Daniel Fienberg: The 10 Best TV Shows of 2019

6:30 AM 12/13/2019

by Daniel Fienberg

Among The Hollywood Reporter chief TV critic’s faves are gems from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Damon Lindelof and Ava DuVernay, as well as a Northern Irish Netflix comedy, an underloved AMC oddity and a stellar sophomore season of HBO’s most Shakespearean family saga.

Fleabag, Succession and Ramy_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Amazon, HBO and Hulu

Contrary to what Todd Phillips might be telling the media, "cancel culture" and "political correctness" have not killed comedy. Maybe the Joker director just needs to watch more TV? My top 10 list for 2019 is dominated by shows that I consider comedies. I've got silly half-hours, trenchantly dark hourlongs and several shows that pivot from pain to mirth from scene to scene. And I couldn’t even find room for the latest seasons of Baskets, The Good Place, Barry and Bojack Horseman, or newbies like Pen15, Tuca & Bertie and Sherman's Showcase. Maybe they'll pop up in future lists, because it was another great year for TV.

As seems to be the refrain this winter, Netflix leads the way with three shows on my list, but none in my top 5. It's a list without any broadcast shows at all, even after a surprising fall that included three very solid new network dramas — Evil, Stumptown and Emergence — and a spring that saw the departure of Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, top-tier series that thrived in the fertile obscurity of The CW. A lot of critics' lists look the same this year, but hopefully mine will provide you with a couple of shows you haven't watched yet to check out over the holidays.

  1. 1


    Nestled between the perfectly awful dinner party in the premiere and the awfully perfect wedding in the finale, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Amazon comedy — yes, it's OK to laugh at all the awfulness — was, well, pretty perfect. Boosted from its already superb first season by the addition of Andrew "Hot Priest" Scott and expanded roles for Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman and Brett Gelman, Fleabag ended its current run — I hold out hopes for a middle-aged return in a decade or two — with an uncomfortable, provocative, crazily romantic reflection on faith, sex, love and managing personal trauma.


  2. 2


    After an already stellar first season, Jesse Armstrong's dark HBO comedy made its core family seem even more insular, even more insufferably cloaked in privilege and even more corrupt. Somehow, as much as we wanted to hate the Roys, we also became more deeply invested in Shiv's ambition (and haircut), in Connor's oddly varied aspirations and in Roman's relationship with Gerri. And though awards groups won't do it, I’ll still single out the Shakespearean depth and pathos in Jeremy Strong's performance as Kendall.


  3. 3


    If Ramy Youssef's self-titled Hulu series had just continued to be a slice-of-life comedy about a Muslim guy in Jersey navigating his faith, his family and his friends, it would still have been distinctive and impressive. But starting with the 9/11 flashback episode "Strawberries" and carrying on through spotlight episodes focused on the main character's sister and mother — as well as an Egypt-set closing two-parter — the show became something even more special.


  4. 4


    Damon Lindelof's sorta-kinda sequel to/extrapolation on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic comic spins the masked vigilante deconstruction into an allegory of race in 21st century America. The result is a layered thriller in which Regina King kicking ass in a nun's costume, a parade of naked Tom Mison clones, Don Johnson crooning 'Oklahoma!' and the remains of a giant squid draped over New York City can somehow also function as an urgent history lesson.


  5. 5

    'Lodge 49'

    Someday you'll watch Jim Gavin's now-cancelled, trippy, compulsively odd Thomas Pynchon pastiche for AMC and marvel at its indescribably mysterious plotlines; at the beautiful core performances by Wyatt Russell and Brent Jennings; at the tart comic excellence of Sonya Cassidy; at the wholly inhabited ensemble of never-better character actors; at the impeccably arc-ed second season featuring a deliriously good Paul Giamatti, and you'll say, "Man, I wish I'd watched sooner."


  6. 6

    'Russian Doll'

    The primary sensation, making your way through eight episodes of Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler's blend of Groundhog Day and Search Party, is that the moody, time-looping, scathingly funny Netflix series shouldn't work at all — much less as well as it does, or as satisfyingly as it does in its conclusion. The first season located new depths in Lyonne as an actress and marked her as a writer and even director of astonishing promise. Plus, you'll never get Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" out of your head.


  7. 7

    'Better Things'

    In its third season, Pamela Adlon's FX comedy — genre designations seem more and more insufficient — continued to mine new depths in its examination of the complicated business of parenting, navigating Hollywood and shifting generational roles. Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward improve each year, a tribute to Adlon's unmatched directorial hand.


  8. 8

    'When They See Us'

    Ava DuVernay's searing treatment of the Exonerated Five was a standout in a year of remarkable depictions of real-life injustice and tragedy, alongside Netflix’s Unbelievable and HBO's Chernobyl. Boasting an ensemble led by Jharrel Jerome, Niecy Nash, Asante Blackk, Michael K. Williams and more, this disheartening-yet-inspiring Netflix drama cast out the "Central Park Five" collective pejorative and gave these men their names back: Antron McCray. Kevin Richardson. Yusef Salaam. Raymond Santana. Korey Wise.

  9. 9


    Somehow Joel Church-Cooper and Hank Azaria's deliriously profane story of a damaged minor league baseball announcer has progressed from an amusing-but-thin Funny or Die gag to TV's most sincere and hilarious (along with Bojack Horseman) portrait of depression and addiction. The IFC series' third season, featuring the great Tawny Newsome as Brockmire's new announcing partner and J.K. Simmons as his well-endowed predecessor, was the show’s — and Azaria's — best to date.


  10. 10

    'Derry Girls'

    If you, fatigued of dark dramas and squirmy comedies, recently requested something light and purely enjoyable, I probably recommended Lisa McGee's Netflix acquisition, which is slightly odd given that it's a coming-of-age Northern Irish show set against the later years of the Troubles. Even with that backdrop, McGee's perfectly cast — wildly expressive Saoirse-Monica Jackson is but one gem among many — series generates consistent mirth through its instantly fully embodied characters. Turn on subtitles and prepare to lament that two seasons of six episodes apiece isn't nearly enough.