When it comes to television, 2019 felt like a year when nothing made sense. The most popular TV series of the decade ended with fans filing petitions for a redo and the Primetime Emmys handing over its top prize. A reality singing competition where celebrity contestants don extravagant costumes became the year’s No. 1 new show. (Yes, as time-bending as it may seem, “The Masked Singer” premiered this year.) Impeachment ratings went toe-to-toe with Democratic debates, “The Walking Dead” movies are headed to theaters while “Chinatown” gets the small screen treatment, and last but certainly not least, we can’t buy Baby Yoda dolls this Christmas?
Spurred on by these mind-boggling breakout stories, chaos reigned over the medium itself. This year felt like a tipping point — not in the way John Landgraf promised years ago, when the Mayor of Television predicted our Peak TV bubble would burst; instead, 2019 saw far more television flood the airwaves, cable cords, and streaming services than ever, with no end in sight. The plus sign in Apple TV and Disney’s new platforms felt like a harbinger of doom, considering HBO Max, Peacock, and Quibi — yes, Quibi — are still coming in 2021. Just keep adding services to the growing list of distributors, and keep adding shows to your queue.
All that content is enough to break the spirit of any TV fan hoping to keep up, and the end result feels inevitable: We’ll stop trying. Faced with too much TV, it’s becoming more and more comfortable — i.e., socially acceptable — to admit, “No, sorry, I didn’t see that one.” And that’s okay. Life outside of television does exist, after all. But the onslaught of content makes finding and acknowledging the best of television all the more essential.
After wading through the near-immeasurable amount of TV 2019 had to offer — quickly ditching the bad shows, carefully sorting the good from the very good, and ultimately ending up with a long list of bests — here’s the final cut; the unmissable series; the best shows of the year; the Top 10 TV Shows of 2019. It may not be exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start. Good luck in 2020 everyone. We’ll make sense of this mess yet.
10. “Superstore” (NBC)
When your job is to watch television — or, more honestly, when you’re a television addict, fitting in shows while you brush your teeth in the morning or do the dishes at night — there’s something to be said for the handful of programs you happily make time for within your weekly budget. “Superstore” ranks at the top of that list. Not only does Justin Spitzer’s workplace sitcom make an ongoing effort to expand its storylines beyond the expected everyday frustrations of the nine-to-five grind, but it fills every minute with hilarity, heart, or both. For the last few years, I would have to stop cooking or sweeping or doing anything at all to focus solely on that week’s “Superstore.” Now, I know better than to try. It deserves your utmost attention, at a time when even half your attention is at a premium.
9. “PEN15” (Hulu)
Nostalgia can be, and these days often is, dangerous (as evidenced by another show on this list), but Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s sweet, hysterical, and raunchy Hulu comedy utilized its early 2000s setting for maximum compassion. Their standout “AIM” episode could’ve been a cheap ploy to force viewers back to those early, confusing days of adolescent instant messaging — instead, it highlighted what the series does well throughout, by building an electric rapport between its leads and pushing them through universally identifiable fears. Erskine and Konkle deserve more credit for their performances alone, but “PEN15” is a fully realized flashback that sticks with you for all the right reasons.
8. “Barry” (HBO)
Many thought Bill Hader’s black comedy couldn’t sustain its hysterical highs and disturbing lows for longer than one season. This year proved them wrong. Rather than pulling back, Hader and co-creator Alec Berg push their hitman-turned-actor deeper into his own pain; into questioning why he wanted to escape a life filled with killing, and what’s left inside if he gives up his one skill. Beyond that, the show expands its supporting cast (Sarah Goldberg delivered one helluva year) and makes time for wild, almost-standalone episodes (never forget the little girl who climbed a tree) without slowing down on the central story’s forward momentum. “Barry” is a fascinating examination of depression, and the key to its success has been recognizing there’s a long road to recovery — and that road can still offer plenty of laughs.
7. “GLOW” (Netflix)
If “GLOW” was a weekly release, it would be a “Barry”-level sensation. Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch build such distinct, colorful, and pointed episodes, to analyze only the season as a whole can feel like a disservice to the elements that build it. Nevertheless, here we are: Netflix releases its seasons all at once, and my best of list has to go by everything that came out this year. So watch “GLOW” Season 3 however you can: Just take note of the first episode’s daring choice to revolve around the Challenge explosion, the unabashed exuberance driving “Freaky Tuesday,” and the camping discoveries within “Outward Bound” — you’ll find similar stand-out aspects of every episode this season, and each one is worth celebrating however you can. “GLOW” may be ending with Season 4, but there’s a second life for all its seasons if you go back and watch them one-by-one.
6. “Russian Doll” (Netflix)
A triumph of creative ingenuity and emotional intelligence, “Russian Doll” takes a whacky central premise — Nadia Vulvokov (co-creator, executive producer, and star Natasha Lyonne) can’t stop reliving her birthday party — and adds a tinge of darkness (the night starts over every time she dies), a dash of style (Leslye Headland’s direction is mesmerizing), and ties it all up in a personal examination far richer than “a bad person tries to make good” (a la its oft-cited predecessor, “Groundhog Day”). “Russian Doll” understands that for you to hear the same lines over and over (“Happy birthday, baby!”), see the same actions again and again (such as a montage of death), and stick with a person through repetition after repetition, you have to be invested in more than why it’s happening. You care about Nadia, deeply. Credit to the writers for starting from an internal touchstone and building out — hey, just like a Russian nesting doll! — it’s so often the key to great TV, even when you’ve got a killer hook like this one.
5. “Succession” (HBO)
In many ways, this was the year of “Succession.” More than just the best drama on television, at times it felt like the only good show at all. That kind of obsession drove more and more viewers to discover HBO’s addictive satire, more critics to break down its brilliance, and more of that ever-elusive “buzz” for a series deserving a bigger crowd. Jesse Armstrong’s insightful evisceration of a 1 percent world most of us will never experience works overtime to help us understand the common emotions driving these otherworldly figures. Jealousy, pride, and above all else, greed form scenes that offer a peek behind the (very expensive) curtains of wealth, and “Succession” brings these towering figures down to size through biting satire and unforgiving performances. Respect must be paid to the series, but the series never asks the same for its subjects.
4. “Tuca & Bertie” (Netflix)
Gone but never forgotten, Lisa Hanawalt’s first animated series as creator and executive producer shows just how much style and storytelling she’s got in the tank. The artist and author crafts her two best bird friends, Bertie (voiced by Ali Wong) and Tuca (Tiffany Haddish), into instantly relatable subjects, guiding viewers through an eye-popping anthropomorphic world filled with exciting day-to-day challenges and moving emotional journeys. Ideas are presented visually, adding flair to even the most expository moments, and the serialized tale of Season 1 captures real growth in its two stars. Yes, it’s a shame there won’t be a “Tuca & Bertie” Season 2, but that’s no reason to skip this brilliant set of episodes.
3. “Better Things” (FX)
A common theme among the year’s best television is offering a transportive experience — that rare feeling of being so immersed in a series that you’re living in that world instead of your own. Pamela Adlon’s beautiful, thoughtful, and attentive “Better Things” does this better than any other program out there, and it does so without relying on fantasy or an alternate reality. It’s grounded, so much so that it parallels many aspects within the life of its creator, showrunner, executive producer, writer, director, and star. Season 3 captures the essential moments of Sam Fox’s life; some are big, universal changes (like her eldest daughter moving out), while others are small, hard-to-define shifts (like a drink at a bar or a doctor’s visit). The vignette structure keeps you on your toes, but it also keeps the focus on what matters. Soon, you’re so swept up in Sam’s life, you forget it’s not part of your own. Better yet, it feels like it could be, if you just keep watching a little longer.
2. “Watchmen” (HBO)
Still revealing its many meanings six weeks into the nine-episode season, Damon Lindelof’s latest HBO masterpiece is already an invigorating ride and wrenching piece of commentary. First, there’s the cast, the costumes, the soundtrack, and the overall vision. The badass intensity of Regina King’s compulsive lead is matched only by Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons’ gleeful supporting turns, while the formal elements help make each hour a stunning sensory experience. In the other, “Watchmen” holds insightful analysis of modern day America — its divisions, its drug of choice, its rigidity, and its peculiarities. “Watchmen” is built with intention, even when each episode leaves you with questions. Many are meant to be answered by you, the viewer, and the rest will be unveiled as the mystery unfolds. Until then, enjoy it. There’s no wrong way to watch “Watchmen,” but you will be making a mistake if you miss it.
1. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
“Fleabag” is simply undeniable. So smart, so sharp, and so stocked with spirit, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s second season became the kind of must-see sensation all shows aspire toward. (For comparison’s sake, “The Office” was the last show to win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series after its first season wasn’t even nominated, and look at how popular NBC’s sitcom remains even now.) From its innovative approach to breaking the fourth wall to the indelible performances of its cast, “Fleabag” pushed itself to improve on its already excellent first season. Moreover, it took on a larger conversation about the meaning of faith, the value of loving yourself, and the benefits of listening to the people who love you. “Fleabag” is the kind of series that gives you hope for the future. If something this good, this bold, and this unique can steer the cultural tide, perhaps future greats can break out, too — too much TV, be damned.
In a year defined by its own nonsensical nature, it’s fitting that near-perfect seasons of “Veep” and “BoJack Horseman” didn’t make this Top 10. The final season of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ vicious political satire found a perfect ending, both moving and topical, and could’ve fit anywhere on the above list — but ties go to the ongoing series, especially those that viewers may not have discovered. As for “BoJack,” it only gave us half a season, so call it a technical omission. I’d also be remiss not to mention “Chernobyl,” HBO’s true story that took the world by storm, despite being a dour period piece told in just five episodes; “Unbelievable,” a Netflix limited series about believing women that’s all the better for devoting itself to the victims’ perspective; “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” which will be quoted from now until the night the skeletons come to life; “You’re the Worst,” “Broad City,” and “Catastrophe” all of which offered excellent endings to inventive series that could’ve gone in just about any direction; “David Makes Man,” a rich, ethereal OWN original that helped give Tarell Alvin McCraney one of the best years of any film and TV writer (shout out to “High Flying Bird,” one of 2019’s best films); and finally, “Mindhunter,” a directors’ favorite that went deep into self-analysis with astounding results.