The year in television: the shows you need to see before 2019 is over
We compile the best of this year's television. Get your popcorn ready, it's time to binge watch
If we look back at 2019, we see it’s been dominated by some of the best television shows of the decade – Game of Thrones, The Crown, Fleabag and Stranger Things, to name a few. Here is our list of this year's best shows that you should watch before the decade is out.
'Game Of Thrones', Season 8
What was it: Do we really need to explain? The final season of the epic fantasy drama adapted from - and then overtaking - George RR Martin’s books, features the eternal battle for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.
What we said: “Game of Thrones is excellent viewing. It is one of the TV phenomena of our time, and has successfully surprised its viewers at every turn… yet it’s fair to say that since the show's creators DB Weiss and David Benioff took the storytelling reins, the pacing and character development has felt 'off'.
What we think now and where to catch up: You could never judge the final season of Game Of Thrones against a one off drama series such as Chernobyl. Though there was the inevitable petition to remake the entire thing, when the dust on Westeros settled, who got the Iron Throne in the end and who died (which we won’t spoil) made enough sense. Which might not be the greatest recommendation ever, but it’s worth remembering that this was an 73-episode entertainment behemoth which changed television, attracting a weekly audience of 45m. That it got to the end and was still able to intrigue, excite and move was a massive achievement in itself. It looked amazing, too. You can catch it on Wavo.
What was it: Ostensibly the story of the doomed 1980s Soviet power plant and the worst nuclear disaster in history, Chernobyl was actually a five-part human tale of corruption, politics, neglect and utter heroism as a disaster with global consequences is contained rather than averted. The show won Emmys for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing.
What we said: “Did you say greatest TV series ever? The series does a great job of telling the stories we don’t know of simple bravery and heroism. On a macro level, it’s dark. On a human level, maybe there’s hope for us all yet.”
What we think now and where to catch up: It’s not just one of the drama series of the year. When people talk about television in the 2010s, Chernobyl will surely be in the conversation. A collaboration between Sky in the UK and HBO in the US, initially it seemed a hard sell – we all know what happened in Chernobyl in 1986, right? But writer Craig Mazin played on this by killing off the nuclear physicist protagonist in the first episode … and then taking us on a compelling journey to discover how he’d got to that point. Combining political thriller, spy drama tropes and heroic human interest stories, the cinematography was also breathtaking. It made for a nice companion podcast, too. Catch up with it on Wavo.
What was it: Not a television remake of the 2009 film adaptation, and not, actually, a straight retelling of Alan Moore’s 1980s comic strip, starring the vigilante superheroes Ozymandias, Nite Owl, The Comedian, Dr Manhattan, Silk Spectre and Rorschach, either. Instead Damon Lindelof (Lost) “remixed” the story 34 years later, in an alternate contemporary reality in which white supremacists wage war against minorities and the police – who are forced to wear masks to protect their identities.
What we said: We didn’t!
What we think now and where to catch up: This is another show that hasn’t finished its run yet, but keeps getting better and better. Anyone suspicious of yet another superhero programme would have been impressed by its development from an alternate reality that seems surprisingly tolerant to a show with plenty to say on racism and full of riddles – unsurprisingly, given Lindelof’s history. Regina King is fantastic as baker Angela (alter ego, detective Sister Night) and how it will actually end next weekend will be interesting – but it might actually end: Lindelof has said he has no plans for a follow-up series. The show is currently on OSN Series First.
'His Dark Materials'
What was it: The eagerly awaited fantasy drama that filled a Game of Thrones-shaped hole in the television schedules. A collaboration between HBO and BBC, the expansive first season gave Philip Pullman’s tale of a child’s quest to find her missing peers the space to breathe, explain and explore in a way the film adaptation never did.
What we said: “To say it’s one of the television events of the year is probably an understatement.”
What we think now, where to catch up and what to look forward to next year: Without prejudging a show that is yet to finish its first season, this was a fantasy to relax into rather than be immediately wowed by, especially for fans of the book who revel in its detail and nuance. This made for a lot of set up in the first few episodes, but when the story made its way to the North, with its armoured polar bears and witches, it really began to take flight. In young Dafne Keen the show has an incredible protagonist, Lyra, and when an adaptation changes something pretty major from the book in its first season – and it makes complete sense – it’s confirmation that writer Jack Thorne is truly on the right lines. The show is currently on OSN Series First. Season two will follow next year.
What is it: Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ brilliantly caustic exploration of the way technology and real life collide in the 21st century. Well, series is overselling it slightly – there were only three episodes. Consider them self-contained morality tales for a dystopian world.
What we said: “It it up to the usual high standard? Absolutely. The series starts on an absolute high… Brooker, as ever, uses existing technology as a conduit for telling ultimately very human stories
What we think now: With just three instalments, Black Mirror didn’t quite capture the cultural zeitgeist in the way that Fleabag or Chernobyl did. But these are some of the best three episodes in the whole Black Mirror canon. Striking Vipers takes online relationships to their natural, scary conclusion but somehow remains tender and touching, Smithereens explores our addiction to tech as a taxi driver kidnaps an Apple-style employee and Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too features Miley Cyrus as a singer whose real personality is only revealed when a robot goes wrong. With so many fascinating ideas buried in these shows, Brooker and Jones pierce the realities of life in bleak but brilliant ways. You can catch it on Netflix.
What is it: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sitcom about an angry, confused Londoner trying to process the death of her best friend, and work through her tangled relationships, family and business. Honest, funny and risky – a lot of the characters aren’t exactly likeable and the fourth wall is regularly broken – it’s unlike anything else on television.
What we said: “A hysterical, dirty, deviant and surprisingly thoughtful meditation on grief and loneliness that goes by in a flash”
What we think now: There’s something beautiful about Waller-Bridge leaving her great creations behind at just the right moment (she also delegated the writing of Killing Eve after season 1 – and the show never quite had the same mordant wit). Here, she squeezed everything out of her un-named protagonist, her insecure sister Claire (Sian Clifford), the weirdness of death and what it is to be a woman in 2019 – particularly in episode 3’s brilliant monologue from Kristin Scott Thomas. By the end, Priest’s “love is awful, painful, frightening… it makes you obsessed with your hair” was just a perfect full stop. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.
What is it: Third series of Peter Morgan’s regal drama following the British royal family, this time focusing on the period between 1964 and 1976 and featuring Olivia Colman as the Queen, with Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret. Lavish yet with a real darkness and intrigue at its heart.
What we said: “Olivia Colman is perfectly cast… she brings poise to the role.”
What we think now: It’s a measure of how highly regarded this show is that Prince Andrew’s very public difficulties in recent months have had plenty pondering how a future series of The Crown will handle this period in his life. For now, Morgan is still typically adept at teasing out how big history affects personalities – the moon landings trigger a mid-life crisis in Prince Philip. Even though this technique does become slightly formulaic after a while, Olivia Colman is fantastic as the Queen, and The Crown is just as immaculate and enjoyably soapy as always. We’ll hope for a bit more grit in season 4 next year, though, when Gillian Anderson will play Margaret Thatcher. You can catch it on Netflix.
Other shows to download
The first Arabic language drama by Netflix - now available in dubbed English - was ultimately more important for the sense of an Arab television industry than classic, original drama. But as we said at the time, it’s a “classic high-school fright-fest, packed with jump scares and teenage angst”. You can catch it on Netflix
'The Handmaid’s Tale'
Not, if we’re being honest, the best of the three series - and it feels a little like the dystopian drama doesn’t have much further to go. But anyone who has been captivated by Bruce Miller’s adaptation will have loved this slow, grim and horrific third instalment. You can catch it on Wavo.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the expectation for this third season could never match the reality. But the 1980s kids are now teenagers… and quite brilliantly find a top-secret nuclear facility under a shopping mall. You can catch it on Netflix
Updated: December 16, 2019 12:52 PM