I feel like I complained a lot about TV this year but despite some disappointments and hurt, it was probably overall one of my most enjoyable in quite a while. Whether it was because I was better at stopping shows that ceased to make me happy or because I discovered so many great new things, I can look back at this year and find so much to appreciate. Once again, half hour shows are where it’s at right now for creative and unique storytelling whether its in the format of the show or the types of stories being told. As evidenced by this list, it was a terrific year for female creators telling very specific stories and doing so incredibly well and a terrific year for compassionate storytelling. It wasn’t always nice and happy but so much came from a place of love and care for its characters and their world and that’s what I want most.
1. Fleabag Season one of this show is good and creative and rightfully brought attention to Phoebe Waller-Bridge for what she created. Season two is extraordinary. It is emotionally resonant, creatively efficient storytelling and it deserves every one of the accolades it’s received. It’s simultaneously soothing and unsettling, which makes perfect sense for a show that is about connection. It’s a season of healing and acceptance, particularly self-acceptance, and the fucking terrifying nature of vulnerability and letting yourself be seen. It’s raw and visceral but not in a way that screams at you. It’s a seductive whisper instead of a roar. It asks you to open your heart and experience the exhilaration of falling in love with someone who is everything you need but that you ultimately can’t have. It’s not anger that ends the season and it’s not even really heartbreak, although that is a component, it’s learning to be present and to sit with your emotions instead of shoving them aside. There’s not a quippy joke meant to deflect and for the first time, Fleabag is going somewhere we can’t follow. She’s ready to be alone now, knowing that she is capable of connection and that she can love and survive even after the loss of that love because she’ll carry it with her. She doesn’t need to run from her own mind and pain to keep going. It’s powerful and deeply affecting in a way that is really only possible when something is as well-constructed as this season was. Everything about it is thoughtfully chosen and led to a whole that was somehow even stronger than the sum of its parts.
2. Good Omens This show came at precisely the right time. After a spring season of television that was once again rough on my emotions in an unplesant way (seriously shows, stop doing this), Good Omens came along with a terrific adaptation of a book I already loved, with a terrific cast, a ship to fall head over heels for, and a celebration of humanity and our ability to choose a path other than the one seemingly laid out for us. The love Neil Gaiman put into this show to make it something his best friend and co-author Terry Pratchett would have been proud of is evident in every choice and especially in interviews. The humanism that is a hallmark of Pratchett’s work is all over the show. It sees who we are, for better or worse, and says that we can choose better. The Them standing up for the world they want to be grow up in against the Four Horsemen and Adam telling Satan that he’s not his real dad despite that being his whole purpose of creation are a demonstration that we don’t have to accept what we’re told is the way things should work. We can rebuild something of our own, something that makes space for all the things we’re told are impossible. We can make a world where an angel and a demon can dine at the Ritz because the side they’ve chosen is the one they can be on together, where a witch burns the prophecies that are her legacy in order to discover a life where she makes her own choices. It is a show full of hope and love that I will cherish forever.
3. One Day At A Time Look, this show has been at or near the top of my lists for the past two years and this year is not going to be an exception. I love this family, the ethos behind the show, and the cast and writers too much for it not to appear. It continues to be smart and full of laughter and warmth and love in its third season as we see Schneider relapse, Penelope become a Nurse Practitioner, Elena and Syd becoming more serious, and Alex trying drugs and promptly getting grounded. It handled things like street harassment, addiction, mental health, and sex with it’s typical consideration and compassion for these characters and lets them have their own perspectives and challenges. They feel like real people that you might know and want to spend time around and you can’t help but love them and root for their successes. It’s not easy to make characters that feel so well-formed and each choice they make feel like it comes from who they are and not whatever topic they want to address, plot point they need to squeeze in, or punchline they need to hit but they have consistently done a terrific job from both a writing and acting perspective. This show is incredibly special to me and PopTV swooping in and saving it was a highlight of my year.
4. Vida This is a show with a vision and a fierce pride and joy in the communities it represents. It also has a deep compassion for who these characters are and what they have been through. As a result, it feels unlike everything else on television right now. Everyone is allowed to be full of contradictions, no one can easily be defined as good or bad. It allows space for complicated issues and is content to sit with the lack of easy answers. Above all, it’s a show about family and learning how to connect and come together after time and distance apart. Emma and Lyn’s relationship with each other and their complicated memories of their mother and her legacy are the backbone of the show. The grace it gives them to navigate that space even when its ugly and come to terms with the loss of a woman who raised them and influenced the person they became, for better or worse, while recognizing that they didn’t truly know her is extraordinary. I can’t speak to the specific ways it portrays Latinx and specifically Mexican culture but every choice they make feels like it’s one made from love and care. It doesn’t feel made to explain things to others, I know I only pick up about 75% of what’s being said when the characters are speaking Spanish, and it’s stronger for it. I love everything Tanya Saracho has created in this show and cannot wait for whatever s3 brings. As long as it maintain its compassion, and I have no reason to believe it won’t, I’m in until the end.
5. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend When a show you’ve loved since episode one ends, all you really want is to feel satisfied in the journey you went through with the show and this one more than delivered for me. It has been a true pleasure to watch Rebecca grow and get to a point where she is able to find out what a happy ending looks like for her independent of any one else. She spent so long looking for a relationship to fix all the things she thought was wrong with her and instead, we got to see each layer got peeled back and we got closer to her finding joy in herself and doing the work she needed to do for her to create the life she wanted. Her active decision to make healthier choices that prioritized her mental health was inspiring and something I needed to see. And as always, this intensely emotional journey was interspersed with fantastic musical numbers and surrounded by a set of supporting characters who also had to make choices to do better for themselves. They called out hurtful treatment in the past, celebrated their accomplishments, helped people work toward their dreams (in a truly hilarious and supporting photography shoot of Josh in his underwear), and learned to let people go. So much love went into the show and though I deeply miss it, I couldn’t have asked for a better final season.
6. Better Things How we did not shower Pamela Adlon with awards for this season, I do not understand. She directed every episode, wrote or co-wrote over half the season (with a new writer’s room even), and starred in the show. It’s her voice that shines throught the series and that voice was extraordinary. It felt grounded and authentic in way that I hadn’t gotten from the previous two seasons, though her acting has always been terrific, and I think that was due to the new voices and her greater creative control. It felt like a show about a single mother trying to balance her children and her aging mother with her own career and maintaining her own identity. We get to see her with her friends, getting drunk and laughing between sharing and offering support for what they are all going through. We get to see her love the freedom her single life gives her and the enjoyment she gets from her job. She struggles with a lot of things this season and it all feels rooted in empathy and understanding. It’s not without joy and support, no matter how much this family may fight and fall to pieces, and its in the balance between the two that the show is at its best.
7. Fosse/Verdon I had very little knowledge about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon before starting this show. I knew Katie was excited for the show and loved the book it was based on and honestly, that’s enough to get me into something a decent portion of the time. I ended up completely blown away with what this miniseries managed to do in 8 episodes. I loved the different episode styles based on what era or facet of these two they were trying to portray, the writing was incredibly strong, and as evidenced by her place at number one of my Best Actors list, Michelle Williams gave the performance of the year. It didn’t shy away from either aspect that made Bob Fosse who is was. He was a brilliant choreographer and director with a tremendous legacy in his fields and he was also kind of an awful person. He was manipulative and an addict and needed to be the best, most talented person in a room. He needed the fawning that came around with his position and other people to help elevate him to greatness. Despite all that, we see why people were drawn to him. We understand why he was the way he was and this show never excuses him as it tries to explain him. It’s a balancing act that won’t work for everyone but it very much landed well with me. But his legacy and story were never solely about him. This is a show that loves Gwen Verdon and her contributions to Broadway canon. It could never be as easy as portraying her as the long-suffering, overlooked one in the relationship. There was give and take and she was aware of Fosse’s worst tendencies and was all too willing to enable them at times. She was a brilliant creative force and talent and needed to be recognized as such. She wanted the legacy as much as Fosse did and this is a show that wanted to give that to her. There was care put into showing her as a real woman with strengths and flaws and complexity and someone who refused to be a footnote. I am grateful for the show’s willingness to let both of them be complicated and feel as though I understand them and their place in history better now.
8. Schitt’s Creek It felt like at any given time this year, you probably knew at least one person who was watching this show for the first time. I was one of those people, I’d held out for no other reason than there were already a lot of seasons but finally, the enthusiasm surrounding it intrigued me enough to try it out. I’m so glad I did. It has all the warmth that I love from my comedies combined with a set of characters who have all become better over time as a result of letting people into their lives. They’ve learned to be a family rather than a constellation of people connected by shared blood and they’ve learned what it is to love and be loved. Whether it was Alexis sacrificing what she wanted for Ted to take his job opportunity, David supporting Patrick through his coming out process or begrudgingly agreeing to participate in the baseball game, or Johnny and Moira affirming to Stevie that they care about her in their own ways, everyone felt very content in the people they have become. They’re all still ridiculous in their own ways because that is just who they are as people but they’re people who care deeply and genuinely about their select others. It’s not something you could have said about any of them in the beginning and now that they’ve gotten to that point, it’s incredibly satisfying and comforting to watch.
9. Pose I love what this show is doing. I love its cast, its characters, and its deliberate choice to tell stories about queer and trans Black and Latinx people that at their heart are about family and joy. It took a while for this season to really work cohesively for me but the last four episodes are all extraordinary and everything the show is at its best. From Blanca’s hope that the popularity of Vogue finally means that they will be accepted as a community to Lil Papi’s determination to see Angel succeed in modeling to the work of Act Up, it was a season of these characters demanding to be seen for who they are when the world would rather turn a blind eye. It wasn’t always successful but it was done with the knowledge that they were good and worthy just as they are and deserving of respect and dignity. That was a powerful message to proclaim in the 90s and its still a powerful one now. It was a season that saw triumph for Damon in his dancing, love for Angel and Lil Papi, a scattered but still connected family for Blanca, and the strength to keep fighting when everything seemed hardest for them all. I don’t know where next season will take them all but I know I’m excited to see whatever comes.
10. The Expanse This show is visually stunning. The credits have always been gorgeous but the added money from Amazon all seemed to go toward special effects and the result was stunning. On top of that, this is still some of the best political sci-fi in recent history. Issues and characters are given room to be multifaceted without an easy hero or villain. We understand where the tension comes from between the people of Earth or Mars and the Belt, whether it’s the refugees on Ilus or the various factions of the OPA. People make bad decisions, sometimes that result in the deaths of others, and have to grapple with that as they choose to be better. On top of all that, it has one of the best collections of characters on television at the moment. The chosen family on the Roci and the people they’ve collected throughout the run of the show, like Chrisjen, Bobbie, and Drummer, are somehow all my favorite depending on who’s on screen at the moment. Or at least my favorite after Amos, who could not be more of my favorite character type if he tried. It’s a story of exploration, exploitation, and systems of power that is told intelligently and compassionately through a set of characters who are all remarkable in their own ways. The women on the show are principled and are written with agency and conviction that who they are matters, something still sometimes lacking in genre television, and the men are similarly thoughtfully written. They’re pulling of an extraordinary balancing act and I cannot wait to see how s5 continues this story.
Honorable Mentions: GLOW, Russian Doll, Derry Girls, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine