There was a time, not so long ago, when a regular human being with a cable subscription could conceivably watch every worthwhile show that debuted in a given year. But in 2019, when a single top 10 list seems like a woefully inadequate summary of the past 12 months on TV, even critics have had to give up on that goal. So, with the caveat that I certainly haven’t heard of—much less seen—everything that’s out there, either, here’s my annual rundown of the best new series that I watched but you probably didn’t.
As costs skyrocket and health care inevitably becomes a wedge issue in the 2020 election cycle, it’s not surprising to see nonfiction TV take an interest. This summer brought the debuts of two shows that profiled patients with grave, mysterious ailments and appealed to their audiences for diagnostic insight. While TNT’s Chasing the Cure aired distastefully game-show-like live episodes, Diagnosis, based on Dr. Lisa Sanders’ long-running New York Times Magazine column of the same name, offered more respectful portraits of Americans in pain. An ingenious medical detective, Sanders harnesses the wisdom of the crowd to help such desperate patients as a veteran beset by debilitating neurological symptoms and a 7-year-old girl suffering from seizures. Each case reveals how easy it is to fall through the cracks in a system that is failing so many.
Free Meek (Amazon Prime)
Before he was known around the world as Meek Mill, Robert Rihmeek Williams was a 19-year-old aspiring rapper whose dreams were put on hold when he was arrested on his South Philly doorstep, badly beaten and hit with a long list of charges—many of which he claims were fabricated. That 2007 incident was the beginning of a legal saga that only concluded this past summer, as Meek remained subject to the whims of a judge who didn’t hesitate to throw him back in prison when she thought he’d violated parole. Co-produced by his record label, Roc Nation, this five-part series is, by turns, a biodoc, an investigation into police corruption and an exposé on a racist probation system. Free Meek makes an especially effective companion to Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, which explores similar post-incarceration struggles.
Why We Hate (Discovery)
Hate isn’t just an extremely relevant subject—it’s an enormous one, impossible to tackle without delving into neurology, the social sciences and thousands of years of global history. In this miniseries, whose executive producers include Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney, directors Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard cover most of those bases, probing phenomena that range from sports rivalries to genocide and looking to scientific research for solutions. Consulting with a variety of experts and using conflicts from around the world as case studies, they’re careful to avoid tarring any particular group or nation as uniquely hateful. And if its scant attention to the economic and political circumstances behind some examples of hatred can be frustrating, the show remains, on balance, a thoughtful and important reckoning with some of the darkest moments in human history.
“It’s on what network?”
Florida Girls (Pop TV)
If you know Pop TV, it’s probably as the hero cable network that imported Schitt’s Creek from Canada and saved One Day at a Time after it was canceled by Netflix. But Pop is also starting to develop originals, and Florida Girls is the early standout. The madcap comedy from creator, star and Sunshine State native Laura Chinn follows four young, wild trailer-park roommates in Clearwater in the wake of their more ambitious friend’s sudden departure to pursue a career. A sharp observer of gender, class and racial dynamics, Chinn captures the highs and lows of her perennially broke characters’ lives without detracting from the laughs.
Godfather of Harlem (Epix)
Fans of The Irishman are sure to enjoy this gritty drama starring the great Forest Whitaker as the real mid-20th-century gangster Bumpy Johnson—a rare black crime boss in a city run by the Italian mafia. Created by Narcos vets Chris Broncato and Paul Eckstein, Godfather of Harlem also boasts a stellar supporting cast: Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Sorvino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ilfenesh Hadera, Chazz Palminteri, Nigél Thatch reprising his Selma role as Malcolm X. If action is what you’re looking for in your gangster entertainments, rest assured that there’s plenty of that on offer here. But the best reason to watch is the show’s thoughtful approach to the intersection of organized crime, religion and politics in 1960s Harlem.
State of the Union (SundanceTV)
Rosamund Pike, Chris O’Dowd, director Stephen Frears and writer Nick Hornby made a very good rom-com series this year, but—probably because episodes aired every night for two weeks on SundanceTV—few viewers seemed to be paying attention. Happily, you can remedy the oversight in the time it takes to watch a feature film. Set at a pub where newly separated spouses Tom (O’Dowd) and Louise (Pike) meet for a drink before their weekly couples therapy session, each of 10 installments runs about 10 minutes. The dialogue is sharp, funny and inventive; the performances are sensitive; and there’s universal poignance in the simple story of two people with intertwined lives deciding together whether they’re each better off alone.
The great sketch-aissance of 2019
A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO)
This series from The Nightly Show vet Robin Thede delivers precisely what the title promises: heaps of sketches anchored by four black female comedians—Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson—and graced with guest appearances by the likes of Angela Bassett, Patti LaBelle and executive producer Issa Rae. Considering how few women of color have been spotlighted on, say, SNL over the years, the inclusive premise alone merits a watch. But this HBO newcomer isn’t just any black lady sketch show—it’s a great one, brimming with hilarious concepts, from Black’s Trinity, a spy whose average appearance renders her invisible in the field, to a support group for bad bitches. I watch “Basic Ball” at least once a week and still crack up just thinking about it. All hail the eternal children of the House of Forever 21!
Alternatino With Arturo Castro (Comedy Central)
He was Ilana’s kindhearted gay roommate on Broad City and the evil scion of a Cali Cartel boss on Narcos. And this year, Guatemalan actor Arturo Castro endeavored to play every role in between those two extremes in Alternatino, a sketch series in the satirical, politicized mold of forerunners Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer. Castro portrays such characters as a Latin pop star ambivalently serenading a white American audience, an ICE agent selling the public on “free range” detention centers for migrant children and—drawing on his own experiences—a regular guy navigating a minefield of ethnic stereotypes.
Sherman’s Showcase (IFC)
A sketch show masquerading as a mockumentary masquerading as an informercial about a long-running TV series in the vein of Soul Train, Sherman’s Showcase might be TV’s highest-concept comedy of 2019. Creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle (South Side) lovingly send up three generations’ worth of black music and pop culture in a series packed with sharp political commentary and deep-cut references. (If the idea of a hip-hop act called Bell Biv Dafoe, as in Willem, makes you chuckle, Sherman’s Showcase is definitely for you.) The show’s format is wildly flexible, with Salahuddin (who stars as slimy host Sherman McDaniel) and Riddle finding space for fake commercials starring Frederick Douglass, brilliant genre parodies and even one full—well, amusingly redacted—episode of Showcase from 1995. Come for guest stars ranging from Tiffany Haddish to Mike Judge to executive producer John Legend; stay for a rap battle in which one female rapper assures another, “I cherish this dialogue in every way.”
Work in Progress (Showtime)
Less than a minute into this black comedy, co-creator Abby McEnany’s protagonist, also named Abby, announces to her therapist that she’s going to kill herself in six months if her life doesn’t improve. “I’m 45,” she says. “I’m fat, I’m this queer dyke who hasn’t done sh*t in her life—and that is my identity?” Upon finishing the monologue, she realizes the therapist has, very quietly, died. By the end of the premiere Abby has started dating Chris (Theo Germaine) a trans man in his 20s, and accused former SNL star Julia Sweeney (an executive producer) of ruining her life with the nerdy, androgynous ’90s character Pat. If there’s a reason to be grateful for the return of Showtime’s The L Word, a sparkly soap whose take on the queer female experience is glamorous to the point of absurdity, it’s the fact it comes paired with this oddball show—one that offers not just hard-won authenticity, but also deeper insight into the cultural gulf between Gen X lesbians and the women of “Generation Q.”
This Way Up (Hulu)
Did you love Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe? Enjoy Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in this year’s third season of The Crown? How about Daily Show alum Aasif Mandvi in CBS’s Evil? And did Aisling Bea strike you as the saving grace of Paul Rudd’s half-baked Living With Yourself? If you answered yes to any of these questions—or you’re a fan of the frank, female-led auteurist comedies, like Fleabag, Chewing Gum and The Bisexual, that keep pouring out of the U.K.—give This Way Up a shot. Bea, who wrote the warm, offbeat six-episode series, stars as an Irish ESL teacher, Áine, who’s leaning on her older sister (Horgan’s Shona) in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. Among other slice-of-life pleasures, the show features a hilarious scene in which Áine and Shona serenade the bewildered family of Shona’s boyfriend (Mandvi) with their rendition of The Cranberries’ “Zombie.”
The year in weird
Maybe it’s for the best that Cake never generated much hype. A half-hour assortment of comic shorts by a variety of creators, it’s made up of inventive segments ranging from an animation in which a crestfallen woman watches a man deliberate over whether to swipe right on her Tinder profile to the live-action serial “Oh Jerome, No,” a chronicle of the misadventures of a young man (Mamoudou Athie) with too many feelings. Cake reminds me of the shows you’d stumble upon late at night in the ’90s—like MTV’s Liquid Television or an unusually well-made public access program—when channel-surfing was still a thing. The joy of discovery is half the fun.
Now Apocalypse (Starz)
At first, I was sad to hear that Starz had canceled this decadent sci-fi sex comedy from New Queer Cinema icon Gregg Araki after just one season. A neon Melrose-Place-meets-Mullholland-Drive for the End Times, the show traces a circuitous path through the stalled-out careers and fluid love lives of a circle of friends in L.A., making extremely slow progress on a sci-fi side story involving a polyamorous rocket scientist, a Godzilla-looking alien creature with a violent libido and a conspiracy theorist played by punk icon Henry Rollins. Araki has always been obsessed with the apocalypse, but that preoccupation felt particularly well suited to an anxious year. And as much of a bummer as it is that we’ll never know the filmmaker’s End Times endgame, we should probably just feel lucky that Now Apocalypse made it to our TV screens in the first place.