These days, even the most avid TV watcher can’t keep up with everything that’s acclaimed or award-winning. Some excellent, idiosyncratic shows aired outstanding seasons in 2019, yet barely made a ripple in the larger culture. The bawdy baseball comedy Brockmire, the cockeyed showbiz satire The Other Two, the melancholy homecoming dramedy Back to Life ... these series and many more have yet to find the audiences they deserve. Even when critics beat the drum for them, the sound tends to get absorbed by an ever-increasing din of hype. And with new high-profile subscription streaming services launching this year and the next, that noise isn’t going to abate anytime soon.
But the truly great television dramas and comedies will endure. For now, at least, all 20 of the titles on the list below can be found on some streaming service, or on their network’s websites, or even in reruns on reliable old cable TV. Some of these series are well-known and well-watched. Others flew below the radar in 2019. All are ready to be discovered (or in some cases, just newly appreciated) by anyone who enjoys seeing television creators take chances with their style, storytelling and subject matter.
1. Fosse/Verdon (FX)
This biographical miniseries about Broadway legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon doubles as a dizzying spin through American show business, from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. Visually dazzling, tuneful, and graced with dynamic lead performances from Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon is a treat for theater nerds and neophytes alike. It’s also the rare story about tortured geniuses that focuses as much on the genius as the torture. Co-creators Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail don’t shy away from the title couple’s bed-hopping, substance abuse, or emotional manipulation. But their structurally inventive melodrama still celebrates the collaborative connections that Fosse and Verdon made, and the masterpieces they created.
2. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Writer-producers Michelle King and Robert King actually delivered two essential shows this year, with their offbeat mystery-horror series Evil debuting just a few months ago on CBS. But while Evil’s good (so to speak), it’s not yet as fully formed as The Good Fight, the Kings’ rocket-paced drama about Chicago lawyers trying to litigate their way through the madness of the current socio-political moment. In its third season, The Good Fight tackled racial bias, the far right, fake news, and cancel culture in entertaining and unpredictable episodes featuring guest appearances that ran the gamut from Michael Sheen as an obnoxious roué (patterned after the late Roy Cohn) to the gifted young British actor Gary Carr playing a weirdo version of himself.
There are only a few episodes left in this inventive and ambitious afterlife sitcom, so it’s time to start touting its legacy as one of TV’s all-time greats. Between the wild conclusion of season 3 earlier this year (which included a visit to an IHOP that exists beyond time and space) and the emotional episodes that preceded season 4’s recent holiday hiatus (with our heroes realizing the eternal torture they’re really fighting against is being separated from each other), The Good Place has been pushing toward what should be a powerful finale. As always, creator Michael Schur and his writers and cast keep balancing the basic storytelling question of whether their characters can find happiness with the bigger questions of what it means to be a decent person.
4. Lodge 49 (AMC)
The lack of an easily explained premise probably led to this strange and beautiful show getting canceled at the end of its second season. Lodge 49 is sort of about a zen surfer dude (played by the naturally lovable Wyatt Russell) maintaining his optimism in the face of one calamity after another; and it’s sort of about his twin sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), an exhausted cynic trying to eke out a living in a Southern California economy that seems to have abandoned anyone who’s not a “disrupter” entrepreneur. But it’s mostly about a social club where ordinary folks (plus a few weirdos, like the suicidal spy novelist played with charming brio in season 2 by Paul Giamatti) gather to ponder the ancient, secret lore that could bring clarity to their messy lives.
The first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hilarious and harrowing dramedy introduced both her heroine — an impulsive libertine distrusted by her family and friends — and her snappy shtick of delivering quick glances and asides to the camera. In the phenomenal season 2, the writer-star puts Fleabag’s well-established tics, characters, and themes in service of an intense story arc, which sees the title character trying to mend some broken relationships while simultaneously contemplating an affair with a sexy, boozy Catholic priest (played with a bleeding heart by Andrew Scott). Rarely has a TV sitcom been so conducive to bingeing, mainly because it’s hard to watch the second season’s first episode without wanting to race ahead and find out what happens.
Why did this acerbic satire make the leap from minor hit to meme-generating viral sensation in season 2? Give credit to the talented cast, who’ve grown into their tricky roles playing entitled, obnoxious millionaires who are also oddly sympathetic — in large part because they’ve been manipulated their whole lives by their megalomaniacal billionaire patriarch, played with terrifying fire by Brian Cox. Give more credit to an ingenious episodic structure, in which these squabbling oligarchs betray each other and suffer crushing humiliations in new ritzy locales nearly every episode. Every week brings something new, making each a must-see.
This TV sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark graphic novel is equal parts engaging and befuddling, as befits a show created by Lost and The Leftovers writer-producer Damon Lindelof. The real wonder here is how Lindelof honors the spirit of the original work (albeit without Moore’s input or approval) by using the mythos of Watchmen itself as a way to consider the deeper cultural meanings of superheroes and power fantasies. This Watchmen draws connections between reactionary secret societies, racial “code-switching,” and the literal and figurative masks that heroes and villains wear — all without losing the spine-tingling mysteries and mind-blowing surprises Lindelof loves.
8. Jane the Virgin (The CW)
The fifth and final season of this persistently underrated show brought years’ worth of complicated telenovela plotlines about amnesia, faked deaths, secret identities, romantic misunderstandings, and whatnot to a proper conclusion, with no abrupt endings or cheats. And to the last, Jane the Virgin anchored its over-the-top soap opera shenanigans in real-world concerns about careers, parenting, the politics of immigration, and all the other “life stuff” that’s as dramatic as any evil twin or kidnapping. Although it was nice to see their stories end on the right note, these characters — so unlike any other on TV — will be sorely missed.
9. Derry Girls (Netflix)
The fumbling and foul-mouthed 1990s Northern Ireland Catholic schoolkids of Derry Girls were responsible for some of 2019’s best farce, with tightly constructed, explosively funny episodes about proms and family weddings and unsanctioned teenage road trips gone awry. As with season 1, what remains so special about Derry Girls is the way writer Lisa McGee (who based the show on her own experiences) places these broad, crude high school hijinks against the backdrop of the Irish “Troubles,” showing how life goes on even when there are heavily armed troops patrolling the streets.
Released on Feb. 1 — the day before Groundhog Day — this original spin on the “living the same day over and over” premise arrived on Netflix with very little advance buzz, but almost immediately became a must-see. Natasha Lyonne (who also co-wrote the series) creates an instantly indelible character with Nadia Vulvokov, a raspy-voiced coder in baggy clothes, who gets a chance to debug her own personal program when she finds herself stuck at the same birthday party. Russian Doll is a show about a young woman investigating and trying to correct her own mistakes, and it has a plot that goes through startling changes from episode to episode.
11. Chernobyl (HBO)
The idea of watching a nearly six-hour miniseries about one of the most devastating nuclear accidents of all time may sound like a miserable proposition. But writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck turn this project into something utterly absorbing and unexpectedly cinematic. Led by a cast that includes Jared Harris, Emily Watson, and Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl breaks down step by step how catastrophes are bound to happen in any oppressive society where pointing out errors is tantamount to criticizing the government. Chernobyl is also about how the people most affected by this tragedy retain their humanity, making gallows-humor jokes as they try to save as many of their compatriots as they can.
12. Perpetual Grace, LTD (Epix)
Ben Kingsley gives one of the year’s most memorable performances, playing a loquacious, philosophical con artist in this dryly comic neo-noir. Co-created by Patriot writer-producers Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris, Perpetual Grace, LTD is a twisted tale of redemption, following a handful of tragic oddballs — including a stoic magician, a vengeful ex-con, a failed fireman, and a Mexican astronaut — as they get pulled into an elaborate, border-crossing kidnapping scheme. Intricately plotted and stylish, this show boasts colorful dialogue that borders on the poetic, especially when spoken in Kingsley’s growly monotone.
Over the past two years, Cartoon Network has tried to turn some of its more unconventional projects — like the softly psychedelic Summer Camp Island and Genndy Tartakovsky’s prehistoric adventure Primal — into special events, by running whole or half-season blocks of episodes on successive nights. One unfortunate side effect of this is that these shows sometimes seem to come and go before people who’d love them even know they exist. Infinity Train should’ve been a much bigger deal, with its fantastical and surprising story of a lost teen gradually slogging her way through the title vehicle: an endless convoy where each car contains its own universe. The good news is that a second season, with an entirely new adventure, begins in January. Hop aboard now.
14. Pose (FX)
Moving into the early ’90s for its second season strengthened an already excellent show, giving the creators license to address the ravages of AIDS (and the activist response to it), as well as to cover the short window in American life when straight white folks were obsessed with Madonna’s “Vogue” and the movie Paris Is Burning. Billy Porter is amazing as always as the drag ball MC who observes all the younger queens with a wary, seen-it-all affection. But it’s the primarily transgender supporting cast who shines the most in Pose season 2, reflecting both the hopes and the pains of a subculture striving for mainstream recognition.
15. GLOW (Netflix)
The heavily fictionalized story of a 1980s women’s wrestling league moves to Las Vegas for season 3, where the “gorgeous ladies” begin to enjoy some fame outside the L.A. market. This set of GLOW episodes downplays the wrestling in favor of something more like a string of loosely connected vignettes, exploring personal identity and the true meaning of success. It’s a bold creative choice that not every GLOW fan supported. But compared to the more anodyne ’80s nostalgia of Stranger Things and The Goldbergs, the material here is refreshingly challenging, acknowledging the biases and bigotry inherent in life 30 years ago.
The goal for any new streaming service is to become indispensable, which Disney Plus accomplished at launch not just with the depth of its catalog but with the debut of one of the year’s most talked-about shows. Nearly everything about the way The Mandalorian has been handled has been smart, from keeping the series (and its breakout character “The Child,” aka “Baby Yoda”) under wraps before the debut to structuring the episodes to resemble old-fashioned “adventure of the week” TV Westerns. By releasing new installments weekly on Friday, Disney Plus has invented a new way for Star Wars fans around the world to kick back and enjoy the weekend together.
17. Sherman’s Showcase (IFC)
The IFC cult favorite Documentary Now! delivered one of the year’s best episodes with its Stephen Sondheim/D.A. Pennebaker spoof “Original Cast Album: Co-op.” But IFC’s most consistently delightful pop culture parody this year is Sherman’s Showcase, an imaginary “best of” anthology for a nonexistent Soul Train-like dance program. Bashir Salahuddin (who also co-created the show with Diallo Riddle) plays the host, who tries to maintain his unruffled cool even as music and fashions keep evolving across the decades in ways he often finds alarming. The result is a show that pays homage to TV’s past, while reacting with gentle bemusement at the changes the medium keeps going through.
Julio Torres has stealthily been one of TV’s brightest new stars for a couple of years now, whether writing some of Saturday Night Live’s best sketches or hosting the absolutely magical HBO standup special My Favorite Shapes. In Los Espookys — which he co-created with co-stars Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega — Torres plays a chocolate company heir who wants to abandon the family business and spend his days staging fake hauntings with his friends. That’s the kind of show Los Espookys is: silly, sweet, and largely low-stakes, and also prone to sudden bursts of retro B-movie eeriness.
Discovery cheated a bit in its second season, bringing in a couple of ringers from Star Trek’s past to augment its already stellar cast of characters. The addition of Anson Mount as Capt. Christopher Pike and Ethan Peck as his trusted half-Vulcan Lt. Spock connected the show more firmly to the main Star Trek timeline, while also shifting the dynamics of the crew from anxious and unstable to something more collegial and idealistic. The guest heroes moved on by season’s end, but not before the Discovery creative team proved it could produce episodes and storylines that stand up to the best of the Star Trek franchise.
Yes, Game of Thrones. Faithful viewers can argue — and have, and will — about whether or not this series had a satisfying ending. But in an era of extreme audience fragmentation, HBO’s internationally popular fantasy blockbuster deserves a lot of credit for its scope and spectacle, and even for the way it keeps giving so many millions of viewers something to yell about. Beyond its cultural value, in a final season that many find frustrating and disappointing, Game of Thrones still delivers moments of awe and wonder beyond what most TV ever attempts.