Here you’ll find the best shows that I watched for 2019. To see the choices 6–10 of my favorite shows of the year, click here. What did I miss? Let me know in the comments or feel free to converse about the list on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
No one plays dirtbag quite like Natasha Lyonne. In the Netflix series Russian Doll, co-created and staring Lyonne, she’s Nadia, a classic New Yorker suffering through love and partying and bullshit. But with this comedy, there’s a hitch: Nadia keeps dying in one way or another and coming to in the middle of the bathroom at her own birthday party.
The show could’ve run into danger by hinging everything on such a conceptual plot line, but it doesn’t: I wrote about how its repetitiveness is actually a statement on the failures — or maybe just mistakes — we each have to conquer in our lives to avoid future trauma. And it’s that to be certain. But it’s also a thoroughly enjoyable show worthy of a binge thanks to its short, what-happens-next feeling of each entry and its eight-episode season.
Lyonne is in full control here, but her costar, Charlie Barnett offsets Nadia’s basest tendencies perfectly. Their pairing is both funny and fun.
It’s hard for me to imagine this show continuing with its note-perfect ending, but there are rumors that it will go beyond its already ordered second season. If that’s the case, count me for now.
No show had quite the rebound as True Detective did off of its 2015 less-than-satisfying second season. But with Academy Award Winner Mahershala Ali, things looked brighter for the show. And boy were they.
Ali played Detective Wayne “Purple” Hays and along with fantastic co-star Stephen Doriff as Roland West, they investigate a dark crime over three fractured time periods.
As if no one knew, Mahershala Ali is a master here, playing the young, middle-aged, and old Hays uniquely. His performance, a look at the effects of aging and memory loss, is a touching and haunting piece of acting. Doriff, too, holds his own in contrast: no one pontificated with an Ozark (or at least Southern) accent quite like Doriff’s Detective West.
The third season of True Detective didn’t stop there, though. It pondered its usual themes of life and death and the less usual elements of life: the elderly, friendship between senior citizens, and life-long ramifications of divorce. It was a remarkable turnabout for a series that had seemingly lost all of its importance with a big swing and a miss season prior.
Last year, HBO’s Barry held a spot in my year-end list, but it’s much higher in 2019. Here’s why: it took daring leaps that other shows would not be able to recover from and made the show even more interesting.
When we left Barry at the end of season one, he was falling upward at acting but still going strong at killing, which, by the way, he does best. In fact, Bill Hader’s Barry was last seen murdering the detective investigating him, who just so happened to be the current girlfriend of his mentor and acting coach (the hilarious Henry Winkler, doing more here than given in years). The show could’ve ended there and been solid gold. But it pressed on. And instead of taking the weaker route of having Barry lessen the darkness within him, it forced Hader and the writers to reckon with results. And those results were hilariously bad for the everyone not named Barry Block, aka Barry Bergman.
Barry also had one of the best episodes of any television show this year: the absurdist “ronny/lily” took physical comedy in a new direction with so many surprises it was hard to tell if it was actually happening to the characters or merely some sort of nightmare.
And if No-Ho Hank isn’t the best comedic invention of the last few years, I’ll gladly watch who is. Anthony Carrigan stole each scene he was in with the best line readings of any actor this year. Hats off to Alec Berg and Bill Hader for this irreverent look at LA life through the eyes of the most lovable killer.
I don’t know if there’s much that can be said about HBO’s daring take on Watchmen other than just to comment on how astonishing it is, particularly the tightly knitted storyline. When it began doling out its secrets, the show was an amazement. The pace barely dragged when it repeated itself, holding its secrets a little too close in the third of nine episodes. Yet those seams barley showed as the series weaved together some of the headiest — and much needed — themes for any piece of television this year: trauma, race, violence, memory, family, love, country history, reckonings. And you thought Watchmen was some superhero show? Hardly.
Credit to Damon Lindeloff who took the venerable comic and didn’t just run but flew with its storylines, taking them into timely directions for 2019. He demonstrated what a vision could do with the superhero myth, giving lessons on the country’s actual past and sins, full of visions of fictitious ideals gone afoul. Hats off, too, to a marvelous cast: Regina King with her audience-point-of-view “what the fucks,” Jean Smart with her eye-rolling snark, Hong Chau with her I-can’t-believe-everyone-is-this-stupid quips, Jeremy Irons with his grandiose pronouncements, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II with the cool reveals, and my favorite, Tim Blake Nelson with his corrections and observations in a beautiful Midwestern drawl.
There’s a lot to be said about the show, which no year-end list allows room to do.
The finale was a satisfying payoff, which makes sense as perhaps no television show creator knows endings like Lindeloff. That final scene was a masterpiece of using all that came before to inform the shot. The entirety of the series was as indelible as any has been in recent memory — every moment was earned and captivating.
Here’s to who’s watching the Watchmen!
Even with Watchmen out there, no other show had a better ending than Season Two of Fleabag. It was two seasons in the making, but the heart-piercing wonder of how it was accomplished!
The main character only known as Fleabag (I know; I had to get over it, too) is often too wry, too flippant, too coarse. I found both her attitude and the fourth-wall business a bit of a pester in the first season. Not here. You’ll fall in love with her. And forgive me because with this show, it’s hard not to conflate the first and second seasons: they’re both so quick and breezy but never slight, each episode lasting only thirty minutes and each season only consisting of six episodes. Admittedly, I watched both seasons back to back. And I’m glad that’s how I experienced it as the transformation and detail of the arc takes your breath.
Though Fleabag herself is a questionably likable character, so is everyone else around her. So is everyone in real life, to some degree! Phoebe Waller-Bridge imbues Fleabag with so much fear, fear that rarely surfaces as itself — and is therefore more manageable if not more recognizable for the character — but instead bubbles up in anger, sadness, and depression: all traits that can annoy the outside looking in. That is, until you see her for what she really is. And she’s us, right? Good art just shows you what you really are.
And, of course, there’s the “hot priest,” Andrew Scott’s best role to date. Even I fell for him! He’s that endearing! To say any more about him could rob viewers of his joy.
Though tough to do, I ended up picking Fleabag‘s second season over Watchmen for a few reasons. Though Watchmen had arguably the better compositions and editing, it was the sheer narrative brilliance and pathos of Fleabag that outweighed it over this year’s other shows. While both had heart, Fleabag had nuance that challenged how we view ourselves as individuals rather than as a whole or as a country.
No series this year got the existential beauty of the day-to-day causalities than this one and deepened life’s mysteries in doing so.
Check back at The Alabama Take soon for more top ten lists.