Of all the entertainment media we write about here, television shows might be the most difficult for Plugged In to reliably define as “the best.” A song? It’s only four minutes long. A game? Sure, some seem to go on forever, but they still each have an endpoint. In other realms, most every entertainment product, be it minutes or hours or weeks long, are still one stand-alone thing, for the most part. And when we review that thing, we can tell you exactly what you’re getting into.
Television is different. Each new season, and often each new week, gives us new content to consider, which makes reviewing it less definitive and more like an educated guess. Sure, we think Lassie is going to save Timmy from the well, based on what we’ve seen in previous episodes … but can we say definitively that Lassie won’t catch rabies and eat the family cat in the next episode? Alas, we cannot.
This makes compiling a “Best of” list for television for Plugged In a little more ticklish. A show might be great in the beginning but run off the rails a few episodes (or seasons) in. And, of course, we must remember that no show is perfect. Most, as we’ll see, will have some rough spots for viewers to consider. So don’t think of this list—compiled and written by Plugged In’s intrepid television critics Kristin Smith, Emily Clark and myself—as anything carved in stone. Rather, this is a list written in digital pencil: The best TV we found in 2019 that just might work for you and your family.
Carmen Sandiego (Netflix): Remember trying to track down Carmen Sandiego from your computer? Well, now you can follow the adventures of Ms. Sandiego from the comfort of your couch. Netflix’ new TV-Y7 series tells the story of a young Carmen and how she came to be. But there’s a new twist this time around. In this show, Carmen isn’t really a thief. She’s more like a Robin Hood—taking stolen goods from her former organization, V.I.L.E. (Villains International League of Evil) and returning them to their rightful owners.
This kids’ show portrays the sneaky character from a much sunnier perspective. And it teaches children about the value of friendship and family while taking them around the globe as they evade captors along the way.
Ghostwriter (Apple TV+): After Ruben’s grandma passes away, he and his mom move in with his grandpa to help keep the grieving man company and help run the family bookstore. However, soon after this change, Ruben and his friends start seeing mysterious messages left by a supernatural being—an entity they call Ghostwriter. He (or she) needs their help, and that’ll require them to read not just the clues he leaves, but pay attention to actual books, too. Because with Ghostwriter around, they have a habit of coming to life.
With chairs moving on their own, storybooks coming to life, and words appearing out of nowhere, Ghostwriter can be a bit spooky, and families with an aversion to supernatural themes should be advised. But the kids aren’t scared. This friendly ghost is designed to get kids interested in reading. Moreover, the characters Ghostwriter releases are adorable and help Ruben and the crew learn some valuable lessons—such as being kind to one another and supporting your friends.
The Mandalorian (Disney+): Disney+’s flagship series features 2019’s biggest breakout television character: Baby Yoda. The 50-year-old toddler has charmed not just the titular Mandalorian—an armored, no-nonsense bounty hunter now on the run from his own guild because of the kid—but America, too. But Baby Yoda isn’t the only thing this show has going for it. The Mandalorian may take place in the Star Wars universe, but it often feels like a classic Western, with Mando the wandering gunslinger. The show feels plenty gritty, and families will have to wade through some violence and, occasionally, a bit of bathroom humor. But in this era of R-rated TV, it’s a treat to see such a compelling show be something that, potentially, the family can watch and truly enjoy together.
Mixed-ish (ABC): Black-ish’s Rainbow “Bow” Johnson didn’t have a normal childhood. She grew up in a “hippie, judgment-free utopia where love ruled all.” That is, until she was 12 years old when the ATF classified their commune as a radicalized cult. Suddenly thrust into a world of b-boys and material girls, Bow and her siblings realize for the first time in their lives that being “mixed” isn’t normal. Their mother is black, their father is white. The siblings likely the first mixed-race children in their suburban neighborhood.
The show puts a heavy emphasis on family and supporting each other through the hard times. It mildly deals with some adult themes, such as drug use, and Bow’s grandfather makes some racial comments that can be jarring and offensive. But mostly, it shows that underneath all the problems, Bow’s wildly diverse family was made up of flawed but deeply loving people. And it shows Bow growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nobody was like her, not even her parents.
This Is Us (NBC): If you’ve been on the internet or have turned on the TV at any point within the last few years, chances are you’ve seen or heard something about NBC’s This Is Us. A drama that feels a lot like Parenthood, the show focuses on the Pearson family from a past, present and even future perspective. This is a show for adults, and it’s filled with its own issues, to be sure, such as sexual content, same-sex relationships and language—elements that may put this out of bounds for many. But for those willing to wade through the mess, you’ll find relatable characters and compelling storylines. And you’ll probably shed a few tears per episode as you’re drawn into the beautiful mess that is family.