Here’s the rest of the best TV shows I watched in 2018. Also, for the first time since 2015, my favorite show of the year is available in its entirety on Netflix (for now at least), so get streaming if you feel so inclined.
10. SUCCESSION (HBO)
The asshole cousin of This Is Us, Succession was bar none, the best family drama of the year. No other show better traced the way horrible family dynamics trickled down to create extraordinarily fucked up people (this might also be what Sharp Objects was about but I didn’t watch that, so whatever.) So much more than a “rich people problems” show, Succession took what could have been “Veep but about a media empire” and turned it into a superb tragicomedy about four adults waging countless wars both against and alongside their father, just with billions of more dollars than most of us have. When it’s just Rich People Are Assholes, Let’s Watch Them Fail: The Show it’s hysterically bleak satire, when it dives deep into how truly fucked up the three Roy children are, it’s one of the most affecting and hard to watch dramas of the year. Having sympathy for rich people may not be the most 2018 idea, but Succession understands that late capitalism puts all of us in our own private cages (sometimes literally) and that even the ultra rich can’t escape the mundane terrors of family.
9. JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU (Adult Swim)
Joe Pera is a chaotic good version of Nathan Fielder. Whereas Nathan For You traffics in a certain level of irony, Pera’s Joe Pera Talks With You is completely, surreally sincere. The sincerity is a bit unnerving since it airs on Adult Swim, a channel well-known for shows that have been known to take disturbing turns on a dime. That shocking moment never happens on Joe Pera Talks With You. The show is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s an average, Midwestern man named Joe talking to you about certain topics. He may go off-topic or he might get too involved, but the show lives and dies by Joe’s rambling, serene, and often surprisingly deep monologues. Joe Pera Talks With You’s devotion to sincerity, and mining humor from the juxtaposition of sincerity and a less than sincere world, make it a subtly clever show that’s clearly apiece of Pera’s own standup. It’s this juxtaposition that fuels the finale of the first season, where Joe begins to question everything about his way of life. Joe himself is a surprisingly complex character that’s so much more than a Fargo-esque joke, and it’s this focus on defining Joe (as well as the show’s steady stream of gentle gags) that makes Joe Pera Talks With You so brilliant.
8. BARRY (HBO)
Bill Hader revealed that the inspiration for Barry comes from the fact that virtually any time you watched Hader on SNL, he was having a panic attack. The idea that a person can be be very good at something (Hader was one of the best utility players on SNL during his run) but derive absolutely no joy from it is what Hader developed Barry around. It’s a harrowingly personal hell that’s brought to life with Barry Berkman, an assassin who is very good at killing but is slowly losing his soul as a result. Conversely, he gets roped into improv classes and discovers that he only excels at it when he’s pretending to be what he actually is (My conspiracy theory is that the entire show is based on that one episode of The Sopranos where Christopher takes improv classes). This internal battle for Barry’s soul is of course, Barry’s alone (and portrayed brilliantly with Hader’s frenetic style), everyone else in his life is comically self-obsessed, from the unknowingly dopey members of his improv troupe to the… unknowingly dopey gang members Barry finds himself working for. Barry, however, is humanistic at heart, having sympathy for these self obsessed characters, as well as Barry, all up until they have to perform a pivotal monologue or find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun and all they’re left with is who they really are. Barry might still be trying to figure out who he is, but Barry is all too confident in its status as the best black comedy on TV.
7. ATLANTA (FX)
Everyone lost something on Atlanta this season, hence the title of “Robbin’ Season”, but the show didn’t lose a single step from the first season. If anything, Atlanta became more of a conventional TV show, which what actually made the show more sustainable as a whole. Instead of formal experiments, Atlanta season two offered up (besides “Teddy Perkins” and “Champagne Papi”, typical Atlanta weirdo episodes) a loosely connected linear plot that further explored the relationship between Paper Boi and Earn. In the spirit of losing, the show portrayed Earn as, well, a loser, someone who can’t stop losing in all aspects of life, and it’s finally starting to put a strain on Paper Boi. Atlanta’s cyclical nature is a feature, not a bug, and slowly sands down the characters until they’re forced to finally make decisions that can change their lives. The fact that these decisions usually change nothing is the perfectly dark cosmic joke at the center of the series.
6. CASTLE ROCK (Hulu)
Castle Rock is one of the few streaming shows that has actual episodes and doesn’t feel like hours of content stitched together haphazardly. It feels like one of those old Stephen King miniseries that would air on TNT except, you know, actually good. While Castle Rock had plenty of fanservice in terms of numerous King Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the show (and especially in the opening credits), the show took its source material seriously and went for deeper homage to the themes of King’s work, rather than simple references and adaptation. Castle Rock didn’t adapt any specific work by King, but instead used several ideas from his work to construct its own story that’s reminiscent of some of the best work that King has done. There’s the slow creeping horror that begins so many of his novels, the familiar, yet distinct characters, and vivid imagery. The show is also the best American horror story on TV: depicting a fading, broken American town succumbing to a deep moral rot that’s more manmade than supernatural. The best episodes of Castle Rock (“Filter,” “The Queen,” “Henry Deaver”) match the emotional and horrific beats of the best of King without ever feeling like parody and the ending of the season is gloriously ambiguous, never feeling the need to over-explain itself or be overtly oblique. It also helps that the first season boasted some of our finest TV actors: Andre Holland (The Knick), Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness), Jane Levy (Suburgatory), Alison Tolman (Fargo), and that’s not even including the incomparable Sissy Spacek and the supporting cast, which includes Frances Conroy, Terry O’Quinn, and Scott Glenn. Castle Rock is the rare recent literary television adaptation that is not only great, but feels innovative.
5. HIGH MAINTENANCE (HBO)
At this point, High Maintenance is essentially an anthology of loosely connected short films, so the smartest thing they could (and did) do was start hiring other directors and writers. Director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) directed two episodes of season two and they added a visual and narrative flair unseen by the show before while writer Rebecca Drysdale (one of the few writers that aren’t the show’s creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld) added a stronger comedic sensibility, writing two of the funniest episodes of the show so far. While High Maintenance excelled by bringing in new blood, it should also be noted that the writer-creators themselves continue to create dynamic stories themselves. They successfully dug deeper into the complicated personal life of “The Guy” (his own life mirroring Sinclair and Blichfeld’s) but never lost focus of what makes the show great: distinct characters that feel all too familiar if you’ve ever been to Brooklyn and at the very least are a fascinating anthropological study even if you can’t name a single Brooklyn neighborhood. That High Maintenance still successfully pulls off a slice of life anthology more than 15 episodes in without feeling old hat is quite the feat.
4. RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS (HBO)
Imagine if Tim & Eric was created by someone with a degree in race and gender studies and you’d be close to understanding Random Acts of Flyness. Ostensibly a sketch show, Random Acts of Flyness is created by An Oversimplification of Her Beauty director Terence Nance and is essentially a freeform look at race and other social issues in our fractured modern era. Segments will sometimes be straightforward (a bisexual black man talking about his experiences with dating), meta (a sketch about “White Thoughts” that stops midway when Nance questions whether he’s centering whiteness too much on his own show), and dazzlingly avant-garde (half of the finale is an experimental film about Nance’s own relationships with women.) Random Acts of Flyness innovation is remarkable: it’s probably the most audacious non-Twin Peaks: The Return TV show I’ve ever seen (and that show at least had brand recognition.) While it’s often a gentle show devoted to promoting love and acceptance, its satirical edge is enticingly vicious (a recurring sketch about a grim reaper welcoming black children to the afterlife is especially hard to stomach and a satirical short film following a white producer attempting to make a white savior film is hilariously bleak) Random Acts of Flyness feels like an evolved form of sketch comedy that’s not concerned with being comedy in the traditional sense and instead devotes its energy towards defining black identity and culture in every possible way it can and finds an off-kilter and singular brilliance in its attempts.
3. THE AMERICANS (FX)
The jig was going to be up eventually on The Americans, and the final season was a steady buildup to the inevitable. The Americans was always about identity, how far we’re willing to go for a cause, and what it means to be, well, American. This show was often very slow about pondering these questions, using using the sometimes languid fourth and fifth seasons to explore the more mundane and subtle experiences of the Jennings’ lives. Season six, the shortest season of The Americans, was practically a blockbuster movie in comparison, seemingly every other episode containing a small, but seismic plot change. The Americans did however wait until the very last episode to show the confrontation that we’ve been waiting for since the pilot, and it was one of the best scenes they’ve ever done. This isn’t true of many shows, but the series finale of The Americans was one of its best episodes and the show in microcosm: the inherent distrust of spy life/the 80’s in general (hey there, Renee), the enticing comfort of America (Philip in McDonald’s), and the devastating losses viewers always knew were an inevitable result (the train). The Americans was a slow, but ultimately rewarding and innovative mixture of spy thriller and domestic drama that used its setting to incredible effect.
2. BETTER CALL SAUL (AMC)
Better Call Saul is a great show in a way that’s refreshingly traditional. Like Breaking Bad, Saul feels meticulously crafted and thought out. Unlike Breaking Bad, Saul moves at a sublime snail’s pace. Saul is more interested in process even more than Bad ever was, using montage as a regular tool to show how things usually stay the same until they don’t, changing in small increments. Whether it’s a portrait of a stalling relationship or illicit business dealings conducted out of the trunk of a car, Better Call Saul has never had a plot point it couldn’t perfectly portray using a montage. This show also just doesn’t get enough credit for how technically flawless it is, showcasing some of the best directing and cinematography on television and making it look effortless. Season four was especially great, using the characters’ histories up until now to devastating effect. Just when you’re cheering at the latest elaborate scheme that Kim and Jimmy have pulled off is when the show punches you in the gut, reminding you of the deep moral chasm widening within Jimmy. Even the Mike half of the show, which can sometimes feel a bit irrelevant, felt apiece of the season, with Jonathan Banks and Michael Mando doing some of their best work. The fact that Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk are giving two of the best performances on television is almost besides the point, that’s how great Better Call Saul is as a whole.
- THE MAGICIANS (Syfy)
Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a bit of a Rosetta stone for what I consider brilliant television. Buffy was complex, compelling, well-constructed (for the most part), and both its dramatic and comedic highs were tremendous. There’s few shows that can match it in both genre and accomplishment. That is, until the third season of The Magicians (which coincidentally features a great Buffy joke itself). No other show on right now juggles so many ideas and storylines successfully, sometimes from episode to episode, while unapologetically being a fun genre show. The third season’s storyline found the characters on a quest to return magic to the world, a quest which requires finding seven magical keys. A simple enough in theory quest is viciously deconstructed and becomes a commentary on the very nature of quests: how long and arduous they can be, how they’re never as linear as we imagine them to be, how they sometimes end up not even mattering. The Magicians paired this deconstruction of magical quests with episodic formal experimentation never before seen on the show: meta narrative and screwball comedy in “Be The Penny,” time dilation in “A Life In The Day,” anthology in “Six Short Stories About Magic,” musical in “All That Josh,” dystopian thriller in “Twenty Three,” all successful in not only deepening our knowledge of these characters but cohering into a larger theme of these characters trying to understand who they are and what they want in a world that increasingly makes less sense. Beyond being an all too timely theme, it’s a riveting idea for a season of television, and the writers pulled out all the stops in underlining the humanity of the characters amidst the chaotic, dynamic magical world they’ve constructed. The Magicians is so brilliant because underneath all of the pop culture references, magic spells, and plot twists, it has a deep understanding of what Buffy once understood: “the hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”