As usual at this time of year, TMINE is busily packing its bags to get ready for its annual Christmas break. We’re not there yet, though, as everything will continue until Thursday at least, although I have a Christmas party to go to on Friday so who knows what’ll happen then?
However, barring minor miracles, there’ll be no more shows that are both new and excellent for me to review this year, which means I can at last unveil TMINE’s Top N programmes of 2019, where N is a positive integer that you can guess, if you want. You haven’t got long. Just a few paragraphs in fact.
I will say at this point, though, that despite the expansion in streaming services this year, N<14 for 2019. And for about the first half of the year, it looked like it wouldn’t be more than a handful. However, things have perked up since.
That’s all the clues you’re getting, mind.
There are other TV shows
As always, the caveat:
I’ve not watched every TV programme broadcast or acquired in the UK this year and I barely watched any live TV, so there are almost certainly some good shows that that I’ve left off the list. And, of course, there are a few shows that started well but I’ve not finished yet, so aren’t eligible for the list.
So best not to think of this as the definitive “Best new TV shows from all the shows that have aired around the world of 2019”, so much as just the “Top TV shows I would recommend to a friend of the ones I’ve reviewed in 2019”.
Old stuff is good
I should also point out that this is all the new shows that have hit TMINE’s TV-viewing radar this year, and it’s worth remembering that sometimes the best TV can come from people who have already been making great TV.
So honourable mentions for the following ineligible shows that have continued to provide me with considerable viewing pleasure this year:
- Le bureau des légendes (The Bureau) (France: Canal+; UK: Sundance TV) – seasons three and four
- Dark (Netflix) – season two
- Engrenages (Spiral) (France: Canal+; UK: BBC Four) – season eight
- Impulse (YouTube) – season two
- Legion (US: FX; UK: Fox UK) – season three
Drum roll, please
But now, to the Top N of 2019. As always, feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments, on your own blog or on the TMINE Facebook page.
TMINE’s Top 11 shows of 2019
To cut to the chase, here’s this year’s Top N, in alphabetical order:
- Das Boot (Germany: Sky Deutschland; UK: Sky Atlantic)
- The Boys (Amazon)
- Criminal (Netflix)
- Dollface (US: Hulu)
- Evil (US: CBS)
- Living With Yourself (Netflix)
- Der Pass (Pagan Peak) (Germany: Sky 1; UK: Sky Atlantic)
- Pennyworth (US: Epix; UK: StarzPlay)
- Perpetual Grace LTD (US: Epix)
- Total Control (Australia: ABC)
- Watchmen (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)
Read on to find out why they’re the chosen ones.
The Boys (Amazon)
Synopsis: A modern updating of Watchmen… with butt jokes
At first glance, The Boys looks like it’s a simple idea: what if superheroes were real? And not just real, but like celebrity actors, musicians and sports stars? Sure, they might originally have got into it to save lives. But with all that cash from movie appearances and endorsements, as well as the political influence they could acquire, how long would it be before they started caring only for number one, rather than the little person?
For the first episode or two, The Boys looks like it’s simply going to be normal people doing unpleasant things to pastiches of DC superheroes in an escalating cavalcade of exec producer Seth Rogen’s preferred style of gross-out humour. There’s sex of all kinds, people exploding and the entire gamut of swearwords – all interspersed with your bog standard jokes about Aquaman.
However, it soon moves beyond having the vast perspicacity to suggest that Wonder Woman might, gasp, be bisexual and name-checking #MeToo to consider more interesting issues. Why are most superheroes American? How would that play with the Christian right – would belief in the exceptionalism of the US be buoyed up even more? Would superheroes then be expected to endorse reactionary morality and to be against gay marriage, for example? And would they join the military to fight other countries?
All of which makes The Boys a pretty decent update of Watchmen (although not as good as Watchmen), tackling different, more modern themes in different ways to make us examine both superheroes and ourselves. It’s got some really good action scenes, some pretty decent ideas and some good jokes, too. You might need a strong stomach and a strong tolerance for the c-word, though.
It’s also got Banshee‘s Antony Starr being absolutely terrifying as a thinly veiled version of Superman. It’s worth watching simply for him.
TMINE episode reviews
Synopsis: Like the best bits of Line of Duty distilled into 12 episodes set all round Europe
Criminal’s genius is in its simplicity. It’s an anthology show of 12 episodes in which the police question someone in a spartan interrogation room. The person in question might be a witness or the police’s prime suspect for a crime. The police’s job is to divine the truth of the situation and get their detainee to divulge the information they need.
Each episode features a different detainee, but the same police… up to a point.
Because Criminal is broken down into four separate blocks of three episodes, each block being set in a different country and filmed in the local language – the four countries in question being the UK, France, Germany, and Spain.
The police themselves are usually mid-tier, well known actors from their respective countries, the detainees slightly higher tier ‘names’, such as David Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Inma Cuesta, Sara Giraudeau, Peter Kurth and Nathalie Baye. The big names come in and show off their acting prowess with the regulars in a 40-minute long two/three-hander that’s almost entirely dialogue. The result, paradoxically for Netflix, is something intensely theatrical.
The quality of the stories is a little variable, with the French episodes the best. But it’s all worth watching.
I’m not a big fan of the crime genre, but if you love theatre, then like me, you’ll probably love Criminal.
TMINE’s episode reviews
Living With Yourself (Netflix)
Synopsis: A sci-fi-comedy Trojan horse into an Ingmar Bergman film
It’s odd that the first TV show in quite some time to really consider what cloning might mean, psychologically, philosophically and existentially, is a comedy written by Timothy Greenberg (The Detour) and starring Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, Anchorman, Friends) and Aisling Bea (I Feel Bad).
Living With Yourself sees copywriter Rudd and interior designer Bea on the downslope of a marriage. The fun’s gone, they don’t talk to one another and their efforts at having a baby have come to naught. Rudd’s career is no better and he’s beginning to lose inspiration – allowing fellow co-worker Desmin Borges (You’re The Worst) to steal a march on him.
Then Borges confesses that he’s got ahead thanks to a day at the spa that utterly refreshed him. It’s exclusive and pricey – $50,000 – but he can get Rudd in if he wants. Rudd caves in and soon, he too is enjoying the benefits of the treatment.
However, it’s not long before he discovers what the treatment actually is: he’s been cloned. Or more accurately, the original Rudd has been cloned and then improved – and he’s the result.
But there’s been a glitch in the process and the original Rudd wakes to find himself buried in the woods in a plastic bag. Soon, the two of them are having to work out how to live with one another. And Bea.
At a literal level, Living With Yourself examines the psychological reasons you might want to clone yourself and create a better version of yourself, as well as what that might mean. Here, it doesn’t just go to the physical but also the mental, as the show takes liberties with the science – cloned Rudd gets clones of Rudd’s memories.
But the show works far more at a metaphorical level. As the title suggests, it’s all about coming to terms with who you are as a person. Essentially, Rudd’s character is depressed and his clone is an undepressed version of himself. Rudd may want to be like his happier clone, but is his happier work genuinely better or is it more superficial than the more critical Rudd’s? Does Bea love the undepressed, flawed Rudd or does the romantic, considerate Rudd hold more appeal?
Equally, romantic, undepressed Rudd throws everything to the wind, including his career, as he seizes the day. So is that actually better, or has the flawed Rudd, still concerned by the everyday, got it right? Does a better life involve a flight to Paris or not, or is that papering over other issues?
Reinforcing that idea of multiple owners of reality, Living With Yourself flits between different points of views. Frequently, one episode will be dedicated to one character, only for the next episode to retell events from the point of view another. There are flashbacks to before the events of the show and within the show. Frequently, you’ll find minor details in scenes take on far more importance in later episodes when their real meaning is unveiled.
I won’t say I really enjoyed Living With Yourself, since it is effectively a sci-fi-comedy Trojan horse into an Ingmar Bergman film. But it’s certainly stimulating, asks good questions, is centred on well formed characters and constantly keeps you guessing. The ending’s a little more open-ended and angling for a second season than I’d have liked, but it’s definitely one of the best shows I’ve watched this year.
TMINE episode reviews
Total Control (Australia: ABC)
Synopsis: Australia’s indigenous answer to House of Cards and Yes, Prime Minister
Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) is the embattled but cunning Prime Minister of Australia. Alex (Deborah Mailman) is a charismatic, indigenous up-and-coming politician who finds herself the centre of media attention following a shocking event. Rachel wants to use Alex to boost her popularity and further her own agenda. Alex is wise to the Prime Minister’s betrayal and sets out for revenge that may break the whole political establishment
Total Control is actually a surprisingly good political drama that tackles racism, diversity and tokenism head on. It’s well acted, as you might expect of both Griffiths and Mailman, and often subtly written, refusing to provide instant answers and often relying on the expressions of its leads and the framing of shots to point things out.
It’s also not afraid to make its lead a black b**** (the show’s original title). She’s full of ideals, yet ultimately decides to take the job of senator after she watches the kids next door setting fire to a tree so decides she wants out from her impoverished small Queensland town. She has lots to say about racism but sometimes says it to the wrong people – people who are trying in their own way to help her. She has cause, but she doesn’t know how to politick.
It’s also happy to make it clear that Griffiths isn’t a monster either, just someone who’s willing to make moral compromises to get some things done, rather than be morally pure and get nothing done.
All in all, a very impressive first season.
TMINE episode reviews
Das Boot (Germany: Sky Deutschland; UK: Sky Atlantic)
Synopsis: A worthy successor to the original movie that shows and condemns the madness on both sides in war
Das Boot isn’t the sequel you’ve been expecting. Okay, you probably weren’t expecting a sequel to the 1981 German cinema classic Das Boot at all, let alone one to original author Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s sequel Die Festung as well.
But picking up the action a mere nine months after the end of the original movie, Das Boot is oddly enough also a sequel (of sorts) to previous TMINE Top N winner Babylon Berlin. Because if Babylon Berlin is the story of how a country collectively went mad, Das Boot is the story of how it began to regain its senses.
Set in 1942 in occupied France, Das Boot has two real narrative strands. As you might expect, the first takes place on board a German U-Boat, a new, more advanced class of submarine than that shown in the movie. But while the film’s U-Boat was populated by old and experienced hands, this submarine is suffering from the same problem as the rest of Germany – too many of the old hands have been killed in action. Now, only the young and inexperienced are available.
The other narrative strand takes place on dry land in La Rochelle, France. Vicky Krieps (the real-life granddaughter of wartime Luxembourg Resistance member Robert Krieps) is a trilingual German from Alsace and member of the German navy – just like her brother, who’s on board our U-boat. Being German, she never fit in in Alsace, after the Treaty of Versailles handed the area over to France, but is now glad that it’s part of the Greater Germany again.
However, it’s still not an easy life being German. There’s the pesky French resistance, going around blowing things up, and who seem to want to recruit her. Krieps’ brother turns out to have been passing black market morphine to a member of the resistance. There’s a gestapo police officer (Game of Thrones‘ Tom Wlaschiha) who seems a little bit too interested in her. There’s a bit too much brutality, rape and covering up going on for her starry-eyed ideals about Germany to survive, either. Will she join the fighting free French or will she stay a loyal German citizen?
As well as being a prestige, German show and a top maritime show – both pluses in my eyes – it’s also a persuasive look at the German psyche of the time and how it was slowly coming to its senses. All in all, a great look at heroism – and the lack thereof – in times of war.
TMINE’s episode reviews
Der Pass (Pagan Peak) (Germany: Sky 1; UK: Sky Atlantic)
Synopsis: The best Bridge so far
The German-Austrian co-production Der Pass (Pagan Peak) is possibly the best version so far of the world-famous Bron/Broen (The Bridge) – perhaps even better than the original. It’s also the one that diverges most from Bron/Broen.
Set in the mountains between Germany and Austria, once again, it sees a body found on the exact border between two countries. As a result, the two nations send their own detectives to investigate: the German Ellie Stocker (Julia Jentsch) and the Austrian Gedeon Winter (Nicholas Ofczarek).
Here, though, storylines diverge quickly as we learn that the murder evokes concepts in ancient pagan rituals, such as the Green Man and the Celtic wood god Cernunnos, as well as the Austro-German Christmas tradition of the Krampus. Who is this Krampus Killer and what does he want?
While to some extent the Krampus myth is a red herring, the show uses it to reflect on killers and society, migration and the changes in society it brings, the resurgent far right and its exploitation of tradition, domestic terrorism close to home, and even the rigid thinking of technology experts and its proximity to that of the serial killer. And while it doesn’t have Sofia Helin’s marvellous Saga Norin, Winter is just as interesting a character in his own right.
TMINE episode reviews
Dollface (US: Hulu)
Synopsis: Kat Dennings’ magic realist rediscovery of her friends and feminism
Dollface takes us on a whistle-stop tour of what happens when Kat Dennings gets dumped, how she then tries to connect with her one-time friends and how she has to avoid being snared back into being a male-oriented woman.
It does this with considerable imagination and magical realism – with various female social subtexts and metaphors being made literal. It’s often very funny, thanks mainly to the always watchable Dennings’ performance, but also due to a fair degree of smartness.
While initially it seems a little flawed, later episodes fix most of the issues, while piling on cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie, Tia Carrere, Goran Višnjić and Matthew Gray Gubler. We also get the truly great ninth episode – the appropriately titled Feminist – which was an hilarious episode-long Wizard of Oz tribute that dissected what it means to be a feminist.
The show also dared to end the story, not just leave everything open-ended, while not going for the standard resolutions to most of its storylines.
All in all, probably the best and most interesting comedy I’ve seen all year.
TMINE episode reviews
Evil (US: CBS)
Synopsis: Can science or religion explain the true evil in this world – people?
Created by CBS premier league team Robert and Michelle King (BrainDead, The Good Wife, The Good Fight), the refreshingly entitled Evil sees Katja Herbers playing a forensic psychologist who usually testifies on behalf of the local district attorney. When she investigates one man claimed to be demonically possessed, has a suspicion he might be and so refuses to testify that he’s insane, the DA dumps her.
A single mum strapped for cash after a divorce and now jobless, she’s only too happy to take up sexy would-be priest Mike Coulter’s offer of a job investigating such cases on behalf of the Catholic Church. There’s a backlog of about 500,000 complaints, you see, and they don’t need a believer to help winnow that pile down – they need someone who can spot the difference between a real possession and fakers, the deluded et al.
Together with technical expert Aasif Mandvi, Coulter and Herbers set out to separate the real from the unreal. Something Michael Emerson doesn’t want to happen.
Because he’s evil. But is he a true demon or simply a sociopath who likes to nurtures incels until they shoot up a women’s group?
Kudos to Evil – the only US network TV show of this year’s Fall season worthy of the Top N list – for giving us a supernatural investigation series that manages to be scary as well as funny, and to more or less side with science against religion.
Each episode manages to pull off the neat trick of mixing real science and scepticism, humour and genuinely frightening moments of horror – all while pointing its finger at the true evil in this world: people, particularly people on 4Chan.
TMINE’s episode reviews
Pennyworth (US: Epix; UK: StarzPlay)
Synopsis: A Batman prequel-prequel that’s a tribute to everything 1960s and British – particularly Michael Caine
There can’t be many TV shows, films or even books that are not just prequels but are prequels to prequels. So Pennyworth exists in somewhat rarefied airs, being a prequel to Gotham (more or less), which itself is a prequel to Batman.
Pennyworth tells the origin story of the redoubtable future butler to a billionaire called ‘Bruce Wayne’. Set in the 60s, just after Alfred Pennyworth has been discharged from the SAS, it sees Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) trying to move from nightclub bouncer to establish his own security firm with some of his fellow service members.
Along the way he encounters Thomas Wayne and helps him deal with some strange subversive patriots who are trying to bring down the government – for the sake of the country.
Purely at that level, it’s actually quite good. Bannon is doing possibly the best imitation of Michael Caine you’ve seen in a young actor and is personable, funny and plausible as an ex-soldier. He’s helped by a script that heavily emphasises the Caine connection, insisting that Bannon call himself Alfie and lurk around buses.
However, just as Gotham are set in a sort of weird parallel version of New York, so Pennyworth is set in an equally weird alternative reality London. Despite some really lovingly done period details, authentic to the 60s, Zeppelins hang in the air, there are televised public executions and people are pelted in the stocks.
It’s also an amalgam of various aspects of the 60s. Apart from the Alfie acknowledgements, the main baddy (Jason Flemyng) has clearly escaped from old episodes of The Avengers. Meanwhile, his main henchwoman, Paloma Faith, has done likewise, but also talks like she’s just escaped from an Alan Bennett Talking Heads piece. Similarly, there are scenes involving Pennyworth and his posh actress girlfriend (Emma Corrin) that could have escaped from any 60s kitchen sink drama about class mobility and clashes.
By turns genuinely hilarious, clever, precise and authentic, Pennyworth is an unexpected treat, a new Avengers (but not a new New Avengers) that avoids all the genre mismatch pitfalls Gotham fell into. While its weird departure mid-season into Dennis Wheatley territory spells a low point, its return to form at the end makes up for it, particularly its absolutely gonzo bonkers finale involving the Queen.
TMINE episode reviews
- Episodes one to two
- Martha Kane
- Episodes four and five
- Cilla Black
- Julie Christie
- Sandie Shaw
- Episodes nine and ten
Perpetual Grace LTD (US: Epix)
Synopsis: Sexy Beast with a There Will Be Blood accent
Perpetual Grace sees Jimmi Simpson (Breakout Kings, Westworld) playing a former firefighter. Former because he quit the fire brigade after a rookie firefighter was killed through his negligence.
One day, he’s approached by Damon Herriman (Secret City, Quarry, Squinters, Mr InBetween) who’s looking for someone to help him get some money out of his estranged god-bothering parents. All Simpson has to do is get into their good books and send them looking for him down south where a friendly policeman (Code Black‘s Luis Guzmán) will lock them up for a fortnight. During that time, Simpson can assume Herriman’s identity, declare them dead and then take over their assets.
Trouble is, Herriman’s holding back on a couple of secrets and Simpson’s really not the ruthless criminal type. Worse still, Herriman’s parents are Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver.
Perpetual Grace Ltd sits somewhere between high art and outright comedy, all viewed through a noir lens. It’s what happens if regular people try to act hard-boiled but happen to be in a noir movie, so everything carries on as if they actually had been hard-boiled.
Case in point: in episode two, we get Kingsley in narration explaining that he has many psychological techniques for wearing people down and bending them to his will, all of which sound like classic, psychological noir. In practice, these techniques turn out to be him shouting “Hey fattie!” and “Are you going bald?” at a bloke all day.
A marvellously funny noir of elaborate dialogue and sometimes surreal situations, with wonderful performances and one of Ben Kingsley’s strangest ever accents – is it American, is it posh English or is it… Welsh? Sure, the plot may not have resolved at the end, but with this one, it’s really all about the journey.
TMINE episode reviews
- Orphan Comb Death Fight
- Felipe G Usted. Almost First Mexican On The Moon. Part 1
- Felipe G Usted. Almost First Mexican On The Moon. Part 2
- Wandering Left
- When Doves Cry
- Bull Face
- Episodes eight to 10
Watchmen (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)
Synopsis: A near-perfect sequel to the graphic novel
Watchmen is a sort of Watchmen meets The Leftovers that manages to be a near-perfect sequel while still being incredibly different. Set in 2019 yet also set in the same “universe” as the original Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen, Watchmen asks… well, it asks a lot of things, all related to Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
What would that world would be like, 30 years after an alien psychic squid seemingly teleported into New York? With term limits removed, would Richard Nixon still be president or would we – for example – have a left-wing actor as his successor? How will the original Watchmen, Minutemen and co be remembered? How would all of Dr Manhattan’s technology be used? What kind of world would that be?
Central to the story is the dependably excellent Regina King. Born in Vietnam – now an American state – she used to be a cop, before she was shot in the line of duty. Now she lives in Tulsa in the US, where she makes cupcakes and is secretly part of the police force. The US is now a society in which the police have to remain masked in order to save their faces from Rorschach-worshipping white supremacists, while their left-leaning president refuses to let them use guns except in extreme, red-tape-bound circumstances.
Initially, the show is happy to work purely with King’s character, but slowly it introduces characters from the graphic novel, slowly revealing its Greek-myth inspired story arc over the course of its nine episodes. Jeremy Irons is marvellously batty as Ozymandias, living who-knows-where, while Jean Smart’s grown-up Laurie Blake marvellously undermines the whole idea of superheroes. It also fills in the blanks of the original, showing us what minorities and minor characters were doing that no one noticed.
Often breath-taking, with a stunning visual look and even more stunning Atticus Ross/Trent Raznor soundtrack, Watchmen is one of the few great sequels.