Fleabag, Stranger Things, Chernobyl and Line of Duty: The best TV shows of 2019

We pick out our favourite drama, comedy and documentaries that had us glued to our TV sets in 2019.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 18 December 2019 - 9.13am
BBC

Fleabag's kneel. Every single twist in Line of Duty. The heartache of Hopper and Eleven in Stranger Things. Kelvin and Oti’s samba in Strictly. The majesty of Olivia Colman in The Crown. The filth of Sex Education.

2019 has been a vintage year for TV with returning series hitting all the right notes and a collection of new shows that proved even with more channels and streaming services than ever before, we still can’t get enough TV.

BT TV's writers have picked out some of personal highlights in 2019…

Line of Duty

Line of Duty - Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar BBC

Where: BBC One, BBC iPlayer

Why: Stephen Graham, Anna Maxwell Martin and Rochenda Sandall joined the AC-12 regulars in the latest head-spinning series of twists, turns and the game of guess-the-bent-copper.

Question marks hung over Adrian Dunbar’s Ted Hastings in season 5, allowing the actor to flourish as the cantankerous copper.

Five seasons in, Line of Duty is arguably stronger than ever and we’re not sure how long we can wait for season six (starring Kelly MacDonald!) and to get to the bottom of the multiple ‘H’ mystery.

Top Boy

Top Boy season 3 Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: Top Boy’s first two seasons on Channel 4 were enjoyable TV, but they always felt slightly in the shadow of the Baltimore drug drama The Wire.

Returning after a six-year break in a new home on Netflix and with Drake in an exec producer role, the series finally found its own voice. Kano and Ashley Walters reprised their roles as Summerhouse gang leaders Dushane and Sully, but it was newcomer Michael Ward who breathed fresh life into the series.

Heart-breaking, nerve-wracking and tackling the real problems on Britain’s streets in 2019, Top Boy was urgent must-watch television.

Dead to Me

Dead To Me Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: As close to perfect a binge-watch TV show as you can get, Dead to Me was sugar-rush TV that reeled you in from the jaw-dropping episode one twist.

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are perfectly cast as the new friends thrown together in the most unusual circumstance, bringing pathos and wit to a series that will make you laugh and cry tears in the same scene.

With a killer final cliff-hanger, season two can’t come quick enough.

The Boys

The Boys Amazon Prime Video

Where: Amazon Prime Video

Why: Taking a sledgehammer to the worlds of DC and Marvel, The Boys is the anti-superhero TV show that sticks two fingers up at the squeaky clean heroes you usually see on the big screen.

A mixture of biting satire, subversive anti-capitalist messaging and outrageous bad behaviour, the Boys ramps up the blood, guts, sex and bad language as it poses the question that every comic book fan has probably wondered at some point – what would people really do if they had superhero powers?

Sex Education

Sex Education Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: An unabashed and jaw-dropping take on teenage sexual politics, Sex Education lets it all hang out.

If Skins was the teen drama for the MySpace generation, Sex Education is the voice of generation who have grown up on Instagram and Snapchat and all the pressures and awkwardness they entail.

Plus, the extra scene with Gillian Anderson rubbing vegetables must go down as the most unforgettable TV moment of the year. It can’t be unseen.

When They See Us

When They See Us Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: The four-part mini-series told the true story of the Central Park Five, who were convicted of the rape of a young woman in 1989, before their convictions were vacated.

Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, the remarkable drama exposed the breakdown of the US criminal justice system and didn’t pull a single punch. Astonishing TV.

Stranger Things season 3

Stranger Things Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why:  Roaring back to life after an ever-so-slightly underwhelming second season, Stranger Things was back to its most thrilling and nostalgia-filled best for season three.

Smashing into 1985 and bringing in a bodysnatchers-style monster, the Hawkins gang gave us a summer that we’ll never forget.

“Keep the door three inches open”. *Wipes away tears* It gets us every time.

A Confession

A Confession - Martin Freeman as Steve Fulcher ITV

Where: ITV

Why: An original take on the crime drama genre, writer Jeff Pope switched the attention away from glorifying the murderer and playing on the horrors of the victims to zoom in on the decision-makers, technicalities and finer details of the detectives making the crucial decisions in the case.

Based on the real events and murders of Becky Godden and Sian O'Callaghan, A Confession was a sensitive and eye-opening and featured incredible performances across the board.

Unbelievable

 Unbelievable on Netflix Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: A contender for best Netflix original drama of all time, the series sensitively told the story of a woman raped in her own bedroom who was then labelled a liar by investigators.

Kaityln Dever is phenomenal in the lead role and is supported by the phenomenal Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, who play the two brilliant and dedicated detectives who caught on the serial rapist and finally brought justice for the victims.

The Crown

Olivia Colman in The Crown Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies took over the reins at Buckingham Palace, but it was the newcomers in the royal household who stole the show in the third season.

Josh O'Connor's performance as a lonely and loved-up Prince Charles, Erin Doherty's sassy Princess Anne and Jason Watkin's subtle and moving portrayal of Harold Wilson steal the show as we raced through the 60s and 70s up to the Silver Jubilee.

Charles' investiture (episode 6) and the Aberfan tragedy (episode 3) were a new high watermark for the series.

Good Omens

Good Omens - Michael Sheen and David Tennant Amazon Prime Video

Where: Amazon Prime Video

Why: The TV show that they said was it was impossible to make finally happened in 2019. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s dazzling fantasy novel was brought to life with the best screen partnership of 2019, Michael Sheen and David Tennant.

Both divine and devilish, the series was colourful, quirky, funny and poignant.

Bluey

Bluey on Disney Junior Disney Junior

Where: Disney Channel

Why: Kids TV has never been more dazzling, creative and diverse as it is in 2019. But even in a busy and competitive field, Disney Channel’s Bluey stands out as something special.

The Aussie animation celebrates the joys of learning through play and sprinkles in little life lessons that make the show watchable for parents, long after the kids have gone to bed.

Mum

Lesley Manville in Mum BBC

Where: BBC iPlayer

Why: The third and final season of the Lesley Manville sitcom had us weeping more than any drama series. A devastating exploration of collective grief, a beautiful love story and a hilarious modern take on extended family life, Mum remains one of the BBC's most underrated comedies of the last decade.

Dublin Murders

Dublin Murders - Sarah Greene and Killian Scott BBC Pictures

Where: BBC One

Why:  This psychological and emotional thriller, ditched the usual plodding police procedural setting and tired whodunnit plot. Instead, Dublin Murders zoomed in on the emotional connection between cops and crime, and sprinkled a dusting of the supernatural.

Haunting, gripping and from the pen of Sarah Phelps (And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders), Rob Reilly (Killian Scott) and Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene) were a compelling new detective duo.

Seven Worlds, One Planet

Seven Worlds, One Planet BBC

Where: BBC One

Why: It’s the BBC Natural History Unit and Sir David Attenborough – what more reason do you need?

Capturing incredible footage across every continent in the world, this series has an emotional and powerful edge as it turned the focus to the dramatic effects of climate change that is wiping out species and devastating the planet.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl Jared Harris and Emily Watson Sky/Rex

Where: Sky

 

Why: Many viewers of the mini-series Chernobyl will have remembered the true events from when the story broke in 1986, but the dramatisation lifted the curtain on details that Soviet Ukraine had desperately tried to keep from the eyes of the outside world at the time of the nuclear explosion.

Incredible special effects gave an eerily accurate impression of the explosion, its aftermath and the devastating health effects on the people of Pripyat.

But the series will mainly be remembered for stand-out performances from the entire cast, particularly Jared Harris and Emily Watson as the scientists who fought to expose the truth about the nuclear disaster, Paul Ritter as one of the engineers stubbornly refusing to admit what had happened as his body deteriorated, and Jessie Buckley as the wife of one of the first responder firefighters who was doomed to a life of heartbreak as her family continued to be contaminated.

The Great British Bake Off

Great British Bake Off 2019 finalists Channel 4

Where: Channel 4

 

Why: Series 10 of the cosiest contest on TV brought us some of the most talented bakers we’ve ever seen, making the stakes even higher than usual as predicted favourites were voted out in the early weeks.

Halloween queen Helena’s friendship with fellow Goth Noel Fielding, hapless kitchen disaster zone Jamie, and posh Henry who refused to bake in anything less than a shirt and tie were all highlights of the series.

It also lead to a nail-biting final where there was heartbreak for frontrunner Steph who missed out on the top prize, and triumph for David who finally boosted himself out of second place at the point that really mattered.

Strictly Come Dancing 

Strictly Michelle Visage and Giovanni Pernice Vogue BBC

Where: BBC

 

Why: Every year, we question whether the Strictly line-up is strong enough when it’s announced, and every year we forget how much we get drawn into the competition no matter who is on the dancefloor.

While this series seemed to be a bit light on star quality, it turned out to be one of the strongest ever for actual dancing talent with the likes of Karim Zeroual, Michelle Visage and Saffron Barker all wowing us, with shock early exits from Dev Griffin and Catherine Tyldesley.

However, while we feel for Jamie Laing who had to drop out before the series began due to injury, producers must have been punching the air when his replacement Kelvin Fletcher took to the ballroom – arguably the best male dancer the show has ever seen.

Russian Doll 

Russian Doll Netflix

Where: Netflix

 

Why: We know and love Natasha Lyonne as Nicky from Orange is the New Black, but what she deserves to be recognised for is this utterly brilliant series that she created with Amy Poehler and starred in.

Nadia is a keen drinker who keeps finding herself back in the bathroom at her own birthday party at the beginning of each episode, which inevitably leads to her death in a variety of different ways that range from funny to terrifying and heartbreaking.

Guessing just how she’ll meet her end each time is part of the appeal of the programme, but when Nadia meets a man also stuck in a time loop, things really get interesting.

Fleabag series 2

Fleabag Phoebe Waller Bridge BBC

Where: BBC

 

Why: There was a fairly lengthy break between series one and two of woman-of-the-moment Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy about navigating grief, family drama, and sex as a (mostly) single woman, but 2019’s instalment was definitely worth the wait.

Fleabag’s second run became best known for the Hot Priest, played by Andrew Scott, who was her main obsession of the series and provided many a hilarious scene.

Other absolute gems in the cast included Olivia Colman back as the deliciously hateable Godmother and Sian Clifford as Fleabag’s sister, whose disastrous haircut was one of the best moments of the series.

It’s impossible not to binge-watch the whole thing in one go – and then go right back to the beginning of series one, with every one-liner as funny as the first time you heard it.

Catastrophe series 4 

Catastrophe Channel 4

Where: Channel 4

Why: Although it was one of the funniest sitcoms of the year, we look back at series four of Catastrophe feeling much sadder than we’d expect to after watching a series from Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, because it was the final instalment of their characters Sharon and Rob’s love story.

Series four saw their turbulent marriage under more strain than ever before, but there was a happy ending of sorts when they discovered they were having a third unexpected child.

Much as we love Sharon and Rob, the supporting cast is equally as strong, especially Ashley Jensen and Mark Bonnar as the warring Fran and Chris, Jonathan Forbes as Sharon’s brother Fergal, and a guest turn from Julie Hesmondhalgh as a woman scamming Rob.

We’ll genuinely miss Sharon and Rob’s chaotic family life, although her feature role in Aisling Bea’s This Way Up has gone some way to filling the Catastrophe-shaped hole in our hearts.

Motherland series 2 

Motherland BBC

Where: BBC

Why: Another brilliant Sharon Horgan sitcom, albeit one she doesn’t star in, made its return this year for a much-anticipated second series.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of doing a school run, you’ll recognise every character from Motherland only too well, and will be praying none of the other parents see you as either an Amanda or a Liz.

The return to Motherland saw the introduction of Meg (Tanya Moodie), a boozy new friend for Anna Maxwell Martin’s Julia, who carried many of the jokes in the show’s second run.

Mindhunter series 2 

Mindhunter Netflix

Where: Netflix

Why: It may not be one of Netflix’s most high-profile series, but there’s something about Mindhunter that gets under your skin, making watching the next episode simultaneously far too terrifying for bedtime, but also irresistible.

The criminal psychiatry show has that clever knack of seeming to meander from one episode to the next until suddenly, you recognise the bombshell that had been building quietly in the background for hours.

Holden Ford, Bill Tench and Wendy Carr’s FBI behavioural science unit picked up pace this series, focussing on a chilling true case of serial child abduction that remains unresolved.

If the true crimes aren’t enough to give you nightmares, actor Cameron Britton’s creepy likeness to his serial killer character Ed Kemper certainly will be.

Leaving Neverland

Michael Jackson at court Rex

Where: Channel 4

Why: Early in 2019, we saw one of the most harrowing documentaries of recent years – odd to think of as a TV “highlight”, but with such a huge knock-on effect that it has to be recognised as being in the top TV programmes of the year.

Wade Robson and James Safechuck allege they were two of many victims of childhood sexual abuse by late superstar Michael Jackson, and their stories of what they say life on the Neverland ranch was like for them were as compelling as they were traumatic to watch.

The documentary still divides Jackson fans, but few who watched it could remain unaffected by the two men’s testimonies and their families’ experiences.

Orange is the New Black finale 

Where: Channel 4

Why: Early in 2019, we saw one of the most harrowing documentaries of recent years – odd to think of as a TV “highlight”, but with such a huge knock-on effect that it has to be recognised as being in the top TV programmes of the year.

Wade Robson and James Safechuck allege they were two of many victims of childhood sexual abuse by late superstar Michael Jackson, and their stories of what they say life on the Neverland ranch was like for them were as compelling as they were traumatic to watch.

The documentary still divides Jackson fans, but few who watched it could remain unaffected by the two men’s testimonies and their families’ experiences.

Orange is the New Black finale 

Orange is the New Black Netflix

Where: Netflix

 

Why: It was the end of an era at Netflix in 2019, as one of its flagship shows locked down Litchfield women’s prison for the last time in the series seven finale.

Orange is the New Black has been a firm favourite since it launched in 2013, but even the most ardent of fans would admit it had somewhat lost its way in the two series preceding number seven – so while we were sad to say goodbye, it definitely felt like the right time.

The show came full circle with Piper back on the outside, but this time struggling to come to terms with life away from Alex, while the brutal immigration facility storyline uncomfortably mirrored the real world and there was a shocking flashback about Lorna’s time before prison.

As the old gang including Red, Blanca, Gloria, Nicky, Taystee and Daya largely went their separate ways in the last episode, many an Orange fan shed a tear, but we’d be amazed if there wasn’t some sort of spin-off or revival further down the road.

 

Derry Girls series 2

Derry Girls Channel 4

Where: Channel 4

 

Why: Any teen of the 90s has an instant affinity with Derry Girls, and if your adolescence also included a Catholic upbringing, it’ll seem even more painfully familiar.

While the return of the Northern Irish sitcom wasn’t quite as perfect as its debut run, there were still plenty of laugh-out-loud moments accompanied by a brilliantly nostalgic soundtrack.

Erin and co’s cultural exchange with the Protestant boys’ school in Friends Across the Barricade was a series highlight, and of course, no 90s-set show would be complete without the hysteria of trying to see Take That in concert.

Catch-22 

Catch-22 Channel 4

Where: Channel 4

 

Why: Attempting an adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written is never a task to be taken lightly, even if you’re George Clooney.

Luckily, this version of Joseph Heller’s World War II dark comedy struck the perfect note and did justice to every great character and ridiculous situation from the book.

Starring George as General Scheisskopf, Christopher Abbott as Yossarian, Hugh Laurie as Major ­– de Coverley and with Lewis Pullman doing a memorable job as Major Major Major Major, the TV adaptation was the perfect tribute to Heller’s work and thoroughly deserved its rave reviews.