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The Best TV Shows of 2019 (So Far)

There are six months left to go in the calendar year of TV, but plenty of stellar shows have already made an impact. TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke came together to pick their favorite shows of the year — so far.

The Act” (Hulu)

The Act Hulu

This series’ unabashed indulgence of its trashier side didn’t stop it from presenting real and meaningful insights about its characters. Taking the widely-reported story of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard — and enlisting showrunner Michelle Dean, the reporter who first brought it to national attention — “The Act” builds a story of often-painful tension rooted in a deep understanding of unusual characters. Patricia Arquette continued her recent run of committed character work with her performance as Munchausen mom Dee Dee, but the show belonged to Joey King, a genuine discovery as Gypsy Rose. Her character, sheltered but shrewd, lives in simultaneous fear of freedom and desperation for it; by the time she enlists an online boyfriend to kill her mother, King, who I hope will receive awards attention for her work, has shown you endless shades of manipulation and of need. -DD

Barry” (HBO)

Barry HBO

The first season of Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s show was so sharp that it would have been a feat in and of itself. In coming back for more, the second season could have collapsed under the weight of expectations. Instead, it soared. Hader continued to prove his director bonafides (particularly with “ronny/lilly,” the series’ most bizarre chapter to date); Henry Winkler got to explore the more dramatic shades of his once cartoonish character, Gene, in the throes of grief; and standout Sarah Goldberg’s performance anchored insightful storylines about the more banal, pernicious aspects of the entertainment industry and the difficulty of acknowledging abuse. With an even more ambitious second season than its triumphant first, “Barry” proved the value of diving headlong into a challenge rather than playing it safe. – CF

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” (Netflix)

I Think You Should Leave Netflix

Former “Saturday Night Live” performer and writer Tim Robinson made a forceful case for the power of stepping outside format with this almost indescribably bizarre sketch series, built generally around impotent rage pushing up against, and then pushing past, notions of propriety. Robinson is aided by an ensemble including ringers from “SNL” (Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer make memorable appearances) and by his own willingness to indulge the fantastical and absurd. Fans are still debating, after the series’s April drop, which sketch was the best; rather than murder any of the show’s comic premises by describing it here, go watch and then join the conversation. -DD

Fleabag” (Amazon)

Like “Barry,” “Fleabag” could kept its story to a single impressive season rather than face the prospect of diminishing returns with a second. But Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s return to her iconic character showed exactly why she’s one of the most exciting writers in television, period. Season 2 of “Fleabag” found new things to say about every character, examined its own narrative devices, and anchored the lot with a deeply intuitive story of love and faith between Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) and a conflicted Priest (Andrew Scott). The season’s final moment — heartbreaking and hopeful all at once — is one for the TV history books. – CF

Fosse/Verdon” (FX)

FOSSE VERDON -- Pictured: (l-r) Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon, Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse. CR: Pari Dukovic/FX

Reviewing “Fosse/Verdon” on the basis of its first two episodes, I delivered a pan. The show seemed miserably unbalanced, with the fascinating story of dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) allowed to exist only on the margins of the bad-man-genius story of her husband and creative partner Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell). That was a story, after all, we’d heard before. But through sheer grit, Williams, aided by a script that seems to learn as it goes what is working, pulls the series into something vastly more interesting and powerful. Her struggle to be seen becomes not just subtext but a story — conveyed with heartbreak and glimmers of extant hope by a rarely-better Williams. This vexed partnership with a man content to drag anyone around him into the swirling eddy of his self-regard provides, in due time, a springboard into a story whose second half Verdon, aching with unfulfilled potential, dominates. -DD

The Other Two” (Comedy Central)

On the face of it, a show about a tween YouTube star feels a few years out of date. In reality, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s comedy is one of the most relevant looks at celebrity and ambition out there. Also, crucially: it’s very funny. While “The Other Two” lets established players like Molly Shannon and Ken Marino run wild to predictably great effect, it also features two starmaking performances by Helene Yorke and Drew Tarver. Yorke’s Brooke is simultaneously a fame-hungry monster and eminently thoughtful sister; Tarver’s Cary is a hilarious, nuanced gay character in a genre that desperately needs more of the same. There’s no telling where this story’s going to go in season 2 (it does at least hint at more Shannon, which is always welcome), but I, for one, can’t wait to find out. – CF

Pen15” (Hulu)

Pen15 Hulu

The concept is alienating, and for moments, the execution is, too — this comedy’s creators, two adult women (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) play versions of themselves as 13-year-olds in the year 2000, surrounded by actual child performers. The performances, though, are perfectly calibrated to deliver the strange, foal-like aspect of tweenagers. Erskine and Konkle play the physicality of teenagers newly uncomfortable in their bodies, and convey their emotional lives with every bit of florid melodrama any former middle-school diarist will recall. The stories “Pen15” tells are small-bore: evolutions, rifts, and reunions that the characters won’t remember in a year’s time. But the show follows a movingly continuous arc, developing its two central tweens into participants in a friendship that’s practically its own character and treating their concerns as serious — serious enough, indeed, to be worth writing really good jokes about. -DD

“Ramy” (Hulu)

Ramy Hulu

Even though we’re only halfway through the year, it feels safe to say that there won’t be another television episode quite like “Strawberries,” the fourth episode of Ramy Youssef’s moving seriesabout growing up Egyptian-American in suburban New Jersey. The flashback to what it felt like to be Muslim on 9/11 is handled with care even as it’s unsparing about the harsh reality of it. And while “Strawberries” is the show’s most obvious highlight, that combination holds true for the entirety of “Ramy,” a compassionate comedy that represents the best of what Hulu’s original programming can do. – CF

“Russian Doll” (Netflix)

Russian Doll

Rarely has a TV show surprised me quite like “Russian Doll.” This high concept collaboration from Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler could have quickly flown off the rails, but it’s so smart and fully realized that there’s never a doubt that it will land with grace. Its interwoven meditations on trauma, depression, and the power of facing demons head-on are gorgeously rendered, especially when acted by Lyonne (in one of her career best performances) and Charlie Barnett. There simply was no other TV experience like it this year, or frankly any other. – CF

“Special” (Netflix) and “State of the Union” (SundanceTV)

Special Netflix

These two short-form series — with “Special” a mere 15 minutes per episode and “State of the Union” a yet slighter 10 minutes — used TV’s current experimentation with format to create a vibe of a sharply-written short story collection. Each series included carefully-chosen details that stood out more for the show’s brevity. On “Special,” show creator Ryan O’Connell plays a version of himself — a young gay man whose professional and personal lives are complicated by his living with cerebral palsy, a secret he tries at first to hide. And on “State of the Union,” a couple (Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd) gather for a weekly ten-minute pint before the counseling session that will help determine their future. Living with disability and marital dissolution are big topics, but both series approach them with literary flair and stylish obliqueness, finding the unexpected angle or the tension-defusing joke at each turn, and making ten or fifteen minutes feel like among the more substantial sits on TV. -DD

“Tales of the City” (Netflix)

Tales of the City Review

A flawed but lovable return to the fantasy San Francisco created by Armistead Maupin, this new version modernizes the world of Barbary Lane with a new generation of characters undergoing crises of gender and sexuality that are legible to a 2019 audience in a way they would not have been a generation prior. (Credit, in part, is due to the “Orange Is the New Black” writer Lauren Morelli, who stepped in to run thenew “Tales.”) The focus shifts, here, from the story of Mary Ann Singleton (now a supporting character, still played with luminous and affecting narcissism by Laura Linney) to a more prismatic understanding of queer life, old and new, shifting and in some meaningful ways ever the same. -DD

“Tuca & Bertie” (Netflix)

Who knew that a cartoon about a rambunctious toucan and hesitant song thrush would be one of the year’s most insightful and moving shows? Well, for one, anyone who knows the work of Lisa Hanawalt, the longtime “BoJack Horseman” production designer whose loopy, filthy work is completely unique unto itself. With a dream voice cast of Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong, Steven Yeun and countless guest stars, “Tuca and Bertie” tackled everything from sexual harassment to debilitating horniness with undeniable empathy and wit. – CF

When They See Us” (Netflix)

felicity huffman Linda Fairstein When They See Us

Ava DuVernay’s look at the case of the so-called Central Park Five will make you never want to use that name for them again — so unfair is it that they continue to be defined by an incident in which they did nothing but exist as people of color. Director DuVernay examines the legal means by which a quintet of boys ended up railroaded into guilty verdicts and hard time. But she also makes time to look, deeply, at them as people and not merely vectors within the legal system. Special credit for acting goes to Jharrel Jerome, a standout among the five and one who should receive special attention this Emmy season. -DD

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