Advertisement

Best TV shows of 2019: Robert Lloyd on ‘Russian Doll,’ ‘Good Omens’ and more

The best of TV 2019
The best of TV 2019
(Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)
1

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.

The year in entertainment: 2019’s best movies, music, TV shows, games and more

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.

Advertisement

In no particular order:

2
‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’ (Showtime)
On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) leads a “splashercise” course at the water park where she works in the Showtime comedy “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.”
(Patti Perret/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.)

3
‘Wayne’ (YouTube Premium)
Mark McKenna, left, wearing goggles, and Ciara Bravo, wearing a helmet, in a scene from “Wayne.”
Mark McKenna, left, and Ciara Bravo in “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.)

4
‘Now Apocalypse’ (Starz)
Roxane Mesquida, from left, Beau Mirchoff, Avan Jogia and Kelli Berglund in “Now Apocalypse.”

Roxane Mesquida, from left, Beau Mirchoff, Avan Jogia and Kelli Berglund in “Now Apocalypse.”
(Starz Entertainment, LLC / Sundance Film Festival)

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.)

5
‘Russian Doll’ (Netflix) / ‘Undone’ (Amazon Prime)
Natasha Lyonne in “Russian Doll.”
Natasha Lyonne in “Russian Doll.”
( Netflix)

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.)

An animated woman against a starry background in “Undone.”
“Undone,” produced with rotoscope animation, is Amazon’s first (partially) animated series for adults.
(Amazon)

Advertisement

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.

6
‘Lazor Wulf’ (Adult Swim)
Cartoon characters Canon Wulf, Stupid Horse, the titular Lazor Wulf and King Yeti.
Canon Wulf, Stupid Horse, Lazor Wulf and King Yeti in the Adult Swim cartoon “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.)

7
‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ (HBO)
Quinta Brunson, in the middle seat. and a fake-bearded Robin Thede, on the aisle, on an airplane in “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”
Quinta Brunson and Robin Thede, in a faux beard, play a honeymooning couple unable to say “yes” to a flight attendant in “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.)

8
‘Emergence’ (ABC) / ‘Chambers’ (Netflix)
Allison Tolman, left, and Alexa Swinton in “Emergence” on ABC.
Allison Tolman, left, and Alexa Swinton in ABC’s “Emergence.”
(Giovanni Rufino / ABC)

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.)

Sivan Alyra Rose clasps her hands to the side of her head in the shower in “Chambers.”
Sivan Alyra Rose is a young woman experiencing visions after a heart transplant in the Netflix thriller “Chambers.”
(Ursula Coyote / Netflix)

“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.)

9
‘Good Omens’ (Amazon Prime) / ‘His Dark Materials’ (HBO).
Michael Sheen, left, and David Tennant toast with Champagne in “Good Omens.”
Michael Sheen, left, and David Tennant are an angel and a demon out to stop the Apocalypse in “Good Omens.”
(Chris Raphael / Amazon Prime Video)

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.)

Seen through a window, Lyra (Dafne Keen) looks at her spirit animal, Pan, in the form of an ermine.
Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) with her spirit animal, Pan (Kit Connor), now in the form of an ermine, in HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.”
(HBO)

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.)

10
‘Pen15' (Hulu)
Maya Erskine, left, and Anna Konkle, both 32, embrace next to lockers as versions of their seventh-grade selves in “Pen15.”

Maya Erskine, left, and Anna Konkle, both 32, play versions of their seventh-grade selves in “Pen15.”
(Alex Lombardi / Hulu)

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.)

11
‘Encore!’ (Disney+) / ‘Fosse/Verdon’ (FX)
Old high school castmates restage their 1996 production of “Annie” for the Disney+ series “Encore!”
Old high school castmates restage their 1996 production of “Annie” for the Disney+ series “Encore!”
(Disney+)

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.)

Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon.”
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in FX’s double-biopic “Fosse/Verdon.”
(Eric Liebowitz / FX)

Advertisement

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.)


Newsletter
Get our daily Entertainment newsletter
Robert Lloyd has been a Los Angeles Times television critic since 2003. Previously, he held that position at L.A. Weekly, whose music editor and critic he also was for some years, and was the author of the Today column at the late Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. His oral history of “Freaks & Geeks” appeared in the January 2013 issue of Vanity Fair. Sometimes, usually after dark, he masquerades as a musician (credits available on request).