From Delhi Crime to Watchmen, here are the top 10 TV shows of 2019
Looking back on this year through the prism of television, perhaps the greatest capsule of an era’s mood, certain facts become impossible to ignore. These aren’t superficial observations about the growing dominance of streaming, or the collapse of binge culture, but more worrying, and ultimately, more empowering.
Gender, with all its fascinating complications, was the key theme of some of the best shows of the year. I look at the list I’ve compiled, of television shows that connected with me over the last 12 months, and I can’t help but notice the one prevalent idea, among several, that ties them all together.
Everything from Unbelievable to Delhi Crime -- two shows that directly addressed the outcry over the #MeToo movement -- to Sex Education and Euphoria, are in some way grappling with this idea. It’s no surprise that Merriam Webster’s word of the year is ‘they’ -- a pronoun that captures the length and breadth of the human experience, but also highlights the distance between us, a distance that TV attempts to bridge.
For this list, I’ve restricted eligibility to shows that premiered this year, which disqualifies the second seasons of Fleabag, Sacred Games, Succession and Mindhunter. It also removes the final seasons of Veep, Silicon Valley, and Game of Thrones from contention, although only two of them really stood a chance. One exception has, however, been made in the case of The OA, a tremendous show whose second season was connected to its first in only the most abstract manner.
2019 was also vital for Indian streaming, an industry that has seemingly self-destructed, thanks to trash such as Bard of Blood, Drive and other such misguided productions, barely a year after its inauguration. There were, however, a couple of outliers in the form of Amazon’s Made in Heaven and The Family Man.
With that out of the way, here are the top 10 TV shows of 2019, from number 10 to number one:
Too Old to Die Young
Too Old To Die Young is especially nihilistic, even by creator Nicolas Winding Refn’s insane standards. It’s exhausting and excruciating in equal measure, but it is also an endlessly fascinating addition to a great filmmaker’s singular body of work. It’s not television, the director said at Cannes; neither is it a very long movie. “It’s streaming.”
It should also be noted, and appreciated, that Sex Education is largely put together by a female team - it has been created and predominantly written by women, and half of its eight episodes have been directed by a female filmmaker. Despite its distracting title, Sex Education is really a coming-of-age story, and what sets it apart from sleazier teen comedies is its delicate balance of outward American brazenness and very dry, very British humour.
When They See Us
When They See Us reaffirmed my faith that despite the endless stream of content that Netflix pushes out every week, and despite its plans of world domination, it’s also, occasionally, doing the Lord’s work. The series finale, at an hour and 28 minutes long, it’s not so much an episode of TV, but a film; one that can be enjoyed independently. It is perhaps director Ava DuVernay’s greatest artistic achievement.
Delhi Crime is gut-wrenching, stylishly directed, passionately performed, and most important, not at all exploitative. But those looking for an insight into the systemic problems of the Delhi Police are likely to be disappointed by the show’s unabashed defensiveness in its portrayal of the force. This is unfortunate, because it takes away from what is easily one of the best Indian shows Netflix has produced, and perhaps the most stunning true-crime drama of the year.
Everyone, Euphoria says emphatically, regardless of the mistakes they’ve made or the hearts they’ve broken or the backs they’ve stabbed, deserves a shot at love. Another generation, like every generation, has been wronged. By honouring one, Euphoria honours them all.
Delicately directed, empathetically performed, and moving with passion instead of rage, Unbelievable is perhaps the best television show of the post-MeToo era. The three central performances at its centre, by Toni Collette, Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever, make it an uncomfortable, but ultimately necessary experience.
Chernobyl is a stunning achievement, thrilling and horrifying in equal measure, created and written by Craig Mazin of all people. He has to his credit two (of the worst) Hangover movies, the forgotten sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, and perhaps Priyanka Chopra’s upcoming Cowboy Ninja Viking. For him to have written one of the best television shows of 2019, and certainly, one of the best of the last five years, is yet another example of how, given the opportunity and the freedom, nothing can beat a storyteller’s passion.
The OA - Part II
The OA is consistently challenging, refreshingly ambitious, and a bittersweet reminder of the Golden Age of Netflix. It is one of the biggest tragedies of the year that the show, one of the most staggeringly ambitious television achievements of all time, was cancelled after delivering the same number of seasons as Selection Day.
Watchmen reaffirms Damon Lindelof’s stature as one of the greatest creators to have ever worked in the medium of television — not streaming, mind you. The show, like The Leftovers and his breakout series, Lost, is appointment TV at its finest. Writers can spend their entire careers creating something that isn’t half as special as even one of these programmes; Lindelof has made three.
My Brilliant Friend
The best show of the year is perhaps the only one that isn’t on your radar, at least if you aren’t fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, about the lives of two girls, from childhood to adulthood and old age. Season one has the sweeping majesty of something like The Godfather, and the bildungsroman quality of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It is a tale about friendship, loss, jealously and betrayal -- themes as old as time itself -- and in a year dominated by genre storytelling and streaming, it’s a reminder of what the landscape used to be like a decade ago, during the Golden Age of Television.