Here at the Unwinnable Best-of lists, we used a ranked system for voting. Every year I put some version of the following disclaimer on the ballot: “As with previous years, the show you put in your #1 spot will get 10 points, #2 will get 9, and so on. Feel free to employ clever and/or sneaky strategy to get your faves on the final list, which may mean assigning things higher in the rankings than you would in your own top-ten list.”
I like to indulge in the fantasy that everyone’s eclectic tastes will be totally at odds and we’ll end with up a chaotically evil list of television shows that only ten separate Unwinnable contributors and ten separate Unwinnable contributors alone will have seen and enjoyed. We’re a tasteful bunch, however, and while I’m proud our “Best TV of 20xx” list usually deviates from the television lists found on other sites, I’m equally pleased we end up with something respectable.
There’s nothing new this year in that regard – all of these shows are well worth your time – but I was delighted to see at least one person goaded their partner into placing a specific show in the top spot on their ballot, and that it was the only TV show they voted for, period. They were honest about it, pointing out it was a rigged choice and pleading, “don’t make me actually write about this show I don’t know anything about it.” That’s the funniest thing I’ve read since I started curating these lists, and also the most romantic. Fair is fair in love and best-of lists, kiddos. Now let’s rock.
– Sara Clemens, Curator
I love anime bullshit. Battles in giant mechs with cool weapons, world-ending consequences that feel completely weightless and young boys making deeply philosophical decisions on behalf of everyone else. Hibike! Euphonium is the opposite. There are no weapons. The only stakes are a yearly band competition. And there aren’t many boys either. Rather, the large cast of high school girls challenge one another, knocking each other down with their own flimsy ideals. It makes for complex character motivations and development – after band practice that is.
The mundane setting of high-school band introduces the challenges and tribulations that come to shape the girls that have only just begun to reckon with their futures. In this yearly cycle of conflicting ideals (of seniority, talent and investment), I see myself and all the other band nerds I’ve known. I recognize the messy relationships, the purpose, the defeat and the joy in the girls of the Kitauji High Concert Band Club.
I developed debilitating performance anxiety during high school band, so I slowly stepped away from music for years once I was out of the cycle. As I find myself continually coming back to an instrument, to old friends, to music, Hibike! Euphonium reminds me that meaning is made in the practice, the collective dedication and the friends; even if it still hurts to lose.
– Autumn Wright
When They See Us
In When They See Us, Ava Du Vernay tells the story of the Central Park 5, five Black and Latino boys who were wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of a white female jogger. The actors playing the five all put in incredible work, conveying trauma with harrowing degree of humanity. Jharrel Jerome in particular shows why he is a force to be reckoned with, playing both the teenage and adult Korey Wise phenomenally. Furthermore, the performances of the adults (particularly the women) starkly exposes us to how trauma (especially when caused by systems/institutions) spreads to family and community beyond the immediate victim. At the same time, everyone feels like complicated humans who love and bicker, rather than just canvasses for suffering.
Du Vernay is also devastatingly effective at showing the power of white supremacy on both a systemic and individual level. She is very clear about who she is holding responsible for what happened to these five innocent teenagers. Yet at the same time she makes it abundantly clear that there is a broader system at play which ignores (and often actively rewards) behavior upholding white supremacy, whilst ensuring that black and brown bodies are penalized for merely existing. The stunning camerawork and fantastic score manage to convey some of the overwhelming power of these colossal and all-encompassing powers to cement her point. Crucially, all of these elements are brought together to make a moving and intelligent series that isn’t just hollow trauma porn.
– Oluwatayo Adewole
What We Do in the Shadows
A spin-off of the 2014 film of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary series about four vampire roommates. I binged the show, taking screenshots every thirty seconds because there were too many good lines to remember. There’s a hat made of a witch’s asshole. An elder vampire who signals his readiness to party by wearing two ruffs. One of the roommates, Colin (Mark Proksch) is an all-too-familiar, day-walking “energy vampire”: he works in an office and feeds off people’s energy by telling inexpressibly boring anecdotes, refusing to exit the conversation until he’s sapped all vitality from his listener. But my personal favorite character is Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), a splendidly dressed Romani vampire who mentors neophyte Jenna (Beanie Feldstein), turns into a swarm of rats and identifies as “an excellent crawler.” And did I mention that these vampires live on Staten Island? Maybe I should take the ferry out there more often.
– Deirdre Coyle
The Good Place
I begin every new season of The Good Place with a sense of trepidation. How can they pull this new twist off? But they inevitably do, even if, as with this season, I sometimes struggle to get back into it. Despite that struggle, it still easily made my list for top shows of 2019. Because if nothing else, The Good Place makes me think.
By this fourth and final season, we’ve largely accepted that a change toward goodness is possible for the average petty human. But what about for people who are just genuinely shitty, misogynistic and bigoted? Is it worth it to bother trying to change their hearts and minds when they’re committed to being the absolute worst? I questioned whether the show could pull this question off, as I always do. Lean too far and you assign the responsibility for someone’s goodness onto those they oppress. Lean too far the other direction and you say change is impossible, that some people are just born evil.
In fact, it does neither. It stuck the landing with a reminder that change is good, is necessary, but that not all changes need to be earth-shaking to be worthwhile. Incremental work is good and valuable, even when it feels Sisyphean. The Good Place is a bright, shining beacon of weirdness and warmth in increasingly dark times, and I’ll miss it very much when it’s gone.
– Melissa Brinks
Many of us would probably agree that the middle grades of our school years are a kind of hell. Between the hormones, awkward growth spurts, braces (or glasses, etc.), the mercurial cycle of whatever trend is a must-have in order to avoid ridicule and social interactions generally exaggerated to DEFCON 1-level importance, being a young teenager blows.
On the one hand, it seems insane to me that 30-something Pen15 stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle would be willing to play themselves at 13 – who would actually want to go back? On the other, this weird soul-sister to Peggy Sue Got Married makes for some great comedy. The duo looks young already, but they hilariously lean into their remembered awkwardness and by doing so, seem to perform a ritual for enacting and banishing any lingering trauma they may have endured in that tenderest of times.
As funny as they and the show are, they also craft a moving portrait of intense teenage friendship, specifically the feminine variety. A viewer can feel the searing tear of separation anytime Maya and Anna experience conflict within their own (probably) codependent bubble, but when they’re well and truly gelling? They buoy and brace each other against the crueler lumps of their younger lives. Hell may be other people, but it would be truly unbearable without them.
– Sara Clemens
Certain TV shows have that one episode that defines the show, a single episode that comes to encapsulate everything that the show is about: Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory;” the final episode of season one of The Good Place; the middle episode of Twin Peaks: The Return.
This year, we witnessed what I think will end up becoming Barry’s defining episode, “ronny/lily.” Barry, blackmailed into a murder-for-hire scheme, breaks into a stranger’s house to murder him, unaware that said stranger (Ronny) is a master of taekowndo. While their extended fight sequence is worthy of praise on its own, the real gem of the episode starts when Ronny’s daughter (Lily) comes home to find her father apparently dead and Barry has to contend with yet another martial arts master, who this time has an unappeasable ferocity and surreal ability to jump at incredible speed and distance. In the end, Barry walks away from the episode without killing either of the two antagonists, but much worse for wear.
This episode embodies everything that makes Barry one of the top shows of the year, if not the decade: witty dialogue, great performances (especially from Stephen Root), impeccable fight choreography and an antihero who is barely scraping through life. At the same time, Hader uses this episode (and the show at large) to antagonize our love of the antihero and violence, making us wonder whether or not we should be rooting for Barry at all.
– Noah Springer
What I love about Fleabag is its commitment to crafting deeply, almost irredeemably flawed characters and making us love them all regardless. The show, driven by its creator and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, never shies away from showing them at their worst moments: whether it’s having a bathroom miscarriage, seducing a priest or getting a fucking appalling haircut. It’s the honesty glimpsed through the prism of these moments, the way they color the outlines of each character in a more vivid light, that makes them feel earned rather than merely licentious.
Season 2 focuses on the painful and mostly unrequited love story between Waller-Bridge and a visiting priest played by Andrew Scott. For anyone who has had their heart broken by way of earnest impossibility rather than flippant capriciousness, there are many recognizable notes of truth struck by their story. When the priest recognizes the fourth wall that Waller-Bridge’s character often turns to, it feels frightening because he is seeing her in a way no one else does, diving into vulnerability she is not even aware she has. That he can do this while being ultimately unavailable is the keenest tragedy; one Fleabag pulls off with deftness and maturity. It pins the story neatly to a tempered but hopeful conclusion. One that may be as flawed as its characters, but is just as honest and full of heart.
– Yussef Cole
Chernobyl is not without its failings – those British accents, the anti-Soviet leaning, the unscientific nature of some of its depictions of both radiation sickness and also of the toll of the blast, its decision to turn the work of hundreds of scientists into the role of a single woman.
With that in mind, its probably got some of the best world building I’ve ever seen on television (this thread on the accuracy to the period comes to mind). Chernobyl of the 80’s feels real, feels actualized, feels like the place. It’s also one of the most frightening and graphically horrifying things I’ve ever seen, with radiation treated as this kind of unknowable horror. In many respects, it’s one of the best pieces of horror I’ve seen in years. Alla Shapiro, a Ukrainian first responder and radiation expert, said that media on Chernobyl should be “based on science, not on fear” and there’s validity to what she says – but with the Chernobyl series, fear is what they do best.
– Amanda Hudgins
It is difficult to not compare Russian Doll to Groundhog Day, but if one pushes past the first and second iterations, it’s a comparison that can bear fruit. Bill Murray’s Phil Connors and Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov are both prickly individuals trapped in a single repeating day (more or less – Thursday! What a concept!) for reasons whose metaphysics are never really explained. Groundhog Day, however, for all its pleasures, is a film that never entirely escapes its premise. Bill Murray is tasked with living a perfect day (and getting Andie MacDowell into bed) and eventually, he does (and he does) even if doing so little resembles what he would have initially imagined. Nadia’s labyrinth, on the other hand, is less of an exercise in solipsism and her path through it suggests that our problems – our traumas – are matters of more than just unrealized self-actualization. Russian Doll eventually becomes more than just a fascinating character piece when Nadia discovers that she isn’t alone in her repeating day, and that getting out isn’t just a matter of saving herself. The world is not a solitary place and being human is a messy process mixed up in the people around us. It isn’t about getting things right. It’s about the responsibility and liberation of the realization that as difficult as it is to reach and be reached by anyone else, we are not and cannot really ever be ourselves by ourselves, and finding a way through that realization into a future that we can’t yet imagine.
– Gavin Craig
I cannot express how much I thought Watchmen would be bad. I thought this show would be very bad. I thought I would dance and delight on its grave. I thought I would run down the streets emptying my lungs at its streamable corpse.
Instead, to my intense and full delight, I am here to sing the praises of Watchmen. Watchmen is a show that invites inquiry, curiosity and rewatching. For several weeks I’ve been spoiled with the riches of a show that pulls a beautiful, wondrous thing out of the hopeless, cynical wasteland that the final pages of Moore’s Watchmen left us with.
HBO’s Watchmen doesn’t build on Moore’s Watchmen as much as it seems like a strange tendril sprouted from it. A world reminiscent of ours, familiar and still strange, that feels like it is again, seconds from midnight.
I am sitting at my desk rolling with laughter at the mediocrity of a trailer. I am listening to “Life on Mars.” I am telling Stu Horvath of the show’s greatness. I am sneering at hearing “Lindelof.” I am reading Watchmen in my parent’s suburban home. I am desperate to talk to someone about Watchmen. Tick tock.
– David Shimomura