I’m not too proud to admit that I watch a shit-ton of television. Yes, I know I should be doing other things, but dammit, there’s a lot of great stuff to watch out there. This is literally a Golden Age of television. So, yeah, I watched way too much television in the past year and the majority of it was pretty freaking good. Of course, this means that in order to recap the best of 2019, I had to do some creative thinking with regards to how to group these shows in batches of seven. Which basically means, if you don’t see a show you think should be represented, give it a few days. It’s probably on another list.

First up, here’s my Psycho 7 list of my seven favorite 2019 Debut Seasons of a television series, in no particular order. That means we’ve got one-shot seasons as well as a handful of fantastic first chapters of what I hope become long-running stories.


Black Summer

I watched the first episode of Z Nation and didn’t watch a single episode past that. I hear it was good. I don’t doubt it. Maybe someday I’ll check it out. Black Summer debuted on Netflix this past year and was, ostensibly, a prequel to Z Nation, but without all that pesky humor, winks, and nods. In fact, aside from one or two of the leads, nobody is safe in this one. Jaime King took the lead as Rose, a mother who was separated from her daughter at a checkpoint, who then spends the rest of the eight-episode series trying to find her. We also have Justin Chu Cary as Julius James, who spends the majority of the series under the assumed identity of the guard he killed, Spears. There’s also Christine Lee as Sun, a Korean woman looking for her mother, Sal Velez Jr. as William, and Kelsey Flower as Lance.

The best thing about this series is that it doesn’t do the slow burn approach of something like The Walking Dead. This show isn’t emotional and rarely sentimental. It’s a lit fuse and it’s not uncommon for an episode to go long stretches with no dialogue as we simply watch people doing their damnedest to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Episode 4, “Alone,” is a standout in this respect. Lance wakes up alone, having been left behind by the group after appearing to die. The entire episode is him trying to avoid a lone zombie that is following him, hunting him. And these aren’t the lumbering undead. They will sprint after your ass. This episode could have alternatively been called “Cardio” because Lance’s is on point.

There’s a second season on the way, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. This one served as a nice and tidy little piece with a beginning, middle, and end. I was hoping that if it continued, it would be with a new cast, telling new stories, but that doesn’t look to be the case.

Still, I’ll be watching. Black Summer was the most rewatchable zombie show of the year for me.

BONUS: Since I’m talking about zombies, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kingdom, also on Netflix. It’s a South Korean zombie story set in the 1500s. The sets and costumes are gorgeous and it’s a very entertaining zombie series that everyone should check out at some point. The second season of Kingdom is debuting on Netflix in March, 2020.


Chernobyl

Produced by HBO and Sky UK, Chernobyl is probably the scariest horror series of the year. Created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the series tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 and what happened after. This five-episode Emmy winning stunner stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson but doesn’t hold back from exploring the lives of many people whose worlds were torn apart by the disaster.

I graduated high school in 1986, so I was aware of Chernobyl but news was pretty restricted about what was actually going on in the USSR at the time. Here, we get a wide-ranging view of the events from the efforts (and fates) of the first responders, to the volunteers trying to help save lives, to the teams of miners given the nightmarish job of digging a tunnel under Reactor 4 in order to avoid an even larger disaster, and also the politicians tasked with figuring out how to handle the event.

This is powerful stuff and not for the delicate. There’s not just focus on the horrific effects of exposure to these apocalyptic levels of radiation, but also the basic day to day effects of trying to evacuate a population that has lived on the same plot of earth for generations. Episode 4, “The Happiness of All Mankind” is a gut-wrencher that really focuses on the personal rather than the political and might be the most powerful episode of the series.

This is real horror, folks. No zombies, no monsters, no aliens. Just the pure science of a massive nuclear meltdown.


Primal

If you don’t know who Genndy Tartakovsky is, then you really should be researching some of the best animated television work of the past 25 years. He cut his teeth creating Dexter’s Laboratory in 1996, produced Powerpuff Girls, created Samurai Jack and the original Clone Wars animated series before it was relaunched as a CG production, and he created one of my favorite shows you didn’t watch, Sym-Bionic Titan in 2010. He’s also the director of the hit Hotel Transylvania series of animated films.

Just having created Samurai Jack, though, would be enough of a resume to make me want to see what he had up his sleeve with Primal.

The show is set in prehistoric times and follows an unlikely pair of friends, a caveman named Spear and a female Tyrannosaurus named Fang. But don’t get me wrong, neither of those names are ever muttered in the show, as there is literally no dialogue in any of the five episodes. The world Tartakovsky has created with Primal is one of gorgeous cinematography, heart-racingly choreographed action sequences, innovative visual storytelling, and bloody, gory violence.

The first episode sets that stage as both Spear and Fang lose their families in horrifying displays of violence. Having only each other to rely on, the rest of the season is a series of one-off adventures that are dazzling displays of animated action that simultaneously build the emotional connection between two characters who really shouldn’t have connected in the first place.

The fifth episode ends on a cliffhanger that made me literally shout at the TV, but the second half of this first season is set to debut in 2020.


The Mandalorian

If you haven’t been happy with Star Wars for the past two decades, The Mandalorian is for you. While it is essentially just a Western in space, borrowing heavily from Sergio Leone films and Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, The Mandalorian’s creators, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni (the mind behind Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels), have produced a master class on how to make Star Wars relevant to a modern audience.

It’s not about Jedi. It’s not about family legacy. It’s not about giant space weapons.

It’s about grounded narratives in a rich, vividly realized science fantasy world.

And tossing Baby Yoda in there doesn’t hurt.

The set-up, for those few of you who don’t know, is about a bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) who, as all film bounty hunters do, decides that the job isn’t worth the bounty and therefore becomes the new target of all the rest of the bounty hunters. So he goes on the run with the initial target, Baby Yoda.

Who or what is Baby Yoda? Who knows? That’s not the point at this stage. This first season was all about setting up the conflict and establishing the world outside of the usual Star Wars universe. Oh, there are still references and touchpoints to the original trilogy – the show is set just after the fall of the Empire – but it’s not preoccupied with giving you what you’ve seen before. Favreau and Filoni have walked that tightrope between providing fan service and rehashing what we’ve already seen.

It’s a tightrope the new trilogy failed to walk and therefore, has made The Mandalorian the most successful and exciting piece of Star Wars storytelling since the original trilogy.


What We Do in the Shadows

In 2014, Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi created a mockumentary film about the daily lives of vampires living together in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. In 2019, they brought the concept to America with Kayvan Novak as Nandor the Relentless, Matt Berry as Laszlo Cravensworth, Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, and Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson as the vampires and Harvey Guillen as Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo.

Doug Jones also makes an appearance as Baron Afanas, an ancient vampire checking up on how the others’ conquest of the New World is going.

Generally, I avoid putting comedy shows in my Best Of lists because comedy is so slippery. It’s difficult to find common ground with comedy.

But dammit, What We Do in the Shadows is just fucking hilarious. Whether it’s Laszlo’s topiary sculptures of vulvas or Nadja’s obsession with a repeatedly reincarnating lover or Colin Robinson, an energy vampire, feeding on the boredom and ennui of office workers, every single aspect of this show is on point. There was not a single show on television that was funnier.

Especially that council of vampires episode. If you didn’t see it, go watch it. Right now.


Russian Doll

I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down to watch Russian Doll, but within minutes I knew it was made for me. Series creator Natasha Lyonne was my new imaginary girlfriend. Oh, I’ve had a thing for her since 1999’s Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby, but this was a whole new level of bad assery.

Russian Doll is the story of software engineer Nadia Vulvokov, who dies on her 36th birthday and subsequently wakes up to live, and die, over and over and over again. The time loop element is something that I’m a fan of anyway in just about any media, but Lyonne brings a dark intellectual element to the scenario that so frequently borders on nihilism before backing away that I simply fell in love with her character.

And when Alan (Charlie Barnett) shows up, also going through the time loop phenomenon, my mind was blown.

I suppose that this could be a bit too “New York Intellectual” for a lot of viewers, but there was a lot of stuff that really resonated with me. The mystery about the time loop isn’t really even a big deal, so much as the way the situation forces the characters to confront elements of their pasts and examine the people they have become.

It’s just solid character work from everyone involved and the ending was nicely surreal and uplifting.

We’ll have to see what they have planned with Season Two. It was renewed in June, but I haven’t seen any news about where the second season might go.


Too Old to Die Young

What happens when Nicolas Winding Refn and Ed Brubaker get together to create a noir television series with no real censorship concerns? You get what I’m calling Apocalypse Noir – a seedy, neon crime drama about corrupt cops, underage girls, Mexican cartels, revenge, murder, and maybe even aliens. It’s beautiful, perverted, and magical, with dialogue and plot twists that can only be compared to something by David Lynch.

I’d even go so far as to say that To Old to Die Young was much more consistent and successful than Twin Peaks: The Return.

There. I said it.

Miles Teller is a revelation as the sociopathic cop Martin Jones, looking for some sort of purpose or meaning. Augusto Aguilera, as Jesus, is a beautiful snake, coiled and ready to strike. Christina Rodlo, as the bruja Yaritza – and quite possibly the Angel of Vengeance – is just enthralling. Every single aspect of this show is perfection, from the cinematography by Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia to the musical soundscape of Cliff Martinez, to the almost painfully glacial pacing.

As of July 27, 2019, Amazon announced that there were no plans to continue the series, despite the finale setting up the potential end of civilization and the prosperity of evil over the world while simultaneously giving us a heroine determined to rid the world of evil in a rain of bloody violence.

I really hope that Refn and Brubaker find a way to continue Too Old to Die Young in some form, whether it be on TV, in movies, or maybe in comics.

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