What a year for TV it’s been! As we ramp up to our staggering amount of sitewide End of the Decade coverage, we wanted to take a moment to shout out some of this year’s best televised offerings that delighted and excited us. Enjoy below—and we’ll see you very soon for the Big Kahuna!
BELOW DECK / BELOW DECK: MEDITERRANEAN (Bravo)
Where to even begin with BELOW DECK, Bravo’s greatest cultural contribution in a catalogue of literal embarrassments of riches. BELOW DECK is a program that never gets to blatantly denounce the rich, but it’s only because its cast is preoccupied with sapping them of their hedge fund pocket change, while production slyly edits in the grossest of the fat pigs’ angles. The Real World meets laborer rights: a beautiful and horny ensemble of young models with varying years in yachting experience butt heads and genitals for a charter season of thousand-dollar tips and espresso martinis. It’s absolute trash, but it’s trash whilst watching professionals with a passion for what they do well. Well, most of the time—the mix of experts with green deckhands in a legitimately dangerous job never ceases to entertain. BELOW DECK is a masterpiece in editing, crafting narratives out of hidden cameras in the laundry room and roving camerapersons capturing multi-millionaire guests at their most garish and attention-whoring.
What’s so impressive is not just that production can make stirring reality television out of a 9-5 (or in the yacht work-day’s case, often a 6-11), but in their room of stooges scrubbing over every second of recorded footage. The barrage of small, subtle moments of “character” in every single episode of BELOW DECK is stunning. For better or for worse, after a season of the show, you really feel as if you’ve been bunking with the crew. As seasons have progressed, Bravo has attempted numerous formulas, mostly in redistributing the percentages of Vanderpump-level drama and observational voyeurism—while the series hit its absolute stride in its 2018-2019 season, a tour de force balance of production interference and natural chaos, the 2019 season of spin-off BELOW DECK: MIDTERRANEAN was the show reaching absolute zen, with 18 uneventful episodes of routine and minor workplace drama. As opposed to past seasons, nothing really happened. It was sort of miraculous. The workers on-board came to terms with their roles of servitude and declare none of it worth the trouble of a life wasted on the bourgeoise. But, hey, a yachtie’s gotta eat. It’s the closest Bravo’s ever come to editing Béla Tarr into 43-minute, tropical morsels of industrial perversions. On a more brain candy level, the kind that urged many a binging session in my 2019, if you’ve ever worked in the service industry and bonded with your co-workers over a shitty customer, it’s difficult not to buy into the charms of Below Deck. [Kevin Cookman]
There’s something to be said about the dominance of HBO on this year’s Staff TV Favorites list—considering 2019 was the year we were all pulling our hair out wondering what ever HBO will do post GAME OF THRONES. The hardworking people here at Merry-Go-Round have heaped their praise on some of the other post-GOT drops like WATCHMEN,THE RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES, and LOS ESPOOKYS—but in this editor’s humble opinion, CHERNOBYL is the crown jewel.
CHERNOBYL was a rollercoaster of an emotional experience. The series itself is devastating. I’ve convinced friends to watch it by describing it less as a depressing slog and more like a horror movie—the “CHERNOBYL face” is less facedown in your couch and more like this. It’s short on moustache-twirling villains tying irradiated children to the railroad tracks and high on flawed, complicated people making snap decisions with the information they have. A story about individuals trying to do the right thing but finding themselves powerless against a large government system resonates for, oh I don’t know, some reason? That said, it finds dark humor the way many of us have in learning to cope with our dystopian existence. (Naked miner got a BAFTA!) It’s a fundamentally human story—and though some have complained about the on-the-nose INDEPENDENCE DAY speech at the end, to me, it was a triumphant moment that felt earned.
On a more personal level… as the TV editor of an independent, online culture magazine based in Los Angeles, I have to contend with a lot of shitty TV. There is so much of it, and a lot of it is so mediocre, it’s easy for each new show to feel more like work and less like content. GAME OF THRONES left a really bad taste in my mouth as it relates to prestige television. When you sign on to watch hours and hours of a show, you make a deal with those creators to take care of you—and D&D effectively left us in a hot car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. CHERNOBYL made me remember, “Oh! TV good!” in a way I desperately needed. It’s an incredible story that lifted me up and restored my hope in my favorite art form. Because after all, what’s more powerful than a good story? AM I RIGHT? [Kate Brogden]
FLEABAG S2 (Amazon Video)
Every so often, a piece of work comes along that not only captivates an audience, but seems to almost define a time period as well (i.e. the introduction to STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE, the final episodes of GAME OF THRONES). To that end, thanks to Pheobe Waller-Bridge and Amazon, 2019 was blessed with the Summer of FLEABAG S2. For fans of the first installment, S2 was a welcome reintroduction to the messy and wit-flinging Fleabag we’ve come to know and cringe at. For new converts, this season provided a different entry point to the Waller-Bridge-created universe. Though I have been an admirer since its early days, I often found myself sparring with people who claimed to “Not love the first season.”
“It doesn’t matter!” I’d yell loudly, likely spilling a glass of wine around emphatically with my hand gestures. “This is different.”
And it is. Though S2 builds off the first and is a perfect companion to the initial episodes, it’s also something individual that can stand on its own—which is truly what qualifies it in my mind as one of the best installments of television this year. It’s not just that it’s funny (it is). Or tragic (it also is). It’s that upon watching and rewatching, it becomes overwhelmingly clear how neat it all is. Every line of dialogue, every score, ever joke, every nod to the camera feels planned and purposeful. No time is spent meandering or wasted on half-baked ideas. From the first shot to the last, it’s evident that Waller-Bridge has a strategy. It’s one of those rare seasons of television that’s as enjoyable the first time you watch as it is the next. [Anna Thorup]
GREEN EGGS AND HAM (Netflix)
I was skeptical of an animated Netflix adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic, GREEN EGGS AND HAM, especially after being traumatized by some of the more horrible Suess adaptations (I’m looking at you, LORAX), but I was shocked to discover how beautiful and amazing this show truly is. The animation itself is simply stunning, from gorgeous whimsical backgrounds to the subtlest expressions on the characters’ faces. The story is a bingeable caper that offers genuine laughs as well as sweet reflections on what it means to be friends and family. Michael Douglas and Adam Devine lend their voices to the main characters, the dour green eggs-hater Guy-Am-I and his always optimistic travel buddy Sam-I-Am, in a way that brings true emotion and depth to the characters. The show is one that can truly be enjoyed by kids and parents together, as it offers enough to be satisfying to both groups. GREEN EGGS AND HAM only hit Netflix a few months ago, and I already want to revisit it, if only to soak in the pristine animation once more. [Anna Mansager]
LOS ESPOOKYS (HBO)
I never could have guessed that a Spanish-language telenovela about people who stage fake hauntings for money would be one of the best new comedies of 2019, let alone the decade. Nor could I have predicted that it would be on HBO of all places, and be popular enough to be renewed for another season. But LOS ESPOOKYS, the brainchild of Ana Fabrega, Julio Torres, and Fred Armisen, was that show to a T. LOS ESPOOKYS is home to a ridiculous world of chocolate fortunes, mirror dimensions, and real-life demonic possessions but delivered with the understatement of a slacker comedy. It’s highly episodic, but with character-based B-plots about living up to parental expectations, the struggles of the gig economy, and the joy of following your passions as the string that ties all of its 30-minute beads together. Deeply weird and often disarmingly funny, LOS ESPOOKYS comes bundled in a package that’s equal parts cool and silly. If LOS ESPOOKYS is comparable to any other show it’s a show like THE GOOD PLACE: a comedy that’s surprising, that doesn’t overstay its welcome, is bizarrely committed to plot, and features some of the strongest supporting characters in television history. For THE GOOD PLACE that title lies with D’Arcy Carden’s turn as Janet, for LOS ESPOOKYS it’s Tati. Ana Fabrega as Tati is the perfect representation of the show. Increasingly odd, but also increasingly earnest. Specific, opinionated, and totally game for any of the strange plots the characters embark on. It’s a joy to think that boring people who like GAME OF THRONES might accidently watch this show and be exposed to the kinds of ridiculous characters and plotlines that never really pop up in prestige American television, relegated instead to daytime soap operas. I hope more do! [Ian Campbell]
Every so often something comes along that strikes with lightning force, something that from the opening seconds you simply, fundamentally know is going to be special. Though tragically having to fight the uphill battle of coming out in early February of a year that felt as if it would never end, I beg you to not let 2019 pass without at least giving PEN15 a try. In a hair and makeup feat that had me checking Wikipedia every episode to make sure it was really, actually them, comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old versions of themselves amidst a cast of teenage actors as they navigate the trials and tribulations of middle school. Now it goes without saying that the experiences of two middle school girls are going to resonate slightly more with those who once fit that descriptor, but perhaps PEN15’s greatest accomplishment is how universal its themes of coming-of-age are. Yes, while two adolescents tackling the rapid change of their bodies and place in the world is certainly something we’ve seen before, PEN15 is uniquely… raw about just how fucking awkward being 13 is. While EIGHTH GRADE demonstrated a hopeful literal and figurative graduation and BIG MOUTH hits some of the same hilariously frank beats about the stumbling blocks of early sexuality (although PEN15’s masturbation episode is one of the most laugh-out-loud and clever looks at the topic I’ve ever been privy to), Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s brainchild pulls no punches about the fact that nearly every moment of every day feels like a loss when you’re at that age. There is a broiling, nail-biting discomfort present in virtually every scene for the sheer relatability of being ripped back to a time when the smallest look from your crush could ruin your entire day in the best way possible and you’d run over every breath you took on the ride back from school to see if you embarrassed yourself along the way. If that sounds dour, it’s not meant to be; PEN15 is one of the most amiable and warmhearted shows that came out in 2019, a triumphant clarion call to remember and cherish who you were and reflect on what you experienced along the way to who you became. First kisses, first beers, first breakups with friends or otherwise… it was all there, writ with large and hilarious humanism, in 2019’s PEN15. [Thomas Seraydarian]
RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES (HBO)
What a high-wire act RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES managed to be. An incredibly biting satire of the worst tendencies of the Christian evangelical movement, Danny McBride has proven himself to be one of our best and brightest comedic forces working today. His intimate understanding of a specific type of highly insecure American man is unparalleled; both as a writer and a performer it’s unreal how authentically and consistently he captures the energy of men desperate to hold on to their identities. The self-awareness that McBride possesses to make fun of the men who he clearly sees a lot of himself in is nothing short of brilliant, and his turn as Jesse Gemstone, the heir to the throne of an Evangelical mega-church, is arguably his greatest character yet. Jesse is a pathetic man, someone who can’t see the plank in his own eye for criticizing the speck of wood in another’s, but despite being cartoonish, you never for a second doubt that he is very, very real. The same is true of all the incredible cast in GEMSTONES; Walton Goggins gives an achingly funny performance as Uncle Baby Billy, John Goodman reminds us that he is one of America’s finest actors, and Edi Patterson is so deliciously slimy and self-serving every single moment she appears on screen. With a central plot lifted directly from the Coen brothers, this is everything we should want prestige TV to be: prescient, funny, and impeccably crafted. The detail which truly elevated the series was Dermont Mulroney’s turn as a pastor of a much more modest church; by clearly demonstrating that the series was lambasting the cynical televangelists of mega-churches and not all Christians, the criticisms of the Jerry Falwells of the world hit so much harder. All hail the reign of Danny McBride, may we have many more years of him lampooning American culture from the inside. [Carter Moon]
VINLAND SAGA (Amazon Video)
Notable flops aside, the television landscape of 2019 was a veritable buffet table, one that I gorged myself on beyond capacity. From moody miniseries CHERNOBYL to pulpy comic blockbuster WATCHMEN, the portions came in all shapes and sizes, a rainbow of flavors to dazzle the senses. 2019 was also the first year in a while that I got back into anime. I loved ATTACK ON TITAN’s third season, but I was even more taken by newcomer series VINLAND SAGA (coincidentally also helmed by AoT producer Wit Studio). An adaptation of a manga that began running in 2005, VINLAND is a heavily-dramatized retelling of the Norman conquest of England in the early 11th century. When Thorfinn’s father, a legendary Viking, is murdered under secret orders from the King of Denmark, he dedicates his life towards killing Askeladd, the mercenary hired to carry out the deed. Askeladd harbors his own vendetta against the King, and to achieve his goals, he needs to help Canute, the King’s youngest son, seize the throne. Canute himself is marked for death by the King, and…..well, you can see where this is going. This is a show where everybody wants revenge on everybody, and they’re not about to stand by and let some other schmuck serve that cold dish. VINLAND is decidedly not GAME OF THRONES, but it has all of the graphic swordplay and emotional gut-punches fans of that show thrive on. VINLAND SAGA has been simulcasted on Prime Video since July, and as of my writing this, is finally approaching its first season finale. If you, like me, crave content to fill a Seven Kingdoms-sized hole in your heart, consider this sumptuously-animated epic of vengeance. [Ed Dutcher]
Given our current discourse around the Star Wars franchise coupled with how terrible the world is, I have no doubt that the wrong lessons are being learned far and wide regarding fandom and franchises and how they’re being interpreted, but it bears repeating that what Rian Johnson recently said is correct: these pre-existing IPs should be used to challenge fans, not coddle them. That quote comes on the heels of Damon Lindelof’s WATCHMEN closing out one of the best nine-run episodes of television I can remember in some time, far from perfect at times but a breathing embodiment of the power that remixing and recalculating a beloved text can yield. And while for “true” fans (re: the bros who leave reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and Twitter) WATCHMEN will likely be remembered as a SJW crusade, a destroyer of memories meant to appease woke critics and the Hollywood elite, or perhaps a small scale THE LAST JEDI-level fiasco that “misunderstands” the source material, in truth it’s the platonic ideal of interestingly building on and subverting the expectations of a classic property. That Lindelof is able to meaningfully make swift political and racial observations by tweaking yet honoring moments of the source material (I dare not spoil anything, but episode six, “This Extraordinary Being,” is among the best episodes of the year) while still telling an inherently comic book-style action story, filled with mystery and costumes and the correct level of self-aware silliness, is gratifying and gives me hope that the next several years isn’t simply bland fan service. While it’s unquestionably difficult to give dues to every element of the show without spoiling any singular aspect of the experience, if being challenged as a fan of a property is something you’re interested in, watching Lindelof and his team of writers find a way to give Alan Moore’s classic a meaningful update deserves your time. Long live lube man. [CJ Simonson]