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Top TV shows of 2019 (our favourites)

Succession

Feature by Rob Carnevale

2019 proved to be another excellent year for television, from the climax of Game of Thrones to the sophomore season of Succession.

But there was also a lot to enjoy in between. Billions went from strength to strength, Fleabag drew to a fantastic close (even though we missed it!), the BBC shone with landmark dramas such as Line of Duty, Peaky Blinders and World on Fire and ITV also picked up plenty of accolades for true life crime dramas such as A Confession and Manhunt.

But which, if any, made our favourite shows of the year?



True Detective Series 3

14) True Detective: Season 3

Why so good? Without ever coming close to scaling the heights of its benchmark-setting first season, the third run of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective was notable for a sublime leading performance from this year’s Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.

Hence, while the murder case itself – involving a missing child – may have proved strangely underwhelming once the dust had settled, the series as a whole was best remembered as a riveting character study. Ali’s Wayne Hays was a complex man, whose difficult journey was told via three different decades.

Hence, Pizzolatto’s screenplay examined memory, regret and consequence on a wide level, with racism very much to the fore. But it also poked around a family and a troubled marriage, offering plenty to work with for all of its cast, who only served to enhance the quality of Ali’s performance. Credit also goes to co-stars Stephen Dorff and Carmen Ejogo for adding such telling contributions.

Read our review



Game of Thrones

13) Game of Thrones: Season 8

Why so good?: It may have divided audiences over its merits, but there’s no denying that the final series of HBO’s epic Game of Thrones was a must-see event that still had plenty of moments to savour. Ironically, though, it was often in the smaller moments rather than the large-scale ones.

And while the fates of Dany (Emilia Clarke), Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) were poorly handled (or rushed), the series still closed out with satisfying arcs for other main characters, including Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Arya (Maisie Williams). It was a bittersweet climax but one that felt right, in our opinion, for those who survived the game playing.

And in stand-alone moments, the show still managed to make people gasp with shock (as in Dany’s fiery revenge) and shed a tear (the knighting of Brienne of Tarth, Gwendoline Christie). While in the scene-setting The Last of the Starks it was also able to achieve 5-star quality.

Read our review of the finale



Euphoria

12) Euphoria

Why so good? It’s hard to say you like Euphoria. But it makes for consistently provocative viewing. Based on an Israeli series that first aired in 2012, Euphoria also draws heavily on lead writer Sam Levinson’s own experiences of teenage drug addiction, and is being described as a teenage drama that’s not for teens. It’s a hard, gruelling watch with very little in the way of joy.

The show mostly unfolds from the perspective of Zendaya (who plays the 17-year-old Rue), a teenager struggling to overcome her addiction. But it embraces every challenge facing teenagers today, from ‘shaming’ cultures to toxic masculinity via pressure, addiction, porn and sexual degradation. You could argue that it draws too heavily on its ability to shock, especially in its more explicit moments, but when firmly focusing on character, it remained a riveting insight into youth culture and the dangers posed by the age in which we live. As a parent, it was sobering. As a human being, you couldn’t help but identify with some of the kids’ plights.

Read our review



A Confession

11) A Confession

Why so good? Jeff Pope’s A Confession proved to be one of the most gripping and heart-breaking real-life crime depictions of recent years. It functioned as both a deeply affecting personal story of self-sacrifice and courage as well as a serious examination of the future of law enforcement and the way in which it treats suspects.

The moral conundrum at the heart of the show took place during the investigation of the disappearance of 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan in 2011, as led by former Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher. When a suspect was identified and interviewed, he confessed and even offered up another victim (Becky Godden-Edwards, who was 20 when she was reported missing in 2007). Fulcher’s ‘failure’ to follow correct procedure during the interview eventually made the second confession [for Godden’s murder] inadmissible in court and prompted the beginning of the end for Fulcher’s career. But it did bring closure to Godden’s family.

Pope’s screenplay remained sensitive, articulate and intelligent to the end, offering raw insight into the lasting effects of grief and the devastating impact crime has on its victims. But it also offered an absorbing examination of the British legal system, ending with the question on everyone’s lips: do suspects have more rights than victims? It was as moving as it was, at times, enraging.

Read our review



Line of Duty

10) Line of Duty: Season 5

Why so good? Jed Mercurio’s fifth season of Line of Duty was the first to air on BBC1 and the first since his Sunday night ratings smash Bodyguard. It remained a taut, twisting, utterly gripping police thriller driven by first-rate performances from its established cast (Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar), especially as the search for ‘H’ intensified over the last episodes.

But the biggest takeaway from the latest series was yet another mercurial performance from Stephen Graham, whose DS John Corbett offered up a masterclass in moral complexity. Hence, while some of the character’s actions crossed the line and offered no hope of a happy ending, Graham still managed to bring a sense of humanity to what could have become a pantomime, one dimensional villain. His sense of desperation was palpable, making the fate of the character all the more tragic as a result. It was a pleasure tuning in every Sunday.

Read our review



State of the Union

9) State of the Union

Why so good? A disarmingly simple premise: a married couple (Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike) meet up each episode in a pub to discuss their faltering marriage ahead of each week’s new counselling session. But thanks to an intelligent and often witty script by Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning writer Nick Hornby, as well as some easy-going direction by BAFTA and Emmy-winner Stephen Frears, this provided a multi-layered insight into relationships and the follies that often threaten them. In this case, it was Pike’s wife who had become bored and slept with someone else, while O’Dowd’s husband wrestled with issues of self-esteem and dignity.

It was clear throughout, however, that both wanted their marriage to work… but only if they could understand what went wrong. And in the ten 10-minute episodes that ensured they discussed everything from Brexit divisions to sex via friends and family as they attempted to find answers. Both proved highly fallible, yet both remained entirely likeable and the more we got to know them, the more we rooted for them to find their way. The result was an honest and immensely satisfying discourse on marriage that featured two actors on peak form.



Seven Worlds, One Planet

8) Seven Worlds, One Planet

Why so good? Another year, another David Attenborough/BBC masterpiece. This one was notable for its larger emphasis on the effects of global warming and climate change. But while it created more moments of heartbreak at seeing the world [and its creatures] in crisis, there were still countless moments to take the breath away as Attenborough and company visited every continent and unearthed some hidden gems.

Highlights included blue-faced monkeys walking upright through some of the least-explored forests on Earth in China; a heavily camouflaged viper whose tail has somehow morphed into what looks like a spider; humpback whales blowing walls of bubbles to help capture krill into banquet-sized feasts; dingos hunting kangaroos across wide, open grasslands and a mother puma, forced to search for food amid the jagged Patagonian terrain in South America. It was moments such as these that underlined why our planet remains worth fighting for.

Read our reviews of Antarctica l Asia l Australia l South America



Barry

7) Barry

Why so good? If its first season offered an occasionally flawed look at a hitman (Bill Hader) trying to go straight and become an actor, its sophomore run often provided moments of genius. And while season one ended on a bleak note, with Barry having to murder the police detective girlfriend of his mentor, acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Wrinkler), season two gradually became ever more twisted and melancholy as Barry strove to understand himself and find a new place for himself in the world.

Some critics have likened Barry to Breaking Bad in the way that it features a protagonist who is inherently irredeemable yet strangely root-worthy – and who is often hiding in plain sight from those looking for him. It’s a valid comparison. But there’s more offbeat humour, as well as plenty to say about Hollywood and the nature of acting (and its various neuroses and self-serving tendencies). It’s also a cracking ensemble piece, with every cast member contributing in some way: from Wrinkler’s terrific coach to Stephen Root’s handler turned nemesis Monroe via Anthony Carrigan’s kooky NoHo Hank and Sarah Goldberg’s self-absorbed actress Sally.

The piece de resistance of season 2, however, was the intensely surreal and ultra violent fifth episode, Ronny/Lily (directed by Hader himself), which offered one of the most brilliant stand-alone episodes of this or any drama of the last decade, featuring a botched hit that was as laugh out loud funny as it was entirely shocking.



Big Little Lies

6) Big Little Lies: Season 2

Why so good? If you remember thrillers such as Sleeping With The Enemy and Fatal Attraction in which the violent bad person eventually gets their comeuppance, you’ll also remember the happy ever after coda that frequently accompanied them. Not so with Big Little Lies, the brilliant ensemble drama that boasted the powerhouse line-up of Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon.

Where season one ended with the death of Alexander Skarsgard’s abusive husband and rapist Perry, season two examined the repercussions of this act. And it introduced Meryl Streep as Perry’s grieving mother, determined to get to the truth of her son’s demise. What ensued was an often heart-wrenching, frequently agonising depiction of guilt as the lasting effects of an abusive relationship were painfully realised. As such, Kidman delivered a masterclass, as did Streep.

And while season two lost the whodunit element of the first season, finding out whether the mothers ‘got away with it’, while understanding a lot more about what made them tick, was an utterly absorbing and frequently emotionally honest dramatic highlight of the year… never more so than in the brilliantly realised penultimate episode The Bad Mother.



Billions: A Proper Send-Off

5) Billions: Season 4

Why so good? The best television shows are those that go from strength to strength, continually subverting expectation and finding new ways in which to involve viewers in their central characters. The fourth season of Billions was a classic case in point.

Already beloved by those who tune in as one of the very best television shows of the moment [if not of all time], the fourth season proceeded to deliver one humdinger after another, with former antagonists Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) becoming allies and taking on all-comers, from John Malkovich’s scheming ogliarch to Clancy Brown’s manipulative Attorney General Waylon ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat, via Asia Kate Dillon’s former Axelrod prodigy Taylor.

But as is so often the case with this superlative series, the plays were seldom obvious and the end-games always surprising. Hence, the twisted morality of its main players was always open to question, with even Rhoades’ wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) finding herself in increasingly compromised positions (morally and ethically).

Season four boasted highlight after highlight before arriving at its humdinger of a finale, in which tables were once again turned, double crosses came home to roost, Giamatti got to roast an enemy in fluent Italian (with that sublime vocal delivery), a season-long ‘idiot’ was beautifully [and ruthlessly] exposed and the stage was set for yet another intense season five battle of wits.

Read our review of the finale



World on Fire

4) World on Fire

Why so good? Peter Bowker’s thoughtful World War II drama offered emotionally compelling, occasionally harrowing, yet always powerful human drama, as well as shining a light on a forgotten element of that terrible conflict.

The series sought to examine the impact of the war on all sides: from traumatised First World War veterans turned pacifists to Polish resistance fighters (very seldom given a voice in such dramatizations), via heroic British soldiers and even sympathetic Germans. This was a series designed to showcase the human and emotional cost of war. As such, it left a haunting impression, often etched across the faces of those experiencing the trials and tribulations of living under the boot-print of Adolf Hitler’s march across Europe.

A top-drawer cast also excelled, from Zofia Wichlacz’s plucky Polish resistance fighter to Jonah Hauer-King’s haunted, yet honourable soldier, via Lesley Manville and Sean Bean as parents of two of the main protagonists involved. And while it avoided too many set pieces in favour of character development, Bowker’s screenplay still offered devastating moments: from the beaches of Dunkirk to the bomb-ravaged streets of Poland, as desperate survivors sought to wage their own private war against their Nazi occupiers.

By the time the series reached its jaw-dropping cliffhanger ending, we all sighed with relief when the BBC quickly announced that World on Fire will return.

Read our review



Watchmen

3) Watchmen

Why so good? It was ironic that in the week that so much was written about auteur filmmakers lambasting superhero films for having little to say (or being “theme parks”) that Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen should have made its global TV debut to such provocative effect.

From its opening episode, Watchmen offered up a damning commentary on American racial tensions at a time when Trump America seems to be exposing them more acutely than ever before in recent history. Yet, at the same time, it combined an often head-scratching mystery concerning identity and fate that featured some of the most interesting – and bizarre – characters in recent TV memory.

Each episode offered up a riddle that, once ‘explained’, provided further riddles to ponder. Questions flew thick and fast. But Lindelof frequently succeeded in dropping one surprise revelation after another, while remaining carefully reverential to the acclaimed 1986 comic book creations from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which served as a commentary on the Cold War and its aftermath.

Hence, Watchmen was, by turns, thrillingly original and cleverly fan-orientated, while also being populated by a top-drawer ensemble cast led by Regina King and also featuring Jeremy Irons, Tim Blake Nelson, Jean Smart, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Don Johnson. It also delivered a suitably satisfying finale that could act as both a full stop and a possible new beginning.

Read our first episode review



Chernobyl

2) Chernobyl

Why so good? There’s harrowing and then there’s Chernobyl. A co-production between Sky and HBO, this five part drama recreates the 1986 disaster at the nuclear power station in what is now Ukraine. It is sobering viewing and one that carries plenty of contemporary relevance.

The intention was always to show how the Chernobyl disaster was man-made. What the first episode unquestionably proved was that you can never under-estimate the power of governments to NOT act in the best interests of its people. And yet, in the face of this, there was tremendous heroism and sacrifice, as depicted in the sustained efforts of the likes of whistle blower Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), sympathetic government official Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and nuclear scientist turned truth digger Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) to not only bring a safe resolution to the disaster, but also to expose the facts and ensure that such tragedy could never happen again.

Series creator Craig Mazin was often unflinching in his depiction of the effects of radiation on Russia’s citizens, but this only made the selfless actions of his heroes more incredible. And in certain sequences, he dazzled… there were undoubtedly few more haunting images on TV this year than the sight of babies being cradled in their parents’ arms as the ash-like radiation fell silently upon them like snow. The revelation of their fate in the series’ final moments was a proper gut-punch.

Read our review



Succession

1) Succession

Why so good? With its second season, Succession can rightfully lay claim to being an all-time great on a par with past small screen classics such as The Sopranos or movie masterpieces such as The Godfather.

The sophomore run of this magnificent drama was a masterclass in writing and acting that delivered one superlative episode after another, culminating in a humdinger of a final episode that truly exhilarated from start to finish.

An expose of the cut-throat media dynasty that is the Roy family, season two saw family patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) attempt to fight back against a takeover bid by trying to acquire a rival media establishment, while still choosing which family member will succeed. Would it be favourite daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook)? Acerbic youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin)? Or his broken and addicted eldest Kendall (Jeremy Strong), still coming to terms with his part in the death of an innocent at the end of the first series?

By the season’s close, Logan’s formidable grip over his empire was starting to look weaker, prompting the final episode search for a ‘blood sacrifice’. But while the choice may have proved slightly inevitable, the coda provided something entirely more stunning, setting things up for another almighty tussle in season three.

What Succession does so brilliantly, however, is find empathy and humanity in characters who should otherwise be despicable. And it does so by combining laugh out loud moments of often brutal humour with surprisingly poignant moments of intimacy, in which barriers are lowered and uncomfortable truths come out. Every episode was like peeling an onion, exposing more layers while wiping away the tears of laughter created by that stinging, rapier-like wit. Season two hit some truly Shakespearean heights.

Read our review of the season two finale