2019 was a significant year for television not just for what shows people were watching, but for how they were watching them. The year brought the first of several upcoming streaming services that promise to shake up the landscape of television for years to come. One such service, Disney+, already cracked our top 10 list with one of its first offerings.
Not to be outdone by newcomers, Netflix held strong in 2019, bringing in record numbers for it’s mega-hit Stranger Things. HBO brought its epic series Game of Thrones to an end amid more than a little controversy, but also delighted critics and audiences alike with new offerings like Watchmen.
Here is mxdwn’s top 10 television shows of 2019.
10. Bojack Horseman
Bojack Horseman’s sixth season does what its previous seasons had done, and that’s balance comedy and drama in a way that almost transcends both its premise and its animated platform. Bojack Horseman is a show revolving around the adventures of the titular character Bojack Horseman, a former sitcom star and actor in his fifties who’s going through a midlife crisis at the twilight of his career and his legacy. The show features many anthropomorphic characters, such as Bojack’s agent Carolyn, a talking cat, and his one-sided friendship with Mr. Peanutbutter, a walking talking dog with boundless optimism who’s also an actor himself. The anthropomorphic element of the show, along with the quality of writing, provides very unique humor that’s fresh and unpredictable. But at the same time, the show’s strength, especially this season, lies in the depth of the storytelling. Each character has an arc and potential for growth, no one character stays the same, and Bojack Horseman never sacrifices its rich narrative for the sake of cheap laughs. Instead, the two tones compliment each other. Bojack Horseman’s sixth and final season might be the show’s apex, as the characters are all slowly heading towards the end of their six season long transformations. There are genuine surprises, loose ends begin to tie up, and there’s a lot of mystery as to where these characters will end up when it’s all said and done. Season 6 of Bojack Horseman is a very satisfying wrap up to the series, and places it at the top of the list for the year’s best shows.
9. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is an HBO series by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss that is based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. The show takes place on the fictional continent of Westeros that is ruled by a sovereign ruler on The Iron Throne in King’s Landing. The series follows many different royal families and story arcs. One arc is about the Lanisters who are currently in charge of the Iron Throne. One arc follows The Stark family in the north at Winterfell. One arc follows the last remaining Targaryen, Dayerys, her pet dragons, and the army she is building. Another story arc follows a bastard Stark son, Jon Snow, who joins the Night’s Watch, a brotherhood defending the realm against the fierce peoples and legendary creatures of the North. Throughout the show there is lots of romance and violence and many main characters die brutally. Some are decapitated, some are poisoned, and some have their eyeballs pushed in.
In this Final Season of Game of Thrones we see Danerys and Jon Snow together as a couple, they team up with the Starks at Winterfell and battle The White Walkers from the far north. They head south in Westeros and there is a final battle between Danerys’ army and The Lanister’s at King’s Landing. There is some drama in the end and we are left with a new ruler of The Iron Throne and Westeros.
The ending was controversial to some, but the CGI and action scenes were definitely awesome, and they wrapped up a story that has been on TV for the last eight years. Some fans may like to know that the ending might be different in the book series, as George R.R. Martin has not released the last two novels.
– Will Goodeve
8. True Detective Season 3
‘True Detective’ is a story of obsession. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) spends the time of his life consumed in the cases that changed everything– over three separate time periods, he works with partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) to investigate a macabre crime involving two missing children. Nic Pizzolatto’s directorial debut with co-creators Jeremy Saulnier and Daniel Sackheim depicts a narrative that captures the grit and heart that’s necessary to endure crime solving. It’s a thrilling ride that continuously evolves in character and development through the third season and has excellent moments to portray its realistic storytelling. The characters talk about the heartfelt things slowly, the music is cued in subtly, and the imperfect characters all point towards an absurd tale that embodies troubled cops and their compelling investigations that drive them to the edge. When it comes to succumbing to despair or maintaining hope, ‘True Detective’ offers the definition in legendary investigative threads.
– Tommy Nguyen
Every month I write mxdwn’s Streaming Wars column, and every month I come to the same horrifying realization that there really are only four companies. With giant media conglomerates like Disney and Viacom buying brands and authorizing mergers, the world of entertainment in the U.S. is becoming a lot smaller. It’s hard to escape the fear that we as consumers might soon have no control over our own environments, totally at the whim of whatever faceless corporation with whom we have a subscription plan.
HBO’s Succession is a show about that fear and the people behind it. The show follows the story of the Roy family, in control of the fiction media conglomerate Waystar Royco, as the patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) attempts to choose his successor and future head of the company. Beyond just the corporate drama, this is a show about the politics of family and the responsibility each of us have to see beyond our own emotions. The most recent season finale, “This Is Not For Tears,” was especially emotional and thrilling, and brought all of the themes of the series together: those who are responsible can, should, and will be held accountable for their actions.
– KJ Minzner
6. The Umbrella Academy
Coming along at a time where there isn’t any shortage of content in the superhero genre, The Umbrella Academy has managed to set its self apart in unique ways. Based on the comics by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, Netflix’s adaptation forges its own path while sticking closely to the original source material. Taking place simultaneously at the end of the world and before it, the series follows humanity’s only hope—the estranged dysfunctional family of super-powered child celebrities who are brought back together years later after the death of their adoptive father. Shortly thereafter shenanigans ensue when their lost brother, Five (Aidan Gallagher) appears as well. Aside, from an occasionally discordant tone, The Umbrella Academy is well worth the watch especially for those who want a change of pace from the usual genre fare.
– Ashton Hughes
HBO’s Watchmen is a loose sequel to the graphic novel of the same name written by Alan Moore in 1985. It takes place thirty four years after the events of Alan Moore’s Watchmen take place, with its setting being an alternate version of our America in 2019 where African Americans have received reparations due to the Tulsa Massacre, Robert Redofrd has been president for thirty years, and accessible technology is different in this universe than it is in ours. Everyone apparently drives electric cars, for instance, and cell phones aren’t a thing. Damon Lindelof, writer of The Leftovers and Lost, gift wrapped Watchmen not only to actual fans of the source material, but fans who may have never heard of Watchmen to begin with. The show’s themes were relevant to the problems that pose a threat against modern society today, tackling issues such as racial disparities, class inequality and gun control. It doesn’t necessarily offer its opinions or its solutions to the questions it raises, nor does it adopt a definite political side, but it makes arguments for all sides of the political spectrum while leaving it up to the viewer to form its own conclusions on the ideas it proposes. A part from its commentary, though, Watchmen is just a unique, breath taking show that fires on all cylinders. It’s provocative, keeps you guessing all the way through, with twists and turns that are as shocking as they are satisfying. The show builds its world carefully and methodically, doing its best not to tread the sacred foundations that Watchmen’s original architect Alan Moore laid before it, while at the same time honoring the man even though the original author wants nothing to do with the project. There are certain liberties the show takes with the source material that fans of the original comics may not agree with, but as far as pure quality television goes, Watchmen makes a good case for itself belonging at the very top of the list. Mostly because it not only delivered on its hype, but it might have even exceeded it.
– Tony Stallings
4. The Mandalorian
Written and created by director/producer Jon Favreau, better known for such directing credits as Iron Man 1 & 2, Elf, and the live action 2016 version of The Jungle Book; a galaxy far, far away may be new territory for Favreau but he doesn’t falter in the least by making the transition from cinema to television.
Aesthetically, it upholds the look and feel of every Star Wars film ever made, yet it maintains its own mark of authenticity within the franchise. The story picks up five years after the fall of the Empire, as seen in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and a quarter century before The Force Awakens, leaving central character Dyn Jarren, aka “Mando” the bounty hunter, (played by actor Pedro Pascal) free to roam the galaxy within a Star Wars timeline that’s never been featured on screen before.
The Empire is still in defeat, though small factions remain active in the shadows; this, of course, means loyal fans still get their fill of Storm Troopers.
The New Republic remains at the helm and mercenaries and war lords are all that’s left, according to Carl Weathers, who gives a convincing performance as Greef Carga, the man in charge of dispersing the jobs within the Bounty Hunter’s Guild. Weathers isn’t the only one to make a surprise appearance; Nick Nolte plays the character of Kuiil, a trusted friend to the Mandalorian.
From laser shoot outs that at times mirror classic Peckinpah westerns to brutal encounters with gruesome other-worldly creatures who appear as real as the actors themselves, The Mandalorian might not be the only reason to fork out the $6.99 subscription fee Disney+ asks for, but it just might be the best one.
– Jonson Kuhn
3. South Park
With 307 episodes in the books, South Park has come a long way from the crudely animated show about alien anal probes and talking poo. In 2019, it has firmly cemented itself as one of the most important pieces of cultural and political satire of our time. Still centered on the adventures of four fourth graders from a small Colorado town, the show’s 23rd season took on controversial issues like trans athletes in competing in women’s sports, family separation at the US-Mexico Border, and the investigation of Donald Trump.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was the latest season’s examination of the dynamic between US media conglomerates and the Chinese government. Entitled “Band in China,” the episode in question was a scathing criticism both of China’s censorship practices and the willingness of corporations like Disney to amend its content to comply with those standards. The prize for doing so is access to the coveted and extremely lucrative Chinese box office.
As if on cue, the Chinese government responded to the episode by unilaterally banning South Park across its highly-censored internet, going as far as scrubbing all of the show’s mentions from social media. In response, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone released a highly sarcastic statement doubling down on the episode’s message, reading “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”
Despite an outright ban in one country and calls for its cancellation elsewhere, South Park remains as successful as ever. 2019 saw the show renewed by Comedy Central, while its streaming rights were sold to forthcoming platform HBO Max for a staggering $500 million.
– Alec Newboles
2. Stranger Things
Stranger Things is a science fiction horror series released on Netflix and created by The Duffer Brothers. In the beginning of the series the show is set in Hawkins, Indiana where “a young boy named Will disappears, and his mother, a police chief, and his friends have to confront terrifying supernatural forces in order to get him back.”
Will’s three best friends meet “Eleven”, a girl with telekinetic powers. Will was taken into an alternate universe called “The Upside Down” and was possessed by a monster called the Demigorgon. Luckily Eleven is able to battle the creature with her powers.
In this latest season, The show takes place in 1985 and there are Secret Russian spies trying to possess the Demigorgon and the upside down. The kids have to sneak into a Soviet Russian Base to find out what is going on. The Demigorgon starts using residents of the town as hosts to ultimately build a massive Demigorgon.
Season 3 of Stranger Things got record numbers of viewers for Netflix. With almost 41 million viewers in the first four days. The Series received critical acclaim for its characterization, pacing, atmosphere, acting, soundtrack, directing, writing, and homages to 1980’s films.
– Will Goodeve
1. Tuca and Bertie
It’s hard to write about Tuca & Bertie without feeling some amount of grief. The wild and off-the-walls comedy from Lisa Hanawalt, previously of BoJack Horseman, was cancelled earlier this year after its first season aired in May. The show was fresh and exciting, focusing on the importance of female friendships in a way that the current television environment had been lacking.
The series follows the story of best friends Tuca, an outspoken and happy-go-lucky toucan, and Bertie, a timid and fretful songbird, as they navigate their relationships with partners, work, family, and each other. The topics covered within each episode ranged from light and humorous (Tuca and Bertie challenge a local chef to a baking competition) to serious and thoughtful (Bertie confronts her past experience with sexual harassment).
The show had a successful first season on Netflix this spring, receiving a prestigious 98 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was named by Vox as one of “The 5 Best TV Shows of May 2019.” Unfortunately, the stellar first season of Tuca & Bertie would also be its last. Hanawalt announced on July 24 on Twitter that Netflix would not be ordering a second season of Tuca & Bertie. “Kinda feels like being at my own funeral,” Hanawalt tweeted, “except I get to keep popping out of the casket to chime in and also I’m still extremely alive and not done making stupid sh*t to entertain you.” One can only hope that Netflix continues to elevate female voices in the honest and creative way Hanawalt does with Tuca & Bertie. Viewers are sure to be eagerly awaiting the next “stupid sh*t” that Hanawalt comes up with.
– KJ Minzner
Undone snuck into audience’s digital queues earlier this year and came out as a critical favorite despite being mostly a sleeper hit. Hailing from co-creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the Amazon series follows a young woman named Alma (Rosa Salazar) who suddenly discovers she has time traveling abilities after her father (Bob Odenkirk) contacts her from beyond the grave. Over the course of eight episodes, Alma wades through familial drama, a car accident, and her new found powers with the guidance of Odenkirk— all under the guise of usually sitcom fare. The series, which is animated in rotoscope, pairs its comedic moments nicely with its more emotional resonating scenes. However, the latter are at the heart of this series and stay with you long after watching this mind-bending and worthwhile series.
– Ashton Hughes
The latest offering from Silicon Valley co-creator Alec Berg, Barry expertly blends the line between comedy and drama. The show follows its title character (Bill Hader) as he strives to transition from his unfulfilling career as a paid assassin to his ideal life as a Hollywood actor. All the while, he struggles with past demons from both his former line of work and his time in the military. The show is as much a deep dive into a psyche plagued by PTSD as it is an absurd comedy featuring wacky criminals who all want to take advantage of Barry’s expertise. The show is anchored by NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), an absurdly sweet and naïve Chechen mobster who consider’s Barry a best friend as much as a contracted killer — a feeling that Barry does not share.
Throughout the show, Barry is driven to commit heinous acts to keep his former life a secret, hurting those close to him in the process. All the while, he finds success as an actor by accessing the traumas of his past — leading him to confront feelings he would otherwise be free to suppress. Barry is as emotionally substantive as it is laugh out loud funny, making for a show that is hard to classify as anything other than exceptional.
– Alec Newboles