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Best TV shows of 2019: CNET's staff picks

Game of Thrones was a disappointment. Thankfully there were a million shows to take its place.

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Jared Harris, as Valery Legasov, explains how the Chernobyl reactor exploded during the show's final episode.

HBO

2019 was a huge year for television. Game of Thrones was a disappointment in many ways, but in terms of spectacle and audience, nothing could top it. 

But if you were looking for quality over spectacle this year, you didn't have to look far. 

Below are some of the personal favorites from everyone at CNET during the year that was 2019. 

Sex Education

Two characters from Sex Education look at each other seated at a table

One of the best shows about being a teenager ever. 

Jon Hall/Netflix

2019 was an insane year for TV, particularly in terms of big hitters. Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, The Mandalorian, Chernobyl. 

But my favorite TV show of the year, hands down, was Sex Education. 

A light and breezy comedy about teenagers exploring their sexuality, Sex Education is remarkable in how it effortlessly explored serious, difficult issues like homosexuality, slut shaming and masturbation. Sex Education absolutely glowed with this brilliant positive energy without ever feeling preachy or playing for woke points. That's what good writing looks like.

It also features teenagers. Not Riverdale teenagers or Dawson's Creek teenagers. Real teenagers. Also: Gillian Anderson. Pure concentrated, undiluted Gillian Anderson.

Mark Serrels, editorial director

Fleabag

Fleabag

Definitely watch this show.

Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

UK comedy Fleabag took its time reaching wider audiences, but when it did, it wreaked havoc at the Emmys. What writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge said in her acceptance speech for best comedy writing perfectly sums up Fleabag itself: "It's just really wonderful to know that a dirty, pervy, angry, messed-up woman can make it to the Emmys."

Fleabag is on the surface about a sex addict who runs a guinea pig-themed cafe. Yet as you watch what seem like carefree antics, you realize there's something deeply dark and twisted underneath.

Fleabag depicts family drama like nothing else on TV, amid moments of stomach-clenching hilarity -- like Fleabag wondering if a cute pet dog is checking her out, or yelling at her hairdresser about just how important a good haircut is in society.

Season 2 gets so deep and so unpredictable it ends up unthreading its own use of breaking the fourth wall. Watching this show will change your TV viewing benchmarks forever.

Jennifer Bisset, associate editor

Chernobyl

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Jared Harris can do no wrong.

HBO

I see your Gillian Andersons and I raise you the supremely powerful entity known as Jared freakin' Harris

Chernobyl was applauded for its brutal, bleak (and at times grotesque) look at the 1986 nuclear meltdown. But the two things that stood out most were the performance by Harris, as nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, and the attention to detail imbued in every single scene. I'm particularly fond of the dedication to explaining the real-life science of the 1986 nuclear meltdown. The final courtroom scenes, where Harris unravels the catastrophe with red and blue blocks for Russian investigators, are masterful. I think about that episode all the time. 

But, Chernobyl is my pick of 2019 because it arrived at the perfect time: We're wrestling every day with the impacts of science denialism, especially in the realm of climate science. The miniseries painted a grim picture of the consequences of this denialism, the skewering of facts by politicians and the innocent people caught in the crossfire when institutions fail. 

Jackson Ryan, science editor

Succession

Succession

This is peak TV at its best.

HBO

I've been very vocal about my belief that this drama is the perfect antidote if you're having a Game of Thrones craving.  At the center of this story: a deceitful family whose members you can't really like, but you learn to indulge them nonetheless. 

Granted, there are no dragons in Succession and the Roys are much less adept at red wine consumption compared with the Lannisters. But if you're still angry at that GoT finale, go watch the Roys tear themselves apart and you'll feel better.

This is peak TV at its best. Mandatory watching after the show won an Emmy for its writing this year. And no, there's no Gillian Anderson, Olivia freaking Colman or Jared Harris in Succession. But the whole Kieran Culkin+Sarah Snook playing competitive siblings should count, right?

Patricia Puentes, senior editor

The Good Place 

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Philosophical crises while pondering the afterlife? It's funnier than it sounds. I promise.

Colleen Hayes/NBC

Everything is fine, benches. The Good Place came back for a fourth and final season this year, and it's frankly refreshing that a series is happy to end when the showrunners planned for it, rather than milking the cash cow until it runs dry and the storylines turn into something out of Arrow season 80.

With Kristen Bell, Ted Danson and feminist-in-progress icon Jameela Jamil, The Good Place brings humor to life after death. It explores ethics, moral philosophy, philanthropy and whether it's ever too late to become a better person -- plus EDM DJing, the least-famous Hemsworth brother and the dumbest possible ways to die. It's worth watching for Tahani's name dropping, Eleanor's bullshirt and Jason's budhole alone. Comedic guest stars like Maya Rudolph, Adam Scott and Marc Evan Jackson also bring light to The Good Place -- or rather, to the bad place. 

Corinne Reichert, senior reporter

Dark 

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Dark is intense, smart and incredibly well acted.

Netflix

I loved the underrated German sci-fi mind-bender Dark. The first season starts out focused on a boy who mysteriously goes missing, so it initially gives off Stranger Things vibes. But add a creepy cave that could be a conduit for time travel, and suddenly it's hard to predict what the show will do next. The second season -- which debuted in 2019 -- is even crazier than the first. Dark isn't linear. It hops from one era to another and back again with characters from different time periods interacting with one another (or even younger versions of themselves). There are a variety of Twin Peaks-like oddballs in the series too, including an unstable priest, with a full back tattoo of the Emerald Tablet, who builds a time machine out of an electric chair to transport kidnapped kids to other eras.

With nods to Greek myths, German fairy tales, science, nature and history, it's the kind of show that makes you want to fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole to learn more. But what really makes Dark stand out from other Netflix sci-fi shows like The OA, Sense8, and Altered Carbon is that it makes a point to connect every tiny decision the characters make with how it affects the present and future, as well as how it can rewrite the past. 

Bonnie Burton, contributor

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It's not easy being queen. 

Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix

The Crown

The Crown is up to its third season on Netflix, and long may it reign. There's no program I think about more when I'm not watching it. I love the episodes about historical events and prime ministerial thorniness (Gillian Anderson is coming as Margaret Thatcher) just as much as those who dig into the Merry Wives of Windsor soap opera. (Diana shows up next season.) The third-season episode about the queen's reaction to the Aberfan mining collapse in Wales was so heartbreaking that I postponed watching the disaster scene for weeks, trying to gear up to get through it. 

Oscar winner Olivia Colman has taken over for Claire Foy as a mature Queen Elizabeth II, more confident in her regal role if not in her position as Britain's First Mother. Colman delivers as much with a silent glance as other actors do in a monologue. I'm less fond of Tobias Menzies as an older, stuffier Philip, and Helena Bonham Carter as a loopier Princess Margaret. But as a longtime Anglophile, I can't get enough of Erin Doherty as Princess Anne, excelling at the tough-as-royal-horseshoes portrayal of a woman who famously told off her own would-be kidnapper. God save the queen.    

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, contributor

Russian Doll

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Russian Doll takes the Groundhog Dog conceit and goes darker. 

Netflix

For a quarter century, humanity wanted… no, needed a small screen version of the 1993 Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day. And there's still no indication this will ever happen, but that's OK now because Netflix did us all one better with Russian Doll. It takes the familiar repeating day concept, and makes it darker, funnier and with way more existential brooding. Star Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black), whose character inevitably dies at the end of each looping day before waking up unharmed, is perhaps even more angsty and delightful than Murray at his best, which is a pretty high bar. The show will be back for more in a second season, giving Lyonne's character a whole new slate of opportunities to die. If South Park's Kenny has taught us anything, it's that this conceit could go on for quite a while, and I hope it does.

Eric Mack, contributor

When They See Us 

When They See Us

Jharrel Jerome (left) turned in the best performance of the year.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

When They See Us is Ava DuVernay's gut-wrenching -- and essential -- miniseries based on the true story of the falsely accused young teens known as the Central Park Five. The early episodes are grounded in the young actors' heartbreaking performances. Jharrel Jerome won an Emmy for portraying Korey Wise, the only boy tried as an adult. The final episode takes you inside Korey's incarceration, showing the brutality and isolation of prison. Jerome's performance is transcendent and the best on television this year. 

The series also reveals the devastating effects on the lives of the boys' families, with especially moving performances by Niecy Nash (Claws) and Michael K. Williams (The Wire). Knowing the five were eventually exonerated doesn't make it any easier to watch. The show will force you to reckon with the racism that runs through the justice system and media coverage, and it'll make you think deeply about mass incarceration. 

Of any series or feature I saw this year, this is the one that's stayed with me. The ending is bittersweet. You see how their childhood was taken from them, how those in power chose their own self-interest again and again, and how little has changed in the decades since. Most of all, you're reminded these are real people who lived through this. 

Anne Dujmovic, associate editor