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TV Never Sleeps’ Best of 2019

Randy’s favorite shows, performances, and oddities of the year in television.

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2019 was officially the year Peak TV ended; what we saw, especially in the second half of the year, was the dawning of the Too Much TV era, a harbinger of the impending Streaming Wars II in 2020, when over 500 scripted series will air across approximately 51,943 different networks and services.

Because of its strange existence between the age of Game of Thrones and the age of A Shitload of Semi-Prestige, Extremely Forgettable Television Series, 2019 was a weird collection of highs and lows – one definitely marked by a series of disappointing, seemingly premature cancellations, shows like Tuca & Bertie, Abby’s, and Lodge 49 lost as artifacts of a time nobody seemed to understand how to effectively measure an audience.

But it was also a year defined by some memorable, ambitious television that wore its niche qualities like a badge, and didn’t conform to be yet another middling, mindless binge watch or network procedural. There were even some good spin-offs, adaptations, and reboots (shout out Dark Crystal and The Mandalorian, two shows I wish I’d seen more of before writing this list), in an age where their proliferation has led to some truly middling results (Carnival Row, anyone?)

Without further ado, here are my picks for my favorite shows, performances, episodes, and moments of TV in 2019:

A Black Lady Sketch Show

A Black Lady Sketch Show & I Think You Should Leave revitalize sketch comedy

The back half of the 2010’s has proven to be pretty great for sketch comedy shows, a trend no more obvious than in 2019’s A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO) and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix), two of the best entries in the genre of the decade – and more importantly, two series with incredibly diverse comedic voices.

I Think You Should Leave‘s genius comes in its brevity: Tim Robinson and company’s sketches are short and absurd, exaggerating mundane situations to examine the strange social contracts we all have with each other (plus, the entire season is 90 minutes long!). Whether a criminal in a hot dog costume or a baby in a reality competition, I Think You Should Leave‘s ability to tweak reality into hilarious surrealism instantly (and rightfully) turned it into the internet’s favorite show – complete with my single favorite niche Twitter account of the year, I Think You Should League Pass.

On the other hand, A Black Lady’s Sketch Show is an absolute mastery of the ensemble format, offering its audience wonderfully textured sketches, that examine everything from culture to gender , with some of the most incredibly tight, mature comedy writing on television. A Black Lady Sketch Show brazenly declares its identity in its title, and embodies it in every hilarious, guest-star laden sketch: this is a show written, produced, and performed by black women, a powerful avenue for some of the generation’s greatest comedic voices (created by Robin Thede and produced by Issa Rae, ABLSS stars Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Quinta Brunson). The results? Sketches like “Purgatory Soul Food,” “Bad Bitch Support Group,” “Courtroom Kiki,” and my personal favorite, “Invisible Spy.”

The Kominsky Method

Alan Arkin as Norman Newlander, The Kominsky Method

In the first episode of Chuck Lorre’s unexpectedly touching The Kominsky Method, retired Hollywood agent Norman Newlander loses his wife to cancer, sending him into a depressed spiral of trying to find purpose in life when the only thing he really loved was gone. While the series around him took awhile to find its stride, Alan Arkin’s performance as the brash, outspoken Norman was always pitch perfect, a somber portrayal of a man contending with an emptiness in his life, for which there is no way to fill.

Season two gave even more layers to Norman’s character, as his adult daughter (Lisa Edelstein, delivering a fantastic performance of her own) returns from rehab and begins to try and rebuild her life. Norman is trying to rebuild his life, going on his first dates as a widow and contending with the undeniable fact that the world continues spinning, even when the center of our known universe is no longer there.

It would be easy for the character to fall into grumpy parody; Arkin offers such incredible complexity to Norman, however, he becomes one of the easiest characters on television to root for. Though the show around him (which co-stars Michael Douglas as an acting teacher learning to be a better father himself) is often more interesting to examine than it is rewarding to watch, Arkin’s Norman offers The Kominsky Method a distinct heart the show builds its entire emotional foundation on.

“Broad City” – Broad City

After a couple meandering seasons, Broad City‘s final run turned out to be one of 2019’s biggest surprises, securing its legacy among the decade’s greats with a gem of a fifth season. Broad City was always an unconventional comedy series about personal and professional growth – but its final run of episodes were about its protagonists maturing beyond their shared, now iconic friendship, confronting the fear of the unknown in unexpectedly powerful, poignant ways.

The premise clearly energized Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, and their writing team: the final season of Broad City is arguably its most memorable, taking a deep look into Abbi and Ilana’s friendship and contending with the inevitability that one day, they’ll have to face life challenges without each other by their side. It does so by taking a rather intriguing risk; it separates Ilana and Abbi for large portions of the season, isolating them so each can figure out what they really want from life.

A love letter to a friendship, an era of television, and Broad City‘s eloquently goofy portrayal of New York, “Broad City” is the rare, truly perfect series finale, one that uses its narrative simplicity (Abbi and Ilana steal a toilet before Abbi moves to Colorado) to explore the deep emotional texture of their universe-expanding relationship. I won’t spoil anything here – but even if you fell off the series during its slightly too wacky middle seasons, you won’t be disappointed (or have a dry eye) watching Broad City‘s touching last episode, one of the best to air in 2019.

Chernobyl Best TV Shows 2019

Chernobyl

Thanks to shows like Channel Zero (RIP), Creepshow, and The Twilight Zone, horror on the small screen is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Though Chernobyl doesn’t explicit share any DNA with these series – after all, it is a true fucking story – it is far and away the most effective work of horror I saw in 2019, a frightening reminder of how close we perpetually exist to catastrophic disaster – and more importantly, how woefully inept bureaucracies are prepared to handle such calamities.

Led by a terrific cast (including Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and a sublime Emily Watson), Craig Mazin’s historical mini-series takes a surprisingly objective look at the nuclear disaster and its fallout; beginning with “1:23:45,” easily the most harrowing series premiere in recent memory, and continuing through every seemingly-impossible step of the recovery – a story that ranges from blubbering politicians (and the power of public spin) to young volunteers, sent through infected towns to kill all the pets and stray animals left behind by evacuating families.

Dark, unforgiving – and sometimes, outright depressing, Chernobyl is the kind of jarringly honest reflections on history television needs more of.

Daisy Haggard as Miri Matteson, Back to Life

Though as a series, Back to Life is never able to truly become the spiritual successor to Rectify it so clearly could’ve been, it is still a touching story of redemption and the passage of time, studying the time-delayed ripple effect of a murder in a small British town.

Daisy Haggard stars as Miri Matteson, the killer in question: 18 years after accidentally killing her best friend during an argument, Miri finds herself trying to reintegrate herself back into the world after serving her time. In Miri, Haggard finds a career-defining performance, equal touches quirky and devastating, able to turn the character on a whim to elevate the emotional tenor of any given moment.

I think what sticks with me after Back to Life‘s brief six-episode first season is just how effortles the performance comes across; though Miri is desperately trying to put her past behind her, Haggard never once leans on melodrama or histrionics to give voice to her arrested emotional development. Instead, she offers a carefully crafted, nuanced portrayal of a woman trying not to drown in bad memories and regrets, a sheen of optimism that slowly cracks as the season continues. It is a performance television critics didn’t talk about enough in 2019, and it is one I’m looking to see grow and get its due in 2020.

Deadwood: The Movie

Deadwood: The Movie

I’ve written at great lengths already about Deadwood: The Movie, so let me just say this: Deadwood: The Movie is better than it has any right to be. David Milch, returning to his Western masterpiece for the last time, crafts a wistful, optimistic, unbelievably beautiful epilogue to the world of Deadwood, looking forward to the future while taking time to reflect on his iconic series, the passage of time, and the weight of a lifetime’s collection of memories and experiences. I cry through the final twenty minutes every time I watch it – partly because I still can’t believe it exists, but mostly because it is an emotionally charged, effortlessly poignant ending to one of television’s greatest dramatic experiments.

The Righteous Gemstones But the Righteous Will See Their Fall

Edi Patterson as Judy Gemstone, The Righteous Gemstones

There were a lot of great female comedic performances in 2019 – and while much attention will rightfully be given to Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle of Pen15, and Pamela Adlon of Better Things, my personal favorite performance of the year came from Edi Patterson as Judy Gemstone on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, a surprisingly emotional series of televangelists and white privilege.

As the daughter of a outright legend, the pressure Judy feels to make a name for herself – in a family full of men trying to diminish her influence, no less – is palpable; how Patterson morphs that into a layered, uninhibited performance as the vulgar, energetic Judy is a sight to see. Able to be hilarious and devastatingly honest in the same moment, Judy Gemstone is the real heart of The Righteous Gemstones, a character whose nepotism is balanced by her vulnerability, her desire to be more than just a rich daughter living in the shadow of her mother’s legacy. Patterson also offers some of the best line readings in all of television, as if you needed another reason to be convinced of her comedic mastery.

Game of Thrones A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

The fireplace scene in Game of Thrones‘ “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Let’s be honest: the final season of Game of Thrones blows, a mess of undercooked character motivations, poor plotting, and one of the most laughably hollow, lazy series finales ever. Even for a show that seemed to stumble upon greatness more often than willingly construct it, the last eight entries in HBO’s A Song of Fire and Ice adaptation was a miscalculation of epic proportions, roundly rejected by audiences and critics alike (including this guy).

But for all the frustrations of experiencing the incoherent “The Long Night” and the cynical “The Bells,” Game of Thrones was still capable of some incredible character moments, almost all of which came in the season’s best episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”

Though never an episode that will rank high on anyone’s list of best episodes, there is a particular sequence that ranks among the best of the series, the one time the weight of its characters grueling journeys through Westeros shone through its unkempt, underwhelming mess of terrible writing and unconvincing climactic moments (ok, there is one other: the Hound vs. Mountain fight at King’s Landing, but that moment exists in the shadow of the awful material around it).

I’m talking, of course, about everyone hanging out in the Stark home, reminscing about the paths they took to get there – a conversation that leads to Brienne of Tarth’s knighting at the hand of Jaime (a moment they immediately undercut with some unnecessary romantic tension, but… we’ll just pretend that doesn’t happen, for the sake of preserving this scene). It’s a four-minute scene that captures everything great about Game of Thrones; there are no fancy dragons or eye-opening scenes of bloodshed. It’s just a bunch of weary people talking about the rich past of their world, bonding over the shared understanding of “fuck tradition.”

And it ends with perhaps the best culmination of a plot arc in the entire series (well, except maybe the rise and fall of Robb Stark); Brienne rightly becoming a knight of the Seven Kingdoms, as deserving a happy ending as anyone in the realm of Westeros deserved. The emotional power of that moment is a thing few shows are able to pull off, and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” does it with a confidence rarely seen in its final hours. It still warms my heart to think of Brienne’s smile when she rises a true knight of the realm; though Game of Thrones will be remembered for much louder, more dramatic moments, that image is the one I’ll always keep in my mind when remembering the long, strange journey through the most-discussed television series of all-time.

Love, Death + Robots

“Fish Night” – Love, Death & Robots

Love, Death & Robots is not a great series – it vacillates wildly in quality between its eighteen entries, as one might expect from a science fiction short film anthology. But there are a few noticable standouts (like “Ice Age” and “Zima Blue,” which you can read about in my official ranking), led by Philip Galett’s adaptation of Joe Landsdale’s short story “Fish Night.”

A tale of two salesman stranded on the side of a road, “Fish Night” goes light on the science fiction, and heavy on character and tone, creating one of the dreamier, effortless entries in the series. Quiet and contemplative, “Fish Night” slowly builds to a transcendent climax, in turn delivering on the promise of Love, Death & Robot‘s approach to short-form, ambitious sci-fi stories.

Legends of Tomorrow

Who would’ve thought that the fourth spin-off of the Arrowverse, featuring a handful of C- and D-list DC characters, would eventually become one of the most audacious, emotionally rewarding series on television? Since a mostly underwhelming, creatively safe, first season, Legends of Tomorrow has slowly transformed itself into the most reliable, consistent drama on network television – to the point its storytelling choices and character evolution apes anything done on Arrow and The Flash throughout their run.

Whether it is Sara Lance fucking her way through history (or, in recent seasons, dating a clone-turned-government agent named Ava), John Constantine dealing with his endless parade of demons, or Heat Wave’s writing career, Legends of Tomorrow‘s merry band of misfits have become my favorite collection of characters on television. And though LoT never really exceeds the limited emotional landscape of its network counterparts, what it does with form is simply fascinating, packing every time-traveling adventure with meta references, extended cinematic homages, and the kind of Don’t Give a Fuck storytelling television just doesn’t have anymore. Legends of Tomorrow demands its audience take massive leaps of faith; for those of us that are willing to make the jump, it is a consistently rewarding journey.

PART TWO

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The Boys Season 2 Episode 3 Review: “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men”

The Boys’ marks an improvement and pays big dividends in an explosive, violently revealing hour.

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The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

Half bottle episode and half coming out party, “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” is a sneaky little showcase for The Boys, and just how big its world’s suddenly gotten in season two. Though ostensibly an episode designed around two events – the boys getting stuck on the boat, and Stormfront revealing her inner racist sociopath – “Over the Hill” navigates a number of brewing conflicts in fascinating ways, building and building until the violent explosion at the episode’s conclusion. With a nimble script and a game group of performers, The Boys‘ second season is turning out to be a distinct pleasure – albeit one heading down a gruesome, dark path I sure hope it’s capable of navigating.

“Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” navigates a number of brewing conflicts in fascinating ways, building and building until the violent explosion at the episode’s conclusion.

It does take a little while for “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” to get going; beginning three miles offshore with The Boys and the reunited super-siblings, the first quarter feels like it’s simply restating the stakes. It’s a nimble trick, though; led by Kimiko and Kenji, The Boys begins to feel like it is approaching a true moral quandary for the group. Which door descending into hell will they choose?

The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

While The Boys often likes to posture its presenting characters with complex dilemmas, the show’s unnerving nihilism often upends any sort of nuance it looks for in its debates around “necessary” violence. Here, Kimiko’s presence throws a fascinating wrench into the proceedings; with most of the group’s members clinging to whatever mirage of family they have left (save for Hughie, who has… forgotten his dad exists?), even Butcher can’t deny having conflicting feelings about what to do with Kenji, and the deal that’s been offered to him if he turns him in.

Elsewhere, “Over the Hill” throws the brazen personalities of The Seven into their own little blenders, as Stormfront begins to sow discord through Vought, and abuse her powers to casually murder a lot of people – nearly all of them minorities, in a way that feels like an explosion of character, rather than an unpeeling of some complicated identity. Stormfront simply doesn’t give a fuck; and with her supernatural ability to manipulate feminist views (her speech to the reporters is magnificent, both in how it develops Stormfront’s character and nods to the simplistic ways in which the evilest people in society disguise themselves among the “good”).

While she’s kicking up tornadoes and electrocuting everyone that gets in her way, characters like The Deep and Homelander continue to benefit from the much-improved writing of season two. The show is still struggling to make Becca something more than the Ultimate Mother Protector trope, but Homelander’s warped sense of responsibility to his son is interesting, surely a bad sign for the upbringing of this world’s Superboy (will he also don a cool leather jacket and weird cyberpunk sunglasses? Who knows!). It’s clearly not going well; even he seems to recognize the danger in bringing his son’s powers to the surface, as its the first time in his life he’s facing a challenge as the world’s strongest hero (that is, until Stormfront doubles that total later in the episode, further frustrating Homelander’s attempts to hold domain over everything in his grasp).

The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

It’s not going well for The Deep, either, as his slow descent into cult life is bringing his desperation for acceptance further to the surface. Like with Homelander’s stories, I wish The Deep’s story was a little tighter and more thoughtful (some of the body image stuff seems to be treated trivially, in a way that borders on insensitive and uninformed for the sake of easy jokes), but there’s no denying his character is infinitely more interesting this season, a test case for what a superhero trying to learn their own limits would struggle with. The Deep works best as a pathetic character, but not when it’s a pathetic character The Boys just kick around with bad punchlines; when he’s treated as a byproduct of a deeply flawed human being trying to find a path to good intentions, his fumbles and weak-minded rhetoric is much more amusing – and at times, the tiniest bit empathic (his sadness over Billy’s, well, butchering of his whale buddy was such an earnest, raw and twistedly funny moment).

The Boys has needed to accelerate its internal stakes for a while; the introduction of “super terrorists” to the world by Homelander, and Compound V’s reveal to the public might make the show’s world feel a bit smaller than intended – I think a lot about the “big” fight scenes at the end of Arrow‘s third season, where the ‘entire city’ is fighting, but there’s never more than six people around – The Boys does that on a narrative level sometimes. But as the stories of the show dig a little deeper into its characters – Maeve’s disillusionment, Homelander’s failure to emulate paternal behavior, A-Train’s desperation, it’s beginning to feel like the writers have a deeper understanding of its characters and world, and how to wield its inherent sadistic cynicism to more interesting ends. “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” benefits massively from that, setting up a number of intriguing dominoes for the back half of season two to knock over (in bloody fashion).

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Look, I’m bummed how the Kenji character played out; he was such an interesting character, an examination of everything horrible about what power and war can do to a human being. It’s sad to see The Boys dispose of such an intriguing presence, especially as its a death of a minority character in service of mostly white-related stories – however, with such a hateful, nasty character like Stormfront waiting in the wings, it is easy to see how the writers found their way down that path. (like, she could’ve killed Black Noir and this show would’ve literally lost nothing… just sayin’).
  • Can A-Train just collapse or whatever, so we can get this storyline moving? We’ve been doing this since the second episode!
  • Why haven’t we seen any reaction to Becca seeing Butcher in person at the end of season one? She hasn’t mentioned it or even had a longing look off-screen to violin music.
  • Man, I’m so glad they cast Aya Cash as Stormfront.
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The Best Golden Girl is Sophia Petrillo

Sophia Petrillo was a legend in her own mind who always had her way and like Mighty Mouse, always won.

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Sophia Petrillo The Golden Girls

A seemingly harmless little old lady with curly white hair, oversized glasses, and an innate ability to tell a great story shows up on her daughter’s doorstep when the retirement home she was put in by said daughter burns down. With a simple, “Hi there,” the world meets Sophia Petrillo. For seven years on NBC’s The Golden Girlsa show about the senior set—Sophia lived with her intelligent and extremely sarcastic divorced daughter Dorothy Zbornak and her two roommates, sexy, eternally horny southern belle Blanche Devereaux and sweet but dim-witted Minnesotan Rose Nylund. Each is memorable in their own way, but it’s Sophia, “feisty, zesty, and full of old-world charm,” that stands out the most.

When TV was full of generic, sweet grandma types, Sophia was anything but. Sure, she looked the part with her bifocals, pearls, and now iconic straw and bamboo-beaded handbag, but Sophia was always trying to make a quick buck. She conned Rose into going into a sandwich-making business that pit them against the mob, faked being paralyzed to try and collect insurance, and constantly “borrowed” money from Dorothy’s purse. Instead of helping Dorothy, Blanche and Rose get out of jail when they are mistaken for hookers (don’t ask, just Youtube it). She stole their tickets to go to a party and meet Burt Reynolds. She also stole Rose’s car, worked at a fast-food restaurant, and won a marathon. Not bad for a woman in her eighties. Sophia had a sharp wit and an acerbic tongue, blaming her stroke for leaving her without the ability to self-censor. She was always ready with a zinger or a comeback, some of which she saved for her very own daughter.

Sophia Petrillo The Golden Girls

Sophia Petrillo is the Secret Star of The Golden Girls

That’s not to say she’s all schemes and insults. Beneath her tough exterior is a kind woman with a big heart who loves her family and friends. Viewers don’t often get to see her softer side, which makes the moments they do seem that much more special. One of the best Sophia episodes showed her reaction to the death of her son, Phil. She put up a wall of anger which Rose was finally able to break down in the final moments of the episode, revealing Sophia’s true feelings of guilt over Phil’s cross-dressing as she bursts into tears. Another favourite was when Dorothy expressed concern about her mother not doing enough with her days. We then get to see exactly what she gets up to sticking up for her friend and causing a scene at the grocery store while claiming to represent a fictional senior citizens union, volunteering at a sick kids hospital and later, conducting a senior citizens jazz band. Meanwhile, Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche do next to nothing except sit around and eat. When she’s asked what she did all day upon her return, she simply says she bought a nectarine, and Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are none the wiser.

But if Sophia has one claim to fame, it is her colorful old-world tales about Sicily, which often as not, contain a pearl of wisdom or embellishment of some kind. We would have loved to have known her during her “picatta period (a wedge of lemon and a smart answer for everything),” when she was the most beautiful girl at a resort and all the men fought over her (so beautiful, in fact, that she had “a butt you could bounce a quarter off of”). She was also once painted by Picasso and was best friends with Mama Celeste. But I digress. Sophia Petrillo was a legend in her own mind who always had her way and like Mighty Mouse, always won. Her hunches were never wrong, and rarely, if ever did she meet her match. Sophia was, in short, a one-woman show. And thanks to re-runs and fan appreciation, that show will never be gone.

  • Dasilva

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

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30 Years Later: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

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30 Years Later: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
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