Like listening to someone else tell you about their dream.
It may perhaps merely be a product of our times that consensus gets further and further away with so many options for entertainment, but even a casual perusal of Twitter produces wildly different opinions on the state of television in 2018. Some notable critics believe we’re still in the Golden Age of TV. Others believe we’re far from it. Has the non-stop market saturation of streaming services reduced the overall quality? Or do we just have to try a little harder to find it? There does seem to be a sense that we’re all overwhelmed by the variety of options out there, and that it’s going to be increasingly difficult for shows to transcend all of the choices to become true phenomena. Would “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” make the impact they did today? Probably not. By that same token, it does feel like TV has become more of a Big Box store—something for everyone—than the creator-driven medium it was five or ten years ago. But look at the quality below. We had little problem putting together lists of dozens of shows we liked this year, and we still had to cut a few that we think you should be watching. These are the ones that we feel most broke through the Target-ization of TV. Watch em all.
Runners-up: “American Vandal,” “Big Mouth,” “Castle Rock,” “Everything Sucks!,” “GLOW,” “Legion,” “One Day at a Time,” “Ray Donovan,” “Superstore,” and “The Terror”
19. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
17. “Dear White People”
14. “Bob’s Burgers”
13. “Sharp Objects”
11. “The Americans”
I’ve been saying this for so long that I’m starting to get bored with it myself: I’m stunned that the streaming revolution hasn’t led to more playfulness in terms of structure and genre. But maybe that’s changing? The reason we grew up with half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas was because of the structure of ad-supported television. So why are we still stuck with it? Why can’t we have short dramas and long comedies? Which brings us to “Maniac,” Cary Joji Fukunaga’s mesmerizing experiment in structure, genre, and length. Starring Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, and Justin Theroux, this mindfuck of a show is one of the few things I saw this year that truly felt like it was pushing the envelope of what television is capable of, paying homage to Stanley Kubrick, Joel Coen, and Terry Gilliam while also carving its own new ground. I get why some people were turned off by the tonal shifts and unique nature of the back half of this season, but that almost makes me like it more—sometimes the most interesting art provokes the most divisive responses.
9. “The Haunting of Hill House”
No single episode that I saw this year had quite the impact on me as the fifth episode of Mike Flanagan’s masterful horror drama, one that blended horror and heartbreak in equal measure. With an award-worthy performance by Victoria Pedretti, Flanagan and his ensemble paid off everything set up by the previous four incredible episodes. That the back half of the first season of this great show doesn’t live up to the first isn’t as important to me as some people. Taken as a 5-episode run, the first half is as good as any you’ll find in any series this year, and there’s enough to like in the second half that it doesn’t completely derail. I think the problem most people had was that after the towering emotional achievement of episode five and the technical one of episode six, anything was bound to disappoint. Again, and I’m going to get a little “broken record” here again if you've been reading me for the last few years, when you’ve been doing this TV thing for two decades, you increasingly embrace the new, and “Hill House” wasn’t like anything else on TV this year. It was so good, I watched it twice.
8. “Killing Eve”
One of the true honest-to-goodness buzzed-about hits this year (maybe the only one?), BBC America’s hit show did something virtually impossible and actually increased its viewership with each passing episode. It was a show that people were actually recommending to friends in a way that streaming/binge-viewing—where Netflix is dropping another show before you can actually talk about the first—has virtually eliminated. What got people buzzing? Incredibly smart writing and the magnetic performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer as a cat-and-mouse duo in which neither would probably agree on which one was the feline. A shared obsession between a psychopathic killer and the woman tracking her is a great hook already, but Oh and Comer are so incredibly charming and fascinating that they instantly became a classic TV duo. More than any show this year, I can’t wait to see where this one goes next.
7. “The Good Place”
I’ll admit dear readers to being forking worried at a few points this season. This brilliant NBC comedy—so far and away the best show on network television that it’s almost unfair—completely upended its premise by delivering its protagonists back to the real world, a daring move for a show in which the setting was almost a fluid character of its own for two years. And I wasn’t sure where “The Good Place” was going for a few episodes, ones kept afloat by the stunning skill of the ensemble but missing a small degree of confidence when compared to the first two. And then they really stuck the landing. Even more importantly, this is an annual list, and the last five episodes of season two, which aired in January and February, were downright masterful. This show is funny, smart, moving, and insightful. And I never should have doubted it.
6. “A Very English Scandal”
Likely the least-seen entry in this top ten, I urge you to bookmark this page, drop what you’re doing, go to Amazon Prime and watch this, and then come back later. You won’t regret it. The best thing that Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Queen”) has done in over a decade, this three-hour mini-series dramatizes the events around a notorious scandal in which a member of British Parliament tried to have his gay lover killed. Hugh Grant—having a career renaissance of late with “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Paddington 2,” and this—stars as the politician and the great Ben Whishaw plays the sexual partner who wouldn’t go away to his liking. Biting, clever, and anchored by two fantastic performances, this is an entertaining reminder that truly dirty politics are not an entirely Trumpian trend.
5. “The Tale”
Does it belong on a film or TV list? I saw it on a big screen at the world premiere at Sundance, but most people only had the opportunity to see it on HBO, so I’m qualifying it as TV (although wouldn’t argue with those who put it on their film list…it’s a line that gets blurrier every year). However you see “The Tale,” see “The Tale.” One of our best living actresses, Laura Dern, stars in this semi-autobiographical story of a woman whose life is turned upside down when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers what she believes is evidence of child abuse when her daughter was a pre-teen. How we compartmentalize and make excuses for traumatic events in our life, how monsters so easily prey on the vulnerable, and the very structure and purpose of biographical filmmaking are dissected here, anchored by great performances from Dern, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, and more. It’s a tough watch, but it’s worth it.
4. “Better Call Saul”
The best drama on TV by some stretch works on so many levels simultaneously that I’m not even sure where to start. How about the fact that the writers of this brilliant show had the nerve, just when viewers were truly expecting more tie-ins to “Breaking Bad,” to make their latest season mostly about the arc of the non-“Bad” Kim Wexler? Rhea Seehorn’s performance here is my favorite on any show this year, in any genre, and I’m flabbergasted at the trust the writers placed in her to convey what is so often missing from the fast-paced world of TV—inner monologue. They trust that fans of this show know these characters well enough that they don’t have to explain every detail and twist. So much of television is about characters telling you what they want, how they’re going to get it, and then getting it. “Better Call Saul” completely bucks this trend by presenting us with characters uncertain about their own needs and desires, taking life as it comes to them, whether they’re starting a drop-phone business or stealing a Hummel figurine. And it’s got the best ensemble on TV. By far.
3. “America to Me”
Steve James’ latest project should be essential viewing for all school administrations around the country, and most city politicians as well. In spending a year with the students and staff at Oak Park and River Forest High School, James and his crew created a portrait of life in Chicago in the late ‘10s that will stand the test of time. “America to Me” is a show about listening. It’s made by a filmmaker who listens to his subjects and allows their stories to guide his process. It’s about listening to overworked staff members who may not know the best way to handle the problems in their schools but wake up every day trying to figure it out. Most of all, it’s about listening to the kids—the kids who channel their hopes and dreams into poetry, athletics, or even just trying to graduate. We can only possibly succeed as a country if we start to listen to all of them.
I can’t remember the last time that my best-of list was topped by two comedies, but both of these shows are barely comedies. The half-hour structure makes them easily categorizable as comedies and they have more funny beats than dramatic ones, but they’re both shows that do that thing I was talking about way back in the “Maniac” entry: Push the boundaries of genre expectations. HBO’s best show starts as a seemingly predictable fish-out-of-water comedy about a hitman finding friends in an acting workshop in L.A., recalling “Get Shorty,” but becomes something much darker and deeper as the season progresses, landing in a place that’s more Vince Gilligan than Elmore Leonard. This is also the part that Bill Hader was born to play—believable in both Barry’s menace and his likability. In a very strong year for new shows, this was the best.
What is “Atlanta” about? I’ve watched many of its episodes twice and I’m still not really sure how to answer that question. I do know that it’s not like anything else on TV. When I start on an episode of “Atlanta,” I’m never quite sure what I’m going to get, but I have literally never been disappointed. There’s no such thing as a bad episode of “Atlanta,” through two seasons, and there are several masterpieces. So much has been written about “Teddy Perkins” that I couldn’t possibly add more to that conversation but the thing that not enough people have noted is that this season would be brilliant even without that episode. I really like “Alligator Man” and I love “Helen.” More than most shows in 2018, I feel like people are going to be writing about and dissecting “Atlanta” for many years to come. It is a groundbreaking, daring, brilliant show. And TV critics wouldn’t be so divided on the state of the industry if there were more like it.
Runners-up: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Jesus Christ Superstar Live,” “Howards End,” “Ugly Delicious,” “Doctor Who,” “Superstore,” “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” “My Brilliant Friend,” “Lodge 49,” “Harlots”
20. “A Very English Scandal"
19. “The Terror"
16. “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”
15.” America to Me”
13. “Sharp Objects”
12. “American Vandal”
10. “The Good Fight”
I was late to the party with “The Good Fight,” the smartest televised look at life after the 2016 election. The first season, which begins with “The Good Wife’s” Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) watching the inauguration of Donald Trump and promptly deciding to move to a vineyard in France (spoiler: that doesn’t work out), matches the series from which it spun (“The Good Wife”) in verve and wit. The second does something entirely new.
Creators Robert King, Michelle King, and Phil Alden Robinson didn’t plan to follow Diane under President Trump. Who among us planned on that? The break between seasons gave the show’s writers a chance to process and think about new ways to explore what it feels like to be alive—especially alive and black, female, or both—in this particular moment, and the results speak for themselves. “The Good Fight” has become not just TV’s best, most thoughtful procedural, but a cogent legal series laced through with heady surreality—visual, textual, metaphysical, political. Yet because of where we’re at, that surreality is heightened further. Is that office really full of balloons? Is there actually a pig in the white house? Is that camera still running, and did that person really just get shot? Can life possibly be like this, or am I just high?
9. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
“Riverdale” can take a seat—”Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is The CW’s most daring series. An almost impossibly bold musical comedy about mental illness that deconstructs the tropes of romantic comedies and explores the ways in which those things intersect, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s critical darling (and underseen gem) spent much of its third season in a place as tender and painful as a bruise. With the beginning of its fourth—and final— season, however, ”Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” began to dig into the complicated nature of recovery with undisguised relish. As Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) grows increasingly self-aware, her journey becomes mirrored by that of those around her, creating a throughline of meta-commentary that doubles as a collection of thoughtful, almost gentle character studies—an approach epitomized by the reintroduction of Greg, a recovering alcoholic who’s so changed that he’s now played by an entirely different person (Skyler Astin, taking over from Santino Fontana).
That’s ambitious enough, all by itself. But the musical portion of the proceedings has continued to dazzle, and it’s that element that lends “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” one of the largest visual palettes on TV. The show’s directors (to say nothing of choreographer Kathryn M. Burns and Bloom herself, who conceptualizes the “video” for every musical number on the show) jump into these segments like kids playing in a puddle, bringing us into a demented “Oklahoma” one moment and allowing a supporting character to decry his own profession via the muted colors and jaunty angles of New Jack Swing the next. It’s wild, ambitious, undeniably entertaining stuff. I’ll miss it terribly when it’s gone.
8. “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”
“Legends of Tomorrow” was once the Arrowverse’s dull-as-stale-bread stepchild, a mess of contradictory elements that added up to a whole lot of nothing. Not so anymore. Nowadays, even the memory of that first season is so remote that it’s almost as if Beebo smashed it all to bits and scattered the pieces throughout the universe. There are more visually accomplished shows out there—”Legends” doesn’t have the luxury of “Game of Thrones” money—but there’s no as willing to throw caution to the wind and simply do whatever seems the most fun. A lot of what happens is familiar territory, but the self-awareness of the series ensures that even the mustiest tropes feel fresh. And sure, this is fluffy entertainment, but the writers’ commitment to character means that while you might call “Legends” a treat, you could never call it junk food. It’s silly, sometimes delightfully stupid, and there’s little to challenge the mind, but if I’m totally honest with you as well as myself, there’s no series I looked forward to with more eagerness than this one. You can keep “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I want the traditional timeloop fun montage.
I’m not even sure what’s left to say about “Teddy Perkins.” It’s a frankly astonishing episode of television, funnier than most comedies can ever boast of being, scarier than nearly any horror show could hope to be, and as layered as an onion (or an episode of “The Leftovers”). It does more in one scene than many shows could achieve in several seasons. And it’s my second favorite episode of “Atlanta” this year. Donald Glover’s remarkable series met and surpassed the high watermarks of its terrific freshman season, thanks in no small part to a series of stunning turns from Brian Tyree Henry (who’s having a pretty great year all around, not sure if you noticed.) Without “Teddy Perkins,” it would still be among the best things on television. With it? Holy shit.
6. “The Tale”
Behind the lens: Jennifer Fox, documentarian, working on her first narrative feature. Before the lens: Jennifer Fox, loosely fictional entity (Laura Dern), a documentarian unexpectedly in the position of interrogating herself. In her mind: Jenny Fox, age 13 (Isabelle Nélisse), turning her own trauma into a tale that she can bear, writing it down, word by word, until she finds herself believing it. When I first began watching Fox’s brave, shockingly intimate film, my initial response was one of disappointment about its home. A film this good deserves to be seen on the big screen, I thought. But when I’d paused it to walk away and catch my breath 20 minutes later, I reconsidered that notion. HBO’s acquisition of “The Tale” does more for the film than its proposed use as an educational tool would suggest, though that’s undeniably of great value. It allows the viewer to pause, walk away, catch their breath, let out a sob or two, and return to it when equipped to do so, like testing a wounded ankle to see when it will bear all that weight. Exquisite, unforgettable, and something I’ll never watch again.
In “Love is the Message,” the Janet Mock-directed, Mock and Ryan Murphy-written sixth episode of “Pose’s” remarkable freshman season, two people confront their own mortality, the painful future that awaits them, and the cruelty of the world in a moment of exquisite joy. They stand together, and they sing from the bottoms of their shoes. Created by Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, “Pose” steps into the community of New York’s ballroom scene—and more specifically, though not exclusively, the trans women found therein—at a time in which any one of them could at any moment drop dead, the direct result of the AIDS crisis largely ignored by the American government. But while the pain and injustice of that time and place are clear, that’s not what dominates the series, or that scene. “Pose” is a series of joy, and as Mock’s camera captures every flicker of fear, so to does it observe the unbearable loveliness of being alive. Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) breathe in, and it’s like a prayer. Then they stand together and sing, my god, they sing.
4. “The Good Place”
Much has been written about the almost casual manner in which Michael Schur’s thoughtful philositcom burns everything down. With some regularity, the denizens of “The Good Place”—once Team Cockroach, then the Soul Squad, and now, who knows what—see everything they know torn down, only to be rebuilt. Watching Schur, his writers, and the show’s (presumably very busy) production design team relaunch the adventures of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Jason (Manny Jacinto), Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and Michael (Ted Danson) would be a thrill in any circumstance. But the show’s commitment to rooting all that tomfoolery in the exploration of what it means to be human and have a conscience at the same time makes it as personal and honest as it is ambitious and absolutely bonkers. That in and of itself is pretty honest—after all, you never know when you might be forced grab a lighter, yell “BORTLES,” and blow your situation up.
3. “One Day at a Time”
Rumors of the demise of the multi-cam sitcom have been greatly exaggerated, and “One Day at a Time” is living proof. The Norman Lear-produced reboot of his classic sitcom of the same name sees creators Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon-Kellett exploring the difficulties and pleasures experienced by the Latinx, immigrant, queer, and military communities with a greater sense of fun than one might think possible after reading such a list. While the contemporary feeling of its characters—played with irresistible panache by a top-flight cast, led by Justina Machado and Rita Moreno—might tempt one who hasn’t seen it to file it away from classics like “Cheers” and “All in the Family,” any viewer who has had the pleasure of witnessing its mastery of the multi-cam format will know better.
That expertise comes particularly in handy in “Not Yet.” The almost defiantly theatrical season finale, which takes place almost exclusively in the hushed hospital room of an ailing member of the family, draws viewers in one monologue at a time, achieving a sense of immediacy and intimacy that was, in this year, almost impossible to match. It’s back next month. I can’t wait. Cue the theme song.
2. “Killing Eve”
“Killing Eve” is the funniest murder show, the saddest black comedy, the most thrilling hangout series and the most casual spy story of the year, and it’s more than those things together. Sandra Oh is perfect. Jodie Comer is perfect. It does more storytelling with one piece of costuming alone than many other shows achieve in an hour, or more. It plays with tropes and plays off your expectation, defies classification while being every inch a cat-and-mouse story, and never stops being a damned good time, even as it explores love, lust, grief, trauma, fear, and the sometimes jarring reality of getting what you want.
1. “The Americans”
I’ve written about “The Americans” at length this year, both for this site and others, so let me just say this. In competitive figure-skating, each skater has a maximum score they can achieve, and that’s determined by the degree of difficulty of the routine they set out to perform. It’s possible to stumble, even to fall, and still to do well, because the essentials are perfect, or because another jump or two succeeds. “The Americans” had a bunch of crazy jumps in this season. Had creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg missed one or two, they’d still have medaled. But the trickiest jump of all—the series finale—could not have touched down more solidly and gracefully. The full 200 points are gratefully awarded.
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