After some delays, I’m finally ready to call the top five TV shows of 2019. It’s not like I was waiting on new information, it just took a long time to write about them. I think I misrepresented myself. But the point is, let’s wrap this up with my top TV!
5. GLOW (Netflix) – Dang guys, I love this show. This is one of two shows that I actually binge. And when I say “binge”, I mean I’m watching the season in one sitting. Which I know is super healthy but I am what I am. That said, this was a weird season. We hardly saw any wrestling, which is not a criticism. It’s always been done really well and the matches we did see this year were absolute highlights but part of the setup this year is that they’re doing the same show every week for their Vegas residency. We saw that show last season – we don’t need to keep seeing it. Instead, we only saw the variations like the mix-’em-up and the Christmas show. And holy smokes, you might know how much I love Christmas episodes, so I was over the moon about that.
Of course, without significant screen time devoted to wrestling, it left room for the sprawling cast and some of the second- and third-tier characters got some much needed development. (At this point, it feels like only Helga the Viking and the Beatdown Biddies / Toxic Twins need a showcase.) It’s still a show about Ruth, Sam, and Debbie, but this year really built up some underused characters like Melanie, Rhonda, and Sheila. About that last one – Sheila the She-Wolf has always been a weird element on this show. The character suffers from species dysmorphia, and only avoids being a one-joke character because Gayle Rankin’s performance is so good. Well, this year, Sheila decided she wanted more out of life and decided to join the human race in an arc that could have been a disaster but Rankin is so heartbreaking. She brings so much pain and depth to the role and watching Sheila get her moments of triumph this year were just beautiful.
Obviously Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron were great. I’m usually not a fan of Marc Maron, actor. But he basically is Sam Sylvia and he makes such smart character choices that it feels like his life has been prep work for this role. The Ruth/Debbie axis doesn’t dominate the proceedings as it once did, but Brie and Gilpin have incredible chemistry and when they get a chance to acknowledge their history and how it affects them in the present, it’s always so rewarding. Check out that finale in the airport – you’re probably going to tear up just thinking about it. And then of course there’s Bash’s arc this season – Chris Lowell has always been this show’s secret weapon, and Bash acknowledging his sexuality was moving and frustrating.
And let’s not forget that cold open in the season premiere where Ruth insults America while the Challenger explodes. That tells you everything you need to know right there. There were so many smart character bits – I mean, I’m getting to the end and I haven’t even talked about national treasure Toby Huss turning up. I love everything about this show and I know it can’t end well in this coming final season (It’s not like the actual G.L.O.W. is still around for you to watch today), I’m rooting for all of these weirdos.
Best Episode: “A Very GLOW Christmas”
4. Succession (HBO) – I was late to the game on this drama about the machinations of a wealthy media family and binged both seasons this year. That means it’s going to be hard for me to fully separate this year’s episodes from last year, but I’ll do my best. Actually, watching the whole thing rapid-fire was a fun way to see what they seeded into early episodes and then just bailed on. Like Lawrence, for example. The first few episodes (and his opening credits position) would have you think he was going to be really crucial and he made all of two appearances this season. Or everything about Marcia’s potential position in the company – that all went away really quickly. But that’s 2018, and we’re here to talk 2019.
A Twitter friend of mine won me over to this show by describing it as “the drama version of Arrested Development“, which is pretty accurate except for how it’s also really funny. I mean, funny in the horrifying way where the Roy family feels entirely too plausible as monsters who exist in the world. But for that matter, Succession does a phenomenal job of making boring corporate maneuvers both gripping and clear. There is nothing inherently interesting about a vote of no confidence (which happened in 2018, I know) but Succession made it an event with clear stakes for both sides. You know how in The Big Short, Adam McKay pauses to have famous people explain tricky concepts so you can follow the plot? And I like that gimmick just fine, but Succession does it without the gimmick and that’s impressive in and of itself.
It’s weird how Succession has embedded itself in culture while seeming like a niche show. There’s a world in which this is a moderate success on AMC, and not an HBO event. But we live in the world where “Cousin Greg” is a reference that people get and that’s pretty rad. I don’t know, man. I love this show and it’s baffling to me that it’s a hit. I have this theory about prestige cable where if you want a success, the first scene needs to be well-lit. If you see a show where the first scene is set in the dark and it’s hard to make out what’s happening, brother, you’ve got Low Winter Sun on your hands. But this show opened with an old man peeing on the floor in a poorly-lit room, so what do I know.
Best Episode: “Hunting”
3. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) – I’m going to be destroyed when this show ends in a couple of weeks. But for now, we’re talking about the first half of the final season which kicks off with BoJack in rehab and ends with him finally at peace, unaware that the life he’s building is ready to fall apart.
One thing about BoJack is that it’s the other show I fully binge, watching the whole season (or half season this year) in one sitting and then when I go back to it, I’m always amazed at how much stuff was in there. Emotionally rich and occasionally just flat out dumb, it’s a lot of TV show. I mean, look at “Surprise!”, where Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles end their relationship in a way that really hurts and meanwhile, the guest of an ill-fated surprise party are hiding in the most cartoonish series of visual gags. Mr. Peanutbutter is dealing with how he’s hurt people and somebody is trying to replicate the shape of a house plant with their body. I love this juxtaposition so much.
Rehab storylines on TV can be pretty dicey, but I think BoJack took a smart (and maybe accurate?) approach by showing it as kind of a repetitive experience where people tell you what you already know, but you have to learn how to do something with that knowledge. And it was gratifying to see BoJack learn and mostly kick his addictions, partly by accepting who he is. That penultimate episode where he lets himself go gray (with the help of a woman whose career he casually ruined) and sits down to watch a performative church service (not through any sense of religion but more of a need for ritual) could have been a great final episode. But then there’s the season finale where Paget Brewster’s pig reporter starts an investigation into Sarah Lynn’s death and we see the consequences of BoJack’s behavior.
About that – last season I really couldn’t decide if the way the show handled BoJack attacking Gina was OK or not. She helped cover it up because she didn’t want that to be her story, which seemed like the right decision for the character but it also seemed irresponsible on the show’s part to let BoJack off that way. And this season we saw that it wasn’t the right choice and Gina can’t really deal with what happened. The show tends to leave BoJack’s misdeeds as things that weigh on him without addressing the collateral damage once that season is over, but in “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, we saw the people still suffering and it was clear that BoJack accepting himself and getting better doesn’t help anybody else. He’s going to pay for his sins in one way or another, and it’s going to be devastating.
Best Episode: ”The Face of Depression”
2. The Good Place (NBC) – I just realized this is Good Place‘s last year of eligibility, since they won’t hit the six-episode limit in 2020. Also, three of my top five shows end this year and maybe that means I’m supposed to get out of the TV watching game. But we’ll worry about that later. For now, let’s celebrate The Good Place as proof that network TV still has a trick or two up its sleeve.
This is a show that blew up its premise in the first season finale and ever since then it’s been in a constant state of flux, changing what the series is about several times a year. This year, we wrapped up the arc that put Team Cockroach on Earth to try and save individual souls and then had them running a new faux Good Place to try and prove that humanity is worth saving and then at the end of the year we got to a celestial courtroom where Michael, Eleanor, and the rest make the case against rebooting reality.
For a network show that regularly tackle big philosophical concepts, it’s surprisingly funny. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s the most funny. The episode where Brent writes a self-published novel that’s part murder mystery and part golf story is hysterical. Every detail of this book of his is funnier than the last and it’s all just gloriously stupid. The seemingly endless well of trashbag details about Eleanor and Jason’s past lives, everything about every Janet, a hysterical recurring role for Jason Mantzoukas, Marc Evan Jackson’s incredible turn as demon Shawn… this is a show with some of the best pure jokes on TV. Put aside the character work, these are just sweet-ass jokes. I mean, look at the pun names of every restaurant you ever see on the show. It’s a hilarious delight and makes me laugh like nothing else.
But beyond that, the creativity involved in telling this story and constantly moving forward and these beautifully realized characters makes this something so special. Few things have moved me as much this year as Chidi’s decision to have his memory wiped and his last night with Eleanor. I cried and I’m not ashamed. And I’m going to cry again before the series is over. This show is so cool and smart and funny and it’s amazing that it somehow exists.
Best Episode: “Pandemonium”
1. Watchmen (HBO) – When I started this list, I didn’t think it was going to be number one. But it just kept moving higher and higher and it’s time to just lean into what I am. And let’s put aside the ethical issues of the very existence of this show being yet another slight to Alan Moore, because that’s a talk for another time. And also Alan Moore pitched the original as a story about pre-existing characters he didn’t own and if this had been about Captain Atom and Peter Cannon, this conversation wouldn’t even exist.
I’m a sucker for both Damon Lindelof and Watchmen. LOST occupies a special place in my heart and always will, and The Leftovers is maybe my favorite TV show of all time. Definitely in the top three. And I love the original Watchmen comic. (I don’t like calling it a graphic novel because it was released as a monthly comic book series and it was collected when complete. A graphic novel traditionally refers to a squarebound book of original material, not a reprint collection.) DC has, for years now, tried to build off of the comic and it’s largely been terrible. Superman fought Dr. Manhattan, and it’s the worst. But what Lindelof and company did is create a follow-up that’s thoroughly indebted to the original but also does something new.
Race isn’t a point of discussion in the Watchmen comic, and it’s the theme of the TV show. Some of the key motifs of the show never appear in the comic. Eggs? Not at all a thing in the original. In a way, it does what everybody trying to do a good job in corporate superhero comics does – take this old property and make it mean something new in the present. If that means changing the central metaphors or updating the themes then you go for that and that’s how Batman and Superman have existed for eighty years. And this represents a smart, vital iteration on the original. Where the comic had global concerns (it’s explicitly about impending nuclear war), HBO Watchmen is an American story rooted in a 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The show did something fascinating and exciting with Hooded Justice, a character who had one scene in the comic. And it gave us updated versions of Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan that made them feel fresh again. Jeremy Irons’ Ozymandias especially was one of the weirder mysteries of the year. They didn’t even confirm he was definitely Adrian Veidt until four episodes in even though we all kind of knew. But it took longer than that to figure out what the hell he was doing without even tipping us off that we should be asking what and when he was doing it. Jean Smart, who remains great in everything, totally makes sense as a thirty years later version of Laurie Blake. And I almost don’t want to spoil who plays Dr. Manhattan, but the reveal is excellent.
Beyond the new versions of characters we know, it was a kick to meet Angela Abar and Looking Glass. Regina King and Tim Blake Nelson are two of the best in the acting game and they made their new characters feel like they belonged in a story with the others. It was clever and beautiful and sometimes flat out nuts. I mean, we had an HBO event series that climaxed with a captive Dr. Manhattan, frozen squid, and a trillionaire attempting to become a god. It’s that mix of smart and pulpy that Alan Moore gave us in the original.
And you know what? I loved that this was so popular. It’s fun to talk about Watchmen with people who don’t read comics and see their reaction to how Dr. Manhattan perceives time. There are viewers who got a huge surprise in Episode Five when they learned how Adrian Veidt saved the world, a reveal that we’ve known for decades. As a guy who reads Watchmen maybe once every year or two, I love that this is a thing that people know. And maybe they go back and read the original or maybe they just know the TV series and either way we get to enjoy a vigilante pulling up his mask to eat beans out of a can.
Best Episode: “A God Walks Into Abar”
There’s the list! Sorry it was late, but also, you knew what the top five were going to be.