Nick’s Top Ten TV Shows of 2019

30th December 2019

Cards on the table, folks  – the podcast schedule is finally hitting an iceberg in the coming weeks thanks to my house move. I thought the problems would happen in December, but no, mostly January. My audio-editing computer is in boxes and may not return for a while.

So the least I can do, even if our ‘review of  2019’ podcast ends up coming out far too late into 2020, is hammer out this Top Ten on my laptop. Apologies if it lacks some of the fancy pictures/formatting of previous years.

But you can enjoy that level of dreamy luxury in the links below:

And thus we move on to 2019. A period which, as Alastair will shortly tell you in his year-in-review article, was kinda mediocre for movies (much as I liked the big Avengers film), but good for TV. Even if it also marked the proper beginning of the Streaming Pissing Match which I fully expect to be a tedious, inconvenient era of bloated, fragmented expense.

But I’ll leave the broad analysis for the actual podcast, let’s get into that sweet scannable list content.

(As ever, yes, this may slightly ‘spoil’ my favourite TV countdown in the 2019 review podcast. In the event that anyone in the universe cares. And as ever, it’s my opinion, not a factual analysis based on science. Because that science does not exist.)

#10 – Years & Years

Russell T. Davies returns to BBC drama with Years & Years, a dystopian drama for people who are sick of dystopian dramas. The twist: instead of a blasted wasteland where we live in a made-up caste system and wear black jumpsuits, it’s just… us. A regular British family, falling down the rabbithole into fascism and tech oversight.

Crucially, we also get all the warm, relatable character development of Davies’s other work, making us all the more depressed when he starts wrenching people’s legs off like a kid playing with spiders. Plus it’s got Russell Tovey as a main character, so gets extra points just for his presence.

Not sure Years & Years quite manages a fitting, non-cheating ending (a fault it shares with a few of Davies’s big Doctor Who arcs), but the bulk of it is so good that it wins a spot anyway. Brutal, timely stuff.

Stats corner: First appearance for a non-Doctor Who British show in this list since The Fall and Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle in 2014. And no, Killing Eve doesn’t count (nor has it charted this year, readers, because that second season was deeply boring).

#9 – The Boys

Didn’t take long, but yes, time to get into the superhero shows.

The Boys is an interesting one, though, as it adapts a comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson which is widely seen as a good work, but also a polemic by the authors, railing against how sick they are of superheroes dominating American comics. So, obviously, time to make a comic about ex-military hard-men killing them.

And, as I said when we did it on the podcast, that annoyance with the caped classes comes through on the page. Almost every superhero is a thin caricature who exists only to get righteously murdered. Yes, there’s moral questioning about said murder, because Ennis is a good writer, but still, it’s tangible how much he hates them.

The TV show of The Boys has run the whole thing through a both-sides-now moral ambiguity generator and created something that is… probably a more balanced story, with the heroes allowed more tangible arcs and personalities. And crucially, the cathartic slaughter is still there to enjoy, along with surprisingly faithful versions of much of the main characters and dense worldbuilding of the comic. Hugely entertaining.

Stats corner: The previous Garth Ennis adaptation from the same producers was Preacher, which made #6 in 2016.

#8 – Fleabag

Of course we had to talk about Fleabag, the show which reminded us that priests can be hot – it’s been a long time since Ballykissangel, after all – and tormented us with more doomed angst, family drama and deep internal sadness.

Personally, I liked the first run slightly more – felt more raw, maybe – but this still feels like a very personal, artful piece of writing from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, anchored in great performances from her and the rest of the cast.

Honestly, it’s one of these shows which has been so aggressively discussed, I’m not sure what I can add, but yes, I liked Fleabag, it was one of the best shows of the year, here it is on such a list.

Stats corner: Another British show? Clearly having a national identity crisis. I think I watched the first series the year after it aired, meaning it was ineligible for the list according to my own arbitrary rules.

#7 – The OA

One last hurrah for The OA, the batshit Netflix drama created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. The second season was released this year in a hail of literally no publicity, almost no-one watched it and then it got cancelled.

Which is a shame, as The OA is a very interesting, one of a kind show, almost impossible to describe without sounding silly. And yet, crucially, in this age of sneering post-modern irony, it tells its weird story about dimensional travel via yoga (yup) with a dead straight face, real emotional heft and great performances from Marling and Jason Isaacs. Also a shout to Kingsley Ben-Adir, introduced in the second season as a major character, who is fantastic. Hope to see him in more things.

But not the next run of The OA, as it’s dead now. Even though it ended on a great cliffhanger. Dammit.

Stats corner: No previous appearances. Someone commission a third season so I can fill this in.

#6 – Legion

Remember when I said it was a very good year for TV?

Well, the appearance of Legion at #6 is a major symptom of that – it’s previously been much higher (see stats corner below) and honestly I don’t think this third and final season represents a huge drop in quality. If anything, it’s a shade better and more focused than the previous one.

But there’s been so much good stuff I couldn’t make myself put it above, so here we are. But still, this final season features a strong resolution to David Haller’s moral descent, some excellent surreal time travel material work and a rap battle between Jason Mantzoukas and Jemaine Clement.

A great ending to one of the best TV comic adaptations of recent years, a stylish and clever drama with something to say and a lot of fun ways to show it. I sense they might’ve been cancelled early and rushed to end, and I’d have loved to see them get a fourth season to fully expand on it, but yeah, if you haven’t seen this, it’s all there now. Go find it.

Stats corner: Over the last three years, we see a beautifully even descent of 2/4/6.

#5 – Chernobyl

Remember yet again when I said it’d been a good year for TV?

Well, what I meant was that it’s been a good year for depressing TV, and here’s one of the big art pieces of that trend. Along with key items like Years & Years and… at least one more coming later, we’ve seen some good shows, and they’ve almost all tapped into a zeitgeist of struggling against this feeling of looming doom.

And one of the big watercooler broadcasts was Chernobyl, a docu-drama about the famous nuclear accident. Pulling no punches in its realistic and harrowing depiction of the events, this was one of the most car-crash-intense can’t take my eyes off this shit TV moments of the year, especially the first couple of episodes.

I’d describe it as ‘edutainment’, except I’m not sure ‘entertaining’ is the word. But still, yes, definitely one of the big TV experiences of the year, a rollercoaster of crying and radiation sickness.

Stats corner: Not sure what to compare this to, really.

#4 – Russian Doll

Another Netflix favourite was Russian Doll, a slick eight episode re-enactment of Groundhog Day, except with a modern day setting and a sad late-millennial protagonist played beautifully by Natasha Lyonne.

And yes, the lessons she has to learn to escape her time loop are… perhaps grounded a little more in real life sadness and ennui, a sense of lingering trauma and emptiness. Yes, it’s a sad-yet-uplifting dark comedy-drama with a high concept and those things are like crack to me.

Although Russian Doll is also on everyone else’s best-of-year list so I don’t feel too self-indulgent here. Not sure whether it really needs that second season they’ve commissioned, but I’ll give it a shot.

Stats corner: Nope, not really. But yes, we’re once again getting quite Netflix-dominated from here. For all that people say they’re losing it, their good stuff remains very good. If only they hadn’t cancelled The OA.

#3 – GLOW

Logging straight back into our Netflix account for GLOW, the ladies’ wrestling comedy-drama. This year, they’re based in a hotel, putting on the same show every night, and it’s starting to become a real grind. This is… probably the closest we’ll get to a late-in-run ‘dark’ season of GLOW, although obviously it’s still fun and funny.

As I think I’ve said elsewhere, GLOW is the epitome of the old critical cliché: the worst thing I can say about it was that I wanted more. The cast is so large and the episodes are so short! And the seasons only ten episodes long! And it’s finishing next year!

Because of that, there are moments this season which felt a little truncated, and I hope they let them have more minutes or episodes for this final run. But still, GLOW is one of the best current shows and at least Netflix are giving them a chance to wrap it up rather than pulling an OA.

Stats corner: This was last year’s #1, and now it’s down a couple. Will it climb back up for the final year?

#2 – Watchmen

Last year in the honourable mention section, I remarked that I’d watched The Leftovers and it was great.

Well, that show remains one of the greatest, but Damon Lindelof’s follow-up series is also pretty strong. This is, of course, Watchmen, the follow-up-rather-than-adaptation to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ beloved graphic novel. Cunningly, rather than dredge up the plot of the original, they’ve spun off in a new direction, using the world as a backdrop for new characters.

And… incredibly, it works. It’s really good, a thoughtful, light-touch drama that both makes the characters feel like real people and slips in plenty of silly, over the top moments to take advantage of the setting. The Leftovers is probably still better, but this is a great, rich show and one of the best of the year despite hard competition. In fact, to be honest, my #1 pick is probably a bit down to my personal-taste. But hey, that’s why you’re all here.

Lastly, I can’t really mention Watchmen without a remark about how, while this is an extremely good TV show, it would’ve been even gooder if they’d made a show of equal quality without unscrupulously doing it against original writer Alan Moore’s express wishes.

Stats corner: Well, I mentioned The Leftovers already. So no.

#1 Orange Is The New Black

Easily one of the most successful shows on this list, three-time number one, and back for one last sit on the victory spot, it’s Orange Is The New Black.

I love this show, I sincerely do. The fact it’s now over both upsets and reassures me, because… let’s face it, how many show went beyond their seventh year and remained good. The fact season seven itself worked is a pleasant surprise.

Like many long-running series, there’s been ups and downs (s3 and s5 specifically were a tad off), but armed with the foreknowledge of the coming end, they started squaring the huge cast away with aplomb and a pleasing sense of ruthlessness. Honestly, I think what I liked most about this show is that, true to its whole ‘prison is bad’ ethos, not everyone got a happy ending. In fact, multiple not-everyones.

It’s not a complete crushing bummer, but there’s a strong sense of balance, which allows them to give cathartic happiness to a few characters without it seeming fake. Plus even at this late hour, the introduction of some topical ICE material stopped it feeling like it’d vanished up its own arse.

And yet, despite everything I just said, it was still funny at the right times. As I say, I’m here for a well-balanced comedy-drama and this is one of the best, at least for me. Balanced beautifully on the cliff-edge of my sense of humour. The fact it’s now over is a genuine tragedy. Other good shows exist,  but the sheer long-running quality of this one is, to me, a meaningful loss.

Although I suppose it’ll make this list less predictable in future. But for now – all hail Orange Is The New Black.

Stats corner: #1 in 2014! Missing in 2015! Back again at #1 in 2016! #9 in 2017! #5 in 2018! And now, ending at #1! What a ride.

Honorable Mentions

As ever, I try and keep these short. But a big shout-out to last year’s #6, Legends of Tomorrow, which kept the sense of fun going with aplomb and would probably have made the chart in a less competitive year.

And its stablemate Arrow is also putting in a strong final eighth victory lap season, bringing some enjoyable guest star returns and reality-hopping callbacks, all contributing to the real sense that the character has grown. Kudos especially to star Stephen Amell who really makes the whole thing work.

Last year’s #9 and 8 respectively, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Good Place, also had good-but-not-quite great years, kinda interspersing a few very strong episodes with… a lot of slightly fillery ones? Although CXG still produced some great songs.

And lastly, Derry Girls is still one of the good British sitcoms and, again, only very narrowly missed out on the chart.

Oh and I watched and enjoyed the first two seasons of Halt & Catch Fire, which were not eligible.

Right. Phew. Think it’s over now. Remember to listen to the year-in-review podcast whenever we manage to post it to see how many of the top five I’ve changed my mind about since posting this. (Yes, that happened last year.)

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