One of the first big TV hits of 2019 sent us in a loop over and over again, returning endlessly to a bathroom mirror, a Harry Nilsson song, and that infernal greeting: “Sweet birthday baby!” And in some ways, Russian Doll makes for a perfect metaphor for the year in television. You’d finish a new series, and then boom, you’re back in the bathroom mirror. Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the next show comes.
But like Nadia’s trips round and round through the same night and day, that cycle contained endless variations. Oh, and what variations there were. With more than 600 series making their way to air (or stream) in 2019, there was something for you, and probably quite a few somethings. Sure, Game of Thrones met its fiery end—not all of it bad, lest we forget!—but in the place of one big, conversation-dominating shows, we got many smaller ones. Hot Priest! Boar on the Floor! “A Little Bit Alexis,” “a legit snack, and “A God Walks Into Abar.” And that’s not counting that brightest of beacons, Baby Yoda, and yes we know it’s not actual Baby Yoda, but we’re not calling that little guy “The Child,” it’s Baby Yoda forever.
The downside of such bounty is that our list, like your viewing schedule, cannot possibly include all the greats. Some of our favorites won’t be found within—no Brooklyn Nine-Nine, no DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, no Veronica Mars/Ramy/Vida, the list goes on. But these are our picks for the greatest of a great year. Some will be back in 2020, some won’t. But whether your fave is returning or not, never fear: You’ll always have something to watch. Gotta get up, gotta get out…
25 . The Boys
Showrunner: Eric Kripke
MVP of the Show: Karl Urban. As Billy Butcher, Urban is the most Karl Urban that Karl Urban can be. Butcher is an extremely violent, foul-mouthed man, who’s motivated by revenge and says the word “diabolical” a lot. He shouldn’t be the funniest character on this show — after all, he’s an awful person — but Urban brings the laughs with zero effort. You actually love to see him pop up.
Why We Binge: In the opening scene of the series, A-Train – a superhero with super-speed like The Flash – literally runs through a woman, killing her in the process. His girlfriend’s death is the inciting incident for Hughie (played by Jack Quaid, the most perfect son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid), who’s motivated to take down Vought International, the corporation that runs superheroes. In doing so, the show explores what happens when the super-powered are seduced by corporate power. Through gruesome and frequent violence, The Boys suggests that no superheroes are inherently good by definition – even if they come from a rosy Christian background in Iowa and all they want to do is help innocent people. The Boys, which is as funny as it is abrasive, is a slap in the face to its own genre — and 2019 was the perfect year for its debut. –Carrie Wittmer
24 . The Mandalorian
Showrunner: Jon Favreau
MVP of the Show: Even if you don’t subscribe to Disney+, you know about Baby Yoda. Meme culture has made sure of that, and the Mouse House will capitalize on it for years to come with plush dolls, throw pillows, wash cloths, you name it. Granted, it’s basically just Gizmo painted green, but hey, the lil’ guy offers at least a dozen new GIFs each episode, and that’s all that matters now. Cultural currency at its finest … and easiest.
Why We Binge: Laugh it up, fuzzball, but The Mandalorian further legitimizes Solo: A Star Wars Story, proving yet again that this franchise is best in the hands of dirty scoundrels. After all, there’s only so many times you can revisit the blue-and-red litmus test between the Jedis and the Sith, which is why it’s so refreshing to see a Force-less narrative. Sure, Mando’s stuffed animal may change all that — the second episode, “The Child”, came achingly close — but Favreau’s so far kept his story grounded. No, this is a series cut from the pages of the the pulpy novels that first built up this galaxy ages ago, long before Disney opted to turn it all into “legend.” We must be cautious. –Michael Roffman
23 . Dickinson
Showrunner: Alena Smith
MVP of the Show: Wiz Khalifa as Death. Kidding, kidding—though he is pretty great. Dickinson lives and dies with Hailee Steinfeld’s performance, a colorful, vibrant thing that balances vulnerability, joy, and immense frustration within the confines of the specific tone Smith conures. It’s a perfect marriage of writer and performer.
Why We Binge: Apple sent out only three episodes of this series for pre-air consideration, which likely accounts for its mixed, if warm, response from critics. It’s a crying shame—Dickinson grows increasingly more confident in its irreverent, bold, and above all, lively vision by not just the episode, but by the moment. Smith and her writers deftly balance its contemporary streak with its Victorian underpinnings, resulting in a totally original vision that looks, sounds, and moves like a teenage poet’s fever dream. It’s hot-blooded, lightning-bright, deeply empathetic, wholly ensorcelling, and above all else, just plain old cool. — Allison Shoemaker
22 . Mindhunter
Showrunner: Joe Penhall
MVP of the Show: True crime nuts hoping to see Damon Herriman pop up as Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood were probably pissed when he walked in and out of the Polanski residence without so much as a wave. It’s okay, though, because it both a.) worked for that film and b.) made his second cameo in the sophomore season of Mindhunter all that more riveting. Herriman clearly did his homework, and he doesn’t so much do an impersonation here as he emulates Manson’s id. It’s an effective turn, to say the least, and the series does enough needling to earn the visit.
Why We Binge: By swiftly resolving the cliffhanger at the end of its debut season — Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) being hospitalized for panic attacks after, you know, spending time with mass murderers like Ed Kemper — Mindhunter opens itself up to the sandbox it spent a whole season creating. Penhall exercises restraint, though, by shifting the focus away from the prisons and down to the Atlanta murders of 1979–81. While the pivot shoehorns Mindhunter into a standard procedural, the investigation itself offers sobering evidence that blood turns to red tape fast in this world. What unfolds is an arc that’s compelling enough to rise above all the perfunctory drama surrounding it, particularly all those trips back home with Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). Who needs a cigarette? –Michael Roffman
21 . The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
MVP of the Show: Hup walked so Baby Yoda could run. The Dark Crystal’s best character by far is the wide-eyed, adventurous Podling who just wants to prove himself, and carries the soul of the show on his li’l Muppet shoulders.
Why We Binge: All The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance had to do was recapture the imaginative, high-fantasy spirit of the 1983 Jim Henson film from which its strange world was derived. But the showrunners, and director Louis Leterrier, did one better: not only did they use the series to showcase the incredible production design and Muppetry for which the Jim Henson Company is legendary, they crafted a multi-layered script that (like all the best fantasy) acts as an allegory for our current world of fake news, climate change, and authoritarian impulses. It’s a series that, warts and all, forces you to bow to its supreme ambition. –Clint Worthington
20 . The New Golden of Age of Animated Shows
Showrunner: Lisa Hanawalt (Tuca & Bertie), Raphael Bob-Waksberg (BoJack Horseman, Undone), Kate Purdy (Undone), Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland (Rick & Morty), Bob Peterson (Forky Asks A Question), Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith (Bob’s Burgers)
MVP of the Show: With so many stellar candidates in animation this year, it’s hard to choose just one who stands head and shoulders above the rest. But Princess Carolyn is the unsung hero of BoJack Horseman — both in-universe and out. Her have-it-all struggles, her surreptitious strike powerplay, and her managing to achieve a measure of both triumph and peace made it a hell of a year for our favorite PC.
Why We Binge: What a year for animation! BoJack Horseman and its creative cousins, Tuca & Bertie and Undone, each pushed the envelope and broadened the types of stories told through animation and on T.V. writ large. Rick and Morty continues its maniacal assault on every genre imaginable alongside unassuming doses of introspection for its title characters. Bob’s Burgers has no business continuing to be this funny or this heartwarming in its 10th season. And Forky Asks a Question is the exact sort of inquisitive, hyperactively hilarious, pitch perfect quick-hit comedy we need right now. If you want great television in 2019, start with ink (and pixels) and paint. –Andew Bloom
19 . Euphoria
Showrunner: Sam Levinson
MVP of the Show: As Rue, Zendaya delivers the kind of performance that’ll blow open her career options in a just world. Sure, the series may trade on the shock of a onetime Disney star struggling with drug addiction, but her work here is no after-school portrait. She imbues Rue with the weariness of someone who’s already lived far too much for their age and barely stuck around to tell about it.
Why We Binge: It would’ve been easy for Euphoria to go wrong, and quickly. HBO’s adaptation of the 2012 Israeli series, following a group of teenagers through their discoveries of sex, drugs, and the cruelty of the modern world, is the kind of flashy provocation that so often tends to reveal itself as empty before long, if not luridly exploitative. But the first season instead offers a wrenching immersion in how much worse being a teenager is when every imaginable vice and perversion is within reach, along with enough screens to make sure that you’ll never live your worst choices down. The uniformly strong cast finds the humanity underneath the archetypes, never letting any one character become the sum total of their alarm-sounding plot points. They’re troubled and contradictory kids, well on the road to becoming troubled and contradictory adults. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
18 . Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
MVP of the Show: It’s impossible to award this to anyone other than series creator and star Bloom. How do you not give all of the kudos to the theatre major with a strong dislike for the musical Cats for turning the object of her disdain into the inspiration for a series of sex fantasy songs in episode nine, “I Need Some Balance”?
Why We Binge: In its final year, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend strayed away from its fixation on Rebecca Bunch (Bloom)’s love life in order to focus on the maturation of its entire cast. Sure, the “will they, won’t they” love quad of Rebecca, Nate (Scott Michael Foster), Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) and Greg (Skylar Astin, in an inspired piece of re-casting) still occupied a lot of screen time, but Bloom and Brosh McKenna became increasingly interested in offering closure for everyone, even the slightest of supporting characters. The result was one of the most creatively satisfying and heartfelt finales in recent memory (of course Rebecca chose herself!), capped by a taped version of the show’s live-show. Plus: we got some great new original songs, including “Anti-Depressants Are So Not A Big Deal”, “Don’t Be A Lawyer” and, my fave, the visual representation of Rebecca’s interior mental struggles as a clock replete with series spanning costumes in “Eleven O’Clock”. –Joe Lipsett
17 . The Good Place
Showrunner: Michael Schur
MVP of the Show: Can it be anyone other than Manny Jacinto’s Jason Mendoza? Expressive eyes, five-star cheekbones, and the emotional intelligence of a sleaze ball saint.
Why We Binge: Perhaps it’s unfair to put The Good Place on this list, seeing as we still have five episodes to go before the fourth season — the series’ last — comes to an end. But Mike Schur’s thoughtful, riotously complex comedy about the intricacies of human morality found bold new ways to reinvent itself each season, and this year was no exception. Putting the onus on our heroes to fix Heaven threw the cast into intriguing new dynamics, and put our idealism that humankind can better itself to the ultimate test. But throughout, Schur and company never lost the pun-filled, absurdist humor at the show’s core of its quirky conception of the afterlife. They just found deeper, more meaningful ways to express it. –Clint Worthington
16 . Pose
MVP of the Show: It’s hard to play favorites with an ensemble cast like Pose, but for Season 2, the belle of the ball has got to be the heart of the show, mother Evangelista herself, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista. Whether facing the mortality of herself and her community, singing her heart out, or being literally haunted by the dangers that trans woman of color face (Angelica Ross’ Candy Johnson-Ferocity), Blanca’s hardships as an HIV-positive mother to a house of orphans is at the epicenter of every arc of the show, and Rodriguez’s performance bears the weight with dynamic grace.
Why We Binge: Equal parts triumphant and tragic, Pose‘s historical fiction is a raw and relevant sashay into a past whose shadow looms large and vicious in the present. This is a 20th century queer history lesson and social studies class distilled into must-see-TV. Some of the names have been changed and there’s high fashion fantasy paired with the high drama, but the important facts are classroom quality. The AIDS crisis has always been a critical component of Pose‘s narrative, and in Season 2, the pain of living at the height of the epidemic takes center stage. From the mass graves of Hart Island, to the front lines of ACT UP protests, Pose is a document of all that was, all that still is, and all that must never be forgotten. –Cap Blackard
15 . What We Do In The Shadows
Showrunner: Paul Simms
MVP of the Show: Vampire content. The stuff’s admittedly been scarce throughout the 2010s, no thanks to the success of the Twilight franchise and our resulting exhaustion with the genre. What We Do in the Shadows brings the sexy bloodsuckers back in a new way (well, outside of the 2015 film the show is based on), and wisely develops its own mythology without trying to course-correct anything we’ve seen before.
Why We Binge: Like the best sitcoms, the re-watchability factor of What We Do in the Shadows is very high. (Full disclosure: I laughed so hard bingeing it all in one day, I did it again the following afternoon. No, I didn’t cancel any plans.) That alone is a testament to the ingenuity of showrunner Paul Simms and series creators Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, especially given that its mockumentary format has been overdone to death in the wake of The Office and Parks and Recreation. Nothing feels redundant here, even in the shadow (no pun intended) of its source material. It’s both a companion piece and an expansion of the film that keeps screaming with absurdist originality. –Carrie Wittmer
14 . Schitt’s Creek
Showrunner: Dan Levy
MVP of the Show: The answer, my bébés, is obviously Catherine O’Hara. From her glamorously kooky ensembles and untraceable accent to her love of wigs and melodramatic entrances, Moira Rose has become one of the all-time great TV characters thanks to O’Hara’s fearless, peerless performance. But beyond the aesthetics, O’Hara’s Moira also has a warm, tender heart, which peeks through at surprising moments and shows just what a gifted actress O’Hara is.
Why We Binge: Schitt’s Creek is a true joy to watch week after week. The Canadian import has taken its initial premise — “clueless wealthy family stuck in a podunk town” — and turned it into something far richer over its five seasons. As the Rose Family has become more human, so has the series, subverting stereotypes and expectations all while making us laugh and occasionally cry (looking at you, Patrick and David!). Schitt’s Creek shows us what a kinder, more accepting world could look like and that home and family are what we make them. To borrow a phrase from Ms. Tina Turner, it’s simply the best.
13 . Unbelievable
Showrunner: Susannah Grant
MVP of the Show: Merritt Wever’s been the secret weapon of many a TV show and movie for two decades, but in the last few years has found roles that allow her to stand out as the careful considered performer she is. Here in the role of a detective in charge of a rash of sexual assaults, she’s plainly studied up on the mannerisms, speech patterns and stern but kind demeanor required for work like this. She’s always good, but she shines like a John Paul Jones organ solo all throughout the limited series.
Why We Binge: There have been a number of excellent television shows about the horrendous ordeal of living with assault, but few with Unbelievable‘s grip on how nightmarish the law enforcement response to the crimes can be. This show, written by Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon balances the skin-crawling terror of not just living through the worst moment of your life, but then having to answer endless questions about it to cops who have no idea what it feels like. The show takes on the form of a gripping procedural as the few cops who care and who know from trauma (Wever, Toni Collette, and Dale Dickey among others) find themselves working the same case. Quietly but profoundly empathetic, Unbelievable shows, that even with will, funding, technology, and witnesses, doing the right thing and finding justice can still be next to impossible. –Scout Tafoya
12 . Documentary Now
MVP of the Show: You could spin a wheel and pick from any number of great performances this season, but we have to hand it to Paula Pell’s hysterical homage to Elaine Stritch in “Co-Op”. As she’s dragged through a recording session from hell (and held back from her eye doctor appointment), Pell’s increasingly aggravated one-liners and song takes make for some of the year’s funniest television.
Why We Binge: Since its inception, Documentary Now! has been one of TV’s great in-jokes for anyone well-read enough in documentary filmmaking to want to watch meticulous parodies of those same docs. But by its third season, which mixes familiar reference points Wild Wild Country, Original Cast Album: Company) with broader allusions to genre clichés, IFC’s send-up series is now finding resonance even within some of its goofiest jokes. Cate Blanchett’s riff on Marina Abramović’s challenging installations starts with evident silliness, but eventually captures some of the same intimate power as the real-life artist’s work. Fred Armisen’s myopic Kickstarter filmmaker doubles as a case study in obnoxious male hubris. It’s the rare comedy series that inspires laughs and further contemplation in equal measure.
Also, just try and get any of those numbers from “Co-Op” out of your head. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
11 . One Day at a Time
Showrunner: Gloria Calderón Kellett
MVP of the Show: It’s tempting to give this honor to the one, the only, the legendary Rita Moreno, but Season 3 really is Justina Machado’s time to shine. Look no further than episode nine, “Anxiety” — you’ll see just how much this show relies on her uncanny ability to wring something meaningful from the limitations of its format.
Why We Binge: Going on three years now, Kellett’s reimagining of the Norman Lear sitcom into a warm, insightful, and deeply probing look at a Cuban-American family living in Miami has all but breathed new life into the multi-cam sitcom. Its third season might be its best yet, with some knockout episodes (“Funeral”, the aforementioned “Anxiety”) and new challenges for its likable cast of characters. Even the supporting players find surprisingly dramatic shades, like Todd Grinnell’s Schneider newfound struggles with sobriety. For a second, it looked as though this would be the last we’d see of the Alvarez family; with Schitt’s Creek network Pop TV rescuing it from cancellation, the show’s heart beats for another day. –Clint Worthington
10 . Veep
Showrunner: David Mandel
MVP of the Show: Veep revolves around Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ superb Selina Meyer, and her claim to this title cannot be denied. But attention must be paid to Tony Hale as the ever-devoted, obliviously-admiring Gary Walsh. No one sells Selina’s turn to the dark side, or what it means, better than he does.
Why We Binge: Two shows debuted on HBO at the beginning of this decade and wrapped up their lengthy, award-winning runs this spring. Both featured regular back-stabbings, palace intrigue, and a woman aiming for a seat of power she believes is rightfully hers. But while Game of Thrones all but crashed and burned in its final bow, Veep unexpectedly told the better story of attaining the thing you’ve wanted for so long only to have it cost you everything. For all the hilarity that this series delivered over its run, Veep’s final season made television’s boldest and most resonant statement about legacy and power, to the chagrin of its swords and sorcery network neighbor. –Andrew Bloom
09 . Watchmen
Showrunner: Damon Lindelof
MVP of the Show: Regina King, who’s already made Sister Night feel like an intrinsic part of the Watchmen mythology in just a handful of episodes. She’s a loving mother and violence-prone vigilante, a cop and a criminal, a woman both defined by and railing against a troubled past. In her hands, those contradictions never step on each other, they’re just part of a complex portrait.
Why We Binge: Watchmen is no blow-for-blow update of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 novel, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine a more faithful adaptation. At last, somebody figured out that the best way to tackle Watchmen is to transpose the source text’s ideas about the thin lines between power and fascism into an alternative present-day America full of the same racial strife and mass cultural trauma as this one. Sure, it’s also an America where flash storms of squids bring traffic to a halt and Robert Redford has been president for the last 30 years, but costumed vigilantes like Angela Abar (King) are still just trying to save us from the scourge of white supremacy. By immersing itself in a Dr. Manhattan-esque sense of non-linear time, Watchmen makes a stunning case for the sins of the past never being far from the present. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
08 . Barry
Showrunner: Alec Berg and Bill Hader
MVP of the Show: Everyone’s aces in this series, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t single out NoHo Hank. Anthony Carrigan instills so much life into the hairless wonder, and his effeminate sensibilities make him all the more pleasurable to be around. Yes, he’s a reckless Chechen gangster, but he’s also earnest, and the way he operates makes us question ourselves in ways this black comedy really shouldn’t. Not good enough? Sean Edgar spent over 1,000 words explaining why he’s one of the best characters in HBO’s back pocket this past May. Read it if you’re GoGo for NoHo.
Why We Binge: Barry didn’t need a second season. The first go-around landed so efficiently — and with such a satisfying dark ending — that most critics would have been OK had Berg and Hader walked away with a diamond limited series. But they didn’t. They forged ahead, eschewing the maudlin antics of Dexter before it, and indulged in the psychological trauma of guilt that makes us human. Watching Hader buckle under that weight was a delight all season, and the stakes just kept rising, building to a finale that leaves us begging for more. It’s an enviable place to be as a creator, and where they go is why we’re now rabid for the series to return in 2020. Here’s hoping Fonz doesn’t jump the shark twice, and the hitman hits its target a third time. –Michael Roffman
07 . I Think You Should Leave
MVP of the Show: Hard to argue against the man himself, but that’d be dismissing the vivid efforts by his revolving cast of comics. Conner O’Malley screamed the loudest as Robby Starr (and also honked the hardest). Kate Berlant brought us to the party house of Jim Davis’ dreams — with some warm dip, no less. And Patti Harrison told the better Christmas joke. It was their work that kept us obsessing over the minutiae of I Think You Should Leave, which is why the series continues to endure months after it dropped on Netflix.
Why We Binge: Irreverent comedy needs to be earned. Anyone can go out there screaming like a fucking lunatic for laughs or stick some shit on the wall and call it art. What makes Robinson’s frantic variety show so affecting is his ability to connect with our collective anxieties. More specifically, it’s the way he seemingly encapsulates the day-to-day trivialities we’ve grown to loathe. Because of this, there’s truth to the madness that fuels all 28 sketches behind I Think You Should Leave, even something as fringe as Tim Heidecker’s obnoxious jazz enthusiast or as sensationalized as Vanessa Bayer’s boisterous self-deprecating tweets. This is penicillin for anyone reeling from the plague of constant culture, where our addiction to acceptance and gratitude blinds our abilities to actually think rationally. We laugh because this is our Q-zone. –Michael Roffman
06 . When They See Us
Showrunner: Ava DuVernay
MVP of the Show: As the only one of the five young actors to also play his adult self, Jharrel Jerome delivers one of the year’s best performances in any medium as Korey Wise. Wise only went to the police to try and protect his friend, and wound up on Rikers Island for his trouble, a terrifying arc that Jerome imbues with the fear and confusion of a young man whose life has been torn apart for reasons he can’t even understand.
Why We Binge: “Binge” feels like a strange term for a limited series like When They See Us, a harrowing four-part account of the wrongful arrests of five young men in 1989 New York that would then see them abused, incarcerated, and later neglected by a legal system far hungrier for splashy courtroom victories than justice. DuVernay pitches the series’ events as a slow-moving nightmare from which the boys are unable to escape, as they’re degraded by public figures and violently coerced into false confessions by undercover cops instructed to make an impression. Yet for as difficult as the series is to watch (and it frequently is), the director never allows the history to overwhelm the humanity of her subjects. These were boys who could have been anything, and they were robbed of that chance. But now they live, and some even work to help others being victimized as they were. When They See Us may despair, and rightly so, but it offers an earned vision of what the future could be if we resolve to never forget the hideous past. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
05 . Chernobyl
Showrunner: Craig Mazin
MVP of the Show: Make no mistake, Jared Harris is great, Emily Watson is excellent, and Stellan Skarsgård hasn’t come off this heroic in ages. (Sorry, Marvel.) They all deserve awards, and hopefully they find them. But really, it all just wouldn’t work without Johan Renck’s eye. The Swedish director handled all five episodes of HBO’s sweeping miniseries, offering a visceral look at the devastating historical event. Time after time, he refuses to pull his punches, even when he probably should, at least if our nightmares are considered.
Why We Binge: We all still like to crack jokes about HBO’s claims it’s not television, but Chernobyl makes a case for why it really isn’t. This is maximalist television, created not to fit your screen, but to expand it, to shatter it, to toss it off the stand. Think back to that first episode, “1:23:45”, which captures the entire meltdown in full cinematic ardor. Or even the heart-scraping tension that ends the following chapter, “Please Remain Calm”. Who felt like they were in the water with those troubled scientists? Who felt like they were standing amidst the ash? That’s the power of Chernobyl, and that rage you feel by the end is directly tied to the immersive drama that unfolds. Few, if any, blockbusters carried that weight all year, making us relish the opportunity we have to live in this era of prestige television. Clearly, history is better for it. –Michael Roffman
04 . Russian Doll
Showrunner: Leslye Headland
MVP of the Show: The answer here is so obviously Natasha Lyonne—star, co-creator, sweet birthday baby, and the engine that makes it all hum—that I’m going to use this space instead to sing the praises of Charlie Barnett’s performance as Alan Zaveri. Playing a fragile, even broken person without telegraphing that brokenness is no easy thing, but Barnett creates a sense that Alan’s held together with paste, and that the paste is giving. He does it all without making the story about showcasing that pain. What a pair, the two of them.
Why We Binge: It’s just not something that can or should be resisted, so here goes: Russian Doll: What a concept! The greatest of Russian Doll’s tricks is this: that dazzling concept, the puzzle of it all, is just a means to an end. Not in terms of plot—those two walking parties crossing paths makes for one of the great reveals of 2019—but because all the deaths and the stairs and the near-escapes and the bodega cats serve as a syringe that injects big, undiluted questions about life, death, kindness, peace, trauma, selfishness, authenticity, and, yes, Thursday straight into your veins. Like a series still ahead in this top five, Russian Doll ended its 2019 run on a perfect note—”Ariadne” is, without a doubt, one of the year’s great episodes—but unlike that show, we’ve got more of this one in our future. Cue the Harry Nilsson and get ready for Headland, Lyonne, and co-creator Amy Poehler to cast this wickedly funny, profoundly human spell once again. –Allison Shoemaker
03 . Stranger Things
Showrunner: The Duffer Brothers
MVP of the Show: While round three featured a handful of fun and memorable turns from established cast members, Maya Hawke became one of TV’s breakout stars as Robin. The Scoops Ahoy wage slave might start out as a foil for Steve Harrington, but Hawke delivers a season-best performance as she goes on, bringing a crucial heart to an especially plot-forward season of the series.
Why We Binge: By this point, Stranger Things has become more than a TV show for many. It’s a nostalgic re-immersion in the malls and basements of a world that now feels bygone, a piece of connective tissue between genre-loving kids and their parents, and the kind of cultural phenomenon that made a whole lot of people spend their Fourth of July indoors with a Netflix series. But for its third installment, the hit series finally begins to move on from the sense of wide-eyed discovery that made it a hit, and toward the inevitable process of growing up. It goes bigger, bloodier, and a hell of a lot more expensive-looking this time, invoking the men-in-labs menace of so many Cold War-era thrillers even as it still finds time to marvel at the loud mismatched colors and commercialized glory of the poor, doomed Starcourt Mall. If Stranger Things has always been a parable for the pains of learning about the larger world, Season 3 offered a reminder that the connections we make with other people are what makes it worth living in, long after the mall doors close. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
02 . Fleabag
Showrunner: Phoebe-Waller Bridge
MVP of the Show: Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) and the jumpsuit. Nothing more to say here. But I will say more! Hot Priest cured my Catholic guilt, by making a bunch of people (myself included) think priests are hot. Hot Priest’s influence is so powerful that I was invited to more than one Hot Priest-themed holiday party. The jumpsuit — you know the one, with the boob hole and wide legs — now hangs in the closet of, I’m only guessing here, but thousands of closets across the world, waiting for an appropriate event to be worn to.
Why We Binge: The excellent second season of Fleabag made more waves than the first because it’s funnier, sharper, but, most importantly, far more personal. Waller-Bridge figured out how to make an anti-hero stand out in a decade obsessed with them, and how did she do it? She made the anti-hero fall in love with a Hot Priest. The multiple Emmy-winning second season of Fleabag feels like something we all experienced personally, so I won’t be surprised if, in 20 years, I genuinely believe that I had a tragic will/they won’t they with a Catholic priest … who chose God over me. –Carrie Wittmer
01 . Succession
Showrunner: Jesse Armstrong
MVP of the Show: Golden Globes be damned, this season there was Jeremy Strong … and the ensemble cast of Succession. His Kendall Roy was a total enigma. This cracked statue of a man, decimated by guilt and held on a leash by his pit boss of a father. His silence spoke volumes, though, and in those moments of shuffling, or sitting, or smoking, one could pull out countless takes. And they did. We watched him closer than those employed by Waystar Royco. We feared for him. We felt for him. Enough that we didn’t even really cringe when he rapped for his papa. We got it.
Why We Binge: It’s funny seeing Succession become the phenomenon it is now. When it first debuted in the Summer of 2018, it was admonished by critics everywhere, mostly for fear that enjoying a show about reprehensible people might mean we’d be celebrating reprehensible people. Oh, the horror! All hogwash, and here we are now, obsessing over arguably the most intriguing drama HBO has put out since, well, The Wire. Too much? Yes and no. Mostly no, if only because the cultural cache this series carries is unparalleled, especially right now.
Succession tickles all the right funny bones in Trump’s America. It’s about the people running this country in the ground for the people who will ostensibly wind up in those ditches, and yet there’s a vicious cycle at hand that toes the line between envy and vitriol. We hate the Roys. But we also don’t mind being around them. It’s an escape. After all, who wouldn’t want to promptly jet over to Europe for a single meeting? And who wouldn’t want to nurse their wounds on a multi-million-dollar yacht off the breathtaking Croatian coast? We yearn for such indulgences.
But what’s sobering about Succession, particularly this season, is that nobody’s immune to existential dread, and that all goes back to Kendall Roy. His arc casts a fiscal shadow over his family, proving that dollars and cents mean jack shit to the truths at hand. You can keep burying them, you can keep burning them, you can keep covering them up with fancy dinners and exploitive partnerships, but in the end, the truth hits everybody. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but in an age when the truth is all we have, that notion is must-see television. –Michael Roffman