2019 has been in the books for a while now but I’ve been ruminating on my list of favourite new shows since the year ended and tried catching up on all the stuff I missed so I thought I’d do a rundown of what I consider the best new shows of 2019 (far superior to every list you’ve of best overall shows you’ve certainly read by now and that’s probably just some combination of Fleabag and Barry). You can also check out last year’s list to see what shows inevitably fell off the rails with their second seasons, and what shows I was completely wrong about, like Jack Ryan.
In that regard, 2019 was pretty much on par if not better than 2019. I absolutely fell in love with most of the shows in the top 20 this year, and so many of them are original works of a scope and scale most TV viewers probably couldn’t even fathom a few short years ago. This year’s list is full of great and ambitious shows and miniseries of many different kinds of genres. And there’s so much I didn’t have time to see! Before we get started, shout out to some shows that are still on my watch list, like The Witcher, The Politician, Love Death & Robots, Fosse/Verdon, Pen15. If I missed aything else, make sure to scold me in the comments!
Without further adieu, here are 20 of my favourite new shows of 2019!
20. The Twilight Zone (CBS All-Access)
Jordan Peele’s revival of The Twilight Zone was a mixed bag. Some of the episodes were really bad and half-baked, but several rose above the bar and showed the potential of what this show could be in 2019. I thought they touched on something interesting with the meta commentary in “Blurryman”, for instance, and “A Traveler” was so weird and creepy it felt like it was ready to be produced for The X-Files (after all, it was written by Glen Morgan). Plus even some of the worst episode still had the novelty of attracting great guest stars, thanks to Peele’s pull, and that alone makes most of these worth watching. There are some kinks to be straightened out, but with Black Mirror only producing a handful of episodes at a time, the return of good old anthology-driven horror and sci fi television is welcome.
19. The Chef Show (Netflix)
We all need comfort food television. In my case, I take that expression a tad more literally. The show that filled that need for me in 2019 the most was Jon Favreau’s docuseries spinoff of his 2014 passion film Chef, and just like that movie, the docuseries version is just an overindulgent, elaborate excuse for him to go around eating while accosting his famous celebrity friends. Highlights include a roundtable with some of the Avengers, a visit to Goop headquarters where we find out Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t really know what’s going on with all this Marvel business, and an episode where he eats several pizzas at Robert Rodriguez’s house. I’m anxiously anticipating the next volume of this show where Favreau inevitably gets a stew going with The Mandalorian’s Carl Weathers and Baby Yoda at the Mos Eisley Cantina.
18. Whiskey Cavalier (ABC)
You won’t see many broadcast TV entries on this list, but I bet everyone reading this last has one or two guilty pleasures they love to watch from the Big 4. Mine in 2019 was the short-lived Whiskey Cavalier, a spy thriller/action dramedy starring Scott Foley and Lauren Cohan. While the show only lasted 13 episodes before ABC cancelled it, they managed to make good use of the network’s money travelling to exotic locations all over Europe and really doing a good job of creating endearing characters that I think could have gone places if they would have gotten another shot. Unfortunately all we’ll ever have is this one season, which ends on a goddamn cliffhanger, so probably don’t bother watching it.
17. NWA Powerrr (Youtube) and AEW Dynamite (TNT)
Listen, nowhere in the rules does it say I can’t talk about wrestling on this list.
Like most lapsed wrestling fans, I occasionally tune in to see what WWE has to offer only to groan at the sordid state of affairs on RAW and Smackdown before moving on with my life, but 2019 offered two very distinct and different reasons to get excited about wrestling. The first was AEW, a new WCW-like promotion with money and enthusiasm behind it that started the year making huge promises to wrestling fans and wound up delivering on those promises big time in the fall, with a new weekly show called Dynamite that offers a balanced mix of recognizable faces (such as Chris Jericho, the promotion’s first champion, The Rhodes brothers and Jon Moxley, formerly Dean Ambrose in WWE) and indy stars you’ll almost instantly get excited about like Kenny Omega, The Lucha Bros and Orange Cassidy. Almost every episode has hit it out of the park with great exciting matches.
But if you want something a little more traditional, more old school, you don’t even need a cable subscription as Billy Corgan (yes, that Billy Corgan) has brought 80’s style studio wrestling back with NWA Powerrr, a weekly, pre-taped Youtube show that’s fun and refreshing and completely ridiculous. To paint you a picture, the most over guy on the show is currently The Question Mark, a terrible wrestle in a mask who is comedically overpowered thanks to the power of Mongrovian Karate and who has cleanly beaten some of the company’s biggest stars in the show’s short existence. But there’s also some legitimate wrestling in this 45-50 minute Youtube show, thanks to talent such as Nick Aldis, James Storm, Thunder Rosa, Colt Cabana and even the goddamn Rock & Roll Express, still lighting it up in their 60s.
I can’t believe I’m excited excited about wrestling in this day and age, but these two shows give us more than enough reasons to be.
16. Doom Patrol (DC Universe)
Full disclosure, I’m not that far into the first season of Doom Patrol yet, but what I’ve seen in the first few episodes is enough to earn it a spot on the list. It’s a superhero team up show that has the charm of a Legends of Tomorrow with great acting from the likes of Matt Bomer, Alan Tudyk and Brendan Fraser and a good pace for episodes coming in at an hour a pop. I’ll try to add more when I’m done with the season but this is an easy recommend even after just the pilot and their introduction in Titans last year.
15. Living With Yourself (Netflix)
Netflix once again killed it with these limited run dramedies with great concepts, and one of them was Living With Yourself, which gave us not one, but two great Paul Rudd performances, as he plays a man down on his luck, in a rut both professionally and in his marriage, who goes to an expensive spa and accidentally comes out cloned. Much like another show which we’ll talk about later on this list, Living With Yourself tackle some deep existential issues from interesting creators, and that’s probably the best stuff coming out of Netflix these days.
14. Good Omens (Amazon Prime Video)
One of the big benefits of Peak TV is that we finally have the medium and space to adapt work from some of the more original, unique authors of the world such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Fans of their novel, Good Omens, would have been hard pressed envisioning how it would have worked on screen even just a few years ago. And while it took a lot of work from Gaiman himself to get it done, the end result (a 6 episode miniseries in Amazon) is something that even the ficklest of his fans would be proud of, as the show greatly captures the charm and character of the novel. Not to give Neil all the credit though, because this probably wouldn’t have worked without the perfect Aziraphale and Crowley, which Michael Sheen and David Tennant respectively are.
13. Dickinson (Apple TV Plus)
A lot of people didn’t give Apple TV+ the time of day when it launched in November, and honestly, I get it. Apple’s new streaming service launched with a paltry four original shows, and with a weekly release schedule it was tough to know how they would all turn out. Spoiler alert for this and the next two spots on the list: they turned out mostly pretty good.
Starting off this trio is a reimagining of the life of Emily Dickinson (played by the infinitely charming Hailee Steinfeld) which stands out thanks to the fact that it drops any 19th century pretense and treats it like a spoof of a teen drama with just enough irony in the writing and presentation. The old timey accents are few and far between, the issues the show tackles are modern, there’s contemporary music and even some great, unexpected guest spots from the likes of John Mulaney, Jason Mantzoukas and Wiz Khalifa, of all people. Plus at less than 30 minutes a pop, the show flies smoothly and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
12. For All Mankind (Apple TV Plus)
The second best of Apple’s first batch of shows is the alt-history sci fi show from the creator of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander, Ron D. Moore, which posits what the space race would have looked like in the 70s if it were the Soviet Union that first landed on the moon. Spoiler alert: if you’re a fan of space, it turns out it would have looked a lot better, as the show depicts America constantly chasing the Russians by training women to become astronauts and making a permanent moon base, and it even teases some crazy things for the already confirmed second season. If you’re a fan of “what if” style historical fiction and are longing for more space drama, then this is a must watch. The only reason this isn’t the best of Apple’s shows (or even Moore’s) is that it focuses way too much on the family drama aspects. While I understand they wanted to tackle the social aspects of it between women’s rights and LGBTQ issues, I could stand to see a lot of these hour+ long episodes cut down by 10 or 15 minutes by removing some of the space wives scenes. But maybe that’s just me.
11. The Morning Show (Apple TV Plus)
When I first started thinking about this list a couple of months ago, I didn’t think I would be singing the praises of Apple’s big budget Jennifer Aniston vehicle and The Newsroom knockoff. After all, this seemed like a show formed by committee or focus group rather than organically. The cynic in me imagines they had the stars and the idea to tackle current events before they had an actual show in mind. Let’s get a former friend, the guy from The Office (but he’s despicable now) and Reese Witherspoon with the southern charm dialed up to 11, and we’ll figure out the plot later. But then I actually sat down and binged the damn thing over my holiday break and it turns out this insane mess of a show somehow works? Don’t get me wrong, all those things are probably true. This feels like an excuse to pay big stars and disseminate Tim Cook’s personal views to the audience more than any reason to make a show. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained, as the show toes this line between good and bad rather impressively. Every episode has no less than a handful of scenes where the music wells up and a character delivers a dramatic speech about the sad state of affairs. The show is all in on tackling Me Too and almost comedically borrows from aspects of various aspects of the movement and individual cases even though it all winds up being super serious and sad. And easily the best part of the show is Billy Cruddup as the network executive, Cory Ellison, who seems to be in a completely different show. Every time he’s on screen he’s emoting like he’s The Joker and making insane quips. It’s like they knew the entire show was horse shit and chose to break it up with diametrically opposed levity.
But like I said, somehow, all of this works, and I can’t wait for more of it. Much like with their products, Apple got me. I thought I was out, but then they pulled me back in.
10. Euphoria (HBO)
If you thought it was weird that we’d made it halfway through the list without talking about anything on HBO, don’t, because they’re going to dominate the second half. Maybe it’s the added pressure from all these new streaming services, maybe they’re just always this good and we forget, but 2019 was a hell of a year for the network. But while everyone is talking about all the other shows we’re going to list in the top 10, the one that seemed to fly under the radar was Euphoria, perhaps because it’s not for the faint of heart. This is a show that’s constantly in your face about high school kids having sex and doing drugs, tackling very contemporary issues of identity and addiction and intimacy. It doesn’t feel like one of these shows made by someone two generations older than the subjects or the target audience. It feels like a raunchy, super gritty version of what might happen to the girl from Eighth Grade three years later. It’s meant to make you uncomfortable, and it succeeds greatly in that regard.
9. Evil (CBS)
Every fall, I sample all of the Big 4 networks’ new dramas hoping to find something decent to add to my viewing lineup, and while I mostly wind up disappointed, there’s usually one standout. This year’s standout might be one of the better new network shows in a few years. Evil follows Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist who takes a job with David Acosta (Mike Colter), a priest in training looking for someone to help him distinguish the real religious mysteries from the fake. This “X-Files but with religion” premise is great, but where the show shines the most is in how it bucks all of the trends you’d expect from a CBS drama. It has procedural elements but also a really great central mystery that flows seamlessly through the episodes. It’s about coworkers teaming up to solve crimes but none of them are cops. They have a ton of sexual tension but somehow it feels earned. There’s a family drama aspect but it’s really well developed and doesn’t feel obtrusive to the story. And the best part of the show is the Big Bad, played by Michael Emerson, who may or may not be the devil and whose subplots so far have included dating Kristen’s mom to fuck with her, creating an incel army and indoctrinating children through addictive Christmas jingles. This show is wild and great, completely in spite of the fact that it’s on CBS.
8. The Boys (Amazon Prime Video)
Based on the kinds of shows we got in the superhero genre this year, it feels like The Boys would have been the perfect show for around 2017. A show that bucks trends and tropes in the superhero genre, where everyone is an antihero or a straight up villain, with themes of corporate greed and jingoism and no limit to the violence it’s willing to portray sounds pretty cool, if you ignore how Doom Patrol and Watchmen did all these things and more but about 100x times better, and without holding back way too much because you know you have half a dozen more volumes of comics you can adapt. That might sound overly harsh, because I did really like The Boys, just look at its position on this list. It’s just that after a few months of it being off the air have made me almost completely forget about it, it feels like a distant memory and a show more suited for years past. But it’s a smartly written, entertaining as hell show and I’m sure the people behind it were watching what was happening on those other shows I mentioned, and I expect it to evolve, to tackle more pressing themes, to be as good as it needs to be, because I did enjoy it a hell of a lot at the time.
7. Russian Doll (Netflix)
As mentioned with Living With Yourself, high concept Netflix dramedies just keep getting better and better. The best one in 2019 was easily Russian Doll, which is basically a modern day version of Groundhog Day with a much bigger emphasis on death. This might seem like a concept that’s been well mined in media over the years, but the show breathes a lot of new life into it thanks centrally to a wonderful performance from Natasha Lyonne. But the show is also wonderfully funny, and the people behind it have a keen attention to detail that make the eight episode first season flow nicely, giving us a satisfying conclusion even though the show has been renewed. I’m curious to see what more they can get out of this concept, but I have more than enough faith that they can pull it off after season 1.
6. The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)
What can I say about The Righteous Gemstones that can’t be summarized by this music video from the show?
If I can’t sell you on an HBO Danny McBride comedy that features Walton Goggins doing all of that, then I don’t know what else to tell you.
5. What We Do In The Shadows (FX)
One of my favourite movies of this decade is What We Do In The Shadows, a mockumentary style comedy from Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi (before it was cool to like Taika Waititi) that follows a group of vampires as they lead rather mundane lives in and around Wellington, New Zealand. The concept is great on its own but Clement and Waititi are incredible comedic minds, so it winds up being probably the second best comedy of the decade (after The Other Guys, in case you were curious). And you can tell it’s a world they both love playing around in, because this one indie film has sparked a whole cinematic universe, including the show of the same name we’re talking about here, following a different house of vampires, this time going around their business on Staten Island in New York. And against most measurable logic, the show winds up being just about as good as the movie. Perhaps it’s the perfect chemistry from the cast, the involvement of Waititi and Clement, who write and/or direct on many of the episodes, or just how mineable a concept like this. Vampires putzing around a city that doesn’t care that they’re weird is great, but there are added layers, like the insecurities of all the characters, or how one human character, Guillermo, desperately wants to become a vampire but his masters won’t let him. It’s a much needed evolution for the mockumentary style, and the irony that’s given to it from the people that are making it is perfect.
4. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix)
Much like with Gemstones, my infatuation with this Netflix show can mostly be explained with a single sketch from one of the first episodes:
If you couldn’t stop laughing watching that, congratulations, you understand my sense of humour. If not, that’s fair, but you’re missing out on a great
steering wheel sketch comedy show filled with premises like this that were too wacky and off the wall for Saturday Night Live (literally, most of these are rejected SNL sketches from when Robinson worked there).
3. The Mandalorian (Disney+)
If you need proof for how crazy 2019 was for pop culture and media, look no further than Star Wars. This year gave is three major entries into the franchise, including a great third-person action-adventure game with a solid story, a wildly divisive movie that concluded the Skywalker saga (in case you’re wondering, I thought Rise of Skywalker sucked), and, as it turns out, my third favourite new show of the year, The Mandalorian. The reason this is crazy is because there are so many reasons why we shouldn’t like this show. It’s slow-paced, nothing really happens, it’s overly reliant on nostalgia, it has a lot of filler and bottle episodes despite only consisting of eight episodes, mostly under 40 minutes each, and if I’m being really honest, as good as it looks, where they spent all the money they supposedly had for the first season is questionable, because aspects of it should look better.
But I can’t help but love it. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the unquestionably adorable Baby Yoda, but it’s also that so many aspects of the show line up perfectly for me. For instance, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni do an incredible job of creating a spaghetti western in space. We’re used to describing Star Wars as a space Western, we’re used to seeing Westerns revived and modernized in different settings, but for these two to take a mostly dead film genre and successfully apply it to the biggest media franchise of all time without compromising the story they wanted to tell, speaks volumes to their dedicating to their craft and their skill as writer/directors. Everyone was too busy gawking at Baby Yoda or complaining about the show’s pace to realize what Favreau and Filoni achieved here. Because I think The Mandalorian spells a new era for Star Wars, as we wrap up the Skywalker Saga. It foretells of an era where we can have smaller, more focused stories in this universe that don’t need to rely on cataclysmic, universe-shattering events and yet feel like they fit perfectly into this far, far away galaxy. They’re basically creating a new canon of Extended Universe stories, and that’s incredibly exciting.
Also, look at this fucking adorable thing. Just look at him!
2. Chernobyl (HBO)
Miniseries of the caliber of Chernobyl aren’t anything new. HBO has been doing them as long as they’ve been making scripted television, and prior to that they were pretty common when the broadcast networks reigned supreme. But the golden age of the limited series we’re currently in is different. There are more networks than ever before making miniseries, they’re all willing to throw crazy resources at them, high quality actors are doing them without worrying about how doing a TV show might be perceived, and, every year, the top of the class consistently feels like it’s as good as any moving coming out. A decade or two ago, Chernobyl wouldn’t be a high-caliber, serious miniseries. It would probably be a mediocre action movie with a bloated budget (spoiler alert: one miniseries on this list literally was exactly this ten years ago). Or maybe a saccharin, middle-of-the-road drama that fell out of public memory as soon as it left theatres because it didn’t have the time it needed to get audiences to relate to the stories and characters.
And I don’t ever want to see that version of Chernobyl, because the five-hour episodic version is so much better. This format allows the writers and directors so much more opportunity to tell these stories properly and memorably, without having to worry about any of the headaches that come with making theatrical films. Any filmmaker that still insists that film is the superior medium, that there isn’t at the very least parity between film and TV, should be strapped down and forced to watch Chernobyl (or, if you prefer, Fosse/Verdon, Escape at Dannemora, When They See Us or any number of other recent miniseries that are just as good), because I’m kind of over these overstuffed movies that are always too long and yet still feel rushed and as if they don’t have enough time to fully tell their stories. And yes, I’m looking directly at Martin Scorsese and The Irishman, because anyone who watches it and Chernobyl and tells me The Irishman is the superior product is simply blinded by their nostalgia of when Scorsese used to make stories that actually felt modern and relevant.
I realize I’m using this as a platform to adjudicate the state of film and television rather than talk about the actual quality of this particular miniseries, but it’s been something that’s been on my mind ever since I saw Chernobyl earlier in 2019 and I truly feel as if this is the show that people will point to (along with a few others) when discussing the tipping point that led us to this parity between film and TV, and that seems like a great legacy to attribute to Craig Mazin’s wonderful miniseries.
1. Watchmen (HBO)
I’m admittedly a newer fan of Watchmen. I read the comic in the lead up to the premiere of the show and I was more excited about Damon Lindelof’s involvement than wary about someone trying to adapt such a highly regarded book. But even so, Watchmen completely destroyed all my expectations and gave us one of the greatest single seasons in television history. A show that honours its source material by tackling important modern day issues, by not being afraid to criticize that source material and by giving us something completely unique and so fully realized. I will remember the arc of Hooded Justice and how Lindelof gave a new and unique meaning to that character for a long time. I will remember the Dr. Manhattan twist, the pitch perfect portrayal of Laurie by Jean Smart, the incredible weirdness of Adrian Veidt’s arc, and goddamn Lube Man. Not only is Watchmen the best new show of the year, it made a really good case for being one of the best shows of the decade.