The best TV series of 2019

Our inaugural critics’ poll of the top ten television series of 2019 offers a tantalising mix of comedy, horror and drama – and holds up a mirror to our age.

Scroll down to read Molly Haskell’s take on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and beyond it the votes and comments of all 37 of our contributors.

James Bell , Isabel Stevens , Alex Davidson , Christina Newland , So Mayer , Caspar Salmon , Nikki Baughan , Molly Haskell

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (Season 2), our voters’ best TV series of 2019

So with a raised eyebrow and a wry aside to camera, it was perhaps inevitable – and correct – that the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag should top our first ever critics’ poll to find the best in the year’s TV drama and comedy. Waller-Bridge’s triumph this past year – both critical and commercial – has been astonishing, from her three Emmy wins to her rumoured $20 million-a-year writing deal with Amazon and the small matter of the next James Bond film. That success is a testament to the unique signature of her writing, and puts her at the forefront of a number of British writers who have shaped this year’s television.

One such is Jesse Armstrong, who brought a very British perspective to Succession, his scabrous drama about the Murdoch-like Roy family. Succession was one of several shows that captured the mood of our divided times – the anger and unrest at the state of things was also there in Unbelievable, a complex drama that exposed how society can so often fail the victims of sexual assault. Meanwhile, both Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen and Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us – in very different ways – addressed the febrile nature of race relations in the US.

The year’s most astoundingly realised nightmare was Chernobyl, but Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years ran it a close second, with its frightening depiction of a near-future a little way down our current path. Whatever your personal favourite, it’s clear that this year’s TV was not only strong creatively but also an essential mirror of our times.

James Bell

 

10. Stath Lets Flats

Stath Lets Flats (2019)

It’s been a strong year for original, quirky comedy on British television, from Daisy Haggard’s black comedy with a heart Back to Life to Matt Berry’s surreal Victorian London fantasy Year of the Rabbit.

Best of them all though was the second season of Jamie Demetriou’s Stath Lets Flats on Channel 4, in which Demetriou plays the utterly hapless Stath, who owes his job at his Greek-Cypriot father’s shoddy letting agency in North London to nepotism alone. In Stath, Demetriou has created a figure to sit proudly in the line of British comedy’s lovably inept and frustrated men, from Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge. All the while speaking in a unique patois that only his equally talentless wannabe pop star sister Sophie (played by Demetriou’s sister Natasia) fully understands, Stath has to wrest back control of the family firm from slick Foxtons-esque Julian (Dustin Demri-Burns). Every secondary character is perfectly judged and played, and the series never hits a wrong note.

James Bell

 

9. Watchmen

Watchmen (2019)

Just like Damon Lindelof’s previous series, the existential tickler The Leftovers, Watchmen is both a wildly imaginative narrative rabbit hole and a sobering statement about America today. It borrows little from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986 graphic novel, save for its array of anti-heroes and the alternative history (which has now moved on: Robert Redford is US president and Vietnam the 51st state). Instead of the Cold War, Lindelof interrogates the rise of white nationalism and fascism, rooting his drama in an actual but little-known 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where white mobs attacked wealthy black residents. Lindelof’s vision of a masked police force deploying mob justice in 2019 is equal parts nuanced, surprising and terrifying.

Stealing the series are performances by two older women: Regina King as the black-leatherclad Sister Knight and Jean Smart as her imperious wise-cracking FBI investigator foe.

Isabel Stevens

 

8. Years and Years

Years and Years (2019)

Russell T. Davies’s brilliant BBC drama takes place between 2019 and 2034, a period that sees the world lurch into ever-increasing, chillingly believable chaos, as European politics veer further to the extreme right while Trump wins a second term and fires a nuclear missile at China.

The ensuing madness is seen through the eyes of a middle-class family whose own relationships are deeply affected by world events. Every episode ends with an emotional punch, from the frenzied run on the banks in episode two to the numbing final moments of episode four.

Russell Tovey, playing a man whose boyfriend lives under threat of deportation, has never been better; T’Nia Miller excels as the tense mother of the family; and Emma Thompson’s MP, a mix of no-nonsense posturing and fascism, is reminiscent of a number of current British politicians. Davies’s screenplay deftly moves from warmth and humour to horror and dread, resulting in a remarkable series that plays like an urgent warning from the near-future.

Alex Davidson

 

7. Mindhunter (Season 2)

Mindhunter (Season 2, 2019)

Mindhunter’s first season set out the beginnings of the FBI system for criminal profiling. The second tests out that methodology on one specific – and real – case.

It’s 1979, and FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) are in Atlanta, Georgia, to investigate a series of horrific child murders. But there’s another mysterious would-be serial killer waiting in the wings. For every murderer who can be interviewed, pathologised, and apprehended, there are more who evade both capture and understanding.

Uneasy about any sensationalist ‘true crime’ labelling and often undermining its own premise with unanswerable questions, Mindhunter is both deliciously, bitterly compelling and resistant to our impulse for a story to end with catching the bad guys.

Christina Newland

 

6. When They See Us

When They See Us (2019)

The title is an indictment: of an injustice system still shaped by slavery. It’s also a manifesto for the power of media to act as a corrective, an urgent humanitarian mission expressed through a fast-paced procedural that becomes so much more via the powerful central performances by Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and especially Jharrel Jerome portraying the individual subjectivities of the five protagonists and the strength of their friendships and family relations.

Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries is a crime-scene photo of the institutional racism and endorsement of torture that forced young men of colour – the so-called Central Park Five – to confess to a rape they did not commit, and that meant a false conviction shaped their adult lives. Taut and fraught – almost unbearably tense in the scenes where confessions are extorted – When They See Us is a work of witness and brilliance.

So Mayer

 

5. Unbelievable

Unbelievable (2019)

Adapted from T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s Pulitzer-winning 2015 article An Unbelievable Story of Rape – an investigation of the capture of serial rapist Marc Patrick O’Leary – Netflix’s powerful, superbly acted eight-episode series follows Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), an already traumatised teenager who reports she has been raped, but who is not believed by the cop who questions her, and whose life then falls apart when she is accused of ‘false reporting’. Then two years later, a series of rapes in Colorado bring together two new detectives to work the case: thoughtful Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), and aggressive Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

Reviewing the series in S&S in December, Sheila O’Malley wrote: “Painstakingly, in scene after scene after scene, Unbelievable makes its case that the way sexual assaults are handled is appalling and inexcusable… Unbelievable is most notable for its allowance of ambiguity, and its refusal to go the cliched route. In our intensely charged moment, Unbelievable provides a unique kind of catharsis. It’s a staggering accomplishment.”

James Bell

 

4. Russian Doll

Russian Doll (2019)

What if the world ceased to hold any joy – if everything you saw had already been seen by you before; if the aching routine of your godless daily life made death itself feel so slight a change from existence? Russian Doll’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a drawling, cynical New Yorker, lives every evening anew, dying again and again only to wake up in the same bathroom at the same party, and in that process finds herself looking at her life with new eyes. Along comes Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow lost soul – and the two naturally turn to each other for help.

Netflix’s Russian Doll is a biting dark comedy about kindness, trauma and addiction; a creepy and alarming series about what humans owe one another. Its key line, late in the show, is: “Nobody can do anything on their own.” In the series’ gut-churning coda, all the parties, perverts, lost cats and drunkenness, the colour of sunlight through leaves, seem both mundane and essential. Death finally recasts all our littleness, the comedy of our menial existence, into something great, and prompts the question of whether we need, or even want, any more, to laugh at everything.

Caspar Salmon

 

3. Chernobyl

Chernobyl (2019)

As befits the first creative collaboration between entertainment heavyweights Sky and HBO, Chernobyl is the year’s most ambitious piece of television. Huge in scale but intimate in its telling, this dramatisation of the nuclear accident that occurred in April 1986 at the Chernobyl power plant near the city of Pripyat, in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, is anchored by Craig Mazin’s expertly constructed screenplay. Focusing each episode on the individuals – plant workers, clean-up crew, local citizens – affected by the catastrophic fallout, alongside a corrupt government desperately trying to contain the situation, Mazin puts the sprawling complexity of the event into powerful personal context.

This sensitivity and attention to detail is replicated in all other aspects of the show, most obviously in the nuanced performances from a stellar cast. Indeed, everything from the meticulous costume and production design to Johan Renck’s confident direction, Jakob Ihre’s unflinching cinematography and Hildur Gudnadóttir’s plaintive score makes this an immersive and unforgettable viewing experience, one that has resulted in a clutch of Primetime Emmys and a new high bar for small-screen drama.

Nikki Baughan

 

2. Succession (Season 2)

Succession (Season 2, 2019)

Writing in S&S in December about Succession – Jesse Armstrong’s brilliant HBO drama about the very Murdoch-like Roy family, headed by ailing patriarch and media mogul Logan (Brian Cox) – Hannah Mackay argued that it is the substantially British writers’ room on the show that gives it its unique take on the one per cent. Where a US series would likely present the family members as assured Machiavels, in Succession they’re incompetents driven by their personal failings – a quintessentially English view of power.

“Succession shows us the glittering prizes of the winners of American life, but then shows us the psychological cost of winning and then maintaining them,” wrote Mackay, who also spotlighted the depiction of a fractured family. “As a portrait of parental torture and abuse it’s hard to think of a show to match it. Materially, Logan bequeaths them the world; emotionally, his bequest is nothing but a scorched earth.”

James Bell

 

1. Fleabag (Season 2)

Fleabag (Season 2, 2019)

Among the discomfiting protagonists who ply their obsessions in our grimly comic TV landscape, Fleabag isn’t the most repellent. The reptilian Murdoch-like dynasty in Succession bypasses The Loudest Voice’s portrayal of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe), if only by sheer numbers, in the competitive dive to the bottom.

The glorious, insanely original Fleabag manages something more difficult, a balancing act between the grotesque and the endearing. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s pathologically prickly anti-heroine is a magician of alternating and contradictory emotions, a toxic mix of sex-crazed desperation and defensiveness who manages to be simultaneously cringe-inducing and loveable. Maybe not loved by everyone, despite the almost unanimous media praise, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

The first season introduced us to a furiously idiosyncratic ensemble that became even funnier and more piercing in the second season thanks not only to the superb writing and acting but to the addition of an improbable ‘love interest’ in the form of Andrew Scott’s delicately unhinged priest. Fleabag and uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford) are still estranged (off and on) after Claire’s husband (Brett Gelman) kissed Fleabag (or did she kiss him?) on her – or was it Claire’s? – birthday. Fleabag is emerging slowly from the gloom of her mother’s death and that of her best friend and café partner whose (maybe) suicide she may or may not have indirectly caused.

The tangled on-the-one-hand and on-the-other mess of the preceding sentences conveys the marvellous zig-zagging rhythm of a show that wanders in a slippery narrative wonderland, a place where truth refuses to be nailed down so that guilt can be apportioned and expiated. Such are the concepts of a belief system that no longer informs our lives and the stories we tell.

With her pale face, long nose, crimson lips and black hair, and dressed most often in black and white, Fleabag stands out in relief, a fairy-tale princess-witch who can cast a spell with a raised eyebrow. Her quizzical sidelong looks to the audience, by which she momentarily evades the perils and pitfalls of being in the moment, speak to the anxieties of social intercourse in a world with no rules and few taboos.

Life is an ongoing existential crisis, every family transaction an emotional minefield. The first show in season two plants seeds that will pay off in the finale – Gelman’s odious words about a miscarriage he thinks is Fleabag’s coming back to slap him in the face; the engagement (of father Bill Paterson and godmother-cum-wicked stepmother Olivia Colman) being celebrated with faux bonhomie.

Despite season-long efforts to the contrary, the wedding day arrives. It does so alongside another even more preposterous, but strangely hopeful match: the deliciously uneasy-making love affair between Fleabag and the ‘hot’ priest. As Scott conducts the ceremony for the parents, he suddenly veers off script and launches into a passionate tirade enumerating the horrors of love and concluding: “It’s hell. No wonder we don’t want to do it alone” – a tautological absurdity that is also unbearably true.

Making us uncomfortable has become a stock-in-trade for shows and artists, a reflection of the return of the repressed in a world with few prohibitions. Women, throwing off the constraints of ladyhood and good taste, tackle subjects and body parts that would have landed them in jail or earned universal opprobrium a generation ago.

Fleabag, like many of these iconoclasts, has met with divergent opinions. Men, in my informal canvassing, are less enthusiastic than women, but the real divide seems to be generational. Generally speaking, old folks, among whom I must technically count myself, find it vulgar and resist its prickly charm.

But I’m fascinated by Waller-Bridge and the current crop of pain-in-the-ass females in movies and on TV (examples: Melissa McCarthy, Laura Dern, Kathryn Hahn, Laurie Metcalf, Nicole Kidman, Isabelle Huppert, or stand-up comedians Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler) who manage to engage and repel us simultaneously, something that has always been difficult for what has traditionally been seen as the kinder gentler sex. They go too far, they dare us not to watch. And sometimes they lose the bet.

One of my favorite episodes from Fleabag features Kristin Scott Thomas as an ‘older’ woman who has just won a Woman of Year award in a lavish ceremony hosted by Claire and attended by her sister. Afterward Fleabag follows Scott Thomas to a bar where they share a drink and a chat. Fleabag is in a tear of anger and self-loathing over the imagined horrors and rejections of the preceding party.

Her companion, on the other hand, muses wistfully about her own past and how she misses the flirtatious looks she used to get from men. Fleabag, from whom such courtly codes and behaviour belong to prehistoric time, comes on to Scott Thomas sexually. The older woman gently deflects her, excusing herself as an early-to-bedder – another graceful half- note from a lost world of tact and nuance.

If you’re not drawn helplessly to both characters in this scene, if you’re completely in sympathy with Scott Thomas and want to flee from this slightly mad stalker, you’re probably not a fan of the show. On the other hand – there it is again – if you’re entirely with the younger woman and don’t ‘get’ Scott Thomas, then you miss the show’s extraordinary amplitude of perspective.

Molly Haskell

 

How they voted

 

Sam Adams

Critic, Slate (US)

Succession (Season 2)

Fosse/Verdon

When They See Us

Chernobyl

Russian Doll

 

Nikki Baughan

Critic and contributing editor, Screen Daily, UK

Chernobyl

The Haunting of Hill House

Russian Doll

Unbelievable

Catastrophe (Season 4)

It’s been a remarkable year for small-screen entertainment, with bigger budgets and unbeatable creative talent on both sides of the camera making for some memorable shows. Chernobyl was a particular standout: a sensitive and immersive portrayal of the infamous nuclear disaster, it showcased phenomenal performances and an astonishing attention to detail. The craftsmanship on display in every single frame – from costumes to VFX, screenplay to sound design – is second to none. Screenwriter Craig Mazin’s excellent accompanying podcast added so much to the experience of watching, too.

Netflix has put out some stellar content this year: The Haunting of Hill House managed to be utterly terrifying and desperately moving at the same time; Russian Doll was a fascinating, intelligent and funny mind-trip featuring a phenomenal performance by creator Natasha Lyonne; and Unbelievable was an incredibly well-written and performed piece of drama about the difficult subject of rape.

Back on home turf, I was very sad to see Catastrophe come to an end, but writer-stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney turned in the best season yet – a hilarious, insightful and poignant farewell to two of TV’s best characters.

 

James Bell

Features Editor, Sight & Sound (UK)

Chernobyl

Succession (Season 2)

Back to Life

Stath Lets Flats

Fleabag (Season 2)

 

Nick Bradshaw

Web Editor, Sight & Sound (UK)

Fleabag (Season 2)

Succession (Season 2)

Motherland (Season 2)

Catastrophe (Season 4)

Chernobyl (Season 2)

 

Scott Bryan

TV critic and broadcaster, UK

Chernobyl

Fleabag (Season 2)

The End of the F**king World (Season 2)

Succession (Season 2)

Giri/Haji

This year has been a phenomenal year of television. Narrowing down a list of shows to even ten was of great difficulty, let alone five.

Then there’s the fact that Chernobyl, a haunting drama looking at what caused the 1986 nuclear disaster, is not just the best show of this year but one of the best I’ve ever seen. It floored me – the accuracy, the characters, how the storyline reveals itself even more richly the second time you watch. And its message: that lies are just debts to the truth and the truth will always out in the end, but those who benefit from its outing are not the same people who suffered the consequences of all the lies.

 

Steve Bryant

BFI TV Archive curator (UK)

Fleabag (Season 2)

The Virtues

Chernobyl

Mum

Top Boy

A year of multiple outstanding series of which these represent the best of many bunches. Fleabag is out on its own, just sensational; but there were other authored dramatic comedies from Toby Jones (Don’t Forget the Driver) and Daisy Haggard (Back to Life) well worthy of note, while the conclusion of Stefan Golaszewski’s Mum was just perfect.

The ultra prolific Jack Thorne has to be the writer of the year, whether creating his own stories (The Accident) or adapting others (His Dark Materials) but it was his renewed collaboration with Shane Meadows which gave us the most unforgettably intense drama of the year in The Virtues.

Chernobyl managed the impossible – a gripping drama based on the grimmest of material which did full justice to the importance of its subject.

Several outstanding series were given the chance to reach closure or revive themselves: wonderfully aptly in the case of Deadwood, less necessarily in that of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, but the best return was Top Boy – exploiting the longer running time to give us an even more pertinent insight into the world of street crime than before and at the same time providing so many roles for an outstanding roster of young black acting talent. Bring back Utopia next, please!

(At the time of writing Mr Robot has not concluded, but may just turn out the best of all.)

 

Andrew Collins

Film Editor, Radio Times, critic and presenter (UK)

Succession (Season 2)

Chernobyl

The Virtues

Mindhunter (Season 2)

Unbelievable

I find that the mark of an unmissable drama in these impatient times is either one that you hungrily binge through like a Roman emperor at a feast, or feel childishly aggrieved at not being able to gorge upon immediately. Both seasons of the magnificent Succession were apportioned by HBO/Sky in old-school weekly installments – this would have handicapped a lesser series, or lessened its dramatic momentum, but in fact it made Jesse Armstrong and company’s antisocial satire more stately.

The same went for Chernobyl, a drama I also watched twice in short succession.

Unbelievable was dispatched in a couple of sittings, as was the second season of Mindhunter. (Interesting that Joe Penhall, the very American Mindhunter’s showrunner, is also British.)

The Virtues, perhaps Shane Meadows’ finest hour – though many will find it miserablist – deserved its slow burn as so much of it was built around fractured memories.

Add Chernobyl and none of my Top 5 are exactly escapist – at this precarious time in history, you might have expected something a little lighter. Curious.

 

Alex Davidson

Barbican Cinema curator and critic (UK)

Chernobyl

Pose

Fleabag (Series 2)

Years and Years

When They See Us

Chernobyl’s slow and damning dissection of the nuclear disaster was the best thing I saw in 2019, a magnificent, brilliantly acted attack on political corruption. The early scenes were terrifying – the helicopter crash felt like a nightmare, while one shot of a victim on the hospital bed was so upsetting it still haunts me.

Pose, boosted by the largest cast of trans actors in TV history, put queer people of colour centre-stage and upended the concept of ‘family’ before our eyes, blending queer resilience, comedy and, of course, eleganza extravaganza.

Ava DuVernay’s scathing When They See Us gave a damning depiction of police racism in action, with a superb performance from Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise.

On British TV, the relationship between Fleabag and her sister, Claire, was beautifully depicted, and far more interesting than the much-discussed Hot Priest, while the Brexit-infused Years and Years started strong, its episode 4 providing one of the most emotionally devastating TV moments of the year, when a major character leaves the narrative.

If this poll had included nonfiction then two very different series would have made my list – the joyous celebration of British gay culture that is RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and the harrowing Leaving Neverland, jaw-dropping evidence of how two abused children were failed again and again.

 

Maria Delgado

Critic and acadmic, UK

Chernobyl

Fleabag (Season 2)

A Confession

Mum

Years and Years

It’s been a good year for television drama – writers thinking about how to engage with the past (Chernobyl), the present (Fleabag), the future (Years and Years). There is a return to the short (State of the Union), playful toying with the sit-com (Mum) and a belief in the importance of the mini-series (A Confession). Playfulness abounds (A Very English Scandal, Fleabag). Writers are looking at the mess we are in (The Uncivil War) and the consequences of where we are and what this might lead to (Years and Years). And even when something didn’t quite live up to expectations (Killing Eve) or old favourites seemed rather too familiar (Peaky Blinders, Call of Duty) there was still a real sense of occasion, of something that brings viewers together and creates a talking point.

Fleabag gave us fun and frisson, Chernobyl was compelling in its horror, A Confession eschewed heroics for a focus on the bereaved. Whether I watched on a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a TV, these five kept me gripped across their entire duration.

 

Jamie Dunn

Critic and Film Editor, The Skinny (UK)

Succession (Season 2)

Unbelievable

Derry Girls (Season 2)

Russian Doll

This Time with Alan Partridge

The best show of the last 12 months is also a perfect mirror to 2019, a year when a small group of idiotic elites dragged the rest of us to the precipice. Not only is Jesse Armstrong’s Succession deliciously twist-filled and sprinkled with the tartest dialogue on television, its endless literary references (Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles) and nervy handheld aesthetic make it much more than a rich people soap opera.

As the streaming wars heat up, Netflix still seems to be throwing enough content into the algorithm to keep subscribers happy. Groundhog Day-inspired Russian Doll was constantly repeating itself but it never got old, thanks mostly to the boundless charisma of Natasha Lyonne as a smart-mouthed New Yorker stuck in an existential nightmare. Unbelievable was even more powerful, radically flipping the leary male gaze of the procedural drama on its head by telling it through the eyes of a rape victim and the two compassionate female cops on the trail of her abuser.

Despite competition from streaming, terrestrial TV was still making joyous appointment viewing. Derry Girls returned, moving deftly from the riotous coming-of-age of four teen girls to wry commentary on living through the Troubles. And a mellower Alan Partridge was back on the BBC as a sounding board for Brexit Britain in an uncanny One Show facsimile that had to be watched through splayed fingers. Stath Lets Flats, Fleabag and The End of the F***ing World were council telly’s other treasures this year.

 

Toby Earle

TV critic and broadcaster, UK

Chernobyl

Succession (Season 2)

Sex Education

Pure

Euphoria

Truth, power and the struggle to maintain power were central themes to the two best dramas of the year, although Succession was much funnier than Chernobyl. The image of the citizens of Pripyat dancing in the fallout of the reactor explosion at Chernobyl is an indelible vision and served as a portent of the horror to come. This was a production at the height of everyone’s powers, driven by Craig Mazin’s remarkable storytelling.

Succession was my favourite comedy of last year and its second series upheld the impossibly high bar of writing and performances. This too tells of truth, power and its abuses – not that Logan Roy’s media empire would ever tell you that.

Sex Education was a surprise delight, a genre-mash of throbbing British humour and classic US high school tropes with a charismatic cast, which treated its audience with respect and intelligence. Meanwhile the teenage experience in Euphoria was a troubling and often horrifying place, inventive visuals (the fairground sequence one of the year’s best moments) married with career-defining performances.

Finally, Channel 4’s Pure was a dive into the life of an OCD sufferer, played with compassion, humour and honesty.

 

Dick Fiddy

TV writer and consultant, UK

The Good Place (Seasons 3 & 4)

Fleabag (Season 2)

Gotham

Captured

World on Fire

Impossible to keep abreast of everything that’s on, especially when reputedly excellent stuff is appearing on platforms to which I don’t have access. One of my highlights this year was re-watching Fay Weldon’s excellent Life and Loves of a She-Devil, which stood up wonderfully well. Vintage TV seems more contemporary than ever before thanks to our increased access to classic product.

 

Gaylene Gould

Critic, presenter and programmer, UK

Watchmen

Fleabag (Season 2)

Keeping Faith

Dead to Me

His Dark Materials

We trawl nightly through an ever growing list of ‘content’, searching out the gems that shock, move, illuminate, entertain and push the medium in surprising ways. There were quite a few that qualified this year (and too many that didn’t) but these five were the shows I rushed home to this year.

UK TV is represented with the quiet but humanely spirited Keeping Faith, a Welsh production that challenged who we, as women, are allowed to be in real life and on screen. Of course, this is writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s MO. Fleabag Season 2 was an emotionally messy triumph – topping the first series in my opinion.

The majestic His Dark Materials has brought Sunday night telly back to its rightful place.

On the US front, there was plenty of streaming fare to choose from. Dead To Me just pipped The Kominsky Method mainly because Liz Feldman’s searing study of women’s rage and grief is a dark and bold contribution to the comedic canon.

But I save the very best for last. Damon Lindelhof would have topped my list last year with The Leftovers, which I still believe to be the best that TV has ever given us. In Watchmen, his new series, he brings the same weighty, human exploration to the comic-book genre and gives us something I’ve waited a lifetime to see. Race politics, untold histories, speculative universes, surreality at its most bizarre, and a visual language stylish as all-hell combine to create a deeply intelligent interpretation of our soon-to-be-futures.

It’s hard to know how he does it. Is it the fantastic ensemble cast led by Queen Regina King and a camp Jeremy Irons in a career-defining role? The visual style led by a perfect gender and ethnic blend of directors? The tackling of the roots and reality of white supremacy head on, in a way only the Americans dare? (I wish we were so bold.)Is it the flights of creative fancy that shape a world that looks like the one we know but with such an unsettling off-ness that we wait, with quivering anticipation, to be swivelled upside down? It’s all of this and more. Watchmen is event TV at its greatest and proves that Lindelhof understands the height, depth and breadth of the TV game like no other.

 

Chris Hall

Critic, UK

Fleabag (Season 2)

Years and Years

Top Boy

Chernobyl

Succession (Season 2)

 

Matthew Harle

Critic and researcher, UK

Succession (Season 2)

Stath Lets Flats

Atlanta (Season 2)

Franco Building with Jonathan Meades

Arena

 

Rebecca Harrison

Critic and academic, UK

Fleabag (Season 2)

When They See Us

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

Sex Education

What We Do in the Shadows

My top five all demonstrate one of television’s greatest strengths – telling the inside stories about people who get left out. Spanning a variety of genres from horror to coming-of-age drama, and frequently mobilising comedy as a vehicle for empathy, these shows all give space to characters existing outside the realms of the ordinary.

When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s brilliant exploration of the Central Park Five, was a vital dramatisation that, while often challenging to watch, turned television screens into activists crying out on behalf of black communities.

The Dark Crystal and What We Do in the Shadows both scaled down their earlier cinematic incarnations but were no less joyful for the transition. While Shadows playfully turned vampire tropes on their head and introduced feminism to the comic outcasts, The Dark Crystal’s glorious, gothic puppets provided a stirring tale about good vs evil in the most deliciously designed sets on-screen.

The daring Sex Education resurrected the teen film genre for the Netflix era with a transatlantic aesthetic that was as quirky and queer as its characters.

And, finally, there was Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s viciously funny case study of depression and grief added Hot Priest to the 2019 lexicon and ended with one of the most devastatingly relatable moments in television history. As she waved us goodbye, I was compelled to go back and watch it a second time – high praise indeed when there are so many excellent shows vying for attention. I’ll never look at a stray fox in quite the same way again.

 

Molly Haskell

Critic, US

Fleabag (Season 2)

Succession (Season 2)

The Inventor: Out for Blood

Unbelievable

Chernobyl

I’m not sure whether it’s a symptom of the times or my own jaded taste that my favorites all contain elements of slime and corruption alongside reptilian charm, or variants of same. Dark stories often require special qualities in an actor to offset the audience-alienating factors, whether the swamp of human iniquity or seemingly unredeemable personalities. I’m fascinated especially by the current crop of pain-in-the-ass women in movies and on TV (examples: Melissa McCarthy, Laura Dern, Katherine Hahn, Laurie Metcalf, Nicole Kidman, Isabelle Huppert) who manage to engage and repel us simultaneously, something that has always been difficult for what has traditionally been seen as the kinder gentler sex.

 

Nick James

Critic and former Sight & Sound Editor, UK

Killing Eve (Season 2)

Mindhunter (Season 2)

Fosse/Verdon

Chernobyl

Succession (Season 2)

Year restriction prevents me from voting for the most transcendent and ambitious TV series ever, Babylon Berlin, which reached me two years late.

Killing Eve is here not just for the bravura oddity of its creative storytelling choices (I do think Series 2 is as good as 1) but also because for me watching the incredible Jodie Comer as Villanelle is the TV equivalent of great ice cream (rhymes with ice queen).

I dropped Series 1 of Mindhunter because the dialogue was so creaky and banal in the first episodes, but 2, with its focus on the Atlanta child murders, had me transfixed, perhaps because the race issue is so urgent and it’s such a fascinatingly nervy series.

My way in to the uplifting biopic pairing Fosse/Verdon was stumbling across the documentary Merely Marvellous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon, and once in to its switchback of striving and contortion I never took a backward step.

Having read some of Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer I thought I would be ready for the TV series but found that my Room 101 great fear is radiation sickness. I managed to see all of its atmospheric, beautifully acted and politically powerful episodes, but only through my fingers.

Succession just seems like a parable for our times. It’s pure binge. I don’t really care about it after I’ve watched it but I’m so glad to see the great Brian Cox as a villain again, one nearly as great as his original (and best) Hannibal Lector.

 

Tara Judah

Cinema producer and critic, UK

Russian Doll

Unbelievable

Glow (Season 3)

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 3)

The OA (Season 2)

I’ve watched more television this year than usual – sleepless nights during pregnancy and the early infancy of my child has allowed me to speed through series – and it’s been a good year, on Netflix, at least. That platform has dominated my viewing including more several shows outside my top five: David Fincher’s dramatically compelling Mindhunter, Catherine Reitman’s hilarious Working Moms, its less hilarious but still very funny Australian counterpart, The Let Down, the kitsch Insatiable and Season 3 of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant taking absurdist humour to new levels in Santa Clarita Diet. I’m sad to leave How to Get Away with Murder off my list because I think Viola Davis is the best working actress in television, but Season 5 just didn’t have the chops.

I think Russian Doll is genuinely doing something new and exciting in using televisual form to tell a story; Unbelievable was infuriatingly gripping and raw and honest, and gave Merritt Wever a long overdue leading role; Glow really came into its own in Season 3, using Las Vegas as a brilliant backdrop against which to manipulate temporal stability, echoing both how repetitive modes of entertainment and television operate; A Series of Unfortunate Events has the most gorgeous aesthetic of any children’s show going; and I am sad that we won’t be seeing a third season of The OA because, with its extremely far-fetched fantasy elements, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have created a wonderfully intricate world that has endless narrative and aesthetic possibilities.

 

Philip Kemp

Critic, UK

Fleabag (Season 2)

Gentleman Jack

The Good Place (Seasons 3 & 4)

Spiral (Engrenages) (Season 7)

Peaky Blinders (Season 5)

Such a wealth of options – almost impossible to choose just five. Hated to leave out World on Fire, Giri/Haji, Guilt, Rise of the Nazis, Confession, Below the Surface, This Way Up, etc, etc. Only two episodes of His Dark Materials so far (I try not to anticipate and binge-watch) but looks like a very promising candidate.

Some started well (Fosse/Verdon, Capture, Name of the Rose, The Accident) but then turned disappointing. Good to see other long-running series – Spiral, Peaky Blinders – still going strong. The Good Place just gets better and better. No question – right now TV is where it’s at.

 

Ella Kemp

Critic, UK

Fleabag (Season 2)

Succession (Season 2)

Glow (Season 3)

Russian Doll

Euphoria

 

Lisa Kerrigan

BFI Archive curator, UK

Succession (Season 2)

Chernobyl

Stath Lets Flats (Season 2)

Back to Life

Fleabag (Season 2)

 

Violet Lucca

Web Editor at Harper’s Magazine, USA

The Righteous Gemstones

The Last O.G.

I Think You Should Leave

Los Espookys

What We Do in the Shadows

The Righteous Gemstones takes what seems like very low-hanging fruit and makes it sing. Judy Gemstone’s monologue about her “first boyfriend” at Outback Steakhouse ought be taught in drama schools. And, bless my soul, even though I wasn’t crazy about the seriousness of the episode it appeared in, Misbehavin is officially the greatest earworm of 2019.

The Last O.G. also surprised me with its fish out of water story of an old school Brooklyn guy trying to survive (financially, emotionally) in hyper-gentrified present-day Brooklyn. The jokes are fast, solid, and built in truth – simply fantastic. Cedric the Entertainer’s character – the owner of the halfway house where Tray, Tracy Morgan’s character lives – is hilarious and never over-utilised.

Another great half-hour comedy that knows when to get in and get out was I Think You Should Leave. Endlessly quotable – a beacon of pop culture connection in a world that’s increasingly fractured and lonely. Also, I definitely dated that guy Tim Heidecker plays in the Game Night sketch, which made it even funnier.

 

So Mayer

Critic, programmer, educator and activist, UK

When They See Us

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Seasons 3 & 4)

The Good Place (Seasons 3 & 4)

Years and Years

Unbelievable

Television, once the domestic connector, the common denominator, has become something wilder: while juggernauts persist, formal and narrative risks get taken, predominantly by streaming services – and when they work, they alter reality, not in the sense of fake news but transformative justice.

Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is so powerful in its depiction of the brutal use of interrogation to force false confessions that she, along with Netflix, are being sued for libel by John E Reid and Associates. Meanwhile Unbelievable (along with Shane Meadows’ The Virtues) has changed not just the conversation around rape and abuse but our ability to listen, empathise and understand traumatic narratives.

Feministing the honour of Greyskull may seem small in comparison, but She-Ra has shown the capacity of cult animation to address climate crisis, activism, LGBTQI+ and animal rights, at bitesize.

Reality also, needfully, gets bent by TV to remind us of possibly and plasticity, and this year’s most striking examples combined apparent comedy with a minatory tone, as in Russell T Davies’ rich and bleak Years and Years, or Michael Schur’s The Good Place, whose final season has taken on the balance of the universe – or, rather, the Eurowestern binary of good and evil – itself.

 

Katherine McLaughlin

Critic, UK

Unbelievable

Succession (Season 2)

Undone

Pose (Season 2)

Mindhunter (Season 2)

Whether with scathing humour or heartfelt emotion, the majority of shows I’ve chosen in some way examine corruption and the horrors of injustice.

Merritt Wever finally gets a captivating lead role to suit her talents in the gripping true-crime drama series Unbelievable. It’s ground-breaking in the way it handles rape from women’s perspectives.

Mindhunter takes a similar tack by concentrating on an infamous real-crime story and showing how the system tragically let down a black community.

Pose is told from a marginalised vantage point with sparkle, wit, voguing and lip-synching. It balances gritty reality and the glamour of the New York ballroom scene while also astutely surveying who is afforded the opportunity to live out the American Dream.

Succession takes the opposite perspective as it pokes fun at a wealthy media dynasty family from the inside. Jesse Armstrong’s trademark acerbic dialogue plays perfectly in the mouths of this bunch of sociopathic, power-hungry monsters, while the opening credits sequence and Nicholas Britell’s score are for the ages.

My outlier is rotoscoped, existential crisis drama Undone. It tells the story of a Mexican-American woman reeling from trauma and grief, and delves deep into themes from faith to mental health. Exploring how culture and history shape perspectives on reality, it’s compelling and hugely moving.

 

Christina Newland

Critic, UK

Succession (Season 2)

Mindhunter (Season 2)

Fleabag (Season 2)

The Deuce (Season 3)

I Am the Night

 

Marcus Prince

BFI TV programmer, UK

Chernobyl

Succession (Season 2)

Giri Haji

Peaky Blinders (Season 5)

Brexit: The Uncivil War

The year that television finally seemed to break free from the stranglehold of the crime genre (one more moody detective with a dark past and we could all have been driven insane!).

Chernobyl re-established our faith in television drama to both elucidate the issues and remain compelling and deeply moving at the same time, acts of heroism both small and large emerging from this tragic accident.

2019 saw Jane Featherstone’s Sister Pictures out in front, demonstrating across both Chernobyl and the classy thriller Giri Haji that British TV drama can be international in outlook and still maintain a focus on script and characterisation. Stephen Knight’s Peaky Blinders has continued this theme, turning the UK-centric tale of Birmingham gangsters into a global phenomenon thanks to the power of his earthy dialogue and staggeringly original direction.

Meanwhile Season 2 of Succession is proving just as riveting as Season 1, Jesse Armstrong’s genius being to spotlight the whole of American capitalism through the prism of one insanely powerful media mogul and his highly dysfunctional family.

At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, Channel 4 proved the power of the well-timed single drama with Brexit: The Uncivil War, James Graham’s superb expose of the Leave campaign. Boasting a fantastic central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as the infamous Dominic Cummings, this small-scale drama illuminated the dark arts of political spin in a more accessible and powerful way than any documentary could have achieved.

All these superb UK-produced shows demonstrate the strength and depth of talent in the UK television industry. All but one rely on US funding. Should we be more worried than we are given that those who hold the purse strings always wield the power? If we fail to act now to protect our UK public-sector broadcasters it could be too late.

 

Naman Ramachandran

Writer and critic, UK/India

Too Old To Die Young

Fleabag (Season 2)

Mindhunter (Season 2)

The Family Man

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (Season 2)

Too Old To Die Young is everything you’d expect from Nicolas Winding Refn’s films: indulgent, deliberately paced, visually stunning, frustrating, violent, polarising and brilliant.

Phoebe Walller-Bridge is pushed to second place only because Season 2 of Fleabag, while enormously (and commercially) satisfying on a number of levels, loses the dark, caustic edge of Season 1 – whereas Season 2 of Mindhunter builds on the first season.

Raj and DK’s The Family Man successfully brings espionage to the Indian middle class and features a stunning central performance from Manoj Bajpayee.

Popular Japanese food and philosophy television property Midnight Diner got the Netflix treatment with its Tokyo Stories iteration and the new season proves that Kaoru Kobayashi’s calm, homespun wisdom as The Master remains as relevant as ever in an increasingly manic world.

 

Jonathan Romney

Critic and teacher, UK

Russian Doll

The Kominsky Method

Bojack Horseman

Fleabag (Season 2)

Dark

My favourite performances of the year were by Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll and Alan Arkin in The Kominsky Method; they played daughter and father years ago in Slums of Beverly Hills, and their jazzy wiseacre style in these roles still feels subliminally related.

Given how long shows stay around on streaming platforms, you often find yourselves a season or three behind on favourite series, so these choices are also a vote of faith in the continuing excellence of the magnificently sharp and cynical Bojack Horseman and the baroque time-twisting of Dark.

In reality, the show that really knocked me out this year goes back a couple of years: Babylon Berlin, raved about in S&S by David Thompson. The musical sequences were a bit Baz Luhrmann for me, but the two-season arc was constructed with a fiendish ingenuity that Doctor Mabuse himself would have admired.

 

Caspar Salmon

Critic, UK

Russian Doll

Fleabag (Season 2)

Tuca & Bertie

The Virtues

Stath Lets Flats

 

Alan Sepinwall

Chief TV Critic, Rolling Stone, US

Fleabag (Season 2)

Watchmen

Russian Doll

Better Things (Season 3)

Unbelievable

Fleabag was as perfectly modulated a season of television as we’ve seen in years: heartbreaking and hilarious within breaths of one another.

Watchmen is an enormous swing that has, so far, connected with shocking power.

Russian Doll was surprising and delightful throughout its compact run.

Better Things had to make do without its disgraced co-creator, but Pamela Adlon did even better on her own.

Unbelievable deftly told two parallel stories –  essentially, two different shows – at once, providing a difficult but incredibly rewarding journey.

 

Leigh Singer

Critic, programmer and filmmaker, UK

Succession (Season 2)

Russian Doll

Fleabag (Season 2)

The Good Place (Seasons 3 & 4)

Watchmen

My top three are all consummate lessons in challenging storytelling and brilliant ensemble acting. The first season of Fleabag Season 2 is as perfect as tragi-comedy gets.

The Good Place has dipped since its debut but its light, deep dive into morality still feels essential. Watchmen drags a little but I admire its ambition in continuing a comic book masterpiece; and given the recent, endless Scorsese / MCU kerfuffle, it’s good to see something on superheroes that’s clearly authored, questioning and… cinematic?

 

Isabel Stevens

Production Editor, Sight & Sound (UK)

Fleabag (Season 2)

Watchmen

The OA (Season 2)

Chernobyl

What We Do in the Shadows

 

Kelli Weston

Critic, UK/US

Succession (Season 2)

Watchmen

Mindhunter (Season 2)

When They See Us

Fleabag (Season 2)

 

Mike Williams

Editor-in-Chief, Sight & Sound

What We Do in the Shadows

The Ted Bundy Tapes

Sunderland ’Til I Die

Stranger Things (Series 3)

Leaving Neverland

 

John Wyver

Writer and media producer, UK

Chernobyl

Succession (Season 2)

The Loudest Voice

Fosse/Verdon

Euphoria

With Chernobyl channelling Tarkovsky and Succession offering much the same service to Shakespeare, and with the former as a Sky co-production and the latter developed with a wealth of British talent nurtured by the theatre, this does indeed feel like a gilded moment for transnational and transmedial television. So many great series, so little time to do justice to them – and the challenge to the ever-so-slightly polite, ever-so-slightly safe offerings from the traditional British broadcasters becomes ever more acute.

 

Matt Zoller Seitz

NY Mag TV critic and Editor-at-large, RogerEbert.com, US

Better Things (Season 3)

When They See Us

Russian Doll

Succession (Season 2)

Euphoria

The latest season of Documentary Now! (IFC) nearly made it onto my list just for Original Cast Recording: Co-Op and Waiting for the Artist.

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