A daily newsletter guide to what is happening on your screens - TV, streaming, movies, games, VR, AR
Dan Barrett is an industry commentator & TV critic. He does radio - 4BC & ABC GC and co-hosts the Screen Watching podcast. He's a former Mediaweek deputy editor and content creator for SBS.
The best TV of 2019
Top 10 lists are tired and pointless, says ABW's Dan Barrett
What is the value of publishing a top 10 TV shows list?
There isn’t one. Not in 2019.
In the pre-DVD days, Top 10 TV show lists were primarily an exercise in the writer and audience taking time to stroke their chins and revel in their shared good taste as they identified the shows that were ‘the best’. But then DVD shook that up - after all, viewers could now go back and track down the shows to watch. Suddenly the Top 10 list had a very clear purpose. Just as with a Top 10 movies/books/albums list, a Top 10 TV list became an elegant way to identify great shows that may have been missed throughout the year.
Now that we live in times of on-demand peak TV, I’m honestly not entirely sure what the value of these lists are. Yes, readers can fill cultural gaps and be clued in to what are pretty good shows they missed… but there’s now so much good-to-great TV on throughout the year that to properly identify these shows and give them an appropriate platform would mean creating a list that numbers in the Top 50 shows of 2019.
Isn’t that too long a list?
Is there really any more meaning to a show being the 43rd best show of 2019 than being the 65th?
A lot of what I do at ABW these days is highlight shows that are interesting and worth paying attention to. So much of it is good and worth your time, but it just means that there’s a lot of TV that speaks to our specific tastes and TV interests.
This year I’m not doing a Top 10 list. Instead, I’ve identified a number of TV shows that spoke to the experience I had in watching TV in 2019.
Blimey - that was a surprise!
Every week on HBO the new limited series Watchmen is pulling in about 7 million people. It’s a great number for HBO. But, unless you’re inside the circle of people watching it, the show just isn’t on your radar - which is a shame because week in, week out this show is so goddamn brave and audacious in its storytelling. It tells big stories about inter-generational racial trauma, an alternate inter-generational racial resentment, and the trauma of living through giant squid explosions.
I expected to like it, but I never expected that Watchmen would be as topical and interested in politics as the show is. I also never expected to deeply LOVE Watchmen as much as I have. I don’t know that I can call it the best show of 2019, but it is definitely a contender.
I didn’t know what to expect from Australian drama Lambs of God mostly because there was such limited buzz around it. A story about three weirdo Catholic nuns living in regional Tasmania whose world is upset by the church’s intention sell off the land they live on for redevelopment. The four-part miniseries is one of those wonderful gems that never broke out.
Produced by David Fincher, this series of animated shorts owes a considerable debt to his 1980s music video work. Love Death + Robots is a series of weird and wild animated shorts - each with a distinct tone and style. What I hadn’t expected when I sat down to watch the show was just how much of a throwback it would feel to the early 90s MTV collection of animated shorts Liquid Television (a series that was, itself, heavily inspired by the eclectic style of 80s music videos - many directed by David Fincher).
By no means a perfect series (some of the shorts were incredible, others were junk), the show was creatively adventurous and challenged viewers attitudes. I’d be surprised if any viewer of the series could honestly say they remained completely passive while watching this 18-episode experiment.
I’ve never seen that done before on TV
While both Watchmen and Love Death + Robots took some bold swings with their storytelling, there was never a moment where I felt I was watching an entirely new type of work. Years and Years, however, felt completely fresh in its approach.
Ostensibly a horror series, Years and Years captured almost every fear of mine about current societal structures collapsing and spread them across the screen over six episodes.
British creator Russell T Davies opens the series in the modern day - quite literally. The first episode includes a radio announcer reporting on the death of Doris Day which had happened just the day prior. From there he jumps the series ahead each episode with months to years taking place between them. During that time, a nuclear bomb is dropped internationally, British banks collapse, terrorist attacks increase, kids Snapchat filters project masks over their faces (which is really, really annoying… and inevitable), there’s a rise in transhumanism, a dramatic rise in illegal immigration (which in turn leads to the prominence of innercity camps), and right-leaning populist political parties take a foothold in Parliament.
With every episode I felt unease - everything depicted in the show felt just a whisper away from the modern reality we’re all experiencing right now.
Could TV capture the excitement of a Star Wars movie? While so much of Star Wars was based on the structure and ideas from movie/radio serials, there was the question about whether it could be reverse-engineered for a weekly TV show. And as it turns out, the first-ever Star Wars live action show has mostly been a success. Each week we’ve been treated to a small(er) screen adventure The Mandalorian has been an absolute blast to watch.
Have you heard the show has a baby Yoda in it…?
I have quite literally never seen a TV show that looks and feels like Undone.
Rosa Salazar stars as a 28 year-old woman who feels like she’s living a dead-end life. After a near-death accident in her car, she re-examines her relationship with her dead father and confronts her own schizophrenia. The show is both funny and incredibly moving.
An animated show, it has captured live-action performance and grafted an animation over the top. The end result allowed the series to go to some really interesting places as it merged together memory and dreamspaces alongside possible time travel distortions.
You have never experienced a TV show like this before.
Of Kings and Men
Anyone who has heard me talk about TV over the past few years will have heard me bang on about my love for The Good Wife and its spin-off series The Good Fight. What I enjoyed about both shows is how the show feels effortless in weaving together interesting, perceptive takes on the modern world through the framework of legal court cases - the show explores the intersection between politics, culture, and technology. Three things I am very interested in thinking about quite often.
Frankly, season three of The Good Fight was a mixed bag. There were some incredible moments of television (check out episode 5 “The One Where a Nazi Gets Punched” - it might be my favourite episode of a show this year), but there was quite a bit in the season overall that didn’t really land.
Series creators Robert and Michelle King also delivered a second series this year - Evil. The show initially sounds a bit like The X-Files with a psychologist hired by the church to work with a priest and a professional skeptic to determine the validity of religious-based phenomenon. Watching it, the show actually feels more like season 2 Millennium (an X-Files adjacent show from the late 90s). Both shows have wicked senses of humour while dealing with religious subject matter.
Evil is unquestionably the best show currently on broadcast TV. It surprises and provokes every episode - delivering an eerie feeling that is so rarely captured on ad-supported television (those breaks every 8 minutes or so usually destroy any and all tension). Evil is devilishly brilliant.
It’s a grow-er, not a show-er
In the opening moments of Apple TV+ show For All Mankind we see people from across the world gather in front of their TV sets. It is 1969 and man is about to step foot on the moon for the first time. Only there’s a catch - the Russians got there first.
It’s a small revision of history that has huge consequence. Russia beat the US to the moon by a couple of weeks, but they don’t want to be trumped again - which they are again when Russia puts its first woman on the moon. It sets off a space-focused cold war race between the two countries.
While the show is obviously very interested in NASA and space, the show is way more interested in exploring the way that American society shifts and evolves alongside space missions. These missions represent the hopes and dreams of humanity as we reach for the heavens and push into a bigger world - it inspires America. As the space missions evolve, so too does America. The missions become more gender inclusive, which in turn has societal flow-on effects related to gender and sexual equality.
We’re still at the start of a different America in the show, but I suspect that 2-3 seasons into For All Mankind, America will be a radically different country to the one we know today.
Don’t expect the show to immediately grab you, but by episode three you’ll get a firmer idea of what the show is up to and just how subversive it has the potential to be. This show soars.
We get it - you’re nonchalant
It is amazing how much confidence a show can come back with nowadays. Back in the day a successful show used to often get the yips for its second season, but that seems less and less common nowadays.
Most Top 10 lists are all talking about Succession. And fair enough - the show came back for its second year knowing what worked about the show in year one and applied it in full force. Even thinking about the cruel torture of ‘boar on the floor’ has me feeling a dirty sense of glee.
For its second season Mindhunter just continued on being its very good self. In a choice that reeks of confidence, the show jettisoned its interest in going deep into the mind of serial killers by instead spending its entire back half focused on the (then) current hunt to find the Atlanta child murderer.
The real stand-out moment of the season: FBI agent Holden Ford running through the streets of Atlanta hell-bent on providing the grieving community the symbol of a cross to put up that he manages to get the ire of that same community as the one white guy runs through the town waving a cross around looking like a supremacist. I’ve spent more time thinking about that sequence than any other on TV this year.
Similarly, Stranger Things returned for a very strong third season. That was definitely a show that had some minor yips in its second season, but has firmly regained its footing. The decision to split the characters off into seemingly unlikely pairings really benefited the series and gave a greater sense of unity to the cast as an ensemble. How much you enjoyed the season is probably reflected in how accepting you were of the Neverending Story moment at the conclusion of the season - I LOVED it.
The Crown came back for a third season. Its previous two seasons were classy, buttoned down affairs. And the third season should have offered the same - which it did. But, it’s also been savvy enough to know how to pivot within a very confined set of parameters. First, they completely recast the entire primary cast. This should have been a jarring transition, but I found the experience to be not at all awkward. A cute moment about a new-look stamp featuring the Queen made light of it from the get-go. By acknowledging it immediately, the show was able to just get on with business.
More than the cast change, however, was the new generational shift occurring in the show. As Elizabeth and Philip settle into middle-age, their children Charles and Anne are now reaching independence in their late teens/20s. It’s not quite an introduction of youth culture into the show, but it’s as close to that as The Crown could ever get. The vitality of that has made this great grey aunty soar with what I think was its best season yet.
Maybe the show with TV’s greatest BDE is Derry Girls. That was as true in its first season as it is the second. What I hadn’t really appreciated about the show until the seasons final episode was how emotionally invested I was in their lives. From the very first episode of the series, all of the characters were fully formed and operated at their full comic potential. With a very high joke count every episode, I was oblivious to how much character work was taking place between the lines.
And then Bill Clinton came to town. The second season finale saw token boy James leaving the group - happily returning back to England with his terrible, self-interested mother. Meanwhile his leaving barely registers any attention with focus on the (now) former US President visiting Derry following the IRA ceasefire.
The season ends as you’d expect, with James realising he was making a mistake and reuniting with the rest of the Derry Girls. As the moment unfolded, I was hit with actual emotion. How did that happen in Derry Girls of all shows?
The answer: Derry Girls is quietly one of TV’s best realised relationship-based comedies.
Fresh out of the womb
There were several series that absolutely smashed it out of the gate. Like most people, I was extremely fond of Russian Doll when it launched. It was a great showcase for Natasha Lyonne, who I adore on screen. The finale didn’t quite stick to landing, but the show was magnetic and at no point could I take my eyes of the screen. I don’t think I picked up my phone once while watching it… and in 2019, is there a greater compliment?
There were a few wonderful shows that flew way too far under the radar for my liking:
The Act was a great character study about Gypsy and Dee Dee Blanchard. Gypsy and her mother have received considerable financial assistance from the community as a result of Gypsy’s many medical ailments. But, are her ailments legitimate? And does Gypsy even know the truth herself? It’s a real life horror story that had me gripped (for the first half of the series at least).
Mrs Fletcher was another strong character study about a woman facing an ‘empty nest’ after her son goes off to college. Fletcher is left looking for meaning in her life - she doesn’t find it in her writing group, but she does find it with a growing interest in lesbian pornography. Meanwhile her misogynistic son is struggling at college in a new environment that won’t let him coast along with his good looks and supposed charm alone. It’s a great show about characters struggling to work out who they are once shaken from their comfort zone. I loved it deeply.
Feeling like a spiritual successor to shows like Louie and Master of None, Ramy stars comedian Ramy Youssef navigating life as a millennial muslim man who experiences conflict balancing his life as a young man with his faith. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and never afraid to go into some very dark areas of truth.
My Husband Won’t Fit is a really charming Japanese dramedy about a young girl who moves from a regional small town to a bigger city and meets a nice young guy who immediately takes up residence in his life. A relationship begins, but quickly as they move towards a physical intimacy, they realise that he’s, uh, too big for her. The show goes on to track the following years of their life as they struggle to build physical intimacy and start a family. It’s very funny, incredibly charming TV with a wild title that will put off a lot of viewers who’d otherwise fall for this shows very human charms.
All good things…
There were several finales this year that delivered. I was fine with the Game of Thrones finale. Sorry. It was far from the worst series finale to come from HBO this year (the honour there goes to Silicon Valley). A finale I loved was the conclusion to Veep. Time jumping into the future, we see Selina Meyer completely screw over her most loyal staffers before time jumping to her funeral. It was incredibly dark and true to the series we’d been watching. I don’t know that it really made a statement about the show we’d been watching, but it felt like the most natural way for that show to go out. And I needed a long shower straight afterwards.
My favourite finale of the year, and maybe of all-time, was the final episode of half-hour comedy Catastrophe. For four seasons the show wrestled with the idea of how tenuous the relationship between Rob and Sharon was. So much of it seemed predicated on maintaining a life of comfort and duty to raising their children - what would happen when the chips are laid down and an active choice had to be made? We finally got an answer. Audiences took it more literally than intended as we saw Rob swim out after Sharon at a beach to meet his likely demise. A perfect end to what was legitimately a perfectly executed series.
Finally, I’d love to rave about the final episode of Mr Robot, but it hasn’t aired yet. And this speaks to how great TV has been through 2019. Even right up to the final days of the year, there is TV that demands viewers attention.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.