Too many shows debuted in 2019. There were roughly over 500 scripted, original shows to watch this year, meaning no one could possibly keep up with every worthwhile show. A project, it seems, can no longer just be good or even great to earn attention; it has to be one of the best things that’s ever aired on television.
Although most television critics would probably consider this blasphemy, I think 2019 featured a few of the best shows of all time, at least in terms of viewing experience. While other eras may have offered better super-serious, high-minded dramas, this year had a plethora of shows that understood that blending comedy with drama can make both genres reach pleasurable heights they can’t achieve by themselves.
The era of watching a season of television that lasts over a dozen hours to tell a slow-moving, humorless story seems to be done. Runtimes are shorter and are starting to resemble movies. Deep dives into pain are now somehow hilarious. This was the year of getting rid of the fluff that has plagued television for decades. This was the year of innovative storytelling precision.
This list of eight “best” doesn’t necessarily reflect my personal favorites, although of course that’s part of it. I tried to construct a list of shows that most impressed me and felt like true television achievements. I hope you’ll see them the same way.
Read on for the top eight of 2019. And because this year had so many shows, I’ve also provided a list of eight honorable mentions at the end of the article.
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8. “Documentary Now!” ― IFC
Details: This comedy anthology series parodies a different documentary or docuseries in each episode. This season includes parodies of “Wild Wild Country” and “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.”
Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas created the show. While Helen Mirren “hosts” each episode, a few guest stars include Cate Blanchett, Natasha Lyonne, John Mulaney, Michael Keaton and Owen Wilson.
The third season has seven episodes of roughly 25 minutes each.
Sum-up: “Documentary Now!” exhibits a deep understanding of how cinema and storytelling work. These parodies aren’t just exercises in comic heightening; the episodes match more esoteric parts of storytelling such as film techniques, scripting moods and character arcs. This is a show that not only loves the highs of the visual medium, it knows how to achieve them.
This show continuously flexes various strengths. One episode may have a quiet, difficult, black-and-white portrait of an artist. Another may have a broad, outlandish Owen Wilson playing a charismatic cult leader that turns out to be a government operative.
Perhaps most impressive, whether the show is going for quiet or loud satire, “Documentary Now!” is always funny in its unique absurdities. This is the kind of project that can only be accomplished by masters of the television form.
7. “Veep” ― HBO
Details: The seventh and final season of this comedy focuses on protagonist Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she embarks on a globe-trotting presidential campaign. Her trusty, yet self-serving staff both help and undermine her chances every step of the way.
Armando Iannucci created the show, but David Mandel led this season. The ensemble cast includes Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
The seventh season has seven episodes of roughly 35 minutes each.
Sum-up: Much has been said about the limitations of parodying President Donald Trump because the high ridiculousness of contemporary reality can’t be heightened. Although the show is by no means a direct parody of Trump, the political satire of “Veep” still managed to work at a high level in the show’s final season. With the full maturation of Selina Meyer into a megalomaniac, ruthless power seeker that would stop at nothing to achieve the presidency, “Veep” presented a portrait of a villain with uniquely heightened amorality.
What makes Meyer’s descent into demon-hood work is that almost every line of dialogue in this show is a joke. This is a script technique that will likely be repeated for years to come. The balancing out of constant laughs allows for the script to go pretty much anywhere.
The true genius of this season lies in balancing the absurdity of Meyer’s power-grabbing and the constant comedy. Less capable hands might make Meyer so unredeemable that the show becomes unwatchable. Although this is a team effort, Louis-Dreyfus’ charisma helps to this end, which works especially well since she’s playing a charismatic politician attempting to dupe everyone around her.
6. “Tuca & Bertie” ― Netflix
Details: This animated comedy focuses on the lives of three birds living in an anthropomorphic community called Bird Town. The two female best friend protagonists balance their friendship with the world forcing them to grow up, while one of the birds also works on her romantic relationship with a partner that just moved into her apartment.
Lisa Hanawalt created the show. The voice cast includes Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun.
The first (and only) season runs 10 episodes of roughly 25 minutes each.
Sum-up: Lisa Hanawalt created the look of Netflix hit “BoJack Horseman” and then made “Tuca & Bertie” with a similar aesthetic. Despite the massive success of “BoJack,” Netflix canceled “Tuca & Bertie” after just one season. That’s a deeply unfair conclusion in itself, but given the high quality of this show, it’s also a shame the story ended prematurely.
This show uses its animated medium to present a super-rich-in-details setting. The characters move through a world full of background jokes and surprises. And the characters’ bodies morph and detach in physically impossible ways that exemplify character emotions, further heightening the storytelling.
Though the first few episodes mostly focus on comedy, the show wades deeper and deeper into existential issues as the season progresses, with the culmination of a personal trauma. While the zany colors and constant jokes make this show more fun than pretty much anything else that aired this year, it still has things to say about existence in this contemporary time.
5. “Barry” ― HBO
Details: In this tragic comedy, a hit man going through an emotional crisis discovers the acting scene in Los Angeles as a potential pathway to happiness. The second season focuses on the hit man trying to escape his past life while earning a few acting opportunities.
Alec Berg and Bill Hader created the show. Hader stars along with Anthony Carrigan, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root and Henry Winkler.
The second season runs eight episodes of roughly 35 minutes each.
Sum-up: This show is a blend of genre. It’s ostensibly a comedy and a drama at the forefront, but it also brings in tragedy and action tropes and meta commentary about the very act of acting. That this show isn’t insufferable is a testament to everyone involved.
The show maintains this richness of blended styles while also presenting deeply outlandish moments. The repeated absurdity of villains and dreams both serve the general premise of the show ― that a meaningful life is potentially impossible to find ― while also injecting sources for humor into the often dark plots. This is a show that can credibly make you laugh out loud while pondering the futility of humanity.
A show centered around an antihero finding himself is nothing new. But having this antihero find himself through the relatable pursuit of developing a craft he’s bad at is an innovative storytelling trick. It’s hard not to root for someone who is trying to better himself and failing ― that the show employs this trick on a sociopathic killer makes for an inherently tumultuous viewing experience.
4. “BoJack Horseman” ― Netflix
Details: This animated comedy focuses on a sad, anthropomorphic horse named BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) living in “Hollywoo,” Los Angeles. The sixth and final season is split into two parts, with these first few episodes telling the story of the horse working through his personal demons, but this self-acceptance ultimately not being enough.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg created the show. The main voice cast includes Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris and Paul F. Tompkins.
The first half of the sixth season runs eight episodes of roughly 25 minutes each.
Sum-up: Throughout this show’s six seasons, “BoJack Horseman” has waded into the myriad ways existential crises can manifest and has dived deep into how such crises can affect a person. Shows will often make a character “more interesting” by stating the character had some personal trauma from the past. This show points out that characters have multiple traumas and then spends episode after episode having those characters work through what it would mean to address these issues both internally and externally.
Nothing in this show is simple. When a character encounters a problem, the solution isn’t an easy fix. On top of this, and perhaps most importantly, the humor of the traumas and problems are always presented right along with the sadness.
Despite possibly being the saddest show of the decade, “BoJack Horseman” is also certainly one of the funniest. The dialogue is rich with jokes, as is the background setting full of funny Easter eggs. This is a show that discovered the best way to take a trip into hell is to make jokes all along the way.
3. “Russian Doll” ― Netflix
Details: In this mystery-based comedy, a woman keeps dying over and over again after leaving a hip party in New York City. To stop the cycle, the woman has to figure out why this keeps happening to her.
Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler created the show. Lyonne stars along with Elizabeth Ashley, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee and Yul Vazquez.
The first season runs eight episodes of roughly 30 minutes each.
Sum-up: This show supercharged many storytelling ideas that had percolated throughout the decade. The sci-fi mystery is ridiculous, the cool New Yorkers are cooler than everyone else and the funny-but-self-destructive protagonist literally can’t stop dying.
While the show spends much effort to create a flashy world, “Russian Doll” also has much to say on the nature of that world. This is a show about a gentrifying and changing city in which darkness looms just outside party walls. The highs are someone else’s lows and serve as a cautionary tale that the lows will probably come for everyone.
This is a world to linger in and return to. Even the doorknob details are fascinating. That the protagonist literally has to return to the world to notice new details with each death and rebirth is particularly rich.
2. “Succession” ― HBO
Details: In this dramatic comedy, a family that runs a global media business fights over who will control the company. Much of the action takes place in New York City, but the members of the family travel all around the world in their individual quests for power.
Jesse Armstrong created the show. The ensemble cast includes Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Snook and Jeremy Strong. Holly Hunter has a recurring role this season.
The second season runs 10 episodes of roughly 65 minutes each.
Sum-up: The storytelling craft basically asks the question: “What if we take the script model of ‘Veep,’ but add Shakespearian narrative stakes?” While pretty much every line of dialogue is hilarious, the characters work through familial dramas in worlds of great stakes. Much like “Veep,” the copycat shows are almost certainly around the corner as this narrative formula works so well.
“Succession” was by far the most laugh-out-loud show of this year. While the first season was hilarious, the second season made sure each scene had something for viewers to laugh at, whether it be the biting insults coming out of characters’ mouths or the absurdity of the god-like wealthy settings. The characters are wealthy demons to somehow both laugh at and laugh with.
“Succession” would ultimately feel kind of empty if the show just focused on rich people making fun of each other as they vied for power. But “Succession” also crams in accurate satires of contemporary politics, economics and even journalism. The character journeys pass through realistic worlds, which means there’s high satire in watching these capitalist gods destroy humanity across the globe.
1. “Fleabag” ― Amazon Prime
Details: A woman living in London uses sex as a way to distract herself from personal guilt and trauma. In this second season, she falls in love with a priest who can’t have sex given his role, which forces the protagonist to confront the fact that she needs more from life than what she’s getting.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the show. Waller-Bridge stars along with Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman and Andrew Scott.
The second season runs six episodes of roughly 25 minutes each.
Sum-up: This is the year everyone who already didn’t know discovered that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is in a league of her own. Last year, I named Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” as the best show of 2018. Just watch the effusive praise Glover gave to Waller-Bridge at the recent BAFTA awards, where he admits he made his writing staff watch the show and was furious he didn’t create the show himself.
The show uses a hyper-short runtime (even shorter than Martin Scorsese’s recent movie “The Irishman”) which allows for a show that has no fluff whatsoever. Every scene is so outrageous, devastating, surprising and hilarious. It’s the kind of show that can leave a television critic a bit speechless.
The second season’s most affecting decision was to have the protagonist be a hollowed-out character on a quest to find some shred of fulfillment.
In the first season, that quest involved sex. The second season upgrades to an examination of religion ― a practice more and more contemporary people have eschewed. Although neither of these temporary salves provide what the protagonist is seeking, she is able to realize the hollowness and pinpoint this source of her constant malaise.
We live in a time in which it seems most people feel like something is missing from life. This show might not have the answer for what self-fulfillment means, but perhaps it will inspire more people to appreciate the value in questing for that feeling.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): “Better Things,” “The Crown,” “Lodge 49,” “Los Espookys,” “Mindhunter,” “The Other Two,” “Sex Education” and “Watchmen.”