Nothing Beats 'The Good Place': David Bianculli Picks The Best TV Of 2019

Dec 18, 2019
Originally published on December 23, 2019 3:31 pm

Good TV seems to be coming at us in increasingly large quantities and from so many different directions. Just last month, two major services — Apple TV+ and Disney+ — launched, joining the crowded field of streaming services. All this added up to a great year for quality television. Here's a list of my favorite shows of 2019.

1. The Good Place (NBC)

Michael Schur's afterlife comedy managed, once again, to reinvent itself entirely this year — and in ways that were almost impossible to see coming. To start the new season, we even learned the Bad Place's official theme song — a hell of an idea that still makes me laugh out loud. The Good Place is the best show on television right now, and the fact that it exists on broadcast commercial network television — when almost all of the other top choices come from streaming or cable networks — is itself a miracle worthy of The Good Place.

2. Legion (FX)

This series went out this year as it had come in: Its finale was as mind-blowingly unique as its opening episode, and its opening episode was as stunningly different as the first installment of Twin Peaks. Noah Hawley set out to tell a complicated, shifting story from the point of view of an astoundingly unreliable narrator — and never wavered. If you've never seen it, watching Legion in a big binge should be your holiday TV gift to yourself.

3. Black Mirror (Netflix)

Last year, the astounding interactive Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror didn't show up until after I'd compiled my top 10 list. This year, a trio of new episodes of the anthology series dropped; I still haven't forgotten the Striking Vipers episode, which I consider one of the best TV shows I saw all year.

4. Fleabag (Amazon) and Killing Eve (BBC America)

I'm slipping these two shows in, as a tie, because both series were created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who stars in the former and wrote previous seasons of the latter. I love the plot twists and leading performances of Killing Eve, with Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer as amorously intrigued adversaries — but I adore, equally, Waller-Bridge's perfectly executed breaking-the-fourth-wall stares into the camera on Fleabag. Watch both.

5. Watchmen (HBO)

She's Having Nun Of It: Regina King as Sister Night in HBO's Watchmen.
Mark Hill / HBO

This new addition to the 2019 TV rolls is a DC Comics adaptation and expansion so intelligent and ambitious it does for DC Comics what FX's Legion did for Marvel: It outgrows its original medium, and uses the medium of television in an impressively original way. Each episode of Watchmen was better than, and different from, the last – and that's high praise indeed.

6. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

The production values of Season 3 have upped this show's game even more – which is saying something, because Mrs. Maisel already had some of the most exquisitely delivered dialogue and comic acting on TV. Amy Sherman-Palladino's jokes, delivered by the likes of Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub, make for the perfect servings of ham on wry.

7. Dead to Me (Netflix)

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini starred in this dark, twisted Netflix series, which focuses on women coping with different kinds of grief in wildly different ways. By the end of this year's first season, these two women had bonded deeply, separated vehemently and ended on a note that makes next year's Season 2 something to await with great anticipation.

8. Barry (HBO)

This Bill Hader series got even better this year, following its muse into territory not seen on TV since The Sopranos ventured into the Pine Barrens.

9. Evil (CBS)

Katja Herbers, Aasif Mandvi and Mike Colter investigate phenomena that are not easily explained on the CBS series Evil.
Elizabeth Fisher / CBS

This series, from Michelle and Robert King, proves the same thing that their Good Wife series did when it was on CBS: that the commercial broadcast networks still could produce and present a smart, entertaining TV drama series, if it hired the right people and left them alone. With Evil, the definition of that word, and this show's plot, deepened all season, and turned what could have been a simple cross between The X-Files and The Exorcist into something much, much more.

10. Veep (HBO)

Oddly, this series got less attention and acclaim for its final lap around the track than for its other, Emmy-magnet seasons – but Veep went out with a bang, and with razor-sharp comedy performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the entire cast, including Tony Hale and dry-wit secret weapons Hugh Laurie and Gary Cole.

Special mentions in other categories:

Movies and Miniseries: The Act (Hulu); Deadwood: The Movie (HBO); El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (Netflix); Years and Years (HBO)

Nonfiction: Leaving Neverland (HBO); 60 Minutes (CBS)

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to look back at the year on TV with our TV critic David Bianculli. Hey, David. I always look forward to this at the end of the year.


GROSS: OK. So let's start with your 10 best list. You want to run through it for us?

BIANCULLI: So going backwards from No. 10 for maximum suspense.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

BIANCULLI: No. 10 is "Veep," which ended this year on HBO, had another strong season. No. 9 is CBS' "Evil," which premiered this year. It's by the same producers who did "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight." And they're doing this very strange, spooky, supernatural, religious questioning thing. It's worth seeing. It's really a good show, and it's developing as it's going along. And it's on broadcast television. There aren't that many great shows left on broadcast TV. So it's good to point out that, yes, they can still do drama. No. 8 is "Barry" on HBO, which just deepens all the time and really good performances and writing. That's a very funny show.

No. 7 - maybe not a lot of people saw this but it was on Netflix - called "Dead To Me," Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. And a very dark but very funny comedy about women who are going through changes in life and reacting to one another. And it really goes in lots of unexpected directions. No. 6, which started again this month on Amazon, is "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." And so the people who are fans of that show already know about it, and it's back. It's got a good cast and good writing by Amy Sherman-Palladino.

No. 5 - Damon Lindelof's show "Watchmen" on HBO. This is one that has gotten so good so fast that it's sort of taking the place, for me, of a show that ended this year that I loved because it was so bizarre, and that was "Legion," which is also on my top 10 list farther up. But "Watchmen" is getting so weird. Catch it on streaming now because it's now gone for the season, and its episodes are so smart. Jeremy Irons is in it. It's just - Jean Smart. There are so many good performances all the way through.

GROSS: Regina King.

BIANCULLI: Yes, she's fabulous in this.

GROSS: Is it coming back?

BIANCULLI: I'm pretty sure it is. This is in - it's in the place right now where, like, "Big Little Lies" on HBO was originally thought, maybe we'll just do one, but it caught on so big that it came back. So I'm expecting the same of "Watchmen." No. 4 - I'm using the fourth place as a tie for "Fleabag" on Amazon and "Killing Eve" on BBC America. They're both created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She didn't do the current season of "Killing Eve," but it's still her idea. But "Fleabag" on Amazon surprised almost everybody by winning Emmys this year as best comedy, and it's deserved. It's really a good show and a distinct female voice that's great to have on television.

No. 3 is "Black Mirror," and that's from Charlie Brooker, and it's the best anthology series since "The Twilight Zone." And it just - every single year it comes out, other people try to imitate it and fail, showing how hard it is. And "Black Mirror" just does more really good stories, and that's on Netflix. "Legion," I've already mentioned, that was on FX - ended this season. Noah Hawley. It used television better than almost anything since "Twin Peaks" has used television. And then No. 1 - this is probably going to surprise people because it's another network show. It's from NBC. It's from Michael Schur, and it's "The Good Place." It's a comedy about the afterlife.

GROSS: Like, heaven and hell in the afterlife?

BIANCULLI: It's heaven and hell, and you never know which one is which. It's just so brilliant about the way that it approaches its subject. For example, I brought along a clip...

GROSS: Good.

BIANCULLI: ...Since it's my favorite show of the year, where you have people who have their respective little cadres in what we can call heaven and hell. And Ted Danson is Michael in the good place, ostensibly. And then there's a guy - Marc Evan Jackson plays him - he's called Shawn, and he's the leader of the bad place. And so this opening sequence has both of them. It alternates between them giving pep talks to their respective troops. And in the bad place, you get to hear hell's theme song. And when I heard it, it really made me laugh.

GROSS: So we're starting with the good place, and then we'll go to the bad place?




TED DANSON: (As Michael) And marching us into battle, our fearless leader, the pride of Phoenix, Ariz. - Eleanor Shellstrop.

KRISTEN BELL: (As Eleanor Shellstrop) Technically, the pride of Phoenix is a life-sized statue of Alice Cooper made from cigarette butts. It's outside city hall. But thank you for the kind words.

DANSON: (As Michael) With this team, there's no problem we can't solve.

MARC EVAN JACKSON: (As Shawn) There is no problem we can't create. And believe me, we are going to create some a-problems (ph). So let's kick things off with her official bad place song.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) One-eight-seven-seven cars for kids. K-A-R-S cars for kids.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ooh, are we singing?

JACKSON: (As Shawn) Shut up, Glenn.


GROSS: I love that. That Kars4Kids commercial, I...

BIANCULLI: I hate it.

GROSS: I feel like it's stalking me.

BIANCULLI: I know. I know.

GROSS: It follows me around when I watch TV. Then on satellite radio, I hear it, too. It drives me crazy.

BIANCULLI: Me, too And when I heard this on "The Good Place," I really did one of those super laugh-out-louds because I thought, oh, my gosh, Michael Schur understands. He hears the same bad song as many times as I do, and he thinks it comes straight from hell, and he could be right.

GROSS: Well, good. OK, so, David, your top 10 list - thank you for presenting that. So hearing your top 10 list, of course, I can't help but notice that four of the shows were from streaming services. You've got "Black Mirror," "Fleabag," "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "Dead To Me." And...

BIANCULLI: Oh, yeah. That's right.

GROSS: And so the way things are going now, it's funny - like, we're living in an era, so many people have cut the cord to cable and they're not paying for TV. But now in order to watch shows, you have to subscribe ala carte, not to cable but to the streaming services. So let's talk about how they're developing. We've got new ones that we didn't even have before.


GROSS: And the old ones are just getting bigger and bigger. Let's start with Disney because they're such a new entry.


GROSS: And they're so big.

BIANCULLI: Disney+ is, to me, inescapable. You've got the Disney backlog of movies and TV stuff. You would think that would be enough to keep a new streaming service alive, but they also have the "Star Wars" universe. They also have the Marvel Universe. They also have the Muppets. They have Pixar.

GROSS: How did they get all that?

BIANCULLI: Just by, you know, marching across Europe and taking over territories. They just spent a lot of money. What's happening with all of these streaming services who are going for global domination is that they are spending the money as fast as they can. I mean, you look at Netflix, for example, which led the territory here. It used to say, we've got an original show, and then we'll have another one in six months. And so that was its pace. Now you get six or seven shows from Netflix every Friday.

And so what everybody's doing is spending money and then making as much of their own stuff exclusive or buying it exclusively. So the Disney movies that used to be - or some of these "Star Wars" properties or Marvel movies that used to be available on Netflix or elsewhere, they've drawn back. So they're now exclusively on one service. So if you want to see those, you've got to get Disney+.

GROSS: What do they charge? I mean, what are we up against financially?

BIANCULLI: Well, almost all of these - it's going to be, like, $5 a month. Or if you don't want to have commercial interruptions, then it's going to be $10 a month. You can basically sort of round it out to $10 per month per streaming service. And if you think...

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

BIANCULLI: Yes, it is. And if you think that on my top 10 this year alone, you had Netflix, you had Amazon. So that's two that you got to get just to get some of the best that's there.

GROSS: That's $20 a month right there.

BIANCULLI: Right. And then Hulu had "Handmaid's Tale" and "The Act" and some other things. And so you start adding them. And then you had Apple TV+ was another new one this year, and it just keeps going. It's the same problem as when cable started in the '70s.

GROSS: What was that problem with cable?

BIANCULLI: The problem was everybody wanted to get on board but separately. And so all of a sudden, consumers were paying more than they wanted to for cable. So the corporations began bundling up. And so you'd get a premium sports bundle or an entertainment bundle or a news bundle, and then things would drop by because they wouldn't get enough support on cable companies. Streaming, it's all there at once, so it's totally dependent upon whether they can create an appetite from the viewer.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the year in television. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the year in television.

Let's talk about another new entry in this field, and that's Apple TV+. How are they defined in terms of the programming?

BIANCULLI: Well they're - they don't have a backlog. Their stuff is all original. They're saying, you're coming to us for the new stuff, and we've got this "Morning Show" with Jennifer Aniston, and we've got this different sort of thing that's kind of like "Game Of Thrones." But they don't have much. The one thing that I've been impressed by is M. Night Shyamalan's "Servant," which is written by other people. He's directed a couple. It's a good horror series. But I don't think that's what it wants to be known as, you know, at Apple. So I don't think they have a clear identity yet.

GROSS: Well, with Netflix, like, they are doing movies as well as TV shows.

BIANCULLI: Oh, my head hurts. Yeah, I know.

GROSS: Yeah. And I mean, so "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story," two of the really acclaimed movies of the year are Netflix films. There's probably others, too, but those are current ones. I have to say, with "The Irishman," I made a point of getting to the movie theater because I thought it's 3 1/2 hours, and I want to just be in a dark room with it because I was really afraid if I watched it at home, that there'd be so many distractions.

BIANCULLI: What was it like for you? Because I watched it at home.

GROSS: I saw it in a theater, and I liked it a lot, and I was really glad I was in the theater. I think I wouldn't have been as immersed in it had I watched it at home. And it's a kind of complicated plot, and I have a feeling if I watched it at home, I'd keep rewinding it and going like, oh, who was that guy who was just shot?


GROSS: And, like, I'd never make it through, whereas in the movie theater, it goes by, you go, OK, I didn't quite get that; I can live with that.

BIANCULLI: And I'm glad it held up for you at that pace in the theaters.

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: Yeah, and there's a lot I liked about the film.


GROSS: But that's not to say you wouldn't enjoy it at home if you're thinking of watching it at home.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, no...

GROSS: I personally recommend it (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Because I did.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: But I just - that's the reason it's not on my top 10, is because I consider it a movie.

GROSS: So how has Netflix been evolving? Because it's one of the streaming services that really established streaming as an important player.

BIANCULLI: It used to be saying, we will do things of quality that will get us noticed. And then they just started saying, we will do things of quantity, and some of them will be quality. And now they're saying, we will do things in more than one arena. And so there's no reason, they figured, with all the money they have that they couldn't make movies as well as original television productions. And they get a double dip that way. They get to go into the movie stream and do box office and maybe go for Oscars, and then they get the first rights to it. It's something else exclusive to them, so that when you say, what streaming service am I going to hang on to, it's like, oh, well, look - this movie that was in theaters that I didn't see, I can only see here. It's all Machiavellian, and it's all scary.

GROSS: What are the TV networks doing to maintain relevance during this period?

BIANCULLI: Not enough. I mean, really not enough. The networks know that they can rely on - it used to be news and sports would be live. That would be it. But you think of CBS and NBC and ABC, and they're not the news presence that they used to be. I don't know - and it's not a fair question to ask you, and I don't even think it's a fair question to ask me to identify the network anchors of the evening newscasts at CBS, NBC and ABC. A generation ago...

GROSS: You know, I've been thinking about that, too, David.


GROSS: You know, for myself, I watch the news channels a lot.


GROSS: I'm not home when the network news is on. But even if I was, I'd probably have one of the news channels on.

BIANCULLI: That's exactly what I'm doing. But I am watching more news than I ever have; I'm just not watching a lot of it on the broadcast networks.

GROSS: You know, we were talking about how fragmented the TV audience is now because you've got networks, you've got cable, you've got all these news streaming services, and each service - some of the services have so many shows. And because of that fragmentation, the TV audience is so divided, and as you acknowledge, some of the shows in your 10 best list some of our audience will have never heard of...


GROSS: ...Because the audience is so fragmented. But it seems like the main characters in our culture now, the characters that everybody knows, are the people in politics. Like, everybody doesn't know who's on "Fleabag," even though that's a good show.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: But everybody knows who Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi and Rudy Giuliani and Adam Schiff are. So, you know, politics is what we're disagreeing on, but it's also what we're all talking about.

BIANCULLI: It's a great comparison because we're disagreeing about it in part because our politics and our news are so fragmented. It didn't used to be that way. We watched all the same news at the same time pretty much. And now you go to your respective corners and watch your preferred interpretation of whatever happened that day. I, as a TV critic, bounce around. So I'll watch CNN. I'll watch MSNBC. I'll watch Fox News. And every time I complete that lap, I have a really horrible headache because I see how little commonality there is, and I think all the time most people don't see that.

GROSS: Because they're not watching all three?

BIANCULLI: They're not watching all three. They're not watching what Fox News is not saying that MSNBC is and vice versa and not covering. It's tricky. I don't know how we escape from this.

GROSS: David, you're not only a TV critic. You're a TV historian. You teach television history.


GROSS: And I'm interested in hearing your comparison of TV coverage of Watergate with TV coverage of the impeachment of Donald Trump.

BIANCULLI: It's fascinating because it changes. You'd think when I was teaching TV history of the '70s and I'm covering the news of the '70s that I could lock that in and never change it, but, like, it's - no. I've got to spend more time talking about the firing of a special prosecutor. I've got to spend more time about the actual hearings that are on on Watergate because there such amazing parallels today.

I even brought a clip of - this is something that Walter Cronkite put out after the fact that talked about the Watergate hearings. It starts with an announcer announcing the Senate hearings and then Walter Cronkite putting things into perspective. And then also, you hear some testimony by John Dean, the White House counsel, and by Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide who gave this bombshell about a secret taping system. And I remember watching both of those on live television.

GROSS: A secret White House taping system.

BIANCULLI: Yes. You know, it's just - it's...

GROSS: That was very incriminating...


GROSS: ...Once they got the tape.

BIANCULLI: It doesn't get more dramatic than that except now, watching, you know, the testimony that we have gotten. It's amazing to me.

GROSS: So you want to hear that clip?


GROSS: Here we go.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Watergate Senate hearings - to ensure complete live nationwide coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings, the three commercial television networks are rotating the daily coverage.

JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

WALTER CRONKITE: By the spring of 1974, the Watergate affair was a full-blown scandal as televised congressional hearings gradually uncovered the cover-up.

FRED THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices. Yes, sir.

THOMPSON: Are you aware of the installation of any devices on any of the telephones - first of all, the Oval Office?


SAMUEL DASH: Now, the tapes which you mentioned which are stored - are they stored by particular date?

BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir. They are.

DASH: And so that if either Mr. Dean, Mr. Haldeman, Mr Ehrlichman or Mr. Colson had particular meetings in the Oval Office with the president on any particular dates that have been testified before this committee, there would be a tape recording with the president of that full conversation, would there not?


GROSS: Really interesting to hear that.

BIANCULLI: I mean, it's unbelievable.

GROSS: Well, since the holidays are coming up, while you're here, why don't you recommend a few shows that are on streaming or on demand that, you know, are - is, like, a limited series that people can binge and and catch up on during the holidays - not something with a whole lot of seasons because they'll never make it through that over the holidays...

BIANCULLI: OK, well...

GROSS: ...But something manageable?

BIANCULLI: All right. I'll start with TV movies - two of them - "Deadwood: The Movie" on HBO and "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" on Netflix. So if you loved those series that have been gone for a while, it's a chance to go back and see the newest episode 10 years later or whatever, and they're both wonderful. Hulu and Amazon both this year have unearthed for the first time the complete showings of one series from the '70s, "Lou Grant," and one series from the '80s, "St. Elsewhere," that have never been out on home video.

GROSS: I'm going to throw in one...


GROSS: ...Because I binged on this, I guess, a year ago, two years ago. I lose track of time.

BIANCULLI: That's fine.

GROSS: But...

BIANCULLI: I can't wait to hear what this is.

GROSS: OK. It's "Godless," if you like westerns...


GROSS: ...As I do. But it's this really charismatic western that - it has really strong women in it, really charismatic men. It's fabulous, so...

BIANCULLI: That's a great recommendation.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: You'll know before the opening credits whether you want to be with this show.

GROSS: Exactly.

BIANCULLI: And you should.

GROSS: Exactly.

BIANCULLI: That's a good one.

GROSS: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Good for you.

GROSS: Thank you. Well, it's been great fun to talk with you, David.

BIANCULLI: I love this. Thanks a lot. Happy holidays - all that stuff.

GROSS: Happy holidays. You going to to be watching TV?


BIANCULLI: Well, I hope not as much.

GROSS: Right.

BIANCULLI: I have a full contingent of grandkids coming in.

GROSS: Oh, good for you.

BIANCULLI: I'll watch them instead.

GROSS: All right. Well, happy holidays.

BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He's the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and is a professor of television at Rowan University in New Jersey. After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will talk about the year in film and tell us what's on his 10 best list. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


STEPHEN COLBERT: (Singing) Ho, it's another Christmas song. Whoa. Get ready, brother, for another Christmas song. They play for a month ad infinitum. One day, it struck me someone must write them, so it's another Christmas song. Santa Claus singing on naughty snow, reindeer ringing in the mistletoe - the manger's on fire. The holly's aglow. Hear the baby Jesus crying, ho ho ho. Hey, it's another Christmas song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.