Ah, the holidays! Sure, you could spend those glorious weeks off with your loved ones, or you could spend that time frantically binging the vast amounts of peak-TV television you missed this year. We’ve rounded up the very best shows from 2019 that will ensure your precious holiday TV time is merry and bright – and you’ll always have the best show recommendations at the holiday dinner table.
If you want to watch the best show(s) of the year:
So, what’s it about? Curmudgeonly Murdoch-esque jillionaire Logan Roy must determine which of his bratty offspring should take over his media/amusement park/cruiseline empire. Will it be the dim, goofy “rancher” Conor (Cameron Ruck)? The be-turtlenecked, ruthless, brilliant political operator Shiv (Sarah Snook)? Will it be the hard-partying addict Kendall (Jeremy Strong)? Or will it be the rakish, immature Roman (Keiran Culkin)? Follow along, mouth slung open in shock, as they fight it out.
And why do you need to binge it? Succession was a slow starter – critics and audiences mostly ignored it for the first half of season one – but once episode six of that first season kicked in, everyone lost their damn mind for machinations of the Roy clan (complete with Succession Hallowe’en costumes, hot remakes of the earworm piano theme, and big award noms). The writing is sharp, hilarious…and utterly heartbreaking. You hate the family at first, but then, in a truly miraculous turn, grow to root for those brats. They may be mega-rich, but they are also bracingly, tragically human.
Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video)
So, what’s it about? A witty young London café-owner with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall sleeps around to dull the pain of a few recent traumas. In the second season, she works to make peace with her broken family – and meets a hot priest.
And why do you need to binge it? BECAUSE OF HOT PRIEST. (Andrew Scott is up for a Golden Globe, hurray!) Well, not just Hot Priest. Our heroine’s acerbic asides turn the audience into enthusiastic co-conspirators in her zany quest for contentment. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s multiple surprise Emmy wins for this series were a highlight in the ongoing uprising of female showrunners putting complicated women on-screen. Oh, and it’s bloody hilarious.
If you want to watch the best show that never got its due:
The Deuce (HBO/Crave)
So, what’s it about? David Simon and George Pelacanos, venerated alums of The Wire, follow a sprawling cast of pimps, sex workers, bartenders, porn auteurs, and mobsters as they slog through the grit and grime of 1970s and 1980s New York.
And why do you need to binge it? The show just wrapped its three-season run this fall, horribly underappreciated by the masses and award shows, despite a stellar cast, bumpin’ music, tons of strong female characters, and a juicy setting (plus, the fashion is W I L D). Maggie Gyllenhaal also gives one of the best performances on television – period. She is fearless as Eileen, a sex worker turned porn director determined to forge her own path in a world that so often chews up women in her line of work. It is an actual tragedy that she was not recognized more for her work on this show; hopefully, aspiring actors can use the subtlety, humour, and intelligence of her work here as inspiration for years to come.
If you want to watch the year’s best new shows:
On Becoming A God In Central Florida (Showtime/Crave)
So, what’s it about? Kirsten Dunst plays water park grunt Krystal Stubbs, a young mom with braces and a hurting mortgage whose family is being destroyed by a multi-level marketing pyramid scheme Founders American Merchandise (FAM). After she suffers a tragedy, she must decide how to get by and get back at the corporation that took everything from her.
And why do you need to binge it? This show is real weird, but in the best way. Ted Levine (i.e. Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) plays a spray-tanned, mustachioed FAM guru, the wonderfully named Obie Garbeau II. Quebec-born Théodore Pellerin kills it as Krystal’s “upline,” a needy, reedy 22-year-old twink who idolizes Obie and has crushes on Krystal. Then there’s Krystal’s large, kind, secretly-depressed water park coworker (whose wife is played by Beth Ditto!) and who spends his nights crying on the water slides. Dunst gives another excellent steely-eyed, Golden Globe-nominated performance, anchoring this gorgeous, strange slice of Southern Gothic silliness. (Yes, gators feature as a plot point. Multiple times.)
Years and Years (HBO/Crave)
So, what’s it about? One British family lives out their lives over the course of a couple decades, enduring a devastating financial crisis and a Trump-like figure enforcing some horrifying measures. Family members include an activist older sister Edith (Jessica Hynes), sadsack patriarch Stephen (Rory Kinnear), queer housing officer Daniel (Russell Tovey), and spirited single mum Rosie (Ruth Madeley), along with Stephen’s high-powered, high-fashion wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) and their odd tech-obsessed daughter Bethany (Lydia West), and sassy grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid).
And why do you need to binge it? Rarely have you ever felt so close to a TV family before: what could have been a gimmick blossoms beautifully into a poignant portrait of a clan in crisis, allowing you to really get to know all the characters inside and out. Russell T. Davies (of the OG Queer As Folk) portrays the complex, often-infuriating relationships that exist between siblings, spouses, and parents perfectly. Oh, and there’s a few shockers along the way, including the nail-biting drama of Daniel’s attempts to smuggle his Ukrainian lover into the country and the startling familial bond that grows between former rivals (a single head-kiss is one of the most heart-tugging small-screen moments of the year).
For an unflinching look at a devastating miscarriage of justice:
When They See Us (Netflix)
So, what’s it about? Outspoken filmmaker and activist Ava DuVernay sheds a light on the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, where five men of colour were accused of raping and assaulting a woman; their incarceration marks one of the worst miscarriages of justice in the last half-century.
And why do you need to binge it? This mini-series snagged 16 Emmy nominations, including acting nods for Vera Farmiga, Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash, Aunjanue Ellis, Asante Blackk, and Marsha Stephanie Blake. Jharrel Jerome took home the trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie (and his acceptance speech, shouting out the real-life exonerees, present at the ceremony, was also must-see TV). And, unfortunately, racial profiling and forced confessions are just as rampant as ever; we must bear witness to these atrocities. Pair this with DuVernay’s previous Netflix production 13th (a doc about our broken, racist prison system) for a double-dose of social justice education.
If you’re in the mood for a documentary:
The Up Films (BBC/BritBox)
So, what’s it about? In 1964, English director Michael Apted was a researcher on a Granada television documentary called Seven Up!, where he was tasked with finding a group of seven-year-olds to speak candidly about themselves and their lives. Seven years later, he took over the project and has checked in with the same group of people, every seven years, over the past five-and-a-half decades, filming them discussing their hopes, their fears, and the utterly fascinating minutiae of their lives for 7 Plus Seven (1970), 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005), 56 Up (2012), and 63 Up (2019).
And why do you need to binge it? In the words of Roger Ebert (who chose the series as one of his 10 favourite films of all time), “this ongoing film is an experiment unlike anything else in film history.” BritBox has all the earlier installments, and have just added 56 Up in anticipation for the newest installment, 63 Up, out this month in theatres. Now is the perfect time to get to know the whole crew, from the eternally optimistic cab-driver Tony to the strange brooder Neil. Somehow, the simple sharing of their experiences and emotions is more absorbing than the wildest TV spectacle. After spending so many years with these people, you become more invested in them than any TV character you’ve ever known.
If you want to laugh:
Here are our top picks for the best comedy specials of 2019!
Roy Wood Jr. No One Loves You (Comedy/Crave)
Jenny Slate: Stage Fright (Netflix)
Mike Birbiglia: The New One (Netflix)
Dan Soder: Son of a Gary (HBO/Crave)
If you’ve run out of things to watch on Netflix:
So, what’s it about? AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S PRISON! AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S PRISON! AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S PRISON!
And why do you need to binge it? Why isn’t everyone watching this show?! This is pulp drama at its finest and absolutely made for binging. The show opens with Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) entering prison for the attempted murder of her husband; through her, we get to know the main prison players, from hardened lothario and “top dog” Frankie (Nicole da Silva) and her hulking “hench” Boomer (Katrina Milosevic) to lovely mother-hen Liz (Celia Ireland). (You also get to know all kinds of delightful Aussie slang, including lagging, pinned, and stuffed.) The show legit features some of the juiciest, most ultra-shocking twists on TV, as well as one of the scariest small-screen villains of all time in the towering fencing enthusiast Governor Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Oakville-born Pamela Rabe). Give this woman an Emmy, damnit!
Sex Education (Netflix)
So, what’s it about? Sweet bumbling teen Otis (Asa Butterfield) is woefully inexperienced when it comes to sex (even masturbation), despite his mother (a terrific Gillian Anderson) being a famous sex therapist and all. Otis follows in his mom’s footsteps and starts doling out sex advice to horny classmates, winning new admiration and kickstarting a lot of drama.
And why do you need to binge it? The candy-coloured palette and ultra-diverse student population make this almost fairy-tale-like English countryside a soothing place to spend some binge time. The kids are fun, the jokes are good, and Ncuti Gatwa is a true stand-out star as BFF Eric, gay and black and proud in a small town.
Russian Doll (Netflix)
So, what’s it about? Natasha Lyonne was born to play Nadia, a cranky, chain-smoking software engineer who, uh, keeps dying at her birthday party, only to be reborn, Groundhog Day-styles. But why is this happening to her?
And why do you need to binge it? Another triumph from the pack of excellent women-run shows! Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland create warm, real, authentic, flawed characters, along with a fascinating quantum quandary that you really want to get to the bottom of. (It also features one of the most envy-inducing apartment sets of all time.) This is a show so compelling you might finish it in one long ultra-binge.
If you want to be part of the conversation:
So, what’s it about? Arguably this was one of the year’s most-discussed shows behind Succession (and, like, Game of Thrones). Want to be in the know? Watch this. Gird your loins, however, because boy, is it graphic. This is probably one of the most honest, unflinching shows ever created about the teen experience, and right from the pilot it grapples with dangerous hook-ups, sexual assault, consent issues, transphobia and drug addiction. There’s also teens wearing cool clothes and copious sparkle makeup, and having a lot of sex. It’s completely debauched – and totally unique.
And why do you need to binge it? The stellar soundtrack. The trans representation. The queerness. The diversity. The next-level fashion. The astonishing cast (including a virtuoso performance by lead Zendaya). It’s the zeitgeist, man.
If you want some wholesome reality TV to watch with the whole family:
The Big Family Cooking Showdown (Netflix)
So, what’s it about? Weirdo British families battle each other for supremacy in the culinary arts. Hardass judges take them to task over every fallen soufflé.
And why do you need to binge it? There’s something bizarrely compelling about watching oddball home cooks try and make these ludicrously complicated meals. Or, uh, simple meals, and failing miserably at that, too. Bonus: the first and second season have completely different judges and hosts and formats, so it’s like two shows for the price of one!
If you want some reality TV to watch with the whole family:
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (Crave)
So, what’s it about? Ten very different drag queens from across the U.K. duke it out to be crowned the U.K’s first drag superstar.
And why do you need to binge it? RuPaul’s Drag Race has been dragging (no pun intended) in recent seasons, thanks to the back-to-back-to-back seasons causing a bit of Drag Race burn-out. A bit of English charm was all the franchise needed to feel fresh again. There are a few instantly-legendary queens in the bunch (shout-out to Divina DeCampo, The Vivienne, and Baga Chipz) and a Canadian contestant (the Montreal-born Crystal, who does weird haute-couture East London-style drag), along with the return of beloved challenges like the puppet roast and some truly outstanding judges (can Alan Carr come to the American show already?!). Note: you may require subtitles for the more extreme accents.
If you want some full series to binge:
Lots of folks resist the binge until they have the whole series from start to finish at the ready. Here are the shows that ended their run this year that deserve an immediate binge:
You’re the Worst (FXX)
Two horrible people—a pompous English author (Chris Geere) and an agro ginger publicist (Aya Cash)—fall in love…then do everything they can to mess it up. Copious booze and drugs are consumed along the way. Rounding out the motley crew are best friends Edgar, a puppyish war vet, and zaftig, addled Lindsay, yearning for escape from her boring husband Paul. The show was dedicated in its tackling tough subjects like clinical depression and PTSD with humour, ending up one of the funniest shows on TV this decade. God bless FX for allowing it to run five seasons, despite the fact that no-one seemed to watch it (a true tragedy).
Catastrophe (Amazon Prime Video)
What if your in-from-out-of-town hook-up knocked you up? American businessman Rob (Rob Delaney) does just that to 45-year-old Irish schoolteacher Sharon (Sharon Dorgan). The show follows what happens when they decide to make a go of it and he moves to London to be with her. Delaney is the hilarious daddy of your dreams, and Sharon is refreshingly honest about how shit motherhood can be sometimes. A true gem.
Deadwood: The Movie (HBO/Crave)
The HBO gods were kind enough to finally bestow a Deadwood movie on us – a full decade after the show went off the air. Now’s the perfect time to watch this modern classic if you haven’t; it’s one of the best TV shows of all time, right up there with The Sopranos and The Wire: it’s a profane, profound Western peopled with salty characters who spout pure poetry. (They’re speaking English, but subtitles may come in handy here while you learn the lingo, you hooplehead.)
Luther (BBC/CBC Gem)
Idris Elba plays a tortured detective, tracking down a series of diabolical killers. It has Idris Elba in it. That’s all.
Broad City (Comedy/Crave)
This show was groundbreaking in its portrayal of female friendship and sexuality on TV and arguably helped blaze the way for the current rush of female showrunners killing it right now. Join along on Abbi (Abbi Jacobsen) and Ilana’s (Ilana Glazer) weed-laced adventures in a wacky New York City where anything can happen.
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