The art of television can, at times, be lost in the shuffle of endless binge watches and smaller scale channels and streaming services being ignored. The medium is constantly changing as new competitors enter the field and others already in the game grow their output exponentially.
But one thing emerges from this new landscape, despite some growing pains: great shows come out at such an alarming rate now, almost weekly. TV has reached a point where shows don’t have to be broad or change their design to cater; instead, shows have a chance to become a vision, to be exactly as they’re intended.
The art of the medium is starting to grow into something utterly fascinating, where creators can play with storytelling, format, and even the runtimes of their episodes, allowing the story to go the direction it’s meant to in the time it’s meant to, with less focus on mandates and conformity. 2019 brought this ideal forward with some incredible shows, but also brought its A-game in its more conventional series, as well.
Prestige television and Peak TV have exploded to ungodly levels, but this new era ushers in unlikely stories from unlikely creators, and is giving a voice to talent far too long in the silence.
The shows on this list are a passionate labor of love, and are towering examples of the beauty television can deliver.
10. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
The artistry alone puts Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance at a major advantage as one of the most impressive projects on television. The beautiful set design, puppet work, and blending of action and drama creates this undeniable awe over every moment. Its quirky characters and all-star voice cast breathe extra life into this very real and human struggle of the loss of freedom over the grand ruling beings, a rather important message in these times. The show is a towering monument to practical effects, never losing sight over the strong hearts its characters possess. Despite the heaviness the show carries at times, it makes sure there is still a sense of fun and adventure to coincide with those hardships, creating an all-encompassing wave of emotions that the show uses to drive home its smart and universal themes. Kevin Lever
9. For All Mankind
A vote for optimism and progressiveness runs deep inside For All Mankind, Apple TV+’s show that manages to tie inspiration and cautionary tale into its important message. Space exploration is certainly a tough nut to crack, but For All Mankind is more concerned about the human element, the hardworking men and (thankfully, while rewriting history) women at the forefront of that noble endeavor. The show’s early goings may have started on a path of Mad Men by way of NASA, but soon found something far more fascinating: telling the story from the women’s point of view. The alternate history of the show allows for a whole new world of storytelling, and the show rises to that occasion to place the characters that Sarah Jones, Jodi Balfour, Shantel VanSanten, and Wrenn Schmidt portray as the pillars of change and pioneers of a new, exciting history. But it’s not only the message that For All Mankind gets right: it’s the sacrifices, the humanity, and the heartbreak that comes with such an impossible task. It’s an incredibly well told show, and only grows better as it goes. Kevin Lever
Chernobyl often feels like the horror event of 2019. The pins-and-needles first episode, especially, is punched up on the strongest horror-thriller continuum to be found on TV. The direst moments burn with suspense, despite knowing what happens, show creator Craig Mazin has the patience and grace to let us sit in the disaster. He plays the long game in the short run. This singular and self-contained season gives us the full story in a short burst to the head. It’s prime dramatic work where great acting and script-writing achieve a perfect outcome. The show’s podcast is also required listening, a brilliant companion piece that enriches every episode with its historical context. Together, the show and podcast feel like a complete work. One of my favorite TV events of the decade. Calvin Kemph
7. Perpetual Grace
An ex-firefighter is hooked into conning a pastor out of his conned money, and then things get complicated. Perpetual Grace, LTD. is arthouse to its very core, becoming this absolute gift of brilliant writing and genius performances inside a wide chasm of life lessons and unlikely friendship. Nothing ever goes as planned and instead of being frustrating, it adds layers to its complex characters, weaving a tale about redemption and heartache over so much loss buried deep inside each character’s soul. Co-creators Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris deliver something truly unlike anything else on television, with inventive filmmaking and a chaotic energy that can’t be found anywhere else. Kevin Lever
The new word on Mindhunter is that it is done. For all the good intentions and miraculously steady film-like development the show has pushed the streaming format but now that’s the end. The actors have been released from contracts and now may pursue other work. Fincher, meanwhile, is going back to the movies. But what a great couple seasons we got out of this. The sophomore season especially added further nuance to our atypical characters who would get their white whale of an interview with Charles Manson (played by Damen Harriman, who also played Manson in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), talk about typecasting.) The show found unusual delight in building psychological profiles of troubled men. And it was good right to the end. Sometimes that is better: we can rest knowing we have left the show in a great place. Everything we got was good and now it’s done. Calvin Kemph
Leave it to Phoebe Waller-Bridge to return to her fairly niche BBC original series three years later and completely blow the doors open with a gnarly second season. Following the success of her breakout series Killing Eve in 2018, the show-runner/writer/lead actress came back to Fleabag to expand on the format which she seems most comfortable in and what resulted was an even wittier, darker, more raw and human exploration of the themes she laid out in the show’s first season. Andrew Scott, playing a priest and love interest for Fleabag, brought a new set of emotions to the series for Waller-Bridge to explore and together the two of them were able to deliver some of the most intoxicating and riveting scenes of the year. This is all before you get to some tremendous supporting performances from the likes of Sian Clifford and Olivia Colman, among others. It is unclear if the on-the-rise creative force that is Waller-Bridge will return to this series (though she has a new series coming this year on HBO), but in 2019 the young star made her mark and solidified her presence as a must-watch artist for years to come. Tyler Harford
High school dramas tend to be soapy in their way of presenting the lives of people clawing through their formative years, trying to find their voice and who they really are. With HBO’s Euphoria, there is a distinct voice at its very center, and it’s crying out the pain of growing up, of love and friendship, and of addiction and substance abuse. There is an immense weight over every moment of this first season, where the foundation everyone is built on could collapse underneath them and consume them. But there’s an immense beauty and scale to their stories, told with an intensity and sharpness of vision that is far beyond other teen dramas, only rivaled by Freaks and Geeks and the UK version of Skins. It comes with pitch perfect performances and an expert filmmaker at the helm, causing Euphoria to bloom into something potent and unflinching. Kevin Lever
3. Mr. Robot
When Mr. Robot first premiered back in the summer of 2015, things were fairly different in the television landscape. Netflix had just started to hit it big with their original programming a couple years earlier with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. The future of the medium seemed destined for streaming, yet the course it would take still seemed very uncertain. Suddenly, NBCUniversal fell into having a huge hit on their hands on USA, one of their cable networks. The hacker drama, starring Rami Malek and written by Sam Esmail (who didn’t take on full directorial duties until Season 2 through the end), caught the wave of the cultural zeitgeist in a big way that first season with its mind-bending storytelling and its thrilling pace. However, many people thought Esmail got a little too cute with the storytelling gimmicks in Season 2 and as a result the show’s viewership saw a sharp decline from its breakout glory. By 2019, the show had righted the ship in Season 3 for those who had stuck around and entering its final season, fans of the series just hoped Esmail could deliver on the promise of that breakout success. Luckily for all involved, he was able to do just that. It became easy to tell that the visionary writer/director had this ending in mind from the very start, taking some game-changing gambles with the story multiple times throughout the season, each time having it feel more satisfying and revelatory than the last, culminating in a truly exceptional 2-hour finale that subverted all of our expectations. Mr. Robot is the longest running series on our 2019 list. Because of that and the way it was able to satisfyingly conclude this story that captured our imagination some years ago, it holds a special place in our hearts. Tyler Harford
Succession may be the strongest ongoing show on Television. The first season, also our second pick last year, wrote a giant ass check that the second season is more happy to cash. It fulfills every promise. With a matter of great confidence, every character arc is explored to its fullest potential. There cannot be enough Succession. We say often, here is a show that is much needed in the times we live in. Here is a show, rarer still, that is the perfect representation of our times. It is the manifestation of wealth and big business principle, everything we assume to be true of large businessmen and the company they keep. And even to this end, we genuinely feel for some of its characters, want to spend time with them and live in their world, floating far above ours on rarefied air, living another existence that only exists on the television screen. Succession is a coalescent show of our times. It is not the show we need, it is a mirror reflected back to us, as all great cinema and television can be. Calvin Kemph
Audiences were gifted something special this Fall with HBO’s Watchmen, which saw show-runner and lead writer Damon Lindelof return to the network to continue the story that was once a hit series of comic books that ran from 1986-1987. When it was announced that Lindelof was going to helm a sequel series for the network, there was a fair amount of skepticism that permeated the online discourse. However, viewers of The Leftovers, his previous series which turned out to be some of the best television produced in the decade, knew that combining his true talent for world-building and episodic storytelling with the universe already constructed by author Alan Moore in the late 1980s could make for something special. What resulted over the course of its nine-week run was exactly that. It became clear within the first couple weeks that this would be a Damon Lindelof show first and a comic book adaptation second. It employed much of the same style that made The Leftovers so brilliant and even hearkens back to Lost in its character-focused mode of presentation and the way it structured its storytelling around telling a complete and singular story in each of its episodes. By way of this, the show produced some of the most memorable episodes of the year and in particular, episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being,” could be considered among Lindelof’s best episodes ever. Seamlessly moving between timelines and character-arcs, the writing in the episode and the series as a whole was a marvel to behold. The TV mastermind has said that he intended for the season to be a one-season, closed book affair, and that has had some people disappointed. However, given the note that his series went out on, we think it best that HBO leave his vision the way he intended. It doesn’t get any better than that. Tyler Harford