Halfway through 2019, here are my top 10 shows. Obviously, these picks are subjective.
1. Fleabag (BBC 3/Amazon)
In the widely-panned Wyatt Earp, Kevin Coster explains the key to gunfighting as, “you need to take your time in a hurry.” Fleabag isn’t about gunfighting, but that’s exactly what the show does. Writer, creator, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge packs more into six half-hour episodes than most shows cover in multiple full-length seasons. One minute you’re laughing at a hilarious fourth-wall breaking comment, the next you’re being punched in the gut with real emotional heft. It covers a ton of ground, and without ever feeling rushed or forced. Every idea branches off in two directions, allowing you to appreciate it in the present and setting up a rich ground to be mined in the future, whether it’s for humor, drama, or most often, both. Lost in the shuffle of this critically acclaimed season is Waller-Bridge’s acting performance, without which I’m not sure the show’s unique tone would have succeeded nearly as well. She is our guide on this (surprisingly) spiritual journey into what it means to see and be seen, and it’s the rare story that ends on its absolute highest note possible. A lot more coming on this very soon.
2. Barry (HBO)
The highly anticipated second season of Barry, the dark-comedy from Bill Hader and Alec Berg about a depressed hitman turned amateur actor, is way, way better than the first. It doesn’t start off that way, but by midseason, we get a much clearer vision of what Barry can be (and what it fell short of achieving in its first season): an honest interrogation of what kind of man turns to a life of violence in the first place. So much of our discourse about stories like this is often focused on whether the characters we follow are “good,” a kind of self-flagellation for enabling the bad behavior that we so enjoy watching. But in this second season of Barry, the show makes no qualms about telling you that you are watching a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an idea that is juxtaposed beautifully against the amateur actors he surrounds himself with. Most notably, Sally — played by Sarah Goldberg with way more talent, depth, and nuance than the character needs to have — tries to put forth a story about how she stood up to her abusive ex-husband, masking the truth that she put up with his violence for years before running away in the middle of the night. Barry delusionally thinks he is a good person despite all the murder, while Sally can’t seem to allow herself to think that she did the right thing because it wasn’t heroic enough.
3. Big Little Lies (HBO)
It might feel a little early to put this show up this high, but if it had a full season on its resume it might be in the number 2 spot. This season feels much different than season 1, having decidedly switched gears from the focused, singular story of a limited series and now into a full-fledged television show. Season 1 was very much about the ripples of pain created by Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). But now in season 2, Big Little Lies is doing what TV does best: giving characters ample time to breathe and then tying together their stories at the end of an episode. We’re living with these characters as they live with themselves. While it hasn’t been able to quite capture the technical magic that made Big Little Lies so tangible in the first season — the color palette, quick memory/dream edits, handheld camerawork — it’s done well enough, and placed way more emphasis on letting the best cast on television (maybe ever?) do their thing. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and even the comparatively less experienced Shalene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz are all absolutely brilliant. Their characters feel real and full as they grapple with their complex emotions about having killed someone who probably deserved to die. And yet, as amazing as each actress is, they all struggle to keep time with Meryl Streep. Every time Streep shares the screen with any of these women, she operates at a totally different frequency, making such disarming acting decisions with such a disarming character.
4. Chernobyl (HBO)
Chernobyl got a lot of attention for being the highest rated show of all time on IMDB. I find that really surprising. It’s not that the show wasn’t amazing, but rather that so many people found it that engaging. The show is a slow meditation on coming to terms with the absolute worst case scenario, which frankly sounds a lot bleaker than the show turns out to be. While it is no picnic, the majority of the most horrific details are left to happen off-screen (with the exception of a couple particularly stomach churning radiation burn victims). Instead, it’s more of an education in nuclear physics and the terrible human cost that comes from taking anything but the absolute most care possible. It’s a lot of talking, and you’re likely to spend as much time Wikipedia-ing where the graphite is in an RMBK reactor, but the story is always grounded in the very real people who had to deal with this situation. That realism is the show’s greatest strength, and they seemingly get every detail correct, including mirroring the actual footage from the disaster.
5. Catastrophe (Channel 4/Amazon)
Catastrophe ended its fourth and final season this year, ending our time following the tumultuous marriage of Sharon and Rob (played by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney respectively) in one of the most pitch-perfect ways possible. Catastrophe, largely billed as a comedy was always able to live up to that part of the bargain while also delivering poignant moments it never got enough credit for. The chemistry of Sharon and Rob was always so perfect, capturing the comfort of a couple that kind of fell into marriage and family but was more than okay with it. The best scenes of the show watched them as they bickered and teased each other before bed, moments that always felt so natural that you forgot that they were on a screen and written with some of the best barbs in the business. Season 4 also found time to address the passing of Rob’s fictional mother, played by the late Carrie Fisher (who would often show up for an episode or two each season to hit a few home runs), throw some shade at the great and also weird state of Massachusetts, and put us in a place that felt okay to leave our favorite couple. Television is often difficult to end because it is built on a lived-in experience: a world that we are just sitting in on for a few years. There’s a natural difficulty to ending a story about a relationship this way, thus the reliance on will-they-won’t-they narratives and marriage as a milestone, but Catastrophe could not have done it better, leaving us in a place of ambiguous optimism that leaves room for life to actually happen.
6. Russian Doll (Netflix)
The first casualty of our shrinking cultural attention span in 2019, Russian Doll seemed to be there and gone in a week. As highlighted in my early season review, Russian Doll takes a timeless premise and makes it feel fresh through its unique tone, point of view, and a masterclass performance by Natasha Lyonne. While it feels especially relevant to the age of television we find ourselves in, it would never work without the heart that the show wears on its sleeve. As the show carried on, that heart revealed itself more and more, pushing the particulars of how high concept premise worked to the background and focusing on what it meant to its characters and the choices they needed to make to save themselves.
7. You’re the Worst (FXX)
Another multi-season journey with an unlikely couple that ended in 2019, You’re the Worst has consistently been one of my favorite shows during its run, a show that I’ve often praised for getting the feeling of their relationship realistically right, while still maintaining the totally crazy antics that make TV fun to watch. It always pushed back against the conventional portrayal of love in sitcoms, instead showing us two incredibly damaged people doing things their way. The final season had its fair share of storytelling curveballs to throw at us, including a number of flash-forwards that struck fear into the hearts of each and every fan of their relationship as they hurtled toward their near-sighted wedding. If you’ve seen the end, you can read how badly this show threw me here. But the ending isn’t the only thing that was excellent about this season of You’re The Worst, including how it grappled with demons that never are truly conquered when Gretchen tries to make a friend, or Edgar and Jimmy finding out what true friendship really is, even if it’s tough.
8. PEN15 (Hulu)
From its decision to place creators and actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (32-year-olds) as 13-year-olds alongside other middle-school aged actors to its incredible dedication to finding the correct early-2000s reference at every turn. PEN15 epitomizes everything about growing up and going through puberty in excruciatingly hard-to-watch detail, putting you right back in middle school in your own mind. Every extreme emotional swing is captured and evoked in you as you watch Maya discover masturbation or Anna dealing with her parents’ marital problems. While the show tends to focus on the female experience of puberty (and the life changes that accompany it), PEN15 isn’t just a series of jokes about periods and thongs, it gets to the feelings of belonging, acceptance, and sharing it all with your best friend in a way that is relatable to anyone.
9. Sex Education (Netflix)
Like many shows on this list, Sex Education is equal parts comedy and drama, but sprinkles in its own brand of education on top. The topic of “sex” is something that Americans are notoriously closed off about, so it makes sense that only a show that blends American and British teen drama tropes would be able to reach us: it’s just recognizable enough to learn something from and just far enough away to not make it uncomfortable. And learning about sex is important, not just to avoid disease and unwanted pregnancy, but more importantly, because sex at its core is about communication and understanding. While Sex Education spends a good chunk of time diving into issues like erectile dysfunction, abortion, and sexual orientation, it’s much more about that core idea of listening and learning about the people around you.
10. Single Parents (ABC)
With all of the shiny objects on streaming services and prestige cable networks, it can be easy to forget about meat and potatoes sitcoms. That definition undersells Single Parents, an ensemble comedy from JJ Philbin and New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether that follows (you guessed it) five single parents from very different backgrounds who band together to help each other raise their children. The premise of a television show is often about forcing people together who wouldn’t normally be friends, whether that’s through a workplace, a bar, or a family, and while Single Parents is no different, it isn’t afraid to stretch that as far as humanly possible. Every parent is single for a different reason, fills a different demographic, and while their children are all the same age, they couldn’t be more different. The result is a quick moving and witty comedy that juggles a huge cast without leaving anyone behind, and embracing the personalities of both its characters and actors.