Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Tuca & Bertie (Netflix), The Other Two (Comedy Central ), Fleabag (Amazon), Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The threat of nuclear winter and the return of a prestige drama from the dead(wood) made for some of the hottest shows of the spring, but as we look back at the year in TV so far, it’s clear that comedies had a distinct edge over their longer, ostensibly more substantive counterparts. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that some of the most outstanding offerings on The A.V. Club’s unranked list regularly blur the lines between the two formats, combining poignant characters arcs and heady themes with humor both broad and trenchant. Even existential crises regularly found their way into half-hours about brassy New Yorkers and overwhelmed Los Angeles-based assassins. Despite not making as strong of a showing (yet), dramas still commanded plenty of attention, particularly those that put history on trial. So who’s the real winner in this contest? The viewer, who, thanks to the abundance of half-hour shows, for once has a chance to watch them all.


Barry (HBO)

If Barry was to hit its marks in its second season, it couldn’t just repeat the games of internal tug-of-war the first season dotted with showbiz satire and bloody mayhem. But after a slow start, it was clear that the aftermath of Janice Moss’ murder and the Chechen-Bolivian alliance wasn’t just raising the show’s bar—it was grabbing that bar in its teeth and running it barefoot up a tree and onto a nearby roof. “Ronny/lily” is the episode that’ll keep people talking for the rest of the year, but season two of Barry is stuffed with material that tests the show’s limits while broadening its horizons, like Sarah Goldberg’s stunning poolside monologue in “Audition” or the rib-tickling way the show established that Barry’s acting-class roommates are so dense, they don’t even notice him charging through the living room with a loaded pistol. (And in perhaps the most stunning challenge to the show’s status quo, Anthony Carrigan did an undercover scene in a wig.) Crucially for the show’s long-term prospects, the war for Barry’s soul was advanced to its next stage, pitting him between acting coach Gene (Henry Winkler, still spectacular) and devil-on-the-shoulder Fuchs (Stephen Root, even better), the pair of father figures he’s betrayed to varying degrees. Even the season’s parting sentiment counts as escalation, topping last year’s “Starting right… now” with a four-word send-off: “Barry Berkman did this.” [Erik Adams]


Better Things (FX)

Better Things has never made anything look easy—not parenting, aging, or being a working actor or an adolescent. But series star, co-creator, and director Pamela Adlon certainly has made depicting all of life’s vagaries seem effortless, even as she gave her FX comedy all the elan and heft of a prestige drama. The veteran actor has led her series like a family, nurturing her young cast members and shepherding the FX dramedy through three glorious seasons and one tremendous setback. Once Adlon regrouped, she rightly decided to make Sam the focus of season three; it was through that raucous, wonderfully expressive prism that viewers experienced sexual awakenings and revived crushes and perimenopause, and the familiar feeling of getting everything wrong despite your best intentions. Better Things maintained its balance of serialized and episodic storytelling, crafting an intricate collage out of the children’s storylines, including Max’s (Mikey Madison) arrested development and Frankie’s (Hannah Alligood) irrepressible brattiness, as well as Phil’s (Celia Imrie) tough decisions and the past Sam couldn’t keep buried. Through it all, Adlon kept us laughing and empathizing with the Fox family, who grow more endearing—and frustrating—with each episode. [Danette Chavez]


Chernobyl (HBO)

Chernobyl drifted quietly into HBO’s programming schedule as the distracted masses groused and argued over Game Of Thrones’ contentious final season, a seemingly endless source of roundabout discourse. Soon enough, though, Craig Mazin’s five-episode miniseries—a somber, unflinching look at the 1986 nuclear disaster keyed to our modern anxieties about government and climate—began penetrating the zeitgeist via word-of-mouth Twitter chatter and, believe it or not, memes. Perhaps, one wonders, a dose of sobering realism was just the antidote for those burned out after seven seasons of sex, swords, and dragons? But Chernobyl is more than just a history lesson, as veteran screenwriter Mazin’s elegant five-act structure toys with a myriad of genres—war, horror, drama, courtroom—as it embraces an episodic approach that allows the breadth of the accident’s aftermath to unfold in a digestible fashion that doesn’t downplay its terrors. It helps, too, to have the trio of Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson—the latter a composite character—anchoring the ever-swelling narrative, forging affecting bonds that help drive home the human element at the center of so much tragedy. That humanity, after all, is exactly what the Soviet government of the series didn’t want you to see. [Randall Colburn]


Deadwood: The Movie (HBO)

What a strange time it is for TV. Remember how there was a third season of Twin Peaks 25 years following its cancellation? How did that even happen? It’s a question we’re also asking about Deadwood: The Movie, a project that, just last year, Timothy Olyphant said was doomed. Yet, it exists. And, unlike so many revived properties, it managed to, for 110 sad, cathartic minutes, recapture the three-season show’s profane, redemptive spirit and provide it the satisfying end it was denied in 2006. That satisfaction is multifaceted, though. Sure, we’re given a marriage, a birth, some revenge, and, for several characters, a sense of hard-fought peace. But the real payoff is in the mere sight of this ensemble, the likes of whom were, as a collective, always more important than whatever story was unfolding at the time. So, yes, it’s sad that we couldn’t see Powers Boothe and Ralph Richeson alongside their old compatriots, but it was nevertheless lovely to see the gray that’s gathered in the beard of W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority, who’s still somehow alive after all these years, or to hear Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen and Brad Dourif’s Doc Cochran banter about humans being “collections of cells.” With this epilogue, creator David Milch, who’s tragically battling Alzheimer’s, not only gave us the bigger picture, but the smaller ones, too. The barbs, the asides, the moments that made Deadwood so much more than the sum of its parts. [Randall Colburn]


Documentary Now! (IFC)

Bill Hader’s many responsibilities to Barry might have indicated a rocky third season for Documentary Now!, as exemplary as his wide cast of characters has been on the latter series. But season three made up for Hader’s on-camera absence (he still contributed the script for “Searching For Mr. Larson: A Love Letter From The Far Side”) by reaching out to a variety of other talents, with frequently tremendous results. Cate Blanchett was a fearless revelation as a performance artist at war with her former partner (Fred Armisen) in “Waiting For The Artist,” which somehow both paid homage to and poked fun at the experimental art movement. Owen Wilson made for an ideal whacked-out guru in the two-part cult-themed “Batshit Valley,” while Michael C. Hall, Tim Robinson, and Bobby Moynihan portrayed three very different bowlers vying for dominance in “Any Given Saturday Afternoon.” These all made for a typically superlative Documentary Now! season, but episode three, “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” stood out most of all. John Mulaney takes over for Armisen and Hader as a Steven Sondheim knockoff leading a depressed cast through recording the soundtrack album for an already closed Broadway show. That cast fortunately includes a flustered Richard Kind, and Paula Pell doing her best Elaine Stritch in “I’ve Gotta Go,” just one of the “Co-Op” songs that would seamlessly fit into an actual Broadway musical. The performances are transcendent, but Documentary Now!’s attention to detail remains unbelievably next-level: a long string of various magazine covers featuring bowling’s latest bad boy, the colorful ’70s wardrobe of the “Co-Op” orchestra, “Artist”’s unforgettable final revenge shot. [Gwen Ihnat]


Fleabag (Amazon)

“This is a love story,” Fleabag announces at the start of the show’s second season. As improbable as that statement appears to be at the time, with blood streaming down her face nearly reaching her about-to-be iconic jumpsuit, it turns out to be true. In season one, Phoebe Waller-Bridge established the emotional Fleabag groundwork, as her main character broke the fourth wall continually to reveal her inner life, slowly coming to grips with the death of both her mother and her best friend. In season two, Fleabag’s painful yet frequently funny journey continued onward, spurred on by the arrival of the hot priest (Andrew Scott) who’s about to marry her father and stepmother. The priest unlocks Fleabag’s inner self in a way that no one else can, so much so that he demands to know who she’s talking to when she’s addressing the camera. It’s a thrilling, shocking moment, proof that he’s reaching her on an entirely new (and intimate) level. Even though that situation doesn’t ultimately conclude the way Fleabag wants it to, thanks to the priest, she’s finally opened her heart again, even leading to closer relationships with her sister (Sian Clifford) and father (Bill Paterson), who also conquer their own emotional hurdles this season. Fleabag’s head shake at the end of the series is as inspiring as it is devastating; she no longer needs us any more, ready to fully walk back into her own life. [Gwen Ihnat]


Gentleman Jack (HBO)

Whatever expectations we might’ve had for a new BBC period drama, Gentleman Jack handily upended them. The HBO co-production, written and directed by British TV veteran Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley), cuts an odd, refreshing figure in the television landscape, much like Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) does as she power-walks around 19th-century Halifax in her top hat, collecting rents, dressing down shady businessmen, and steaming up sitting rooms in pursuit of Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). The real-life Lister’s journals portray a passionate, difficult woman with a remarkably modern grasp of herself and her sexual nature, and Wainwright works a similarly eccentric confidence into nearly every level of her production: the knowingly over-the-top music; the dynamic camerawork and snappy editing; the smart, saucy script. Not only is Gentleman Jack America’s introduction to the force of nature that is Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster), but also it serves as a multigenerational survey of British TV talent. To name just a few, Rundle, Amelia Bullmore, Gemma Jones, and Gemma Whelan (a.k.a. Yara Greyjoy) all turn in superb performances, helping to make this series as multifaceted and as boldly subversive as its namesake. [Kelsey J. Waite]


I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson (Netflix)

Good sketches from Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s six-episode Netflix sleeper hit I Think You Should Leave follow a fairly simple formula: Take an asshole, give him a terrible idea (and a brain-lodging catchphrase like “mud pie” or “tugging knob”), and then have him double down in the face of reason, over and over again, until uncomfortable hilarity ensues. Great ITYSL sketches, however, blow past those simple beginnings into a sort of dark absurdist underworld that lurks somewhere far below the world of rationality, full of great babies, stinky cars, and men so horny they have no recourse but to honk. The beautiful part, though, is that you can almost always trace the madness back to a seemingly normal anxiety, one that Robinson and his team have then steadily blown out into chaotic genius through the simple expedient of asking “What would be the worst possible reaction to this?” By the time you’re in Garfield’s house, screaming about nacho equity, it’s already too late; you’re trapped in a three-minute, very funny horror movie where your own bad impulses and insecurities are the ultimate life-destroying threat. [William Hughes]


On My Block (Netflix)

When tragedy strikes our small, but mighty South Central California crew, Monse (Sierra Capri), Ruby (Jason Genao), Cesar (Diego Tinoco), Jamal (Brett Gray), and Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia) must juggle their grief over losing Olivia with school, love, the looming threat of gang violence, and a very sudden injection of cash that is far too shady and plentiful for kids to manage. Death, especially when it deals with a major character, can be tricky to navigate. On My Block found ways to thoughtfully incorporate grief and PTSD into the series’ overall texture without sacrificing the cringeworthy coming-of-age fun that made the show so phenomenal in the first place. The choice to elevate Garcia to a series regular also flexed a keen eye for comedic gold as the refreshingly layered Jasmine elbowed her way into the core friend group and, by proxy, our hearts. On My Block continues to demonstrate how to integrate tragedy into the stories of teens of color without making it their entire world. After all, Ruby still has to find a dope date to the dance, and that’s just as important. [Shannon Miller]


Pen15 (Hulu)

The first season of this Hulu comedy from Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman was marked by bravura performances from its two leads, Erskine and Konkle, who essentially play their tween selves. When Pen15 begins, it looks like a promising idea for a sketch, but gradually becomes a raunchy and moving look at puberty and family, as well as a testament to the indefatigable spirit of young women, particularly ones who are big fans of the Spice Girls. The success of this oft-unhinged comedy hinges on Erskine and Konkle, who make reliving your adolescence look like the best and worst of times. Their utter commitment to these roles and this premise smooths over any bumps early on, as the two actors manage to turn back time with little more than slumping posture, bright-eyed stares, pastel polos, and hip-hugger jeans. Season one improves as it goes on, and is even better upon rewatch, which we suppose makes it a grower, not a show-er. [Danette Chavez]


Ramy 
(Hulu)

Television doesn’t get much more daring in 2019 than the scene from Ramy’s fourth episode in which a younger version of the episode’s writer and director (and the series’ creator and star, Ramy Youssef) has a post-9/11 debate with Osama bin Laden over a bowl of strawberries. That’s third-rail stuff for any comedically inclined program, let alone one so early in its first season, let alone Youssef’s directorial debut. But that’s just the kind of splash Ramy made on Hulu in April, tempered by a nuance and grace that took viewers into a version of Youssef’s suburban New Jersey stomping grounds, where the TV Ramy wrestles with his Muslim faith and Millennial ennui while the Ramy behind the scenes affords similar courtesy to his fictionalized counterpart’s restless mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), and grad-student sister, Dena (May Calamawy). Executive-produced by Jerrod Carmichael for A24 television, Ramy bears the former’s fearless exploration of hot-button topics and the latter’s indie-movie dreaminess, but a personal vision of this type can only be achieved with a bone-deep specificity. When the show’s protagonist takes a late-season pilgrimage to his parents’ native Egypt, he finds that he still feels like an outsider even when he’s ostensibly home. Perhaps it’s because, in all the world, there’s only one Ramy—and likewise, there’s only one Ramy. [Erik Adams]


Russian Doll (Netflix)

Some of Russian Doll’s gifts to the streaming world are obvious: Sweet birthday babies. Natasha Lyonne’s bangs. The proper pronunciation of the word “cock-a-roach.” But for every gleaming facet of the show’s surface charms, there’s a deeper, equally satisfying set of pleasures. And we don’t just mean its cleverly constructed puzzle box of a plot, nor its continual climb through a series of divergent tones (although both of those things are deeply satisfying from a storytelling point of view). Layered beneath all of that, Russian Doll is also a portrait of a brilliant, difficult, world-weary, kind-hearted, complex woman, created with unusual thoughtfulness and care by an all-female creative team. Channelling Lyonne’s natural swagger and street smarts, Nadia moves through the world on her own terms—well, and the terms of the supernatural time loop that has her caught in an eternal cycle of violent death and sudden rebirth. But she’s working on that second one. [Katie Rife]


Superstore (NBC)

The retail employees of Superstore have survived to one of the sweetest spots of a sitcom’s evolution, when the characters have come into focus, the cast chemistry is properly calibrated, and the writers can start harvesting the crops of storylines they planted in the show’s earliest stages. In season four, that meant heartwarming (and occasionally quinceñeara-ruining) romantic payoff for Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman), but it also meant a streak of winning episodes whose big laughs arrived on the surface of long-simmering, deeply relevant plots about the whole Cloud 9 crew. Sometimes those plots involved a lurking Easter Bunny or the disappearance of a whole cage full of exotic birds, and sometimes they involved labor organization and draconian immigration policy. Whatever directions the season went, it all embodied the spirit it went out with, as the staff rallied to show they’re a force greater and more resilient than the building that brought them together—a fitting exclamation point for creator Justin Spitzer and his time as showrunner. [Erik Adams]


The Other Two (Comedy Central)

Most sitcoms deal with a first season of minor stumbles, as the creators and cast find their sea legs and figure out the characters, style, and tone of the series they’ve come together to develop. Why is why it’s such a treat when a show like The Other Two comes storming right out of the celebrity-satire gate, forging ahead with a confident sense of its own storytelling abilities and a richly textured universe in which to plunk its two struggling protagonists—oh, and it’s funny as hell. Cary and Brooke Dubek (Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke, both wonderful) are hitting that time in their twenties when they start to suspect their dreams of success—artistic, financial, you name it—may be beyond their reach, which of course is exactly the moment their sweet-natured pubescent sibling Chase (Case Walker) becomes a Bieber-esque teeny-bopper superstar following a hit viral video. The series nails an ideal blend of pathos mixed into its lacerating wit, as Cary and Brooke are pulled into their brother’s orbit (the less polite term would be “coattail riding”) and attempt to figure out what it means to exist in a world where you’ll always be seen as the also-ran. With sweetly warped supporting turns from Molly Shannon as their fiercely upbeat mother and Ken Marino as the world’s neediest manager, The Other Two’s secret weapon is the very thing it’s two leads keep buried so deep: a profoundly vulnerable beating heart. [Alex McLevy]


Tuca & Bertie (Netflix)

It would have been so easy for Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie to rest on its colorful whimsy and built-in odd-couple trope. (“One’s an admitted fussbudget! The other is a carefree tucan! Hilarity ensues! Also… boobs!”) Thankfully, Lisa Hanawalt’s story of a deeply loving female friendship weaves head-tilting hijinks and serious laughs with honest portrayals of trauma, anxiety, commitment, and the labor of maintaining relationships. Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) and Bertie (Ali Wong) may have specific roles within their friendship, but they are never sequestered to a singular box: Both women are hilarious and a little tortured, quirky and introspective. They are given enough room to be justifiably fucked-up without having to automatically ameliorate that space with jokes (though there are still plenty of those to spare). Best of all, their love for each other is not treated as a cure-all for their legitimate issues—their friendship requires actual work, and sometimes that makes things a little rocky. For a show crammed with pot-smoking foliage and the occasional puppet, Tuca & Bertie is one of the realest shows of the year. [Shannon Miller]


Vida (Starz)

Tanya Saracho’s unabashedly queer, brown, and sexy dramedy went to the head of the sophomore class in its second season, deepening its exploration of identity while also showing off greater dramatic and comedic chops than ever before. Vida remains a paragon of punchy storytelling, striking chords and busting guts in half-hour bursts. The series is more ambitious in its second season; while continuing to weave together an innovative immigration narrative and a classic family drama, Vida offers greater insight into queer culture, which sometimes has its own set of gatekeepers. Saracho and her fellow female Latinx directors also take full advantage of Starz’s reputation to feature some of the most thoughtful, incredibly sensual, and occasionally jaw-dropping sex scenes. Also upping their game are lead actors Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera, who share a palpable, relatable bond as the Hernandez sisters, Emma and Lyn, respectively. And thank la virgen that it’s already been renewed for a third season, because queer bartender Nico (Roberta Colindrez) is fast becoming the internet’s girlfriend. [Danette Chavez]


What We Do In The Shadows (FX)

Adapting Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows for television is a pretty simple exercise on its surface; after all, the mockumentary format has produced some of the most popular sitcoms of this century. But capturing the playful, anarchic, awkwardly sexy spirit of the movie, particularly over an entire season, is a more complicated task, one that FX’s version of What We Do In The Shadows happily accomplishes. The series carries over the comedic and storytelling style of the film—hello, doctored historical illustrations and long, silly lists—while expanding its internal mythos to include psychic vampires who feed on boredom and a council of immortal bloodsuckers to which Wesley Snipes calls in over Skype. But the best example of the way What We Do In The Shadows builds on its namesake is in the new roster of vampires plotting their takeover of America, or at least Staten Island: Dorky medieval warlord Nandor (Kayvan Novak), unabashed hedonist Laszlo (Matt Berry, in an inspired bit of casting), and sex-positive undead feminist Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). Oh, and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). He’s also there. [Katie Rife]


When They See Us (Netflix)

Ava DuVernay’s limited series about the horrors faced by the Exonerated Five is an undeniably challenging watch, but it’s worth it—When They See Us is easily one of the most illuminating and well-crafted shows of the year. The series follows the five black and Latinx teens who were swallowed up by an inequitable justice system and spat out years later to piece together some manner of existence despite ever-dimming prospects. When They See Us is powered by a righteous fury, but it gives the narrative the chance to breathe and develop that was denied to these five youths, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Antron McCray, played in the first part of the series by Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Ethan Herisse, Asante Blackk, and Caleel Harris, respectively. The entire cast, including Aunjanue Ellis, Niecy Nash, and Michael K. Williams, turns in exceptional performances throughout, even when all hope seems to be lost. Once again, DuVernay turns her perspicacious eye to a moment of great injustice in this country’s history, and uncovers an uglier truth hidden beneath the headlines and full-page op-eds. [Danette Chavez]


Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas (HBO)

The quietly great Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas managed to cut through the din of online discourse and tentpole-touting late-night shows thanks to its measured approach and host Wyatt Cenac’s dry-as-fuck wit. Cenac recently announced that Problem Areas won’t be back for a third season which, frankly, is a problem. The HBO series, a kind of documentary and talk-show hybrid, offered something that the talk landscape, for all its many, white male-led options, has been desperately lacking: a discussion centered around facts and grounded by real, lived experiences. Cenac never did anything as flashy as invent a new spokesperson for the tobacco industry or stage a big musical number about restorative justice, but the show did do its research on topics like unions, police shootings, and education. Problem Areas always unearthed even more questions as it sought out solutions, but that didn’t make the show any less intelligent or gratifying. Viewers could take heart in watching communities come together in Michigan to improve upon the school lunch program, while also taking away a valuable lesson about the widespread effects of food insecurity. [Danette Chavez]


You’re The Worst (FXX)

You’re The Worst thrived on its sideways approach to romantic comedy, and what better cap to a rom-com than a wedding? For its five-season run, its cast of unlikable characters were people you rooted for, despite their enormous flaws and penchants for self-destruction. That all came to a head in the final season, which saw a series high of episodic television writing, including the experimental opener “The Intransigence Of Love” and the Paul F. Tompkins fake-out in “Bachelor/Bachelorette Party Sunday Funday.” Woven throughout the season was a series cunningly crafted flash-forwards, suggesting that Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy’s (Chris Geere) wedding won’t happen. It makes the bait-and-switch reveal overwhelmingly cathartic in in the series finale, “Pancakes,” giving viewers who stuck with Jimmy and Gretchen through the many ups and downs an enormously satisfying conclusion to their tumultuous love story. Their growth, dysfunctional as it is, showed how people can love each other in all sorts of different ways. That idea became a motif in the final episode, with Lindsay (Kether Donohue) growing up enough to embrace another try at marriage with ex-husband, Paul (Allan McLeod), while Edgar (Desmin Borges) is confident enough to leave his co-dependent relationship with Jimmy in the past. For a show so full of romantic failures, depression, and PTSD, You’re The Worst turned out to be an optimistic show about miserable people. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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