I’ll be blunt: 2018 was not a great year for TV. How can this be, you ask, when there was so much television? It’s a good question, and I don’t have a totally satisfying answer: It’s the slightly fluky but not altogether unexpected outcome of a development process working overtime to swamp you in options that are just good enough to keep you watching.
Greatness is just a happy accident, not the goal, of Peak TV, and while this has always been true for the TV industry, a lot of this year’s most high-profile swings at greatness—like say, The Romanoffs— were full-on whiffs, while some of last year’s best shows got significantly worse (ahem, The Handmaid’s Tale). Meanwhile, there was so much TV that not even a TV critic could catch all the buzzy, loved-by-Twitter shows, and good or bad, very few fictions could get much cultural traction—what with the all too real, high-stakes political drama playing out on the cable news channels.
This year, it would have been easier for me to make a list of shows I liked but didn’t love, like My Brilliant Friend, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Barry, Dietland, Maniac, and Homecoming (and yes, that is in order), or shows I thought were very interesting but didn’t really like at all. See: Sharp Objects, Pose, Queer Eye, Patrick Melrose, Forever. But that’s not the task at hand. So here are the shows that I enjoyed most this year. As you’ll see, even this self-imposed, highly personal metric starts to fall apart halfway through: There are 11 shows, for starters, one actually premiered in 2017, and also I didn’t exactly enjoy them all. But if all you watched this year were these shows, you’d think TV was in pretty great shape.
HBO’s genre-nonconforming series was marketed like a drama but played like a comedy—most of the time. The Roy offspring, the adult children of an emotionally withholding media tycoon, starred in a show that felt like a relative of Veep—a scathing and hilarious indictment of power—that would occasionally permit itself to be very sad. Succession was also relevant without being too relevant, concerned with various Trumpian themes—cruelty, privilege, stupid money, media dynasties—but not actually about Trump himself. It was an escape that was not escapist; maybe that’s why it was one of the few shows in 2018 that, for a brief period at the end of the summer, became inescapable.
Way back when Breaking Bad was on the air, Vince Gilligan observed that it’s much less difficult to make an interesting show about awful people than it is to make an interesting show about nice people (his example was SpongeBob SquarePants). The second season of the dramedy GLOW, about a group of women starring in a 1980s female wrestling showcase, is such a show, a pleasure through and through, without much of the pain. Its charming, funny, diverse ensemble of actresses—anchored by a wonderful (and wonderfully written) performance from Betty Gilpin as the buxom blond nonheroine of the wrestling ring—was the year’s best, warmest, and most spandex-y company.
3. Killing Eve
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of Fleabag, breathed new, kooky life into the deranged murder story with this series about the flirtatious cat-and-mouse game between an investigator (Sandra Oh) and a conscienceless hit woman named Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Killing Eve is fun and fizzy, which would be unseemly in a series with such a high body count if the fizz wasn’t part of its bigger ideas about sexism. Because of Villanelle’s youth, beauty and gender, to say nothing of her irrepressible goofiness and verve, she is consistently underestimated by everyone around her (except for Oh’s Eve Polastri), including us, in the audience, who are having a great time. The moment midseason when Villanelle smiles across a crowded room at a man who, until seconds earlier, believed he was the scary one is terrifying and, in its way, thrilling—because it was our mistake too.
The second season of Donald Glover’s masterpiece, Atlanta Robbin’ Season, taxes my store of superlatives: The show was, again, amazing, and not just because it contained “Teddy Perkins” and that strange trip to a German festival. More ambitious than just about every show on TV, Atlanta riffs on old-school sitcom tropes until they are dreamily unrecognizable, creating stoned high art about racism, weirdness, and the vile weirdness of racism.
5. Howards End
In a stronger year, I might have felt abashed about putting this period piece so high up on my list. I’m on the record about how British period dramas are my comfort TV, and this slots into that category effortlessly. But as written by Kenneth Lonergan, this E.M. Forster adaptation was also sharp, modern, and timely, telling a story about the pain and effort that goes into really understanding people with values completely different from your own. Howards End also contains a lovely Matthew Macfadyen performance, his second best of the year, as upstanding Henry Wilcox—all the more remarkable for how different in tone and temperament it was from the best Macfadyen of 2018: the bright-eyed nut Tom Wambsgans on Succession.
6. Babylon Berlin
This German-language, big-budget Netflix original series officially premiered in late 2017, but I watched it in 2018. (What’s a premiere date mean on a streaming service anyway?) It’s about a drug-addicted police officer who arrives in Berlin to solve a case that goes all the way to the top and it’s set during the Weimar era, so I don’t need to tell you that long term, nothing is going to work out. But for now, Berlin is raucous and vibrant, a city whose fate has yet to be decided and whose citizens are acting like it. Babylon Berlin has a female lead (Liv Lisa Fries) who is plucky, beguiling, and sexually free in a way it’s hard for me to imagine an American series permitting her to be, and it contains my favorite scene of the year: this one, at a nightclub, that’s basically a musical number (but not a Cabaret rip-off). The show totally falls apart in its final episodes, but before the crash, it flies high and looks great: The road to hell was apparently paved with the most gorgeous art deco detailing.
7. Ugly Delicious
Chef and restauranteur David Chang’s travel food show, one of Netflix’s many new such offerings from this year, is less about the specifics of cooking than broader questions of culture. On each episode, Ugly Delicious takes a topic—tacos, home cooking, pizza—and riffs on it. The result is a food documentary that’s more searching than most, a tonic in a universe of food TV that often otherwise misses the departed Anthony Bourdain. Chang is particularly interested in how questions of appropriation pertain to food, and what that could possibly even mean when you’re trying to make the most delicious thing possible. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, and his show has a welcome orneriness that you don’t usually find in soothing cooking series. It adds texture, crunch, the bracing hit of acid.
This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, directed by Park Chan-wook, is a convoluted period spy drama involving a young British actress (a tough, appealing Florence Pugh) who is recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a highly secretive Palestinian terror cell. It’s an operation of great ethical cloudiness that requires her to pretend to be the lover of a Mossad agent (played by Alexander Skarsgard). Watching this series, which I complimentarily compared to early Homeland, I realized another subgenre I always like is a drama about lusty spies longing for each other; in this case, I liked it so much, I may have almost entirely spaced out on the rest of the show. All to say, The Little Drummer Girl may not be your thing—but it was mine.
9. High Maintenance and Dear White People
These shows shouldn’t be paired together, except that they are continuing series that returned for new seasons and delivered more of what I loved. High Maintenance, about a weed deliveryman and his community of clients, and Dear White People, focused on the black student body of an Ivy League university, are both smart, charming, funny, and thoughtful. The first is more lackadaisical (really, more stoned) than the second, which is bursting with ideas and language and plot, but just because both are no longer brand new doesn’t mean you should forget about either of them.
I think I spent three-quarters of my time watching Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special Nanette—a deconstruction of stand-up that becomes a cri de coeur condemning stand-up itself—arguing with it. I didn’t agree with many of her larger ideas about what comedy does, or has to do, or the idea that it always lets someone off the hook. But Nanette was raw and heartfelt and angry and new, full of ideas about comedy and everything else that are worth arguing about. I didn’t love Nanette, but I’ve thought about it way more than many shows I did.
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