Even while sequels, reboots and franchises have quickly come to dominate film and television in 2019, a number of platforms — both networks and streaming services — have allowed unique and nuanced stories to shine. Shows such as “Big Little Lies” and “Fleabag,” presented as standalone stories in their first seasons, came back with fascinating new characters and plotlines for their second seasons. Television mainstays such as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” have adapted to their audiences, and newer emerging shows have been made all the better because of it. Even if theaters continue to prioritize popular demand, stories that can suit almost anyone’s niche and interests are finding their home on television.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Winner: “Stranger Things”
When Netflix’s “Stranger Things” debuted its first season in 2016, its heartfelt characters and throwbacks to the 1980s captivated audiences everywhere. Nearly two years after the release of “Stranger Things 2,” the show’s highly anticipated third season certainly did not disappoint audiences.
Set in the summer of 1985, “Stranger Things 3” brings new threats to Hawkins, including evil Russians, a corrupt mayor and the reemergence of the “Mind Flayer.” Along with supernatural elements, this season also tackles the awkwardness that comes with being a teenager, exploring romantic relationships, as well as new friendships within the gang.
Season three of “Stranger Things” excels in its ability to maintain character-driven storylines, capitalizing on the strength of the dynamics between its most beloved characters. As the young cast of the show continues to grow older, the show is not afraid to grow as well, making the stakes of this season expand exponentially. The lovable humor, specifically through an iconic rendition of “The NeverEnding Story,” balances out the season’s darker turns, making its gory and emotional nature still feel fitting within its heartwarming narrative.
Recently named Netflix’s most-watched series, “Stranger Things” proves to be a show that masters its fun sense of adventure within a relatively dark, supernatural setting. With the recent announcement of “Stranger Things 4,” we can only hope the series stays just as “bitchin’.”
Runner-up: “This Is Us”
As streaming services are carrying an increasingly dominant presence in the “golden age” of television, it often feels as if networks struggle to compete with the supposedly higher levels of quality and innovation on cable and streaming platforms.
But what NBC’s “This Is Us” has going for it is plenty of heart. A compelling family drama, “This Is Us” benefits from a stellar ensemble cast and the novelty of its timeline, which spans generations and balances contemporary events with an air of nostalgia. With touching central performances by Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, “This Is Us” has proven to be a mainstay in television dramas today.
— Anagha Komaragiri
The debut season of “Fleabag” was undoubtedly a triumph, and its second season is a full-on masterpiece. In this season, creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge delivered one of the most clever, hilarious and honest TV series of the year — taking viewers through the sometimes emotional and always droll misadventures of the show’s eponymous protagonist.
Season two of “Fleabag” offers many new and exciting troubles for the lead character: A love triangle involving God and a priest, a scheming brother-in-law and a tumultuous relationship with her sister, to name a few. All of these plotlines are neatly empowered by Waller-Bridge’s sharp tongue and tender writing.
Waller-Bridge succeeds in this season through the relationship that she creates between the audience and the characters; she does not tell Fleabag’s story, rather she fully immerses the audience in it. Through her masterful breaking of the fourth wall, Waller-Bridge creates a strong sense of trust and companionship between the show’s protagonist and its audience, allowing viewers to endure every bit of pain and awkwardness that Fleabag feels throughout her messy experiences. It’s this pain and awkwardness that makes the show so enjoyable –– well, that and the hot priest.
— Salem Sulaiman
Season two of “Barry” exemplifies the show’s ability to successfully raise the bar, take risks and create a narrative that is incredibly unique to television. Balancing both comedic and dramatic elements, season two of “Barry” continues to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. “Barry” repeatedly displays Bill Hader as a master at his craft, creating a show that not only pushes boundaries but is also visually and emotionally stunning. With six Emmy wins under its belt, “Barry” will stop at nothing to make a compelling story that grasps the attention of anyone who gives it a watch.
— Sarah Runyan
Best Limited Series
Winner: “Big Little Lies”
The second season of “Big Little Lies” garnered great controversy regarding both its production and its critical reception. The season’s original director, Andrea Arnold, lost creative control post-production when executive producer Jean-Marc Vallée took the reins, leading to episodes in the show that tended to feel disjointed and choppy. To top this off, the plot’s significance was sometimes lost on audiences: Rather than introducing a new conflict in season two, the show’s writers focused on depicting the process of healing from old wounds. Because of this, the season walks a fine line between being useless and poignant –– and it manages to achieve the latter through its actors’ phenomenal performances.
Despite its pitfalls, “Big Little Lies” was undoubtedly one of the most engaging ensemble performances of the year. Season one veterans Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern returned to give even more emotionally nuanced performances than last time. Zoë Kravitz appeared in a number of scenes and stole every one of them. Series newcomer Meryl Streep helped create one of the most sinister television villains of 2019. The characters are flawed and honest, and they work perfectly with one another to create a moving tale of guilt, healing and survival.
— Salem Sulaiman
A historical drama produced by HBO, “Chernobyl” accomplished its role as a miniseries in setting out to both educate and terrify. The story revolves around the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union that shook the globe in the 1980s. With a stellar group of actors — featuring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson — the lives of those who faced the damage control of the disaster were dramatized while filming in modern-day Lithuania and Ukraine. Filled to the brim with suspense, emotion and fantastic cinematography, the artistic direction of the miniseries captivated audiences and ensured that the story of Chernobyl would not be forgotten.
— Skylar De Paul
Best Actor in a Drama
Winner: Billy Porter, “Pose”
“Pose” remains one of the most talked-about shows on television, even in its sophomore season. One of the highlights of the series has been the riveting portrayal of Pray Tell by Billy Porter. At this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards, Porter was honored with the award for outstanding lead actor in a drama series, being the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy in a lead acting category.
In a role that requires a precise understanding of human emotion, Billy Porter exceeds the boundaries of Pray Tell, excelling in the complexities of the multifaceted character. His life is fully embraced by Porter in a stunning performance that only a true actor can accomplish.
Pray Tell requires an intricate skill set few are able to deliver. Porter, a Tony Award-winning performer, flexes his musical fluency in the various musical numbers on “Pose” while ensuring that the character remains wholly human. Despite the typically dazzling brilliance of the character, Pray Tell is suddenly forced to confront childhood trauma and endure complications from azidothymidine, a medication used to fight HIV. Porter’s performance is unique in his refusal to allow Pray Tell to be defined by any singular moment in his life. He weaves easily through Pray Tell’s biting honesty while managing to excel at the characters’ softer ebbings of vulnerability.
— Kelly Nguyen
Runner-up: Jonathan Groff, “Mindhunter”
In the true-crime drama “Mindhunter,” Jonathan Groff is tasked with playing an initially bookish, goody-two-shoes FBI researcher who becomes increasingly power-hungry and sexually deviant as he analyzes serial killers within the new field of behavioral psychology. Groff’s ability to subtly blend Holden Ford’s original character with the megalomaniac he eventually becomes contributes to the show’s unnerving quality. His disturbing character development gets under viewers’ skins as they watch Ford morph into someone a little too close to the murderers he is trying to catch.
— Rhea Srivats
Best Actress in a Drama
Winner: Sandra Oh, “Killing Eve”
The second season of the dark and delightful “Killing Eve” started off with a bang, or more accurately, a stabbing. This opening is sold by Sandra Oh’s performance as MI5 agent Eve Polastri — a detective obsessed with the sensual assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). What makes her performance particularly impressive is that even as her character veers closer and closer to instability, she continues to serve as a surrogate and narrator for the audience. She is at once the voyeur through which the audience understands the world and the subject being observed. As a result, some of her best scenes take place in front of mirrors, and it is these quiet and alluring moments that define the show as a whole.
“Killing Eve” deals with some heavy topics. One of the most fascinating elements is watching Eve process everything that’s happened to her. There’s hardly a single moment in which she isn’t fighting through some emotional battle, torn between desire, fear, thrill and grief — and Oh delivers all of these nuances with devastating ease. Honestly, it’s no wonder that Villanelle is so obsessed with her.
— Lauren Sheehan-Clark
Runner-up: Zendaya, “Euphoria”
Zendaya’s performance as Rue, a teen grappling with addiction, is largely what gives “Euphoria” both its relatability and its poignancy. The heavy subject matter and the urgency of Rue’s situation is, on paper, an extremely daunting task for any actor. Zendaya’s portrayal, however, eloquently displays that the actress can harness the capability to give an emotional performance that believably depicts both trauma and recovery. Although her resume is chock-full of lighthearted Disney material such as “Shake It Up,” “K.C. Undercover” and, more recently, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” Zendaya’s performance in “Euphoria” proves her immense talent and ability to beautifully handle darker material.
— Sarah Runyan
Best Actor in a Comedy
Winner: Bill Hader, “Barry”
After a legendary 13-year run as the resident impressionist and funnyman of “Saturday Night Live,” Bill Hader has spent recent years following a vastly more intriguing creative path. On HBO’s “Barry,” Hader portrays the titular character, a depressed hitman who searches for purpose as an aspiring actor, with dogged authenticity. Hader’s turn as Barry Berkman has more than proven his complexity and range as a performer; to nobody’s surprise, the writer and comedian has been rightfully awarded back-to-back lead actor Emmys for the role.
In the most recent season of “Barry,” Hader’s performance benefited even further from storylines that scaffolded upon the series’ near-perfect debut. As Barry is continually juxtaposed with Sam (Joe Massingill), Sally’s (Sarah Goldberg) abusive ex-husband, Hader captures Barry’s wrestling match with his inescapable past and seemingly innate violence. This struggle erupts in the second season’s finale, an episode that sees Hader’s performance at its coldest and most melancholy peaks.
Hader’s ability to zip between Barry’s emotional extremes mimics his chameleonic talent for comedic impressions. Barry is at once the loveable, misguided dork and the cold-blooded killer, and Hader sells both personas flawlessly within an impeccably written and directed sophomore season. It’s somewhat of a shame that Hader’s chief legacy seems to still be focused on “SNL” — it’s a wonder what he is capable of when given murky gray areas to explore.
— Grace Orriss
Runner-up: Ted Danson, “The Good Place”
In a show centered around character development, Ted Danson’s performance as Michael on “The Good Place” is one that has arguably gone through the most radical personality changes over four seasons. Starting off as a hellish demon, Michael eventually morphed into a caretaker for the humans he was initially assigned to torture — this being especially clear in the show’s fourth season. Given that he is not a mortal being himself, Michael provides insight into just how special the human condition really is, and his journey to developing empathy and a conscience is both humorous and heartwarming. Through his performance as Michael, Danson can be credited for turning “The Good Place” into a show that is truly special.
— Rhea Srivats
Best Actress in a Comedy
Winner: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Fleabag”
There is nothing that Phoebe Waller-Bridge cannot do. Her role as the lead actress in her show “Fleabag,” a comedy-drama revolving around a young woman in London as she navigates life, love and tragedy, is no easy feat to accomplish. The role requires constant turns to the camera and the responsibility of keeping an audience engaged by talking directly to them, and she makes the task and her role completely her own. Cutting away to the camera and talking directly into it to further dwell on the situation being portrayed on screen sounds slightly ridiculous on paper, but Waller-Bridge makes it the norm, right from the show’s onset.
Waller-Bridge has the uncanny ability to make her audience a part of the show, a part of her life. “Fleabag” becomes your best friend and greatest confidante because Waller-Bridge makes sure she is relatable, not just with regards to the experience her character encounters, but through the clothes she wears, the reactions she has, the quirks she embodies. Her character is confusing, complex and chaotic, while still being calm and composed on the outside — until she isn’t. Waller-Bridge makes you feel the tension between her character and the infamous priest (Andrew Scott), her love interest from season two of the show. She also makes you feel extreme happiness at the beginning of the season, and devastating sadness toward the end.
— Anoushka Agrawal
Runner-up: Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”
Unsurprisingly, Kate McKinnon has excelled this season on “Saturday Night Live,” portraying a variety of characters with immense humor, remaining a wildly versatile actress. Most notably, her work as Elizabeth Warren this season has been phenomenal, increasing in hilarity every time she reappears in a new sketch, mimicking many of Warren’s mannerisms delightfully. McKinnon’s acting is never stale and she remains incredibly dedicated to the show, making it no surprise that she has been nominated for an Emmy for the past six years and continues to excel in her ninth season.
— Caitlin Keller
Best Actor in a Limited Series
Winner: Jharrel Jerome, “When They See Us”
At only 22 years old, Jharrel Jerome is poised to take the acting world by storm. After his breakout role in Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film “Moonlight,” Jerome took on an even more intense role in Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us.” The Netflix miniseries focuses on the events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and the wrongfully convicted, and eventually exonerated, Central Park Five. The series was released earlier this year to widespread attention and critical acclaim.
Jerome’s performance highlights both the importance and depth of the series. As Korey Wise, Jerome is the only actor in the main cast that serves as the primary subject of an entire episode, portraying Wise at different ages and in a number of different settings. Through an incredibly emotional and physical performance, Jerome captures the pain and tragedy, as well as the story of activism, that “When They See Us” aims to display. After taking home the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, Jerome is only just beginning to garner the praise that he deserves.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Runner-up: Jared Harris, “Chernobyl”
At the center of HBO’s devastating historical drama “Chernobyl” is a fantastic lead performance by Jared Harris as Valery Legasov. Legasov is a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute that is brought in to aid cleanup efforts. The British actor has played several real-life figures over the course of his career, including Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Ulysses S. Grant. But in “Chernobyl,” Harris is given the opportunity to breathe life into a historical figure that has largely been forgotten, acknowledging Legasov’s contributions while authentically conveying the weight of the events of the show.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Best Actress in a Limited Series
Winner: Nicole Kidman, “Big Little Lies”
Given that her role skillfully navigated domestic abuse, trauma and motherhood, Nicole Kidman’s role in “Big Little Lies” is a no-brainer for rewarding the best actress in a limited series.
As the angsty and tumultuous Celeste Wright, Kidman had to understand how to toe the line between anger and mourning in order to show that she was grieving the death of her abusive husband in season one. This is a tall order, and on top of all of this, throughout season two, she is fighting her mother-in-law for the custody of her two twin boys.
Kidman plays the role without misstep — the audiences can truly feel how disturbed Celeste is without it being shown through excessive tears or dialogue. Instead, we see it in her eyes during her Ambien-induced drive along the cliffs of Monterey, Calif., or her stern defense of herself as a mother in court. It’s no doubt that her character is haunted by her past and we can thank Nicole Kidman for a delicate depiction of that.
— Malini Ramaiyer
Runner-up: Laura Dern, “Big Little Lies”
A show about five mothers taking charge of their lives is in and of itself a feminist depiction. There is no doubt, however, that Laura Dern’s character Renata Klein in “Big Little Lies” is the feminist icon of the show.
In season two, Renata finds herself more deeply entrenched in her friendships with the other main characters of the show, balancing these relationships while figuring out how to handle her daughter’s anxiety, as well as dealing with her husband’s bankruptcy.
While Renata isn’t always a part of the main plotline of season two, Dern’s manic energy in playing this role most definitely earns her runner-up for best actress in a limited series. It’s impossible to forget her most iconic line this season: “I will not not be rich!”
— Malini Ramaiyer
Best Variety Talk Show
Winner: “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah
In a day and age filled with its fair share of talk shows, it is a challenge to create something that is thought-provoking, engaging and fresh. The 35-year-old South African comedian Trevor Noah manages to do just that on “The Daily Show.” This year’s iteration of the program was remarkably successful, featuring segments that were both knee-slappingly hilarious and skillfully nuanced.
Noah did not fall for a common talk show trope nowadays, wherein the host spends the entirety of his time going on tirades and ridiculing Donald Trump. Instead, Noah used his show as a platform to emphasize important domestic and international political issues, such as impeachment hearings, the protests going on in Beirut and Hong Kong and ongoing assaults against the Kurds in Syria. Additionally, Noah has invited many people of color, such as musician Black Coffee and performer and director Lin-Manuel Miranda, to speak on issues that are relevant to them. All in all, this has contributed greatly to the massive recognition “The Daily Show” has received for being an inclusive, sociopolitically savvy standout in its genre.
— Luna Khalil
Runner-up: “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
As we approach another national election year, commentary and satire from late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert feel as necessary as ever. “The Late Show” saw a major turning point after the 2016 election; with increasingly sharp monologues came an increase in ratings, crowning Colbert the current “King of Late Night.”
But beyond just the satisfaction of high ratings for Colbert and his team at CBS, “The Late Show” bridges a traditional late-night setting with a genuinely biting eye for current events. While several of Colbert’s younger counterparts have shared in the format of topical satire, nobody seems to offer as much of a comforting and intelligent presence as the “Late Show” host — who, while still fairly new in his role, seems to have the network talk show formula down pat.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Best Variety Sketch Show
Winner: “Saturday Night Live”
After 45 seasons and almost 900 episodes, you would think that “Saturday Night Live” would have nothing new to perform week after week. And there have been many, many sketches that have made fans question the quality of the show in its 44 years. Yet since the last presidential elections, the veteran comedy show has redefined itself in the brave new world that is the United States’ politically tinged media. Forget the personal being political — now it is the late-night comedy shows being political. From Alec Baldwin’s Emmy-winning caricature of our current commander in chief to the hiring and immediate firing of conservative comedian Shane Gillis, “Saturday Night Live” is making political headlines both on and off the air.
As much as viewers can mourn the shorter lives of similarly minded sketch shows “Mad TV” and “In Living Color,” there is a reason why “Saturday Night Live” has survived through it all: Lorne Michaels. (And maybe slightly because of the eternally endearing friendship of John Mulaney and Bill Hader.) Under a veteran comedic television producer that puts all other veteran television producers to shame, “Saturday Night Live” has continued to be a staple of late-night television and shows no signs of stopping.
— Julie Lim
Runner-up: “Documentary Now!”
“Documentary Now!,” a television series helmed by “Saturday Night Live” alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas, takes the genre of mockumentary filmmaking to the next level. It capitalizes on the single-camera comedy style of popular shows such as “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” while spoofing real, celebrated documentary films. With an excellent team of writers and a rotating cast every episode, the series feels current yet far more niche than more mainstream shows like “SNL” or the late-night lineup. Moreover, with the always magnetic Helen Mirren serving as the show’s host, the performed professionalism and legitimacy of the show adds to the absurd nature that every episode ultimately leans into.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Best Animated Series
Winner: “BoJack Horseman”
Not only one of the decade’s most distinctive animated television shows, Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” is one of the most impressive and clever examinations of culture airing today. In its past five seasons, the show has looked in on the dark underbelly of Hollywood and plunged into the deep oblivion with comedic genius and despairing backgrounds to boot. But the first part of its sixth season was very different from the show’s previous seasons.
In season six, BoJack (Will Arnett) spends his time in a rehabilitation center thoughtfully named Pastiches, where, for the first time since the show’s premiere, life is looking up for him. While past seasons have concerned themselves deeply with current social events and cultural phenomena, season six watches BoJack deal with one uplifting theme: recovery. And BoJack is not just recovering from addiction here, but the constant traumas of life that have plagued him throughout the show.
In fact, Diane (Alison Brie), Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and Todd (Aaron Paul) all get the opportunity to try at life in ways that they haven’t been able to before. This is the success of the first part of “BoJack Horseman” season six — seeing a group of people who have struggled for so long making that slow climb towards solace.
— Maisy Menzies
Runner-up: “Rick and Morty”
With a raunchy, time-traveling grandfather and a boy that reminds us of that one kid in our political science class, Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” is more than worthy of mention. With season four creeping by as the weeks pass, we can’t help but be honored at episode one’s gracious shout out to our No.1 public university in the world, UC Berkeley. Is this show considered science fiction? Is it a sitcom? The answer: It’s a whirlwind combination of both, mixed with satirical humor and just enough schwifty adventure to keep even the pickiest of watchers entering the portal every week.
— Skylar De Paul
Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].