That’s another way of noting that half of my list of the year’s best TV shows aired on HBO, followed by three shows from Netflix, one from Amazon Prime and just one broadcast network offering.
It’s hard for consumers to pay for all this TV, I realize, and I didn’t plan it this way. I simply look for the best shows — and here they are, with the usual caveat that I could easily make a list of 30 shows and still not get all the very good ones on it.
1. 'Watchmen' (HBO)
I’m as surprised as anyone to see Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of the 1980s graphic novel topping this list, but it continues to take my breath away, with its bracing vision of racism, mask-wearing, vigilantism and superheroic qualms in a skewed-reality America. Even if you think you can’t stand any more comic-book stuff, you need to be watching this one — if for no other reason than the great performances from Regina King, Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons.
2. 'When They See Us' (Netflix)
Ava DuVernay channeled 30 years of rage and injustice into this strikingly corrective and long overdue dramatic account of the Central Park Five, who as young men were wrongly accused of (and coerced into confessing to) a vicious attack on a jogger. There are strong performances throughout, especially Jharrel Jerome’s Emmy-winning, achingly transformative turn as Korey Wise, whose incarceration was longest and most brutal.
3. 'Unbelievable' (Netflix)
What I liked most about this powerful eight-episode miniseries — based on investigative reporting from ProPublica and the Marshall Project — is how effectively it steers us away from the typical true-crime fare with a vital example of how empathy can improve police work. Toni Collette and Merritt Wever are outstanding as two Colorado detectives zeroing in on a serial rapist, leading them to a victim (Kaitlyn Dever) whose case was botched by an egregious inability by male detectives to listen and understand.
4. 'Succession' (HBO)
Love them or just love to loathe them, there is no denying that Jesse Armstrong’s insanely watchable drama about the power tussle among the Roy siblings, heirs to a Murdoch-esque media baron (Brian Cox, who is just delicious as a cruel paterfamilias), held us firmly in its grip during its second season. Although I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that we fixated on a show about 1-percenter problems while our planet baked and the wealth gap widened, I do relish the next round of Boar on the Floor.
5. 'Gentleman Jack' (HBO)
If this list had been due six months ago, Sally Wainwright’s wonderfully wry yet emotionally charged period drama about Anne Lister, an uninhibited 19th-century English noblewoman, would be right at the top. That’s especially true when I think of Suranne Jones’s rollicking, knockout performance as Lister, who is frustrated by her society’s restrictive disdain for women who run their own business affairs, as well as their own lesbian affairs. It’s a ferociously enjoyable story, sharing in Lister’s triumphs and setbacks.
6. 'Fleabag' (Amazon Prime)
The show I used to beg people to watch became everyone’s favorite this year, as creator and star (and now Emmy winner) Phoebe Waller-Bridge returned with a long-awaited second season of her dramedy about a woman who is utterly human in the way she experiences ups and downs and processes her feelings of grief and guilt. As a bonus this time, Waller-Bridge gave the world Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), who is now a universally acknowledged sex symbol — which means there’s a little fleabag in each of us.
7. 'This Is Us' (NBC)
Some viewers are exhausted by creator Dan Fogelman’s ever-expanding, ever-swervy family drama, but I think it gets better all the time. Episodes that aired in 2019 (parts of Seasons 3 and 4) featured particularly moving stories in the Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) branch, the tense arrival of baby Jack (and glimpses at his future) and a bigger sense of where all this is headed. The show’s central idea has never been more relevant: Where there is openness, a family can include any and all.
8. 'Chernobyl' (HBO)
I gave creator Craig Mazin’s gripping miniseries about the 1986 nuclear-plant disaster a rave review back in May but figured people would find it too depressing to actually watch. Wrong. Turns out we couldn’t be more primed for a story that, at its core (ha-ha), is about the systematic abuse of power and the ways that government officials can lie and obfuscate. Even at its goriest or most infuriating, “Chernobyl” is artfully structured. Nuclear experts nitpicked it factually, which missed the point. The lessons are very much intact.
9. 'Dead to Me' (Netflix)
Creator Liz Feldman’s dark comedy about two women (Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini) who meet in a grief support group is a master class in the study of narrative momentum and anxious build toward an inevitable yet almost unthinkable reveal. Applegate and Cardellini are in peak form, navigating the show’s range of emotions, from smart humor to despicable acts. Along with all that, “Dead to Me” is a great example of why our culture invented the binge-watch in the first place. It’s fun.
10. 'Leaving Neverland' (HBO)
I believe Wade and James. I know that drives die-hard Michael Jackson fans to apoplexy (and they aren’t a pleasant bunch to argue with), but there it is. Dan Reed’s four-hour documentary looks past Jackson’s courtroom entanglements and directly into the eyes of two men who very frankly (if belatedly) tell us what happened to them as boys. Best to also watch Oprah Winfrey’s follow-up special, “After Neverland,” a revealing and thoughtful Q&A session held in a theater filled with men who have all experienced sexual abuse.
On a longer list, I'd include …
“Barry” (HBO); “Catch-22” (Hulu); “College Behind Bars” (PBS); “Country Music” (PBS); “The Crown” (Netflix); “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” (Netflix); “Dickinson” (Apple TV+); “Evil” (CBS); “Fosse/Verdon” (FX); “The Good Place” (NBC); “Mrs. Fletcher” (HBO); “PEN15” (Hulu); “Pose” (FX); “Ramy”(Hulu); “Russian Doll” (Netflix); “Servant” (Apple TV+); “Veep” (HBO); “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” (HBO); and “Years and Years” (HBO).