Film and Media Studies faculty choose 10 best television shows of 2019

Dec. 23, 2019

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Season 3 of “The Crown” was one of 2019’s best television offerings, according to faculty in Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies. Promotional photo courtesy of Netflix.

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Peak TV continues as Americans are overwhelmed with an array of quality shows. Choosing 10 to spotlight from 2019 is as difficult as ever, but here are the picks by scholar/fan members of Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies: David Barba (DB), Matthew H. Bernstein (MHB), Charlie Michael (CM), Dan Reynolds (DR) and Michele Schreiber (MS).

Chernobyl

Devastating in its depiction of a colossal human-made disaster, HBO’s five-episode, limited series “Chernobyl” dramatizes a modern-day apocalypse caused by hubris, corruption and disregard for human life, the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.  The mise-en-scène transports: from the terrific acting by Jared Harris, Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, to the spectacular production design and stunning cinematography. The series deservedly swept the recent Emmy Awards in many of the technical categories as well as winning awards for the top limited series award and best writing and directing. Horrific and fascinating. (DB) 

The Crown (season 3)

The third season of Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” introduces us to an older Queen Elizabeth II, played by recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”). Though one might miss Claire Foy, who deftly played the monarch in the first two seasons, Colman inhabits the role seamlessly. The power of Morgan’s storytelling makes us care about the highly privileged and their cashmere problems. This is soap opera of the highest order. The sumptuous sets, extravagant locations, impeccable costumes and acting master classes make us believe we know the Windsors. Plus, they have Helena Bonham-Carter. Made to binge. (DB) 

Fleabag 

This edgily feminist (and often uproarious) comedy recounts the eyebrow-raising misadventures of a young woman in London. Played with raw honesty by breakout writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the narrator (known only as “Fleabag”) seems to diffuse each cringe-worthy episode with well-timed asides to the screen audience. In the show’s brilliant second season, the plot itself revolves around these conventions of the single-camera sitcom. When a “hot” Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) tests Fleabag’s libidinal restraint, he also intuits her unholy dependence on the dramatic “fourth wall.” Unveiling the manipulative power of her own pursed-lip gaze, Waller-Bridge questions the range of her televisual sympathies – as well as our own. (CM)

Living With Yourself

This has been a year of onscreen doubles and dual performances, from films including Jordan Peele’s “Us” and Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” to television like HBO’s “The Deuce.” In a more comedic vein, the Netflix series “Living With Yourself” doubles down on the bankable charm of Paul Rudd, who stars as Miles, a man who has himself cloned only to find that the new Miles is more energetic, likable and productive than he is. Aisling Bea brings comedic gravity and emotional nuance to her role as Miles’s wife, Kate. With a score by the talented electronic composer Anna Meredith. (DR)

Stranger Things 

It is the summer of 1985 and our favorite Hawkins High teens have discovered the wonders of the Starcourt Mall (recognizable to Atlantans as the now-defunct Gwinnett Place of Duluth). Little do they know that the nightmarish “Mind Slayer” will soon return – more dangerous than ever. Seeped in the Cold War intrigue and floral-print shirts of the mid-Reagan years, this signature Netflix series may have reached a peak in Season 3. With strong writing from the Duffer brothers and preternatural performances from its stellar young cast, it continues to find new ways to blend Spielbergian feels with Stephen King thrills. (CM)

Succession

The second season of HBO’s dramedy about an aging, wavering media tycoon, his trio of ambitious but not-quite-ready-for-prime-time wannabe children and their corporate and romantic entourages only confirmed the show’s outstanding qualities as a highly resonant social and political satire on America’s wealthy, powerful and headline-grabbing families (the Redstones, the Murdochs and more) and American corporate capitalism. Written as a wry, compelling and highly entertaining combination of overheated ambition, elaborate power plays, zinging dialogue a la “Veep,” idiotic incompetence and sudden reversals, “Succession” also boasts an outstanding ensemble cast led by the always estimable Brian Cox. (MHB) 

The Mandalorian

The original “Star Wars” drew heavily on 1950s films like “The Searchers” and “The Hidden Fortress.” The Disney+ show “The Mandalorian” updates these influences by evoking the samurai series “Lone Wolf and Cub” and the anti-Westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s. Resisting in-vogue binge-able serialization, “The Mandalorian” favors an episodic format and benefits from its large and diverse cast of performers. In the process, it breaks free of the baggage of “Star Wars” in surprising and refreshing ways, while still very much serving the multibillion-dollar franchise of which it is a part. (DR) 

Unbelievable

Writer-producer Susannah Grant adapted the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” into this eight-part Netflix limited series with two intertwined narratives. One details the aftermath of the sexual assault of Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a young Washington State woman; the second follows two Colorado detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) who doggedly investigate a series of rapes in their state. Grant, as series producer and writer/director of multiple episodes, explores the importance of women’s labor, both physical and emotional, in correcting societal injustices. The series reveals how the excavation of the emotional and the intimate as “fact” can lead to a different mode of understanding women’s stories in the #MeToo era. (MS)

Watchmen

Like Zack Snyder’s 2009 close cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s popular 1980s graphic novel, Damon Lindelof’s HBO series preserves the self-reflexive and complex narrative structure of the original. Unlike the film, it features a key change: the story is set in an alternate, but all-too-familiar America where white supremacy remains dominant and masked heroes fight for justice. Full of great action sequences, a sly sense of the absurd and compelling characterizations from a terrific cast led by Regina King, Lindelof’s focus on our country’s history of racial violence and its aftermath is powerful, thought-provoking and relentlessly watchable. (MHB) 

When They See Us

Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix series on the stunning miscarriage of justice surrounding the five African-American teens accused of raping and beating a white Central Park jogger in 1989 was one of the most powerful and highly acclaimed programs of the year. Impeccably researched, broad in its scope, carefully written and vividly acted, this inquiry into why and how American racism — manifested in the news media, public opinion, the New York City prosecutor’s office and the justice system itself — dehumanized, via stereotype and willful blindness, and destroyed the accused’s lives. Gripping, haunting and unforgettable. (MHB)