The 20 Best TV Shows of 2018
For a while there, it seemed like 2018 would be the year when the Peak TV bubble burst — qualitatively, anyway. High-profile new shows disappointed (RIP, Here and Now), while some veteran favorites hit a sophomore slump (Legion) or took the year off altogether (Game of Thrones).
On the whole, TV’s batting average over the last 12 months was lower than it’s been lately. Some of the excesses of this programming explosion are getting worse, not better, with seasons and episodes that are too long for the stories being told, and every canceled show this side of Work It being revived in some form, with mixed success.
When I began to assemble this list(*), I expected to find a lot of quality concentrated at the top — most of it from shows that had already made my mid-year Top 10 — but not the depth that’s made winnowing down these lists a struggle of late. Instead, I kept being reminded of one gem after another until I wound up with a batch of Honorable Mentions(**) nearly as long as the list itself. There are plenty of shows from the usual suspects like FX, HBO and Netflix, but also international series and ones from relatively new players in the original content game like YouTube. Some are wildly original ideas, others brand extensions that put enough thought into what a familiar title means in 2018 to justify their existences.
(*) Note: The order is slightly different from the Top 10 that appears in this month’s print edition of Rolling Stone. That’s because at deadline time, I hadn’t yet seen enough episodes of the fifth-place show to realize just how special it was.
(**) Lodge 49 (AMC), Maniac (Netflix), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW), Billions(Showtime), Counterpart (Starz), Bob’s Burgers (Fox), F Is For Family (Netflix), Sorry For Your Loss (Facebook Watch), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX), Speechless (ABC), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), Brockmire (IFC), GLOW (Netflix), The Magicians (Syfy), Detroiters (Comedy Central), Kidding (Showtime)
The maddening thing about this era is all the shows there just isn’t time to finish before compiling this list (Deutschland 86) or to get around to at all (an apologetic wave to America To Me, Dear White People and a bunch of others). The wonderful thing is that it’s hard not to stumble into something entertaining no matter where you step, as if you were Sideshow Bob and the good shows are the rakes.
Cobra Kai (YouTube)
In a pop culture universe obsessed with reboots and revivals, this belated sequel to a movie, The Karate Kid, that already had three follow-up films was a welcome rarity. In revisiting the original movie’s rivalry between Ralph Macchio’s Daniel-san and William Zabka’s Johnny, the YouTube series not only put real thought into what these characters might be like three decades years later (Daniel a nice but smug minor local celebrity, Johnny a bitter loner who peaked in high school), but into how the original story’s most beloved elements might play differently in a new era. By constantly mixing, matching and inverting Karate Kid franchise tropes with characters new and old, Cobra Kai turned out to be far more surprising, fun and smart than it had any business being.
The End of the F***ing World (Netflix)
A black-as-night teen love story between a would-be sociopath (Alex Lawther) who claims to feel nothing and a rebellious girl (Jessica Barder) who feels everything too deeply. Superb lead performances and a firm grasp of a complicated and messy tone made this a sad but shockingly sweet treat. The only thing to complain about: The ending was so perfect that the planned second season feels not only unnecessary, but counterproductive.
One Day at a Time (Netflix)
Season Two of the Seventies sitcom reboot didn’t have a through-line as potent as the first season’s coming-out tale. And it occasionally stumbled when it came time to incorporate discussion of an issue of the day (say, gun control) into the setups and punchlines. But the mixture of broad jokes and sincere politics still worked like gangbusters most of the time, particularly in the theatrical season finale “Not Yet,” where the Alvarez family said their potential goodbyes to an ailing Lydia (Rita Moreno, delightful as ever).
The Kominsky Method (Netflix)
This series about a famous acting coach (Michael Douglas back in shaggy Wonder Boys mode) helping his longtime agent (Alan Arkin, stupendous) cope with the loss of his wife was an oldie (in terms of characters), but a really goodie. A dramedy in the best possible sense, with the sad moments making the jokes feel more potent and necessary, and the humor in turn making the melancholy feel both bearable and real.
The Deuce (HBO)
In individual moments and storylines — particularly Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) directing a crossover porn film about Little Red Riding Hood, and the increasingly toxic relationship between Lori (Emily Meade) and her pimp CC (Gary Carr) — The Deuce stacks up comfortably against the very best of recent television. Season Two also demonstrated that the narrative sprawl of a David Simon/George Pelecanos show can sometimes be a bug rather than a feature; too many characters and subplots felt underfed. But some of those Lori/CC scenes will linger for a very long time.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
When Fox canceled the Andy Samberg/Andre Braugher cop comedy back in the spring, NBC rescued it for mundane business reasons: Brooklyn‘s produced by NBC’s sister studio, so the corporation makes more money if it stays in production. But it’s easy to imagine that NBC pulled it off the scrap heap because Brooklyn was just too good to stay dead: as well-oiled a comic ensemble as you’ll find on television, consistently deployed to maximum silliness and/or warmth. In dark times, it’s reassuring to know we can still turn to the weirdos at the Nine-Nine for big smiles and bigger laughs.
American Vandal (Netflix)
The true-crime parody’s miraculous first season was equal parts juvenile comedy (“Who drew the dicks?”) and sensitive teen drama, a miraculous combination that seemed impossible to equal, much less top. So Season Two — where our teen filmmaking heroes investigated a series of poop-related crimes at an elite Catholic school — didn’t try. By dwelling much more on the emotional lives of its subjects, it didn’t reach the giddy comic heights of the first story, but it went even deeper, and felt nearly as satisfying as a result.
Babylon Berlin (Netflix)
This German drama, set during the decadent Weimar Republic in between the two world wars, was alternately a murder mystery, a historical epic with uncomfortable echoes to contemporary events and even a musical. Co-created by Tom Tykwer (Sense8, Run Lola Run), the series was a feast for the senses with its stunning recreations of Twenties Germany and elaborate nightclub sequences. In Liv Lisa Fries’ aspiring homicide cop and Severija Janušauskaitė’s drag king spy, Babylon offered two of the most memorable female characters of recent vintage. And if the mystery didn’t always make sense, the depiction of a country gradually giving way to bitter nationalism was chilling.
Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail proved he’s not a one-trick pony with his directorial work on this half-hour drama based on the popular fiction podcast about a social worker (Julia Roberts) helping a soldier (Stephan James) adjust to life after deployment. Esmail elicited relaxed and winning performances from Roberts, James, Shea Whigham, Bobby Cannavale and Sissy Spacek, even as his filmmaking choices created the feel of a paranoid Seventies thriller. In fact, the initially frustrating choice to present half the scenes as a vertical video paid off with TV’s shot of the year.
The Good Place (NBC)
The philosophical comedy spent part of its 2018 run in the afterlife, part of it in the real world, as Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and friends got one last shot at heaven. The earthbound episodes were a bit of a comedown compared with the delirious imagination of the stories in the Bad Place, but the show soon rediscovered its comic voice. Ted Danson remains a national treasure, and his co-stars aren’t far behind. The most ethically minded show on television is still one of the most hilarious.
Ryan Murphy’s latest co-creation takes an understated approach to an outsize subject: New York’s drag-ball culture in the Eighties. A cast combining unknown trans actors such as Indya Moore with familiar faces like Kate Mara (plus wonderful Broadway ringers Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter) found humanity in almost every character. In an age that hails the antihero, watching good things sometimes happen to the Pose regulars who deserve it feels almost revolutionary.
Sharp Objects (HBO)
Oh, great. Another grim drama about murdered girls. Not so fast! We’d never seen this topic tackled this way: Amy Adams pushes herself to the emotional limit as a reporter confronting the childhood that made her into a self-harming adult; writers Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn strip Flynn’s novel to its sparest and most relentless form; and director Jean-Marc Vallée plays with time so we feel trapped in Adams’ character’s past along with her. Gripping, startling, unforgettable.
The year’s unexpected hot new trend: serio-comedies about eccentric assassins (see also: Killing Eve). Bill Hader was a revelation in this story of a hit man working through his depression by taking an acting class — intense and vulnerable in a way that felt far removed from how we’ve seen him on Saturday Night Live and in movies. Henry Winkler was magnificent as Hader’s new teacher, and the series threaded the needle between light showbiz spoof and something darker that understood the full consequences of Barry’s day job.
Big Mouth (Netflix)
This animated comedy about middle-school boys and girls wrestling with their own hormones — and the so-called Hormone Monsters and Shame Wizards that control them — remains as empathetic as it is filthy. Big Mouth has enormous pity for kids suffering the mortifications of puberty even as it takes joy in finding bizarre and graphic ways to illustrate their many confusing thoughts and desires. In a voice cast loaded with talent (including co-creator Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, John Mulaney, Jordan Peele and others), Maya Rudolph is a special treat as the overwrought Hormone Monstress, whose elaborate pronunciations of things like “bubble bath” and “pharmacist” are dripping with the pain, indignation and sheer inappropriateness of an adolescent girl barely in control of herself. Big Mouth could so easily be a dumb, crude show, but it’s so damn smart and sweet.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
The Breaking Bad spinoff has long been two shows in one. This year, the show about Jimmy McGill’s moral descent into Saul Goodman was sharper and more powerful than it’s ever been, particularly in how Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn played the emotional tug of war between Jimmy and his girlfriend, Kim. (And no program on television does montages better.) The show’s more straightforward prequel material, however, began to have the feel of boxes being checked, as Mike helped Gus build Walter White’s future drug lab. Still, even that endeavor had a brutal payoff. When Saul is at its best, as it frequently was this season, it’s much closer in quality to its iconic parent show than it has any business being.
My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
On one level, this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s bestselling novel about two girls growing up in the Fifties on the outskirts of Naples couldn’t seem like more of a departure from HBO’s greatest hits. It’s in Italian with subtitles, its perspective is wholly female (good luck telling the blur of male gangsters and love interests apart) and its focus is on the almost imperceptible shifts in the girls’ friendship. But if the material and presentation seem far removed from The Sopranos or Deadwood, the depth, artistry and world-building feel heartbreakingly close. One of the year’s final big premieres has turned out to be one of its best shows.
Killing Eve (BBC America)
This cat-and-mouse game starring Jodie Comer as a fashion-forward hit-woman and Sandra Oh as the messy spy obsessed with her, had a high degree of difficulty from the get-go: It had to feel real and exciting and scary while making room for the quippy dialogue and smart observations about how women interact that typified creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s previous series, Fleabag. Thanks to the sharp writing and two dazzling lead performances, it was all of those things at once. A fabulous debut.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
The animated title character spent this year starring in the kind of cliché-ridden, thematically-hollow antihero drama that modern TV offers up in spades. But where show-within-a-show Philbert was a ruthless parody of all those series that celebrate toxic masculinity, BoJack Season Five was a smart and sad interrogation of the problem (for both television and humanity). The show’s ability to toggle between the ridiculous and the tragic remains unparalleled. One moment Todd will be caught in a slapstick fight involving barrels of lube; the next, Princess Carolyn will be painfully revisiting the choices that led to her being childless in middle age, or BoJack’s drug addiction will spiral out of control again. Philbert is a joke; BoJack Horseman is the goods.
The Americans (FX)
They stuck the landing. That’s harder than it seems, even for one of this decade’s most consistently taut, melancholic and beautifully acted dramas. The series about deep-cover Soviet agents in Reagan’s America had always been equal parts character study and spy thriller, and both halves demanded an ending worthy of all that Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and friends had accomplished over the previous six years. The finale more than lived up to the task — and delivered devastating effects in unexpected moments. Good luck hearing “With or Without You” on the radio anytime soon without freaking out.
Donald Glover’s hip-hop comedy was so strange and surprising in its first season that a sophomore slump seemed inevitable. Instead, Year Two was even better than the first, weaving a subtle narrative thread about trouble in Paper Boi and Earn’s partnership around each episode’s formal experimentation. One week, Atlanta could be a riotous illustration of the difficulties a black man will endure to hang on to a good barber. The next — as in 2018’s single best episode, “Teddy Perkins” — it was a surreal, horrific meditation on the intersection of abuse, genius and racial self-loathing among some of the 20th century’s greatest black musical stars. Atlanta can be whatever it wants to be: the funniest, scariest and/or most thoughtful show on TV.