These were my 10 favorite TV series of 2019, a year that saw the continued dominance of streaming services and the rise to prominence of standalone miniseries, but also a few stalwart network favorites:
10. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Season 4, CW) — The final half-season of Rachel Bloom’s passion project delivers a handful of songs that rank among the show’s all-time best. Starting with “Hello, Nice to Meet You,” it’s clear that new Greg actor Skyler Astin can handle the unusual (outside of soaps) task of replacing a series regular. Later, “I Hate Everything But You” perfectly encapsulates Greg’s character. “Gratuitous Karaoke Moment” finally makes use of the painfully underused Maya (Esther Povitsky). Then “CXG” sticks its landing in a very of-the-moment but still striking finale wherein Rebecca chooses songwriting over a relationship with any of the three contending guys.
9. “Evil” (Season 1, CBS) — I found the pilot episode of this supernatural-versus-psychological procedural mediocre, but something about it made me keep coming back. After a half-season, this show from “The Good Wife’s” Michelle and Robert King is the fall series I am most quick to fire up on my DVR. It’s partly the vibe of unusual settings like Kristen’s home under the train tracks and David’s ascetic loft above the church. Kristen, David and Ben (Katja Herbers, Mike Colter and Aasif Mandvi) are co-workers who like each other and their jobs, and that pleasant vibe transfers to viewers. “The X-Files” may be “Evil’s” most obvious touchstone, but the home life of Kristen and her four daughters has a warmth that contrasts with the chilling cases and reminds me of “Medium.”
8. “This Is Us,” (Seasons 3-4, NBC) — 2019 featured the decades-spanning family drama’s first misstep: Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) cutting Nicky (Griffin Dunne) out of his life after Vietnam. But overall, it offered far more good than bad, including Kevin’s (Justin Hartley) determined efforts to get Nicky back into the fold of the Pearson family. The casting of dead-ringer Rachel Hilson as the teenage version of Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) adds a level of lump-in-your-throat poignancy not found when actors don’t match up as well. And the next generation’s Jack, the blind baby of Kate and Toby, demonstrates that showrunner Dan Fogelman isn’t only interested in the fashionable ideas of diversity based on race and sexual orientation.
7. “Joe Pera Talks with You” (Season 2, Adult Swim) — In the four 15-minute episodes that have aired so far, Joe teaches us about beans, hiking, waiting at beauty parlors, and lighthouses (his adopted home of Michigan boasts more than any other state). We’re introduced to his fellow teacher John, who could bring back “If you know what I mean” the same way Michael Scott brought back “That’s what she said,” and — in a flashback — Joe’s dad, who allows young Joe to swear for quarters so long as he leaves “God” out of it. Regardless of the topic, this unhyped gem remains the smooth jazz version of a sitcom, punched up by delightfully out-of-place modern absurdity.
6. “I Am the Night” (miniseries, TNT) — The second installment of TNT’s Suspense Collection (which started with 2018’s “The Alienist”; a sequel is coming in 2020) is an excellent downtime project from “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins and actor Chris Pine. He plays a reporter who theorizes that the 1947 Black Dahlia murderer is still active as the calendar turns to the 1960s. That fictional character ties into the crazier but nonetheless real-life story of sad but strong Fauna Hodel (India Eisley). She thinks she’s black, but is actually white. But that’s nothing compared to what she learns about her grandfather, who is today considered to be the most likely suspect in the Black Dahlia cold case. If you like the series, the companion podcast by Fauna’s daughters is an excellent chaser.
5. “Veronica Mars” (Season 4, Hulu) — The controversial ending to this eight-episode season is all that’s talked about among fans (and ex-fans). But before the final 5 minutes, Season 4 is as competent as ever as it crafts a mystery around the Sea Sprite Motel bombing. Keith’s (Enrico Colantoni) memory lapses are plenty scary, as is the villains’ violence, as creator Rob Thomas embraces his R-rated tendencies that are restrained by network TV. Season 4 finds room for great new characters too. J.K. Simmons is welcome whenever he shows up, Izabela Vidovic could ably take the reins from Kristen Bell in a theoretical spinoff, and Patton Oswalt plays the most 2010s figure: the leader of the “Serial”-podcast-inspired Murderheads, who gather to mull unsolved killings. (Full review.)
4. “Unbelievable” (miniseries, Netflix) — The tube is filled with downbeat slow-burn true crime dramas, and they are the worst genre to binge before going to bed. However, when done this well, they need to be recognized. Toni Collette, as a veteran detective, and Kaitlyn Dever, as a rape victim who is victimized again by the disbelieving police, both shine — one at the top of her game, the other an emerging star. The procedural elements are as compelling as in a top-shelf investigative film like “Spotlight,” but “Unbelievable” is also a stellar character piece. We follow Dever’s Marie through travails that make our blood boil, but we can take comfort in the fact that detectives such as Karen (Merritt Wever) are as deeply affected as we are. (Full review.)
3. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Season 3, Amazon Prime) — Creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino seem more open to fan feedback this year, as evidenced by the wonderful almost-date between the titular Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby). Both comedians admit they have nothing funny to say as they look into each others’ eyes. Granted, there’s still plenty of showmanship in “Maisel.” Over the course of eight episodes that take us from Miami to Las Vegas and back to New York, we get the equivalent of a full set from singer Shy Baldwin (breakout star Leroy McClain, channeling 1960). But the series juggles plenty of individuals’ arcs — Tony Shalhoub’s Abe is now into civil liberties causes — and stays aware of its era, notably through Shy’s hyper-sensitivity about his homosexuality being discovered. (Full review.)
2. “Looking for Alaska” (miniseries, Hulu) — I was already a low-key fan of John Green adaptations (I’m a “Fault in Our Stars” apologist), but this boarding-school series — based on his 2005 novel and set in that year — takes it to another level. The mid-Aughts were the Manic Pixie Dream Girl peak (with “Garden State” and “Elizabethtown”), and Josh Schwartz’s series riffs on the trope before deconstructing it. Sure, Everyteen Miles (Charlie Plummer) is obsessed with Alaska Young (perfectly cast quirky beauty Kristine Froseth), but the story reveals Alaska’s full slate of traits too. It’s a delicate balancing act, because an Alaska-centered mystery plays behind the first six of the eight episodes. Green wrote “Paper Towns” as an attempt to improve on “Alaska,” and now the “Looking for Alaska” TV series improves on what the “Paper Towns” film tried to do. (Full review.)
1. “Cobra Kai” (Season 2, YouTube Premium) — Season 2 of my favorite blast of 1980s nostalgia gives us more of Johnny (William Zabka) being hilariously stuck in the hair-metal era, but one memorable episode also finds poignancy in chronicling the cancer death of “Karate Kid’s” Tommy (Rob Garrison, who died of cancer soon after). This season gives the teens a bigger slice of the spotlight. Notably, Daniel’s daughter Sam emerges as a love interest to Johnny’s son and a rival to the local Bad Girl; Mary Mouser ably balances the two genres’ demands. The finale is one of the best culminations of a seasonal storyline in TV history, as a massive and epically staged fight breaks out in the hallways on the first day of school. (Full review.)
What were your 10 favorite shows of 2019? Share your list in the comment threads.