It just keeps getting harder, picking a Top 10 list. Every year now, a record number of TV shows premiere, and more TV outlets come knocking for a donation, although none of my favorites this year are from the two major newcomers, Disney+ and Apple TV+. Here are the 10 series that gave me the most pleasure in 2019, along with a “Second 10” — shows that easily could have been in the Top 10 on a different day. I trust you will let me know what I got right, and, of course, wrong.
1. “Succession” (HBO)
The first season was trashy fun, as aging media mogul Logan Roy toyed ruthlessly with his ambitious children to see who might inherit his empire. Trashy, with the occasional nod to Shakespeare. But the second season was all that and more, as each episode found an excuse to bring the battling Roys together for dramatic confrontations and backstabbings. The family hierarchy changed from hour to hour, but when facing an outside threat — played most excellently by Holly Hunter — the Roys were as one. The performances were indelible and smart, and the scripting was brilliantly blackly comic. As the unctuous Roman Roy, Kieran Culkin takes dense lines of dialogue and delivers them effortlessly. We count on him to turn zingers such as “Kim Jong Pop” — referring to his father — into little fast-paced gems. Creator Jesse Armstrong saw what worked in season one and amped it up to the exact right degree. Also: Part of the pleasure of season two was the community around the show, waiting for Sunday episodes together. It was better — and less lonely — than binge watching.
2. “Years and Years” (HBO)
I’ve mentioned this six-part miniseries to many people, most of whom haven’t heard about it. But when I explain it — a fleshed-out “Black Mirror” story, a haunting look at the biofeedback between individuals and global politics, an operatic rush forward through the next 15 years of history — I generally get blank stares. I now believe “Years and Years” is hard to reduce to an elevator pitch because it is so original. It’s dystopian, with Emma Thompson as an abrasive businesswoman running for political office, blood tests that predict life expectancy, climate-change disasters, and breath scans that are required for border crossings. It’s an anxiety dream come to life. But it’s also the warm story of the Lyons family of Manchester, England, with Anne Reid as the spiky, loving grandmother of four complicated siblings. The human side of the show — which is from Russell T. Davies of “Dr. Who” and “Queer as Folk” — elevates it from creepy to heartbreaking. As society becomes more coldly robotic, you wonder as you watch, perhaps something warm inside us will survive.
3. “Russian Doll” (Netflix)
This one reached me in an unexpectedly deep way. The “Groundhog Day”-esque series, in which Natasha Lyonne’s cynical Nadia keeps dying and getting resurrected on the night of her 36th birthday, is a New York-centric comedy that bounces around from slapstick to absurdity to farce to black comedy. At first, it’s brash and repetitive. But, like “Fleabag,” it slides gracefully into a deep well of sorrow and guilt. Nadia’s tough New Yorker act — she’s a Borscht Belt nihilist — sits atop all kinds of unexplored grief for her mother, who died when she was a child. And each time Nadia is reborn she gets closer to understanding her defense systems, and farther from her doomy belief that nothing is worth anything. As the soundtrack keeps reminding us, Nadia has “gotta get up" and make her life into something.
4. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
I enjoyed season one of this painful, wry look at grief and guilt enough to put it on my top 10 list in 2016. But still, I was shocked, pleasantly, to find that Phoebe Waller-Bridge had brought the series back for a second six-episode round because she really did have more story to tell — and not, as is too often the case, because someone thought it could make more money. The second season was brilliant — a portrait of a woman who happens to be emotionally lost falling in love with a man who happens to be a priest. Waller-Bridge brought the same super-dry wit and fourth-wall-breaking winks as she did in season one, but she added in the themes of trust and faith and the struggle to be worthy of love. The season won a bunch of Emmys, and it deserved each one.
5. “Chernobyl” (HBO)
This miniseries is terribly bleak, and I mean that as a great compliment. It’s a scripted recounting of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant disaster of April 1986, and, wisely, creator Craig Mazin doesn’t compromise the ugliness to make it all easier to watch. He doesn’t up the pacing or heighten the character types to make a better story; he lets reality do the dirty work. As the nightmare unfolds, we see the Kremlin hide the extent of the disaster from the outside world and reject the assessments made by scientists (including Jared Harris’s nuclear physicist), more concerned about political rather than nuclear fallout. Mazin also subtly adds in contemporary resonances, including the dangers of disinformation and science denial. That such a direct, grim miniseries was a hit, and won 10 Emmys including best limited series, is a small miracle. It’s a sharp, indelible document.
6. “Unbelievable” (Netflix)
Yup, it’s unbelievably good. Based on a true story, this strongly acted eight-episode procedural miniseries takes us inside a justice system that utterly fails rape victims. It’s about a series of rapes in Washington and Colorado, and the dynamic detectives — played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette — who join forces to investigate them. It’s also very much about the victims of these rapes, one of whom — touchingly played by Kaitlyn Dever — is treated so poorly by male detectives that she ultimately denies the rape. Wever is, as usual, remarkable as a soulful cop who refuses to re-victimize the women she is trying to help. Her chemistry with Collette is pitch perfect, as the two women with very different temperaments share a passion for getting rapists off the streets.
7. “Sex Education” (Netflix)
I went into this teen sex comedy expecting something coarse and silly, on the order of “American Pie.” I finished the first eight-episode season with a great respect for show creator Laurie Nunn, her emotional understanding of her characters, and her sex-positive message. Asa Butterfield is hugely sympathetic as 16-year-old Otis who is terrified of sex — which makes perfect sense since his mother (an amusing Gillian Anderson) just happens to be a sex therapist who loves to talk openly about everything sexual. Can you say “boundary issues”? But the focus is on Otis, who counsels his high school friends despite — or perhaps because of — his own hang-ups. The supporting actors who play the kids are aces, as they work to figure out who they are in collaboration with their newly emerging sex drives.
8. “When They See Us” (Netflix)
The story as it should be told, of five young men whose lives were blown wide open by one of our justice system’s most heinous blunders. This powerfully human take on the Exonerated Five from director and co-writer Ava DuVernay doesn’t just appeal to our conscience; she goes for the emotional jugular, as each of the accused becomes an individual with families that we get to know intimately. She gives us the heart of the racist nightmare that was the Central Park Five and the media sensation around it. The miniseries, beautifully structured across four episodes, also features unforgettable performances by, among others, Jharrel Jerome, Freddy Miyares, and Asante Blackk, whose baby face drives home the youth of the boys at the time they were falsely accused.
9. “Back to Life” (Showtime)
I fell in love with this little, precisely observed portrait of a woman recently released from prison, which is from some of the executive producers of “Fleabag.” A fast but meaningful watch at only six half-hour episodes, it follows an anguished — and yet touchingly buoyant — 36-year-old woman who has just been released after serving 18 years in prison. Miri (played by co-writer Daisy Haggard, who was the sourpuss head of comedy on “Episodes”) is trying to restart her life, but her family and neighbors have a hard time letting her do so. It’s like a light version of the more meditative “Rectify,” with some wonderful humor from Geraldine James as Miri’s pent-up mum and a masterfully gradual unraveling of Miri’s original crime. The series was just renewed, and I’ll be first in line when it returns.
10. “Gentleman Jack” (HBO)
If I were judging solely on a leading performance, this 1830s-set drama series would be closer to the top of my list. Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister, a real woman who kept diaries about her affairs with women. She was gender nonconforming, with property enough to reject social conventions and pursue her desires. Jones is a gale-force wind, carrying the story of Anne’s loves with confidence, bold self-awareness, and unexpected emotional power. From Sally Wainwright of “Happy Valley” and “Last Tango in Halifax,” the show has a few lulls midseason, as Anne and her neighboring heiress go back and forth on their relationship. But still, when Jones is onscreen, which is almost always, there’s enough life to lift everything.
THE SECOND TEN
On a different day, any one of these could have fallen into my Top 10.
“Mrs. Fletcher” (HBO): A winner from start to finish, Tom Perrotta’s culturally aware miniseries looks into the sexual awakening of an empty nester (the amazing Kathryn Hahn) and the self-realizations of her son.
“Mindhunter” (Netflix): The riveting second season of this serial-killer procedural fixed everything that was wrong with the first, with expanded characterizations of the lead cast.
“PEN15” (Hulu): It sounds like the setup for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but this 2000-set comedy featuring 31-year-old actresses playing seventh-graders is honest, insightful, and just satirical enough.
“Veep” (HBO): The final season was a worthy farewell to this brilliant series, whose truth we take to be self-evident.
“Shrill” (Hulu): Aidy Bryant is a winning heroine as a woman who finds her own truths despite the sexist cultural perceptions of her weight.
“What We Do in the Shadows” (FX): Vampire humor wins the day — and night — in this eccentric and perfectly acted supernatural comedy.
“The Other Two” (Comedy Central): One sibling is a pop star; the other two are embittered, desperate, and thoroughly entertaining.
“The Good Place” (NBC): This strange, wonderful creation is coming to an end at just the right time — after a string of episodes both clever and touching.