Alibi V.28 No.51 • Dec 19-25, 2019 

Idiot Box

Top TV

Best television of 2019

Between broadcast stations, cable TV networks and the ever-expanding explosion of online streaming services, it’s been difficult to keep up with all the content available to today’s stay-at-home viewers. Having binge-watched as much as humanly possible in the last 12 months, here are our picks for the top TV of 2019.

The Best:

“Barry” (HBO) Bill Hader’s tragicomedy about a morose hitman from the Midwest who finds his “purpose” moonlighting as a community theater actor in Los Angeles welcomed in a second season as dark, funny and unpredictable as the first. The creator-producer-star and occasional director (who’s also busy on IFC’s excellent “Documentary Now!”) has established himself as one of the the more multitalented recent graduates of “Saturday Night Live.”

“Chernobyl” (HBO)—Tense and terrifying, HBO’s chronicling of the world’s worst nuclear disaster is closer in spirit to a horror movie than a historical drama. Only the “monster” in this case is a government convinced of its own infallibility and a population cowed into accepting “official explanations” over the actual facts staring them in the face. Over the course of five nearly excruciating episodes, we witness the errors and the arrogance that led to and compounded the disaster as well as the direct effect it had on thousands in the immediate area.

“Fleabag” (Amazon) Certifiably brilliant writer-director-producer-actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who also gave us “Killing Eve”) first transformed her improvised, one-woman show into a wonderfully astringent sitcom back in 2016. In 2019 we finally got the (perhaps conclusive?) second season. It was worth the wait, seeing Waller-Bridge continue to move the series from a slightly uncomfortable dramedy to a painfully self-aware look at relationships (sexual, romantic, familial, financial) in the modern-day world.

“Fosse/Verdon” (FX) Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams brought Oscar-level acting to television with their transformative roles as choreographer/director Bob Fosse and his muse/far-better half Gwen Verdon. The often tricky timeline and razzle-dazzle editing disguised most if not all of the more common biopic tropes of this eight-episode maxi-series. But the energy, anger, joy and pain of the lifelong relationship between these two volatile artists came leaping off the screen thanks to the uninhibited work of its committed leads.

“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” (Netflix)—Here we have a textbook example of how to do a sequel/prequel to a much loved cult effort. The love and respect for Jim Henson’s 1982 puppet-animated feature is evident in this massive expansion of that beloved fantasy world. French action flick director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) added a surprising element of action and energy to the proceedings, making this irresistible binge-watching material.

“Pen15” (Hulu)—Give it up for the ladies, who have had a spectacular year expressing themselves in deeply personal comedies that hint at far deeper sexual and sociological truths. Here, 31-year-old actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle don braces and rainbow-colored wardrobes to play 13-year-old versions of themselves in what amounts to a painfully honest, R-rated version of “Degrassi Junior High.” Filling out the rest of their cast with actual 13-year-olds would seem gimmicky, but it drives home the idea that those awkward, uncomfortable and terribly confused teenagers inside all of us never really go away.

“Russian Doll” (Netflix) Who would have guessed that a trippy, Groundhog Day-esque sci-fi comedy about poor decisions would be 2019’s most humanist offering? Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland are the ladies behind this surprisingly ruminative tale about a hard-partying game developer (Lyonne) who can’t seem to stop dying one fateful, never-ending night in NYC. There’s plenty of inventive humor along the way, but what really sticks with you is the message that simple human connection is the thing that gets us through this mad, magical mess known as life.

“Undone” (Amazon)—A companion piece if you will to “Russian Doll,” this rotoscope-animated series also uses science-fiction to tell a mournful tale of a seemingly irresponsible woman cast adrift in the wreckage her own life. Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) does deep work as poor Alma, a snarky deaf woman involved in a bad auto accident who either gains the ability to talk to her long-dead father (Bob Odenkirk) or loses her mind. (Both are strong possibilities). Visually stunning, incisively acted and suffused with some deep psychological understanding,

“Watchmen” (HBO) Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 graphic novel examined the end of the Cold War as filtered through the pop cultural lens of superhero comics. For this eight-episode sequel/reimagining, Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) does the same thing—only using the history of America’s racial divide. I dare say Lindelof’s grasp of our country’s history is deeper and more nuanced than Moore’s. This timely and lacerating genre exercise effectively buries Martin Scorsese’s argument about the irrelevance of superhero stories.

“What We Do In the Shadows” (FX) New Zealanders Jermaine Clement and Taiki Waititi turn their 2014 cult “mockumentary” about vampires living in the modern day world into a weekly series. And if it were nothing but clueless bloodsuckers Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou and Mark Proksch arguing about proper orgy etiquette, this would still be one of the most beautifully silly shows on TV. But 2019’s single best episode of anything belongs to the chapter in which our vampires face the wrath of the vaunted Vampire Tribunal. I you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil all the ridiculous movie star cameos. Let’s just say I fully support the idea of Tilda Swinton as queen of the vampires.