Sorry for the delay guys, I’ve fallen a bit behind with the Best of 2018 lists this year. I’ll do my best to remedy this fact in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, let’s conclude the Best of Television with the Top Ten Best TV Shows of 2018! That’s right, it’s time to reflect upon the greatest artistic achievements on the networks, cable, and streaming sites, the shows that explored how to combine great filmmaking and entertaining visuals to create a variety of works, from reality to thriller to comedy. This year, while the cinema backslid in comparison to 2017, television somehow succeeded in raising its game. And I hope to shed a light on some of those impressive works in the following article.
This was the year The Middle and The Americans left our TV screens for good, leaving as on top as they could possibly go. It’s the year several shows came, went, and came again, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man Standing. Can you believe that it was actually this year that Roseanne premiered to 25 million viewers, dropped down to 8 within eight weeks, got cancelled because of racist tweets by its showrunner, then killed her off so they could continue with the rest of the family? Yeah, that was all over the course of four months this summer. Now, there’s a lot from 2018 I still haven’t seen, so you won’t be seeing Bodyguard, The Americans, Better Call Saul, POSE, The Good Place, You, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or The Haunting of Hill House. Hell, in terms of shows I’ve seen, there’s a lot that hasn’t made the list, including perennial favorites black-ish and Speechless. I also didn’t have room for Dirty John, although I did enjoy the performances of Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Julia Garner, and Juno Temple. And then there are the three shows that I really wish were on the list – and were, at some point or another. There’s Homecoming, Amazon’s creative thriller starring Julia Roberts, which got really good in its back-half. Queer Eye became the first reality show to seriously contend for my list, thanks to its charming cast and the general escapist feelings it created. And then there’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which changed the game in terms of live television musicals, and brought us terrific performances by John Legend, Brandon Michael Dixon, Norm Lewis, and Alice Cooper (seriously!).
As is tradition, it is now time for the Law and Order: SVU Award, the Sacred Wall’s prize for the Most Hate-Watchable Show. There are several great contenders this year, but there is no show more deserving this year than 13 Reasons Why. A major contender for last year’s list, 13 Reasons abandoned the few good aspects of the first season to somehow take twelve steps back in terms of storytelling. Characters appear as ghosts, the tragic heroine played by Katherine Langford is rewritten as bitchy and “kinda deserved it,” there are a series of ham-fisted attempts to explore rape culture that somehow overcomplicates an already complicated situation (“Like, I get that no means no, BUT what if the girl kinda deserves it?”) AND the show that once set the gold standard for how to present a rape scene somehow forgot all that to create an unnecessary, overly-aggressive sequence that sparks a character to shoot up the school – and then frames that character as a tragic anti-hero. Way to read the room, 13 Reasons Why. All of these details would be offensive if the show didn’t so hilariously botch them, making 13 Reasons Why the third recipient of this prestigious award, alongside Fuller House and Riverdale.
And finally, there’s the annual Special Mention. This is a spot where I recognize long-form movies and documentaries that technically don’t count as television, but also technically don’t count as film either (think OJ: Made In America or The Vietnam War). This year, this recognition goes to Watergate, the fascinating six-part film that broke down the two-year period in which Richard Nixon’s paranoia and general shadiness destroyed his presidency, and how a series of journalists, Congressmen, judges, and hilariously sh*tty defense attorneys ended up undermining Nixon’s own presidency and forced the first presidential resignation in history. And with all this established, let’s take a look at the Ten Best Television Shows of 2018.
10. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
When I watched the first episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the second season in the true crime anthology that gave us the indelible The People vs. O.J. Simpson, I was a little disappointed. Unlike the star-studded cross between high art and camp, Versace was slow, methodical, and a bit of a drag. I mean, Edgár Ramirez’s Versace dies in the first episode, where do you go from there? The second episode improves slightly, albeit with some of the same supposed flaws. However, it is during that second episode, as well as the third episode, that the show’s thesis statement becomes clear. While the show was prefaced on the idea of Versace wealth porn and seedy murder, that’s not what creator Ryan Murphy was interested in. Instead, the show is a character study of a violent, sociopathic, self-loathing man, and how society both created and enabled him to go on a killing spree as an outlet to the love he could never feel. The entire notion of Versace is a red herring, with the show instead following Andrew Cunanan, played by an unbelievably great Darren Criss. The show follows Cunanan’s journey of self-hate and internalized homophobia, forcing his sociopathic inner demons to send him on a killing spree amongst the gay community – a spree made possible by police forces unwilling to investigate the deaths of “undesirables.” It also explores the gay experience for the different ends of the wealth gap – how there was little challenge for the rich creator Versace, and how there was discomfort and struggle for the poor, mistreated Cunanan. Each episode takes the form of a different genre – there’s horror, chic, tragedy, camp, and more, and by combining these genres, it creates an in-depth look at what a sociopath looks like, thinks like, and acts like.
Best Episode: “House By The Lake” – As written about last week, “House By The Lake” is a perfect embodiment of the themes of Assassination of Gianni Versace. A serial killer road trip horror, the episode follows Andrew Cunanan as he commits his first and second kill, kidnapping his boyfriend/potential only friend after murdering a mutual acquaintance and undergoing an extended road trip into hell. Cody Fern also gives a stellar performance as David Madson, Cunanan’s boyfriend and second victim, whom the episode follows as he slowly loses hope of ever seeing his father, with whom he has a complicated relationship, ever again. And while we never see Versace or the subsequent investigation, we do see the police who investigated Jeff Trail’s murder and Madson’s kidnapping, as they consistently drop the ball due to their uncaring reaction to the death of a gay man (just as Cunanan predicted). It’s a horrifying, depressing episode that draws inspiration from The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it helped shape Versace as one of the best episodes of the year.
On paper, Succession shouldn’t be as good as it is. I mean, who wants to watch a show about a bunch of super-rich assh*les constantly crossing, betraying, and occasionally caring for one another, especially in this day and age? However, that’s what precisely makes Succession so great: it plays on our utter disdain for the notion, crosses it with some Dynasty-level intrigue, and blends it with Adam McKay-esque satire (while never actually going Full McKay, thank God) to create one of the funniest, bleakest, utterly addicting shows on television. Part of the joy of Succession, the story of the billionaire Roy family, based on an amalgamation of every rich superpower in the country right now, from the Murdochs to the Kochs to Soros (mostly in the character of Shiv) and beyond, is that the show never seems clear on what its genre is supposed to be. Is it a very-funny drama, or a very depressing comedy? Who knows, and honestly, who cares? It can be as bleak as it wants so long as I get to see Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wamsgans bullying dipsh*t cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), or a sequence where an introductory tape explains how Waystar, the family’s media company, doesn’t hire based on “race or gender,” only to see a series of random, interchangeable white men walk out of an office in the background. Each family member is memorable, wacky, and despicable, sometimes at the same time, and it makes for one of the best ensembles in recent years, whether it’s Macfadyen and Braun as Tom and Greg, Brian Cox’s floor-pissing, sociopathic patriarch, Sarah Snook’s smartest-one-in-the-room Shiv, Jeremy Strong’s douchey-yet-lovably-Sisyphusian Kendall, Alan Ruck’s hilarious tech-guru libertarian Connor (his line readings are truly the show’s unsung hero), and especially Kieran Culkin as the show’s breakout hit Roman, the family’s id incarnate. Watching this ensemble interact is a real joy, whether it’s betraying each other, revealing secrets, rescuing each other from dangerous situations, joining forces with the world’s greatest Bernie Sanders parody, or uttering the family catchphrase “F*ck off.” And did I mention that it has one of the best theme songs in years? Succession is a weird, fascinating, wonderful show.
Best Episode: “Which Side Are You On?” – While not the best example of the show’s incredible ensemble, “Which Side of You On?” is perhaps the best example of what this show is capable of, thanks to its enthralling, heart-stopping premise, its merging of several themes, and its overall blend of comedy and drama. After watching Cox’s Logan Roy mentally backslide and put the company’s sustainability at risk, sons Kendall and Roman stage a coup to call a vote of no confidence. The episode follows their attempts to rally the necessary votes to overthrow their tyrant of a father, and shenanigans ensue as backstabbing, double crossing, and a general hatred of the two f*ck-up sons threatens their plot. And while I won’t spoil the ending, I will say it’s highly illegal, kind of hilarious, and totally heartbreaking – which also serves as an excellent subtitle to the show.
8. Sharp Objects
If you remember my 2017 list, you’ll recall that I did not include Big Little Lies, as I felt it lacked cohesion, execution, and follow-through on the part of writer/director Jean-Marc Vallée. Sharp Objects fixes this major issue in no small part to the introduction of a team of creators, including Marni Noxon and Gillian Flynn. By utilizing Noxon’s understanding of TV as a format (she arguably was the true genius behind Buffy) and Flynn’s general understanding of story structure, Vallée is allowed to do what he does best – add layering in the visuals and editing to explore the themes, while coaxing the best performances possible out of his performers. A cross between the classic murder mystery, the small town satire, and the Southern Gothic (actually, small town critique and Southern Gothic kind of go hand-in-hand), Sharp Objects often feels like a Tennessee Williams-written horror film. The show follows alcoholic, depressed crime reporter Camille Preaker (played impeccably by Amy Adams) as she returns to her hometown – the one she desperately tried to escape from after the death of a sister and the verbal, mental, and sexual abuse by the men and adults in the town – to cover the disappearance/murders of two young girls. As she tries to cover the mystery, and even potentially solve it, she faces backlash from a town that doesn’t want to deal with the pain of its past, led by Camille’s socialite mother Adora Crellin (played by Patricia Clarkson, making admirable choices that I don’t wholly love). The show raises questions throughout about the myth of the small-town Southern charm, asking the audience if these people actually care about each other due to a chivalrous sense of manners, or if they act out of a forced sense of guilt and malicious holier-than-thou gossip. While certain characters seem capable of change, it’s hard to prove that these characters act out of anything other than self-preservation, as can be seen when Camille meets up with her fellow cheerleaders from back in the day, who sit around, gossiping and putting each other down (I love the way they slide in digs at Camille, like “I don’t think you can ever be whole until you have kids. I guess you would report on a story like this…you just don’t understand”). Meanwhile, there’s a general sense of divide in the town along racial and class lines, made clear the moment Clarkson’s Adora offers to cut her daughter’s apple, then immediately hands it to her African-American maid. Even the town itself seems to embody this sense of collective guilt, as noted in the line “[All we’ve got is] guns and meth and pigs…” This is a show about the traumas passed down over generations – both literally through Adora and Camille, and figuratively, with the issues of race, class, and the Confederacy. And then there’s Vallée’s direction, and the way he reveals details slowly and smartly throughout the series (see: Best Episode). This is Gothic horror at its finest, and one of the finest shows on TV this year.
Best Episode: “Vanish” – While I easily could have gone with “Ripe,” “Falling,” or the shocking final episode “Milk,” I think “Vanish” is Sharp Objects’ finest hour. It smartly introduces the themes and tensions of the show, introduces the strong performances of Adams, Clarkson, and Eliza Scanlen as the youngest Crellin, Amma, and gives us a series of iconic images. From the reveal of Natalie Keene’s toothless body to Adams chugging vodka from a water bottle, every moment of the episode, Vallée and Noxon give us haunting images that permeate throughout the eight episode run, but it may be the final shot that really seals the deal. While Adams spends the entire episode in baggy sweatshirts and jeans, no attention is drawn to it, causing the viewer to think of it as a minor character choice…until a close-up on a bathing Adams at the end of the episode shows that she has carved words into herself all over her body. It’s one of the greatest reveals in modern television history, and it promised a dark, intelligent story for the viewers that the show, thankfully, delivered on.
7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
After a striking midseason finale in 2017 that earned Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the #1 spot on last year’s television list, I’d be lying if I said the second half of Season Three was anything but slow. I’m not trying to say the show was bad – Crazy Ex has never been anything but good. However, after going so hard on the characters and on the story, the episodes premiering in January and February of 2018 felt like a forced breather. However, just because the show backslid ever so slightly doesn’t mean it couldn’t – or didn’t – recover. And by the end of Season Three, and especially into Season Four, the show refound its groove, and has turned its final lap into a victory march. We have followed show creator/star Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca since she arrived in West Covina determined to win over the supposed love of her life, through a series of complicated relationships and horrible decisions, up into a suicide attempt surrounding misdiagnosed borderline personality disorder, and now we can enjoy her first attempts at self-love…well, ever. Her quest to accept responsibility for her actions has led her to therapy, to prison (briefly, misguidedly, and hilariously), and, perhaps most importantly of all, to her new job running a pretzel stand, and away from her former career as a lawyer. She may not be wholly better just yet, but she’s getting there, and that’s ok. Beyond Rebecca, we’ve also watched several other characters undergo growth and change as well. Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) has learned to process emotions and treat people with respect, Heather (Vella Lovell) has finally discovered what she wants to do in life and now has a stable career and husband, Darryl (Pete Gardner) has the second child he’s always wanted, and above all, Paula (Donna Lynn Champlin) has finally reached the end of her stint in law school, making her dream of becoming a lawyer that much closer to reality. And in between these journeys, the show has taken massive narrative risks, including a major time jump in Season Three, major career changes in Season Four, and the recasting of a major character in a way that works narratively. However, what makes me the happiest about what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has done in Season Four is just how good the songs have been as of late. The show’s music has always been top-notch, but throughout the first six episodes of the season, they were really putting out some of the best music of its run, including spoofs of Chicago, “The Monster Mash,” Simon and Garfunkel (as sung by pretzels – just go with it), Justin Bieber, Oklahoma, The Beach Boys, Gwen Stefani, and 90s-era Bobby Brown (aka “Don’t Be A Lawyer,” the #1 Television Moment of 2018). And that’s not to mention the great songs in Season Three, like a Hair spoof, a tango, a spot-on spoof of “Maybe This Time,” and one of my personal favorite songs of the series, “F*ckton of Cats,” featuring an army of puppet felines. Oh, and if that last sentence didn’t convince you, this show is really funny too! Literally every line reading by Gabrielle Ruiz’s Valencia is art, and there’s a hilarious new running bit where every performance of the theme song ends with “Other Rebecca” delivering a horrifying non-sequitur. I have championed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend from Day One, and I likely will throughout these final five episodes, and I am delighted that it will likely join the club of perfect shows, the ones that make the Top Ten list every year of their run.
Best Episode: “I’m Not The Person I Used To Be” – Covered extensively last week, “I’m Not The Person I Used To Be” is the type of episode that really drives home just how good Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can be. It balances laugh-out-loud comedy, like side character George’s (Danny Jolles) spirited rendition of a Gwen Stefani spoof “What U Missed While U Were PopUlar,” with truly heartwrenching material, like Rebecca’s reveal that during her Shame Spiral she had an affair with love interest Greg’s father or Valencia’s missed connection with Father Brah (Rene Gube, a delight). It even takes narrative risks by recasting Greg, one of the show’s most popular characters who left the show in Season Two when star Santino Fontana returned to Broadway. Now played by Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin, it is a testament to the show’s writing that Astin feels exactly like Fontana’s Greg, albeit more optimistic. While Fontana captured Greg’s sense of negative alcoholism, Astin brings that same sense of sarcasm to a character that has been in recovery for three years and is clearly much happier. The episode is honestly a marvel, clearing several challenging hurdles and defining why Crazy Ex is one of the best shows on TV.
Quick, what are four of my favorite pieces of pop culture?!? Breaking Bad, Waiting for Guffman, BoJack Horseman, and Bill Hader. When boiled down to its bare essentials, what exactly is the show Barry? Well, it’s Breaking Bad meets Waiting for Guffman, with the sensibilities of BoJack Horseman and starring Bill Hader! Barry is a simple story, and one as old as time – a lonely, depressed man decides to drop everything to pursue his dream of being an actor. The twist here? That “old job” is a position as one of the most lethal hitmen in the underworld, and his loneliness comes from PTSD from his time in Iraq. Caught between his old life with surrogate father Fuches (Stephen Root) and two bumblef*ck Chechan mobster brothers (a good Glenn Fleshler and a phenomenally funny Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank) as well as his new one with wannabe actors Jermaine (Darrell Britt-Gibson), Natalie (D’Arcy Carden), and especially Sally (an excellent Sarah Goldberg), with whom Barry feels a connection for the first time in his life. The show balances Barry’s desire to turn over a new leaf and bring people joy with an old life he can never escape, which not only threatens to ruin his own life but the lives of those around him, including fellow vets Dale Pavinski and especially Chris Marquette, who gives a terrific performance. And yet, the show still makes room for comedy, from Noho Hank’s upbeat idealistic approach to crime to Barry’s attempts to always be happy in his acting, even if that means performing a kind version of Glengarry Glen Ross. Hader is top form here, demonstrating that he is capable of being more than just the funny-man from Saturday Night Live. However, the heart of the show is not Hader’s soulful, funny Barry, but Henry Winkler as theatre director Gene Cousineau. Winkler is top-form as Cousineau, combining the know-it-all nature of Fonzie with the goofiness of Barry Zuckerkorn to create one of the best characters of 2018. Gene is a blustering blowhard of insults, compliments, and advice, trying to coax the best performances out of his actors possible. One of my favorite scenes of the entire series is when he tries giving Barry advice when he thinks the hero is on drugs: “Getting clean is an important part of an actor’s journey. A little story to illustrate: I was doing Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Pasadena Playhouse with a bunch of coke heads. It’s usually about a three-hour play. We could bring it in at just under thirty-seven minutes. We thought we were great! Apparently, we were unintelligible. It was the beginning of the bad years, Barry.” And his relationship with Paula Newsome’s Detective Moss (one of the show’s best characters) is refreshing, funny, and sweet. What’s funniest about Winkler, though, is how accurate he is. My brother is currently in grad school for opera and has been in a handful of shows, and he has said that Winkler is spot-on as a theatre director. Whether you like it as a Hollywood satire, a dark dive into morality and depression, or a new piece of Prestige Television, Barry is one of the best new shows on TV.
Best Episode: “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going” – Another show listed on my Best TV Episodes list, “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, And Keep Going” is a masterful blend of drama, comedy, and tragedy. Combining Sally’s quest to gain an agent with a big performance as Macbeth and Barry’s journey to escape the Chechen brothers, the episode forces Barry to make a choice that will save his future, but damn his soul for eternity (suddenly Macbeth feels like a fitting play). The ramifications of his decision to murder fellow vet Chris takes its toll on our antihero’s psyche, and ironically forces him to deliver his best performance to date. Meanwhile, as dark as the episode gets, it still makes time for jokes – my favorite involves the empty seats reserved for all the major agencies. It’s the second best episode of 2018, and the best embodiment of Barry’s blend of comedy and drama.
5. Big Mouth
I really enjoyed Season One of Big Mouth, but I had my doubts. It was really funny, and it had a solid premise, but I could tell Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett were still trying to figure out both what the show was, as well as what it could be. With Season Two, the team figured it out, combining the show’s sense of surrealism with modern day comedic sensibilities, and put together a murderer’s row of talent to act it out. On paper, it appears to be simple, almost on a South Park-ian level: a group of middle school friends try to deal with the dawn of puberty and all the messy realities that go along with bodily and hormonal changes. The catch to the show (other than the fact that the series is horrifically, horrifically blunt with the realities of that terrible time in our lives) is that these changes, their effects, and their world, are represented through surrealist magical realism. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, the entire notion of puberty is represented by The Hormone Monsters (voiced by Kroll and the show’s secret weapon Maya Rudolph), two Bacchus-inspired satyr shoulder demons that voice every sick, demented thought that crosses our minds as teenagers, be it sexual (the dreams and desires expressed towards crushes), emotional (the lashing out at parents who just want what’s best for us), or physical (the presence of new hairs and body shapes). Advice for our protagonists also comes from talking pillows (voiced by Kristen Bell and Natasha Lyonne), strange lady bugs, a gym teacher with the intelligence of a goldfish (both voiced by Kroll), and the Ghost of Duke Ellington (yes, that Duke Ellington, and voiced by Jordan Peele). However, at the heart of the series, regardless of the weirdness going on, are the children, and their very-real fears, hopes, and emotions. Each actor crosses their public persona with their own childhood traumas, resulting in realistic, honest portrayals that strike close to home. Kroll’s Nick captures the agony of blooming later than your peers, while miserable Andrew captures the terror of blooming way earlier, and with a much more uncontrollable sex drive (John Mulaney’s vocal work plays perfectly off both childhood Kroll and Maurice the Hormone Monster Kroll). Jessi Klein’s Jessi captures the pain of going through puberty while your parents divorce, while Jenny Slate’s Missy just tries to be her lovably awkward self. Side characters Andrew Rannells, June Diane Raphael, and Joe Wengert all get laughs as their respective tweens, but my personal favorite is Jason Mantzoukas’ Jay, who is desperate for attention and love, which he expresses as 100% id. Meanwhile, the show adds two new characters to to the already marvelous cast that easily exist in the upper echelons of the show’s ensemble. Gina Rodriguez takes on the stereotypical role of the girl-who-developed-first, and immediately fleshes her out to not only become a likeable three-dimensional character, but also to break down the stigmas, clichés and sexualization of the very archetype. And perhaps smartest of all is the introduction of The Shame Wizard, as voiced with a surprise panache and comedic sensibility by David Thewlis. Thewlis’ Shame Wizard is both deeply loathable and deeply lovable, thanks to his usefulness as well as his awfulness. He adds extra venom to his little pushes and put-downs, filling the children with a sense of self-loathing and flagellation, but he does so to keep them from becoming full-on hedonists. After all, if every human was always 100% id, acting on every desire our nether regions thrusted upon us, we would be…well, we would be The Hormone Monster. Thewlis executes this balance perfectly, and he even has time to joke about a collection of Nazi dildos. This is high art, people, and it should be applauded as such.
Best Episode: “Dark Side of the Boob” – “Dark Side” is very easily the bare essence of Big Mouth’s insanity. By placing all of the children inside the school gymnasium for a scientific sleepover, the show traps them with the three forces they most desperately need to escape from: Maurice, Connie (The Hormone Monstress), and The Shame Wizard – oh, and Coach Steve, who really should not be allowed near children. And the monsters have a massive arsenal to do battle with, much to the children’s terror: random hookups, bad decisions past and present, actions involving a Stuffed Worm, and good-old fashioned rumor/slut shaming help ruin relationships between friends (Jessi and Gina), couples (Nick and Gina), and our own sense of self-worth (both Missy and Andrew). Throw in a weird-as-hell Sorcerer’s Apprentice homage involving a first hookup and a musical number about the horrifying – yet healthy – side effects of shame, and you have one of the best representations of one of TV’s best shows. When you reach the final “To Be Continued,” you’ll immediately heed the Shame Wizard’s advice to “[Why don’t you] continue it right now, you lazy piece of sh*t!”
4. BoJack Horseman
After writing about it up above while talking about Barry, it is finally time to give BoJack Horseman its proper due, after it wrapped up a series that called its own legacy into question. In the aftermath of the fourth season, the show seemed to be reaching a calmer, happier place than its early seasons. Will Arnett’s depressed horse célèbre was happy, things were working out for the characters, and the show was maturing to a general sense of zen. It would have been very easy for Raphael-Bob Waksberg to rest on his laurels and phone in the fifth season of the show’s run, but that’s not the type of show this is. Instead, Waksberg and staff take risks with the characters and the stories. Alison Brie’s Diane visits her ancestral home of Vietnam, both exploring her character’s roots while addressing the show’s history of (albeit without malice) whitewashing. Arnett’s character has a thirty minute monologue in the form of a stream-of-consciousness eulogy. And there are multiple episodes diving into the mental state of a man (or horse) battling opioid addiction in the aftermath of a back injury. But perhaps most important of all is the way the show destroys the fourth wall to not only explore the world around it, but also explore its place in that world. As times change, and we see more and more individuals in high-power positions continuously hurt others and get away with it without repercussions, the question exists, “Can the media we consume continue to celebrate these types of protagonists without acknowledging their own culpability?” Considering how challenging that answer is, it would be easy and understandable to just say, “Yes” and move on. However, BoJack is willing to explore its own place in that world. It’s main character has done some terrible things, and been put in positions that could have been much worse, but still need acknowledgment. By showing these traits inside a protagonist, even one as tortured and as miserable as this one, the show risks glorifying his flaws instead of condemning them. And that’s what Season Five is all about: not only is BoJack forced to confront the sins of his past, he must do so while playing a flawed, troubled, “prestige” character on TV, forcing him to confront what the stories he’s telling are doing to the world around him. It’s fifty shades of meta that peel back the layers of humanity’s worst elements, trying to find answers to questions that may be answerless, and ultimately reminding the audience that acknowledgment and guilt are important steps on the road to redemption, but taking responsibility and accepting the consequences are necessary for the change to mean anything. And yet, no matter how reflective, or mature, or necessary this show gets, it never loses its roots as a comedy. This is still the show that throws in background references to pig cannibalism, names its characters and locations after clever animal puns, and skewers Hollywood with scathingly hilarious renditions of the stories they tell. And above all, this is still the show that makes mature, important points through the presence of an idiot’s sex robot named Henry Fondle, which is horrifying to look at, is voiced by Aaron Paul bastardizing dirty talk (“I like it when you call me…Father”), and is somehow promoted to the head of a major company through his no-nonsense attitude. BoJack Horseman is the gold standard of combining the silly with the substantial, following in the footsteps of – and improving upon – both The Simpsons and The Sopranos. And it’s one of the best shows of not just this year, but any year.
Best Episode: “Free Churro” – While “The Dog Days Are Over” is my favorite episode of Season Five, thanks to its gorgeous animation and the heartfelt story on display for Diane, it is impossible to sum up BoJack Horseman as a season, a show, or a character, without acknowledging “Free Churro.” Over the course of thirty minutes, Will Arnett stumbles, blusters, curses, and reaches catharsis over the death of his mother, Beatrice, with whom he’d shared a rocky, icy, abusive relationship. In the speech, he tries to come to terms with his mother’s treatment, with his own mortality, with the mystery surrounding his mother’s final words (which may be as meaningless as life itself), and ultimately, with his own grief. It’s funny, poignant, and painful, and a tour-du-force of both writing and acting. Oh, and the final, humorous payoff is to die for (I’m so sorry for that pun).
3. Killing Eve
Killing Eve is a weird, addictively perfect form of television. Following a cat-and-mouse game between MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and skilled assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the show is a world-class mystery/crime show, combining the thrilling hero/villain dynamic of The Silence of the Lambs with the general sense of fun and adventure of Catch Me If You Can. It is quite clear from the first episode that the strongest element of the show is the performances. Oh in particular is truly phenomenal, establishing herself as one of the greatest performers of the modern era. While it has been hard to pinpoint before due to her chameleon-esque nature, she possesses Jennifer Aniston’s naturalism with Marlon Brando’s charisma – there’s a style and personality inside each performance that is uniquely her, and only possessed by the truly great actors of legend. As the titular Eve, Oh is truly phenomenal. Watching her chase leads is actually fun to do, thanks to her brains, wit, joy and verve. She’s not the world’s greatest detective, but she’s a damned good one, and the flaws in her police work are more than compensated by her own sense of humor about it (not that she often has to – her mistakes are rare and understandable). Meanwhile, Comer is hilarious as the sassy/sociopathic Villanelle. She has a way of delivering horrific lines with such humor that it’s sometimes easy to forget how awful the line can be – when told she can’t perform a hit until she’s assessed by a shrink, she pouts, “But this one has asthma. You know I like the breathy ones!” However, behind her childlike jokes there is a terrifying presence – while throwing a birthday bash for her angry, anonymous handler, she hands him a toy with a bow on it. “For your daughter,” she smirks, revealing that she knows private things about him that can be used against him should she not get her way. The show’s at its best whenever Oh and Comer share the screen in a series of tense face-offs, but that’s not to say that it’s only good whenever they’re onscreen. This is one of the best-cast shows on TV (perhaps only matched by Brooklyn Nine-Nine in terms of every character having the perfect actor), and watching Eve assemble her team has all the fun of a 90s mystery with all the intelligence of modern-day sensibilities (including her former boss, David Haig, an investigator, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and a hacker, Sean Delaney – not to mention the perfect casting of Fiona Shaw as Eve’s boss and Kim Bodnia as Villanelle’s boss). And I haven’t even mentioned Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing yet, which should be taught in screenwriting classes for future generations. I mean, this following exchange, as Shaw’s Carolyn Martens tries to recruit Oh’s Eve to join MI6, is pure noir gold:
“Carolyn: Men always think we’re having an affair long before they think we’re secret agents.
Eve: Oh no, my husband would think I’m a secret agent before he ever thinks I’m having an affair.
Carolyn: Well you might want to star making him think you’re having an affair, then.”
(The only thing smarter than this exchange is the fact that, moments into Episode 2, after introducing the complication of keeping her mission a secret from her husband, Eve blurts out the truth, thus avoiding any of the usual clichés such a story might entail). This is a stylish, elegant, and fun show, and sets a new bar for television crime and mystery shows for years to come.
Best Episode: “Nice Face” – Few pilots have ever been as truly thrilling as “Nice Face,” the perfect introduction to Villanelle, Eve, Carolyn, Bill, and Konstantin. The opening scene alone, which features Villanelle spontaneously deciding to shove a little girl’s face into an ice cream sundae, is a thesis statement for her entire character. Meanwhile, Oh gives a tour-du-force, whether she’s sassing her husband, solving crimes while terribly hungover, or interviewing witnesses with brains and empathy. There are several great scenes, from Carolyn hiring Even to Villanelle’s hit in Italy. And the scene where Eve and Villanelle meet for the first time, in the hospital as Eve guards her witness, is pure magic, and sets in motion the entire series. “Nice Face” is a thrilling intro to an incredible series, and it stands as one of the best episodes of the year.
GLOW has slowly transformed itself, from Season One to Season Two, into the Most Fun show on TV. Yes, there’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Jane the Virgin, and even Modern Family (although it’s a bit less fun since it backslid in the quality department). And sure, GLOW still has its dramatic edge that marks it a 21st century Peak TV show. But in terms of the highest quality, most easily enjoyable shows, it is GLOW I come back to as the heir apparent to shows like Cheers, Parks and Recreation, and more. The shows where the producers and writers put together a great ensemble that works well together (and are wholly memorable no matter if they’re the top billed or the fifteenth most important), gives them a series of wacky shenanigans to engage in, and just lets the jokes and the sight gags fly. It’s truly remarkable how addicting this season truly is, now that the characters have been established and are free to play around with their attitudes, interactions, and sensibilities. While Alison Brie’s Ruth was something of a stuck-up heel in Season One, a Diane in a sea of Norms, Cliffs, and Sams, Season Two lets the funniest woman currently working truly accept her mantle. Now, she embraces her role as the heel, and is allowed to have more fun and be sillier than any other character on the show. It not only makes her (and the show) much more of a joy to watch, but it allows for better dynamics with Marc Maron’s cynical director Sam, Betty Gilpin’s former-best-friend Debbie, and the entire lovable cast of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. And that’s what makes GLOW Season Two such a blast: it has managed to morph and evolve its characters to a point where, even when flawed, they remain inherently likeable, like The Office. Every member of the ensemble, from Gayle Rankin’s Sheila to Sydelle Noel’s Cherry Bang to Sunita Mani’s poor, poor Arthie, stands out as likeable, memorable, and joyful. Even Chris Lowell’s hilarious Bash, who could have been (and still sometimes is) a rich-boy sexist assh*le, has become a dumb sweetheart who just mimics what the bad behavior he sees, like a second-season Andy Dwyer. It’s so refreshing to have a show where you can actually like every character, earnestly and wholeheartedly. The show also knows how and when to go serious when it needs to, tackling the boys club nature of producers, the realities/awful nature of the casting couch, the AIDS crisis, and the question of reclaiming stereotypes through art (honestly, if you’d told me the best character on the show after Season One would be Kia Stevens’ Tammé/Welfare Queen, I wouldn’t have believed you). And there’s a sense of show-within-a-show humor that made hits out of 30 Rock and The Larry Sanders Show. Watching them try to put together a sensible thirty-minute plot out of dumb wrestling clichés is always a treat, and honestly, the show’s at its best when they get to play actors playing actors. Brie in particular seems to revel in her role as Zoya the Destroya, the over-the-top Russian commie who feels straight out of Rocky IV. Similarly, Gilpin’s classically-trained Debbie steals the show whenever she shows up as Liberty Belle, an amalgamation of every American stereotype known to man. GLOW is a pure joy to watch, and honestly, we need more shows like it.
Best Episode: “The Good Twin” – I mean, how could it not be “The Good Twin?” Sure, “Mother Of All Matches” could make a good case for the show’s best episode, but really, nothing really matches the truly batty nature of “The Good Twin.” Following an episode of the GLOW TV show that exists inside GLOW the actual series, this episode has everything: bad 80s VHS, Alison Brie playing a good and evil Russian twin, a wolf woman wrestling a handsy goat, TWO full-on wrestling matches, Betty Gilpin going all out as Liberty Belle (her depressed Jazzercise is a GIF that should be on every computer), AND a whole musical PSA (think “We Are The World”) about why kidnapping is bad. It’s the best episode of any TV show this year, and best sums up the silly, honest fun that GLOW can provide.
1. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
The critical consensus this year was that there were only two shows that really had a shot at the title Best TV Show of 2018. One is The Americans, which, I reiterate, I have not seen yet. The other, which I did see, is Atlanta, and you have heard correctly: this show is the best of 2018. It’s funny how many shows on this list are in their second season, because it really demonstrates how high concept television has become: the entire first season has been relegated to “pilot” status, essentially setting up stories, characters and ideas so that the show can be successful in later years (see: Big Mouth, GLOW). Atlanta is the show that proves this rule, relegating its first season to “beginner status” in order to craft something bigger, smarter, and stronger than Season One could have ever dreamed of being – a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Season One was already a home run. Still, if Season One was a home run, Season Two is a grand slam, building on the first season’s surrealist look at three friends trying to climb their way out of the streets of Atlanta through rap, as well as the weird journeys they undergo along the way. The opening robbery montage itself, as well as the title “Robbin’ Season” (when the people of Atlanta grow antsy and start robbing each other, whether they need it or not), is a perfect thesis for the season, as every character undergoes their own form of a hustle in order to get paid. Paper Boi has his rapping, Earn has his managing, Darius has whatever he can get his hands on, and so on. Even one-off characters have their hustles: Teddy Perkins tries to kill Darius in order to reclaim his celebrity, and Michael Vick races people in the street because…well, because he’s Michael Vick, and he knows he can win. And hustles aren’t just reserved for the African-American community – even the white people of Atlanta try robbing and hustling their way to the top, with the show joking about the wave of twenty-something white girls playing indie covers of rap songs, or mommy bloggers on Instagram and YouTube who break down rap lyrics and use their daughters as tools to make themselves famous. Obviously Donald Glover and Hiro Murai are more than capable of crafting satiric, surrealist fantasies of their own, but it also remains quite clear that the team hired great writers from other shows (including the terrific Man Seeking Woman) to round out their writers’ room, as it helped hone the show’s biting tone into one of the greatest satiric forces of this decade. Of course, the show doesn’t exist on a one-track mind: Glover and Murai use their satire like buckshot, taking aim at everything and anything, from the undeniable strangeness of Florida (“Florida Man” is one of my favorite jokes from any show this year) to the white douchey idiocy of Silicon Valley to the underlying racism inherent in the frat. It also manages, through Earn and Alfred’s newfound wealth, to explore what it’s like for African-Americans when they start earning money and becoming successful – their cash is consistently rejected, they have a gun pulled on them at a movie theater after they’re rejected buying tickets, and ironically find the only place that treats them as equals is the strip club. And the show even manages to find pathos in its strangest scenes, like Glover’s Earn and Katt Williams’ Uncle Willie having a heart-to-heart while a giant alligator walks around the living room, or the underlying pain of Teddy Perkins’ existence. Atlanta is never about just one thing. It’s about relationships amongst African-Americans, about the quest to write your way out of poverty, about the highs and lows of success and wealth, and about the true insanity of being alive now, in 2018. It is the best representation of 2018, the smartest show of 2018, and all-around the best show of 2018.
Best Episode: “Teddy Perkins” – An amalgamation of Sunset Blvd. and Get Out, “Teddy Perkins” is a master class in satiric horror. It explores a wide variety of themes, including the effects parents have on their children, the abusive nature of the music industry, the psychological toll of the “ideal musician” that affected performers like Michael Jackson, and more. LaKeith Stanfield is incredible as the wigged-out Darius (between this and Sorry To Bother You, he should absolutely be an A-list star going forward), but the real star here is Glover, unrecognizable as Teddy Perkins (who is credited as “himself), a whitefaced, emotionless, soulless creature who has undergone years of physical and mental abuse that he considers deserved. It’s an episode with a lot to say, and different ways to say it, from satire to horror to thriller to Greek tragedy – basically, it is Atlanta in a nutshell.
And that wraps up our look at the best TV 2018 had to offer. I hope you enjoyed these in-depth looks, and I hope you’ll join us next week as we move on to the movies. Which means…oh sh*t, I’ll see you all next time with the worst films of 2018. Not again. Happy watching, you guys.