If there’s one thing we can be sure of in a year of uncertainty, it’s good television. The day-to-day chaos that overwhelmed our lives made 2019 feel slow and exhausting, yet it somehow managed to fly right by. As some of our favorite television shows retire with the decade, we open the door to new possibilities and spaces for original content. I can only imagine how much more challenging it’ll be in the future to make a list like this considering the new limbo we’ve entered between cable television and streaming services, but it fills me with hope to see how far television has come in the past decade. This year, we saw talk shows get political, witnessed John Mulaney make a children’s comedy special and realized that looking directly at the camera isn’t only for Jim Halpert. I have high hopes for what the television gods will cook up for us in the coming years. In making this list, the TV beat admittedly struggled for a bit to look past the horrendous television we consumed for the purposes of journalism, but we finally narrowed it down to ten of the most groundbreaking, entertaining and compelling TV shows of the year. So without further ado, here are the best television shows we watched in 2019 (in no particular order).
— Sophia Yoon, Daily TV Editor
A wise prophet once said, “you know you’re that bitch when you cause all this conversation.” It doesn’t take an English degree to catch that Mrs. Knowles is making a daring, yet direct reference to the man at the center of the cultural phenomenon “You” — the plaid shirt-clad serial killer himself, Joe Goldberg.
Day-one fans will be quick to point out that “You” was originally released in 2018 on Lifetime, the edgy, hip network where women just on the cusp of menopause really let their hair down, but I will contend that because the Netflix masses did not get their hands on “You” until early 2019, that 2019 should be considered its cohort year instead.
It is no secret that “You,” obnoxiously pretentious in all the right ways, lacks plausibility in almost every storyline, as well as dimension for its female characters. But what “You” lacks in substance it makes up in character names so ridiculous that “Riverdale” seems tame in comparison: There’s Guinevere Beck, Peach, Forty, someone operating under the alias Amy Adam and who could forget the central love interest, aptly dubbed Love.
“You” is an interesting television show — not just because of Penn Badgley’s chest hair making consistent appearances — but rather because it exemplifies the rarity of a piece earning the status of cult classic in real time. While normally it takes 10 to 15 years for someone to build the courage to make a revisionist reading of a critically panned piece, it took viewers under a year to determine that yes, “You” is bananas, but that isn’t going to get in the way of us figuring out just how Joe cleaned up the blood the Roomba smeared.
— Ally Owens, TV Senior Arts Editor
Hulu’s comedy series “Shrill,” based on the novel of the same name and starring SNL cast member Aidy Bryant, reflects the social moment of 2019 in all of its tragedy and absurdity. Main character Annie struggles with her status as a plus-sized woman in a culture that expects her to stay timid and ashamed. Unable to assert herself at work or in her relationships, Annie feels utterly powerless in her life. In the first episode of the season, however, the balance of power is shifted when she makes the choice to get an abortion and place her own needs before others for the first time in her life. This initial action pushes Annie to take control of her life and believe in her own talents and abilities. Throughout the season, she learns what it means to stand up for herself and take up space in all the places she’s been shut out of.
The show’s depiction of her journey to embrace self-love and confidence mirrors the current push towards body positivity that is popular on social media. Much of the series is devoted to depicting demographics often shamed by popular culture and presenting diversity in a more realistic way. In portraying characters of different body types, races, sexualities and lifestyles as equally human and equally flawed, the weight of stigma is lifted and the opportunities for lightness and humor are allowed in. With the talent of star Aidy Bryant and a solid and inspiring storyline, “Shrill” sets itself apart from TV’s less nuanced comedies.
— Anya Soller, Daily Arts Writer
“Dead to Me”
Grief and loss. Only Christina Applegate (“Up All Night”) and Linda Cardellini (“Green Book”) could make a comedy out of that. “Dead to Me” is the definition of a tragicomedy. Applegate plays Jen, a mother of two whose husband was recently killed in a hit-and-run. Cardellini plays Judy, who also has recently experienced a close loss. After meeting in grief counseling, the dark place that Jen is in, coupled with the positivity of Judy, leads to an unexpected friendship. Judy then moves into Jen’s guest house. However, Judy lives with the guilt of knowing she was involved in the death of Jen’s husband. Over the course of the season, the audience learns along with the characters themselves how imperfect the lives of both Jen and Judy are and why their friendship is perfect for one another. Jen scavenges the neighborhood, looking for cars with human-sized dents as she pressures the police into finding the killer of her husband, unbeknownst that she is living with them. The mystery that surrounds the first season is whether or not Judy is crazy for living with Jen and the family of the man she accidentally killed. The secondary mystery is how a character as loveable as Judy could run from the crime scene. All these questions are answered by the finale, but not before more are presented.
— Justin Pollack, Daily Arts Writer
How do masked police officers, squids that rain from the sky and the KKK fit together in one coherent show and make sense? “Watchmen” is the answer — a show crafted from a confusing, destabilizing series of puzzles, each more complex than the last. The series’s first episode, which featured the forgotten Tulsa Race Riot, blew apart expectations. Each episode after was a gut punch. As a masked detective of the Tulsa Police, Angela Abar — or Sister Night — weaves her way through secrets and lies toward discoveries about both herself and the world, making the truth seem more ridiculous than what she originally thought. Under the watchful eye of FBI Agent Laurie Blake, Abar gets real with evil geniuses, white supremacists and literal gods. “Watchmen” was bold, breathless and brilliant. With knockout performances from Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), Tim Blake Nelson (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), Jeremy Irons (“The Borgias”) and Hong Chau (“Downsizing”), “Watchmen” was both intense and wacky. Not a minute of the show’s nine episodes was wasted. Each offering was a narrative suckerpunch that disturbed and enthralled as HBO made bold visual and narrative choices that left viewers consistently uncertain about where the show was heading. In the end, what was produced was one of the best television shows not just of 2019, but of the decade.
— Maxwell Schwarz, Daily Arts Writer
A show’s first season, more often than not, is an attempt to find target audiences and to find footing in a chaotic world of different television genres. But the shows that enter the arena without shame or hesitation either revolutionize audience perceptions of TV and genre or run the risk of completely bombing. “Undone” passes easily as the former and finds footing in being undefined.
After a severe car accident and a visit from her dead dad, Alma discovers she can manipulate time. Throughout the season, she works with her dad to learn how to use her newfound power to her advantage and figure out who murdered her father. The show uses rotoscope animation so that the characters can take shape in the form of their respective actors, making the transition between fantasy and reality nearly undetectable.
Despite the fantasy aspects of the show, its plot remains grounded and realistic, particularly in the way it handles the effects of trauma and interpersonal relationships. What initially drew me in was the unique art style, which certainly held its own against the complex layers of the plot and three-dimensional characters. But I gradually realized throughout the season that the animation style wasn’t the most unique part of the season. “Undone” is a show that fluctuates in between genre and style, and while I’m often nervous that the quality of good television decreases after its renewal, I maintain full faith that the series will hold its own in a future “best of” list.
— Sophia Yoon, Daily Film Beat Editor
In Netflix’s trippy and entirely unique miniseries, “Russian Doll,” Nadia Vulvokov, played by the perfectly eccentric Natasha Lyonne, finds herself caught in a time loop and forced to relive the night of her birthday party. “Respawning” every time she takes a fatal fall down the stairs or walks in front of a speeding car, Nadia realizes her complete stagnation in life has affected even time itself. As Nadia’s life continues to fragment, she begins to wonder what forces caused the time loop and if there’s a way to stop it without dying for good. Eventually, Nadia finds out she’s not alone and Alan, a man she has a distant connection with, is also constantly dying and resurrecting. Together, they investigate what went wrong in their pasts and attempt to live for the future.
Using Nadia’s career as a software engineer, “Russian Doll” brings video game logic to an artsy, realistic version of New York and refreshes the modern TV drama. The new take on the “Groundhog Day” format brings innovation to a familiar concept while creating a world entirely of its own. The show’s stunning visuals and impeccable soundtrack complement Lyonne’s heart wrenching performance; “Russian Doll” constructs an unforgettable plot and the perfect aesthetic to match. While the show is scheduled to release a second season in 2020, the miniseries has already taken its place as a near flawless visual representation of mental illness and personal tragedy.
— Anya Soller, Daily Arts Writer
“The End of the F***ing World”
In just two seasons and less than eight hours, “The End of the F***ing World” proved to us that a showrunner’s desire to commit to successful storytelling should exceed the desire for continuous renewal. Through its retro filter, this comic book adaptation blends in seamlessly with the television format and creates a new league of television — one that resists categorization. And while it may be tempting to label this story about two teenagers (albeit, one wants to murder the other) running away from home together as a teen romance, labeling it as any one genre drastically minimizes the complexity of the show. Each of the characters has a quality of relatable humanity to them, and every moment is meticulously planned out. It’s one of the few shows out there where you can get as much out of the set as you do out of the script.
At its best, it’s simple. While I can guarantee you that every move, every light fixture, and every camera angle was intentional, the creators never go overboard in trying to force the mood, allowing each scene to flow with ease. Under the premise of a teen drama, “The End” rejects classic tropes of teen romance and portrays realistic symptoms of trauma that can often lead to toxic relationships. It doesn’t romanticize reality or what life could be, and although this may seem depressing, it’s the relatability that makes you feel whole. And for this, it would just be disrespectful to exclude this series from this list.
— Sophia Yoon, Daily Film Beat Editor
“Jane the Virgin”
Whether it be a book or a television show, arriving at the final chapter represents the end of a journey where we are forced to say goodbye to characters we have grown to love. For five years, we have followed the journey of the artificial insemination of Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez, Big Mouth) that turned her life upside down. What constantly grounded and allowed “Jane” to succeed was its devotion to employing common telenovela tropes like numerous sets of twins, shocking reveals and a passionate love story with the writers of “Jane the Virgin” beautifully balancing the line between drama and comedy. As a whole, this season may not have been jaw-dropping but served with the central focus of wrapping up loose ends that gave audiences the answers to questions we’ve had since “Chapter One.” The ending of “Jane” shows how layered yet logical and planned out this show has been from the start. This entire show has been about a girl who loves telenovelas so much that her life becomes one. With an inclusive cast and creative team, “Jane” broke the mold of traditional television in many ways. It’s the only show I can think of that portrays a straight man as a twitter-loving-lavender-wearing one. It’s a series that reveals it is possible to tell complex and exciting stories about decent people facing life’s challenges with hope for the future and after it concluded in July, one that I will certainly have to rewatch.
— Justin Pollack, Daily Arts Writer
“The Righteous Gemstones”
While I could (and frankly, should) be using this blurb to discuss why “Barry” was one of the best shows of 2019, I must admit that now, after 2 years of cleaning up at the Emmys, this sentiment feels a bit trite. For clarity, I am not arguing that “Barry” is “overrated” or that Henry Wrinkler is not giving the performance of a lifetime as Gene Cousineau — all Emmys have been rightfully awarded, but at this point, don’t we all know that “Barry” is good?
So let’s broaden our horizons to another male-driven HBO comedy.
On every level, “The Righteous Gemstones” should not work as a television show. The premise follows a corrupt, politically incorrect, Southern-fried family of televangelists. Its promotional stills look as if they were meant for an SNL sketch-turned-movie inevitably bound to fail at box offices. And its creator and star, Danny McBride is sporting a God awful Jheri curl mullet. And, yet, despite every red flag, the show works.
The quality of “Gemstones” should not come as a surprise if you consider the filmography of McBride. In each of his series that he has created for HBO — “Eastbound and Down” and “Vice Principals,” McBride and his team flex their keen ability for deriving humor out of realism. This realism is not only limited to moments of situational comedy, but also in the sets chosen, as well as in the costuming that effectively transform the Gemstone family, caricatures of gaudy 1980’s era televangelists, into real people — authentic people — that you can’t help but root for.
— Ally Owens, Daily Arts Writer
“The Mandalorian” was more than a Star Wars story, and that’s what made it better than anyone could have imagined. It took place in the Star Wars universe, yes. But it was, at its heart, a space western, composed of tight, condensed episodes that are filled with action, humor and the most adorable animatronic to ever grace the screen. “The Mandalorian” followed an unnamed Mandalorian who, after being contracted to retrieve a powerful child on the behalf of suspicious solicitors, decides to keep and protect the child, traversing the galaxy and running from bounty hunters. The show was more than Star Wars or even science-fiction. It was a story about morality, about duty — about innocence. Smart writing, incredible visual effects and a frankly too-cute Baby Yoda propelled this show above its Star Wars roots into something casual viewers could not only enjoy, but also connect with. Every episode is thoughtful, mastering the balance between tranquility and action. The writing is stable and powerful, making the most of each of its 30-minute episodes. In many ways, “The Mandalorian” is an exercise in restraint: brief but beautiful. What is said and shown explicitly is just right. This is the Way.
— Maxwell Schwarz, Daily Arts Writer