Image: HBO/Sky Atlantic
With the start of the 2020s, it marks the end of a decade which has produced some of the greatest TV out there. Where prestige dramas like Breaking Bad were once the exception rather than the norm, it has now become increasingly common for television to be rated alongside, if not above, cinema, in artistic terms.
Often, 2019 seemed like a year full of diminishing returns. Without a doubt the biggest show of the decade, the last season of Game of Thrones seemed to leave almost everyone disappointed after eight years of build-up. However it’s not the only landmark series which, I’d argue, has been going off the rails; Stranger Things, for example, while still popular with both critics and audiences, increasingly became a pastiche of itself, the tightly plotted, atmospheric mystery series that made up Season One transforming into little more than eight hours of the same familiar characters reduced to caricatures of their former selves, and a disappointing plot involving cartoonish evil Russians.
This being said, 2019 has produced some absolute gems, including some which do, undoubtedly, rank among some of the greatest TV to air over the last few years.
Years and Years
The idea for a drama following one ordinary family’s experiences as the world goes to hell was one which writer Russell T. Davies had been kicking around for years. Having been released midway through 2019 it feels far more realistic and chilling than it likely ever would have at any other point. From the main plotline of a charismatic populist getting into power with shouts of ‘fake news’, to some unflinching depictions of refugees trying to cross the Channel, this is a series that didn’t so much feel like it was painting a dystopian picture as it was simply dramatizing the here and now. It has its faults, with many characters often feeling like clichés sitting there just to openly state The Point, but its future is one that feels far more rooted in the present than even the likes of Black Mirror, and as such is far more chilling. Hell, they might as well have just played this soundtrack over the recent UK election.
What We Do In the Shadows
What we Do In the Shadows is the only entry in here which is just completely, unashamedly stupid, and I love it for that. Taking its premise from Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s brilliant vampire mockumentary film, what made the original great could so easily have been lost in translation. The US has a habit of producing awful remakes, but this very much has the same sense of humour and style of the original, and I’d say it’s actually quite a bit better. It helps that it boasts the likes of Kayvan Novak and Matt Berry, who’s made a career out of ridiculous, over-the-top characters like this, and as such shines in almost every scene, whether he’s wandering around with a cursed hat, or shouting “bat” whenever he transforms. The rest of the cast are all equally fantastic, and work together brilliantly.
Black Mirror (Series 5)
This year’s season of Black Mirror got a bit more criticism than usual, with many comparing it unfavourably to previous seasons. There were only three episodes this year due to how much time was spent on 2018’s interactive Bandersnatch feature so there was a greater need for each of these episodes to impress, and none of them come anywhere close to rivalling the likes of ‘San Junipero’ or ‘White Christmas’, but they are all still solid episodes. The second, in which Andrew Scott’s character kidnaps an intern, is by far the best of them. Most of that is probably on Scott himself, who gives a really powerful performance. But I was also very impressed by the last episode, featuring Miley Cyrus as the loud-mouthed mini robot-duplicate of herself (or a character very like her). It’s a lot more lightweight and feelgood than previous Black Mirror episodes, but it’s essential that anthology shows like this do try different stuff and avoid getting too predictable. It was pretty fun, and Cyrus in particular really impresses.
Derry Girls (Series 2)
The Channel 4 sitcom returned for its second season this year before also being picked up by Netflix, and it’s just as good as ever. Its five main characters are a bunch you just can’t help but fall in love with, and despite there being hundreds of similar teen comedies this feels by far one of the most grounded and realistic. The cast are all stunning, with characters that were left on the sidelines in the first season getting much more time to shine, and the soundtrack is pure 90s. More than anything, this really feels like the sort of series we should have had in the midst of the Troubles – one that goes beyond the conflict and humanises the ordinary people living through it.
Killing Eve (Series 2)
Although it wasn’t nearly as good as its first season, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing being conspicuously absent, the second season ofKilling Evewas still one of the best things on TV this year. The writing this season became a bit less focussed, a bit less sure of itself, but it continued to feel like it developed in a naturalistic way, with some absolutely brilliant dialogue. The style and the soundtrack of the series remain as perfect as ever, and the cast continue to impress – especially with the addition of the likes of Julian Bleach, who’s never been more sinister (which is saying something considering some of his roles in The Mighty Boosh). No one is able to compete with Jodie Comer though, who’s psychotic, childlike character continues to steal the show in every scene she’s in. It’s a great series all round, but honestly it would not be nearlyas good if not for her.
Fleabag (Series 2)
Do I even need to justify Fleabag being on here? With the amount of Emmy’s it got I’d need to justify it not being.
It’s not perfect. I remember re-watching the first season just before the second aired and finding it… good, certainly, and still funny, but not as good as I remembered. Once you know what’s coming, it became a bit repetitive at times. It also felt very much self-contained and so it was difficult to see how a second series could work. Series 2 however not only maintains the quality of the first, but massively exceeds it. The comic timing remains just as pitch-perfect as ever, while Andrew Scott’s ‘Hot Priest’ makes such a good addition to the cast. But what really makes it is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in both her performance and in her writing.
The thing is, if I were to look at it purely as a comedy, Fleabag wouldn’t actually rate that highly for me. But I see it far less as that, and more as just a very funny play. It had its origins on stage, and this aspect to it becomes even clearer in the second series. The amount of life Waller-Bridge breathes into her role, and how the series develops its characterisation, is just stunning. While the ‘confession scene’ got everyone on social media raving about Andrew Scott’s whole “kneel” moment, it’s Waller-Bridge who steals the show – her monologue on needing someone to just tell her what to do easily being among the most relatable, heart-breaking things put to screen in years. And the final scene is equally tragic, but also just the perfect ending.
Dark (Series 2)
Dark has to be one of the most underrated series out there currently. While it wouldn’t be true to say no-one’s watching it (its third series is on the way), it has got much less attention than other Netflix content – likely due to the language barrier and the dense plot. This is such a shame because watching it play out is an incredible experience, as the narrative twists and turns one way or the other. The ambition and scope of the writing is truly exceptional, the cast all impress as they have to play different versions of the same characters, and it’s a crying shame that there isn’t more out there that’s so intelligently written and well crafted.
Where to even begin with this. The first big hit of the year, this show packs in so much in so little time. At first glance, it seems like just another Groundhog Day rip-off with its core idea of someone reliving the same day over and over. The specific idea of a woman dying on her birthday is, in fact, literally identical to that of the recent Happy Death Day films. But there is so much that’s unique to this, and so much else going on. From the start the series asserts itself as a brilliant dark comedy, with some razor sharp dialogue, and an amazing performance by lead actress and co-writer, Natasha Lyonne, who’s sarcastic and cynical character becomes increasingly manic over the situation she’s in. On top of her performance is some stellar direction and a truly incredibly soundtrack.
As the series progresses however, things become increasingly complex, as it tackles all sorts of issues surrounding mental health, suicide, and overcoming past traumas. And as things start changing within the loop – fruit rotting, people disappearing, the suspense just rachets up more and more than you’d ever expect. The second to last episode – where Nadia starts to see things, and the death’s become that much more bloody and visceral – genuinely feels like a horror movie, as everything becomes increasingly creepy and claustrophobic.
The last episode is even more ambitious, the plot throwing all sorts of twists and turns as the timeline gets split in two, and a surreal, bonkers ending that offers little solid explanation as to what’s actually happening. It’s one where, by the end, you feel it needs a re-watch, but unlike other headscratchers, including the likes of Dark, it’s still not something where you can feel like you’re struggling to keep track. It remains funny and grounded throughout, with characters that you can’t help but end up invested in. It’s truly intelligent writing, with so much to unpack in every single scene, and so many different possible interpretations. It’s been confirmed that there is a second season coming, and if it’s got the same cast and creators then I’m confident it can impress – but honestly the ending to this is so ambiguous and open ended, I almost wish they were just leaving it there.
Coming just after the last season of Game of Thrones, few probably expected this to be HBO’s biggest show of the year, but there’s little doubt that it was, winning 10 Emmys and becoming IMDb’s highest rated show of all time. While everyone knows the name Chernobyl, there are probably not that many people nowadays who know the details of exactly what happened or why, and as such it makes for hugely compelling viewing. With its brilliant recreations of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and an absolutely incredible cast all round, the series is able to recreate the disaster in the most sickening, horrific detail – from the fate of the firefighters who went in with no idea of what they were dealing with, to the mothers who lost babies due to the radiation, and the teams of men who were set up to clear that roof, unable to last past 90 seconds, with the noise of the Geiger counter constantly crackling in the background.
But this isn’t just a recreation of the disaster – it also brilliantly recreates the paranoia of the politics of the time, condemning the Soviet state apparatus that allowed it while never feeling simply like propaganda. Above all else, the writing here is truly impressive – particularly in the final episode where we move away from exploring the effects of the disaster and instead focus on the trial that took place afterwards.
This one hour of TV is, quite literally, perfect. Everything is set up just how it needs to be. After four episodes of seeing exactly what the after-effects of Chernobyl were, we’re invested enough that the explanation of what happened – essentially a science lecture – is genuinely gripping, we’re genuinely invested in whether Jared Harris’ Legasov has the courage to speak truth to power, and the flashbacks to the explosion itself are truly suspenseful in spite of our knowing exactly what is about to take place. With some sparkling dialogue, this is another which feels genuinely intelligent, and just as relevant today in the era of fake news.