In 2016, over 400 television shows were aired or released. In 2018, that number jumped to 555. And in 2019, that number has swelled to 688, according to this handy spreadsheet compiled by writer Liz Shannon Miller. Let's take a moment to really let that soak in: SIX HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-EIGHT TELEVISION SHOWS. That's too much TV, man.
Last year, we joked that the Netflix-ification of TV was upon us, but now it seems like we truly have crossed that rubicon. Every network is desperate to compete with the streaming giant and its seemingly limitless capacity for content, and they're doing so either by throwing every idea against the wall and hoping some of them find an audience, or by launching their own streaming service. This year, Apple TV+ and Disney+ made splashy entrances onto the scene, and next year, HBO Max, Peacock, Quibi, and Discovery/BBC will join them. We're getting to the point where there'll one day be as many streaming services as there are cable channels—and if you want to have them all, you'll have to pay even more than you ever were before.
But hey, at least the quality has maintained, right?! Not exactly—peak TV seems to have flattened out somewhat, and while the average show might now have a better baseline than shows 20 or 30 years ago, there's not quite the same flurry of innovations and daring programming happening like there was five or six years ago. The most unfortunate trend that I noticed this year: dramas have become increasingly stale and staid, with lots of big-name stars taking on glitzy projects that bomb with critics and audiences alike, and garner more pre-air buzz than actual coverage and reviews. There has been an increase in really great miniseries to offset that dip however, suggesting that perhaps people are craving more closed-narrative stories rather than sprawling ones. The most exciting shows of the year were mostly thirty minute "comedies," many of which blurred the lines between genres. The best trend: shows like The Mandalorian and Watchmen have shown that dropping episodes week-to-week is once again the best way to maintain and nurture audience engagement and interest.
As ever, there are still plenty of great shows to recommend—and below, you'll find ten dramas and eleven comedies. Maybe you'll discover something you haven't heard of, maybe it'll inspire you to finally watch a show you've been putting off, maybe you'll have your own recommendations, or maybe you'll just want to argue in the comments section.
(A few notes on methodology: I didn't include any late night programs or talk shows, no reality shows, no web series, and no docuseries.)
Some Honorable Mentions in drama: say what you will about the rushed, abbreviated final season of Game Of Thrones, but the second episode "A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms" should go on any best episode list. It seemed like a miracle that the Deadwood movie even existed, let alone was of a high quality consistent with the original three seasons. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff gave superb performances in season three of True Detective. Jennifer Aniston and Billy Crudup are giving wonderful, can't-look-away performances on The Morning Show. Big Little Lies season two was a little bit of a mess, with a disappointing ending and a polarizing Meryl Streep performance, but everything Laura Dern did was inspired. The Boys was a very fun and subversive take on the comic book genre (though not as good as another show farther down). The OA was DEFINITELY not for me, but the world is a worse place losing such an idiosyncratic, bold show. And I'm not sure whether The Mandalorian is a good show or just a really enjoyable upgrade of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but it gave us Baby Yoda, and for that we are grateful.
And so, here are the DRAMAS that moved and compelled me:
10. Unbelievable (Miniseries, Netflix)
Based on The Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," this miniseries was the prestige antidote to the ceaseless barrage of true crime shows. Its storytelling took on the trauma of rape and frustrations of police investigations with empathy and carefulness. It gave Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver some of their best material ever. The subject matter was heavy and sobering, and the series thoughtful and compelling.
9. Billions (Season Four, Showtime)
Between the deep well of supporting characters who pop up again and again (long live Spyros) and the underlying criticism of capitalism and the dick-measuring rich dudes who worship at its feet (sometimes literally), Billions is both ridiculously watchable and ridiculously good TV. This season reached an early high with the episode "Overton Window," in which Paul Giamatti's Chuck Rhodes publicly came out as being in a consenting BDSM relationship with his wife (without consulting her about it). It was a thrilling high point for the entire series, one that has irrevocably changed the core relationships of the main cast heading into season five.
8. Chernobyl (Miniseries, HBO)
Yes, it was more "truth-adjacent" than historically accurate at times. But the five episode HBO miniseries about the buildup to the disaster at Chernobyl and the subsequent fallout was one of the most unforgettable, morbidly thrilling event shows of the year (though the episode about shooting radiated dogs almost had me stop watching). The first four episodes took a ground-level look at the greatest nuclear disaster in history, and then the show briefly turned into a riveting courtroom drama for its finale. Most of all, it was a cautionary tale about governments willing to dismiss scientists and lie to cover up their mistakes.
7. When They See Us (Miniseries, Netflix)
Ava DuVernay's masterful four-part miniseries took on the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five teenagers of color were convicted of a rape they did not commit, with boldness and care. The entire ensemble was good, but best of all was Jharrel Jerome, who deservedly won an Emmy for his performance as Korey Wise, the only one of the five who was tried and convicted as an adult. It was difficult TV and a painfully relevant story, but the kind of series that lingers in your mind far longer than the few hours you spend watching it.
6. Mr. Robot (Season Four, USA)
Like many, I fell in love with the first season of Sam Esmail's gorgeously-shot post-recession show about hackers and the banking system, only to feel disappointed (and a little bored) by the meanderings of season two. Season three was a step up (the addition of Bobby Cannavale and his Acting Choices was inspired), but this final season is the one that really hooked me back in. There's been satisfying resolutions to various characters' arcs, brilliant stand-alone episodes and tricky camera work, and emotional catharsis, with "407 Proxy Identification Required" standing out as one of the best episodes of the entire series.
5. Lodge 49 (Season Two, AMC)
I noted last year in my review that this was an example of the kind of show where not everyone was going to be able to get on its very particular wavelength (one part California stoner noir, one part meditation on the recession, and one part Pynchon-esque comedy). Sadly, despite critical adoration, that has now led to its cancellation. But both seasons of this wondrous, weird show will be on Hulu early next year, and it's worth watching if you haven't. It is an elusive but grounded show with little in terms of typical "plot"—it's more interested in how people connect with each other after grinding out their days amidst an economic downturn, with a bunch of magical realism thrown in. Season two happens to have a bit more magical realism than season one, but also more hijinks and comedy, thanks to an extended arc by, who else, Paul Giamatti.
4. The Deuce (Season Three, HBO)
David Simon and George Pelecanos' exploration of the historical development of pornography, and how capitalism drove the exploitation and misogyny at the heart of the sex industry, reached its inevitable, tragic conclusion. The third and final season of the show mostly took place over the course of 1985, amidst the advent of VHS technology, the redevelopment of Midtown, the spread of AIDS, and the rise of the anti-pornographic movement. The centrality of James Franco amidst this subject matter made it a tough watch for some—it's understandable but too bad, because this show was the best thing Simon has worked on since The Wire, filled with lived-in details and unforgettable performances (especially Emily Meade and Maggie Gyllenhaal).
3. Fosse/Verdon (Miniseries, FX)
There were the incredible lead performances from Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell as the titular characters, and the fact that the series evaluated Fosse's work and correctly re-centered Verdon's importance to it. There were chronologically-complicated but rewarding narrative devices, and wonderful dance sequences. There were great supporting turns from Aya Cash, Norbert Leo Butz, Margaret Qualley and Paul Reiser, and wonderful recreations of the filming of the likes of Cabaret, Chicago and All That Jazz. But the thing that made Fosse/Verdon stick with me most of all: I can't think of a show since Mad Men that better captured the electrifying, frustrating, addictive push-and-pull of creative partnerships. This was ultimately a messy love story about finding someone who brings out the best of you... in your work.
2. Succession (Season Two, HBO)
Some of the many things I love about this show: "You can't make a Tomlette without breaking some Greggs;" the fact that half the cast is playing it as a comedy (Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen) and the other half like a tragedy (Jeremy Strong, Brian Cox, Hiam Abbass); "We Here For You;" the episode where the Roys dine with their bizarro liberal counterparts; every time Logan Roy says "fuck off;" Roman/Gerri shipper videos set to "Mrs. Robinson;" the fact that every episode revolves around one major event/occasion for the family that serves as a satisfying short story while still pushing the large plotlines forward; the brilliant song "A Kiss From Daddy."
1. Watchmen (Season One, HBO)
Damon Lindelof's brilliant sequel/remix of Watchmen for HBO was the most exciting, challenging and ultimately satisfying show I saw on television this year. Lindelof and the writers boldly pushed the material to reflect the issues of the present day via daring and unexpected storytelling gambits. From the opening scene of the Black Wall Street massacre to the reveal of Hooded Justice, they upturned a century of ideas about superhero characters' motivations and examined the corrosive legacy of white supremacy. Regina King gave the best performance on TV this year, Jeremy Irons got to star in a parallel storyline worthy of Looney Tunes, and character actors such as Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr. and Don Johnson shined. It contained some of the best individual episodes of the year as well, including the Laurie Blake-centric "She Was Killed By Space Junk," Looking Glass' trauma-filled origin story "A Little Fear Of Lightning," the romantic Dr. Manhattan tale "A God Walks Into Abar," and the stupendous "This Extraordinary Being."
Now for some comedy Honorable Mentions, and there's a lot to commend here: Season three of Big Mouth, a profane and sweet exploration of puberty, just barely missed my list. The Righteous Gemstones was the best thing Danny McBride has made since Eastbound & Down (and included the song of the year, "Misbehavin'"). We said goodbye to a whole bunch of great comedies, including Silicon Valley (Zach Woods killed it), You're The Worst (one of the best finales of the year), and Broad City. Kathryn Hahn and Aidy Bryant gave unforgettable performances in Mrs. Fletcher and Shrill, appropriately. Brockmire doesn't get nearly enough credit for its raunchy baseball humor and empathetic depiction of sobriety. Tuca And Bertie was taken from us way too soon. The final season of The Good Place felt a bit meandering in its first half, but has gotten great again in the second half (too bad we'll have to wait until January to see how it all shakes out). It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is still ridiculously funny fourteen seasons in, especially the fantastic film noir parody episode "The Janitor Always Mops Twice." Even after 10 seasons, Bob's Burgers is still the best show about a loving family of weirdos on television (animated or not). And Better Things remains the best-reviewed comedy that I still have yet to watch (but I vow to catchup before next season).
And the COMEDIES that cracked me up:
11. High Maintenance (Season Three, HBO)
At its best, High Maintenance offers a wide-ranging portrait of NYC, as if you set up a camera in your own cramped apartment then passed it to your neighbor. Season three had at least four particularly great episodes to recommend: the season premiere "M.A.S.H.", a meditation on death in upstate NY; "Fingerbutt," a hilarious episode whose plot turned on a cat in a tuba; "Cruise," which dives into The Guy's past and also devotes half an episode to wonderful NYC tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch; and "Blondie," which focuses on former punk singer Annie Golden.
10. Veep (Season Seven, HBO)
Veep's shortened final season was somehow more cynical, more profane, and just as hilarious as what had come before. Selina Meyers gets everything she ever wanted, and all she had to do was betray every belief she ever had and sacrifice the one person who cared about her above all others. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was terrifying and awe-inspiring as Meyers, deserving of every accolade she received over the years. The supporting cast, including Timothy Simons, Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky and Sam Richardson, was just as brilliant and ruthless.
9. Catastrophe (Season Four, Amazon)
The manic, brief courtship depicted in the first season remains one of my favorite seasons of comedy of the entire decade, but the meat of what the show was concerned about came later: how do adult relationships and priorities evolve over time, and can you keep the romance alive? The marriage of Rob & Sharon, as played by co-creators Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, teetered on the edge of collapse all throughout this final season, even as the two continued to deliver hilarious dialogue while dealing with child-rearing, family squabbles and alcoholism. It all culminated in a wonderfully ambiguous finale that dealt with grief and long-term relationships, ending on an image of beautiful shared insanity.
8. Pen15 (Season One, Hulu)
This was a high-concept comedy that seemed like it shouldn't work: 31-year-old co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves at 13, opposite real teens in a coming-of-age comedy set in the '90s. And yet, the two nailed their tone (cathartic middle school raunch)—and I don't just mean the AOL dial-up tone, although that made a very memorable appearance in the episode "AIM." It was a perfect mix of silly and tender comedy about friendship and growing up, exploring the ups-and-downs of puberty with the sweetness and crudeness of Big Mouth, just with real actors.
7. Ramy (Season One, Hulu)
Created by stand-up comedian Ramy Youssef, Ramy was an intimate look at life as a Muslim-American millennial. It was clearly indebted to similar auteurist cinematic comedies like Atlanta and Louie, and shared those shows' ambitions to be funny, surprising and poignant in its storytelling. A lot of its most memorable moments came when it made giant leaps, like a flashback episode set right after the 9/11 attacks; an episode about Ramy's sister Dena and the double-standards of dating; a two-episode trip to Egypt; and best of all, a showcase for Ramy's unfulfilled mom Maysa, played exquisitely by Succession's Hiam Abbass, as she becomes a Lyft driver.
6. BoJack Horseman (Season Six, Netflix)
We only got the first half of the final season of BoJack (the second half comes in January), so this feels almost unfair to place. But even with only eight episodes, BoJack remains one of the funniest, most ambitious comedies on TV, a show that also happens to be a bittersweet rumination on people's ability (or inability) to change. Most of the characters, including Princess Carolyn, Diane, Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter, struggled with getting what they thought they wanted, while BoJack made the biggest leap of them all post-rehab, traveling the country making amends and forging a new life for himself as a teacher. And then in the final episode, everything seemed to come crashing down again.
5. What We Do In The Shadows (Season One, FX)
I don't think any "sitcom" made me laugh more than this show, which was based on the absolutely hilarious 2014 mockumentary about three vampire roommates living in modern times. The TV series moved the story from New Zealand to Staten Island, but retained the same sensibility as the original. It also included an all-new cast, with new vampire roommates (Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak and standout Natasia Demetriou) and new forms of vampires (Mark Proksch plays the energy vampire Colin Robinson, Vanessa Bayer guest stars as an emotional vampire).
4. Barry (Season Two, HBO)
Barry, in which elastic SNL vet Bill Hader plays a hitman having a crisis of conscious while taking acting lessons, was so fantastic in season one, it seemed impossible to imagine how it would work in season two—partially because of how perfectly self-contained the first season was, partially because the ending may have gone too dark. Thankfully, it actually was better. Hader and co-creator Alec Berg continued to mine the tension between the improv and hitman worlds to wring real drama and pathos out of Hader, and they aired the single best comedy episode of 2019, "ronny/lily," which was a self-contained Coen Brothers movie in thirty unforgettable minutes.
3. Russian Doll (Season One, Netflix)
Released all the way at the start of the year, Russian Doll was the ultimate star vehicle for Natasha Lyonne. The eight-episode first season mixed a Groundhog's Day-like story about time-loops and existential crises with an insider's perspective of life in the East Village. It could be interpreted as a show about addiction, therapy, the scarcity of bodega cats, or metaphysical connections. It was both ruthlessly unsentimental and unabashedly hopeful in tone. It was grounded in a textured reality, yet unafraid of leaps into magical realism. And it was a puzzle box that invited viewers to pull apart all of its details while at the same time having a core emotional journey that needs no further explanations. Best of all: it's really good, and you can bang it out in just over three hours.
2. I Think You Should Leave (Season One, Netflix)
So many shows on this list break the boundaries of what a comedy can be in 2019. But in terms of sheer belly laughter, nothing came close to topping the manic, surreal sketch comedy of the utterly idiosyncratic I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson for me. Robinson's particular brand of aggressively weird, brilliantly silly humor never quite fit on SNL, but Robinson has chiseled his comedic instincts into skeleton bone-like sharpness (the bones are the skeleton's money, in our world bones equal dollars). It's six episodes of near-perfect sketch comedy that you'll either vehemently love or vehemently not get, with too many highlights to list: "Baby Of The Year" ("Fuck you, Harley Jarvis!"), "Laser Spine Specialists" ("Moon River Rock! Moon River Roll!"), "Biker Guy," "Nachos," "Game Night," "Brooks Brothers," "New Joe," "New Printer," "Chunky," "Instagram," and of course, the sublime "Focus Group." Whenever I need to cheer up, all I need to do is look over this list of 101 gifs from the show.
1. Fleabag (Season Two, Amazon)
Way back in 2016, in naming season one of Fleabag one of our favorites of the year, I noted, "Things that could have been annoying—especially those constant asides to the camera—turn out to be the show's conduit for the most memorable jokes." In season two, the show's brilliant writer/creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge interrogated those signature fourth wall breaks with darkly comic wit, upending everything we thought we knew about the character and show. Overall, season two was cumulatively even better than the first season; like its main character, it was somehow both cynical and romantic, aspirational and clumsy. Most of all, it was irrepressibly charming. It had a Hot Priest and a hot jumpsuit, and a final scene that was both devastating and undeniably hopeful. It was the best of TV in 2019.
What did you watch this year?