Bianca Coleman’s pick of the top dramas of 2019
My top 13 countdown of the best drama series of 2019 (and one movie) is missing some popular choices. No Game of Thrones, no Handmaid’s Tale, no Big Little Lies? Well, not only is it a tough job (and first-world problem) to compile a list like this, but there were some far better contenders for my bingeing pleasure this year, and they don’t necessarily follow the path of awards.
Heck, even their order was difficult. The only reason numbers 12 and 13 aren’t higher up is because they’re not strictly drama series, but dark, wicked dramedies – of which there were plenty to choose.
Good Girls (Netflix)
Season 2 landed on Netflix this year, and the third should arrive on the platform in the second quarter of 2020. It’s an NBC series about three ordinary suburban women who are struggling to make ends meet. Obviously, they turn to a life of crime.
Beth (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), her best friend Ruby (Retta, Parks And Recreation), and Beth’s little sister Annie (Mae Whitman, Arrested Development, Parenthood) begin by robbing a grocery store in Season 1.
By Season 2, they’re running a full-on money laundering operation and an never-ending battle to stay ahead of the game, the cops, the FBI, teenage hitmen, and financial security. Good Girls is beautifully filmed with carefully framed scenes, and the soundtrack is brilliant.
Take-away: This is a superbly dark crime drama peppered with wry laugh-out-loud moments and instances of searing poignancy.
Dead To Me (Netflix)
Jen (Christina Applegate) is a widow who decides to attend a grief therapy group after her husband is killed in a hit and run. There she meets airy-fairy Judy (Linda Cardellini, nominated for an Emmy for her role in Mad Men). They soon become friends, but Judy is hiding more than one secret …
The series is built on a foundation of death, grief, anger, betrayal and deception, and decorated with hope, love and loyalty.
Take-away: Dead To Me is a solid series, well set up for a second season, which is due on Netflix in 2020.
South African series had a fantastic year. This local production, a murder mystery – with multiple suspects and motives – set in a posh girls’ school, broke the record for the number of unique viewers on the day it landed on Showmax, beating out the platform’s previous Original series record-holder Tali’s Wedding Diary as well as drawing more than double the unique views of the most popular Hollywood series.
The suspense and mystery is maintained right up until the very last minutes of the last episode. Until then you’ll be wondering who killed Lexi, the girl of the title.
Take-away: The series is polished and well-written, and the performances from all the cast members, from veterans to newcomers, are superb throughout.
This anthology series has nine seasons so far, eight of which are on Showmax. They are self-contained miniseries with different characters and settings, which overlap at times. Some of the actors – like creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s darling Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates and Evan Peters – appear in more than one season.
The most recent season available in South Africa is subtitled Apocalypse. It’s set in California between 2018 and 2021 and features the crossover return of the witches from Coven (Season 3) in an attempt to prevent the apocalypse brought about by the Antichrist, Michael Langdon (newcomer to the series, Cody Fern, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story), after a nuclear blast all but wipes out the planet.
Season 9, 1984, aired in the US from September to November 2019.
The explosive five-part series based on the Deon Meyer novel of the same name not only made South African television history but it drew massive viewership figures as audiences got behind this excellent local production, making it M-Net 101’s most popular show of 2019.
Trackers was made in collaboration with HBO’s sister network Cinemax and Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF, ensuring international distribution right off the bat. It’s a combination of stellar acting talent, stunning locations (mainly in Cape Town), and a gripping story that twists and turns right up till the very end.
Take-away: Even if you’ve read the book, there’ll be some surprises in store for you.
This gorgeous period drama is based on the real life character of Anne Lister, who has been called “the first modern lesbian”. She was also a landowner, businesswoman and intrepid traveller, and her wealth allowed her the luxury of living her life the way she wanted to. In early 19th-Century West Yorkshire, England, this didn’t mean it was a life without heartbreak.
The series was created with Lister’s meticulously kept and extensive diaries that documented every detail of her life, from the weather to her sexual preferences – which were written in a complex code.
Take-away: Gentleman Jack is as lush in appearance as it is in its subject matter, with a lead performance by Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster), which is a joy to behold. Season 2 is slated for (European) summer 2020, or autumn if things drag on.
All three seasons of the spinoff of award-winning legal series The Good Wife are available to binge.
Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski in an Emmy-nominated role) and Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo in a Critics Choice-nominated role) are the two characters that crossed over, but the beauty of it is that you don’t have to have watched The Good Wife to follow and enjoy.
Diane works at a historically black Chicago law firm, Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad, and there are cases to be tried in every episode, as well as story arcs that span entire seasons.
By the third season, the current administration is making Diane a bit crazy. The judicial system in which the better story trumps the best facts is also tackled, as well as how news and information can be manipulated.
Take-away: This is one of the most politically up to date and relevant shows, and it increasingly makes it very clear which side it has picked.
They say growing old is not for sissies. Well, neither is being an adolescent in this day and age, with a minefield of drugs, sex, identity, trauma, social media, love and friendship to be navigated.
HBO’s Euphoria is explicit and holds nothing back. In a breathtakingly beautiful performance, Zendaya (The Greatest Showman, Spiderman: Homecoming) stars as Rue, a teenage junkie fresh out of rehab and directly on her way back to her dealer. She narrates her own story, from her birth to her mental illnesses, as well as the stories of her friends as we get to know each of them more intimately as the episodes go by.
The series has been renewed for a second season, but no air date has been set so far.
Take-away: Watching this series as an adult, I found it quite terrifying and often tragic, but at the same time compelling, and supported by a message of hope, redemption and acceptance.
This coming-of-age musical drama is set at the height of apartheid – South Africa, 1985 – and although it had its big screen release in 2018, it arrived on Showmax earlier this year.
It has won local and international awards. Johan Niemand is played by Schalk Bezuidenhout in the story co-written by director Christiaan Olwagen and musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder.
Kanarie is a multi-faceted and poignant representation of the era, as well as Johan’s painful metamorphosis while carrying out his National Service.
Take-away: This movie makes it into the countdown because it is one of the best I have seen – ever. Which is no small achievement.
Seasons 1 to 6 are available to binge – and binge I do – on Showmax, and I am thrilled to announce Season 7 will arrive on 20 January 2020.
Important details about S1-6 of Ray Donovan follow – don’t read if you haven’t streamed it yet.
Season 5 focused mainly on the death of Abby (Paula Malcomson) and the effect it had on all the Donovans. We saw Ray (Liev Schreiber) taking a dive into the East River.
Season 6 opens exactly there, and continues with him being pulled from the river by a cop named Mac (Domenick Lombardozzi from The Wire), who becomes his friend and housemate in New York, bringing Ray into the fraternity that is the Staten Island Police Department.
If you thought Ray was emotionally tortured and tormented in previous seasons, he reaches breaking point in Season 6.
Take-away: I’m currently obsessed with re-watching the entire series and am not disappointed. Truly brilliant TV.
The Crown (Netflix)
The story of the life of Queen Elizabeth II is one of Netflix’s flagship series, and for good reason. The first two seasons starred Claire Foy, who played the monarch from her wedding day in 1947 all the way through to 1964. The very capable Olivia Colman takes over for Season 3 (which became available in November 2019), which concludes with her Silver Jubilee in 1977.
The series is intended to last 60 episodes over six seasons, with 10 one-hour episodes per season with new actors being cast every two seasons, which means Colman is signed for Season 4.
Based on real events, the writers do of course take some liberties with what may or may not have happened behind closed doors, to create a fuller picture of the life of the Royals.
Take-away: Supporting cast members Tobias Menzies (outstanding as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) and Josh O’Connor (The Durrells), who plays Charles to sheer perfection, make this series especially worth your time.
Benedict Cumberbatch shines in this series on Showmax, for which he won the Bafta for best actor; the show itself picked up the Best Mini-Series award, as well as five Emmy nominations. Ratings and reviews are through the roof.
If being a junkie was an Olympic sport, Patrick would be a gold medallist. He’s rich too, so he can afford the debauchery that takes him to within an inch of his life.
The five-part limited series traces his story in five distinctly different episodes.
Take-away: With writing that is sharp and witty and a joy to hear, the show reveals the many darker issues that shaped Patrick the child and Patrick the adult.
The chilling true story of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the USSR during a routine safety test made for riveting small-screen viewing in 2019. It ended its run with the highest-scored television series in history, according to more than a hundred thousand votes on IMDb; of 30 award nominations, it won 27.
Take-away: This HBO series might not be easy to watch but the overall look and feel is understated – a restraint, that, in fact, contributes to the stomach-churning dread and horror of radiation poisoning, and the scramble by the authorities to cover up the facts.