In the introduction to last year’s installment of my annual “Best TV Shows” series, I lamented the fact that television had grown so voluminous in its content, and so fragmented in its appeal, that great shows no longer stood out the way they once did. Competitive-minded producers, sensing the need to stand out in an increasingly crowded field, have birthed countless shows designed to appeal to smaller and smaller demographics. And while some of these little-watched shows have been quite good, most of them… uh, no longer need to be.
I ended my 2017 piece with the hope that 2018 would improve on the situation. Unfortunately, television has only grown more voluminous and fragmented this year, and standing out qualitatively has become less of a priority than ever. (It also doesn’t help that, in our turbulent climate, some writers have learned that the quickest way to a critic’s heart is through their politics – it doesn’t matter if a show is good, so long as it’s extremely woke.)
It’s also still quite a task to sift through the endless deluge of new shows and find the ones that really stand out. That Peak TV lasts year-round means it’s impossible to be caught up on all the good stuff, especially if said good stuff includes shows dropped at year-end. (Sorry, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – I’ll finish your second season soon.)
Still, after a lot of thinking and searching and last-minute bingeing, I was able to find a few shows from this year that I particularly liked. So let’s take a few minutes to shout them out. And once again, let’s hope that next year sees stronger TV to come.
Here are the 10 best TV shows of 2018.
TV revivals flood the market these days, in hopes that a familiar brand will better catch the viewer’s eye. While many of these reboots lack the charm and quality of their originators, a few of them have unexpectedly become remarkable shows in their own right. Case in point: DuckTales, a revamped version of the acclaimed 1980s animated series, centering on the fun and thrilling adventures of Scrooge McDuck and family. The series captures the sense of fantasy and wonder which typified the original (and the Carl Barks stories which by turn inspired it), assisted by sharp animation and an excellent voice cast. And the series never met a Disney reference it didn’t like, whether it’s Gummiberry Juice as plot McGuffin or the reunion of the Three Caballeros.
9. Sorry for Your Loss
Flying well under the radar, the first season of this half-hour drama was among the most overlooked series of the year. Produced by Facebook Watch (one of approximately four million streaming services currently available), the series deals with themes of grief and loss, as we watch Leigh (Elizabeth Olson) deal with life after her husband’s sudden death. The dialogue may not have been subtle, but the performances (including Kelly Marie Tran and Janet McTeer as Leigh’s sister and mother, respectively) more than compensated. The series evoked the feelings of loss without cheaply exploiting them, finding anger, sadness… and eventually, hope.
8. Sharp Objects
HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel began as the sort of small-town murder mystery that’s become something of a pop-culture cliché in recent years. But as the eight-episode series progressed, it slowly developed into one of the most cutting (in multiple senses) psychological dramas of the year. As Camille (Amy Adams, in an outstanding performance) attempted to reconnect with her hometown roots, the series explored messages about family, depression, and modern-day Middle America. It all built up to a riveting finale which stands as one of the most haunting hours of television this year.
7. The End of the F***ing World
This brief, biting British import tells the very darkly comic story of two adolescents on the run, falling in love even as they grow ever more toxic to one another. It’s a romantic comedy gone horribly wrong, filled with dry, disturbing dialogue and an ever-creeping feel of melancholy. The finale gave the series a perfect ending – even more so than the graphic novel it’s based on – which makes the commission of a second season both unfortunate and bewildering. Nevertheless, End of the F***ing World is worth appreciating as a standalone season, even if it may not retain that status much longer.
Another eight-episode dark comedy, Barry was among both the most hopeful and disturbing shows of the year. Bill Hader outdid himself as a hitman with a heart, trying to build some semblance of a new life with a beginners’ theater group (led by an excellent Henry Winkler). The series deftly balanced the darker, more violent side of Barry’s profession with the lighter (yet at times quite dramatic) world of theater, and built a sizable supporting cast all the while. It was a clever subversion of the antihero drama, one which grew more riveting and heartbreaking as the story progressed.
5. Better Call Saul
It was perhaps a step down from the third season, which was held together by the precipitous arc of Chuck McGill. But Season Four of this complex and intriguing legal drama continued the show’s stretch as one of the best dramas on television, as Jimmy found himself drawn more into the world of sleaziness and shysterism than ever, while poor Kim (the continuously underrated Rhea Seehorn) tries her best to resist his tide. The final few minutes of the finale were among the year’s most memorable, perfectly treading the line between the Jimmy McGill of the past and the Saul Goodman of the future.
One of television’s most audacious (yet refreshingly minimalist) shows, Homecoming was a government-conspiracy series that conveyed danger and paranoia through a variety of visual devices. From frame-swallowing camera angles to toggling aspect ratios to lingering shots through the end credits, Sam Esmail made viewers feel as trapped and ensnared as the soldiers the Homecoming program was allegedly set to protect. As the mystery unspooled and grew more complex, a stellar cast (led by a terrific Julia Roberts) kept the series eminently watchable. And hats off to whoever gave Shea Whigham those glasses.
3. Killing Eve
The sleeper hit of 2018, Killing Eve surprised even its own network with its steadily building viewership, and finished as the most critically-lauded new series of the year. Much credit goes to Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, who embody two sides in a cat-and-mouse game where both get equal chance to wear the whiskers. But the key ingredient is in the show’s tone, as set by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge – simultaneously dark and playful, the writing gives an air of disarming levity to each scene, only for the show to turn on a dime and deliver some of the most shocking and suspenseful moments of the year.
2. Bojack Horseman
After a somewhat underwhelming fourth season, Bojack rebounded in Season Five, which took the eponymous equine to even darker and more disturbing places than before, and featured some of the show’s most memorable experiments yet. No series this year featured as impressive a three-episode stretch as was found in “Free Churro,” “INT. SUB,” and “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos,” each distinct and impressive on its own. (“Churro” in particular is one of the best episodes I’ve seen on TV all year.) The series even found a clever way to tie in the #MeToo movement without feeling preachy, and took delight in deconstructing the pretentious side of prestige television. Bojack would have almost certainly been my #1 pick for a second year, if not for the fact that there was one other series which covered an even more impressive range of forms and themes…
I’m sometimes accused of trying to be unpredictable just for the sake of it – that I delight in going against popular critical consensus. And while it’s true that I sometimes disagree with the general analytical crowd (I was underwhelmed by the final season of The Americans, for example), I do try my best to stick with my own opinions. And today, I’m going to do something really unpredictable – agree with the popular critical consensus.
Sure, I didn’t love the first season of Atlanta, which seemed to waffle between a traditional FX sitcom and a more esoteric, high-concept dramedy. But in hindsight, Season One of Atlanta was only gearing us up for the true esoterism of Season Two, in which the series proved it could be as malleable and chameleonic as any other series on television. One week could feature the introspective identity-based commentary of “Helen”; the next could offer the farcical comedy of “Barbershop”; and the next would bring us the disturbing horror show of “Teddy Perkins” (possibly the best TV episode of the year). There is no true definition to encompass the tone or theme of Atlanta, since the show seems willing to channel just about anything.
The show is excellently produced, vividly filmed, and impeccably acted, its excellent cast and crew all tied together by the great Donald Glover. His vision guides the series to surprising new heights each week – heights which make Atlanta the rightfully popular pick as the best TV show of 2018.
The Americans, American Vandal, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Jessica Jones, One Day at a Time, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Superstore, Timeless
As always, thank you for reading. And have an epic new year.