The best (and worst) TV shows of 2019
The best (and worst) TV shows of 2019
In a few short weeks it’ll be 2020, and the interwebs is awash in Best TV Shows of the Decade lists (including ours). But we can’t end the year without celebrating the great TV series of 2019. Read on for a look at the 20 best shows of the year — first a top 10 from EW critic Kristen Baldwin, followed by EW critic Darren Franich’s picks. And keep clicking until the end for the big reveal: The five worst shows of 2019.
KRISTEN'S TOP 10 LIST: 10. The Other Two (Comedy Central)
Former SNL head writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly created a comedy that contains multitudes: The Other Two is part searing satire of our celebreality culture (episode 7 features the single funniest joke about the Ryan Murphy-verse that will ever be uttered on screen) and part warm, bittersweet family comedy. Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver are wonderfully compelling as adult siblings coming to terms with adulthood, and the sprawling ensemble is filled with standout performers from newcomers (Case Walker as viral music superstar Chase Dreams) and comedy veterans (Ken Marino, Molly Shannon, Wanda Sykes). Catch up before season 2 drops next year.
9. After Life (Netflix)
In this six-episode comedy, Ricky Gervais stars as Tony, a grieving widower who wants to kill himself. Sounds hilarious, right? A lot of After Life is just a vehicle for Gervais’ particular brand of razor-sharp exasperation: He works at a free local newspaper in a quaint English town, writing stories about the quirky townsfolk, like the woman who makes rice pudding out of her own breast milk or the man who thinks the water stain on his wall looks like Sir Kenneth Branagh. But Gervais also takes our current gripe culture — and by extension himself — to task, as well. It takes a village to nudge Tony out of his myopic misery — including a level-headed widow (Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton) and a no-nonsense nurse (Ashley Jensen) — and even though After Life’s story follows a predictable path, no other show this year made me laugh and cry as hard as this one.
8. Succession (HBO)
Confession time: I sort of hate myself for including this next show on my top 10 list. When Succession premiered in 2018, I watched the first few episodes and thought it was the worst kind of prestige TV: Expensive and somber, self-important and hollow. (Darren's hilarious review sums those episodes up perfectly.) But then came the “no really, it gets good around episode 5” drumbeat, which kept pounding, pounding, pounding — so this year I finally jumped back in…and binge-watched 15 episodes in a week. Jesse Armstrong’s darkly funny family saga about a family of aggrieved rich white people treating each other terribly is the perfect prime-time soap for our times. It’s Dallas, but everyone’s JR.
7. Better Things (FX)
A wise man named Homer Simpson once said, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.” I can go on and on about this impossible-to-describe half-hour dramedy — and I have, here and here — but for now, I’ll just say this: Three seasons in, Pamela Adlon’s bitter and sweet exploration of motherhood, womanhood, and personhood is the truest thing on TV.
6. Los Espookys (HBO)
Created by Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega (who also star), Los Espookys is a weird and charming comedy about four friends who love horror movies and gore, so they start a business creating scares and horror scenes for paying clients. Need to stage a fake exorcism? They’ve got you. Looking for a sea monster to attract tourists to your beachside town? They’re on it. The Spanish-language series blends magical realism (see: a cursed mirror, a parasitic demon obsessed with The King’s Speech), with relatable, real-world stories of friendship and young adulthood. Fabrega is especially phenomenal as Tati, a gentle soul who’s caught in the gig-economy grinder; some of her jobs include “human FitBit” and selling weight loss supplements as part of a pyramid scheme. HBO has already renewed Los Espookys for season 2, so don’t be afraid to fall in love with this wonderful freak show.
5. Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video)
From that opening dinner scene to the final image of Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) walking away from the bus stop, season 2 was a testament to the power of efficient storytelling. The six half-hour episodes were flawless in their economy — there wasn’t a wasted scene, line of dialogue, or shot among them. And in those 152 minutes, creator-writer-star Waller-Bridge told a funny, poignant, and incisive story about a damaged young woman learning to forgive herself, with help from a Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) and a chilly sister (Sian Clifford). Remember, TV industry: Sometimes endings can be perfect, so just let them be.
4. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Rather than repeat myself — this drama from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King is on my Best Shows of the Decade list, after all — allow me to say for the 100th time, The Good Fight is the best show you are probably not watching. In season 3, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) joined the resistance, only to find that when decent people do the wrong thing for the right reasons, nobody wins. Good Fight is as euphoria-inducing as a fentanyl lollipop, and just as addictive. Stop asking yourself (or me) what to watch and JUST WATCH THIS.
3. Veep (HBO)
In the savage political satire’s final season, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) proved that ruthless ambition and misogyny have no gender. “Men hate women, women hate themselves,” she declares, unapologetic to the end. Rather than trying to rehabilitate Selina at last, Veep doubled down on her scorched-earth ambitions, culminating in some truly deplorable final acts of soul-selling desperation. But there were some glimmers of hope: Chillingly pragmatic campaign strategist Kent Davison (Gary Cole, a true master of deadpannery) finally hit a moral breaking point, while Gary’s (Tony Hale) Dubonnet goodbye to his heartless boss was a heartbreaking portrait of devotion.
2. Watchmen (HBO)
A lunatic who fishes for fetuses. Periodic squid showers. A giant blue phallus (with detachable testicles). Damon Lindelof’s “remix” of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ revered graphic novel is rife with surreality, but it’s all in service of a deeper question: How can America atone for — and move on from — its racist past? Much as he did with The Leftovers, Lindelof and his writers have created something new without betraying the original source material. And was there any greater pleasure in TV this year than watching Regina King, Jean Smart, and Hong Chau display their formidable talents together on screen? Each hour thrilled with holy crap reveals, balanced with just enough new questions to keep us guessing —and a pivotal courtroom scene climaxed with Jeremy Irons letting out a tremendous fart. The defense rests.
1. Perpetual Grace, LTD (EPIX)
Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson stars in this strange and wonderful saga as James, a broken spirit who drifts into a stolen-identity scheme dreamed up by Paul Allen Brown (Damon Herriman — what a year he’s having!). Paul’s Ma and Pa (Jacki Weaver and Ben Kingsley, respectively) are the marks, but not even the Lord can help those who try to take this fearsome couple down. Creators Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris craft a story that unfolds like a Rube Goldberg contraption, as James’ every hapless, miscalculated step toward redemption — all set against the big-sky beauty of Santa Fe — results in yet another comical disaster. The ensemble is stuffed with excellence (Luis Guzman gives a career-best performance as Hector, and Terry O’Quinn is law-enforcement personified as Wesley Walker, Texas Ranger). One episode even hinges on a crucial appearance by the Cash Cab. If you need something to fill the Fargo-sized hole in your heart, the Epix app costs $6 a month. It’s a small price to pay for 10 hours of Grace.
DARREN'S TOP 10 LIST: 10. Perpetual Grace, LTD (Epix)
Everything Kristen said — and can we talk about all the astronauts, Ben Kingsley's poor lost thumb, and brilliantly deadpan Dash Williams as saintly teen dummy Glenn? A freaky-funny comic western that crosses national borders as freely as it clashes unexpected tones, Grace perpetually surprises. Another eccentric gem from co-creator Steve Conrad, who previously crafted the masterfully strange spy thriller-musical Patriot.
9. Below Deck Mediterranean (Bravo)
Lush docusoap escapism with a side of cheeky class warfare, the Below Deck franchise follows a crew of tan, boozy yachties through a season on the high-cost seas. The silly-sweet latest season of Captain Sandy-fronted Med had an all-time reality cast, led by sharp-tongued chief stew Hannah, philosophically lazy deckhand Jack, and the impossibly cheerful Aesha. I could explain how the upstairs-downstairs formula has an unexpectedly satiric edge, with high-paying guests constantly relegated to boozy fodder for insult-comedy confessionals. But man, that yacht slide sure looks like fun.
8. Ramy (Hulu)
A stunningly confident family sitcom combining autobiographical texture with spiritual complexity. Instant comedy icon Ramy Youssef co-created and plays a version of himself, an American Muslim and Jersey dude rededicating himself to his religion while making questionable decisions in his personal life. Go to Hulu now and watch the standout fourth episode, "Strawberries," a goofily detailed coming-of-age memory flashback that just so happens to be set in September 2001.
7. Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
The first half of Bojack's last season spread the cartoon cast around Hollywood and beyond, mixing kooky corporate capers and new parent surrealities with a sincere-yet-twisted portrait of rehab redemption for the titular sad horse. The chilling midseason finale suggested that all the sweet new beginnings were on a collision course with bitter old sins. We'll miss this show after the final episodes arrive next month.
6. Lodge 49 (AMC)
This funny-sorrowful good-hang dramedy hit new heights in season 2's final five episodes. Dud (Wyatt Russell) and Ernie (Brent Jennings) started orbiting a maniac author (fully unhinged Paul Giamatti), while Liz (Sonya Cassidy) began discovering her own grand destiny. Did I mention the trip to Mexico? Or the sudden possibility that the Earth is hollow? AMC canceled Lodge 49 just in time for some lucky network or streaming service to rescue this brainteasing, heart-exploding myth of the modern world.
5. Desus & Mero (Showtime)
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero are veritable late-night royalty now, doing comedy segments with presidential candidates and interviewing only illustrious entertainers. The core of this twice-weekly chillcom remains their riff sessions, though, and I love how they meander with goofy-smart glee through trending topics and vital goofs. Their joy is infectious — they make me love the Knicks, and I don't even like basketball.
4. Watchmen (HBO)
Question my praise, maybe, since my friend/former co-worker/annual co-podcaster is on the writing staff. Still, "Watchmen is great!" isn't exactly an unusual TV-critical statement lately. And with only one episode left, I'm amazed by the epic sweep of showrunner Damon Lindelof's remixed vision, encompassing real and fantastical racial terrors in Tulsa, anti-imperialist terrorism in Vietnam, and a genre-upending new origin myth for the whole idea of superheroism. Since Kristen already praised the rest of the brilliant cast, allow me to shout out hangdog Tim Blake Nelson (mesmerizing even under a mirror mask) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, whose chemistry with the ever-brilliant Regina King is positively atomic.
3. Primal (Adult Swim)
A caveman and a T. rex have bloody adventures, battling giant bats and the occasional mutant-ape gladiator cult. Not exactly good history, but animation maestro Genndy Tartakovsky is aiming for visceral extremes in this eye-popping brute-force fantasy. The fatal and furious premiere establishes a no-one-is-safe, all-cuteness-shall-get-eaten-alive terseness. But after a mere five episodes, Primal has already established itself as an essential high-emotion thrill ride. It's essentially wordless, aside of occasional grunts from the caveman (voiced by Aaron LaPlante). So credit Tartakovsky for developing a purely visual mode of storytelling that can balance moments of Edenic serenity and monumental regret alongside death-metal gore and creature-feature terror.
2. PEN15 (Hulu)
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine are grown women, and the first miracle of this delicate teen farce is how completely the performers inhabit their 13-year-old selves. The year is 2000, a prehistoric era of AOL instant messenger and older siblings sneaking R-rated erotic thrillers into the VCR. Maya and Anna are best friends on the cusp of literally everything: First party, first kiss, first parents to get divorced, first time they realize what racism is. Konkle and Erskine (who co-created the series with Sam Zvibleman) are stupendous, shading the exuberance of youth with farcical absurdity and remarkably sensitive grace notes. Like Hulu's other stellar freshman sitcom Ramy, PEN15 represents a unique comedic sensibility arriving fully formed. Both shows return next year for season 2, so now's the time to catch up.
1. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
"The end times are beautiful," says Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo). It's the season finale of The Good Fight, and lightning balls are setting Chicago on fire, and the rule of law has drowned under presidential absurdity. What can good people do in bad times like this? Lucca drops acid: Not the worst solution in a ludicrously entertaining season where some of her co-workers joined a steadily spiraling resistance movement, and one of her best friends wound up professionally seduced by the speechifying heir to Roy Cohn. Creators Michelle and Robert King are having too much fun throwing axes at our American apocalypse, which is why Kristen and I keep telling everyone we know to watch this smartly hilarious legal drama.
THE WORST SHOWS OF 2019: 5. Everything after the first two episodes of Chambers (Netflix)
Can we get a do-over on this one? The series premiere cast a freaky spell, with teen Sasha (Sivan Alyra Rose) receiving a haunted heart transplant from poor little dead rich girl Becky (Lilliya Reid). Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon turned the desert setting into a sun-bleached horrorscape, and Uma Thurman made a compelling despondent mother. Then momentum stalled out with a go-nowhere cult mythology. Another overstretched Netflix season that probably should've been a two-hour movie. —Darren Franich
4. The Village (NBC)
Imagine This is Us in apartment building — actually, don’t. NBC’s mawkish, multigenerational drama followed a group of neighbors in Brooklyn, N.Y., and served up interwoven storylines about Big Emotional Stuff (divorce, undocumented immigration, raising a happy kid). Much like This is Us, The Village started with a Big Twist and worked very hard to tug at your heartstrings — but it lacked even a modicum of humor and wasted a cast that deserved so much better (Frankie Faison! Dominic Chianese! Lorraine freaking Toussaint!). Negative bonus points for a completely unnecessary and manipulative use of 9/11 as a plot point. Fortunately for viewers and all involved, NBC abandoned this Village after just one season. —Kristen Baldwin
3. L.A.'s Finest (Spectrum On Demand)
NBC made the wise choice to pass on this loud and hollow small screen follow-up to Bad Boys, but these days, one network's trash is another's "original content." Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba costar as scowling LAPD detectives who hunt down bad guys while dealing with, you know, personal stuff. Stuff explodes, wisecracks are cracked, and two otherwise very likable actresses are left to sink in a morass of mindless clichés. —KB
2. The Kanye West episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (Netflix)
Attention must be paid when a hero lets you down. And when two icons embarrass themselves at the same time, on the same stage? That was the look-away effect of this painfully rambling hour, a low point of David Letterman's once promising post-retirement chat series. I guess I should've anticipated Kanye West's fascist toadyism and woe-is-me messianic paranoia: That's his schtick now. What really stunned me was Letterman's weird inability to challenge his guest — or, for that matter, ask any thoughtful questions about, you know, musical craft, the thing West is technically still doing professionally. Instead, we got a terrible segment where West dressed Letterman up in a baggy flasher trenchcoat and called it fashion. The joke's on them, and us. —DF
1. Almost Family (Fox)
This horribly ill-conceived series (pun intended) asked us to invest in the emotional drama caused by a chilling sociopath — specifically, a fertility doctor (Timothy Hutton) who secretly sowed his oats via the uteruses of his unsuspecting patients. Even worse, everyone affected by the crime — including the dirty doc’s daughter Julia (Brittany Snow) — treats the whole thing with comic frustration rather than unadulterated horror. “I have God knows how many brothers and sisters!” huffs Julia. Don’t bring God into this, honey — he didn’t greenlight this mess. —KB