In these days of Peak TV, there are shows on top of shows and countless ways to encounter them. Here, I offer the best shows — or at least the ones that brought me the most enjoyment — of the 2019 year.
Let the countdown (and conversation) begin!
Almost made it: 15. Looking for Alaska (Hulu), 14. Modern Love (Amazon), 13. Servant (Apple TV+), 12. The Righteous Gemstones (HBO), 11. Pen15 (Hulu)
Rarely uneven, the debut season of Hulu’s show Ramy felt fresh to the small screen: a (mostly) devout, young, Muslim man — the titular Ramy — navigates his American life. Played and written by comedian Ramy Youssef, the character only faltered with Youseelf’s dry affectations of specific line readings in varied situations that sometimes came off as one-note. The cast, the look at a character not pervasive on television, the soul of the stories, the heart of the familial unit, and the examination of the secular versus the spiritual did more than enough of the lifting in place of Youssef’s acting chops.
Yossef, along with fellow creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, offers through the show Ramy a tender look at a slice of American culture sadly stereotyped as an other — or, even worse — a danger. But the first season does more than just normalize and beautify the Yossef’s Muslim faith. Instead it touches on a universal search for meaning and the roads that that journey takes you: booze, drugs, sex, faith, food, and travel. And no religion is needed for that.
There is a broad feminine quality to the engrossing Netflix show Unbelievable: broad in terms of how many sides of the female perspective viewers get through the lens of devastating and true rape cases that occurred in the Northwest US from 2008 through 2011.
Unbelievable, based on the Pulitzer-prize winning reporting from ProPublica by Susannah Grant, can be harrowing and detailed but it’s never sensational. It is procedural but never boring. It is haunting but uplifting, if only a little. Also, it may be one of the best arguments from pop culture this year that it’s past time to let the ladies run things. The men of this series, while not evil or even dysfunctional, still don’t put the pieces of the puzzle together like the women do when they finally get their hands on the cases.
Merritt Wever, somehow giving a both a gentle and aggressive performance, is a blessing to both the show as is her detective character is for the crimes. Toni Collette, who never fails, is a gem as the tougher-nosed of the two female cops on the case.
The show has the mystery element, but overall, it’s a well done and well paced piece about how women go unnoticed until other, competent women make a stand for them all in a binge-worthy, yet never flippant, Netflix series.
Most of a certain age know of the Russian nuclear debacle Chernobyl, though few know the exact details. Just in case: the five-part HBO series covers the 1986 nuclear power plant meltdown and its aftermath. And there was aftermath, including very high radiation levels in the air nearly 250 miles away and a blazing inferno that could spell an even worse disaster than the one that’s started.
From the opening scene of the masterful actor Jared Harris deciding his own fate to the closing moments of the courtroom drama, the series is tense often and frightening even more. Chernobyl is a glimpse of the hell that is both failed oversight and chilling calamity. It is the type of show whose images are searing but so wonderfully executed that you can’t look away.
Back for its second season, Mindhunter is as good as ever, if not better.
Holden Ford (the measured Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (the excellent Holt McCallany) continue to gather research and data on the newly emerged idea of serial killers, and the results are gripping. Much of the season plays out in Atlanta and revolve around the horrific Atlanta child murders of 1979–1981, which brings in the element of race to the narrative that the first season lacked.
Mindhunter does as great as any other show, too, in balancing the personal and professional: Tench finds himself struggling to maintain care for a troubled child, worried wife, and crumbling marriage. The show also decides not to use Ford as a center point for the personal, which is better decision that his focus from season one. His recovery from the end of the last season is so quick, you almost forget he was gone. Instead, Dr. Wendy Carr takes Ford’s spot as she, too, finds her life away from the office in shambles.
But the heart of the show are the crimes, of course. They’re not overdone. What would be the point? Instead, it’s the humanity at play — or maybe even the lack thereof — which churns out some of the most fascinating interpersonal scenes of the year.
Bombastic from the beginning, Euphoria felt too much like a show designed solely to turn heads. Fortunately Sam Levinson, who created this American version of the show, peppered the narrative full of heartbreaking and all-too-real moments in the drug-fueled lives of the characters.
Centered on a group of high school students in Someplace, America, Euphoria gives a distinct and sometimes depressing view of what it’s like to be a teen today. Disney Plus, this is not: they drink, drug, fornicate, cut, cam, cry, and more. It’s a dire warning to any parent, but it’s also immersive television. I found myself eager for the episodes to air, curious as to how each decision of these poor teens would affect their next move.
The antagonist, a robotic football star Nate (Jacob Elordi), while a bit flat, is offset by the rest of the cast, especially the primary character Rue played by the fantastic Zendaya and her drug-dealer with a heart of gold Fez (a lovely and mumbling Angus Cloud). The star, though, is newcomer Hunter Schaffer who plays Jules, a new trans girl at school who quickly becomes Rue’s new friend and, perhaps, savior.
The magical realism that seeps into the corners of the show could frustrate some viewers, but I found it all to be fresh and scary: I hope America’s teens aren’t all this too far gone.
Check back at The Alabama Take soon for the rest of the top ten favorites.