A year of adaptations, sequels, revivals, reboots, and reimaginings, 2019 existed in a space between two eras: the Peak TV era preceding it (that saw so many of its shows end in 2018 and 2019), and the Too Much Fucking TV era in front of it. Despite its strange place in TV history, 2019 was still full of impressive series, performances, and episodes – here are some of my favorites from the year that was (if you missed it, here’s part one):
The Lonely Island Presents: An Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
The Lonely Island’s surprise Netflix special was exactly the thing I didn’t know I wanted, until I had it: a love letter to the most self-indulgent, masculine-laden era of American baseball, in the form of a rap music video special. The Lonely Island Presents: An Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience stars Andy Samberg and XXX as Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, in the semi-biographical story of their journey to ascend the ladder of baseball’s greats.
Though one might easily dismiss it as an extended joke about steroids, An Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is an endearing tribute to two of baseball’s most enigmatic, iconic personalities of the late 1980’s, a celebration of a powerhouse duo of athletes mostly unmentioned in the history of baseball (as the league tries to shoo away anything that has to do with steroid-related stuff from that era). There’s really a surprising amount of pathos in the special, which touches on everything from the loneliness of stardom, to the pressure of expectations, to the absolute god-like feeling of just straight liftin’ something – it all makes for one of my favorite comedies, and one of my favorite albums, of 2019.
Mom is television’s best kept secret, even as the series carries on into its seventh season; a female-driven comedy about women confronting the realities of life: addiction, death, failure, economic struggles, and of course, friendship. But as Mom has matured, Chuck Lorre’s most creatively rich network comedy has only gotten better, finding new ways to challenge its characters without ever feeling like cheap, dramatic “will they stay sober?” ploys. At this point, the women of Mom have being sober down to a routine – it’s confronting the Sisyphean nature of life that Mom challenges its lead ensemble with in its later seasons, and it remains one of television’s best shows for the way it confronts those harsh truths with honesty, compassion – and most importantly, comedy.
Think of everything and anything you’d want from a Gregg Araki series, and it is in Now Apocalypse. Super horny indie vibes? Check. Dynamic lead performances from its cast (which includes teen stars like Avan Jogia, Kelli Berglund, and a transcendent Beau Mirchoff shedding their adolescent reputations)? Check. Aliens? Gorgeous color design? Dreamy atmosphere? Check, check, and fucking check – perhaps to its detriment, Now Apocalypse is all Araki, all the time. And it works; it is certainly one of the stranger mish-mashes of genres in 2019, but Araki and co-writer Karley Sciortino’s strange blend of post-capitalistic musings, existential horniness, and science fiction undercurrents is unlike anything on television, a breath of fresh air among the many reboots, rehashes, and cheap imitations currently littering cable network line-ups. Unfortunately, it was canceled in July, so these garish, emotionally resonant 10 episodes are all we’ll ever have of Araki’s strange vision of modern Los Angeles.
The OA: Part II
I could describe what The OA is about, but you probably wouldn’t believe me. Quite frankly, it was the most batshit crazy shows on television when it debuted in 2016 – and when it returned in 2019, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s science fiction series was even stranger and more ambitious, which it was rewarded with by an abrupt cancellation after Part II debuted (much to the chagrin of fans, who’ve struck up an extremely annoying #SaveTheOA campaign online).
Fandom aside, The OA Part II was the single most audacious thing I saw in 2019, a labryinthe of brilliant performances, evocative imagery, and some truly insane plots. Different dimensions, psychic octopi, strange cell phone apps… I could get into the nitty gritty of The OA‘s second, and final, season, but it is truly something to be experienced, not described, a story of trauma, grief, and love I’m going to miss like fucking crazy. I’ll just be over here, crying while I sweat through The Movements one last time as I think about The OA Part II, and the absolute mind-fuck of a cliffhanger it ends on.
“Pancakes” – You’re the Worst
Like many shows of its era, You’re the Worst struggled with the length of its own existence; it could’ve ended after either its first or second season comfortably – and yet, due to its success (and quality), it lumbered through a third and fourth season that was occasionally great, often funny – and too commonly, flailing for a reason to exist.
In its fifth and final season, You’re the Worst found itself again, breaking out of the Sunday Funday crew’s well-established routine, in an emotionally charged run of episodes, culminating in the sublime “Pancakes.” I won’t ruin the story of Jimmy and Gretchen’s wedding day, but it is a finale worth the wait – it is not only a poignant farewell to the greatest romantic comedy of this generation, but to an era of indie television, driven by dope soundtracks, daring performances (I will watch Aya Cash in anything after her work on this series), and nuanced characters, all trying to bury their traumas, enjoy a mimosa, and just find a way to fucking enjoy the short time we all spent on this doomed rock together.
Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling
In this strange age where everything gets rebooted, revitalized, or revisited (anyone watching Mad About You on SpectrumTV?), Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling was an unexpected pleasure, a nostalgia cash-in that is anything but, transforming the iconic wallabe and his strange adventures into a contemplation on the passage of time, one that works in truly powerful ways. Both a deeply resonant return to Rocko Modern Life‘s strange, corporate dystopia, and an unexpectedly poignant reflection on just how much things change, Static Cling is better than anyone could’ve expected, a special about family, identity (including the fantastic inclusion of a trans woman central to Rocko‘s history), and life itself that is unassumingly eloquent and surprisingly emotional. I’m not surprised Nickelodeon balked on the series (boo to you, Nick), but boy am I glad we finally got to see it.
Is “ronny/lily” a great episode of Barry? There’s no doubting what a singular achievement “ronny/lily” is, both on a technical and narrative level; it is a fever dream of epic proportions, following Bill Hader’s semi-retired assassin as he reluctantly goes back to work, and ends up getting chased around town by an insane, tiny female ninja. A gorgeous piece of cinema with one of the more outlandish premises you’ll find, there’s an argument to be made that Barry‘s best episode doesn’t really function all that well as part of its serialized narrative, and only works out of context, one of many examples of prestige television airing the creative equivalent of a Special, Signature Episode midway through the season.
To which I say bullshit – “ronny/lily” is as much about the crumbling personal and professional relationship between Barry and Funches, as it is about an adolescent girl with a penchant for tearing flesh, flipping over cars, and jumping onto the roof of her house. The strange, dramatic backdrop of “ronny/lily” helps magnify the toxic relationship between its two most prominent characters, subtly setting the stage for everything to follow in the season’s climax. In the moment, it feels like “ronny/lily” is just an impressive, elaborate bit of showmanship from co-writer/creator/director Bill Hader; considered as part of season two’s whole, however, and the real genius of Barry‘s greatest episode reveals itself.
Other, smarter people have written a lot more words about Succession than myself, so I’ll keep it brief: Succession fucking slaps, a carefully constructed deconstruction of America’s one-percenter families, the power they wield, and just how easily financial security can lead down a road of absolute toxicity. Written like a classic stage drama, and delivered by some of the finest actors on television (Emmys for Jeremy Strong and Sarah Snook, goddamnit!), Succession is an intoxicating mix of performance, production, and narrative construction virtually unmatched on television. All kingdoms will fall, and watching the Roy family tear themselves apart is a particular pleasure, one of the few “prestige” series in 2019 truly worthy of the moniker.
Superstore‘s union arc
Superstore was already ascending to the network comedy throne in its fourth season, a workplace comedy fully confident in its identity, and ability to blend socially relevant stories about retail work, with deftly personal stories about its eclectic cast of characters.
And then, Superstore decided to join the pantheon of 2019 television shows trying to Politically Relevant – and it fucking nails it. Building an arc around three simple elements – Mateo’s undocumented status, Amy’s ascension to management, Jonah starting a union – the back half of Superstore‘s fourth season is stunning, both in its condemnation of corporate bullshit, and its careful, nuanced examination of the horrors occurring among some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States – in some ways, telling more effective human stories than American news media is capable of.
Needless to say, these various tensions dramatically raise the stakes of what was previously a rather unassuming, laid back comedy; it all comes to a head in “Employee Appreciation Day,” a season finale with a cliffhanger ending among the most disturbing, unsettling things you’ll see all year. It tells a necessary story fearlessly, refusing to muddle its ideas in the typical ways network comedies compromise their existence. But forget broadcast television; Superstore expresses its beliefs with a confidence few shows anywhere on television have – and still manages to be one of the funniest ensemble comedies of the era, an impressive balancing act that always leaves this viewer sitting on Cloud 9. (I’m so sorry.)
I’ve already written (and said) a lot about Watchmen, Damon Lindelof daring sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s iconic comic book series – if we’re being honest, I could’ve made my entire Best Of list moments just on the series. Sister Night, “This Extraordinary Being,” Laurie’s blue dildo, Lube Man, Looking Glass, Joe Keene’s tights, the Dr. Manhattan reveal… Watchmen was a stunning collection of characters, ideas, images, and sounds (the three-volume Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score is mind-blowing) unlike anything else on television. Hats off (fuck it – masks off?) to the most daring, subversive adaptation since Hannibal, and one of the more intriguing explorations of cops, superheroes, and technology in recent memory.
Because no good list ever ends in a logical place, here are a couple other things I loved in 2019:
Abby’s – I really thought Abby’s was going to fit naturally into NBC’s more experimental comedy lineup, a multi-camera sitcom set (and shot) at an open outside bar. Starring Natalie Morales, Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin, and Jessica Chaffin, Abby’s was a charming comedy just starting to find its voice when it was unceremoniously canceled. RIP Abby’s.
Joe Pera Talks with You – the spiritual successor to Review‘s second season just premiered on Adult Swim, and it remains the curious, unassuming, surprisingly deep series about human connection – with an even more experimental construction, if you can believe it. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out on something special.
Fleabag – Fleabag is deservedly front and center on everyone’s best of 2019 list… I wanted to give space to some other shows, but Fleabag‘s Hot Priest-laden, surprisingly optimistic second season is great (even if it doesn’t quite hit for me like season one did).
Lodge 49 – boy, I wish I had seen more Lodge 49 so I could include it on my list. The show of strange fraternities, capitalism’s horrors, and family is full of terrific performances and indelible images, and something television in 2020 will sorely miss.
Sofia Pernas as Lexi Vizeri, Blood and Treasure – I didn’t really like Blood and Treasure’s extremely inconsistent ability to be a fun, dumb show about secret societies and ancient secrets, but Sofia Pernas was one of the breakout performances on network TV in 2019, offering a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a globe-hopping criminal stuck between tragedy and legacy.