Heartbreak, mortality, and all that jazz. FX pulled no punches in its daringly dark portrait of two show business legends: self-destructive Broadway and film director/choreographer Bob Fosse and his long-suffering wife and muse, Gwen Verdon. As the colorfully conflicted song-and-dance collaborators, Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams give bravura performances worthy of Tonys as well as Emmys. Williams is especially adept at channeling Verdon’s incandescent star power, capturing the seductive sizzle of Fosse’s classic routines while conveying the private pain of desolation over her partner’s many indiscretions. Rockwell likewise disappears into the role of the insecure artist, chronically unable to enjoy success or curb his appetite for pills, booze, and women. Bravos all around.
9. Orange Is the New Black
In a year notable for memorable series finales, the gut-wrenching last chapters of Netflix’s signature prison drama resonated with enduring power. Individual stories brought moments of triumph and tragedy for these vividly played female inmates we’d grown to know. And while several managed to leave, only to learn that freedom carries its own burdens, the most devastating twist found others caught in a more unyielding prison of ICE detention.
8. The Unicorn
As rare as the mythical creature that gives CBS’s endearing comedy its title, The Unicorn is a first-rate network sitcom with overabundant heart, yet it somehow stops short of becoming too sweet or cloying. This was always a risk, given the sentimental premise: Widowed dad Wade (Walton Goggins playing against type) emerges from a year of mourning to enter a dating world of women who consider him, to his surprise, a catch. It works because sheepish Wade never courts pity, except when browbeaten by his meddling friends, each one a hoot.
Fantastical vigilante heroes tackle a very real and pernicious danger — white supremacy — in HBO’s audaciously provocative update of the cult comic. Lost‘s Damon Lindelof dazzles with his visionary vigor as Watchmen presents a surreal alt-reality America (Robert Redford as president!) that is both brain-teasing and mind-blowing.
6. When They See Us
Ava DuVernay’s shattering Netflix dramatization of the Central Park Five case is an emotional roller coaster of injustice, and it’s almost too painful to watch as five Harlem teens are railroaded into making false confessions following a brutal attack in 1989. The story of their harrowing ordeal and eventual exoneration demands to be seen.
Sam Phillips Family/courtesy Colin Escott/PBS
5. Country Music
Ken Burns has done it again. A visual poet laureate of American history, he has always had a keen ear for the sounds that define and bond a culture. Country Music, Burns’ enthralling 16-hour PBS epic, tracks the evolution and variety of the genre with both broad sweep and intensely personal biographical detail. Just try not to sing along.
4. The Crown
A chill runs through the palace in a transfixing third season of Peter Morgan’s Netflix drama about the British royals. With fascinating restraint, Olivia Colman assumes Queen Elizabeth’s throne, her fervor terrifying in its rigid adherence to duty and protocol.
Carol Kaelson/Califon Productions
TV’s greatest quiz show thrilled with the 32-game winning streak by sports gambler James Holzhauer, even as host Alex Trebek inspired millions by continuing to work while fighting cancer.
Even Shakespeare might marvel at the cunning power plays, which turn familial blood sport into a profane art form, in HBO’s irresistible high drama of low behavior. No pawn was left unscathed within the embattled Roy media dynasty, led by manipulative patriarch Logan (Brian Cox). In the blistering second season, the Roys plotted labyrinthine deals while corporate scandals publicly blew up in humiliating congressional hearings. As the family’s stock fell, Succession‘s must-watch vibe grew — and a climactic act of defiance by former heir apparent and fall guy Kendall (Jeremy Strong) left us in breathless anticipation of what could possibly come next.
Amazon Prime Video
Truly heaven-sent — though not without a little hell-raising along the way — the second and, regrettably, final season of writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sinfully brilliant British comedy (on Prime Video) just about swept the comedy Emmys. For good reason.
Few series can pack so much savage wit and raw emotion into a mere six episodes of cry-out-loud hilarity. Every word counts, including those the eponymous heroine speaks directly to the camera, letting the viewer in on her dirty secrets. This year those included not just the usual explosive family dysfunction but an unmistakable attraction to a “hot priest” (a dynamic Andrew Scott) who is every bit her match in ribald banter and smoldering sexuality. Looking right at us midway through a revealing monologue to her therapist, she declares, “I’m good at this!” Actually, she’s great at it. We’d give anything for Fleabag 3.
It's almost the end of 2019 and the decade, so we're taking a look back at television in the 2010s with some of the best moments, pairings, surprises, and more.
Click through the gallery above for Senior Critic Matt Roush's picks for the 10 best TV shows of the year .