The 25 best TV shows of 2019, from ‘Fleabag’ to ‘Stranger Things’

After 2019, TV will never be the same. 

This year, TV got bigger than we ever could have imagined back when there were only three channels. Over 500 scripted series premiered new episodes, two major new streaming services (Apple TV+ and Disney+) debuted, “Star Wars” and Meryl Streep came to TV and “Game of Thrones” ended with massive ratings but disappointed fans. And yet we still are mostly talking about where we’ll be able to easily access reruns of “Friends.” 

But there were some really fantastic TV series we hope some of you managed to watch between all the Twitter reactions and marathons of Disney animated movies. And spoiler alert: “Thrones” and its terrible ending didn’t make the cut. 

You still have plenty of time before New Year’s Day to catch up on USA TODAY’s top 25 series of 2019.

Joe (Penn Badgley) stalks a new woman (Victoria Pedretti) in "You" Season 2.

25. ‘You’ (Netflix)

The soapy thriller starring Penn Badgley was a pleasant surprise in its original home on Lifetime, and became a sensation once it moved to Netflix, which will stream its second season Dec. 26. The second outing with self-aggrandizing stalker (and murderer) Joe is just as addictive as the first, if a little repetitive. But of all the current series that traffic in bad men doing bad things, “You” remains one of the few that asks interesting questions about its bad guy.

24. ‘Evil’ (CBS) 

Akin to “The X-Files” for religion – in which a psychologist, a priest-in-training and a tech expert investigate claims of miracles and demonic possessions – “Evil” is a hard sell on paper, but a surprisingly coherent and gripping series. Created by Robert and Michelle King (“The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight”), it is thought-provoking as an investigation of organized, institutional religion and as a source of thrilling horror stories about exorcisms and evildoers.

23. ‘Living With Yourself’ (Netflix) 

Paul Rudd is one of Hollywood’s most charming (and ageless) actors, and he does welcome double duty in this dark comedy about a man who ends up with a clone that is significantly better at living his life. Full of existential angst and pratfalls, the series neatly balances comedy and drama. It’s also a great showcase for Irish actress Aisling Bea, who turns in a breakout performance that isn’t overshadowed by Rudd’s star power.

22. ‘Country Music’ (PBS)

Ken Burns rarely disappoints. The legendary filmmaker turned his lens on the history of a uniquely American music genre for this 18-part documentary that traced its roots and rise. It may have also changed some minds about what country music really is and who it is for.

Sadie Sink, Noah Schnapp, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, and Caleb McLaughlin in Stranger Things 3 .

21. ‘Stranger Things’ (Netflix) 

After a disappointing and derivative second season, the ’80s-set supernatural series – Netflix’s most popular – returned with new episodes that took more risks and repeated fewer plot points. With the Soviets as new villains, new horror inspirations for the monsters and new relationships to explore – particularly the friendship between Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) – the series crafted a third season that was almost as captivating as its breakout first.

20. ‘Veronica Mars’ (Hulu) 

In our current nostalgia-obsessed TV era, there are plenty of truly terrible reboots, remakes and revivals (“Fuller House”), but sometimes bringing back the original cast and creators years or even decades later results in good TV. The most successful attempt in recent years is “Veronica Mars,” the cult neo-noir series canceled by CW in 2003, revived in 2014 for a movie and brought back yet again for eight episodes by Hulu. Kristen Bell and creator Rob Thomas found a mystery worth Veronica’s talents, and room for the beloved-but-damaged detective to grow. Its shocker ending divided fans, but nothing about the new “Mars” felt cheap, forced or dated, and that’s a true achievement.

19. ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ (HBO) 

If you missed this small but mighty new sketch comedy series in August, it’s worth catching up on all six episodes of the hilarious first season. Created by Robin Thede and produced by Issa Rae (“Insecure”), the series’ talented black women comedians excel in sketches that are unique to their experiences and universal in their humor.

Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Billy Porter as Pray Tell on "Pose."

18. ‘Pose’ (FX)

FX’s groundbreaking LGBTQ drama became bigger and more intimate in its excellent second season, homing in on its best characters while making its stories more ambitious, tragic and complex. The season was more focused and compelling than its promising first year, with especially strong performances from Emmy-winning Billy Porter as Pray Tell, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca and Indya Moore as Angel. 

17. ‘Stumptown’ (ABC)

There is nothing particularly revolutionary about this procedural drama starring Cobie Smulders, but it stands out among the new network offerings this year because of the thoughtful and fresh way the writers make age-old detective stories. Smulders shines as Dex Parios, a deeply caring if not always smooth private investigator, and her performance elevates “Stumptown” beyond just-another-network-cop-show.

16. ‘The Good Fight’ (CBS All Access)

Despite getting a little more fantastical every year, CBS All Access’ “Good Wife” spinoff is still the drama that best captures the current sociopolitical era. Its third season, with the addition of Michael Sheen as a Roy Cohn-inspired lawyer, was a little wacky without getting too weird, with smart scripts and great performances, most notably from Christine Baranski and Audra MacDonald.

15. ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’ (Netflix) 

This prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 film manages to go above and beyond the beloved original. On aesthetics alone, the series is a huge achievement, but it also tells a fantasy story as lofty and politically complex as “Game of Thrones.” That “Crystal” manages to make fully-realized characters and plots through mesmerizing puppetry rounds out a superb epic.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II on "The Crown."

14. ‘The Crown’ (Netflix)

God save the Queen, whoever happens to be playing her. Netflix’s British royals drama proved it can go deep into the reign of Queen Elizabeth II by successfully swapping its original cast for an older set of actors, including Oscar winner Olivia Colman in the lead role (previously played by Emmy winner Claire Foy). The third season has a few bumps, and struggles to make Elizabeth the center of her own story, but the addition of a young Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and his romantic escapades makes up for Colman’s brief screen time.

13. ‘Superstore’ (NBC)

Like a cheap bottle of wine at Target, “Superstore” just gets better with age. NBC’s workplace comedy is smarter and funnier every season, and 2019 episodes represent the show at its peak. “Superstore” kept its stories and character dynamics fresh this year by promoting Amy (America Ferrera) to manager of the Cloud 9 big box store, changing her socioeconomic status in an instant and drastically altering her relationship with her co-workers, including boyfriend Jonah (Ben Feldman).

Kayvan Novak as Nandor and Harvey Guillen as Guillermo on "What We Do in the Shadows."

12. ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (FX) 

Based on the cult 2014 film from Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) and Taika Waititi (who directed “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit”), “Shadows” is the funniest show this year, an outright bacchanalia of vampiric failures, energy draining and nerdy virgins. The comedy moves its focus from hapless vampires in New Zealand to an even more inept clan in Staten Island, New York, with lofty goals such as taking over the world via city council meetings. 

11. ‘The Good Place’ (NBC) 

The philosophical afterlife comedy hasn’t been quite as brilliant in its fourth and final season, but even at 85% strength, “Good Place” is still smarter and funnier than most shows on TV. Nailing an ending to a series that asks questions as big as this one does (what does it take to be a good person?) is always tricky, and most crucially the series is staying true to its delightful characters.

10. ‘Shrill’ (Hulu) 

At last, “Saturday Night Live” standout Aidy Bryant has a starring role worthy of her talents in Hulu’s “Shrill.” The actress finds a quieter side of her comedy in this Portland, Oregon-set series based on writer and fat-acceptance activist Lindy West’s memoir. It marks the best portrayal of life as a plus-size woman on TV, neither patronizing nor unrealistic, and tells stories beyond its protagonist’s weight on a scale. With just six hilarious episodes, it’s one of the few TV series that would have excelled if it had expanded.

Merritt Weaver, left, and Toni Collette play detectives who initially butt heads but learn to work together in Netflix miniseries "Unbelievable."

9. ‘Unbelievable’ (Netflix) 

True-crime stories can be many things: seedy, enthralling, vindicating, angering or satisfying. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article, “Unbelievable” is both infuriating and triumphant, highlighting the deep flaws in our criminal justice system while also celebrating the work of two genuinely heroic policewomen. With a stellar cast, “Unbelievable” tells the story of a rape victim (Kaitlyn Dever) who isn’t believed by police, and the two detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) who bring her attacker to justice years later – after he raped several more women.

8. ‘Undone’ (Amazon) 

As deeply emotional and affecting as it is unsettling, Amazon’s animated series gets under your skin, in a good way. The series’ rotoscoping technique, in which animation is drawn over live footage, provides an eerie edge as it tells a magic-realist story of a stagnant 20-something woman (Rosa Salazar) who can travel in time and communicate with her dead father. But for every psychedelic trip Alma takes, she also takes a more grounded one as she tries to repair damaged relationships and plot her next course. 

7. ‘Dead to Me’ (Netflix) 

Christina Applegate gives her best performance in Netflix’s black comedy about a widow who unknowingly befriends the woman (the great Linda Cardellini) who killed her husband. Twisty but not gimmicky, “Dead” is addictive. The series has an abundance of acting talent, including James Marsden, who finally gets a role that takes the sheen off his perfect smile. 

6. ‘Watchmen’ (HBO)

Although it started off a bit unsurely, HBO’s very loose adaptation of the graphic novel has blossomed into one of creator Damon Lindelof’s best series, and from the man behind “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” that’s some achievement. The series has a superb cast – including Regina King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons and Tim Blake Nelson – that elevates smart scripts that get better as the season progresses. Lindelof and his writers find surprising ways to bring the superhero story from the 1980s into today’s culture, helping “Watchmen” upend the comic book formula once again.

Asante Blackk in "When They See Us," Ava DuVernay's retelling of the Central Park Five.

5. ‘When They See Us’ (Netflix) 

Ava DuVernay’s striking miniseries gives voice to the so-called Central Park Five, a group of five black and Latino youths wrongly convicted of assault in one of the biggest trials of the 1980s. With an extremely talented group of young actors as the falsely accused adolescents – Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome and Marquis Rodriguez – the series brings the story to the screen as a brutal, unrelenting tragedy.

4. ‘Back to Life’ (Showtime) 

This British tragicomedy, starring and created by Daisy Haggard (“Episodes”), focuses on Miri, a woman who returns to her small seaside village after spending 18 years in prison for a crime that’s explained as the series progresses. Although Miri has left iron bars and jumpsuits behind, her small town is a prison of its own, where she is hated by all but her parents, her new boss and her kindly neighbor. Touching on themes of forgiveness and deception, the series is breathtaking in its emotional scope, despite the small story it tells over just six episodes.

3. ‘Chernobyl’ (HBO) 

The brilliance of this historical miniseries, which chronicles the 1986 nuclear disaster at a power plant in Soviet Ukraine, creeps up on you as you watch its five episodes. Despite portraying so much death and despair, “Chernobyl” is never crass or exploitative, but rather it simply, anger-inducingly explains the failures and hubris that led to the disaster, and the people who tried to mitigate its consequences.

2. ‘Leaving Neverland’ (HBO)

Among 2019’s many true crime documentaries that made viewers question established media narratives and powerful people, this one – about two men who accused Michael Jackson of sexual abuse when they were children – stood out. Wade Robson and James Safechuck were given a platform to tell their harrowing stories, and director Dan Reed is unflinching as he captures the pain and suffering of the men and their families. Tough to watch, it’s also an eye-opening look at the lasting effects of abuse, and the way the media handles allegations against powerful men.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag in Amazon's "Fleabag."

1. ‘Fleabag’ (Amazon) 

Could there be any other choice for No. 1? Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dark comedy ran away with the 2019 Emmy Awards for good reason. Few series have ever been as emotionally affecting and brilliantly written as “Fleabag” in its second season. The story of a self-hating and self-destructive woman (Waller-Bridge) falling in love with a Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) was both a shocking sequel to the first and an exquisitely perfect ending to Fleabag’s tale. We’ll miss her dearly. 

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