The Best TV of 2019


Beauty isn’t always pretty. Artfully visualized through gray skylines and gloomy industrial landscapes, HBO’s Chernobyl powerfully reflects the stagnation of a nation infected by a post-totalitarian malaise that’s almost as poisonous as nuclear fallout. In a similar fashion, beauty lurks in the forbiddingly grim performances of the stellar cast. Led by Jared Harris as nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, the methodically restrained ensemble painfully reflects a passionate people in bondage to the Soviet state’s knot of self-preserving lies. Burdened by an oppressive and stagnant system, Chernobyl groans for redemption. After years of complicity, Legasov finally discovers the courage to proclaim the whole truth about the state’s shameful culpability in the devastating nuclear accident. This monumental redemptive reveal occurs in a taught, suspenseful, and high-stakes courtroom reversal. For one holy moment, the looming and inevitable sense of pervading lethargy briefly lifts on this infamous Ukrainian city. Although Legasov suffers mightily for his selfless act of courage, his bright witness makes clear where our faith belongs. As Christians, we follow the embodiment of “the way and the truth and the life,” secure in our knowledge that “the truth will set you free.” (Robert Hubbard)

Country Music

Over eight episodes and more than 16 hours, documentarian Ken Burns’ Country Music chronicles not only the history of a musical genre, but a critical and tragically overlooked aspect of the American story: the way the nation’s working class commingled their cultures over the last couple of hundred years. This is the spiritual sound of a uniquely co-located people as they get better at making an industry, while failing (often, but not always) to create community. Banjos from Africa, fiddles from Ireland, hymns from the church, chants of the enslaved—Burns incorporates all of this, making a powerful case for the complicated, communal, and deeply spiritual aspect of country music. The genre most associated with Southern whites is actually the result of a rare kind of cross-cultural harmonizing that could probably only have been catalyzed in America’s melting pot. Psalm 133 proclaims that it is “good and pleasant” when God’s people dwell in unity. Is it possible that this music is an echo of that kind of unity? Or does it only point to that unrealized possibility? Burns painstakingly documents country music’s commodification, commercialization, and capitulation to market forces, while also honoring the thread that ties the whole story together: what Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard called “three chords and the truth.” (John J. Thompson)


The clergyman played by Andrew Scott in Fleabag Season 2 is simply credited as "The Priest," but somehow, in our cultural imagination, he's become "The Hot Priest." That show creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge could conjure up such a fascinating, sincere, and sympathetic character as an alcoholic Roman Catholic priest living in London is a testimony to her brilliance and the show's uniquely subversive aesthetic. It's hard to classify Fleabag: it's a despondent comedy, a realist fantasy, an unsentimental romance, and a cleverly secular TV show about spirituality. (Or is it a spiritual show about secularism?) Both Fleabag and Waller-Bridge are atypical in the best way—they break down stereotypes and boundaries (like fourth walls) with such grace and wit that you can't help but fall in love with them. Which is precisely what happens to the Hot Priest. A love triangle between a woman, a man, and God (and maybe a devilish fox), Fleabag’s second season celebrates the raw broken beauty of humanity like no other show I've witnessed. (Joel Mayward)

Good Omens

Good Omens received flak in some Christian circles, but I valued it as a comedic, fictional show that had nothing to do with satanism and everything to do with peacemaking. Angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and demon Crowley (David Tennant) strike an unlikely friendship from the beginning of time. They are on the opposite sides of theological warfare, and yet are able to dialogue civilly, work together, and enjoy each other’s company despite their differences. In my life, there have been times when this kind of civility hasn’t been possible with someone who disagrees with my taste in movies—nevermind who I voted for or what my opinion on gay marriage, abortion, or child baptism is. I wish that our love for each other looked less like condemnation and more like this pair’s compassion and acceptance. In addition to satirical one-liners that obviously come from the pens of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, gorgeous cinematography, and phenomenal acting (particularly from Sheen and Tennant), Good Omens offers the idea of loving the world even though it is a broken place. If that’s not part of the Great Plan, I don’t know what is. (Allison Alexander)

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black has always been about the power to transform. Premiering in 2013, the Netflix series initially focused on freshman inmate—and middle-class exile—Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she adjusted to life behind the walls of Litchfield Penitentiary. As the show progressed, it widened its lens to explore the lives of Piper’s fellow inmates and Litchfield’s guards and administrators, eventually delivering a critique of the prison-industrial complex itself—to ask whether or not the system, those who run it, and those who are run by it are capable of overcoming their past and present misdeeds. In its seventh, final, and most satisfying season, we find a number of the show’s main characters still struggling by series’ end, trapped in familiar, destructive cycles. Even newly paroled Piper remains driven by her own self-interest and continues to take more than she gives. Others, however, undergo a significant sea change. Endowed with newfound strength and a sense of duty, they find purpose in service: as leaders, organizers, and advocates; as mothers, daughters, mentors, and companions. Through their stories, we witness the promise of Proverbs 11:25 fulfilled: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” The show suggests that if we want to transform ourselves for the better, we must be ready to do the same for the world. (D. Marquel)

Schitt’s Creek

As Schitt’s Creek winds its way to a close, its audience increasingly encounters a different story than the one it was sold—in all the best ways. The Canadian sitcom initially presented itself as a riches-to-rags tale, a reverse Beverly Hillbillies in which the opulent and oblivious Rose family (Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Daniel Levy, Annie Murphy) felt the jarring culture shock of relocating from New York City to the shapeless hamlet of the show’s title. These days, Schitt’s Creek has less to say about fish being out of water and is more concerned with each of the Roses unearthing virtues that long lived dormant inside. The show’s fifth and penultimate season underlines the family’s progress as the Roses adopt practices and postures resembling what many Christians call the Bible’s “one anothers”—a string of verses that presents a gospel-motivated mandate for active love. By rooting for family over the outcome in a high-profile softball game and thereby setting their own interests aside, by prioritizing a heartbroken friend over the revelry of an awards ceremony, the Roses honor others above themselves. As they squabble and scatter, only to come back to each other, they prove that their acceptance transcends circumstances. The Roses still obsess over themselves too much, but in all these moments and more, they approach something like the love of God as they find sustenance and joy in loving one another. (Aarik Danielsen)

Tuca & Bertie

Netflix’s canceled-too-soon Tuca & Bertie was one of the weirder shows of 2019. Fans of BoJack Horseman will recognize show creator Lisa Hanawalt’s animal-headed people and watercolor textures and palette, but Tuca & Bertie’s aesthetic is bouncy and playful, more like a cartoon zine come to life than BoJack’s prestige tone. Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) and Bertie (Ali Wong) are best friends, negotiating what it means to have a career, to be a woman, and to live in relationship (romantic, familial, or platonic). Through it all, the two friends work through their feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and repression, learning how to speak up for themselves and for others when confronted by injustices small and systemic. The result feels like the Psalms, if they were shoved into a blender and poured out into 20-minute animated episodes. These are snippets of lament, righteous anger, and exuberant joy. The “How long?” of Psalm 13 is in Bertie’s sudden panic attack in an organic grocery store; the shouts of joy of Psalm 126 are in nearly every squawk Tuca produces. The spirit of the Psalms is present in Tuca & Bertie, it just happens to be demonstrated by a toucan in athletic gear and a songbird who loves to bake. (Sarah Welch-Larson)


HBO’s Watchmen makes a fascinating complement to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic-novel series from the 1980s. The show understands the tone and themes of its source and challenges them. If Moore and Gibbons’ comic boiled with nihilistic rage, showrunner Damon Lindelof’s continuation puts that rage under a microscope. At the end of the comic, superhero Adrian Veidt killed millions by dropping a massive psychic squid on New York. Veidt believed his cosmic terrorist attack would bring humanity together in the face of tragedy. However, in Lindelof’s series, set years later, paranoia reigns supreme. A white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry attaches a new name to existing racist institutions. An attack on police officers in their homes leads to a law that lets officers become masked vigilantes, a move which provides safety, but also troubling loopholes. In this world, the characters of Watchmen all live with different traumas, direct and inherited. The commonality is that nobody has dealt healthily with it. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells us if we forgive those who sin against us, God will forgive our sins. If we don’t, our own failings will also go unforgiven. Watchmen’s characters weaponize their pain, eroding their souls, relationships, and the culture around them. Yet while Moore and Gibbons thought the world was beyond saving, Lindelof’s series offers a flicker of hope, suggesting that we must address our own darkness before we can turn toward the light. (Abby Olcese)

Topics: TV