It’s just that, this year, when it came to new shows, genre kind of kicked all the butts. In fact, we could’ve left off the sci-fi/fantasy qualifier and called this list “The 5 Best TV Shows of 2019,” period. (We didn’t, because we thought you’d appreciate a bit of what’s known in the biz as framing.) Sure, there was some commodity crappola. The Boys wasn’t half as edgy as it thought. Baby Yoda swallowed The Mandalorian whole. His Dark Materials verged, at times, on the soulless (ironic, for a show about souls). (But Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter—that slightly flared, froglike upper lip!—gives the best performance of 2019.)
In between the set pieces and special effects, those shows forgot about enriching and complexifying their themes. Our favorites did not. They used genre as it’s meant to be used: to tell fantastical stories grounded in the discombobulating now.
5. Good Omens (Amazon Prime)
Based on the minor fantasy classic by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, it’s the ultimate story of male friendship—one that begins in the Garden of Eden and endures up through the apocalyptic present. Michael Sheen plays the angel Aziraphale (bookish, insecure); David Tennant plays the demon Crowley (punkish, vulnerable). They squabble. They make up. They midwife the Antichrist. Their personalities and identities blend and blur, a kind of cosmic Call Me By Your Name. The special effects are so terrible. “That’s the point,” Peter Rubin wrote in our review. “Stripped of its evangelical fear-mongering, the Book of Revelation is patently ridiculous, and leaning into that was exactly how Gaiman and Pratchett celebrated humans’ godliest qualities.”
4. Russian Doll (Netflix)
It’s the best philosophy class you never took in college, because no university would hire Natasha Lyonne (the co-creator and star). Their loss: Her voice was everything we were missing from the TV renaissance. Literally—she’s got the huskiest vocal cords in Hollywood—but also figuratively: that searching openness and receptivity to experience. Reliving the same day time and again, each getting scarily smaller, her character undergoes a potent maturation. It’s a devastating, messy metaphor for addiction. It’s also, up to and including the ambiguous ending, just about perfect.
3. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
We didn’t so much love this show, a prequel to the universally traumatizing “children’s” movie from the ’80s, as sat in awe of it. There are sequences of such stunning, sublime magnificence you feel a kind of lung-punch. That’s due entirely to the creators’ commitment to practical effects, which we’re so starved of in this era of digitized everything. The Henson folks—yes, we’re talking about puppets—did everything humanly possible to replicate the aesthetic of the original. You stare at those Gelfling eyes, and they look inert, wooden. Yet when one of them gets stabbed and drained by a Skeksis, your own brim over with tears.
2. Watchmen (HBO)
First, a word: What the hell happened on Watchmen? Not thematically or dramatically—HBO’s latest genre offering made those elements radically clear. What we want to know is what happened in that writers’ room to turn one of the most un-adaptable graphic novels in the world into one of the year’s most mind-busting shows? Fans may never know, but it likely has a lot to do with the fact that creator Damon Lindelof and company took the characters and themes from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ book and left much of the rest behind. Part commentary on racial tensions in America, part deconstruction of hero worship, no one saw Watchmen coming—right up until Regina King’s Sister Night (Emmy now, please) whipped them into shape.
1. Years and Years (HBO)
“You have to watch, like, the first four episodes before it gets good,” says anyone trying to convince you to watch their current obsession. Here, we’re pretty confident saying this: Just watch the first episode. The whole thing. It feels cheesy at first, maybe a bit twee. But by the final sequence, a throbbing cacophony of sound and emotion, your heart’s racing, your pits are sweating, and you just about forget how to sit on the couch. What follows is the best show—and by far the sharpest science fiction—of the year: a six-part masterpiece, set in a near-future England, that’s everything Black Mirror strives and strains to be. Somehow both bombastic and impeccably subtle, Russel T. Davies’ Years and Years does politics without preachiness, sci-fi without silliness, and drama without melodramatics. You’ll leave it a little better, a little bolder—with new energy, or a renewed commitment to change.
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