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The 7 best TV shows of 2018

From Atlanta to The Americans and The Terror to Superstore. Plus: 14 runners-up and a bunch of other cool odds and ends.

Amanda Northrop/Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

2018 was the year I gave up.

I’m not sure if this is literally true; if I sat down and calculated every hour of TV I watched in 2018, I’m sure it would compare favorably to the total number of hours I watched in 2017. It’s not like I stopped consuming television altogether.

But with every new email I received about some new show airing on some new platform, I felt a little more exhausted, and I fell a little more behind. For instance: Did you know there’s a brand new scripted comedy series whose lead is Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, making her TV debut as a series regular? She plays a woman who coaches beauty queens in Oklahoma, and one (mostly negative) review of the show from the Hollywood Reporter praises the actress for her “scenery chewing.”

Even three years ago, the fact of an Oscar winner and major movie star headlining a TV show still would have been novel enough to drive at least some attention toward Queen America, the series in question. But in 2018, Queen America airs on Facebook Watch, a platform designed to transform the hours that Americans spend on Facebook into hours spent watching Facebook’s original programming, because selling ads tied to original programming is still a hugely valuable business model.

Facebook’s approach hasn’t really worked. As Indiewire explains, the drop in viewership from the first episode of a given Facebook series to the second is precipitous — occasionally, more than 90 percent of viewers never tune in for episode two. This goes for all of Facebook’s programming, from comedies starring Oscar winners to critically acclaimed dramas starring Elizabeth Olsen to teen shows. And it doesn’t even account for questions regarding how Facebook reports its viewership; it’s entirely possible that viewership stats for the first episode of any of Facebook’s shows are inflated by instances where people watch for just a few seconds and then click or scroll away.

But I’m not telling you all this because I want to pick on Facebook Watch (though the launch of the service has been largely disastrous), or even Queen America, which I haven’t seen a second of. I could just as easily be talking about YouTube’s original programming efforts, or Amazon’s non-Mrs. Maisel shows, or dozens upon dozens of Netflix and Hulu series that disappear into the memory hole, or, honestly, lots and lots of shows on good old traditional television. In 2018, networks and other platforms are building it, but more and more, nobody’s coming.

Well, okay, not “nobody.” People are still watching television, and there are still series that viewers clearly care about. But the sheer glut of programming has made just about everything a little bit worse. There are way more good shows than ever before, but almost all of them are just good enough. Their aim is less to create great television than it is to just keep you consuming “content,” whatever that means. They are shows intended not to demand your undivided attention, but to offer another distraction while you look at your phone.

On the whole, this is fine. American television has always, mostly, been forgettable by design. Artistically interesting and challenging work is almost always the exception to the rule, and even the best TV shows are often runaway trains behind the scenes, fraught with creative compromises and production issues. Some TV shows are even made better when they function as background noise relative to other, more important parts of your life, a comforting constant amid uncertainty. Ask anybody who falls asleep to Frasier.

But understanding all of this left me feeling a little cranky and out of sorts in 2018. And it made me less inclined to give shows the benefit of the doubt. I would sample shows and drop them, even if they were pretty good. I would avoid watching some screeners altogether, simply because I couldn’t imagine this show or that show being any good. And when I wasted time on something I genuinely despised, I felt all the more irritated by the pressures of my job.

In short, there was a lot of TV to like and very little to love. All year long, I kept returning to the same shows, and when I sat down to make a year-end top 10 list, I realized just how little I actually cared about a full set of 10.

So instead, here are my seven favorite TV shows of 2018, the seven shows I feel so passionately about that I would argue for them through thick and thin. There were a lot of shows I merely liked this year that I’ll list out as well, but these — these are the seven for me.

Here’s to better television in 2019 — and here’s to giving up watching the worst of it.

The 7 best TV shows of 2018

1) Atlanta (FX)

From the moment I watched the first few episodes of its second season back in February, Donald Glover’s marvelous Atlanta hasn’t budged from the top spot on my list. The series feels like the fullest possible fruition of the 2010s’ propensity for artistically challenging half-hour comedies that tell pathos-filled slice-of-life stories about corners of the American experience not always portrayed on television. But where shows like Girls or Transparent or even FX stablemate Better Things don’t always offer big laughs, Atlanta is built atop the bones of rigid sitcom construction, which allows it to be a baroque horror film one week, then a very silly comedy the next.

Few other shows in 2018 think as carefully and seriously about how to make every single episode as good as it can possibly be, while also telling a deeply satisfying serialized story. In a year that settled for “pretty good” TV, it was so satisfying to see, week after week, a show that dared to be more.

Where to watch: Season two of Atlanta is only available for digital purchase or on FX’s FX+ streaming service, though it will come to Hulu eventually. Season one is streaming on Hulu.

2) The Terror (AMC)

That television isn’t a great medium for horror is, at this point, a critical cliché (one that I’ve more than contributed to). Yet this limited series adaptation of Dan Simmons’s novel of the same name — one that has been almost criminally overlooked by other critics and awards bodies — is a haunted, haunting journey into a past that feels as if it could reach out and scrape the hull of our present at any time.

Set above the Arctic Circle, the series follows the men of the real-life Franklin Expedition, which departed from England in 1847 in search of a Northwest Passage, then promptly disappeared. Later, bones were found that showed signs of cannibalism, and the ships were located at the bottom of the ocean in just the past 10 years. The Terror turns this basic idea into an opportunity for a grim but rewarding story about men confronting death, men confronting the strictures of a masculine code that can’t protect them from the unknown, and men confronting the terrible randomness of nature, here represented as a massive demon/god/thing called the Tuunbaq.

Where to watch: The Terror is available to stream on AMC’s website, or for digital purchase.

3) The Americans (FX)

After six seasons of steadily building dread, what might have been the best drama series of the decade released its tension not all at once in a spectacular onscreen climax, but in much more measured fashion, in viewers’ imaginations. Sure, the show delivered on the sequences that fans had been longing to see from the first — like several important characters figuring out what KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings had been up to all this time — but the final season’s true genius didn’t stem from plot questions but from character ones. Whether Philip and Elizabeth were found out or captured paled in comparison to whether they could find their way back to each other. It was a neat trick, really: the grand grind of global geopolitics being reimagined as a “can this marriage be saved?” story.

To say more would be to spoil, and it’s not as if this website hasn’t written more than enough about this show. But perhaps no other TV image of 2018 has stuck with me as long as that of star Keri Russell, eyes wide in horror, face pressed to a window, watching her life slide away.

Where to watch: The Americans is available for digital purchase and on FX’s FX+ streaming service. All six seasons are also streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

4) My Brilliant Friend (HBO)

I haven’t read a word of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and from the way my critic friends who have reacted to this series, mostly nodding to it as a pretty, dutiful adaptation but nothing more, makes me wonder whether I’d feel differently if I had. But what I saw in these eight episodes — centered on two girls growing up in the 1950s in an out-of-the-way corner of Naples, their friendship sometimes the only thing keeping them afloat — was one of the best coming-of-age stories that TV has produced this decade. What’s more, the show’s genuinely impressive ability to ground its storytelling not just in an evocative sense of place but also in a very specific point of view (that of Elena, who is recalling the events of her childhood as an adult) strikes me as a very cinematic approach to the question of books rooted in a very specific first-person perspective.

My Brilliant Friend is warm and nostalgic, sure, but also never afraid to complicate its warmth and nostalgia with a bitter dose of reality. Watching it felt like living in a place I had never been to before.

Where to watch: My Brilliant Friend is available via HBO’s streaming platforms.

5) The Magicians (Syfy)

“Wait, really?!” I can hear you saying, and yes. Really. Few shows build as rich an emotional world with as little as The Magicians, a series about 20-something students who learn they have magical abilities and then promptly use those magical abilities to do horribly destructive things. (It’s based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling Magicians books, but the longer it runs, the more it mostly mines those books for spare parts.)

The show’s third season, which aired in early 2018, was a breathless run of episodes, spanning swooning romance, galloping capers, and entertaining musical numbers, alongside one of TV’s best depictions of the ravages of mental illness. Big, weird, funny, inventive, and committed to its own one-of-a-kind vision, The Magicians is the kind of show that realizes the scariest monsters are sometimes the voices in your head, telling you how worthless and sad you are and how it’s never going to get any better.

Where to watch: Season three of The Magicians arrives on Netflix later this month. (The first two seasons are already streaming there.) Season four debuts on Syfy in January 2018.

6) One Day at a Time (Netflix)

The near-perfect first season of Netflix’s One Day at a Time, which follows a Cuban-American family dealing with the perils of 2010s America, was produced before our current president was elected. (It aired in early 2017.) The season’s stories about immigration and LGBTQ rights and other very hot-button issues would have been pointed even before Donald Trump took office, but his existence turned the show into one of the earliest examples of a series whose timeliness was accidentally ratcheted up by the man.

The somehow-even-better season two, which aired in early 2018, could have easily gone off the rails by trying to respond to Trump directly, instead of indirectly. Instead, One Day at a Time kept its focus on the Alvarez family, especially single mother Penelope (Justina Machado, in a performance that deserved to win at least one award) and her mother (the great Rita Moreno). Yes, the hot-button issues were there, but they never overwhelmed the show’s rock-solid sitcom storytelling, which kept it from being swallowed by the Trump maelstrom. It was perhaps the most purely enjoyable series of the year.

Where to watch: Both seasons of One Day at a Time are streaming on Netflix, with a third arriving in 2019.

7) Superstore (NBC)

Few TV shows capture this moment quite as well as Superstore, which seems as if it will forever be haunted by a pretty good but not-all-there-yet first season. Its third and fourth seasons (portions of which both aired in 2018) took the show’s propensity for telling strong but funny stories about trying to make it in America while living just barely above the poverty line and working a crushing retail job, then mixed it with a whole host of will-they/won’t-they stories to spin up romantic tension. Though both seasons had their dud episodes (especially one set at a Target that felt exactly like the product placement it was at all times), Superstore’s batting average remains high. The show’s ensemble is note-perfect, and its vision of the titular store as a microcosm of a country trying to keep a smile on its face even as it probably shouldn’t made it the show that, in 2018, felt most like being alive right now.

Where to watch: Superstore airs Thursdays at 8 pm Eastern on NBC, with previous episodes available on Hulu.

14 other TV shows I loved in 2018

These next 14 series were all series I really enjoyed this year but that I didn’t feel as passionate about relative to the seven shows above. Like, if you said, “Oh, I didn’t like that show,” I would smile and nod and say, “I can see that” — and I’d be telling the truth, even while I was silently judging your taste. They’re arranged in rough order of preference, starting with the one I liked most, but they’re not numbered, because you could shift them around and I probably wouldn’t disagree.

Succession (HBO)

Perhaps the No. 1 “stick with it — it gets good, I swear!” show of 2018, this savagely funny, pitch-black dramedy about a rich family that controls a media empire (who seem very loosely based on the Murdochs) requires a few episodes to completely grasp. But once you surrender to its thrall, there are few shows like it that so deftly dissect the hollow vapidity of the mega-rich. Bonus: The finale was one of the best TV episodes of the year.

Where to watch: Succession is available on all HBO streaming platforms.

Lodge 49 (AMC)

The unexpected renewal of this freshman drama was some of the best TV news in a year that didn’t have much of it. Sure, the show’s laid-back, sunny vibe doesn’t lend itself to a ton of conflict, but in its portrayal of a bummed-out surfer trying to navigate post-recession America with the help of an older (but not always wiser) guy he met at a down-on-its-luck fraternal order, it has the beautifully scuzzy feel of something that washed up on a beach, in the best way possible.

Where to watch: Lodge 49 is available on AMC’s streaming platforms.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale drew some measure of critical brickbats — especially after a finale that even I will admit didn’t work. But for me, what many disliked about the season (it became so grim and so hopeless) was exactly what made it successful. Few dystopian entertainments dare viewers to consider just how hard it is to live in a dystopian society and not become complicit in its crimes, even as you suffer. The Handmaid’s Tale’s commitment to this outlook is dark but unflinching.

Where to watch: The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming on Hulu.

Pose (FX)

So many of my favorite shows of 2018 were flawed but endlessly winning stories about small communities of people confronting a world that didn’t necessarily care about their existence. That might as well be the logline for this Ryan Murphy-produced series about a community of trans women and gay men forming familial bonds in 1980s New York, at the height of the AIDS crisis. It’s a deeply flawed but deeply beautiful series.

Where to watch: Pose is streaming on FX’s streaming platforms.

America to Me (Starz)

There’s a whiff of “eat your vegetables” to even the biggest raves over this 10-part documentary series that follows students for one year at one of the most diverse high schools in the United States. So let me try to talk about the series without using the words “racial inequity in education.” It’s full of vibrant, funny kids whose stories will instantly grip you. And its understanding of how serious political systems intersect with the more typical social systems of any given high school is pitch-perfect.

Where to watch: America to Me is available on Starz’s streaming platforms.

Jane the Virgin (The CW)

Somewhere in the middle of the back half of its fourth season, the daffy telenovela Jane the Virgin found itself perilously balancing about five different storylines. It should have been too much, up to and including an arc where a beloved character gets cancer (often a sign that a TV show has run out of ideas; thankfully, that wasn’t the case here). But somehow, it all just worked. I’ve always loved Jane, but 2018 might have been the year that I most loved Jane.

Where to watch: The first four seasons of Jane the Virgin are streaming on Netflix. The show will return to The CW for its fifth and final season in 2019.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX)

A sad spiral into oblivion, the second installment of American Crime Story lost some of the poppy fun of 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, but boy, did it deliver on heartbreaking beauty. The decision to center the story on Andrew Cunanan, the man who killed designer Gianni Versace (and four other people) in 1997, was a controversial one, but the show’s backward storytelling ended up being a masterstroke — a kind of forced re-closeting of a country that’s only recently become (slightly) more accepting of gay men.

Where to watch: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is available on FX’s streaming platforms.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

It feels a little churlish to rank Netflix’s animated sitcom — possibly the best TV show in production right now — so relatively “low” for a fifth season that was, ultimately, only a very slight step down from the show’s superb fourth season. Especially when it offered perhaps the most incisive take on the #MeToo movement, the roots of Hollywood’s coddling of bad men, and society’s embrace of stories about those bad men — stories like BoJack Horseman. It was a beautiful, knotty season of ... is it too late to change my list?

Where to watch: BoJack Horseman is streaming on Netflix.

Counterpart (Starz)

2018 was a banner year for coolly invigorating spy series, but perhaps none of its coolly invigorating spy series boasts a premise as thrillingly cracked as Counterpart’s. The show follows a mild-mannered, low-level intelligence analyst named Howard (J.K. Simmons) after he learns that there’s a whole other universe that started as a copy of ours, then slowly started to drift away. And over there, Howard is a ruthless operative. To say more would be to spoil a real treat.

Where to watch: Counterpart is streaming on Starz’s streaming platforms. New episodes of season two air Sundays on Starz.

Barry (HBO)

Showbiz satire and dark deeds done by those whose souls are rotting from within were two of TV’s biggest themes in 2018, and they collided in this HBO “comedy,” which balances surprisingly deft jokes about wannabe actors in Los Angeles with the story of a professional hitman (Bill Hader, in an Emmy-winning performance) who tries to change his life by leaving behind murder for hire to take to the stage. Equal parts funny and brutal, its first season was hard to look away from.

Where to watch: Barry is streaming on HBO’s streaming platforms.

Better Call Saul (AMC)

Few TV shows are as economical with their storytelling as this Breaking Bad spinoff-slash-American treasure. Every scene, every moment, every interaction — they all add up to a portrayal of a man who slowly loses his soul in his ongoing, endless attempt to escape every shadow he’s lived in his whole life. Season four finally pointed the show toward outright tragedy, and it boasted some of the series’ best moments.

Where to watch: The fourth season of Better Call Saul is streaming on AMC’s streaming platforms. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.

The Good Place (NBC)

The Good Place’s season three stint on Earth wasn’t my favorite thing the show has ever done, as it seemed too often like it was treading water juuust a little bit. But what other comedy would produce an entire episode where one actor played five-sixths of the major cast (as well as another, completely separate role)? Or an episode where Maya Rudolph played a bored celestial judge? Or an episode that concluded with a massive, Matrix-esque bar fight? Okay, seriously, is it too late to change this list?

Where to watch: The first two seasons of The Good Place (including the last few episodes of season two, which aired in 2018) are streaming on Netflix. Much of season three is on Hulu, with the season’s final three episodes airing on NBC Thursdays in January.

Corporate (Comedy Central)

This visually striking, darkly humorous comedy is perhaps the TV series I’ve recommended most in 2018, because so few people have heard of it, and because its portrayal of American corporate life as a kind of dystopian drudgery with a cheerful facade, while not precisely new, is nonetheless pretty dead on. There have been few jokes as savagely on point this year as one of Corporate’s characters showing extreme pride in a PowerPoint presentation he designs in order to better sell horrific weapons of death.

Where to watch: Corporate is streaming on Comedy Central’s website. Season two arrives in January.

Sorry for Your Loss (Facebook Watch)

Hey, I wouldn’t have groused so much about Facebook Watch some 3,000 words ago if I didn’t know I was going to say some nice things about it too! Its series about a young, grieving widow trying to piece her life back together in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death was extremely insightful about grief and depression, while also boasting terrific performances from Avengers star Elizabeth Olsen and an ensemble of familiar faces enjoying a chance to star in something life-size for once.

Where to watch: Sorry for Your Loss is streaming on Facebook Watch, which is going to be tricky to find, but you can do it. I promise. Here’s a link, in fact.

17 sentences about 21 shows

Homecoming, Killing Eve, ContraPoints
Homecoming, Killing Eve, and the YouTube channel of ContraPoints were all things I found fascinating on one level or another this year.
Amazon; BBC America; ContraPoints

Yeah, there’s a lot of bad-to-mediocre TV out there, but there’s also a lot of TV that’s trying stuff. And even if it doesn’t always succeed, it deserves a shoutout for going above and beyond what’s easy. There are some shows out there that might be better on some qualitative level than those listed below, but there are few as fascinating. (I even left off some shows from my midyear best TV list that are favorites, in favor of a few shows that could use the attention.)

Thus, below are 17 sentences about 21 shows worth considering if you’re still looking for new TV to watch. The shows are listed in alphabetical order. And the sentences in this paragraph don’t count toward my total, so don’t think you’ve caught me, internet.

Both 12 Monkeys (Syfy) and Adventure Time (Cartoon Network) wrapped their runs in 2018 in the only way possible — with deeply weird, surprisingly emotional stories of people at long last realizing their potential. Meanwhile, Altered Carbon (Netflix) was a big, expensive science fiction TV show that almost nobody talked about, whose vision of a body-swappin’ future could only be described as “rad.” (And don’t forget just how rad Billions (Showtime) was, thanks to its portrayal of American venality as a kind of super-awesome party where everybody’s absolutely miserable all the time.)

The wonders of the alphabet mean I now get to talk about three women doing wildly different but fun things, starting with ContraPoints (YouTube), a series of web essays that blend meditations on politics, class, and gender with a surprisingly large cast of recurring characters, all played by channel creator Natalie Wynn. I’m not entirely sold on the final season of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW), in which the two are trying to tell a story about becoming whole and healthy, but I am 100 percent enjoying the attempt — just as I credit Jodie Whittaker’s terrific performance in the lead role of Doctor Who (BBC America) with keeping some shaky storytelling afloat.

And hey, here are The Expanse (Syfy) and The First (Hulu), two series about human beings trying to conquer space but also trying to conquer their emotions, and which both expanded previously established ideas of what TV sci-fi can be. Also, what about GLOW (Netflix), the rare streaming show that really did try to make its individual episodes stand alone as episodes and was all the better for it? Or, for that matter, what about The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix), another show that didn’t quite stick its landing but offered plenty of scares, structural tricks, and gorgeous performances throughout?

Sometimes, a show’s ending makes it work retroactively, as I found with Homecoming (Amazon), a show I resisted until its last five minutes made everything snap into place — though I never needed convincing about Julia Roberts’s brilliant performance. I loved the way that Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim) portrays mundane small-town life as something intrinsically funny and beautiful. And I know including Killing Eve (BBC America) in this section will make people on Twitter say mean things about me, but dangit, the last few episodes didn’t work (even if everything else was so slick and stylish).

So much amazing stuff on network TV goes unremarked upon, so I’d feel weird if I ignored the wild superhero show Legends of Tomorrow (The CW) and the extremely conventional but extremely good sitcom Mom (CBS). I’d also hate to omit Patriot (Amazon), whose vision of a weary, worn-down America struggling to maintain global hegemony is one of TV’s most entertainingly dreary — there’s a descriptor you don’t hear every day! — visions.

If there’s a show that I seriously considered bumping up to the tier above, it’s the sinuous Southern gothic Sharp Objects (HBO), a very good miniseries that maybe became great in its finale.

Network TV’s best family comedy just might be the warm and winning Speechless (ABC), and I hope ABC moves it from its Friday-night death slot.

And finally, let’s hail two visions of being a woman in America in 2018, with its attendant joys and furies: one, Vida (Starz), is told defiantly from a woman-centric point of view, and the other, You (Lifetime), buries viewers in a suffocatingly, toxically masculine one in darkly thrilling fashion.

And look, I have one whole sentence left over to mention that when I was compiling this list, I totally forgot the essential cooking series Salt Fat Acid Heat (Netflix) and the lovely dramedy This Close (SundanceNow), both of which remind me that no matter how much TV exists at any given moment, there are still, somehow, new and interesting ideas popping up all over the place, and there almost certainly will be in 2019 too.


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