In this era of ‘Peak TV’, there is too much television to choose from. It seems like every day a new network or streaming service pops up, competing with already established giants to create the next binge worthy show.
To make matters slightly easier for viewers, Headstuff’s film writers have selected 10 of the best TV series of 2019 so far. Be warned, each one is dangerously addictive.
Barry Series 2, Sky Atlantic
After a near perfect debut season, Bill Hader’s hit-man turned actor comedy did the impossible. It managed to get even better.
This series sees the titular character (Hader) reeling from the guilt of the despicable act he was forced to commit in the climax of last season. All the while, he attempts to leave his crime life behind (personified by MVP Anthony Carrigan’s sweet Chechen mobster and Barry’s handler/devil on his shoulder Fuches, played by Stephen Root). This is to become a better performer for acting coach Gene (Henry Winkler).
Each character gets more to do this time around, particularly Barry’s narcissistic but talented actress girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg). The series pushes the show’s central idea – that the anti-hero’s acting class can’t see the obvious signs he’s a murderer thanks to their vanity – to absurdist new highs.
Plot-wise, Hader and co-creator Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) put the central character into corners that seem impossible to escape. This is before wowing viewers by finding solutions that are satisfying but also force him deeper into a hole both literally and morally. The show’s skill at managing to blend laugh out loud comedy with Breaking Bad-esque drama is never more in full effect than series stand-out episode ‘ronny/lily’. Almost entirely a fight, it pits Barry against a Taekwondo master and then his feral daughter. Strangely enough, it’s the action scene of the year. Stephen Porzio
Chernobyl, Sky Atlantic
They say the truth will set you free. In Chernobyl the truth will kill you. The five part
miniseries opens with the advisor of the nuclear disaster clean-up, Valery Lagasov (Jared Harris), methodically hanging himself and it only gets darker.
From there we flashback to see brave firefighters, miners, soldiers and reactor workers – the people upon whose backs the Soviet Union was built – die terrible deaths both physically and morally. Their skin melts and their veins collapse. They evict people and shoot their cattle and pets and then proceed to start drinking themselves to death – all in service of burying both that deadly reactor and the truth.
Craig Mazin’s script skews both towards and away from history in the service of packing the most dramatic story into five one-hour episodes. Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is an amalgamation of several scientists, a Greek chorus in one body. She’s a voice of conscience to Lagasov and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) despite these two men having already sent thousands to their prolonged deaths.
Johan Renck’s direction ensures that the sacrifices are not forgotten. Conscript Pavel’s (Barry Keoghan) humanity is chipped away as part of the liquidation efforts. Renck stretches a thin layer of grime over everything as if the film stock itself is irradiated. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s droning score moves from the background to the foreground like failing doomsday sirens warning of a long passed apocalypse.
In the fourth episode chief engineer of the Chernobyl nuclear plant Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) tells Khomyuk “There is no truth.” The show’s historical accuracy is admittedly flawed. Still, it’s ability to mine drama from testimonials and courtroom proceedings or horror from a force that to this day has rendered nearly 3,000 miles of the Ukraine uninhabitable will probably never be bettered and rarely equaled. Andrew Carroll
Derry Girls Series 2, Channel 4
Hype can often lead to disappointment. Not so with the second series of Derry Girls as Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James enjoy (or endure) further misadventures in 1990’s Derry during the Troubles.
Rooted in the absurdities of being a teenage girl, the comedy occurs side by side with the tentative peace developing at that time. Expertly blending hilarity with weightier Troubles-era topics, the show veers from a polar bear on the loose before a Take That concert to the significance of Bill Clinton’s visit to the city. It will be interesting to see where writer Lisa McGee takes us for the third series. I can’t wait. Eimear Dodd
Fleabag Series 2, BBC One
Just like how in Killing Eve she pushed the boundaries of what a spy story could be, here Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings us her take on a rom-com. In the process, she makes her masterpiece.
From the season’s opener, a prickly restaurant reunion recalling the work of Harold Pinter to its devastating yet hopeful denouement, this season of Fleabag stripped away the first’s more broader elements. This was in exchange for a gripping story of the titular figure (Waller-Bridge) rebuilding her life and falling for a hot priest (Andrew Scott, in a role he was born to play).
Waller-Bridge’s exploration of modern femininity and strange family dynamics (her relationship with her sister, played by Sian Clifford, rings so true) is as sharp as ever. Meanwhile, her performance as a woman smiling, swearing and fourth-wall breaking through the grief of losing her mother and best friend in quick succession is undoubtedly hilarious, all the while being one of the most subtle, quietly powerful on TV. The series also gets extra-points for the inventive way it uses its trademark straight to audience address as a method to establish Fleabag and the Hot Priest’s immediate connection. Genius stuff. Stephen Porzio
Ghosts, BBC One
After an accident, Alison is able to see the dead. She’s also just inherited a crumbling manor house from a distant relative. However, the building is already occupied by a gang of eccentric ghosts who don’t take well to the new residents.
It could be a horror movie. Instead, Ghosts is the mismatched roommate sitcom from the team behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland. There are hints of Casper, Friends and the Money Pit in its DNA. The post watershed slot on BBC One allows for moments of chaos that will make most adults smirk. All in all, it’s a charming comedy even if it is a tad predictable in places. A good one to binge on a lazy day off. Eimear Dodd
I Think You Should Leave, Netflix
We all know – as pointed out in the clip below – Paul loves his mother-in-law. Yet if you are into the likes of Adult Swim, Comedy Bang Bang, Mr Show and The Lonely Island, you will no doubt love Tim Robinson (Detroiters) and his new six-part series.
Episodes range between 16 – 18 minutes. They each feature a string of disparate gags linked only by a demented energy, people turning on each other unexpectedly, central characters who double down on a minor mistake creating more trouble for themselves, as well as skeletons and mud pies.
With guest appearances from recognisable comedy people like Andy Samberg, Cecily Strong, Kate Berlant, Tim Heidecker, and Will Forte, the show was always going to be funny. However, it’s the newer faces or serious actors playing it straight that get the most laughs including Burning star Steven Yeun, Detroiters’ co-lead Sam Richardson and of course living gif Ruben Rabasa (seen below dabbing). Stephen Porzio
Love, Death & Robots, Netflix
Blending animation styles, story structures, sci-fi settings, superb cinematography – not to mention explorations of dystopian and apocalyptic futures – Love, Death & Robots is essential viewing for sci-fi fans, or those who just love badass robots and tech.
Each episode is its own short self-contained story, ranging from 6 to 17 minutes in length. Yet, the series manages to be engaging from one tale to the next thanks to its vibrant constantly changing worlds. Each episode’s setting – whether its early 20th century China (‘Good Hunting’) or hundreds of years in the future (‘Three Robots’) – seems to have its own rules, history and culture. All our explored just enough for you to know what’s going on, never getting in the way of the story – just enhancing it.
What also keeps the series fresh over its 18 episodes is its constantly changing tone. Some episodes are straight-up comedies (‘When the Yogurt Took Over’, ‘The Dump’) with others being deadly serious (‘Shape-Shifters’, ‘Helping Hand’, ‘The Secret War’). All the while the action scenes are consistently terrific, always making the stakes clear and having you bite your nails – questioning whether our protagonist(s) will come out on top. Given the anthology format, heroes could be killed off at any moment.
As well as the ‘death’ of the title, there is also ‘love’. In keeping with that, the series’ penchant for casual nudity and sex may jar with prudish viewers. However, it adds a natural element amongst the show’s many tales of aliens (‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’), cyborgs (‘Blindspot’) and bio-engineered blends of human and machine (‘Sonnie’s Edge’).
On top of all this, Love, Death & Robots looks incredible, featuring sprawling cities, vast backgrounds and unbelievably detailed close-ups of characters’ faces. In terms of the latter, at points you will question whether you’re even watching animation. Aaron Kavanagh
Russian Doll, Netflix
Russian Doll is a unique spin on the Groundhog Day formula. The main character of this half-hour eight-part series, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), resets back to her birthday party only when she dies. These deaths are often played for laughs, leading to a very fun series that gradually becomes increasingly darker and more cerebral as it continues.
Other movies in the Groundhog Day mold like Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day or Source Code see their heroes using the premise to mess with time. Here it’s more so that time is messing with Nadia, always finding some way to kill her. The story takes some interesting directions – including linking her with someone in the same situation (Charlie Barnett) – and works equally well as a character study. While Nadia is wickedly fun and wild to hang out with, she has a selfish irresponsible streak. Yet over the course of the series, we see that the key to her closing the loop is to use her situation to help the many others in her life.
While the show is confirmed for more seasons, season one’s ending has a nice sense of finality. It’s definitely worth a watch if the trailer peaked any interest in you. Daniel Troy
The OA Series 2, Netflix
The first season of The OA from back in 2016 was a promising but flawed drama with sci-fi and fantasy elements. However, its second is a major step up with creative team Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij pulling a Leftovers. They stripped away all that didn’t quite work first time around in favour of building a more mind-bending gripping mystery. Spoilers for The OA season one ahead.
The first series focused on protagonist Prairie (Brit Marling) resurfacing many years after being kidnapped by Jason Isaacs’ mad scientist looking for proof of life post-death. It followed her enigmatically recruiting a handful of local teenagers for a mysterious task, all the while flashing back to her time in captivity. At the end of the season, she taught the teens a special dance (stay with me) that opened a portal to another dimension.
Series one spent too long focusing on a Prairie who knew more than she was revealing. This season, on the other hand, puts her central character in a situation she doesn’t immediately understand – already making for a more compelling watch. It follows her having successfully crossed over to the parallel dimension. She wakes up in another version of herself, one to whom the key moments that had shaped her in the previous life did not happen. Prior to being replaced by season one Prairie, this other dimension version of the character had been embroiled in a mystery involving an online puzzle game and haunted house which private eye Karim (great series addition Kingsley Ben-Adir) has been investigating.
Like Twin Peaks’ most recent outing, The OA season three is essentially an extended film so bonkers that you can’t believe a major network green lit it. Featuring psychics, giant talking octopuses, houses leaking hallucination causing carbon monoxide and the most ambitious denouement I’ve ever seen on TV, The OA season two needs to be seen to be believed. Yet, it’s not just crazy for crazy’s sake. It asks a host of big interesting questions and takes time amongst all the insanity for nuanced depictions of characters suffering through real world issues. All in all, the feeling you get wrapping up The OA season two is that its creators are clued into some sort of hidden cosmic pattern in life no one else can get their head around. Stephen Porzio
True Detective Series 3, Sky Atlantic
Murder mystery anthology series True Detective bounced back this year. This was following an overly dense and dour first draft of a second season that squandered much of its potential.
In many ways, this third entry was back to basics. Yet in some it was more complex. Told over three different time periods, it followed black cop and Vietnam veteran Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) who, alongside partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff), investigated the disappearance of two children in the Ozarks from 1980 to 2015.
Season two felt overstuffed with its four protagonists. Here writer Nic Pizzolatto wisely decided to strip proceedings back, focusing solely on Hays with his latter day Alzheimer’s serving as the bridge between the three timelines. It may not have worked as well if not for now two-time Oscar-winner Ali – backed by solid supporting turns by Dorff, as well as the great Carmen Ejogo as his wife. The Green Book star treated the different iterations of Hays like separate performances, one more withered by time and regret then the next. In doing so, he became the gel that pulled the curiously complex mystery together.
The experience of watching the first season of True Detective will never be matched by the show. Back then we didn’t know the formula of the programme leaving each turn a surprise. Plus, it will be tough to find another constant creative force behind the camera like that season’s Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim and Pizzolatto himself split directing duties this time around). However, the third series gave the first a run for its money. It arguably delivered a more satisfying overall mystery, better character arcs and a rather touching and surprisingly uplifting ending. Stephen Porzio