What a strange year for TV as we approach the midway point for, well, a very strange 2018. The last six months have given us surprise hits (Killing Eve), bittersweet goodbyes (The Americans), welcome returns (Queer Eye) and WTF twists like the return of Roseanne … and the crash of Roseanne. It’s already been a year when Rita Moreno cruises past Morgan Freeman as America’s favorite Electric Company alum and a heavily hyped Arrested Development reunion makes the Smashing Pumpkins look like one big happy family. Here, in alphabetical order, are a dozen shows – from sitcoms to surreal superhero shows, reality TV to a really far out docuseries, FX to Netflix – that have made this first half of 2018 worth watching so far.
Ryan Murphy’s Versace elegy got more moving as it went along, with a truly empathetic eye for the ugly details of grief. Edgar Ramirez is intense as the martyred designer, but did anyone predict that one of the year’s most poignant TV performances would come from Ricky Martin, as Versace’s boyfriend? Or that Judith Light could turn a brief role into such a heartbreaker? (The widow’s question – “Am I a real wife now?” – speaks for both her character and Martin’s.) And the music – wow. All year long, you’re going to hear tipsy strangers in the karaoke bar mangle Ultravox’s New Wave torch ballad “Vienna,” and this is why.
The ultimate TV portrait of a marriage and a great final season for one of the all-time great TV dramas. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys go out on top as a pair of married KGB agents in 1980s suburbia, juggling their multiple identities, yet always running into the arms of America. They really are in love with each other, but even more in love with their lies – they can’t live with or without them. And Noah Emmerich just gets more gripping as Stan, the FBI agent across the street. The Americans’ ending was divisive – as if it could have been anything else. I miss these people already.
Atlanta was already the smartest, funniest, most innovative thing on TV in its first season – Donald Glover and crew didn’t really need to aim any higher. But they did. Atlanta’s second go-round – subtitled “Robbin’ Season” – brought new complexity to the vagaries of Earn, Paper Boi, Van and Darius. In a whole season of surprises, the one that hit hardest was the sixth episode: the instantly immortal “Teddy Perkins,” with Glover in whiteface playing the ghost of black music history and a even wilder ride than the party where they meet Drake’s Mexican abuelo.
Bill Hader and Alec Berg present the adventures of a middle-aged hit man who has a moment of clarity, escapes to L.A. to sort his issues out, takes an acting class and realizes that what he wants to be is … a theater kid. Hader is a tragicomic marvel as a bad man trying to be a better human by becoming a terrible actor. Barry makes you suspect that despite everything the SNL veteran has already accomplished, he’s still just at the start of his amazing career.
Amid the molecular gastronomy on the Peak TV menu, Billions is red meat, bloody as hell. It’s been a delight to see this Showtime hedge-fund drama start out as enjoyable fluff – like a supercut of every USA Network caper with bros in suits barking “Let’s do this!” But it’s evolved into such a binge-worthy pulp slugfest, and Season Three had new highs for Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff and MVP David Costabile as the ever-quotable Wags. (“Three things in life you can’t postpone without dire consequences: calling a doctor when gut-shot, finding a toilet when traveling in India and paying your people.”) Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor could be summing up the spirit of this insane series in saying, “What I need is forward momentum above all things – even money.” (And for any of the Axe Capital gang to admit they love anything more than money is a shocker in itself.)
An unbreakable law of science: The more J.K. Simmons, the better. In Justin Marks’ sci-fi espionage thriller, the Whiplash actor plays two gruff men named Howard Silk, agents from parallel universes in Cold War-era Berlin. At first Counterpart might have seemed like just a mere time-travel gimmick, with a great performer showing off in a dual role – but it kept expanding all season, with a deep supporting cast and mind games worthy of Borges. Only Simmons could have pulled it off with this much style, and it might be his finest TV moment since he played sleazy Hollywood mogul Taylor Stiltskin on Party Down. (And this is the exact kind of sci-fi thriller Stiltskin might have pitched, except he would have cast Channing Tatum.)
The kids in America circa 1996, living their so-called lives at high school in the real-life town of Boring, Oregon. This smart teen-angst satire deserved a better shot at an audience. But in a way, the Nineties vibe of Everything Sucks! is just enhanced by the way it got dumped out there into a heartless universe, ignored by an oversaturated market, then immediately axed by the Man. For every teen Daria who ever thought “my life would make a cool TV show, except nobody would notice and it would really only exist for a few hours on a February weekend,” this one’s for you. (Reality bites, folks.) Best music moment: The Softies’ indie-pop ballad “Heart Condition,” which sums up the teen characters’ yearning, but also sums up how this show gets the emotional details so right.
Here’s to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Not content with making us all question our life decisions with her scathing modern-romance comedy Fleabag, not content with bringing her own Force to Star Wars, she developed the year’s knockout TV surprise. In this cat-and-mouse caper, Sandra Oh is the M15 agent on the trail of Russian assassin Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer. Both women specialize in deadpan wit – but as it turns out, that’s not the only thing they have in common. Killing Eve became an unexpected ratings smash – a hopeful sign in itself.
The FX network is having a hell of a run this year – in terms of music labels, it’s like Matador in the early Nineties or Def Jam in the late Eighties. Legion is the weird misfit on this all-star team. (The Matador equivalent might be Thinking Fellers Union Local 282; the Def Jam would be Oran “Juice” Jones.) Noah Hawley’s Marvel creepshow has Dan Stevens for a mutant superhero; as my fellow Legion freak David Fear brilliantly put it, “He can read minds, control minds, move things with his mind … and has completely lost his mind.” And Aubrey
Plaza is the one who makes it all even crazier. The year’s most bizarrely touching
scene: a man alone at his desk, late at night, has a special moment with a
mouse who serenades him with Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love.”
How did we live before this Fab Five entered our lives? The Queer Eye reboot is even better than it should have been. These Georgia boys are more than just makeover consultants: They are healers and sages for our time, not to mention sublimely bitchy quip machines. Karamo is my fave – if the Fab Five are a boy band, he’s the Kevin Richardson/Danny Wood kindly big-bro figure. (Though I have to admit, Tan is the one who truly understands me.) As for Antoni, the food expert, it’s still unclear whether he can actually cook or not … but he sure knows how to sash his shay through the kitchen in a Strokes t-shirt.
Alternate title: The Douchebag’s Tale. The HBO comedy’s zany tech bros used to embody the plucky start-up energy of a more optimistic time. But they’re surlier and more paranoid these days, like a lot of people. T.J. Miller was missed for about 30 seconds, but this season is Silicon Valley’s darkest, funniest and best yet – hard to get more timely than a “smart fridge” that eavesdrops on your conversations and reports your data. A round of applause and a Napalm Death riff all around.
A revelatory documentary about a forgotten cult guru: the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who led his commune to rural Oregon in 1978, started an ashram, became a media star, collected dozens of Rolls Royces and went down in a blaze of criminal glory. (His followers poisoned local salad bars in the biggest bioterror attack in U.S. history.) Wild Wild Country has the whole tale in six fascinating chapters. Even if you think you know this story, this doc has more dirt than you could have imagined – I’m obsessed with both the Bhagwan and The Godfather, but I had no idea one of the film producers’ ex-wives was the guru’s secretary. (Wow, the Corleone family really did go legitimate!) A true only-in-America story. God help us all.