Another year, another 10,042 television shows from which to make a list.
This is not a “best” list — a poor word to apply to something as wide-ranging, unquantifiable and subject to taste as television. Perhaps one day someone will write an algorithm that will objectively and accurately determine the quality of a work of art, and God help us all. For now, you are stuck with opinions, including your own.
What do these series — 14, squeezed into 10 items — have in common? They were all new in 2019, a self-imposed restriction that leaves out “Schitt’s Creek” and “Fleabag,” but which seems only fair to the mass of fresh TV teeming at the critical shore. I’m somewhat surprised to find, looking over the list, that more than half involve some sort of supernatural element; perhaps it’s because they’re able to play with form and ideas in ways that more everyday series are not, or that there’s just a lot of that stuff around nowadays, reality failing our present needs. Several involve violence in a way that does not mar their deeper goodness. Most were created and/or carried by women.
Above all, they gave me pleasure: I laughed, I cried, I hid my eyes when the going got rough. I was shown something I hadn’t seen before. Most have real heroes at their center: flawed, complicated — because who isn’t — but not antiheroic. There are enough villains dressed as heroes in the world I get as news; these shows, in their various ways, stand up for life, love, difference and possibility. They make me feel we might have a chance.
In no particular order:
‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’ (Showtime)
Kirsten Dunst’s shaded, layered, fully invested performance as a woman seeking recompense from an Amway-like pyramidal marketing operation she blames for her husband’s death makes this well-peopled revenge comedy rewarding viewing. (Set in 1992 in “Orlando-adjacent” Florida, with Ted Levine as a balding, spray-tanned, narcissistic businessman-cum-cult leader, it has a few things to say about How We Are Now.) Denied an inch, Dunst’s character takes back a mile, finding in the bargain what she’s made of and — not always prettily — capable of. (Full review.)
‘Wayne’ (YouTube Premium)
Working-class Massachusetts teens (Mark McKenna and Ciara Bravo) hit the road to claim a hijacked inheritance — a 1979 Trans Am — in this often violent yet thoroughly pure-hearted, beautifully played, deceptively delicate, semi-romantic chase comedy. (Full review.)
‘Now Apocalypse’ (Starz)
Gregg Araki’s high-gloss, beefcake/cheesecake C-movie of a series is a lusty, lustful, life-embracing potted odyssey of sex and self-discovery set in a Southern California in which every atom has primped for the camera. With undertones of science fiction and dark conspiracy, it recalls earlier generations of underground filmmakers — including Araki himself, who has been making films for 30 years — as it cheerily knocks against whatever walls are in its way. (Full review.)
‘Russian Doll’ (Netflix) / ‘Undone’ (Amazon Prime)
Time-altering circular mystery stories with snarky, skeptical young/youngish women at their center. “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne’s New York turn on “Groundhog Day,” may have some simple messages at its core — life is learning to live, people need people — but it comes in a complicated package that is, at every moment, a pleasure to unwrap. (Full review.)
In “Undone,” from “Bojack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Rosa Salazar plays a San Antonio woman who, after an accident, may or may not be seeing the shade of her maybe murdered father (Bob Odenkirk) — like Hamlet, sort of. The series, which shifts realities with regularity, gets mileage out of being semi-animated (Google “rotoscope”), but its strength is in its dialogue and the well-played domestic comedy that supports the spookiness.
‘Lazor Wulf’ (Adult Swim)
Animated Afro-mytho-retro-futurism centered on three sibling wolves, a horse and a yeti in a track suit. God, a big head with a beard of clouds, is also involved, or uninvolved, depending. Geometrically rendered, colored with acid tones heavy on purple, green and mustard, it comes on like a cross between the P-Funk mothership and the Yellow Submarine. Sunny and dark, packed with action and information, yet in no hurry to get things done, Henry Bonsu’s cartoon builds a world and settles in it. (Full review.)
‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ (HBO)
Former “Nightly Show” head writer Robin Thede is behind this clearly named, very funny series, in which she and equally appealing costars Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis and Ashley Nicole Black show off their talents in different forms and flavors. There’s nothing formally radical here, in historical sketch comedy terms, past the difference the title describes — which is substantial — but it’s smart and well played and pretty much everything works pretty much all the time. Good candy. (Full review.)
‘Emergence’ (ABC) / ‘Chambers’ (Netflix)
Much about these genre series is standard for their not-dissimilar playbooks. But they are playbooks for a reason— they work — and the ornaments and variations, and especially the performances, make each distinct and extraordinary. Of this year’s new broadcast series, “Emergence,” in which a small-town police chief (a typically grounded Allison Tolman) takes in a strangely powerful little girl (Alexa Swinton), is the one I am most called to follow. Even though it makes me terribly anxious. (Full review.)
“Chambers,” which sported Uma Thurman as a marquee name and Sivan Alyra Rose as its Native American lead, was a ghostly transplant story set among the working and upper classes in the Arizona desert, approached with unusual naturalism. The season (there won’t be more) stands on its own. (Full review.)
‘Good Omens’ (Amazon Prime) / ‘His Dark Materials’ (HBO).
Going against God. “Good Omens,” adapted from a novel co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, is a lovely, if sometimes berserk, fable on the subject of Armageddon, in which the power of friendship rewrites the Book of Revelation. David Tennant and Michael Sheen are the demon and angel in revolt against their respective head offices; Mireille Enos rides a motorcycle as a horseman of the Apocalypse. (Full review.)
Adapting Philip Pullman’s novels, “His Dark Materials” is an anti-deist song of innocence and experience, natural processes and religious proscriptions, set in another corner of a subtly connected multiverse, where one’s soul is a spirit animal walking by your side. Scrappy young Dafne Keen, as the gifted child at its center, makes you care. (Full review.)
In which creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play their gawky middle-school selves among an otherwise age-appropriate cast. The central device disappears quickly from notice, and what remains is a more realistic than usual portrayal of the quicksilver joys and lingering indignities of adolescence. (Full review.)
‘Encore!’ (Disney+) / ‘Fosse/Verdon’ (FX)
Two takes on musical theater, the passage of time and the dance of art and life. The terrific, terrifically moving “Encore!,” produced by Kristen Bell, reunites castmates after many a summer to restage a musical they performed in high school. Along with the built-in backstage tropes, it has wonderful things to say about community and communities, regret and growth, what’s lost and what’s found again. (Full review.)
Borne aloft by the thoughtful, bodily apt performances of its stars, “Fosse/Verdon” is a non-chronological double biopic that investigates the personal and professional partnership of choreographer-director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer-actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), who couldn’t live together and couldn’t stay apart. Plus, there’s dancing. (Full review.)