In an era when Hollywood is producing 500 scripted shows a year, you would think there would be more breakout hits. Though there have been more series produced this year than ever before, 2018 hasn’t produced many full-fledged success stories.
HBO had hoped that Westworld would become the next Game of Thrones: it hasn’t. No show currently enjoys the cultural capital that Breaking Bad or Mad Men enjoyed in their prime. Even the most critically acclaimed shows like Atlanta and Barry seem to have a core fandom that exists largely on Twitter and blogs.
Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. While 2018 hasn’t produced many shows destined to be heralded among the greatest in the history of their genre, this year has provided a level of diversity of content, and the people creating content, that TV has never seen before.
Already, the year has given us the second season of a surreal alt-comedy with an all-black cast, a prestige hitwoman drama with three female leads, a historical anthology series about the gay experience, and an insane road trip dramedy that doubles as a meditation on mental illness.
TV may not be at its best in 2018, but it is certainly at its most interesting. Here are the best TV shows that this strange, full year of TV has had to offer.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
In the city of Atlanta, the time just before Christmas is called “Robbin’ Season.” During this time, robberies exponentially increase as the pressure to provide Christmas gifts increases. The producers of Atlanta, led by Donald Glover and his brother Stephen, viewed “Robbin’ Season” as the perfect metaphor for their characters in Season 2. Stephen told Vulture, “It’s a very tense and desperate time. Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed now. And robbin’ season is a metaphor to where we are now.”
This tight thematic focus led to an incredibly interesting Season 2 of Atlanta. On one hand, the structure of each episode tightened up. Almost every installment follows roughly the same pattern: a character is after some elusive prize — whether it is a selfie with Drake, a second-hand piano, or a haircut — and ends up finding something they weren’t necessarily looking for in the first place.
Even if the framework of an episode is predictable, the reliable structure led to some of the most wildly creative moments of the series. Alligators end up in living rooms, barbers steal wood from construction sites, and Earn (Donald Glover) ends up in a late-night foot race with Michael Vick.
The most absurd episode of the season, “Teddy Perkins,” in which Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) attempts to buy a piano and gets more than he bargained for, is also the series’ high point. Though it’s difficult to talk about the episode without spoiling too much, the man selling the piano offers a meditation on so many of the show’s key themes: fame, art, family, and race.
In its second season, Atlanta isn’t necessarily better — it was already one of the best shows on TV — but it more deeply understands what it is trying to do. The plot, in terms of twists and suspense, doesn’t really matter in this show. The structure is just a template for meditating on the issues that matter most to Glover and his team. Strangely, this structural repetition has allowed the show reach levels of surreal beauty that no other show on television can touch.
Hitmen have been covered extensively by Hollywood (in fact, another hitman show is on this list), but, somehow, with Barry, Bill Hader has found a way to tell a fresh story about the two most tired subjects in film and TV: contract killers and actors.
Barry’s core conceit is that the profession of killing and the profession of performing aren’t all that different. They both require a level of narcissism and a belief that you are different from everybody else, that you are special. While the similarities between the two jobs initially are meant to make us laugh, as the season wears on, there is a particular darkness that emerges as the professions are used as vehicles to reveal dark truths about human nature.
It is fitting that the acting class (led by a hilarious Henry Winkler) that Barry (Hader) is enrolled in culminates in scene work from Macbeth. It might be strange to say of an HBO comedy, but Barry covers much of the same territory as Shakespeare’s tragedy. Specifically, both examine how much of who we are is dictated by what we do, and, in turn, how much of what we do is a matter of fate.
The amazing achievement of Barry is that despite the thematic depths of the show, it manages to be one of the funniest shows on TV. Just when a scene is at a hilarious peak, we take a sharp turn into violence and pain. Just when a moment of absolute carnage unfolds in front of us, the always upbeat Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) pops in with a one-liner.
Barry is a comedy, sure, but it prioritizes exploring the truth of the human condition just as much as it does playing those truths for laughs. And the show is all the funnier for it.
Of all the actors you would have guessed were due for a comeback, you probably wouldn’t have picked Brendan Fraser. The ’90s goofball heartthrob has reinvented himself in one of the most inventive shows of the year: Trust.
Trust is based on the same Getty family source material that inspired the feature film All the Money in the World, a would-be awards contender that has already been mostly forgotten. Where All the Money in the World is a paint-by-numbers biopic mystery, Trust is a surprisingly adventurous, and sometimes even trippie, dramatic journey.
This series has a knack for putting its focus where it will be the most interesting. We meditate on the elder Getty’s (Donald Sutherland) surreal penny-pinching: guests use a payphone so he can save on his bill. The writers luxuriate in his grandson and newly anointed heir’s (Harris Dickinson) bohemian chill. The camera takes full advantage of how much of the story takes place in Rome, lingering on villas and cobblestone streets.
Creator Simon Beaufoy and company understand that this is a relatively familiar story, and as such, have decided to tell it as a morality tale. Rather than dwell on the facts (which, historians will tell you, they take liberties with), the creative team revels in the chance to shape an allegory of the capitalist rot at the heart of American life.
Like any good morality play, Trust has little time for nuance. In fact, our narrator (Brendan Fraser) talks directly to the camera. Fraser’s turn as cowboy hat-wearing, perpetually smiling Fletcher Chace somehow both anchors the show and makes it that much more absurd. Which is to say, he is the perfect narrator for this particular story.
Like Barry, Killing Eve finds sly humor amidst the very real pain of professional killing. Where Barry is about the internal psychology of a killer, Killing Eve focuses on the cat and mouse game that is played between the hunter and the hunted.
Killing Eve takes a self-consciously female point of view thanks to the sharp writing of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose Fleabag was the television equivalent of an indie darling last year. Waller-Bridge infuses Killing Eve with sly wit you don’t usually see in a procedural.
When Eve (Sandra Oh) is about to become a secret agent, her handler Carolyn (Fiona Shaw) wonders if her husband will suspect her. She quips, “They all think we’re having affairs before they think we’re secret agents.” Another scene shows both Eve and her nemesis Villanelle (Jodie Comer) ignoring the men in their lives as they think about work.
Of course here the work is murder.
Waller-Bridge has the writing skill to revel in the conventions of spy-drama intrigue with complete precision and make fun of them with cleverly deflating humor at the same time. This delicate balance wouldn’t work in lesser hands, but in Killing Eve, it is pitch perfect.
So much of TV being produced today aims to tackle our present moment, and in particular our President at the moment. Strangely enough, the best exploration of masculinity on TV this year didn’t come from some thinly veiled Trump parody, but from a show about an Arctic expedition in the mid-1800s.
The Terror follows the crew of two British ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, as they attempt to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. It is Captain John Franklin’s (Ciaran Hinds) hubris that gets the crew stuck in a glacial flow that may never melt, and then it is up to three very different men, and their very different vision of manhood, to get them out.
Though the show features over a dozen characters who all get their moment to shine, Jared Harris as the pragmatic, self-deprecating alcoholic Captain Crozier, Tobias Menzies as the formal, conventional Captain FitzJames, and Adam Nagaitis as a duplicitous enlisted man Cornelius Hickey, offer the competing narratives about how one truly survives.
Through plot twists and turns, unforeseen natural nightmares, and the spiritual influence of a nearby indigenous tribe, we watch the men try to maintain their sense of decency, nobility, and humanity as their options run out. As we watch mere desperation give way to a visceral fight for survival, we are left to ponder so much about the nature of man, and just how far he will go if pushed beyond his limits.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Watching The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t exactly feel like escapism. Instead, it feels like indulging all of your worst fears of what could happen if the most awful aspects of our present moment ran unchecked over American life. It isn’t always a pleasant experience watching the show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great.
We watch women get beaten, raped, and forced to wear muzzles as Season 2 offers us no break from the brutality that punctuated the first season at every turn. We’re ushered back into the monstrous world of Gilead immediately; the bandaid is ripped off with Wrigley Field converted in to a massive gallows in the first episode.
If it weren’t for the technical and creative mastery of The Handmaid’s Tale, it all might be too much to bear. But luckily, the brilliant performances of Elizabeth Moss (Offred), Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia), and Alexis Bledel (Ofglen) — as well as the brilliant directorial template established by Reed Moreno — allow the show to find nuance in the darkness.
The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the best shows on television, but we won’t blame you if you can’t watch more than one episode in a sitting.
The End of the F***ing World
Some of the wildest and most relevant movies in recent decades have taken the Bonnie & Clyde template and run with it. True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Thelma & Louise all infused the story of lovers on the run with passion and relevance to their particular moment. One of the best TV surprises of 2018 was watching The End of the F***ing World bring this wild subgenre to television and once again infuse it with new life.
Here, our criminal couple are just teenagers. James (Alex Lawther) is a 17-year-old who thinks he just might be a psychopath. Looking at the evidence, we are inclined to agree. Alyssa (Jessica Barden) may not be crazy, but she is rebellious and unmoored, willing to commit whatever crimes suit her needs at the moment, from carjacking to breaking and entering.
From the very beginning, we get the sense that these two are on the hellbound path. Writer Charlie Covell takes joy in the fact that we all know this relationship is doomed. He mixes in savage British humor and earnest coming-of-age moments as he playfully pulls us away from their sure-to-be tragic collision course, only to thrust us back into the madness with glee.
Equal parts thrilling and hilarious, crazy and endearing, The End of the F***king World is one of the most fulfilling and unexpected rides of the year.
In this political and cultural environment, a show like Billions doesn’t seem like the sort of thing we need more of. The show follows the exploits of a dirty hedge fund billionaire, Robert “Axe” Axelrod (Damien Lewis), and the district attorney who wants to bring him down, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Basically, these are the same stories that are playing out in the news every single day.
Billions offers all of the bro-tastic trappings you would expect from a series like this, and yes, sometimes revels in them. Hard drinking, strip clubs, high stakes poker, and flirting with buying professional sports teams: we’ve seen all of this before.
However, there is a savvy self-awareness to the way the show is produced that makes Billions more than the sum of its parts. Unlike lesser products in the same vein, the characters pause to take stock of their lives and ask if it’s all worth it, they make fun of themselves, and, generally, find a human connection underneath all the piles of money. At its best, the show’s breakneck pace and emotional depth can feel almost Shakespearean.
Like all of the great stories about rich people screwing each other over — such as Wall Street and Margin Call – Billions is at its best when it is at its most human. Behind the veneer of modern success, there are the egos and emotions that really matter.
If you can endure dated pop culture references and corny finance bro hi-jinx, Billions delivers where it counts.
It makes sense that Netflix would revisit The Staircase in 2018. Looking back at the original 2005 documentary series, it feels like this documentary predicted the future. Before there was The Jinx, Making A Murderer, Serial, or The Keepers, there was The Staircase.
The 2005 series followed the murder case against North Carolina author, Michael Paterson, who stood accused of killing his wife. In the style of the various true crime products that would come later, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade painted a compelling portrait of the accused, and highlighted the inequities and shortcomings of the legal system.
Netflix’s updated version of The Staircase offers three new episodes of the series, in addition to the two that were already added in 2011. With the updated material, the story now covers the case over a total of 15 years, maintaining the documentary’s humanizing verité style throughout.
Even after all this time, the central mystery of the series: did Michael murder Kathleen or did she die as the result of an accident, remains unanswered. However, as true crime fans know, this isn’t about cracking the case but the journey we take through it.
Though we’re no closer to a definitive answer, The Staircase is just as riveting 15 years later.
Wild Wild Country
If Wild Wild Country weren’t a documentary, it would be difficult to describe its genre. The mystery structure makes it feel like a true crime story. The feuding between a desert town and strange interlopers makes it feel like a Western. If the impact on the subjects weren’t so deeply felt, it might even feel like a comedy.
But, it is the fact that the events of Wild Wild Country actually happened that allows us to say that above all, the documentary series is stranger than fiction.
Wild Wild Country tells the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a self-styled guru who left his native India (or, depending on who you ask, was effectively exiled) and started a cult in the Oregon desert. You may be thinking that you’ve heard this story before, but never on this scale of ambition or duplicity. Rajneesh purchased 60,000 acres of ranch land which he formed into a town called Rajneeshpuram. There he established his own police force, restaurants, public transit, and even an air strip.
Even the establishment of his own municipality wasn’t enough to contain his ambition. The town soon formed its own militia, and mounted a take over of the nearby Antelope, Oregon city council. From there, Rajneesh and his followers — most notably, his spokesperson and right-hand woman, Sheela — get involved in ecoterrorism, mass surveillance, and even flirt with murder.
Though the events depicted are outrageous, the directors, the Way Brothers, manage to tell their story with an even-handed approach, and even maintain an aura of mystery. While Wild Wild Country focuses on its intriguing characters, the documentary raises broader questions about religion, spirituality, and the cultural forces in the early ’80s that allowed all of this to arise.
To say the Wild Wild Country is a wild ride is an understatement, and to say that it has to be seen to be believed goes without saying.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace
American Crime Story has proven to be an anthology series that focuses on various social issues. Season 1 followed the O.J. Simpson trial, which turned out to be a great vehicle for examining race in America. The best episodes of that season, like “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” used the intersection of race and gender to paint a devastating portrait of a moment in American life. The second season attempts the same kind of exploration, but for the gay male experience in the United States.
Season 2 of American Crime Story doesn’t succeed as completely as Season 1, partially because Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the killer at the center of this story, isn’t the same towering cultural figure that Simpson was. Cunanan’s victims, including an aging closeted real estate developer, a man trying to balance his identity as a naval officer and a gay man, and of course, the fashion designer Gianni Versace, prove far more interesting and compelling vessels for exploring this season’s themes. And the lesser episodes are sometimes limited by the depth of their subjects.
ACS: Versace isn’t perfect, but the best episodes (penned by London Spy writer Tom Rob Smith) stand among the top TV of the year. In particular, the pilot, which examines Versace’s complicated and luxurious South Beach lifestyle, and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” which follows Lt. Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) as he makes the decision to out himself and end his naval career, will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Since it first came on the scene six years ago, The Americans has been considered by critics to be one of the best, if not the best, show on television. The series, which stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet spies undercover as the American family next door, has all the trappings of a great television show from the golden age of TV, from the stellar performances to the pristine plotting.
It feels appropriate that the show is ending now. When The Americans launched, it was a peer of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which, though incredibly well crafted, were also almost entirely white and uniformly valued all-too-real naturalism. The slew of great shows stretching back to The Sopranos and including shows like Halt and Catch Fire, Boardwalk Empire, Big Love, Masters of Sex, and many more, defined an elevation in TV as a form.
These shows also had their limitations. TV may not be better today, but it is more diverse and the creative boundaries are far more broad than they were when Tony Soprano first fed ducks in his bathrobe. Today, The Americans feels like a relic of another era.
That doesn’t mean The Americans wasn’t great. Featuring some of the best writing and acting on television, the show is sure to live on critics’ “Best TV Dramas of All Time” lists and college TV criticism syllabi for years to come.
The plotting of The Americans was often perfect. The acting was always moving. And watching the wig swapping, tape recording, analog spy craft of the era was always a blast. The Americans will not be missed by nearly as many people as it deserves, but fans of the show will always look back and remember just how great a show it was.
Female friendship is the beating heart of Claws, one of last year’s surprise cable hits that has turned into a strongly rated cult favorite. The show is equal parts a friendship story like Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias and a drug crime drama in the spirit of Breaking Bad or Weeds. It also embraces its locale, highlighting some of the most hilariously trashy aspects of Florida culture.
Claws is just as much a crime soap as it is an hour-long comedy, and the versatile cast shifts effortlessly from dramatic to comic modes and back again within an episode. Desna (Niecy Nash) plays a nail salon owner who has fallen into allowing her business to be used as a oxycontin front for the Dixie Mafia. Veteran character actresses Carrie Preston (Polly), Judy Reyes (Quiet Ann), and Jenn Lyon (Jennifer Husser) play her staff and partners in crime, each with their distinct point of view on the Southern-fried hi-jinx. A slew of other actors from shows like Justified and Breaking Bad who make you say “I love that guy? What’s his name?” show up in every episode to heighten the drama and bring the laughs.
In addition to all of this, Claws is also one of the most diverse and politically relevant shows on television, finding time to tackle issues like abortion, sexuality, and racial prejudice between the drug busts and nail salon gossip. If you like your drug-fueled violence with a side of jet skis, leopard print spandex, and fried shrimp, this is the show for you.
Legion is one of the most beautiful shows on television and also one of the most difficult to understand. While most superhero shows thrive on a grand scope, depicting massive earth-shaking clashes, in Legion, the subconscious is the battleground.
Last season, when Legion began, the audience wasn’t sure if David (Daniel Haller) was a superhero or suffering from mental illness. Now, in Season 2, we’re kind of sure the answer is “both.”
The main conflict of the show pits David against Farouk aka The Shadow King (Navid Negahban). Farouk is at once inside of David’s mind and wreaking havoc on his world. He is David’s greatest enemy, but may also be his ally. The only way that David will find the truth is following Farouk through the various compartments of his mind and across various planes of being.
Yeah, it’s all a little trippie, but no one renders complex concepts with the beautiful elegance of Legion creator Noah Hawley. And even if you aren’t exactly following the metaphysical chess game of the show, you can at least enjoy the journey.
Legion takes us from automated diners to placid fields of wildflowers to ’70s industrial video inspired laboratories to the astral plane as represented by a beatnik hep cat ice prison and back again. Each scene is rendered more beautifully and deeply than the last.
If there is an heir to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks on television right now, it is Legion. The fact that this is technically a “superhero story” makes the trippie journey all the more rewarding, because Hawley shows that even the most well-trodden genres can contain multitudes beneath the surface.
What’s better than having J.K. Simmons in your TV show? Having two J.K. Simmonses in your TV show.
Counterpart offers one of the freshest ideas of the TV year so far with its reimagining of the Cold War as an interdimensional conflict. In this world, a rift in reality occurred in the late ’80s between East and West Berlin, dividing our world into two separate realities.
As the two worlds diverged, people continued to exist on both timelines. This means that while Howard (Simmons) in our world is a mere pencil-pushing bureaucrat, Howard in the other world is an international superspy. As you might guess, the hapless Howard of our timeline is dragged into cross-dimensional intrigue as he has to team up with the secret agent Howard in hopes of preserving both of their worlds.
While this premise might sound a bit confusing at first glance, this taut sci-fi/spy thriller is delivered with precision by creator Justin Marks. Not only does Counterpart provide compelling action, but it gives a master actor like Simmons a canvas worthy of his immense talents. He is so good, you sometimes find yourself wishing he could play every character.
For more top tier television, check out the season 4 trailer for ‘Better Call Saul.’