It has been a remarkable year in TV, and I’ve begun prepping my annual Top 10 list, which currently has 20 strong contenders. I am thankful for those excellent series and miniseries, as well as for some of the season’s outstanding performers, including Olivia Colman (“The Crown,” “Fleabag”), Billy Porter (“Pose,” “Saturday Night Live”), Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll”), and Merritt Wever (“Unbelievable”).
But right now, I’d like to focus on a few other TV-related things that have inspired gratitude in me over the course of 2019. I’ve tried not to be negative here — I won’t include how I enjoyed watching NBC’s cynical hiring of Megyn Kelly backfire, or how frustrating it was to see the Emmys ignore the best performance of the year (by Suranne Jones in “Gentleman Jack”), or how the networks released about 20 new shows in the fall and not a single one of them was extraordinary — because that would be out of key with the season. Here are my Happy Thanksgiving honors.
The architecture of Netflix gets on my nerves. It ought to be a lot easier to find what I want, and I shouldn’t have to submit to automatic ads for those shows I’m passing by, like loud billboards shoved in my face. However, I deeply appreciate the streamer’s “Skip Intro” button, which saves us all from having to re-watch title sequences over and over during a binge — in the way we are forced to re-watch tedious ads when we watch a network or basic cable show on demand. I like it when an episode of TV has a clear thematic definition, so that seasons of shows don’t blur together into one long piece — the 10-hour movie effect. I like having each episode bookended with a title sequence and the credits. But, I don’t want to watch the title sequence more than once, maybe twice, per binge seating. “Skip Intro” has probably saved me a bunch of precious hours this year.
The “Live” part
I know, “Saturday Night Live” is famously uneven. It has been patchy since the first legendary season, which, you realize when you re-watch it, veered between brilliance and tedium from sketch to sketch. Watching “SNL” these days can be frustrating, funny, dull, captivating, or some mix of all those things. But still, I’m not a big sports watcher, and I crave live television that isn’t talking-head cable news or impeachment inquiry hearings. “Live” represents the part of TV that hasn’t been tamed. It’s practically the opposite of the many scripted TV shows — so carefully written, directed, shot, edited, and acted — that I adore, the ones that generally wind up on a cable network or streaming service. Everything is heightened by the potential for a complete screw-up on live TV, and when one of the “SNL” cast members breaks — this season, it seems, Aidy Bryant is the main culprit — it’s a small joy.
We are famously overwhelmed with TV series, and the recent additions of streamers Apple TV+ and Disney+ have only made the onslaught more blinding. Almost every pay outlet is a mixed bag you need to pick through for the good stuff, the most famously mixed bag being Netflix, which is TV’s biggest Filene’s Basement bin. But HBO remains the place to find consistency and excellence. Not everything is to my tastes — I’m over “Westworld” and it’s puzzle-within-a-puzzle-ness — but the quality and care is always evident. From hits such as “Succession,” “Chernobyl,” and “Barry” to more niche attractions such as “My Brilliant Friend,” “Years and Years,” and “High Maintenance,” the channel that changed TV with “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” continues to stand out. It is beautifully curated. I’m hoping next year’s launch of HBO Max (the WarnerMedia streamer that will draw from company properties including HBO) won’t compromise it.
Matty needs rebooting. I love watching TV, which is a good thing, since it’s my job, and I have to watch a lot of it, and write about it, too, a lot. I savor episodic TV storytelling, and did long before the quality skyrocketed in the 2000s. Like many, I was raised by the networks’ eccentric collection of brash sitcoms and simplistic dramas. But TV vacations are essential to me — and not to pander to those who still find TV to be a wasteland. In order to understand how narratives work, and to keep my own visual imagination in shape, I always fall back on well-written novels. Every few weeks, I make a point of reserving a weekend for reading only, to binge-read and get intimate with some words. It’s a cleanse of sorts, and this year in particular — with the relentlessness of the news on top of all the new and returning shows to watch — I savored those centering experiences.
The last season of “GoT”
I’m in the nay camp. I found the final season of “Game of Thrones” to be a letdown, after all those years of careful buildup. The pacing was all wrong, so that it felt both too short and too long, and don’t get me started on “The Long Night” battle episode, not so fondly known to some as “The Long Dark Night.” And yet, I am nonetheless grateful for the last season, since it brought so many people together in mass viewership (19.3 million for the finale). “Game of Thrones” may be a last vestige of what was once known as “appointment TV,” which found viewers watching episodes at the same time each week. “On demand” culture has evolved to the point where we don’t just watch episodes on our own time, but entire seasons. We go it alone, and therefore lose the community that can build around a show. Alas, there may be no less necessary magazine right now than TV Guide, the stalwart, once-essential publication rooted in appointment TV. So just having millions of “GoT” fans on the same page at the same time was a thrill. “Succession,” too, casts a weekly group spell, but on a much, much smaller scale. Fortunately, the new streamers Apple TV+ and Disney+ have joined Hulu in returning to some extent to the weekly-release model.
Stories of women
A spate of thoughtful series about women’s lives helped make the year a strong one in the scripted realm. In various ways, each of the shows wrestled with what it means to be a woman in a world that’s still stricken with inequality and sexism. With HBO’s “Mrs. Fletcher,” Tom Perrotta gave us a portrait of a single mother remaking her identity — and having a sexual coming of age — after her son leaves for college. The second season of Amazon’s “Fleabag” was a sensitive, clever look into the grief and guilt of its heroine, who fell for a priest. Hulu’s “Shrill” turned out to be a great vehicle for Aidy Bryant, and a warm look at weight and self-acceptance in American culture. An ex-convict, played with an inspiring optimism by Daisy Haggard, struggles with an unwelcoming community in Showtime’s compelling “Back to Life.” Netflix’s “Russian Doll” is a whimsical yet deep, dark dive into the psyche of Natasha Lyonne’s cynic. And “Gentleman Jack” and Netflix’s “Unbelievable” also pursued what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated culture.
People talk to me about TV a lot, and I always enjoy it. Often they’ll begin with, “I hate to make you talk shop,” at which point I cut them off to welcome their thoughts. Sometimes, they’ll begin with “I never watch TV, it’s awful,” at which point I wait a beat until they say “but” and start telling me about their TV addictions, because most of us have them. But it’s always of interest to me — personally and professionally — to hear people’s feelings about the shows they enjoy, their concerns about TV’s baser inclinations, their secret obsessions, their pet analyses, and their fear of the medium’s ability to brainwash and misinform. I like being mindful of what I watch — and of what I recommend to readers — and these conversations always help me achieve that goal.
No, not the “Poldark” kind. I still crave the thrill of finding some shiny thing that’s about to get lost in the avalanche. I find great satisfaction in plucking it out of the great annual tumble of new series and showing its many facets to readers. This year, I found a few gems to revel in, but none was more gratifying than the HBO drama series “Gentleman Jack,” more specifically its lead and driving force, Suranne Jones. I admired her turn as the real Anne Lister, a gender-nonconforming lesbian in the 1800s, and more importantly I was moved by it. Even when the season treads water a little bit, Jones cruises forward as Lister, a complicated survivor and a pioneer. I’ve recommended “Gentleman Jack” to friends and to readers, and I’ve yet to hear about any disappointment. Another 2019 gem, but with a far more eccentric bent and a more niche appeal: FX’s vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows.”
This year saw a wave of topnotch TV based on difficult historical and news events. These miniseries are in some ways the scripted extensions of the true-crime trend started by “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” and in other ways, they continue what Ryan Murphy started with his celebrated “American Crime Story” series. From a marketing point of view, “When They See Us,” “Chernobyl,” “Unbelievable,” and “The Loudest Voice” stand out from the glut because of advance audience awareness of their subjects; but they aren’t merely tabloid button-pushers. They rely on thoughtful writing, careful condensation, and a sensitive approach to balancing factual history with narrative demands, as they bring contemporary context to some painful chapters. They reconsider events in terms of sexism (“Unbelievable”), “fake news” and ignoring science (“Chernobyl”), the death of bipartisanship (“The Loudest Voice”), and racism in the justice system (“When They See Us”).