The best TV of 2019
From anxiously funny This Way Up with Aisling Bea to the drug-filled realities presented in Euphoria with Zendaya, 2019 has been a year packed with excellent television
Aisling Bea is mostly known as a hilarious panel-show comedian, but many don’t realise her talents as a dramatic actor. In This Way Up, Bea’s debut series as a writer, she melds both her humour and her drama together to form a poignant comedy about anxiety.
Bea stars alongside Sharon Horgan, who also produced the series, playing Irish sisters living in London. Aine (Bea) suffers a nervous breakdown, and it’s the duty of Shona (Horgan) to look after her. But Shona struggles to balance her professional life with her personal one, especially since Aine could fly off the handle at any point.
Read our review of This Way Up
Like it or not, the final season of Game of Thrones was the biggest TV event of year. It was met with both fury and admiration – one disgruntled viewer even set up a petition to remake the entire season (reaching 800,000 signatures) – but the finale still received more than 17 million viewers.
This season excels in its battles, crafted and co-ordinated beautifully and on a massive scale unparalleled in both TV and cinema. Met with horror, fear, blood, death and gloriously built characters, this is an epic ending to behold.Read more ...
The Roys epitomise the ultimate in family dysfunction, emulating the rich nepotistic empire of the Murdochs. It’s hard to think of a more unlovable bunch on telly; and yet, they’re still so indulgently watchable.
Season two loses some of the Machiavellian momentum of season one, the harsh back-biting mostly reserved for the latter episodes; but, writer Jesse Armstrong retains the series’ sharp tongues and private tensions. He even satirises the aggressive divide between left- and right-wing politics in America — seen in the Roys’ new business venture with the intellectual Pierce family, their democrat rivals.
Read our review of Succession season two
The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Despite not wielding the dramas and terrors of the previous seasons, the third volume in the Stranger Things saga has the most fun of the lot. Dealing with teenage adolescence, first relationships, Soviet conspiracies and a returning antagonist, it’s another ’80s-style horror delight from the nostalgic Duffer Brothers.Read more ...
When watching something new and stylistic and off-the-wall, there’s always the fear that others won’t ‘get it’. But the reception for Joe Barton’s endlessly compelling international thriller Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) has been mostly positive, and deserves to be.
Split between the Yakuza in Tokyo and the Guy Ritchie-like gangsters in London, the Japanese detective Kenzo Mori travels to Britain to find his hitman brother (thought dead until now). Filled with black-and-white flashbacks, stretched aspect ratios, and swift anime sequences, this is not your bog-standard detective drama.
Read our review of Giri/Haji
A vital appeal of Netflix is the risks they're willing to take. Many indie, arthouse pleasures can be chosen from its digital shelves – not least of which is Russian Doll.
This dark, psychological comedy series follows Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who’s forced to relive the same night every time she dies (and she dies a lot). This has a similar comedic flavouring to Groundhog Day, but unfolds in a more emotional and existential direction. As Nadia delves deeper into her time-hopping crisis, she finds the reasons behind why she behaves the way she does. The absurd situation paves a very real result.Read more ...
Even though the historical background isn't as absorbing as in previous seasons, this iteration of Peter Morgan’s The Crown is still a fascinating, sometimes tragic look into the royal family.
Olivia Colman takes over from Claire Foy as season three spans from the mid-60s to the late-70s. An emotional highlight is the mining incident at Aberfan in Wales, where 116 children perished. There’s also a more empathetic look at Princess Margaret, showing her devastating and abusive relationship with photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones.
Read our review of The Crown season three
Like When They See Us (featured below), the themes in Netflix’s Unbelievable are among the most important in this year’s TV.
Adapted from the true story of rape victim Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), this eight-part limited series follows her road to the truth. The police coerced Adler into saying that she lied about the rape, which is soon uncovered by two detectives (Toni Collette and Marritt Wever) investigating a serial rapist nearby.
This series brings home the horrifying reality of how many rapes are committed, how few are believed, and how few are actually convicted.
Read our review of Unbelievable
Why must grown-ups feel contented with the dire dregs of reality? Why should they be excluded from the fanciful and ridiculous? Good Omens provides a bizarre, sporadic and funny fantasy for the adults via miracles, spiritual creatures and a devil voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Conjured from the surreal minds of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the series follows the Earth-bound angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and demon Crowley (David Tennant) as they try to prevent the coming Apocalypse.
Facing witches, hell hounds and the four horsemen, this is a thrilling tale of friendship, morality and sherbet lemons.
As unappealing as a four-part Shane Meadows drama about child abuse sounds, there’s a dramatic obligation to watch it.
The Virtues is a character study: slow but measured, with no tedious scenes, and every moment is natural. Much of the script was written and re-written during rehearsals over five months to keep that realistic integrity.
Joseph is an alcoholic whose head is a mess, and he doesn’t know why. He delves back into his past, reuniting with old family, to fix his mental strain. With a spirit-crushing performance from Stephen Graham, this is a struggle not to miss.Read more ...
Ethics and morality inevitably have some part to play in a whodunnit, but The Victim takes these concepts and pushes them through a glass darkly.
Socially awkward bus driver Craig Myers (James Harkness) is attacked in his home, accused of murdering a child 15 years prior. It’s all over the internet. The child’s mother Anna, Kelly MacDonald at her absolute best, accuses him and may even be behind his assault.
The four-part series spirals into a difficulty of morals and loyalties, the question of good and evil, and the darkness inside complicated circumstances. This courtroom detective drama has a brutal, intelligent bite.
Although the accusations against Michael Jackson never left, people were contented to ignore them. Until now.
In what’s maybe the most important documentary of the year, director Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland follows the accounts of two victims of Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse. Their interviews are shocking and nauseating, exposing the horrors of what mega-rich celebrities can get away with through money and manipulation.
It’s also a desperate, three-and-a-half hour plea to give more credence to the victims of child abuse rather than those being accused. A harrowing but necessary watch.
‘It’ll pass…’ Two words that caused plenty of Fleabag watchers to weep into their laps.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has become one of the biggest names in British TV writing, and returns for a second and final series inside the dark and hilarious perspective of ‘Fleabag’.
Episodes are kept to a sharp 30 minutes, Fleabag looks and talks to us like absent best friends, and she endures a deep affection for a hot priest (marvellously played by Andrew Scott). Season two far outweighs the first, delivering a poignant and heart-rending story of love without a hint of melodrama. It's like Waller-Bridge is saying: this is love and it’s horrible, but it's worth it.
Read our five-star review of episode one
Set in the countryside, in a kind of cross between an American ‘80s movie and a suburb of Gloucestershire,
Otis (Asa Butterfield) deals out sex advice to fellow students. But he’s never
had sex himself, and is very reticent to do anything by himself. Much of his in-depth knowledge comes from his sex therapist mother, ecstatically played by Gillian
This is a Gen-Z comedy that's uproariously funny and splendidly colourful, while exploring some of the big issues facing modern teenagers.
It was a long wait for the follow-up to Joe Penhall’s gruesome, addictive serial killer drama, much like the slow-burn tone of the series. But season two was worth the time, outdoing the dark and brutal excellence of season one.
Each episode unpeels gradually as two ’70s FBI agents interview America’s worst: including the sporadic Son of Sam (or .44 Caliber Killer), the keenly anticipated Charles Manson, and a return from the necrophiliac murderer Edmund Kemper. Mostly covering the as-yet-unsolved Atlanta Murders, Mindhunter finds the psychological motivations behind modern history’s greatest monsters.Read more ...
Plenty of TV this year has tackled the end of the world, whether through delving into the past (Chernobyl, The War of the Worlds), through fantasy (Good Omens), or into a dystopian future (The Handmaid’s Tale).
Former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies begins his phenomenal Years and Years very close to home, proceeding from 2019 and stepping into the terrifying world we’re heading towards.
With a Nigel Farage-like politician leading the populist ‘Four-Star Party’, the country seems to blow up around the middle-class Lyons family. But Davies isn’t without hope, and this sparks a proactivity that other series can only dream of.
The annual greeting of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s colourful, balletic comedy series has grown into an early Christmas present. Each unwrapping is more exciting than the last.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel plunges into musical escapism while dipping into some harsh, misogynistic realities. Being a woman in the 1950s means adhering to servile rules and conventions, which the central ‘comedienne’ Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) smashes through with her rude, raucous, and hilarious stand-up act.
In season three, Midge makes it to show business, touring with the famous singer Shy Baldwin. Her zeitgeist-shifting comedy rubs off on her conservative parents, who (albeit reluctantly) also change with the upcoming era of 60s protest.
On the surface, filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s turn to TV looks like a classic true-life tale of redemption — but it’s so much more than that.
When They See Us follows the harrowing stories of the Central Park Five, the five black teenagers wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1989, plunging into their experiences before, during, and after imprisonment.
The four-part limited series is much more character-oriented than the plot suggests; DuVernay examines the Five as living, breathing people abused by a monstrous police system and a callously racist society. Bradford Young’s visuals possess an unforgettably photographic flair, focusing on the Five’s faces to drive home their humanity, their abuse, and their pain.Read more ...
Now the highest rated TV show on IMDb (surpassing The Sopranos and Breaking Bad), Chernobyl is an intensely political tale about one of the greatest accidents in human history.
Writer Craig Mazin doesn’t tackle the event like a mainstream disaster movie, though all the elements are there, but as a warning. When the truth is torn, changed and manipulated, the implications can be devastating. Chernobyl examines the state of the Soviet government in 1986 and its attempt at covering up the nuclear meltdown in Ukraine.
Through the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) investigates the accident – jumping through all sorts of political hoops to help assuage the situation on the ground. It’s not an easy watch, with enough horrifying images to fill countless nightmares. The truth is always there and needs to be heard – Mazin lifts it up for all to see.
Read our five-star review of episode one
Ordinarily, the real and dark details of many teenage lives are censored for film and TV. Often, literature seems like the only art form that’s willing to explore the more distasteful aspects of society — whether through tales of addiction by Irvine Welsh or the privileged, transgressive characters penned by Bret Easton Ellis.
But Euphoria censors nothing, diving in the deep end of Gen-Z hell as 17-year-old Rue (Zendaya) comes out of rehab and almost immediately returns to hard drugs.
This year, filmmakers have tried to make sense of the smartphone generation via Sex Education and Eighth Grade and Booksmart, but none reach Euphoria’s degree of brutal honesty: tackling transgender relationships, adultery, drug addiction, domestic abuse, underage porn, and the currency of nude pics. And it’s all wrapped in writer/director Sam Levinson’s overwhelming, hallucinogenic style.
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