KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It has been an outstanding year for television. Here are the top 10 shows of 2019.
10. The Boys (Amazon)
Imagine if Captain America, Superman and Wonder Woman were fixtures of pop culture (in comic books and movies), but were also real and living in modern society. Oh, and by the way, they are horrible people working for a corporation (Disney-esque) manipulating their heroic efforts to make money. The “boys” (Karl Urban, Jack Quaid) are guys who have suffered terrible losses due to the negligence of the Seven (a group of famous superheroes). Quaid’s character watches as his girlfriend disintegrates in front of him as A-Train (the show’s version of The Flash) literally races through her. Be prepared, there is a lot of gore and violence woven into this clever satire of our current obsession with superheroes.
9. Dark (Netflix)
"Dark" is a German Sci-Fi drama whose story is so complex it is sometimes necessary to create notes and diagrams to keep all the characters straight. The show begins with the disappearance of a boy in the small town of Winden in 2019, where something similar happened in 1986. What follows is a highly addictive time travel story where four families are drastically affected by their family members traveling forward or backward in time 33 years. Complications arise when characters meet their parents, grandparents or even children and begin changing their past/future. The show is in German, and I recommend subtitles over dubbing in English so you can enjoy the original performances. Following the plot is challenging, but this is an amazingly satisfying mystery for those willing to put forth the effort.
8. Unbelievable (Netflix)
"Unbelievable" is a smart, engrossing drama, based on a true story that chronicles the search for a serial rapist. What makes the show unique is its female perspective. All the lead characters (the victims and the detectives) are women, and the series showcases a noticeable sensitivity and lack of exploitation that is refreshing for this subject matter. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) gives a devastating performance as the first victim who, when not believed by the local police, is charged with lying, hounded by the media and isolated from her small support group. Toni Colette (Hereditary) and Merritt Wever (Godless, Nurse Jackie) have an appealing chemistry as the seasoned veteran cop and the passionate, unrelenting rookie who pursue the investigation.
7. Surviving R. Kelly (Lifetime) / Finding Neverland (HBO)
These two docuseries provided some of the most disturbing yet powerful moments on television this year. "Surviving R. Kelly" revealed interviews with several women who claim they were seduced by Kelly (when some were as young as 13), isolated from their families and manipulated into abusive relationships that lasted years. The release of the series had real-world consequences, with Kelly facing new federal and state charges and being dropped by his record company. "Finding Neverland" tells the story of two adult men who claimed Michael Jackson abused them multiple times when they were children. This documentary delves into the guilt of the parents who were seduced by Jackson’s fame and money and tragically failed to protect their children. The men’s pain and gradual realization that what they experienced as children was abuse, even if they loved and idolized Jackson, is heartbreaking. As difficult as it is to hear the victims' graphic stories, their message is important. There still is a stigma attached to men admitting to being victims of sexual abuse. Those who believe in Jackson’s or Kelly’s innocence will be frustrated by both series' decisions to not include any interviews defending the accused. In the end, these shows give a voice to the victims, in the hope that healing can begin.
6. When They See Us (Netflix)
This harrowing limited series follows the experiences of the Central Park Five, five teenagers (four African American and one Hispanic American) wrongfully accused and imprisoned for the assault and rape of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. The boys were coerced, without their parents present, into confessions, and later convicted despite the lack of any DNA evidence proving their guilt. Witnessing the fear and confusion of the families going through the investigation and trial produces a somber but motivating viewing experience. The fourth hour of the show is especially distressing, detailing the beatings and years of isolation that Korey Wise (the oldest boy, 16) suffered as a result of being sentenced as an adult. Creator, writer and director Ava DuVernay (Selma) creates a stirring portrait of the boys’ journey through incarceration, vilification by the press and eventually exoneration. So many of the performances in this series are outstanding but John Leguizamo, Michael K. Williams and Niecy Nash give heartrending performances as parents unable to save their children. Jharrel Jerome (Wise) won a well-deserved Emmy this year for his portrayal of his character as a teen and as an adult. The only weakness of the series is the two-dimensional characterizations of the those responsible for prosecuting the case. Their motives are unclear- were they bowing to public pressure to find the perpetrators quickly? Were they lazy? Racist? In the end, this is the Exonerated Five’s story and it is told with anger, compassion and love as it should be.
5. Succession (HBO)
This show is rapidly becoming HBO’s next critical darling. The story follows the viscous infighting, political scheming and general dysfunction of the Roy (think Rupert Murdoch) family, owners of a conservative global media and business empire. With their father’s (Brian Cox) health failing, an all-out war erupts among his four children to win his love and, more importantly, gain control of the company. The highlights of this series are the genius, lacerating dialogue and the stellar performances. Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun serve up some great comic work and Jeremy Strong creates a tragic, self-loathing character whose pain is at the center of this drama. This is a family no one would want to live with, but they are sure fun to observe.
4. Mindhunter (Netflix)
This fascinating series delves into the creation of the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI in the 1970s. The unit was tasked with studying and catching a new kind of criminal, a serial killer. The grizzled veteran detective (Holt McCallany), the head strong, occasionally brilliant newbie (Jonathan Groff) and a curious psychologist (Anna Torv) begin interviewing incarcerated killers to develop criminal profiles. This is a dark, moody, beautifully shot series directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) among others. The writing is engrossing and seductive, with riveting conversations with famous criminals like Berkowitz, Manson and Kemper. The second season digs deeper into the personal lives of its characters; the older cop’s fear of recognizing a seed of evil within his own son, and the psychiatrist’s closeted love affair. The most intriguing aspect of this season is the investigation into the Atlanta child murders in 1979-80. How racism and politics effected the amount of attention the early murders received and hindered the search for the real killer, resonates still today.
3. Chernobyl (HBO)
HBO’s chilling drama about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 is a grim but moving viewing experience. The film examines the devastating consequences of an authoritarian system’s attempt to hide and manipulate the truth. After the initial reactor explosion, everyone from plant managers to the upper echelon of the Soviet government perpetuate a coverup that places the plant workers, nearby townspeople and even the country in grave danger. The film depicts the brave men who risked their lives, exposing themselves to large amounts of radiation, to prevent a larger catastrophe. There are haunting images of small children enjoying the light show of the reactor explosion and playing in the falling ash, with no idea they are hastening their own deaths. There are grizzly images of men dying from advanced radiation sickness and soldiers having to exterminate the local pet population. This show is not for those with a weak heart or stomach, but it also showcases the best of humanity. The story captures the importance of good men willing to speak the truth under extraordinary pressure to do the opposite. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard give gripping performances of men, who when confronted with tragedy, rise to the occasion.
2. Fleabag (Amazon)
Fleabag might be the best comedy of the decade with its sharp, funny examination of love, friendship, loss and redemption. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show’s incredibly talented creator, writer and star, portrays a sex-obsessed, acerbically witty and emotionally damaged Londoner stumbling her way through a life full of errors. The second season, even better than the critically acclaimed first season, focuses on Fleabag finally coming to terms with the death of her best friend and entering a complicated romance. Andrew Scott’s hot priest, a global phenomenon for good reason, heats up the screen as a man of God torn between his feelings for Fleabag and his purpose in life. This show is unconventional, hilarious and surprisingly poignant.
1. Watchmen (HBO)
One of the most thought-provoking and controversial dramas on television this year is based on a graphic novel. Damon Lindelof (creator of "Lost," "The Leftovers") faced a herculean task to create a remix/sequel of the beloved comic book created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1987, make it relevant to today and not piss off a legion of devoted fans. This is a world where superheroes have been outlawed, cops wear masks to protect their identities, hundreds of baby squids fall from the sky on a regular basis and it is possible to send messages to Mars from a phone booth. While the source material used the Cold War as its motivational engine, Lindelof focuses on America’s history of racial violence and prejudice as the core of this story. The series begins with the Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, an event that is sadly not that well known. The first masked superhero, Hooded Justice, whose identity was never revealed in the comic, is revealed to be a black police officer in the 1930s who survives a lynching perpetuated by his fellow officers. He is forced to wear a costume (a hood and a noose around his neck) to eke out justice because it would be too dangerous for a black man to so. In present day, the Tulsa Police Department is at war with a Nixon-loving, Rorschach-mask-wearing white supremacist group planning an apocalyptic event. Despite tackling such weighty issues, this is a highly entertaining show teaming with colorful characters and plenty of surprises. The show boasts an amazing cast with Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Don Johnson, Jean Smart and Tim Blake Nelson all delivering stand out performances. Regina King kicks a** as Sister Night, a masked cop with a connection to Hooded Justice, and provides the grounded center to keep this fantastical tale from spinning out of control. The show has a dense mythology that might make it tough for those not familiar with the comic and not willing to do a little homework, to quite frankly understand what is going on. Although it doesn’t provide an ending as brilliantly diabolical as the comic, it is one of the most original, courageously go-for-broke shows of the decade.