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ACMI staff picks: best TV shows of 2019

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With gazillions of viewing choices available today, and new streaming services popping up all over the place, 2019 was the year we accepted that it’s now physically impossible to keep up with every newly released TV show – unless you get into ‘speedwatching’. The staff at ACMI have handpicked a selection of the best, most binge-worthy TV shows of 2019; from dissections of identity, sexuality, global disasters and structural racism, to tender and funny explorations of love and life. With the holiday season approaching, it’s time to clean up those watchlists.

Chernobyl (HBO)

Producer, Schools Programs, Garry Westmore

Chernobyl sets itself apart from other disaster narratives by not allowing the audience to get to know the characters before the impending catastrophe. Instead, the five-part series begins after the infamous explosion at the Soviet nuclear power plant and then pieces together the events leading up to it, as the aftermath unfolds.

The show’s writer and creator Craig Mazin (better known for scribing the Hangover and Scary Movie sequels than prestige TV dramas) bets that most people have a superficial understanding of the Chernobyl catastrophe. So, as well as detailing the attempted cover-up and efforts the to mitigate the effects of the meltdown, Chernobyl plays out like a detective story, culminating in an understated reveal of the who, how and why.

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The production values as one would expect from HBO are outstanding and, in a bleak kind of way, so too is the cinematography. The camera laps up the Soviet-era architecture and the meticulously recreated sets, costumes and props. Stand-out performances are from Stellan Skarsgård (who was born to play gruff Communist-party man Boris Shcherbina) and Jared Harris as Shcherbina’s mis-matched atomic-expert Valery Legasov. Legasov is endlessly quotable; through him the show muses on “the cost of lies” and the illusion of power. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” he says. “Sooner or later, that debt is paid”.

Chernobyl manages to criticise the USSR’s penchant for lies, surveillance, scapegoats and incompetency, without taking cheap shots at it. And far from a cold, clinical take on the disaster, it is the main and peripheral characters who drive the series and alert viewers to the true human cost of Chernobyl.

Hanna (Amazon)

Writer/Editor Maria Lewis

On paper, the idea of a Hanna TV series based on the 2011 Joe Wright film of the same name sounds like a terrible idea and yet another desperate attempt to cling to pre-existing IP. But – and there is a massive but – the reality of Amazon’s Hanna is something else altogether. And something spectacular at that. Tween girl assassins are plentiful in pop culture – Hit Girl, O-Ren Ishii, Nikita, Mathilda from Leon: The Professional, other things that Luc Besson didn’t make – but Hanna stood apart thanks to a trio of great performances: Saoirse Ronan as the title character, Eric Bana as her father, and Cate Blanchett as the dental-flossing foe. Esme Creed-Miles and The Killing ’s combo of Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos step into those roles, with the eight-episode series expanding on the world that was hinted at in Wright’s twisted fairytale version.

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The showrunners don’t waste the extra time they’re given, dipping into explorations of parental relationships, teen sexuality, female friendship, and what it means to step out of your parents’ shadow and into your own spotlight … even if that’s while carrying a Glock. With stunning cinematography, global locations, and action that slaps, it’s one of the best shows of the year that not enough people have seen.

Karen O pens some haunting original music that – like the performances – doesn’t attempt to match what The Chemical Brothers brought to the 2011 film with their groundbreaking score. Instead, it does something entirely different, it goes somewhere entirely different. That’s what makes Hanna so great as a series: it stays true to the tone and theme of the source material but expands the world and raises the stakes to give you something you didn’t know television in 2019 was missing.

Watchmen (HBO)

Senior Writer/Editor Matt Millikan

Alan Moore wants nothing to do with adaptations of Watchmen. Whether that’s because the last adaptation of his and David Gibbons’ acclaimed graphic novel was Zack Snyder’s serviceable translation is anyone’s guess, but he should watch Damon Lindelof’s recent HBO effort.

If he did, he’d see how beautifully interdimensional squid attacks, catapulting clones and chemical time travel serve as a spiritual successor to his story of patriotism, utilitarianism and Randian vigilantes. Though a direct sequel to the graphic novel, Lindelof’s interpretation focuses on using the dominant pop cultural narrative of our time – the superhero story – as a way to interrogate intergenerational trauma, institutionalised racism and American identity. 

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Trading the graphic novel’s Cold War anxiety for Trumpian terror, Watchmen is set in an alternative 2019 where masked vigilantes are TV entertainment, outlaws and police, and white supremacists hide in suits and ties. While the narrative digresses and misdirects, the detailed world building and WTF moments make it easy to hurl yourself into the show’s familiar but surreal reflection of our world. If you’re ever mystified you’re not alone, just check out the countless YouTube videos that deconstruct each episode

For those not interested in theorising (or superheroes at all), the performances are transfixing enough. There are more Oscar and Emmy winners donning masks in this show than there are cogs in a clock, including Regina King, Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart. The acclaimed cast bring pathos and substance to a genre that’s been dismissed as shallow spectacle, rendering the characters beneath the dominatrix nun personas and mind-bending masks as real people despite their outlandish environment. 

Not that Lindelof dodges the superhero fun – there are spectacular action sequences – but who is under the mask, and why they wear them, is central to a show that also isn’t afraid to treat giant alien dildos and mind-controlling movies seriously. 

So, like Moore, you should jump aboard this daring, smart and bizarre examination of how America’s cultural, social and political past continues to have ramifications on the present. 

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj  – Season 5 (Netflix)

Programmer, Public Programs, Arieh Offman

Comedian Hasan Minhaj creates in Patriot Act something akin to a highwire trapeze act: a show that delves into some of the most pressing societal, political and ethical issues of modern life while also being incredibly funny, consistently. The series jumped into the headlines earlier this year for its episode exploring Saudi Arabia and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the orders of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. At the request of the Saudi government Netflix pulled the episode from distribution within the country – only serving to publicise it, and highlight the issues contained within it, to the rest of the world.

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Minaj’s format of releasing seven or eight weekly episodes in distinct blocks throughout the year allow the show to be timely on current issues, while also delving into areas of broader research. Covering topics ranging from America’s opioid crisis to student loan debt, Indian presidential elections to Trump’s border policy, the show is an eye-opening primer to the most pressing issues facing the world today. 

And let’s not forget the episode that looks at resale value of Supreme clothing on StockX – $2,000 for a standard box logo hoodie is probably the most shocking statistic of all.

Euphoria (HBO)

Brand Manager Anaya Latter

The show I wish I had had growing up! An unflinching look at Gen Z that has been both lauded and criticised for its bleakness, HBO’s Euphoria finds beauty amongst the chaos and confusion of coming of age. 2019 has been a bumper year for compelling teen dramas. Other notable examples that go beyond the teen jock vs nerd parables include Sex Education, On My Block and the film Booksmart, which give clever, honest and nonconformist accounts of high school life.

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While yes, Euphoria includes drug use, sexual encounters and dark themes, there's a refreshing honesty and vividness to the pain and violence that these high-school-aged kids must navigate.

There's something different about these stories. Mental health issues are dealt with starkly. Issues of consent, violence, body positivity and sexual identity are explored with realism and tenderness, unwavering even in the awkwardness of these early, formative experiences. Above all, these characters are nuanced, complex, troubled and empowered. 

The performances by Zendaya, Hunter Schafer and Barbie Ferreira are incredible – and the makeup has spawned a litany of how-to’s and compilations of the best looks. Makeup artist Doniella Davy has spoken at length about how showrunner Sam Levison wanted makeup to play an emotionally evocative role. Bright colours, drawn shapes, diamante-studded brows and liberal use of glitter give an insight into each character and their story arc, as well as challenging the norms and conventions of how makeup is commonly used.

Euphoria is well worth a watch – even if only as a brutal, sweet and complicated look at the way technology has impacted and altered the transition to adulthood.

State of the Union (SundanceTV)

Memberships and Engagement Officer Benjamin Haller

In this era of ‘Stream Wars’, the ongoing evolution of the web television series format has opened a myriad of possibilities for storytelling outside of the traditional and formulaic 30-minute or 60-minute episode parameters. Acclaimed author and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, An Education, Brooklyn) reunites with director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) for this 10-part, 10-minute-per-episode foray into modern relationships and all their trappings. The result is an unparalleled triumph that soars above anything else I watched this year. 

Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd (both wonderful and extremely lovable) play recently estranged couple Louise and Tom, who meet at the same pub (and have the same drinks) prior to their weekly counselling sessions to untangle the last 15 years of their relationship. The efficiency of every scene is a work of art; Hornby’s characteristically charming and truthful craft reaches new levels, allowing his characters momentary delights that quickly dissipate thanks to a punch from reality. Pike and O’Dowd banter back and forth with such delectable vigour that it is impossible to take sides. Dare I say it, at times you feel like you are watching your own relationship play out in front of you as you desperately root for your other half to win. It’s an odd, revelatory sensation – but a necessary one. 

The format manages to cleverly flip the current binge-watching paradigm. Although the episodes are only 10 minutes long, I would advise strictly against watching one after the other, and I certainly forbid you to watch them all in one go. This beautiful, considered portrayal of the love, strife and many differences (reconcilable or not) marriage imposes on two people deserves your unflinching consideration. 

Fleabag (Amazon)

Experience and Engagement Coordinator Summer Gooding

Is there anything better than a forbidden love story – especially one that involves a gorgeous, off-limits object of affection? This question forms the crux of season 2 of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acclaimed Amazon Prime series Fleabag. Gloriously raunchy and relatable, this follow-up season shifts its focus toward faith, desire, love, and connection – big themes interlaced with exquisite humour and steamy romance. The comedy is in a league of its own and like the first season the viewer is once again hauled into the chaotic energy of Fleabag’s life via perfectly timed fourth-wall-breaking glances, grimaces, and witty side comments.

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Our protagonist announces that this season “is a love story” in the opening scene of the first episode. Turns out it’s a love story between her and the family priest. Fleabag excels in creating palpable tension between its lead and her priestly beau, deepened by his ability to “see” her in a way none of her other suitors have. In between excellent quips and visceral moments of lust, Fleabag’s desire for connection is tenderly edged into view. Behind all the jokes, her desire to be seen hits a perfect, vulnerable note. We are reminded that although love doesn’t always work out, connection is a universal need – for Fleabags and priests alike. 

In addition to its emotionally charged themes, Fleabag reflects a specific feminist moment. Its heroine is the definition of a hot mess. Here is a woman wading through the chaos of life just like the rest of us. In her article about Amazon Prime show I Love Dick, Maxine Swann of The Guardian wrote of the “rise of the female loser” on screen. Fleabag sits nicely in this category, marking an important representational shift in film and television that allows women the freedom to relate to their actual realities rather than a sanitised, perfected version of the post-feminist woman who “has it all” and can “do it all”. Fleabag is funny, accomplished, kind, intelligent, liberated and also a complete mess. Does it get more relatable than that?


The 2019 shows we've already discussed and honourable mentions include:

The Boys (Amazon)

Modern Love (Amazon)

Russian Doll (Netflix)

Stranger Things: season 3 (Netflix)

Terrace House: Opening New Doors and Tokyo 2019-2020 (Netflix)

Bluey season 2 (ABC)

The Crown: season 3 (Netflix)

Mindhunter: season 2  (Netflix)

Sex Education (Netflix)

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