For many TV viewers, 2019 was a year of both looking back and moving forward. Not only did we say goodbye to some notable favorites (“Game of Thrones,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent”), but we also revisited familiar characters (the “Breaking Bad” universe) and discovered some notable imports (“Schitt’s Creek,” “Fleabag”) already beloved in their home countries.
Our collective fascination with recent history and true stories was also on display in series like “The Crown” and limited offerings like “The Act” that captivated viewers. And audiences looked to the future, with HBO’s “Years and Years” offering projections of what may come.
Like cable before them, streaming services have upped the game for telling rich stories with vivid characters. The plethora of streaming service options has also led to a wider variety of voices in entertainment culture. This year saw more creators of color (Kenya Barris, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele) making television, and more women (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Sherman Palladino) telling stories with female characters at the center.
Story lines continued to explore themes in the news, from police bias and violence (“The Twilight Zone” episode “Replay”) to how the #MeToo movement played out inside the television industry itself (the new Apple TV offering “The Morning Show”). One of the more surprising new series of 2019, HBO’s “Watchmen,” based on the 1980s graphic novel of the same name, took its superhero source material into the 21st century with a central plot that heavily explores both race and gender in America.
Here’s some of the best viewing to catch up on before 2020.
“Game of Thrones” comes to an end: It was the goodbye many fans were dreading. The Westeros gang packed up their dragons in May and closed the book on eight seasons of HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones.” Viewers found out who would at last claim the Iron Throne, and everyone had thoughts about the series’ final episodes, both good and bad.
While one “Thrones” prequel series with Naomi Watts has already been canceled after an unsuccessful pilot, another, “House of the Dragon,” is still in the works; it will chronicle the Targaryen dynasty’s rise to power 300 years before the original series.
Also helping fill that “Throne”-shaped hole in viewers’ hearts is the new HBO series “His Dark Materials,” which, like “Thrones,” takes its source material from a beloved fantasy book series.
“El Camino” curbs our “Breaking Bad” withdrawal: It’s been six years since the epic final shootout that brought Walter White’s saga to an end on “Breaking Bad.” This year, Netflix delivered the longed-for follow-up to the original AMC series in the form of “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which told the continued story of meth maker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as he tried to create a new life for himself after the events at the end of “Breaking Bad.”
Netflix reported that 25 million viewers watched the movie in the first week after it was released in October, showing that the thirst for follow-ups to existing series has yet to be quenched in a world full of reboots and sequels.
With AMC’s prequel series “Better Call Saul” and the “El Camino” movie, who would have thought that a story about a high school chemistry teacher who became a meth kingpin would spin off a whole mini-universe?
Ava DuVernay redefines the case of Central Park Five: They were five young African American men wrongly convicted of a heinous sexual assault in 1989, but even after their convictions were vacated in 2002, the men’s full stories remained untold until Ava DuVernay’s sweeping four-part series.
“When They See Us” resonated with themes of race and police misconduct. It also put a spotlight on the involvement of then-businessman Donald Trump, a prominent voice in the campaign to convict the men.
The series was followed by a special with Oprah Winfrey on her OWN network that brought DuVernay and the exonerated men together to talk about reclaiming the story and setting the record straight.
As creators continue to mine the recent past for material, let’s hope for more stories like “When They See Us” so new generations can understand the complicated legacies that form today’s culture.
“When They See Us” was nominated for 11 Emmys, winning an award for actor Jharrel Jerome.
“Russian Doll” and “Fleabag” put women front and center: It was a “Groundhog Day”-type story from a distinctly New York female point of view, and Netflix audiences ate up “Russian Doll” like pastrami from Zabar’s.
As the series’ chain-smoking, potty-mouth central character, Nadia, Natasha Lyonne stepped into the spotlight in a new way after years as a scene-stealing supporting player on “Orange Is the New Black.” Lyonne, who was also a co-creator of the series, got rave reviews for both her acting and writing duties.
Also getting raves as a writer and actor is “Fleabag” star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who made American audiences fall in love with the title character: a sexual libertine with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall and snogging hot priests. The BBC series jumped the pond and became a hit on Amazon in America this year, bringing the actor-creator international attention.
Both series showed it’s a new day for women creating edgy and interesting comedy. Lyonne and Waller-Bridge were nominated for Emmys this year (Waller-Bridge took home two awards). “Russian Doll” is planning to return with a second season; “Fleabag” may return for a third, Waller-Bridge has hinted.
Canada’s “Schitt’s Creek” takes America’s hearts: Dan Levy’s 4-year-old series about a wealthy family forced to flee to a small-town motel after their money is wiped out got a new life, and new appreciation in America this year. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hit made a bigger dent in pop culture as its fifth season’s release on Netflix took it from cult favorite to Emmy-nominated darling.
The show’s success with viewers has no doubt been aided by its witty quotability, and it has become a favorite subject for Internet memes and gifs, especially ones featuring family matriarch Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) and fashion rebel son David (Daniel Levy.)
The series will release its sixth and final season in 2020, but here’s hoping for a big, splashy “Downton Abbey”-style movie eventually, perhaps with the big, splashy gay wedding the series seems to be building up to.
“Tales of the City” gives new chapter to San Francisco favorite: It’s been 18 years since “Further Tales of the City” brought Armistead Maupin’s beloved cast of San Franciscans into our homes on Showtime. We didn’t know how much we missed Laura Linney until she walked up the familiar Russian Hill steps again in Netflix’s new take on “Tales of the City.”
The show brought the characters up to the present date from their 1970s origins (it required a timeline jump) as they faced contemporary San Francisco issues like gentrification, tech culture and online dating.
Olympia Dukakis’ return as landlady Anna Madrigal also brought a new actor, Jen Richards, to play the younger incarnation of the character. It was seen by many LGBT viewers as a contemporary correction allowing a trans actress to play the trans character (Richards is trans) as standards of representation have evolved since the original series debut in 1993.
“Big Little Lies” has even more Monterey chic: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz returned to the scene of the crime as the Monterey Five in season two of the hit HBO series. This year, the women dealt with post-traumatic stress from the events of season one and were faced with new complications (Renata’s bankruptcy, Celeste’s drinking) but remained as impeccably coastal California put-together as ever with plenty of time for solitary reflection during walks on the Monterey beaches.
The five were joined by Meryl Streep as Nicole Kidman’s mother-in-law from hell, making this the best female ensemble on TV.
“Saturday Night Live” stays on political hot streak: Bowen Yang made news this year as the first Asian American cast member on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” and only the third gay actor in the show’s 45-year history. In less positive casting headlines, announced show addition Shane Gillis was dropped before season 45 after podcasts of the comedian using anti-Asian and homophobic slurs were brought to public attention almost immediately after his casting was announced.
Leading up to the 2020 election, the show continues to find plenty of material in the Democratic presidential field and in the ongoing Trump White House news, even if Alec Baldwin’s take on President Trump seems to be a less frequent occurrence on the sketch show.
“The Crown” returns with new cast of royals: All hail the queen: Elizabeth II returns to Netflix along with the rest of the Windsor family in season three of “The Crown.”
A new cast has been brought in to play older versions of the characters, led by Academy Award winner Olivia Colman as Her Majesty herself and scene-stealer Helena Bonham Carter as her sister, the showy Princess Margaret.
Reviews for the new cast are mostly stellar, and the series continues to present real history with engaging storytelling that brings new understanding to the monarchy behind palace doors.
Will America’s obsession with British royals ever fade?
Disney Plus debuts with old and new favorites: When Disney Plus debuted on Nov. 12 it brought with it a back catalog of all your childhood favorite Disney classics, as well as the Marvel universe and content from the newly acquired Fox (including “The Simpsons”). The new streaming service is one of the most anticipated in recent memory, but it’s not just selling nostalgia.
A host of new series and movies from Disney and Marvel are in the works (a live-action “Lady and the Tramp” from Disney, “WandaVision” and “Hawkeye” from Marvel), and the new offering from the “Star Wars” galaxy “The Mandalorian” is revving the franchise for life after the final film, “The Rise of Skywalker.” The new series tells the story of a bounty hunter and is set five years following “The Return of the Jedi,” bridging the original trilogy to the latest. So far, fan reaction has been enthusiastic, especially to the viral hit character Baby Yoda, the cutest green infant this side of Baby Kermit.
Speaking of Kermit, did we mention that the Muppets are also on Disney Plus?
Tony Bravo is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org