In the age of competitive streaming services and endless networks hungry for boutique status, TV shows premiere, return, and end at a dizzying volume. Buzz builds fast, and can be snuffed out just as quickly on a misstep. (Compare the energies of Game of Thrones fans when the season premiered in April, and when it ended six weeks later.) For a series to stand out, to really establish itself as something must-see when everything is now must-see TV, it has to be something truly special.
Only halfway through 2019, we’ve already watched a few different shows that have continued to resonate in the following weeks and months, whether through breaking new ground in the rapidly broadening field of TV comedy, or using the TV miniseries to retell history’s dramas. We’ve been shocked, delighted, and left cry-laughing by a man loudly demanding that a baby named Bart Harley Jarvis burn in hell. We’ve been moved to empathy, and hopefully, to greater action.
And we can’t wait for everything still to come, through the rest of the summer and into fall premieres. It’s been a long run of great TV years, and already, we can tell that 2019 is going to be another one.
10. Barry (HBO)
Who’s In It? Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg, Glenn Fleshler, Anthony Carrigan, and Henry Winkler
Best Outing: “Ronny/Lily” – The fifth episode of the season dialed the absurdity up to 11, delivering both laughs and super-intense fight scenes with a Taekwondo instructor and his very pissed off, possibly not-of-this-earth 11-year-old daughter. While “ronny/lily” certainly fits within the larger narrative arc of the season, it feels more akin to a standalone short film thanks to Hader’s own cinematic knowledge and confidence behind the camera. It’s likely to be divisive, but it’s like no other episode of television this season.
Must-See TV: Barry went darker and weirder in its tense, terrific second season, which saw Bill Hader’s titular hitman-turned-actor still desperately trying to leave his violent past behind and have a heart of gold. Easier said than done. The bloodbath season finale forces both Barry and viewers to reckon with the fact he may only really have a heart of darkness, but Hader, co-creator Alec Berg, and supporting cast standouts Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, and Stephen Root sure make Barry’s descent sublime to watch. Can’t wait for Season 3. –Emmy Potter
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s review here.
09. Lorena (Amazon)
Who’s In It? Lorena Bobbitt, John Wayne Bobbitt, David Berman, Kim Gandy, Janna Bisutti, and Becki Rinker
Best Outing: No particular episode, though the most haunting interview of the series might be a nail salon customer, who is brought to tears thinking about how a literally shaking Lorena was falling apart while doing her nails. She begged her to leave John Wayne. This was days before the incident.
Must-See TV: With four hour-long episodes, Lorena is easily bingeable, although its emotional heft may make more measured viewing a better choice. With the series’ ability to zoom out on the cultural zeitgeist, much like O.J. Simpson: Made in America, it surely has the feel of claiming the title as the “definitive” take on its subject. More than just a synopsis, Lorena takes us on an emotional journey — first indulging in the gallows humor of the situation (the woman did throw her husband’s penis into an open field), and then bringing in the devastating reality. It’s also careful not to turn its audience to one side or the other right away — both John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt are given ample screen time, though eventually the filmmaker’s stance is undeniable. It’s a worthwhile watch for the socially conscious, or anyone with a mother, sister, daughter, or friend. –Susan Kemp
Extra! Extra! Read the rest of Susan Kemp’s review here.
08. Veep (HBO)
Who’s In It? Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, Matt Walsh, Sufe Bradshaw, Kevin Dunn, Gary Cole, Sam Richardson, Sarah Sutherland, and Clea DuVall
Best Outing: “Veep” – In its final, self-titled episode, Veep both cements Selina’s turn to the dark side (er, darker side) in the race for the nomination, and provides an equally grim, but also oddly optimistic epilogue for the series.
Must-See TV: In its final season Veep did what seemed impossible for its HBO neighbors — it delivered a satisfying ending which made a powerful statement about leadership, morality, and the hollowness of getting what you want. With one last race for the presidency, Veep’s final season was a little more topical and real life-adjacent than in years past, but still managed to deliver the show’s trademark curse-hurling humor with aplomb and delve into the twisted, broken psyche of Selina Meyer. Far more than an obligatory victory lap, the finale proved a worthy capstone to the show’s accomplishments over its seven seasons on the air. –Andrew Bloom
Extra! Extra! Read Andrew Bloom’s review here.
07. Documentary Now (IFC)
Who’s In It? Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, John Mulaney, Owen Wilson, Taran Killam, Cate Blanchett, Michael C. Hall, Natasha Lyonne, and so many more names.
Best Outing: “Original Cast Album: Co-op” – Come for the best fake music in a piece of pop culture since Walk Hard. Stay for a master class in giving genuinely great onscreen performances in a comedy.
Must-See TV: It’s hard enough to write a quality comic parody, hitting enough of the key notes to be recognizable while still finding ways to riff on a concept. But what Documentary Now has accomplished to date, and particularly with its third season, is something more remarkable still. It’s a gut-busting parody series which also demonstrates such an astute understanding of its subject matter that it more or less doubles as a free series of film-school lessons. Whether it’s tackling all-time documentaries (“Original Cast Album: Co-op”) or a broader type within the genre (the navel-gazing Kickstarter fetishism of “Searching For Mr. Larson: A Love Letter from the Far Side”), the series plays with its source material without ever demeaning it. After all, it’s playing with the greats. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s review here.
06. Russian Doll (Netflix)
Who’s In It? Natasha Lyonne, Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez, Charlie Barnett, and Elizabeth Ashley
Best Outing: “A Warm Body” – The first huge twist of the series comes in the final seconds of the season’s third episode as Nadia (Lyonne) learns that she’s not the only person reliving the same day over and over.
Must-See TV: One of the best television shows of the year came to us from a trio of powerhouse women: Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland, and Natasha Lyonne. Their acerbic and hilarious Netflix series turns the time loop narrative on its head, seeing Lyonne’s deadpan Nadia and her glorious mane reliving the same day again and again. Russian Doll is filled with plenty of twists and turns, but it’s the series’ humanity that will keep you coming back for more. The show’s brief albeit wondrous four-hour-long season forces us to contemplate our existence and the role grief plays in it, while somehow making us laugh through it all. There aren’t many 30-minute comedies outside of The Good Place capable of doing that. –Trace Thurman
Extra! Extra! Read Susan Kemp’s review here.
05. Chernobyl (HBO)
Who’s In It? Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and Paul Ritter
Best Outing: “Vichnaya Pamyat” – A masterclass of episodic structure, the finale alternates between gripping courtroom drama and flashbacks that show the buildup to the disaster on that fateful night. The result is a powerful emotional payoff that forces us to look at the human cost.
Must-See TV: HBO’s five-episode miniseries delivered a complex, harrowing vision of a country forever changed by the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Created and written by Craig Mazin, Chernobyl is as much a fable about the dangers of burying hard truths and expertise as it is a harrowing disaster epic. Between Mazin’s thoughtful historical analysis, director Johan Renck’s masterful hand at creating palpable tension and dread, and commanding performances by stars Jared Harris, Emily Watson, and Stellan Skarsgård, this unflinching depiction of true events delivers over five hours of riveting television guaranteed to break hearts. –Meagan Navarro
Extra! Extra! Read Alex Huntsberger’s review here.
04. Fleabag (Amazon)
Who’s In It? Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson, and Brett Gelman
Best Outing: Here’s the deal. If you were to watch the last two Avengers movies back-to-back, while in the room next door I watched Fleabag in its entirety, by the time you were done I’d have fixed the eyeliner I cried off, gone for a nice walk, returned a book to the library, stopped for a six-pack, opened one for you, and gotten started on my second. They are all essential, all under 30 minutes long, and there are only 12 of them. The most essential episode of Fleabag is the first one, because that’s where it starts. You’re welcome.
Must-See TV: By now, if you’re a citizen of the Internet, odds are you’ve become acquainted with either the Hot Priest or the Fleabag Jumpsuit, two forces of equal and potentially devastating power. But what those zeitgeist-striking elements don’t reveal in 280 characters or a GIF is how, like everything else about the second (and almost certainly final) season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s surprising, emotionally rich, downright filthy comedy, there’s a lot going on than what’s there on the appealing surface.
The Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) is far more than a titillating love interest, more even than a great character brought to life by a great actor; he’s also a doorway into discussions about grief, honesty, the value of really seeing people for who they are, the importance of honesty and connection, the list goes on. The jumpsuit is a piece of great (and aspirational) costume design, literally exposing her breastbone.
It’s a metaphor of sorts for this remarkable series about a woman who struggles to open herself up, written by a woman who, in writing this very personal story (though not autobiographical) story, is doing exactly that, as an actor and a writer. For Fleabag, loss, terrible guilt, and fear have made vulnerability almost as unattainable to her as Waller-Bridge’s chic-as-fuck bearing are to the rest of us, yet there’s her sternum. If you’ve got a spear, it says, aim here. –Allison Shoemaker
Extra! Extra! Read Susan Kemp’s review here.
03. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix)
Who’s In It? Tim Robinson, Conner O’Malley, Sam Richardson, Kate Berlant, Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong, Will Forte, Steven Yeun, Andy Samberg, and Tim Heidecker
Best Outing: “We Used to Watch This at My Old Work” – There isn’t a single miss in Robinson’s first season finale, which starts at shrunken horse cocks and taps out at a Garfield party house. In between, though, are a series of heart attacks involving a Chunky, a Bozo dub, and Stanzo-brand fedoras. They’re nice.
Must-See TV: I Think You Should Leave hits and sticks the way all irreverent humor should. It’s relentless, it’s manic, and it’s downright clever. Over six episodes and through 28 sketches, Tim Robinson never lets up, pummeling you with one bizarre gag after another, all in the guise of a throwback variety show. Yet its greatest strength is how Robinson contends with our societal anxieties by ditching any of our go-to formalities. This is penicillin for anyone reeling from the plague of constant culture, where our insistency on acceptance and gratitude blinds our abilities to actually think rationally. That idea is wired into the inanity of every bit, whether it’s Conner O’Malley defrauding Robinson with the hopes of flying in Jeff Crisp (!) or Steven Yeun being ostracized for not wiping enough on his birthday. We laugh because it’s right in our Q-zone. –Michael Roffman
02. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Who’s In It? Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, and Mark Proksch
Best Outing: “The Trial” may not be the most nuanced, most slyly clever episode of the show. But how can you pass up cameos from the film’s original vamps, Tilda Swinton, Paul Reubens, Danny Trejo, and Wesley Snipes (via Skype)?
Must-See TV: It’s refreshing to see that FX’s vampire comedy is at least as effortlessly, dryly hilarious as the 2013 Taika Waititi film on which it’s based. But it might actually be even better, which feels like its own kind of black magick. What We Do in the Shadows maintains the film’s quintessential drollness while crafting a lead cast of vamps — Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, and Mark Proksch as a too-familiar ‘energy vampire’ — as hypnotic to watch as they navigate the bureaucracy of both human and vampire worlds. It’s spooky genre fodder and hilarious situational comedy all in the same garlic-scented breath. –Clint Worthington
Extra! Extra! Read Michael Roffman’s review here.
01. When They See Us (Netflix)
Who’s In It? Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Michael K. Williams, Logan Marshall-Green, Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Aunjanue Ellis, and Kylie Bunbury
Best Outing: “Part One” – While it’s strange to break such a cohesive piece of storytelling like this down into parts, it’s going to be tough for a single episode of television in 2019 to deliver the horrific, authentic impact of watching five teenagers head out for a night in the park, unaware of the nightmare about to follow.
Must-See TV: Today, we know that Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise were not responsible for the crimes of which they were convicted in 1990. But we only know that after they were incarcerated as teens for a 1989 assault in Central Park, after they each spent years in prison for that assault, and only after their lives were irreparably changed by a total failure of the U.S. justice system.
Ava DuVernay’s harrowing four-part series When They See Us chronicles their unjust arrests, the political and media circuses that led to their incarceration, and the trials they endured even after finding their respective ways out of the penal system. Yet it’s not simply a historical document, although what DuVernay does with respect to reframing the historical record is breathtaking, even as it’s appalling that it ever took place at all.
With When They See Us, DuVernay does what the media and the courts failed to at the time: she sees their complexity and humanity, their fear, their innocence, their resolve in the face of the unspeakable. She sees people, when everybody from the interrogating detectives on that night to the current U.S. president only wanted to see, and hate, and punish, a street gang.
No financial settlement or Netflix series can undo what happened to them, but remembrance of their case can try and ensure that it stops happening sometime in the future. But as DuVernay’s series appears to understand well, what happened to the exonerated five men is still happening every day, to others just like them. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Extra! Extra! Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s review here.