As the decade draws to a close, there are more TV viewing options than ever before. Contemplating every buzz-worthy show is a daunting prospect, particularly as Apple and Disney have entered the original streaming content fray, and more are set to launch.
Compiling an end of year list means there will be inevitable absences, in some cases because of a drop in quality (Killing Eve) or because a glossy veneer isn’t enough (The Crown). It is also impossible to watch everything, however, this cross-section of what television has to offer in 2019 includes comedy, drama, original stories, adaptations, reality, animation and searing interpretations of real events.
Below you’ll find plenty of TV to binge watch over the festive period, but let us know what your favourites of this year have been @LWLies
World War Two is a well-tapped source, so it would be easy to dismiss Peter Bowker’s drama as another familiar narrative. However, the various threads across Poland, France, and the UK connect to reveal human stories that go beyond big battle set-pieces and inspirational speeches, in these trying times. The Polish resistance, a posh boy socialist turned hardened soldier, and those still bearing the mental scars of World War One, are factors that make this a must-watch. Standout performances include Lesley Manville’s nuanced turn as a wealthy woman with a biting tongue and Zofia Wichłacz’s descent into vengeance-fuelled survival.
The kids are not alright in Sam Levinson’s drug-fuelled exploration of high schoolers dealing with the pressures of social media, addiction, and everyday life. Zendaya leads the way as the recently out of rehab Rue, struggling to stay sober while falling in love with her new best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer). Stylised editing, incorporating quick cuts and collages of images makes it one of the best depictions of how the internet shapes adolescence in 2019. Movies inform the overall aesthetic: one character idolises Sharon Stone in Casino, while others dress as characters from Romeo + Juliet and True Romance for Halloween.
Netflix has carved out a space for innovative adult cartoons including Big Mouth and Bojack Horseman. The most exciting addition to this roster is sadly the shortest-lived because the streaming giant pulled the plug on Lisa Hanawalt’s series after just one season. Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish voice unlikely best bird friends Tuca and Bertie in a hilarious and sometimes painful portrayal of friendship, anxiety, addiction, and sex. Don’t let its cancellation put you off, this series flies high like a bird.
End of the F***ing World closed out its first season with a huge cliffhanger leaving the audience unsure whether James (Alex Lawther) is alive or dead. Even though two years have passed, the literal and figurative scars from that previous adventure are still fresh. Still wickedly funny, the trauma of past experiences is too much to bear alone. Forgiveness doesn’t come easy, but Lawther and co-star Jessica Barden’s portrayal of the two lonely teens, reveals why writer Charlie Covell decided there was more story to tell. Naomi Ackie as newcomer Bonnie and a stellar soundtrack make this essential viewing.
As one of the first Netflix Original offerings, OITNB is a landmark series for the streaming platform. After a couple of so-so years, the final season was back to its best with creator Jenji Kohan delivering a searing swansong tackling the rise in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centres. Few are offered a happy ending, but hope is not extinguished in a storyline featuring an award-worthy turn from Danielle Brooks as fan-favourite Taystee. A real-life fund ensures OITNB’s legacy is far more than ushering in a new age of streaming possibilities.
From the mind of former Saturday Night Live writer Tim Robinson (and producers including The Lonely Island), the six-part sketch show is a journey into the wonderfully absurd. The longest episode runs to a tight 18-minutes, which in this era of Peak TV is a huge selling point. Robinson has created something so surreal, you will need to watch again to make sure you aren’t experiencing a hilarious fever dream. Highlights include extreme performative social media self-deprecation, an acerbic “Baby of the Year” contest, and a revenge plan decades in the making.
Brooke (Heléne Yorke) and Cary Dubek (Drew Tarver) are sibling thirtysomethings trying to get their lives in order, which is complicated by their teen brother Chase’s (Case Walker) newfound Bieber-level fame. There is nothing more humbling (and soul-destroying) than the overnight success of an artist whose songs include “Marry U at Recess,” “My Brother’s Gay and That’s Okay!” and “Stink.” Cary is an aspiring actor still waiting tables, which provides the foundation for the often hilarious (and sometimes heartbreaking) mediation on pursuing a creative career.
Conflict is at the heart of Derry Girls, from the precarious (and dangerous) political situation to the daily adolescent drama. The first season ended on a tragic note juxtaposing a bombing with the carefree girls (and James) dancing on stage. The follow-up deftly mixes the reality of living in these conditions including attempted hook-ups with Protestant boys. Nineties music, fashion, and pop culture references are woven throughout, delivering a hit of nostalgia, however, the themes are universal. President Bill Clinton’s visit in the finale offers a semblance of hope, but it is James’ (aka the “Wee English Fella”) declaration at the end of the episode, which will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear.
The Upside Down expanded to include a Soviet conspiracy in a season that recaptured the heart of Netflix’s flagship show. References to ’80s movies including Red Dawn, Back to the Future, and The Neverending Story pepper the action, but it is the chemistry between the teen actors, which provides the magic. Hawkins newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) is the perfect foil to big-haired hero Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) as the four-team Scoop Troop took on the Russians while dressed as sailors. The set-pieces are bigger, nevertheless, Stranger Things is at its best during intimate moments.
After 11 seasons (and four All Star outings), RuPaul’s Drag Race came to the UK, injecting some much-needed oomph back into the long-running competition series. The line-up of competing drag queens included performing veterans and newcomers, which created drama while showcasing charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. These queens didn’t try to mimic their US counterparts, instead, they kept to their UK drag roots, while also discussing issues impacting the LGBT+ community (including the stain of Section 28 and Northern Ireland’s same-sex marriage laws). Guest judges Andrew Garfield and Michaela Coel added energy to the panel, alongside Alan Carr and Graham Norton.
The biggest show of the decade came to an end, but the final season didn’t match the hype. Errant coffee cups and plastic water bottles, unsatisfactory character conclusions, and complaints about hard-to-see battle scenes don’t negate the overall Game of Thrones achievement. It is unlikely that we will experience a show of this collective viewing magnitude again and the final season wasn’t a total wash. Gasp-worthy moments from Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and a beautiful Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) knighting scene before the great battle revealed the best of GoT, even while it was at its most frustrating.
Mindhunter delves into the psyche of America’s most infamous serial killers in a bid to learn how this type of criminal operates. The second season deviates from those behind bars to pursuing a killer terrorising Atlanta as their methods are put into practice. Holden (Jonathan Groff) gets his dream interview with Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who also played the cult leader in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), but it is his role in the active investigation that cranks up the tension. Minutia matters and the sometimes David Fincher directed series implores the viewer to pay attention to every detail.
A change of scenery took the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling to a residency in Sin City, which led to creative inertia for some while lighting a fire in others. Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) had a transcendent experience in the desert, which led to a powerful shedding of her canine persona and stunning turn by Rankin. No other show captures complex female friendships quite as well as GLOW; Ruth’s (Alison Brie) betrayal will always cut deep but her bond with Debbie (Betty Gilpin) enters a new and deeper understanding in its penultimate season.
Both the first and second season of Ryan Murphy’s exploration into 1980s New York ball culture aired in the UK in 2019. The groundbreaking drama centres stories that normally play on the periphery or provide teachable moments. Instead, Pose not only focuses on trans characters, but it is also set a record for the number of trans series regulars in the cast. Never shying away from the difficult storylines, the AIDS epidemic and violence against trans women are portrayed with equal care and consideration, alongside the creative freedom the ball scene offers. A deserved Emmy win for Billy Porter as emcee Pray Tell, Pose is a breath of fresh air.
Craig Mazin’s five-part miniseries took viewers into the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, portraying every aspect of the cataclysmic event from the sacrificial heroism to the unspoken cowardice of the people who tried to cover it up. Every element of the production from the sound design to the art direction meticulously recreated the disaster showing the personal and political impact. Grounded by a standout performance by Jared Harris, Chernobyl is unflinching in its portrayal of the great loss to a community that still can’t return home.
Mr Robot has gone on quite the journey from breakout first season to an exceptional final outing, which is flying under the radar. Rami Malek won an Oscar in 2019, but it is his portrayal of hacker Elliot Alderson that should be celebrated. Hard truths have pushed Elliot to the edge as he tries to bring down the nefarious Dark Army. Creator Sam Esmail has always been ambitious, and his audacious creative swings are paying off. One heist-driven episode paid homage to Rififi with just two lines of dialogue uttered in an hour, another took the format of a tightly-knitted play. The series finale has yet to air; if Esmail sticks the landing, it will be the best season yet.
Adapted from a Pulitzer winning article, Unbelievable is a gut-wrenching portrayal of a teenager accused of crying “rape” and the two detectives who proved otherwise. It has been a big year for Kaitlyn Dever starring in Booksmart, but it is her devastating and award-worthy turn as Marie Adler that will rock you to your core. Covering two different timelines, Toni Collete and Merritt Wever are the detectives you want on the case. Unbelievable is not afraid of showing the difference between good and bad investigators and the series co-created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon is true crime TV without the glossy veneer.
Without Gwen Verdon, there would be no Bob Fosse. In the eight-part miniseries detailing both careers, this is a fact that cannot be denied, even if only one of them is a household name. Dance has followed Sam Rockwell from movie to movie, but he also nails the darker aspects of a man who dreamed of being the next Fred Astaire. However, it is Michelle Williams as Verdon who steals the spotlight at every turn, whether delivering seemingly unconscious choreographed crying during a fight with Bob, singing “Razzle Dazzle,” or facing creative rejection due to her age. Finally, Gwen is getting the credit she deserves.
At the time of writing this, Watchmen hasn’t finished its final season, however, the first seven episodes speak volumes as to the care and attention that has gone into this adaptation. Set 30 years after the events of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel, creator Damon Lindelof has expertly paid homage to the source material while introducing memorable new characters. Moore might disavow the HBO series, but the way it examines superheroes, forgotten history, and the current political climate has deepened the original work. Meditations on life, death, and power are woven through HBO’s new flagship series.
When Barry and Killing Eve debuted in 2018, Barry (Bill Hader) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) were very different sides of the assassin coin. While Killing Eve suffered a sophomore slump, the Hader helmed dark comedy went from strength-to-strength as the reluctant hitman kept getting pulled back into the killer-for-hire business. All Barry wants to know is if people have the capacity to change, otherwise, he is stuck in this role as a killer. Hader and co-creator Alec Berg didn’t rest on first season success, creating more ambitious and difficult scenarios for Barry to get out of, adding to his guilt at each turn.
The television equivalent of a warm hug, Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek became a rare first-time Emmy-nominee for its fifth season. Created by and starring Eugene Levy and his son Dan, the trials and tribulations of the formerly-rich Rose family balance absurd humour with a huge dollop of love and personal growth. Catherine O’Hara as matriarch Moira has essentially created her own language while delivering a career-best performance. Dan Levy has always said Schitt’s Creek is a homophobia-free town, ensuring an LGBT+ romance can flourish without fear it will end in tragedy. This led to a coming out episode unlike any previously portrayed on TV. A community theatre production of Cabaret ended the penultimate season, showcasing Dan Levy’s directorial talents behind the camera.
A case that rocked New York City in 1989, the Ava DuVernay four-part limited series portrays the gross miscarriage of justice that the so-called Central Park Five experienced. Accused of rape and a brutal assault, the series will leave you angry at the events that led to the wrongful conviction of the adolescent boys. This series doesn’t hold back when showing the unrelenting interrogation tactics, and institutionalised racism the young teens faced. Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome deservedly won an Emmy for playing Korey Wise (the only boy tried as an adult), but the whole ensemble warrants plaudits.
Described as an existential adventure by co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll is much more than a “Groundhog Day” premise. A meditation on life and death, Nadia is joined in the time-loop conundrum by Alan (the excellent Charlie Barrett) in this exploration of past trauma and mental health. An odd couple of sorts, Nadia’s hard exterior is the perfect foil for new friend’s fragile shell. Anchored by phenomenal performances from the central pair, the emotional stakes rise as each layer gets peeled back culminating in a dizzying finale (also directed by Lyonne).
Succession isn’t asking the audience to feel sorry for a family of billionaires, rather, Jesse Armstrong’s often hilarious portrayal of the one per cent is a blistering examination of power, the media, and the bonds of blood. The stakes are always high, whether it’s a humiliating game of Boar on the Floor or holding off a hostile takeover bid. Jeremy Strong as Kendall took the character to a soul-crushing low, while also performing a cringe-worthy rap ode to his father with all sincerity. Luxury yachts, palatial summer houses, and lavish parties are what sets this family apart, but at its heart, the squabbles, longing for validation, and playful sibling banter aren’t predicated on a trust fund.
The second (and most probably final) season of Fleabag is a self-proclaimed love story that goes beyond an illicit affair with a priest. The chemistry between Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott as the Priest fuels the narrative; each interaction between the pair is crackling with forbidden desire. But their connection is more than just a sexual one, filling the hole in Fleabag’s heart caused by the grief of losing her best friend, her mother, and the rift with her sister Claire (Sian Clifford). Even the most fleeting relationships can cut deep, leaving a permanent mark. Something Waller-Bridge has done to the viewer throughout this phenomenal season.
Published 23 Dec 2019
By Emma Fraser
Essential viewing to fill the Phoebe Waller-Bridge shaped void in your life.
Counting down our favourite feature-length releases from the past 12 months.