And now, part two of my best TV shows of 2019 list. I covered my general thoughts and items 16-25 last time. So now we’re counting down from fifteen all the way to six. These are good TV shows!
15. Baskets (FX) – Another great show that ended its run this year, Baskets gave us four seasons of Zack Galifianakis as rodeo clown Chip Baskets. Baskets occupied a niche that I don’t think anybody else in TV is really even trying to fill – it was a heartfelt celebration of the people who are just barely holding on to middle class status. And while the characters here could be weird and sad and tacky, the show let them have their dignity. Whether they were MAGA guys living in a trailer part or Juggaloes working at Arby’s, they all got to be human, and that’s a sense of compassion that we don’t often get to see. This season, we got to see Chip grow up. Not all the way, of course. He did fall in with a lifestyle coach who was maybe more of a cult leader and still made some terrible decisions. But he also accepted responsibility in a way he hadn’t before and backed off the selfishness that hurt his loved ones time and time again. The end of the series left us wondering what he was going to do with his life but it also felt like at least it would be something. We got to see a touching portrayal of senior romance, a man who lost everything but wouldn’t admit it, and a running suplot about a high-speed rail that ended up changing everybody’s lives. This show is legitimately wonderful and brilliant and I hope, now that it’s wrapped up and will be all available in one place, that it ends up finding the audience it’s always deserved.
Best Episode: “Moving On”
14. Barry (HBO) – Barry had a tall order going in to the second season. The first season worked as a perfect miniseries. So how do you come back to that? How do you follow up on that Season One ending that felt like it was supposed to be the end of Barry’s story. Well, you come back and you force him to deal with the fallout in a way that changes every relationship in the series. The first season had Barry trying to close off all the loose ends so he could leave his past as a hitman behind. This season, he learned that there are consequences and it’s never going to be possible to put that life completely behind him. That’s not to say it wasn’t very funny – you had NoHo Hank and you had Barry accidentally getting cast in a Jay Roach movie and consistently saying the director’s name with a heavy emphasis on the first name like he’s never heard somebody say a name before. It’s a hilarious take on PTSD and toxic masculinity alongside a showbiz satire and it’s pretty much my ideal show.
Best Episode: “ronny/lily”
13. What We Do in the Shadows (FX) – A spinoff of sorts to the 2014 movie, this is a documentary-style comedy about vampires sharing a house. (Same premise as the movie, different vampires in a different country.) It’s genius. The deadpan presentation of a fantastic concept, inspired performances all around, energy vampire Colin Robinson – it’s all great. This is one of those examples of just how good TV is right now. If this show had been on when I was in college, this would have been my favorite thing in the world and I would have quoted it constantly (yeah, I used to be one of those quote guys) and I’d watch every episode a dozen times. But in this present time, it’s just on the edge of being taken for granted, which is wild. This is one of the shows that made me laugh most this year with jokes that ran from dumb to brilliant along with funny subversions of the whole premise and some really gratifying running gags that just kept getting better. You know, the vaginal topiaries or Nadja’s reincarnated lover and that Chekhov’s Pistol of decapitation. If you missed it, which statistically, you did, check out the first season and get your house in order.
Best Episode: “The Trial”
12. The Boys (Amazon) – The live action version of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s superhero satire is so much better than anybody could have expected. Because, and I usually like Garth Ennis a lot, the comic book is not very good. It’s mean-spirited and ugly to a degree that it loses any sense of fun and it’s endless iteration on Ennis thinking superheroes are dumb. But where AMC previously bobbled their take on a much better Ennis property (Preacher), Amazon soared by getting to what was good about The Boys and making the TV series about that. Put simply, this is the show about guys who want revenge on superheroes and the celebrity superheroes who are products of the military-industrial complex.
The Seven (this show’s knockoff Justice League) are so much more developed than the comic’s caricatures – just look at the weird and complicated arc for The Deep (Fake Aquaman) vs. the one joke character in the comic (he wore an old-timey diving suit). And the thing I especially liked is how thoroughly it was willing to diverge from the comic – whether it was the tweaks to the fate of Billy Butcher’s wife or that crazy ass finale that does not have any relation to anything that happened in the comic, I have no idea where this is going. They found the great idea at the heart of The Boys and cut the parts that weren’t funny or interesting and framed it as the Boys vs. The Seven. It makes Homelander a more compelling character than a one-note Superman parody and Starlight is so much more realized in eight episodes than in sixty episodes of the comic. The same goes for Karen Fukuhara’s mysterious addition to the team – it’s a shame the show dug into the “mute Asian woman” trope, to the extent that the actress has already played a mute Asian woman in another superhero thing, but the first season points to an interesting future for the character who, in the original, was known only as “The Female”. I can’t wait to see where this is going and I’m looking forward to new and creative uses of violence.
Best Episode: “You Found Me”
11. DuckTales (Disney XD) – I am surprised at how high this reboot placed, frankly, but it’s some of the most pure fun I have watching television. I’m a little too old for the original, which I just remember as being excessively bland. But this show took a fantastic supporting cast, gave some very old characters new personalities, leaned into some wonderfully off-model design, and made the comedy-adventure show that the memory of Uncle Scrooge creator Carl Barks deserves.
Let’s just talk about what happened in the Second Season – we met Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s mother, and saw her decade trapped on the moon, which set up a year long arc that culminated with an actual invasion from space that brought the entire cast together. We got a cool meta take on Darkwing Duck that I think established the original series as Launchpad’s fan fiction. A long-running bet between Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold finally reached fruition (after a hysterical episode with Flintheart putting together his own version of Scrooge’s family). Perpetual DuckTales bit player Donald Duck got a nice showcase and more character development than we’ve seen from him in, say, ever. Della Duck learned to be a mother, we saw somebody literally made of evil overcome their nature to be a friend, a parody of The Wonderful World of Color, incredible character work, high adventure, and the silliest joke of the year (Huey’s extra long legs in “A Nightmare on Killmotor Hill!” I laughed my ass off at that dumb joke and I’m laughing again just thinking about it.). A truly amazing cast of supporting characters, from Storkules to a headless horse fleshed out a bonkers show and we got a crazy reveal at the end of a consortium of Scrooge’s greatest enemies. (Including his accountants (voiced by Marc Evan Jackson), the 19th century robber baron John D. Rockerduck (voiced by John Hodgman), a couple of actual Darkwing Duck villains, and the freaking Phantom Blot, a character from the Mickey Mouse strip in the ’40s who, it turns out, has been on the show all along.) Anybody turning down their nose at this out of pure snobbery is missing the best adventure show on TV.
Best Episode: “Whatever Happened to Della Duck?!”
10. The Righteous Gemstones (HBO) – I’m a big fan of Danny McBride’s work so I was already presold on his third HBO series, a dark comedy about a family of televangelists. And whatever you thought this show was going to be, you probably weren’t expecting the protagonists of the show (seemingly) committing a double murder before the end of the first episode. It’s a truly bonkers show, from the just obscene wealth of the Gemstones to the running arc about the gang trying to blackmail Jesse (McBride), a group that includes his own estranged son. And then there’s Walton Goggins as Baby Billy Freeman, a young preacher who got old and his absolutely incredible song “Misbehavin'”. You have definitely heard this song by now and agree with me that it’s great. I haven’t gone a day without thinking about “Running through the house with a pickle in my mouth” since I first heard it.
Like most of McBride’s TV work, Gemstones has so much affection for its characters even when they don’t deserve it. There’s a dignity to Adam Devine’s Kelvin, a youth minister who’s just bone stupid. The relationship between Judy Gemstone (Edi Patterson) and BJ (Tim Baltz) plays as something with real emotional weight even though both people involved are absolutely ridiculous. Patterson especially is the heart of the show. Judy is an absolute nightmare but played so perfectly – her monologue about her boyfriend in the season finale starts out weird and takes so many wild turns before she reaches the end, and there is nothing funnier than Edi Patterson telling somebody why she’s mad at them. From the weird choices of wording to the emotional swings, every one of her scenes just become the best scene. And the fact that I’ve made it this far without even mentioning that freaking John Goodman plays the patriarch of the family and is as awesome as ever. I’m still not sure whether Eli is a scam artist or a genuine believer who doesn’t question the ethical implications of his massive wealth, and we may never know. Gemstones feels like something that could run for years, exploring this family and the world they inhabit. It’s a sprawling comedy that I can’t easily compare to anything and I’ll watch years of this show if they let me.
Best Episode: “But the Righteous Will See Their Fall”
9. The Tick (Amazon) – First, let me say how sad I am that this big-hearted superhero satire was cancelled this year. This was the big blue guy’s third run at a TV series after a beloved but rarely released comic series, and the fact is that the Tick has been around for more than thirty years. This isn’t the last time creator Ben Edlund is going to bring him to life, but it was the best so far.
Where the first season felt like the platonic ideal of the Tick story that Edlund’s been leading up to since the comic and never quite gotten around to, this season was all about figuring out what’s next. And for the first time, it really got to the idea of family – Arthur’s family took a key role, with sister Dot and stepfather Walter getting directly involved in the action. The Tick and Arthur joined superhero organization AEGIS, and almost accidentally rooted out the traitor while trying to help a lobster monster that turned out to be a desperate mother trying to care for her babies. And even though The Tick (played here by a gloriously dense Peter Serafinowicz) tends to take up all the space in the room, the show really had a lot of time to develop new creations like dark vigilante Overkill, villain turned fake hero turned almost real hero Ms. Lint, and ersatz Superman Superian. And even though their Superman took a totally different approach than The Boys‘ Homelander, he was just as scary in his own way. An infinitely powerful doofus who doesn’t feel appreciated enough is terrifying and the way Arthur (Griffin Newman) tried to talk him through mental health while navigating his own traumas was as compelling as it was funny. And if you’ve heard Brendan Hines’ Superian pronounce “hashtag”, you know how funny it was.
There was so much to love here. John Hodgman as a mad scientist. Ty Rathbone, the man with the black hole heart. Those croissants and their nanobutter. Stretchy lawyer Flexon. Valorie Curry’s increasingly badass turn as Dot. And then their was that episode where Dangerboat, a talking boat, dealt with grief and PTSD and the whole thing managed to be heartbreaking and beautiful and still absolutely ridiculous. He is, after all, a talking boat. At least it’s all on Amazon to watch whenever you want and then personally apologize to me for not supporting it when you had the chance.
Best Episode: “Blood and Cake”
8. Fleabag (Amazon) – There’s so little I can say about the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s incredible series that smarter people than I haven’t already said. I do think it’s unfortunate that Baby Yoda swooped in and took the Most Memed Character slot from Hot Priest, but what are you gonna do? I usually like to write longer entries as we get higher up in the list, but Fleabag has been analyzed in full by now, so I just want to mention the thing that I found incredibly moving: Hot Priest can see her takes to camera.
Throughout both seasons, PWB (her character, like most of the characters on the show, is unnamed) addresses the audience directly. Sometimes she’s just giving the camera a look a la Jim Halpert, and sometimes she’s talking to the audience like Malcolm in the Middle (the character’s proper name) or Zach Morris. And we know enough about how TV works to accept that device. But several episodes in, Hot Priest asks why she does that, and she’s flabbergasted. I could get all meta about how she thinks of her self as a fictional character and he pulls her into the real world, but really, it’s because he’s the only one paying enough attention to her to notice. And that’s beautiful, to have somebody in your life who gets you that way without judgment. But also, they can’t be together because, well, the priest part. It’s shattering and I felt that heartache so deeply and I think about it all the time. It’s a funny and filthy show that sometimes hits real beauty.
Best Episode: “Episode 2.6”
7. Doom Patrol (DC Universe) – The one bright spot on a struggling streaming service (but for real, the comics library available is worth the monthly subscription all by itself), Doom Patrol brought my favorite characters who aren’t Batman to weird, glorious life. For the uninitiated, the Doom Patrol were the other team of misfits with a wheelchair-bound leader debuting in spring of 1963. These poor chumps died to save a small village and at the end of the final issue, readers were told that the only way to save the Doom Patrol was by writing letters to DC Comics and the fans did not do that. They’ve returned from time to time, most notably in a career-making run from writer Grant Morrison, but they’ve never lasted long and I love them with all my heart.
In their TV incarnation (which ignored the backdoor pilot on the misbegotten Titans), the Patrol is a mix of the original Silver Age series and Morrison’s surrealist take with plenty of new twists to keep even a devotee like myself surprised. And it’s a weird approach – it takes the approach of a prestige series (check out those opening titles straight out of HBO) but there’s this level of jankiness that comes from a fledgling content provider maybe not having the budget the ideas warranted, and that’s kind of perfect for the fabulous freaks of the Doom Patrol.
Despite having recapped the season, there’s so much I want to say. The first thing that jumps out is the huge change the show made from established continuity in making Larry Trainor gay. And it makes perfect sense. It’s such a smart thing to do with that character, to the extent that reading a comic where he’s straight now feels off-kilter. It added an extra layer of tragedy to a man closed off from the world – which is not to say that being gay is a tragedy but being gay in the Fifties and also being in the military was not a great situation. Matt Bomer’s voice gives so much character to a guy who nobody’s ever quite nailed before.
Cliff Steele, the robot with a human brain, is one of my favorite DC characters and he’s so perfect here. He’s the heart of the show and Brendan Fraser’s vocal performance is, by turns, funny and crushing. There’s a moment in the pilot that convinced me I would love this show forever where Cliff decides to go and protect the small town where he’s not welcome. And nobody else is going to do it so he just starts walking toward a danger he can’t even understand. Just this poorly-assembled robot body controlled by a guy who kinda sucked while he was alive deciding to protect the people who hate him. It’s so great.
April Bowlby brings a character to Rita Farr that she’s never had before and her arc might be the most satisfying of the first season. Her power is that sometimes she loses control of her flesh and turns into a blob, which is terrifying and not inherently useful. And she goes from being a bitter shut-in to the one who figures out how to stop Mr. Nobody, and it’s amazing. Diane Guerrero is ridiculously good at all the personalities of Crazy Jane, and Joivan Wade represents the first version of Cyborg I’ve ever liked. (He’s not affiliated with the Patrol in the comics, so this was a big swing that paid off.) And Timothy Dalton as the Chief is. I mean, dude’s been James Bond, a Time Lord, and founded the Doom Patrol. Get a Simpsons cameo and that’s pop culture Yahtzee!
I loved every crazy twist. A bunch of Morrison characters and concepts made it into the show in really satisfying ways. Danny the Street (the genderqueer teleporting sentient, well, street), the Cult of the Unwritten Book, the Beardhunter (even weirder on TV), Dorothy Spinner, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery (I honestly teared up when I found out this Charles Atlas-inspired character was coming to TV), and the season’s major villain, the fourth wall shattering Mr. Nobody. Whether they were learning the dark history of the original Doom Patrol, taking on the Decreator, infiltrating the Bureau of Normalcy, or sitting down for group therapy, this show was some of the most fun I had all year and exactly what I wanted from my favorite superteam. You can get it on BluRay now and I urge you to check this out because I want everybody to love these dummies as much as I do.
Best Episode: “Penultimate Patrol”
6. I Think You Should Leave (Netflix) – This sketch show, six episodes no more than twenty minutes each, came seemingly out of nowhere. Tim Robinson, a short-lived SNL cast member (and slightly longer-lived SNL writer) and co-star of the tragically overlooked Detroiters, fronts this absolutely incredible sketch show.
I don’t even know what to say about the show. There isn’t a theme. The only thing the sketches have in common is that they’re great. Every single sketch just really lands in your brain and contributes to this network of jokes and references. Tuna can. “I don’t have any good car ideas”. Turbo Team. Hot Dog Car. The Garfield House. “I’m not popular at all!” Honk if you’re horny. The Colgate Comedy Hour. Bozo’s internal monologue. Baby Harley Jarvis. (I hate him so much!) Ebenezer Scrooge vs. skeletons from the future. That first sketch where Tim pushes the door instead of pulling it so he doesn’t look dumb. Gift receipts and slices of toilet paper. It’s so good and so rewatchable. If you watched this, you didn’t just watch it once. You cue up an episode you’ve seen ten times when you’ve had a bad day or you’ve just got eighteen minutes to kill. There’s such a unique and fully-formed comedic sensibility here.
It’s a perfect comedy. Give it another season or two to build up a body of work and we won’t have to argue about the best sketch comedy show ever again.
Best Episode: Just pick one.
Next time, the top five! Will three of the five be the same as last year? You know it!