This one (only) goes up to 11: the best TV of 2019 and the many runners-up

Why not 12? Why not 700? Here are the series Salon TV critic Melanie McFarland considers unforgettable

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 6, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

A roundup of this year's top TV. Split featuring stills from "Succession," "Pose," "Watchmen," "Fleabag," and "Russian Doll" (HBO/FX/Amazon/Netflix/)
A roundup of this year's top TV. Split featuring stills from "Succession," "Pose," "Watchmen," "Fleabag," and "Russian Doll" (HBO/FX/Amazon/Netflix/)

Here’s the thing about year-ending best of lists: I’m not a fan. I’ve gone on record about this in previous years, and that sentiment holds firm even now. For some it’s a measuring stick, for others it’s provides fodder for debate or accusation. In my experience few things turn on a comments section provocateur than a list they believe to be “illegitimate” without (insert favorite show that’s not listed here).

Fact is, I can’t watch everything – a friend of ours, Liz Shannon Miller, does an annual tally of series that debuted or aired new season this year, and last I checked it was up to 700. Think about that for moment. Do some math. Yeah, I’m going to miss a few things.

Or, just as likely, I may not have felt the same level of passion about a show as you did. It happens.

Despite what the opener might tell you about what’s listed here, however, this is less of a list than a love story. For within that flood of programs have been some incredible shows. Some of them you already know about – HBO’s “Chernobyl” was huge this year. You don’t need another person telling you how great season 2 of “Barry” is. Or maybe you do. It’s great.

BoJack Horseman” recently returned with a lovely, elegiac start to its finale gallop. “Los Espookys,” also on HBO, and FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” are loopy, gothic delights.

And there are excellent series I wish I’d written more about, such as “Gentleman Jack,” Cinemax’s “Warrior,” Comedy Central’s “South Side” and Showtime’s  “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” All of these are just a few worthwhile ways to spend your previous viewing time!

The series that made this list, though, are the ones that immediately came to mind whenever someone within the past 365 days asked me, “So what should I be watching.” The fact that these rose to the top of my increasingly cluttered mind should tell you how incredibly they are. Thus, here’s are my offers for the Best Shows of 2019. Be glad the count only goes up to 11. 

Ramy” (Hulu)

Ramy Youssef sends this series on its way by acknowledging who he is: a devout Muslim comedian, and a flawed man. Once he gets us past that perceived novelty, which doesn’t take long, Youssef shifts his narrative trajectory to headier, more ambitious concepts, like exploring what it means to be a good person, whether it’s more important to honor tradition or follow your heart, and the best way to define who we are.

“Ramy”’s existential journey takes his fictional persona through the world from the perspective of the perpetual outsider, both in his New Jersey community and Egypt, from whence his family originates. And the series handles this odyssey with an air of romance, delicacy and a bracing shock of relentlessly dirty humor, much of it courtesy of Ramy’s best friend Steve (Steve Way), who lives with muscular dystrophy and refuses to feel sorry for himself or his navel-gazing friend.

This dreamy, very funny show is one of 2019’s loveliest surprises, and after you’ve seen every episode you’ll be relieved to know that Hulu has picked it up for a second season.

Sex Education.” (Netflix)

Since the main qualifier for this list is enthusiastic, word-of-mouth recommendation, this breezy British teen sex romp deserves prominent billing. From Asa Butterfield’s spot-on performance as Otis Milburn, to Gillian Anderson’s emotionally distant but deeply human mother Jean, a sex therapist, every character feels fully developed and heartfelt, even if they aren’t completely in touch with who they are.

But such are the lives of teens, people in rapidly maturing bodies seized by pedal-to-floor sex drives and befuddled as to how to handle that and every other change. Otis, the sensitive son of two therapists who inherits his parents’ ability to listen but develops a more highly attuned sense of empathy, finds a place in his school’s ecosystem as an effective counselor. At his side are his devoted sidekick Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), who is coming into his queer identity, and Maeve (Emma Mackey), who hides her brilliance behind a tough exterior and reputation as the school “slag.”

The best aspects of the first season arc are the surprises series creator Laurie Nunn reveals about each character along the way. Not a single person fits so easily into the type this subgenre has spelled out for us over the years. Even the bully gets a thoughtful, revelatory re-evaluation at season’s end, making us all the more excited for its return in January 2020.

A Black Lady Sketch Show” (HBO)

It’s the end of the world, but Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black and Gabrielle Dennis have only just gotten their party started. The title is self-explanatory, yet only hints at the endless glee that sails its many characters and off-kilter scenarios through its first season.

The title may hint at a certain level specificity, but Thede’s means of lampooning unrealistic beauty standards, bad relationship drama and revealing the ways black women are misinterpreted or erased are universally accessible and refreshingly honest.

Cameos by the likes of Lena Waithe, Angela Bassett, and Issa Rae, the series’ executive producer, only added to the goodness of it all. My sole gripe is that the first season only consists of six episodes, and that level of diet-portion B.S. is even crueler than hosting a party in the middle of an apocalypse.

 “Pose” (FX)

Survival is an insufficient goal. This show’s lesson, demonstrated in its second season, is that most powerful life preserver is the urge to thrive in the face of adversity, attack, discrimination and death. “Pose” walks us through the trials and beautiful evolution of the New York ballroom scene circa 1990 – when it seemed as if mainstream America was growing more tolerant, thanks to the popularity of Madonna’s “Vogue,” but not before its creative gifts are appropriated while its people are still marginalized.

“Pose” is a work of art that takes its duty to amaze us absolutely seriously. Billy Porter, always a revelation, turns in a performance that makes this season an absolute must-watch. Other developments in the drama’s latest episodes grant it an additional urgency and relevance in 2019, when the LGBTQ community would seem to have come so very far but still remains under attack on multiple fronts.

But its final hours bring it all back home again with fireworks and Francis Scott Key by way of Whitney Houston – performed, with nary an off-key moment, by the unsinkable Bianca (Mj Rodriguez) -- knocked down but never done. We should all be so resilient.

Russian Doll” (Netflix)

In this era of frequent reminders to engage in self-care and tend to one’s mental health it makes sense that some of 2019’s most thoughtful series unpack trauma – obliquely, not obviously. Natasha Lyonne’s time loop-structured half-hour is intentionally difficult to describe and one of the few series that I’d advise people to stick with beyond its ambiguous first episodes, given that its central mystery doesn’t really spark until its third episode. (Wisely, its narrative unfurls in compact half-hour segments, so that’s not too much of an ask.)

After “Russian Doll” plays its full hand, it defies simple summary. It must be absorbed to be understood, and that understanding is open to interpretation.

What it leaves us with, besides a new appreciation for extraordinary set design (who wouldn’t want that bathroom door with the pistol handle?) and Harry Nilsson’s catchy tune “Gotta Get Up,” is a joyful lack of certainty. The how of the show’s “Groundhog Day” mystery, dooming Lyonne’s heroine to die over and over again, returning to that same bathroom at the same moment during a landmark birthday party, is less important than your own takeaway about what it all means. And mine? “Human connection is all that matters in the end. We may not need exclusive partnership as much as we require a commitment to looking after one another. It's as simple as that.”

Succession” (HBO)

Had you asked me whether “Succession” would generate much chatter at the beginning of 2019 I would have shrugged. Twelve months ago the return of another HBO series was all anyone could talk about, and that hype burned out at the end of May. Although “Succession” entered its second season quietly, it left plenty a blood in its wake as the killer show everyone was talking about.

The Roy family’s passive disdain for their lessers and each other prove the worst assumptions about the entitled upper class. Their devotion to screwing up and failing upward reveals them and those they represent as absurdist in the extreme.  It’s an unsparing look at the bottom from the top down. And the finale’s mic-drop of a twist could not have been better if Mario Puzo had written it.

Turns out 2019 had little need for fire and blood. It was begging for a calculated flensing of ultra-rich, one that peels back their polished masks to reveal how horribly unfair it is that such petty people of average intelligence have somehow have captured most of the world’s wealth and power. The Roys and their ilk consider us to be boars on the floor, crawling for their entertainment. Behind that façade, they tremble.

Watchmen” (HBO)

To include a series that’s hasn’t completed airing first season on a “Best of the Year” list is a fairly foolish move – ordinarily. But I’ve seen eight of the nine episodes Damon Lindelof mapped out for his inspired TV continuation of the story Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons introduced in their decades-old comic books, and I’m secure in my choice to include it here and rank it this highly.

Lindelof and his writers take the comic book’s unflinching lens and focus it on popular culture’s habit of sanitizing the nightmares in our own past by replacing them with more acceptable stories, allowing the untreated wound of racism to fester and mutate. And that’s just part of its narrative accomplishment.

Within this tough indictment is an effort to reconfigure our presumption of what heroes and all-powerful entities look like. This evolution of the original literature’s critique of superheroes and their role in the American story is the type of conversation starter that’s increasingly rare in TV these days.  Fascinating, shocking, inspiring and constantly surprising – “Watchmen” elicits all these sensations on the road to its finale and hasn’t yet to veer off course.

The Good Fight” (CBS All Access)

Here’s another offering from the Department of Why Aren’t More People Watching This Show. With each passing season, Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart allows a little more of her polished, elegant chill to melt away, revealing the exasperated fury lurking beneath the skin. All it takes is a few jabs from the right parties – or the right-wing powermongers misshaping the legal system for their own benefit and to the detriment of the less powerful.

Season 3 places Diane in an actual underground resistance cell formed by prominent women while introducing a complete madman into her orbit, Michael Sheen’s Roland Blum. While contending with poisonous legal cases, PR nightmares and threats from the highest echelons of American politics, Diane and Roland’s wrestling bouts transform an arena that is already off kilter into a pugilist’s tumble down an impossible staircase race. All this, and the addition of “Schoolhouse Rock”-style animation interludes, make Robert and Michelle King’s drama an ever-more impressive delight.

And I get why you’re not watching – it’s on CBS All Access. But do yourself a favor and sign up if only to find out what you’re missing.

Better Things“ (FX)                                                                                                                                       

The third season of Pamela Adlon’s creatively abundant comedy is the first one she made without the help of the series co-creator. It’s also the best season yet of a show that was already quite extraordinary in the first place, and very obviously entirely hers.

Adlon’s solo flight unleashed new levels of cinematic confidence and creativity, and the resulted is a stirring, honest, funny and frequently heartbreaking portrait of caretaking, aging, and career challenges that women navigate. Adlon’s Pam Fox, her daughters Max, Frankie, and Duke, and her mother Phil are endlessly affectionate with each other and drive one other nuts with equal amounts of passion. Her friendships are deep and true, and  she also oversteps her boundaries, requiring her to carefully make amends. These characters aren’t types as much as they are recognizable beings, in the same way the show itself isn’t mean to be merely watched but fully felt.

The Fox family’s shared adventures and individual challenges vary from mother to daughter to mother to daughter and day to day, but it’s the tinier moments between each scene that Adlon uses to illuminate what a treasure life can be, even in periods when nerves are frayed and bonds feel broken.

When They See Us” (Netflix)

The notion of being seen is a something many people take for granted, and some members of marginalized communities are often denied,” I observed when Ava DuVernay’s limited series premiered in May. “It informs ‘When They See Us’ from start to finish, title to final credits.”

Rare is the series that manages to walk the balance between infuriating the audience and invigorating its sense of righteousness – all without overwhelming us in sorrow or, worse, preachy messaging. The magic DuVernay works here isn’t simply reliant on the story itself or its telling, although the writing is taut and sharp. Nor does it lean too heavily on cinematographer Bradford Young’s potent and masterful use of the lens,  or the performances, all of which ring true, Jharrel Jerome’s wrenching turn standing out above all.

It’s all of these factors melting and merging symphonically, methodically helping to reclaiming the individual identities of Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Branding these men as the Central Park Five was the result of a false history born out of a biased, inaccurate news media narrative. DuVernay’s purposeful art does all it can to further restore the justice denied to them so many years ago.

Fleabag” (Amazon Prime)

Two seasons. That’s all we’re getting of “Fleabag,” which feels unjust and tragic and correct and sufficient. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s heroine returned to us nursing a punch in the nose, and exited with an arrow shot to the heart delivered, in large part, by her relationship with the now infamous Hot Priest, a sexy vision made flesh by Andrew Scott. A premise like the one we see here shouldn’t work as perfectly as it does – and yet, it more than works, it fits like a glove.

Two people who appear on the surface to be complete opposites -- one faithless, one a man of God -- somehow see one another clearly, evidenced in Scott’s man of the cloth being the only one able to notice Fleabag’s confessional fourth-wall breaks.

But its inquisition of how we define love, obligation, intimacy and even self-worth plays out through every grace note, giving the rest of the cast as much opportunity to shine as the writer and star. From Sian Clifford’s brittle but vulnerable Claire through Kristin Scott Thomas' brief but golden guest star turn as Belinda Frears, Waller-Bridge’s confident writing and humor blesses her characters with a golden brilliance. “These episodes give us some of the funniest TV moments going right now, and may be the year’s best,” I wrote six months ago.

At the end of 2019 I can now remove the hedging and confirm, simply, they are the best.

Hey, Watch These:Chernobyl.” (HBO) “BoJack Horseman.” (Netflix) “Undone.” (Amazon) “Los Espookys.” (HBO) “What We Do in the Shadows.” (FX) “Shrill.” (Hulu) “Broad City.” (Comedy Central) “Gentleman Jack.” (HBO) “Pen15.” (Hulu) “Sherman’s Showcase.” (IFC) “The Good Place.” (NBC) “Warrior.” (Cinemax) “Barry.” (HBO) “South Side.” (Comedy Central) “GLOW.” (Netflix) “Billions.” (Showtime) “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.” (Showtime) “Tuca and Bertie.” (Netflix)


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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