Penguin Café Orchestra: The Ecstasy Of Dancing Fleas
Miles Davis: Bags’ Groove
Starting in January of last year, I began doing my real job mostly from a real office and not from home, which, I assumed, would mean that this list would be shorter than last year’s.
It isn’t, somehow.
And it is also the reason that this list is being published in late February.
As I noted last year, not everything on here is a gem, but all had something that made me put it on this list. Also, there are actually some other shows that that I watch that didn’t make this list.
Because of the ability to stream older shows, I also discovered one series from a prior year, so there’s a separate section for things that were “new to me” in 2019. But, if the show has a new season in 2019, it is in the main section.
One of the themes from 2019 were second seasons from shows that had amazing first seasons, which many critics argued should simply stand alone. But TV is actually designed to make money, and one theoretically safe way to do that is to commission more of something that worked. Unfortunately, for most of those shows, the second season was not nearly as good.
The big (although not only) exception, and my favorite show of 2019, was Fleabag (Amazon). To be fair, I also thought that season 1 was so good that a second season would only tarnish its luster, and I was wrong. That’s what you get, it appears, from underestimating Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It was funny, it was poignant, it was clever, and engrossing, and it made a relationship between a woman and a priest sexy. And I’m glad that there are no plans for season 3.
Disclaimers: (1) I know that there are shows that made many year-end best of lists that I didn’t watch, because you can’t watch everything, or because their premise didn’t seem interesting, or because I’m already too many seasons behind. Some of them I may watch down the line, and some I won’t. A short list of those appears below.
(2) Because I haven’t seen every show, and because some of the shows aren’t “great,” but still enjoyable, I call this a list of “my favorites” not a list of “the best.”
Shows that were on my list last season are in bold, and my synopsis may be shorter, both to encourage you to read last year’s list, and to make this post a little shorter (although that horse may already have left the barn). Note also that there may be spoilers:
Barry (HBO)–Another exception to the “unnecessary second season” rule, Barry was able to find new angles to dig into the contradictions of the title character–a man with deep seated rage, who wants out of a violent life, but can’t figure out a way. Great acting from Bill Hader and the supporting cast.
Bless This Mess (season 1 and first half of season 2) (ABC)–Is this a great show? No, but the fish out of water story of two New Yorkers (Dax Shepard and Lake Bell) who move to a Nebraska farm, is carried by the charm and chemistry of its lead actors. Early on, I was concerned that the supporting characters, played by some very talented comedic actors including David Koechner, Lennon Parham, Pam Grier and Ed Begley, Jr., were too one-note, but as the show has gone on, they have been given more depth, and the show has gotten better.
The Bold Type (Freeform)–This glossy show about the fashion world was able to address important issues, including the conflict between digital and print media, ransomware, sexual and workplace harassment, local politics, fertility treatment and treatment of underage models, while still providing a solid helping of soapy fun.
Bojack Horseman (first half) (Netflix)–Short of a Trump re-election, one of the saddest things that will happen in 2020 is the end of Bojack Horseman, a brilliant and absurd satire on American life, with a focus on the entertainment industry. The first part of the last season seems to find the two main characters, Bojack and Diane, moving toward better places through harsh self-examination. The second half of the season was incredible, and ended exactly where it should have, even if I couldn’t have predicted it. More on that next year.
Brockmire (IFC)–One of my favorite shows of the last few years, somehow, I didn’t include it on any of my prior lists, proving that you shouldn’t necessarily rely on a lawyer to do a TV critic’s job. Funny, profane, moving, profane, smart, and profane, this story about a disgraced, substance abusing misanthrope’s journey to, maybe, a better place (hey–kinda like Bojack…) is one of the few TV shows that has me laughing out loud on a regular basis. Plus, it is about baseball. Hank Azaria is amazing (the opening piece from the first episode, which sets Brockmire’s fall into motion is one of the funniest things I have ever heard), and the writing and supporting cast are way, way above Replacement Level.
Brooklyn Nine Nine (NBC)–Still funny, and maybe a bit looser after a move to NBC, this is a show that continues to allow its characters to grow, and to make comedic hay from their interactions.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Netflix)–Jerry Seinfeld driving fancy cars with funny people to get coffee. Always funny, and sometimes hilarious, depending on the guest.
Catastrophe (Amazon)–A favorite since it started, this quirky romance created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney finished its four season run with another great series of episodes that realistically dealt with the stresses in the characters’ relationships, including Delaney’s attempt to get sober, and ended ambiguously. Plus, it included a funeral for his mother, who had been played by Carrie Fisher in her last role.
The Crown (Netflix)–With a new cast, most notably Olivia Colman taking over the role of Elizabeth, the show continues to be mostly well-written, always well acted, and is often less than complimentary, which I like, because monarchies are basically bad. Sadly, the best part of the season, the Princess Margaret/LBJ White House party, is mostly writer’s embellishment.
Deadwood: The Movie (HBO)–Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this. This incredible show was killed way before its time, so a movie, which allowed a bunch of story lines to be concluded, was a dream. It was beautiful and ugly, hopeful and bleak, inspiring and depressing, and filled with the remarkable, often creatively profane, words of writer David Milch, who sadly is now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Plus, a silent cameo from Jason Isbell.
The Detour (TBS)–It sort of felt like they were trying too hard, so this season was definitely a step down, but I appreciated the willingness to pretty much do anything for a laugh.
Derry Girls (Netflix)–One of the joys of many British series is that they are short–although sometimes you are left wanting more, that is ultimately better than getting too little plot in too many episodes. We binge watched the 2018 first season and the 2019 second season, and enjoyed them immensely. The story of a group of teenage friends in Belfast during The Troubles, we get to watch them deal with sex, sexuality, family, friends, religion, school, and, of course, politics, but always in an amusing way. And Sister Michael is my favorite TV nun.
The Deuce (HBO)–The final season of David Simon’s excellent, if not “The Wire” quality, show that takes place in and around Times Square. As always, there’s great writing, acting and directing. This season takes place during the mid-1980s, when I lived in NYC–for some time only a few blocks from Times Square. The focus this season is the way that gentrification and the rise of video changed the neighborhood, its sex workers and pornography, and the people who are in those worlds. There’s precious little hope, some shocks, and lots of sex, if little sexiness, and it ends with a fantasy sequence in the present day that lets you know how many of the characters ended up. Mostly, not so well.
Divorce (HBO)–The first two seasons had their moments, but didn’t make my list. The third and final season, though, was very good, despite having many fewer scenes shot in Tarrytown than the first two. The main characters’ (Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church) growth, from horrible, petty enemies in season 1, to wary coexistence in season 2, to season’s 3’s ultimately adult friendship, even after their divorce, was worth watching.
Documentary Now! (IFC)–The three seasons of this show (the first two of which ran before I did these things), created by SNL alums Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and director Rhys Thomas, have been a series of mostly inspired faux documentaries, usually based on a famous real one (or more than one). Even without seeing many of the source documentaries, it was easy to appreciate the parody. This season’s highlights were “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” based on Original Cast Album: Company, starring John Mullaney, and “Waiting for the Artist,” based on “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present,” starring Cate Blanchett, but they were all good.
The End of the F***ing World (Netflix)–This may be the poster child for the unnecessary second season. I loved season 1, which was about the strange relationship between a young man and woman, both with propensities toward violence, which ended with the male character shot down. Guess what? He wasn’t dead, and season 2 was all about the couple’s difficult reunion. Meh. Luckily, it appears that there won’t be a third season.
Finding Your Roots (PBS)–We’ve been watching this for a few seasons, and I generally find the information that they find about their guests’ ancestry to be fascinating, because I’m interested in genealogy, and because they obviously only broadcast the stuff that is interesting. My one complaint is that the host, prominent historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., often prompts his guests annoyingly–“So, how does it make you feel to find out that your ancestor was a slaveowner/Nazi/criminal?” There’s enough emotion on the show without Gates’ trying to kick it up a notch.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)–More great feminist-focused political commentary, with increasing frustration at the criminal in the White House.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)–Season 3 was not as good as its predecessor, which was not as good as the first season. Although I continue to appreciate the world building and the portrayal of the oppression and the responses to it, not to mention the acting, my big complaints are (1) people get seriously punished or even killed for minor offenses, but June literally gets away with murder, and (2) the show has gotten too reliant on closeups of Elisabeth Moss’ face. OK, (3) sometimes the season was dull.
The Good Place (first half) (NBC)–My sadness about this show ending in 2020 falls just below the end of Bojack Horseman to me. The first half of the final season set up the concluding run, which is now over. The end was brilliant, and will definitely be in next year’s list.
GLOW (Netflix)–An excellent third season for this show about women’s wrestling. OK, it is really about friendship, and female empowerment, and parents and children. But also, wrestling. At the end of the day, what will be remembered about this series is the way it portrayed the frenemy-ship of the leads, played wonderfully by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, but the supporting cast of wrestlers, directors, and promoters are also great.
Jack Ryan (Amazon)–Another solid, entertaining season of this spy show, featuring a surprisingly good John Krasinski. And any chance to watch Wendell Pierce is worth it.
Jessica Jones (Netflix)–Better than Season 2, lots of stuff happens, and it was, for the most part, interesting. I’m glad that I watched this, and the other Netflix Marvel series (well, most of them), but I’m not crying that they are done.
John Mullaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (Netflix)–Mullaney’s ability to execute parody is extraordinary. See Documentary Now! discussed above, or this. The gentle, but sometimes pointed and occasionally insane, parody of a kids’ show was hysterical.
Killing Eve (Hulu)–Another example of a show that should have stopped after a great first season. No, season 2 wasn’t terrible–the writing was still good, if not Waller-Bridge good, and the acting from Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh was consistently excellent, but the story wasn’t all that interesting. And Season 3 is scheduled to air this spring. Yay?
The Kominsky Method (Netflix)–Yes, it is a Chuck Lorre creation, but it isn’t as shallow as much of his network output, and features two old pros, Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in the lead role–Arkin as a relatively self-effacing, but incredibly successful agent, who speaks to his dead ex-wife, and his best friend and client, Douglas, as a raging egomaniac acting coach with a propensity for womanizing. The show deals well with issues of aging, parents and children, success and relationships, and the scenes with Arkin and Douglas are great.
Last Chance U (Netflix)–Season 3 moved the show from Mississippi to Kansas, and introduced a coach who seemed even nuttier and more of a con man than the first two seasons. In Season 4, at the same school, everything blows up. The highly touted team implodes, which leads to finger pointing and an “every man for himself” approach from the players and coaches. The town turns on the team, and it gets ugly, as the coach is forced to resign after the release of an email he sent to a German player referring to himself as his “new Hitler.” Subsequently, the coach was charged with eight felony charges for blackmail and identity theft, and his former assistant, who took over the program, led the team to a league championship and was named coach of the year.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)–What I said last year is still true: Another great season of political commentary and humor addressing both the obvious and the less covered stories.
Les Misérables (PBS)–I never read the book, and my only exposure to the show was a very good teen production in which my daughter had a small role, so I really didn’t know the whole story. A typically big production, with a fine cast, including Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Lily Collins, Johnny Flynn, Olivia Colman, and Derek Jacoby.
Luther (BBC America)–It has been a while since we have seen the great Idris Elba as troubled DCI Luther, and it was a typically knotty, violent and compelling series, especially since Ruth Wilson returned as the psychopath Alice Morgan.
Making It! (NBC)–Season 2 of this gentle crafting competition continued to amuse and entertain, thanks to the hosts, Amy Pohler and Nick Offerman, and the overall niceness and decency of the contestants, who seemed more interested in helping each other and appreciating each others’ talents than winning. Although the winner, Justine Silva, was happy to win the $100 grand. That she reminded me a little of Pohler and Offerman’s Parks & Rec co-star Rashida Jones was a bonus.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)–The production and performances continue to be excellent, and there were a few interesting plot twists. But I think that there is a “Sherman-Palladino fatigue” factor setting in, where they begin to get too enamored of their own cleverness, which I also saw as Gilmore Girls went on and got increasingly cutesy. Also, the fact that Midge, while apparently a good comic, is not a great person, hurts because the show isn’t about her failings (see, for example, BoJack or Brockmire), but seems to want the viewer to give her a pass, because she’s so pretty and so funny. Still, I enjoyed the spectacle.
Mindhunter (Netflix)–Another good season, if not as good as the first, as the team investigates the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81.
Miracle Workers (TBS)–A very, very silly show from the twisted mind of Simon Rich, who was behind another favorite of mine, Man Seeking Woman. Here, the premise is that God, played by Steve Buscemi, is a slacker, who essentially decides to destroy Earth out of boredom, and low-level heaven bureaucrats, played by Daniel Radcliffe, Geraldine Viswanathan, Lolly Adefope and others, save humanity. Season 2, with much of the same cast in different roles, is a spoof of the Middle Ages.
Modern Love (Amazon)–Based on the series of essays in The New York Times‘ Style section, the show was predictably glossy and filled with real estate porn. Strong writing and excellent casting made this a fun watch, as the episodes explored all sorts of love, from romantic to platonic.
Mrs. Wilson (PBS)–Ruth Wilson starred as her own grandmother in this three-episode fact-based drama, in which grandma discovers that grandpa was (maybe) an MI6 agent, and had multiple families.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (Netflix)–I would watch David Letterman do pretty much anything, and getting to see him do long interviews with (mostly) interesting people is a treat. This season included, among others, Ellen DeGeneres, Tiffany Haddish and Melinda Gates,
Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)–I probably should have included this on last year’s list, too–while there were issues with having the whole season take place over a short period during and after a prison riot, it was pretty compelling, and Danielle Brooks’ work as Taystee was brilliant. This year the show ended with a season that gave us some closure on the characters we have followed. Not surprisingly, it the results were mostly negative, with only occasional bright spots.
One Day At a Time (Netflix)–This is simply a very well done sitcom with generally sharp writing, good acting, and a social conscience. And Rita Moreno. Which is why many people went nuts when Netflix cancelled it. Luckily, it has been picked up by Pop (which, apparently is a thing, and is owned by CBS).
Peaky Blinders (Netflix)–Damn, do I love this show. Season 5 takes place right after the stock market crash in 1929, which unsettles the Shelbys’ legitimate businesses. Luckily, though, they have their illegal ones as backups. With the usual double crosses, violence, smoking, intense performances, drinking and musical montages. Plus, British fascism.
The Punisher (Netflix)–I’m not really sad that Netflix cancelled all of their Marvel shows, because they were suffering from diminishing returns. I liked season 2, if not as much as season 1, but it was still exciting, with good cartoon violence, if you know what I mean. I want to give a particular shoutout to Giorgia Whigham, daughter of excellent character actor Shea, for her portrayal of Castle’s initially undesired hanger on.
Ramy (Hulu)-An unexpected pleasure, this show is another example of the “comedian stars as a fictional version of him or herself” genre. In this case, it is Ramy Youssef, who stars, and wrote and directed some of the episodes. The show’s exploration of what it means to be a young Muslim in America was fascinating and funny. Particularly effective were the exploration of the double standard that Ramy’s parents (and their friends and family) had for Ramy and his sister, and the episodes in Egypt, where he discovers that there’s a real difference between being a member of a Muslim minority and in the majority. And Youssef surprisingly won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV series – musical or comedy over Michael Douglass, Bill Hader, Ben Platt, and Paul Rudd.
The Red Line (CBS)–A rare CBS drama that wasn’t a police procedural, this show, starring Noah Wylie, is described, accurately, by Wikipedia as about “a white cop in Chicago who mistakenly shoots and kills a black doctor. It follows three different families with connections to the case: the victim’s husband and their adopted daughter; the daughter’s birth mother, who is running for city council, who is married with a young son; and the policeman, whose brother is a paraplegic ex-cop and whose father is a retired police captain.” That the murdered doctor was Wylie’s character’s husband, and the adopted daughter was black added to the drama. It addressed a number of important issues well, and yet was not renewed.
The Rookie (ABC)–Despite some off-camera drama, the show continues to be a fun, exciting cop show that focuses more on the lives of the characters than the “crime of the week,” and they’ve created interesting characters, with complicated dynamics. It hits a nice sweet spot between guilty pleasure and The Wire.
Russian Doll (Netflix)–This was on many best of lists, and the honor was well-deserved. In fact, it probably would have been my number 1 show, if it wasn’t for Fleabag. A mind-bending, time-twisting show that was a darker, more intense variation on the Groundhog Day concept, it was a real showcase for creator and star Natasha Lyonne. And, it could be very funny.
Shrill (Hulu)–Aidy Bryant was great in this 6 episode comedy about a woman dealing with her weight, her job, her love life, her friends and family.
Silicon Valley (HBO)–The last season of this series had the characters go their typical successes and failures, but the twist was that this time, their failure was based on their success. They created a product so powerful that it needed to be destroyed before it wreaked havoc on the world, and destroyed in a way that didn’t encourage anyone else to duplicate it. So, there were lots of rats involved. And, a nice “jump into the future” episode, to see where everyone ended up.
Single Parents (end of season 1, start of season 2) (ABC)–This is a character-driven sitcom, which has only improved as we learn more about the characters and how they interact. And, for the most part, child actors aren’t annoying.
Stranger Things (Netflix)–I didn’t think that they could pull off the show’s mix of horror, homage, humor and teen lust (sorry, couldn’t keep up the alliteration). But they did!
The Spy (Netflix)–I was a little surprised that this show, based on a true story, didn’t get more notice. Sacha Baron Cohen, in a purely dramatic role, plays an Israeli spy who infiltrates the highest level of the Syrian government during the mid-1960s and pays the price. A taut six-episode thriller created by Gideon Raff, who created the Israeli show Prisoner of War, which was adapted into Homeland.
Stumptown (first half) (ABC)–Like The Rookie, this is a mostly a procedural drama that is more about the characters than the plot. Based on a graphic novel, Cobie Smulders is the lead, Dex(adrine) Parios, a wise-cracking bisexual veteran with untreated PTSD, and apparent alcohol and sex addiction issues, who becomes a private detective. And, she has a younger brother with Down Syndrome to take care of. Her best friend (and former lover), is an ex-con who owns a bar (where her brother works, and where Dex meets clients), and is played by The New Girl‘s Jake Johnson. Sounds good, right?
This Is Us (NBC)–Although it likes to play with your head and tear at your heart, the show is so well constructed that you never know when something is going to come back, years later, and matter. For example, in the first part of the current season, which ran in 2019, we met Cassidy, a vet who seems to have connected with Kevin. But nothing ever comes of it. But who knows if she ever returns. I mean, do you hire a reasonably well-known actress like Jennifer Morrison for a throwaway? And more of the characters’ back stories are revealed, and seeds are planted for future timelines. Plus, somehow, Kevin is turning out to be the most interesting member of the Big Three.
This Way Up (Hulu)–It’s probably not a good sign that I forgot what this show was, but when I reminded myself about this British show, starring and created by Aisling Bea as a woman recovering from a recent nervous breakdown, and featuring (and co-executive produced by) the busy Sharon Horgan, I remembered that it was very good. There’s some similarities to Fleabag and Catastrophe, but it was different enough that if you liked those shows, it is worth checking out, and you won’t be bored.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)–This crazy show somehow never made my prior lists, but it probably should have. Off the wall, outrageous, sometimes nonsensical, and often hilarious, this show about a rescued cult hostage trying to make her way in modern society in a bizarre New York City wasn’t always on the mark, but when it was, it was incredible. Great work from Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, Tituss Burgess, as her best friend, Carol Kane as her landlord and Jane Krakowski as, well, a Jane Krakowski-type character.
Veep (HBO)–This often uneven show was, during its run, hilarious at times, painful at others, and no longer seems as much as a parody as it was when it started. The last season allowed the show to run its course, with some surprises, some big laughs, and a pretty good flash forward finale.
Veronica Mars (Hulu)–We binge watched the entire run of this show, about an (initially) teenage private eye through its incredible first season, good second and third season and pretty good movie, so that we could watch the revival. It was well worth it. The team did a very good job updating the show in light of the years that had passed in its characters’ lives, and the ending, while shocking to many, worked, if you understood the creator’s thoughts (which he explained in many interviews).
Victoria (PBS)–Another good season from this well done series about British royals. There’s relatively tame British rebellion, some “royals have to stick together” stuff, an early version of a press leak, a serious upstairs/downstairs romance, fights over then-modern architecture, and the Don Pacifico Affair, which isn’t as sexy as it sounds. Prince Albert comes off looking relatively progressive, most of the time. So, of course, he collapses at the end. It is hard to really have spoilers in an historically based show.
The Village (NBC)–C’mon, NBC–how could you not give this a second season? The show focused on a fantasy New York building where all of the residents not only know each other, but are intertwined in each other’s lives. The cast, including Dominic Chianese, Lorraine Toussaint, Michaela McManus, and Frankie Faison, among others, was winning and believable, and the show got better each week. Boo, NBC (and not just because I know one of Chianese’s daughters and her family).
What We Do In The Shadows (FX)–This show is about a group of bumbling vampires living in Staten Island. It was based on a movie of the same name, written by Jermaine Clement, probably best known as a member of Flight of the Conchords, and Taika Waititi, who wrote, directed and starred in Jojo Rabbit. It is extremely silly, and hit or miss, but when it hits, it is very, very funny.
You’re The Worst (FXX)–This has been one of my favorite shows of the past few years, and it also ended last year. I think that was a good call, and the final season meandered a bit before ending pretty much perfectly.
Yes and No
Supergirl (CW)-When Supergirl started, it was a relatively low key superhero show, focusing on relationships, female empowerment and the media. Over time, it got more complex and crazy and hard to follow. The second part of season 4 made some good, relevant points about immigration and nativism, but when that story line wrapped up, it went off again into more typical comic book drama. Plus, the show continued to become more integrated with other superhero shows on the CW, none of which I watched. So, after sampling one episode of Season 5, I gave up.
New To Me
Bodyguard (2018) (Netflix)–We watched this British show early in 2019, and found it exciting and interesting.
Didn’t See, But Want To
Watchmen–We watched half, then realized we had no idea what was going on. At a friend’s suggestion, we watched the movie, for background, but never finished the series. Some day.
Better Things–We are getting to the point where there may be too many seasons to catch up.
Succession–Lots of buzz, sounded interesting.
When They See Us–Really want to watch this, not sure when I’m ready to put myself through the experience.
Gentleman Jack–Sounds fun.
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