I’m a movie guy, and I probably always will be. No more than a few years ago, the thought of making a Top 10 list for TV wouldn’t have even occurred to me. But it’s 2019 and the age of peak television has changed my tune.
And how could it not? The big-screen cinema experience has been all but overrun by one mammoth superhero franchise and the advent of streaming has turned television into an endless virtual hub of phenomenal shows — available anytime, anywhere. Great movies are still being made, but there’s no question that TV fucking rules. And if you care about what happens to storytelling in the age of digital media, you should be paying as much attention to it as possible.
It’s an enormous undertaking, given that there are so many great shows out there, it’s literally impossible to watch them all, let alone most or even half of them. And it’s slowly becoming harder and harder to define what TV shows even are. As David Bowie predicted in 1999, the Internet continues to break down our understanding of “mediums” and the role they play in delivering content. What is a Top-10 list for TV shows in an age where our very definition of the television medium is so nebulous?
I’m not going to try to answer that question today, but I am going to give you a ranking of the year’s 10 most exciting pieces of content we currently call TV shows, because lists are still fun and TV has arguably never been more central to our culture — however fragmented and digitized and perpetually in flux that culture may be.
GLOW has been a welcome staple of binge-worthy TV since its Netflix debut in 2017. The show’s third season, which moved the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling from a Los Angeles TV station to a live show in Las Vegas, is a vivid, heartfelt, and well-earned continuation of everything the show has done best from day one. Its ensemble cast is still on fire, and the attention to detail in its ‘80s-period piece trappings and ever-widening scope of authentic female stories makes GLOW Season Three an irresistible, meaningful hang.
I spent the first few episodes of Pen15 in a low state of shock that it was even working. But it didn’t take long to settle into the show’s high-concept premise — which casts show creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as fictional versions of their 13-year-old selves, navigating junior high in the early 2000s amidst a supporting cast of actual 13-year-olds — and submit to some of the bravest comedy writing in ages.
Undoubtedly the strongest debut season of a comedy this year, Pen15 is a triumphant answer to all-too-frequent claims that cancel culture is killing comedy. It’s hilarious, moving (often to the point of devastating) and perpetually inventive. How can comedy be dead when something this new and bold exists?
As big-tentpole franchises dominate the big screen, Hollywood’s greatest auteur’s are carving out new spaces for themselves in the streaming sphere (Noah Baumbach, David Fincher, Steven Soderberg, and Martin Scorsese have all found a home at Netflix). New auteur voices are also thriving on streaming platforms. Take Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose show Fleabag, based on her 2013 one-woman stage production, debuted on Amazon Prime in the US to much critical acclaim and a devoted early following. Fleabag’s second season, coming after Waller-Bridge’s enormously successful stint as showrunner on Killing Eve, is a thrilling proclamation of its creator’s talent and voice, both as a writer and formidable onscreen presence.
The show’s dark, brutal, and bitingly funny explorations of death, sexuality, and family toxicity are infused with a thrilling and exceptionally modern conversation about religion, as Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag falls in love with a “hot priest” played by Andrew Scott (Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock). Equal parts charming, ugly, and enlightening, Fleabag Season Two justifies its current status as the shows final run (for now). Every move Waller-Bridge makes is so good and so forward-thinking that it already feels complete.
7. The Boys
This year may go down as the year the superheroes broke. And if it does, Amazon’s The Boys will be remembered as ground zero.
A nasty, violent, relentless, and aptly satirical “supesploitation” story (based on a comic series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson), The Boys offers an enticing expose’ on the role of superheroes in our culture, particularly their potential to serve as propaganda for the American military-industrial complex. It’s trashy in all the right places without ever sacrificing the integrity of its most poignant satirical jabs, and it’s stellar cast — including Karl Urban as the anti-hero Billy Butcher, Antony Starr as Trumpian fascist Captain America stand-in Homelander, and Elizabeth Shue as an evil corporate superhero contractor — is a force to be reckoned with.
We’re finally far enough down the superhero movie rabbit hole that the genre’s late-period revisionist era is now playing out in full force on TV. And though other shows (one of which we’ll get to further down this list) are doing a fabulous job at picking up the baton, The Boys should be remembered as the inciting incident.
6. The Deuce
HBO’s The Deuce, which concluded with a third and final season this year, seems like a ghost of a bygone era, haunting the current TV landscape with the type of gritty real-world drama and blunt sociopolitical commentary we remember from shows like The Wire, Oz, and The Sopranos.
Created by The Wire alumni David Simon and George Pelecanos, The Deuce is “a portrait of the endless churn of American (or even global) economic history that happens to have Times Square as its focal point”as written by Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz. At the center of this New York drama is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen Merrell, whose journey from sex worker in 1971 to porn director in ‘77 to conflicted underground feminist auteur in ‘85 remains the glue that holds the breathtaking ensemble together. The Deuce may not have been the most en-vogue show of recent memory, but its tremendous final season solidifies it as one of the strongest, most prescient American stories of the decade.
There may be more quality content on TV than ever before, but a show as quietly idiosyncratic as Barry is still a rare gem. Bill Hader’s bleak, contemplative, and darkly hilarious dramedy about a hitman who catches the acting bug in LA while trying (and failing) to escape his violent life is an unexpected, yet timely showcase for the actor/writer/director’s talent and cinematic prowess (apparent in every frame he directs for the show, Hader is one of the great cinephiles of his generation). It’s also got a must-see-to-believe cast of supporting players, including Henry Winkler as Barry’s vapid, egotistical acting coach and mentor, Sarah Goldberg as struggling actress Sally, and Anthony Carrigan as fan-favorite NoHo Hank, Barry’s imminently upbeat Cechen mafia contact. Peak TV is no stranger to explorations of characters who do bad things and question whether they’re bad people. The genius of Barry is that it makes the small-screen anti-hero character study feel new and profound again.
It makes sense that a director as meticulous and devoted to endless takes as David Fincher has stepped away from movies to play around at Netflix. With the freedom of a longform streaming series at his disposal, Fincher and collaborators have created a show that feels equal parts timeless and topical. Mindhunter — which follows the development of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — is a tour de force of style, tone, performance, and esoteric historical drama.
Picking up right where Season One left off, Mindhunter’s second season continues the investigations of fictional FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they interview real-life serial killers including William Pierce Jr., the Son of Sam, and Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood) and participate in the Atlanta child murders investigation. The season also ushers in a particularly intriguing and heartbreaking arch for Special Agent Tench, whose adopted son starts showing behaviors that mirror the killers he’s investigating — spurring questions of cause and effect, nature and nurture, and the dangerous lines that inevitably blur when one’s professional life is spent in the darkest corners of humanity. Mindhunter is a brilliant and poignant reflection of the 2010’s true crime boom, beautifully executed by a team of masters.
If Amazon’s The Boys officially ushered in what The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey has called the late-stage “Sam Peckinpah” era of superheroes (referring to director Sam Peckinpah, whose 1969 film The Wild Bunch marked the end of the traditional Hollywood Western and pushed the genre into it’s revisionist era), HBO’s Watchmen turned it into a full-fledged TV movement — providing much-needed fuel to a fire that began with Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, and picked up in the 21st century (to varying degrees of success) with superhero films like Deadpool, Logan, and Joker. The degree to which this series has succeeded as both a worthy sequel to Alan Moore’s book and one of the most exciting, visually arresting, and utterly relevant masterworks of the decade is nothing short of miraculous, especially this late in the game.
Created by Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof, Watchmen serves as a sequel to Alan Moore’s book, set in an alternate Oklahoma in 2019 where an alt-right terrorist group wears Rorschach masks and detectives have been granted legal permission to hide their identities behind masked hero personas. As the show’s complex, history-toppling mystery slowly unfolds over nine equally distinct episodes, its thematic and commentative genius unfurls in a steady, spellbinding slow burn. What are the traumas that haunt generations of Americans, and why do we feel the need to replace that reality with imperial myth and propaganda? And what are the social mechanisms that force black people to hide their blackness so white America can ignore its own bleak history? These are the questions that Watchmen demands of its viewers, all while serving as a powerful, enormously entertaining continuation of a beloved IP. It’s an almost new form of pop culture adaptation, and it’s 21st Century TV magic.
2. Too Old to Die Young
I’ve watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s delightfully nasty, neon-soaked, Trump-era samurai/Western mythology miniseries twice now, and I still can’t believe it exists. I’ll admit, this is a highly subjective pick, as Refn’s movies (including the likes of Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon) are what you might vehemently call “my shit.” But this is also a call for well-deserved recognition, as Too Old to Die Young is the first show since 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return to take full creative advantage of the streaming era’s uniquely open canvas.
Imagine Refn’s nasty, ultraviolet, gorgeously shot, and infinitely absurd 2013 film Only God Forgives, only 10 hours long and set in a surreal, Wild West/horror version of Trump-era Los Angeles, and you may have an idea of what to expect from Too Old to Die Young. Not something everyone is going to want, especially given the show’s ferociously slow, meandering tempo. But for all who dare enter, Refn’s house of mythological neon-soaked horrors can be an incredibly rewarding and refreshingly singular experience.
Game of Thrones may be over, but a new HBO drama has arrived to fill the void of power battles, emotional terrorism, and fucked-up family dynamics left in its wake. And if you’re looking for the next Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc., look no further than Succession. I tend to avoid telling people they absolutely must watch any show these days, given the likelihood that I’m missing out on some equally good show they’re watching. But I’ve shamelessly taken every opportunity to evangelize Succession since its pilot aired last year.
Succession’s second season is a powerhouse continuation of the devastating and darkly hilarious Roy family saga, loosely based on the real-life American media empires of families like the Murdochs and the Redstones. Sporting the single most phenomenal television cast of 2019 (led by former Hannibal Lecter, Brian Cox as the devilish Roy family patriarch and Rupert Murdoch surrogate Logan), every emotional gut punch, laugh-out-loud moment, and profane Deadwood-esque soliloquy plays out like gangbusters, serving the show’s M.O. to entertain and repulse in equal measure.
There’s been a real hate-the-rich streak running through the pop culture landscape in the latter half of the decade (wonder what could’ve brought that on?). Over the course of its first two seasons, Succession has put tragic, Shakespearean, but no less human faces on the powerful ghouls responsible for America’s social and political meltdown. It’s not comforting (quite the opposite, in fact), but it is enlightening to see how the fucked-up kids of corporate media barons can do serious real-world damage as a result of their own childhood trauma. Game of Thrones may have been the last universally watched show, but if it’s still possible for there to be a single “best” show on TV, Succession is it.
Cover image courtesy of Vilonious