To be completely transparent, I think about this list as having tiers. Tier 1, which consists of slots 1 through 4, are all shows I believe to be excellent. Tier 2, which consists of slots 5 through 8, are good, but also add some variety, wackiness, screwball to the list, because a good one always needs some je ne sais quoi. Tier 3, which consists of slots 9 and 10, are—well, if it was up to me, I would have made this a Top 8 list.
I’m not saying I think Ramy (No. 9) and GLOW (No. 10) are bad! But I am saying: That’s where I get pretty dispassionate, where there are a bunch of shows I could have swapped in (Dickinson, On Becoming a God in Central Florida) and even more I think I could have swapped in, if only I had seen enough (Vida, Los Espookys) or, you know, any (David Makes Man, Chernobyl, Shtisel) of them. To be clear, I haven’t seen all of Ramy or GLOW either—and when it comes to GLOW, that’s really a crime, since I loved the second season with all my might)—but I’ve seen enough to feel sure about recommending them to you.
All of this hemming and hawing is a way of getting around to this: Despite the infamously vast quantities of TV available, I found it harder than ever to make a Top 10 list. Some of the difficulty is that, in lists such as these, I have a bias toward pleasure: I don’t think TV has to be enjoyable, but, what can I say, I prefer it when it is. Yet, this is also not simply a list of shows I enjoyed most. Then I would have included The Morning Show, but I just made a whole big stink about it not being very good, though I love it so. Despite there being an embarrassment of television, the amount of great stuff seems, to me, to be staying the same. The pie gets bigger, but the best slice doesn’t. Still, even regular pie is pretty good, so eat up, I guess: There’s a lot of it.
Top 10 lists are a performance of a sort, and picking Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag as the best show of 2019 is not a particularly arresting opening number. Oh well! We are all powerless before Fleabag, her hot priest, her viral jumpsuit. The second and final season of the series was a zingy rom-com, a fraught family drama, a meaty sibling study, an irreverent meditation on faith, and a showcase for Waller-Bridge’s indelible character and her detailed writing, in which even the smallest supporting character gets something interesting to do. Deep and joyful, painful and hilarious, Fleabag is the rare incredibly good thing that is also incredibly fun to watch, and the only show in existence whose end I lament as premature.
This scathing ensemble drama/comedy about the disgusting, predatory, broken, dysfunctional, superrich Roy family is so good I get weirded out thinking that it’s just a group of people who make it. How do they do so many things so well? Succession is so good on character, on plot, at dialogue, on motivations, in performances, in swanky-ass yachts. It’s funny and tragic! It’s barf-inducingly current and yet escapist! It knows its characters are pigs but makes you feel slightly bad for the pigs anyway, but not so bad you have to feel bad about yourself! It’s a vivisection of the rich, while they’re still alive, cursing, flailing, flashing their traumas and daddy issues and bad behavior. Protected from the Roys—but not their real-life counterparts—by the safety of our screens, we’re free to press our faces to the glass.
Over the Marvel years, my meh about superheroes has hardened into a contrarian distaste, but I was interested in Watchmen, the follow-up to Alan Moore’s famous comic, because of creator Damon Lindelof, who swings more freely than anyone else making television—while I also wished he hadn’t, like everyone else, succumbed to superheroitis. But oh boy, did he not succumb. Watchmen takes the classic superhero story and completely reframes it, revealing not only the secret racial history at the heart of Watchmen, but by extension, all superhero tales. Who in America, after all, really needs to put on a mask to ensure they get justice? The show is wrenching, moving, clever, sly, funny, and as weird as a storm of squid. It encompasses the Tulsa massacre and a moon of Jupiter, an all-blue superbeing, and, in Regina King, the most compelling masked hero yet. (Jean Smart, as an FBI agent, is no slouch either.) As the season careens toward its end—which I haven’t seen—Lindelof seems to have finally found the perfect balance between mystery and payoff: The penultimate episode ka-chings like a slot machine, while still leaving more than enough to the imagination.
4. Russian Doll
When there’s so much TV, it’s a double-edged sword for shows to “get better after Episode X.” It’d be much more efficient if I could just write them off after one! Yet if I’d done that, I’d have written off Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland’s melancholic yet hopeful Russian Doll. It got good for me around Episode 2.5, after the show expanded on its Groundhog Day–ish premise—Lyonne’s Nadia keeps dying, only to reanimate in the same place, like a video game character—adding complications, pathos, a co-lead, and a lo-fi touch of sci-fi flair. Like Fleabag, Russian Doll is a collaboration built around a singular woman, the acerbic, jaded, smokestack-voiced mop top Lyonne, who sardonically stomps around her beloved East Village, dying her way through—and toward—life, bringing just enough smartass skepticism and anti-sentimentality to a TV show with a big, goopy heart.
5. Blown Away
Blown Away is a Netflix reality competition show about glass blowing in the Project Runway vein: talented craftsmen intensely doing their best in order to get a leg up in the not exactly lucrative world of artisanal glassware. I started watching almost as a joke—I mean, come on with that title—but found myself transported by a group of artists of various temperaments and imaginations nobly and, sure, sometimes zanily, doing their best. Glass blowing is hot, painstaking work, and I was genuinely impressed, even moved, by some of what emerged under these artificially tight deadlines. Also, one of the competitions resulted in these gorgeous, strange, sprouting glass potatoes. If you read this, Deborah Czeresko, the fiery iconoclast of the bunch, please make them available on your website.
The documentary about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who were sexually abused as children by Michael Jackson, came out in January and kicked off a hesitant conversation about whether Jackson would be “canceled” as a result. Judging from the amount of MJ I still hear all over the place, the answer is definitively no, but the documentary is just as powerful removed from questions of its immediate impact on Jackson’s legacy. In laying out the excruciating long-tail effect of sexual abuse, the intoxicating fumes of fame, the complicity of parents and the public, it presents a damning brief on our collective will to see only what we want.
7. Couples Therapy
This is not solely an entry about Showtime’s chic reality show, in which four couples visit psychologist Orna Guralnik over a period of months: It’s about watching Couples Therapy in conjunction with the great couples therapy podcast Where Should We Begin With Esther Perel. (Toss in Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone if you’re looking to hit the elevated pop therapy trifecta.) Both shows immerse you in a couple’s dirty laundry. Where Should We Begin contains more overstepping and more breakthroughs, while keeping its subjects genuinely anonymous. Couples Therapy is more careful and plodding, yet, despite being about as classy as a reality show can be, it seems more invasive: Why would anyone agree to do this on television? Both are voyeuristic yet edifying (though I prefer Where Should We Begin), offering up self-help by triangulation. No one included is exactly like you, your partner, your family, or your friends, but the couples are constantly bumping into, abutting, and overlapping with all of these people. It’s not your dirty laundry, but somehow your socks snuck in the wash anyway.
I’ve had this show in my Top 10 list for the first three years of its existence, and its fourth and final season did not disappoint. Sharon and Rob, who met cute, got accidentally pregnant, and then figured out how to live together, were still the realest, funniest, crankiest married couple on TV and I was sad to send them off into shark-infested waters.
Ramy, created by and starring Ramy Youssef, is another—very charming—show about the life of a young, middle-class American trying to figure out how to grow up. But Ramy is also a first-generation Muslim; trying to figure out how to grow up, for him, involves navigating both his faith and other people’s perceptions of it. One episode is a flashback to elementary school on 9/11, when everything about how Ramy was treated changed. There’s an episode about Ramy’s own rigid expectations about how Muslim women should behave and one about his sister’s struggle with those same expectations. Others still involve Ramy goofing off with friends, wandering around New Jersey, obscuring that he doesn’t drink, and encountering lots and lots of women. Throughout, Ramy isn’t trying to throw off his religion, even as he is struggling to live up to it, to fit his life into it. This makes Ramy something almost unheard of: a hip comedy that’s admiring and respectful of faith.
In the third season, the Glorious Ladies of Wrestling take their show to Las Vegas, where they have to adjust to the grind of life on the road. This show about making a show has always been a little meta, and the Vegas residency echoes the third season blues: How do you keep things fresh? For GLOW, the answer, less purely delightful than in Season 2, involves exploring the genuine incompatibilities of various kinds of partnerships: professional, romantic, platonic. As ever, the icy friendship between Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin, all hail) is the season’s real throughline—the two coming together only to realize once again just how different they are.
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