking. The series is unflinching in its assessment of the myriad accusations against Kelly, but also of why it took all of us so long to listen. With any luck, that box will never close again.
DARREN: Here’s the funny thing about my No. 8, Kristen. Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie is an eye-popping animated marvel, a city-life friendcom starring anthropomorphic flora and fauna with sight gags and bendy-reality visuals that positively demand a fourth viewing. But creator Lisa Hanawalt has also produced a series that thematically echoes everything you were just writing about. Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) and Bertie (Ali Wong) are a thrilling new TV duo, and their colorful adventures paint in complicated palettes of repressed trauma, family sorrow, and palpable confusion. Hanawalt was also a key creative mind in the formation of Bojack Horseman, so that’s one talking horse and two talking birds she’s made me cry about.
KRISTEN: God, I love crying at TV. The beauty of my No. 8 show, Better Things, isn’t so much in what it’s about — parenthood, womanhood, personhood — as it is in the detailed intensity of its characters’ emotions. As a single mom and working actress Sam Fox, creator-director-star Pamela Adlon finds the truth in moments that range from exhaustingly mundane (getting a kid to do her homework) to the unavoidably life-changing (as a middle-aged, perimenopausal woman in LA, Sam feels “irrelevant” and “disgusting”). Sam doesn’t ask for much — a shirt that fits, a toilet that won’t clog, a movie set that takes proper safety precautions — but when she does get a win, it’s exhilarating.
DARREN: I have to extend a critical-team high-five to you for my No. 7. For a long time before Showtime launched Desus & Mero into the late-night stratosphere, you were sending me clips every morning of the Viceland incarnation, with its trending-topic riff session between Desus Nice and the Kid Mero. Every episode of Desus & Mero is a laugh riot of flowing conversation. A lot of work goes into the show’s casual air — my favorite new TV character is their offscreen interrupting producer — and the hosts’ razor-sharp wit makes me cackle even when I barely know what they’re talking about. I’m laughing at jokes about the NBA draft, Kristen! I can name maybe four current NBA players, and none of them are Knicks.
KRISTEN: Welcome to the Bodega Hive, Darren! This was a year packed with risky second acts. Some shows leaped forward and stumbled (oh, Killing Eve, how I once loved you!) while others found their footing. Season two of Barry, my no. 7 show, took us deeper inside the windswept void of our hitman’s soul, but it also did something unexpected for a dark comedy created and run by two men: It elevated the “girlfriend” role into a hero worthy of her own emotional journey. As Sally (the outstanding Sarah Goldberg) confronted her complicated past, the show asked an even more complicated question: Why do we value some #MeToo stories more than others?
DARREN: Three cheers for Sarah Goldberg, whose poolside monologue deserves to be performed in acting classes for decades! I didn’t expect to love my no. 6, Kristen, so count HBO’s Chernobyl as 2019’s most pleasant surprise. Maybe “pleasant” is the wrong word. The 5-part miniseries about the Soviet nuclear calamity is a true-life horror thriller, full of sorrow-faced Russians suffering from radiation poisoning and totalitarian paranoia. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard find unexpected reserves of everyday heroism and trench-warfare humor amidst the cataclysm. And I will not recover soon from the look on Barry Keoghan’s face as he “liquidates” an irradiated canine. Creator Craig Mazin turns this disaster story into an essential story about truth and power. They should teach Chernobyl in schools; they should teach Chernobyl in the Oval Office.
KRISTEN: More essential viewing in my No. 6 slot: When They See Us. Though nothing can erase the two tragedies that took place on April 19, 1989 — the savage rape and beating of a 28-year-old female jogger in New York’s Central Park, and the arrest of five young brown men who had nothing to do with it — Ava DuVernay restores the humanity of those accused with her four-part Netflix series. It captures the story of Korey Wise, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yussef Salaam, and Raymond Santana in all of its disorienting horror, from the hours before their false arrest to the long years of imprisonment — literal and emotional — that followed for the men and their families. Anchored by several stunning performances (including Niecy Nash as Korey’s mother and Asante Blackk as the young Kevin), When They See Us is steeped in pain and propelled by justice.
DARREN: 2019’s hottest trend is endings, Kristen. This decade’s last year started with the globally anticipated climaxes of Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones — and the globe’s anticipating its own climate-changed series finale. But the TV I’m loving most sparks new beginnings. Take my No. 5, Disney’s DuckTales, a joyful adventure toon. The arrival of Della Duck (voiced greatly by the great Paget Brewster) is a new continent terraformed onto Planet Disney. She’s a rambunctious daredevil mom, long-lost in space. And her first Duck family mission explored a sci-fi Doomsday Vault… suffering from Arctic climate change! Should’ve stayed in space, Della.
KRISTEN: My No. 5 also has a stand-out mom: Molly Shannon, who plays an attention-loving midwestern mother to a suddenly-viral 13-year-old singer in Comedy Central’s The Other Two. Too often, comedies that spoof the absurdity of show business lack a sense of empathy. But this wonderfully weird, tender, and uproarious offering from former SNL headwriters Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider is not just a tale of one teen boy’s journey into the celebrity vortex. At its heart, it’s the story of a family struggling to reconcile their unrealized dreams with disappointing realities.
DARREN: My No. 4 is a similar-but-different family comedy about American dreams and realities. Hulu’s Ramy is a semi-autobiographical sitcom starring co-creator Ramy Youssef. He’s an essential new voice who wrote and directed the series’ standout fourth episode, a mini-masterpiece about a Muslim American boy coming of age one particular September. It’s all highs from there, really: The devastating focal story about Ramy’s mom (Hiam Abbass), the no-sex-for-Ramadan challenge, the fantastical trip to the family’s ancestral Egyptian home. Ramy’s torn between cultures and his own confusion. His saga is utterly unique — which is, of course, what makes it so universal.
KRISTEN: It’s definitely been a good year for comedic takes on the intersection of sex and religion. My No. 4 show is Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s filthy-funny-frank character study. The final season is a masterwork of efficient storytelling: Six episodes, 152 minutes total, not a wasted second in the bunch. Through her search for redemption, love and meaning, Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) bonds with a very hot man of God (Andrew Scott) and finds the grace to forgive herself.
DARREN: Huzzah for Andrew Scott, also heartbreaking and hilarious in a new Black Mirror. We’re having fun here exploring trendy landscapes of cable and streaming, getting animated, talking British. My No. 3 is an old-fashioned network sitcom — though the commercial glow of NBC’s Superstore is TV’s smartest sucker punch. The fabulous fourth season promoted Amy (America Ferrera) to management right as boyfriend Jonah (Ben Feldman) started pushing unionization for Cloud 9’s employees. And the downbeat finale united the ensemble against a full-fledged ICE incursion! All hail departing showrunner Justin Spitzer, who quietly formed this workplace sitcom into a laugh-out-loud dystopian marvel.
KRISTEN: I’m starting to sense a trend here, Darren: Something about 2019 is drawing us both to dark (and darkly funny) comedies. I’m putting HBO’s vicious political satire Veep at No. 3 on my list. Caustic, misanthropic, and brash to the bitterly funny end, the final season brought Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) deeply illogical story to its logically brutal conclusion: A Pyrrhic presidential victory followed by unbearable irrelevance. No hugging, no learning, and no freaking mercy.
DARREN: I’m pulling us out of this downward spiral, Kristen! Return to the relatively low-key horrors of seventh grade in the year 2000. Every dial-up detail on Hulu’s PEN15 is perfect— A Wild Things viewing party! Spice Girls sociopolitics! — and the show’s lacerating humanity enriches beyond nostalgia. Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play gawky-curious versions of their teen selves. Their performances are doubly stunning: Here are adults dreaming of a beautiful past when they were awkward kids dreaming of a beautiful future. I barely understand Hulu’s Disney future, but credit the streamer for developing two stellar new comedies this year.
KRISTEN: We should also thank Hulu for bringing US viewers the trashy reality treasure that is the UK’s Love Island, but I digress. Let’s stick with the theme of uplifting television for No. 2: In Netflix’s After Life, Ricky Gervais plays a widower who copes with overwhelming feelings of anger and grief by spewing brutal (and wickedly funny) observations about the futility of existence. But this intensely emotional, sweetly hilarious comedy is less an allegory for our toxic times than a portrait of a man whose misery is simply no match for the power of love.
DARREN: Did someone say “an allegory for our toxic times”? I give you Roland Blum, a corrupt attorney living life like he’s riding a nuclear missile to the Playboy Mansion. Michael Sheen’s Trump-loving lawyer was a controversial too-much addition for some viewers of CBS All-Access’ The Good Fight, my favorite show of this half-year by a mile. (To the poor souls who still aren’t viewers: Subscribe!) But I love Roland, and love how co-creators Michelle and Robert King have turned their procedural spinoff into an overstimulated thrill ride, tripping relentlessly into fourth-wall-breaking surrealism and revolutionary farce. And heaven is Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski duetting on “Raspberry Beret.” That’s worth an Armageddon.
KRISTEN: It warms my heart, Darren, that in this overstuffed TV era we both came to the same conclusion. I, too, found Roland to be a fascinating bonus character, even in his most blowhardy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge-quoting moments. But there was plenty of non-Roland magic to marvel at in The Good Fight’s third season: Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, regal and perfect) arguing with a bruise that looks like Donald Trump! Lucca Quinn (walking Emmy reel Cush Jumbo) getting caught up in a Mothering While Black fracas, which leads to an unexpected examination of racial biases at her own progressive law firm. And that cliffhanger! Sure, not everything worked (perhaps we didn’t need an animated short in every episode), but when Good was good, it was very, very good — and even when it was bad, it was thrilling.