As TV keeps transforming into different shapes and multiplying beyond basic cable’s wildest dreams, distinguishing the best of the best becomes an ever more complicated process. But after months of watching and reviewing, Variety‘s chief TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke nonetheless managed to narrow their favorites down to the following ten shows each (plus a few honorable mentions, because come on, you’ve seen how much TV there is, right?).
Each critic took stock of the year and ranked their favorite shows of the year, both listed below. (Click here for Caroline Framke’s list.)
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That this was not a banner year for TV allowed for unexpected or unorthodox greatness to bubble up in the margins. If, for instance, once-great shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” hobbled to the finish line (the former doing so a bit less disastrously than is widely argued, but still), attention could be shifted to “When They See Us,” “Euphoria,” and “Pen15,” three inherently riskier and odder shows that told stories about adolescence about as differently as is possible. “Fleabag” — a second season of a cult British comedy that had felt in its first outing closed-ended — became perhaps the TV story of the year, benefiting from diminished competition but shining bright all the same. If “Saturday Night Live” was bottoming out, all the better for “I Think You Should Leave” and “The Other Two,” both written by “SNL” alums and both vibrantly alive in their dedication to being as weird as they want. And “Years and Years,” my favorite show of 2019, was in its boldness of vision a show that stood out on a somewhat diminished landscape. There’s more TV out there than ever, but less and less of it seems this uncompromising and sharply written. Here’s to better, if not more, in 2020.
10. “The Other Two” (Comedy Central)
The star on “The Other Two” isn’t the star of “The Other Two”; the series assays the rise of a Justin Bieber-like kid celebrity (Case Walker), and one of its cleverest moves is treating him not as a monster but as a kid happy to be wherever he ends up. It’s those around him who are possessed by anxiety — on his behalf first, but close behind on behalf of their newfound status as celebrity hangers-on. As the young pop star’s “other two” siblings, two gig-economy strivers who fear their “late-bloomer” period may never begin, Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver are self-promoters with a lovable streak. One believes at once that they want what’s best for their minor brother and that they are willing to soak the entertainment industry for as much as it’s willing to give them. Through their eyes — obsessed with the mechanics of celebrity yet only granted access to it through functionary roles for a mindless kiddie-pop star — we see a Hollywood machine governed by vanity, shamelessness, and casual cruelty. Perhaps the best gag of a show that perfectly combines acidity with family warmth is that for all these two lack certain fundamentals of stardom, when it comes to inhabiting the narcissism of someone within the star chamber, the other two fit right in.
9. “Euphoria” (HBO)
“Euphoria” edged up both to lines of propriety and of storytelling logic, and leapt past them. Starring former Disney Channel idol Zendaya as an addict who, in the show’s earliest going, has decided not to get better, “Euphoria” was potently alive to all the different ways in which growing up in the late 2010s is uniquely challenging, embedding them both in the story and in the jagged, discursive style. Episode-opening flashbacks depicting the manner in which various characters arrived where they are today were a highlight, and a distillation of the show at its best. The struggles of the show’s cast of characters were both extraordinarily taxing and, remarkably, ordinary; perhaps the show’s greatest achievement, in the era of “Riverdale” and its ilk, is depicting its teen characters as governed by hot-blooded, irrational emotion, rather than as TV’s norm, precocious and hyper-articulate mini-adults. With a talented cast of young stars (including and especially Hunter Schafer, a genuine discovery) colliding against one another, “Euphoria” felt genuinely new. If at first it was defined against the more traditional TV whose standards it was willing to bust, it was, by its enthralling final scene, defining its own way forward.
8. “Succession” (HBO)
Few shows today are made with the ambition of “Succession,” a series that applies a sadistic gleam to each of its surfaces and a crafty backspin to each line. The show found its footing entirely in its second season, evolving into a weekly serving of poisoned truffles that were difficult to resist. A midseason arc involving a wealthy family possessed of all the pretenses the crass, nihilistic Roys lack showed just how far the show’s universe expands, and how good “Succession” is at maintaining and even growing interest in its central question — who will inherit it all? — even as the story furls further outward.
7. “I Think You Should Leave” (Netflix)
Tim Robinson may be the bard of thwarted pride. In “I Think You Should Leave,” his sketch series, the “Detroiters” actor is perennially in error, and pushing his defense of his own wrongheadedness past the point of reason, long after those around him would have wished he would leave. The viewer is glad he persists in his mania: The sketches here defy recapitulation, but to say that they capitalize on the human capacity for endless delusion — a classic Robinson character is someone who, frantically trying to cover over his own faults and errors, half-believes he can make the rest of the world believe his lies, too. It adds up to a sketch series with a unified point-of-view and an ongoing, very funny argument to make about masculinity in crisis. It’s a description that can’t attempt to do justice to quite how funny Robinson is, but little could; on the strength of six expertly curated fifteen-minute episodes, he looks to become a generational sketch-comedy star.
6. “Unbelievable” (Netflix)
Merrit Wever and Toni Collette are quite impressive in tamped-down performances as cops investigating a rape case with sensitivity and care, but it’s Kaitlyn Dever who’s the discovery of “Unbelievable.” In her own, parallel storyline, Dever plays a young woman whose fledgling attempts at starting adult life are interrupted by a brutal assault — and then, again and repeatedly, by a legal system seemingly designed to distrust and then disregard her. With palpable, slow-burning horror, Dever inhabits the role of a woman whose life is slipping away from her in the aftermath of violence. Her journey towards justice — one mirrored by Wever’s and Collette’s work to stop a serial rapist — is depicted with grace and humanity.
5. “Fosse/Verdon” (FX)
My initial review of “Fosse/Verdon” was curt and somewhat dismissive of a show whose early going was all I’d seen; it seemed hard to understand why we were seeing a story, that of a genius (played here by Sam Rockwell) supported by the long-suffering woman behind him, that had been told so many times before. Later episodes opened this story up wonderfully and, through small miracles of writing and direction and a very big one in the form of Michelle Williams’s performance as Gwen Verdon, turned a familiar story inside out. Gwen Verdon’s journey as a gifted dancer and expressive artist is first enabled by her partner’s largesse and then foreshortened by his shifting moods, and this capriciousness, rather than serving as the backdrop for a great-man tale, is placed in the forefront of the story. “Fosse/Verdon” asks what might have been lost due to decades’ inability to metabolize women’s contributions to the arts, and at the same time provides us with an example of an artist enabled by collaborators to do her very best work.
4. “When They See Us” (Netflix)
Among a wave of recent shows dramatizing recent news stories slipping from memory into history, “When They See Us” did the best job of establishing, and fulfilling, emotional stakes. Its central story, of five young New Yorkers wrongfully accused and incarcerated for heinous crimes they did not commit, is compelling on its face; what Ava DuVernay’s direction does skillfully is map both how it happened (due, this limited series argues, to systemwide racism and need for a villain to explain away the city’s ills) and what its costs were in the immediate and long-term aftermath. That long tail of harm done by zealous and wrong prosecution is illuminated by Jharrel Jerome’s performance in the final episode, a piece of acting that cements the case “When They See Us” makes. It’s not just a defense of five men who have already been exonerated in real life. It’s an indictment of a world that refused not merely to see the truth about these boys but even to acknowledge them as humans. “When They See Us,” in contrast to the worst of its villains, glimmers with humanity, wrenching beauty and not just catharsis from one of the tragedies of recent history. It’s a history that the show makes clear belongs to us all.
3. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” had seemed complete, and near-perfectly-wrought, in its first-season run; the show’s return (initially an unexpected one) had a high bar to clear to justify its existence. And its decision to go tangent — to tell a story that kept its title character’s confusion and doubt intact, but that applied them to questions of love and faith — was a shrewd one. Andrew Scott’s “hot priest” was roiled by an internal turmoil that mapped onto Fleabag’s own (so much so that he was the first person to seemingly penetrate her defensive asides to the audience), but his line of work opened up entirely new questions. Would obedience to a higher power be the sort of ballast that can bring an aimless life towards fulfillment, or just another misguided attempt? In managing to continue exploring the endless question of coming to terms with oneself while pushing its story down new and challenging avenues, “Fleabag” boasted both unusual ambition and the storytelling chops to see that ambition through to a fulfilling final episode.
2. “Pen15” (Hulu)
The potential alienation effect of “Pen15” is huge — two women playing versions of their younger selves at the turn of the century, opposite a cast otherwise comprised of actual middle-school-aged kids. And yet not merely are Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (who co-created the series with Sam Zvibleman) gifted and elastic enough performers to walk and move like the teens they once were, but they also use their performances to make a sharp and surprisingly emotional point about growing up. “Pen15” tells its stories about friendship — and the ways it evolves with time and intersects with race, family, and school dances — in a way that allows both characters, occasionally, to be wrong, but with the guiding intelligence of adulthood making the story resonate. Much of the time the show makes one feel relieved that middle school is over and done with. But once an episode or so, its depiction of girls whose fundamental responsibility is to one another, and whose mistakes can still be categorized as growing up, has as strong a nostalgic pull as any of the early-2000s cultural references on display. For all “Pen15” owes its mood to specifics of its era, its concerns are timeless.
1. “Years and Years” (HBO)
This joint production between HBO and the BBC begins in, effectively, the present moment, then zooms ahead into dystopia — but not as far as one might think, given the logline. It only takes a beat for the world to fall into a sort of chaos that seems, even from our vantage point, beyond imagination. The brilliance of this show is its narrow aperture, focusing on one quotidian family and on one xenophobic British media-celebrity-turned-politician (Emma Thompson). The Lyons clan’s fortunes flag badly as they collide with the history being made all around them, and at least a couple grow more sympathetic to Thompson’s rising Vivienne Rook, with her message of isolation and mistrust. Through the paired journeys of the Lyonses and of Rook — the former told in the form of an intimate family drama, the latter only seen through the way the media covers her — we see the way time exerts wrenching change. We also see what remains constant: The love, and the ability to harm, unique to families, and the sense that one’s situation will remain static forever even as it is constantly in the midst of change. Assuming things can’t get worse than they are now is a good summary of the modern condition, and it’s the vise the characters of “Years and Years,” as told poignantly but with clear eyes, find themselves in over six episodes.
Honorable mentions: “The Act,” “Better Things,” “Dating Around,” “Mrs. Fletcher,” “Russian Doll”
When writing about my favorite shows of the year, I kept returning to the same few words: “surprising,” “sharp,” “trauma,” “power,” “empathy.” Part of this is no doubt because End of Year content saps my brain of whatever originality was there in the first place, but mostly, it’s because most of my top choices share an urgent thread of people finding compassion even under the toughest circumstances, even when they’re so lost and confused that fighting their way to a greater understanding seems impossible. Others examined the way society works, or doesn’t, and the impossibly stacked odds keeping the same people down, over and over again. Others just made me laugh. All of them made me look at TV, the world, and myself a little bit differently and more closely than before.
10. “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (Showtime)
It’s a shame that this show didn’t get more attention while it was airing, because there was hardly a more unusual and scathing drama going. Starring Kirsten Dunst as a struggling single mom in Florida circa the early ‘90s, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” used the greed and desperation inherent in multi-level marketing schemes to dissect class and power in increasingly fascinating ways. Dunst, as the furious and ambitious Krystal, has rarely been better, and she was surrounded by co-stars constantly rising to her level. (Shoutout to Théodore Pellerin, Ted Levine, and Mel Rodriguez for their devastating portrayals of two disparate figures nonetheless united in their bone-deep need to be successful.) By the end of the season, the series was taking the kind of swings reminiscent of a show trying to make the most of its limited time. Now that it’s been renewed for a second season, I can’t wait to see where else it might go, and hear what else it might have to say.
9. “Broad City” (Comedy Central)
It’s so hard to say goodbye to a great show — a sentiment “Broad City” not only took seriously, but made the lynchpin of its fantastic final season. After four seasons of depicting a chaotic and fiercely loyal friendship tumbling through the streets of New York City, co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson let their characters (also named Ilana and Abbi) grow up and more fully into themselves without abandoning their baseline sense of humor. The show’s last stretch of episodes were as weird as ever, but also imbued with an unmistakable thread of melancholy as Abbi and Ilana realize that their lives were about to change. The series finale, in which they have to say goodbye to each other before Abbi moves across the country, is so funny and heartbreaking all at once that it took my breath away more than once. “Broad City” was one of a kind and it was sad to see it leave, but I couldn’t ask more from its final season than that.
8. “Watchmen” (HBO)
As an examination of how hero worship, racism, and trauma intersect in and define American culture, Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen” will either stand the test of time or collapse entirely depending on how it ends — and as of this writing, I don’t know what that looks like. But the episodes I’ve seen are so fantastically strange and smart, haunting and funny, that I’m taking a chance and putting it on this list, anyway. The show’s dedication to laying the country’s biggest failures bare — while telling a seriously stylish story, besides — makes “Watchmen” one of the year’s most singular shows. And no matter where the story goes, the show’s immediately distinct production design and shrewd performances from the likes of Regina King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Hong Chau and Tim Blake Nelson will continue to make it hard for me to complain.
7. “Pen15” (Hulu)
As someone who grew up patiently waiting out dial-up internet and collecting all things Spice Girls, watching “Pen15” can sometimes feel like watching a deeply embarrassing docuseries about my own life. As teen versions of themselves, actors and co-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine are so convincing that their clumsy earnestness often burns too bright to look at directly. But they, alongside co-creator Sam Zvibleman and a solid stable of writers, dig deeper into why the experience of being a teenager can be both rewarding and painful with sharper insight than most. One episode (“Anna Ishii-Peters”) even managed to unpack the myriad ways kids absorb and disseminate racism while keeping the show’s huge heart in tact. “Pen15” is easily one of the year’s strangest and funniest shows; it’s keen insight on how people connect as teenagers and beyond is a promising bonus.
6. “Barry” (HBO)
It was hard to imagine how “Barry” would move forward after its extraordinary first season finale, which cornered Bill Hader’s desperate, ruthless assassin in such a way that escape felt impossible. I frankly didn’t think a second season could possibly be worth it. And yet, the second season of “Barry” proved me wrong. It excavated the layers of Barry (Hader) trying to escape his past while burrowing deeper into himself, his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) confronting the ugly realities of Hollywood and her own memories, and even his melodramatic acting teacher Gene (Henry Winkler), grappling with a devastating loss while trying to hold onto his signature panache. Even go-to comic relief characters like Stephen Root’s hapless handler and Anthony Carrigan’s scene-stealing Noho Hank became more nuanced. This intricate character work, paired with continually excellent directing work from Hader himself (especially on the surreal series standout episode “ronny/lilly”), more than justified a second season of “Barry” and beyond.
5. “Tuca and Bertie” (Netflix)
From its first Technicolor burst of energy to its powerfully tender final moments, “Tuca and Bertie” was always completely its own creature. Creator Lisa Hanawalt (the uniquely creative mind behind the look of “BoJack Horseman”) and her team assembled an all-star voice cast (including stars/executive producers Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong) and indulged in such strange, verdant production design that there was simply no mistaking the show for anything else on the air before or since. In telling the story of two close friends at a crucial crossroads, the comedy encompassed everything from sobriety to sexual harassment to the ineffable benefits of wearing a cool pair of shoes when you’re otherwise too anxious to leave the house. All told, “Tuca and Bertie” was an empathetic and wildly inventive treat of a show that deserved better than Netflix’s unceremonious canceling of it, and I will miss it dearly.
4. “Succession” (HBO)
The first season of Jesse Armstrong’s family drama was always funny, but by the end, crescendoed into an astonishing dissection of the insular world of the staggeringly wealthy versus the outsized consequences of their actions. The second season ran with that momentum to deliver a blistering run of episodes that never let the show’s intrinsic tension slack off, not to mention its game actors. (An Emmy wishlist for this cast runs as deep as the cast itself, headed up by the astonishing Jeremy Strong.) And as is increasingly rare, each chapter was distinct unto itself, each building upon the last until the final scene that changes everything (again). From its cutthroat backroom dealings, to the birth of the show’s most compelling new partnership (Roman/Gerri forever!), to the downright Shakespearean circumstances that led to an infamous round of “boar on the floor,” this near-perfect second season of “Succession” established the show as a serious dramatic force right when HBO needed it. It’s not always fun to watch the show’s bizarro world imagining of just how rich dynasties manage to control so much of our world, but it’s just too compelling to resist.
3. “Unbelievable” (Netflix)
On its face, “Unbelievable” doesn’t seem nearly as innovative as it quickly proves to be. The limited series follows in the time-honored traditions of procedurals and true crime shows that have become so routine as to lose whatever power they initially had. And yet this particular iteration — from co-creators Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman — skillfully avoids all the tired clichés to become an astounding study of trauma and the systemic rot that enables it. As a so-called “bad victim,” Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart”) turns in a heart-wrenching performance that further confirms her considerable range and talent. Merritt Weaver and Toni Colette also anchor the show with steady hands as able detectives who, in a refreshing contrast from the usual, have a firm grip on both their work and personal lives. (How wild!) The show doesn’t shy away from the devastating consequences it’s examining, but it also avoids giving too much time to the perpetrator or luxuriating in the victims’ pain as too many other series based on true crimes do. Simply put, far more shows would do better to follow in the footsteps of “Unbelievable,” a genre-shattering portrait of devastation, resilience, and the unexpected shards of hope one can find in between.
2. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
As an early “Fleabag” evangelist, I was positive that Phoebe Waller-Bridge had already made the most of her acerbic character with the first season, a tight and scathing piece of work based on her one-woman show that I loved from the jump. But now, I must officially say that I was wrong. (My least favorite sentence, so it says everything that I’m thrilled to use it here.) The second season of “Fleabag” is an absolute marvel, from its one-act play of a premiere to its gorgeous, heart-wrenching final moments. It also speaks to the strength of Waller-Bridge’s writing that, by the end of the series, every character gets their due. This holds especially true for Sian Clifford’s Claire, Fleabag’s brittle sister who struggles to embrace what actually makes her happy, and Andrew Scott’s pivotal new role as Fleabag’s unexpected love. While calling his character “The Hot Priest” is technically accurate, the nickname undercuts the remarkable job Scott did fleshing him out as a cheeky, lovely, lonely person whose chemistry with Fleabag proves too irresistible to both of them for better and for worse. Every episode demonstrates extraordinary control, humanity, and thrillingly witty verve — a combination entirely Waller-Bridge’s own.
1. “Russian Doll” (Netflix)
When I first blazed through “Russian Doll” I knew it would be tough for any other show to beat it as my personal favorite of the year — and that was in January. Now, in the waning weeks of a very strong year for TV, I can officially say that I was right. (My favorite sentence!) This dizzying journey into self-actualization from the formidable creative team of co-creators Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler was a total surprise in all the best ways. Over the course of eight spellbinding and meticulous episodes, “Russian Doll” finds a way to make repetition fascinating by delving deeper than both its characters and viewers could have anticipated, while making the smart choice not to explain any of its potentially muddying sci-fi logistics at all. The show also makes the most of living on a streaming network without becoming too indulgent; its immediately propulsive energy is an incredibly welcome deviation from the bloated streaming drama norm. Lyonne’s tour de force performance, one decades in the making, is complemented by Charlie Barnett’s as her unlikely counterpart Alan, whose own parallel epiphanies are heartbreaking in a completely different way. Its thrilling, triumphant finale is one that won’t leave my head anytime soon, nor, happily, its belief that empathy and human connection make life worth living. Just as “the broken boy and the girl with the death wish” found unlikely solace in each other, I found the same in “Russian Doll.”
Honorable mentions: “Chernobyl,” “When They See Us,” “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” “Euphoria,” “Los Espookys.”