Part 1: 10–6
As the 2010s came to a close, a lot of series came to an end, while several new accomplishments filled our screens. I’ll be making larger assessments as to what some of the best series of the decade were in a later article, but suffice to say there have been many works of genius.
But with all the darkness and chaos happening all around us, I found myself yearning for comedy far more than I did for a drama. And a surprising number of series were more than willing to take a viewer in new directions — some of which were even more imaginative than the greatest of dramas. Perhaps comedy has reached a new level of Peak TV.
So here are my choices:
10. Evil (CBS)
Robert and Michelle King continue to reach new heights exploring the boundaries of network television. In Evil, they have created something even more imaginative than the X-Files — a priest in training, a skeptical forensic psychologist, and a computer hacker. None of them are prepared to readily believe in the supernatural which is why it’s increasingly fascinating watching them deal with a world that crosses both. They’ve created the first genuinely terrifying series in a very long time, which is an accomplishment for a genre that TV has increasingly played for camp or laughs. And Michael Emerson’s work as a psychotherapist who may be the devil himself seems to finally be playing a role he has been working for his entire life. It’s a little early to consider whether this will be a great series, or just another failed mythology one, but I have faith in the Kings that I never had in Chris Carter. Enjoy the ride.
9. The Bold Type (Freeform)
Freeform has in the past year become one of the most remarkable sources for entertainment in an already crowded world of cable, showing that you can have series with equal representation, and still be entertaining. It was a question whether I was going to list grown-ish or Good Trouble, two spinoffs so extraordinary I really wish I’d seen the source material. But ultimately I chose to go with a series that is as close to flawless as anything basic cable can throw at you. The story of three besties working at Scarlet, a fashion magazine that you really want to be around in real life, is fearless in nearly everything it deals with — sex, classism, race, queer relationships, and perhaps most importantly, friendship. This is the series Sex and the City and Girls tried to be, but in my mind, never came close to pulling it off with such flare or delight. (For the record, I’m a Jane.) It is fearless, funny, and yes, bold. And I really hope it hangs along for a while.
8. Russian Doll (Netflix)
I came a little late to this series, mainly because I couldn’t see how the format — a woman turning thirty six keeps dying and reappearing back at her own birthday party — could possibly work as a series. But slowly, it began to show layers that a lot of dramas — certainly not ones on this service — manage to pull off. As it slowly became clear that Nadia wasn’t the only one who this was happening to, and that with each successive death the world began to decay — it actually began to deal with more intriguing parallels and alternate universes as well as questions about the meaning of existence that other series don’t even try. I’m still not a hundred percent sure it can work as a series for more than one season, but lead actress/showrunner Natasha Lyonne has clearly demonstrated that she has a capacity for genius that the medium of television has been letting her reveal in a way few other talents have. In any case, I’d be more than willing to live through it again. And again.
7. Fosse/Verdon (FX)
There were a lot of great limited series over 2019, and I’d love to give spots to the resurgent True Detective and the remarkable Chernobyl. But since I don’t want HBO to entirely dominate this list, I’m going to focus on one of the smaller and more remarkable accomplishments. Watching Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams inhabit two of the greatest geniuses who ever worked on Broadway, who created some of the greatest shows in the history, who couldn’t live with each other, but couldn’t work without each other, was one of the most outstanding pieces of television all year. And the work of the limited series — which featured a weekend in the summer which showed just how poisonous Bob and Gwen could be to each other, and an episode where Bob, in the style of Lenny related his pain and sexual abuse through the guise of a stand up routine — were some of the most imaginative works that I saw on TV all year. It may not have painted as broad a canvas as some of the limited series this year, but it sure as hell drew a remarkable portrait,
6. Big Little Lies (HBO)
There were many — myself among them — who didn’t thought that David E. Kelley’s adaptation should have stayed a limited series. But the second season helped add to what was is quickly becoming something of a master class in acting. As the Monterey Five dealt with the fallout from last season, we saw everybody deal in different ways. Madeline had to deal with the deterioration of marriage. Renata had to deal with that, as well the complete collapse of her entire life. Jane had the first real relationship of her life, and tried to deal with the fact that Ziggy had a larger family. Bonnie, whose guilt was the greatest of the group, had to deal with the problems of her mother’s life. And Celeste had to deal with the most horrid repercussions — including the fact that she still loved her husband. All of this led to extraordinary performance before you add in the master class that Meryl Streep put in as Celeste’s mother-in-law, who proved to be just as destructive as her son was. When the first season ended on a perfect note, I couldn’t see how they could do another. When the second one ended on just as perfectly, I hoped and prayed that their would be a third. I hope this incredible cast can find their way back to Monterey.