Lists TV Reviews

Year in Review: My Favorite TV Shows of 2019

You can’t do a “best TV shows of the year” list without first addressing the obvious: there is too much TV. What a fantastic problem to have.


If you actually sit down and count up the number of scripted original TV shows which premiered new episodes in 2019 AND you include the British imports available on streaming services like Acorn, the result is positively insane. We’re talking about nearly 700 shows. It’s not just that, though. When you simply count up the number of streaming services – not shows, remember, but all of the streaming services offering the shows – the total is around 300. Granted, that’s not exactly 300 streaming services with robust rosters of originals or users. Most of them are the obscure, ad-supported types offering old movies and TV shows, but the mere fact that so many of them exist serves to remind us of the ever-escalating fight for our attention.

But, wait, there’s more.

2020 brings with it the promise of several new major streaming services, all of them backed by big money and set to arrive with an instant roster of compelling originals. Get ready for HBOMax (AT&T’s fearless effort to dilute the HBO brand), Quibi (a short-form streamer from Jeffrey Katzenberg), and Peacock (Comcast’s how-did-that-name-make-it-through-the-focus-groups).

Peak TV – that catchy phrase coined several years ago by FX’s John Landgraf when he assumed the industry’s perpetual growth cycle would inevitably, well, peak – is dead. Long live Tidal Wave TV, a time where every new weekend brings with it a new wave of scripted originals that threaten to drown us with choices.

World’s tiniest violin, of course. This is a good problem to have. I’d rather struggle to pick a great thing to watch than revisit the old days of flipping through all the channels and complaining about there being nothing good on. No, in Tidal Wave TV there is always something good to watch. There are so many good options, in fact, that when I list my favorite 20 shows of the year it’s highly likely you won’t even have heard of half of them. That’s all the more reason to make such a list, though. Today, curation is needed now more than ever.

So, with that in mind here are 20 shows I really liked in 2019:

20. The Boys

Elevator Pitch: An R-Rated superhero series about a corporate-controlled Justice League stand-in called the Seven led by a sociopathic Superman. A couple of outsiders calling themselves The Boys (led by Karl Urban) aim to knock them down a peg or two, but complications arise when a star-crossed romance breaks out between the youngest members of each group. Think the genre deconstruction of Alan Moore’s Watchmen mixed with the humor and sensibilities of Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass

Where to Watch: Amazon

19. Los Espookys

Elevator Pitch: An aggressively quirky Spanish-language series about a couple of aspiring filmmakers – well, one aspiring filmmaker and his three peculiar friends – who inadvertently form a bit of a theater troupe staging hauntings for money and occasionally encounter genuine supernatural beings. Sample episode: “A” plot – The gang fakes an exorcism at the request of a priest who is jealous of all the attention a younger, hotter colleague is getting in the parish. “B” plot – One member of the gang speaks to his spirit guide about his path in life only to learn she won’t help him until he brings her a copy of the film The King’s Speech. After reading that, you probably already know if this show is right for you. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Where to Watch: HBO

18. Sherman’s Showcase

Elevator Pitch: Have you ever seen one of those late-night infomercials hawking a Best-Of DVD boxset for some old TV show you’ve never heard of? Sherman’s Showcase imagines what that boxset might look like if the fictional show in question was improbably long-running, hosted by an egomaniac who never seems to age, staffed by eccentrics, chock-full of unintentionally hilarious songs and era-specific dance numbers, and intercut with completely random, but usually hilarious sketches, some of which feature Frederick Douglas as a recurring Kool-Aid Man-like figure. Think In Loving Color Meets Soul Train.

Where to Watch: IFC

17. Star Trek: Discovery

Elevator Pitch: The season where Star Trek: Discovery finally rose above its behind the scenes drama – how many showrunners have they had? – and turned the corner into delivering a cohesive narrative and vision while also finding the right balance with its ensemble cast. Also, the season with Ethan Peck’s hot Spock. Also, the season when Discovery made…I apologize for this…Star Trek great again.

Where to Watch: CBS All Access

16. Bojack Horseman/Brockmire

Elevator Pitch: Bojack Horseman and Brockmire are essentially the same shows with slightly different settings – the former a satirical Hollywood dramedy about a manic-depressive, emotionally self-destructive horse who used to have a hit sitcom in the 80s and struggles on each step of his comeback tour, the other a satirical sports dramedy about a self-destructive baseball announcer on the comeback trail. The shows are each nearing their end, and with so little time left the writers are walking their star characters through sobriety and atoning for the human wreckage they’ve left behind, a surprisingly mature new direction for shows most known for ingeniously constructed comic hijinks.

Where to Watch: Netflix/IFC

15. Fleabag

Elevator Pitch: That show which won all the Emmys despite being mostly unknown to general audiences but can be easily binged in a single day, Fleabag, at least thematically, is not entirely dissimilar to Brockmire or Bojack Horseman. It is the story – spread across two seasons – of a self-destructive woman recognizing her mistakes and trying like hell to move past them. Just her luck, though, that when she briefly turns to religion for guidance she meets a hot priest who is just as conflicted as her and…did I mention how hot he is? Because, seriously, hubba hubba.

Where to Watch: Amazon

14. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Elevator Pitch: Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel continue to thrive in this new post-Gilmore Girls stage of their careers where all of their comic and dramatic impulses are being funneled into this series about Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), Jewish housewife/mother and her promising career as a stand-up comedian. In the third season, Midge goes on tour for the first time and continues to struggle with the dream that you can have it all, the family AND the career. Pretty astounding for a series set in 1960. That’s all fine and good, but I’m always drawn to Tony Shaloub as Midge’s henpecked father and the way her second act in life has caused a mid-life crisis to sweep across her entire family.

Where to Watch: Amazon

13. The Good Place

Elevator Pitch: The final season of Michael Schur’s continually brilliant, boundary-pushing rumination on life and morality in the afterlife.

Where to Watch: NBC

12. Undone

Elevator Pitch: If you miss the mind-fuck indie movies of old, try out Undone, a mind-fuck series that uses rotoscoped animation to depict one woman’s realization that she can either travel through time and talk with her dead dad or is actually losing her mind.

Where to Watch: Amazon

11. Good Omens

Elevator Pitch: Michael Sheen and David Tennant star as an angel and demon who are the closest of friends despite being sworn to eternal battle. When the warning bells of the apocalypse ring and an anti-Christ is born into the world, Sheen and Tennant realize they don’t actually want the world to end. Try telling that to their superiors, all of whom are hell-bent on waging the final battle between good and evil. Think the fairy tale whimsy/narration of Pushing Daisies cut with the biting satire of Neil Gaiman.

Where to Watch: Amazon

10. Unbelievable

Elevator Pitch: A true-crime procedural that removes all of the pulpy genre stuff out of the story in favor of methodically walking through what it’s like to work a serial rapist case both from the victims’ and cops’ point of view. (The heartbreaking first episode, for example, is entirely about the victim and her struggle to get the male police officers to believe her.) Think True Detective but created and largely orchestrated by women and starring Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver.

Where to Watch: Netflix

9. GLOW

Elevator Pitch: The penultimate season of Netflix’s lady wrestlers in the 80s series takes the gorgeous ladies of wrestling to a Las Vegas residency where they perform the same show every night, a financially-fruitful but artistically-stifling experience that eventually forces everyone to get serious about the future. Sadly, next season will be the last. Perfect time, I suppose, for the characters to be contemplating their ultimate endgame.

Where to Watch: Netflix

8. Dead to Me

Elevator Pitch: A pitch-perfect tragicomedy showcase for Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as two women who meet in a grief support group and turn out to be hiding some pretty significant secrets. One of the most purely bingable shows of the year, with each episode perfectly constructed to end on a “now I definitely have to hit ‘play next’” cliffhanger.

Where to Watch: Netflix

7. Legends of Tomorrow

Elevator Pitch: Someone decided it was a good idea to take the spare part characters from the Arrowverse and put them in their own team-up show, but the people charged with making that a reality took several years to figure out what the heck they were doing. The breakthrough moment came when they decided to lead hard into comedy and genre experimentation, taking the best parts of Doctor Who and every Joss Whedon show and mixing them together to make something that reinvents itself every season. For example, for season 4 Legends added John Constantine to its cast and leaned hard into magic storylines instead of strict time travel, two fundamental changes that would sink most shows. Not Legends, though. Instead, it got better.

Where to Watch: CW

6. What We Do In the Shadows

Elevator Pitch: A TV sequel to Taika Waititi and Jermain Clement’s mockumentary comedy about a group of old-world vampires who have remained in hiding far too long and don’t understand the modern world. This version transports the action from New Zealand to America and focuses on a new group of vampires and their one familiar, but nothing is lost in translation. In fact, with both Clement and Waititi heavily involved behind the scenes as producers/writers/directors, this version has all the genius of the film – more so, really, thanks to new wrinkles like a female vampire in the group and an extra roommate who feeds off of energy instead of blood. Damn you, Colin Robertson!

Where to Watch: FX

5. The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs

Elevator Pitch: Decades ago, film critic John Bloom adopted the redneck persona of Joe Bob Briggs to lend a certain comedy to his reviews of B-movies, but it grew so popular Bloom turned Briggs into a movie host, rising on the cable scene around the same time as Elvira. That was a long time ago, though, and after being off the air for years Bloom more or less retired Joe Bob. Then Shudder invited him to host a 24-hour horror movie marathon called The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs. It broke the internet, stunning all involved. What was genuinely intended to be one last hurrah has now turned into a weekly TV series with Joe Bob hosting double features and sharing all sorts of crazy stories, both about the films and his wild career. In an age with too much content, Joe Bob provides much-needed context and perspective on horror movies, both classic and obscure. Crucially, however, he does it in a way that always makes you laugh, particularly whenever rants about something random like the LA subway system or argues with his opinionated mail girl Darcy since she usually prefers the remake to the original. An odd couple comedy pair, they are often more entertaining than the actual film.

Where to Watch: Shudder

4. Barry

Elevator Pitch: Like a lot of other shows on this list, Barry is about a person in transition and the gravitational pull the past has on our future. Can this hitman-turned-actor ever move on? Not when everyone who knows where the bodies are buried keeps popping back up. I didn’t think they could top the first season, but then the second season delivered a genius episode like the one where Barry and Fuches encounter a ninja-loving little girl from hell.

Where to Watch: HBO

3. The Righteous Gemstones

Elevator Pitch: Danny McBride and Jody Hill – the creators of Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals – deliver the comedy goods again in this series about a family of hypocritical religious leaders, but it’s laced with more maturity than usual and something new to say about the world, less concerned with laughing at overconfident men and more interested in satirizing the world of the megachurch. The flashback episode with Brother Baby Billy and Aimee-Lee singing “Misbehaving” is one of my pop culture highlights of the entire year.

Where to Watch: HBO

2. The Mandalorian

Elevator Pitch: The A-Team in space, Star Wars as a western – however, you want to describe it, The Mandalorian is largely the antithesis of where prestige TV is right now. It is not an 8-hour movie nor is it an addictive saga with built-in cliffhangers practically engineered to keep us watching. Instead, it offers a universe to escape into and a constantly refreshing set of unpredictable adventures, the type of patient universe-building so lacking in the most recent Star Wars film. Plus, Baby Yoda, have you heard about him? Call me crazy, but he’s kind of cute. Surprised the internet hasn’t picked up on that.

Where to Watch: Disney+

1. Watchmen

Elevator Pitch: HBO gave Damon Lindelof – the guy responsible for Lost and The Leftovers – a blank check and creative carte blanch to do whatever he wanted with DC’s Watchmen property. He chose to create a spiritual sequel about what happens when world peace proves to be temporary and a nation divided against over race threatens to tear itself apart. What unfolds from there is a puzzle box narrative teased out through a series of character showcase episodes, all of which belong in the conversation for the best episodes of any TV show this year. In the end, the series does ultimately bow to IP loyalty in a way that’s not as interesting a payoff as hoped, but the journey there is one of the more invigorating examples of prestige TV in recent memory.

Where to Watch: HBO

Honorable Mentions: The Case Against Adnan Sayed, Russian Doll, Evil, You, Stranger Things, The Morning Show, Big Mouth, The Deuce, You, The Expanse

Dishonorable Mentions: Game of Thrones (for how it ended), Living with Yourself (for giving us two Paul Rudds and wasting both of them), The Politician (for making an entire season that functions as a backdoor pilot for a much better show), Twilight Zone (for struggling so hard to justify its existence)

Haven’t Watched: Veep, Mr. Robot, Everything on Apple TV+ other than The Morning Show, The Witcher

Haven’t Finished: Mindhunter, Succession, Fosse/Verdon, Chernobyl

2020 Show Most Excited About: The Outsider on HBO


What shows would make your list? Let me know in the comments.

5 comments

  1. I’m yet to subscribe to Disney+ but I so badly want to watch The Mandalorian. You have convinced me to want to see The Watchmen now too. For me, I think Mindhunter was my fav show this year. But as you said, we are so spoilt for choice that it’s difficult to really honestly pick oyr favourite. Happy Holidays Kelly.

    1. There is so much TV that I somehow lost track of Mindhunter. It wasn’t until two weeks ago when I heard The Ringer’s The Watch podcast pick it as one of the best TV shows of the decade that I remembered I hadn’t finished season 2 yet. For me, Holden just met Charles Manson and has put together his task force for the Atlanta child murders. I didn’t stop there because I was bored with the season or didn’t like it, more that Mindhunter is very cool to the touch. The characters have this distancing quality to them where they view everything so clinically because to stay mentally fit they have to view their work that way.

      Their robotic nature is the dramatic point, and it’s what makes those small moments of humanity which sneak through shine so brightly. But when I try to binge that in chunks it eventually gets to be – the David Fincherness of it all, I suppose overwhelms me and I need a break. This time around, I took a break and then so many other shows came around that I eventually forgot all about it. Have to rectify that. It truly is an amazing show.

      As for Mandalorian, as I think I mentioned on Twitter there is always the “sing up for free trial, binge, and cancel” strategy. It won’t even take that long since The Mandalorian’s 8 episodes vary in length from 28 minutes to 42, yet another way it zigs when everyone else is zagging. At a time when so many streaming shows are stretching out and taking a full hour per episode, Mandalorian occasionally decides, fuck it, we just half an hour to tell this story. I find that element of it refreshing, others, you should be warned, found it frustrating.

  2. Good list.

    I recently binged “Undone” after binging “The Righteous Gemstones”. It was great. It reminds me of one of my favourite films “A Scanner Darkly” but I found “Undone” to be more effective as a mindf**k. It also reminds me of my 2nd favourite TV show of all time “Wonderfalls” in that at times I wondered if the protagonist had a special power or just schizophrenia. Either way, the show deserves another viewing from me.

    I kind of think that “The Boys” might deserve a bit higher but I haven’t seen 75% of your list.

    1. Those are both great comps for Undone. Scanner Darkly is the more obvious because of the rotoscoping, but I wouldn’t have thought of Wonderfalls. Interesting comparison.

      As for The Boys, I have to admit part of the reason I have it at #20 is I liked the symmetry of my top 20 being bookended with two comic book deconstructions – Boys and Watchmen. I didn’t set out to make it that way. The only thing I actually knew for sure when I started was Watchmen was my #1, and when I ended up kicking The Boys around in the 15-20 territory I just put it at 20 for symmetry and also because I had already selected a picture from the show for the article’s featured image.

      That’s not to suggest the rankings are completely arbitrary, more that in truth I think most of these shows are equally amazing. The ones I ranked higher are the ones that stuck with me longer, the ones I found myself thinking about the most or turned to for pure enjoyment (not a coincidence that in a year where the world turned into a shitshow I have so many comedies in my top 10). The Boys, for whatever reason, is something I binged over a weekend and greatly enjoyed/appreciated but haven’t pondered too much since then. By comparison, part of the fun with Watchmen and Mandalorian for me was not just the shows themselves but the cultural experience surrounding them, the after-show podcast conversations and Reddit theorizing and all that. I didn’t get that same experience with The Boys, and in peak TV where everything is pretty much equally great, that was enough for me to rank it lower.

      I am excited for season 2, though. I admire the way they wrote themselves into a corner with that timejump finale, which, from what I can tell, is a big departure from the comics. I’m going to love seeing them write themselves out of that one.

      1. I haven’t put any effort in post-watch discussions except for Star Trek: Discovery but even that was not much. When I was watching the S2 Short Treks, it made me think of your comment a few months ago about how shorter seasons of TV have made it harder for studio crew to maintain constant employment.
        Maybe they should have a Captain Killy spin-off series!!

        PS I really enjoyed “The Mandalorian” for a variety of reasons. In particular, it’s Star Wars that has been properly written unlike “Rise of Skywalker”. There are set ups and pay-offs eg episode 1 IG-11 rants about not allowing himself to be captured then pay-off in episode 8. I also loved the guest stars such as Clancy Brown and Richard Ayoade – I recognised Ayoade’s voice despite the droidization! However I don’t want to see Giancarlo Esposito typecast as the head villain.

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