Ranking the Best Shows of 2019: Part One
Not too long ago, Randy and I published our list of the best TV shows of 2019. At the time, we hadn’t yet ranked the order since we were waiting for the first (and maybe final) season of Watchmen to end— not to mention catching up on such shows as The Witcher. Now that Watchmen is over and we know The Witcher is not making the cut (sorry Netflix, but nice try), we sat down and debated on what the order should be. This wasn’t an easy task since we recommend every single one of the shows, but we can assure you that we at least agreed on the order of the top three. Anything above that could easily be moved around on any other given day.
Before we get to the list, we did want to mention a few more things. First, we really wanted to include non-scripted shows such as Jeopardy (which had perhaps the most emotional season of any talk show ever) as well as a couple of sports shows, but in the end, we decided the list was long enough. We would also like to apologize (not really) to Apple TV for not providing us with any screeners, perhaps explaining why none of their shows made the cut. Last but not least, while we are pretty sure Undone could have made our list, unfortunately, neither Randy nor I had a chance to watch it since there was a problem with the screeners we received. With that out of the way, here are the 33 best TV shows of 2019 with two special mentions.
Special Mention: Deadwood: The Movie (HBO)
Thirteen years after its unexpected cancellation, Deadwood finally returned for a brief farewell in the form of Deadwood: The Movie, a surprisingly emotional return to the infamous South Dakotan settlement. Both a fitting series finale and a poetically-crafted reflection on the arc of a life (it features a birth, a wedding, and a death, all in the span of 110 minutes), Deadwood: The Movie is David Milch’s ultimate meditation on humanity, told with the same lyrical, abrasive verve he brought to the original series years ago.
It would be easy to just be impressed by how many original cast members Deadwood: The Movie was able to conjure for its brief revival; smartly, Milch leans into that nostalgia to deliver a story that is equal parts satisfying and tragic, as honest with its characters as it is with itself, and a meditation on the unstoppable power of time’s passing (perhaps a reflection of Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which fundamentally changed the creative and filming process from the show’s original run).
Perhaps the most striking change from series to film is how hopeful Deadwood: The Movie is, underneath all the cursing, violence, and anger contained in George Hearst’s momentous return to Deadwood. Though a quiet undercurrent, it bleeds through every page of the script, right up to the film’s magnificently powerful final act and the indelible final images and thoughts it leaves with the audience. It took way too long to happen, and it doesn’t last nearly as long as it should, but Deadwood: The Movie is the perfect ending to Milch’s dramatic masterpiece and a powerful reflection on the nature of humanity. (Randy Dankievitch)
Special Mention: Breaking Bad: El Camino (Netflix)
El Camino began as a simple short film that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wanted to make for the series’ 10th anniversary. Plans changed, and over time that simple concept expanded into a feature-length film designed for viewers who wondered what happened to Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) after he escaped the Nazi compound driving Todd’s titular vehicle.
The question we had before watching El Camino was if any closure was needed, and whether El Camino would have anything to add to one of the greatest shows ever made. The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. El Camino might not be essential viewing for the phenomenally popular AMC show, but it does provide a proper ending for arguably the fans’ favourite character. And thanks to Aaron Paul’s raw and committed performance, as well as Vince Gilligan’s talent behind the camera, the Netflix original film is one of the best things the streaming giant has produced thus far. Not only does the El Camino’s 125-minute runtime pay tribute to the show that helped give it birth, but it also finds a reason to exist beyond making the studio a boatload of money. If the Breaking Bad finale was about Walter White getting what he wanted, El Camino is about Jesse reconciling with his past and searching for humanity he’d lost. It succeeds by giving Jesse a fresh start; he’s finally able to move on and decide what he wants to do with his life without anyone else interfering with his plans. Now that he truly is free, the question is whether or not he can create a happy ending for himself. (Ricky D)
33: Veronica Mars (Hulu)
While plenty of shows have tried to do the reboot/comeback thing over the last few years, not many have managed to do so as successfully as Veronica Mars. The Hulu revival somehow manages to bring the core characters we loved into a compelling new mystery after a 12-year hiatus. Still intact are the whip-smart writing, red herrings aplenty, and the battle against corruption at every turn.
The crown jewel comes in the form of the strong cast and their chemistry though. Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni shine every time they’re on screen together and the new additions to the cast, including Patton Oswalt, all make a strong case for their characters, even as they’re shelving old fan favorites. Still, nearly every character gets a chance in the limelight during this 8 episode return, and the fact that it never feels like overwrought fan service makes it an absolute joy to see them again. (Mike Worby)
32: Love, Death + Robots (Netflix)
In case Black Mirror wasn’t enough to satisfy your appetite for a sci-fi anthology series, Love, Death + Robots offers 18 bite-sized slices of mind-bending, futuristic goodness on Netflix as well.
Originally conceived as a new version of Heavy Metal, Love, Death + Robots eventually evolved into its own creation altogether. Focusing partly on adapting classic science fiction tales and partly on creating new stories, the series travels all across the space-time continuum, weaving tales of future farmers battling interdimensional insects and cryogenic sleeping astronauts awakening to their worst nightmares.
With tones and themes as eclectic as its settings and stories, there’s something for everyone to love in this gorgeously animated, lovingly rendered anthology series. (Mike Worby)
31: Creepshow (Shudder)
In the late 1970s, horror maestros George Romero and Stephen King teamed up to create Creepshow, a horror anthology that doubled as an homage to the old EC comics the pair grew up reading as kids. In its opening weekend, Creepshow took the top spot at the box office, grossing an impressive $5,870,889 stateside and eventually went on to become a cult classic spawning two sequels and even a comic of its own. Now decades later, horror streaming service Shudder has revived the concept, bringing back everyone’s favorite creep in the form of a weekly series that promised to capture the legacy of both the age-old comics and that 1982 movie.
Much like the 1982 movie — which spawned a pair of sequels — Greg Nicotero’s anthology series is equally frightening and funny. And like the original, not every segment is a winner but of the twelve segments crammed into six episodes, more than half deliver good, old-fashioned horror that treats its inspirations with infectious admiration. Reviving the franchise that Stephen King and George A. Romero began forty years ago isn’t an easy task, but Greg Nicotero along with his incredibly talented team pulled it off. (Ricky D)
30: GLOW (Netflix)
You would have thought a series that revolves around characters and gimmicks of a low-budget 1980s syndicated women’s professional wrestling circuit would be a hit? Sure enough, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (or GLOW) created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch has garnered rave reviews and gathered a cult following since it premiered on Netflix in the summer of 2017. With incredibly accurate 1980s period detail, a superb ensemble cast and great writing, GLOW returned for its third season and delivered exactly what the fans want.
In the third season of GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling adjust to their new casino-based lives in Las Vegas. They’re no longer starring in an ongoing serialized wrestling promotion; instead, the ladies take to the stage several nights a week at the fictitious Fan-Tan Casino where they perform in front of a live audience, often improvising both in necessity and in boredom from the usual routine. But no matter how hard they try to shake things up, the nightly attraction is just that— a routine. The season makes so many unexpected pivots as the cast of GLOW struggle with their careers and insecurities. Feeling trapped in a never-ending loop, the ladies (and men) are forced to either live a superficial life in the most superficial place on Earth and succumb to boredom— or carve a new path and find happiness in something (or someone) new. Turns out, Las Vegas makes for a refreshing change of pace as it provides new opportunities and perhaps a step up for their careers.
The third season of GLOW is nowhere near as good as its predecessors, but it remains a complex show nonetheless, calling attention to culturally relevant issues while maintaining a dark sense of humor. As hard as it tries to give everyone in the cast a story, there just isn’t enough time and so a good number of important story beats fall flat. Yet despite its flaws and odd tonal shifts, GLOW is still one of the best shows of 2019.
29: The Mandalorian (Disney+)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Mandalorian is said to be the most in-demand television program worldwide across all platforms. This is, after all, a television series set in a galaxy far, far away, within the Star Wars universe, about five years after the events of the 1986 film Return of the Jedi, to be exact. What is surprising, however, is how The Mandalorian takes far more risks than the previous six motion pictures combined.
From the opening frame when our hero appears silhouetted in a doorway, it’s clear The Mandalorian continues the grand Star Wars tradition of paying homage to the western genre. Any fan of Spaghetti Westerns will instantly recognize the influences—from its open plains and desert landscapes to its shadowy cantinas and blood-spattered shootouts to its rebellious anti-hero, The Mandalorian really is the Wild West in space. At the center of the show is the titular bounty hunter (played by Pedro Pascal), an assassin known only as Mando, a moniker taken from the name of his people, the Mandalorians. Like any famous gunslinger, Mando is the quickest draw in the galaxy and thanks to writer Jon Favreau and the performance by Pascal, he’s also a fully fleshed-out and thoroughly engaging character. We may never see his face (at least not yet) but we know plenty about the man behind the mask. He’s tough, brusque and deadly, but his tough exterior hides a deeper morality and a heart of gold. When Mando learns the 50-year-old person he’s been hired to capture is a toddler, he breaks the code of the bounty hunter and risks his life to save the child. From that moment, Mando becomes the second most iconic character on TV this year, just short of his adorable sidekick with ears as wide as he is tall.
The Mandalorian is simply put, a compelling piece of television and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe that benefits greatly from stunning western iconography, spectacular visual effects, incredible sound design, and a wonderful soundtrack composed by Ludwig Göransson. The Mandalorian is so well polished, every penny of its enormous budget is seen across every frame of its run time. Toss in interesting actors like Nick Nolte, Carl Weathers, and Werner Herzog and an eight-episode structure that moves at a brisk pace, and what we have is one of the better shows of 2019. The Mandalorian is everything a Star Wars fan could want from a television series— it’s action-packed, expertly-crafted and for the most part, well-acted. And despite two disappointing episodes, The Mandalorian has kept us entertained since the very start. (Ricky D)
28: True Detective (HBO)
After a rocky second season and a four-year hiatus, True Detective has returned at last with what may be its finest noir tale yet.
Focusing on the disappearance of two young siblings, and spanning the course of four decades, True Detective‘s third season enlists the talents of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as troubled detectives trying to solve a mysterious case over the course of three different time periods. Moody, atmospheric and haunting, True Detective goes utterly for broke in its latest effort, and is all the better for it.
With tons of twists and turns along the way, a jaw-dropping cast, and a fantastic soundtrack, Nic Pizzolato’s third run at the classic film-noir detective story has reinvigorated the love for this series, and offers plenty of hope for an equally excellent fourth season. (Mike Worby)
27: Black Mirror (Netflix)
For years Black Mirror has been turning our latest technological advances into our newest fears and anxieties. From social media to smartphones, Black Mirror has found surprisingly inventive ways to turn our modern conveniences into nightmare fodder.
The fifth season continues this trend with three new tales about online gaming, social media addiction and holographic performers. While it may not be the best season of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series, Black Mirror still packs a punch in its latest effort. The middle episode, “Smithereens” (focusing on the kidnapping of an intern for a social media conglomerate, and the international incident which follows) is particularly involving.
With Nine Inch Nails, Miley Cyrus, and other talented performers behind the fifth season of Black Mirror, the show still succeeds in being entertaining, even when it’s not at its best. (Mike Worby)
26: The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
This 10-episode Netflix series, which is adapted from the comic book created and written by My Chemical Romance’s frontman, Gerard Way, might have its share of flaws and excesses, but it, for the most part, feels fresh in what is an oversaturated genre. The basic premise revolves around seven kids with superpowers born to different mothers on the same day and brought together as young children by a wealthy inventor and philanthropist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) who adopts all seven of these miracle babies, and creates an academy in order to teach them how to hone their powers.
Best described as a particularly bleak X-Men story with the musical and visual flourishes of Watchmen, The Umbrella Academy is as stylish as they come – featuring gorgeous costume design, stunning cinematography, dazzling visual effects, colorful sets, and thrilling action scenes. The production design is simply incredible as is the soundtrack which plays a prominent role in bringing several key sequences to life. Take for instance a split-screen shoot-out in a department store as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” provides the high-tempo backdrop as the action unfolds – or a scene in which the team listens to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” as the camera glides through the mansion capturing each sibling dancing in separate rooms. And underneath all the razzle and dazzle is a brutal portrait of a damaged, unhappy, dysfunctional family that has drifted apart for various reasons and must now band together in order to help each other while also saving the world. The combination of family drama and superheroics is nothing new but The Umbrella Academy shows enough moments of genius, albeit brief, to warrant a spot on this list. (Ricky D)
25: Mom (CBS)
Entering its sixths season with 110 episodes under its belt, one might surmise Mom‘s latest offering is a rather safe endeavor, settling into the established rhythms of the series with the lower stakes that often come from a group of characters well-settled into their lives. As it always does, though, Mom continues to buck tradition and expectation with perhaps its best season yet, refusing to ever let its main characters – and their larger group of friends and fellow AA attendees – get comfortable, even for a second.
Mom‘s sixth season is as impressive as its first, because of its ability to continue challenging its characters, masterfully walking the thin line between nuanced character study and broad network comedy. Never pandering or exploitative, Mom never forgets it is a show about a group of addicts: but it also recognizes itself as a show about white women of some level of privilege, constantly challenging and humbling Christy, Bonnie, and the gang (which now includes the legendary William Fitchner) as they try to navigate their complicated lives (and remain sober doing it).
Though I do wish the arcs of Tammy and Nora through the season a bit more defined, Mom remains the most rewarding show to watch about a community of women (sorry, Big Little Lies). For a sitcom on CBS, Mom remains surprisingly limber in its advanced age, able to be funny, poignant, and emotionally devastating in the same breath: few shows on television are able to balance so many emotional tenors, even fewer with the same poignancy and effortlessness Mom pulls off every week. (Randy Dankievitch)
24: Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
Bojack Horseman carried on the strong trajectory of seasons 4 and 5 as it headed into the first part of its 6th and final season. As Bojack finally got clean and sober, he was forced to take a good long look at his life and his choices. Other characters like Diane and Princess Caroline found themselves at similar crossroads of their lives, and while things seem to be on the upswing by the end of the season, there is a clear darkness from the past that threatens to swallow Bojack for good as the second part of season 6 looms.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. This 8 episode stretch still has the same top tier satire and stupid animal puns you’ve likely come to know and love after 5 seasons with Bojack Horseman. And with the last bit of episodes just around the corner in January, we’ll soon have the the final verdict on one of Netflix’s best shows. (Mike Worby)
23: You’re the Worst (FXX)
When the Sunday Funday crew take their final bow, You’re the Worst’s audience will say farewell to an honest portrayal about the pursuit of happiness, and why the “good” emotions of life can often be the most unsatisfying.
The entire final season of You’re the Worst tackles this idea head-on, particularly in the professional lives of its main characters. As Jimmy and Gretchen hurtled towards a wedding neither of them actually wanted, You’re the Worst cemented its legacy as one of the defining romantic comedy of this generation, nimbly moving between stories of professional anxieties and personal battles as it built towards “Pancakes,” the beautiful, bittersweet farewell to Gretchen, Jimmy, Edgar, and Lindsay’s story. Though not quite as potent as it was in its earliest, most revelatory seasons, the continued misadventures of Jimmy’s writing career and Gretchen’s mental health struggles proved to be fertile emotional ground for the show’s final batch of episodes. Of the many shows to end in 2019, this will be the one I miss the most. (Randy Dankievitch)
22: Broad City (Comedy Central)
The end of Broad City feels like the end of a specific generation of late-millennial comedy, a quarter-life-crisis series grounded in one of the most nuanced, unabashedly honest portrayals of female friendship (and New York City, in all its disgusting, adventurous glory). And after a couple of seasons of resting on its comedic laurels, Broad City‘s final ten episodes are a surprisingly emotional ride, prying the two protagonists away from each other as they contemplate the next personal, and professional, steps in their lives.
Broad City‘s final season is basically a breakup story disguised as a Linklater-esque coming of age comedy: it’s equally nostalgic and hopeful, packed with callbacks to earlier seasons, but with the haunting realizations that things for Abby and Ilana are changing, and the adventures of their mid-20’s are far behind them. Neatly divided into two distinctly individual arcs, Broad City finds its genius in the earnest growth it offers both its leading ladies, culminating in the show’s impressive final four episodes, perhaps the most emotionally satisfying arc of the series.
Yes, there’s still drug-addled adventures, plenty of Jewish jokes, and failed romances for both Abbi and Ilana – this is still Broad City we’re talking about, after all. But there’s a different tenor to the show’s unwavering honesty, isolating Abbi and Ilana as they fumble to figure out who they are going to be, in a marked shift from the show’s previous, often lighthearted approach to life’s most pressing questions. Equally sentimental and unforgiving, Broad City‘s ruminations on friendship and identity makes for surprisingly powerful material, cementing the show’s legacy as one of this generation’s defining comedies. (Randy Dankievitch)
21: Big Little Lies (HBO)
Adapted from the book of the same name from Liane Moriarty by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Sharp Objects), the first season of Big Little Lies was a huge hit for HBO. It received 16 Emmy Award nominations and won eight, including Outstanding Limited Series and acting awards for Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Laura Dern. The trio also won Golden Globe Awards in addition to a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film win for the series. Kidman and Skarsgård also received Screen Actors Guild Awards for their performances. So, of course, there was going to be another season of a closed-ended story starring one of the most talented ensemble casts on television ever. And this time around, gifted filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) has taken over direction from Vallée, with Meryl Streep joining the cast as Mary Louise Wright, the grieving mother in pursuit of the killer(s) of her beloved son. After the critically acclaimed first season, the biggest question going into this new installment was can it live up to the tension of the first season? The answer is yes!
This time around, the central question commanding the series isn’t who murdered who, but rather how the Monterey Five deal with the aftermath of Perry’s death. Season two raises the stakes for all five women at the center of the show and it doubles down on the dark humor while also giving its cast even more juicy drama to chew on. Needless to say, if you like season one, you’ll love season two but if there is one reason to watch, it is for the performance from Laura Dern who breathes dragon fire into Renata Klein — she’s by far the most fascinating character on television this year. (Ricky D)